Tag Archives: Vermont Studio Center

Vanity, thy name is … self-absorption

I lived in Boston for four years, between college and grad school. Near the end of that time, my roommate asked if I didn’t think, in the coming  years, that I would tire of my Saturday morning ritual of brunch and reading the New York Times cover to cover. I had probably been waxing irritatingly rhapsodic about the pleasures of the crossword, pancakes and coffee at Johnny D’s.

The New York Times Book Review

The New York Times Book Review (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I cannot remember how  my twenty-something self answered. But after enjoying brunch this past Sunday AM with my 11 y.o., and then reading all of the NYT on our front porch with the dog curled beside me,  my answer is No. This sequence of earthly pleasures does not bore me.

Perhaps it’s not tiring because of its irregularity. Perhaps it’s not tiring because although the generalities are the same, the particulars (where brunch is eaten, what brunchy-foods are consumed; the current events, scandals, and books reviewed in the NYT) are not the same. Perhaps it’s not tiring because my personality prefers sameness to novelty. Perhaps it’s not tiring because I like to perceive myself as a foodie with literary tendencies: a sort of vanity.

No matter the reason I choose, it’s of my own making: it’s whatever story I choose to tell myself. And for decades I have told myself that my kinky, curly hair is ugly (this post touches on my neurosis during the Farrah Fawcett era), an encumbrance to be minimized.

Boing boing curls!

Then aforementioned 11 y.o. emerged onto the planet with curlycurlyRED hair. Had it on day one, has it now. As it grew, its fuzzy frizziness developed into what a friend describes as boing-boing curls. H’mmm. I wondered if my hair — cut short for convenience and to minimize use of Very Expensive Curl Suppressing Product post-shower —  would do the same. My hair stylist (a veritable hair genius, Doty at Inside Out Salon) thought it would, and after eighteen months of haircuts that were more trims than cuts, it has, in fact developed those boing-boing curls.

It’s also attained enough length to try a “keratin treatment.” I splurged and asked Doty to do it. What the heck. It would wear off in five to six weeks and Doty assured me it would loosen my curls.

Curls begone …

A keratin treatment has several steps; the most relevant is the final one, where the hair is flat ironed. When Doty finished, I didn’t recognize myself. While it was fun having straight hair for a day, I was unsettled to discover that when I looked in the mirror, I saw a boring, brainless American consumer. I’ve conflated my wild hair with creativity and discernment.

Even more interesting to the writerly side of myself was the reaction of my friends when I washed my hair and the stick-straightness vanished, replaced by the looser curls Doty predicted. “Oh!” many (not all) of them said. “The curl came right back.”

To my eye, the curl had not come right back. The curl was very different. The curl was loose, almost lank. The curl had to be enhanced with a curling iron. The curl wasn’t kinky, but smooth. The curl was lovelier, doggone it! But this vanity wasn’t affirmed  by my friends. They saw curl. (See end of post for side-by-side photos of curl.)

Fascinating!, and both humbling and liberating. All that effort, and the day after, not many folks can tell the difference. H’mmm. No one *cares* what I look like. I am reminded of John Gregg’s welcoming comments at Vermont Studio Center in 2011: most of the people in the world are working for pennies a day. They DO NOT CARE that you are here at the studio center, agonizing over the composition of your painting or your essay. You are free to do what you will; perhaps it may further human peace or understanding, perhaps it will never leave the four walls of your studio. But if you have the privilege of time to engage in creative playwork (to change your hair texture), do so without self-censorship, and without expectation that anyone else out there gives a rat’s ass (will notice your smoother, softer curl). Do it because you love it, because it slakes your thirst, because it keeps you sane.

And do it because it calls us to examine our assumptions about what appearance indicates. Tattoos, piercings, baggy jeans, baseball caps, heavy makeup, age, skin color, gender — I hazard to guess we all have our own ideas about what a person with any one of those characteristics is “like.” And I hazard to guess that our ideas only skim the surface of the totality of their humanity, emphasis on surface.

Of course initial impressions are important (see this article about “the Naked Face” by Malcolm Gladwell for interesting info about how quickly we can register others’ intentions) but engaging with each other is more important.

pre-keratin curls

Let’s practice suspending judgement. Let’s practice talking past our hairstyles, tattoos, piercings, and clothing choices. Let’s practice seeking the glimmer beneath our surfaces. The most interesting stories lie beneath.

post-keratin curls … but does it really matter?

If it doesn’t work, HIDE IT.

Image via Wikipedia http://commons.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Vick_6.jpg

Michael Vick

I don’t know whether you live with, or are yourself a football fan, but earlier this week, a lot of the media talked about Michael Vick’s concussion. There’s been increased awareness and studies made public about the brain damage football players suffer throughout their lives, from the “micro-concussions” they experience with every collision through to being knocked completely unconsciousness, and coaches and athletes are starting to take notice.

Michael Vick is a conversation starter in my family, in part because we live in Blacksburg, where he attended Virginia Tech before turning pro. Before the dog-fighting and subsequent jail term. We marveled at his prowess on the field, and make no mistake: though I didn’t know a first down from a touchdown when I met my husband, I’ve become minimally knowledgeable about the sport in the decades since. I’ve spent my share of conversational fuel on the debate about the sport’s brutality, the kinesthetic intelligence, the racism, the scandals, etcetera. And I feel comfortable admitting that when a player catches a hail Mary pass and runs it to the end zone, or a running back jukes out the defense and sprints away, it’s as lovely to behold as a masterful novelist’s opening paragraphs.

Nonetheless, when we had a son, I declared, “he will never play football.” Most of the “nevers” I’ve declared as a parent I’ve had to eat at some point. “I’ll never drive a minivan.” Took me six months with two kids to choke those down. “I’ll never let him eat dessert first.” Well, the dessert was carrot cake but the principle was definitely violated.

Son #1 heading for contact with the ground ...

However, with football, I’ve held firm. Despite my oldest son’s passionate love of the game. Despite his friends’ participation. Despite his promise he would “only be a kicker, mom, and there’s a penalty if they get tackled.”

I wavered briefly once, when the Town’s rec league offered a summer sandlot camp. But during the week I wavered, I watched my kid’s soccer game with a friend, who’d played football in college. After we’d all winced on the sidelines at a particularly painful collision between our eight-year olds, he commented, “soccer is a contact sport. Football is an assault sport.” My gut instinct confirmed with his assessment, the wavering steadied and hasn’t returned. That’s one permission slip I’ll never sign.

The connection to art-making, the practice of writing?

Well, holding fast to depriving my sons of football has entailed a LOT of conversation about why they can’t play, which for me, when they were younger, was simple: I think it’s bad for your body, especially your head. You get hit too hard. This wasn’t a lie or even stretching the truth: I don’t think our skulls are designed to protect our brains from repeated, hard, sudden impacts.

Mama Bear and Cub

Image by Bob Jagendorf via Flickr

And now the evidence is bearing out this mama bear’s gut instinct. Helmets are being redesigned, the NFL has been shamed into participating in studies to track brain damage on its players. Vick says he feels fine but a neurologist will ultimately decide whether and when he plays again.

Ever have a “mama bear” reaction to an idea but you didn’t follow up on it and a year later you saw the picture you imagined hanging in a gallery? A book review  describing “your” plot? A poem glowing with “you”  imagery?

Yeah, me too.

I’d like to blame circumstance (see above re: conversations with children about why they can’t play football. Multiply by 24/7, on a range of topics and time for creative effort has vanished like a will-o-the-wisp!). I’d like to say I’m just not as “good” a writer as those who did publish.

Image by Xevi V via Flickr

Fingers + toes = 20

But that’s a cop-out. The number of “genius” level writers alive at any one time on the planet can probably be counted on one’s fingers and toes. The number of those actually writing can be counted on fingers only.

Truth is, I was afraid. Afraid my ideas were stupid. That I couldn’t do it.

Release from fear is one of the presents Time brings in its  gift-jammed goodie bag. Although I’m beginning to experience very real physical limitations —  my eyes are going, my short-term memory isn’t so much memory as an exercise in frustration (and the poem “Forgetfulness” by Billy Collins describes this PERFECTLY), I need more sleep than I used to, my muscle mass is waning and my neck hurts if I spend too much time at the computer  —  I have figured out that fear isn’t the reason to ignore my gut.

The visual artist Gary Stephan put it beautifully during a presentation at Vermont Studio Center in March 2011. If an image or an idea captures you, play with it. Paint it. Write it down. In other words, don’t “think” yourself out of the idea that it is or could be, Art. Yes, with a capital “A.”

And then the kicker: “If it doesn’t work, hide it.”

Image by Andreas-photography via Flickr

Private

Duh! I can just squirrel away that horrific haiku under my old address book. Or burn it entirely. No one need ever know I thought road kill rhymed effectively with bode ill. Even if I were a famous writer, my missteps would be entirely my own. Unlike pop singers and football stars, writers and most other artists have the privilege of trying out new stuff, and failing, privately.

While I relish the cloak of relatively invisibility my creative work allows me, I’m also grateful for the very public triumphs, mistakes, restitution and subsequent acceptance onto the Philadelphia Eagles that Vick’s journey teaches. It illustrates what my Unitarian Universalist (interim) minister Alex Richardson calls “praxis,” a variation on my idea of practicing creativity:

Humans make promises to each other.

We break those promises.

And then we renew the promise and try again.

It’s not a painful stretch to:

Artists make promises to themselves … to sit down and do the work of creation.

They fail, opting instead to eat, train for 5Ks, read, blog (!), raise children, cook elaborate five-course French dinners, do the crossword in under 5 minutes – anything rather than stare down another blank page.

They swallow literal or metaphorical aspirins and show up at the desk again and sharpen their pencils and put the words down again.

A decade later we may or may not have published those words. But we’ve got ‘em. It’s up to us to decide whether and how to market our words in the slippery-fast current of today’s world of publishing.

Image by Cookieater2009 via Flickr

a writer's best friend

Sit down. Write. Erase it. Forgive yourself. Start again.

Letting your Freak Flag Flap in the Wind … or not

Image by kendiala via Flickr

Sometimes, you just gotta let your freak flag fly

My college-era friend George Clark, not only has a blog, a fulltime job as a reference librarian, two kids, and a long commute, but a creative heart and soul. He has a respectable and, imo, charming collection of song lyrics. He even bought Robert Ray’s The Weekend Novelist after I shared its effectiveness for me. Although, he said, he wants to rip the cover off it so others – security guards, colleagues – won’t know the full extent of his creative heart and soul.  Nonetheless, he concluded in one of his emails, “Guess I should just let my freak flag fly.”

This line sparked all sorts of thoughts for me, but first and foremost: do we need to let our freak flags fly? YES, part of me roars. Or yells. Or says sort of loudly. Or whispers to my reflection in the bathroom mirror. Surely it is less “freakish” to create than to go through society’s routines without reflection, thought, reaction. But. Society with a capital-S dominates more often than not through its power to squish and homogenize our individual freakiness.

Four years ago, fresh from my first month-away-from-family retreat at Vermont Studio Center, I was working, hard, on my novel. Inspired, passionate, outline in hand, I labored on it at every available moment. In this particular instance, I was in Gillie’s (fabulous vegetarian cuisine, one place my now-husband took me when he wanted to convince me Blacksburg could be home. His clever, ultimately successful strategy included Gillie’s egg-n-cheese biscuits.)

Image by chersland via Flickr

Gillie's specials ... one way to Lesley's heart

I’d enjoyed my two eggs, home fries and toast, and I was nursing a cup of tea. My fingers were fairly flying across the keys due to the residual butter from said toast. “X” had also eaten there, with colleagues, and we’d exchanged a brief, friendly hello. But.

As X’s colleagues left and they rose to pay the check X stopped at my table. “Working on the great American novel? Delete, delete, delete!” These last words accompanied by gestures meant to indicate hitting the delete button repeatedly.

Did I engage in witty repartee, tease that X’s work (bureaucratic paper-pushing for a large commercial institution) was perhaps more worthy of deletion than my own efforts, did I look affronted or offended or reveal any sort of hurt? Nope. I laughed as unpublished authors, un-galleried artists, un-sung lyricists are wont to do, and X moved on, quickly, thank gawd, and my screen blurred with my brimming tears and I went to the restroom right quick and choked on a huge throat-full of sorrow and shame, and flushed the commode.

And became very, very angry.

No one would ever say: “working on a business plan? Deletedeletedelete!” Or, “designing on the curriculum for your freshman English class? Deletedeletedelete!” Or, “campaigning for [insert political candidate of your choice]? Deletedeletedelete.” (Ok, Gingrich’s staff did say that, but that was a rare event.)

While George hasn’t said his colleagues are insulting his copy of Rey’s book and the subsequent implication that he’s exploring the foothills of novel-writing’s mountain, I think it behooves us to be careful about how and with whom we share our tender shoots of creativity. Julia Cameron covered this territory brilliantly in The Artist’s Way, and I encourage folks to use that resource to systematically work through their decisions about how and with whom to share their efforts.

Image by kingmagic via Flickr

Tender ...

But bottom line for me, at this point, is: if it feels tender, it is tender. You are not obligated to share with anyone what you undertake in your private time or what you’re typing on your laptop or dreaming up in your head during those incredibly boring Powerpoint presentations. This includes spouses.

X isn’t someone I socialize with save once or twice a year, and the only way they knew about my novel was through a mutual friend, who supports my writing unequivocally. I’ve hardly sworn anyone to secrecy about my efforts; after all, it’s often the friend-of-a-friend who has productive connections or insights. Ultimately, my friend’s support outweighs the ickiness of X’s poor word choice (and X isn’t a bad person; they’d be sorry to know how their casual words affected me. I certainly have long since forgiven them; we all say things intending to be funny that fall flat. My reaction is mine.)

Image by iluvcocacola via Flickr

Give your babies a nest, tucked away from prying eyes

Nonetheless, I’m more cautious since the deletedeletedelete comment. We need to protect our creative babies. Shelter them until we’re clear that our art is not us. For me, that process looks like this: first the words are all about me, my response to a real or imagined situation. Then something about the story flat-out doesn’t work, and I have to change the structure/theme/rhyme scheme/perspective. That change demands others and this iterative practice, for me, at least, results in a piece that is about my craft, but not about me. Ideally the story will connect with others – in their own way. I’ve been surprised by what others see in my stories, often pleasantly so, sometimes less-pleasantly so – but once the story is done, readers’ reactions are their own, and have nothing to do with me, personally. If someone wants to deletedeletedelete my story, that’s fine.

And if I want the opportunity to practice the iterative tweaking and playing my writing requires, then I have to guard my space – literally and figuratively. Novelist and short story writer Margot Livesey’s strategy to sustain the “energy” of her stories has, upon occasion, involved making up another story to tell her friends and colleagues – a fiction to cover her fiction. Eventually, she notes, you have to tell folks that the fictional fiction didn’t work out but in the meantime it provides great cover! Here’s an excellent interview with Livesey by Valerie Compton.

Image by outlier* via Flickr

o joyous belly rub!

Let your creative self roll around in the warm summer grass, wiggly and grinning like a dog. No one can stop you from frolicking and basking in your mind when you need it. Especially if they have no idea you’re having that much fun.

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A grab-bag of ideas for “cover stories” to guard the spaces you need: taxes, filing, de-cluttering, sorting family photos, working on your will. Others? Tell us in the comments section.