Friday, January 25, 2013

Poem: Trapped Inside

I first wrote this in 1986, when I was taking watercolor classes from Dale Boatman, and was terribly frustrated by the tedium of painting from someone else's photographs.  Just because Mr. Boatman was fascinated by yuccas and palo verdes in bloom didn't mean that I wanted to paint desert landscapes.

Nevertheless, I learned a great deal from that wonderful man about the persnickety medium of watercolor, composition, choosing an effective but limited palette, mixing paint, choosing and using brushes - and in the process, I learned about living, too.

Everyone should meet a happy artist.  It's liberating and refreshing to discover that one need not suffer for one's art, that a creative life can be a joyful one.

This early poem is an attempt to express some of I learned from Dale Boatman.


We paint from photographs
one stroke at a time,
forget to look
at trees.  Our vision
leaves us blind.

We mute the color
of the eye, beguile
fools with guileless lies,
re-making everything
in our own image.

Let's be honest here.
That which is, IS.
Nothing else is clear.

Still, we chip
at marble till we see
the head we believe
to be
trapped inside.

©2013 Tina Quinn Durham.  All rights reserved.

To learn more about Dale Boatman and his work, click here.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Creativity: No such thing as a failure or a false step!

In every discipline, when you attempt something new, you will experience failure along the way.  Success is the result of multiple, persistent attempts.

In science, for instance, Thomas Edison tested thousands of materials, searching for something which would form a lasting filament in an incandescent light bulb.  Vertex Pharmaceuticals "tested over 600,000 chemicals in cells with the defective protein that causes cystic fibrosis" (Drug Fulfills Promise Of Research Into Cystic Fibrosis Gene, NPR, Jan. 2013).

The creative process also requires experimentation, determination, and perhaps even a sense of play.

When I created my second feather metamorphosis, I saved some of my failures along with my steps toward success, and I included those failures in my Feather Vision 2 video.  I'm sure there were dozens more that were so awful they didn't get saved, but were necessary steps along the way.

 from "Crossroads" by Wendy Waldman, as recorded by Don McLean

You know I've heard about people like me,
But I never made the connection.
They walk one road to set them free
And find they've gone the wrong direction.

But there's no need for turning back
'Cause all roads lead to where I stand.
And I believe I'll walk them all
No matter what I may have planned. 

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Transforming Ordinary Reality Using A Scanner & Photoshop

That's what creativity is all about, right?  Seeing the extraordinary in the ordinary, believing that we have something to say or make or do, and then having the courage to do it?

My "Feather Vision" video shows how I went from feather to abstract art using Photoshop 7.0 and various filters.  It's part of a series of digital abstracts I titled "Metamorphoses."

It's probably a good thing I didn't come across a dead cockroach during this time, or I might up ended up with something positively Kafka-esque!

Monday, January 14, 2013

Creativity: How can we access an extraordinary reality?

Reinhold Marxhauser talked about the need to make all things new:

Nothing I have done has been done in the past.  I am doing my part to upgrade or get rid of old symbols.*

Marxhauser also talks about how Jesus "gave meaning to simple, everyday things and related them to His Kingdom" (ibid).  On some level, all of this keeps coming back to attention and awareness.  Being there in the moment.

If I went through each day of my life with my eyes open, believing that "nothing I have done has been done in the past," and were fully aware, what would my perceptions be?  How would my daily work be transformed?  And how would that awareness translate into art, and poetry?

Or would I simply be, for the moment, fully aware and alive?

Ordinary feather
Ordinary feather transformed

Every poet knows, however, what every good theologian affirms, namely that grace is everywhere and that nothing which exists is superficial. Ordinary reality is an oxymoron.

Padovano, Anthony T.   "Rain and Grace."  Accessed 14 January 2013.

*Marxhausen, Reinhold.  The Door. Mar/Apr 93, #128.  "Interview with Reinhold Marxhausen, the Stardust Man,"  page 13.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Creativity: Art and religion make us whole

To piggy-back on yesterday's post, art (poetry, music, drama, etc.) does more than remind us that we have a soul; creative endeavor is restorative, both for artist and audience.  Because we are created in the image of a creative God, we are meant to create; and when we cease to make art or music or beauty in its myriad forms, in some sense, we die.

I want to carry life, not death, within me.

Artist Reinhold Marxhausen pretty much said it all in a 1993 interview:

Art and religion have much to offer mankind and are partners in "whole making."  Before print, books, film and media came into being, illuminated manuscripts, stained glass, sculpture, vaulted ceilings, majestic music, mosaics, and paintings stimulated the senses to feelings of awe and wonder.  The art forms elevated the spirits and the feelings of worshipping mankind way beyond the power of the abstract words.  We have lost the ability to symbolize, and what I am trying to do is make new symbols.  My things have new meaning.  Nothing I have done has been done in the past.  I am doing my part to upgrade or get rid of old symbols.
Jesus did the same thing, really.  In a sense, Jesus was an artist who used parables, stories, and metaphors to explain the Kingdom of God to the disciples.  He gave meaning to simple, everyday things and related them to His Kingdom.  His stories were understandable, and the Kingdom became available to everyone on earth.  That's why Christianity is so unbelievable at times - it is so simple and accessible.  Jesus talked about farmers, flowers, birds, seeds, rich people, beggars, vineyards, soil ... and the people understood.

Marxhausen, Reinhold.  The Door. Mar/Apr 93, #128.  "Interview with Reinhold Marxhausen, the Stardust Man,"  page 13.

Links To and About Reinhold Marxhausen's Work 

(and more - there's always more LOL)

What a delightful man!

Link to the [Wittenberg] Door magazine interviews, which are always fascinating.  Even if they haven't published since 2008, the Door interviews are still a great read.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

The Healing Power of Creativity

Art reminds us that we have a soul

When I lived in the Phoenix metro area, I discovered that the Phoenix Art Museum was a great place to hang out.  And not just because it was free on Wednesdays, and not just because one summer, the air conditioner wasn't working (that was the year the kids took art classes, joined a bowling league, participated in the library's summer reading program - anything that got us out of the house and into an air-conditioned space.  But I digress.)  I loved the spaces of the museum, the quiet, the works of art that I got to know as if they were good friends.

And I picked up a brochure that had this wonderful quote from Stella Adler:

Life beats down and crushes the soul and art reminds you that you have one.

Creative work can be the "green pasture" that our soul lies down in, whether it's our own creative work or the opportunity to enjoy the work of others.

Stella Adler, acclaimed actress and acting teacher

"The Southland of the Heart", Bruce Cockburn

Friday, January 11, 2013

Creativity: Recognizing where you are as sacred space

Set aside time to become engaged

I've been thinking about a writer's sense of place - an awareness that where we are is important.  I tend to believe that wherever I am, it's boring and insignificant, and if I could just get somewhere else, I could write.

Ken Lamberton wrote an amazing book about being a naturalist while in prison.  He was a teacher who fell in love with a student, and - well, you can guess what happened next.  It's a heart-breaking story, and you can find out more about it here:

 Okay, so what's the point?  How does a convicted child molester relate to sacred space?

No matter how screwed up your life is, no matter how limited your options are, you can still observe, create, redeem and restore.  Corrie Ten Boom was in a Nazi concentration camp; Ken Lamberton was in a state prison.  Creativity and sacred space depends, in part, on you - the meal becomes a feast because of what you bring to the table.

Ken Lamberton included a wonderful quote from Richard Nelson in his book, Wilderness and Razorwire, and I wanted to share it with you:

"I wonder," Richard Nelson writes, "what it would mean if each person, at some point in his life, set aside some time to become thoroughly engaged with a part of the home community: a backyard, a woodlot, a pond, a stretch of river, a hillside, a farm, a park, a creek, a county, a butte, a marsh, a length of seacoast, a ridge, an estuary, a cactus forest, an island.  How would it affect the way each person views herself or himself in relationship to the natural surroundings, or to the earth as a whole?"

Nelson, Richard.  Quoted by Ken Lamberton,  Wilderness and Razorwire:  A Naturalist's Observations from Prison, pp. 144-145.  San Francisco:  Mercury House, 2000.

Become alive, become aware, become engaged 

with the place you live.  It won't just affect how you view yourself.  It will change how you see everything - including your writing.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Fiction Writers: How do you begin a sequel?

You could, of course, start with lots of explanation, but that's a rather tedious way to open a novel.  I like how James A. Hetley did it in the first paragraphs of The Winter Oak (New York:  Ace Books, 2004).

Read through this passage a couple of times, and notice what Hetley does:

David gritted his teeth and followed Jo's hand through the darkness.  He assumed the rest of her was still attached.  Dark, clammy nothings brushed past his face and hissed in his ears.  Phantoms teased the corners of his eyes, shapes black against black, yellow against yellow, flowing through the ghost images his brain played to give substance to emptiness.

The touches, sounds, and shapes plucked at his fear like virtuosi on overtaut harp strings.  The air smelled of sodden graveyards, thick and rank in his nose and against his skin as if he had to swim through it.

Under the Sidhe hill, he thought.  Three steps between magic and reality.  Magic with teeth and claws as long as his forearm, magic that Jo carried in her genes.

He felt cold sweat between his shoulder blades and trickling down his sides under his arms.  This was taking far too long.

Let's take a writerly look at what Hetley's done.

  • DON'T BEGIN AT THE BEGINNING.  Hetley starts in media res - in the middle of the action.  We 're off and running from the first sentence.  Or, in this case, immediately slogging through a terrifying world which shouldn't exist.
  • INCLUDE A QUICK INTRODUCTION TO THE SETTING.  With just a few sentences, Hetley sketches a horrific world of darkness, vile smells, and dangerous magic.  By the third short paragraph, we already know that we are somewhere between our world and the realm of Celtic magic, and we also know that the fae in this world are not going to be nice.  
  • INTRODUCE THE READER TO THE CHARACTER(S).  I love the sentence, "He assumed the rest of her was still attached" [i.e., Jo's body is still attached to her hand].  This tells us something about David's character, that he has a sense of humor and is a bit of a "smart ass."  I like him already, and want to find out more about him and this crazy situation.
  • USE HUMOR AND SURPRISE TO KEEP THE READER AWAKE.  "He assumed the rest of her was still attached" is both funny and unexpected.  But it's like seasoning in a good tortilla soup - just enough to spice things up, but not too much.
  • USE POETIC TECHNIQUES LIKE SIMILE AND METAPHOR.  The second paragraph is a bit overwritten, but it turns out to be appropriate because David is a musician in a Celtic band, and a poet.  Of course he thinks in similes.  And the use of smell - the sense which evokes the most emotion - is a nice touch.  We associate putrefaction, and graveyards, with scary bad stuff.  I'm feelin' it.
  • EMPLOY PHYSICAL CLUES TO REVEAL EMOTIONAL STATES.  We know that David's stressed, because he's gritting his teeth - a nice variation of the old "show, don't tell" rule to let us know what a character's feeling without saying, "He was so scared!"  Paragraph three:  Hetley does it again:  "He felt cold sweat between his shoulder blades and trickling down his sides under his arms."  Yep, that's definitely pretty scared.
  • GROUND THE READER IN BOTH PLACE AND TIME.  Hetley uses a single phrase "under the Sidhe hill" to ground us in a particular reality.  If you know Celtic myth, you know at least half of where we are and what we're dealing with.   We'll find out about the "reality" part later.  The time is some variation of now, our contemporary world, because the narrator says, "magic Jo carried in her genes," and we know that nobody talked about genes before the discovery of DNA.  In the past, when people talked about genetics, they'd say "blood" instead of "genes."  
  • USE SPECIFIC LANGUAGE AND THE MOST EFFECTIVE WORDS to introduce us to the characters.  The use of "Jo" instead of a full name like "Josephine" or a more feminine nickname like "Josie" tells us something about Jo, too:  she's a no-nonsense, tough, modern girl.  The fact that David knows what's in her genes means they've been together for a while, and since they're holding hands, you might guess (correctly) that they are lovers.
  • GIVE YOUR READER CLUES ABOUT THE CHARACTERS' RELATIONSHIPS.  Yet another application of "Show, don't tell."  We've actually already learned a lot about Jo and David:  she's got fairy blood; he (we can infer) does not.  She's the leader; this is natural to her and alien to David.  He's been through this before, and he didn't like the experience then. 
  • USE FORESHADOWING.  Phantoms, graveyard, the Sidhe, "magic with teeth and claws as long as his forearm" - as a reader, I'm guessing that David's in for a wild ride, and I am eager to travel with him.
Am I reading too much into this?  Nope.  It's all there in the text, for any alert reader to discover; and with a writer of Hetley's caliber, it's not there by accident.  This is a carefully crafted introduction to the story, beautifully done, with everything you need to get you hooked and reading.

When I say carefully crafted, I mean it - this is the kind of writing that emerges through multiple revisions.  Most likely, there will just be hints of it in the first draft, phrases and ideas the writer can build on, and lots of flotsam and jetsam to edit out.

If I were to write a sequel to something, Hetley's opening is how I'd want to my novel to begin.  In media res, with a clear setting in time and place, and enough of an introduction to the characters to make me want to read on and get to know them better.  But nothing heavy-handed, nothing clunky or out of place.  He makes it all sound natural and easy.

Nice work, Mr. Hetley!

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Creativity: Work space is sacred space

Sacred space is not just a garden or a place we come to pray.  For the creative person, our work space may be the most sacred location in our lives.

     "Sacred space is a space that is transparent to transcendence, and everything within such a space furnishes a base for meditation....  When you enter through the door, everything within that space is symbolic, the whole world is mythologized.
     "To live in a sacred space is to live in a symbolic environment where spiritual life is possible, where everything around you speaks of the exaltation of the spirit.
     "This is a place where you can simply experience and bring forth what you are and what you might be.  This is the place of creative incubation.  At first you might find that nothing happens there.  But if you have a sacred place and use it, something eventually will happen.
     "Your sacred place is where you find yourself again and again" (145).

Campbell, Joseph.  Quoted by Lawlor, Anthony, AIA.  The Temple in the House:  Finding the Sacred in Everyday Architecture.  New York: Putnam, 1994.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Poem: The Accident of Sacred Space

I wrote this poem in 1996 while landscaping the front yard of my unremarkable suburban home. I suppose that the title of this poem is ironic, because all who seek transcendent spiritual experiences know that, in modern life, sacred space is rare.  It must be deliberately sought, or carefully created and maintained.

The Buddhist meditation garden evolved as a way for people living on a very crowded island to experience serenity and nature, no matter who or what was next door.

In the aesthetics of a meditation garden, I found a way to survive as a poet in conservative Mesa, Arizona.

The Accident of Sacred Space

The square rocks are Buddhas
which cannot be moved.

Water, which purifies, runs
east to west through the garden, 
trailing the river of the sun.

If there is no water, use small rocks.
They crunch underfoot.
The sound is like water.

Or place a bowl by the door.
Chip the edge of the bowl.
Wash your hands in it.

Permit surprises. 
Bring the mountains into the city. 
Listen to the stones.

Reuse what you can.
Make your own mountains.
Make your heart a square stone

beside water.

©2013 Tina Quinn Durham.  All rights reserved.

Monday, January 7, 2013

Creativity and Prayer: You must create a space for both

I first encountered Robert Benson's amazing book, Living Prayer, on a public library shelf at a particularly dark time in my life - it was undoubtedly a divine appointment rather than mere chance or coincidence.

What Robert Benson said about workspace, prayer and writing rings as true for me today as it did then.  I hope it will encourage you to create a space in your home and in your heart for creative endeavor and for time with God.  It need not be a large space, or a magnificent one, but if you are to live creatively, you need a place and a time set aside for spiritual renewal.

Remember that Jacob encountered God only AFTER he sent sent his wives, children and all his men on ahead, and spent the night alone in the desert.  To receive a blessing, he had to step away from the people he loved, and be willing to risk his life in a dark and lonely place.

Maybe that's why, sometimes, we're so reluctant to work, to pray, or to make room for the transcendent Other in our lives.

from Living Prayer by Robert Benson:

     Every writer I know writes in a different place and in a different way from every other writer I know.  But they all have a place to write.  A place that has been set apart for it.  They do it because they know that to live the life of an artist, you must produce art.  Otherwise, you are just cleverly avoiding the curse of the dreaded day job and maintaining an excuse to be shy and wear funny clothes.  Having a place helps produce art, if for no other reason than that you at least have a place to go and hope such a mysterious thing will take place.  To live a life of prayer, one must produce prayer.  Which is harder to do if you have no place in which to do so.  "We can talk to God anywhere," we say, and it is true.  But more often than not, because we do not have a somewhere to talk to God, we talk to God nowhere.  One can build an altar in one's heart, of course, but it can take some time, according to the saints.  Most of us could use the reminder that might come to us if we would put an altar in our house while we pray for the day in which we ourselves become the living sacrifice such an altar deserves.
     Any place can be more or less sacred, depending on what we ourselves bring to it.  Our own attitudes and expectations and actions can contribute or not to the sacredness of the place.  A temple can become a den of thieves, or so I have heard.  A picnic rug can become a sanctuary, or so I have found.

Robert Benson. Living Prayer, pp. 158-159.  New York: Putnam, 1998.

Saturday, January 5, 2013

Creativity, Attention and Focus: YOU make something interesting

Living the ADHD life is a bit like being jerked around on a rollercoaster:  I'm always in motion, it's always exciting, and the view is always changing.  Hold on tight!

My personal attention span has a limit of about 11 minutes.  If I've set a timer, I can probably stay with a task for 15 minutes, but the last four minutes is really, really hard.

I got through college and graduate school literally 15 minutes at a time.  My writing and creative processes are punctuated by periods of intense physical activity - the need to calm myself, to burn off the energy stored up while sitting still.  Housework and tedious tasks are often accomplished in spurts, between writing or drawing (if I can stay away from video games).

Thus I am fascinated by Annie Dillard's insights about artistic endeavor and creativity.  I like this quote, because it reminds me that no object or task is inherently interesting - it's really what we bring to the table that makes the experience worthwhile.

At the beginning of the year, this is a great thing to remember!

When Annie Dillard was a child, she discovered The Natural Way to Draw by Kimon Nicolaides, and began to sketch her baseball glove every day.  Looking back from an adult perspective, she wrote:

   One thing struck me as odd and interesting.  A gesture drawing took forty-five seconds; a Sustained Study took all morning.  From any still-life arrangement or model's pose, the artist could produce either a short study or a long one.  Evidently, a given object took no particular amount of time to draw; instead the artist took the time, or didn't take it, at pleasure.  And, similarly, things themselves possessed no fixed and intrinsic amount of interest; instead things were interesting as long as you had attention to give them.  How long does it take to draw a baseball mitt?  As much time as you care to give it.  Not an infinite amount of time, but more time than you first imagined.  For many days, so long as you want to keep drawing that mitt, and studying that mitt, there will always be a new and finer layer of distinctions to draw out and lay in.  Your attention discovers— seems thereby to produce—an array of interesting features in any object, like a lamp.

Dillard, Annie.  AN AMERICAN CHILDHOOD.  PILGRIM AT TINKER CREEK/AN AMERICAN CHILDHOOD/THE WRITING LIFE.  Camp Hills, PA:  Harper and Row, 1990.  Book of the Month Club edition.  Originally published 1987.  p. 79.

Friday, January 4, 2013

Creativity: "Ex Nihilo" by Tina Quinn Durham

I wrote this prose poem in 1991, when my family was flying into Washington, D.C. at night to visit my sister.  If you're familiar with the city, you know that Pierre Charles L'Enfant modeled it after European cities "avenues radiating out from rectangles" ("Washington, D.C." - Wikipedia).  The original plan for the city looked like this:

Imagine this a few hundred years later - radiating avenues pulsating with electric lights like a constellation of earth-bound stars - and you'll get the central image of this poem.


They want me to write poems where everything flows together until love and lemonade are a single, contradictory celebration stinging my tongue - but it’s not like that.  Everything fits together and you can see it the way you see roads coming together into the airport.

It’s all one star raying out into a night that dances with small clouds, and one day we won’t wonder why parts of the expansion pulse bright then dim, because then it will be all light, illumination forever, not surge and brown-out but light pure and simple.

It’s more than positive paranoia, it’s a rush of everything caught in the strobe of truth - we hang poised for a moment before plunging back into the dance - we're going to dance it forever until we come to the place where forever begins.

©2013 Tina Quinn Durham.  All rights reserved.

Thursday, January 3, 2013

Creativity Builds Community

I found this quote and wanted to share it with you, because it reminds us that, as writers and artists, we participate in a larger conversation and a community of the heart.  Happy New Year!

"The most wonderful thing children discover is that something is interesting to somebody else.  They then appropriate this interest for their own.  Two people attentive to a detail of the world make a society, and the object they find significant has crossed over from meaninglessness to symbol.  Art is always the replacing of indifference by attention."

    --Guy Davenport, New York Times Book Review, 4/4/82