It’s time to throw another art bomb at the patriarchy. I’m offering up a dozen paintings for auction on eBay, and 100% of the proceeds will go to either the ACLU or Planned Parenthood. That’s right, every single penny you spend will benefit one of these two groups–I’m not keeping anything for myself. These are mostly oil paintings, but for the first time I’m including a couple of watercolors.
I started doing this after the 2016 election, when I was feeling hopeless and frightened and not really sure what the point of painting was. Why bother with pictures of pretty places, when our world was about to be upended in unpredictable and terrifying ways?
But you know, painting keeps me sane. It’s a lovely escape to paint a pretty picture of a pretty place I’ve been. So I decided that I would absolutely not stop painting, but that I would sell every single thing I painted to benefit groups that are fighting the good fight. Now I hope you’ll pitch in, bid on a painting, share this with your friends, and help me raise some funds. Overthrowing the patriarchy is not cheap. Your donations matter.
Bidding ends May 27.
Here’s a link to all twelve eBay auctions. Sometimes this link doesn’t work, so here are links to each individual auction:
I just picked up this book at Powell’s. In the introduction is the most extraordinary passage–it could apply to any creative pursuit, so I’m sharing it here:
“Develop an internal tutor. When you begin drawing, often you’ll find you’re accompanied by an internal critic, pointing out your mistakes and making you question your drawing. This can be more restricting than a lack of ability. You need time to look and draw without internal criticism. Instead, try to develop an internal tutor, allowing you to stand back and look objectively at your drawing, picking out its best qualities and what can be improved upon.”
Imagine–an inner tutor! A voice inside your head that can give you a friendly nudge, encourage you to sharpen a detail or rethink the direction of a line. What a helpful and handy voice to have on board!
Everyone wants to silence their internal critic. But have you ever thought of cultivating an internal tutor?
I watch this video at least once a year.
Southpark creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone give this fantastic piece of writing advice about how they put their stories together: They write up all of their story beats, and make sure that each idea, each moment, each action, can be connected with the words “but” or “therefore.”
If they find they can only connect their ideas by using “and”…well, they’re in trouble.
I can’t tell you how much this has helped me over the years, especially because I’m writing books based on a true story. I know what the events are, I know the order in which they occur. But what I don’t know is WHY everything happened the way it did.
By writing out, and forcing myself to put a “but” or a “therefore” between every scene/beat/action/idea, I start to see cause and effect. Often I move characters around so I can put them at the center of the action, where they belong. I make sure they CAUSE things to happen, or fight AGAINST them.
Basically, it’s another way of thinking about cause and effect.
I even do this late in the process, after the book is written, when I’m deep into revisions. I’ll go back to index cards, summarize every scene on a card, and make sure I can link them with post-its that say BUT or THEREFORE. I always find the holes in my story this way.
Caveat: If you have more than one plot line going, do a different BUT/THEREFORE for each subplot. When you hook the whole thing back together again, there’s just no way around the fact that you’re going to have some MEANWHILEs in there.
Every month in my newsletter, I invite readers to ask me a question. I pick one that I’ll answer in the next newsletter, and send them the book of their choice. (you can get in on that here.)
One of this month’s questions came from another writer. She had a very specific question about a situation with her agent. I’ll rephrase the question more generally, for her privacy, but I thought it was worth answering here.
How do I know when it’s time to look for a new agent? My agent wasn’t able to sell my last book and I’m not sure I should give her the next one. Maybe we’re not on the same wavelength.
Here’s the thing: No two agents are alike. No two editors are alike. Nine publishers will reject a manuscript and the tenth will snatch it up and make a success of it.
How is this possible? You would think that any agent would be able to recognize a publishable manuscript, and any publisher would want to publish one. Weirdly, it doesn’t work that way. A good friend of mine was rejected by an agent I thought would be perfect for her, only to be picked up by another agent and land a good publishing deal right away.
So–is it possible you just have the wrong agent? Maybe. Is it possible that your agent’s feedback on your manuscript was misdirected and not in your best interest? Sure, that’s possible.
Let me give you an example: with my second Kopp novel, Lady Cop Makes Trouble, one of the comments I received from an editor was, “I think you need to make the escaped fugitive more of a menace. I’m just not worried enough about the fact that he’s on the loose.”
So I could’ve made the fugitive into Hannibal Lecter. I could’ve turned the book into “a killer is on the loose and he must be stopped before he kills again.” But that wasn’t the kind of book I was trying to write. I didn’t want the readers to be worried about the fugitive’s next victim. I wanted them to be worried about Constance, and her job, and her future, and her well-being.
So I listened to that feedback, but I changed the novel in a different way. I made it more clear that the stakes were high for Constance. Another friend (who happens to be an editor) said, “You want people to be worried about Constance’s spirit.”
The point is–people can have a different vision for what kind of book you’re writing. Or they can sense that something’s wrong, but maybe they have a different idea about how to fix it than you do.
Here’s my suggestion. Treat this like the straightforward business conversation that it is. Your agent (and your editor, if and when you have one) are lovely people, but at the end of the day, they’re making business decisions. They will turn you loose if they can’t figure out how to make you a part of their business. They understand that you might have to do the same.
(Sidenote: I once told a friend who was waiting for an offer from a publisher: Remember that your publisher is not Santa Claus. This is not Christmas. It’s not a birthday present. It’s a business deal, one in which they get to write the contract and dictate the terms. Treat it like a business deal, because you can be sure they are.)
First–do give your agent a chance to read the next manuscript. It’s possible that all of her comments and feedback on the last book helped you to become a better writer, and that the new book benefits from her advice. If that’s the case, she absolutely should have a chance to launch your new book into the world. Remember, she doesn’t get paid until you get paid, so she’s invested a lot of unpaid labor into you so far. Maybe that’s about to pay off for both of you.
But if her comments on the new manuscript leave you feeling like things are still not right, it’s probably time to have an honest conversation about why your vision and hers don’t align. Remember, it’s YOUR book. Nobody’s forcing you to take anyone’s input. It’s okay to look for another agent.
And while you’re doing that, to distract yourself from the angst of an agent search. start your next book. Keep moving forward, and keep making art.
Here it is:
A two-hour writing session (I mean a serious session, no goofing around on the internet, but two hours of straight concentration and actual work) is as mentally taxing as taking a standardized test for two hours.
It’s as taxing as doing your taxes for two hours.
Meaning: after two hours, you are mentally drained.
Weirdly, I do not find this to be the case for other kinds of art. I can paint for two hours and I feel fine. I don’t think musicians are totally drained after two hours of playing the guitar.
Maybe two hours of trying to learn something NEW at the easel, or at the keyboard, would be exhausting. But the daily habit of making art? In my life, only writing takes such a toll.
The good news about this is that, after twenty years as a professional writer, I have figured this out about myself and I STOP after a couple of hours. I give it all my attention, all my focus, all my effort. I lock the door, I stay off the internet, I do the work. I write my pages.
But–when those couple of hours are over (or, more accurately, when those 1000 words are written, it just happens to take a couple of hours, more or less), I’m done. I don’t have another hour in me, so there’s no point in staring at the screen and trying to make it happen.
Now I plan my day around this. I give my writing the best few hours of the day (which, for me, is in the afternoon, after lunch) and for the rest of the day, I live my life. I go to the gym, I paint, I take care of some business-y tasks, maybe I do some research–but I don’t feel guilty about not putting in more time.
It helps that I don’t think of this as MY limit. I think of it as THE limit. It’s just a fact. Two hours = standardized test = you’re done for the day.
I just sent my editor a very early version of Book 6. While she’s reading it and making her notes, I thought I’d start to mull over Book 7.
This is just one of many methods I might use to start a novel. I didn’t invent it–I believe this is actually a screenwriting technique. Here’s how it works:
Start with one index card. Write the premise of the novel in just one line. It might be something like, “An ordinary boy discovers he’s a wizard and goes off to wizarding school.” (If you’re not sure how to sum up your story in one line, read the one-liners in the New York Times bestseller list for examples.)
Then take that idea and break it down into three ideas. That might be:
- An ordinary boy with a terrible aunt and uncle receives an acceptance letter to a school for wizards.
- He goes off to wizarding school, where he makes new friends and learns how to be a wizard.
- He faces off against an enemy and learns some secrets from his parents’ past.
OK, that may not be a perfect three-line summary of the first Harry Potter–it’s been a while since I read it. But you get the idea. You can think of it more or less as Act 1, Act 2, and Act 3.
Or: the beginning the middle, and the end.
Or: Before, During, and After.
Then you take those three cards, and you write three cards about each of them, for a total of nine cards.
That’s as far as I got yesterday. But what comes next is–you guessed it–take those nine cards, and write three cards about each of them, for a total of 27 cards.
Now, I will warn you that at this point it gets a little weird. You might not have three ideas for each of your nine cards. You might find yourself getting a little too detailed in some cards, and staying pretty vague in others. The fact is that most three-act stories aren’t evenly divided into thirds. The first third and the last third are generally much shorter.
But don’t worry about that! These are only index cards! They’re ideas. I’ve filled hundreds of index cards with bad, unworkable ideas. If you have an idea, but you think it won’t work, write it down anyway! It’s just a little card.
Now it’s time for the final step, which is to take all 27 cards and to write three cards about each one. This will give you 81 cards. And you know what 81 cards is?
81 cards is 81 scenes.
81 scenes is a book. Or a screenplay.
Generally speaking, of course! Your mileage may vary. But I promise you that if you can come up with 81 somewhat interconnected ideas for what might happen in your book, then you are on your way.
It’s not the only way to start. It’s not foolproof. Remember–a lot of those cards will have weird, wrong ideas on them! But now you have something tangible that you can mess around with.
Believe it or not, this idea is also super helpful later in the process, when your manuscript is a mess and you’re not sure how to fix it. Take that big pile of pages you’ve written, and translate it back into index cards–starting with just one line, then three, then nine…
You will find the holes in your story! You will have new ideas. You will start to move those cards around, and it will show you how you can move pages around.
At the very least, you’ll feel super-productive. It’s better than staring at a blank screen.
Sometimes artists fall into the trap of thinking that if they start with pencil, they’re not a real artist. They should be able to go directly into ink, or paint, or whatever.
But this is nonsense! Imagine if writing worked that way. If every word I typed went straight to the printer and ended up in the final book. What a mess that would be.
They’re even called DRAFTING tools! Drafting, like a first draft.
A pencil is a two-part tool: there’s the pencil, and there’s the eraser. You don’t use one without using the other. Picking up the eraser does not mean you made a mistake. It means you are DRAFTING. It’s what you’re SUPPOSED to do when you use a pencil. That’s the whole POINT of the pencil.
I like a Pentel side-click mechanical pencil, with lots of super-light HB leads, and a white hi-polymer eraser that doesn’t smudge the ink or mess up the texture of the paper. I used to always use a knead-able grey eraser, but they get so gross and sticky in my travel bag, so I made the switch.
Use a pencil. Embrace your eraser. That’s my position, folks.
A little over a year ago, I appointed myself Washington Park’s artist-in-residence. I’m not sure the people who run the park ever knew I was their artist in residence, but it didn’t matter. A self-appointed artist in residence doesn’t require anyone’s approval: that’s the singular benefit of doing it this way.
There’s no application process. No deadlines, no mission statements, no work samples or CV, and–best of all–no letters of recommendations. You don’t have to get dressed up and meet with a committee. You don’t have to give a talk, curate an exhibition, sit for interviews, host a lecture series, or even show your work.
All you do is make the art. On your own schedule, in whatever format you prefer, for whatever time frame suits you and the project. Share it or don’t share it, as you wish.
In my case, I’d just moved into our new place in Portland and realized right away that being a block from the entrance to Washington Park was one of the great benefits of living here. Every time I walked into the park, I noticed something that had changed: a tree’s leaves had turned, something was coming into bloom, something else was fading away.
This is not an accident. I’ve been around botanical gardens and horticulturalists long enough to know that it takes a good deal of effort to have something bursting into bloom every week of the year.
I thought it was worth noticing this, and documenting it. So starting on December 22, 2017 (the day after the solstice, which was a coincidence but also fitting), I went up into the park whenever I could and drew a picture.
Washington Park spans 400 acres. I did not in any way cover the entire park. I rarely made it outside the rose garden and its immediate surroundings, because that’s what’s closest to my house. And I didn’t get there as often as I would’ve liked over the course of a year, which was the timeframe I’d chosen for the residency. I still have five or six blank pages in the back of the sketchbook, so I’ll be adding to it when I can.
A self-appointed artist’s residency doesn’t have to span a year or 400 acres. You could declare (as Banksy did) a residency in New York, or some other place, for as long as you happen to be there. A weekend, a couple of weeks, a month.
You can also define “location” quite broadly. You could be the artist-in-residence at a coffee shop, a public park, a bridge, or an entire city. Maybe you would like to be the official artist-in-residence of winter, or of a sports team, or of–I don’t know–birds. You could appoint yourself the unofficial artist-in-residence of your neighborhood’s birds. Why not?
You can see all the drawings on Instagram. Meanwhile, here’s a quick tour of the sketchbook:
So I’ve persuaded you to let go of this idea of talent, and child prodigies, and to put down the neuroscience and back away slowly.
Maybe I’ve convinced you that you—yes, you—could, even with your meager, talentless, non-optimized brain, learn to play the piano or draw a picture.
But! You might argue now. I can’t spend twenty years on this! I didn’t go to art school, and now I can’t. It’s too late. I’m too old. I can’t afford it. I don’t have time.
I took art classes once a week, on Wednesday nights, except when I was out of town, which was often. The classes cost $25. Some weeks I practiced outside of class, and some weeks I didn’t. Then I took some online classes that cost about $30 for several hours of instruction. I took those classes at home, in spare minutes, instead of looking at Facebook.
You probably have twenty-five bucks and a couple hours a week.
Now, I did that for fifteen years. Ah-ha! you might say. There it is. I don’t have fifteen years. I’m sixty already. If I started now, I’d be seventy-five by the time I got to that point.
But guess what? You’re going to be seventy-five anyway. (At least, I hope you will.) The only question is whether you’ll be a skilled artist at the age of seventy-five or not. Which would you prefer?
I thought so. Go ahead and start.
A very nice woman in her early seventies sat down next to me on a bench in Oxford, MS a few months ago while I was doing this not terribly sophisticated drawing. She said what people always say: “Oh, you’re so talented, I wish I could do that, I’ve always wanted to, can I just watch you draw, can I take a picture….”
And I said yes, and she sat where while I drew and we talked. She’d had a tough couple of years, with some health problems and having to move to a small town to take care of her ninety-something year-old mother. Her husband hadn’t yet retired. Everything was kind of rough.
“But someday!” she said. “Maybe in a few years I’ll try something like that.”
This woman is in her seventies, y’all! And I’m not saying that life ends at 70, but…if you’re still postponing things in your seventies? Get going!
And if you’re postponing things in your forties or fifties or sixties, let me warn you…this will be you, in your seventies! Still putting it off! Because that’s what you got used to doing.
“Oh no,” I said. “Not someday. Now. I keep all these art supplies in a bag by the front door. I can walk out the door and be back in half an hour. These are not great works of art that take hours and hours to finish. But I can fill a book with them.”
OK, sure, you might be thinking. Maybe I can take a lesson. Maybe I can keep some art supplies sitting out and pick them up for thirty minutes here and there. Maybe anyone can be taught the technical skills. But there’s more to it than that. It’s not enough to know how to draw. You have to know WHAT to draw. Where to place it on the page. How to set the mood. That can’t be taught.
People have said that to me, and pointed to my drawings as evidence. You chose to draw that clock tower against the sky, they say. I would’ve walked by and never noticed it. That’s your talent.
I have even more bad news: All of that is teachable, too. How to choose a subject is a topic in any drawing course, and, for that matter, in any writing course. How to find a focal point is a topic, in both drawing and writing. Composition—where to place the elements of your drawing so they are arranged pleasingly on the page—that’s a teachable topic (as is story structure, the literary version of composition). How to convey mood through the use of perspective, close-ups, values (light and dark), and color—that’s a teachable topic.
But I’ll never be any good, you’re now protesting, weakly.
I think we finally got to the heart of it, didn’t we?
Here’s a promise: You’ll be as good as the instruction you receive. You’ll be as good as the practice you put in. You’ll be as good as the curiosity and engagement you bring to it.
But—wait. You know what? It doesn’t matter how good you get.
All that matters is whether you enjoy it.
Because when people stop to watch me draw, and say, “I wish I could do that,” the word that matters is DO. They don’t really want to have produced that particular drawing. What they really want is the pleasure of sitting under a tree with a watercolor set, creating some passable facsimile of the scene in front of them. It’s the activity that looks so pleasurable to people.
And anyone can learn to make a passable drawing of a landscape, and enjoy doing it.
Anyone can learn to play three chords on the guitar, which will allow you to play a recognizable version of almost every popular song written since 1950.
The question isn’t how good you’ll get. I’m willing to bet that your wish to paint, or draw, or write poetry, isn’t born out of a desire to make art that other people will universally regard as brilliant. You’re probably not longing to play the piano because you want to hear other people praising you.
You probably just really want to do that thing, and to do it well enough that you don’t give up in frustration after five minutes. You want to be able to play a song all the way through to the end. You want to be able to fill a sketchbook with memories of your trip. You want to write a story about that thing that happened to you.
Guess what? You can. The Talent Fairy did not pass you by. The truth is that the Talent Fairy was a figment of your imagination.
Now that she’s out of the way, go sign up for a class. Make something, and enjoy doing it.
This is one of a series of posts I wrote about this notion that the pursuit of art (or any passion, really) is something you’re either born to do or not. Read all of them:
I can hear your objections already.
I don’t know why some people are child prodigies and I don’t care. Child prodigies exist on one extreme end of a spectrum of what children are capable of doing. I wasn’t a child prodigy and neither were you, so let’s stop involving them in this conversation.
I know. I get it. You have a vague idea that Science Says that some people’s brains are just wired for music or painting or writing or dancing. You have definitely read this somewhere. Surely Georgia O’Keeffe’s brain was wired for color and abstraction. Surely Miles Davis’ brain was wired for jazz. Surely e.e. cumming’s brain was wired for groundbreaking free verse.
You know this because you have a nephew who can play anything. Just give him a musical instrument and a couple hours, and he’ll have it figured out. You have a neighbor who speaks five languages and can get by in a dozen more. You have a cousin who’s some kind of math genius, you don’t even understand it, but what she can do is really special.
And that’s because of their brains. It’s because of neuroscience. It has to be.
Because if it wasn’t their very special brains, where does that leave us?
It leaves us with the possibility that if someone carries out their craft with a basic amount of skill, it’s because they took classes and practiced. If they do it exceptionally well, it might be that they studied with some very good teachers and practiced with particular focus over a long period of time.
It leaves us with the possibility that any one of us could do the same.
That’s terrifying, so let’s retreat back to this idea of talent for a minute. I got curious about when we invented the word talent, and what it originally meant. When did we first develop this idea that talent was an inborn trait?
It turns out that the word ‘talent’ goes back to the Hebrews, Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans. It was a unit of measurement—specifically, a measurement of weight. For example, a talent of gold might have been the equivalent of the value of one cow. There’s a parable of talent in the Bible, in which ‘talent’ refers to material possessions—to wealth, to things of value that you own.
OK, I can see a connection to our modern use of the word. But how did we go from seeing talent as a material good to seeing it as a skill?
That change seems to have happened in the fifteenth century, but maybe there’s a clue from ancient Greece, where another definition was applied to the word talent. Instead of a talent of gold being equal to the value of a cow, it was equal to the value of one person’s lifelong labor—which at that time was twenty years.
Wait. A talent equals twenty years of a person’s working life? A working life that was no doubt spent apprenticing and practicing?
In that case, ‘talent’ wasn’t meant to be something you were born with at all. It was something that took you twenty years of effort to acquire. Quite literally, it meant the wages you earned over twenty years—but you might think of it as the accumulation of skill, too.
So let’s get back to you… (stay tuned for the next post)
This is one of a series of posts I wrote about this notion that the pursuit of art (or any passion, really) is something you’re either born to do or not. Read all of them: