How to Talk to Birds

cardinal

If you know me at all, you know I’m a huge bird nerd.

This spring I set up two new bird feeders (ok, I totally MacGyvered two of them with some duct tape and caps from spray cans, but they do the trick). They’re right next to a bird bath that our stray tuxedo cat keeps knocking over, and right by the bedroom windows. I felt this was a selfless move, because it meant my fella could watch birds all day while he works from the “home office,” which is a big desk by the windows.

What I didn’t take into account was how the birds’ pleasant twittering would quickly turn to raucous squalling when the territorial disputes began. Now when the cardinals start chirping around the time my alarm goes off, it’s not uncommon to find my fella covering his head with pillows and muttering something about closing windows.

This idea was 95% genius.

It might mean a little less sleeping in, but it does allow me to get my fill of cute little bird habits: like the way titmouses hop along the edge of the birdbath searching for just the right spot to dive in. Or the way that pairs of cardinals traipse in the flowers and carefully feed each other the prize seeds they’ve found. Or the way that magnolia warblers burst out of the trees long enough to swipe a seed in a fly-by. I think I understand why cats sit by windows now.

So all of this birdwatching was bound to give me a new idea for a book.

I signed up to be a vendor at Asheville Zine Fest, which meant I really needed to make a couple of new zines to take with me. I make these every now and then—miniature books that fold out like maps or fit together like puzzles. I don’t get to do a lot of letterpress printing these days, but events like the Zine Fest give me a good reason to sit down and make some things by hand.

 

carving woodcut

 

So of course my yard full of peeping, twittering visitors inspired “How to Talk to Birds,” a miniature book that includes 6 birds that have been visiting my yard this year. I was itching to do a woodcut again, so I carved a 7 x 10 inch block and printed it using my baby Vandercook printing press. I experimented with some digital printing on handmade paper for the book covers, and stitched these together with thread. They were a hit at the Zine Fest, and I think my favorite moment was when a lady carefully unfurled the whole book to see all of the birds, and then realized their corresponding bird calls were printed on the back side of each page. Then she read it out loud and made the bird sounds, like the “purty-purty-purty” of the cardinal and the “ankh-ankh-ankh” of the nuthatch.

 

 

“My friend just had a birthday,” she said. “She’ll love this.”

That’s one of the best compliments in the world, you know, to have someone buy something you made to give to someone they love. It sort of makes this whole process worthwhile. That might have been just the thing I needed to kick me out of my retrograde funk—getting my hands dirty, smelling some ink, and making a stranger smile with a tiny book of birds.

Want to see more of this? Check out my page at Patreon.com, where I post videos, tutorials, works in progress, desktop calendar (sometimes with birds) and more. And of course, you can find bird prints and this mini book in my Etsy shop.

 

 

Top image (cardinal) is courtesy of Pixabay.com. A huge thank you to the folks at Asheville Zine Fest—thanks for all your hard work, and I can’t wait to see you next year.  

This is What Retrograde Feels Like

 

My fella: How do you feel?

Me: (in pain, in slug pose, melting into couch) Like a dingbat.

Fella: Why a dingbat?

Me: Because I hurt myself planting a flower.

Fella: Well, when you put it like that…

True story. This is me today. I’ve been feeling totally overwhelmed lately—with work, and family, and life in general. This is one of those periods where it all is just feeling like too much, and I don’t know how to keep my head above water anymore. I feel like I don’t have time to do the things I really love anymore, and that’s not a good feeling. Time feels like it’s racing by, and it’s just passing between one work obligation and the next, leaving no time to relax or do what brings me joy.

This happens. It’s cyclical. But I’d like it to not happen.

So I’ve been trying to find ways to carve out time to write, to make art, to get more exercise, and to breathe. I started doing a little Pilates and yoga, just 20 minutes each day to relax, and give my mind a break, and stretch out these muscles that hurt so bad. (I go to a masseuse who is magical, but she always makes somewhat disappointed sounds when her fingers dig into my shoulders. “Your shoulder blade won’t move,” she said to me a few weeks ago, and I thought seriously about buying one of those little wooden meat tenderizers and asking my fella to try it on the most offending parts.) I had to MAKE myself step away from work for these 20 minutes (when did I become a workaholic??) and it’s already making a big difference. My shoulder blade almost moves again.

This weekend I had the bright idea to do a little gardening. Don’t let me mislead you: I am no gardener. I have no green thumb. I wing it with flowers. I buy what’s pretty and smells nice, and depend greatly on the lovely Kathy at my local greenhouse (who is like my fairy godmother for planting), who gauges the likelihood that what I’ve selected will survive in my shade conditions.

Planting things helps me breathe. It gets me away from my desk, it gets my hands in the dirt, and it makes me happy when things actually grow and thrive. It makes me feel more like a human and less like a part of a machine.

So I collected some flowers from Kathy, planted them yesterday until a thunderstorm rolled in, and finished the last few pots today. And as I planted something that looks vaguely like a dahlia, I turned the wrong way, heard a snap, and was frozen for a second in sharp pain. Did I really just snap my back out of normal by planting a flower? Is some planet in retrograde again?

Nope. This is the universe telling me to slow down. I know it.

For the rest of the day, I tried to relax. I read a little. I edited a manuscript. I thought about ways I can carve out a little more time for myself again. I think our bodies let us know when they need a break—when we’re pushing ourselves too hard and need to take a step back. We really do need balance, and our bodies remind our brains sometimes, when our brains are saying “GO, GO, GO!” at 100 miles an hour.

I got the best advice one day, from my dental hygienist, and it pops into my head at times like this. My dentist had determined I ground my teeth at night, and that I had done severe damage. She said, “Honey, stress will take you right out of this world.” And I know, she’s absolutely right. We have to find balance, and we have to make time for ourselves. We have to make time for the things we love, and the people we love.

I feel like my body had to put me in time-out to remind me of that. But I’m on board again, body. I hear you.

My Patreon Project has Launched!

 

This week I’m excited to start a new project over at Patreon.com.

If you haven’t heard of Patreon, it’s an amazing site that lets you support artists on a subscription basis and get rewards every month. (It’s a little like Kickstarter and Indiegogo, but SO much better.) 

I love connecting with people—other artists, fans of my work—you name it. Once upon a time, I went to craft shows like Kentuck and the Chattanooga Zine Fest and had a blast meeting people. I sold some prints, and that was cool, too. I made a little extra cash and it helped me buy nicer woodcut tools, or take a class at Penland. But it takes a lot of time and money to travel and go to shows like that. Sometimes I had to take days off from work, and lose that pay. Sometimes I had to stay in motels, or pay a booth fee, and sometimes I just broke even. Sometimes I didn’t even make the booth fee back. There was no predicting how much work I’d sell, and pricing my work is like my least favorite thing in the world. 

That’s where Patron becomes a lifesaver.

It creates a direct line between me and my fans—and it goes both ways. Fans can contact me anytime (and please do, because I love to hear from you. Want me to draw your brother-in-law as a woodpecker? Email me.) Patreon lets me show you all what I’m working on, share my process, get feedback from fans, and share the finished work. And it gives fans a bigger window into my creative processes. I can share tips about how I carve blocks, or rig up my little tabletop printing press to make my new block print—or I can share tutorials that might help someone else, too. 

And all of that can be happening each day—it’s not just a flurry of activity that happens over a day or two at a big art show. (Sometimes that’s overwhelming, and I forget 80% of what happened, and what I talked about with people.) This way, there’s some constant contact between me and my Patrons, and that means they get to see more from me, and I get more inspiration from them. 

I love this idea. It makes me feel like making is interwoven into my day, and not just something I do in fits and starts to meet a deadline for a show.

(Because that’s sometimes how it feels when the creative part of me is fighting against my day job for my time and energy and attention.) I like this idea of Patrons letting me make more cool stuff more often, so it becomes more of a daily process again for me. 

If you like that idea, too, check out my Patreon page. I’m sharing all kinds of stuff, from digital downloads, to exclusive blog posts, to letterpress prints and books. There’s something for everyone, and subscriptions start at just $1 a month to get some digital wallpapers (like the swallows pictured at the top of this post) and special blog posts. You can cancel anytime, and you can share with your friends. I made this Patreon page because making art brightens my day, and I like sharing things to brighten your day, too. So check it out—I’d love to see you on my team and send you cool stuff, too. 

 

 

Author Interview: Amy Willoughby-Burle and The Lemonade Year

It seems like eons ago that I met Amy Willoughby-Burle, at a little writers’ workshop and retreat nestled in the mountains of North Carolina. That two-week period was an experience that changed the course of my life. There were budding writers like myself and Amy, big-time published authors, and everyone in between. Sometimes it’s hard to believe that over fifteen years have passed since then, but here we are. I still remember reading Amy’s short story then—and thinking it was amazing—and overhearing the workshop leader telling another teacher, “She’s the real deal. She hears the voices.”

Amy writes stories that grab you with ferocity and don’t let go. She’s currently out on a tour for her new novel, The Lemonade Year, but when I tugged on her sleeve and asked her a few questions, she was happy to chat. 

Lauren: What inspired you to write The Lemonade Year?

Amy: Generally everything I write starts with a line of dialogue that I either overhear in real life or hear originally as fiction in my head, or the same way with an image or something that I see as I’m walking or driving. It’s hard to explain really how that “thing” sticks out and then sticks around in my brain. I don’t ever have an idea for a plot—you know like, “I think I’ll write a story about a woman at her wits’ end.” Those lines or images just start wiggling their way around in my head, and I end up writing random lines and scenes until I realize that they go together, and then I start working on figuring out the story and the characters from there.

LF: Who is your favorite character in The Lemonade Year? Who was the hardest character to write?

AB: My favorite character is Oliver. He ended up being quite a surprise to me in the writing stage. I had him pegged all wrong until I really got to know him. I think he provides a certain undercurrent to the story and a new way of thinking that surprises the main character, Nina, as well.

The hardest character for me to write was probably Nina’s mother. She’s not very forthcoming in the novel—at first anyway—and as a character she kept her cards pretty close to her chest. She’s living in a bit of a fantasy world and that caused it to be difficult for me to find the truth of her.

LF: You also write short stories (and they’re wonderful). Do you ever get so attached to characters in your short stories that you write them into novels?

AB: Well thank you, and this is really funny, because yes! Nina, although I might not call her that in the story, appears in my collection, Out Across the Nowhere. She’s in the story “The Conscious Absence of Knowing.” If you read that story and read The Lemonade Year you will see that shared experience. I also have another story in the collection that I turned into a novel as well. it’s not published yet, but hopefully will be one day.

LF: When you get an idea you want to write about how do you decide to shape it into a short story or a novel?

AB: I always say that I have about two lengths of story that I write: they are either about 1000 words or 100,000 words. I just start writing, and when I get to that first milestone I can tell if I’m going to have to keep writing a novel or if the story is told enough as is. Even if I end at the short story length, I never really put those characters away. I wouldn’t be surprised if any of them started chatting with me again. It was several years after Nina shared the version of her life in the short story before I actually wrote the novel version. Sometimes the characters are done sharing with me at short story length and sometimes not.

LF: Who are some of your favorite authors? Or favorite books? What do you love about them?

AB: I have loved Ron Rash for the last twenty some years. He’s my literary, “I told you so.” I have been telling people to read him for two decades and now he’s pretty well known. His work is amazing. I love the language of it. I’m a character driven reader and writer for whom the sound of the sentence is just as important as the information it delivers, so I’ve got Ron on a pretty tall pedestal for doing just that. I also really enjoy Joshilyn Jackson. She’s great at writing quirky and endearing characters, and just when you think you’ve got her story figured out she blows it wide open.

LF: As a reader, what makes you fall in love with a book? What makes it memorable or moving?

AB: Characters and their relationships. No matter what the world of the story is or what set of circumstance the characters are in, it’s always the characters themselves and the way they react to each other that grabs me. Maybe this is crazy to say, but I care less about the plot than I do the characters. Their struggle to understand each other, come together on something, get over a heartache, fall in love…that’s what becomes the plot to me. Case in point is the book Warm Bodies. The guy is a zombie and it’s a post-zombie apocalypse, but I’m completely taken with his desire to connect to someone more so than how these people are going to survive the next level of even worse zombies. It’s all about the love story for me—which I think is the real story, of course.

LF: What genre(s) do you read most often? 

AB: I don’t really have a most often genre. I tend to gravitate toward contemporary fiction with a literary bent, but I also love to read a good fantasy, and I will totally get lost in a fun love story. I go highly on recommendation, so if a friend says they loved it, I’ll give it a whirl. If I see a movie that I like, I always try to find the book to get the rest of the story from the original storyteller. I guess I’m a pretty equal opportunity reader.

LF: For you, what’s the most rewarding thing about being a writer? What’s the most challenging part?

AB: The most rewarding thing is to have a reader tell me how much they loved a scene or a certain character or how much they connected to the story. That’s the whole reason I read as well, so when my own work is able to do that for someone else, it’s pretty wonderful. The most challenging thing is to try and get the story right. I worry that I’m leaving something out or not doing a character justice. They usually tell me if I’m headed in the wrong direction. That and the waiting… the waiting really is the hardest part. I’ve got two other books being shopped around right now and I’m just waiting to hear from editors and waiting to see what they think. it’s a lot of waiting. That’s when I usually start writing something new—while I’m waiting.

LF: What are you working on right now? Any hints about your next book?

AB: Right now I’m actually working on a  sequel to The Lemonade Year. Fingers crossed that the editor will want it. I could write these characters forever. Of course, they’re going to have to fight it out with a plenty other characters who are already making their voices heard. I actually have an idea for a hopeful dystopian (I know, right?) series for young adults, which isn’t usually the type of story I write, but these characters are fighting hard to get out. I’ve already got a pile of those random scenes I mentioned written, so I guess we’ll see what happens.

***

You can get a copy of The Lemonade Year wherever books are sold, including on Amazon. And while you’re at it, check out Amy’s short story collection, Out Across the Nowhere. To learn more about Amy Willoughby-Burle, visit her website and see if she’s coming to read at a location near you. 

Amy Willoughby-Burle grew up in the small coastal town of Kure Beach, North Carolina. She studied writing at East Carolina University and is now a writer and teacher living in Asheville, North Carolina, with her husband and four children. She writes about the mystery and wonder of everyday life. Her contemporary fiction focuses on the themes of second chances, redemption, and finding the beauty in the world around us. Sara Gruen says of The Lemonade Year, “When life gives you lemons, read this book. It’s a delicious glass of humor, heart, and hope.” Amy is also the author of a collection of short stories entitled Out Across the Nowhere and a contributor to a number of anthologies.