2021-06-11T11:25:19-04:00

Thunderstorms and Snowfall – What is your relationship to place?

 

Thunderstorms and Snowfall – What is your relationship to place?

June 11, 2021

Last week, Florida’s dry season gave way to the summer clouds that grow big and gorgeous across the sky, peaking into Joni Mitchell’s ice-cream castles, ominous thunderheads, and shelf clouds that divide the sky in jarring contrasts of dark and light. When the rain comes now, it is not the cool summer rain I grew up with in New England. There, rain breaks the heat like a kindness, wringing it out of the air for a few hours or days.

Not here. For the next six months, goodbye to Florida’s static blue sky that draws snowbirds and spring breakers. Now, the whole sky is change, the only constant a wet heat that will not yield until sometime around Thanksgiving. My father calls it cabin fever season, the reverse of New York winters that turn people into pained-lunged speed walkers racing through bitter cold from one warm space to another. Now Dad’s dash is from one air-conditioned or shaded haven to another.

I have lived in Florida for almost ten years now, but only in the last few have I forged a tentative peace with the heat, stopped whining long enough to appreciate the majesties of a Florida summer.

Backward as it may seem, summertime here (yes, Florida has seasons!) reminds me of a winter I spent in Buffalo, New York, where I drove most mornings to work through blinding pre-dawn snowfalls, passing children standing at bus stops to go to schools that would not be canceled for mere whiteout conditions. You see how they’re the same, right?

On one such morning in Buffalo, on an empty stretch of road, I lost control of my car, spinning 360 a few times before landing in someone’s yard, headlights facing the road. I sat for a minute, feeling how quiet it was, how nobody had noticed my silent, slow-motion (in my head) near brush with death.

I took a deep breath, put my blinker on (yes), pulled back into the road, and continued to work, where my colleagues were not impressed.

“It happens,” they said. Still, when spring approached, even the most hardy of Buffalo souls were counting down the days to spring’s relief.

Same here in Florida, on the flip side in the heat and dangers of hurricanes.

 

Why reflect on sense of place?

Too long to answer in a blog! But what is your answer? To me, the places that become a part of us, the rhythms and change of seasons and skies, can be an opening into writing and living in duality: what we risk and endure, and the beauty that exists within that.

Funny that the day after writing this, I happened to hear from author and teacher Pema Chödrön on the topic of sitting in duality, “There is no cure for hot and cold.”1

By November I will be crying for mercy for the weather to flip back to the other side. The change seems to happen in a single week you can point to, when the heat breaks back into winter’s cool mornings, offering shiny and weightless breaths of air for the taking. Still, I don’t want to live waiting for the heat to pass. And I’ll throw out a fairly educated guess that one-sided, Panglossian living just might lead to crappy writing too, at least for me.

In Buffalo, the lake effect snow came silent and thick, though Buffalo readers will also know the sounds of winter thunderstorms, the loud and sudden cracks of branches breaking under the weight of ice and snow. Just outside your window, they can make you jump awake in bed sure that the roof had just cracked in two (Or is that just me?)

In Florida, the summer sky makes the best kind of noise. The other night the rain fell in sheets across the roof, thunder rolling in just behind it, waking us up like a salutation: the season has begun.

Like characters in a book, both places are alive in me. The sound and silence, the bitter cold and wet heat, the piling drifts and Joni Mitchell’s piling ice-cream castle clouds.

So you agree, yes? They are the same. Best to let them settle, foreboding and beauty both.

 

Writing Exercise

Ok, now you. What is your sense of place? What surrounds you so presently it has become a part of you? How might you put it into words? Try it, from both sides now.

 

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  1. Pema Chödrön, The Places that Scare You, citing Tibetan Buddhist meditation master Chögyam Trungpa.
2021-05-28T09:57:15-04:00

Waiting, Pruning, Growing – What are Your Roses and Bonsai Trees?

Waiting, Pruning, Growing – What are Your Roses and Bonsai Trees?

May 28, 2021

After my brother died, my sister found his plans for a garden he was readying for the spring. She offered the idea to plant seeds in remembrance of him, so that those who love him may, in our own places and ways, collectively continue the garden he did not get to grow.

I thought it may be a good time to plant the set of bonsai tree seeds we had bought a while ago. This could go badly, as I don’t have a green thumb and am more likely to kill them before they thrive. Our roses are doing ok, but only because my husband is caring for them, pruning the leaves that die so new buds can grow.

It also may not be a good idea because my daughter is quick to value small things. Recently, we formally buried some bugs she’d adopted and cared for too rigorously. She once loved a painting I made of a heart, in which I’d used color to show it passing from wholeness, through a break, to another kind of wholeness that included the colors of the break. It was just a fun thing we did on a family painting night, so I wasn’t attached to it. But she loved it and wanted to bring it into show and tell at school.

On her way out of the car on show-and-tell day, she stepped on the frame and broke it. She was devastated, too upset to leave the car while the carline piled up behind us. I pulled out of the keep-it-moving-everyone! carline to hear her out, in the end reframing it (ha) as an opportunity to rebuild my freshly stomped-on heart in a way that would make it more interesting (Multimedia! 3 dimensions! Glue!). She felt better, ready to face the day. Come to think of it, we forgot about it later, so my heart is apparently still warped into splinters in a corner somewhere.

So I can take it if our bonsai trees don’t make it. But maybe I won’t pile the expectations on our fledgling plants. Maybe I’ll keep it to myself that we’re planting them in part for my brother. (This is me keeping it to myself.)

But for you of course, it is about something else, your own long-term work, care, and commitments.

What are your roses? Your bonsai trees?

Caring for a bonsai tree is supposed to foster patience. Because despite the close attention it requires, it can still take years before it will grow in the abundant, unruly ways that roses do.

Anyone who has worked on a long-term project knows the near endless pruning and waiting involved in bringing some work in you to light, the patient persistence and care it needs before it will really get growing. According to writer Hugh Howie,1 “The biggest barrier to releasing quality material is probably impatience.” Since most learning ventures and big projects take way longer than we anticipate, cultivating patience without curbing your care can be tough, especially when you’re excited about your idea.

This applies to you, yes? So get your own bonsai tree! Or, if you want to be a little less literal about it, get an editor. Take care with your work. Invest in the long term.

Hope

Our newly planted bonsai seeds sit beside our roses, sharing their patch of sun but each requiring a different light of attention to thrive. The roses, pushing and insistent, require the pruning of what is no longer useful in order to grow new buds. Not yet for the bonsai trees, which will not be hurried into sprout or strength.

The guides say be patient, this will take years.

“Years?” my daughter asks, uncomprehending. It feels like a long time to wait on a small plant.

“But look,” I say, pointing to our row of little pots. Three have not yet made it through the soil. I don’t know if they ever will. But one of them is sprouting. A beginning.

 

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  1. As cited in Joanna Penn’s How to Market a Book https://www.thecreativepenn.com/howtomarketabook/
2021-05-21T10:13:57-04:00

Writing, Acting, Dentistry, and Post-it Notes – Creative Passion

Writing, Acting, Dentistry, and Post-it Notes – Creative Passion

May 21, 2021

Like many people, I don’t enjoy going to the dentist. The scraping and scratching are like nails on a chalkboard to me, and I usually meditate myself to somewhere else—a beach in Hawaii, a mountain in Montana, whatever does the trick—until I get my mouth back.

So when I once agreed to write the life story for a dentist, my first thought was not about how fascinating it would be! Though his central story was not about dentistry itself, his driving goal to become a dentist was a big part of his story. But I was the writer, I thought, so it was my job to make it compelling.

Ha! Wrong. I didn’t have to make it interesting at all. I only had to ask, “Why was being a dentist your dream?” And “What do you love about it?”

His answers constituted the most lovely and surprising description of the joys of dentistry I’d ever heard (Ok also the first I’d ever heard. But still). And though he didn’t make the experience of teeth scraping any more pleasant, he made it clear why the field deserved his enthusiasm. His passion wrote the book more than I did.

Similarly, I have little interest in the topic of pressure sensitive adhesives (the sticky back of Post-it Notes). But when I read about Spencer Silver’s death last week1, I hadn’t known that his discovery for Post-its was semi-accidental, or that he had been a polymer chemist who had originally been working on the adhesive for use in planes.

This did ring a bell, because my husband is also a polymer chemist who works in aerospace, and I mentioned Silver to him. He connected immediately with Silver’s work, and his whole face lit up as he described how fascinating the science is behind pressure sensitive adhesives, including the counterintuitive findings in the field that made Silver’s initial goal so challenging.

I do not share the creative passion that ignites this work, though I respect and am often in awe of the accomplishments that come from the intersection of creativity and complex systems of knowledge. And I love witnessing creative passion, seeing the light flick on in someone’s eyes when they are excited about a particular project, whether it overlaps with their paid work or not.

To me it is a tiny hint as to why we’re all here, a little glowing arrow to follow in times we feel stagnant or unmotivated. As poet Octavio Paz wrote, “I do not write to kill time/ nor to revive it/ I write that I may live and be revived.”2

It is also a glimpse at a person’s beauty and a way into who they are. Maybe it’s obvious that keeping eyes wide open to creative passion is important for fiction writers or actors, who have to attune themselves to what drives people to authentically take on the voice and experience of others (people or characters).

But isn’t this practice for everyone? Teachers and others in human services, leaders who want to create work environments in which people can see that their work, ideas, and career goals are valued? Unless you somehow never interact with people, seeing creative passion in others is anything but extraneous. It is vital!

How close are you to this creative dynamic, in others and yourself? How often do you pay attention when you see someone’s creative passion ignited, whether you share it or not? What is going on there? How does it matter in your work and life? Where is it directing you? What happens when it is absent or ignored?

Paz wrote in the same poem as above, “How strange to know yourself as alive!/ To walk among people/ with the open secret of being alive.”3

Where does this intersect with you? Try a few scribbles on the idea if you can this weekend. See where it takes you.

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  1. My condolences to his family, whose loss I imagine encompasses a much wider scope than his work and inventions.
  2. The Collected Poems of Octavio Paz, 1957 – 1987. “El Mismo Tiempo/ Identical Time”, Ed. Eliot Weinberger. New Directions; New York, NY. 1990, 69 – 79. 
  3. Ibid.
2021-05-14T12:57:19-04:00

Weekend Challenge: Share Your Work

Credit: Pixabay (heinzremyschindler)

 

Weekend Challenge: Share Your Work

May 14, 2021

This week’s blog is for those of you who have been writing or otherwise creating privately, but you have not yet shared your work. Your creation is sitting in a drawer, the ink pressed neatly into the closed pages of a journal, or waiting in a folder on your computer. Safe from critical eyes.

A challenge for your weekend: share it with someone.

If you are thinking something like “Are you crazy? People will trash it!” or “You said this was supposed to be fun! I’m never reading your blog again!”—then I’m talking to you.

Because if we’re creating, aren’t we meant to share it, to get a little bit vulnerable connecting to someone via what we create? If that’s arguable, pick something with the potential to not be “just for you,” something that, if you let it, just might make the leap beyond you.

If you’re new to this and the thought terrifies you, don’t run straight to a critique group. Find someone you trust.

Be a little careful there, as not everyone knows how to respond in helpful ways. I didn’t always know to anticipate this. Years ago, I shared an essay with my boyfriend, hoping to publish it. It was a vulnerable moment for me, but I didn’t mention that.

His response: “It’s nice.”

Ok, anything else?

“I mean, it’s fine. But it’s not really a story.”

That was the extent of his feedback. I was crushed and put it away (Clearly if someone’s reaction was that flat, it couldn’t be any good, right? Wrong.) A few years later, I picked it up again, still liked it, and decided to submit it anyway.1 Newsweek published it. Ha. Stupid boyfriend. Ok in retrospect, it may also have helped if I’d been clear about the feedback I wanted, or if I’d shared that I was feeling vulnerable about it. But regardless, I should have ignored him and trusted myself more.

This doesn’t mean to disregard any feedback you get. Only that it may take time and direction from you to get helpful feedback. You’ll grow your own discernment to know what feedback to use and what to ignore. But to build those skills, you have to take that first scary step of sharing the work with someone.

If you’re further along, if you use constructive feedback regularly and revise until you can barely see the piece anymore, yet you’re still on hold in sending out your work, why not submit somewhere this weekend?

 

“But what if it’s (I’m) not finished?” you may argue. “Worse, what if I make some glaring mistake everyone sees but me because I don’t know enough yet?”

Nobody knows enough yet. And is any creative piece of work ever “finished?” At some point you will look back later on earlier work and see that you were wrong about something or would do it differently now. Because if that never happens, if your work is exactly the same as it was fifteen years ago, have you grown?

I can’t count the number of times I’ve put my work out there only to see errors or glaring omissions later. You get used to it. (Mostly. Ok no you don’t and it’s always annoying. But you learn to live with it.)

So if those are your worries, congratulations, you’re an unfinished human! And unfinished humans are too complex, sublime, and terrible not to each be grossly ignorant about any number of things. Don’t let that stop you.

 

But what if nobody likes it?? What if everybody hates it!?

Ok now that’s just whining. Not to crush your dreams, but most people will be indifferent to your work. Those who have been submitting for even a little while may roll their eyes at this (“Thanks for the reminder mean lady. Meet my pile of rejection letters.”) If it helps, consider that numerically speaking, most people are indifferent to bestsellers too.

So counterintuitive as it sounds, if you’re doing the work to learn and improve, you can’t take others’ indifference personally—even if your art feels intensely personal to you. It’s just part of the deal in a time-crunch culture in which it isn’t easy for anyone to find their particular audience, and even that audience is pretty busy.2

 

Who decides what is “good” anyway?

The conversation about gatekeepers and monetary vs. intrinsic value of creative work is too long for one blog. But I once read an interview with a cynical literary agent who claimed that the size of the advance a book gets is inversely proportional to the quality of the writing; or the more successful/popular something is, the worse the writing is. You may laugh (or cry) if you see a grain of truth in that, but I’ll throw in a grain of salt too. I can easily think of highly successful writers who are experts at craft. And as far as I’m concerned, life’s just too hard to trash others’ creative efforts as lesser, “banal”, “popular”, “sentimental” or whatever the approved critical vernacular may be (funny how cliché the jargon used to decry cliché can be).3

While I tend to gravitate toward more “serious” topics and literature, I have also logged good time on some seriously formulaic cheese and sentimental stories pumping metaphorical sugar into my bloodstream. I am currently watching a series that is so full of plot holes and inconsistencies that it’s probably fair to say it is insulting to intelligence itself. But still, I like it. I appreciate the people who created it, as I suspect I will always appreciate those who make things that lighten the load for others. Sometimes our psyches need to put down the boulder sized tomes we’re carrying around inside them.

So for this exercise (sharing your work), who decides what’s good? You do.

 

Good news

Might there be comfort in the fact that not everyone will like what you create? Some people lean toward plot-driven fiction, some character-driven. Some like writing thick with imagery, others say, “Get to the point!” So it’s not necessarily a bad thing if your work falls flat somewhere. In fact, what a relief it is that someone won’t like your work, as it is testament to the fact that we are not identical cogs creating boring sameness. This is not to dismiss how challenging it can be to publish if that’s what you want. I know it can be a tiring uphill climb.

But there are many venues for different types of work, which is why writers are advised to read the journal before submitting to it. If the writing style is nothing like yours, move along to the next possibility.

So if you’re thinking you have to wait until you can appeal to a wide audience (twisting your work into an inauthentic pretzel while you’re at it), you’re wasting precious time and energy meant to fuel your dreams. Yes, take care with your words. But write/create you, revise, then find out where it fits. I’m not saying it’s easy, but don’t let that stop you. If you have a light and entertaining story, screenplay, or whatever, get to it! If you have something more thinky you’ve been tinkering with, give it one last look this weekend, and share it with a breathing being (who is not your dog or cat). Maybe one person, maybe with a wider audience, whatever pushes you past what’s comfortable.

Cliché as it may be, life is too short to worry about how perfectly your creation must land on its feet. Just let it land.

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  1. This was before the personal essay and internet were ubiquitous, though they did exist, as did email for submissions (And I have apparently reached that point in life where descriptors of my young adulthood need clarity footnotes ala “Back in the time when…”).
  2. On finding your audience, check out Creative Pinellas grantee Tenea Johnson’s blog on discoverability.
  3. This is not to disparage critique. I’m referring here to the broad brush often used to dismiss all work that is popular.
2021-05-07T09:48:09-04:00

This is not a blog about my brother… (On Memory, Story, and Art. For Brendon)

Photo Credit: Unknown (Family Files)

April 30, 2021

This is not a blog about my brother, who died suddenly last month at the age of fifty-one. Grief is still doing that thing it does when it moves in waves underneath language, making little sense while at the same time, crystallizing everything I know into a fine and painful point. Unformed. You can see why this can’t be about my brother.

After Brendon’s death, I went to that what-day-is-it place that seeks out the person who was lost, where I talk out loud to the air and float in questions and senses of the person, then am suddenly jolted back to the “real” world of clocks and dinner, the guess-I-still-have-to-do-stuff world I’d rather delay for a while.

In that period of in-between, my husband and I created a remembrance of photos, video clips, and stories for my brother’s service. With each photo or memory from someone who cared about Brendon, I was filled with gratitude.1

By the way did I say this was not about my brother? Because it is about my brother. But also memory, which is story, which is art, which is memory, which is my brother.

Many of the incoming stories from family and friends echoed my own memories of Brendon, who often helped me with my math homework when we were teenagers, patiently working with me until he found the explanation that would click. I had thought my big brother had only done this for me! But it turns out he was also tutoring his best friend regularly in math. He did the same thing for others in college, where some of his friends said they never would have made it through quantum physics without him, as he may have been the only one who fully understood it.

Even after my decades of work in the field of education, it had never dawned on me that my brother was a teacher. Not his field, maybe, but it was his person. His colleagues reiterated this and more, their memories suggesting it would be understatement to call him an “expert in his field” of electrical engineering. He taught the experts.

Others’ memories jogged or filled in my own. “Oh, right, I forgot about the mattress-down-the-staircase rides he used to do!” Or “Wait, he was the one who directed the Murphy grandkids to make the Super Grandma book, the one where we each designed a page to show her how great she was?”

Then there were memories that, even though I was there, came with no “ding ding” of recognition at all. The time he attached a sled to the back of his car and drove us around a parking lot in the snow? Even when I racked my brain so I could relive that happy memory with my brother, nothing came.

What else did I not remember? And how did the weight I gave my own memories affect my impressions of him? How small one person’s memory can be. And if all we have of a person once they’re gone are our collective memories of them, how much we need other people to fill in what we did not know.

Story vs. Exposition vs. Persuasion

One of my day jobs is to ghostwrite people’s life stories. It is not uncommon for someone to say after a long interview, “Wow, I’ve never told anyone that.” Or, “I think you now know me better than my family does!” It is an honor to be trusted with people’s stories in this way, for them to become vulnerable with this stranger-writer as we shape their lives into narrative form.

As I put their stories to paper, their memories seem to become part of me, almost as if they have expanded my own memory, adding to my own sense of what life is, as experienced by so many different people.

I suspect this is part of why I’ve always been drawn to fiction, memoir, and history.

Because if I can’t even remember events I was there to experience, how can I know the collective histories, the story of us, without others’ stories? And by “us” I mean all the “us-es”, the families and marriages and friendships, the nations and the bigger-than-nations.

Story. We rarely give it the credit it deserves. Subjective? Of course. Inexact, murky, incomplete, subject to humans’ impressive capacity for self delusion? Yes! But the collective arrow formed by all who work memory into something bigger such as art, is at least as valuable as that which we can quantify. That co-created arrow points to the gaps in our collective memory and illustrates how much we need each other to paint a fuller picture.

Where We Meet: Paradox

Brendon and I were always very different people, or at least I thought so. He was left-brained, I was right (whatever that means, because neither of us fit perfectly into either box, and he was one of the first people to show me how creative math could be).

I have always loved poetry and fiction, which I hear critiqued sometimes as not very “useful” pursuits. After all, fiction is made up, not even real! Frivolous diversion! Of course, it is in not being real, that it finds the clearest path to what is real about human experience, often in ways non-fiction can miss.

While I don’t knock expository and persuasive writing (they are a big part of my work), I find they are often stuck with barreling through the front door of the intellect, which locks entry to the self via belief, bias, argument, and identity/self-concept. Tight as the writing may be, time and time again, smack! Then a goose-egg as some very smart and persuasive people rub their heads wondering what went wrong, why nobody let them in.

Fiction and poetry, on the other hand, get to sneak in the side door, where imagination has a key that is often shaped like beauty.2

Unlike me, Brendon gravitated toward math and science, his first passion being quantum physics. (I dropped out of high school physics after the first week, preferring anatomy and biology, where I could more clearly see the interconnectedness in systems). If you asked me what my brother’s career path was, I could only say, “research with lasers” then “something with semi-conductors.”

But do you know what the quantum physicists say about their work? Nobel Prizewinner in Physics Neils Bohr wrote, “Everything we call real is made of things that cannot be regarded as real. If quantum mechanics hasn’t profoundly shocked you, you haven’t understood it yet.”

Hence our places of overlap, like grief, move in the waves underneath language, my brother and I choosing different parameters to attempt the launch beyond them, pursuing the real in the limited disciplines we have.

We did not meet in that place in life, and Brendon and I had many long, circular conversations in which language felt almost useless. For us, words, beliefs, and memories clashed until we could no longer make sense of them together. And maybe because it is tiring for two people to endlessly trek across linguistic minefields to reach each other, eventually our conversations became few and far between. Not unfriendly in his last years of life, but walking only the surface of daily experience when they occurred at all.

If I believe my beautiful brother continues, and I do, it is in that intangible place that is as real as our avoidance of it, as real as the hard world we like to measure and metricize in every which way we can. Where Brendon is now, I imagine paradox is as comfortable as my coffee in the morning and the book I pull from the shelf to read with it.

Here, in the place he has left and where I am left to wonder, there is daily life. Here, where paradox and counterintuition are not comfortable, where I sit in stories that are more real for being made-up, where the light cast on my page is simultaneously particle and wave. Here where we shared our childhood, our goofy humor, and a love for running and play. Here where the blood, veins, and muscles that propelled him forward on his last run through his neighborhood on his last day of life, still propel me forward on my own morning runs, where ZZ Top blasts through my earbuds just so I can feel closer to him. Here where we shared the blood that pulses through our unanswered questions about the brief lives we are here to live.

For Brendon, maybe the minefields have cleared. Maybe my words don’t have to make sense anymore. Maybe he knows me without them.

 

 

1. Thank you to any one of you who shares your loving memory of someone to a person who lost them. Your words are bigger than you know.

2. Beauty in story, here, which is not to say fiction is cosmetic veneer for agenda and argument. On this I think of Eudora Welty’s essay “Must the Artist Crusade?” in her book On Writing, in which she writes that “a plot is a thousand times more unsettling than an argument, which can be answered.” This is also not to say that all artists are driven by the dictum to “Reveal the TRUTH!” in everything they create. 

2021-04-19T12:42:10-04:00

Making Art from Anger

 

I once attended a peace summit in Newark, New Jersey, in which Jody Williams, who won a Nobel Peace Prize for her campaign against land mines, shared a stage with fellow Peace Prize winner, the 14th Dalai Lama.

The Dalai Lama spoke of how destructive it can be to hold onto anger, how it screws up your face1 and gets into your body, keeping you angry, making you sick, and robbing you of happiness and health. Working for peace, he explained, requires compassion, which in turn requires meditation and working with our anger when it arises.

Williams wasn’t having it. The powerhouse activist defended anger, citing it as a valuable and driving force for her work. Without it, she argued, she would not have accomplished what she had. Plus, there were too many problems to fix. Later she listed everything she thought about while the Dalai Lama was meditating on inner peace.

While he did not agree with her, exactly, to say he disagreed doesn’t sound right either. In fact, nothing about him exuded agreement or disagreement at all. Rather, he seemed to appreciate her, to welcome her energy in a way that was open and compassionate, yet somehow not patronizing, superficial, or dismissive.

I did not get the impression that either of them changed the other’s view on anger. They came at anger and change from different tacks. Her approach to disarmament was literal, outward, action-oriented, and proudly anger-driven. His way of disarmament, it seemed, was in his personhood itself–the idea being, I think, that the outer work is most effective when we first transform anger from the inside.

Art Makes Room for Anger

I won’t presume to moderate the points. If Jody Williams and the Dalai Lama didn’t come to a satisfying conclusion on that one, I’m pretty sure my blog won’t.

But is it too self-important, too pat an answer, to suggest that art makes room for both?

Earlier I wrote about art as relief from stress, anxiety, or pain (art as escape). In this way it is life affirming, even life saving. But art has more for us than relief. Because what does it even mean to “transform” anger into art?

 

Art that Evokes or Expresses Anger

I think of Jimmy Santiago Baca’s performance of “Cry” which begins, “For the longest time, I haven’t been able to cry.”2 In the poem, the tears come as he pushes against the “men aren’t supposed to cry” rule and accounts for all there is to cry about, to feel. I think of Nina Simone’s “Mississippi Goddam,” the piano crescendos escalating with each atrocity she sings. And of Marge Piercy’s “Barbie Doll”, Audre Lorde’s “Sewer Plant Goes in Harlem or I’m a Stranger Here Myself When Does the Next Swan Leave.”

I think of the paintings, novels, and music in which relief and comfort are not the point (though not absent either, for the viewer who shares that anger and feels the relief of being recognized, seen, and understood).

The anger here is present, alive, and vital to the art itself, here where the fire of a talented artist’s anger casts a bright light on a particular truth.

Art After (or on Break From?) Anger

Then there is art in which anger is not always overt in the art itself, but the artist must have felt it at one point, at least, for the art to exist (This is a guess on my part, since I am only an omniscient narrator in my characters’ heads!)

I wrote a short story once that a term paper writer might describe thematically as, “about the effects of relationship abuse.” I wouldn’t blame you if you ran the other way based on that description. Because if I’d actually set out to write a story with such a directive, it would have been crap. I also could not have written it in the moment of feeling anger, though I had to pass through anger to even imagine it. And, I wanted the story to go beyond the immediate trauma of abuse to strength, freedom, and recovery—not for the sake of the reader, but for me.

Also in this category I think of community art projects that provide uplift and sustenance. I think of art that while it may include trauma, does not center or identify itself as it either. I think of literary fiction. Jennine Capó Crucet’s Make Your Home Among Strangers, Jesmyn Ward’s Salvage the Bones, Abraham Verghese’s Cutting for Stone, Emuna Elon’s House on Endless Waters, the novels of Chris Bohjalian, Alice McDermott

Hold on a minute. Is all sublime literary fiction rooted in anger in some way (or is that true only if I first declare myself the arbiter of what constitutes “sublime” and then make wild assumptions about each writer’s process)?

One of the iterations of art Lewis Hyde describes in Trickster Makes This World: Mischief, Myth, and Art, I say ties into anger too: art that tricks us by revealing beauty in something that the culture does not deem beautiful or valuable. Florida photographer Clyde Butcher does not convey anger in his work, but he does hook viewers on his gorgeous photographs of the Florida swampland on which he lives. People go out of their way to visit his gallery, where they are invited to stay in a swamp cabin. If I say “swamp” and you think “hot,” “sticky,” “mosquitoes, snakes, and alligators, oh my,” or just “sounds unpleasant,” his work may be for you! Then once you’re there, you get an education on the ecosystem he wants to preserve. He doesn’t even want to be remembered as a photographer as much as an educator.

Even Van Gogh, whose paintings of farmers also don’t suggest anger, was subversive in going against the grain in an art business that saw no beauty in his rough renderings of farmers working in the fields. He railed against the tendency to paint farmers as clean, perfectly proportioned, and poised as graceful ballerinas while easily plucking their potatoes from the ground.

What About You? Can you start from anger, and end in art?

I have no prescriptive answer, because you’re you and I’m me. But whether you are more closely aligned to Jody Williams’s or the Dalai Lama’s views on anger (if they oppose), what art might you begin that comes from anger? Would anger be present in the work itself, fueling it like a rocket into the world to encounter apathy or stoic detachment? Or would it be a celebration of some beauty as you see it (or are it), sent out to counter despair? Or, is there another “or” it can be?

If you want to, go to the page, the instrument, wherever you create. Invite imagination to join you. And try.

 

  1. I think he’s talking about the biofeedback loop, not perceived attractiveness.
  2. I could not find a video of Baca reading this poem, but he performs it in Bill Moyers’s Language of Life–which was a festival but this particular performance may only be in the audiobook.

Featured Image Photo Credit: Pixabay.com

 

2021-04-05T08:55:12-04:00

Taking a Crack at Creativity

Taking a Crack at Creativity

 

Cr: Pixabay

 

Daniel Nayeri writes in Everything Sad is Untrue (a true story), that “Making anything assumes there is a world worth making it for… [It is] a hopeful thing to do.” (He goes on to suggest that those who do so are either brave or not in their right minds at all, but one step at a time here.)

Below are a few ideas for drawing on your creativity to make something. Will it be art? I have no idea! (Insert long and heated conversation on what constitutes art, acknowledging that creativity is not exclusive to the arts, and even there, creative impulse does not always lead to art.) In this context, it doesn’t matter (yet). Art as relief is for “when despair for the world grows in me/ and I wake in the night at the least sound.” (Wendell Berry)

Later, maybe we’ll get to what Untamed author Glennon Doyle meant when she said “Perhaps imagination is not where we go to escape reality. Perhaps imagination is where we go to discover the reality that we were meant to bring into the world.”

And, craft. Because those drawn to writing by a romantic notion of “the writing life” as a floatily creative endeavor 24-7, often feel disappointed by the reality. In the day-to-day, more time is spent on editing, then editing again, then waiting before editing again, then waking up with random phrases in your head to text to yourself before you forget them, than  in transcendent creative union with the collective unconscious, Platonian world of ideas, or whatever you want to call it.

So what does that mean for you? Let’s get concrete and creative.

Last week I invited you to make a physical space for contemplating your own creative spark. A journal or sketchbook, a folder in your Notes app on a tablet, whatever works. Then, you set your intention to listen (even if you’re not sure what you’re listening for), and you wrote down any ideas that came up since then.

To analytical readers, this may sound like mushy advice indeed. Because what does that mean? How do you step into the kind of creativity Van Gogh calls “relief” in times of anxiety, grief, stress, or other emotional pain?

When the blank canvas stares at you…

Stare back. Blankly into the numbness of despair and—I mean, no. Don’t do that.

Van Gogh advised in one of his letters, “Just slap anything on when you see a blank canvas staring at you…”, because “Life itself… is forever turning an infinitely vacant, disheartening, dispiriting blank side towards man on which nothing appears…. But the [person] of faith, of energy, of warmth, who knows something, will not be put off so easily. He wades in and does something…”.

So set aside a half hour or so, even just twenty minutes if it’s all you have. Pick something you wrote in your notebook or folder. Then sit and watch what crosses your mind and/or rises from feeling.

Then, act on your idea. Experiment—even if your brain says this will be the crappiest piece of junk ever created and you’ll never show anyone. If you come up with nothing, try something from the list below that fits for you.

Ideas:

  • Sketch your child’s form, or your pet, or your view out the window, or whatever you were thinking about this week. What kind of form might it take?
  • Write a character in scene, someone you can see in your mind and create in words.
  • If you are able, move your body. Put on music that matches your mood, and dance. If you’re worried your family or roommates will mock you, go into the bathroom, close the door, put on your headphones and find your music. Then let your body communicate your idea or emotion, through dance. Try a pattern. Can you shift from freeform to choreography?
  • Challenge: Take 4 or 5 pieces of music or excerpts without lyrics. To make it easier, choose something that elicits an emotionally strong reaction rather than something more subtle. Pick pieces that present clear musical contrasts when considered together. For example: 1) Rachmaninoff’s “Piano Concerto #2.” 2) Melba Liston’s “Insomnia.” 3) Nine Inch Nails’ “Erasure”. 4) Louis Armstrong’s “Skokiaan” (instrumental portion). Or choose your own. After each one, try to create in writing the same experience for a reader that you experienced as a listener. Avoid analyzing, or any reference to the song at all (e.g. “This song evokes…” or “This song must be about…”). Rather, pretend your reader has not heard the musical piece. All they have are your words to experience the same feeling. I know. It’s tough. If it helps, start by creating an image or scene in words that “matches” the music.
  • Try the above exercise with another art form, such as painting. Buy some cheap 10” x 10” canvases, paints, and brushes. If you have children, invite them to join you?
  • If you have access to a musical instrument, set aside time to wander around in notes and melodies for a while. Try learning a new song. If you are more advanced, create something that emerges from the thought or feeling you wrote about in your notes/journal.

So get absorbed. Feel or think what has been on your heart or mind, and make something of it. If you feel foolish, take heart. Maybe it is brave to put a part of yourself down in front of you, even if it’s just for yourself right now. But I’m rooting for you, Creative Human, full of ideas and experiences. You are alive and you have something to give the page, canvas, musical instrument, dance floor, wherever the art leads you.

Thank you for reading.

2021-03-26T11:18:53-04:00

The Creative Spark – Art as Relief

Quick note:

Thank you to Creative Pinellas and everyone who works here, for all you are doing to support the arts in Pinellas County. I am honored to be part of this active online community of artists from various disciplines. Especially now that I’ve seen some of what goes into evaluating portfolios for this grant, I salute you and your tired eyeballs for the Zoom hours alone!

 

The Creative Spark – Art as Relief

Most of us paying attention to the state of our psyches in the last year won’t be surprised on any one day to find that all is not well. Even for those who weren’t living with a diagnosed mental health condition, the pandemic and recent events seem to be asking us all to become buff surfers riding the waves of anxiety that are flooding the world right now. Children have been thrown into the water before they know how to swim, and the American Academy of Pediatrics identifies “mental health as one of the most pressing child health concerns we face.” The AP also describes a rising global and massive level of stress and anxiety related behaviors among children.

Recently I read Ronald de Leeuw’s The Letters of Vincent van Gogh. I confess that having put him firmly in the “painter” box, I had no idea what a good writer he was. In his letters he connected reflections on literature, music, painting, and life, his own life having been changed by the mental illness that intensified as he got older. Though he sometimes chafed against the limitations of his craft and the Paris art business, he described painting as a “relief,” his reprieve from suffering.

After reading Shakespeare’s historical plays, which riled up the painter, “he had always to ‘contemplate a blade of grass, a branch of pine, an ear of corn […] to calm myself down again […].” And of course, to paint those blades of grass, sunflowers, orchards, almond branches, and vast skies full of stars and sunrise from his hospital window.

In all, he left more than 900 paintings, only one of them sold before his death (perhaps helpful for striving artists to remember when your work is declined).

What might this mean for you?

Skip ahead 120 years, to wherever you find yourself right now. Might the same thing be true for us? Even if you think you haven’t the slightest flame of creativity glowing inside you, even if you insist that your smoldering flame fuels only weariness and anxiety, keep your eyeballs here while I make a suggestion.

Earlier this month in the New York Times, artist Kyohei Sakaguchi spoke of art as self-care, life saving and necessary after he’d become depressed and suicidal following the Fukushima Disaster. “I think art is a technique for life,” he said. “I do what I do in order to keep living.”

The current Creative Pinellas “You Good” campaign reflects this idea, focusing on mental health and well being in Pinellas County through life giving art.

My thesis (Yes I know this is a blog): You are a Creative Human who can psychologically benefit from your creativity.

Don’t believe me? The whole field of art therapy and the research backing it suggests that the benefits are real and quantifiable. According to Harvard Women’s Health Watch, “Studies have shown that expressing themselves through art can help people with depression, anxiety, or cancer,” and, importantly, the “benefits aren’t dependent on a person’s talents” and to receive cognitive benefits where there is decline, “doing creative activities may be more effective than merely appreciating creative works.” (italics mine)

If you already know and revel in this knowledge, great. I hope you’ll have some fun in that space via this blog and those of other grantees in the coming months.

But if you come to the arts as an observer alone, this is my invitation to you. Think of some things you’d really like to just fall away from your wrangled mind for a while (You can go back to them later, I promise!). If you think I’m full of #$%@, consider suspending your disbelief for a few blogs to dip the tip of your toe into the notion that you are a Creative Human, and there can be relief in this.

It doesn’t matter if you think you suck at it. I used to teach writing to high school students and adult learners (which we all are). And if there is one thing common to every single class it was the trepidation that can come with being asked to challenge a firmed up belief about oneself: in this case, that we aren’t “good enough” at something to try it—which if you think about it for half a second, makes no sense.

It goes something like this: “BAH, humbug! I’m an accounting major, what do you want from me?” “I didn’t get the creative gene.” “I’m bad at that.” “Please don’t laugh when you read this. I know it’s bad.” Or even from those in other creative fields: “I draw/sing/paint/dance. I can’t write.” Granted, there are real obstacles to writing for some, rooted in the brain and causing significant anxiety for people who have to write for school or work.

Rest assured, this is not a writing assignment. Ok maybe a tiny bit, but only in a scribble-ly way and you won’t have to show anyone. I mostly promise.

Even within the arts, does your spark end with your particular discipline? Or might there be something in exploring other forms of creativity that we aren’t supposed to be “good at?” Especially if you’ve had trouble concentrating and producing work in the pandemic, stepping cleanly outside your discipline creatively can be a good way to keep things moving, because there is no associated pressure to live up to the label on your web page.

For example, this year I started playing the piano again, more than twenty years after my high school piano teacher gave up on me after a few years because I had stopped practicing. Today I am more grateful that my parents were able to provide lessons and my mother insisted that I try. Because while “pianist” will never show up on my resume, there is relief here. When I become frustrated or brain-boggled by writing or life, I can learn to play a new song.

This is hard because I am a painfully slow sight-reader, especially when notes wander too far from the staff where letters are neatly corralled for easy reading (EGBDF! FACE!…), or if too many chords try to squish on there at once. It takes so much focus for me to play the correct notes that it becomes a meditation, my concentration becoming the bouncer who doesn’t let a single stressful thought into the dance party of drunken colliding bodies that is my mind on some days. Eventually, I learn the song and get to enjoy the music, which I can play in my own style.

So, Creative Human, what might creativity as relief look like for you? I invite you to spend some time contemplating that creative spark through this blog with me. On Fridays, you will find me here along with nine other grantees, and I hope you will find something here to light your creative spark and ease you into the weekend, where you may find reprieve.

This week:

If you live in a space that respects your contemplative time, maybe just let a few new thoughts about your creativity bonk around inside your head for the next week, jotting it down if you want and staying open to seeing where it takes you. If you live in a crowded space with to-do lists coming out your ears and little time to think, maybe you rip off a corner of that list and scribble a few ideas that sound appealingly creative. Or, maybe you are stress free and just want to do something fun.

Whatever your situation, find a notebook, journal, sketchbook, or a Notes folder on your tablet or phone. Name it “Creativity” or “Brain Fun” or “Imagination,” or something else that marks it as separate from your “official” work or duties.

Next, and this is very simple, just tap into the collective unconscious ether that is creative energy and—

Just kidding! Or rather, not yet. I want to include those of you who balk at the idea of yourself as a Creative Human, and those who know you are but put creativity in an “extra” or “luxury” box instead of a necessary one.

Last step: Mentally or verbally send the thought out there (just, out—into the air around you, or wherever you want) that you’re listening. Then listen. And don’t ask me what I mean by that because it’s different for everyone and I don’t know your answer.

But I can say, definitively and absolutely, that if you stay with me here for a bit, you’ll have some kind of mostly but not always satisfying answer by the time we’re done (How’s that for knowing the litigious society in which I write?). Or at least you’ll know what I think, so there.

That’s it. Easy peasy. Thank you for reading, and for contemplating your creativity this week. Whether you are a professional artist, creative tinkerer, or an “I’m not creative” humbug-ger who denies you have a creative spark at all, I’m glad you’re here. More next Friday.

 

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