Category Archives: Writing

Creative process meets information she can’t ignore

Oh, dear readers! How I have neglected you and this lonely dusty blog!

I would apologize, but . . . do I really need to? Whether or not I’m typing here doesn’t improve your digestion or bring a luminous quality to your skin. My favorite memory from Writer School applies: I learned that the world doesn’t need my book. There are plenty of books and book writers out there – the only way my book will make any difference to anyone is if I need to write it. And, then, maybe it will still only matter to me. There are even more blog writers than book writers, and personal blogs matter to their authors much much more than they mean to anyone else. It’s a big internet out there.

So now that’s established, here’s what’s up. I’ve been busy. Full-time high school teaching, late after school sessions with Yearbook twice a week, and a “let’s grab dinner tonight” social calendar filled with awesome people without whose face time and stimulating conversations I’d be completely bereft. Busy with attempts at some sort of regular spiritual practice time and feeling like a Little Dutch Boy trying to plug the leak of November darkness and dancing with SAD, often going to bed earlier than my best friend’s toddler. I’ve kept my head above water, because the alternative isn’t an option.

What all of this means: I haven’t been writing. I haven’t written anything significant to me since my show in August of 2010. I’ve been feeling terrible about that, have written a couple of little articles and short essays that haven’t been satisfying, and generally feeling like a not-writer. Imagine a 1960s era hospital waiting room with white walls, fake plants, overflowing ashtrays, and ugly orange furniture. Creatively, that’s where I’m languishing: the “I’m so busy, I can’t ever finish anything” artist doomface creative timesuck waiting room. The worst part about this room is that the cookies in the vending machine don’t taste very good and I can’t stop eating them anyway. Cookies do not offer creative satisfaction. They offer only a temporary comfort and expanding waistline. Stupid cookies taking away my skinny jean wearing abilities!

Anyway. I signed up for NaNoWriMo and was GUNGHO for two days. Then, I caught a bad cold, started feeling really sorry for myself, felt like a jerk for being behind schedule, then started to let depression* eat my face off for the past two weeks. All those anti-artist vampires started swooshing around me and I let them win. They said things like:

You can’t write. You’ve had your MFA for four years now and haven’t accomplished anything. You aren’t growing as a writer, you’re moving backwards. Plus: You’re not funny. You’re a hack. Nothing you write will ever make a difference in the world. Why would you even bother to write a novel? Who is going to read it? God, you’re such a waste of space. (blah blah blah ad nauseum.)

But the truth of what really happened is this: I got spooked. 3,470 words into a new story, I felt my heart open up and really start to fall in love with a new character – one whose story is finally not mine – and as soon as I closed my computer that morning, I was terrified that my heart was about to be broken. My last extended project, a memoir about living with an alcoholic, broke my heart. Why would this project be any different? Plus, I’m busy! Doesn’t that artist in me know there’s a LIFE to survive out here? Sweet spinning Jesus on a turn style, what do you want from me??

Then, today I read this article: If you’re busy, you’re doing something wrong. It presents research about the difference between elite/high-achieving musicians and average ones – and how the difference between the most “talented” and the “average” performers was not how much they practiced or whether or not they were “gifted” but how they structured their practice time AND the rest of their lives. Here’s a brief summary from the post:

  • The average players are working just as many hours as the elite players (around 50 hours a week spent on music),
  • but they’re not dedicating these hours to the right type of work (spending almost 3 times less hours than the elites on crucial deliberate practice),
  • and furthermore, they spread this work haphazardly throughout the day. So even though they’re not doing more work than the elite players, they end up sleeping less and feeling more stressed. Not to mention that they remain worse at the violin.

Therein lies the reason I feel so stunted and underperforming as an artist: I’m not writing every day. I don’t have a rigid schedule within which I do the crucial and deliberate practice of putting words on the page. Therefore I am not improving.  No wonder I feel like crap about my (not)work. Then, THIS:

Also consider relaxation. The researchers asked the players to estimate how much time they dedicated each week to leisure activities — an important indicator of their subjective feeling of relaxation. By this metric, the elite players were significantly more relaxed than the average players, and the best of the best were the most relaxed of all.

Essentially, I know there’s nothing wrong with the busy life I’m living. I know that teaching eats up a lot of my time. But I could create some rigid, non-negotiable practice time to improve my skills at my creative practice. I could remove an activity or three from each week. I could practice letting my heart fall into something new and not breaking. It’d probably feel pretty good. So, you know. Let’s see what happens with that.

*For the advice-loving and suggestion giving among you, you should know that I’m doing EVERYTHING that I need to do to take care of my mental and physical health. I’m in no danger, I just like to complain sometimes.

PLUS: I’m up for LOVELINKS this month. You should totally vote for me.

layered revelations

I started writing a novel this week, because fighting off a nasty virus wasn’t nearly enough entertainment on the day I stayed home to get well. I have no idea how to write a novel, and I’m excited to see how the process unravels.

One of my former students went to Corsica and took this photo for me.

Consider this fair warning: I’ve given myself permission to write self-indulgent posts that ring with Dear God! What have I gotten myself into this time?!? I’ve finally accepted the unpleasant parts of my creative process: The sinking feeling in my stomach that I’m the dumbest fool ever to pick up a pen, the memory slideshow of failures and regret that remind me of all the projects I’ve dumped before their desired outcomes, the conviction that just because the last project turned out alright, I must be the worst idea-have-er in the universe.

I brunched today with some of my favorite women in Minneapolis. While talking about how easy it is to freak out about creative projects, I admitted that I love the adrenaline. I do my best work when on a deadline. It’s like running all out in front of a train, just a foot ahead of it. Like jumping off the tracks at just the right time. Falling over with exhaustion. Laying in a ditch and panting and feeling my body prickle with sweat and my heart pounding and thinking, “Holy crap I almost died. That was really hard.” Like thinking after, “That was the most fun I’ve had in ages.” And immediately after that, “Let’s do it again!”

So I’m going to do NaNoWriMo this year, which will probably annoy the hell out of some of my readers and make them stop coming back, but whatever. This website is my corner of the internet where I get to twirl around in a glittery, self-interested frilly skirt and pretend that there isn’t bad news happening on every other corner of the internet. It’s a creative process blog. If you want to see me react to world events on a daily basis, follow my Twitter feed.

What will I reveal about the upcoming novel? For now, nothing beyond this little announcement that I’m writing something big and fictiony. I’ve learned that my book and essay ideas are too fragile to be shared before they’re committed to paper in some sort of complete draft. I’ve ruined my desire to write a number of essays because I talked too much about them before my fingers could excavate the story.

TRUTH: I’m relieved to have a new thing. I was getting kinda nervous that there wouldn’t be a gigantic project this winter to alternately revel in and complain about to all of my friends. Stay tuned for freakouts of the holy crap, this is hard, I never learned how to write fiction kind.

Should be fun. Hope you’ll follow along, if only to remind me when I complain that I once thought writing a novel was a great idea.

Life of Art interview: Heather Meyer

Who are you and where is “here” for you right now? 

I am a playwright and actor and improvisor. I also work with The National Theatre for Children as a production associate creating educational comedy shows that tour around the country.

What is your creative practice and what have you learned from it?

Heather. Chicken. Cat. Comedy gold.

I work best when I have a lot of things happening. You know that saying that goes something like “if you want something done, give it to a busy person”? Well, that is how I have recently realized I work best. So I fill my time up pretty well and then give myself short deadlines to produce work. I also find that improv is like working out, it keeps a lot of gears and muscles in shape for both the actor part of me and the writer part.

 

Where do you find inspiration?

Eavesdropping on strangers.

How do you overcome the creative barriers you encounter?

Usually, I just push the cat off of my laptop.

How do you regenerate when feeling artistically depleted?

Doing other things. Like entering a cake into the MN state fair (I did not win a ribbon) or learning hula-hoop tricks. I also have a blog that I self-indulge all over the place on www.cultureofdoingthings.blogspot.com

What does success look like to you?

I like when people remember my name after I meet them.

What do you want people to know about you and your work?

Usually it’s concise and a little funny.

**

Thanks much, Heather! In case you’re not a Minnesotan, her MN Fringe show – Your Responsibility for Sex Failure – was a total hit this summer. Congrats!

Life of Art interview: Elisa Korenne

Who are you and where is “here” for you right now? 

I’m a singer-songwriter, storyteller, performer, teaching artist, and writer in rural Minnesota.  My bailiwick includes rock/folk/blues music, a multi-genre variety of original songs and stories about oddballs in history (most recently, my show ‘Oy Vey’ is Jewish for ‘Uff-da’ about Jewish immigrants to the rural Upper Midwest–there were some!), and the memoir I’m writing about moving from New York City to rural west central Minnesota.

Artist with panache rocks hat with veil.

I change my email signature regularly depending on who I feel the most like on any given day.  I collect income from a hodge-podge of performances, song commissions and royalties, grants, teaching opportunities, articles, and the occasional consulting gig (in a former life, I consulted for non-profits).

What is your creative practice and what have you learned from it?

I try to devote a few solid hours each morning to creating.  This works most of the time. I’ve learned that creating is a process, an unfolding that cannot be rushed.  I’ve learned that the best work takes a lot of time—usually much longer than I want it to—and that I need to honor the process for my best work to come forth.

Where do you find inspiration?

In those weird moments when what someone says makes a firework explode in my head and I think, “There’s a song in that!”  In spending time with other artists, especially those working in other genres.  In books.  In art galleries.  In theater.  In music.  In local history museums. In storytelling. In oddballs.

How do you overcome the creative barriers you encounter?

I journal, mull, fret, and freewrite. Then I talk to friends and other artists about it until everyone is bored, especially me. Then I stop trying to fix it and just let it go, and the solution usually comes in a whoosh in some way I would never have actively figured out.

How do you regenerate when feeling artistically depleted?

I do something fun and creative, ideally something that engages me with art or nature:  I visit a museum, take a hike, swim in a lake, go to the theater, listen to different kinds of music.  Oh, and when that doesn’t work I go shopping and indulge in gourmet chocolate hazelnut tortes or the like.  Living in the country, it’s easy to find serenity in the slow pace here, so what I most need is excitement and a concentration of creativity.  That’s when I go visit the city.  Spending a few weeks every year at artist residencies in different places around the country is also reinvigorating.

What does success look like to you?

On my worst days, it looks like my name plastered all over the tabloids.  On my best days, it’s that moment when someone comes up to me after hearing a song of mine, and tells me how it changed them; how they felt understood, heard, and spoken to.

What do you want people to know about you and your work?

You’ll want to listen to my songs on repeat.  You’ll be inspired and engaged by my performances.  You’ll be enthralled and amazed by my songs and stories about oddballs.  And you should buy my albums. And my book, when it comes out.

Learn more at www.elisakorenne.com.

Here are some links to her music: Road Trance and Honest Lies

To become a fan of Elisa’s work, follow her on Facebook

**

Thanks, Elisa! As many of you know, Elisa was my director for the show I produced at the 2010 Minnesota Fringe Festival. Her creative talents are awesome and she gets bonus interview points for using the word bailiwick.

Life of Art interview: Jane Devin

Nonfiction writer Jane Devin has just self-published her first memoir, Elephant Girl, under extraordinary conditions. I’m so glad she was willing to share a bit about it.

Who are you and where is “here” for you right now?

I know I’ll be here in Albuquerque until August 30th, when my temporary lease expires. After that, I’m not sure where I’ll go.

I’ve been taking life month by month, sometimes day by day, while working to get my book, Elephant Girl, off the ground. I’m lucky that there are people who’ve supported my efforts. Without them, I’d likely be living down by the river without a van.

What is your creative practice and what have you learned from it?

I don’t know that I have a creative practice. . .I’ve been writing for so long and I think for me it’s less about process than it is about space. Space is hugely important to me. I need a space I feel comfortable in — one that I can feel like I own — with no intrusions, a coffee pot, a sense of privacy, and the ability to close out the rest of the world. If I have those things, the stories just flow. If I don’t, then my writing is much more stilted and uncertain.

Where do you find inspiration?

People. It’s always people for me. I’m endlessly fascinated by other people’s quirks, beliefs, and ways of being. Tiny twists in the road, events that at the time didn’t seem so important, even one sentence can dramatically change someone’s life or the way they feel about something.

How do you overcome the creative barriers you encounter?

Well, I didn’t have a comfortable space to write Elephant Girl in, so I ended up writing the whole book in the cab of a borrowed truck. Not a big truck, either, but a small Ford Ranger. It was the closest I could get to private and secure. I went to the Starbucks parking lot in Los Lunas every day for eight months, parked in a far off corner, and called it my office. (ed: if Jane can finish a book sitting in the cab of a pick up truck, I have absolutely no excuses. None.)

How do you regenerate when feeling artistically depleted?

I’m a very visual person, so art is inspiring to me. I particularly love paintings and photography. Sometimes a picture will evoke a whole story that may not have anything to do with the image itself, but rather the way the image made me feel. In fact, right now I’m writing a book based on a longstanding habit I have of writing letters to my favorite artist, Vincent Van Gogh. Letters to Vincent should be done by the end of the year.

What does success look like to you?

From the time I was a kid, it’s always been the same. A tiny house by the ocean, two dogs, a mahogany desk. . .a bowl of fruit on the table, white curtains that billow in the breeze. A four poster bed and a weekend lover who really does love me. Going grocery shopping in an old convertible. Wearing a warm, gray sweater and a pair of jeans. Just to lead a very simple, loving life as a writer with a room of her own.

What do you want people to know about you and your work?

It’s here! The book that took me over four decades to write is on Amazon. I want people to read it — I think it’s the best work I’ve done so far.

**

Jane’s blog can be found at JaneDevin.com. You should totally check it out. It’s awesome. Plus, she’s got a Kickstarter fundraising project set up to help her promote her book. Please consider contributing.

Grappling with bystander responsibility: an essay

Do you remember high school? What about the fights that broke out in the lunch room? Remember how chaotic and stressful the school environment felt after seeing one? Yeah. I wrote about that.

My student Belinda got into a fight last year. It wasn’t a prissy, slappy, name-calling fight, either. It was a reality television-worthy, punch- throwing, eye-bruising fight that didn’t end until Belinda’s opponent had ripped the weave out of her hair and waved it around in front of the student spectators…

Read more of this essay at the Teaching Tolerance website. Teaching Tolerance is a project of the Southern Poverty Law Center. A place to find thought-provoking news, conversation and support for those who care about diversity, equal opportunity and respect for differences in schools. Check them out!

Hey summertime! C’mere and gimme a kiss!

There will be cloud gazing this summer.

Oh friends! My wonderful blessed summer vacation that I’ve been dreaming about for months is finally here. As the final bell of the 2010-11 school year rang out at 3:00 p.m. yesterday, I was on the balcony making sure the kids didn’t do their traditional “dump all of the papers from their backpacks onto the commons floor below” thing. The security roundup worked in my area, but I think that could be because I was standing near our school liaison officer. That blue shirt and shiny star badge are pretty impressive – especially since he’s one of the nicest guys ever. The other faculty and myself shepherded the kids down the stairs and out the door before extensive vandalism seemed like a good idea, and I went back to my room to face the stack of finals I have yet to finish grading.

All of the negative press teachers got during the Union crisis in WI must have left everyone thinking that “all summer off” must mean that we teachers are all sporting swimsuits and drinking frothy daiquiris at the beach from the minute we hand in our keys. I know none of MY fair readers would think that I’m a frothy daiquiri drinker and the little lake beaches here are filled with the kids I just sent off into the world, so I’ll bet you’re curious about what we do with our 10 weeks of unstructured time. Wanna know what teachers do during the summer? We do more work. For free. Or in some cases, for a small fee we’ve paid for the privilege of being trained.

Week of June 13th – 4 days of teacher training.
Week of June 20th – 4 days of summer school substitute teaching.
Week of July 18th – 2 more days of teacher training
Week of August 1st – 3 more days of teacher training
and back to work on August 19th. Ploof!

Boy does summer go fast when you look at it that way. I do have a few weeks of intense writing time, a road trip to Toronto and Montreal with my dad, my 20 year HS reunion, and a handful of visits with friends planned, so I’m not complaining. I’m more baffled at myself for setting it up that way – but I do like to keep busy. After spending all day every day with at least 130 people, summer can feel very isolating and lonely — well, after I’ve slept for a week and caught up on my rest, which should happen the week of June 27th – except that’s the week that my best friend, my surrogate husband, and my goddaughter are moving out of state. I’ve scheduled that week for a long round of alternating denial and weeping. Gnashing of teeth and rending of garments may also make an appearance, as I’m the dramatic sort.

So anyway. I just wanna give sloppy smooches to summer right now. I have to stop writing this post so I can get to school before the staff breakfast and finish my grades. My goal is to finish grading and packing up by 12:30 – all the better to enjoy my afternoon lunch date and workout session before I go to a retirement party. w00t!