Creatives are Whole Brain People

I know my first quote is about not getting peoples’ knickers in a twist, but for some reason I feel compelled to dispel a myth that creative types are right-brain-only folks.

Let’s start from the fine art perspective first. Yes, people like Leonardo DaVinci are considered geniuses. Why? Because the man used both sides of his brain. What sets Renaissance artists apart from earlier European artists? (after the Classical Era) They rediscovered science. They created realistic art in both painting and sculpture because they took the time to truly examine their subjects. They started with anatomy, though the study of the human body could get them into real trouble with the Church. If you break a figure down into a series of geometric shapes you have the frame and rough musculature. Once your frame is in place, the next steps are fleshing it out and refining the details. Making a subject look real also requires a study of light and shadows. Then there are nifty tricks like foreshortening and perspective. Don’t get me started on the science of color. Both sides of the brain are working together to produce a piece of fine art, and the only way to correct something which falls short, is to study it analytically to see where you went wrong.

I will not deny it is difficult to detach your emotions from a creation (right side). There is nothing worse than the pit in your stomach, when you realize your brilliant piece of art falls shorts of your expectations. However, there is no hope of improving it, if you don’t disengage yourself a bit and take another look with the left side of your brain. It’s something anyone can achieve. But it does take a certain amount of determination, and you have to be honest with yourself that there is room for improvement. Sure, many artists get training in school. However, those who enter the field as a career are usually on their own after that, unless they work in co-op studios. Fine artists often don’t get feedback on their work until it’s put on public display. You have to develop some faith in both sides of your brain in order to succeed; and be willing to listen to an art critic or two.

Motivation makes all the difference when you are a creator. That first spark of imagination is exhilarating, but after that you need to keep asking yourself why that spark deserves to become reality. If it deserves to exist, it should be the very best you can make it.  Those who read last weekend’s post will remember my obsession with horses and drawing them on everything, in the hopes one them may turn into the real thing. When I was four, I drew like a child that age.

My mom, bless her soul, always said the encouraging stuff like, “That’s very nice, honey.” My dad on the other hand, did not have a diplomatic bone in his body. I showed him a drawing one afternoon, and he said, “That horse has rubber bands for legs.” In my mind, I drew a realistic horse. I knew horses did not have rubber band legs. He hurt my feelings, and my first impulse was to argue with him. Only I knew better. Arguing with my dad was an exercise in futility. Did he kill my artistic spirit? Whether he intended to or not, perhaps for five minutes. Here is where motivation matters. I didn’t just want a horse. I wanted a horse I could ride. I certainly didn’t want the horse fairy to give me a horse with rubber band legs. Dad’s comment literally forced me to go back the “drawing board” and study my subject. The first thing I asked myself? What do horse legs really look like then? Miraculously, I discovered horses have joints.

By the time I was in middle school, I could draw a very realistic horse. Because my left brain got engaged in studying all the scientific details; joints, skeletal structure, musculature, light and shadows, colors and even differences between various breeds. In art, that is called learning to see. It is the analytical left side of the brain which gives the right side the details to produce a realistic image. Just like reading, my artistic interests expanded too. What I learned studying horses transitioned into wildlife art and botanicals when I was in high school. I could also do human portraits when required to do so, though they aren’t my favorite subject.

How does this information translate to the writer? Remember all that stuff Mrs. Buchanan taught me in middle school? Especially the technical stuff like spelling, definitions, use of those words in sentences, writing sentences, punctuation, stringing those sentences into a paragraph… The mechanics of good writing are rule-oriented and very much a left-brain activity. The same goes for story structure/arch: Plot, characters, conflict, setting, show-don’t tell… The right brain will provide the spark of imagination which motivates you to write that story. (Not to mention the boldness to break some rules occasionally, in order to make a better story; only you must know them first to break them effectively.) The left side will give it all the structure, details and raw materials (vocabulary) to create true hocus pocus. It will also give you the tools to go back and see why your cauldron exploded in your face.

I’ve had plenty of projects which ended up being stinkers, and correcting them always boils down to motivation. Can I live with it as is? More often than not, the answer is no. So, I’ll pout for a bit as a sop to my sensitive right side, then roll up my sleeves and figure out how to fix it. Sometimes, I do need to rely on others. I have an editor for my book and also started working with a critique group. My first draft was also entered in a writing contest because I wanted the feedback. I had just recently returned to novel writing, and felt it was a good idea to flag issues early on. I intended to learn from all of them, including my editor, by challenging myself to find and correct mistakes before he could. Each time he returned a chapter, there were fewer corrections. Including a couple with no changes. All because I don’t want the horse fairy to bring me a riding horse with rubber band legs.

Quote of the Week

The only way to go down, is to go up first. Unless you have a basement.

Kristal DeJong

Thank You, Mrs. Buchanan

For those of you who expected a creative writing blog, I don’t wish to disappoint anyone.

Many of us have at least one favorite teacher, and perhaps a few we may prefer not to remember. Other than my high school art teacher, Mrs. Canan, there are 2 other teachers to whom I must give credit. One of them is Mrs. Buchanan. She was my middle school English teacher in Wiggins, Colorado. It is possible she may no longer be with us, since I took her class in the early 1980s. But I would love to hear from her family and fellow former students if they happen to read this. (If I have her name wrong, it’s OK to correct me.)

Besides the fact I’m a writer, why would an English teacher matter to me? The answer is easy. I am a writer because of her.

Like all small children, I began my story telling career by drawing pictures. We’ll just call it a monkey touch moment, when you realize there are ideas and interests you need to express, only you don’t quite possess the full communication tool box.

By age 4, I developed an interest in horses, to the point of obsession. My parents informed me repeatedly I could not have a horse. So, drawing them on everything, including my school work, became my consolation. I believed the horse fairy would magically appear one night and turn all my paper ponies into the real thing. Rather like the Greek Myth of Pygmalion and his dream girl. It never happened, darn it. One good thing did come out of it, though. My mom got tired of being called in to school and having me put in remedial reading programs. (Come on, they were interfering with my horse acquisition plan.)

Out of desperation, she handed me over to Mrs. Thomas, a retired school teacher from our church, the summer after second grade. Mrs. Thomas was a tough nut to crack. As a matter of fact, there was no cracking her. Despite every trick I tried, including “I’m tired,” she had me reading by the end of the summer. The carrot at the end of the stick? My mom allowed me to buy my first book from the Scholastic book order forms which were handed out in school. Imagine my surprise to discover a horse story among the offerings. Naturally, I chose it. The book was “Summer Pony” by Jean Slaughter Doty, about a girl my age who longed to own a pony. Boy, could I relate. And guess what? Now I had two vices.

I suppose I am the sort of person who never does anything by half measures. I became as obsessed with reading, as I did with drawing horses. I hid in my closet to read when trying to avoid chores. (Though my mom eventually discovered my hiding place. All she had to do was check the closet light switch.) My reading choices started expanding when I entered middle school, with my discovery of Victoria Holt’s “House of a Thousand Lanterns” when I was 13. My mom accepted the horse stories. Romance novels on the other hand, worried her a bit and became forbidden territory. You know what happens with teenagers, when you turn something they enjoy into contraband. By high school, I not only read a rather broad spectrum of romance sub-genres, I started venturing into fantasy, science fiction, and westerns.

Where does Mrs. Buchanan fit into my saga from reader to writer? Like the Wizard of Oz, she pulled back the curtain and revealed the writer’s bag of tricks. Yes, we still had spelling tests, but they doubled as vocabulary expansion. Then we learned the mechanics of sentence structure; nouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs, synonyms, antonyms, prepositional phrases, punctuation. After that, how to string those sentences into paragraphs, and paragraphs into essays or short stories. We learned to write poetry; long form, free form, haikus, and limericks to name a few. (Do I seem like the kind of person who would enjoy writing limericks?) She taught us how to do basic research, writing outlines and footnotes. Of course, between all that, we still had to read. It was in her class where I received an introduction to Greek Mythology. Now that I think of it, I am not certain that is age appropriate reading; but I had great fun with it in the book I’m finishing right now. Mrs. Buchanan gave me an excellent foundation which followed me into high school and adulthood.

Here’s one tip of hers I still remember concerning the use of commas. Besides putting them between sentences connected by and, but, or etc., or in dialog, you also use them to indicate natural pauses in speech.

There are no shortcuts anytime you wish to master something.  You must walk before you can run. If you have not mastered the mechanics of writing, you have no skeleton from which to hang the meat of your story. Without a strong skeleton, everything else falls into a pile of messy goo. Splat!

In honor of Mrs. Buchanan, I give you this Quote of the Week. She used it to illustrate the proper use of synonyms. Bear in mind she was a classy lady, originally from Georgia, if I remember correctly.

Horses sweat, men perspire, and women suffer from the heat.

And since I’m feeling generous today, I give you this nugget from my husband, when he told his String instrument students the proper method for practicing and learning new pieces. It’s appropriate here too.

Note by note, measure by measure, phrase by phrase.

Wait! Did Someone Say Caregiver?

Follow the yellow brick road…

Yes… yes, I did. You thought this was going to be blog about my journey as a novelist, and insights on the craft of writing. In the immortal words of Lord Dark Helmet “Fool you!” (Mel Brooks’ Spaceballs)

Well, maybe a little bit. I have written a novel and will eventually want to send my baby out into the great world. Hopefully to land on a best seller list or two. Storyteller and writer have been a part of who I am for most of my life. But they aren’t the only part, and certainly aren’t the most important.

If you read my first post, you will notice an over-riding theme. Mentioned at the beginning, and again at the end. Which is a nifty writer’s trick, by the way.

I fell into professional caregiving out of necessity. It is not a career path generally chosen by creative types, though I knew many nurses who had creative pursuits; such as cross-stitching, knitting, crocheting and quilting.

It can be a profession which generally pays better than some, but it is never one you go into expecting riches. Unless you attend medical school and do the residencies, to become a fancy-pants surgeon. With the high cost of said schools, and the outrageous debts people graduate with these days, being a rich doctor who golfs in the afternoon is no longer a given. So, I must tip a hat to all the people who enter the medical and caregiving professions. You will never be paid the compensation you truly deserve, for your compassion and hard work. Thank you.

Ultimately, I ended up working as a Nurse Assistant/Ward Secretary for nearly ten years. I encountered a few family caregivers, especially working in a small-town hospital. Just because their loved one, usually a spouse, had an issue which could not be handled at home, didn’t mean the caregiver got a few days of vacation. Usually, they were at the hospital the entire day, during visiting hours, often doing much of their loved one’s care. Or at least assisting with it. I would go home at the end of my shift, grateful no one in my young family needed such intense help.

Ah, but fate can oftentimes be cruel in ways you don’t expect. Less than 10 years after I went into what I considered my true profession, my husband, Karl, injured his back while preparing for deployment in Iraq. That was in 2006. A common complaint for most disabled veterans is the way their employer treats them when they are hurt on the job. It is not the main purpose of this blog to complain about our government; but it does bear mentioning, that it makes the role of a caregiver even more difficult, when you also have to worry about keeping a roof over your family’s head.

My husband’s injury involved 13 herniated disks and nerve damage to his right leg, right arm and shoulder separation. Because he was not receiving the disability compensation he was owed, in a timely manner, he had no choice except to return to his teaching position. All teachers spend a lot of time on their feet, and music teachers spend almost an entire day on theirs.

It goes without saying, Karl’s injury was never properly addressed by the Navy or VA Medical System. I recently saw a news story about a man’s emergency surgery for one herniated disk. The hospital surprised him with a $600K bill, which his insurance refused to pay. After he complained, they graciously lowered it to $200K. Yes, my tongue is in my cheek as I write this. Little wonder the government can’t pay to fix 13 of them.

Due to continuing degeneration in his back and an undiagnosed neurological condition which causes constant headaches, Karl was forced to leave teaching in 2011. He was 44 yrs. old. That is a really young age to be forced into medical retirement. In 2010, I started working at the same school Karl taught at, running the copy machines and helping him with his after-school activities, such as setting up and breaking down concerts; since he did not have an assistant. My help was mostly off the clock. Finally, in 2013, at the end of the school year, I left. I wasn’t being paid enough to justify leaving him home alone, to fall on the stairs. I would be making even less once Obama Care went into full effect.

The funny thing about caregiving, is you don’t realize how many of us there are, until you become one. I have actually been surrounded by caregivers. My mother-in-law for my father-in-law who had Alzheimer’s; my uncle for both of my grandparents; one of my husband’s brothers, and his wife, for my mother-in-law; and a friend in Iowa who has now cared for a grand total of four people, including both of his parents. I may know a few more, if I think about for a bit. The biggest reason I can’t remember them right now? I haven’t seen or heard from them in a while.

Which brings us to the hardest part of being a caregiver. Despite all the support information and attention being given to the issue, we’re still largely invisible to society. Until you happen to see us sitting in the waiting room of a doctor’s or therapist’s office. Even though my husband is still somewhat ambulatory, he is in pain 24/7. He has little patience for socializing these days, never mind going out into society, which is increasingly losing respect and empathy for others. It goes without saying, we don’t leave the house much. That’s true for many caregivers, often because of the sheer logistics required just to leave the house. Especially if their loved one uses mobility equipment.

I will be the first to admit I could benefit from resocialization. I have a few hobbies which could actually get me out of the house for a bit, such as knitting and crocheting. Other than the Bolivian lady who taught me to knit, I’ve always done that as a solitary endeavor. As a de-stressor, I usually work on a project between the other things I have to do. We live in a large urban area. Driving somewhere else to knit would have the opposite effect of de-stressing. It might be worth it, if I taught some classes. I have been knitting and crocheting for more than 30 yrs., but the time it takes to prepare a class is an issue.

So, why return to writing then? Part of it is the social aspect. I am also a fine artist and amateur photographer, in addition to being a graphic designer. Some of those folks will occasionally get together and discuss craft, and issues which affect their ability to make a living. But writers? They are the true herd animals of the creative world.

Not long after I revived my nearly dead book of 30 yrs., I looked up the closest chapter of Romance Writers of America. I knew RWA had a chapter near where I live, before we moved here. They meet once a month. And unlike a knitting class, where I am on someone else’s schedule, I plan to publish my books indie. While I do have financial goals for my writing, I am on my own schedule to release a book. I am also a control freak, which puts indie publishing right up my alley. Nor does it hurt, I’m a big box of crayons kind of gal and can make use of my other skills. Instead of letting them go dormant.

It could be an interesting journey, and like all journeys, they are most enjoyable when undertaken with friends. Just ask Dorothy. Why else did she collect all the rejects of OZ, as she skipped down the yellow brick road?

Quote of the Week

Why buy the entire burrito, when you only want one bean?

Kristal DeJong


It Began with a Typewriter…

For a hook, this line might not be as compelling as “Once upon a time…” or “On a dark and stormy night…”. However, it is perfect to begin sharing my odyssey as a writer.

Once upon a time, (sorry, couldn’t resist) I was a twenty-one-year-old wife wishing to make a career change. What? At such a young age? No, it didn’t involve leaving my husband of one year.

To help pay the bills, I took a job as a nurse assistant in a nursing home. While a nice private facility which paid better than minimum wage, it was still a difficult place to work. Especially when you are a sensitive, creative soul who might weigh 100 lbs. wet. Many of the residents were bigger than me, and not all of them appreciated the assistance, most especially those with dementia. After nearly a year of employment there, I longed to find another job with fewer physical demands and fewer opportunities to have my feelings hurt, simply because I was trying to help someone.

My husband and I married in the late 1980s, just a few years before the internet started becoming widely available to everyone. It wasn’t unusual to find a computer or two in an office (no, they didn’t have Word yet), but you could still find many typewriters perched on secretaries’ desks. I took typing in high school, but funnily enough, it wasn’t my best subject. Many of the office jobs I found in the local classifieds required applicants pass a typing test to be considered for a position. What to do…

On one of my weekends off, I perused the garage sale classifieds. Fate smiled upon me. I found a listing with an electric typewriter which supposedly still worked. The garage sale was in progress that very day, so I dragged my husband out of the house to go typewriter shopping. Lucky me. They still had the machine when we arrived, and as promised, it still worked. It was even a recent enough model; typewriter ribbons could still be purchased for it. Yeah! (Typewriters do not come with backspace or delete buttons. We had white-out for that.) I wish I could remember what we paid for it, but I still believe it was a bargain.

Now that I had my own personal typewriter, I could practice increasing my typing speed in my free time. Surely, copying any old document would do, right? Nope. In my brilliant, 21-year old mind, it made more sense to write a romance novel while improving my skill. Bonus! Who doesn’t love a twofer?

Did my typewriter and novel writing get me out of my nursing home job? Sadly, no. I worked there a little over two years, until we decided to move from Nebraska to the town in NW Iowa, where my in-laws lived. Hubby was a reservist in the military. He received orders to report in California for two-weeks of training, then was supposed to leave for the Gulf War in Iraq and Kuwait. We were expecting our older daughter at the time, and I didn’t want to live four hours away from both sets of grandparents, with a baby.

My parents moved me during the two-week training period. Days before it ended, the Gulf War did too. My husband just missed being shipped out. Instead, he joined me in Iowa and found a new job at the Farmers Coop lumber yard. I went back to work when our daughter was two months old, as a nurse assistant in the local hospital.

I continued using that typewriter until 1993, when we purchased our first home computer, complete with 3 1/2-inch floppy disk storage and dial-up internet. Our younger daughter was born that same year.

Now a mother with two small children and a part-time job, the novel writing had its challenges. I joined Romance Writers of America in the latter half of the nineties, seeking support from others who would keep me motivated and help me hone my craft. In 1997, I finally made that career change, into graphic design, and within a year had a full-time position. Moving to Texas in 2000 ultimately brought my novel writing ambitions to a halt. Though the girls were still in elementary school when we first moved, it wasn’t long before they entered middle and high school. I continued to work full-time as a graphic designer. Hubby was an orchestra teacher with practices and programs, before and after school. He also rejoined the military after 9-11.

He is now a disabled veteran, with a spinal cord injury, and I am his caregiver. For a while now, I have been considering finding ways to bring in additional income, without leaving him home unsupervised. A few months ago, I had an idea and dusted off the novel I started 30 years ago. Made perfect sense to my brilliant, 51-year-old mind…

Quote of the Week

Don’t be getting anyone’s knickers in a twist. It’s painful for all involved.

Kristal DeJong