Confronted with the blank canvas

I wrote some at the beginning of this year and the end of last year about difficulties with painting. There is nothing worse than wanting to go paint, getting everything set up, sitting down with brush in hand, and nothing comes. Nothing. Zilch.

Or worse, to have ideas that work in the sketchbook, but when you go to put them on canvas, a slow burning, depressed, anxiety fills the chest and you can’t make a mark on that canvas.

Good grief.

The most popular question writers get is “Where do you get your ideas?” Some writers have snarky answers, some try to be helpful. The truth is that once writers let go of the notion that a story is a precious thing and has to be fully formed, ideas pop up everywhere — basically because you’re not looking for an idea to a story, but just something that pulls the trigger. That can be a headline, an incident, three random objects that you want to see how a character deals with them, a title, a picture, a what-if, dang near anything. The nugget to get started writing is nothing but a baby. Do we expect babies to pop out as fully formed adults? Oh heck no! Seeing how they grow up, discovering how they are wired, learning their likes/dislikes, that’s all the same thing as growing a story.

For me, painting is very different. Painting almost demands that the infant is a fully grown adult. I feel like I have to know where I’m going with it. You can’t decide to paint a single, up-close tree stump and then suddenly make that into a broad landscape. You have to have some outcome in mind.

And that’s where I’ve been stuck. And I said this is the year that I break that.

A few weeks ago as I was going along, I was reading a newsletter by another artist I follow and this artist had a quote from Anna Held Audette in her book, The Blank Canvas (Inviting the Muse). The quote resonated with me so much I instantly went out to see if I could find the book. I did, but I debated for a couple of days before ordering it.

I thought it would be another week before it came in, but it arrived yesterday. The book is smaller than I thought it would be and I’ve barely finished the first chapter, but it resonates with me greatly at this point. I hope it does help me to overcome this blank canvas issue. I certainly do need to invite the Muse.

One of the best things is that I bought the book used and someone else before me has gone through and underlined parts and put stars. The first thing I noticed when I got the book was that there was a reference to page 51 in it. I flipped to page 51 and saw that there was a passage underlined and starred. The passage didn’t speak to me as a revelation, but it must have meant something to the previous owner. It’s kind of amazing to think that someone else went through the book with their own needs to solve an artistic problem. Maybe this person was further down the artistic road than I am and had dug into the glacier far beyond me, so this might be a preview of what challenges I have to come. Don’t get me wrong — just because one artistic problem gets solves doesn’t mean another never comes along. Sometimes it’s like Whack-A-Mole just trying to keep creative fears at bay. There are a lot of them. Like the question of “where do you get your ideas?” is just a tell of writing fears, and it’s usually one about starting a story and a fear of not being able to see the whole story out ahead of time. If you worry about not having an idea for a story (usually coming from critical voice), then you will get stopped there (and the creative voice will whimper off that the critical voice is right and it was dumb for even thinking it could write).

Strangely enough, right in the introduction, Anna Held Audette mentions that writer’s block (the feeling like you have no ideas to write about) is merely “an overly critical inner editor” (A.K.A. critical voice) and that it is not quite the same as an artist facing a blank canvas. When I read that, I knew she did understand because I’d already had all of the above thoughts myself.

I feel like this book will guide me, even if it’s to the next step, next level, whatever it is that will come next in me conquering this issue of mine. I’m glad that I struck out this year with the determination to overcome and that I was watching for the guidance to come. I can no longer find the newsletter that I read this in, and I kind of wish I did have it so I knew the quote which inspired me so much, but maybe that isn’t as relevant not that I have the whole book in my hand, complete with notes from another artist who had their struggles.

I hope that whoever that artist was found their answers and progressed in their journey. I like to think that that’s why they were ready to release the book and not for some other reason (like they gave up). I have to send that person all my best.

I wonder if I will make my own marks in it. Maybe someday the book will find its way into the hands of someone else who needs it. Maybe I’ll have included a few guideposts along the way.

And every writer ever reading this should take heart: your print books will pass through many hands in its lifetime. You never know who or how you are reading someone. Ebooks don’t have this kind of life.

Until tomorrow, when I’ve hopefully read more of the book (along with Joust), cheers!