Feeding the Creative Fire

It smolders all the time, the creative fire. Even a beginning firefighter can tell you that the three things a fire needs are heat, fuel, and oxygen. The intensity of the fire depends on the supply of those three things. My own smoldering fire has plenty of fuel to burn, and residual heat. This weekend I gave it some oxygen.

Yesterday I attended Write on the River, a writer’s conference in Wenatchee. As I entered the building, it seemed a shame to spend such a sunny day inside. But soon I was engrossed in the kind of talk that happens when writers get together. The world of publishing is undergoing great changes–this digital revolution really is revolutionary. The tools for writing and reading have changed dramatically, and continue to evolve. Writers are much more involved in the marketing of their work, and readers have many options to find and follow authors. This is all interesting. As a non-fiction writer, I am also interested in the craft of writing–structure, the many facets of memoir, the difference between personal essay and literary journalism. How to find feedback and support, to further polish the written piece before sending it out. How to find the right place for your own particular voice to be heard. I’m working on all of that. The next step for me is to find a writer’s group, or a buddy to share work with. At this point, I need honest critique. I don’t need to hear only nice things, and I don’t need to be reduced to tears. Somewhere between those two extremes is the sweet spot.

By early evening I was ready to escape. The sky had filled with clouds and the air was humid. I hadn’t planned to head for home, so drove to an undisclosed location up a dirt road near Blewett Pass. I found a level place to park the truck in a small side draw. While my supper heated on the camp stove, I had a close look at the deciduous trees: choke cherries in a froth of blossom, bigleaf maple with tender bronze leaves emerging, and pendulous yellow flowers hanging like bunches of grapes. It was so humid and gray I wondered if rain was coming. Nope, it never did. After eating, I sat reading a new-to-me copy of Rachel Carson’s Sense of Wonder. Felt a need to revisit what she had to say about nurturing this in our children. That’s important, but I feel that the world is full of adults starving for the wonder and connection that was theirs in childhood. How to rekindle that, and save the planet?

Too lazy to put up the tent, I slept in the back of the truck like the twenty-something I once was. On the road and completely free. The clouds held sounds close to the earth–water coming down the creek into a culvert and under the road, a distant great horned owl, warblers and Swainson’s thrushes singing the last songs of the day. I was out before it got completely dark, and slept well.

This morning I rose, made tea, and went to my next creative adventure. It’s Spring Bird Fest in Leavenworth, and four days of activity celebrate the resident birds and neotropical migrants. I tend to shy away from hard-core birders with their optics, life lists and need to get up before dawn, but a workshop called “Birds, Brushes, and Brunch” appealed to me. A little bird watching, a little watercolor painting, and a lot food–what could be better? This gathering was held at Run of the River Inn and Refuge, which is located just outside of town along Icicle Creek. We gathered on the deck, and instructor Heather Murphy led us through some bird identification and drawing warm-up exercises. Heather is a retired Forest Service wildlife biologist who now travels, paints, publishes notecards, and teaches people to connect with nature and art in her own personable and encouraging way. Her creative fire blazes brightly, and it feels good to stand close to it. Our assignment was to draw five things from nature on our page, then add watercolors. I wanted to get caught in the first thing I saw, which was an intricate vine of wild clematis. But I had four more things to find. A domestic duck floated by, and I went for it. I tried Heather’s technique of inserting a box for detail–why have I never done that before? My eyes found flowers, the texture of rock, the colors in water…Time flew, and we were called to brunch. Oh my. What a beautifully presented feast, not to mention good company. We wrapped up with show-and-tell. I was impressed by everyone’s willingness to share their attempts and successes. It fascinates me to see what others find in the same place.

I came away feeling as if a lid has been removed from a contained fire. Air pours in, and the flames can breathe. My imagination is fueled by simply living, by stepping away from the endless round of chores and responsibilities that I think is my life. This brings me back to Rachel Carson, and I leave you with her words:

“A child’s world is fresh and new and beautiful, full of wonder and excitement. It is our misfortune that for most of us that clear-eyed vision, that true instinct for what is beautiful and awe-inspiring, is dimmed and even lost before we reach adulthood. If I had influence with the good fairy who is supposed to preside over the christening of all children I should ask that her gift to each child in the world would be a sense of wonder so indestructible that it would last throughout life, as an unfailing antidote against the boredom and disenchantments of later years, the sterile preoccupations with things that are artificial, the alienation from the sources of our strength.

“What is the value of preserving and strengthening this sense of awe and wonder, this recognition of something beyond the boundaries of human existence? Is the exploration of the natural world just a pleasant way to pass the golden hours of childhood or is there something deeper?

“I am sure there is something deeper, something lasting and significant. Those who dwell, as scientists or laymen, among the beauties and mysteries of the earth are never alone or weary of life. Whatever the vexations or concerns of their personal lives, their thoughts can find paths that lead to inner contentment and to renewed excitement in living. Those who contemplate the beauty of the earth find reserves of strength that will endure as long as life lasts. There is symbolic as well as actual beauty in the migration of birds, the ebb and flow of the tide, the folded bud ready for the spring. There is somethings infinitely healing in the repeated refrains of nature–the assurance that dawn comes after night, and spring after winter.”

The Sense of Wonder by Rachel L. Carson, 1956

High Desert

Sitting by the Deschutes River in Bend, Oregon. Scooped water for painting right out of the river and sat watching afternoon light move across the basalt. The igneous origins of the high desert are evident everywhere. To the west are snow-covered volcanoes–Mt. Jefferson, the Three Sisters, Broken Top, as well as the perfect cinder cone of Black Butte. Central Oregon is a plateau of flood basalt, and there are lava beds. It seems like gentle country, with rolling terrain cloaked in ponderosa pine and juniper–until you come to a steep canyon with a river in the bottom of it, and precipitous cliffs.

The air is clear in the desert, and I mixed colors for quite awhile before I laid down the sky. There is no way I could capture the purity of it on paper. Imagine the bluest sky blue, light at the horizon and deepening as you look upward. Then place a sense of great distance behind that, a knowing that it just goes on and on. The sun is benevolent, the air soft and warm. The river flows by, each drop of water moving and adding to the chorus of notes that makes the song of the Deschutes. Violet-green swallows swoop and cartwheel.

And I am there painting, finding a way to express light on rock and juniper with quinacridone orange and gold, ultramarine blue, and cobalt teal. I paint until I am ready to leave, but I know I am never done.