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Painting in the Blanks

Finger PaintingCaption: Finger Painting photo courtesy of Mosaic Rob

Therese here. Please welcome the amazing Brunonia Barry–New York Times and internationally bestselling author–to Writer Unboxed. This is her first post.

It isn’t the blank page that I find terrifying. It’s the idea of beginning. I can easily put words on a page, that’s not the problem. I often begin a new novel by doing something I’ve heard described as “clearing your throat.” I usually write fifty to a hundred pages that I will never use, but within those pages I often discover the entire back story of each character and the journey those characters will take together.

So putting words on the screen or the page is not the problem. The problem is this: once I’ve written those first words, I’ve actually begun.  For better or worse, my story now has a hold on me, and, in the case of a novel (or at least in the case of my novels), it’s not going to release that hold for at least two years and maybe a great deal longer than that. As long as I leave that first page blank, I can tell myself that I am still free, that my new characters won’t be waking me in the middle of the night to tell me their life stories or argue about the details they think I got wrong. As long as I linger on the brink and keep those pages blank,  I’m not responsible for anyone but myself.  Deadlines notwithstanding, I am capable of lingering for quite a while.

My favorite place to linger is in research. My novels are contemporary, but they always seem to involve quite a bit of history, and it is there that I prefer to lose myself, sometimes for weeks at a time. For The Lace Reader, I let myself get lost first in Salem’s infamous witch history and eventually in the history of Ipswich’s bobbin lace industry. In The Map of True Places, it was celestial navigation that captured my imagination. Since one of my characters was an expert in this ancient art, I felt that I had to be at least somewhat proficient. I had to know the stars well enough to be able to find my way home from the Mediterranean (I was fortunate enough to be in Italy during this pre-book phase). If I couldn’t make my way from the Amalfi Coast to New England, what business did I have writing about a character who could? Of course I never had to test my skills, thank goodness, but at least I learned how to use a sextant and chart the stars at dawn and dusk.

Because this dedication to the research phase has happened to me a few times now, I have come to recognize a great deal of it as procrastination. As a writer, you have to know your subject matter, you darned well better know it, because, if you don’t, there will be a lot of readers who can’t wait to point out your mistakes. But to insist that you learn every lesson before you put pen to paper can be just another way to keep from getting started.  While it’s true that you can’t make a mistake until you begin, the reality is that no matter how much you prepare, lots of mistakes will be made before that final draft is finished.  When you make them, you’re going to have to fix them by ripping things out, changing dialogue, inventing new plot points, and doing more research. Writing a novel is an uncertain and messy process full of false starts, dead ends, and wrong turns. With lots of hard work, it can sometimes be turned into art.

Which is why I’m going to suggest something to you as a first step: finger painting. It’s messy. It’s imprecise. It will give you the three things that I believe you need to have before beginning a new story: wild abandon, total immersion, and the willingness to get your hands dirty.

Most of us remember finger painting, it was one of childhood’s fun artsy things to do on a rainy day. My mother used to make her own finger paints using food coloring and corn starch. We painted on shiny butcher’s paper, and she always hung our titled works of art somewhere in the kitchen.  I recommend mixing only primary colors, but that’s just me. The minute you get your fingers into the paint, you’ll be transported. By all means, paint with more than just your fingers. I insist. Smear the paint with both hands, use your arms all the way up to the elbows. Roll in it if you are really daring. I guarantee it will take you back to a time when creativity didn’t have to be summoned.  It will put you in touch with the realization that there is no right way to be creative, no structure that contains the method. And best of all, you don’t have to stay between any lines.

When you are finished, hang your painting on your wall. Make sure to look at it every so often as you work. It will serve as a reminder to stay in the place that is messy until the story emerges and you find the threads of art in the chaos.

Tomorrow morning I am speaking about my latest novel to a group of tourists who are coming to Salem on a cruise line. I have reserved the afternoon for finger painting. The next day I will start my new novel. I’ll keep my finger-paint-art pinned to my wall until I finish the first draft.  I’ll let you know how it goes.

Meanwhile, I’m curious to know what all you writers out there do when you start a new project. What are your rituals and creativity secrets?

About Brunonia Barry [1]

Brunonia Barry [2] is the New York Times and internationally bestselling author of The Lace Reader, The Map of True Places, and The Fifth Petal, chosen #1 of Strand Magazine’s Top 25 Books of 2017. Her work has been translated into more than thirty languages and has been an Amazon Best of the Month and a People Magazine Pick. Barry was the first American author to win the International Women’s Fiction Festival’s Baccante Award and was a past recipient of Ragdale Artists’ Colony’s Strnad Invitational Fellowship as well as the winner of New England Book Festival’s award for Best Fiction. Her reviews and articles on writing have appeared in The London Times, The Washington Post, and The Huffington Post. Brunonia served as chairperson of the Salem Athenaeum’s Writers’ Committee, as Executive Director of the Salem Literary Festival, and as a member of Grub Street’s Development Committee. She lives in Salem, Massachusetts with her husband, Gary Ward, and their dog, Angel.