The Art of Balancing


When I read that my grandson – freshly out of a solid plaster cast for a broken arm – was balancing on his mother’s balance ball, weights in hand, singing energetically to “Another one bites the dust” I felt more than a moment of envy. Energy, enthusiasm, and action without fear. That’s a powerful combination.

I dream of being energetic; a person of action, cheerfully engaged and productive. Yet in my particularly busy times I appreciate why writers hibernate, work like crazy, and emerge only when the work is done. I also seek some balance and I am not sure that balance is possible without routine. What is it I am wanting – a balancing of the many different aspects of my life, balance within my working week, or balance over a longer period of time?

Productive time demands single-mindedness, or a strict routine. There is a lot of truth in the advice given, in various forms of the same idea: “If you wish to be a writer, write.”  (Greek philosopher Epictetus, who died in the year 135). More recently, writer Stephen King said “If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot.” If so many writers are saying this, it must be true, right? I suspect that, perhaps, it’s not a fully complete instruction. Writing every day is pointless if you are writing badly, writing without purpose, writing with nothing in particular to say.

Thinking about writing has been decried, but I believe it is important to think about where you fall in the two camps of writers as described by writer Ryan Holiday in this interesting post. What is it that you have to say? Are you compelled to write? Or are you writing for the sheer pleasure of creating something new, crafting it, editing, nursing the very best from the language you have chosen to write in?

Holiday passes on excellent advice that he received early in his career: “go do interesting things”.

Go do interesting things. This is the fulcrum on which we must balance our careers, not on the hours in the day, not on the months in the year, not on the routines we establish. If I fill my life with interesting things, and slide from one end of the seesaw (the writing end) to the other (the illustrating end) then somehow, I hope, that productive balance that I seek in my life will come. It will come not because I have clocked up a certain number of hours in the day, but because in my interesting life I have ideas and stories that are demanding to be written, demanding to be illustrated, determined to be published.

From the Studio

view from studioToday in glorious weather the view from my studio on Monte Asprano is distracting. This morning began with a brisk 6am walk. This afternoon I was high up on Colle Abate, a rocky but not too difficult climb. The heat of the sun was eased by a fresh and welcome breeze. Tonight the fireflies will entice me outside again. Two little dogs love being nearby, keeping me company as I work. I am counting my blessings and feeling grateful for my interesting life.

Photograph: early morning vista from my studio window.

A Book Without Pictures

“and what is the use of a book,” thought Alice, “without pictures or conversations?” (Lewis Carroll, in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland).

‘It’s a poor sort of memory that only works backwards,’(Lewis Carroll, in Through the Looking Glass).

One of the blogs I follow is Brainpickings. Today my inbox brought me some background on Alice in Wonderland.

It has been an ‘Alice’ kind of week. A young Italian friend is reading Alice in English. She purchased her copy of it in Spain. Alice certainly gets around. We had a little fun with my favourite quotation about memory. Here it is (in context):

‘I don’t understand you,’ said Alice. ‘It’s dreadfully confusing!’

‘That’s the effect of living backwards,’ the Queen said kindly: ‘it always makes one a little giddy at first —’

‘Living backwards!’ Alice repeated in great astonishment. ‘I never heard of such a thing!’

‘— but there’s one great advantage in it, that one’s memory works both ways.’

‘I’m sure mine only works one way,’ Alice remarked. ‘I can’t remember things before they happen.’

‘It’s a poor sort of memory that only works backwards,’ the Queen remarked.

Occasionally I wonder if I am living backwards. My book without pictures has been on hold for a long time, stalled on 30,000 words when I took a break from it. The next chapter is writing itself as I sleep – my subconscious has been working backwards. My paintings for an exhibition are progressing reasonably well; my daytime work is going forward. And somewhere in the working day, and on my desk, are some little owls waiting for some colour. A book must have pictures, after all.

I Can Do That

blog drawing linesWhat is perfection, and should we aspire to it? My illustrations show action, colour, empathy, but never perfection. It is not my aim. It is important to me that my art for children is ‘accessible’.

I like to imagine that with pencil, paper, pen, paint and water, they too could begin to illustrate their own stories. I imagine a classroom teacher saying to the little ones “Can you see the pencil lines? What do you think she did next, after drawing the picture?”

I could remove all the pencil lines when the paint holds the form. In fact, I did remove most of them, but then added some again. If you look closely at the image you might see where some have been lightly erased, where the wrist and the sleeve meet. It is a calculated choice, what to leave, what to erase, what to put back more strongly to be read in the picture. It is this kind of interpretive interaction that brings out the creativity in little ones. And, perhaps, in the big ones too.

Once the brain engages with a process, or with imagining what might be in a space, the imagination is captured and brought into play. I don’t think that happens quite so much when everything is perfect; you are more likely to look, appreciate, and move on without actively engaging with the creative process.

As with all art work, illustrations have at least three aspects; what the artist intends, what the viewer sees, and what happens in the space in between. In shared reading there is yet another dimension, with the reader leading the discussion. I have considered putting in a page of discussion starters at the end of my stories, and more educational facts that I find in my research, but so far (apart from in the true story, Michelle and the Bumblebee) I have resisted this temptation. The readers will find what they are ready for, when the time is right.

But I digress. Back to the illustrations. In this digital age I think it is important that young children look at original art, and at the process of creating art. Art that is not ‘perfect’ with every line defined, every colour and shading transition smooth. I would like children to see my construction lines, and to think “I can do that”.

jamie helping Nonna blogSharing the process with a young reader. Quality time for both of us 🙂

Where Does Inspiration Come From?

“You never have to change anything you got up in the middle of the night to write.”  ― Saul Bellow

I have always loved to write. My childhood efforts were published in the children’s pages of the national farming magazine. The writings were usually poetry, but occasionally I wrote a short story in prose. I think it made me feel special, and linked to the exciting, unknown, city world,

Recently I have been wishing that I could see these again. My scrapbook of cuttings has long gone. I wonder, though, was that the beginning of the desire to publish now? I remember the waiting, after I had posted my fat envelopes, carefully licked to stick really well. The magazine came out once a month. Would it have any of my work in it? Often it did.

Where did my inspiration come from then, and where does it come from now?

When I was a child my inspiration came floating, tumbling or charging in as I settled to sleep, when I woke in the night, or on rising. I guess it was my subconscious* (See below) trying to make sense of my world.

I kept pencil and paper by my bed. Sometimes when I reached out or searched with my torch I couldn’t find it – disaster!  I couldn’t turn on the light; I shared a bedroom and I was supposed to be asleep.

My thoughts were precious to me – always inspired, my child’s brain was so sure. If I didn’t record them they would vanish. I would tiptoe on the cold floor and record those ideas the only way I could without waking my sister. The next morning I would be first up, springing from my bed, grabbing pencil and paper, and copying furiously.

My middle of the night inspiration was always there, thank goodness, safely recorded with a cold, wet finger in the condensation on the window. I had to be the first one up, in case my sister or my mother wiped the window dry and washed away my precious words. If there was no condensation on warmer nights I would huff and puff on the glass to create my own. Those mornings I really had to strain to see, looking from different angles to read what I had scrawled on the glass. If I didn’t wipe them off they would reappear the next time the window was wet, and my midnight thoughts would be exposed.

Now my inspirations are triggered in my waking hours. A chance observation, a snippet of conversation, a wonderful view or an interesting corner. Filing them away in notebooks and sketches doesn’t always work for me. I am happiest when I can grab the idea and run with it, abandoning whatever it was that I might have been doing. I write best with that urgency, chasing the idea in a much fuller form before it escapes. That wonderful window which is surely hiding a fascinating story, the house with a happy face, the tree with so many gnarled branches – all those wonderful settings wait in my subconscious and will emerge when the characters arrive.

The Lost Happy  page 13
The Lost Happy page 13

* Bryan Tracy, author of “The Psychology of Achievement”, writes a brief post about the subconscious here: Understanding the Subconscious

Spring Cleaning the Studio

Picking up my Italian life again wasn’t too hard, but there was the inevitable “re-entry blues” patch when the reality of leaving family behind hit home again. Away from children and young people, my routine has changed and my productivity is down.

It’s time to welcome spring, throw open the windows of the studio, and move back to a productive space. Being busy does not equal being productive.  Having ideas does not equal producing books. 

This is the setting that alternately distracts and inspires me – and now it’s upstairs to work for me!

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