Portrait of a Pilgrim (reposted from darkcreekfarm.com/blog)

The Plan

We are on our way back to North America after having spent about five weeks in Spain, most of that walking the last 120 kilometres or so of the Camino de Santiago. What was the point of all that, you might ask? Why did we feel the need to drag ourselves, and in the end, a wheelchair, across a chunk of northern Spain? It would be great if I could say something glib like, “Because it was there” or “Because we like to go on vacations with a bit of a twist” but it’s a bit more complicated than that.

Santiago de Compostela, Spain

For one thing, we can’t really afford to just jet off and wander around the Spanish countryside for weeks on end. Usually, we either need to find a way to keep working on the road (Internet access makes this possible, though it can also create huge logistical challenges when connectivity is not quite as good as we need it to be). Even better is when we can find a way to tie a project to a travel destination. Sometimes it’s as simple as writing a destination travel article about a place we want to go (or, happen to be going anyway). Sometimes it’s using a destination or activity that takes place in a distant place (climbing, for example) in a book. Taking copious notes, reference photos, or conducting interviews to gather information is a way to write some of the travel costs off as long as the material is used somewhere down the road.

Digital nomad at work in a small cafe in the middle of nowhere.

In the case of this trip along the Camino Frances, though, the intention all along was to write a book about the trip and to find a way to integrate art (Dad’a art in particular). Not only is Dad’s work integrated into the written project, he is also beavering away on a series of works exploring the idea of creating a portrait of a pilgrim to be presented in an exhibition of work.

At the end of a long day of walking, Dad works on a drawing of the Castillo de Pambre

One of the the good things about being a writer or an artist is that all of life becomes a potential source of inspiration. That’s also one of the tough aspects of this type of job. There isn’t really a way to shut life off, close the office door and go home. Everything is raw material and holds the potential of the next great bit of writing or amazing painting. For someone in the arts, each day could be the one where our desire to create something worthwhile is realized. Just the act of living life becomes a pilgrimage of sorts, full of challenges and roadblocks to overcome on the way to coming up with something decent.

When we set off on the road to Santiago we knew we wanted to create something (visual art on Dad’s part, written work from me and Dani), but beyond that we weren’t exactly sure what our story would be. After all, we had plans, but plans never exactly correspond with reality.

The good news is that post trip we have plenty of raw material for a book and Dad is well on his way to creating some very cool pieces unlike anything he has ever done before. The walking together, the conversations in the evenings, the time spent looking at art, watching Dad create art, listening to conversations among other pilgrims, reading about the act of pilgrimage, visiting museums – all that input, that raw material provided a massive amount of information, stimulation, and inspiration. The creative wheels aren’t just turning, they are spinning fast.

We knew that part of the challenge after a trip is coming back and being thrown into real life distractions, so we decided to spend a couple of weeks together after we finished walking to Santiago in order to focus on the project. The process has been as challenging as anything we faced on the journey.

Sagrada Familia in Barcelona

Some of our conversations have been predictable – like comparing notes about various high (and low) points of the trip, but we’ve also talked about mortality, what inspires us, surprises like how much we all liked the Segrada Familia, Gaudi’s ode to nature and God in Barcelona, and what makes a great portrait. We’ve asked ourselves a lot of questions about the nature of pilgrimage and what a real pilgrim looks like. We sought out images of pilgrims in art and now, as we begin to write (and Dad continues to work with pen and ink and wax crayon and tempera paint sticks and watercolours) what is emerging is a story about our pilgrimage, but also a meditation on what it means to be a pilgrim – in words and images.

We collected dozens of pilgrim-related images on our trip… this one from the Pilgrim Museum in Santiago.

Dad is also exploring juxtapositions of self portraits with ancient depictions of pilgrims. He’s playing with stylistic twists and bold colour, taking fresh inspiration from time spent in the presence of Gaudi’s work, Picasso’s ever-evolving approaches to art and portraiture, and the many, many pilgrims we have seen in carvings, sculptures, murals, painted, drawn, and etched into stone.

We have been privy to Dad’s creative process in ways that have never been possible before now – living in close quarters for so long there is no way to avoid seeing how he comes up with ideas, starts sketching, restarts, scribbles, and polishes. At the same time, Dani and I have been clicking away on our keyboards.

The artist goes shopping – finding art supplies was easy in Barcelona.

I’ve been working on recreating our journey, integrating notes about art and history found along the way. I’m also trying to figure out the best way to share the conversations Dad and I have had over the past six weeks or so that we’ve been travelling together. Dani is digging deeper into the many moments that make up a pilgrim’s journey, writing a series of reflections and information essays that take the reader behind the scenes on subjects as varied as bedbugs and courier systems. The more we write and draw and talk and question, the more we discover to explore, describe, question and discuss.

Leaving Sarria…

“Is that where we are going?” Dad asks, pointing up.

“Unfortunately,” I answer.

“Oh my God. I haven’t trained for this.”

At one point we all worried that we wouldn’t have anything to say about our trip, that our three creative wells would simultaneously run dry. In fact, the opposite is happening. We all have found so much to explore I’m thinking our bigger task will not be thinking of what to include but what we will need to eventually trim out.

No fears about not having enough reference material!

Enemy of Creativity (AtoZChallenge)

“And by the way, everything in life is writable about if you have the outgoing guts to do it, and the imagination to improvise. The worst enemy to creativity is self-doubt.”
Sylvia Plath, The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia PlathO

Oh, Sylvia – thanks for saying it. Yes, self-confidence is a key ingredient in the creativity pie.

What does it mean to be creative, anyway? I’ve always thought of it as the ability to make something from nothing – to allow an idea or a thought to bubble up from that mysterious well from whence such bubbles rise and then… to do something with that thought or impulse.

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We all have ideas. Dreams. Thoughts. So what is the difference between someone who then goes on to make something with that raw material and someone who doesn’t? I agree with Sylvia Plath that self-confidence, or lack thereof, plays a big part in the expression of creative projects.

Self-doubt is crippling. The minute you begin to question whether the idea is good enough, whether you are going to be able to find a way to express that idea, whether it is worth playing with, exploring, developing – it’s pretty much game over that that point. The willingness to explore, to set off along hopeless paths, to experiment, to play, to fail – all that is part of the messy creative process. It takes a certain boldness to be willing to be wrong and being creative is a lot about being wrong. Perhaps wrong isn’t quite the write word. But it’s rare when exactly the right expression of an idea emerges fully formed and perfect. In my case, never. As a child, when I was making something or drawing or writing a story it never occurred to me that I wouldn’t come up with something if I just kept going. I created with little regard for how it would all turn out. Like most kids tend to do, I picked up a pencil or a pair scissors and started experimenting.

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Somewhere along the line, we learn that there are right ways and wrong ways to create – that one person’s drawing is better than another’s, that a story doesn’t mean the same thing to a reader that one thought it would. And when that door to failure opens, that’s when the doubts creep in. It’s easy to get so intimidated that we just stop trying.

I think that’s what happened to me with visual expression. As a kid I loved to draw, paint, make collages. I don’t know exactly when it happened, but at some point I concluded I could not draw. So, I stopped. For some equally mysterious reason, I decided I could write stories. Looking back, I don’t think I had a particular talent in one direction rather than the other. But what I did have is a complete lack of self-confidence on the visual arts front and a sense of confidence on the writing front. So, I wrote a lot of stories when I was a kid and never really stopped. When I read those stories now they are not particularly good. I’ve read far better stuff rich with real raw talent in some of the student submissions I am lucky enough to get to read now when I teach writing workshops. What I did have in spades was enthusiasm and the belief that my ideas were worth writing down.

I have no idea how many words I must have written before, finally, things started to improve and the creative impulse and dogged persistence merged to produce something worthy of publication. Lots (during my recent move I found hundreds of pages of dreadful drivel, some of which goes back to my earliest childhood scratchings).

These days, I still struggle to shape my sometimes wild ideas into a form that is readable. That process has not become  easier despite the number years I’ve been at it and the number of things I’ve wound up publishing. What has become easier is the belief that if I work at it long enough, rewrite often enough, keep at the shaping and molding and massaging of the article/story/book, eventually it will come together. That confidence in the process, the willingness to be patient is as important as any initial juicy idea or creative urge.

aaron-burden-60068 crayos

Not that long ago I decided to see if this theory about having confidence and forging forward could also be applied to drawing. It’s been an interesting process, hushing the inner child who thought she couldn’t draw (since this is a series of posts about writing I won’t go into a lot of details here…). First, it is possible for someone as ancient as I am to have a change of heart about something I thought was a fact (my inability to draw). Turns out, patience and practice result in some surprisingly not dreadful outcomes. I’ve tried my hand at a few different exercises – from drawing cartoon faces to a few simple sketches to go along with my sailing course notes. No, I haven’t discovered my inner Michelangelo, but I am no longer scoffing at the idea of picking up a pencil or paintbrush and working to find ways to express creative ideas visually. It’s actually been kind of fun at least as much as it has been messy and frustrating.

What about you? How important is confidence in your creative process?

E atozchallenge

This post is part of the A to Z Blogging Challenge in which bloggers from all over the world write a blog post every day in April. There are a LOT of other bloggers taking part. Visit the A to Z Challenge blog to see who is posting what each day.

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Dad Draws a Tree

For as long as I can remember, I have loved to watch my father draw. It has always seemed to be somewhat miraculous the way images somehow seep out of the tip of his pencil (or flow from the brushes) and onto the page (or canvas). Because Dad will be recording his impressions of the Camino trip visually, we have been talking a lot recently about the artistic process and how he will capture his experience of the trip through his art.

We’ve decided to make a series of videos about Dad and his work – where he gets his ideas, how he ‘trains’ for a new project (more about that in a future post), and then how he gets what’s in his head onto the page. This first, short video (about two minutes long) shows him drawing a tree. Simple. But we wanted to set up the camera and do a test before we launch into anything more complicated. I have watched it several times now and still find it just as fascinating to see a tree appear from nothing as I did when I watched, captivated as he drew or painted something marvelous when I was a little girl.

patreon-logo

Enjoy the blog? Consider becoming a patron to support the creation of these blog posts, photo essays, and short videos. In return, you’ll have my undying appreciation, but you’ll also get access to Patron-only content, advance peeks at works in progress, and more – all for as little as a buck a month! It’s easy – head on over to Patreon to have a look at how it all works.