The Universal Nature of Art and Creativity
Claire: I love how universal you made the steps in Do Your ARt! so they can apply to any creative outlet, not just traditional performing arts forms. How is your perception of art and creativity shaped by your experience as a seamstress at your custom drapery business?
Bernadette: I often did not finish my projects when I started sewing. The exciting thing about sewing is the potential of the whole cloth. Walking into a fabric store, surrounded by bolts and bolts of uncut fabric, seeing the colors, the patterns, the textures, anything is possible. The sumptuous silk charmeuse could be a luxurious nightgown, camisole, or Victorian blouse. The ecru linen could be a three-piece suit, a tablecloth, or a christening gown. The cotton calico could be a prairie dress, a queen-size bed quilt, or a charming crop top.
Working in a fabric store, the potential could overwhelm, as demonstrated by a portion of every paycheck returning to the store with weekly purchases.
But in sewing for pay and eventually turning a pastime into a full-time job and business that supported not only myself but also my husband and a dozen employees, I quickly learned the importance of finishing ALL projects to get paid.
So I learned to be efficient, to problem solve, and to give every item the finished press before my husband delivered and installed it in homes and businesses throughout New England.
Art and creativity possess many forms and values.
The designers that I worked for represented many different styles. The ornate to the minimalist. Ralph Lauren to sparse Scandinavian. My role as fabricator ensured that the client received what the designer designed. It was never my decision to use this trim with that fabric. However, fiber has its own characteristics.
All artists, makers, and creatives become problem solvers once they pass the initial phase of instructing followers.
Do Your ARt! recognizes the creative process in all art forms by stepping the artist toward the critical goal of performing their work for an audience.
The Inspiration behind Do Your ARt!
Claire: What initially inspired you to write this book? After realizing that you wanted to inspire others to do their art, what drew you to writing as your medium?
Bernadette: After writing several novels, I challenged myself to write a book with no plan. I began on page one without an idea of character, plot, or genre. Nothing. The only kernel to start was an image of a white house surrounded by red rose bushes, and a white picket fence, facing a fork in the road. I wrote for 90 minutes each day. I trusted in divine inspiration, and I witnessed what showed up. After each session, I reflected on the experience. What surprised me that day? What inspired me? How could I sustain momentum? Where would the story go next?
The experience mirrors the wanderer’s road trip with no destination in mind. See what happens. See what we can see.
The story was lovely, about an older woman counseling a troubled young drifter who had suffered the sudden loss of his girlfriend and their unborn child. The woman had also experienced a personal loss but remained stuck. She encourages him to honor the lives of those lost by living his life more fully.
This book would be the first in a series of novels for Women of a Certain Age.
But as I started to write the next book in the series, I felt a calling to share my philosophy of doing art with the intention of a final performance.
I’ve always been gifted in writing. I got good grades in school and college because I could write well. So from a very early age, writing served as a way to fill my time.
There was a calling to write a book to inspire others to do their art, a book with clear steps to help artists/makers/creatives finish projects.
I followed the steps in this book.
In 2020, I applied to 28 local cultural councils in my state for grants to support live creativity workshops. At first, letters and emails came in denying my applications. I thought, ‘That’s okay. I didn’t want to do them anyway.’
But then, I received a letter of acceptance. One town supported my proposal. Ultimately, I received grants from eight cities and towns.
Suddenly, I had a performance to work towards. There’s nothing like setting a date for a party to focus your attention on cleaning your house.
Live workshops are great, but to help hundreds and thousands of people, I knew that a book would be the best medium.
Performance of Art
Claire: Bernadette, your book focuses on a performance of someone’s art as the goal of your ten-step program; would you consider the publication of this book your “performance”? What advice would you give a new author on working towards a performance?
Bernadette: My first draft of Do Your ARt! included ‘publish’ as the second from the topic of the pyramid of ten simple steps. The idea was that publication in any art form meant that the artist worked toward a finished, tangible product. The first draft was over 62,000 words. So I trimmed out a third of the text to transform the deleted text into a book of exercises.
I don’t think of the book’s publication as a performance because my vision of performing includes a live audience in a specific location on a particular date.
A reading from the book would be its performance. When my book is published, I will have a book launch with a reading.
Writing is such a private matter. After all, I have manuscripts for six novels on my computer’s hard drive, and very few of those thousands of words have ever been seen by readers.
Writing is a process. The process of doing any art form elevates the mood. My dissertation included findings that proved this truth. Feeling happier is a great thing. Researchers have studied the runner’s high. If creativity is a different kind of muscle, it benefits from being worked
Impact of Art on Writing
Claire: You describe yourself as an artist; which art forms are you most drawn to, and how have they impacted your writing style?
Bernadette: On November 20, 1996, while meditatively walking around my yard, I considered what art form I should devote myself to. I was a seamstress, a one-time musician, the daughter of commercial art parents, and a mother who had been a semi-professional entertainer and prolific fine artist.
My paternal grandfather was also a fine artist and sign painter.
In 1996, I had an idea for a romance novel. But also wanted to write and illustrate children’s books. And because of my experience in making all kinds of window treatments and home decorating items, I thought about writing a detailed how-to book for the interior design trade.
Inspired by Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way, I wrote three pages daily, alternating between all three projects. Monday and Thursday would be romance, Tuesday and Friday were devoted to the ‘how to’ book, and Wednesday and Saturday, I wrote children’s books.
Then, it might be more advantageous to work on one of those projects and see it through to completion.
Finding a Writing Partner
At that time, Eleanor started working for me in my drapery workroom. (I write about Eleanor in Do Your ARt!) We talked about our interests, and she and I shared an interest in what I would call ‘Women’s fiction.’ Books like Under the Tuscan Sun. I asked if she wanted to read a few pages from my unpublished romance. She agreed. Consequently, Eleanor became my writing partner, accepting my three or four pages each day. Because of her, I finished that novel which grew to 140,000 words.
Even now, Eleanor asks me about Johnny, the protagonist’s love interest and artistic mentor.
I appreciate all art forms. I’m experienced in fiber art due to my nearly forty years of professional sewing. But I used to say, “I sew so I can write, and I write so I can sew.”
Writing became essential to my current profession as I teach first-year college students how to write essays and research papers. But I still make most of my clothes and often use fabrics I have designed and printed at Spoonflower.
Working with a Writing Mentor
Claire: Did you work with an editor or a book coach?
When we started working together on my manuscript, I naively thought the book was close to publication. I remember asking Todd how long it took him to write The Creative’s Curse. He said, “About two years.” I thought, ‘I wrote my book in five weeks. Take that, Professional
We spoke about the draft. Then I received Todd’s edits and comments on my first draft. And after I got over feeling hurt and embarrassed, I dug into the revision.
In our conversations about Do Your ARt!, Todd said, “It’s a flagship book. A book that’s helpful for 50 years. Just as relevant 20, 40, or 50 years from now. It’s that kind of book. A perennial seller. It has the potential to be an ‘evergreen’ book.”
With Todd’s guidance and kind and intelligent support, I’m very proud of Do Your ARt!
Todd also wrote the foreword for my book.
I use a rather surgical approach to my revisions. For Do Your ARt!, I dissected the text and separated each of the parts of the book into their own files. I wanted to see the continuity of the sections. For example, the anecdotal ‘Once upon a time’ openings for each chapter or the ‘Key
concepts.’ It’s hard to gain perspective on your writing, but through this type of scrutiny, I could see the overall flow of my ideas.
I worked with a detailed spreadsheet. Chapter by chapter, I moved through the parts and each section.
Returning to Other Writing Projects
Claire: You mention writing and illustrating a children’s book, Trip to Musicland, and writing a novel draft. Did you ever consider publishing either or going back to those ideas?
Bernadette: Trip to Musicland gained life as a concert series performed by The Claflin Hill Symphony Orchestra. Working with Paul Surapine, the founder and Executive and Artistic Director of the nonprofit organization, I wrote a series of short plays performed as part of a family concert series.
Over the past 23 years, Trip to Musicland has been performed in different venues and modalities four times. In the first year, an actor read excerpts from the book as young musicians played various roles.
In contrast, professional musicians provided the musical backdrop. We produced five related programs that first year, and I even made ‘muppet-like’ puppets in another season to take the various roles. I got to practice different voices as I also became one of the puppeteers. The orchestra of 65 professional musicians performed related pieces for the audience of the educational program.
In a different season, we collaborated with a local performing arts school to cast all the roles in the book. I rewrote the entire book once again.
Still another year, I wrote Trip to MusicWorld, where the characters from Musicland explored world music and offered the audience a musical lens on global cultures.
I plan to pitch the series as an educational program that elementary schools could perform.
Writing Good Anecdotes
Claire: All of your anecdotes tie in so well with the message of each chapter; what was your process for deciding the best story to convey each step?
Bernadette: I drew on my past experiences for each chapter for a fitting narrative. I started with the pyramid, which one reader likened to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Then I reflected on my experiences of pondering, playing, planning, and presenting—the bottom, foundational level of the pyramid.
The Importance of Personal Anecdotes
I often tell my students that personal anecdotes serve as an accessible way for readers to relate to the content of an essay or research paper.
For some early stories, I revisited a scrapbook of my art and writing that my mother had kept for me. I found a newspaper clipping about our neighborhood troupe of little thespians performing The Wizard of Oz. When I was six years old, I played one of the munchkins. I sent a Facebook message to some actors asking what they remembered about the performance. They had no memory at all. I was fortunate that the yellowed newspaper story provided factual details that supported my memory, which became the anecdote for the first chapter, ‘Ponder.’
Also, I might have an advantage in remembering some stories from my childhood as I still live in the same house where I grew up.
But I have always had a vivid memory. I can conjure images of different scenes, like the anecdote about the breakfast meeting of Business Networking International (BNI), which prompted me to join Toastmasters to gain confidence in public speaking. That chapter,
‘Practice,’ reinforces the value of preparation.
I’m always drawn to the personal stories that actors, musicians, writers, and even podcasters share. Those stories are relatable. They humanize the speaker.
My readers may have had different experiences, but hopefully, they will know my ideas are based on my experiences. And that my suggestions for progress as a creative are also based on experiences. And also dedicated, progressive steps.
Challenges in Writing
Claire: What was the most challenging aspect of writing or publishing Do Your ARt! for you?
Bernadette: The most challenging aspect of writing is perseverance. It’s easy to start new projects. It takes work to finish, especially as a writer. No one sees what you’re doing. It’s easy to keep Word files hidden on a hard drive.
Deciding to perform makes all the difference. For example, even a three or four-page reading for a writer’s group motivates the novice writer.
Another challenge is confidence. A famous life coach, Susie Moore, said, “Confidence is a choice.”
It’s not as simple as that.
Confidence is more like turning on a faucet and waiting for the cold water to turn hot. So it is a challenge to keep writing when you don’t have a guaranteed audience.
The Editing Process
Bernadette: In teaching, it is crucial to help my students gain confidence. My students often come to my College Writing classes with damaged self-confidence because their teachers, past and present, focus on grammar, spelling, and writing mechanics. Those things are important, but content and organization need cultivation first.
I have an assignment that prompts my students to write an extended first essay. This past semester, the page length ranged from seven pages to 109!
In self-editing and revising, I use a very analytical approach. For example, I have done extensive reverse outlines of novels producing a colorful spreadsheet of scenes, settings, and character traits.
Write Fast, Revise Slowly
In revising Do Your ARt!, I also pulled apart the text. In many ways, the process felt more like an autopsy than a revision as I laid out the text so that I could see how the words functioned on their own.
I firmly believe in writing fast and revising slowly. I tell my students that to get a beautifully faceted diamond, you must start with a chunk of diamond. Let the book present itself to you. See what the story is and what it wants to be. Then, you can shape the words, and the paragraphs, into an independent, autonomous thing that must live without the author making excuses for its shortcomings, mistakes, and errors.
I am obsessed with the process of writing. Writing, rewriting, revising, and starting completely over is fun. That is why working toward a performance focuses on every step in writing and publishing. Many art forms suffer a similar ‘It’s never really finished’ philosophy.
But performance serves as a finish line. Like final exams for my students, the end is the end, until next time.
About the Author
Bernadette Stockwell, Ph.D., teaches expository and research writing, public speaking, and fashion technology at UMass Lowell and Fitchburg State University. She coaches artists/creatives/makers and writes about creativity. Dr. Stockwell regularly posts articles on Psychology Today’s blog and is finalizing edits of Do Your ARt! 10 Simple Steps to Enhance Your Creativity and Elevate Your Mood, a book on process and practice. She collects patches from National Parks, colorful sprinkles, buttons, and socks. Find more of Stockwell’s valuable resources at www.doyourart.org