Artist and writer Valerie Story answers 3 basic questions about creativity for my What, Why, How series!
Although I have written eight books and published various shorter pieces in a wide array of genres, my focus for the last three years has been on literary fiction and the visual arts. A few months ago I completed my current WIP, The Abyssal Plain, an experimental novel told from the points-of-view of several characters at their most haunting crossroads. The plot centers on “the butterfly effect,” how one random and tragic occurrence in March of 1929 changes the lives of generations to come. I love working with the theme of randomness in my daily life and creativity anyway, whether I’m free-writing a short story or painting an abstract watercolor background, so it seemed natural and fitting to base a novel on the same principles I use for everything else I do.
A recent trip to Taiwan (again, an unexpected opportunity that appeared as if by magic) confirmed how vital it is for me to work without any preconceptions or ready-made plans. I chose this photo of myself in Taiwan’s Taroko Gorge to share with you because it sums up so well what matters most to me: maintain a sense of adventure, wear a hard-hat “just in case,” and carry a purse big enough to hold a journal, a sketchbook, and a good selection of pencils.
My invitation to go to Taiwan came from a local artist and art teacher, Ming Franz. I had taken her class on Splash Ink Watercolor several years ago and absolutely loved it. Splash ink is derived from the Chinese technique known as po-mo, a style that relies on letting a painting simply happen without too much interference from the artist. The first stages are to pour or splash sumi ink onto wet paper, followed by watery mixtures of blue, red, and yellow paint.
After the colors merge and the paper dries, the random and unexpected designs left by the dried paint show the artist what, if any, additions are needed to complete the painting. I was thrilled by the class because that is very much how I write: I pour words onto paper until I have what I believe to be a first draft, and then step back to see what the story is and where it wants to go. As I’ve often told my creative writing students, I never know what I’m going to write until I write it; I never know how a piece of pottery will turn out until I get my hands in the clay; and working with watercolors has taught me that there is no such thing as “planning” if you want to keep your sanity!
Going to Taiwan with Ming and fellow artists gave me the chance to study Asian art and splash ink painting on a deeper level that I can only call “life changing.” It also allowed me the time and space to fully examine what it is I want to do with my own creativity. The main thing I learned is that I want to integrate my body of work into a unified whole. I want to illustrate my novels, add beadwork to my pottery, and make jewelry based on my characters and settings, all with an Asian-Expressionist influence.
Besides my love of splashing random colors and words onto paper, discarded magazines from the library are my life-blood. My favorites include food, travel, and architectural issues,as well as anything to do with animals. I gather up several copies at least once a week, read through them for fun and entertainment, and then cut out all of the pictures that speak to me. I have a filing system for each type of subject matter, e.g., “plants,” “cats,” and “people,” and I keep everything in a filing cabinet. When I’m ready to write or paint, I reach into the files and gather a few pictures, usually no more than four or five at a time. I then arrange them into a mini-collage, sometimes with a word prompt also cut from a magazine, and see how the different elements come together to tell their story: Who is this woman? Why does she have a cat and a suitcase packed with pineapples? Where is she going and what does she want to accomplish once she gets there? It’s a very exciting way to find characters, plot-lines, and details that I wouldn’t normally consider.
Once I’ve finished writing from the various prompts, I then like to use the same references for artwork, either placing them in an actual collage, or using them to set up a sketch or painting. It’s a system that has never let me down and has opened many new doors for me. Best of all, the supply of old magazines seems to be as limitless. Turning them into artwork is a great way to recycle, re-purpose, and re-use what would otherwise disappear into the trash.
Currently based in Albuquerque, New Mexico, Valerie Storey is the author of eight books ranging from fiction for young readers to nonfiction for adults. Before moving to the Southwest, Valerie lived in Carrollton, Georgia, as well as in various parts of California, England, and New Zealand. Her most recent novel, Overtaken, was inspired by her time spent in London where she studied and researched art history at the National Gallery for two years.
Although her primary focus is now on writing full-time, Valerie is also a mixed-media artist, potter, and jewelry-maker, and a former creative writing teacher. Her how-to book, The Essential Guide for New Writers, From Idea to Finished Manuscript is based on her series of workshops. Valerie has taught in the graduate professional writing program at Kennesaw State University and has presented numerous workshops for the International Women’s Writing Guild.