Art, a Verb for Hard Times


book on gold meme

During the last few weeks of what has—inaccurately—felt like unprecedented social, political, and moral turmoil on a global scale, I have found it difficult to stay focused on writing or writing about creative interests of any kind.

While everyone watched unfolding disasters in Gaza, Ferguson, and West Africa, I felt compelled to put away personal thoughts and pursuits. I began to comb through news outlets I usually avoid, monitor live web feeds, and doggedly follow each morning’s round of commentary.  But anything I had to say about it all was also just commentary, hardly in the creative vein. And I began to feel terrible about my creative silence.

While I was in grad school, there was an emphasis on the artist’s responsibility toward raising social awareness by taking up the banner of humanitarian activism.  I heard that call, but have never been sure how to answer it.

Although I have clearly defined views about various issues that plague the world, unlike many of the writers, musicians, and artists I have admired for taking public stands for love and compassion, I have never found my compositional-political voice.

In personal venues, I have no difficulty engaging with others and sharing my views. I’ve had enough face-to-face-offs and online troll fights to clarify my perspective, and in doing so I’ve weeded out “friends” who seem to think that hate speech is something to have a conversation about, as if there could be a give-and-take discourse about whom it’s okay to lock out of hope (nope, I won’t take that). So I know I can confidently express myself.

But artistically, I have never known what the hell I have to offer in that way. My attempts at social commentary have seemed ineffective, self-conscious, preachy, clumsy…I’m not a political artist and that has always made me feel a little sad, even guilty, especially during times of seemingly heightened conflict and tragedy.

I say seemingly heightened in order to acknowledge the inaccuracy of that panicky feeling, the one insisting that the world has never ever been this bad. In reality (not suggesting this makes anything that’s happened recently or that will happen in the coming days and weeks any better in any sense) lots of bad things have always happened, often lots of terrible things have happened at one time, and those who can stand up and illume with their art are always needed. Always.

So I have been thinking about the ongoing nature of unrest and how necessary art activism is in a world that forgets to preserve its own life force. And I’ve been looking for my role in all that.

But I think I must have gotten so wrapped up in roles and in the pain of witnessing the moment, I forgot that I already knew the answer to this personal and professional puzzle: Art is by its very nature a radical act.

Art pushes back against the bleakness, the corruptness of inertia. It unseats unwelcome dominion over the spirit. Art is radical reclamation of energy. If we create, write, paint, whatever, we’re creating a light source. It will have all the properties light always has, to warm, to vitalize, to reveal the hidden.

Whatever I write about and whatever I paint is the only activism I have, and it’s enough no matter what it is. We are bombarded by the attitude that art is superfluous, even silly, a self-indulgent waste of time in a world of hurt. I am saying that’s a lie. Creating your art in a time of adversity is a rebellious act of beauty. Of course the pain hates to give an inch, as if it were conscious—doesn’t it seem so? But that’s precisely the time to lash out in a wave of creative purpose, no matter—not a single matter—whether your art is an event statement or simply a lyrical movement along the subtle body of your work.

When times get hard, when it’s all falling apart, I have to try to remember, though I am not a political artist, art is medicine to treat the locked jaw of the crisis mind. Art can mock or proclaim, but it can also just as effectively syphon strength from the ideological machinery of misery. Art rises. So, artists, you don’t have to be working on a statement piece. Please just get out of bed every day and art. You will have reclaimed that drop of creation for the whole good. That’s activism, baby.

 

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Rejection Therapy


journals3

Recently, my poetry-writing husband, David White, (check him out in the latest edition of PRISM International and coming soon in Southwestern American Literature), received a rejection from a desirable publication. Now, rejections are like boiled eggs, they stink, but they exist aplenty and some people even claim to like them or be somehow nourished by them…each to her or his own (“Rejections just make me more determined!” Okay…). But this rejection was not the standard form letter.

To synopsize, because the email was three paragraphs long, the editors mentioned their “extreme reluctance” to release the piece back to him and wanted to be certain the poet understood that after some relatively heated editorial exchanges, the decision was made that this piece would not fit in the current edition. But they weren’t happy about it. And they wanted him to know that.

Should this be good news, a salve of sorts to make the rejection feel fluffier, or should it make this particular turndown more bittersweet? There are so many reactive choices.

As an editor at an online journal, I understand that editorial staff may not always agree about a piece, but consensus is generally reached by looking at the needs of a given issue. We may end up rejecting an otherwise acceptable piece of writing because the issue is balanced in a different direction, or—conversely—because the poems and stories accepted in a period already treat this subject; one more will either kedge or mire, and the CE says, “Mire.” So a good piece goes, but the issue will feel right. The rejection, then, is never intended—ever—as an insult to the artist (unless you’ve submitted to a journal run by assholes, and let’s be honest and say that can happen). A decline is simply a reflection of how well the artist has guessed at what a journal needs for its next issue. So, while a rejection isn’t good news, it also doesn’t have any particular value attached to it, up or down the scale of how you should evaluate your writing.

But only in the arts is an almost-love letter considered a positive. Try calling up your landlord on the first and explaining that it’s okay about the late rent because you went on a job interview and were very nearly hired. It was a close decision. Like paying the rent. See, that just doesn’t quite seem jolly.

Why do editors send those letters, signed most earnestly, oozing regret? I got one once that said, “We’ll probably kick ourselves for passing.” What can a working writer take away from that? Do you feel better or worse when you get one of these?

How you feel probably depends on how you manage your ego and why you write. I would advocate for a neutral approach, emotion-free.

For starters, if you feel defeated when you receive a rejection—a kissy one or a straight up, cold “nope”—or if you think thoughts like, “They think I can’t write…maybe I can’t…”, then you probably can’t. Not because you aren’t good at it, but because you won’t be able to put yourself through the Waring Blender that is the submission process if every rejection rips at your vitals.

And what about editors who kick themselves and want you to know they pulled for you? Other than suggesting you might want to give them a try after a resting period (three months or one submission or reading cycle is pretty standard unless you’ve been specifically invited to try again immediately), it’s pragmatically meaningless. I mean, it’s nice of them, but it won’t help you in any way.

Remember that most editors are writers, too, and so they may over-emote in print. A miss is as good as a mile, isn’t that the old line? It holds here. Just file it for whatever useful information there is and keep going.

What, then, should you do about rejections?

  • Get your stuff proofread by a fresh pair of eyes. A misspelling can be problematic. I tend to forgive the occasional type-o, but not everyone is as chill.
  • Read guidelines and follow them to the letter. If you put your name on a document and submit it to a journal that takes blind submissions only, it’s over before it starts. Sounds very basic, but I see experienced writers do this all the damn time.
  • Read sample work from journals you want to submit to and choose from your body of work something that seems to fit, or to compliment, their body of publications in some way. If you like a journal but samples aren’t available online, you can’t find the title at the library, and you don’t have an extra 500 bucks a year for random subscriptions, see if any writer friends want to start a journal share. Or just submit to the ones offering samples online. They’re thinking like writers: free reads are good. And how do you know you like it if you can’t read a copy? Let’s move from business back to love as a metaphor. What if you met a gorgeous man, let’s say Viggo Mortensen (or fill in a reverse-gender example if that helps you), and what if he had bad breath and acted like a wank? Names can’t convey much beyond some suggestion of market value, which really has nothing to do with sex. Oh yeah, that’s right, words and venues get it on, the analogy sticks. And while I’m sure Viggo Mortensen is lovely, you can’t really know, can you? Read it or forget it. That’s my heartfelt advice, and rather businesslike once again, when all is said and done.
  • Keep writing and revising, even work you’ve already submitted. Have it ready for next time. Just in case.
  • Keep your cover letter simple and businesslike. Most editors will never see it anyway.
  • Submit to rawboned. Just thought I’d throw that in.
  • Use an Excel spread sheet, use duotrope, use a sharpie and a spiral notebook, but make an ever-updating list of places to submit, keep track of your active submissions, and keep track of your rejections no matter if they were sweet or not. You can resubmit in either case. In fact, you should. One issue is not like another, one staff configuration is not like another. Forward and back, forward and back. It’s a tide, so bring floaties.

So, once more, what of long winded, lovey-dovey rejections? Well, just so, what of them? Meh. You’re too busy working on the next submission to care much. You’re too busy writing to worry about editors. Editors, meanwhile, are out there, dying to fall in love with your work. I’m one of them. Come find me.

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Posted in Advice, creative writing, online journals, Publications, rawboned, self-doubt, submitting, Uncategorized, writers, writing, writing community | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Flash Fiction Love Goes On


 

In a flash: Brush fire on I-10 and the lightening storm that started it.

In a flash: Brush fire on I-10 and the lightning storm that started it.

What a wonderful week of talking to people about flash fiction. While I percolate various–varied–expressive feedback in praise, love, ambivalence, or contempt for the form, I thought it would be nice to offer up a beautiful Russell Banks quote. Of short-short fiction, Banks once said:

It’s its own self, and it’s intrinsically different from the short story and more like the sonnet or ghazal—two quick moves in opposite directions, dialectical moves, perhaps, and then a leap to a radical resolution that leaves the reader anxious in a particularly satisfying way. The source, the need, for the form seems to me to be the same need that created Norse kennings, Zen koans, Sufi tales, where language and metaphysics grapple for holds like Greek wrestlers, and not the need that created the novel or the short story, even, where language and the social sciences sleep peacefully inside one another like bourgeois spoons.

I write both short stories and ultra shorts. These are their own selves, two different forms requiring two different muscles in the mind to make, two different mouths in the heart to take.

I have been asked, “Don’t you think the proliferation of flash fiction has something to do with media and short attention spans?”

Basho–father of brevity–said, “Seek not to follow in the old footsteps; seek what was sought.”

It’s not the length of the arrow, but its precision in showing the way, right? (please don’t try to apply Freud to that–it might work on some level, but it’s just not relevant)

I don’t write or read flash fiction or nonfiction because I’m in a hurry or because I’m feeling restless. I read flash because sometimes I like a good, swift punch to the meta-physique. I write it because sometimes I feel like making a fist.

Who are your favorite writers of short-shorts? High on my list would be Lydia Davis, whose works may only be a few words or sentences, and Donald Barthelme, whose shortest pieces tend to be around 1500 words. Check them out and let me know what you think.

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Posted in Basho, creative writing, Donald Barthelme, fiction, flash fiction, Lydia Davis, opinions, Russell Banks, short stories, Uncategorized, writers, writing | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

New Meto-news and Online Journal Love


theNewerYork pairs gorgeous art with each piece.

theNewerYork pairs gorgeous art with each piece.

Spoke too soon! Another of my stories, “The Hummingbird Murder”, is currently live at theNewerYork. For the longest time I had been hanging around their venue, enjoying their unusual format and the way work is presented there. Only recently did it occur to me I could submit there. Why the lag between admiration and participation? I have no idea.

I love online journals and frequent many. The options available in terms of formatting and presentation, the risks online journals can take to interact with readers, to link visual and written forms of expression, to make connections between artists and audiences are all wish list asterisks best met—best embodied as methodology and substance —by online journals, at least in potential. I edit fiction for a fantastic online journal, rawboned. I know how hard we, (Trisha Winn–beloved Boss, Ginna Luck, myself, and the magic that is bevin) work to turn out a product that is consistent with a demand for quality and a kinship with readers and writers (and artists and filmmakers).

And I am in love, as well, with the short form. I spend so much freaking time on small pieces—it’s an investment requiring just as much time per thematic thread, per line, per word, as any other piece, maybe more per jot because you cannot get away with a stray phrase in an ultra-short form. Flash and Micro are the naked selfies of writing. But writers like to poo on themselves, I’ve noticed. I hear us belittling our efforts as often as inflating our merits. “It’s just a short-short.” What does that mean? You could ask Lydia Davis, but that would just make you look silly.

I know some people object to the not infrequent submission fees of online journals, especially the smaller ones (theNewerYork does not charge, rawboned must). I don’t mind a fee under ten dollars, or higher if I have it, because I realize how much it costs to maintain a dedicated website and submission portal. Submitting my work is worth it, so that’s not an issue. Online is on. Why, for the price of a pint—not even a craft pint—would a writer turn down a blazing hot mic?

Go on over and take a look at my story, and please, comment, share, and compliment the artist whose work the editors have paired with my story, Lori Nelson. Wow. I am an instant fan. And then take a look around theNewerYork—it’s a fascinating place. Once you’ve done that, hop over to rawboned and check out another of the fresh faces in literary opportunities.

Then, come on back and tell me what you think of the last line of “Hummingbird”…interesting story, that line. That is actually not my line, as in, I didn’t write it, so I am somewhat curious about its impression and have some editorially complicated thoughts…but that’s another post.

Posted in artist, creative writing, fiction, flash fiction, online journals, Publications, rawboned, short stories, stories, submitting, theNewerYork, writers, writing, writing community | Tagged , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Meto-news


Front-Cover My short story, “My Grandmother, Lily, Says a Few Words About Brooding”, appears in the current edition of Clockhouse. I’ve gone a bit fan-girl realizing that my favorite American poet, Naomi Shihab Nye, also appears in this edition. I was in San Antonio recently, Nye’s town, to visit my sister. We talked about trying to organize a literary drive-about, cruising the houses of writers like Nye, like Sandra Cisneros, Rick Riordan (yes, I have a ten year old) … and then we decided that might be a tad sycophantic and went to Mustang Island instead. But we talked about writers, and drank Bloody Marys, while a Sargassum bloom stank up the beaches. It was good.

Now I’m all excited to get my mitts on this edition of Clockhouse. Here is a link (and another) to get you to a place where you can purchase copies.

Posted in Clockhouse, creative process, creative writing, creativity, Fandom, fiction, Literary Journals, Naomi Shihab Nye, Publications, San Antonio, short stories, stories, submitting, Texas, writers, writing, writing community | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Ceremony


A work in progress

A work in progress

Consider this conversation I had with my nine year old today:

“I need some stuff so I can write a letter to my cousins.”

“That’s a great idea. What do you need?”

“Pajamas, purple ink pens, lined paper, a cup of yogurt—no—a carrot so it won’t melt under the blanket, ice water in a bottle, one of the red blankets—the small ones, not the short ones because those won’t cover my whole body, and a fan right over me so I don’t get hot under the blanket, and the flashlight so I can see.”

“Why not leave the blanket off? So you have light and air.”

“No.”

“But if you’re too hot?”

“I have to be under the blanket to write what I’m thinking about.”

“Can you share with me what you’re thinking about?”

“Whatever I come up with while I’m writing.”

A peek at creative necessity

A peek at creative necessity

All of this speaks to her reason for writing, her motivation and purpose, rather than some dramatic flair to be indulged or discouraged (how patronizing, in either event). There is a connection between the significance of the content of her writing and her level of elaborateness: when I ask her to write about the weather, the length of time it takes a bean to sprout in a peat pot, or the way to express decimals in a multiplication problem, she does not discourage daylight or moan for purple ink. In the construction and observance of her (important, personal) writing ritual, she has absolute possession of the idea that her intentions, her emotional investment, and the sanctity and ceremony of her writing are one.

The dailies

The dailies

Pragmatism and hard experience have the tendency to rob creative endeavor, and life in general, of its ceremony, treating any requirement as a sign of something less than seriousness. Hobbyists buy fountain pens, serious writers write in the thirty seconds it takes to microwave cold coffee, bleary eyed because real writing means getting up before everyone in the house, staying up long after they are all in bed again at night, real writers never bellyache, remembering that they are not owed any particular privilege, but they are blessed to be self- denying enough to endure criticism and rejection and bad nutrition and sleep deprivation, not to mention the embarrassing fallout of neglectful hygiene, in order to craft entire novels, two or three sentences at a time while coffee reheats.

So says a barrage of advice aimed from blogs and magazine articles at all those pokey, whiney, self-indulgent writers who complain they are too busy to write. Being me, I don’t respond blossomingly to grouchiness, although I understand the desire to promote realism.

A friend I completely love just sent out this Pema Chödrön quote: “At some point we need to stop identifying with our weaknesses and shift our allegiance to our basic goodness. It’s highly beneficial to understand that our limitations are not absolute and monolithic, but relative and removable.”

It’s a balm, really, to be reminded that I don’t always have to be hard on myself. That I don’t have to feel lazy because I believe that successful writing, or whatever the nature of the endeavor, is better if viewed less as a problem of self-discipline and more as the center of a worthwhile purpose for which I am willing to make whatever room I need in life. I may be thinking about a story I’m working on while the kettle boils, but I am more likely to be sweet talking the dog out of knocking over the garbage can, tying up the tomato vines, answering the phone, finding blankets and purple pens, or a hundred other things that are proportional snugged into stray minutes.

Writing, my core creative purpose, is not proportional to bits of pieces of moments. Writing a story, as I unwind a thread of an idea from the center, is not proportional to reheating coffee.

That’s not to say a story, unwinding, doesn’t find its way into the corners of every act, every thought and dream, but this image seems the other way around to me. The essence permeates, infiltrates the air, the earth, so it cannot be lived around—this is the way I prefer to see writing rather than as the product of insistent multi-tasking. The call is not an imposition, though I’d never claim it’s always comfortable or easily managed.

Like my nine year old, I find I would like to reinstate requirements—time, space, tea—the ceremonial aspects of deep concentration. I don’t always have to squeeze a story in (or out) between lane changes in heavy traffic to prove I’m tough or serious or whatever the emotionally rugged equivalent of serious might be.

I believe that successful writing, or whatever the nature of the endeavor, is better if viewed less as frowning, preaching self-discipline and more as the center of a worthwhile purpose for which I am willing to make whatever time and space I need. Maybe this is only an attitude shift, but it’s one that involves gentling, focusing, opening up—all good indicators, in my opinion.

*   *   * Please feel free to share your own writing or creative ceremonies. What nurtures your process?

Do you have a fort?

Do you have a fort?

Posted in Advice, art, artist, bad advice, ceremony, creative process, creative writing, creativity, inspiration, motherhood, parenting, Pema Chodron, Uncategorized, writers, writing | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Permission


Have you ever heard sage warnings about how hard it is to make it in the arts, about how many dues you have to pay and how unlikely it is that you have the goods (read: talent) to pay them without let down, humiliation, and ultimate disillusionment? Sickeningly, this isn’t bad advice—it’s fairly realistic, and realism makes its own case. But wait: I want to offer you, blogger, poet, dancer, painter, actor, musician, cobbler, whatever it is you do to get your art on, the right to reject wisdom when it is offered as a thoughtful reproof of eagerness in relation to your work.

I just said you should reject wisdom, which probably sounds like I’m in a terrible, depressed place. Actually, I’ve had a good couple of weeks, despite a strange sounding rejection that involved some manner of personalized (nice) though glib (not so nice) regret (okay, but still…it’s a rejection, so not nice, ever). I found out another story was picked up for print, and that a journal in which I currently have a story just won a lovely, shiny award for the excellence of this edition. I’ve learned to cherish these successes and bits of good news because any time you take risks, it stands to reason there will be a trail of failures behind every forward motion. Thankfully, I can always count on the writers I know to put it all in perspective and offer support.

 

robynsusanandme

Find your creative family and love them back.

That’s not unusual, either. Writers—artists in general—can be competitive, cliquish, even snooty. But it’s also true that, on the whole, so far as I’ve seen it, there is room in writing and the creative community at large for happiness, warmth, and connection. I never expected a social dividend from a solitary pursuit, but this is one truth about the arts that no one really tells you—there is freedom in pursuing something you love, and freedom, as a wave of enthusiasm, as the momentum of engagement, as a conceptual permission slip, swamps failure. You can be a worried, insecure, neurotic writer, but you’ll never be the only worried, insecure, neurotic writer, and ultimately we tend to like each other. A lot. And we support the people we like, and their work, with incredible generosity of spirit.

Of course there will be puddles of bullshit on the way to feeling connected and productive. And here is where I begin to fill out your get-out-of-advice-free slip.

I have had, notable among other small clusters of such, two distinct, sharply unpleasant, and weirdly dystopian (personally and purposefully speaking) conversations with conscientious people-I-know trying their damnedest to convince me that writers should-not-must-not submit their writing for the scrutiny of others until some distant point at which said writer (but they always mean you, whoever they are talking to) achieves real writing, real, not false, not all upstarty and raw, not lame or unworthy, but real, in the same sense the velveteen rabbit woke up and realized he wasn’t stuffed anymore after little Timmy died of scarlet fever, or whatever happened in the version you self-edit so you can justify reading that awful story to your own children.

And recently, I’ve heard second hand about a few similar conversations, related with confessional angst by friends or acquaintances after well-meaning advice from people-they-know bloomed into emotional canker.

You may have heard this advice, too, often phrased as food for thought or provided as a quote of some critically lauded writer or artist who happens to hold dear the same concerns: “Are you sure you want to put yourself out there? What if an editor gets a fixed opinion of you before you’ve done all you can to develop your work? What if you are published and you regret what you’ve sent out to represent you? Are you really ready?”

So, though carefully worded and practically tinted, the questions under these questions are, Do you deserve to be a writer? Do you really think it’s prudent to do what you want to do? What if you stink? Wouldn’t that be humiliating for you? Isn’t that scary? Isn’t that silly? Isn’t that vain?

When someone tries to make me doubt the veracity of my own claim to exist and operate with autonomy, I always wonder from where they get their voice of trepidation, their upside down medicine bag of condescending truisms and rhetorical questions. I can only debunk this kind of sidling attack—because that’s what it is, it attacks you at the intersection between your public and private minds, a vulnerable spot because, as conduit, it is open on one end to the state of your ego and on the other to the state of your heart as you grapple at each depth with expression and desire—by asking a rhetorical question in return: Why can’t you sod off faster?

That sounds harsh? Yes, well, I’ve been there, loaded with doubt dropped on me by sage counsel. Here is what I have figured out in that laden state:  Camaraderie, not superiority, is the mark of an adult relationship. The need to parent or school or temper another’s desires or the actions someone takes from the temple of her or his desires is all about the ego of the one giving the advice.

You can grow old, drop dead, and rot with commendable amounts of caution buttoning your words—or whatever form your expression takes—respectfully inside your skin. But that’s a shabby legacy and no fun to live at all. While any work, even done in silence, unobserved, is worth your time by virtue of the benefit of process, if you stick it all under your bed, the effect of all that work is arrested. Art stops. Chilling.

I’m not suggesting you submit first drafts. No slippery slopes, please. You do what you need to do to get yourself and your art ready for daylight. I trust you. I trust myself, too, shockingly.

So there it was, and here it is, the bottom line: I trust you to do your work, to live in discernment of the merit of your work, to create from a place of ambition—not for recognition, but for doing good, solid, meaningful work. And if ambition for recognition happens to be your thing, then I trust you to wear your ardor for glory with style. You do not have to apologize for needing money, for wanting to make money with your writing or art or acting or directing. The only dues you need to pay is the work itself and—if you want to be really above and beyond about it all—the promise to listen to your fellows with empathy and support when it is their turn to talk about their work.

Someone who otherwise loves or likes or knows you but who continually cautions you to hold back, to hold off, may be offering you the best of their wisdom—or they may just be horrible at communicating—but you don’t have to assimilate cautionary tales (except for the one about not texting while driving—don’t do that). You just have to get on with it.

livy's drawing

My daughter, born to art, will be looking for the trail…I have to cut it wide and clear.

Posted in Advice, art, artist, bad advice, creative process, creative writing, creativity, Encouragement, process, submitting, writers, writing, writing community | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 7 Comments