typewriter11“… beginner’s mind is what we must come back to every time we sit down and write. There is no security, no assurance that because we wrote something good two months ago, we will do it again. Actually, every time we begin, we wonder how we ever did it before. Each time is a new journey with no maps.” — Natalie Goldberg, Writing Down the Bones.

I’m shifting gears for this post to participate in a blog tour called “My Writing Process,” at the invitation of blogger extraordinaire, Marci Rich. (#mywritingprocess) I first met Marci at the 2012 James River Writers’ Conference in Richmond, VA where she inspired me to launch my blog on art, dance, and design. Since then I’ve enjoyed her “Midlife Second Wife” blog – and so will you: http://www.themidlifesecondwife.com.

If Natalie Goldberg is right and there are no maps for this crazy process known as writing, there are at least some sign posts, rest stops, and cairns that other pilgrims have left along the way.

typewriter8The organizers of this tour have posed questions that participants are asked to answer:

What am I working on?

I’ve just finished an overhaul of my debut novel, Still Life with Aftershocks. The newest version starts a couple of years earlier than the preceding draft. Readers now meet my two protagonists when they are (relatively) happy and healthy and living their normal lives. The event that, early on, shatters their lives has not yet happened. I’m hoping that readers, having known these characters a bit longer, will sympathize with them more deeply. What has amazed me about this last draft is how the material I’ve been working on for many years feels fresh and new and exciting.

typewriter9How does my work differ from others of its genre?

Well, this is a tricky one, since I have no idea what genre I write. It would be easier to say that I write paranormal romance with dystopian overtones, but nope, not me. I suspect my work straddles the line between literary and commercial fiction. I enjoy writing stories in which things happen: people go to work, do the laundry, use the john, get in trouble, go to bed with the wrong people, truss a turkey. So I probably don’t fall into strictly literary territory. I like plot too much. But my true métier is the emotional landscape in which my characters operate, how they grow, change, persevere, survive, and triumph–or not. I’m fascinated by hidden motivations, secrets, obsessions, creative expression, and food.

typewriter6Why do I write what I do?

See above for part of the answer. What I write reflects where I want to dwell. Can love be found in this cynical world in which we are all in some way damaged goods? Can we break free of the past and chart a new course, a course that will allow us to find the meaning we seek in life? At the same time, I want to tease out the humor lurking in the darkest aspects of life’s travails.

How Does Your Writing Process Work?


First of all: I try to show up every day. Carolyn See, in her lovely and nurturing book, Making a Literary Life: Advice for Writers and Other Dreamers, recommends writing 1,000 words a day when you’re in the heat of a first draft, or for three hours a day if you’re revising. For the most part, this works for me. At times, I’ll get swept up and not be able to stop after three hours or 1,000 words, but this isn’t the norm. Usually I’ll just run out of gas and realize I need to stop.

Secondly, I try to read every day. To paraphrase Yogi Berra, you can learn a lot just by reading. At one point in my career, I had to stop writing because my time at my day job ballooned and sucked all the air out of my motivation to create. What saved me was that I didn’t stop reading and once I was writing again, I seemed to have gotten better at it. Stephen King writes in the morning and reads in the afternoon. Works for me.

typewriter5I am at heart a “pantser” when it comes to outlining, as in seat of the pants. Let it rip, throw off the shackles, go for it, and then see where you are with respect to plot. Having said that, for the next novel I’m going to spend more time up-front, crafting the story, learning its twists and turns, braiding together the plot lines, developing characters, before I put my eager little fingers on those keys. I think I’ll save myself a lot of grief and time. Hard to cut those babies when they’re alive and breathing on the page.

typwriter8In my experience, dialogue grows out of the characters’ interaction and the events they get caught up in, although for dialogue to sound natural, it has to be distilled from the way people really talk. Like, radically distilled.

When first conceiving a character, I create a “character chart” that outlines how the character looks, what he wears, what movies she loves, books he reads, and so on. This exercise can be very helpful in teasing out motive, and I return to the charts from time to time to make sure I stay true to their natures. At times I add to the chart as the character becomes more fully formed in my mind.

I like a traditional three-act structure. Within that structure, I tend to think in scenes, all moving the story forward, or falling to the knife. As the plot takes shape, scenes written on index cards or some other flexible medium, can be moved around at will. There are several apps out there, so I hear, that can help you do the same thing. Maybe others on the tour will have had experience with them.

typewriter4How do we decide what to write? “Write what you know,” has come under fire these days. There’s such a thing as being too close to your subject. Carolyn See says, “Don’t write what you know; write what you care about.” David L. Robbins, the author of many successful thrillers, says, “Write what you learn.” I don’t worry about “themes” as such, finding that if I set the action in motion themes appear and deepen as I plow through the revisions. With each one I find more ideas that infuse the story. I knew I was writing about thwarted love, abuse of power, coming of age, class struggle, but didn’t know I was writing about spiritual growth, redemption, or indomitable spirit. If you start out thinking you’re going to write about lofty themes such as those, I suspect you’ll seem preachy, or worse, boring.

Finally–I need to be a part of a community, to find inspiration, hone my craft, and escape now and then from my garret. I’m not an MFA person, and sometimes I wish I were, but there are untold workshops, conferences, writer’s groups, and on-line groups that offer rich experiences and convey profound knowledge. My favorites are The Writers’ Center in Bethesda, MD.http://www.writer.org/ and James River Writers, Richmond VA, http://www.jamesriverwriters.org/


Next up:

D. A. Spruzen, who grew up near London, U.K., earned an MFA in Creative Writing from Queens University of Charlotte, and teaches writing in Northern Virginia. Her poetry collection Long in the Tooth was published by Finishing Line Press in July 2013 and her poems and short stories have appeared in many online and print publications. She is currently seeking representation for her novel The Blitz Business, set in WWII England.  The first two novels in her Flower Ladies Trilogy—Not One of Us and Lily Takes the Field—and Crossroads: Two Novellas are available on Amazon.com. Dorothy has also worked in the visual arts, hand-painting furniture and silk, as well as watercolor. www.daspruzen.com

Kris Spisak is a writer, editor, and founder of K. S. Writing, a company designed to bolster the literary community by connecting professional creative writers with businesses in need of their communication skills. When she’s not writing small business blogs or ecommerce copy, she is attempting to save the world one comma splice at a time on her Wednesday Writing Tips blog. Her first novel explores abortions, eugenics, and the life of a young women caught somewhere in between.

Linda Ensign writes fiction (mystery, fantasy, and science fiction) and poetry.  She reads voraciously but piles of textbooks and scholarly articles have sidelined the pile of fiction and non-fiction books waiting to be read as she whizzes towards her Masters degree.   She manages, and is a regular contributor to, the Mostly Mystery group blog where five mystery writers provide glimpses inside the mostly sane world of mystery writing.  Her official website isLindaEnsign.com. Linda was a techno-maven long before the word geek entered popular vocabulary, and now runs her own software development company,Yellow Hare Inc.















"Madonna," by Kate Simon, 1983

“Madonna,” by Kate Simon, 1983

It’s the inevitable question you ask yourself after—and during—your tour of the “American Cool” exhibit at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, DC. What is cool? Who is cool? The curators of this lively show have come up with some answers, even as they claim not to have made personal judgments regarding their 100 selections. The notes accompanying the exhibit tell us that 1940s jazz saxophonist Lester Young popularized this originally African American concept. Cool became a “password in bohemian life connoting a balanced state of mind, a dynamic mode of performance, and a certain stylish stoicism.” Further, each person featured in the show has to possess at least three of the following:

  1. An original artistic vision carried off with a singular style
  2. Cultural rebellion or transgression for a generation
  3. Iconic power, or instant visual recognition
  4. A recognized cultural legacy
"Johnny Depp," by Annie Leibovitz, 2010

“Johnny Depp,” by Annie Leibovitz, 2010

This large and absorbing show, organized chronologically from “The Birth of Cool,” to the “Legacy of Cool,” features stunning photographs by greats such as Diane Arbus, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Annie Leibovitz, and Richard Avedon.

Here are my coolest cats and kitties seen in the show (in no particular order):

“Madonna,” by Kate Simon, 1983. How could you not name this highly original artist, even as we’ve all chucked our fishnets, bustiers, and finger-less gloves (wait a minute—those have made a texting come-back) in the Salvation Army bin. Madonna remains the ultimate chameleon of cool.

"Patti Smith in a Motorcycle Jacket," by Lynn Goldsmith, 1976

“Patti Smith in a Motorcycle Jacket,” by Lynn Goldsmith, 1976

In the space labeled “Cool and Counterculture,” we come upon “Johnny Depp,” by Annie Leibovitz, 2010. The gorgeous inky blacks in this portrait embody the smoldering potency of this actor’s creative talent and penchant for playing complicated rogues.

“Patti Smith in a Motorcycle Jacket,” by Lynn Goldsmith, 1976, captures the poet/musician’s rough-edged androgyny and the rawness of 1970s New York she epitomizes.

"Jimi Hendrix," by LInda McCartney, 1967

“Jimi Hendrix,” by LInda McCartney, 1967

Who wouldn’t vote for Jimi Hendrix as an exemplar of all the criteria (and a few more) listed above? Here he is in a photo by Linda McCartney, looking so young, with his puckish grin and sidelong glance—the quintessential trickster. What a loss!

“Roots of Cool” gives us this exquisite portrait of Lauren Bacall by Albert Eisenstaedt, 1949. Loved the quote by an anonymous critic of the day, summing up Bacall as “slinky as a lynx, hot as pepper, cool as rain, and dry as smoke.”

"Lauren Bacall," by Alfred Eisenstaedt, 1949

“Lauren Bacall,” by Alfred Eisenstaedt, 1949

Ah, yes, the avatar of cool, “Bob Dylan,” by Richard Avedon (speaking of whom, where is he in this show? Where are any photographers?), 1965. This image speaks for itself, hurtling the viewer back in time (viewers of a certain age anyway) to when the arrival of a new Dylan album was cause for celebration and then slavish listening, all the while marveling at how he could manage to conjure exactly what we were thinking, feeling, and exploring at the time.

"Bob Dylan," by Richard Avedon, 1965

“Bob Dylan,” by Richard Avedon, 1965

“Bessie Smith,” a protégé of Ma Rainey, photographed by Carl Van Vechten, 1936, was one tough cookie, we learn, managing her own vaudeville troupe and single-handedly running off a menacing advance by the Klan. I grew up with a hissing 78 recording of “Taint Nobody’s Bizness if I Do.” In this song you can hear the inspiration for Bonnie Raitt (also featured in the show) and Janis Joplin, who put up half the money for a new headstone for Smith in 1970.

"Bessie Smith," by Carl Van Vechten, 1936

“Bessie Smith,” by Carl Van Vechten, 1936

“Fred Astaire,” by Martin Munkacsi, 1936, with his impeccable line and perfect timing, is almost too cool, entirely lacking in the funky experimentation of, say, the Nicholas Brothers of the same era. And while I’m grousing, I’ll air my biggest complaint about this show: Astaire is the only dancer in it. I’m not including Madonna who, yes, is a great dancer, but she’s many other things as well, and it could be argued, is primarily known as a singer. Where is Martha Graham? Josephine Baker? Gregory Hines?

"Fred Astaire," by Martin Munkacsi, 1936

“Fred Astaire,” by Martin Munkacsi, 1936

The incomparable “Lady Day,” here photographed by Bob Willoughby in 1951, was described by Duke Ellington himself as the “essence of cool.” My father’s record collection included the haunting “Strange Fruit,” which eerily embodies both the horror of a lynching with Day’s own tragic demise.

Shifting gears, we come to another iconic singer, “Frank Sinatra,” by Herman Leonard, 1956. Critic Robert Christgau said of Sinatra that he “turned English into American and American into music.” The “rat pack” appellation originated, we learn, with Lauren Bacall, who, upon seeing Sinatra, Bogart, and cronies, said they looked “like a rat pack.”

"Billie Holiday," by Bob Willoughby, 1951

“Billie Holiday,” by Bob Willoughby, 1951

I’m trying to stick to a “boy girl boy girl” order here, but am finding it difficult—could it be that coolness is a male trait? Nah, take a gander at “Deborah Harry,” of “Blondie” fame, by Robert Mapplethorpe, 1978. Love that tough girl/pretty girl look, her uncompromising stare, no apologies—she’s not posing—she’s seen it all.

"Frank Sinatra," by Herman Leonard, 1956

“Frank Sinatra,” by Herman Leonard, 1956

I’m reluctant to add Susan Sarandon to my roll call, not because I don’t think she’s cool, but because I’m a bit over-exposed to actors at this point. That’s my other criticism of this otherwise marvelous show: too heavy on show biz. Where is Charles Eames? Not to mention Frank Lloyd Wright? Yes, writers are well-represented (Zora Neal Hurston, Jack Kerouac, Hunter S. Thompson, William S. Burroughs), but not Zelda and F. Scott, to my mind cultural icons of the first order.

"Deborah Harry," by Robert Mapplethorpe, 1978

“Deborah Harry,” by Robert Mapplethorpe, 1978

See what I mean? The show will start a debate in your mind, and a conversation with whomever joins you there. Do see it—you’ll meet such emblematically cool figures as Lou Reed, Muhammad Ali, James Brown, Steve McQueen, Lenny Bruce, Jackson Pollock, and Miles Davis. The show is on until September 7, 2014.

And, last but not least, here’s your fearless art blogger herself commenting on “What is cool?” for the BBC:


Wait for it—I’m in the last third of the piece. Fun!







"Composition in Green," by Werner Drewes, 1935

“Composition in Green,” by Werner Drewes, 1935

Entering this ambitious exhibition, I immediately headed for the third floor where I knew I’d find artists at the heart of this modern collection: Marsden Hartley, Arthur Dove, John Marin, and Mark Rothko. It’s not that I didn’t want to see the earlier years, it’s just that I knew the third floor would likely take the entire time I had–it did. And it was enthralling. As the artist Kenneth Noland put it when he was living in Washington, DC in the fifties, “Going to the Phillips is like going to church.” Amen.

"Blue Still Life," by John Graham, 1931

“Blue Still Life,” by John Graham, 1931

This show, which takes up the entirety of the newer wing (showcasing more than 160 works by 120 artists) , represents the return of paintings and sculptures that have been travelling since 2010, both around the world (Madrid, Tokyo) and in the United States (Nashville, Ft. Worth, Tampa). It’s astonishing how many of the works seen here were first shown in a museum by Duncan Phillips, the Collection’s visionary founder—he began the collection in 1921 as the nation’s first museum to be entirely devoted to modern art.

"Maritime," by Karl Knaths, 1931

“Maritime,” by Karl Knaths, 1931

The first room, “The Legacy of Cubism,” gives us a purely American version in John Marin and Karl Knaths, who drew inspiration from nature; Stuart Davis and John Graham, who were influenced by Picasso’s exploration of objects for their own sake; and George GK Morris and Ilya Bolotowsky, who were pure abstractionists.

Shame on me, an ardent Phillips fan, for not knowing many of these artists well, if at all. If you’re like me, this show is a revelation with many “new” artists to enjoy. Among them, Werner Drewes, who was one of the 39 founding members of Abstract American Artists, and who studied with Kandinsky at the Bauhaus—you can see the influence in “Composition in Green,” 1935. Tucked in a corner by the elevator, this small painting literally grabbed me as I walked in. What energy, color and life!

"Abstraction, 1940," 1940, by Ilya Bolotowsky

“Abstraction, 1940,” 1940, by Ilya Bolotowsky

John Graham, a Russian born in Kiev who studied with John Sloan at the Art Students League, was also unfamiliar. Phillips was his first patron and admired Graham’s adaptation of Picasso’s use of heavy outlining in “Blue Still Life,” 1931. Despite its rather formal approach, there is something mysterious hidden in those shapes, and something satisfying about the way the artist resolves the composition.

While I’m confessing my art ignorance, let’s move on to Karl Knaths, whose large Provincetown-inspired painting, “Maritime,” 1931, was another discovery. The excellent notes accompanying the painting tells us that Knaths was influenced by Stuart Davis. He went on to influence many Washington artists himself, teaching for years at the Phillips Collection.

"Still Life with Saw," 1930, by Stuart Davis

“Still Life with Saw,” 1930, by Stuart Davis

Also new to me was Ilya Bolotowsky, another founder of the American Abstract Artists. His “Abstraction 1940,” 1940, echoes Miro in its charming biomorphism.

The stand-out work in the room entitled “Still Life Variations” is Stuart Davis’ “Still Life with Saw,” 1930. During his1928 year in Paris, Davis fell under the sway of the surrealists. This painting, with its recognizable yet flattened objects floating in space, may have had surrealist origins, but it’s all his own.

"Red Polygons," by Alexander Calder, 1950

“Red Polygons,” by Alexander Calder, 1950

“Degrees of Abstraction,” the third room, offers up this intriguing quote from Alexander Calder: “I think I am a realist. . . I make what I see. It’s only the problem of seeing it . . . the universe is real, but you can’t see it. You have to imagine it. Once you imagine it, you can be realistic about reproducing it.”

A mobile, “Red Polygons,” 1950, an untitled stabile, 1948, and a stand-alone sculpture, “Hollow Egg,” 1939, are all lit to great advantage, with fanciful shadows moving on the white gallery walls.

"Black Sea," by Milton Avery, 1959

“Black Sea,” by Milton Avery, 1959

I’m not a Milton Avery fan, but was struck by the dramatic “Black Sea,” 1959, which was influenced by his friendships with Mark Rothko and Adolph Gottleib, both of whom are present in this show.

"Rose and Locust Stump," by Arthur Dove, 1943

“Rose and Locust Stump,” by Arthur Dove, 1943

Arthur Dove, we learn, works “at the point where abstraction and reality meet.” How beautifully they meet in “Rose and Locust Stump,” 1943. This is the one I would steal and take home, given the chance.

Morris Graves gives us the luminous “Chalice,” 1941, gouache, chalk, and sumi ink on paper. This brooding piece finds an echo across the gallery in “Full Moon,” 1948, by Thedoros Stamos. Seeing reverberations in this painting of the work of Arthur Dove and Albert Pinkham Ryder, we learn that Phillips often paired this piece with Arthur Dove in the gallery.

"Chalice," by Morris Graves, 1941

“Chalice,” by Morris Graves, 1941

Acquired two years after the artist’s death, Jackson Pollack’s “Collage and Oil,” 1951, appealed to Phillips for its Asian aesthetic. Full of movement and intensity typical of this artist, it reads as a scroll.

"Collage and Oil," by Jackson Pollock, 1951

“Collage and Oil,” by Jackson Pollock, 1951

Another stop-you-in-your tracks piece, Kenneth Noland’s “Inside,” 1950, was the first to be shown in a museum. One is struck by the thought: what if Duncan Phillips had not taken up Noland, or the many other “unknowns” of the day? We’d be so much the poorer.

“Interior View of Ocean,” 1957, by Richard Diebenkorn, was the first by the artist to be acquired by the Phillips Collection. Duncan Phillips was introduced to the California artist by his nephew, Gifford Phillips, Diebenkorn’s primary patron. Paired with the evocative, “Girl with Plant,” 1960, both paintings are good examples of Diebenkorn’s Matisse-influenced figurative period. (See my blog post, “In Love with Diebenkorn, the Berkeley Years.”)

"Inside," by Kenneth Noland, 1950

“Inside,” by Kenneth Noland, 1950

In the room labeled “Abstract Expressionism,” Adolph Gottleib’s “The Seer,” 1950, stands out. With all the whimsy of Paul Klee, this large work appears to point the way to Jasper Johns’ fascination with targets and arrows.

"Interior View of Ocean," 1957, by Richard Diebenkorn

“Interior View of Ocean,” 1957, by Richard Diebenkorn

Bradley Walker Tomlin (another artist new to me) gives us a breath of spring air (which we all need right about now) in his “No. 8,” 1952, one of his “petal paintings,” in charcoal and oil on canvas. Nearby is Kenzo Okada’s “Footsteps,” 1954—a Japanese rock garden in the fog. Both lyrical paintings evoke the subtle Asian sensibility that Phillips often sought.

"The Seer," by Adolph Gottlieb, 1950

“The Seer,” by Adolph Gottlieb, 1950

The final small room gives us these treasures: Sam Francis’ “Blue,” 1958, Morris Lewis’ “Number 182,” 1961, and a late Rothko on paper, “Untitled,” 1968.

"No. 8," by Bradley Walker Tomlin, 1952

“No. 8,” by Bradley Walker Tomlin, 1952

As you have gathered, this one floor of this massive show has so much important art, it could well stand on its own. Stay tuned for floors one and two—or better yet, meet me there and we’ll enjoy it together!

“Made in America” is on view until August 31, 2014.