For most of my life I’ve been a writer and editor. This was in the days before telecommuting, so I worked in a highrise downtown. Surrounded by my workmates, I broke up my day to chat with them. I met friends for lunch. My job provided camaraderie, office gossip, turf wars, rumors of layoffs, and other diversions that livened things up.
Now that I’m a mystery writer, working at home, my situation is what many would consider ideal. It’s just me, working in the peace and quiet that most authors and would-be authors crave.
The problem is, too much peace and quiet can lead to feelings of isolation, burn out, and (dare I say it?) writers block.
Luckily for me, I stumbled into painting, which breaks up my week and, somewhat mysteriously, enhances the time I spend writing. Here’s how it came about: A number of years ago, I completed my third mystery and found it as unsaleable as my previous efforts. I couldn’t start a new book, knowing I’d have to face the nightmare of marketing it when it was done. So I gave up on fiction writing. After looking around for something to do, I took up art, starting with beginning drawing at a local art college.
I was just getting into oil painting when I decided to give my last novel another look. A long time had passed, and I figured I’d be objective enough to see its flaws and get over my disappointment. But the opposite happened. The book was surprisingly good, so good I felt it deserved another chance. I couldn’t face sending it to agents and publishers again. Instead, I decided to give self-publishing a try. I got quite a few good reviews as well as a few great ones. Then a miracle happened. Light Messages Publishing, an independent house in North Carolina, noticed my book and gave me a contract to reissue it under their imprint. This gave me a new lease on life as a real published author. I was so thrilled that I wrote a sequel to The Swap, The Bequest, in less than five months. My publisher took that one, too, and gave me a contract for a third book, now almost finished.
But I’ve never given up painting. I’ve found that the two activities complement each other. They are similar in that both involve puzzle solving. Writing a mystery, obviously, requires a great deal of hard thinking, planning, plotting and rewriting.
Painting is much less cerebral. A lot of it is done by instinct (after a good bit of initial training, I have to add). Once I’m absorbed in painting, time can pass without notice. When I copy a still-life setup, a model, or a photo onto my canvas, much of the work seems to come in through my eyes and out through my fingers without a great deal of thinking in between. During the process, it feels as if I’d emptying my mind of any thought but the image I’m rendering. The heavy-duty thinking and puzzle-solving comes in figuring out how to mix the right colors and amend the painting (much as one would rewrite a written draft) to make it into what I set out to create. I like to paint from old family photos, which are generally in black and white. That means I have to make up the colors. I often use the web for this, researching the colors and styles of clothing and perhaps furniture, even cars, from the decade when the photo was taken. This is much like the research I do when I write fiction.
For me, the biggest difference between writing and art is that writing is not collaborative; it has to be done alone. Even when I’ve co-authored an article or book, I and my cowriter have traded the manuscript back and forth to work on it individually. Sometimes we wrote alternate sections or chapters, then traded them for the final polish. Each of us basically worked alone.
On the other hand, painting can be a highly collaborative and social pastime. It that way, it’s a welcome change from sitting at my computer and writing. I paint at a small art school near my house. I’ve become friends with the school’s owner and teachers, as well as other students and people who drop by. Students critique each other’s work. (Generally, permission is asked and granted first.) This is empowering for both parties. When a painting turns out well, we cheer each other on and, when it doesn’t, we offer our best advice. Sometimes that means suggesting the painter take the work home and before giving it another try.
I paint twice a week and write four days a week. When I leave my manuscript for a day to paint, I come back refreshed, happy to sit down with my characters and give it another go. I often find I have fresh ideas and solutions to problems I’m struggling with. Next time I go back to the studio, I think, “This is so much fun; I’ve been away too long.”