7 Things I’ve Learned About Writing from Watercolor Painting

I’m taking a break from reading this week to make time for family and some final writing assignments (this is the first time I’ve spent five days straight with my parents and boyfriend since the summer…hallelujah for that!)

So I thought that I would post some lessons this week that I’ve learned about my writing from my time in a watercolor painting class this semester. I took a watercolor class simply to get to full-time status for my final semester of college.
However, I’ve really enjoyed it and it’s been surprisingly influential for my own writing.

1. Be patient.
When you paint with watercolors, it’s often better to make sure a color is dry before you wash over it with another.
Rushing to finish means your work is going to be lacking, and the same is true for writing.
Give yourself time. Is your work getting tired? Lacking that “oomph?” (Yes, that’s the official term.)
Maybe it’s time to move on to something else and come back. Fruitless obsession is going to drive you crazy.

2. It’s not about how well you mimic the subject. It’s about how your piece turns out.
If you’re painting a still life and it turns out super weird-looking but you still like it, it’s a good painting.
If you start with an idea for a poem or story and it doesn’t turn out like you intended but it’s weird and endearing or funky, you’re good.

3. Use stronger pigments than you think you need.
Watercolor is a soft medium. It dries much lighter than it looks when it’s first put on the paper, so you need to start with stronger colors than you intended.
Don’t be afraid to use strong language.
I don’t mean vulgarity. Just intense vocabulary.
Challenge yourself to use words that means something, that stand out. That way they will truly connect with your reader.

4. Plan ahead.
A watercolor painting turns out much better if you plan ahead how to approach it. That doesn’t mean it will turn out like you intend, but a plan makes things go smoothly.
I find this applies well to working on a project, like a collection of poems.
Come up with an overarching idea or theme, however broad, or at least a game plan for how to accomplish what you want to do. It’ll make it seem like a far less daunting task.

5. You often have to mix colors to get the best hues.
Pigments straight from the paint tube are pretty, but they’re not the best colors.
The coolest colors I’ve found, the most interesting and life-like come from playing around with mixing colors.
I think the same is true for using another person’s writing as your writing inspiration.
Yes, David Foster Wallace may have some of the best contemporary fiction (I would agree), but writing exactly like him, using all of his “pigments” means you’re going to write like a second-rate DFW, not a first-rate you.

6. Ground your painting.
If you paint an apple, it can’t be floating in the middle of the page.
It needs shadow, shading to seem realistic. You need the dark tones to ground it.
You can’t write a perfect utopian world. Sure, write love poems. But unless there’s some humanity and darkness in them, they won’t be realistic. Life and writing needs the dark tones.

7. Experiment. Try new techniques.
Sprinkle some salt on the wet pigment to add some texture. Crinkle some Saran Wrap over the page. It’s funky, but it works.
Try new things. Blackout poetry. Write a poem without any nouns. Write a short story in second-person.
Who knows, maybe something cool will happen.

Enjoy some family time this week, friends.
Gain some inspiration wherever you can.
Who knows, maybe you’ll write something fantastic about your crazy uncle.

With thanks,
Abigail Joy


Imagery that Sees–Anis Mojgani’s Songs from Under the River

Have you ever encountered a writer and you thought, “I think we’d be best friends”?

That’s how I feel about Anis Mojgani. I started watching his spoken word performances on Youtube a few years ago, and he mesmerized me. (If you’ve not heard any of the poets that came out of the Bowery Poetry Club in NYC, you’re missing out.)
His poetry has quickly become a standard by which I judge all other poetry, both written and spoken, so naturally I was ecstatic when I finally was able to purchase one of his books of poems.

Songs from Under the River is a book of 36 poems, both old and new to his career as a poet. As many are originally spoken poems, they are often several pages in length with long line lengths and fairly prose-like punctuation.

One that breaks that particular form is “Church” which begins

“In the broken comma of dawn,
I become my father.
I once maybe wanted a house.
A red, wooden one.
With a fence
a hill
a wife.”

In poems such as this one, he simplifies his language, but he still uses it in interesting and almost dream-like ways with the phrase “broken comma of dawn.”

Much of his language is dream-like and highly specific as well, which I really appreciate.

Detail, for me, is probably top of the list when it comes to good writing. (Right under, don’t use the word “heart” in a poem.)

In “In My Library There are 17 Books” he writes:

“I have devoured so many forests.

There is so much cedar wood in my belly.

So much sawdust on the floor of my love.”

First of all, a belly full of cedar wood is probably one of the best images I have ever read. It’s sensory, unique, tender.

I love his writing because it’s confessional, intimate… he makes the reader feel endeared and open, and that is something I would love to be able to do with my writing.

Here’s another example of how stellar he is at writing image, in “The Fisherman:”

“He lights one candle on the table

and peels the skin of his fish with his fork and knife,

peeling it back like a bedsheet.”

A little grotesque, yes, but you could see it, couldn’t you?

I think our written words should seek to make people see, truly see. If we’re not opening literal and metaphorical eyes, what are we doing?

To learn more about his writing, performing, or to read his blog, visit http://thepianofarm.com/.

You won’t regret it.


Read on, write faithful.

Abigail Joy

The Balance of Trust

I’ve been in workshops off and on all semester for my final writing class before my graduation in December (eek…how fast it approaches, how that December 13th date both excites and terrifies).

The project that I have been workshopping is a sequence of poems documenting this past summer of my life. While most of these poems are fairly simple in content, dealing with family and home and love, a few are a bit more complex.
I spent a couple of weeks in Israel in May, so a few poems deal with some issues and experiences I encountered in Israel. I’m no expert on Jewish or Israeli culture by any means, but a two-week excursion, a semester-long preparatory class, and four years living in a markedly Jewish area of northern Ohio had given me a frame of reference.

The first poem I wrote about Israel is titled “To the Western Wall,” and in it I make brief reference to the ancient Jewish priests who once filled the temple. Here are those lines:

This war-torn
Foundation, revered stone
once supporting a heavy
Presence—a room ringing
bell and pomegranate.

I approached writing this knowing that priests in ancient Jewish custom wore robes that had embroidered bells and pomegranates on the hem, which had symbolic significance that I wanted in my poems.

But my classmates again and again commented, “what’s up with the bell and pomegranate?”

Okay–I do not expect my workshop group to have a knowledge of obscure Jewish custom. However, it got me thinking: how much do we trust our reader to research and look for allusion so we don’t have to compromise the integrity of the piece or treat a poem like it’s a lesson to the reader?

I’m not sure I have the answer to this one. What do you think? Is allusion okay? Or is it often too obscure to be appreciated?

I think I lean towards trusting the reader to do their homework, to research, so poems can be rich with depth.
It’s also important to be as clear as you can, though. A one-word allusion is probably going to go over even the most competent and researching readers.

And perhaps it’s as simple as including notes or an epilogue in the back of a collection. I think I support almost anything that allows language to reign in a poem, for the turns of phrases to be beautiful allusion if you want them to be.

What do you think, writers and readers of the blogosphere? Where’s the line of trust with readers?

Keep up the good work, friends.

Abigail Joy

“Re-Seeing”–The Lifeblood of Good Writing

Writing is a reflection of life, I firmly believe that.
No matter if you’re writing fiction, fantasy, biography… the way we write is always a reflection of the way we live.
And the way we live is constantly in flux.

I can’t begin to describe how many changes I have experienced in my life over the past three and a half years. I took a “life-change stress” quiz in a psychology class last week, and I scored high enough to warrant the result of a 50% chance of getting sick due to stress-related causes.

The thing is, though–I don’t see change as a bad thing.
I think it’s actually really good,
and it can mean wonderful things for our writing.

If our lives change so much, so should our writing. Change is hard, but change in writing can often mean forward progress.

This week, I had a class workshop for my full 20-page draft of the chapbook I am working on.
I love the poems I wrote. I know, it’s kind of an understood writerly thing to critique your own writing harshly, but I think these poems are the best I have ever written.
I was nervous to take them to workshop because I didn’t want to sit there while they were critiqued and pulled apart, and exposed to the harshness of possible significant change.

But I was very pleasantly surprised. I ended up with a document full of typed notes with very possible revision suggestions, one of which meant refocusing the theme of my chapbook in a direction that the poems were leaning towards but I didn’t notice it. I felt energized.

GOOD revision, is re-seeing your work from a new perspective. What can I see about my work when I don’t look at it through a lens of it being a finished work, but instead I see it as something in flux, in process, and in need of improvement?
I would dare say you can see a new, fresher work.

My watercolor painting professor always tells us that the art of watercolor is to put down the fewest strokes possible to keep the sparkle of the pigment.

Writing, I think, is the opposite.
Writing that sparkles, that seems fresh and clean, is rarely a first draft, if ever.
Writing like that takes draft after draft, but not only that–it takes re-seeing each draft in a new way so you find the proper mindset through which to view the text, the proper lens that produces the best result.

So be encouraged, you revisers of the cyber-world.
Let’s make our writing sparkle.

Abigail Joy

Snapshots of Grief–Matthew Leavitt Brown’s Glory Glory

I just completed Matthew Brown’s chapbook Glory Glory this afternoon, and I am absolutely in awe.
Don’t get me wrong, I love poetry and often find myself moved by a lovely poetic phrase, but rarely am I stunned by an entire project as I am by this one.

The entire chapbook follows one couple, and travels from remembrances of their relationship beginning to little nuances of their married life to the wife’s sickness and ends with her death and his coping.
I don’t feel bad spoiling that a little bit though, because the beauty of this narrative poetry is not in what exactly happens. The beauty of this chapbook is how you feel exactly in the moment with the couple, often time with very brief and ordinary snapshots of their life together.

Several poems are even descriptions of photographs, which I thought was a really smart way to capture a moment…by literally describing a captured moment.
The entire chapbook is very visual in the way that photography is.
The wife is often described not by her name, but by the way her curls fall around her face in several poems.
The absence the husband feels after the wife passes away is stunningly captured in one of the poems by the way he finds bunnies while pulling weeds and “without thinking I/called your name once, almost without making a sound, then again,/louder, with my head turning back over my should towards the empty/house.”
He does not just say he misses her, he shows it in an absolutely lovely and heartbreaking way.

Another of my favorite aspects of this chapbook is the way it cycles.
Their is a poem at the beginning, before the reader knows of the wife’s illness, where the husband describes coming home to his wife. It ends as such:
” Your eyes gone wet from corners.
Our song playing in the back room.
Our roses blooming the front yard.

My hands around your belly.
Your smile a lasting penance.
I wiil find you. Always.”

It’s absolutely lovely, and promising.
One of the last poems of the chapbook is in response to this one. It ends as such:
” Your eyes, clear and wide cold blue, gone wet from the corners.
Your soft smell in the kitchen, our song playing in the back room.
A soft whistle in your breath, roses blooming the front yard.

The garden gone petal pink, my hands around your belly.
Holding true your poise, your smile a lasting promise.
When you come back, I will be waiting. Amen.”

The second is not only eerie and stunning, it is expanded, as if in death, the wife is speaking more to him than she did when she was alive.

I know I would love to write poems that converse with one another in such a way, to encapsulate a life so wonderfully.

This chapbook is crafted purposefully from image to language, to the deeply thought-out and constructed structure…all features of good writing that we should all hope to aspire to.

And it is definitely worth a read.

For more information about Matthew Brown’s work, to read samples of his poems, or to order a copy of Glory Glory, click here: matthewbrownpoetry.com

Keep capturing moments, friends. It’s one of the most beautiful things we can do as writers.
Abigail Joy

Prose Poetry and Purgatory

Tonight, I read Amelia Martens strikingly short and powerful chapbook Purgatory.
And it was nothing short of stunning.

The book consists of 20 paragraph-long prose poems that each describe a different creepy, self-reflective, psychologically magnificent idea of purgatory.
Now, I’m not one to say I believe in purgatory. But as someone studying psychology in addition to English, I find this chapbook and the idea in general to be fascinating.

What would purgatory look like if it tapped into the deepest and most toxic annoyances, fears, and paralyzing limitations of the human mind and experience?
Amelia Martens tells you, and she writes it well to boot.

Prose poetry in general is wonderful to me because it, by definition, means creating poetic language without poetic form. This means that poems have to stand alone in their language without the additional assistance of line breaks. Prose poetry is poetry’s elitist cousin (in my opinion, coming from someone who often uses line breaks to cover a multitude of sins.)

Her language is surprising and very in-depth when it comes to detail. These purgatories are fascinating and disconcerting mostly because of the amount of detail she pours into a short paragraph.

If I’ve learned anything about good writing it’s this:
(If you can’t tell, I’m writing late at night after a long day of Reading, Writing, and Thank God No Arithmetic so you’ll have to forgive my expressiveness)

I think my favorite example of how Martens uses detail to bring these unique ideas to life is in “The universe grows smaller every day”:
“The universe grows smaller every day. The grocery store on the corner moves like an ice sheet, eating up the sidewalk. The nine has already been lost on your chalk box of hopscotch, and the walk you take in the evening, up to the post office, takes less and less time. Soon there will be no darkness left, as streetlights pile up at the end of the block.”

This idea, that the universe is growing smaller, is a little creepy if you think about it. When you have details like streetlamps crowding the street into eternal daylight, you’re put in that scenario for just a moment and you have to face a deeply human fear… the fear of shrinking. Of being less than what we are. Of not moving forward in innovation or in our ability to have our own space to exist.
And we’re faced with, not only an idea of purgatory, but an aspect of the human condition.

If you’re interested in learning more about Amelia Martens and Purgatory, click here.

Keep using those details, fellow writers of the Interwebs.
Keep writing things that unsettle, things that reveal humanity.

Keep describing what no one else can.
Abigail Joy