Category Archives: Creativity

Word Play

I love cooking, but never wanted to be a chef or baker because having to cook isn’t the same as wanting to cook.

As a full-time writer, I keep things interesting by covering different subjects. Learning something new with each project prevents me from getting bored. But over time, spending 40+ hours per week at the keyboard writing for fun became a foreign concept.

Until recently.

About a year ago, one of my best friends entered the first ever Rockford New Play Festival, and her play was one of the short plays chosen to be read by actors. Watching her play, and the others, read aloud before an overflowing crowd really inspired me – on multiple levels.

  • The plays were really good. The actors reading them were good, too. And the audience was enthusiastic. I was inspired as a writer.
  • It was impressive that a new and relatively unknown playwriting event in Rockford could draw such a large and diverse audience. I was inspired by the local arts community.
  • I was inspired that a relatively small group of people pulled it off.

Upon hearing entries were being accepted for the second annual Rockford New Play Festival, I thought it would be fun to enter, even if playwriting isn’t my forte. Encouraged by the friend who participated last year, I decided to give it a try and soon a rough idea that had been percolating in my brain for a while became a 10-minute play, The Grove.

I submitted it in May and forgot about it. But the creative writing bug had bitten again. Suddenly I wanted to test myself with different types of writing.

When I read about a 24-hour short story competition, I registered right away and counted down the days until they assigned the length and a general theme (they encourage writers to stretch and play with the theme) I would never have thought to write about.

Guess what? The contest’s prompts spurred my creativity and the ideas poured out.

In a weird way, having a tight deadline helped focus my efforts. By removing the luxury of obsessing over every comma, the 24-hour deadline made the writing process more visceral and less precious. I loved every minute of it!

Entering these contests was something I did for fun, and to stretch my creative writing muscles. The winners of the 24-hour Short Story contest won’t be announced for a few weeks yet, and I don’t hope to be among them.

Then again, I didn’t expect The Grove would be one of six 10-minute plays — out of 520 entries from across the country — selected to be read at the second annual Rockford New Play Festival. But it was.

[Date, time and other details for the event can be found here: 2015 RNPF.]

Accepting a creative challenge is never a mistake, but letting one slip past you is.

What creative challenges have you taken on lately, and what did you learn from them?

 

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Want-To-Do Lists

With the season finale of Orphan Black airing tonight, it seems somehow appropriate to say there are some days – make that many days – I wish I had a clone.

The past month or so I’ve happily been very busy with work (including a rush article this week that went from pitch to final copy in seven hours, and the interviewee wasn’t available for the first three of those hours). During weeks like this what little free time I do have is typically spent catching up on not-so-fun stuff like cleaning – and yard work whenever the weather permits.

Ever notice how the busier you are the more craft/DIY projects you suddenly want to do?

It’s probably a form of escapism to picture ourselves working on creative endeavors. After all, who wouldn’t prefer to spend two hours focused on a fun project than toiling away at their day job?

Here are a few projects on my want-to-do list. Stay tuned to see if I actually get around to any of them:

  • Turn old pop cans into tags for my hostas and heirloom tomatoes
  • Take pile of old t-shirts and turn them into t-shirt yarn
  • Make something from said t-shirt yarn
  • Crochet more hexagons for the would-be bedspread while berating myself for choosing to make the pieces so small that I’ll hate piecing them together one day
  • Piece together these odd-sized bits I made as a kid when learning to knit, and turn them into the knitted version of a crazy quilt
The evolution of my knitting

The evolution of my knitting

I can’t be the only person who dreams up new project ideas at the opportune times. So what’s on your Want-To-Do List?

Micro-budget Filmmaking

Talk about being creative. Not only does my super-talented brother-in-law Daniel Nearing write and direct indie films, he manages to produce them on micro-budgets. (And his idea of a micro-budget is a fraction of what Hollywood considers a micro-budget.)

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The poster (designed by my sister) for Dan’s latest film, Hogtown.

When I told the editor of the newly revamped Creative Screenwriting how Dan’s film Chicago Heights (later re-named Last Soul on a Summer Night) was named as one of the late Roger Ebert’s top art films of 2010, he asked me to write an article on Dan’s writing process and another on how he actually gets his films made. The first article was just published and you can read it here.

It includes a link to a YouTube video about the making of the film, so be sure to watch that, too!

Handmade Doll Beds

I’ve mentioned before how creative and talented my relatives are, but sometimes they really out-do themselves. My cousin, Mark (the one with the great old pool table and who built my new porch railings) made the coolest gift for my 8-year old niece, and I asked him to write a guest post about what’s got to be the girliest woodworking project he’s ever done. Be sure to check out Mark’s blog, too: http://www.blackbearjournal.blogspot.com/

THE DOLL BED MADE FOR TWO

by Mark Hendrickson

I believe it may have been last Thanksgiving that my God daughter Reese approached me, with her dad, and asked if I might be able to build her a doll bed sometime. With Christmas just a few weeks away, it seemed like the natural thing to do.

The project began with Reese providing me with the height of one of her dolls so I knew how long to make the bed. She actually has two special dolls — Kit and Ruthie — so it was not to be a single bed but a bunk-style doll bed.

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What little girl wouldn’t love to have this for her American Girl dolls?

As I planned the project, I thought that the bed should be convertible. That is, the beds could be stacked in typical bunk-bed fashion, or, one half could be lifted from the other and they could be placed side by side.

I looked online to get a few ideas and then drew plans for the corner posts, head- and footboards, bed frames and the simple cleats glued to each post to enable the top bed to set securely on the bottom. When stacked, the beds are 19″ high, 23″ long and 16.5″ wide.

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Here you can see how the beds stack – and the adorable details Mary added that match the bedding beneath the comforters.

The beds are made of solid pine. The typical pine you buy is ¾” thick, much too bulky for a doll bed. So one of the first steps was to plane down these boards to ½” thickness which seemed to be a better size. I cut and assembled them and then completed the purple painting of all surfaces. [Paula’s note: A master of understatement, Mark makes the process sound a lot simpler than it was!]

In addition, my wife Mary and I enjoy projects where we can combine our skills: mine in the furniture-making arena and hers in the artistic touches once the construction and painting is completed. Mary then stepped in and added the wonderful painted highlights that you can see in the images.

I think Reese loves the bunk beds as much, if not more, than Kit and Ruthie!

I think Reese loves the bunk beds as much, if not more, than Kit and Ruthie!

Paula’s note: As cool as the beds look in photos, they’re even more impressive up close. On Christmas we were all inspecting the work and every little detail Mark & Mary put into making Reese one of the best gifts she’ll ever receive.

Shedding light on the subject

My sister’s house is a vintage Chicago bungalow. It’s so vintage there aren’t any kitchen cupboards (but the pantry has lots of shelves). Chicago bungalows tend to be long and narrow, and hers is no exception. The central hall was always dark, since the only light fixture was by the foyer. A few years ago she found a really fun way to light up the hall while retaining its vintage charm.

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This isn’t even the entire hall. (Excuse the ladder and stack of drawers in the hall – we were painting her bathroom!)

She had an electrician install track lighting – since the tracks themselves are modern she worried they might look out of place, but you barely notice them – and a dimmer. Instead of hanging new lights, she put up simple fixtures with vintage glass shades. On the dimmest setting, they make a great nightlight, too.

I love vintage lighting, and helped her find a few of these shades at flea markets and antique malls. You can’t really tell in this photo, but the shades are different shapes and have different designs (hoping to get a close up or two of the lights to add to the post). I love the result so much that I would have copied it if a scuttle hole weren’t blocking the middle of my hallway ceiling.

Don’t you love the way old painted glass shades like these glow?

Creative response to miserable publicity

A few weeks ago, Forbes named Rockford, Illinois the 3rd Most Miserable City in the United States. Chicago came in a close 4th.

Some very creative local marketing pros quickly responded. Within days they turned the unflattering notoriety into a tourism campaign promoting many things Forbes‘ formula didn’t take into consideration:

The campaign has sparked a lot of local discussions. Naysayers say it’s a shallow attempt to gloss over the very real problems Rockford faces. Area cheerleaders argue that it showcases the area’s best features.

The truth lies somewhere in the middle.

Like many cities, Rockford was hard hit by the Recession. Poverty is high, crime is worse than ever, and property taxes have gone up as property values have gone down. Yet all of those negatives don’t mean there aren’t good things, too. To me, this is an ad campaign designed to highlight positive things that actually exist in a city still struggling with many serious issues.

I also see it as a really creative response to harsh criticism. What are some memorable ways you’ve seen people, organizations or cities deal with negative press?

Some holiday obsessions are hereditary

My family had an elf on the shelf long before the Elf on the Shelf book was first published.

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Since the elves came before the book, it means the story about them has to be true, right? Christmas magic is real.

Also real? Christmas obsessions.

My brother and I both veer perilously close to the “obsessive” side of Christmas, but our sister isn’t quite as extreme as either of us. (That said,  you know it’s the holiday season when Lisa starts “glinging” Christmas tunes. Glinging is ideal if you can’t remember the lyrics – just sing “gling.” Repeatedly.) But it’s really not our fault. It’s hereditary. And according to family stories from Grandma Bussey, we can trace it back to our grandfather.

Grandpa Bussey died way before any of us were born, but left a wonderful legacy. I have tons of Grandma and Grandpa’s old ornaments on my tree, even if you can’t see them all here:

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Grandma loved bells, and pretty much every bell on my tree used to be on hers.

In the basement I have a heavy, old, battered tree stand. It only holds about a cup of water (that’s before the tree is added), so it’s not exactly practical. Grandma said she hit the roof the year Grandpa bought that stand – which at the time had poinsettia lights on its decorative base. It was expensive even by today’s standards. One day I’d love to see it restored, but poinsettia bulbs aren’t easy to find.

Grandpa Bussey didn’t just buy things, he made things too. I’m told he made this wooden Santa that’s so cool I leave him standing in the stairwell year round. It makes me smile to see Santa waving at me when I go up or down the steps.

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He’s a little hard to see by the tree, so here he is in broad daylight….

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And check out the log fence Grandpa made for beneath the tree (hey – one of Grandma’s bells got in the shot):

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Grandma said Grandpa collected all of those branches on their property (which she referred to as a “farmette”), cut them to size and assembled the fence. It even folds up for easy storage. The fence is made of ten 12″ sections that are hinged and can be positioned however you like. It still has faint remnants of “snow” on the top of each rail, too.

I never got to meet my Grandpa, but his love of Christmas lives on through us – and the cool things he made.

What are some of your family’s special holiday keepsakes or traditions?

Give some personal flare

Most of us are on pretty tight budgets these days, which has more people than ever looking for inexpensive gift ideas. Instead of going cheap and buying someone another five-dollar fleece throw (as warm as they are, they are sort of impersonal), try putting your own skills to use.

Not everyone has the talent of my woodworking cousin, who has made things like table trays, mantel clocks and cutting boards all of us over the years, but everyone has at least one thing they’re good at.

Here are some other memorable gifts I’ve received in recent years:

  • Homemade Pumpkin Chili from another cousin, complete with the recipe. It was frozen, easily transportable, and so delicious that I’m looking forward to making it again very soon.
  • My niece and nephew’s framed artworks.
  • The cool yarn Christmas wreath my sister-in-law made me that I’ve been dying to put up this season.
  • Personalized ornaments.
  • Glass coasters (the ones you’d put photos in) with individual pastel drawings instead of photos, from my sister.
  • Handmade jewelry from another cousin.
  • The hat a non-knitting friend made for me on a knitting loom.
  • Framed scrapbook page with photo of my newborn nephew and me.
  • Kitchen task lights installed by (and from) my brother.
  • Framed felted piece made by my sister.

Still not sure you can make a great gift? Worried you won’t have time to make gifts? How about these ideas:

  • Duplicate a favorite photo – Copy the photo, pop it into a simple frame and give it to someone who can appreciate the memories. One year I copied photos of my paternal grandparents at their jobs — he was a train engineer, she was a telephone operator – and put them double frames for my sister, brother and cousin. (Perfect photos for a home office.) Another year I found an old photo booth strip of my sister and me as little kids, put it in a simple landscape frame that could be turned on end and gave it to her.
  • Make a favorite recipe – Cookies are great, but change it up like my cousin did with the pumpkin chili. That froze well, but unfrozen perishable foods can be “wrapped” in insulated lunch bags. Look for a large recipe you can split among several people. Spiced nuts, chai latte and peanut brittle are a few edible gifts I’ve enjoyed in years past.
  • Offer your time – If you’re good at DIY projects, offer your time and skill with things you’re good at. It might be painting a room, planting a garden, moving heavy furniture, shoveling snow – anything you think the recipient might like a little help with.
  • Print some coupons – A friend who doesn’t cook much loved my homemade veggie burgers, so I gave her a coupon to redeem at a later date. My sister loves  Fudgy Bonbons, but they’re best fresh, so when she visits her in-laws for Christmas, I usually give her a coupon to redeem for a fresh batch.
  • Make plans – My grandma was always hard to shop for – by age 90 there wasn’t much she didn’t already have. One year my aunt & uncle and dad decided to take her out to lunch on alternating months throughout the entire new year. Grandma always loved going out for lunch, so I’m sure she enjoyed that more than a more traditional gift.

I try to give some homemade or handmade gifts every year. Sometimes they might not quite hit the mark, but when they do it’s a great feeling, like hearing how much some folks look forward to my chocolate almond toffee each year, or arriving at my cousin’s house on Thanksgiving and seeing he’s wearing the socks I made him last Christmas.

Even better? When you start getting special requests for handmade items.

What are some fun homemade gifts you’ve given or received over the years? Why are they so special to you?

Pumpkin Obsession: Extreme Edition

In honor of the season, I thought it would be nice to revisit a popular post from the past:

 

My brother gets a little crazy every autumn. Brice is always buying pumpkins in October, and he carves them all, or as many as time allows. Gourds aren’t even safe from him at this time of year.

As of Monday he said the current count was 26. That was nine pumpkin-shopping days before Halloween, so he may have even more by now. (I think he’s regretting not following through on his idea of planting a pumpkin patch this summer.)

It all started way back when little Bricie won a ribbon in a pumpkin carving contest. Not that lots of actual carving was involved – his creativity caught the judges’ attention.

Every Halloween season, Brice & I wind up talking about pumpkins. When I carve jack-o-lanterns, I only do one or two. I carve slowly, but add special touches like freckles (by plunging a metal skewer through the shell) or scars (by scraping skin and a little flesh off the pumpkin). Brice? He uses power tools.

Use extreme care when using power tools – especially on round objects.

Brice’s carving isn’t completed yet for this Halloween, so let’s take a tour of their yard from a Halloween past. (The great photos are by my sister-in-law, Jeanne.)

Hmm, doesn’t that white jack-o-lantern way back there appear to be eating something? Let’s take a closer look….

This last one looks a bit Seussian, don’t you think?

All right. It’s time to admit my role in my brother’s autumnal obsession. A couple years ago I gave him two Extreme Pumpkin Carving books by Tom Nardone.

Hey, Bri, it seems Nardone has an annual pumpkin carving contest. Enter it, and maybe you’ll repeat your childhood success with another win!

What are some of your favorite Halloween traditions? How many pumpkins do you plan to carve this year?

I Love Yarn Day

Happy I Love Yarn Day, everyone! It’s like Christmas for knitters, crocheters, weavers, felters and anyone who enjoys working or playing with yarn.

I am a yarn-a-holic.

The first clue? As a kid my favorite Dr. Seuss book was A Big Ball of String. (Second runner up: One Fish Two Fish Red Fish Blue Fish.) What can I say? I never liked eggs or ham.

What do I love so much about yarn? Aside from obvious things like textures and colors, I love how each skein of yarn holds multiple possibilities.

Some yarns tell you what to make with them. Others sit there a while before you think of the perfect uses for them. Sweater. Scarf. Throw pillow. Afghan. Mittens. Hat. Wrist warmers. Cowl. Headband. Shawl. Lacy curtains. Toys. Bedspread. Table runner. Place mats. Socks. Dishcloth. Decorations. Even jewelry.

Yarn can be made of nearly any fiber. Some are natural fibers – cotton, wool, alpaca, soy, silk, even bamboo – others are man made. Some are blends. There are even yarns made of recycles fibers.

Along with macrame-ing the pool table pocket nets from worsted wool, here are a few things I’ve made from yarn in the last year or so:

Wavy scarf (Alpaca blend)

Dan’s hockey socks

Felted Easter eggs (worsted wool)

Barbie’s “mink” (made of extra long fun fur / eyelash yarn)

My favorite afghan, then on the needles (wool-acrylic blend)

Reese’s hat & scarf (bulky wool roving)

A pile of Bohemian shawls (acrylic-wool blend medium weight roving)

Aidan’s knitted/woven toy ball (self-patterning acrylic yarn)

Sweater coat I’m wearing as I write this (super bulky acrylic)

Yarn is incredibly versatile stuff. No wonder I love yarn.

What are some of your favorite things made from yarn?

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