Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Finding a voice: tasting hope

I kept coming across blogs by agents and editors talking about the importance of having a unique voice. I wondered what, exactly that meant. Seemed to me that most of the books I read these days are not told in particularly unique "voices" and I couldn't really think of any that set themselves apart. So I wondered, just what does a unique voice sound like?

Out of the blue, a friend of mine lent me a couple of her favorite YA novels, both by Meg Rosoff. I read the first page of How I Live Now and bam! I knew. A story told in first person, that of a teenage girl thrown into a new situation in a new country. She didn't tell the story as a writer telling the story, but as a girl might write it down to later recall the events. No quotation marks, limited punctuation, and a voice that stays true to itself throughout the book. A book that deals with current events by taking them in one potential (and rather frightening) direction and brings us through the aftermath through the eyes of the main character. It was truly an extraordinary read.

I also read Just In Case, and I am curious as to what inspired it. Don't want to spoil anything, but there is a fun play on words within the book, and I wondered whether that may have sparked the idea for the novel. I could see that happening. Have sent off an email, but don't know if I'll receive a response. But in the meantime, I am off to buy some of Meg Rosoff's more recent works, and I highly recommend them to others!

Monday, March 29, 2010

Personality, the Big Five

I seem to be on a personality kick these days... I just came across an article in Scientific American Mind on how we become less open to new experiences as we age. People who are generally more open as children remain so as they age, but on the whole, by the time we reach 30, we have become rather set in our ways.

Psychologists use a variety of measures for personality. The Myers-Briggs test I discussed in a recent post is probably one of the best-known, but another is the Big Five Personality Test, which measures five traits (taken from Set In Our Ways by Nikolas Westerhoff, Scientific American Mind Dec 2008/Jan 2009):
  • Openness: People with high scores here love novelty and are generally creative. At the other end of the scale are those who are more conventional in their thinking, prefer routines, and have a pronounced sense of right and wrong
  • Extroversion: Those who score high for extroversion are companionable, sociable and able to accomplish what they set out to do. Those with low scores tend to be introverted, reserved and more submissive to authority.
  • Agreeableness: This trait describes how we deal with others. High values show that someone is friendly, empathetic and warm. Shy, suspicious and egocentric individuals score low on the spectrum.
  • Neuroticism: This scale measure emotional stability. People with high scores are anxious, inhibited, moody and less self-assured. Those at the lower end of are calm, confident, and contented.
  • Conscientiousness: This dimension measures a person's degree of organization. Those with high scores are motivated, disciplined and trustworthy. Irresponsible and easily distracted people are found at the low end of the scale.
I encourage you to take it, too. I find it helpful to have some idea of why I do the things I do.

What does this have to do with creativity? Open people tend to be more creative, as well as being open to novel experiences (although I must say that the two go hand-in-hand: I have found that novel experiences help spark new ideas).

Interestingly, there are particular times in people's lives when they tend to be more open: before the age of 30, and again after they turn 60. Perhaps this is at the root of the observation that all great scientific discoveries are made before the age of 30. Those are the times when people are better able to look at things from a new angle, to see things in a different light.

Even if you fall in the 30-60 age range, you can consciously take steps to become more open and creative. Expose yourself to new things: take a different route to work, order something different when you go out to eat (try out a completely new restaurant), make small changes to increase your exposure to new and different things.

Just don't get fixated on unrealistic or unattainable goals. As Westerhoff points out, "...remember that your openness to new experiences is slowly declining, so you are better off making a new start today than postponing it until later. Perhaps most important of all, try to appreciate the person that you already are."

Friday, March 26, 2010

Poetry Friday: Splendid Darkness

I am fortunate to be acquainted with a remarkably talented artist, Pamela Sukhum. I've always admired her art, but she's really outdone herself with her latest work, Splendid Darkness 2.  In fact, I wanted to purchase the painting, but the costs of international shipping and customs would probably exceed the cost of the painting itself. So I admire from afar.

In one of those wonderful examples of one art form inspiring another, Pam was inspired to paint this particular piece by a poem:
Sweet Darkness
By: David Whyte

When your eyes are tired
the world is tired also.

When your vision has gone
no part of the world can find you.

Time to go into the dark
where the night has eyes
to recognize its own.

There you can be sure
you are not beyond love.

The dark will be your womb

The night will give you a horizon
further than you can see.

You must learn one thing:
the world was made to be free in.

Give up all the other worlds
except the one to which you belong.

Sometimes it takes darkness and the sweet
confinement of your aloneness
to learn

anything or anyone
that does not bring you alive

is too small for you.
And by wonderful coincidence, intrepid explorer Chris Guillebeau of the Art of Non-Conformity (a web site I love—more on this later) posted an inspirational quote by the same author on his Facebook fan page: "The cure for exhaustion isn't rest, it's enthusiasm." -David Whyte

If you are interested in Pam's work, you can see more at Infinite Vision Art and on Facebook

This week's Poetry Friday Roundup is hosted at The Drift Record.  In case David Whyte's Sweet Darkness wasn't enough poetry for you, you can also read one of my original poems from Monday. 

Happy Friday, everyone!

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

The future of publishing

I have to be a good mommy today and attend a Parent Rep meeting, which doesn't leave much time for blogging.  So here is a fabulous video that is making the rounds in writing/publishing circles.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Glowing Green Eye

Poetry Friday got me into a poetic frame of mind, centering 'round monsters. I wrote it for my two little monsters and I hope others will enjoy reading it and sharing it with any little monsters they may know.

So today I give you my new poem:

Glowing Green Eye
Copyright © 2010 Alison Pearce Stevens
This thing was in my room last night.
It really gave me such a fright.
A round green eye, down by the floor.
Or was it over by the door?
I'm sure it moved.
I saw it blink.
It hid below my bed, I think.
A furry beast with scaly tail,
had just escaped from monster jail.
It searched for safety in my room
and hid out in the nighttime gloom.
And then I thought, Would they give chase?
What kind of creatures would I face?
Lanky monsters, tall and thin?
With prickly whiskers on their chin?
Or round and fat with great big teeth
and lots of scales down underneath?
Would they be yellow, green, or blue?
Striped with spots and feathers, too?
Come to get the one who'd slid
beneath my bed, where it still hid?
An army coming at my bed.
Would they get him?
Or me, instead?
I hid my head beneath the sheet
and listened for the monster feet.
Soon I heard the op'ning door
and soft feet padding 'cross the floor.
Heard Mommy say, "Sweet dreams! Good night!
"I hope you like your new nightlight!"
Then Mommy left without a sound.
The nightlight glowed, all green and round.
The monsters in my head all jeered,
then looked surprised,
and disappeared.
If you like it, please share it with others (you can use the social networking links to the right), but I ask that you please link back here and give me credit.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Celebrating spring

I thought I'd finally join in on Poetry Friday, rather than just reading from the sidelines. I have an original spring Haiku and a short review of one of my family's favorite picture books.

Spring is finally (nearly) here... birds are constantly dashing about outside my window, the grass turns greener every day, the sun has made a reappearance, as have snowdrops and crocuses, and our temperatures are finally getting back into the double-digits during the day.  It inspired this haiku:
Birds sing and give chase
Leaf buds swell in the sunlight...
Earth bursts into spring
And the picture book... One of the (very few) books that my oldest child has had since birth and still asks to read is On the Day You Were Born by Debra Frasier. The illustrations are beautiful paper collages that incorporate vibrant colors to illustrate physical features of "the Earth and her creatures."

The prose simply sings... written in a lilting rhythm, it gently introduces children to the wonderful world into which they have been born: migrating animals, cycles of night and day, the cycles of the moon and tides, the sun and stars, gravity, rain, and the atmosphere. The story itself appeals to the very young, and older children enjoy learning more about each of the concepts in the "More about the World around You" section at the end.

As a scientist, educator and aspiring author, I consider this book a tour de force. I was particularly pleased to discover that a portion of the proceeds of book sales go toward an Environmental Learning Center in Florida. Only by teaching our children about the wonders of our world can we hope to preserve them for generations to come. This is another book that I highly recommend for all children, and it makes an excellent gift for those just joining us in the world.

Enjoy spring, everyone! This week's Poetry Friday roundup is at Some Novel ideas.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Personality and marketing

I am learning, as I explore the world of writing and publishing, that the 21st Century author must have a strong online presence.  The three big places you need to be are on your blog, on Facebook, and on twitter. I've got the first two, but I'm having a difficult time with number three.

There are quite a few people I would love to follow on twitter. They say interesting things and I'd love to hear their frequent updates. It's not that I don't want to join because I am uninterested in the tweet stream of others. It's that I just don't know what to tweet about, myself. And yet that's an important part of modern writing: marketing yourself.

I think it comes down to personality type. I recently took the Myers-Briggs personality test and discovered that I am an INFJ personality, which is, apparently, extremely rare (a whopping 1% of the population has this personality type).
INFJs focus on possibilities, think in terms of values and come easily to decisions. [They] ... have [an] unusually strong drive to contribute to the welfare of others and genuinely enjoy helping their fellow men. This type has great depth of personality; they are themselves complicated, and can understand and deal with complex issues and people.

INFJs are usually good students, achievers who exhibit an unostentatious creativity. They take their work seriously and enjoy academic activity. They can exhibit qualities of overperfectionism and put more into a task than perhaps is justified by the nature of the task. They generally will not be visible leaders, but will quietly exert influence behind the scenes.

INFJs are hard to get to know. They have an unusually rich inner life, but they are reserved and tend not to share their reactions except with those they trust. Because of their vulnerability through a strong facility to interject, INFJs can be hurt rather easily by others, which, perhaps, is at least one reason they tend to be private people. People who have known an INFJ for years may find sides emerging which come as a surprise. Not that INFJs are inconsistent; they are very consist and value integrity. But they have convoluted, complex personalities, which sometimes puzzle even them.

INFJs like to please others and tend to contribute their own best efforts in all situations. They prefer and enjoy agreeing with others, and find conflict disagreeable and destructive. ...INFJs have vivid imaginations exercised both as memory and intuition, and this can amount to genius, resulting at time in an INFJ’s being seen as mystical. This unfettered imagination often will enable this person to compose complex and often aesthetic works of art such as music, mathematical systems, poems, plays, and novels. In a sense, the INFJ is the most poetic of all the types. 
 (quoted from Myers-Briggs Type Indicator General Profile at Purdue University).

I don't know about the genius bit, but the rest describes me pretty well. And it is comforting to know that I'm in good company: Chaucer, Goethe, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Jimmy Carter, Mother Theresa, Nelson Mandela, and quite a few famous actors and actresses (who would have thought that introverts would become actors!).

Interestingly, this rare personality type seems to be quite common among writers. A recent blog personality survey (which seems to have been taken down) indicated that at least 25% of writer respondents shared this personality profile with me. Well over 50% shared the Introverted, iNtuitive, and Feeling traits. There must be something about these traits that make for good story-tellers. But does it make for enthusiastic tweeters?

I am working hard to overcome my introversion and am getting closer and closer to joining twitter. It's just another step on my journey, and I'll let you know what happens when I do.

Take the Myers-Briggs test, yourself.  What's your personality type? How does it affect your life?

Monday, March 15, 2010

Simplification and the gift of patience

Ever since I (re)discovered a more creative side of myself, I have found that having time to create makes me feel balanced; a lack of it frustrates me. After days of frustration (as occurs, for example, when one of the children is home sick), I feel off-balance and grumpy. This inevitably leads to feelings of guilt that I am a horrible, selfish person, since I crave nothing more than a few moments to myself to do what I want to do.

This was my mental state a few days ago—after four days without a creative outlet—when I picked up Gift From the Sea by Anne Morrow Lindbergh. I read the second chapter, "Channelled Whelk," and nearly burst into tears. She had put into words exactly what I was feeling.

Ms. Lindbergh felt pulled in multiple directions by responsibilities to her family, her household, and her social circles (the book was originally published in 1955—long before the days of twitter and facebook!). But what she craved more than anything was to be at peace with herself. And she went on to describe the importance of simplification in obtaining that peace.

She wrote of the many things she did not really need in her life, and of the innate difficulty in truly doing away with any of them. To raise a family and pursue a personal dream require, in many people's minds, a wide assortment of things, people, and methods of transport. Do you do away with the house and its assorted time-saving appliances? Do you cut out the social circles? Sell the car? How, exactly, does one simplify one's life? Clearly, there is no easy answer.

But the chapter had a wonderful calming effect on me. I took away from it the importance of being patient with oneself when not in a "state of grace" (or state of balance), and that is exactly what I need to give myself: the gift of patience. I want my creative efforts to move more quickly than they are, to become a larger part of my life, but her message soothed and comforted me, allowing me to be patient, to appreciate the small moments I had, even if they were not what I wanted.

I suppose I have taken a step in the right direction, now that I know what makes me feel off-balance... for many years I felt that way without knowing why. But now I have found the creative piece of the puzzle that restores my state of mind, and that is an incredibly important first step toward a state of "grace."

Friday, March 12, 2010

Books with soundtracks

I have mentioned before that music can be inspiring for writers, painters, and other artists. I, too, find that music helps to alter my mood and can greatly enhance the ideas that form when I am writing (provided, of course, that the music fits the scene in my head).

We are already well aware of the critical role music plays in film, hence awards for Best Original Score and our ability to summon the Chariots of Fire theme song at will (you're picturing them running down the beach, now, aren't you?). I recall reading an interview with an actor (forget which one) who said seeing the final film was always an amazing experience because the music made the film... the scenes as he remembered them lacked the intensity they had after the score had been added.

If music can provide such a powerful impact, why not make it part of a book? Particularly now that e-readers are becoming more popular and the technology for them will only improve. Wouldn't it be terrific to read a book and listen to the music that inspired the author to write a particular chapter? To be transported into the same emotional state as the writer? I think this has the potential to completely transform books into a more interactive medium (although I still have reservations about e-books).

I have been thinking about the idea of books with soundtracks for a while and was interested to see that at least two others had the same idea (see the comments on the e-book technology link above). There may come a time in the not-so-distant future that our reading experience is augmented by music that fits the story.

What do you think of the idea?

Wednesday, March 10, 2010


Ah, coincidence! In the Artist's Way, Julia Cameron describes synchronicity, which she defines as a series of events that are more than mere coincidences, but rather the creative universe expanding to meet a need. Skeptical? I was.

I am a scientist, trained to accept things when the evidence supports them, to test null hypotheses in an effort to reject them. To believe that the universe (or god, choose your term) would somehow meet my needs through a series of coincidences sounded, well, unscientific, to say the least.

She suggests that the more scientific-minded do an experiment, writing out a list of items they would like to have and paying attention to how quickly they come into their possession. But as my husband (a far more rigorous scientist than I) pointed out: synchronicity only works because we pay attention to the coincidences. A true scientist, he says, would write out a list of things they don't want and see what happens.

Finding patterns is what our brains do to help us make sense of the world. Giving  coincidences meaning elevates them in our mind. A wholly unscientific, yet very human, way to behave.

Perhaps it is the act of putting ourselves into an open, "approach" frame of mind that allows these coincidences to take on new meaning. When we are looking for something, we may well be more likely to find it.
Did you ever observe to whom the accidents happen? Chance favors only the prepared mind.
So said Louis Pasteur, the eminent microbiologist whose experiments provided data in support of germ theory. A highly respected scientist whose discoveries greatly enhanced the quality of life for... well... all of us.

As for me, the more I pay attention, the more I discover little synchronicitous events taking place. And to tell the truth, they feel good. It's nice to have the sense that some unseen force is helping you along (whether it truly is or not). 

So what is synchronicity? Coincidence? Yes. But meaningful coincidence. The kind that helps us to find an alternative path or solve a problem. We can discount it if we choose, but if it helps us to feel more whole, to feel as though we have some control over the direction our lives take, why not enjoy it for what it provides? Pay attention to coincidences for a while and see what happens. What examples do you find in your life?

Monday, March 8, 2010

A creative frame of mind

Creativity is not just for artists, in fact there is currently a tremendous amount of research into creative problem solving. Individuals (and teams) who are able to find new, innovative ways of approaching problems tend to be more successful in the business world. This is relevant for children, too. Who doesn't want to be able to solve problems that might ordinarily seem overwhelming? Wouldn't it be wonderful if everyone could turn their mountains into molehills?

There is a growing body of evidence that suggests that our emotional state may help us to do so. In their 2005 study, Friedman and Förster found that individuals primed to an "approach" state (in which they were actively seeking something) tended to use the right hemisphere of their brains to a greater extent. Individuals primed to an "avoidance" state used the left hemisphere more.

What does this mean? The right hemisphere is generally associated with creativity and the left with logic. Although logic is an important component of problem solving, use of the right hemisphere allows an individual to "see the big picture," getting a global view of things. This is part of what allows them to view problems from new angles, which can allow them to circumvent the problem (or block, if you are an artist). This evidence suggests that when we approach a situation that requires some creative thinking, we should prime ourselves to be in an open, "approach" frame of mind.

One of the aspects of Julia Cameron's The Artist's Way involves ridding yourself of your negative perceptions... of your inner critic, that little voice in your head that tells you that you cannot do something. She also recommends figuring out which people in your life play a similar role and minimizing contact with them. The inner critic and critical friends and acquaintances act to put us into an avoidance state. When we listen to their criticisms, we fear the potential outcome of a creative effort. We are sure, before we even begin, that we will fail to find the way to the other side of the mountain blocking our path. When we go into it with this point of view, we are guaranteed to fail.

But when we recognize those voices for what they are and tell ourselves that we can, it does, in fact, put us in a mental frame of mind that allows us to surmount the problem at hand (remember the Little Engine That Could?). Scientific research supports the anecdotal evidence, by demonstrating that individuals are better at solving problems when in an "approach" state of mind.

When we think we can, we quite often can. Perhaps not in the way we originally envisioned, but that's what creative problem solving is all about: finding an innovative solution. Maybe the mountain really is a molehill, and we can step right over it. Maybe it's a steep mountain that requires some switchbacks before we can reach the summit. Or maybe there is a valley to the side that provides a better, easier alternative for reaching our goal.

This ties in to the role of exercise in creativity, since physical activity has been shown to reduce stress and anxiety, two factors that elicit avoidance behavior. So find a way to relax... go for a walk, do some yoga, meditate, watch a movie... these should all help to get the creative, problem-solving juices flowing.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Creative architecture

Last week my husband and I visited the Neues Museum in Berlin. The newest museum on Museum Island was originally constructed in the mid-1800s but was severely damaged by bombing in World War II. The building stood for 43 years, weathered and forgotten, until reconstruction efforts began in 1986.

The first step of the restoration process involved recovery of 100,000 fragments of the original building, many of which had been scattered, almost all of which have been reincorporated into the existing structure. The architect selected to design the reconstructed building, David Chipperfield, opted to modernize the structure while adhering to the guidelines of the Charter of Venice, "respecting the historical structure in its different states of preservation."

His designs, opposed by some, who wanted the building reconstructed as it had been before the destruction, instead took the pieces that remained (those thousands of fragments) and filled in the gaps, drawing attention to the losses while modernizing the structure. The pieces from rooms that had been completely destroyed are on display in a small area called the Fragmentarium: heating registers, painted plaster from damaged murals, and pieces of statues adorn the walls and display cases of this room.

I have been fortunate to have had many opportunities to visit famous museums, but this was the first time I was completely taken by the architecture, rather than the collections housed in the building. The surviving columns that line the outer walls are riddled with bullet holes and damage from shrapnel. New columns have been added to fill in areas completely destroyed by the bombs. No effort was made to hide the historical events that led to the museum's reconstruction, preserving events of the more recent past alongside older structures.

Inside the museum, murals from the original walls have been restored to their original positions, with missing areas filled in with muted colors that allow the paintings to simply fade away. The overwhelming feeling is one of loss... you can feel how much was lost during the war and the following years when the building was left unattended.

The bust of Queen Nefertiti, which I had seen housed in a different museum prior to the reopening of the Neues Museum, stands on a pedestal in a vaulted, colorful room filled with hushed, reverent admirers. She gazes, with her one remaining glass eye, down a long corridor, looking upon the god Helios in his own vaulted room at the far end. The presentation is extraordinary.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Julia Donaldson and Giles Andreae

Our youngest celebrated a birthday last week, and two of the gifts were books by Julia Donaldson: Tiddler and Tyrannosaurus Drip.

Every member of our family loves her books, which are filled with fabulous tales written in nearly perfect meter and rhyme (most often with a good moral to boot).  I don't know how successful her books are in the United States, but I know that The Gruffalo was (is?) wildly popular in both the UK and Germany (they translated it into German; I have not yet looked it over to see how they managed to translate the story while maintaining the very essence of out-loud-readability that characterize her books).

But even for the English-speakers out there, books written in meter and rhyme can cause problems, particularly when there are wide variations in word pronunciation. Case in point: in Monkey Puzzle, a young monkey has lost his mum. This can easily be changed to "mom" in the American version of the story, but "mom" doesn't rhyme with "come" and upsets the rhyme throughout (I don't know if this change has been made, since our books are the UK version). 

With books like these (another is Charlie Cook's Favorite Book), I find myself reading with a British accent, which causes either giggles or eye rolls from our children and their friends. But the pronunciation is essential to making the story work.

Another gift last week was The Lion Who Wanted to Love by Giles Andreae, another British author who writes wonderful rhyming tales. It took me a while to figure out exactly how some of his rhymes worked, for example "roars" and "jaws" in A Rumble in the Jungle, "violin" and "thing" in Giraffes Can't Dance, and "hooves" and "move" in The Lion Who Wanted to Love. Reading with the accent of the author often helps smooth over the couplets that trip up the tongue.

But it is worth considering... how does a picture book author who writes in meter and rhyme avoid these pitfalls? Does one simply write for the local audience, or does one make an effort to write in such a way as to avoid these rhyming missteps when the book reaches a wider audience? Is it hubris to imagine that the latter might occur?

I don't know the answers, but it is something I keep in mind as I write my rhyming adventure tales. How would the story sound to someone speaking the King's English rather than American? Would the rhythm persist in both situations? And what about other English speakers... in Australia, New Zealand, South Africa? Is it possible to write something in this format that would work for everyone?

Perhaps this is part of the reasoning behind the strong caution against writing rhyming picture books. But if you do it well, I don't see why it can't be successful.

Monday, March 1, 2010

When you're falling

I'm having an incredibly productive writing day today, which means my Monday blog post is falling by the wayside. So I leave you with Afro Celt Sound System, whose music inspires me.