I’m always working on something. Sometimes I’m working on one book, sometimes two books, maybe even three books at a time. I’ve found that kind of variety to be helpful in keeping my mind fresh and keeping me interested. Were I to sit down and force myself to write straight through until the last word on the last page, I think I would be sick to death of the story and I know my writing would not be my best. I’ve found that any time I get stymied by a plot point or transition, anytime I feel the inspiration dry up and blow away, the best thing I can do is get away from the story and occupy myself elsewhere. Jumping from one story to another may not be for every writer, but it works for me and gives me a fresh start anytime I need it.
I’m currently bouncing back and forth between two stories, one a ghost story and one about a past-life regression, but when neither of them is calling me (as now), I have other projects that I can work on. One of these is a collection of the art of my father, Howard Munns.
My father was a prolific and self-taught artist. He worked as a commercial artist at an architectural firm all his life, but in his spare time he turned his talent to his great passion, the natural world and the wildlife within it. Over the years of his life (1911-2002) I cannot even attempt to estimate how many paintings and sketches he did, how many wood carvings, how many charcoals and pastels and inks and oils. While not comfortable with self-promotion, he did in his later years have a few galleries across the country that exhibited and sold his work, and he sold probably thousands of paintings to an elite circle of people who knew of him and prized his work. Since his death, I have been publishing bits and pieces of his work in ways that I think would honor and please him.
My first project was a collection of sketches that he did of animals. I happened to come across a prototype book he had planned sometime in his life, complete with a title, an introduction and a collection of sketches to be included. I even found a letter he had written to a publisher about the book, but since no book was ever created, he obviously never found a willing publisher. I determined to do it, and with the aid of self-publishing (unheard of during my father’s lifetime), created the book that I thought my father would have wanted.
My next project, a year or two later, was a similar collection of sketches but of landscapes this time. I don’t know if my father ever planned to put together such a companion book, but I had oodles of sketches to choose from so the hardest part was narrowing it down and selecting the very best from the many on hand. Both of these books were done in simple black and white, befitting the stark nature of sketches, but I have often thought about doing a full color book of his best works, and now seems to be the time to do that.
I’ve pulled out approximately 80 works that I believe are the best representations of his art throughout his life and coupled those with short commentaries that I have gleaned from his writings. Luckily for me my father wrote his autobiography over the last 20 years of his life, a treasure trove of stories and information that I go back to again and again. He also published several articles on art processes in American Artist magazine, so I have those to draw on as well. Now it’s just a matter of formatting, showing off both the artwork and the commentary to best advantage.
What I have found interesting is the fact that, although I am creating a new book, it is not my book per se, and the creation process is very different.
Most of my books are novels, which means I get to create the characters, the story, the world, the action—I get to do it all, however I want. I work by watching a “movie” in my head and then describe what I see. By tweaking the movie, I can gently push the emotional feeling of the scene one way or another, or I can nudge the characters in a certain direction, moving them toward a satisfying conclusion. I immerse myself into it, sink down into it and struggle mightily to clearly tell the story that permeates my brain. It’s extremely personal and in an effort to tell the story in the best way possible, I will often agonize over each word.
Doing my father’s book, I do none of that. I feel as though I am using a different part of my brain, as if the pure creativity of a novel uses the right side of the brain and the more analytical, editorial job of compiling my father’s art is using the left side of the brain. It has a very different feel to it, and I find that curious. Doing my father’s book, I can hold this book at arm’s length, look at it critically and analyze it. Since this is a visual art book, there is nothing for me to visualize—my work is only to organize, format and present in the way that shows off the art in the best possible light. I am still creating in that I am presenting images in a coherent way and coupling them with the commentaries, but it’s much more of a mechanical process than an artistic one.
When I wrote the biography of my aunt, Marcia Gates, I realize now that the process was a blending of the two above. I had the facts of her life, so there was no creation going on there, but my job was to present those facts in a clear and interesting manner. My process there was to write in such a way that the facts were unaltered, neither downplayed nor puffed up, yet the description of the facts was compelling enough to carry the reader along. It was a constant balancing act between artistic style and truthful reporting.
I’d always heard, of course, about the differences between left brain and right brain activity, but had never thought about it as it applied to my writing. I found it interesting to notice how the different types of writing called on one or the other methods of creation.
That’s using the old noodle!