Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Where art

Last night at the Chapter One writers group, I read an essay I wrote a couple of years ago about my search for a creative outlet. It chronicled my failed attempts at dance, music, and art. I found myself to be hopelessly clumsy, possibly tone deaf, an only mediocre at drawing. I've had an ad for ballroom dance lessons on my dream board forever.  It was a dream I considered unobtainable. I'd thought I was doomed to be left-brained; one whose analytic skills outweigh their artistic/creative skills.

That was until I discovered writing.  It turns out to be the one artistic venture that I seem to have some natural ability at. Up until now, I saw that as a victory.  Not just the victory of writing a story people might actually like to read.  But a victory over the left side of my brain in a "move over left brain, the right brain is taking over" kind of way.  That somehow, I had conquered my predetermined biological make-up.

Ha!  I was wrong. I did some more research. It turns out right-brained people are better at art because they think visually, and left-brained people think verbally.  Which means, left-brained people are better at putting thoughts into words instead of pictures, and therefore make better writers.

I found this to be frustrating. I'm not sure why it bothers me. Obviously it seems to be working to my benefit. But for some reason, I feel like I'm less in control.  That any talent I  have boils down to the way my cells divided when I was nothing more than a tadpole, rather than my determination, my heart and soul.

So I started taking every right-brain vs. left brain test I could find, hoping to find some evidence that my mind was more than a collection of gray matter that I had no control over.  I was intrigued by the fact that I seemed to have attributes of each side. Then I read that some people can actually consciously switch sides.

So I tried an experiment.  I stared at one of those tests that show a dancer turning in circles.  If you see her as turning clock-wise, you are using your right brain, if you see her turning counter clock-wise, you are using your left brain.  I stared, and I stared.  I concentrated hard.  Imagine my surprise when right before my eyes, she switched directions!  I did it.  I conquered my own brain!  Although she seems to switch back to counter-clockwise easier and quicker than clock-wise, I can now control which side of my brain I'm using.

I plan to keep working on switching her direction until it becomes easier.  Think of it as gray matter calisthenics.  Maybe someday my mental work-out will pay off. And maybe I just might take those ballroom dance lessons after all.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Life imitates art, art imitates life, life after death...

I have to start this out with the statement that, although I write a lot of fiction, this story is completely, absolutely, without embellishment, pure non-fiction. This is exactly how it happened, or should I say is currently happening to me as I sit and type this. Cross my heart and hope to die. 

Given what I'm about to tell you, maybe I shouldn't say that.

This week started out with my attempt to write something for this blog. My head was not in the best of places, feeling frustrated with my lack of time to do any quality writing. What I wrote, I decided, was poor at best so I didn't post it. That made me feel even more frustrated as I am feeling pressure to blog more often. Today, Wednesday, is my one day off of work, devoted to writing. I spent all day at my favorite coffee shop. Although I did some great re-working and editing on my novel, I wasn't feeling very inspired.

As some of you may know, the novel I'm currently working on is about a young woman, Katherine.  While walking through an old cemetery, contemplating the lives of the people buried there, she inadvertently ends up traveling back in time directly into the life of the person's headstone that she touches, just before their time of their death. This idea was born as my husband and I drove past a small local cemetery (pictured above). Although we'd driven by it many times, on this particular occasion I tried to read as many headstones as I could. I, like my main character, started to wonder about those names. Who were those people? What were their lives like? Did they still have family members that remember them, visit their graves? Or were they lost in time, just names and dates etched in stone? I went back to take some pictures of the cemetery. It seemed small, quaint, with a chapel at the back. There were a mix of newer stones right alongside very old, almost, illegible ones. Perfect for my novel.

In my story, which is a fair way toward finished, I needed the cemetery to be bigger, yet I didn't want to lose that small old cemetery feel. So I had my character discover a path behind the chapel that leads to a hidden section she'd never known was there. This was already down on paper, or virtual paper I should say, as everything is written on my laptop.

In fact it had been a part of the story for at least nine months when a good friend, Sue, asked me if I'd ever really walked around that cemetery. I said I'd been there once, but didn't go too far. She said she'd just recently gone on a geocache (a treasure hunt led by hand-held GPS). My first thought was, really? In a cemetery? But that thought was quickly halted when she said “Did you realize there are two more cemeteries hidden in the woods behind the church?” Well, as you can imagine, I was shocked. So today, after my less than inspired day of working on my book, I stopped there.

By my friends recommendation, I parked on the street and walked, rather than drove into the cemetery. I walked up the hill towards the church and around the back. There, winding through the woods, up a steep hill, was a paved road. At this point I heard a loud caw and look up to see a solitary crow in a dead tree, juxtaposed against the scene of the butterfly fluttering around the flowers at the base of the trunk. I made a mental note to make sure to add that to my story.

I followed the road around and up and sure enough, it opened up onto another cemetery. This graveyard also had a mix of older and newer stones and was even smaller than the main one that I had just come from. By this time my heart was beating a bit faster. I'm not sure if it was finding the hidden cemetery of my imagination, or the hike up the hill in the heat and humidity. I didn't walk around this middle cemetery, instead I searched for the way up to the third cemetery my friend had mentioned.

There in the corner, barely visible, was a narrow path in the woods. This one was not paved, it was merely mowed through the woods. The path wound around a bit, the overgrown trees and shrubs brushing against my shoulders. I made another mental note to include this imagery into my story as it was doing a good job of creeping me out in real life. My only thought was that it was too sunny, the beams of light dancing through the leaves too pretty. In my story I needed to make it cloudy, maybe even an approaching storm. Again I must emphasize, this is REALLY true. Only moments after this random thought, a rumble of thunder echoed in the distance. REALLY!

So, this path did indeed open up into a third cemetery. This one much larger than even the first and looked to be more modern. I wandered a bit but decided I would wait and come back another day, since that rumble of thunder had been the precursor to some approaching clouds that were definitely calling for rain. As I walked back toward the path, I thought to myself that it was that middle cemetery, carved into the woods, that had the ambiance I'd imagined. I started to mentally go through the gravestones and lives my character visits to figure out exactly which one(s) she would find in this back cemetery. Although I already had a description of the cemetery written along with it's hidden back cemetery, I still hadn't decided which grave she'd find there. There were certain ones that needed to be clumped together, and in the more visible portion of the cemetery, for reasons I can't tell you here (sorry, you'll just have to buy the book when it's finished). It came to me that the best one for her to find in this hidden cemetery would be the one of an eight year old boy. I would make that hidden cemetery a children's cemetery. As soon as that idea occurred to me, I knew it was the perfect choice. Just the idea gave me goosebumps.

As I came out of the wooded path back to the middle graveyard, I decided to take the time to look around a bit. I walked up to the first headstone and was shocked by the dates. It was a child. I walked to the next one. No dates, just the word infant under the name. The third stone, another child. I swear to you this is just how it happened. I thought “it should be a children's cemetery” and it was, or at least the section I was standing in was.

I started to walk briskly back to my car. I had to write this all down. As I passed a bush on the way out, a bird suddenly flew out of it. I think I jumped a foot! I'm pretty sure that will make it into the book as well.

So I sit in my car, laptop balanced against the steering wheel, still parked by the cemetery. Despite the sweltering 90 degree weather and the barely cracked windows because that rain finally came, I'm trembling and have goosebumps. I couldn't wait, I needed to write this all down as soon as I could. I've gotten inspiration, not only for this blog, but also for my novel. 

And it seems to have come from the grave.