Friday, April 1, 2016

On finding my writing voice

Several weeks ago my friend sent me an article about an author earning millions writing erotic novels. The article, or more aptly, the possibility of making real cash had me dusting off the laptop.

I purchased her book, read it and paid attention to the formula, which Kindle makes easy. Ten percent into the book--girl meets boy. Twenty-five percent into the book, girl and boy have passionate, explicit sex. Each page tells the reader how much of the book has been read--and so, I thought, how hard could it be to replicate--not the book's plot, but the genre?

I began my own book. The reader I kept in mind was my sexually-precious 12-year old self. The main character appeared swiftly on the page. Her entourage appeared soon after--best friend, older female role model, boy from high school with an unrequited crush on her, and bad boy antagonist who kisses and runs. These people fell from my fingers for pages, or rather percentages. This is easy, I thought. And then it came to plot.

I came up with a scenario that sprang not from my gut--as most of my writing does--but from my desire to tell a story, make serious $$, and buy a house in the Hudson Valley. How hard could it be to replicate genre? Very hard. I discovered this when I printed out and read my pages, which were flat. It's just rough draft stuff, I know. The genre is new to me--it takes time to learn. And that's my point--writing any kind of book, trying any new creative project, takes practice and process. When a book seems easy to replicate, that's because the author did her job well. 

What I'm reminded of this morning is my own creative process and the dangers of sidestepping it. My motivation in doing so is to reclaim myself as a writer, swiftly find my place in this stage of life, when so many friends are retired or ready to. I'm nowhere near that. They talk to me of trips all over the world. I'm not jealous--I'm happy at home with a few ventures here and there.

But I want to love what I do, to talk about my life with the same vigor they have when they tell me of hiking in South America, finding a great spin class in Tel Aviv. I'm conscious every minute of how I use my time--is it toward or away from my happiness?

My book. I want to say that I don't have it in me to write a genre novel. But I don't yet know that. In painting studio when I tell peers who are so gifted, I don't have it in me to be a painter, they say, "You don't yet know that." I thought they were wrong. But now I know what they mean. Pick up my pen or brush or whatever points toward happy, even if getting there is tough. Especially if it's tough.



Friday, February 12, 2016

On getting kntting

Because I'm entrusted with the minds of roughly 75 freshman students, this may be risky to confess. But here goes: I love my doll, Amanda. Not only is she soft and delectable to hug, she loves the clothes I make her. And in the face of the recent death of a friend (mine, not hers), the awful news the world is daily filled with, there is only one thing I can think to do: get knitting.

The act and art of knitting well is not a talent I was born with, not an organic ability that would one day--presto!--naturally make itself known. My mother taught me to knit when I was seven, and I was likely as adept as a typical seven-year old could be. The desire didn't truly emerge until the early eighties, and in a left brain rather than right brain way. Designer hand-knits became the rage. I bought some needles and turned out pricey sweaters, for a third of the cost.

But I'm pretty much an ordinary knitter. My organic ability was more about invention than skill. My creativity and love for the sport happens on the spur; I'll decide mid-row to purl instead of knit, or I'll accidentally twist a cable the wrong way and purposefully not fix it. I don't mind mistakes or sweaters that end up fitting no one--no one human that is. Case in point: Amanda above is wearing a sweater that was knit for a penguin (long story....)
A post or two below, I groaned about the four-hour spread I have between classes. But the timer is up on feeling sorry for myself. The timer is on for getting my inventory together for the etsy store I want to open. Sweaters for kids, for dolls, accessories, lots of Made By Hand kind of stuff, born from the name of my fundraising project (fyi, currently being considered for cosponsorship.)

Saturday, February 6, 2016

On living big

I was looking forward to a break in last week's monotony--that break was to be in the form of a visit from D., my former Tudor City neighbor. Until two weeks before, I hadn't seen D. in four years--when I left Tudor City (TC)--a little-known Manhattan paradise--I said goodbye to neighbors, thinking I'd see them again. I mean, I was only moving across town. But in the way only Manhattan dwellers know, travelling from East to West can feel like a long day's journey. While we emailed, in-real-life visits were rarely made.

But I return to TC at least once a year for another neighbor's birthday party, and this year I sent D. a Facebook hi and said I'd be in the hood. Did he want to meet? He was reasonably sure, yes, but then, it was possible not, so why not check in on the day to be sure?  I was a bit disappointed it wasn't definite, because I suddenly really wanted to see him. But then, my hi was out-of-the-blue, and well, who knows what other things go on in people's lives?  And why did it take me four years, anyway?

As it turned out, I went to the party, and then I saw D. We had a good time hanging out, and easily fell into a comfortable groove. Time didn't need explanation. We talked about a common passion--writing letters to editors. D. had  numerous letters to the editor that had been published in various newspapers. We both loved writing these letters, although our topics and politics wildly diverged. When I remembered that, I remembered why a deeper friendship hadn't developed and why a trip that takes no more than 40 minutes by foot seemed so arduous. And I felt, that's too bad. D. is a great person, filled with passion for ideas--his own, his friends', the people he worked with. D. is a true creator,  making something larger of everyone's smallest endeavor.

The following week, coincidentally, my letter to the editor was published in the Times. I sent it to D. (we had vowed to stay in touch). OMG! he replied. He went right out and bought laminate so that he could laminate my copy. He couldn't believe I hadn't bought a hard copy of the newspaper. I promised I would.

We made plans for him to come over Wednesday at 5ish, to see my new (four-year-old) apartment. The time came and went, but he didn't show. I thought he got distracted or something came up, or our plan wasn't clear. He wouldn't have been happy with me, anyway, because I didn't get the hard copy. When his friend called me a few hours later, I made a slight connection that something terrible had happened. I had been in a similar scenario once before, a person who didn't show, and that night came to mind. D's friend confirmed, terrible news, indeed. D. had died.

I discovered in the next days, that he had a cardiac problem for many years, and that was the trigger. That's the factual news. On a life-level, the answers are far more vague, as are the questions. What do I make of a 54-year old man's death, one so beloved--from all I read on his Facebook page?  Do I now make my life wider, if only to acknowledge how D. wanted his friends to live? Or, do I go for broke because it's my duty as a person sharing life and breath on this earth?

Living small has been my credo--although I do take a few steps here and there to make myself known. I always thought living large meant saying yes to opportunity. Facing my fears. But now I see the biggest step I can take toward having a large life is less about me. It's about making room for other ideas, ideologies, choices, especially the ones that I one-hundred percent disagree with. Had I known this four years ago, I might have had four full years of D's friendship and creative sustenance. But I know it now. I know, too, the even bigger step: seeing the person who glows beneath his or her differences. D. glowed. D. was neon.      

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

On how to use time

The tick-tock of time makes me nervous. Yes, it indicates time's forward movement. . . a bit scary at times to be reminded of. But this semester, this week, today, time stretches before me in seemingly endless hours of wastefulness.  In straightforward adjunct talk--I have a terrible schedule. Hours (and hours!) between classes, enough to come home, do something (but what?) and go back. To work. I don't like going back to work, once I've already been there.

I like to get in, do my thing, leave. Then have my life. Whatever that may be. Ideas of how to spend these hours volley through my mind. Start writing that short story? Come home and paint? Have an actual social life between classes...?  Work out? Stop beating myself up for accepting this schedule? Yes! But then I'd have to find something else to do.

Beating oneself up for anything (read: beating myself up) is the antithesis of creativity. There's no room for passion, inspiration, gratitude, connection. The truth is, four hours between classes is a creator's mecca--especially when the time is spent noticing the world beyond my interior walls, my selfish wants. I know this on the deepest of levels. Yet I can (and often do) spin a story a zillion ways in an effort to cast myself as the villain of my life. There is a reward for this torture, but not one as pretty as a painted bird or flowers, or a thank-you to my employers for keeping me employed.

Time to merely think and feel and be. Time to waste. Time to be productive. Time to keep it slow without rushing to the next thing. Outside my window, stillness. Sometimes my foe. Sometimes my friend.

Friday, January 15, 2016

On abstraction

I went to a student show last night at the Art Students League. The paintings--abstracts, figure, landscapes--were superior and quite unique. I preferred them to a lot of what I recently saw at MoMA. There's so much talent in the world of art--and elsewhere-and in my little Thursday morning painting studio, I try to find my own. Although yesterday, I cast aside reaching for talent. I picked up my widest brush and created what I termed, rebel art.Also known as, I give up.

The challenges I encounter as a "painter," and my use of quotes explains it all--compares in no way to any other creative endeavor I've pursued. Mostly, it's been an uphill battle. Yet I still feel compelled to keep at it, to mix colors, to watch red and blue combine into shades of purple, yellow and blue turn leafy or moss or army green, depending on ratio. I enjoy striping paint across the page, spraying gobs of water and watching everything bleed into something else. But a still life of fruit in a bowl, flowers in a vase, ballet slippers--as everyone was intent on painting yesterday--I'm lost.

I'm not sure what any of that means, except I didn't do the one thing I'd planned for my vacation--write a short story. Sentences fly into my brain, characters' names rest on my tongue. But instead of reaching for the laptop (except for now), I fill my water cups, tape a clean sheet of paper, spray paints, do something.

In the abstract, I want to be a painter. In the concrete, I am a writer who doesn't write. Perhaps this is what my rebel art is telling me--get back to work.


Sunday, January 10, 2016

On creating a life

I was looking for something to read. Unread books are in abundance in my 420 square foot apartment. If they don't fill the bill of what I'm seeking, of course, there is always my NYPL app with an e-book just a click away. And yet, every book I choose, and I choose many (many!), just doesn't pull me out of me.

And so, while rummaging through the top shelf of my closet for a reread of something old, worn and familiar, I came across my own book of essays. I eyed it and wondered, what did I churn away at twenty, ten years ago? I knew that each essay revealed parts of me I may or may not have wanted to recall. And it was likely I'd bump against clunky, cringe-worthy prose. But still, I couldn't help myself--I took the book down and read it. Every single word. I tell you, dear reader, it took guts and courage, and I am not usually a person of guts and courage. But I plowed through, one essay at a time, and I say with no modesty or shame, I was riveted. 

My first book (I just love saying that), is a collection of essays, each wrought (or fraught?) with the agony of separation from my parents, from love gone awry -- sometimes due to my own worst self, from the wrong jobs--own worst self, ditto, from dreams that looked like they wouldn't be fulfilled (read: babies, and I attribute no blame here). And yet, it is not a book of misery, not at all, but rather a road map constructed on the fly of how I created a life. My life. Some of it even made me laugh.

I hope this isn't tacky, reviewing my own book. But then, what I'm really saying is that I needed to remember how I got to where I am today--unmarried, child-free--a state I sometimes cast a negative eye on (own worst self again, judging judging). In reading my own book, or rather, following my road map from where I am now--the place I could never have foreseen, all of it made sense. By "it" I mean, the things I didn't get and the ones I did. And it gave me peace to understand. (Although peace, I admit, comes and goes.)

On that note, of finding a more lasting peace, a friend suggested I read Tara Brach's Radical Acceptance: Embracing Your Life with the Heart of a Buddha. I'm in the middle of it--also a riveting read. Brach writes about so much that I can't dare to misquote, so I'll simply say almost every sentence makes me cry.

Ah--what have I done lately in the realm of tangible creative works (as opposed to my inner life, a continuous work in progress)? At last Thursday's painting studio (right). At left, framed flowers. Below, some fun with creatures.

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

On Prague

I've been thinking of attending The Creativity Workshop in Prague. Or, more aptly, applying for a grant that will get me there in July. So many feelings overtake me when I imagine myself there. I'm a jittery traveler, wedded to the comforts and familiarity of home. And on a deeper level, Prague was the city that was home to my mother and her siblings, after the Holocaust. They found one another--survivors all six--in an apartment set up by the American Red Cross. Prague was the city, too, where my parents met (note gorgeous photo at right). Prague was home to so many other survivors who found spouses, planned lives, and set sail from, landing in America, Israel, Canada, Australia.

Sometimes my feelings of longing and nostalgia frighten me. Writing has been my way to cope, to bring the demons and angels to life and face them front and center; but this has always been from the safety of my American home. (At left, pure serenity.) What will it be like to face these feelings, and others I can't predict, while tracing the tentative footsteps my parents might have taken? From stories my mother told me, I know she reveled in her newfound safety; from the breath of our day-to-day lives, I know she never trusted in safety's permanence. And in some profound ways, neither have I. And so I've lived much of my life buckled in.

To be uncomfortable when faced with the promise and practice of creativity, is a creator's dream. So, too, is to lead with the heart. For one week in July, I imagine my heart swollen with grief and memories of events I never lived. And, too, I might be one-hundred percent wrong. The only thing I know for certain, is that this trip which I've held closely and secretly, is one I feel ready for. Forgiveness of all I didn't undo, all I didn't become, already washes over me., reality, the present moment. My last day of on-site work before a break of five luscious weeks. I make plans for lots of yoga and a social swirl. Get out of myself, get lost in the crush and safety of the world.