Goal setting, making assignments and Big Magic

notebook for big dreams bottle branch blog

I’m not exactly a goal setting type person, but I do like to assign myself tasks. I dream big, make plans, write lists in my trusty decomposition notebook. I never get around to doing it all – there are so, so many projects I’ve planned, needlework patterns I’ve imagined, and essays I’ve started that have fallen by the wayside.

Still, each week, I assign myself a few tasks related to my creative life and especially my blog and/or creative business. I may tell myself to write up a recently completed project, list something new for sale in my store, pick up some supplies, finish up a project, spend a half a day trying out a new and exciting idea, research alternative blogging platforms, or figure out twitter/periscope/snapchat. This act of assigning does not necessarily mean I get them all done but usually I chip away and keep things moving.

Other times, my progress grinds to a halt. I run into technical problems, or the task is tedious and I find myself avoiding it, or life just gets busy. I ran into all of these roadblocks in my latest task. My assignment was simple: list a few of my white line wood cut prints for sale in my etsy shop, and then write post about them from my blog. Easy.

white line wood cuts on bottle branch blog

But then I had to think about pricing and it turns out, pricing hand-painted work is not easy. Etsy sternly admonishes sellers not to undervalue their work. Not only is it not good for business, it undercuts other sellers and the market as a whole. I get it. If I am selling my work at a loss just to unload it, then I am hurting artists who want to earn a living.

It takes a couple of hours to paint and print one white line wood cut print, and then there’s the cost of designing and carving the block, plus materials. That makes this work expensive.

So, being a practical dreamer, I looked around on etsy to see what other artists were doing and decided to offer digital reproductions of my white line prints, in addition to a the more expensive originals. Thus a new assignment was born: discover the best way to create digital reproductions.

bunch of white line prints for bottle branch

With a new printer and moderate experience manipulating digital images, I felt ready to tackle this assignment, though the learning curve was steep. I poured over my printer manual, researched paper types, learned a few new photoshop tricks, and printed many, many prints of my prints. (It turns out scanning and then printing does NOT give an exact copy. Not even close.)

There were many times when I complained, gritted my teeth, groaned, or just plain avoided my desk. And all the while, I listened to Big Magic, Elizabeth Gilbert’s new book, a reflection on living a creative life. (I am a big fan of audible.com)

listening to big magic bottle branch blog

Not surprisingly, I loved Big Magic – I’ve written before about flashes of creative inspiration and the joy of unfettered creativity, what Gilbert calls big magic, and I have lived through many cycles of frustration and faltering confidence (another topic she addresses.) But most importantly, Gilbert describes following your curiosity as a way to find your way to a creative life, which I read as taking on life as a series of self-assigned tasks and creative challenges. Suddenly my crazy tangents, pssion for gardening, and self-assigned tasks seem like they’re not so kooky after all. In fact, these humble adventures just might be the makings of a satisfying life.

So Big Magic was an uplifting accompaniment to my latest creative endeavour and thankfully, in the end, I came up with some pretty prints also. More about those in my next post.

Books that changed me: Sula by Toni Morrison

classic books on shelf

Are you a re-reader? I don’t think of myself as one, but  along with my book club, I’ve re-read a few classic books: To Kill a Mockingbird, Catcher in the Rye, and The Great Gatsby. We plan to read more.

After recently writing about five novels that changed me, I decided to embark on a new, more personal re-reading project. I’m re-visiting books that mattered deeply to me in my childhood, adolescence or young adult life but might not be quite so well known and/or universally loved. (In other words, books I might not be able to convince my book club to read along with me.) I’m calling this project Books that Changed Me.

When picking a list of  books that changed me, Sula, by Toni Morrison was at the top of my list, but when I tried to recall details, I realized how little I recalled of the plot. I only remembered how I felt transformed when I read it as assigned high school summer reading, circa 1987. Sula would never have made it into my hands without a nudge from school. Yet, the book affected me so powerfully that I felt dreamy and disconnected for weeks. When I read Sula it was like someone took the cover off the sky, filling it with a new kind of light. Seriously.

sula

So, earlier this year, I dove into re-reading Sula with great curiosity and anticipation.

Sula tells the story of a poor black community in an Ohio town in the 1920’s and 30’s, focusing primarily on two childhood friends, Nel and Sula. They sustain a deep friendship filled with dark secrets and unspoken connection, until Nel marries and Sula moves away. Their friendship becomes more complicated in adulthood and without giving too much away I’ll say that in the end, Nel is filled with both regret and longing. It is not really a happy story, yet there are moments of humor, poetry and transcendent truth.

More than anything, Sula transformed my 15-year-old world through the breathtaking beauty of the language. It may have been the first book I read for the writing as much has for the next plot twist. I swooned over lines like “when the day broke in an incredible splash of sun,” or this description of Sula’s eyes, “Her gold-flecked eyes, which, to the end, were as steady and clean as rain.” I still swoon.

In my recent re-reading, I was particularly struck by the descriptions of Nel and Sula’s early friendship: “In the safe harbor of each other’s company they could afford to abandon the ways of other people and concentrate on their own perceptions of things.” Morrison conjures the secret, timeless world of childhood, and first steps towards separation. On the same page, she writes “… toughness was not their quality – adventuresomeness was – and a mean determination to explore everything that interested them” and conveys the sense of discovery and tentative joy that goes with those pre-adolescent forays into independence. (It also made me think of the “like a girl” campaign.)

In re-reading Sula I was also struck by the darkness and sadness of the story. Awful things that happen in the book – deaths, betrayal, abandonment. Sula is filled with hints of magical realism and melancholy truthfulness; it is an examination of the limitations of human relationships, the closeness and distance that lies between even the most intimate of friends and lovers.

And of course, this book is also about race. Sula chronicles indignities that Nel, Sula, and other poor, black characters face, though it is more than a chronicle, it shows how race is part of the fabric of the characters lives: “Because each had discovered years before that they were neither white or male, and that all freedom and triumph was forbidden to them, they had set about creating something else to be.”

old photos summer 1987
My world in the summer of 1987. Working at the beach, a hiking trip, reading.

No doubt, reading Sula as an adolescent cracked my privileged world open. When I think of the experience, I think of this TED talk by Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Adichie, on The Danger of a Single Story. Before reading Sula, I read a lot of 19th century British novels, with governesses, genteel parties, and usually a marriage proposal. Sula provided me with another story, another narrative, and allowed me to see into another, very different world.

It was no different in my recent re-reading. Only this time, it was like returning to a familiar place. It all came back to me- the one-legged matriarch, the harrowing escape from school bullies, the humiliations of segregated train travel. I’d held onto the vivid characters and scenes all along, and they glowed like jewels in my memory. They were only waiting to be stitched back into the whole magnificent novel.

morning reading sula

Whew! That was a long post. It’s hard to write breezily about a book like Sula. Thanks for sticking with me. I do hope to continue this series of Books that Changed Me. Next up is The Witch of Blackbird Pond, a Newbury Award winning YA book, which promises a less wordy post.

I also hope you’ll tell me what books resonated deeply with you in your early years. In other words, what books changed you?