Saturday, December 19, 2009

Canada Calling: Joan Boswell

Joan Boswell is an artist and writer, who lives in Toronto.

Sharon asked me whether being a painter contributed to my writing and if being a painter made it easier to write. I don’t know the answer to those questions but they stimulated me to consider creativity. I think that in all creative work asking the question, ‘what if?’, is something you must do every time you approach a project.

Everyone is creative in some way. Whether it’s writing, visual arts, cooking, gardening - most spheres of living provide the possibility to be creative. But, in order for the work, whatever it may be, to be truly creative the writer, sculptor, chef has to have challenged herself, forced herself to ask, ‘what if?’. She has to explore the question, dismiss the obvious answer and come up with a novel solution to make the work unique.

There is nothing wrong with following a cookbook recipe, duplicating a garden plan, imitating a favourite painter - you end up with delectable food, a lovely garden and a pleasing painting. You have duplicated a plan originating with someone else.

If, on the other hand, you take basic knowledge and introduce new elements you are creating something new.

Basic knowledge. Mastery of the ‘how to’ of writing, painting, cooking or gardening is the first step in creation. Often this means taking a course. If the instructor does not share her knowledge of the tools of the trade the course will be useless. Art teachers who tell the class, ‘relax and allow your imagination to tell you what to do’ are of no help whatsoever. If you don’t know how to apply a watercolour wash, to mask areas of paper, to lift off unwanted paint the aspiring artist ends up with a muddy mess. If a garden instructor talks of plants and gardens without sharing her knowledge of local soil, useful fertilizers, planting times and other information the would-be gardener will feel cheated.

For writers the ‘how to’ books fill the bookstores as do inspirational books. Once a writer knows the basics of story telling, the need for a story arc, the do’s and don’ts of dialogue, the always important need to ‘show’ not ‘tell’ she is ready to read the inspirational books - Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird, Natalie Goldberg’s many books, Susan Wooldridge’s Poem Crazy. And maybe the scary books about overcoming writer’s block, facing down the critical monster or her shoulder who tells her whatever she’s written is garbage. Once the basics are in the toolbox the writer, painter, chef or gardener is ready to place her individual stamp on her work.

In Toronto there is a wonderful woman trained as a visual artist and landscape architect who creates community gardens that are not only aesthetically pleasing but also reflect the ethnicity and needs of the community. In a largely Asian neighbourhood Chinese and Vietnamese vegetables grow alongside flowers. Similarly in a largely Jamaican area she has enlisted the help of knowledgeable local Jamaicans to do the same thing. She knows what plants will or will not flourish and helps the neighbourhood create a garden unique to its needs. The gardens provide food and beauty and community involvement. She has asked the ‘what if’ question for each one and come up with answers that make these gardens unique.

For writers the ‘what if?’ question is particularly important. For some writers it is difficult to answer and apply. Those who write formula fiction like Harlequin romances may tell an engaging story but because their work is tightly hedged with rules they cannot deviate far and are unlikely to break free of the mold. They are not allowed to be creative. For mystery writers too there are conventions but they are much less rigorous and allow leeway to add twists that startle and engage the reader.

How does it happen? First, the germ of an idea starts you thinking about a story or a book. Characters appear and you consider whether or not they are stereotypes. If they are your readers and critics will call them cardboard figures and probably not relate to them although they may like the pace and the plot. You need individuals with personalities of their own.

If they are boring the writer has to ask ‘what if’ the protagonist was a man rather than a woman? What if he had physical limitations instead of a robust body? What if the hero was seriously flawed but had one redeeming feature?

Given interesting characters what of the setting? Is it one you’ve read about, one that others have used? Is it a ‘dark and stormy night’? If so you have to ask ‘what if’ again. Reconsidering the path you’ve chosen, forces you to look to the side and search for an alternative way to reach the end and exercise creative choice.

Every facet of the story or book needs to pass the ‘what if’ test. Many writers from long practice have internalized the question and avoid the easy and stereotyped answers. It’s a question every writer has to consciously or unconsciously ask if she hopes to create unique stories.

Cut to the Chase is her third book in the Hollis Grant series. This is the proto-cover and Joan says the final cover will have lovely red splatters on it.

For more information about Joan and her books, and to read a lovely short story involving pigs, go to her website.

1 comment:

Mary Jane Maffini said...

Thanks for an inspiring look at the creative process, Joan. You are one of the most creative and productive people I know, as well as being multi-talented. It was great to get a peek into the way you view the world!