It’s not a secret that many of us writers have had a hard time being creative during the troubling times of the past few years.
And, as I was preparing this post, I realized I have not even glanced at my List of Works since 2019. Granted, 2019 was the last “normal” year before the pandemic changed the world, so I could use this as a handy excuse — but not forever. Even though the world remains changed and the pandemic remains with us, we writers have to get back to our writing, if we haven’t already.
And the good news? Many of us have. In looking at my List of Works, I realized that while I haven’t been tracking my projects, that doesn’t mean I haven’t been writing. Updating my list of works has reminded me that though I haven’t felt very creative, I’ve actually been making some creative progress: I’ve been working on three separate book projects (which now, finally, appear in my List of Works), and I’ve somehow managed to publish three short stories during the pandemic.
And this is why I highly recommend keeping a List of Works (learn the how and why in this post), which I began doing a dozen years ago. Having a list like this reminds us writers of the ways in which we are moving forward (even when we think we aren’t).
So, while the past two years have apparently been too distracting to attend to my List of Works, I’m finally getting back on track. (Maybe this means 2022 will be different, and better!) But at the very least, it will remind me that even if I can’t control what goes on in the world, I can control my own tiny piece of it — and being creative is the best way to move forward with optimism during such crazy times.
I cannot recommend a List of Works — or whatever your organizational strategy may be — enough. Even if you’re not an organizer or a list-maker, give it a try. And even if you ignore your list for years at a time, that’s okay — it’s always fun to pick up where you left off, whether you learn you’ve been writing more than you think you have, or whether it helps you realize it’s time to get back to it already.
However you may decide to track your work, don’t neglect to set writing goals and to check in with yourself (or a writing buddy) to keep track of how you’re going.
Poet and teacher Janée J. Baugher is the author of two collections of poetry, The Body’s Physics and The Coordinates of Yes, and her new book, The Ekphrastic Writer, is an amazing text filled with art, poetry, prose, and inspiration for all writers. I’m thrilled to have had this email chat with Janée about her new book.
Q: With so many museums being closed due to the pandemic, are there any virtual spaces you’d recommend for ekphrastic writing inspiration?
A: I have a friend who lives in Chicago, and when he told me that on July 31st the Art Institute of Chicago was opening I raged with envy. I immediately opened that museum’s website and beheld an incredible article called, “Protecting Art in An Empty Museum.” Isn’t it curious to know that while many of us are jobless, distanced from our family and friends, and spending too many hours before the newsreel that fuels worry and fear, there are countless numbers of tireless museum stewards working around the globe to ensure that works of art remain safe? If you cannot experience art firsthand, museum websites are the best option. So, to answer your question, here are some resources:
This website allows you to click on the world map, which brings up a list of museum website links for that particular region.
The Smithsonian Art Museum, though still closed, recognizes that people remain hungry for art-viewing experiences. Since COVID-19, the organization has revamped its homepage—“Experience American Art from Home.”
The Getty Center is also still closed, but their internet presence is just stellar. Visit the website and you’ll see information on art conservation, research, education, and, of course, you’ll be able to enjoy tens of thousands of images from their collection.
Technology has certainly allowed for an easier way to weather the pestilence, and museums have embraced groundbreaking methods for virtual art engagement. You can search “virtual tours” and “art museums” on the internet, or you can simply visit your favorite museum’s website and see if those types of features exist. Are you lamenting your canceled trip to Paris? Now’s your opportunity to visit the Louvre virtually. What’s the good word from St. Petersburg, Russia? The Hermitage Museum is open! Can’t get there? Yes, you can.
Q: You recently participated in an art project for the City of Shoreline in which you wrote poems in response to scenes in the city’s parks. A lot of people are spending time outdoors during the pandemic. Can you talk about the possibilities within nature and ekphrasis?
A: Years ago I had a revelation about the similarity between writing on nature and writing ekphrastically. With both categories (objects in nature and objects d’art), the journey begins with aesthetics, reverie, and mystery. In my book I write, “Writers write concretely of the things they see, feel, and can name. Art of any type can be an extension of reflections on what you are looking at and how you are processing what you are seeing” (page 46). The possibilities within nature as it pertains to ekphrasis are infinite! While you’re spending time outdoors, keep in mind that public art is always open, and many museums boast sculpture gardens as part of their collection—most of which are still accessible for viewing and experiencing. Here’s an article that was highly informative to my chapter on nature writing: D. W. Meinig’s “The Beholding Eye: Ten Versions of the Same Scene,” which is available online. Read this article and then venture out into a landscape and you’ll see it through an entirely different lens, which can be a stellar start to ekphrastic writing.
Q: In your book, you wrote that you first “committed ekphrasis” in 1995. How much of your own body of work is based in ekphrasis? What is it about ekphrasis that captured you and continues to inspire you?
A: One summer during graduate school while I was drowning under the pressure of writing a book, I went to Europe in the hopes that I could find the poems there. Within two days of arriving I found myself in a Berlin museum swooning over a little Dutch painting. I opened my notebook on the spot and out poured a ekphrastic poem. The process was systematic—the poems, I discovered, were at museums, so I visited a new one every other day for six weeks. And the approach to writing was easy—if I just freewrote while in the presence of art, the poems composed themselves. By the time I returned home, I had 100 poems, half of which were ekphrastic. Ultimately, that trip resulted in my first collection of poems. Most of what I write now is ekphrastic. My current work-in-progress is dedicated to a single artist, Andrew Wyeth, which is a new challenge for me in that it’s an opportunity to deep-dive into one artist’s complete oeuvre and to see what connections can be made among his many paintings and drawings. My original impetus for turning to the visual arts is the motivation that holds true for me today: I seek to extinguish the personality. Ruminating on an artwork is, for me, a mode of transcending the quotidian experience. In other words, in the spirit of writing imaginatively, the approach I take to squelch the ego is meditating on an object of beauty.
Q: Which of the twenty-six types of ekphrastic writing from the first chapter of your book—from personifying the artwork to addressing the artist to considering historical context—do you most often employ?
A: In compiling a list of conventions for this book, I studied scholarly articles, as well as read hundreds of ekphrastic prose pieces and poems, including analyzing my own work. Some of those conventions include #3, narrating the artwork; #17, writing the absent; #19, adopting the artist’s artistic style; and #26, transcending description. Unless it were an assignment, I don’t suppose that any of us is truly conscious of what convention we employ as we’re in the drafting stage of writing. It would be a worthwhile exercise for a student of ekphrasis to take one artwork and attempt all twenty-six conventions. For me, the desires I have for my poems take a backseat to the desire of the muse. It’s only during the revision process that I look closely at whatever convention is at play and then work towards consistency therein. For my third collection of poems (on Andrew Wyeth), I write in the first-person point of view, giving voice to Wyeth’s thought process as he paints and draws. That is to say that I’m currently using convention #8, giving voice to the artist.
Q: If you could make one recommendation to a beginning ekphrastic writer, what would it be?
A: The best ekphrastic writing is born from a writer whose aim and delight is to look deeply and for whom there’s some feeling associated with the artwork they’re engaging with. In other words, writing to an artwork for which you’re apathetic will result in a piece of writing that’s dead. Additionally, if you’re too close to a work of art (you’re the artist, for example, or your lover is the photographer), you might be unable to plumb the depths of its mysteries. To rephrase, if you gravitate towards an artwork for which you feel something, and it’s an artwork that you’re willing to scrutinize deeply and well, and through which there’s space for your imagination, then perhaps you’re on the journey to making an ekphrastic writing of literary quality. Even if you have no literary aspirations, writing freely to any type of art is a blast.
Q: And lastly: Would you be willing to choose a writing invitation from the book to offer to readers?
A: Yes, there are 200 writing invitations in the book, but here’s a new one—Since most of us can’t currently access museums and galleries, let’s take this opportunity to start ekphrastic writing at home. What art exists in your home? For example: original art hanging on the walls, posters, postcards, or images of beloved art in a book? Select one piece and place it on a table. Cover the entire artwork with a sheet of paper. While the artwork is cloaked, spend a few minutes remembering its details. What’s the medium? Who created it? What mood does it evoke? What do you most recall about the piece? Next, move that sheet of paper (on the horizontal or the vertical) centimeter by centimeter thereby slowly revealing the image. Take notice of the lines, brushstrokes, hues, shapes, forms, and negative space. Once you’ve truly looked deeply at the artwork, perform a 10-minute freewrite. Afterwards, spend 5 more minutes writing about why that artwork exists in your home. How did you acquire it and from whom? What are your personal associations with it? What’s its significance? Lastly, involving family members in this exercise can be an interesting way to explore others’ relationship to the art that you share.
Even as I wrote the title of this post, I confess I found the notion of “pandemic writing” to be an oxymoron. As I’ve heard from many other writers, it’s difficult to be creative when life is so very stressful. For some of us, it feels indulgent or frivolous, in light of all the suffering in the world; for others, it’s simply hard to focus when so much of life is scary, out of our control, and unpredictable for the foreseeable future.
I’ve found great solace in reading, and it’s in part thanks to the many wonderful books that have given me respite from the stress of current life — or have illuminated aspects of current life — that I’m finally feeling inspired to jump-start my own writing again. Reading is a wonderful reminder that we cannot exist without books — without art in general — and this means that each of us must do what we can to contribute to a world that needs art more than ever.
I was delighted to rediscover this article by Janée Baugher, author of the poetry books The Body’s Physics and The Coordinates of Yes, and, most recently, the writing book The Ekphrastic Writer. In this thoughtful piece, Janée challenges us to find fifteen minutes to spend on our art, whether it’s playing piano or writing. (When I re-read this article, I had only five minutes between reading the last sentence and leaving for an appointment, and I was so inspired that I spent those five minutes writing. And you know what? It was worth it, and helped me get back into a long-neglected project.) You can read the article here.
At a recent virtual reading by the Writers Guild at Bloomington’s Spoken Word Series, I was inspired not only by the music and prose and poetry readings but by reader Katy Yocom’s advice to find an “accountability buddy” with whom to check in daily to keep each other accountable for the day’s writing. As the author of the award-winning novel Three Ways to Disappear and associate director of the low-residency graduate writing programs of the School of Creative and Professional Writing at Spalding University, Katy practices what she teaches. Learn more about Katy here, where you can find Three Ways to Disappear, see her upcoming virtual events, and sign up for her e-mail updates.
One of the best ways I’ve found to say inspired is to do one literary thing per week. This may be attending an online reading or event (in addition to seeing what your local bookstores are doing and finding your favorite authors online, check out LitHub’s Virtual Book Channel for a list of virtual events, or Book Riot’s list of reading series now being held online), or listening to a bookish podcast like Books Are My People (Book Riot also has a great list). You might attend a writing practice (such as San Diego Writers Ink’s Brown Bag, Pen to Paper, and Thursday Writers meetings, now online and offering critique-free free-writing sessions led by instructors; sessions are one hour, with a $5 donation for Brown Bag and Thursday Writers). And don’t forget that buying a book from your local bookseller or from a small press will not only enrich your literary life but will help support the literary arts during these tough economic times.
In the spirit of starting to write (or continuing your established writing practice), below are a few writing prompts from Everyday Writing, the book I wrote when I realized I would never have the time to write every single day but could still be a productive writer. (You can check out an excerpt of the book here.) In addition to writing tips I’ve gathered together (from my own experiences as well as those of my brilliant writer friends), the book includes prompts for just about any amount of time you may have, whether it’s five minutes or a week-long writing retreat.
The prompts below are for those who are short on time (which most of us are, these days); they may seem totally random at a glance, but sometimes that’s the idea. Don’t question; just write.
I hope you enjoy them and that they inspire you to be creative during those strange times we’re all living through. Happy writing!
Five-minute writing prompts
Write about what you’re wearing on your feet (if anything). Use as many details as time allows.
Describe your best friend as a two-year-old.
Write about forgetting something at the store.
Fifteen-minute writing prompts
Write about a time you guessed wrong about something, whether it was who might be calling, whom your daughter would marry, or how the polenta would turn out.
Write about a lie someone told you. Include everything, from how and when you knew it was a lie to what might have been different if you’d been told the truth.
Write about something you lost this year (an item, a relationship, a belief), and aim to write about it for several pages. Next, write about the best thing that happened to you this year, again for several pages.