Gone Out

There are about six weeks left in this year, which is just nuts. Thanksgiving is next week, and yesterday we got our first real snow. A layer of white knitted the tree branches into delicate lace, while thick layers of white velvet draped on prickling pines. People complained. It was a great day.

This first snow filled me with a feeling of ridiculous hope. There was just something about the fact that something so beautiful can come from wind and cold, and that if that can happen, anything can.

These past few months, I’ve had a good season of writing. But I’ve decided I want to finish out the year being more thoughtful, more contemplative, than productive. I want the space to really notice the beauty and joy of these last few weeks, and to enjoy them without stress, without hurry.

There are some projects I’d like the space to to work on without an immediate need to share. And I want to get back in the habit of producing good work which I share because I love it, not producing just to share.

All this to say, I’m taking a blogging break for the rest of the year. It’s a little retreat, a self-conference. Have a lovely rest of 2018, as we look forward to the new year with joy.

Are You Finished?

At the beginning of this summer I had the opportunity to spend two weeks in Ireland as part of my master’s program. I spent most of those two weeks in writing classes, learning about the craft and business of being a writer.

Each day for two hours or so, I sat down with a little group of fellow students and our mentor, and we workshopped each other’s writing. Workshopping, for writers, is always an inspirational and terrifying experience. It usually consists of sharing a story or a piece of one, and giving your colleagues free reign to say whatever they think of it. Thankfully, my classmates are kind people, but it’s still a fragile experience. While you end up learning a lot about what works and what doesn’t work in your writing, you are putting a piece of your life on a literal table to be dissected. Hours spent thinking, feeling, remembering, and writing are all boiled down to a few sheets of paper that can be marked up and crossed out, and it’s easy to feel judged as a person when the work is the actual thing being judged.

Workshopping, though, is a part of being a writer. Even if you never have a formal sit-down in a room somewhere on the campus of an Irish university (though I definitely recommend it), every writer has to send their work to someone at some point. It might be a friend, a teacher, an editor, or a publisher. In all of these situations, the work will be judged, and you have to learn to chant I’mnotbeingjudged I’mnotbeingjudged in your head the whole time.

For most creative pursuits, the principle is the same: the artist must separate herself from the work in order to take constructive criticism, and to offer constructive criticism herself. You can only grow as a writer if you learn to look at your work objectively.

When the day came for me to share my short story with the workshop, I selected a piece that was several years in the making, and had been written and re-written a few times. I liked the story; I felt confident about it, and that’s really rare for me, let me tell you. The workshop went well, with some good discussions and suggestions from the class, and afterward we had a coffee break.

Usually after a workshop, I stuff all the copies of my work, copies with the scrawled notes and opinions of other people, the teacher, and myself, into a folder. I forget about them for a few months, until I feel strong enough to look back and start working on the errors.

During the coffee break, our mentor, a celebrated Irish writer in her sixties, took me aside. She had a few thoughts about our workshop, and we chatted. Then she asked me,

“Now tell me, is the story finished?”

I felt ill-equipped to answer. “What?”

“Do you feel satisfied that the story is finished?”

“Um…” The truth was, I did. Despite some minor things the class had pointed out, I felt like the story was finished. But I didn’t feel like I had the right to say such a thing. Please tell me, celebrated Irish writer; you’re the expert.

But I answered truthfully. “Yes, I do.”

“Ah, good.” She smiled, satisfied, and we finished our coffee break.

It was a simple question, but it turned my perception on writing and workshopping and the endless cycles of editing on its head. So often in my experience as a writer, I’ve turned to whatever workshop I’m dealing with (formal or informal) to validate whether I’m a good writer or not. I come prepared to feel the burn of judgement, to feel foolish for saying this or that. The little morsels of “I really liked this part” and “you did that well” give me comfort. But at the end I still stuff my work in a folder, feeling rather inadequate, promising myself I’ll work on it later, when I’m ready.

Sometimes, yes, the work is trash. Sometimes other people are smarter than me, and find things to improve in my work. More often than not, actually. But the fact remains that I am still the writer, and as the writer I retain the right to be finished. I retain the right to open the door for suggestions, let a few in, and then shut the door and say, “The discussion has been closed. Thank you for your comments; your insight is very important to us.”

This is a tricky balance, because you don’t want to be too puffed up with the pride of creativity. You don’t want to be that person in a workshop that says, “Well joke’s on you idiots; this here is a finished story! Suck it!” But you don’t want to be a fearful quivering sap either.

I’m learning to go with my gut on these things. I can usually tell I need to pay attention to a constructive criticism when it stings, when it resonates with some deep sense inside of me that says, “Yes, they’re right; that was a bad idea.” Sometimes whole stories feel that way.

But there are times when a suggestion is made for my work, and a very tiny, calm voice in my head says, “No. I disagree.” This voice has thought about it, and is making a level-headed decision, with no hysterics or emotional pain. That’s the voice of the authority-bearing artist, and that’s the voice I can trust.

So for the aforementioned story, I made a few minor changes, and then I put it in a new folder on my computer: “Finished Work.” It was weird to see it so blatantly put. It seemed audacious.

But it also felt good to tell myself I had finished something, to tell myself and the rest of the world that I had worked hard and done well and would work no further. It felt good to think that no matter how ill-received the story might be in the future, that going back and changing it was not an option. From now on, if people didn’t like it, it was a matter of their opinion, and not of my own shortcomings as an artist.

I’m still getting used to this feeling. It’s still frighteningly presumptuous to me. But that artist’s voice still rings in my heart, the one that politely disagrees with my doubts and tells me, “This is finished.”

 

 

A Tourist

 

Yesterday the Russian and I were tourists.

We had breakfast at a random-but-delicious Greek diner in Nashville, then we went to the Parthenon. I’ve been there before, back when I lived in Tennessee for a few months. So for me, it felt less like touristing than it did being a local and showing a newbie the local sights. This, of course, in inaccurate, but it was nice to pretend.

The Russian isn’t really one for the arts, but he did marry a woman with an English degree, so he’s good at dipping his toes in. We milled around the art gallery under the Parthenon, looked at the collection of paintings based on Tennessee state symbols, and pondered how much of a hole buying two $7500 paintings would put us in. His favorite was a closeup of a ladybug on a leaf. Mine was a detail of juniper berries. Neither of us would compromise, so $15000 in debt it is.

It was a gorgeous warm, sunny day, the kind we probably won’t get in Pennsylvania until our annual February thaw. The place was full of people from everywhere, a mix of languages and dialects.

Hearing the Southern accent still makes me do a double take; I’m so unused to it, and I was even when I lived here. It reminds me that even though I consider Nashville an adopted city, even though I can get around without directions and show my husband the local sights, I still prefer a rugged Pittsburgh accent to a Southern one, a mess of damp hills to a dry plain of flatness, pierogis and sauerkraut to barbecue.

Despite everything, I’m still a tourist.

Thoughts for the Creative Juices

“Here, these ought to get your creative juices flowing.” my aunt presented me with a box of vibrant purple glass beads. I was twelve, and in the middle of a jewelry-making phase. Heck yeah it got the creative juices flowing. For the next few years I made necklaces, bracelets, and key chains with those heavy purple glass beads. I paired them with leather cord, silver charms and glass seed beads. It was grand.

The jewelry making craze has passed me by, but the phrase “creative juices” still comes to mind every now and then. Now they pertain more to writing for me. I’ll have bursts of creativity where my cup of juice runneth over and I crank out writing like crazy (today was one of those days). Other times, however, the cup is dry and it’s a struggle just to put a post on this blog.

So, in an attempt to get creative juices flowing, for me and for you, I had some questions and I’d love some feedback. Whether you’re a writer, a painter, a seamstress or any other kind of artist, I hope these thoughts help to spur you on to more creativity and love for what you do! Let me know your thoughts in the comments. We’ll have a bit of a party! :o)

What subject or item do you most love to write about/paint/create?

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Is there a particular theme that always pops up in your writing? Does some kind of symbol always show up in your art? Do you really like to sew the same thing over and over? For me as a writer, I love writing about nature, at least in poetry. To me there’s something about every day that’s beautiful. Nature has so many facets, so many hidden pockets just waiting to be discovered. Even the most dreary, soggy days can be so beautiful. I call them “poetic days” because of their potential. :o)

What emotions/situations cause the desire to create?

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When you feel lonely, do you head for the knitting needles? Does elation make you want to write until kingdom come? Does anger fuel inspiration at your piano? I can get in these really thoughtful moods where I contemplate and question everything (usually on poetic days). These times are best for burrowing deep into my thoughts, usually with a good cup of coffee or tea, and writing what I find. It’s like mining. Other days, though, I skip around clicking my heels and can’t wipe the silly grin off my face. My writing grows whimsical and sweet. Gosh, I’m a very emotional writer, aren’t I? How very womanly of me.

What do you want to use your art for?

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You devote yourself to your art, whatever it is, for hours a day. You gain knowledge and make mistakes. You soar and you plummet. The question is, what do you do it all for?

A lot of people see art in its various forms as a way to express oneself. Some people see this as the only reason for art at all. That reason has never sat well with me. Yes, creative people have to express their inspiration, but just regurgitating your inner creativity for the heck of it doesn’t feel like a good enough reason for me. To me, art is a way to take and interpret the world around us, and to cause others to think about it in a different way. It should build up and encourage the artist and audience, not destruct or discourage. It should bring something new and good to the world. That’s how I want my writing to operate. What do you think? Why do you create what you create?

So, let me know your thoughts! I’d love to get a discussion going on creativity, writing, and art in general. This isn’t usually the kind of post I write, but I don’t hear enough from you folks out there. :) I’m excited to learn more about your art, whatever it may be (and trust me, it can be anything). Hopefully this discussion will inspire you and get your creative juices flowing!

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