The role of ritual in Art

March 26, 2010 at 11:48 am (Uncategorized)

My art projects almost always involve rituals. Before I write, I listen to a song that helps me capture the tone I want in my scene. When I bake, I sample the chocolate first. (I don’t want bad chocolate in my cookies!)

And when I knit, I conduct what I call “the squish test.” Here’s how to do it.

First, get your materials on hand—in this case, your intended ball of yarn. In theory, you can do this in the store, though some clerks don’t like you touching the merchandise. This isn’t a problem for me because I buy most of my yarn online.

Second, indulge your five senses. Enjoy the colors. Smell the yarn. Don’t taste it, that’s gross.

Third, and most important, squish. Use the yarn like a stress ball. Hug it to you. Tuck it under your chin. Roll it between your wrists. Squeeze it between your head and your shoulder.

This probably sounds—and looks—silly, but I never buy a new yarn line without conducting a squish test. Why bother? Let’s look at a box of yarn.

All this yarn is related: they're all different kinds of wool. The orange and white are highland wools of different sizes; the blue and black are same-weight merino, but the blue is treated to be machine-washable. The silver--the best yarn to practice the squish test on--is a laceweight merino/silk blend. Yum!

See the bright orange yarn? That’s fingering-weight highland wool, and I’m using it as an accent color for my new ski cap and hobo gloves. (The main yarn will be the same type but black). The squish test for this yarn focused on the wrists and the head. Holding the yarn against my head made my hair oily. (I have that problem with all wool; it’s not just this yarn). If I didn’t intend to shower after every outing where I wear this hat, that would be a problem. Playing with the yarn let me know how light and thin it is; it also isn’t scratchy against the sensitive undersides of my wrists.

Compare this to the white yarn. It’s the same highland wool as the orange, but the strands are more than four times thicker. The threads are heavier, which means projects will go faster, but I’ve found that the yarn is also more scratchy. I hate having this stuff on my neck! This isn’t a yarn that I would want to have next to my skin. (Luckily, I only use it for felted accessories.) The squish test cues me in to how to not use my yarn.

The squish test is all about finding out what does—and doesn’t—work. As an artist, I can’t imagine finishing a project only to find out that I’m incompatible with the media. I don’t make acrylic socks because they itch and they don’t wick sweat away from my skin. I handwrite stories instead of typing because technology is too distracting. These are unique to me, and I’ve figured them out by the squish test (or an equivalent).

In short, if you’re having trouble in your medium, experiment. Creating art is an art of its own. Do what you can to enjoy that process.

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Writing Response: character interview

March 24, 2010 at 3:31 pm (character, muse, writing, writing challenge)

Last week, my fellow blogger and fantasy writer Chersti discussed character development. While her post focused on Megan Whalen Turner’s book Queen of Attolia, Chersti brought up some neat ideas about character. My favorite was the idea of interviewing a character. In honor of that idea and a discussion I had with Chersti about muses, I would like to conduct an interview of my own, this time with my muse.

Dreishon: You need me?

Rachel: Yeah, c’mere. I want to interview you for my blog. But only if you promise to behave.

Dreishon: Meaning . . .

Rachel: No bashing on my other characters and no giving away spoilers.

Dreishon: shrugs Whatever.

Rachel: All right. To give my readers context, talk about your first appearance in my novel.

Dreishon: I save your useless protagonist from a moment of stupidity.

Rachel: Well, that was vague.

D:reishon You said no spoilers.

Rachel: facepalms Fine then. Talk about the first story you ever appeared in. The one that never got finished.

Dreishon: Which one are you thinking of? A character with my name showed up in one of your earliest stories. Very noble, very minor, very cliche. Didn’t he die to save the protagonist?

Rachel: Not that one. The group story.

Dreishon: Ah. The one you started in high school with your journalism friends. You decided to write a male character because you were in a group of girls. I seem to recall you writing in a girlfriend for me.

Rachel: Someone else’s character was making moves. I had to protect you. Talk about your character, not your old girlfriend.

Dreishon: I was the mentor in that story. You were the one who came up with the rules of magic, so I got to communicate them to the protagonist. hesitates

Rachel: What’s wrong?

Dreishon: You planned to kill me off at the end of that one, too.

Rachel: Moving on. Tell me about your family.

Dreishon: I can’t.

Rachel: frowning Why not?

Dreishon: Because it involves spoilers.

Rachel: Fine! I’ll ask more boring questions. What’s your favorite color?

Dreishon: Seriously?

Rachel: You’re the one who wouldn’t answer questions.

Dreishon: Red.

Rachel: That’s better. Talk to me about your favorite band.

Dreishon: You know I’m not overly fond of your music. It’s too noisy, too distracting, especially because most of it has lyrics and I can’t multitask as well as you. I don’t mind Yellowcard, though.

Rachel: What about your favorite books?

Dreishon: You haven’t read most of them. My father’s a historian, so I practically grew up in the library archives. You don’t have a long enough attention span to enjoy them, Rachel.

Rachel: Watch it. I’m writing those books.

Dreishon: I also like Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman’s original Dragonlance books. Fizban annoyed me at first, but after finding out he’s a god, I liked him a whole lot more.

Rachel: Dreis! I said no spoilers!

See what I have to put up with?

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Once a bridesmaid . . .

March 2, 2010 at 11:58 am (knitting, writing)

March 20 is the last day of winter, and even though March supposedly goes “in like a lion and out like a lamb,” I counted on the 20th being cold this year. Normally, that wouldn’t be a big deal. I love the cold.

But when Cassie scheduled her wedding for the 20th and I chose a chiffon bridesmaid dress, I knew I was in trouble. How on Earth was I supposed to keep warm if I didn’t have a coat that matched my dress?

My initial response was pretty naive: no problem, I’ll make something to keep me warm. I hopped online and searched for a pattern.

When I came across MMario’s “Artemis” and “Queen of Heaven” shawls, I should have known I was in trouble.

But I bought the yarn. I eventually gave in and bought beads after I’d settled on “Queen of Heaven.” I had the needles, the row counter, and 32 hand-tied stitch markers made from scrap yarn. By some miracle, I finished the project three weeks before the wedding, even after it got moved up.

So what does this have to do with writing? Allow me to set up some visuals.

Astronomer's wrap, pre-blocking

This is what the shawl looked like fresh off the needles. The radiating pattern looks nice, but all the details are muddled. There’s not much of a chance for the beads to shine through.

After taking the shawl off the needles, I dunked it in a tub of tap water. (Wool creations must be bathed in order to make them behave.) I let the wool completely absorb the water, squished out some of the excess, and went to my room to block.

“Blocking” is what allows the pattern to “open up.” In short, it means saturating wool with water, then pinning the wool into a desired shape. Wool has a strong memory and will maintain its form from the skein if unblocked. Blocking, however, rewrites that memory.

The downside, of course, is that blocking takes up a massive amount of space. This

The Astronomer's Wrap in the process of taking over my bedroom floor

took up most of my bedroom floor and took an hour and a half to pin.

Why bother, then?

I’ve asked myself the same thing about revisions. I’m usually pretty happy when I finish a scene (though that may just be the elation of getting done). So why go through the agony of tweaking it?

The answer comes after perseverance. Just as I wouldn’t want to wear an unblocked shawl, I wouldn’t want an editor, to read an unpolished novel.

And who knows? Maybe someday, one of my books will be this beautiful:

The Astronomer's Wrap is more patient than I am

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