Creative Cross-training

My sad little orange

This is a follow up to the post a couple weeks ago about what a sad thing it is that growing up means winnowing one’s avenues for artistic expression. As I said there, even as I love all the arts, I am really a words person.

But even within that category, I have a narrower idea of self. In college, I wrote poetry and decided I was bad at fiction writing. As an adult, I’ve decided that nonfiction is really my home. The personal essay, cultural criticism, and the researched academic essay are arenas in which I feel comfortable and for which my performance has been rewarded.

But, like lots of people, I’ve got some squirrely little ideas moving around in my brain. I consume loads of thrillers and murder mysteries. A disturbing amount, according to my husband, who sometimes wonders about the effects of consuming so much violent material just before bedtime. And so, over time, an idea for a murder mystery has started to take blurry shape.

I’ve looked at NaNoWriMo in the past, but it has never seemed like the right time. Over the past five years, I’ve been pregnant twice, gone up for tenure at my university, and have generally had lots of excuses. But this year my two girls are both doing well in daycare and I am on sabbatical writing my next academic book, which means time is more my own than usual. And so, as I’ll probably track next month, I’ll stretch my sense of self as a words person just a bit.

But the weirder experiment I’ve taken up this month, which feels equal parts silly and interesting, is jumping in to another challenge as a way to gear up for NaNoWriMo. For, in addition to being Preptober, it’s also Inktober. The ‘tobers abound, it seems!

I have grown increasingly interested in visual expression, despite having no particular talent or skillset in this realm. Mostly, it seems like a helpful counterpoint to my tendency to process everything through language. I’ve found this to be true with exercise; moving my body feels balancing to the work I normally pursue.

Following the Inktober prompts has been a fun spur to creativity. For each one, I’m challenging myself to make the drawing somehow relate to the murder mystery. So, when the prompt was “Enchanted,” I tried to think about what this might mean in the context of my Hollywood noir, was reminded of Nathaniel West’s novel The Day of the Locust in which he talks about California’s promise of oranges during the Great Depression. I drew a rough sketch of an orange and jotted down some thoughts about the broad cast of extras who will fill out the novel as well as their dreams of the orange’s sweetness.

More interestingly, working in a visual and verbal register AND being bad at it is making me think differently. Partly because drawing makes me ask a series of new questions. For the prompt “ring,” for example, I decided that my protagonist would have a ringing in his ears. My task was then to draw him.

So, there were questions: how does one draw ears? What about his particular ears? Maybe, since I’ve decided he’s a WWI veteran, he will have scarring.

What about hair? Where does hair start on the forehead? Oh, what were men’s hairstyles like in the 1930s? Time for research.

Working across the verbal and the visual has the effect of opening another aperture for thinking. Instead of describing the character’s hair as “dark,” I’ve made some decisions about his particular hairstyle. If I knew more about drawing faces, I suspect I would have access to even more information. But, minimally, I know more than I might have working only within the medium I find most comfortable.

I’ve applied a similar concept to teaching in the past. When I teach cinematography in introduction to film studies, for example, I usually send my students out with their phones to take pictures that represent “high angle,” “low angle,” and “canted” shots. Even though I teach film studies rather than film production, and my students and I will communicate verbally via exams and papers, working visually for a day helps them know the concepts more deeply.

Other people seem to know these benefits as well. Here’s a gorgeous example of a similar and more extensive experiment in using dance to teach physics to 10th grade students.

It’s a silly thing, but the annual “Dance your PhD” competition which asks scientists to dance their thesis seems like it must have a clarifying effect on the doctoral students who participate, as they make choices about how to transfer dense scientific concepts into song, dance and video. Here’s an example called “Superconductivity: The Musical.”

Theodora, Photo by Nadar (Wikimedia Commons)

Professional artists have long had other creative hobbies. I’m reading about the 19th-century actress Sarah Bernhardt right now (she’s fascinating, and if you’re curious, you can check out Sharon Marcus’s The Drama of Celebrity). In addition to being an iconoclastic actress whose talent and celebrity inspired cultish devotion, Bernhardt also painted. I can’t help but think that this other outlet informed her main creative work. In the portraits she sat for, Bernhardt posed herself very carefully, and unusually for a woman of her day. Her acting style and selection of parts were similarly distinctive. It seems quite possible that thinking in terms of visual composition, which a painter must, might have had at least some influence on the way she thought about her self-presentation.

In the past, dabbling in other writing modes has benefitted my main writing work. From experimenting with more journalistic and essayistic styles, I’ve imported the concept of scene setting to my academic writing. Too, it’s made me think more about the quality of individual sentences and how I order the presentation of information. As I move into this new experiment, I’ll be curious to see whether and how my more regular writing practice changes.

Are any of you doing NaNoWriMo? Inktober? What other goofy creative experiments are out there? Let me know! And, as always, if either you or someone else is a mother who works in a creative field and would like to be featured on the blog, please reach out.

One Comment Add yours

  1. Jemma @Fantastic Books says:

    This was a fascinating read! I’m taking part in NaNo this month too, I hope you enjoy it!

    Liked by 1 person

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