Exploring visual art to bring new creativity into your writing.
Allow me to introduce myself. My name is Cristen Elizabeth Rose and I’m a writer and artist.
When I was a kid in elementary school, I was blessed to have a wonderful art teacher. She also wrote. I remember her smile and the way she wore her graying brown hair back in a ponytail, but I can’t remember a single art piece I did in that portable building. What I do remember is the last week of school when we were all busting at the seams with energy to release on summer vacation—she read us a chapter from her novel in progress. I don’t know if she ever finished it, or ever published it, but the images of that story stuck with me. People with colorful feathers like parrots. A race of creatures on the edge of extinction that hid themselves in the modern human world.
I still remember that day she read her story to us because it gave me a window into who she was. Here was this lady that taught us how to use charcoal pencils and oil pastels, but her real heart belonged to a fantasy story she worked on at home in her spare time.
At the end of that school year, she also gave me her own personal copy of Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain by Betty Edwards. Why? I can’t quite remember. She told me to read it well and do the lessons that summer. I did. The book was a big influence on my early artistic explorations. The concept that different halves of the brain control different thoughts fascinated me. The right hemisphere for creative, symbolic and abstract things—the left for analytical, linguistic and logical things. The left brain controlled the right hand, the right brain the left hand.
I would close one eye or the other and try to discover which of my brains was dominant, as per the exercises in that book. I could never get a clear answer. I gave up and decided they were co-dominant and/or that I had vision problems (which was also true, and I got my first pair of serious glasses in the 5th grade).
I began to imagine my brain was like a computer, with parts for various functions. At the time in the mid-80s, my father was a pioneering computer programmer at Florida State. This allowed me privileged access to the huge super-computer rooms filled with giant archaic machines which probably had less overall computing power now than my cell-phone. They required dedicated space with icy-cold air-conditioning and had chips inside like big bugs with legs. Their hard-drives were strange circular objects which, when scratched, became impromptu art pieces to decorate his office wall, along with old bunt-out computer vacuum tubes. Ha! Steampunk sidetrack.
So, what does all this have to do with my writing today? Simply that I’ve never been able to separate my two brains—left and right—very successfully. When I think of a scene, it often comes to me in symbols or colors first before the action of the story takes shape. When I get writer’s block, what usually helps me is to work on a visual art project. Lately my muse has been jewelry.
I have a dedicated art table on the right side of my office (totally a coincidence, maybe). The left side of the room is for my computer and my graphics business—the client calls and the file cabinets and the work that keeps me buying groceries. The right side of the room is where I just allow myself to have fun. At the moment covering that desk there are plastic tackle-boxes filled with shiny sparkly things—and gears—which I play with until I find the right combination for a new jewelry piece or steampunk costume accessory. Bending wire is very therapeutic to me (I also grow bonsai—more about that in a later blog post).
And oftentimes when I’m at work on an art project, that plot problem or that nagging character motivation comes together in my head.
Working the right side of the brain loosens up the left (the language side). Keep them flowing together and your stories will benefit.
Five ideas which can help beat writer’s block by using the power of visual art:
- Keep a sketchbook – draw anything: shapes, patterns, words flowing in abstract designs. Think of a character or a scene where you might be stuck and just free-associate.
- Clip pictures that speak to your story – I have a shoebox and a digital file of photos for each novel, but you could dedicate a Pinterest board to your work in progress, or a bulletin board in your office.
- Go to an art show – Drop in to a local gallery or museum and allow yourself enough time to think about the art and what the artist was trying to say with his or her work.
- Join an online art community – No matter your genre, chances are good there are some amazing art groups online. Facebook, DeviantART, and Pinterest are just a few places to get lost. As a steampunk writer, if I need costume or prop ideas for a scene, I can always find inspiration online.
- Try something new – make a beaded necklace. Do paper mache. Paint a still-life. Do a collage with magazine clippings. Even plant a new garden. You’d be surprised at the story ideas that come to you when you try a new form of art.
What about you? What creative things do you do to keep the right side of your brain in gear?