Renewing My Creativity with a Little Help from My Friends: Van Gogh, Cezanne, Bob Dylan… and You

Please click this image to read the full newsletter.

I was very gratified how many folks sent me emails and notes in response to my most recent newsletter, in which I invited people to share what inspires their creativity. I’m reprinting the cover letter below and providing a link to the full newsletter (please click the image to the left), in the hopes that even more of you will share the experiences that helped you “reach deeper and wider” within yourself.

“A couple of weeks ago, I spent Wednesday evening wandering around the Philadelphia Museum of Art with a new friend, sharing some of our favorite works of art as a way to get to know each other. So we visited a few of my old “pals” — Cezanne’s Bathers, Van Gogh’s Sunflowers, Duchamp’s Nude Descending Staircase, the chapel-like room of Brancusi’s sculptures, and other works of art that are my current points of reference. These are among the artists whose pieces I visit when I need to be pulled outside myself, to find new paths into my own creativity.

“I crave the fellowship of artists, writers and all kinds of creative thinkers, the many who came before, as well as those who “walk” beside me. I need them almost as much as I need air and water and chocolate. Read More

The Creative Magic of a Darkened Theater

"Girl from the North Country" at the Belasco Theater, New YO
Girl from the North Country at the Belasco Theater, New York City

Is it un-American of me to admit that spectator sports leave me cold? Sure, I can get a contact high from my young nephews’ excitement when one of their heroes sinks a perfect 3 point shot into the basket. And I used to enjoy sitting with my father while he watched an intense rally between tennis champions. But that has more to do with being with the people I love when they’re happy. 

Intellectually, I can appreciate athletic virtuoso performances. It’s impressive how a well-trained mind can control every muscle, every fractional movement, how those powerful (and beautiful) bodies can do things I couldn’t even dream of achieving. However, for me, passively sitting on my duff, watching baseball, basketball, football or any similar game can be as boring as watching the minute hand on an analog clock ticking away the hours. I’d much rather be doing something… well, almost anything else. That applies not only to watching sports on TV, but also attending sporting events in person.

And yet, sports fans would probably be just as bored by one of my favorite pastimes: sitting quietly in a darkened concert hall or theater. The difference is that nothing within me is engaged by sports. On the other hand, a great play or fine piece of music fills my mind, awakens all my senses and sends my thoughts and emotions on unexpected journeys. In that darkness, fed by the creativity of others, ideas and words percolate out of me, often Read More

Thank you Toni Morrison… and Trapeta B. Mayson

Trapeta B. Mayson, Philadelphia's Poet Laureate, speaking about Toni Morrison at The Rosenbach
Trapeta B. Mayson

This past Tuesday, I attended my first Rosenbach lunchtime talk. The Rosenbach museum and library is one of Pennsylvania’s hidden treasures, though it is open to the public and is now affiliated with the Free Library of Philadelphia. The elegant Delancey Street double townhouse contains a remarkable collection of rare books and documents originally assembled by the Rosenbach brothers, famous dealers in books, manuscripts and art. It’s also the site of frequent public discussions, readings and lectures that fill the intimate rooms with interested and interesting people from near and far – such as the monthly lunchtime talks.

I didn’t know what to expect, except that the topic was one of my favorite authors – Toni Morrison – and the speaker would be Philadelphia’s Poet Laureate Trapeta B. Mayson. I was sure that it would be a hour well spent. Besides, I needed to get away from my writing for a bit. I’d been struggling with the first draft of my new novel’s second chapter, and the more I fought the words – the more I wrote, edited and deleted – the more frustrated (and, yes, self-doubting) I was becoming. Perhaps, I had finally bitten off more than I could chew with this ambitious project.

"I never asked Tolstoy to write for me." Toni Morrison

Throughout the hour, Trapeta interspersed Morrison quotes and her own poems, a weave of words and ideas that illuminated the ideas she shared, until they shimmered with energy and life that could not be denied. She spokeRead More

Living the Creative Life: Embracing Reciprocity Failure

On the razor-edged border between the possible and the impossible, creativity flourishes.

When I was a young photographer, I enjoyed experimenting with reciprocity failure.

While it may sound like a philosophical or psychological concept, reciprocity failure relates to the chemical limitations of film. Back in the 20th century, photographers quickly learned that each type of color film (known as the its emulsion) was rated for certain light parameters. Push an emulsion beyond its rating by using a longer than acceptable shutter speed (to capture a picture in low light situations), and you’d end up with false colors. Those were the barriers inherent in the technology that pro photographers just didn’t overstep.

But… well… I never did color within the lines.

When I toyed with reciprocity failure, I purposely pushed beyond what was “correct” to seek new creative visions. I remember one moonless night Read More

Gesundheit! Catching & Spreading the Creativity Bug

 

My most recent newsletter opens up a discussion about how creativity is contagious. It leaps easily from one person to the next, generating a feedback loop, as well as flows over from one area of our lives to another.

Please read the letter, then respond here on this blog or via email, sharing similar experiences that you’ve had. Once creativity is part of a single aspect of your life does it infect everything else, inspiring you to try novel solutions, or to attempt something that you might not have previously considered possible? What circumstance or person has caused you to catch a particularly fervent case of the creativity bug?

Also in this newsletter are links to an essay about how my photography and writing inform each other, a video and other information about my American Hands portrait project, and an invitation to do guest blogs/essays on this website.

What Photography Has Taught Me About Writing… and Vice Versa

 

 

Behind the Veil by Sally Wiener Grotta
Behind the Veil by Sally Wiener Grotta

 

 

I am often asked what I mean when I say that my photography and writing inform each other. Photography, storytelling, and, yes, life… it’s all about what we see, how we convey it to others and whether we can make it meaningful.

When I look at the world through the lens of my camera, I see so much more. My field of vision might be more limited, but everything becomes more focused, limned with greater clarity of shadows and light. Life resolves into aesthetic patterns and colors, giving definition and meaning, and making the ordinary everyday more noteworthy and memorable.

It’s as though my lens has the magic ability to see through to the essentials of a moment or of a personality, to tell me story that I might have missed if it weren’t for my camera’s eye view.

I often think about my photography when I’m writing… visualizing what I want my readers to see, focusing my words as I would my camera lens. To go even further,Read More

Is Your Creativity Driven by Dissatisfaction?

When I first read Anges de Mille’s retelling of a discussion with Martha Graham about the role of dissatisfaction in creativity, I recognized myself in it, as I expect most artists do. And I took Martha Graham’s advice to heart, hoping I would remember it during times of uncertainty in the value of my work.

When I shared it on Facebook, it hit a resonant chord with many of my friends, a number of whom reposted it. However, Rita Ashley replied, “Hmmm. Let me ponder this. Am I less of an artist if I am satisfied with a work I produced? If I cannot see a need to change, improve or correct?… Is dissatisfaction a requirement to be a good/great artist?

 I realized that Rita has a very healthy pride in her creations that I sometimes also feel. But that doesn’t make my dissatisfaction less of a driving force in all my creativity.

It’s a discontent not just with my art, but with the world around me, and my uncertainty about my ability to find the words or images that can help me (and others?) understand, deal with it, perhaps explore the questions that might — if we’re very lucky and persistent — find solutions.

Or, if I’m to be precise, I’m driven by a combination of confusion, concern, and dissatisfaction. I can be pleased with a single creation (sometimes), but my body of work is very incomplete. I have so much more to say, to try to understand.

 What drives your creativity? When, if ever, do you feel you’ve reached a point of completion?

 

Haunting Questions

Why?
How?
Why not?
I am haunted by questions.
So much I don’t understand.

When I was a child, perhaps my questions were simpler.

Why did that boy pull my hair?
How does the moon stay in the sky?
What if I don’t eat my spinach?

When my mother didn’t have ready answers, she would make up stories. And I never wondered at that ability. After all, she read such enchanting stories to me from books. Why shouldn’t she have tales ready at hand to answer any question I might have?

As I grew up, conventional wisdom says I should have put aside childish things.

Mother taught me quite a lot. I don’t remember any of it having to do with being conventional.Read More

The Novelist as Poet or Philosopher; Meditation Inspired by Samuel Delany’s The Atheist in the Attic

"The Atheist in the Attic" by Samuel R. DelanyMy short essay “Novelist as Poet or Philosopher; Meditation Inspired by Samuel Delany‘s The Atheist in the Attic” was recently published on the SFWA blog (Science Fiction & Fantasy Authors of America). 

The Atheist in the Attic is a “fictive reconstruction” of a meeting between the philosophers Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz and Baruch de Spinoza, told from Leibniz’s point of view. An intriguing read, it sent my mind in a variety of different direction. At one point, I took a discussion of the differences between a poet and a philosopher and considered how it might apply to different kinds of novelists. I’ve decided that I’m essentially a philosopher; no surprise there. As I wrote in the essay, “I write to understand. My characters and plots are formed in a subconscious that churns with confusion or concern about how the world functions (or fails to function). As I write the story my characters tell me, I find myself posing questions that [as Delany wrote in The Atheist in the Attic] “reflect and even explain the differences and forces that relate them all… hold them together… or tear them apart.” 

Please read the essay here, and let me know what you think. What kinds of authors do you prefer to read — poets or philosophers, as defined by Delany’s book? And if you’re a writer, are you a poet or philosopher… or something else?

Ursula K. Le Guin No Longer Walks this Earth

Ursula K. Le Guin and Sally Wiener Grotta at the Canon Beach Writers Workshop

This morning I learned of Ursula K. Le Guin’s death. I’m still not quite ready to process the fact that she no longer walks this earth.

Early in my fiction career, I was privileged to study with Ursula at a small Canon Beach workshop, just a walk along the ocean edge from her home. Each day was an awakening… and sometimes a terror. She was a tough taskmaster with so much to share and teach. I’ve no doubt that she was just as tough (if not more so) on herself. But she was also so very supportive and encouraging. In many ways, it’s because of her that I didn’t give up on my fiction, my idealism and my dreams.

I am finding it difficult to work today in the wake of learning of that she is gone. And yet, I can hear her voice in my head, as I long have and I expect I will for as long as I live. Today, she is chastising me to write, to work, to find my voice and use it. 

Thank you, Ursula, for all you have given to all of us. Not only one of the great writers of our time, but a great inspiration.