Five Tips for Keeping a Writer's Journal ...

Hey, readers!  Today I've got a post over at The O.W.L. about how to keep an artist's journal.[1. O.W.L. stands for "Outrageously Wonderful Literature," of course!]  I've blogged about keeping a journal before, but this time the piece is written for kids who want to start writing.   Still, the five tips I mention are applicable to pretty much everybody.  Also, the site is giving away a copy of Peter Nimble to one lucky commenter -- you should check it out!

Drawing in Church ...

The above picture is one I drew in church last week.  My whole life, I've drawn in church.  My father was a pastor when I was growing up, and my mum understood that drawing can help right-brained people concentrate.[1. My mum never wore the "pastor's wife" hat too comfortably. More than once she was confronted by ladies in the congregation for wearing too much black.]  And so every Sunday, when my father started his sermon, she would pull a box of art supplies from her purse so the two of us could draw.

Drawing can have a powerful meditative effect.  My mother's work -- which she affectionately refers to as her "knittings" -- elevates this idea to a new level.  Each painting represents hundreds of hours of meticulous, repetitive mark-making to build textures.  All of these large-scale paintings began as tiny "knittings" worked out in small notebooks, sometimes in church.



I recently discovered another artist who draws in church.  Abrams illustrator John Hendrix has an entire section of his website devoted to drawings he's done while sitting through sermons.  I'll let him explain:

"Drawing in my sketchbook is the very best part of my work. I love it because it is linear improvisation. Much like jazz, it is unpredictable, exciting and unfiltered. Often with very good and very bad results. I attend church every Sunday, and I draw during the sermon. All of these pages were done in a pew (though I don't bring my watercolors with me- that waits till I get home). Simultaneous drawing and listening transforms familiar language into something new- a feedback loop of symbols, theology and wonder."

John's work puts me to shame.  Behold:


I think this sort of meditative drawing extends beyond the pews.[2. Just to be clear, the sermon I heard this week had nothing to do with baseball or monsters ... though part of me wishes it had.]  When I got to college, I started drawing in journals while I listened to lectures.  A lot of the pictures were mnemonic devices related to the lecture, others were the germs of what would later become stories.   (I still remember the afternoon in graduate school when I found myself sketching a certain blind thief!) 

College also happens to be when I started to become a better student -- my grades went up, and I started to take a more active role in what I was learning.  I don't think that's a coincidence.  I can't help but wonder whether there are kids out there struggling with school who might be helped by being given a box of art supplies?

I'm Sorry, Pigeons ...

For as long as I've known her, my wife has had a profound hatred of pigeons.[1. Actually, there is one pigeon that Mary approves of. It is her yellow Flying Pigeon Bicycle, imported from China. It is magnificent ... and it weighs 500 lbs.]  She claims this has something to do with having grown up on a farm.  However, I suspect her feelings are part of a larger cultural bias.  While I don't have anything against pigeons per se, I try to make a practice of taking Mary's side whenever I can.  It is for that reason that I turned a blind eye after a trip we took to New York last year.  The trip was publishing related, and while I was talking with editors and such, Mary was free to  wander the city.  One afternoon, we met up and she was so excited to tell me what she had done at Central Park, something she had dreamed of doing for years:  She kicked a pigeon. You know how pigeons are always playing chicken (as it were) with pedestrians?  Remaining in place until just the last second before flying away?  This mocking behavior had led to something of an obsession in my wife -- she had long grumbled that one day she'd show those pigeons who was boss.  At last that day had come.  She kept revisiting the scene that night, explaining how she snuck up on it, closed her eyes, and gave it a good wallop -- "Pow! Right in the tail-feathers!"[2. After reading this post, Mary has asked me to clarify that she "barely grazed" the bird, and that the creature sustained no injuries. Having been kicked by Mary before, I sincerely doubt it.] I even drew a picture of her triumph in my journal:

End of story.  Or so I thought.  During my recent illustration bonanza, however, I found myself free to listen to a lot of podcasts.[3. This was also my chance to work through many episodes of Katie Davis' publishing podcast Brain Burps About Books ... truly wonderful stuff.]  Among those podcasts was the show Radiolab.  For those that don't know, Radiolab is a show that blends pop-sociology and science -- if This American Life interviewed scientists and had sound effects, it would be this show.  One of the episodes I listened to was called "Lost & Found".  It was all about navigation, and it featured a profile on carrier pigeons.  Over the course of the show, I learned the following facts about these so-called "soccer-balls with wings" (another of Mary's nicknames):

- Carrier pigeons are monogamous. In fact, if you make a carrier pigeon think his mate is being hit upon by a rival, he will fly home even faster.

- While many birds have a sort of internal compass, carrier pigeons have an internal GPS.  This means you can knock one unconscious, ship it halfway around the world, and when it wakes up it will instantly know its coordinates.

- There was a carrier pigeon in WWII named "G.I. Joe" who single-wingedly saved an entire Italian village.

Pigeons, you have my heartfelt apologies.

All Hail the Rat King ...

Earlier today the children's book world was squirming in unison from a tweet sent by Jennifer Laughran.  It was a link to a Wikipedia article about something called a "rat king."  Rat kings are clusters of rats whose tails have become intertwined -- either with blood, excrement, dirt, or plain-old tangling.  Apparently they continue to live in these large co-joined packs for quite some time. The Wikipedia article features a photo of a mummified rat king which is pretty disgusting.  I warned Mary not to click on the link, but she could not resist.  She saw the page for all of half-a-second before screaming and almost dropping her computer.  When she looked up again, I was already hunched over my journal, drawing away:

Don't be surprised if one of these things ends up in a book of mine one day.  You have been warned.

Little Black Book(s) ...

Anyone who knows me knows that I always carry a black, spiral-bound journal under one arm.  It's full of things I've seen and read -- if you say something really witty at a party, I might just open up the book and write it down.[1. Over the years, I've developed a complicated system of symbols to indicate attribution of ideas so that I don't accidentally use someone else's original ideas in my own writing.]  I know some writers treat their notebooks like pieces of art, but that's never really worked for me -- I need something fast and functional. It took me years to find a journal that was the right size and weight, and once I finally got something, I stuck with it.[2. I know a lot of people gush about Moleskine notebooks, but I can't draw in something with a closed binding.]  I've been using the same model notebook and pen for over ten years now.  The first time I sold a piece of art, I used all the money to buy a reserve supply of both, just in case the manufacturers went out of business!

Wanna see what's inside these magical pages?   To do that, you'll have to mosey on over to The Reading Zone where Sarah Mulhern has collected images from a bunch of different authors' notebooks -- including mine.[3. Sarah is just one of many bloggers working to promote literacy in a gigantic blogging event called Share a Story - Shape a Future.]  Among the photos in her post, you'll find a rough sketch illustrating my second-favorite Roald Dahl scene ... one million blog points to whoever can guess the picture in advance!

What My Wife Thinks of Socrates ...

Scanned from my Winter 2011 journal ...

The other day Mary and I were having a conversation with a friend about the Socratic method. Our friend was remarking on how difficult it was to get his undergraduate students talking. This was particularly puzzling to him because the group of students in question were a pretty smart bunch. I observed that part of his problem may be in the fact that a good discussion requires people who are willing to state the obvious -- and who wants to do that? This is what followed:

What's the moral of the story? Apparently, I'm no Socrates.

Worst Way to Die ...

Scanned from my Spring 2005 journal: My friend Karen[1. 1. Mary has asked me to note that Karen and her brother have grown up to be normal, well-adjusted members of society] used to play this game when she and her brother were kids. The called it "Worst Way to Die." The title pretty much says it all. The two of them would take turns trying to one-up each other with the most awful death scenarios they could think of. After a while, the game turned collaborative. They put their heads together to come up with this:

Now we've all thought about lemon juice in a paper cut, but the styrofoam takes things to a whole new level. Not only are you in pain. Not only are you drowning. But you are also going to look ridiculous trying to keep your head above the surface. The moral of the story? Kids are awesome.

Feel free to throw any of your own "Worst Way to Die" submissions in the comments.

No, We're Not Playing Battleship ...

More than once Mary and I have found ourselves with a problem: two people, one book. This is the sort of thing that can destroy a marriage. (We barely survived the Deathly-Hallows-Shortage of '07.) The problem most recently came up with DM Cornish's Lamplighter[1. 1. a book about which I have many, many thoughts ... more to come]. And so we came up with a "novel solution"...

This is the first of many scans I will be posting from my journals, which contain all manner of ridiculous pictures, trivia, and insightful quotes (like the one in the marginalia box up on the right). That's it!