Art & Fear – An Exploration, Part II

It’s been one month since I last posted and that’s been due to me being sick for almost the entire month of December. Yes, I was inoculated against the flu. No, it didn’t prevent me from contracting it and then compounding said disease with a nasty sinus infection for good measure. I really should just buy stock in Sudafed and Kleenex.

Now that I’m able to be upright for most of the day without hacking my brains out or moaning incoherently, it’s time to get back to work and to the fascinating study of Art & Fear.

Let’s just consider the break my mid-season finale. I did leave you all on a bit of a cliff-hanger with Part I. So without further ado, here’s the conclusion.

To brush up on what we covered in Part I (or previously on Barbies on Fire), look no further than here.

Taming the Beast – Conquering the Fear

Now that we know that most artists struggle at one time or another with fear during their creative process, what do we do about it?

art_fearTo begin the discussion, I want to bring to light some of the ideas from the book I mentioned in Part I, ART & FEAR: OBSERVATIONS ON THE PERILS (AND REWARDS) OF ARTMAKING by David Bayles & Ted Orland. The insights I found there were fantastic and really encouraging.

  • The function of the majority of your artwork is simply to teach you how to make the small fraction of your artwork that soars…You learn how to make your work by making your work, and a great many of the pieces you make along the way will never stand out as finished art. The best you can do is make art you care about – and lots of it! The rest is largely a matter of perseverance.

To me, this gave me permission to fail without being a failure and consider it part of my process. Those half-finished manuscripts that never managed to become anything more were just me learning how to write better.

  • Artists quit when they convince themselves that their next effort is already doomed to fail…Virtually all artists encounter such moments. Fear that your next work will fail is a normal, recurring and generally healthy part of the art making process…In the normal artistic cycle this just tells you that you’ve come full circle, back to that point where you need to begin cultivating the next new idea.

One of the novels I abandoned happened in a situation like this. The work wasn’t going anywhere and another story demanded my attention in its stead. So interesting to think of this as a normal part of the artistic process and not like I abandoned one of my children by the side of the road – which is how I used to feel.

  • (For many art students, graduation does them in.) Not many people continue making art when – abruptly – their work is no longer seen, no longer exhibited, no longer commented upon, no longer encouraged…the real killer is the lack of any continuing support system afterwards.

Being plugged into a supportive artistic community and receiving constructive feedback from my awesome critique group is key me to staying active with my art. I think this is important for most writers.

  •  Making art precipitates self-doubt, stirring deep waters that lay between what you know you should be, and what you fear you might be. For many people, that alone is enough to prevent their ever getting started at all – and for those who do, trouble isn’t long in coming.

This is just self-explanatory and (ding!) rings a bell with me. Remember that fear of failure was one of my reasons for procrastination.

  • What separates artists from ex-artists is that those who challenge their fears, continue; those who don’t, quit. Each step in the art making process puts that issue to the test.

Who hasn’t questioned whether they were good enough or creative enough to make it as a writer? Who hasn’t had the horrifying thought, “I’ll never get published”? And yet, somehow we find the strength to keep going.

  • Imagination is in control when you begin making an object. The artwork’s potential is never higher than in that magic moment when the first brushstroke is applied, the first chord struck. But as the piece grows, technique and craft take over, and imagination becomes a less useful tool. A piece grows by becoming specific.

I used to feel so frustrated that I couldn’t get my fingers to type out the thoughts in my head. This idea that we can’t ever capture that elusiveness of inspiration exactly was liberating. I also loved this idea that creativity is tempered by technique.

  • Uncertainty is the essential, inevitable and all-pervasive companion to your desire to make art. And tolerance for uncertainty is the prerequisite to succeeding.

Giving myself permission to embrace the uncertainty of writing may be the best idea to come out of this book, yet.

  • Fears about art making fall into two families: fears about yourself, and fears about your reception by others…fears about yourself prevent you from doing your best work, while fears about your reception by others prevent you from doing your own work.

I totally agree with this point. I’ve known many writers who’ve told me that they can’t write a certain book until their parents die. You have to write as if no one is reading. Self-censorship will be the death of your creativity.

  • There is probably no clearer waste of psychic energy than worrying about how much talent you have – and probably no worry more common. This is true even among artists of considerable accomplishment.

I came to the realization after the LA SCBWI conference that no one is immune from self-doubt when so many speakers voiced this very thing. It came as quite a relief, actually. If we all feel this way, then it’s got to be a normal part of the creative process, right?

So what do you think? Did you connect or identify with any of these ideas? Does this help you feel better or worse about your relationship with art & fear?



Spark Your Creativity – A TGNA Post

Hi All!

Today is my turn to post over on The Great Noveling Adventure. I share a list of five suggestions for How to Prevent Frostbite on Your Creativity during the longest tgnalogorevampmonth of winter, even though it has the shortest amount of days. Stop by if you’re in need of a spark in the creative department or share your own ideas if you have some. We’d all love to hear them.

Final Week of May #writemotivation

photograph by Hugh Lee and licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0. had a slow week last week, but here in the home stretch I’m making up for it. I had to prepare a submission for the SCBWI LA conference at the last minute since their deadline moved up this year to the end of May and I just paid for the conference about a week ago. Nothing like an impending deadline to get all fired up and work like mad. My submission made it just in time. Woohoo!

The recovery effort in Oklahoma is still ongoing. For those of you who are interested, you can still participate in Kate Messner’s  KidLitCares for Oklahoma giveaway. It’s open until June 7th. Great cause, great giveaway, so check it out. There’s also a way you can help replenish the classroom libraries of the two schools that were destroyed in the tornado by visiting the Moore Books for Moore Kids Facebook page and making a donation.

On to my goal progress:

1. Complete latest draft of Museum Crashers (MG mystery) and prepare for submission. More progress made, but still short of the finish. I’ll have to really push hard to reach the end soon. I’m still happy with the progress I’ve made. I will definitely be sending this out next month.
2. Research more literary agents for submission of Institutionalized (YA contemporary) and send out to five of them. I have the short list. I will work on the personalized queries over the next few days and start sending them out.
3. Make some progress on first draft of Pretty Vacant (YA contemporary). Develop main character fully and decide which way story arc will go. More research and more reading done. I really have a good feel for the main character now. I’m excited about starting this project.
4. Exercise 3 times each week. Exercise has been going well. Still on the lighter side. My daughter and I are going to ramp it up next month by joining a gym and being each others work out buddies.

I hope you’re all doing well with your goals. Let’s meet up again in June for the next #writemotivation month! Sign up now!

Motivational quote for the day:

“A hunch is creativity trying to tell you something.”

– Frank Capra

Returning to the Source – I come back from my adventures out west and offer some advice on story beginnings

My first day of the conference, an ecstatic empty vessel, ready to be filled with the words of sages.

To be surrounded by the  kindred spirits of our international SCBWI “tribe” for four days was exactly what I needed. Every speaker added a little more to my depleted well of the creative self deep inside me. I left completely filled up and then some. Many speakers brought me to tears. I hate crying in public, damn it. Still, the tears spilled and inspiration came by the truckload. So much so that I had to just sit with everything for about a week after returning home to let it all soak in before I wrote one word.

Not only did I get to spend five days away from home, meeting new friends, filling my brain up with literary wisdom while surrounded by like-minded individuals, Ialso spent most of my free time with some of my dearest writer friends from our local Oklahoma region of the SCBWI. And what did we do after listening to fabulous speakers all day? Talked more about books and literary stuff! *sigh*

(A very special thank you, thank you, thank you! must go out to my ever-so-patient mate who suffered through countless rounds of questions like ‘where’s mom?’ and ‘when is she coming home?’ and ‘are you sure she didn’t run away for good this time?’ so I could take this much needed journey. You are my rock, and I love you!)

I even talked some of my friends into dancing their butts off with me at the Hippie Hop party on Saturday night. It had been way too long since this mama had dragged her tired self out onto the dance floor. We laughed at ourselves and kept on dancing anyway. Sorry for those of you who had to witness my out of control dance moves, but when the music commands it, you gotta shake it!

Fellow SCBWI’ers getting into the spirit.
Although my roommate Barbara, and crit partner extraordinaire, didn’t “dig” the rap music, she stayed and danced like a trouper.
Me and my Regional RA Assistant Feeling Groovy.

To top it all off, I had the best critique discussion ever with a fantastic agent who wants to see my entire manuscript.  YES! YES! YES!  There was a celebratory dinner in my honor. (Did I mention how much I love my writing friends?)

The week could not have gone any better.

I wish I could share all of the knowledge and insight I learned in detail, but alas, it is forbidden.




I do understand the reasoning. After all, the presentations are the property of the speakers and many of them put so much of themselves into their words, that there is no way I could relay the depth of their presentations here. I can only give brief overviews, a quote here or there, my impressions of the keynote addresses and break out sessions that I attended, and what I learned overall.  Still, I think you’ll find many of these things very enlightening and useful. I shall be spreading this information out over several posts during the next few weeks.

(I don’t want to blow your minds all in one sitting.)

You can also find tons of information about the conference from the official conference blog site here.

To start us off slowly, here’s the first lovely literary tidbit to nosh on:

Several speakers addressed a recurring problem they see with manuscripts they read; the story doesn’t start in the right place.

Either the writer is giving the reader too much history or back story in the beginning of the book or the writer is starting off at a break neck pace, leaping right into an action sequence without allowing the reader to make any connection to the character at all.

Take some time to think about your story and the best possible beginning it could have. Then start where the actual story starts. This may seem like a simple idea, but it’s harder than it may seem. If your story, for example, is about a girl who’s running away from her problems at home, who then lands in even bigger trouble while living on the streets when she crosses paths with a gang of street hustlers, do we need to see the precipitating event? The family dynamic, that drove her from the security of the familiar? Or do we want to jump straight into the action and watch her sneaking out in that first scene? It could be either way. It may depend on what story you are telling and where the story actually starts.

The best beginnings incite questions in your reader.

“What happens next?”

You need to introduce your main character and the conflict of the story as soon as possible without causing confusion and yet at the same time entice  your readers enough to want to turn the next page.  Give them enough set up of the character’s world so that they feel connected to it, but don’t give them so much of an information dump that they struggle to understand what is happening or get bored with a lecture on the history of the Land of Nod or with who begat whom.

If your reader is lost or unable to follow your plot, they will put your book down and cease being your reader. No author wants that.

One of the agents at the conference, Linda Pratt of the Wernick & Pratt agency, suggested that “It can be helpful to re-evaluate an opening line and/or page upon a work’s completion when you know how the whole novel plays out because a good opening sets off the whole work.”

Be flexible (another phrase I heard often) and try moving things around to see what makes the most sense. Figure out where your story truly begins.

That’s something to think about, eh?

I’ve got a ton more planned, so make sure you stop by every few days to see what’s new. By the way, I couldn’t get all 1,244 conference attendees to stand still long enough for a group pic, so here’s a panorama shot of the main ballroom right before a keynote speech. Most of us are in there. Hi, all!

One last thing, I’ve been interviewed – for the first time! – by AG over at Nerd Couture. So if you can’t get enough of me – I certainly can, but there’s no accounting for taste – stop on over and check it out. I’m going to pop over myself just to see what I’ve been whispering behind my back.

So glad to be home!

smile, everyone!

Great Writers are Great Readers; No! You Can’t Just Skip That Part!

Artist Tyree Callahan’s work inspired by writing.

As a writer, you can learn so much about the art of writing by reading. That seems like such a simple thing to do, but I’ve met people who want to write books – or say they do – but don’t like to read. I’ve also met people who want to write children’s books or write young adult books who don’t like young children or teens.


I can’t grasp these concepts.

Maybe some people think writing a book is easy. Maybe some others just want to ride the coattails of a hot market trend. Both thoughts are ludicrous. Writing is the hardest thing I can think of where the pay is lousy, until you actually get published and then don’t hold your breath or quit your day job just yet, friends! (Unless you’re Stephen King or J.K. Rowling; I’ve tried getting my name changed to Stephene King or J/K Rowling, but no dice. Besides, their actual bank accounts don’t come with the new names. Curses!) Those of us mere mortals who write, do it because we love it; because we have to. Also, anytime you write to try and capture a trend – vampire/pirates/werewolves/ghosts – you have already missed the trend, my friend. Editors acquired and planned release dates for years before those titles came out. If you really want to be a good writer, you should write from the gut-wrenching bottom of your soul the only story that you, your unique self, can tell. If it happens to be about a vampire pirate with a werewolf ghost best friend he must fight the urge to kill, but it comes from your heart, then by all means, write it.  Write what you’re passionate about. Trust me, you’ll be with this story a long time; you don’t want to hate it. Write from what inspires you.

And don’t forget to read.

While it is important to read current books within the genre you are writing in – so you know that there are already a million-and-one vampire/pirate/werewolf/ghost stories out there, for one thing – that shouldn’t necessarily be all you read. After all, even eating the best tasting truffliest chocolate every day could possibly lose its appeal after a week or so. (I try to fast on Sundays so I don’t EVER have to find out.) I may have mentioned before that I was not the best student in high school – quite the devious slacker, in fact – and so I now find myself reading some of the books I faked my way through that I should have read back then. Call it high school survivor guilt. While I do read a healthy portion of YA, I also make it a point to read a good selection of classics and banned books every year, just to round out my own personal education. Last year, I read To Kill a Mockingbird for the first time, which fulfilled many of the previous mentioned categories. I cannot believe such a beautifully written book – one that still stands up today – was ever banned anywhere. This is definitely a must-read for anyone who wants to read a perfect book. (A separate rant on my anti-censorship views will follow another time.)

In the end, it doesn’t matter so much what you read, just that you do read. No reading is wasted; you can learn something even from the worst book ever published, and yes, I’ve come across a book or two that I couldn’t imagine how they clawed their way out of the slush pile. When you find something you really love, read it once for enjoyment, then read it again and again as a writer. Ask yourself: What makes this work? How does the plot progress? Study it. Tear that book apart until you truly understand it. That is a master class in writing all by itself.

To encourage more reading from all of you, I’m starting a new page entitled What I’m Reading. There I will post every book I’ve read so far this year with a little snippet about each one to entice you. I also welcome all of your reading suggestions as I am always looking expand my horizons and discover new authors, myself.

It Started with a Whisper…Inspiration

Pirate Ship in the Clouds

My ideas for stories come from the most unexpected places; they never seem to arrive in the same way. They all start with a thought teasing my brain drifting out of the ether.

“What if?”

Sometimes that thought comes from a dream fragment or after I’ve read a newspaper article (like the 1958 “Kissing Case” where two black boys, ages 7 and 9, were arrested for letting a young white girl kiss them on the cheek) or while my brain is exploring a childhood fantasy (“What if you lived upside-down and your feet stuck to the ceiling?”). Maybe it surfaces while I’m zoning out in the shower, contemplating a fascinating work of art, staring up at the clouds (is that a pirate ship?), or listening to some music that touches me emotionally. I never know what will inspire a new idea. I write down every crazy idea and file it away until its time comes.

The other day I was driving in the car listening to the Mumford and Sons song  Awake My Soul. Near the end, when the the song builds to a crescendo with instruments and vocals tearing off in musical abandon, I felt myself being transported elsewhere. I wasn’t driving down a dreary winter street, I was racing barefoot along a mossy forest floor, with warm sunbeams streaking through the breaks in the trees. I was leaping and chasing the music. A wild creature with no worries or commitments, totally free…then the vision changed into the thought of what would a character like that do when interacting with others? How would she affect them? I was so into this idea, thinking about storylines that I barely remembered where I was going, trusting my muscle memories to keep me on course when my daughter, sitting in the passenger seat, broke the spell:

“You look like one of those bobbleheads – no offense.”

The dreamscape disappeared instantly. I just had to laugh and then make even more exaggerated bobblehead movements to entertain/embarrass my daughter. I was still grooving out to the music, still in my car, navigating through traffic, but now I had a thread of  an idea for a story forming. Would it be a good idea worth pursuing? Maybe. Maybe not. I wrote it down anyway.

My latest YA novel, for example, came to me because I kept thinking about some of the young girls I had worked with at a private psychiatric hospital as a mental health tech, and one in particular. I was pursuing a degree in psychology at the time. Working at the psych hospital was the one of the most emotionally challenging and most rewarding experiences of my life. I’d always wanted to tell a story giving a voice to what the lives of the kids in treatment were like, but I wasn’t sure exactly how to go about it. I couldn’t tell their actual individual stories, of course, but I hoped to capture some of the emotions their stories inspired. Then an idea was whispered into my ear, or rather shouted into it.

I was hard at work revising a completely different manuscript when I was constantly interrupted by a girl’s voice yelling in my head, “I don’t need to be here!” She became rather insistent that I turn my attention away from the story I was working on and start writing hers instead, or actually a very fictionalized version of hers.  This girl wasn’t a conduct problem and she hadn’t seemed like an addict. She had run away from home, but that didn’t seem reason enough to warrant admission. To me, she appeared to be a rebellious teenager with wealthy parents. I started thinking “what if” someone put their child into treatment when they didn’t need to be there and what would cause them to do that. I couldn’t stop thinking about this idea. It became so persistent that I stopped working on the other story and started writing Institutionalized.

One of my writing mentors always says, “You have to feed your artist’s soul.” I truly believe that. The more you open yourself up to experiences and to influences outside of yourself – music, art, theatre, bobbleheads –  the more ways you will find inspiration.

What inspires you?