Monday, August 25, 2014


My writing life remains in limbo. Instead of putting fingers to the keyboard this summer, defining myself in black and white, I picked up my painter's brush and cadmium red, Prussian blue, phthalo green. The beauty of watercolor painting, besides exquisite color, is that I have no attachment to the goal. No expectations other than slowly improving, making something pretty.

I never imagined I would put writing away for awhile (time as yet undetermined). I never thought I could find that kind of joy and expression elsewhere. In a review of my book by Publisher's Weekly this phrase might explain it: ". . .writing as art and psychological salvation." And so I explain this new affinity for painting as such: I'm salvaged.

Well. . .more precisely, feelings that overtook me have been tamed. By giving them shape in the form of an essay or memoir or blog post, then sharing them, they no longer have their way with me. There is great satisfaction in publication, but the act of writing was my necessity. The need was what drove me.

Be a voice, I tell my students. You can make a difference. In my very idealistic teacher-way, I'm telling them they can change the world. But I forget to relay, writing can change them. This summer I changed in a different way; I was less a voice than a color, rather colors! Tubes of paint spread across my kitchen table, deemed "my artist's studio."

Later today (it is 3:40 a.m.!) real life will beckon with its need for Fall semester preparation. Ah. . .chaos will ensue. At some point I will paint it out in dioxazine purple.


Monday, July 28, 2014

External rewards

My book received an awesome review from Publisher's Weekly. I felt so heady after reading it, I left my apartment, as if my brain couldn't be contained within these walls. I called a friend and read the review to her; sharing my joy and being out in the air made my high manageable. Today I'm reflecting on another friend's dilemma: a recent book contract he received didn't make him happy. Will I ever be happy? he asked.

Sigh. Life moves through and around me. When I received my review I was lifted up from my mundane experiences. That was a few days ago. Now, so much has and hasn't happened--social-life inertia, crazy world events, at my college more unpaid work time is being required (and the word "illegal" roars through my brain)--can anyone keep a steady pace of "happy," especially when it comes from an external reward? My guess is no. Unless that is, those rewards keep coming, one building to another and another--but even then, eventually there will be a lull. Then what? 

A New York Times article by Kate Murphy, "No Time to Think," says Americans are hyper busy. When they're not, they're absorbed by their gadgets. No one is thinking, and it seems that's how they want it. Thinking brings the dreaded, feelings. I gaze outside my windows into a courtyard and thinking time stretches before me. I have few gadgets. The TV and radio are off. A mess of feelings make themselves known--but I am a super-feeling kind of person. They don't scare me.

Below is the best of last week's painting class. The class was frustrating (once again), and after one hour of struggling to paint a nude model, I gave up. I played with colors, painted flowers, hearts, dogs. When the teacher walked by, I hid my work. I once again have deeper understanding of my students who drift away when they don't get the assignment.

Tomorrow night is my last class. No hearts, flowers, dogs, unless they're what we're supposed to do (doubtful).

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Why I love Ojai

At my book presentation in Ojai, I remembered one of the joys of writing--connection. I write in solitude, or at cafes, while waiting for a bus, before a yoga class begins, other places where people drift by, but I'm alone in my remembered worlds. The act of discussing my process and engaging others in their writing practice, is the icing atop the pleasure of producing good work.

I had a deeply satisfying weekend at the Oaks Spa. Yes, I was at a spa. . .healthy meals, gorgeous landscape, relaxation. But as I often find when traveling, the best of everything is in the people I talk with. This weekend it was on three-mile early a.m. walks, at the class I gave, while sharing meals (poolside, I can't help but add).  And, too, there were the perfect bursts of time, when I was solidly in the present moment.

To the right is a photo of Meditation Mount, a serene, lush place where I sit and realize the wonder of my life. My concerns at home--finding more work, a loving mate--slipped away. Not everyone gets to do this, I thought, gaze at a mountainous terrain. I was grateful to be grateful.

This moment I'm back at home. The a/c is off and sweat collects on my forehead. My view is of concrete, sprouts of green, and one gentle tree with fat leafy branches. The view behind that view is of possibility and options.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Painting the summer

I want to tell you that I improved in last night's painting class, that practice makes better. Alas, that would be a lie. Practice, perhaps, makes better in the long run; but my short run experience was frustrating. Painting the nude, without first sketching, and using hard-to-control paint is difficult for the best of painters. I, a mere, beginner, should be at a loss. And so, I learn another lesson to bring to my writing students--sometimes it feels lousy to produce bad work--no matter the circumstances.

This morning I climbed up into my closet where all my creative tools and endeavors are stored, knitting needles, fabrics, hat forms, hair clips, and what I looked for--an old (cheap) watercolor paint set and bristle brush. They're twenty years old, but those flat pans of paint are still viable. My first thought--if I'd only remembered in time, I could have saved a bundle on the new (pricey) paints and brushes I purchased. My second--don't go to that place of regret. I'll take a command from Tim Gunn from Project Runway,  I'll "make it [all] work."

Ah--regret nothing. If only. Summer spins me back to girlhood yearnings, humid days of eternal want. I remember restless summers in the Catskills, that age between girl-child to girl-woman, looking over fences and into keyholes with my friends, taking in bits of our future.

Internal/external landscapes. Today I put color and visual shape to my words and worlds.

Thursday, July 10, 2014


My watercolor class continues to perplex and challenge me. During last night's class, my teacher didn't teach. Must be a new methodology, the student to my right wryly whispered. I was glad that she, too, noted a situation that would normally get me riled up--a teacher who checks his phone, his sketch pad, his files, but does little that could be interpreted as instructor-ish. There was a model, a sink, tables for us to set up, a gritty paint stained studio, and time--three hours. Time to figure things out, to observe others, to demurely say to said teacher, can you help me? (he somewhat did). I made primitive, childlike art, didn't complain (to anyone other than wry student to my right), relaxed, played, didn't rewind all the injustices I'd incurred since birth.

And so it goes. I'm studying a subject I'm terrible at. In a Zen sort of way, this feels like a good practice. Writing and teaching--it's not that I know everything, but I can find my way. I take my skills for granted. Painting requires one hundred percent focus, acceptance of how little I should know, considering my beginner status, patience.

Later today I'll go to school where I'm teaching two fiction classes. This is a blessing for summer school, for I love teaching literature. On Tuesday we read "An Appointment in Samarra" by Somerset Maugham, an eerie fable (but then, they all seem to be). I sent my students home to write their own fables. They looked at me the way I looked at my teacher--you're not going to tell me how? One student balked when I reassured them the stories aren't being graded. Why bother? he asked. Practice, a  student answered (bless her heart). Yes, we can all benefit from practice.

A few days later, an exercise in wet-on-wet that I'm practicing from Deb Watson's video.


Thursday, July 3, 2014

Dear students,

When we meet next week, I'll tell you not to worry about writing well...just write. I'll give you an assignment and ask you to put words on the page and bring them to class. I'll hope you'll do the work. I'll tell you: listen to feedback, revise, keep writing, you will get better. I'll invoke Anne Lamott's famous testament to the "shitty first draft." When (if) you don't understand my assignments, trust that I'll feel your pain.

My first class in Watercolor Techniques did not go as expected. There were no bowls of fruit or vases of roses to paint. There were very few flat-out beginners (one, to be exact) who'd never held a paint brush (well. . .since fifth grade). There was no instruction as to how much water to mix with the colors and whether to start with water and add color or vice versa. There was just this: a model, thirty busy watercolorists, and a teacher who smiled and told me my grade was D. He said to play. I put paint on the page. I made a mess, at first by accident, and later, when I accepted there was no reason I would know what to do, I made a mess on purpose. I kept going. Expensive page of sketch paper after expensive page of sketch paper.  Today I watched two youtube videos on watercolor; I spread out all my supplies; I painted. I made the sky pink and yellow, the mountains blue. I attempted a house.

Dear students: I reveal to you my shitty first drafts from last week's class. They are paintings of a slender man with dark hair, seated on a chair. Take heart. We will all get better.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Getting into color

This week of vacation is an opportunity to do all sorts of things normally on my back burner. . .relax, play tennis, catch up on movies, write. . .and here is where I falter; I want writing to be on the front burner, but it absolutely refuses to be.

Instead of baring my heart in black and white type, my feelings appear before me in great washes of color. My palette awaits; tonight I take my cadmium this and prussian that,sketch pad, brushes and assorted other tools to a watercolor class. I've wanted to paint for years, but my fingers on the keyboard have trumped such creative yearnings. I needed verbal release; I also needed the rush of publication, the direct hit to my need for validation that being published provides.

Since revising my book, I haven't felt like writing. It's not that I've completely figured myself out or overcome my need for those rushes and hits. It's the internal process that keeps me from the keyboard. The thoughts that gather in my frontal lobe, that linger until I form the words that take them away from me. The solitariness of writing feels more uncomfortable than usual. I'd rather take a walk. Or make something I can touch.

I'm a purger; I easily throw away stuff because it takes up room. Clips of articles I once thought I'd never part with? Gone. College papers, so precious with their grammatical errors and triteness? Gone. Unpublished manuscripts from ten years ago? Gone. (But. . .I confess--saved on CDs somewhere in my closet.) Every drawing I ever did when I was a student at FIT? Saved. Every bow I made when I flirted with being an accessories designer? Saved.

And so I had the extreme pleasure yesterday of digging out my old sketch pads, fashion figures, bows, and lay them like a desk of cards.I present them--my perfectly imperfect paper dolls. Soon I'll take out my book on watercolor for beginners. I'll relax. Then I'll pack my supplies and go to class--excited, nervous, hoping I come home splattered with color.