Make a world the Ed Emberley way

You ever buy something not really knowing why or when you will use it, but you buy it just because it’s too great to leave behind?

That would explain this purchase:

Ed Emberley's "Make a World"

I found this a few years back at the Multnomah County Library’s annual used book sale.  I suppose I loved it because it reminded me of my childhood. Ed Emberley’s books were hot in the 70s when I was a kid.

But it was more than that. I’ve always longed to be able to draw things, and I’ve never known how. The promise of this book is that if you can draw simple lines and shapes, you can draw the whole world.

Really, I'm not making that up.

Really, I’m not making that up.

But like so many things that speak to some long-buried creative longing, I bought this book and put it on the shelf and forgot about it. In fact, it wasn’t until I was purging my books right after the new year that I rediscovered it. This weekend, thinking about how to create this year’s Valentine card for Cane, I brought it out again.

Wouldn’t you know it, Emberley had just what I needed:  A scooter. And mountains and trees. Which is how I was able to create this:

Emberley exercise #1

I began with the idea that whatever I created, it was all just an exercise. I ended up with a page full of exercises, some taken directly from Emberely, and others that I came up with as I gave myself permission to branch off from his:

emberley exercise

To draw the scooter I needed to look at a photo. I did a Google image search for “scooter back view” and found several that helped me. The Emberley exercises helped me see the scooter as a set of shapes; now I’m seeing everything I look at that way.

Will I use any of this directly in my Valentine? I don’t know. What I do know is that I learned some lessons from this exercise that I will carry into whatever the Valentine becomes–and into other creative projects:

1. Most complex things can be broken down into simple component parts.

2. Hard things can become easy when we’re able to break them down into small, simple parts.

3. It helps to think in layers–to ask, What needs to come first?

4. Small tasks (drawing only a scooter) are good for learning brand-new skills. You get to start over (and over and over) right away.

5. Working on only one small part at a time is good for developing a design. You get to start over (and over and over) right away.

6. Starting over (and over and over) frequently allows you to see progress quickly, so that you don’t get discouraged.

7. A total fail needs to be kept in proper perspective. I had only one total fail in 8 exercises. That’s an 88% success rate!

Just as important as learning some things about creative process, I also had a ton of fun. There’s just something about a handful of colorful markers that makes me feel good.


No better way to spend a sunny Sunday twilight than sitting at the kitchen table with some paper, some markers, a cup of tea, and my favorite guy.

Kitchen workspace

(Didn’t want to take time away from the moment to get out the real camera.)


How about you?

Any other Emberley fans out there? Any other good resources for learning how to draw? Great ideas for how I can turn this into my Valentine?  Just want to chat a bit, share an exercise/experience of your own? I always love hearing from others.

Reading: Shop Class as Soulcraft (ch. 1-3)

shop class cover

Penguin Books, © 2009

Matthew Crawford is a philosopher and a mechanic and an entrepreneur. Although an examination of work might seem ill-suited to a blog that proclaims to be about the exploration of creative play, I don’t believe that work and play are opposite ends of a continuum or two sides of a coin–any more than I believe that philosophy and mechanics are two entirely distinct disciplines.

Crawford’s book tackles education, economics, morality, and work. As I read, I intend to capture in a series of posts excerpts that speak directly to questions about creative work/play. If you’d like to enter into a conversation with me about these words through the comments, please do. 

“I want to avoid the precious images of manual work that intellectuals sometimes traffic in. I also have little interest in wistful notions of a “simpler” life that is somehow more authentic, or more democratically valorous for being “working class.” I do, in fact, want to rehabilitate the honor of the trades, as being choice-worthy work, but to do so from my own experience, which I find is not illuminated by any of these fraught cultural ideals.”

“Introduction,” page 6

Hmmm…is this why I sometimes chafe against simple living blogs–especially the especially beautiful ones? I come from working-class people. My people made things from necessity, not for play–although I find evidence of artful intention in their works that remain. As I attempt to cultivate the same skills–for example, to learn to knit and sew with craftsmanship, or to grow food and preserve it–I feel more comfortable when I label those activities as play than work. The thing is, I get to choose in a way that those who came before me did not. I am engaging in those activities for pleasure, not necessity. Is that the only real difference between work and play? In some ways, I feel more inauthentic when I do those things, as if I am playing house. It reminds me of my college days, when I was “poor.” True, I lived on very little. I lived in some pretty terrible places. But I don’t presume that I really know anything about living in poverty. I always knew that if I were really in dire straits, I had a safety net of family to catch me, and I think that makes all the difference in whether or not one is truly poor. So I don’t think I can know what value it adds to a life to make things ourselves when there is no other choice but to do so.

“The satisfactions of manifesting oneself concretely in the world through manual competence have been known to make a man quiet and easy. They seem to relieve him of the felt need to offer chattering interpretations of himself to vindicate his worth. he can simply point:  the building stands, the car now runs, the lights are on.”

“A Brief Case for the Useful Arts,” page 15

Yes. I would like to be relieved of the need to offer chattering interpretations of myself.

“…creativity is a by-product of mastery of the sort that is cultivated through long practice. It seems to be built up through submission (think a musician practicing scales, or Einstein learning tensor algebra).”

“The Separation of Thinking from Doing,” page 51

“The musician’s power of expression is founded upon a prior obedience; her musical agency is built up from an on-going submission. To what? To her teacher, perhaps, but this is incidental rather than primary–there is such a thing as the self-taught musician. Her obedience rather is to the mechanical realities of her instrument….

I believe the example of the musician sheds light on the basic character of human agency, namely, that it arises only within concrete limits that are not of our making….

In any hard discipline, whether it be gardening, structural engineering, or Russian, one submits to things that have their own intractable ways.”

“To Be Master of One’s Own Stuff,” pages 64-65

“Creativity is the byproduct of mastery”–This is why I feel the need to do exercises as I embark on this journey to explore creativity, especially in areas in which I have little experience. It is easy to look at the creative work of those who are accomplished and think, “I can do that.” And then, I sit down at a table with my gathered materials and feel blocked. I have no ideas of my own. I have no vision. The vision comes from the doing, not the other way around.

What is it we submit to? As Crawford says, the laws of our materials, the “concrete limits that are not of our making.” But also, I think, to the truth that we must submit before we can create. We have to learn and try and fail. We have to do, we can’t just look.


That’s all for this entry. I will add others as I continue reading.


Writing Exercise: Love Poem

In my Valentine’s Day card inspiration post, I linked to a selection of love poems that can be found on the Academy of American Poets site.


Valentine from a few years ago, with a little help from e.e. cummings.

There I found a poem by David Lehman that begins like this:

Screen Shot 2015-01-21 at 8.47.53 PM

(Clicking on this image will take you to the full text of the poem.)

And I was reminded that almost any poem can become a springboard to another work.

I will be honest:  I’m not in love with this particular poem. However, I love the idea of playing with the notion that we can describe how we know that a woman is in love with a man (or a man with a woman) through a collection of particular moments that tell us so. I like the idea of exploring what we say and what our words really mean.

I like the idea of pulling those moments from our own lives, thinking about what actions, words, moments told us that we were in love with another, or another with us. So I gave myself an assignment:

Do a free-write about the moments that tell me I love Cane.

Here’s my first shot at the exercise:





Yeah, I got nothing from my prompt. So I went looking for photos that might take me back to a moment. Often, something tangible and concrete will give me a way into a piece of writing. I found this, from a summer evening several years ago:

scooter on lolo passThat yielded this:

Screen Shot 2015-01-22 at 5.45.36 PMI got stuck again. So I put it away and went to work and thought about the memory, and when I came home this afternoon I came up with this:

Screen Shot 2015-01-22 at 5.51.06 PMSomehow, giving myself permission to change the syntax from the springboard poem freed me up. Instead of “When she says…” I wrote, “I will say…” I preferred first-person to third.

This still isn’t a finished poem, and I don’t know if I will finish it. I don’t know if it will make it onto the Valentine card. But I had fun remembering the evening and trying to put it to some words.

IMGP5385Comments and questions are always welcome.


What would you make of this?

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIf you’re fortunate enough to live in or near Portland, OR, you simply must visit the SCRAP store.

SCRAP is a non-profit creative re-use store and donation center, filled with all kinds of materials–like this table of sample decor fabrics. I’ve been enamored with these samples ever since I discovered some on a clearance table at a fabric store and made these pillows with them:

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERASo, of course, when I saw that I could get a whole grocery bag’s worth for only $5, a bag had to come home with me. It’s been sitting in my supply closet for a few months now, but I think it’s going to come out soon. In the meantime, tell me creative reader:

What would you make with such fine scraps?

Fabric scraps from SCRAP


Valentine’s Card 2015: Ideas and Inspiration

This guy is my Valentine:

Cane in the living room

Even though we’d do cartwheels for each other (for reals, see below), we aren’t really fans of Valentine’s Day. Too much of what goes on for that holiday feels phony and contrived. We prefer to generally mock and/or ignore the pressure to make grand romantic gestures on February 14th. Nonetheless, I always make him a valentine card each year.

Last year's card, made from the discarded pages of old books.

Last year’s card, made from the discarded pages of old books. Just a bit of mocking going on here.

This year, I’m feeling inspired by an article in the February issue of Better Homes & Gardens. In it, Natalie Chanin shared handmade cards with hand-stitching on them.

BHS Natalie Chanin valentines

This sent me on a search for tutorials and inspiration online.The tutorial I like best is this one from Leigh Ann at Freckled Nest:

freckled nest hand stitching

Although many of the images above show hand-stitching on fabric, Leigh Ann’s tutorial addresses hand-stitching on paper, too.

Some years I’ve incorporated poetry, and I think I’d like to do that this year, too. One of my favorite sources for Valentine poems is Ted Kooser’s Valentines.

Ted Kooser's Valentine

University of Nebraska Press, 2008

I love the story of this book almost as much as I love the poems. In 1986, Kooser (former US poet laureate) wrote the first poem in the book and sent it to 50 women friends. That began a tradition that continued for 21 years, and the list of recipients eventually grew to 2,500. (Full story on NPR here.)

Ted Kooser's "A Map of the World"

One of my favorite poems in this favorite book.

If I get really ambitious, I might try writing my own poem. Or, I might write a collage poem–one in which I pull lines and phrases from other writer’s poems and combine them into my own. A good source for poems about love is the Academy of American Poets site, where you can browse poems by occasion. You can see quite a selection of poems on love here.

I’m looking forward to learning a new technique, exploring some poetry, and messing around with paper and fabric and embroidery floss. Hopefully I’ll have a project to share soon.

If you’ve got any great inspiration/ideas for making your own valentines, please share in the comments.

Cane cartwheeling