Monday, May 31, 2010

Write, rewrite

I am working on a chapter book. It actually started out as a picture book, but when I wrote it up, I realized that there was too much missing.  The story needed fleshing out. It begged to be written as chapter book (or junior novel, if you prefer).

I have been working on it for the past week (in the precious spare moments that pop up during the day). I'm excited about it, and I know where the story is going. But I've struggled, too.The ending, as I initially wrote it, was weak. And the second chapter didn't really work. These issues festered in the back of my mind over the weekend, while I thought about other things I'm working on (I tend to have at least three works in progress at any one moment; oddly enough, I work better that way).

And this morning, I woke with the solution. I love those moments. The ones in which my brain suddenly puts the pieces together with a click and everything makes sense. The problematic chapter now fits with the rest of the story. The end will be stronger; the story, as a whole, more robust.

It required a fair amount of rewriting. In fact, I rewrote the beginning twice today. My initial rewrite was probably too scary for the intended audience, so I did it again. I think version 3.0 works. The story is by no means polished, yet, but it's getting there.

I have seen lots of discussion on blogs about the importance of rewriting and revising. Sometimes the initial idea isn't quite up to par. Sometimes we have to start over to get things right. It's tempting to think we're done after getting it all on paper (or into the word processor), but that's just the first step.

After I finish the story, I'll go through Nathan Bransfords Revision Checklist to see what I missed. And then I'll rewrite and revise some more. If I'm lucky enough to land an agent for this, I'm sure the process will continue.

Think of it as cutting, shaping, and polishing a rough diamond into something that sparkles. Something that pulls the audience in from across the room. That's the magic of rewriting.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Life's little gifts

I have been reading several books on writing as a creative process, and one of the universal threads that runs through each is the importance of paying attention to the details of life. It is so easy to miss what goes on around us in our rush to get on with our lives. We are so busy tending the forest that we forget to check on the individual trees.

This week, we had a nice opportunity to stop and appreciate one of life's little gifts. A baby crow had fallen from its nest. About six weeks old, its flight feathers were not yet fully formed, and it was unable to move far from where it fell. It sat, just the other side of a fence, next to a busy sidewalk, while its parents screamed at anyone who paused to look at it. There were no bushes in the area, and the space was too small for the parents to access it easily. They didn't abandon it, but they weren't feeding it, either.

We first saw it in the morning, then checked on it with each time we went out. In the afternoon, the mother was still mobbing people who got to close. But by evening, when we were on our way to dinner, she had disappeared. The baby's head lolled at a strange angle. It was getting cold, and we worried whether it would survive the night.

On our way home from dinner, we stopped again. Still no parents. The woman who owned the house saw us, opened a window, and asked if we wanted to take it with us. An older woman, she didn't feel up to the task of caring for it, but she didn't want to leave it to die, either. Having raised a fair number of birds between us, my husband and I didn't feel we could leave it, so we accepted. We took it home, got it to drink some water, and fed it a bit of food. And we let it sleep in warmth.

The next morning, it took one look at us and started calling. Initially, I thought it was calling for food, but in less than a minute, we heard the answering calls of two adults outside. The parents were still around! Knowing we could never provide better care than the parents, we put the baby on the balcony. But the parents wouldn't come near the enclosed space. They flew from rooftop to tree, calling back, but never getting close.

Finally we asked our downstairs neighbor if we could leave it in her garden. We installed it near some shrubs, and the mother immediately came to its aid. We ran away before she could peck us, and she spent the day feeding it. By evening, it had moved under the shrubs. We have seen the parents come and go, but not the baby since that time, so we can only assume that it is still alive and doing well. And we can be grateful that we were able to relocate it to a quiet place where its parents could care for it.

Which of life's little details have you experienced lately?

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Changes are coming...

The time has come.

After six months of wandering wistfully, I've decided it's time to get creative and improve the blog. Title remains the same (thanks to the kind words of Daine Mayr at Random Noodling), but the appearance is about to undergo a major overhaul.

Don't be surprised when you come back here and it looks nothing like it did before. It's still Wistful Wanderings. I'm still musing about writing and creativity. It'll just look better while I do so. After all, looks count. (Right?)

Monday, May 24, 2010

Getting it Right

I recently completed yet another journey around the sun. To celebrate, my husband took me to the "biggest show in Berlin" better known as Qi. The show is a mixture of Vegas-style revue, Ice Capades, and Cirque du Soleil rolled into one (yes, they bring out a skating rink mid-show).

I really expected amazing things. As a former dancer, I love watching good dance performances. And for the biggest show in Berlin (with equally sizable ticket prices), you would think the performances would be out of this world.

Oh man, was I disappointed.

I understand that in order to be creative (as was required to create this show), you need lower your expectations for yourself. If you expect to create a masterpiece when you sit down, you will block your creative efforts. You need to allow yourself to start small, make mistakes, learn as you go.

That's all well and good, but when you have reached the point at which you are performing in front of hundreds of people each night and charging them for the privilege, you sure better bring your perfectionist self to the stage.

The former dancer in me cringed as the dancers repeatedly failed to hit their lines or perform any of the moves together. Nothing looks worse than sloppy dancing, and this performance was sloppy. To put it mildly. No one was impressed by the end of the first half of the show, and I seriously debated whether I wanted to see the rest.

Fortunately, the second half was an improvement, thanks largely to Duo Iroshnikov. Unlike the rest of the performers, these brothers hit every move with precision and accuracy. Here is a video clip of the performance we saw (performed at a different venue).

Pretty amazing effort. It shows the importance of bringing your perfectionist to your performance. Perfectionism may inhibit the creative process, but once you have created a final product, it's time to bring your perfectionist self back to the table.

How do you see the role of perfectionism in the creative venture? In your personal creative process?

Friday, May 21, 2010

Poetry Friday: Bees

I love spring. The sun, the flowers, the way everything turns green again. The world goes from shades of brown and gray to a patchwork of brilliant color, teeming with life. This was inspired by an event that took place last spring. I hope not to experience it again.


I found a bee,
and then another...
then I saw some more.

Mommy and I
counted them...
they came to ninety-four.

Most lay dead,
a few still dying...
all along the walk.

And in a nearby garden,
we could hear
some people talk.

'Bout how the flowers
looked so nice,
not one leaf had a hole.

But they never said a word
about the lives
their garden stole.
© 2010 Alison Pearce Stevens

Today's Poetry Friday Roundup is hosted by Laura at Writing the World for Kids.

Enjoy a wonderful weekend, everyone!

Monday, May 17, 2010

Learning to see

When was the last time you drew something? Anything? Lately, I have been drawing pictures for the kids: castles, flowers, hearts, whatever they request. I can do these. They're simple, straight-forward, and I've been drawing them since I was little. In fact, they probably haven't changed much in that time. Why is that?

A friend of mine (one of the most insightful people I know) told me about a book she is reading: The New Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain by Dr. Betty Edwards. In it, Dr. Edwards discusses the series of steps through which our drawings progress, and she suggests a psychological reason behind the abandonment of drawing around the age of 9 or 10. A quick overview:

toddlers (~2.5 years)  Young children begin by scribbling, but this soon becomes a circular pattern (most likely because drawing a circle comes naturally, given the rotary movement of the shoulder and wrist joints). Around 2.5 years of age, children realize that they can make the circle into a more recognizable form by adding lines (five lines for fingers, lines all around for the sun, and so on).

young children (~3.5 years) Children begin to perceive the detail in their world, and their drawings follow suit. This is a remarkably fast transition, as children go from the circle and stick images to drawing bodies with heads, arms, and legs (though the placement of the appendages may not mirror real life).

kindergarteners (4-5 years)  By this point, children have learned to use symbols (lines, circles, triangles) to represent objects, and their drawings tend to take on a narrative quality. Interestingly, children at this stage often exaggerate parts of the drawing they deem of greater importance (Dr. Edwards provides two examples: an enlarged arm used to hold up an umbrella, and an enlarged teeth-baring older sister in a family portrait).

first graders (5-6 years)  Around this age, children start drawing landscapes, with houses, trees, bushes, the sun. Their drawings are filled with symbols: a bit of green at the bottom for the land, some blue across the top for the sky, a rectangular door with a round doorknob. Dr. Edwards points out that these landscapes are well balanced. If you were to remove one part from the whole, the picture feels off. Try it yourself. Recreate your childhood landscape. Then try covering one section at a time. How does it feel when you do this?

older children (9-10 years)  By this point, realism has become dominant, and children spend a great deal of time trying to capture something in a realistic way. Drawings becomes more detailed, the desire to balance the composition fades. Quite often, at this point, the desire to represent something realistically overwhelms children, as they struggle to draw something the "right" way. It is usually around this time that people abandon drawing, convinced they cannot draw.

Why is this? And why does it persist? Dr. Edwards argues that our ability to draw is inhibited by what we "know" about an object. Take, for example, a cube. We know that a cube looks like a square when viewed from the side, that each side is flat, and that each corner is a right angle. When we try to draw a cube, we want it to reflect these things that we "know." Quite often people start out drawing the square. But what do you do next? The top and sides are also squares... how do we incorporate the right angles and sides of equal length to draw a realistic-looking cube? This, in fact, is the problem. In order to draw a cube in a realistic way, we must learn to see the cube differently. Note that the angles do not always appear to be 90°, that the sides are not always drawn using lines of equal length (this depends on the perspective used).

Dr. Edwards suggests that language development influences what we "know" about objects and plays an important role in how well we can draw something. To draw something realistically requires putting aside what we know and learning to look at things in a new way. To really focus on the objects, rather on what we think the objects should be. This, Dr. Edwards argues, requires a mental shift from using the left hemisphere of the brain (the one that stores what we know in words: right angles, equal sides) to using the right hemisphere.

Part of this involves putting ourselves into an approach state of mind, which opens us up to new ways of seeing things. Such a shift from what we "know" to a more open way of viewing things helps not only artistic efforts, but also promotes discovery and helps people solve problems.

Try to see something in a new way today. What happens?

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

The social experiment

My procrastination poem from Friday poked fun at Facebook and Twitter users (yes, I am on both). This morning, I happened across an article about the influence of social networks on our overall behavior, and I thought it worth sharing.

David DiSalvo's article, Are Social Networks Messing with Your Head? (Scientific American Mind, Jan/Feb 2010), provides a wealth of information about the numbers of people using social networks, how they use those networks, and whether they derive benefits or suffer costs in so doing.

A few (remarkable) facts:
  • Facebook has only been around since 2004. In the past six years, it has grown from a site that connected students at Harvard University (which is how I first heard of it) to a global phenomenon. 
  • Facebook now has 250 million members in 170 countries. As DiSalvo points out, "If Facebok itself were a country, it would be the fourth most populous in the world, just behind the U.S."
  • Though less widely used, Twitter has seven million active members "who broadcast more than 18 million snippets a day to anyone who will listen."
  • About half of the members on Facebook access it daily, and the most avid users spend 2 hours a day on Facebook while at work
Clearly, social networks (and I have focused here on just two—those that many authors use regularly), have become a huge part of our lives. So what impact do they have on us? On our well-being, sense of connection with others, productivity?

Researchers have done several studies of Facebook users to better understand the dynamic. They have found that people who use social networks to replace face-to-face interactions become lonelier over time. They attach greater importance to the number of friends/followers that they have, and they tend to feel greater anxiety when they experience long delays in hearing from others. In contrast, people who use the site to maintain contact with people with whom they interact in real life benefit from it. They are better able to maintain contact over periods when they might otherwise be too busy to keep in touch.

Using Facebook and Twitter for professional purposes (e.g., as a writer) can be extremely beneficial, provided that it is done well. Posts need to be interesting, relevant, and (perhaps most importantly) should not merely advertise one's own work. Others consider such posts narcissistic and quickly learn to avoid the sender. In fact, many successful bloggers and writers have written posts about the importance of focusing on the work of others, rather than your own. Consider it good Karma.

In addition, writers can use these networks to "meet" new people; when conferences roll around, the groundwork is in place to quickly and easily make the online connection a face-to-face one. In such situations, the benefits include those described above and the opportunity to greatly increase your network of professional associations.

Are you on Facebook or Twitter? How do you use them? Do they benefit your life, and if so, how?

Monday, May 10, 2010

A few inspiring words

Mondays have been difficult for me, lately, as a quick review of my recent posts shows. Today marks the first day of final exams and overwhelming amounts of grading. So here are a few quotes from well-known creatives, scientists, and the like. I hope they might provide you with a bit of inspiration.
Often people attempt to live their lives backwards: they try to have more things, or more money, in order to do more of what they want so that they will be happier. The way it actually works is the reverse. You must first be who you really are, then, do what you need to do, in order to have what you want.  ~ Margaret Young
It is not because things are difficult that we do not dare; it is because we do not dare that they are difficult.  ~ Seneca
Take your life into your own hands and what happens? A terrible thing: no one to blame.  ~ Erica Jong
Artists who seek perfection in everything are those who cannot attain it in anything.  ~Eugène Delacroix 

Did you ever observe to whom the accidents happen? Chance favors only the prepared mind.  ~Louis Pasteur
We are always doing something, talking, reading, listening to the radio, planning what next. The mind is kept naggingly busy on some easy, unimportant external thing all day long.  ~Brenda Ueland

Figure out who you are. Dare to try things and allow yourself to do them, even if they're not perfect. Keep an open mind, and put aside the daily distractions. You may just find some creative inspiration in the process.

Friday, May 7, 2010

Poetry Friday: oh no, not me

My post on procrastination (or rather how NOT to procrastinate) sparked a poem. I had actually planned to write a post about Roald Dahl's Revolting Rhymes today, but the poem took precedence. Procrastination? Not necessarily... either one fits the bill for Poetry Friday.

Oh No, Not Me

Procrastinate? Oh no, not me.
I'll get it done, just wait and see.
But first I need to read the news,
and bake a cake and buy some shoes.
Turn on computer, make some tea.
(I'm just about to work, you see.)
I'll get on Facebook, tend the farm:
harvest crops and build a barn.
OK, that's done, it's time to write
'bout urban sprawl and urban blight...
Oh, look! I see I have a tweet.
@mariella: aren't you sweet!
Back to cities... built on grids...
Oh crap! I've got to get the kids!
The day is done. I wrote one line.
I've got a week... there's LOTS of time!
© Alison Pearce Stevens

Disclaimer: I do not know @mariella (or even if she exists), nor do I pursue any agricultural activities on Facebook. I wrote this in my head while out walking today.  That doesn't really count as procrastination, does it? I prefer to think of it as a good use of my time.

Poetry Friday is hosted by Diane Mayr at Random Noodling.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

How NOT to procrastinate

My students just finished a big project for one of my classes. I have them start on it in the middle of the semester, because I don't want them to procrastinate. There is no time at the end of the term for me to grade late submissions, so I impose mini-deadlines over the last half of the semester to help them stay on task. An outline, list of references, rough draft, then the big final paper. It works for most students. Except for the ones who procrastinate so much, they miss all of the mini-deadlines. But there's not much I can do to help them.

Why do people procrastinate, anyway? It comes down to several factors: how well the task at hand fits your life goals, the length of time you have before a deadline (and incipient reward), and your personality.

Goals  "Procrastination is about not having projects in your life that really reflect your goals," says psychologist Timothy A. Pychyl (Director of the Procrastination Research Group at Carleton University).

Have you ever stopped to really think about what you want out of life? What you stand for? What you want to accomplish? We all have our dreams when we are young, but many of us get a job that pays the bills, and grander aspirations go out the window. When was the last time you really sat down to think about what you want to accomplish in your life? About what matters to you?

Chris Guillebeau at the Art of Non-Conformity makes a living helping others to figure out their goals and find ways to accomplish them. Check out Chris' Brief Guide to World Domination (he likes to give his projects subtle names), and check out his manifesto for what he considers the two most important questions in the world. Think about them carefully. Does your work reflect your goals? If you are procrastinating, it probably doesn't.

The Time Factor  Really big projects, like the one I gave my students, often come with a delayed deadline. The idea is that you will need extra time to do the job well. But scientists have found that delayed deadlines mean delayed rewards, and when rewards are delayed, people choose to do other activities that provide a more immediate reward. Why work on a project that might get you praise from your boss next week, when you can bask in the admiration of your peers for your ability to spin a basketball on your finger right now?

It turns out that the delay to gratification plays a big role in the choices that we make, and this holds true for both humans and non-human animals.. Scientists are studying the phenomenon of patience (see this paper by Stevens and Stephens for an overview) to better understand how time delay influences the decisions individuals make. A desire for immediate rewards contributes to procrastination.

Personality  I have written a post, or two, on personality. Personality influences all areas of our lives, including the tendency to procrastinate. Using the big five personality traits, researchers have found particular traits increase procrastination. In particular, people who score low on conscientiousness and high on impulsivity procrastinate more. And people who score higher on neuroticism tend to experience more anxiety, which can lead to postponement.

"Procrastinators postpone getting started because of a fear of failure (I am so worried that I will bungle this assignment), the fear of ultimately making a mistake (I need to make sure the outcome will be perfect), and the fear of success (If I do well, people will expect more of me all the time. Therefore, I'll put the assignment off utnil the last minute, do it poorly, and people won't expect so much of me.)" ~Trish Gura, Procrastinating Again? How to Kick the Habit, Scientific American Mind, Dec. 2008

How NOT to Procrastinate  So how can we stop procrastinating? Setting several smaller deadlines has been shown to help people overcome the problems associated with delay. In addition, individuals who set more frequent deadlines tend to do better work as compared with those who postpone until the very end. Procrastinators often rush to finish their work and submit projects riddled with errors (this is true for scientists submitting grant applications and people submitting their tax returns, too—it quite literally pays to do things in a timely manner).

Give yourself permission to do things, even if they might not be done perfectly. And if you find that you procrastinate over everything, perhaps you need to re-examine your life goals. Sit down for an interview with yourself. Maybe it will help you find more meaningful work, make a difference, live a happier life.

What kind of tasks do you postpone? What do you do instead? And how do you think you might be able to procrastinate less?

Monday, May 3, 2010

Making progress

Some really exciting news: I am finally part of a great critique group of other wonderful aspiring picture book authors. Just what I need to really get my work into shape (and I get to help them do the same). So I'm off to finish grading my students' assignments, buy some groceries, and write, write, write.

Happy Monday!