Celebrating Creativity With Imaginative Young Minds

Yesterday, I had the pleasure of visiting my son’s elementary school and sharing a day of reading and creativity with some of the students.

I was invited to my oldest son’s 5th grade class where they are beginning to learn about and explore creative writing. After answering some general questions about the craft and about my own methods of revision and work processes, I read them the first chapter of my middle-grade work in progress.

If you ever have the chance to sit down with a large group of children and share your work with them, DO IT! To begin with, it is magical. No matter how many adult readers, editors, and peer readers you have, none of them can give you the intangible reactions you hope to get from your target audience.

I was escorted to my chair (a VERY comfortable rocking chair) by the student of the month and then the kids gathered around, in bean bags and on the rug; in chairs and on stools. I explained the premise of the story and told them that they were my first young audience to hear the beginning of the story. They were excited. I was excited.

And so I read….and it was AWESOME! There were laughs when there should have been laughs. There were smiles when I hoped there’d be smiles, and there were shocked expressions or gasps when I’d written in sections that were expected to cause those same reactions.

If I’d had the book done and published and ready for purchase, I would have had a room full of new readers. In other words, it was a success. They’d not only enjoyed the story, but they’d given me the proof that I had succeeded in my attempt to write a fun, quirky and enjoyable story for young readers. It was written all over their excited faces.

And afterward, I fielded questions about the rest of the story, about writing in general, and about key concepts and components of storytelling. It was great to discuss, point of view, foreshadow, metaphor, theme, climax, character evolution, and idea generation with the kids. They were as excited to demonstrate that they’d noticed the foreshadowing clues as I was to hear that my inclusion of them in the story had worked. They were as eager to learn what happened next as I was to tell them about it.

It was truly a rewarding experience. To give them a chance to explore their creativity and to pen a short story of their own, I prompted a little writing exercise. Using Rory’s Story Cubes (and if you haven’t seen these, they are the coolest things!), we rolled up nine images and put them up on the projector so the whole class could see them. The idea is that our minds think in pictures and an image gives us an infinite variety of interpretations. So, we rolled up the nine dice (the student of the month had the honors) and broke the class up into groups of three.

One person was responsible for writing the beginning. They had to write the hook and establish the conflict, along with introducing the character. Another child wrote the middle, working toward conflict resolution and inserting obstacles. The last person wrote the climax (having worked out with the middle writer where they were going to “meet”) and the resolution.

The groups were free to arrange the nine images in whatever order they wanted, each person taking three of the images and incorporating them into their section of the story. Their teacher and I listened in to the brainstorming process and watched as they eagerly created fantastic tales, some of which included mysteriously locked doors, laser shooting eyeballs, a honey-hunting cyclops, and giant alien bees. It was so much fun! And afterwards, some of the students shared their work with us, reading their sections and demonstrating how their voice, their imagination and their approach differed from their classmates who had the same pictures to work with.

I hope that when I left, I left some of them with a hunger to continue creating. I hope that when I left, I left some of them eager to tell more stories, to explore worlds within their own minds that they may have been hesitant to explore. I was there once. I was a 6th grade student when a similar experience had changed me forever. It was a similar experience that showed me that all I wanted to do was tell stories.

If even one creative young mind takes pen in hand and walks through that door of imagination and storytelling, then I’ll feel as if I have come full circle. But I’ll never know that, we’ll never know that, until they are sharing these same sentiments one day and remembering that afternoon in 5th grade when there were no walls and their minds could take them places where nobody could hold them back.

Here’s to creativity. Here’s to the next generation of wordsmiths, ready to ply their craft at the imagination forge.

Advertisements

Time Heals Owl Wounds

No, I am not referring to wounds suffered in owl attacks, although I am sure the same principle applies. And odds are, if you’ve been attacked by an owl, you probably deserved it.

I am referring to, in a purely Potterical analogy, communication. Specifically, those forms of communication that we, as writers, dread. The communication that smacks us back out of the ego-swelling dreams of multimillion dollar advances and movie rights. The rejection.

Whether it come in a letter (a what? a letter. a what? never mind), an email, an owl or a smoke signal, rejections suck. But we all know rejections are part of the game and rejections tell you that you are doing what you are supposed to. You are in the game. You’re creating and sending your children out into the world like mischievous little goblins to tweak the literary ear of the world, to whisper your name to agents and editors while they sleep.

But sometimes, no matter how much armor we wear, rejections get to us. This is especially true for a larger project. Sometimes doubts creep in and while constructive feedback is certainly worth looking into (especially from professionals in the industry), it does not always mean that an entire overhaul is necessary.

After receiving a very constructive, very precise rejection letter on a story that I had every confidence in, I couldn’t help but be bummed. There may have been a bit of moping, some niggling self-doubt. There may have been (and I can neither confirm nor deny this) a momentarily lapse of reason in which I streaked through the neighborhood, singing Lady Gaga and eating tapioca pudding until my run became a bloated, melancholy shuffle and I was picked up by the police. But that’s not important right now.

What I discovered this morning, is that there is a band-aid. Put the piece away and work on something else. I’ve since started another project ( a couple really) and figured I’d come back to the rejected piece after I’d finished the new stuff. But this morning, while reading The Writer magazine and walking on the treadmill (sans pudding and WITH clothes), I started thinking about that first story. The one that had recently been rejected. I thought about the points discussed in the letter and the product I’d turned out. And I thought, I have a good story. And the rejection letter I received (for which I am extremely thankful, given the constructive advice offered) did not say it wasn’t. That thought was my own inner consciousness pouting. Some of the points discussed were minor and some were subjective but overall, it was not that far from going back out again. It needed to go back out again. It had just needed time.

Time separated from my expectation, reaction and attention. Time heals. Time applies a healing balm to that sting and allows us, as writers, to approach our projects with a new sense of appreciation and understanding. It’s like Yoda, riding on the Dalai Lama’s back while he’s water skiing on the backs of dolphins. Who doesn’t want that feeling?

So don’t get discouraged. Take some time and come back to it. Might be a few days, might be a week, might be a month. Focus elsewhere and listen, you’ll know when to come back. Unless you hear a screech-owl. Then I suggest staying the hell away. Time might heal owl wounds but they probably hurt like a son-of-a-bitch.

Writing Life: Seven Tenets to Write by

Snow White and the Seven Dwarves

Seventh Son of a Seventh Son

Seven Deadly sins

Sail the Seven Seas

Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, Seven Days of the Week, Seven Minute Abdomen Workout …. you get the idea. Seven is a big deal. He’s like a minor celebrity among prime numbers. So, while I sat down to think about some of the important intangibles about writing, about being a writer, I wasn’t surprised that seven pulled up in his stretch limousine. Seven arrived to help me present these tenets to you.

It is my great pleasure to present you with seven tenets of the writer’s life. These are by no means the only principles in the complex and daunting task of the wordsmith, but they are important. Some of you may have heard these principles 693,217 times. For some, it may be rather new. Whatever the case, it doesn’t hurt to hear them again, as you start out, or for the 693, 218th time.

Ok, enough blabbing, Joe..get on with it. Here they are, in no particular order, except for that in which they came to mind.

1. Dedication – Writers write. Is it that simple? No. But writing has to happen every day. Every day? That’s crazy! I don’t have time to write every day! Yes, you do. I never said you have to write a page, ten pages, a chapter. Even a paragraph, or a half a page, is something. It’s the act of engaging your creativity, your writer’s mind, your “muse” (to get all metaphysically artsy on you). If you have time to watch “Dancing With the Stars”, you have time to write. If you have time to sit on the couch, you have time to write. You can write while you eat lunch, on a napkin if you have to. You can write on the toilet, or at red lights. It doesn’t matter where, or how much, or even if it works out to be something brilliant and worth keeping. The fact is that you do it every day, as much as you can. Writers write.

2. Priority – With the exception of family (and maybe cheese, or bacon..maybe), writing has to become priority. This is difficult, I know. I love my X-box. Alas, it has left me for my children. I turn on my DVR and it looks at me and says “Why bother?” If you truly want to write, to produce stories, to get the words on paper, you have to make writing your priority. So, turn off “Dancing With the Stars” (man, why does he keeping hammering on that show? Because I can’t dance, that’s why..now stop laughing at me), stop making excuses and make time to write.

3. Distractions – Ah, the bane of my production. It comes in the form of Twitter, Facebook, emails, texts, and phone calls. The endless loop of Twitter conversations assail me a Tweetdeck nudges and prompts me like a neglected child. I love it. I love my Tweeps, but I’ve found that I have to turn off Twitter when I am working, or I simply don’t work, I Tweet. I’ve forced myself to stop checking my email every 73 seconds and I hide my phone when I sit down to write. In other words, dedicate the time to writing and don’t set yourself up for distraction. Minimize the chances that you will get sidetracked.

4. Effective Time Management – When you carve out that niche to write, devoid of distractions, it is important that you make the most of it. Now, I am not here to say that writers’ block does or does not exist, but I will acknowledge that there are sticking points. There are times when you can’t keep going with that linear flow. It’s like there is a fallen log in the stream, blocking your way. Ok….don’t sink the raft. Move it downstream. Start on a different scene. Even if you don’t know exactly where you are going, jump in and paddle, you might be surprised. And if it doesn’t take you where you wanted to go, you got some writing exercise. Maybe you’ll be able to pull one sentence, a paragraph, some dialogue, or character background from it. However, it might spark new scenes or ideas. It might move you past that log. If a line or a name is holding you up, leave a blank, or a bunch of XXXXXXXX [stuck here –  need name] and come back to it. Or, interview your character. Write about a walk through the town that is pivotal to your story. Do something in and around the work and you will be surprised at how it rewards you.

5. Full Time Gig – Writing, serious writing, is full-time. Hold on, hold on..I don’t mean quit your day job and try to make it writing. We all hope that will happen, but it’s pretty damn hard, even for some of the better wordsmiths. What I mean is that the story, the craft, the words have to be in the back of your mind all the time. Think about your work in progress while you are eating lunch. Plot out the next scene while you lay down to sleep. Keep a notebook and jot down dialogue you hear, names that strike you as interesting, conflict you observe, places you visit. Open your writer’s mind to the world around you and translate that into your work. Observe and record, observe and record. Keep your writer’s mind working, always sharp.

6. Enthusiasm – It’s addicting. Be excited. This isn’t torture (even though it may seem like it at times, like at 3:12 a.m. when you’ve rewritten the end of the scene seven times), this is MAGIC. That’s right, magic. We’re like wizards, turning our imagination into the world’s entertainment. People will pay to read your stories. So be excited about what you do and you’ll find that the people around you will be excited to see what you have going on. It may or may not help to just walk around grinning like a crazy person and laughing for no reason. Not sure, just saying…

7. Focus – The mere fact that I am writing this makes me the biggest hypocrite in the entire universe. But, to be fair, I am getting better. I’m still learning from my own seven principles. The point is: work on one project at a time. This way you are more likely to finish it and then you can move on to the next idea. My head is like a cavern full of bats all fluttering around and banging into each other. Every bat is an idea or a project. I have no shortage of ideas, I just have a hard time holding onto one without another one getting in the way. I am getting better though. I just make detailed notes and I shelve the idea, reminding myself that next great idea has to wait its turn until I am finished with the project at hand. It’s like I have creative A.D.D…but it is curable. It just takes focus. Otherwise you’ll have 82 unfinished projects and never get anywhere.

So, there you have it. I am by no means an expert. I’m just a guy putting words on paper, sentence after sentence, paragraph after paragraph, and dancing to same strange tune that calls us to us to be writers. It’s no easy task to construct these literary structures, to build order out of prose, to paint pictures on paper that come to life in the mind of the reader. It is hard work and none of us are going it alone, even when it is you, by yourself, at the keyboard in the small hours…there are kindred spirits sharing the same experience. Hopefully these seven little principles offer some insight, encouragement, or a refreshing reminder to you, my fellow writer.

Happy writing!

Pre-interview for Christine O’Donnell, Mean Street Tattoo

So, tomorrow night the whirlwind of interviews continues. Interview number three in three days. Christine O’Donnell is an apprentice tattoo artist

Christine doing her first tattoo, 2009

at Mean Street Tattoo in Queens, NY. She has been kind enough to agree to talk with me tomorrow night, via Facebook chat at approximately 9:30.

In the course of my research for this project/story, I have found Twitter to be an excellent resource. If used properly, like-minded individuals, or those exhibiting an interest in a common topic, can connect regardless of time and distance. Twitter is how I “met” the artists and creative minds behind Mean Street Tattoos, to include Christine.

I am very interested in interviewing Christine for a number of reasons. To begin with, I find the tattoo apprenticeship fascinating. I chose to research tattoos, tattooing, and the artists because I find not only their craft to be powerful and beautiful, but also their very lifestyle and mindset to be liberating. So, how does the tattoo artist reach their journeyman status? What does it entail and how does it mold them? This is a very intriguing calling, and I am excited to hear what Christine has to say about it.

Christine also comes from a tattoo background. Her father is a veteran artist and has a hand in her training. So here we see a lineage of artists/craftsmen. This is an other interesting angle to explore. I wonder how often this happens? Is this a trade or craft that continues through families like so many other trades or professions (i.e. electricians, plumbers, musicians, teachers, police officers)?

I would be remiss if I did not point out that I will be looking at Christine’s gender. There are many, many more men in the tattoo industry than women. However, that is quickly changing as the number of women tattoo artists continue to enter and prosper in the trade. Kat Von D may be, perhaps, the most known or notable in the industry, but there are a lot more following suit. This is not in any way a gender issue or women in the workplace slant, but it is a subject worth noting.

Lastly, I instantly admired Christine’s honesty and forthright attitude, something that became instantly apparent in the few tweets, emails and brief phone conversation we had. She was quick to point out to me (for which I am grateful, keep teaching me, Chris) that it is NOT a tattoo gun. It is a machine.

"Guns kill. Machines create."

Guns kill, machines create. We discussed some possible ink work on me and she flat out told me that there are things she can do and things she cannot and she knows her current limits or capabilities. Furthermore, she was eager to help me with my research because she is “more than happy to help and spread the word about tattoos” and that there was “no need for thanks. It’s great to see so many people in and outside the business as passionate about tattooing as [she is].”

Christine is a young (24), refreshing and promising young talent in the art of tattooing. I look forward to speaking with her tomorrow and sharing her insight.

Though I do wish that I could sit down with her for a face to face interview, time and distance again play a factor. Facebook chat will allow for a real-time exchange and the ability to follow newly presented paths of thought (something email would not allow for). Also, I am happy that the interviews have fallen so close together. There have been ideas introduced and information presented in the previous interviews that spark new questions and branches for Christine, and Brandee Gordon on Wednesday.

Check back here as I post my follow-up, post interview blog before the end of the week.

State of My (Tattoo Research) Union Address

The findings of my research so far (and let me tell you, I still believe myself to be only ankle-deep in research) has been richly rewarding. The sociocultural connections that I have discovered to date provide enough material to fuel several stories. And let’s not be fooled, my direction has been fully plotted for a rich story of darker magical realism. “The History of Tattooing” (Dover Publications, 2009) is rife with incredible real world examples of tattoo history that could easily find itself in the pages of a Stephen King, Clive Barker, or Joseph McGee novel. Yes, I did just put myself in the same company, lol…my blog, my rules.

For instance, there were several early beliefs ( as written in Sinclair’s “American Anthropologist”, vol. X and XI) that the soul was regarded as a tangible object. Upon physical death, the soul, or spirit, assumed an “exact replica of the earthly body”, to include any tattoos or marks. These tattoos served as rites of passage through the afterlife. Take the Sioux Indians for example. They believed that tattoos received in life would allow for their passage to the “Many Lodges” in the afterlife. It was Sioux belief that the spirit, mounted on his spirit horse, would be stopped in his ghostly passage by an old woman. It was her duty to inspect the dead warrior for his marks, or tattoos (often on his forehead or wrists, and sometimes on his chin). If he was discovered without, he was thrown from the cliff, or cloud, to wander aimlessly and melancholy through the mortal world.

Page Notes from "The History of Tattooing"

The Northern Tangkhuls (India) believed that tattoos linked husband and wife in the afterlife. The Abor tribes (Himalayan) considered the tattoo the “poor man’s identification mark in heaven.”  Those of wealth were adorned with possessions befitting their station. Those without were inked up.

These are only a few of the examples that I have begun to unearth in my research. These are the kinds of details that make for great storytelling. These are the kinds of facts that, when tweaked by an overactive imagination, become stories.

As I prepare to move into the interview phase of my research, I have lined up the following potential resources:

I will be conducting two face to face interviews for the story, both with practicing tattoo artists. Erin Kane is an artist at Infamous Arts Gallery in Plymouth, PA.

Tattoo by Erin Kane

Brian DiCola is an artist at Loyalty Ink, in Kenvil, NJ and at Eddies Tattoo, in Philadelphia, PA.

Tattoo by Brian DiCola

Both have agreed to chat with me about themes, concepts and ideas that I have mentioned in my previous blog about the direction my story was going. I am awaiting an answer on speculative times and dates.

I have also requested two of my recent online (Twitter) contacts to interview with me. Christine Murphy

Christine Murphy

(@ChrisMeanStreet), an apprentice artist at Mean Street Tattoo,College Point, NY, has agreed to interview with me. Due to the busy and irregular schedule of their work, we are trying to set up a time for a slower night of the week. Chris is more than willing to help me out and we have been in email communication to establish a firm time. I am waiting to hear from Brandee Gordon

Tattoo by Brandee Gordon

(@nativeinktattoo), of Native Ink Tattoo, Central Indiana. I mentioned Ms. Gordon and her studio in my previous blog.

And, perhaps reminiscent of Hunter S. Thompson, as the research begins to develop and I get deeper into this world of ink, I find myself with appointments and invites from the artists I have been in contact with. I have tentative appointments with Erin and Christine. I fancy the thought of one day flying out to Indiana to get work done by Brandee, and Brian is right across the bridge, inking away. In fact, the more I grow to learn about and appreciate the deeper implications of the craft, the art, and the people who do it, the more I find myself intrigued by the idea of traveling to new artists for different pieces.

It seems that this adds another dimension to the piece, in which it is no longer JUST a piece of who you are, it is a tale of where you’ve been and who you’ve met and in this instant (and for every instant after) that inkwork on your skin tells a tale of a person and place with whom you will forever be connected. It is, in this sense, a “talkative thing” (as described by Lorraine Daston in her introduction to “Things That Talk” (Zone Books, 2008)).

Research Proposal: Ars Velius: Exploring the Urban Shamanism of the Ink Bard

And so here, in the eyes of peers and public, I shall stake claim to my semester-long research project.  It’s funny that as I put these words out before me, immortalized as they are in this electronic pool of infinite data storage, they share a theme with the topic that I’ve chosen. My words, my art, are an extension, an expression, of myself placed upon this digitized canvas. Once I click publish, those words fly off into the world for everyone to witness and I am, in that sense, exposing myself to the world. I am expressing myself and I am sharing who I am or choose to be. And this is the power of the tattoo.

Tattooing, once taboo and reserved for the more disparate and rebellious sorts of counterculture riff-raff, is now mainstream. Soccer Moms, kindergarten teachers, grandfathers and doctors are all sitting in the chair to have imprinted upon their flesh some permanent morsel of their life. A 2006 story in USAToday reported that 24% of Americans aged 18 – 50 are tattooed. That was up from 15% three years prior. How large has that number grown in the four years since the story was published?

Tattoos are stories, memories, tributes, passion, songs, declarations. Tattoos are many things to many people, but there is one thread that holds true to every tattoo inked across every pound of flesh: they are ART. They are meant to be shared. They are meant to be experienced and discussed and appreciated. Like cave drawings telling the stories of lost civilizations, tattoos tell our story. They illustrate who we are. Our skin is the cave wall and you, the observer of our ink, are discovering our stories.

As much as tattoos interest me, it is the tattoo artist which fascinates me. To me, they are akin to bards, regaling courts with harp and song. They are shamans, weaving magic through ink and needle. Their skill enables our identities to see thought become reality. How liberating must it be, I think, to serve in such a fashion, free to practice your craft without fear of expressive discrimination. To earn your living giving life to the soul of every person who comes before you, paying for you to ply your trade. How does one begin? How does one enter into this trade? Can any artist transfer ability to this medium, or is it like the potter who cannot paint or the illustrator who knows only cartooning and not realism? Can it be taught? What life is this, the uninhibited and carefree practice of the inkslinger?

So, I propose to explore the tattoo artist  and their craft as urban shamanism, almost a reflection of our move toward neo-tribal associations and identity illumination. The statement of the individual in a world awash in capitalism, consumerism, and mass corporate appeal.

Art is best served by art. It is for this reason, that I will present my research in a medium that I feel I can best immerse myself in. I plan to write a story (or stories, interconnected) that explore the depths of this research topic. Images assault me of dystopian/speculative fiction shorts, or dark fantasy cemented in magical realism. I can have a lot of fun with this and at the center of them all would be a centralized stark image, a tattoo, and, of course, the shaman him/herself: the tattoo artist. What great characters they could be, especially in a fantasy work of fiction.

The best fiction, fantasy included, is grounded in some bit of reality, no matter how big or small that may be. Even the wildest ideas often have roots in reality somewhere, some idea or image that inspired the writer. This is where my research shall prove paramount in giving me the depth to create a piece truly enriched by the discoveries awaiting me. I look forward to immersing myself in the culture and archives on the subject of tattoo artists and their craft.

As this is not merely a practice without purpose, publication is in mind. To this end, I have considered several possible publications which I will target for submission. Chief amongst these (as farmed from Writer’s Market 2011, Duotrope, and/or Google searches) are:

Clarkesworld Magazine, Strange Horizons, Shimmer Magazine, Dark Valentine, Weird Tales, and Philadelphia Stories.

Most of these were selected because of their attraction to weird, dark, speculative fantasy with flavors of magical realism or the bizarre. Philadelphia Stories is an interest because of their attachment to well written stories by area writers. This is not to say that this list is closed and/or comprehensive, but this is a starting area. These are some magazines that may be interested in what I will eventually write. Other opportunities may present themselves once I am able to research more of the trade magazines that are on the shelves (Inked, Tattoo Magazine, Skin & Ink).

I am also excited at the prospect of exploring the artists themselves, of sitting down to talk with them, of visiting shops and parlors, discussing thoughts via blogs, like Tattoo blog or Swallows & Daggers. Coincidentally, and I just discovered this today, the 2011 Philadelphia Tattoo Arts convention is this weekend (Fri-Sun, $20/day or $40 for all three. Tickets sold at door. See site for details). I’ll be there on Saturday, what a chance to dive right into this thing.

This is an exciting opportunity to explore an area of personal interest and to use it in a genre that I wear like a second skin. Though the immediate research and archive opportunities are local, it is (as demonstrated in the aforementioned USAToday article) a subject of national AND global appeal. I look forward to the challenges ahead and the discoveries that await. Perhaps, at the end of it all, another painting will color my cave wall?