Archive for the ‘Just for writers’ Category
Cindy La Ferle on March 10th, 2013
Memory is a way of holding onto the things you love, the things you are, the things you never want to lose.” ~From “The Wonder Years”
Several years ago, I decided to write a St. Patrick’s Day column about my mother’s beloved Grandpa Finney, the son of an Irish immigrant.* I knew he was a moderately successful watercolor artist — and one of the most eccentric characters perched on our family tree — but I needed more material for my piece.
Turning to Mom for help, I asked her to jot down a few memories of her grandfather. Thrilled by the invitation, she gathered a handful of vintage family photographs and got to work. Her four-page letter recounted poignant stories of how Grandpa Finney struggled to make a living as a commercial illustrator during the Depression, working such long hours that he’d often fall asleep at his drafting table.
I only wish I had asked my mother to do this more often. In recent years, vascular dementia has robbed or altered most of her memories, and she has no living relatives to share any family anecdotes left untold.
Since then, I’ve come to believe that our life stories are the most valuable legacies we can leave our loved ones — and that it’s never too early to start writing them down.
Once you commit to the project, you’ll want to create a “memoir file” in your computer. Inspiration is unpredictable, so make a habit of keeping your favorite pen and a notebook handy, too. But before you begin, it’s important to understand the difference between autobiography and memoir.
“Memoir isn’t the summary of a life, it’s a window into a life, very much like a photograph is selective in its composition,” William Zinsser explains in On Writing Well: An Informal Guide to Writing Nonfiction (Harper Perennial).
In other words, your autobiography would document your entire life, starting with your earliest memories and chronicling events up to the present. A memoir, on the other hand, would focus tightly on a peak experience or turning point, such as the summer your uncle taught you how to operate his tractor before you were old enough to drive, or the year you were diagnosed with breast cancer.
I encourage students in my writing workshops to choose memoir over autobiography. It’s much easier to write about one key experience at a time, whether your goal is a book-length memoir or a series of short personal essays.
Here are a few tips to help you mine some memorable treasure:
- Make a list of life-changing events, large and small. Put a check by the ones you’ll want to write about first.
- Hush your inner critic and give yourself permission to write freely. Worry about editing and packaging the final product after you’ve written a first draft.
- Explore your stash of souvenirs and heirlooms. Choose one, then write an essay about how you acquired it and what it means to you. (If you plan to pass the item along to a loved one, include a copy of your piece.)
- Use a family recipe as a prompt and delve into the memories it stirs. Your Italian grandmother’s spicy eggplant Parmesan, for instance, is redolent of old-country stories and celebrations.
- Grab a box of colored pencils and draw a map of your childhood bedroom. Write about your favorite toys and the pals who visited.
- Interview the elders in your family, asking them to share anything from a love song to a war story. Record the interview.
- Be a master of detail. Use proper names and employ all of your senses when you write. Turn to family photo albums if you need visual reminders of former homes, cars, and clothing styles.
- Avoid aimless rambling; make a point and arrive at a conclusion. Your memoir will be more engaging if it imparts your wisdom, advice or a life lesson.
As Saul Bellow once wrote, “Memories keep the wolf of insignificance from the door.” When we commit our stories to the page, we’re often surprised to discover that our “ordinary” lives are richer than we’d realized. We renew our appreciation for everything we’ve inherited, earned, or lost along the way – including our eccentric relatives. – Cindy La Ferle
– This column was originally published in Prime magazine (formerly Michigan Senior Living) last year. My column appears bimonthly in the magazine. Watch for the next issue in the April 7 edition of the Sunday Detroit News and Free Press. –
*The St. Patrick’s Day column, titled “My Wild Irish Relative,” is included in my essay collection, Writing Home. Photo shown above: A watercolor painting by Russell P. Finney, given to my parents on their wedding day.
Cindy La Ferle on January 10th, 2013
Every artist dips his brush in his own soul, and paints his own nature into his pictures. ~Henry Ward Beecher
This the last of a three-part series on this project …
At this point, the portrait finally gains a three-dimensional layer. It’s the most enjoyable step in the process, giving the imagination free reign and a permission slip to have fun.
For this step you’ll need an industrial-strength glue to secure the heavier objects to the piece. I use E-6000 on most mixed-media projects.
To create the headdress, I combed through several boxes of treasure I’ve collected from thrift stores, garage sales, craft stores and flea markets. Old rhinestone jewelry, vintage hardware, buttons, sewing notions. … You name it, I collect it. And when I’m out walking or riding my bike, I often stop to pocket bottle caps, gears, and rusted can lids. Finding soulful beauty in these found objects, I often make a home for them in my artwork. To me, the broken or damaged items have more character — their own backstory — and I love how they add an air of intrigue to any piece of artwork.
For this self-portrait project, I let my mind wander as I selected items to build the headdress. Think of it as free association.
It struck me that the headdress could double as an expression of what’s going on inside my head while I’m dreaming or working out a problem, for instance. I thought about the goals I‘d scripted for my life when I was young — and where the journey has taken me since.
Rust and rhinestones
Picking through my button collection, I found a small copper button engraved with a locomotive. This item appealed to me instantly, reminding me of my son’s boyhood fascination with trains and all the lovely times we spent walking the railroad tracks at a local park. (Some of the rusty iron and tin scraps used in this piece were collected near those same tracks.)
Likewise, the old fountain pen nibs honor my writing career, so I inserted them at the lower right side of the headdress. The weathered faucet grips (pilfered from my husband’s hardware stash in the basment) and the twigs (from our back yard) salute my interest in gardening and the natural world.
Because I was born in Detroit — and my Scottish-immigrant grandfather had a tool and die shop — I wanted the headdress to have some edgy, industrial components. So, I included small gears and rusty machine parts along with the sparkling rhinestone jewelry. The Celtic knot triangle at the top of the headdress represents my beloved Scots-Irish heritage, while the stars sprinkled in the background suggest the night sky, when we’re all dreaming.
Most important of all, the butterfly – floating in three different places – has been my personal totem for many years. During the roughest times in my life, including my two hip-replacement surgeries, the butterfly served as a reminder of transformation, hope, and recovery.
Lastly, in the “necklace” I created, you’ll see a remnant of costume jewelry, missing its original stone, which I refashioned to contain the photograph of an eye. Flipping through a fashion magazine, I found a photo of a female celebrity whose eye color looked fairly close to mine. (Can you guess whose eye it is?) The eye detail borrows from the mythology of the “all-seeing” eye, but also plays as a pun on the word “I” – all in good fun and just right for a self-portrait like this.
Once I adhered my chosen objects to the canvas, I applied another wash of black paint and antiquing glaze around the items that needed to be toned down.
I can hear some of you asking: Why bother with the background layer, given that it barely shows beneath the other layers? In a nutshell, making a collage is a process of trial-and-error. It’s all about discovery and surprise — a lot like crafting a life. The past – our base layer – informs the life we have now, no matter how much we’ve morphed and changed in the process. Along the way, we keep adding little gems of experience and a few hard-as-metal lessons. – Cindy La Ferle
– For a larger view, please click on each photograph; it will enlarge a couple of times if you click on a section of interest. If you missed the first two parts of this series, simply scroll down to the posts following this one. –
All photos copyrighted by Cindy La Ferle
Cindy La Ferle on January 9th, 2013
“Creativity always takes courage. — Henri Matisse
This is part two of a three-part series …
Bring on the acrylic paints! Adding more texture and brighter color to the background layer is the next step before adhering a photo of myself to the center.
Not unlike adolescence, this part of the process can be a little scary, not to mention messy.
As Matisse pointed out, creativity demands our courage. Having learned this lesson the hard way over the years, I keep trying to push myself out of my comfort zone, whether I’m working on an article or an art project.
You’ll recall from yesterday’s post that I was pleased with the fresh look of my first background layer — and was tempted to leave it alone.
Instead, I asked myself which areas of the layered canvas I wanted to show through – even slightly – in the final piece. From the start, I wanted the red-haired Renaissance child to show through the additional layers of acrylic paint and stain — plus I wanted to retain a few letters of the alphabet. So, I made sure I didn’t cover too much of those areas when I layered more paint on the canvas.
Why the bright splashes of red and neon pink? I wanted some color to warm up the darker “antiqued” palette I’d planned for the portrait. These colorful, random splashes will almost disappear once I layer a thin wash of sepia-toned acrylic stain over the entire background layer. (Please click on the photos for a larger view.)
I’m drawn to things that have a patina or a worn, “aged” appearance — they carry a certain mystery and romance. Of course, that’s simply a matter of personal style and taste. This might not appeal to you, so it you prefer a brighter palette, go for it. There’s not a “right way” to do this, so it’s best to leave any trace of perfectionism at the back door.
Next, for heavier texture, I squeezed generous amounts of tacky craft glue (Elmer’s is one choice) on the corners and swirled them into circular shapes. My goal was to imitate the look of an ornate picture frame at the edges.
Later, as you will see below, I added touches of metallic gold and bronze paint to these areas after the glue dried.
Next step: Toning it down, adding the photograph
Once the glue dried, I began the process of toning down the background layers, to make them recede behind the photo to be added at the next stage. To do this, I thinned deeper shades of brown and charcoal paint with a glazing medium, then dabbed it over the canvas with a sponge or paper toweling. Again, my goal was to create depth and texture; to make the piece three-dimensional.
Now, to make this a real self-portrait, I placed a copy of a vintage black-and-white photograph in the center of my layered canvas. (I was about 25 years old in this photo, so it qualifies as “vintage” — right?)
As noted earlier, I wanted the painting of the Renaissance child to show in the portrait, so I positioned my own photo in such a way that the child appears to be looking over my shoulder.
I liked the way this plays on the idea that “the past” is always behind as an influence, and that my younger self is still part of me.
Again, I used gel medium to adhere my black-and-white photo, then let it dry. Then — using a lot of Mod Podge — I added a few scraps of old lace at the neckline to create a collar. After it dried, I layered several washes of stain over the lace.
While I wanted to “tone down” the background layers, I decided not to antique the photo of myself. With the darker palette I envisioned for the final version, I knew that I’d want the face to “pop” from the background. But my “Memoir on Canvas” is nowhere near completion here — and the fun part is next. Stay tuned …
TOMORROW: Adding found objects and finishing the portrait
– All photos and material copyrighted by Cindy La Ferle –
Cindy La Ferle on January 8th, 2013
“Art enables us to find ourselves and lose ourselves at the same time.” — Thomas Merton
The first week of the new year always invites introspection, making it the perfect time to start the mixed-media self-portrait I’ve been putting off for years.
I’m happy to report that it was one of the most satisfying creative projects I’ve ever attempted.
I enjoyed it so much, in fact, that I hope you’ll be inspired to try a self-portrait too. I can promise this much: You’ll unearth buried treasure in your own heart — if not your junk drawers — as you cut, paste, paint, and dabble along. Consider it art therapy, if you must, or a chance to re-imagine your goals and dreams.
So what possessed me to give this project a whirl?
Throughout my writing career, I’ve specialized in memoir, telling my “story” in bits and pieces through newspaper columns, magazine essays, and blog posts. And while the mixed-media artwork I do is another form of self-expression, I’ve never attempted to do anything quite as personal as a self-portrait. My assemblages, for instance, are typically focused on nature, my ancestors, spiritual themes, or even favorite authors. And I’ve never included a photo of myself in my work.
Inspired by the cover story of the November/December issue of Somerset Studio last year — featuring an awesome mixed-media self-portrait by artist Anna Dabrowska-Pecocka — I fetched a fresh 16” x 20” canvas and got to work on my “Memoir on Canvas” project.
You’ll unearth buried treasure in your own heart — if not your junk drawers — as you cut, paste, paint, and dabble along.
In the process, I discovered that creating a self-portrait has a great deal in common with writing a memoir. Collage is another form of storytelling, of course, but it relies more on intuition than literal memories. Like life itself, a mixed-media piece is assembled one layer at a time. (SPOILER ALERT: Soon, you’ll see that my finished portrait looks nothing like the background layer shown in the photo.)
It also occurred to me that my styles in writing and art are incredibly different. I prefer clean, uncluttered paragraphs in my essays, but tend to go for a richer, more complex “vocabulary” in my artwork. Best of all, artwork wakes up the right side of my brain and urges me to put my inner editor and critic to sleep.
Over the next few days, I’ll be posting a mini tutorial on this project, showing you photos of my portrait in its various stages. What you’re viewing here is only the start. Please remember to click on the photographs for a much larger view.
Step 1: An intuitive background layer
This step is a chance to play freely. Like a child with a new box of crayons, you grab all materials that immediately appeal to you. Never over-think what you “should” use for your base layer. The possibilities are limitless, although it’s important to ensure that you can adhere everything securely to the canvas. Explore the variety of strong adhesives at your local craft store.
Tissue, wallpaper samples, newspaper photos and clippings, fabric or magazine scraps … I chose intuitively, for the most part, although I did make a point of including letters of the alphabet to honor my love of the written word. At the same time, I deliberately included a print of a Renaissance painting of an auburn-haired child, to represent my much-younger self and to serve as a nod to a period of history that always appealed to me — a period of creative discovery in art and science.
For this step, I also added scraps of fabric as well as vintage lace I’ve collected from thrift stores. These choices reflect my interest in textiles and fashion, and will do their part to add some interesting texture when paint is added later. After using Golden Gel Medium and Mod Podge (matte finish) to adhere my base layer to the canvas, I put the project aside for a day to dry thoroughly.
Though I hadn’t even added my own photograph to the center of the piece yet, I was tempted to leave the background layer “as is” because I liked its composition. But this first layer is merely the rough outline (or draft) for my “story” – and, as you’ll see over the next couple of days, it still needs a narrative.
Tomorrow’s post: Adding more texture, color, and a photograph of me.
Cindy La Ferle on January 2nd, 2013
The happiness of life is made up of minute fractions — the little, soon-forgotten charities of a smile, a kind look, a heart-felt compliment, and the countless infinitesimals of pleasurable and genial feeling.” - Samuel Taylor Coleridge
Every author I know enjoys getting mail from readers who found that his or her book “hit home” or touched them in some way.
But to wake up on New Year’s Day to discover such a note in your email — first thing in the morning — is just as sweet as finding a bouquet of spring blooms or a box of Gayle’s handmade truffles on your doorstep.
And so it was that I “met” Tina, a kindred spirit who happens to own the Paperback Book Exchange in Neenah, Wisconsin. Tina explained in her email that she’d purchased my book, Writing Home, while visiting Michigan a couple of years ago. She’d put it aside until she found time to read it, picking it up late last year. “I didn’t want it to end,” she wrote. “Many of your pieces touched home with me.”
As if that weren’t lovely enough, she also asked if I had any promotional bookmarks or materials she could share with readers who visit her shop.
If you’re an avid reader, you’ll want to “like” Tina’s Facebook page for the Paperback Book Exchange. As you’ll see from the shop’s cover photo, there’s even a resident cat — which made me wish I lived closer to Neenah, WI, and could visit the place right away. For now, it’s on my Midwest Travel Bucket List.
All said and done, Tina’s email got me thinking — especially since I’m still composing my list of New Year’s resolutions. Maybe I could “pay it forward” and start writing notes to brighten someone else’s day.
I’m also reminded of Carloyn See’s Making a Literary Life, a book stuffed with great advice for writers. See suggests writing what she calls “charming notes” to poets, novelists, editors, or artists whose work you’ve enjoyed or admired. (We’re all too quick to criticize — and too slow to pay compliments — she explains.)
But the way I see it, there’s no reason to limit the practice to authors or artists. Why not write a note to anyone who’s sweetened or changed your life somehow? Maybe you could thank the mail carrier or the pet sitter or the waiter who serves your coffee at the local diner? All kinds of wonderful things will happen, Carolyn See promises. At the very least, you just might make someone’s day. – Cindy La Ferle