Today I am delighted to have picture book writer Cathy Ballou Mealey as my guest. She and I are kindred spirits in that we both share a love for kid’s poetry, picture books, reading and… ART! Today she’s here to inspire us with an encouraging post on harnessing the creative potential inherent in the process of waiting for writerly feedback. Take it away, Cathy!
Teaching the Tool of Time
by Cathy Ballou Mealey
In a 2013 Harvard Magazine article entitled The Power of Patience, professor Jennifer L. Roberts writes about teaching her art and architecture students about the value of immersive attention. Counter to the trends in today’s high-speed, digitally oriented classrooms, she deliberately creates assignments that force students to slow down and spend time in deep contemplation.
Specifically, her students must write an intensive research paper on a single work of art after devoting three continuous hours in a museum studying the piece and noting their emerging discoveries. Of course students resist. Three hours is a large chunk of time to commit, and with no social media? But later they all report being astonished by the revelations of this exercise.
Roberts proverbially “puts her money where her mouth is” by devoting three hours to study John Singleton Copley’s 1765 work A Boy with a Flying Squirrel (Henry Pelham). Nine minutes into the exercise, she sees that the boy’s ear crinkles echo the squirrel’s belly folds. After 21 minutes, she notes the span of his fingers measure the precise width of the water glass. Then she wonders why his face is turned in profile, and what is odd about that red curtain?
When Roberts launches into the history component of her lesson, the story is completely gripping. A self-taught artist isolated from esteemed European art academies, Copley was hungry for feedback to improve his work. He painted this portrait, boxed it up, walked to Boston Harbor to put it on a ship bound for London, and waited. After eleven months, he got a note that they thought his work was “too liney.” What exactly did that mean? he wrote back. And waited again for a response.
Those of us in the throes of queries and submissions know all too well about waiting for feedback. In 250 years, have we made no progress in the speed at which we get answers? Copley knew his wait would be long, but the modern world is unused to such a pace. Roberts suggests we regain an awareness of the value of patience as a tool. We have the power to put our waiting time to good use through thoughtful observation and careful questioning. If Roberts had looked away after ten minutes, she would have missed many significant details that greatly enriched her later research on the painting’s symbolism.
Waiting is never easy, but perhaps we can learn to harness the creative potential inherent in the process. If you would like to study an image of A Boy with a Flying Squirrel (Henry Pelham) follow this Museum of Fine Arts, Boston link. Or you may wish to watch Jennifer Roberts lecture about The Power of Patience from the Harvard Initiative for Learning and Teaching conference. Whatever you are waiting for, I hope you pass the time productively!
Cathy Ballou Mealey is a picture book writer and former college administrator. She volunteers for her children’s schools, local literacy efforts, and organizations supporting children diagnosed with autism spectrum disorders. Read more about Cathy’s thoughts on poetry, art and picture books on her blog. She also reviews new children’s books at Good Reads with Ronna and for North Shore Children & Families. She is represented by Liza Fleissig of the Liza Royce Agency.