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November 2006

November 2006: Ghosts

Gallery

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  • Healthy Green Artists:
    The Safety of Paint Pigments
  • Wombat Droppings:
    Life's Mulch
  • Behind the Art:
    The Big Boo: A Tutorial
  • Myths and Symbols:
    A Goddess's Gift
  • EMG News:
    News for November!

    Features

  • Seven Steps for Sales Supremacy
  • Using References

    Fiction

  • Fiction: Forensics
  • Fiction: Lodun
  • Fiction: Jasmyn Smiles
  • Fiction: Ghosts in the Forum

    Reviews

  • Movie: The Prestige


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  • Life's Mulch
    Wombat Droppings
    by Ursula Vernon

    Fall is upon us, which means what we should probably be thinking about is ghosts and goblins and things that go bump in the night.

    I, however, am a dreadfully amateur gardener as well as an artist, and fall makes me think about mulch. Mulch is the stuff you toss around your plants to help them. It retains water so they don’t dry out, it slowly works its way into the soil and enriches it, and it smothers out weeds so that you’ve got a lot less misery with the weeding. The chunks of my garden that are mulched are infinitely easier to care for than the sections that, for whatever reason, aren’t.

    Mulch is made of all kinds of things, depending on the look one wants. In experimental gardens at universities, they’ll even mulch with old carpet and newspapers. I use pine needles, since I’ve got ‘em, and pine bark, because it’s cheap and relatively attractive. You could mulch with practically anything, though.

    My friends, I am here to tell you that there is no project so flawed, no idea so stupid, no painting so wretched that it cannot be used for mulch.

    Like many people, I start projects with great fire and enthusiasm, and then a lot of them don’t get finished. If this is a flaw in my character, it is a desperately common one, and I feel only the obligatory mild guilt for it.

    Because all those unfinished projects, all those piles of canvas and sheets of character notes and pages of world-building—they all make fabulous mulch.

    I believe it’s important to finish things now and again, just so you prove to yourself that you’re capable of seeing a project through to completion, but I don’t obsess over my unfinished work. I know that if something has any seed of life to it, the odds are pretty good that eventually it’ll sprout. Sometimes it takes awhile, but eventually, it shows up.

    Once upon a time, I did a painting with a shrew sitting in a boat made of a snail shell. I had grandiose ideas of writing a story about it, but what with one thing and another, I got maybe half a page done, and wandered off to bigger and better things.

    Eight years later, my agent said “What is this little shrew? He’s awesome! Is there really a story here?” And I said, with the optimism that characterizes my existence, “No, but I could probably write one.”

    So I did. Many ideas that had been churned over and abandoned and left to mulch came out. Fish that grow on trees. Dragonfly people. Mushroom walls. Old paintings turned up and made cameos, some of them paintings I’d nearly forgotten and had done as absurd throw-away pieces.

    None of those ideas that I’d had and abandoned were wasted. I mulched my creative processes with them, with fragments of dog-soldiers and ground sloths, cities overrun with saints and gear-filled labyrinths underground, and one day, the ground was saturated with ideas and I cultivated it into the story I needed.

    I think too often we get hung up on the fact we don’t finish things. They glare at us like failures. The scaffoldings of ideas under construction too often look like skeletons in our closets.

    I give you permission not to finish things, if that will help. It’s okay to realize that your novel is labyrinthine and self-referential and just doesn’t work, that your RPG has some neat imagery but is utterly unplayable, that your comic book is made of two talking heads and occasional explosions and would work better as a one-man show off-off-off-Broadway than as something people would want to read.

    It’s okay. Not all projects have staying power. Some ideas need to be hammered at to be refined, and you hammer them by trying to fit them somewhere. Finish a project because it grips you and you’re stubborn and you want to see it through to the end, not because the guilt is like a millstone around your neck. Finish it out of love, not fear that you’re a screw-up who never finishes anything.* It’s okay to let some of ‘em go. All new things are greeted with great enthusiasm—it’s okay to realize later that it was just the novelty. Don’t stay in a relationship with your art because you’re embarrassed by how excited you were at the outset.

    The important thing to remember is that these projects are not wasted. Letting them fall by the wayside does not mean that you have slaughtered them, burned them, and sown the ashes with salt. They have not died. Far from it. You’ve just turned them into mulch.

    This is not just true of characters or ideas. Works for technique, too. I sent out a comic proposal not long ago. The design of the main character was based on my Horrified Lizards, which I’ve been fooling with for years, and a minor character was based on some sea serpents I’d drawn literally a decade ago. The color scheme was done using things I learned from working with a very limited palette on a project called “Little Creature.” Even something as basic as the style of the borders of the panels were based on a technique I used years ago when I was doing a lot of cheesy pin-ups. There were new ideas, but they were grown in the mulch of old skills and old designs.

    No artistic technique is wasted. Don’t kick yourself for having spent all that time learning pointillism when now you’re doin’ impasto. Years later, you will find yourself staring at a page and you will have a problem that needs to be solved, and you will dig through the cobwebbed toolbox of your mind and at the very bottom, slightly rusty, next to the wrench with units measured in Kelvin and the missing toothpick from the Swiss Army Knife and the washers that probably went to something…somewhere…(Is that why that bookcase has been leaning? Hmmm….) you will find that technique, and you will drag it up to the light and go “Hey, this just might work!”

    Mulch, people. It’s all about the mulch.

    Now, for sheer mental health reasons, I suggest you do finish a project now and again. Start small. A short comic is a good one. Don’t worry if the first one or two you try don’t have staying power. Just find one that does. If you finish it, even one thing, it takes a weight off your mind, and you can hold it up to the light and say “I can TOO finish stuff. Look at this!” whenever the self-doubt starts clanging too loudly. It’s good to have those.

    Follow your brilliant ideas with enthusiasm. Don’t second-guess yourself and fidget and say “But I didn’t get that other thing done yet…” If the guilt is dragging at you that badly, then yes, obviously you need to go work on that other thing. But don’t deprive yourself of the joy of a new idea as some kind of weird self-flagellation for not having finished an old one. Work hard, yes—always work hard, nothing goes anywhere if you don’t knuckle down and work like a dog!—but don’t be afraid to abandon that which genuinely isn’t working.

    This is how a lot of people work. It’s how I work. The good ideas really will stick. You’ll keep coming back to them. Like hardy perennials, you’ll find them sprouting come spring-time, and you’ll greet them with enthusiasm.

    Everything else can get thrown on the pile, turned like compost, and left to fertilize the ground for new projects. You’ll be surprised how much use you get out of old ideas, once you’ve turned them into mulch.


    *What, you thought you were the only one who worried about this?

    Ursula Vernon
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