Friday, February 18, 2011

Seeing it all

By Pamela

I'm a very visual person. I can remember names and dates pretty well if I hear them, but when I write something down, I can recall it even better.

I know some of us at What Women Write depend on visual cues to help with our writings.

Kim is neck-deep in writing her great-grandparents' life story, and since her great-grandfather Carl Ahrens was a painter, she has some pretty powerful images to inspire her with her writings. As she describes a painting Madonna (her great-grandmother) inspects over the shoulder of her future husband, I know Kim is most likely studying the painting herself as she writes--either viewing it on her website or staring at it as it hangs on her wall.

About this particular Carl Ahrens painting, she writes: 

I grew up with this painting hanging on my living room wall. The canvas was filthy, web cracking everywhere. The colors were drab, the frame beat-up, but when my parents offered to give me one of Carl’s paintings for my 21st birthday, this was the one I chose, the largest oil they owned at the time. The sticker on the back of the frame indicated that the title was Summer, and it was at an exhibition in 1931 priced at $450. That was a lot of money back then and, each time I looked at it, I sensed there was something special under decades worth of dirt. In 1999 I took it to a conservator recommended by the Dallas Museum of Art and got it cleaned and restored. The photograph actually does it no justice at all. This is the first of his canvasses that I ever saw in the state Carl painted them—grime yellows the varnish and dulls the pigments over time. There are over fifty distinct colors, including purple. Other cleaned paintings have revealed shocking dabs of hot pink, which I certainly didn’t expect to see in such masculine paintings. A hint at Carl’s sense of humor?
I stood in front of the painting and cried. It made me re-examine my life and the lack of creativity in it at the time. Looking at it made me itch to write his story. It also made me pick up my own sketchbook again.
An interesting thing I learned while researching for The Oak Lovers is that the real Summer doesn’t hang on my wall. In 1934, Carl promised his friend Prime Minister Mackenzie-King a painting in exchange for his help in securing passage to England. Carl was too sick to paint anything he deemed worthy of sending, so he changed the date on Summer and put it in a new frame. The painting that now sits in a vault in the National Archives was once in the frame currently hanging on my wall!

As Susan weaves the multi-generational story that revolves around a Kentucky bootlegger, she draws visual inspiration from a nearby bookcase. About it she writes:

This bookcase houses my collection of a few books from Thomas Merton, Silas House and some poetry from Wendell Berry. I also have a stack of research books including The Kentucky Encyclopedia, A New History of Kentucky, and some short works written by people I know from home. There are a couple of books on bourbon there, too. I have books on writing by Lamott, Hemingway and Stephen King on the second shelf. It has two bourbon bottles from Maker's Mark Distillery (one that I dipped in wax myself and one with a personalized label that was a gift from a friend), my rosary from the Abbey of Gethsemanie, and coffee cups from The Bourbon Trail. In there somewhere is a coaster with the recipe for the perfect mint julep, some pottery from Louisville Stoneware, and pebbles from a Kentucky creek that I know.

I have a photo of my grandparents together from a political fundraiser in the 1970s, another more recent shot of my grandmother (now 90), photos of me with my mother and sisters, and pics of my children. You might also find the photos of us gals from our two retreats. It looks rather cluttered but everything there is significant (to me).

This is right next to my monitor, so the reference books are invaluable when I need a quick answer on a timeline or date (example: When was the last reporting lynching in Kentucky?). Books by Kentucky authors are inspirational. The pictures of my family keep me going... and the bourbon bottles remind me that when the book is completed I will have something to celebrate!

My current WIP has been ignored for far too long. So this week, after seeing some amazing new releases by new-found friends and drooling over their covers, I decided I needed some visual inspiration. While the bookshelves in my office hold similar trinkets--pictures of family and sister-friends, books I adore--what I needed this week was to visualize my story as a book. If I could see the final product (hold it in my mind, if not my hands), then possibly I would begin to see the potential that putting the final words on the pages will bring. While I'm realistic enough to know that most authors have minimal input when it comes to their cover art--and many titles are changed during the publishing process--for today this is how I see my book.

What inspires you?


  1. Thanks for including my bookshelf! Love your (potential) book cover, by the way. It's good to have a visual goal like that to keep you on track. Great idea.

  2. Pamela, when you designed the cover for our Center Court Seats and a Pair of Jimmy Choos, that made it real and so much fun!

    Like Susan, I keep stacks of often-consulted research books on my desk: Peter Ackroyd's London: The Biography; Gustave Doré's London: A Pilgrimage; London 1851, Eric de Maré's pictorial on The Great Exhibition; Hubert Pragnell's Architectural Britain; and of course, Tom Ogden's anthology of Haunted Cemeteries.

    I also keep a stack of favorite bookmarks: the handcrafted one Pamela made for our 1st retreat, author giveaways, and those from independent bookstores and the local library.

    Finally, I keep pictures of my characters that I've culled from magazines, to help me view my characters as 3 dimensional.

  3. Thanks, Susan. It's fun to dream big!

    And, Joan, I planned on showcasing our CCS/PJC's covers but got busy and didn't dig them up. They were fun. For those who didn't see them, one side of the book jacket was designed to look more 'chick-lit' for our female readers. Then, when you passed it off to the man in your life for him to read, he could flip the jacket over and it looked like a basketball story--saving him embarrassment when he read it in public. Another day, another blog post; I'll put it up.

    I know Julie, too, has created collages of her stories as inspiration. And, Joan, I also have a folder of images torn from magazines--those who I thought represented my characters. It's fun to put a real face with who you see in your head.


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