As Is: Maybe it’s Magic, Maybe it’s the Work I Did

It’s November! While I haven’t been writing a novel, I HAVE been working very hard on a creative project. Possibly harder than I’ve ever worked on any creative project. I’m so excited to share it with everyone—but it’s not quite ready yet. It IS, however, very real and in a far-too-late-to-turn-back-now stage of production. I’ll be making an announcement here and on social media during the first or second week of December, so STAY TUNED.

I’m committed to keeping the project details a secret, but I wanted to tell you how I got here. On November 1st I read Anne Lamott’s pep talk for National Novel Writing Month, and I was really struck by the following quote:

“…You start now, as is.

‘As is’ is the portal to creation, to new life. ‘As soon as’ is a form of delusion and therefore soul death.”

Anne Lamott
The first Punky (8.28.19)

A few days before reading this I was sitting at my temp job, where I had a lot of time between tasks, and I decided to start drawing, just to draw. I drew a little rectangle and turned it into a dragon. I gave him some spots, and named him Punky. Then I drew a slightly more detailed dragon, trying to just draw and not get caught up in perfection, and I liked that one so much that I posted it on social media—my first art post in a long time. That same day it occurred to me to do some research, and I learned about a new process that completely changed the way I was thinking about a big project. The next day, I drew another version of Punky, and then I started designing my project and thought up a way to scale it down for December release. By the time I read Anne Lamott’s pep-talk, I had sketches and concept art, a thorough plan, quotes from multiple production companies, and a drawing of Punky for every single day of work. I shared Ann Lamott’s talk on Facebook. I was starting “as is,” and it was working. I titled Punky the As-Is Dragon, because that’s the whole point of him; you can’t be worried whether you’re drawing him right because he’s just a rectangle and there isn’t a wrong way to do it. He allows you to start where you are, and by the time you’ve drawn him you’re warmed up, you’re thinking about lines and color, and you’re ready to get to work.

Dragon Sketch (10/29/19)

As I continued to work and my big project began to feel increasingly real, I wondered: “Is this really all it takes to start making exciting art? Do I just have to decide to start where I’m at? And if that’s all it takes, why has it felt like I’m beating my head against a wall every time I’ve tried to make art for the last several years? Why couldn’t I do this earlier?” And that’s when I spotted the flaw in the “as is” philosophy. You first have to create the conditions that turn your “as is” into a place where your work can thrive.

Punky (10/29/19)

A year ago, I was using a 6-year old laptop with a broken trackpad and about 20 minutes of battery life that could barely run photoshop. My “new” drawing tablet was broken, but I could sometimes get the ten-year-old drawing tablet to work if I jiggled the cord just right. So in February this year I invested in a 12.9” Third Generation iPad Pro and an Apple Pencil: the best of the best of Apple’s drawing-capable products. I’m still paying it off. I was buying this at a time when money was very tight (just like now LOL), and I wondered: can I justify buying professional-level tools when I haven’t made any professional-level art in a long time? But if I hadn’t made that investment, I couldn’t have made any of the art I made this November.

Punky (10/31/19)

Once I had the iPad, I had to learn how to work in a whole language. It was my first touch-screen, and it doesn’t support Photoshop, which I’d been working in for more than a decade (and even if it did, other, cheaper programs are catching up and surpassing Photoshop for drawing). Everything I did in Procreate (the drawing program I’m using now) and on the iPad in general was so frustrating. Even very simple things would leave me stymied; I alway knew there was a way to do what I wanted to do, but I didn’t know how to do it. And every time I turned to Google for help with very basic tasks, I got a little more comfortable, and a little closer to the workflow I have now. Over the summer I used my iPad to design a shirt for my hashing club, which forced me to watch a lot of tutorials and discover some ways I didn’t want to work. In September I signed up for a free “Getting Started with Procreate” class at my local Apple store. I figured that, worst-case scenario, the class would give me some time to sketch. But it turned out the class was just me and the instructor, and I was able to spend the hour asking him every question I had about the program, rapid-fire. He even helped me with some basic iPad file management. I don’t think I’ve ever learned so many directly applicable things in such a short span of time. And thanks to that class, as well as those frustrating months I spent finding answers, when I started working on my big project I was able to just USE Procreate without being constantly frustrated that it isn’t Photoshop. I think I even like it better!

PorME Shirt 2019
Punky (11/4/19)

In addition to the technical aspects, it’s not a coincidence that my big project happened while I was working a low-stress temp job that allowed me time to draw on the clock. It’s not a coincidence that I didn’t get started on the project until I had the peace of mind of a permanent position lined up for after the temp assignment ended. It’s also not a coincidence that I was able to pour so much time and energy into this project during a time when I’m unable to run due to plantar fasciitis. Which might make you think that I’d make more art if I ran a little less—but I absolutely wouldn’t be making the art I’m making now if I hadn’t spent all that time running. And I wouldn’t have been able to make this project happen in such a short space of time if I hadn’t been sitting on the overall idea for more than a year. Most of the concept was ready to go. So even when it felt like I wasn’t making any progress, I was actually on my way, and putting all the pieces together. This November, when I started “as is,” I started on the strong foundation I’d already built—and in just a few weeks I was able to complete some ambitious work that I can’t wait to show you.

Punky (11/13/19)

I also worked really hard. I’ve put so much time into this. And I couldn’t have done it without help; the endless encouragement of my roommate at every stage of the process, the monetary AND moral support of two dear friends, the “That’s a great idea, you should do it,” of my family when I told them about it. And drawing Punky as a ritual really did help me to start “as is.” He helped me find a way back into my work every day, and I have 18 drawings of Punky for 18 days in a row of drawing. You have to start “as is,” every day, because how else will you start anything? But when you’re trying, and failing, and it feels like you’re not getting anywhere, maybe the work you’re doing now is building a better as-is for tomorrow.

Punky (11/7/19)

Day 18: Still Okay!

I’ve admired my Aunt Ruthanne’s consistent Wednesday blog updates for years now (A More Colorful Life! Erry Wednesday!). I don’t have any classes Wednesday afternoons this semester and, seeing as this is my third blog post in three Wednesdays, maybe I can follow her example and make Wednesday posts a regular thing.

I won’t write much, though, because I’m trying to get as far ahead on NaNoWriMo as I can before the weekend.

Here’s my progress graph! I’m at tomorrow’s goal, and I haven’t even started writing for today yet.

32,007 words!

32,007 words!

 

I like how this book is coming together. I like the shape of it. I like the characters that are popping up out of the darkness. I like my ideas for the ending. The book feels complete, somehow, in a way my books rarely do at this stage in the writing. I know there are some threads that are missing, and I know I will have to go back to the beginning to weave a few new colors into the story, but I feel like I can hold the whole thing in my hands and I feel it is good. This feeling probably means I am in for a lot of surprises, but I’ll enjoy it while it’s here.

I’m also having fun writing this book. I want this to be my job. How do I make this my job? Oh yeah. Keep writing.

Good luck on NaNoWriMo and every other thing, you beautiful people, you.

How To Keep Writing

I’m going to start this blog post by telling you to read a different blog post, one written by Wil Wheaton entitled Seven Things I Did to Reboot My Life. The whole time I was reading this, I sat at my desk and nodded my head furiously. Yes. We may have slightly different circumstances, age, struggles, changes, and goals, but this entire article rings so true to everything I’ve been doing (trying, working on) for the last two months—remember my last blog post? Near the end of his article, Wil Wheaton says: “I deserve to be happy. I deserve to feel good about myself. I can do the work that I need to do to accomplish these things.” Yes. This is, nearly verbatim, what I’ve been telling myself over and over again, and scrawling multiple times at the end of my journal each day. I am worth the work I am doing.

Instead of doing everything all at once, though, I focused on exercise first and made it routine. This was heading towards writing, this had to be heading towards writing, but for a few weeks I allowed myself to feel accomplished if I worked out and then went to bed without having written a single thing. And that’s great—but it wasn’t enough.

So now I’m writing, and I’m writing hard. This Sunday is Day 1 of November, when I’ll begin a brand new writing project for National Novel Writing Month. It will also be the Year One anniversary of my main squeeze, my in-progress novel about a trucker girl and a telepathic dragon. I am trying to complete as much of this book as possible before I set it aside for the entire month of November. It has grown so much in a year, from nothing to a 100,000 word manuscript. And there is still so much to do.

The uncompleted draft of a novel is terrifying thing. It’s too much to keep in my head all at one time. The plot itself is overwhelming, and so are the doubts about the story and about the act of writing a book. Even as I’m writing and planning and plotting, I ask myself if it’s too long, if the ideas are stupid, if no one will like it, if it’s too similar to this book or that book, if it will ever be published. And more, even as I am trying to piece together the very first draft, I am already borrowing worries from the future: Will I have to re-write this section? Will an editor tell me to remove this character? Did I write this wrong? Is this bad? Will I ever finish the third and fourth revisions? Will constructive criticism kill all the excitement I feel, right now, for this story?

I even worry about how excited I am. Excitement is temporary. When the sparkle days return to plodding grey, will I keep writing this book? And how can I live with myself if I don’t?

100,000 words says I will. It is so hard to spend hours and hours on something when you can’t see the end of it, but all I can do is continue to check things off my chapter to-do list and keep making decisions about characters’ actions and motivations and what happens next. I am trying (it is difficult) to focus on a first draft, to focus only on writing a whole story that makes sense, and to leave the rest alone for now. Even if it is too long, or too stupid, or never gets published, that won’t mean it isn’t worth doing.

I’ve made a lot of personal progress since August. I no longer have to fight so hard to feel valuable, and to feel like a good person. So I’m fighting for my writing instead, which I’ve been fighting for all along. In 50 years, I’ll probably still be blogging about how writing is hard. I just plan to have written a few novels by then. So here’s the new mantra from my journal: My dreams are worth the work I am doing.

Write, and repeat as necessary.

NaNoWriMo and December Sketch-a-Day Challenge

Winner-2014-Web-BannerI finished NaNoWriMo today. I wrote my 50,000 words, and that’s a wrap for November. Here’s the graph; I even managed to stay pretty close to par all last week, despite traveling to Boston for a really lovely Thanksgiving dinner and weekend with cousins and friends.Screen Shot 2014-11-30 at 6.25.21 PM

I have a lot more time to do creative work than I thought I did, but I need to be working hard every month of the year, not just November. Last year, in the wake of NaNoWriMo, I instigated a Sketch-a-Day challenge for December. I didn’t finish in time, but Ruthanne of A More Colorful Life sure did and I still think it’s a great idea. So this year, I’m doing it for real. If you need an artistic kick-in-the-pants, please join us! I’ll link to your blog if that’s where you’re posting December sketches, and if you’d like to join the online December Sketch-a-Day Challenge community, do a Facebook search for the group I made (it’s called December Sketch-a-Day Challenge) and request to join. The goal is 31 sketches, 31 days.

The Sketch-a-Day Challenge is my big goal for December, but I don’t want to stop writing. I also don’t think I told you anything about my NaNoWriMo novel? It’s the self-indulgent telepathic dragon novel I never knew I had to write, and I don’t think I’m even fifty percent through the story at 50,000 hastily-written words. I have a lot of good stuff, especially good ideas, but a lot of those words are unusable and a lot of them will change once I figure out some answers to the Big Story Questions, and I’m finally at a place where I know which Big Story Questions I should ask. So I’m going to keep working on it. Most especially, I am going to take some time for outlining and researching and organizing—all the things I didn’t have time for during NaNoWriMo. I know I need to do lots of non-word-count related work on the story, and I know my sketch challenge will take up the majority of my daily creative energy, so I am setting a very small writing goal of 500 words a day. This makes a total of 15,500 words for the month. That’s sure a significant drop from 50,000, and I’ll top it if I can, but I think 500 words and one sketch every day will be enough to be getting on with. And I think I’ll get tired. But I think I can do it.

What are your goals for December?

Celtic Bull and Status Update

I was reading up on my Celtic Mythology, and I took a break to sketch an illustration I found in the book. The following is a sketch of a drawing of a stone carving of a bull. According to Celtic Gods and Goddesses by R.J. Stewart, the original can be found in Burghead, Morayshire, Scotland (Stewart, 16).

Screen Shot 2014-07-10 at 5.48.43 PM

 

I’m working, but I’ve been really discouraged these past few days. Sometimes, it’s easier to focus on all the times you’ve quit and let things slide than it is to focus on all those other times you’ve started up again and worked your hardest. You start to recognize every platitude and new strategy as something you’ve said and tried before, as something that obviously didn’t work because here you are again, back to where you started. I also recognize that the negative energy doesn’t help, so I’ve been cleaning and organizing and seeking positive inspiration (thanks, Dad) and taking care of myself (12 mile bike ride, woo!) and working. Writing the words and making the pictures is, ultimately, the only way to prove to myself that I can.

Blog Number 100: Space and Summer and Goals, Goals, Goals

This is the 100th post on the Grace Makley Blog.

Yay.

We also had the two-year blog anniversary sometime last week.

Woooo-hoo.

Neither of these strike me as especially significant, but it’s so hard to get anything done these days that I might as well celebrate small accomplishments.

I’ve been thinking about workspace. One of the biggest things I’ve learned in the past year is that writing/arting in my apartment is difficult. My bedroom has barely the requisite space for a bedroom; forcing it into double-service as desk-area and studio really taxes its reserves. There is no space I can work in my apartment that is not also the space I use to relax, so it’s hard to find any distraction-free focus. I work in coffee shops when I can, but the difficulty there is the danger of your work being on display. I’m putting together a kick-ass painting of Vanya and I don’t care who looks over my shoulder at Starbucks and sees it, but I’m using a photo of Mr. Huntington as reference. He’s not making I guess the most flattering face in the photo, and the Vanya-shirt isn’t his usual style,  and he’d frankly rather I not inadvertently display it around town—and since I’m going to be needing many more reference photos, I’m rather keen to respect his wishes on that.*

So I need a better space. Not necessarily my own solo space, but a space where I don’t need to feel self-conscious about the accouterments of my work, and a space where I don’t need to buy a drink to stay there. I actually had the possibility of an exciting opportunity that would solve my space problem and provide a fulfilling occupation and some extra income. I was hoping for it with all my hopes. It still may come through, but it’s looking less likely now, so I’m trying to move on to other solutions. I’m at a point where I’m ready to invest money in this, ready to make it happen—except, oh yeah, I’m also out of money! Not out out, but this business of cutting back to three days a week from four without an extra part-time job to fill in the cracks is starting to make itself known in the size of my bank statements. Even if I’m ready to shell out cash for some workspace and willing to make that investment, I just can’t afford it right now.

This post is not supposed to be a downer! I’m just putting the problem out there to the universe. Acknowledging the issue in good faith, making my goals known, stating them so I can start working on them where I can. And hey, I grabbed an extra shift today. And I’ve got a job lined up painting a fence this summer. Not enough for rent on a studio space, but at least I’m getting by.

And, oh yeah, the weather is beautiful. I’m biking places, and yesterday I ran the Back Cove Trail for the first time this year (over four miles, starting from my apartment). Today it reached 80º, and I have more energy after work than I’ve had in a long time. I’ve been trying to eat more fruit, and trying to at least go for walks when the weather is nice and I don’t feel up to running. I cleaned my room yesterday, and some harmony in my space makes me feel like I can breathe. Gotta wonder, sometimes, if Maine winters are really worth it. Do people in warmer climates feel this good all the time? Or are summers only so welcome in places like Maine and Michigan because we have endured the snow and cold and depression all winter long? As someone who would choose 90º F over 50ºF any day, I think I would like the opportunity, one of these years, to discover whether I would miss Maine winters if given the chance to do so.

Hey internet! Do you have any advice for me on finding a studio I can afford in Portland, Maine?

 

*The reference photo problem actually represents a solution to ANOTHER problem, the problem where I wasn’t using as many reference photos as I should because it’s hard to work ON the computer while looking at a photo that is also on the computer. So I started printing my photos! Now I can use my whole workspace for painting, but an 8″x10″ photo propped up beside my computer draws more attention than a few pixels taking up space on a screen.

 

Weekend Retreat

If you read my last post, you’ll recall that working from home is a real struggle for me, even if I’m working on the things I love and the things I want to be doing. This past weekend, I received an amazing gift of time and space that let me do more work in a few days than I’ve been able to do in a long time.

There is a Franciscan Monastery and Guest House in Kennebunkport, Maine. It’s a ten-minute walk from the beach by road, and has beautiful, well-manicured grounds with walking trails through the woods to various shrines and down to the river near the mouth of the sea. Every year before the tourist season begins, the Guest House hosts a retreat for the Secular Franciscans from the surrounding states. A Secular Franciscan is a Catholic who takes vows to follow in the footsteps of St. Francis—but Secular Franciscans aren’t monks, and they are allowed (and encouraged) to get married and live in the world. My parents are Secular Franciscans, and they’ve been taking me on this retreat since I was very, very small.

When I was a kid, there were always older kids at the retreat who babysat and took care of the younger ones while our parents were at the retreat sessions. They took us to find tide-pools near the beach, brought us walking on the trails, and played frisbee and football with us on the lawn. We would sit at our own kids table at dinner, away from the adults, and steal second-helpings of pudding and third-helpings of very sweet iced tea.  As we got older, we became the babysitters for the younger kids. Now I’m twenty or so years older than I was at my first retreat and my parents have aged accordingly, but my parents are still some of the youngest of the professed Secular Franciscans. There weren’t any young families with children at the retreat this weekend, and there weren’t any gaggles of young children running around the grounds the way we did when we were kids. Some of us still come back as adults, but this weekend all my childhood friends were busy (the baby of our old crew was attending his Junior year high school prom) and I was pretty much on my own. And, in terms of making art, that was exactly what I needed.

While my parents went to the retreat sessions and spent their time in prayer and reflection, I went to a conference room on the third floor of the guest house and worked on a digital painting. Given large blocks of time to myself in a space without distractions, I was able to focus. I didn’t even have to worry about feeding myself, because the retreat included included bountiful and delicious home cooked meals served up three times a day. All I did on Saturday was eat, paint, eat, walk to the beach, paint, eat, walk to the beach, paint, spend some time with parents and dears friends, and sleep. I’m excited to show you the painting I was working on; it’s almost done! And of course we can’t be on retreat all the time, but sometimes time away from home shows us what we’re actually capable of when we don’t allow ourselves to be distracted. It was a good way to get back on track mentally and creatively, and I’m hoping to bring a little bit of quiet and focus with me as I travel through the weeks ahead.

Have you had any retreat experiences that have allowed you to get more creative work done that you could do at home? Where do you go when you need to focus?