American fascination with the British royal family used to leave me cold. Didn’t we revolt in 1776 partly to abolish such trappings? Lately I’m caught up in the excitement of royal courtships and weddings. The heritage of “the people’s princess” Diana moves forward with a new generation who talk openly about their feelings, promote human causes with empathy, and marry for love.
Some say instead of calling your daughter a princess, you should tell her she’s strong, or brave, or smart. (Or persistent, or hard-working, but that’s a topic for a different post.) Why not all of the above? Sleeping till kissed by a handsome prince makes a poor role model, but not every princess is so passive. One grew up to become Britain’s longest-reigning monarch.
For an African American girl, a girl of mixed race, a geeky high achiever, any girl who knows she’s strong or brave or smart, why insist fairy-tale beauty and grace are always for somebody else? A princess can be smart, strong, brave, and hard-working. A princess can be a leader who influences a nation or culture. Just look at Diana, Kate, and Meghan.*
* Never mind whether they all hold the title princess. This is about images, not titles or technicalities.
How do so many authors roll out one mystery novel after another, every year or two? Plotting a mystery is one of the hardest puzzles I’ve ever tried to conquer. Granted, it’s not in the same category as human and relational matters, or organizing for social and political change, or health or spirit or physical feats. But as mental challenges go, creating a mystery plot ranks right up there.
Beyond the central crime, investigation, and solution, mysteries interweave subplots and red herrings, motives and dangers, missteps and misdirection. Multiple points of view must dovetail, even when only one is overt. Pacing must vary without letting up. Playing fair means giving readers all the essential clues without giving away the solution. Every mystery I read sets me trying to figure out not only, Who’s guilty? but, How did the author do that?
Corrine is a visual artist. In response to my second-anniversary invitation to suggest a blog topic related to writing, reading, history, imagination, or the creative life, she writes, “Your five broad topics are a part of all of my art projects. I love to include words and read a lot to find just the right ones, or they find me. I research the history in art techniques and creations to fuel my imagination and creativity.”
The part that swirls in my mind most persistently is her use of words in visual art. I’ve heard since childhood that verbal and visual processing are distinct phenomena, opposites even. Pop psychology says left-brainers deal in language and logic, while right-brainers generate creativity and art. Where does that leave those of us whose creative medium is language?
Barring brain injury, the sides of the brain work together, though their differences are real. The left is more involved in speech, the right more attuned to “Aha!” moments. The right perceives an image and the left concocts a story to interpret it. Brain scans refute the myth that being rational or intuitive reflects which side dominates. Both analysis and creativity emerge in the connections between the halves. As Corrine suggests, art draws on all the parts working together.
What comes to mind when James wants to write, he commented in March, is his life experiences mixed with current events.
Current events only matter because they affect life experience. Some effects are dire: reservists sent into combat, undocumented families torn apart, invalids denied insurance. Others are a matter of awareness and memory. Most American adults remember where they were when they heard about planes flying into the Twin Towers in 2001, or—if they’re old enough—President Kennedy’s assassination in 1963 or even the bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941.
Forty-eight years ago today, President Nixon announced the U.S. invasion of Cambodia. Protests erupted. The Ohio National Guard shot four Kent State University students dead that Monday. Effects rippled out. A mother couldn’t cross town to pick up her toddler from day care because riots blocked the streets. Another couldn’t find campus housing for her returning veteran spouse because college offices closed in the wake of the crisis.
Such experiences, largely unrecorded but seared into the memory of those involved, are the collateral damage of major public happenings. They’re partial answers to the question, what was it like to be there? Letters, diaries, and oral histories offer precious clues rarely captured in history books. Historical imagination helps fill in the blanks.
Well, duh, say the writers among you. Of course it does; we’ve had it. I propose a contrarian view. Any practice that demands continual creativity is likely to have dry spells as well as fertile ones. Don’t composers, philosophers, scientists, preachers, comedians, and cartoonists have times fresh ideas won’t come? Chefs known for culinary innovation, teachers or parents in search of new ways to capture a child’s interest—don’t they sometimes run dry? Are writers any different?
Yes, a writer may stare at a blank page and go blank. It can last an afternoon or five years. It can result from over-analysis, stress, perfectionism, trying to live up to previous success, fear of critical reviews, fatigue, distraction, or the inevitable ebb and flow of life. Of the two dozen recommended antidotes I’ve seen, most boil down to two: keep plugging, or take a break.
Maybe giving a name to creative dry spells magnifies their power. The mystique of the tortured writer paralyzed by writer’s block doesn’t help much but the ego. At least I suffer for my art. There’s less hubris in saying, I haven’t been writing much lately. It states a fact, not a condition. Putting less weight on the matter frees you to consider whether it’s a problem or just part of the ebb and flow of life.
In a poetry class at Wisconsin’s Write-by-the-Lake program, instructor Rita Mae Reese took us to the university museum to soak up a painting and write a poem about it. On a grander scale, that’s the core of Terry Tempest Williams’s Leap, a memoir of her love affair with the three-panel Garden of Earthly Delights by Hieronymus Bosch. Williams writes with the eye of a naturalist, the pen of a poet, and the religious heritage of a Mormon who first watched birds from the shores of the Great Salt Lake.
Leap was in the house for years before I picked it up to read. What changed is that I assembled a thousand-piece jigsaw puzzle of the painting this winter. Sure, I’ve always liked Bosch, and a copy of the painting is bound into the book. But no matter how long I might stare at the Garden, there’s no way I’d study its detail as closely as in working the puzzle. Two months later, I can picture the birds flying out of a mountain or naked bodies in a pool as soon as Williams mentions them.
Her grandmother posted prints of the side panels, heaven and hell, over her childhood bed. Williams is an adult in the Prado museum in Madrid when she first sees the center panel: earth, play, discovery, sensory experience, body, passion, delight, the fullness of this life beyond good and evil. She returns day after day. She counts the cherries. Museum guards stare as she takes out binoculars and notebook to list every species of bird.
Solving a jigsaw puzzle temporarily changes my perception. Normally more attuned to maps and spatial relationships than to visual detail, for a few days or weeks I notice lines, dots, and spots of light in the world around me. I see gradations of color that I can’t usually distinguish. Poets and naturalists may see this way all the time. To strengthen my writing for sensory detail, I could do worse than to work jigsaw puzzles.
Shakespeare’s audiences only heard the side of the story that made Henry VII a hero and Richard III a villain. They had little access to alternative viewpoints. Today so much is out there that we can’t absorb it all. Picking and choosing, we tend to hear one side as narrowly as Shakespeare’s audiences.
“The past isn’t dead,” William Faulkner wrote. “It isn’t even past.” Competing historical narratives live on in current events: progress versus decay, pride versus shame, self-sufficiency versus interdependence. It’s easy to dismiss one or the other, easy to say there’s right on all sides, but challenging to try to understand a story too complex for sound bites. After the history department at Oberlin College (my alma mater) organized a teach-in about Charlottesville and Confederate memorials, Chair Renee Romano wrote:
“Learning history gives students the knowledge they need to assess claims about the past that routinely circulate in public discourse. A historical education teaches students how to ask critical questions. It prepares them to evaluate competing arguments. And it encourages empathy towards people different from ourselves. These are skills and qualities that the world desperately needs . . .”
[quoted from Oberlin’s “Around the Square” 2018 Spring Newsletter]
Anne’s cat brings laughter to her life. When she suggested a blog post about animals in our lives, I decided to explore how animal companions influence creativity. Friends say their dogs or cats bring laughter and joy, help them relax, and reduce their stress.
Talking to a pet is a practice in creativity. You provide or imagine both sides of the conversation. For those of us without pets, this also works with teddy bears.
Dogs help the mind roam freely by getting their humans out for a walk. Separate studies show that walking (regardless of setting) and natural settings boost creative thought. Cats, on the other hand, support the deep focus our arts require. Muriel Spark writes in A Far Cry from Kensington:
“Alone with the cat in the room where you work . . . the cat will invariably get up on your desk and settle placidly under the desk lamp. . . . And the tranquility of the cat will gradually come to affect you, sitting there at your desk, so that all the excitable qualities that impede your concentration compose themselves and give your mind back the self-command it has lost.”
When Sandy responded to my second-anniversary invitation with a suggestion to blog about Anne Frank, I felt a jolt. Why did Anne, whose diary was so important to me, rarely occur to me among authors who influenced me most? In my mind, authors were grown-up writers of stories for readers like me. My relationship to Anne was more intimate, as though we were one girl thrown into two very different circumstances.
It started with noticing that she and I shared the same June birthday. She wrote her diary, which I first read at thirteen, in a book she received in 1942 for her thirteenth birthday. Weeks later she and her family went into hiding from the Nazis. Others joined them, for a total of eight Jews in a confined space they could never leave. Though I knew she later died in a concentration camp, what captivated me at thirteen wasn’t the cruelty or injustice—what we know about Anne—but her diary itself.
She and I had so much in common: our birthday, our age, our love of writing, our occasional loneliness. Our differences were situational. I could go outdoors, make noise, choose my playmates, get away for an hour. What would it be like to live cooped up, nonstop for two years, with a handful of people I didn’t choose and didn’t always like? Would I still believe, like her, that people are really good at heart?
Anne introduced me to the possibility of a diary as more than a log of the day’s events. My earliest diary dates from age thirteen, probably after I read hers. It’s full of adolescent ramblings. Now I write morning pages for myself and this blog for you who read it, continuing a personal tradition that began with the diary of Anne Frank.
Lately I’ve been relishing mystery series where author, protagonist, and setting are African American. They offer a glimpse into communities I can’t know from the inside. Unlike much of my mystery reading, characters aren’t presumed white unless otherwise specified.
Valerie Wilson Wesley’s Tamara Hayle in New Jersey is a private investigator and former cop, like Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone or Robert Parker’s Spenser. Like them, she experiences puzzles and dangers that keep me turning pages and a life that propels me from book to book. Unlike them, she lives in a world where worry over traffic stops or fear for teenage sons takes forms I can only imagine. When Death Comes Stealing (1994) is first in a series of eight.
Eleanor Taylor Bland’s Marti McAlister is an African-American police detective in Lincoln Prairie, Illinois, modeled on Waukegan. Like Tamara, Marti has a personal life as engaging as the crimes she solves. The series of fourteen begins with Dead Time (1992). Coming up on my list: Frankie Y. Bailey’s Lizzie Stuart, Nora DeLoach’s Mama Candi Covington, Barbary Neely’s Blanche White, and Pamela Samuels Young’s Vernetta Henderson.
I'm a historian who writes novels and literary nonfiction. My home base is Madison, Wisconsin.