Grinding Ink -a writer's process…

I do not claim to be a great writer.  Believe me I'm not trying to critical here about my ability.  The truth is it is not my goal to be a great writer, or even a great illustrator for that matter.  What is most important for me is to JUST WRITE (and paint), to get things out and feel good about that.  It is hard enough to sit down with my notebook and pen and let the words flow out onto the page, when I know no one will read them.  Just thinking about doing that gives me little pangs of nervous excitement, sometimes followed by a second thought like, "I'm too tired right now", or "I'll do it later".  In fact it is hard enough for me to sit here right now in front of my computer and continue to type this.  I feel instantly compelled to clean up a pile of papers sitting next to me on the floor.  Yet I know that I need to be here because there is something in it that feels important, this urge is much bigger than me.  And it is strange to be on a path and not know where you are going.  I just know I need to be here, just sharing my thoughts. 

When I haven't written for a long stretch of time I become easily frustrated with things, my attention span is shorter, as is my patience.  It may take a while before I realize that it is the writing I am missing and not just p.m.s.  Writing for me is connected to taking care of myself, and not doing it is a form of neglect.  When I write I am happier, it is that simple.  This has nothing to do with making a living, or being successful.  This is about the simple process of getting stuff out.

(a five minute collage from my journal)

For a long time now I have known that I am more interested in an artist's process than their art.  While I love to look at art, and read fiction voraciously it does not excite me as much as researching the lifestyles and daily activities of the artists.  Perusing an artist's journal or sketchbook is akin to experiencing someone else's life firsthand, their secrets, personality and passions being revealed.  A photo of a workspace moves me to no end, it is a sacred place where the creator let's his/her talents flow out into the world unimpeded.    But more than that it represents an artist's agreement with themselves to create and to sit with the process.  I also want to know about the little things, the daily rituals that help us to be present with the work.

My journey into studying process began many years ago with the journals of May Sarton, in which she speaks openly about her need to write, depression, relationships, and her daily routines (which helped her work).  She was very regimented with her chores, and having her house in order gave her the mental space to create.  It was important for her to have a house that was living, with fresh flowers, daily mail, and good meals.  Every day when her chores were completed (making the bed, dishes, etc.), she wrote.  It was so exciting to me when I first read that she sometimes struggled with self-discipline.  Ha ha, what a great revelation for me (someone who believed she had none).

The other day I was browsing in a bookstore when I stumbled across "One Hundred Demons" a new book by comic artist Lynda Barry.  I became giddy when I turned to the back and saw a photo of her working in her studio in her pajamas.  To make herself more comfortable Lynda has made her drafting table low to the ground so she can sit on pillows.  She is surrounded by Japanese brushes and inks.  She even gives a little lesson about how to grind ink on a stone and what brushes to use.  Reading this I wanted to run home to play with my grinding stone.  It is a beautiful image of the artist meditatively preparing the materials before she begins.  She also talks briefly about her writing process for the book in which she starts with one word (a noun) and lets the rest flow out.  This reminded me of a writing technique that I had read about once (I can't remember the origin), the premise is if you want to write about your kitchen table, start by writing about the front door.  This helps to trick your mind into moving in not so obvious directions.  For me it helps to remove the pressure to write about the subject, your mind can digress taking different turns, you might even end up writing about something different than you thought.

While on vacation in Nova Scotia last year I made a visit to see the house of folk artist Maude Lewis.  Maude was an artist who painted almost every surface of the tiny shack she lived in, this while her hands were physically deformed by arthritis.  Having little money, she used discarded boat paint found at the local harbor.  Standing in the doorway of this tiny shack that was covered in brightly colored flowers, birds, and decoration I was in awe of the powerful energy this place had.  There was a need beyond all else by this small woman to create, every single day.  Maude Lewis did not think about whether her work was good or not, she just wanted to paint.

So what is it that is so important about studying process?  I'm not sure I can answer that fully at this point but here is what I know so far…Reading about other's processes helps me:
…to feel normal in my behaviors, (procrastination, fears, inadequacies)
…to try new techniques/materials in creating.
…to enjoy the small daily things (having tea while I write, cleaning the studio, my favorite chair.)
…to see that it is important to prepare a space to work (physically and mentally).
…to understand the inherent need in humans to express and create.
…to feel motivated to write and paint.

I am very grateful for my collection of journals, sketchbooks, and videos documenting the artist's process.  If you have any to suggest, please write me with them.  I must be off now, I feel the need to grind some ink.

Keri Smith is a free-lance illustrator and native of Toronto.  A graduate of  O.C.A. she has a wide following of clients in North America and Japan.  She currently resides in a “magic” cottage in Flesherton, painting, illustrating, creating, writing, and living out loud.  Her first children's books, entitled Story in a Box have just been published by Chronicle Books.