In this video, I mention Julia Cameron's book The Artist's Way, available at this link:
Dealing with Creative Frustrations
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.
Beauty Asks Nothing
It’s been a year since my husband’s kidneys failed. I was prepping the conference room at HD Counseling for a painting workshop. People would start arriving in about ten minutes. My phone rang, and our friend Jen told me that Felix was waiting on an ambulance. They’d been seeing a movie, and he couldn’t breathe.
It was so close to the start time that people would already be on their way to my workshop. I wouldn’t be able to cancel until everyone had arrived. Jen passed the phone to Felix. He didn’t want me to cancel. Jen promised to give me updates, and I promised I would meet them in hospital immediately after the workshop was done, sooner if he needed me.
For the next three hours, I served coffee and tea and painted with a roomful of lovely humans who were ready to pack up at any moment if Felix took a turn for the worse, and ready to keep me laughing and enjoying the process of creating for as long as he did not.
After cleaning up, I stopped by the house and grabbed the hospital essentials - toiletries for both of us and a week’s worth of strategically interchangeable outfits for me. My husband is newly blind. I don’t leave him alone in hospital. I followed Jen’s final text to his room number. Thanks to the painting session, I’d never been more at peace on my way to an emergency.
Over the twelve months since then, the shape of our lives has continued to change, funneling through dialysis clinics, our daughter’s high school programs and the very real needs that can push a teenager toward a confident adulthood or lifelong insecurity, moving house in order to nail down a more constant budget, the erosion of my stepdad's memories, the odd circumstances of the death of my Aunt Sandy, health issues in our extended family, issues with my own health, seismic changes in family structure.
It’s been a cataclysmic year for us.
I am worn down to my threads. I peck at a chapter here, a painting there. I forget thumb drives when I go on writing retreats, research themes too big for me (but that are somehow easier than sitting in the mottled present tense of what is my real life). I find myself drifting. Longing for beauty.
And this is why we need art. This is why we need story. This weekend, my despair was so great I couldn’t sit alone. My husband was so exhausted from having his blood artificially cleaned and pumped back into him that he had no energy to distract me. So I gobbled up What Alice Forgot by Liane Moriarty. Someone had mentioned it after they asked what my novel, The Former Lives of Buildings, was about. My protagonist, Like Moriarty's, wakes in the hospital having forgotten important events. I intentionally waited until my own book was finished before reading Moriarty’s (I’m currently shopping TFLoB around to agents). Alice's forgotten years helped me forget my losses for a day.
Last week, I spent some listless time walking around Adjectives Market, a co-op type shop filled with vintage, upcycled, and original ephemera. Sometimes, when I can’t stand being in my own head, I think about which room I’ll paint next in our new place.
I’ve temporarily stopped offering workshops. I haven’t hosted Artist’s Way groups in months. I am still hosting my writing circle because I don’t think I will survive these waves of loss without the collective writing experience for a few hours a month. But otherwise, I have let go of most of the peopling part of my art life.
But the part where I get to leave my life for a moment by living in the head of someone else - whether it’s my character or another author’s, the part where the overlap of red oil paint just past the edge of the white strokes of a bird’s feather, even the capture of real forget-me-nots in a drop of glass on Etsy - these quiet offerings of beauty keep me breathing, in, out. They ask nothing of me across a year that has already stolen far too much. Beauty asks nothing. It just exists alongside all the ugly and lets us notice it, or not.
Make art. We all need to breathe.
Instead of My Ghost
When I was twelve years old, I watched Robin Williams wake up the questions that lead students to become owners of their own choices as Professor Keating in Dead Poets Society. I knew then that I was a teacher.
I'd been writing stories and making art since I was old enough to do either, so those just felt like parts of me: My eyes are blue, I have a slight bump at the bridge of my nose, I write stories, make art, and love cheesecake - personality traits. They were not something I suddenly discovered, but something that naturally grew from how I existed.
Teaching felt like a calling.
I started keeping notes in class - not just information for the test, but how my teachers delivered that information. What teaching techniques worked best? When did the whole class pay attention? When did they fall asleep? I did this all through high school. I started teaching preschool over the summer when I was 17, began working with children with autism when I was in college, led art workshops and youth groups and anything else I could that gave me a chance to build and deliver curriculum, to wake up the questions, to help people see how to own their own choices. Eventually I got certified, and began teaching in traditional classrooms and college classrooms.
Robin Williams died last year, the month my very last school year started. I let my teaching certificates - all four of them - expire in June. I was 38 years old. While I always wrote and painted, because my eyes are still blue and I still like cheesecake, teaching was the only outwardly-focused component to my career. I spent 26 years cultivating myself as an educator. The public school system, even the public university system, doesn't want us to wake up questions anymore. They don't want educators. They want trainers.
I still teach, and I still love it, but it is now in the corners of my life: a 6-week module with once-a-week meetings, a few evenings of private lessons, a writing conference. I have found a great fit for myself at HD Counseling because people come there with questions already on their minds.
I love the same three things I've always loved: writing, painting, teaching. But now I do them in different proportions. And I have felt a little empty. A little numb.
I've finally admitted to myself that I am grieving. You don't spend a quarter of a century pouring yourself into something and walk away from it unaffected.
I've done this before. From 1999-2005, I had a mural business (in addition to teaching). I was in an accident, and in 2005 I closed my business because I couldn't carry ladders or paint for 8 hour days anymore. I learned to draw with my left hand, and am now ambidextrous in art making so I can give myself some relief. I can paint every day again, but not for 8 hours like I once did. There is a peace in this, but I spent two years grieving before I found this peace. After loosing that business, I turned inward and wrote. From 2005-2007, I wrote the novel that would eventually make me decide to go to grad school to become a better writer.
Thursday, we went to Universal Studios to celebrate my husband's birthday, and we walked around Diagon Alley and Hogsmead. And I thought, what must it be like for J.K. Rowling to walk around there, physically moving through a world that didn't exist until she wrote it into being, now a place she can touch and smell? Yesterday my daughter and I joined some friends and watched the last Mockingjay movie. It's good, but, unlike the other films, not as good as the book. So tonight I reread most of the third book.
Something is waking up in me. I've been writing all this time, and painting all this time. Not all of me left the classroom because I lost the fight. Part of me left teaching to be able to focus more on painting and writing. And with these two visits to worlds that authors created, I am remembering what has always been there when the rest of my world falls apart: the writing. I've been going through the motions, like you do when you're numb, but today, I've been feeling like it's me here instead of my ghost.
Image credit and license
After taking a long break from blogging to finish out my time teaching in public school, I'm excited to revive my blog 100 Pots. I'll be adding new posts and reblogging some of my older ones. Here's my very first post, and the origins of my blog title. Enjoy!
A thousand years ago when I was an undergraduate student at New College of Florida, I had a quirky ceramics professor who lived in my backyard. The house I was renting with some other students had a guest house, and one day Bob and his wife showed up and moved in. Bob smoked cigars that gave of a mellow, spicy scent and did not let me into his 3-D design class, but asked me to join his ceramics class. I think it was an olive branch to be neighborly more than anything else. The design class had so much more to do with my work, and so many fewer seats than the ceramics class. I was mad, but, after all, he was my neighbor, so I accepted the invitation.
It turned out to be my most memorable college class. Bob gave his students the key code to the building, and a few of us would be there at all hours of the night. And he would be, too. We'd let the slippery clay spin between our fingers, rising, falling, a meditation. Then, if Bob was there, we'd join him outside for a break while thick cigar smoke fogged the night air between us. We learned how Peter Voulkos would turn a perfect plate and then slice it with wire and patch it back together, leaving messy cracks and sensual textures. We learned about Paul Soldner's collaging clay together until it could be nothing but art, not a craft, not a cup you would drink from or a bowl you would eat from. Their work demanded new esteem for clay. Their work concentrated on the beauty of the flaw.
The beauty of the flaw translates to all art. If a writer writes a perfect character, it better be a villain because nobody wants to root for a perfect person. We love the underdog, the broken, the tragic flaw.
In one of our class meetings, Bob told us about a professor he'd once had. The professor divided the class into two groups. The first group had to make 100 pots. Over the course of a semester that's about seven pots a week. That's a LOT of pots. But the number was the only requirement. The pots could be any size or shape, symmetrical or lumpy, it didn't matter. If they made their hundred, the members of this group would receive A's. The second group had the entire semester to make only one pot. But the pot had to be perfect, flawless, without fingerprint, wabble, variation in wall thickness, or any other mark that a human being had anything to do with it. If they turned in one perfect pot, the members of this group would receive A's.
Guess which group came closest to making the perfect pot?
So I'm writing my first blog post about the phrase that keeps me moving forward with my work when I'm afraid it won't come out perfectly. I hear it in my head, in Bob's lively, round-voweled voice: "100 Pots! 100 Pots!"
They will never be perfect, these words, but the more of them I write, the closer they will get. Bob was right. The ceramics class was exactly what I needed.
Image: Credit. Attribution-ShareAlike License.
Welcome to my blog,