So Creative, It’s Scary

elvis skellylicious

The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston’s exhibit of Richard Avedon’s photography focused on his fashion work, with evolving style and glamor over the decades it covered. He used the camera over the years to say many things about humanity, and even these images had his Creative Muscle in them.

We’d just seen the last gallery and were thumbing through the coffee table books on the benches by the exit. The long wall near us contained an unusual photo shoot, with the models posed in an urban, post-apocalyptic world that I remember as windy-looking and trash-strewn. But artfully. The couture, of course, was flawless as they posed together, one model a lovely young woman and the other a skeleton in male attire. She seemed not to notice.

I liked them because they worked well as, and also laughed at, fashion photography. But if I’d been a little kid, I would have run. Petrified of skeletons back then, I would have felt the earth shake beneath as the nice museum betrayed me with this unexpected Terror. The photos brought back that old fear of coming upon skeletons in museums and historic sites. I could laugh in the gallery, but once upon a time, it wasn’t funny.

There was a little girl, about five, in the gallery with us, looking with her adults. She was wearing a pretty little dress, the sort of outfit that makes girls look all sugar and spice. After viewing these images, she walked back to where they started, gathered herself, and began an assertive stomp-march along the wall. Marching with as much attitude as any runway requires, she pointed up dramatically at each photo and declared, “Scary! Scary! Scary! Scary! Scary!” Her tone was 10% outraged complaint and 90% putting these pictures in their damn place. And then her work there was done.

Wasn’t I vindicated. Maybe an Art Critic was born. But also an artist: this was performance, with space, action, and dialogue carefully planned and executed. It was splendid.

I have no conclusion or message to add here. Two expressive people impressed me with their Creativity, one in answer to the other. I think I’m writing about it just to join a Creative conga line I admired. I guess sometimes Inspiration can be the feeling of “I want in on this!” The only thing better than going to spend time with a Creative you know is suddenly meeting a new one while you’re at it.

The image is of Production Design by my Creative Cuz Elvis Strange, of Designing with Strange, Inc. Skellylicious, and used with his permission!

Bronte-Spoiling

BS

SPOILER ALERT: Jane Eyre

When an artist creates a character willing to bite someone to death, that’s not an artist I’d piss off. If I were you. Penguin Classics.

Consider yourself Called Out by a CPT.

It’s not enough the cover of your edition of three Bronte novels features those faces, all rose-blush cheeks and dewy eyes, borrowed from paintings by men. Then on the back flap, you offer a seven-line biography to cover three authors, and it says this:

Charlotte Bronte…wrote some of the most poignant romantic novels in the English language…Anne Bronte…was also a novelist and poet, whose works were chiefly influenced by issues of social injustice.

Charlotte Bronte assaulted, killed, maimed, set multiple fires, and struck things with lightning, just in that one novel. What is wrong with you? If you consider Jane Eyre a romance (no, not a Romance, which is a literary movement: you didn’t capitalize it) and not a book about “issues of social injustice,” then I suggest you switch over to Dick and Jane until you, like a newborn blind kitten, get your eyes open.

What are the CPT goals in posting this topic? Perhaps it is to defend a fellow-artist who also knew life challenges and financial struggle. But for whatever reason, I’m here to defend some honor. Not that there’s anything wrong with romances or genre writing: I’m a big mystery fan myself. It’s just that Jane Eyre isn’t a romance.

That label implies to me that she chose to write love/relationship-centered fiction. What I see is a complex work about human motivations and limitations, centered on the living of a 19th-century female life. That would include marriage (or not), and a strong sense throughout of having your selfhood and your value dictated to you by a society in which you have no voice.

The characters of all genders who represent that society in the novel do not recognize Jane Eyre’s personhood, her autonomy as an individual. If it were just they, it would be a great novel. But some of these characters do see and even love her, and still “epic fail” in this area. That’s what makes it more, makes it a vision of society, and that’s where Penguin lets her down.

Maybe artists can easily empathize with Jane Eyre over those same struggles: for economic stability, for fulfillment, for relationship, for authentic living despite the challenges. Some days I have had enough of being broke, of bad weather, and of annoying people with authority. She’s a sister in Up-against-it-ness, as was her author.

And Charlotte Bronte was as skillful as her sister Anne Bronte in viewing the world clearly from where she had to stand in it. Having limitations does not equal being limited, and they both prove it. They wrote what they saw, and it was unflattering to Power of many kinds. And it was boldly expressive of the female, the disenfranchised, the outsider.

Sure, Jane Eyre has a happy ending, albeit one slightly clouded by amputation and death. She winds up in a place where she can be herself and be in relationship, as much as actually possible. It’s relative, but still a victory. As a CPT, I like the ending: not “It will all work out just great”, but “Keep on. It will all work out reasonably ok, ok enough, considering you live against the current in the society you do.”

So Penguin Classics, you unjustly represented an artist whose representation we need. Shame on you, you know. The Brontes would write books about it.

 

 

 

 

 

Safety in Numbers

safety-pins

I will be writing posts again very soon, but for now, I will borrow words from the mighty Toni Morrison:

“This is precisely the time when artists go to work. There is no time for despair…no need for silence…We speak, we write, we do language. That is how civilizations heal.”

Here’s to creative ways to stand up, resist, express, support, interrogate ourselves, grow, and love.

Stay strong and together, CPT and CFT cousins everywhere. Peace.

That’s it, You’re Grounded

rain

As my Kind Readers know, my good CPT habits have been challenged lately. I’ve been roughing it in Rough Draft Country, where the white noise in my head has been falling steadily into waist-deep snow between me and any finished piece of writing. That’s something stress does, because I’m one of those people who mentally chews on it, which leaves me wearily stranded far away from my better habits. But sometimes our own Deeper Currents float us back towards our Creative Selves, and I recently bumped into a shore.

I had some time to spend between a meeting and teaching, so I went to a downtown coffeehouse I hadn’t visited in a while. Finding an armchair free, I took out a lined pad I hadn’t used all summer to do some class prep, and a couple of folded sheets slipped out. One contained some writing done in the spring, months before, the last time I sat in that particular coffee place, tucked away and forgotten. Yeah, I know, but it did happen. I had noted The Cure song playing that day, taking me back to college-adjacent years:

However far away
I will always love you
However long I stay
I will always love you
Whatever words I say
I will always love you

I wrote that his sweetish, melancholy rasp blended perfectly with gray steel, warm smells, and the wide plate-glass view of Boston rain falling on a worn side street.

I read it with strange pleasure those months later, on another rainy day, looking at the same view. Bruce was inviting me to The Rising in the background, and that indeed fit the moment. Yeah, I know. An almost uncomfortable feeling of comfort settled on me, and I felt grounded, with a foothold again in my Working CPT self, swept by rain and habit into this déjà vu. You have whatever sparks you, and for me, an unexpected connection works like champagne bubbles up the nose: sudden, itchy, delightful. A forgotten creative day suddenly falls into another and lands on the same floor. I get a flash of Why it would be Awesome to teach Jane Eyre, Their Eyes Were Watching God, and The Haunting of Hill House in the same course: whoa! I meet a  gentle, aura-exuding organist at the church where I work, and suddenly there’s Sherlock Holmes explaining that his new client is NOT a typist as he first thought because of the shape of her fingers; she has an ethereal look, so she must be a musician. And I just met the lady. I realize I can blog about my morning walks framed by a French Buddhist monk’s photography in Asia.

When these connections hit me, I feel obliged to and pressured by my own working mind, but that one in the coffeehouse was soothing and asked nothing back. The CPT Me felt fairly present, as it slipped out of hiding in an embarrassingly clichéd way. But there it is. Yeah, I know, but a CPT can sometimes use a Little Pat on the back from herself, a little reassurance in a brimming-over world.

Hey-la-di-la, my blog is back.

wave

Hello. I’m back. I haven’t posted in recent weeks, and I also haven’t

  • gone on vacation, pilgrimage, or silent retreat.
  • faked a plunge down a waterfall with my archenemy in my grasp, and then traveled in disguise while my dear Watson thought I was, um, done for.
  • entered a peaceful writers’ colony somewhere mountainous or ocean-adjacent.

What I have done is Live Out a particular aspect of being a Creative Part-Timer, and now I’m going to blog about it, which is awfully convenient for me.

A couple of weeks ago, I was out in picturesque Waltham, MA, where I visited the wonderful More Than Words Bookstore and Cafe, where they do good community work with young people, and where I bought a used copy of Take Ten: New 10-Minute Plays, edited by Eric Lane and Nina Shengold. Short plays have long interested me as an art form, partly because I’ve been lucky enough to see so many good ones, and partly because, unlike full-length plays, they don’t Terrify me as a writer. My contributions to theater have been mostly backstage, but several years ago I drafted some plays under the influence of that delicious drama-feast of Shorties that is the annual Boston Theater Marathon. Then I heard me just spinning my wheels, didn’t like the sound, and drifted away. I do that.

I read my new book straight through, play after play, with no performances to take my attention from Exactly What the writers were Doing. Turns out it was an excellent way to absorb the pure craft. Mind you, reading plays can give you the how-to’s, but that’s not the whole enchilada . You truly know plays by watching them, just as you know people by being with them, not just by looking through their clothes closet. Sure, you get an impression of who they could be, but you’ve never actually met them. The craft I cracked while reading these experienced people was how to write a play For Performance, not for Good Writing. That’s a shift I had to make, and it helped mightily that I am a seasoned, loving theater audience. Just saying.

I took out my drafts from years ago and got excited because they aren’t bad at all. I need to chill out as the wright and ask them to do a lot less. And I need to make my characters stop talking like me when I teach, saying everything 1 ½ times to make sure it gets across. Actors’ job, getting things across.  So I made marks and notes. I revised and wrote new bits. And I forgot all about you, Kindly Readers of the blog. That’s the CPT experience, emphasis on Part-Time, that I’m back to comment on.

As usual, I had only so much time to write, and I used it on those plays, which left me focused and full of joy. “Honey, love the one you’re with” is a credible working philosophy. Yet I didn’t write other things that sat patiently waiting, including the blog and my “Daily Grind” work. That bothered me, but I quickly acclimated to feeling bad about them. I do that.  I did not sacrifice pleasure-reading, Jeopardy, or wasting time to create more time to Be Creative. And there it is, the best of CPT and the worst of CPT: everything I accomplished tumbling into the abyss of what I did not write, and all the unwritten blog posts spilling out in a few play characters suddenly alive and speaking. Now that I have the blog, a binder full of poem drafts, notes for two big projects, AND four plays in progress, what choices am I going to make about what gets how much time? Same or different? What will I learn about being a CPT and an artist from those choices?

 

 

An Ordinary Post on Creativity

Rose 1

 

College instructors’ mental abilities often wither after spring semester like drought-stricken leaves. Mine took a long time to sprout again, a possible sign of burn-out, as is the smoke coming from my eyeballs. I have been writing, sort of, although stopping teaching suddenly freed up time to be tired, detached, and uninspired. It was easier to write when the alternative was urgent lesson plans or grading? Writing got harder when there was more free time, and the alternatives were a novel or a nap? That should not be true, but Alas.

Yes, Gertrude Stein did say that geniuses have to sit around a lot doing nothing. Yes, I quoted her in my other post. But I believe when she said “really doing nothing,” she meant Really Doing Nothing, not watching The Big Bang Theory re-runs. And yes, a major shift in routine can throw off a person’s…routines. I found it hard to regroup, and I think it’s because my CPT identity and my writing had become so important this spring. Art and my spiritual practice were the “special” parts of my day. That Special, separate status I gave them is what the late Zen Master Shunryu Suzuki would call “a mistake.”

Sometimes I have good reading instincts. (Sometimes I claim the Boston Public Library’s Copley Square branch is sentient, cares about me, and makes sure I land on the books I need. If you’ve spent time in that building, don’t tell me you don’t believe it.) I felt urged to read, at the same time, Suzuki’s Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind and Natalie Goldberg’s memoir about waking up as a writer and Buddhist, Long Quiet Highway, especially when I learned his lecture collection inspired the format of her first book. So I’ve just read them together, and the thing they emphasize about the practices they teach, Zen and writing, is that both are immensely Ordinary. Apparently I needed to hear that good and loud.

The habit of treating Creative Work as Special creates weird pressure, and it’s where the excuses spring up: I’m too tired, too depleted, not focused enough, not talented enough to Do It Right today. That’s been my recent experience. While confessing their own struggles, SS and NG reminded me, just do what you do. He said when you sit to meditate, Just Sit, with things as they are, without trying to attain or fix anything. She said, write to Be Writing, if you ever want to write. Both are ordinary practices, like washing dishes or earning a living, not glorious quests for which you need to be sanctified.

Simple, yet not simple when tangled in my own CPT thinking. Oh, I want my Art to be special; after all, I sacrifice to make time for it, and it’s Who I Am. I don’t want it to be unbrilliant, unproductive, not as good as other people’s….Whoa. Stop. The sound overhead is the Ego, tap dancing at full speed on a concrete floor. Hey, people are trying to write down here!

I trust SS and NG to know, but I could have read a hundred books. Until I experienced the reality of what they said, it was going to mean nothing. Being quiet with my own dilemma, I Experienced It. I have to practice the ordinary every day anyway, breathing, walking, and brushing my teeth as I do. I’m never too uninspired to pee. Writing does not need to be Carved Out of the ordinary day, but Added In to the ordinary day. Start with that perspective, and do your practice.

Poet Jane Hirshfield once asked, in a documentary about Buddha, what could be MORE miraculous than coffee in a blue mug. All things are ordinary and equally extraordinary, the secret prize in this cereal box of realigned understanding. Writing is ordinary, and my hands make these marks that signify my thoughts almost before I think. Wow. And as I drink morning coffee, every leaf on the tree ripples silently in a breeze that my skin feels as cool while my mouth holds milky heat. Across the room, little round things I shoved into wet dirt have sprouted live green things reaching for the light. On my walk this morning, the eyes of a mottled rabbit watched me as its jaws worked side to side. And people with their loves and hurts and talents walked through my vision….And here we are in Life… Extraordinary.

How many babies are born each day? What an ordinary event, really. This post is dedicated with awe and love to the Extraordinary Rose Esther N.

The Boats

boats

One of my favorite poems from childhood is Robert Louis Stevenson’s “Where Go the Boats?” from A Child’s Garden of Verses, that bouquet of scenes from an innocent (privileged), tree-shaded England. Here it is:

Dark brown is the river,
Golden is the sand.
It flows along for ever,
With trees on either hand.

Green leaves a-floating,
Castles of the foam,
Boats of mine a-boating –
Where will all come home?

On goes the river
And out past the mill,
Away down the valley,
Away down the hill.

Away down the river,
A hundred miles or more,
Other little children
Shall bring my boats ashore.

Granted, the nursery rhyme world of mean spiders, bleeding mice and sticking your thumb in your food had its place in my life. But I always loved this poem my grandmother taught me because we shared a love of the water, and because, thanks to my grandfather, I am a Master paper boat builder.

As a Creative adult, I still love the poem: isn’t it a beautiful statement of an artist’s faith? I think so. As an undergrad, reading Shelley and Keats’s windswept vistas of eternity, I thought Stevenson stated faith in the Immortality of Art, carrying Our Names down the river of time. Well, he pulled it off. But Artistic Immortality is a yacht with a small guest list and a political agenda. I know now the poem is really an artist’s statement of faith in simple Connection, with another person or the world, through Creativity. The only thing the poem promises, and what it celebrates, is two sets of  hands playing with the boats, and the current between them.

Connection, when it happens, can often surprise you, like walking through unexpected lilac scent across a sidewalk. It surprised me this spring, when one of my classes was doing group work. In a moment of whimsy, I made a paper boat from a spare sheet on the desk, and set it among my notes. My student Ha, with the fabulous river of blue hair, came up to ask me a question and noticed it. Laughing, I told her about my grandfather’s lessons. She suddenly began to tell me how, when she was a little girl in Vietnam, they lived on a narrow street that was deep like a gully. It would flood easily in heavy rain, and she and her brother would sit in the doorway of their house, launching paper boats. The water would recede quickly, stranding their fleet, which settled into soggy, colorful masses of accidental sculpture, and, as Ha put it, “We papier-mached the street!”

This amazing image knocks my socks off. Connection over shared Creativity ensues, both a little breath-taking and wholly ordinary.

The humble request to use her story to write this piece is honored with the response, “I would be honored.” I hope this post will live up to the vivid, lovely story shared with me when another child saw my paper boat and brought it ashore.

For Ha Dang and Ida Schwimmer, and for Aaron Schwimmer, who sailed away June 8, 1985. I’m still making boats, Papa. I still know the poem, Gram.