Facing the Blank Canvas of NaNoWriMo

nano_hoodieNovember ended and I hung up my NaNoWriMo hoodie. For the first time, I had participated in National Novel Writing Month—the month when writers around the world challenge themselves to write a 50,000-word novel.

Outline in hand, I burst out of the gate on November 1st and, at the end of three days, I had cranked out 9,120 words. Since I work full time and my only writing time would be weekends, I did the math and found there was no way I could hit 50,000 words. But I committed myself to completing a first draft of a middle grade novel, no matter what the word count.

To write that novel in a month, I couldn’t sit and agonize over finding perfect words while the clock was ticking. I just raced ahead and wrote, banning my Inner Editor (as the NaNo staff suggested). Instead of slowing down to make time-consuming decisions, I wrote notes to myself such as [DOES THIS MAKE SENSE?] or [MORE FARM STUFF GOES ON] or [SHOULD HENRY AND MARIGOLD NOT EVEN BE IN THIS NOVEL?] and kept moving.

During the NaNo month, I realized I was writing the way I paint. When I paint, I don’t start in the upper left hand corner and fill that corner of the canvas with every minute detail, and then move to the next part of the canvas, finishing every section until I finally reach the bottom right hand corner. Instead, I work all over the canvas. Using broad strokes, I block in areas, and then build up layers, pulling some elements forward and pushing some back. Finally, I fine tune the details that bring everything into focus. (See the two stages of my painting of our dog that I gave to my daughter)

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The lovely Princess Zisk, in broad strokes and then with final detail.
You may see more of my work here.

With writing, I do the same thing. I write in broad strokes to the end, then jump around in time and rearrange things, enhancing or playing down elements, leaving holes and filling in gaps, adding details and texture. Working around my canvas of words, I revise and revise until it is done.

When NaNoWriMo was over, I ended up losing the official challenge, as predicted. But I won my personal challenge and wrote a 28,412-word first draft.  I’ve got the broad strokes. Now it’s time to move things around, add layers and details, and finish my masterpiece (or at least maybe a queryable manuscript).

NaNoWriMo was a quick and focused way for me to put aside a project that I’ve worked on for four years and to try something completely different. I know I’ll have the courage to face a blank canvas again next November. How about you?

Oprah, Carpe Diem, and Motherhood

Years ago, I was a self-employed graphic designer and feeling a bit unsettled about my work. So I tuned in to watch Oprah because her show that day was about finding fulfillment in life.

After discussing the idea of self-fulfillment, Oprah said to me, “Why did God put you on this Earth?”

I responded, “To be a mother.”

Wha??? Not the response I was expecting.

I was single and had given up the hope of marriage. My biological clock had a dead battery. I wanted to be a mother?

italypaintingI have always been a life-is-short-seize-the-day kinda chick. When a new job turned out to be not what I expected, I quit after 18 months and went to study art in Paris for the summer. When a dear college friend was diagnosed with breast cancer, I looked at my own life. Carpe Diem. I sold my condo to buy a little house with my own grass and trees. I spent a month in the medieval village of Urbino, Italy, painting landscapes in oil. I ticked those things off my Life List (I hate the label “Bucket List.”).

But I hadn’t realized that Motherhood was on that list. Not until Oprah. But once it was on my list, I took action.

I found an adoption agency that dealt with international adoptions. I wanted to adopt a toddler, thinking that would back up my age of motherhood a little. The agency advised that toddlers were most available from Russia, so that was where my search took me. After months and months of paperwork, a picture of my daughter arrived in a Fed Ex envelope. It was my last chance to say yes or no to motherhood. I took the photo to my own mother, who said (as I posted here ) “She just needs a mother to put a smile on her face.” I sent my acceptance paperwork back to the agency.

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Our first Christmas as a family.

Two months later, I flew to Moscow and waited four days for my daughter to arrive from another city (it was a long, painful labor). After knowing my three-year-old daughter for only 36 hours, I flew home with her. I call it my Nine Hours of Hell. Anna was a constant ball of energy, racing up and down the aisles, not eating or sleeping, and going from laughter to tantrums in seconds, almost throwing my watch down the toilet as I tried to change her pull-up in that tiny restroom, and ripping out every page from her new picture book, One Hundred Words in Russian. At one point, she and I sat on the floor at the back of the plane as I cried to the attendants, “I’m too old for this!”

But I had Seized the Day. I was a mother and nothing would ever change that.

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Fun with new glasses last month

19 years later, my Anna is a smart, funny, beautiful, dog-lovin’ photographer and certified pet sitter. Anna and I celebrate Adoption Day every November 11th, the day we arrived at JFK after those airborne Nine Hours. But this November 11th, instead of Hell, we’ll be enjoying a Heavenly platter of gnocchi Bolognese at our favorite restaurant.

We both continually seek self-fulfillment—Anna with her photography and me with my writing. Like motherhood, self-fulfillment is a job for life.

How do you seize the day?

mom01Cover_smAuthor’s note: In 2001, my picture book, The Best Single Mom in the World: How I was Adopted was published by Albert Whitman & Company, although it is no longer in print. If you’d like to read more about my adoption experience, read this article in Adoptive Families magazine, or an interview with me at ComeUnity.com.

The Quotable Nerdy Chick: Mary Cassatt

Mary Cassatt (1844-1926) is one of my favorite artists, not just because of her beautiful paintings, pastels, and prints, but because of her courage to break into the male-dominated French society of artists near the end of the nineteenth century. Cassatt was from a prominent Philadelphia family, but lived much of her adult life in France, where she befriended Edgar Degas. She said of his work, “I used to go and flatten my nose against that  window and absorb all I could of his art…It changed my life. I saw art then as I wanted to see it.” Degas invited her to join the Impressionists and said to her, “Most women paint as though they are trimming hats. Not you.”

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From left to right: Portrait of the Artist, 1878; The Letter, 1891, The Child’s Bath, 1892

Mary Cassatt Quotes:

• “I am independent! I can live alone and I love to work.”

• “I think that if you shake the tree, you ought to be around when the fruit falls to pick it up.”

• “There are two ways for a painter: the broad and easy one or the narrow and hard one.”

• “If painting is no longer needed, it seems a pity that some of us are born into the world with such a passion for line and color.”

You can read more about Mary Cassatt at the Metropolitan Museum of Art  and the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

99 Years—A Picture of My Mother

On October 5, my mother turned 99 years old. She lives in a nursing home, comfortable and clean. Her mind is in a different world, going places and doing things not possible from her wheelchair. She loses words and I don’t always understand the words her mind invents. She always gives me a big smile of recognition and love.

When I think about how much the world has changed in her lifetime, it’s as if her life has mirrored the history of photography.

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A sepia-toned studio portrait shows my mother as a baby, the first of her family born in America, with a boatload of Italian immigrants—her parents, sister, cousin, aunt, and uncle. No, they didn’t arrive on the Mayflower, but passed through Ellis Island to New York City for a better life, living in a tenement apartment with a toilet down the hall, and communal baths down the street.

M_lenore_flapers_poconos My mother’s family managed to survive the Great Depression. Her father was a tailor and her mother was a seamstress—two needed professions in NYC. Out of high school, my mother worked as a secretary six days a week for $7 (weekends hadn’t been invented yet).

MnP_wedding_glamIn the early forties, she met a funny, bespectacled young man and married him before he was shipped out to India during World War II. She sent him a Hollywood-style glam portrait, so he would hurry back home to her.

M_williamst_fairLike many post-war young families, we followed the American Dream and moved into a brand-new suburban split-level house in a neighborhood with dozens of other split-level houses. My mother was the model housewife, with a tidy, fashionable home and spaghetti sauce simmering on the stove for hours on Sundays. Photography turned colorful. My mother nurtured and supported me, encouraging my creativity (even letting me paint flowers on her car in the sixties).

MnP_catherdral M_anna2Seemingly in no time, my parents celebrated 50 years of being married to their very best friend. When I hadn’t found a best friend to marry, I knew I still needed to be a mom. My mother was the loving voice of reason when I decided to adopt a child. I cried to her about the photograph of a sad little cross-eyed Russian girl with a buzz cut who might become my daughter. “She just needs a mother to put a smile on her face,” my mother wisely said. And she was right. She became a doting grandmother to my Anna. Even in her present, confused state-of-mind, she lights up with a big smile when she hears Anna’s name.

In 2002, both my parents had emergency surgeries at the same time, landing them in adjoining rooms in the intensive care unit. My father recovered, but my mother was on a ventilator and feeding tubes for four months. In rehab, she was unable to sit up or speak, but she kept fighting. Then, her dear husband died of a heart attack, but I know it was a broken heart.

thanks_christ That was 11 years ago. My mother’s tenacious will to live got her out of a hospital bed to a wheelchair to using a walker in assisted living. She had many years of activities, family holiday dinners.

M_baby_99 From a seemingly-ancient sepia photograph to a color digital image of a smiling, 99-year-old birthday girl, my mother has been the picture of a full and loving life. Happy birthday, Mama. I love you.

Quotable Nerdy Chick: Elinor Smith

Last week, I interviewed Tami Lewis Brown, author of picture book, Soar, Elinor! Today the subject of that book, aviator Elinor Smith, is our quotable nerdy chick.

28smith_CA0-popupIn 1927, Elinor became the youngest licensed pilot in the world. She was only 16. During her flying career, she set multiple solo endurance, speed, and altitude records, and was named by fellow fliers the 1930 female pilot of the year. Amelia Earhart was in the news, but pilots considered Elinor a better flier. Celebrated as “the flying flapper,” Elinor was the first woman featured on a Wheaties cereal box.

Elinor retired from flying at age 29 to focus on her family, but resumed flying after her husband died in 1956. In 2000, at age 88, she became the oldest pilot to complete a simulated shuttle landing.

Elinor Smith Quotes:

• Children must be allowed to dream and have a horizon to work toward. For me there was only one path: I knew from age six that I wanted to fly. Flying was the very breath of life to me and I was successful because I loved it so much.

• I remember so vividly my first time aloft that I can still hear the wind swing in the wires as we glided down. By the time the pilot touched the wheels gently to earth, I knew my future in airplanes and flying was an inevitable as the freckles on my nose.

• I had been brought up to think that anyone could do anything he or she put his or her mind to, so I was shocked to learn that the world had stereotypes it didn’t want tampered with. In an age when girls were supposed to be seen and not heard, look beautiful, and occasionally faint, I didn’t seem to fit in anywhere.

I love this one:

• It had long since come to my attention that people of accomplishment rarely sat back and let things happen to them. They went out and happened to things.”

 And some tongue-in-cheek words about motherhood:

• It sometimes happens, even in the best of families, that a baby is born This is not necessarily cause for alarm. The important thing is to keep your wits about you and borrow some money.

• The day I need a television puppet or clown to tell my children what’s right and what’s wrong, I’ll bow out as a mother.

You can read more about Elinor Smith here and here.

Even if you have never piloted a plane, have you gone out and “happened to things?”

Author Tami Lewis Brown: Finding her Wings

TamiLewisBrownI met author Tami Lewis Brown at a Highlights Foundation Workshop, where she was a mentor and I was a mentee. Tami grew up in Kentucky and attended Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts. She holds an MFA in Writing for Children from Vermont College. She’s been a lawyer, and more recently, writer-in-residence and librarian at The Sheridan School in Washington, D.C. With a background like this, Tami makes the perfect subject for a Nerdy Chicks interview.

Aviator Elinor Smith’s story, which inspired Tami’s picture book Soar, Elinor!, motivated Tami to become a pilot and a lawyer. Tami says “Everyone in my family flew. Each time someone told me ‘it’s a man’s world,’ I thought of Elinor’s unquenchable drive to be herself and live her dreams. Where others built barriers, Elinor saw nothing but wide open horizons.”

Now, let’s get to know Tami.

Your picture book, Soar Elinor, is the biography of a remarkable aviator, Elinor Smith. At 16, she was the youngest person to get a pilots license. At 17,Soar-Elinor-Final-Cover she flew UNDER four bridges that spanned New York City’s East River in 1928. Why did you decide to write a book about this daredevil? I’m a children’s book writer and a pilot, so writing a book for kids about the youngest pilot in America was a natural. But when I learned about the passion and hard work Elinor put into achieving her dream to become a professional pilot, I couldn’t wait to share her story. When she was only six years old, Elinor decided her future was in the cockpit and she didn’t let anything stand in her way.

I got a kick out of your middle grade novel, The Map of Me, in which two sisters set out on a journey to bring home their missing mother. Your main character, 12-year-old Margie, is almost as daring as Elinor was, but with a car instead of a plane. How does writing fiction differ from writing non-fiction? It may seem obvious, but when writing fiction you get to make everything up, but with nonfiction you have to stick to the facts. The thing that surprised me is how similar writing nonfiction and fiction can be. A biography may be the story of someone’s life, but a biographer still has to think about theme, structure, tension, resolution—all the same elements present in a work of fiction.

map-rev-comp-2_1-18-jpeg-202x300Would you consider Margie and little sister Peep nerdy chicks? Does their nerdiness or lack of nerdiness affect their journey? Peep is the ultimate nerd. She’s super smart and absolutely proud of it—as she should be. Margie’s bold and bright, too, but she has to work to accept her true nerdiness. That’s the story of The Map Of Me, really—a journey to self acceptance.

That’s a journey we all have to go through. On your journey, what has been one of your favorite nerdy chick achievements? For me, nerdiness means finding your passion and sticking with it, through thick and thin, to achieve your goal. It doesn’t matter if your passion is cool or in fashion as long as it matters deeply to you. My favorite nerdy achievements are writing and publishing Soar, Elinor! and The Map of Me. Following those stories from the grain of an idea to book in print took way more determination, patience, hard work and passion than I ever expected. And I did it!

I could tell when I met you that you are a fun person. What’s something you like to do that might be considered a little bit nerdy, but is actually really fun? Practically everything I do is nerdy, and hopefully most of what I do is at least a little bit fun. One special thing that comes to mind is Skyping with girl scout troops. I do free Skype visits with scout troops, book clubs, and classrooms. I LOVE talking about reading, writing, and being nerdy with actual kids. You can find out more about my Skype visits here.

I watched you Skype to a classroom in Prague and the kids had a blast.

Thanks so much, Tami, for spending time with our Nerdy Chicks! Elinor Smith will be our Quotable Nerdy Chick next week.

You may visit Tami at her website or her facebook page.

The Quotable Nerdy Chick: Wilhelmina Cole Holladay

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Last week, I posted here about the absence of women in an art history textbook, and the founding of The National Museum of Women in the Arts.

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Photo by Tom Field

Wilhelmina Cole Holladay, collector, philanthropist, and cofounder of the museum, is today’s Quotable Nerdy Chick. Her life’s work has been to expose and advance female artists’ contributions to the world.

Wilhelmina Cole Holladay Quotes:

• In my view…art is about beauty. Art reflects our shared humanity, the traits, talents, and qualities that make us human. Art transcends politics, gender, color, religion, age, and nationality. Art is the great unifier.

• When substantial accomplishments and excellence are known, the right to be taken seriously surely will follow. Women should know their heritage which has been so long ignored.

• When I see a work of art, it awes me. I want to share it. Art is one thing everybody can join together to applaud.

• If we can heighten the awareness of great achievement by women artists so they will be included in major museums, and heighten the awareness of the inequities so they’ll be corrected, that’s a step in the right direction.

• …we’re terribly indebted to the feminists. I think some of their activities in promoting were rather unpleasant and harsh, but maybe that’s what you have to do when you’re breaking ground.

• My greatest challenge was to acquire the ability to speak in public. It has helped me so much. See, this helps you and in order to face any challenge, to be successful, you have to be able to sell. The only way you sell is to truly be comfortable in speaking.

Some quotes are taken from an oral history interview with Wilhelmina Holladay, 2005 Aug. 17-2005 Sept. 23, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

Learn more about Wilhelmina Holladay here or here.

Portrait credit: Michele Mattei, Wilhelmina Holladay, 2010; Archival ink on cotton rag paper, 30 x 40 in.

The His-Story of Art

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Georgia O’Keeffe. Mary Cassatt. Frida Kahlo. You recognize these names, right?

These women and the images they created—the macro views of flowers and skulls, the tender moments between mother and child, the bold, revealing self-portraits—are very familiar to us, almost iconic.

Georgia O’Keefe is my favorite artist, especially her New Mexican landscapes. But I didn’t learn about her until I was an adult. When I was in college, H.W. Janson’s History of Art: A Survey of Major Visual Arts from the Dawn of History to the Present Day was the definitive art history textbook. With the book as our guide, we worked our way through Prehistoric, Egyptian, Greek, Roman, Islamic, and Gothic art.

But just as we entered the early Renaissance in Europe, student unrest over the Vietnam War brought strikes and demonstrations to college campuses. On May 4, 1970, a confrontation between the National Guard and students at Kent State University resulted in four student deaths. My college closed at 2:30 a.m. the next morning and we packed up and went home for the year. It was a tumultuous time.

If the semester had continued, we still would not have learned about Georgia, nor Mary, or Frida. Janson’s History of Art, with 553 pages, 80 color plates, 848 black and white images, contained no female artists.

Not a one.

Apparently, since the Dawn of History, women hadn’t been a part of the History of Art.

Really?

In the late 60’s, Wilhelmina Cole Holladay and her husband, architect Wallace F. Holladay, were surprised to find the same gaping omission. They had traveled abroad and admired a 17th century still life by Flemish painter Clara Peeters. When they returned to the U.S. and sought information about Peeters, they also discovered that History of Art made no reference to Peeters or any other woman. It was then that the Holladays began collecting works by women.

Clara Peeters, Still Life of Fish and Cat, National Museum of Women in the Arts, D.C. Gift of Wallace and Wilhelmina Holladay

Clara Peeters, Still Life of Fish and Cat, National Museum of Women in the Arts, D.C. Gift of Wallace and Wilhelmina Holladay

As the collection grew, so did Mrs. Holliday’s vision of creating a museum of women’s art. Coincidentally, the modern women’s movement in the 70’s was picking up steam and demanded a revisionist look at art history that included women and multicultural contributors.

A_Museum_of_Their_Own_smallIn 1981, Mrs. Holladay incorporated the National Museum of Women in the Arts as a private, nonprofit museum, residing in her house. The NMWA eventually found a home in a renovated, former Masonic Temple and opened its doors in 1987 in Washington, D.C. The Holladay Collection became the core of the museum’s collection. As a charter member, I attended the members’ preview. I’ve never forgotten the grandeur of the Great Hall and the galleries that finally gave women’s art a home.

The NMWA Great Hall Photograph courtesy of Tom Field

The NMWA Great Hall
Photograph courtesy of Tom Field

Today, the NMWA has a collection of over 4,500 objects by women, which includes not only paintings starting in the 16th century, but works on paper, photography, sculpture, Native American pottery, and contemporary art books. Beyond the visual arts, the Museum also celebrates the performing arts and the written arts. The museum describes their mission this way: “By bringing to light remarkable women artists of the past while also promoting the best women artists working today, the museum directly addresses the gender imbalance in the presentation of art in the U.S. and abroad, thus assuring great women artists a place of honor now and into the future.”

And what about the absence of women in Janson’s History of Art? Oh, that was finally rectified in 1986—23 years after the first edition! See if you can find Frida now.

Thank you, Mrs. Holladay! Your vision assures that generations of girls will see talented female role models celebrated in museums. With that kind of inspiration, they will confidently follow their artistic dreams the way Georgia, Mary, and Frida did.

If you can’t visit the National Museum of Women in the Arts in person, learn more at www.nmwa.org.

Teachers will find resources and outreach programs at http://www.nmwa.org/learn/educators.

Who is your favorite female artist?