In this video, I mention Julia Cameron's book The Artist's Way, available at this link:
It's one of those days when nothing is working out the way I expected. No big tragedies, just a bunch of small frustrations in the way of my creative work. Here's me pausing and preparing to change course.
In this video, I mention Julia Cameron's book The Artist's Way, available at this link:
This video essay explores making art and the resurfacing of old loves as we connect with each other and ourselves through pandemic isolation. It references the *National Geographic* article "The pandemic is giving people vivid, unusual dreams. Here’s why." by Rebecca Renner published on 4/15/2020 on NationalGeographic dot com.
Exploring the importance of reflecting on who we are before we decide what normal we want, and also some of my own reflections on questions vs. answers in my creative process.
I'm seeing, and reposting, a lot of people's conviction that this pandemic presents us with an opportunity to reconsider normal. Many people are rightly calling for us to assess our moral, economic, and political systems as this COVID-19 plague exposes where we have failed each other and ourselves.
But I'm not seeing a whole lot of suggestions for what the new normal might look like.
Knowing that the normal we have does not work - this is like knowing we need to build a bridge to get across tough landscape. We can know all day long, but without planning, preparing, and building, knowledge won't be enough to get us to the other side.
So. I invite us all to consider: What could we change? We may think of this at any scale and be doing good. It can be: What can I change in myself so that I live more consistently with what I feel is my purpose? Or: What can we change as a household to live in a way that more deeply appreciates what we have and builds on what's important to our family? Or: What collective change would fill the gaps we've seen in our neighborhood, town, state, nation?
We don't have to think of everything at once. We don't have to all work at all scales. And we'll have some ideas that, in the long term, we may let go or replace with others. But if we just know that we need a new normal, and do nothing to prepare one, we will emerge into a more broken version of our old normal, and walk around dissatisfied and disillusioned.
One change that makes sense to me in this moment is an annual Week of Remembrance to keep us connected to all we're learning now about valuing each other, about healing the damage we've done to the planet. It doesn't solve everything. In order for it to work, we'd need to build stronger protections against domestic violence, against the real effects of poverty, against racism. I don't have fixes for all of those things, but if each of us takes the time to start envisioning the specifics of our new normal, perhaps by the time we emerge from this sickness, those solutions, or their beginnings, will emerge, too.
Think on them. Write them out. Be specific.
An Annual Week of Remembrance
In the quiet, we resign ourselves to our houses. We park the cars, shut down the factories, and walk inside for our Week of Remembrance.
In this week, we do not drive to restaurants. We do not manufacture toys or go to salons or fight legal battles.
We remember what we lost, and what we gained. We play board games and binge Netflix with our children, fully aware of how fragile they are, how lucky we are to have them, and they to have us. We mourn our dead - those who passed alone, those we could not gather to remember for fear we'd be struck down next. We take walks and cry and have happy hours with friends on our computer monitors.
We let the earth rest.
We give her a week of clear skies, and she gives us views of the Himalayas, hordes of sea turtle eggs on the beach.
We breathe and let breathe, knowing what a gift it is to have lungs that open and to fill them with air that's safe. We thank our Gods and hold them to account, and humble ourselves, and hold ourselves to account. We rest. We remember. We look the heaviness, the weariness in the face, and let it melt under a wizened sun.
Welcome to my first video blog. I'd planned to discuss the research behind my recent publication, "That Which was Fine and Free," in the anthology Legends Reborn. But the global pandemic we're facing felt more important than my research process. So, instead, I talked about something our current situation has in common with my story: collective fear in an upended world, and dealing with our personal fears. I hope you find encouragement here.
(Bonus material: If you listen closely, you can hear my daughter practicing tuba in the other room.)
I love that the internet has forced companies to be more transparent, and that we as consumers increasingly have opportunities to spend our money on products that support living wages, environmentally sound production, minority empowerment, give-backs, and/or all of the above.
BALANCING BUDGET & CAUSES
Some of these items are more expensive than the versions made by standard production because it costs more to pay people properly or use higher quality, more conscientious production.
I don't buy all my gifts or purchases from these organizations, but I make a point to buy at least some from them, even if that means fewer gifts under the tree. My daughter cares deeply about the environment, so WWF and 4Ocean are my go-tos for her. Mom cares about empowering those who've been abused, so Sudara for her. I've been wanting to buy my (blind) husband something from 2 Blind Brothers for a while now, and he really needs clothes this year, so it works out well. I adore IRC's highly rated work with refugees, and have sometimes asked people to make my gift an item from their Rescue Store in my name.
Even if you can only purchase one impact gift, that's one less item supporting slave labor or pollutant manufacturing or systemic oppression.
SHOP BY CATEGORY & IMPACT
Gifts for All Ages - Fair Trade, Individual Artists, Conservation
One World - Fair trade and recycled games, jewelry, housewares, etc.
Uncommon Goods - UG includes handmade, upcycled, fair trade, and other unique gifts.
Ten Thousand Villages - Lovely handmade items that have been positively impacting communities around the world for a couple decades
GlobeIn - Handmade, fair trade gifts and housewares from around the world
World Wildlife Fund - Clothes and gifts to support endangered animal populations and ecosystems
4Ocean - T-shirts, bracelets, reusable straws, and other gift items fund 4Ocean's ocean clean-up efforts. As of this writing (11/26/19), they have removed 7,192,443 pounds of plastic waste.
Toys - Fair Trade & Give-Backs
Change the World - This is a collection of several Fair Trade shops from around the world.
Oompa - Great collection of fair trade toys for babies and young children
Cuddle + Kind - Handmade, fair trade dolls for infants and young children - each doll purchase provides 10 meals to children in need
Clothes - Fair Trade, Green, Empowerment, & Give-backs
Pact - Clothes and linens for adults & children that meet fair trade, safe chemical processes, water conservation, and community investment standards (They're having a great "Green" Friday sale)
2 Blind Brothers - Empowerment & give-back gifting: Owned and operated by two blind brothers: clothes and accessories with tactile cues for sighted or vision impaired adults and kids with proceeds going to solutions to retinal diseases and/or guide dogs. Fun fact: you can shop blind and have them select a gift within your parameters, or you can create your own shop blind collection and share it with friends
Sudara - Fair trade clothing for all ages that supports sex trafficking survivors and sex trafficking prevention
Design by Humans - Empowerment: Owned and operated by people with disabilities, DbH offers sassy T-shirts with empowering messages for people with disabilities
Rebirth Garments - Empowerment: Clothing for everyone of every gender, body type, and physical ability
Krochet Kids - Handmade clothes for all ages and crocheted animals empower women to break the cycle of poverty
VIDA - Women's clothing and accessories made in fair trade facilities with proceeds funding literacy programs - my clothing collection is produced by VIDA. They have a fantastic Black Friday Sale.
Food Gifts - Empowerment, Fair Trade
Em's Coffee - Owned and operated by people with disabilities, Em's coffee sells & ships coffee in bulk
Women's Bean Project - U.S. located nonprofit supporting economic mobility to help women break the cycle of poverty for themselves and their families
Fair Trade Chocolate - Want chocolate that doesn't rely on child slavery for harvesting crops? This link leads you to lots of choices.
Gifts for Special Medical Needs - Empowerment
Pretty Sick Supply - PSS is owned and operated by people with disabilities and provides comfort and gift items for those with chronic illnesses, special medical needs, and disabilities. They have awesome eyepatches, compression sleeves, T-shirts, jewelry, etc. They also have a line of empowering items for depression/suicide attempt survivors.
Donations in the Name Of - Give-back
International Rescue Committee (IRC) - If you have people on your list who would love to see positive, humanitarian efforts made in their name, the Rescue Store is a way to select a specific gift (blanket, nonelectric lamp, newborn baby kit, year of school for a girl, etc.) for refugees and at-risk groups. IRC is my all-time favorite nonprofit, and consistently earns ratings in the 90th percentile by independent watchdog agencies for how directly they apply their budget to their mission statement.
IDignity - If you have a loved one in Central Florida trying to get on their feet and in need of help restoring identification documents, IDignity can help. If you or someone you love might want to help others access jobs, voting rights, medications, etc. by restoring their lost/stolen documents, you can donate in that person's name.
As a creative writing professor, one of the things I often see students struggling with is making the transition from using writing as an escape from the world's trappings to allowing writing to become the bread and butter of their lives. Many people still live under the mistaken impression that creatives must starve for lack of career opportunities, but there are so many avenues to make a great, creative living. The big things that can stop a creative career from happening have more to do with what goes on inside the artist than what's available in the world. This transition from hobby writing to professional writing is both a doorway and an obstacle to a creative career.
Most school programs don't build in much information about how to navigate this, so I thought I'd share the most recent version of what I tell my students when they come to the place where the pressure is greater than the joy.
There's something wonderful and terrible about going to school for the creative thing you love. More so in making a profession out of it.
The wonderful is that you can completely immerse yourself in the work that matters most to you, develop your ability to make that work more authentic and of greater quality, and build a community of people who care about pursuing their craft.
The terrible thing is that suddenly this creative play that has always been a way of escaping the drudgery of life is now the drudgery. It is the stuff you must do, not just the stuff you choose to do. In school, it's the stuff you must do for grades. In career, it's the stuff you must do so you can eat and keep the lights on.
One of the hardest things about going to school for writing or any art is that for the first time you must find the balance between these two.
Sometimes you're going to turn in work that isn't your best. In a deadline-driven world, that will always be true. But one of the best ways to get your work closer to your best is to find a way to have fun with it, even when it's required.
Art is rebellious and personal and universal and wondrous and scary all at once. When you're finding yourself under enough pressure that it stops being fun, notice, give that a nod, and look for ways that you may be able to let some of the adventure back in. I recommend artist's dates (see Julia Cameron's The Artist's Way) and rebellion. By rebellion, I don't mean jumping in a tie fighter or heading off to the Hunger Games. I mean look for something else that you can safely put off in order to have a little fun, something that is not your writing. Maybe it's laundry day. Take yourself to a coffee shop and write instead. Live with the pressure of not having clean underwear for a couple days instead of the pressure of not having freedom to write spontaneously, when you want to.
Or look for an idea in the world that drives you mad because people seem to think this is how reality works, but it's not - write a bit that rebels against their misconception. This can be satire, fiction, whatever. Just something that gives you that subversive satisfaction that you're doing something you're not supposed to.
Of course, that has to be balanced, too, because walking around in dirty clothes for too long has its own bad consequences, but you see what I mean.
Look for ways to keep writing an adventure, or you'll grow to hate it. It gets easier to maintain the balance the more practice you have, but we all need to refresh our sense of wonder now and then.
Stories start as a scratching, a tapping, a dripping faucet - something that niggles at us as we go about our day like a shadow that keeps shifting in our periphery. At least, this is how they start for me, and for most of the authors and writing students who've shared their processes with me. Something, whether beautiful or problematic or curious, will not leave us alone.
So we turn our heads. We look in the direction of the shifting shadow and see a bit of a shape to it, and we write down what we see.
Sometimes this leads to the next thing and the next thing. Those times are gifts, when the story reveals itself to us in full, continuously, as we sit with it and open ourselves to the words that bring it into the world.
Most times, we have fits and starts. The scratching creature gets skittish and scurries away the moment we've turned our attention toward it. We have a line or two, a page or two, and don't know where the little beast went or how to follow. We look for its tracks in the rooms and landscapes of our minds, and along the way, we see what it saw as it ran.
Sometimes, we find it that same hour we started searching. Other times, it takes weeks, months, or even years. There are traces of story that started in me over 20 years ago, back when I was in high school, and I'm only now picking up their footprints. In the time since they first tickled at the edge of my conscious to now, I've written many, many other stories. And even in these, I've come to dead ends and missing trails at different moments along the journey.
Some of us call this writer's block. I have come to think of it as not being ready for the story, or for the particular part of the story, that we're writing.
Stories are one of our most ancient containers for truth. When we didn't understand nature, or cruelty, or love, or time, we made myths to contain these truths so we could hold them up to the light and examine them outside ourselves. This helps us navigate the complexities of our own experience.
But what if a story has a truth to tell that we don't yet know ourselves, as its writer?
Here are some things we can do when we realize our story has outrun us:
What about you? Do you have other strategies for making yourself ready for the story that wants to be told?
Last night, my husband and I went to a Florence + the Machine concert. I'd bought the tickets back in February as an anniversary gift to him. He likes Florence OK (I love her), but I really bought them because of the opening act. He loves Nathaniel Rateliff & the Night Sweats.
When we got to the arena, there were signs posted apologizing that the Night Sweats wouldn't be able to play, and thanking Grace VanderWaal for stepping in to support the tour.
Before I talk about the young Miss VanderWaal, the reason for this blog post, I have to tip my hat to my husband who shrugged, smiled, and stayed as excited for the show as if one of his favorites were still playing. Kidney failure and losing 100% vision will turn many people bitter, but my husband has never lost his love of life. In fact, I think it's increased.
OK, back to Grace.
Before last night, I'd heard only one song by her, but I'd heard it a lot. She's featured in the Google "2016 Year in Search" ad below. For over a year, I taught an essay lesson focused on ad analysis, and this was one of the ads most commonly chosen by my students. Grace's "Light the Sky" is the first sound of hope in this ad, and even after reading hundreds of essays and rewatching the ad over and over to inform my grading of these essays, I never got tired of the moment her voice breaks the silent pause that turns the tide of the ad.
Video source: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KIViy7L_lo8
So even though I don't know her work well, I was happy for the chance to know it better.
And then there was her band on the stage - three adult musicians rallying the crowd to usher this tiny 15-year-old out to hop around with that ukulele in her glitter eyeshadow and flowered dress, singing in this otherworldly voice that was at once knowing and vulnerable. They made her look older. They contoured her cheeks and put a bow-tied scarf around her twiggish neck, and she looked like she might actually have the life experience - almost - to back up her grown-up singing.
And then she spoke. She was as self-conscious and uncertain as any kid would be in front of tens of thousands of people. She was sweet and grateful and stumbling when she spoke, and didn't know what to say past thank you, and I hope you like it. And I realized she's younger than my daughter. And it kind of broke my heart.
It's not that I wanted her not to have this beautiful world of possibility. It's that I kept thinking, does she ever get to hang out with other kids and just be a kid? Does she get to have sleepovers and go to the movies and have to figure out how to pool the fifty cents she found in the couch cushions with her friends to order pizza? Does she get to hate school except for that one class? Will she be able to date without the world scrutinizing her as she figures herself out?
I found myself worried that the music industry would feed her uppers and deny her food to keep her peppy and thin. I found myself praying that someone was looking out for this sweetie, the way I'd want someone to look out for my daughter.
I examined the band with parental suspicion. Maybe I was projecting (I'm sure I was projecting), but I think they felt protective over her, too. And I watched the crowd - you couldn't find a more loving, considerate crowd than the one at a Florence + the Machine concert, and I felt grateful for this tiny person that she was singing for people who were for her, even those of us who came to see someone else. Everyone wanted her to succeed. When she stumbled through lyrics to one of her new songs, nobody flinched, and we cheered all the harder when she opened it up and made it perfect in the next verse.
There's a lot of mess in the world. We're all so fragile. But maybe there's hope. If people like Florence Welch and Grace VanderWaal keep drawing crowds, and if each of us in those crowds live out the message of hope that these ladies bring, maybe someday the world will be a safe place for talented children to share their light. God, look over this little girl and her big, beautiful voice.
More from Grace here: https://www.gracevanderwaal.com/
And more from Florence here: https://florenceandthemachine.net/
Also, Get Well Soon wishes to Nathaniel Rateliff.
I am planting. I've added golden dewdrops (the flowers are purple - go figure), purslane, Texas sage (not edible), to the back yard. Really, it's just a patio, but it's open to a large green space with a view of trees and the dilapidated golf course that stretches through my neighborhood. In the front, I've decided I'm up for a challenge, and planted gardenias. My husband's grandmother used to grow them, and he misses the smell. He lost his eyesight in 2016, so there's some significance to this. I also added an orchid because my friend Dawn says they're ridiculously easy, and I want something pretty out there if it turns out I'm not ready to level up to the high demands of gardenia bushes.
I am planting. I started teaching screenwriting in December, and so I am writing screenplays now. Short ones. I've written a few scripts before, but now I need to pull them into my wheelhouse rather than treating them as side adventures. Over the past three weeks, I collaborated with a colleague to write an 8-page script that we hope the film department will produce for the festival circuit. I am sending out my most polished novel to agents, and I am writing short things - poems, flash, threads of story for a novel with an ensemble cast.
The soil is fertile now, but it's been a long winter for us - three years of increasingly fallow living as we journeyed through my husband's illness. He has Type 2 diabetes, and a year after losing his eyesight, he lost his kidney function. Everything extra fell away from our lives, along with some of the essentials.
Our weekend adventures - we used to take meandering road trips.
Living in our downtown home - we have moved to a suburban townhouse.
My daughter - she moved in with her dad when the stress of living with terminal illness affected her too deeply to stay.
Some losses have measurable value. Others spread their bleeding emptiness through every layer of our being.
In January, we were blessed by a generous friend who gave Felix a kidney. While this hasn't brought back his eyesight, it's stabilized everything else. Felix is healthy and beginning to enjoy cooking and small adventures again. He and my daughter have laughed together a handful of times this year.
Without the 3-7 weekly medical visits involved in kidney failure, or the 30-mile drive (120 miles for two round trips daily) to and from my daughter's magnet school, I am left with time.
And a heap of compost.
Dead things that have collected in my soul over the past three years.
Sometimes, the smell overwhelms me, and I lay in bed and cry at all the loss.
But on good days, I sew handfuls of my decomposed life into the soil, and I write, and I wait for the gardenias to bloom.
Welcome to my blog,