Mere Beauty

Capture beauty on the page and it will enliven the work.  Engage the readers’ senses with your expressive details, your moods and textures, and you’ve got him where you want him.

But give him too much of a good thing, and he will soon slow his pace and skip down the page in search of action. Make him work to remain interested, and he might even quit, bored or weary.

The problem is that mere beauty—however rich and luscious at the inception—is not enough. And a lot of it only makes the problem worse. Without some edifying or gratifying elements in return for your reader’s consumption of all that glory, descriptive passages only add volume, even bloat. Every passage has to pull its weight and not just sit there and look pretty.

Photo credits: brownie – Ilco, sxc; serving cake – Simeon Eichmann, sxc.

The Art of a Great Line

I emailed a writer friend to congratulate him on the short story he sent along for my read, and he responded with a single line:

In Errachidia on the Western Edge of the Sahara; typing on an Arabic keyboard/ Will call later in the week, back Wed/ Thanks”

Now, that’s the work of a good writer. He sets the scene, gets my imagination going, and makes me want to know more. He doesn’t waste a moment of his reader’s time. Every word counts for something.

Intrigued, I will look up Errachidia in a spare moment, locate it in Morocco, imagine for a second, maybe, that I can hear camel bells. I will also wonder about his use of an Arabic keyboard—he speaks Arabic? But for all this color and mystery, I have received real information—his whereabouts, when he will return, and the news that he will call. To achieve so much in the space of a single line, is the work of someone who knows his craft.

Less is more when it comes to power. Just make your sentences count.


Bill Schubart is the author of The Lamoille Stories (White River Books, 2008). Fat People is a new collection of stories. For his commentary and a profile of his varied career in business, the arts and civic policy check out:

Photos used by permission of Bill Schubart.

Too Much Chocolate in your Garage?

I had lunch with a friend the other day who got to talking about his grandfather’s creative business prowess. It seemed that this clever grandfather had a Brooklyn warehouse full of chocolate just as the Depression hit, and it wasn’t selling.

This required some alternative thinking. What did his customers want in these dire times that he and his chocolate might provide?

They wanted solace. They wanted to believe that better times were ahead. They wanted to have some fun. And if it was cheap enough, they might spend for it.

So, what did he do? He reshaped his candy box to meet this yearning. He made it heart-shaped, the first to do so, or so goes the family lore, and sold a warehouse-full of chocolate on Valentine’s Day.

Something not working under your roof? Redefine it. Break it up, take it apart, reshape it, and you create movement where there was none a minute ago. Risk all and lose nothing for your think-time, and all of a sudden, you just might have a new way to go.

Thanks to Alan Newman, Conductor of Cosmic Symphonies, Magic Hat Brewing, who told me this story.
Photo credit:Martine Lemmens

Flamingo a-go-go . . . fixing a mistake.

If you’ve never made a mistake, you’ve never tried anything.

Artist John Brickels was reminded of this when he agreed to decorate a pink plastic flamingo for a fundraiser to benefit the local arts community.  He incorporated it into one of his clay pieces, thinking he could bring his artistry to bear to “overpower the bird,” but the bird won.  The Flamingo Must Go

A typical Brickels work speaks to a bygone era, a gentler age of automats, voluptuous cars, and gas station attendants.  He recalls with nostalgic pleasure how people used to dress to go downtown, pert little hats and white gloves on the ladies headed to  Hudson’s, Detroit’s best department store.  He still vacations here to be closer to the automotive industry. As a young man, his dream job was to be able to carve the automotive models out of clay. Machines do it today.

Never mind. He would make his own machines, carved of clay. Gorgeous things, but without any birds involved, so when he learned that my husband bought this pink flamingo piece, he was anxious to get it back. “Bring me the bird,” he said in an email, and I dropped it off at his studio.

A couple of weeks later, I returned to pick up the piece, and it had been transformed into quite a beauty. He had removed the front grill, extracted the bird, and filled the clay cavity with hand-carved gears and screws. He added wires, a working gauge, and LED lights, as well, and the capstone was a masterpiece: a Rayethon tube, circa 1950s.

He flicked a switch, and the sculpture ticked, hummed, and glowed.  “It was liberating,” he said, his face alight as he reflected on weeks’ labor. Before me stood a very happy artist, and I think how only those who make mistakes can feel this joy.

Ten photos follow, the finished piece and elated artist at the end. Caution, several are gruesome, but gruesome moments can be part of the process when setting right a mistake.

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Photo credits: Lead photo and the two of the artist by Michael Metz; other photos, property of the artist.

How is Information Acquired?

Tiny Grinnell College, 1,500 students, Iowa, has a tradition called 100 days, so named for the fact that it occurs one hundred days before graduation. It’s a party, held this past year in the Elks’ hall, where seniors gather for the express purpose of kissing someone they’d meant to approach these past 7 ½ semesters but never found the moment or the courage. Hundred Days is a chance—a last chance, really—to settle infatuations, correct missed opportunities, right some wrongs.

There are no guidelines for navigating the crowded hall, and so it starts out awkwardly enough, but it soon loosens. With the lights low, drinks flowing, temperatures rising, the scene mixes: no judgment, no consequences. From across the room, someone flashes a little smile, shrugs a shoulder. Wanna? It goes from here. First one, then two—and for some, thirty kisses that night. Worries of mono and hygiene drop from the conversation.

By the time the night is over, a student’s world has twisted inside out. What was kept private—a crush, a heartthrob—is now exposed, your secrets spilled along with everyone else’s. There is so much to consider. Who kissed whom? Who kissed me?! Who declined a kiss and who invited an advance?

Did you see those two in the corner going on? And what’s up with that guy who came around three times?

Under such conditions, you’re soon up to your knees in new facts to consider. Illumination is conceivable, even probable, and with so little effort required on your part.

Just stand there, with a willing attitude, an open mind and a smiling face, and it will come right up and kiss you.

Thanks to Sandy Chizinsky, who told me this story.
Photo credit: lips, Maria Kaloudi, legs, Gabriella Fabbri, both with stock.xchng

Ask Questions

The creative person lives very much in his or her own mind. This is a mixed blessing. On the up side, it’s a working world and a lot of work gets done in thinking. On the down slope, there are limits to what you can get from within. To keep the balance, engage with others and open yourself to new information.

Ask, when you don’t understand. When you are curious. When you think you will learn something. Anything, really. Ask, and you will have something you didn’t have a minute ago. Something new to consider.

But more than this, your questions have opened a conversation. Removing yourself from yourself in this way—at least for as long as it took to inquire and hear the answer—will improve whatever it is that you’re working on.

Photo Credit: man with question marks, Bob Smith; doubting man, Emiliano Spada; both with stock.xchng

The Most Important Skill for a Writer

For a writer, the most important skill is observation.

Something has caught your eye, demanded attention. And when you return to your work, so begins the labor—sometimes arduous—to process the fruits of your observations.

It isn’t easy to just observe, simple as it may seem.

A good observer sees things that others fail to notice. He looks on—not as a spy, or a cop, or a twit, even—but at arm’s length, senses engaged. And he learns for his troubles. It’s even possible that, sooner or later, something jumps out at him: the thing that doesn’t fit, the discrepancy, the hole, the dodge, the oddity . . .

Another person may shrug it off, if he notices at all. But the observer, pauses a moment, considers. He wants to understand, and in this innocent desire, perhaps he has also found opportunity. If he follows this thing, this niggling bit of confusion, right to the core, he’s found a story, and maybe one that moves him to think more on the subject.

None of this would happen without observation. All the rest—discernment, compassion, even, whatever you come to believe—comes from this.

Photo credits: jars of preserves by marmit; face of girl by Aldon Scott MacLeod; both with stock.xchng

Give your Reader a Break

Once, I attended a meeting where Robert Bernstein, then president and C.E.O. of Random House, was handed a lawyer’s memo that was so dense, he refused to read it. “Where’s the white space?” he asked, not unkindly, and slid it back across the conference table. “Give your reader a break.”

I felt bad for the young attorney involved, who no doubt had produced competent work, but who arranged his page in such a way so as to have wearied the recipient before he even began.

White space is essential on the page. Break it up. Make it easy on the eyes. Give the reader’s mind a chance to catch up to his eyes. Lay it out, in word and in logic, in the cleanest possible way.

This is the difference between something read or ignored, and what a simple fix.

Photo credits: chef by Luca Baroncini; woman reading by Frank van den Hurk, both with stock.xchng

How to Court the Creative Spark

There you are, minding your own business, working, because you always work, even if it looks like you’re just strolling down the avenue, say—and zing!—two things come together, or something comes apart, or something drops in, lands in your very path, upsets the pushcart at the corner and now hot dogs are rolling all over the street.

The creative mind, whatever the medium, takes the unexpected, and turns it around and around. This is what the creative spark is—that disconnect, or connect, however it went for you.

How to court it?

Just do your work, and then go out. Open your eyes and ears. Be available. Notice your world.  Listen. Don’t eat hot dogs, unless they’re the really good ones. Consume art. And in this down time, which follows rigorous work time—successful or not—something shifts. Sometimes it’s tiny, and sometimes it’s huge, but when you sit down again to do your work, it won’t look the same. And in that difference, something new has opened up that demands your attention.

Photo credit: R. Stewart, stock.xchng