The Creative Slump

Henri Matisse, one of the giants of 20th-Century art, found himself in a discouraging creative slump in 1930. At the age of 60, the painter had been living in Nice, France, for 13 years, after spending years in Paris as an enfant terrible of the city’s avant garde art world. Isolated from the buzz of the Paris painting scene, Matisse focused on depicting alluring female models in interior studio setups, using vivid patterns and sparkling colours lit by the Mediterranean light. As he fell into a stylistic repetition, some critics, along with Matisse himself, wondered if the once-radical artist had lost his edge. “I have sat down several times to do some [painting],” he wrote to his daughter, Marguerite, in 1929. “But in front of the canvas, I am at a loss for ideas.”

A recent Americans for the Arts study found that 64% of 20,000 artists surveyed said they experienced a decrease in their creative productivity during the pandemic. More than half said their decline was due to stress, anxiety and depression about the state of the world. Matisse’s creative painting output fell during the start of a world-wide economic depression, the rise of fascism in Europe and, more immediately, a personal sense that his approach to easel painting was in crisis. [source: BBC]

This creative slump during the pandemic or other stressful times may well explain why I was unable to finish my manuscript between 2020 and late 2021. Of more significance, I have discovered that I am most creative when relaxed, with time to think and ponder. Travel helps too.

The US abstract installation artist Judy Pfaff, who was heavily influenced by Matisse when she started painting in the 1970s, says travel helps many artists like herself to reinvigorate creativity when feeling stuck. “Travel has kept me moving forward,” the MacArthur Foundation Award-winner tells BBC Culture.

I like Judy’s comment and it resonates with me. I wrote both my novels as a result of travel. Visiting new spaces inspired me and, along with my photography, became foundational for ideas for a novel.

What’s in a Name?

What’s in a name? Everything. A few years ago a Chinese friend of mine rang to ask if New Zealand baby names had meanings. “Of course,” I said. He next asked, “What name means mistake?”

Very funny but, the other day, I was editing my novel when I came across the names of two agents—spies in fact. Their names were Oleg and Ivan. How lame could I be; these are not how spies get their names. In fact, they get code words, so I needed to change them. I renamed one Neon and the other Archie. However, Archie is the name of a son to a very famous person who has hogged the news recently, so I had to change it again. Fortunately, I came up with a suitable alternative one night and am happy now. In my first novel, 3 WISE MEN, the three main character names had to fit their country of birth. The moral to all this;

Be careful how you name your characters.

Which leads to another quandary; can I use real company names in a novel? That’s for another post 🙂

Looking for another word

While working on a sentence, I needed a stronger word that “looking”:

Did I miss something important across my desk at MI6 and become the target of a foreign group looking for revenge?

‘looking’ lacks urgency and power. Is this better?

Did I miss something important across my desk at MI6 and become the target of a foreign group seeking revenge?

‘seeking’ is better, but still lame. How about,

Did I miss something important across my desk at MI6 and become the target of a foreign group hungry for revenge?

Ah, ‘hungry’ carries a deeper desire and works better.

Finding a Literary Agent

Finding the right literary agent is harder than finding a partner. When I co-authored my school textbook, the editor from Macmillan’s was perfect—professional, yet sympathetic; warm and encouraging, though not reluctant to steer us in the right direction. She knew her craft and the final product was excellent. When it comes to novels, I am no expert on literary agents because I have yet to find the right one. But, I am sure that when I do, they will be like my textbook editor and have my best interests at heart. Meanwhile, I keep working on producing the very best manuscript I can; one that is polished, error free, and compelling in terms of plot and pace. I have learned not to treat my agent query like a round of speed-dating, but to focus on the agent who has the same interests as me and the experience to navigate the best publishing deal. How long will this take? Months or years. Does it matter if the novel is able to stand the test of time?

A Good Suggestion

How many of you check out the first paragraph when browsing a bookstand? When can’t overestimate the power of the first words in a novel and the importance of the first paragraph.

A friend was reviewing the start of my new book. I trust his judgement; he’s an avid reader. “I liked the first chapter,” he said, “but the opening paragraph just doesn’t draw me in—it gives no sense of place or context.” I agreed and went back to revise it. What is important is that I feel much happier about the opening now. It helps the main character as his arc unfolds, and it propels the plot. It starts with a quote that a senior staff member used when I began a new teaching position. So, here goes;

“Your best is never good enough,” were the words Sir Donald Bradford spoke at my orientation for the Foreign Service. Now, with retirement looming, I had to agree. I had given everything, but there was too much unfinished business and post-covid Europe was a diplomatic nightmare. Now, I needed time to myself and time to heal. With my camera as my companion, I explored The Mall, filled with tourists enjoying an ordinary day in picturesque London.

Lovers share a kiss by the steps. “Click.” Queen Victoria’s statue stares at them, stone-faced and not amused; very English. I lift my camera and to frame my next photo. Damn, a woman steps across the viewfinder, whispering as she passes me.

“You are being followed,” she says, “don’t turn around.”

My camera shakes as I try to focus on the bronze statue above me.

“Eighty-two feet high. If you enjoy royalty, try the Household Cavalry Museum at Hyde Park Barracks at 4pm. Ask for Reginald.”

[PS: This is only a drat. In the coming days I will play with this to get it right :-)]

Rejection is a Writer’s Nightmare

William Golding’s most famous book, Lord of the Flies, had been rejected by every publisher he sent it to – until an editor at Faber pulled his manuscript off the rejection pile.

Lord of the Flies sold in its millions and brought Golding worldwide recognition. In 1983 he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature.

I often wonder how Golding felt about those rejections. Perhaps, like me, he just knew that someone, someday, would connect with his story. PS: John le Carre’s first novel, The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, was passed along because le Carre “hasn’t got any future.” John Grisham’s A Time to Kill was rejected by 16 publishers before finding an agent who eventually rejected him as well. And, Agatha Christie had to wait four years for her first book to be published. Ah, rejection is a cloak of honor for writers.

Cutting and Polishing the Draft Manuscript

The analogy is cutting and polishing diamonds. Cutting is crucial, and the same applies to a manuscript. In my latest script, the rough draft had an opening chapter that I cut in order to begin at a more important part of the plot. For a diamond, the final polishing of all the facets is a crucial step in determining the quality and beauty of the finished gem. This takes far more time and painstaking attention to detail. I would have to say that this process of polishing the script, editing and re-editing is taking far longer than I expected. But, I guess I am my worst critic and I am at the level of getting ruthless with each word now. Hopefully, the final product will be polished enough to pass the critic test.

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