Butter Fingers

Butterfingers

Never played cricket, but a quick search reveals those guys make the absolute BEST faces as they’re dropping the ball

Lately I drop a lot of stuff.

This is super frustrating, because it used to be I could catch anything. Okay…actually, I still catch pretty well, but holding on to smaller crap has become much more difficult.

Example: Do not hand me a bunch of pistachios and ask me to hold them in one hand while I crack them open and save the discarded shells in the other hand without at least one – er, okay, maybe more like twenty-one – hitting the floor at one point or another.

You may conclude from this that I eat too many pistachios. You may be correct.

That’s beside the point.

stark handed thingsThe point is more like: expensive medicine or not, that kind of simple stuff is nearly impossible with Parkinson’s.

Which means I’m now more like Tony Stark in yet another way – I don’t like being handed things.

Hey, I’m getting used to it. Just don’t hand me anything and we’re cool.

But hold on, this post isn’t about Parkinson’s or pistachios or Iron Man, it’s about writing. Of course.

A writing career, I think for most writers, is always going to feel like something slippery in your hands, at least a little bit. Something that could easily be dropped at any moment, whether you’re just getting those words on the page, trying to find an agent, already published, whatever.

Because at every one of those stages, there’s rejection. It starts with being brave enough to finally show up at that first critique group and wincing as people talk about the words you’ve put on the page. Then it continues into querying agents, having those agents pitch to publishers, getting reviewed by critics and readers, and on and on and on. Rejection, rejection, rejection.

Every writer I know is facing rejection in some form or another, all the time.

kid-kicking-ball

Future Writer

It can be exhausting, just like having those butter fingers – grabbing something only to drop it, over and over again. Or trying to learn to kick a ball for the first time, because at each stage you feel like you’ve got no idea what you’re doing, that you”ll screw something up, drop the ball, trip over yourself, fall backwards.

Or – maybe worst of all – that someone’s going to notice you standing there and figure out you don’t belong. Good old imposter syndrome.

But I guess if we all DO feel like that, maybe none of us SHOULD feel like that. Because in between those rejections, your successes are hiding, waiting for you in the shadows. And you’ll only find them if you go through the rejections first.

In fact, maybe we start out looking at rejection a little bit wrong. Maybe rejection isn’t something to fear or dread. Maybe rejection is something we all ought to be seeking out.

I recently ran across this post on LitHub, Why You Should Aim for 100 Rejections a Year. The title seems subversive. It can’t possibly be right, can it? Do you want 100 rejections in one year? Really?

Well, yeah, actually, I think you do. The point is, you can only get to where you’re going by working a lot and submitting that work for appraisal. If you submit too early, you’ll know it. But you shouldn’t feel like you’ve made a huge mistake or you’re dropping the ball. You learned something, right?

The anecdote in that LitHub article that stands out to me the most is the comment about the pottery class from the book Art & Fear. Here’s a little outtake from the article, but you should really click over and read the whole thing.

In the book Art & Fear, authors David Bales and Ted Orland describe a ceramics class in which half of the students were asked to focus only on producing a high quantity of work while the other half was tasked with producing work of high quality. For a grade at the end of the term, the “quantity” group’s pottery would be weighed, and fifty pounds of pots would automatically get an A, whereas the “quality” group only needed to turn in one—albeit perfect—piece. Surprisingly, the works of highest quality came from the group being graded on quantity, because they had continually practiced, churned out tons of work, and learned from their mistakes. The other half of the class spent most of the semester paralyzed by theorizing about perfection, which sounded disconcertingly familiar to me—like all my cases of writer’s block.

The other night I was at a dinner with a bunch of artists and this same subject came up. I told a guy the above pottery story, and he said, “That’s just like the Grateful Dead.” He then proceeded to relate how the bass player for the Dead didn’t actually know how to play the instrument when he started joining the band on stage for little gigs. But Jerry Garcia apparently (disclaimer: I’m repeating the story the way it was told to me; I’m not actually a Grateful Dead historian) told him, “Just come and play every night. You’ll learn.”

And, from what I understand, learn he did. I do know the Grateful Dead were around for a minute or two.

So I guess what I want to say is this:

Writers! Don’t let your butter fingers paralyze you. Don’t dread rejection so much that it keeps you from working a lot, from seeking critique and opinion. Whatever stage you find yourself at, don’t be afraid to drop what’s in your hand. Listen, even if you do lose twenty-one pistachio shells, you can always pick them up, throw them out, grab another batch, start over. And I promise there will be success soon enough. Just keep learning from your mistakes.

But really, still don’t hand me anything. That’s just plain wrong.

And I’ll probably drop it anyway.

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89th Academy Awards: So different, so much the same

lego-oscarIt’s Oscars weekend and I’m super excited. I’m a huge movie buff, and this year I’ve seen all but two of the nominees for Best Picture. One is FENCES, which I’m actually hoping to see tonight if I can, and the other is LION, which I probably won’t get to see before the awards tomorrow evening (sorry, LION, it’s definitely nothing personal. You look great.)

So – huge disclaimer – I’m going to write a bit about the movies I have seen, which is sort of unfair to those two that I haven’t. My apologies to everyone involved in those two films for this inequity. I have no doubt they’re amazing.

I really enjoyed all the nominees this year. ARRIVAL stunned me with its unexpected depth and brilliance and big ideas. HIDDEN FIGURES and HACKSAW RIDGE inspired me with the heroism of unknown characters from history who faced insurmountable odds. MANCHESTER BY THE SEA broke my heart more than once. HELL OR HIGH WATER drew an artful picture of the friendship between men and brothers.

Most interesting to me this year, though, are the two seeming front-runners for Best Picture, two movies that couldn’t be more different at a time when it seems our differences are being called out every day with the virtual slashes of a thick, yellow highlighter: LA LA LAND and MOONLIGHT.

LA LA LAND is big and audacious. It’s a musical, and from the opening number that required an entire highway to be shut down so hundreds of people could sing and dance on top of their cars, to the ending, where the movie breaks free from the confines of conventional reality in a gorgeous, bold way, it seems to be constantly seeking to be larger than life. The colors are vivid, the music and songs inspiring, the choreography magical.

I confess I’m not normally a huge musical fan, but I adored LA LA LAND with its inspiring message urging us all to follow our dreams, and its familiar-feeling love story that was equal parts heartwarming and heartbreaking. The filmmakers made no attempt to hide the fact that the movie often reaches out beyond itself, paying homage to several classic films, notably SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN and REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE. Sometimes it felt like the movie wanted to reach out and grab everyone in the audience, too, like it wanted to pull us in one by one – “Sing with us, dance with us,” it seemed to say.

Conversely, I’m not sure I’ve seen a movie recently that’s been more comfortable in its own skin than MOONLIGHT. Which is ironic, since the film features a main character who is anything but comfortable being who he is, especially early in the movie.

“Society isn’t letting Chiron be who he is,” the movie seemed to whisper to us, “but you’re damn-well going to let us be who we are for these next two hours.”

Where LA LA LAND wanted to reach out to us, MOONLIGHT stayed within itself and its main character. It remained focused on telling the story of one man’s struggle – a gay, black man – in society as he aged from boy to adolescent to man, in some ways a small story that was actually huge. MOONLIGHT doesn’t reach out and grab you so much as it leaves a door ajar just a small crack, and asks you to have the courage to push it open and stay for awhile.

I was particularly moved by the third act. The writers, actors and direction came together to show an incredible amount of restraint in completing their story in a way that felt entirely authentic and moving. All it was, really, was life, such as it is for some of us, right there on the screen. The heartbreak of life, the way each of us is challenged to find our way in this difficult place, how we search for happiness in the small things, the way we break each other’s hearts, the times we find comfort in each other.

It would’ve been easy to be over the top in a variety of ways in that last act, which is primarily made up of a conversation between two men – old friends with a history. But the writers kept the dialogue sparse and meaningful. The actors were moving, portraying their characters with a subtlety and grace that felt true to life, and the director guided them all with what felt like a practiced, sensitive and restrained hand.

So it strikes me how incredibly different these movies are from one another, how incredibly varied life itself is. Big vs. small, predominately white vs. predominately black, loud vs. quiet – and yet, also, they were the same in so many important, fundamental ways – inspiring, heartbreaking, heartwarming, innovative.

I’m not sure which one should win Best Picture, and I won’t pretend to be enough of an expert to even hazard a guess. I do know that some folks feel MOONLIGHT should win because it, in some sense, is a more important film socially. That’s probably true. It gives voice and stands up for a segment of our population that needs someone and something standing up for them just now.

What I hope is the best movie wins. And MOONLIGHT may in fact be the better movie. If it doesn’t win, I hope folks won’t lose sight of the fact that it has ALREADY stood up.

For myself, I’ll be overjoyed for either movie’s success. They both really challenged, inspired and spoke to me this year. In that way, for me, they’ve both already won.

Now we just wait for the little golden statue. Good luck to all the nominees Sunday night.

Clean

The envious CLEAN sticker

The envious CLEAN sticker

For a couple of years, I’ve been getting phlebotomies, which is a procedure in which a giant (hey, to me it’s giant) needle is stuck in my arm and a big bag of blood is drained from me.

I’ve whined about it before, I’m sure, somewhere, so I won’t go into great detail here. I know for sure I wrote a short story about it, which is called – creatively – PHLEBOTOMY. The fact it morphed into a vampire story should tell you all you need to know about how I usually feel leading up to and during this procedure.

My phlebotomies are done at a cancer facility. I don’t have cancer (thankfully), but that’s where they’re done. After I meet with the doctor, I’m led into a sunny area with walls of windows and recliners that might even look pleasant at first, but it’s not really because pretty much everyone else there is getting chemotherapy, which I’ve no doubt is a lot less fun than a phlebotomy.

I can pick any chair I want, and most of them are usually empty. The only rule is the chair I pick has to be “clean” – in other words, one someone wasn’t just in – and this is notated by a strip of white paper with a block of yellow in the middle that has the black letters “CLEAN” stamped on it.

Yesterday I had a phlebotomy. It doesn’t take that too long, but I do always, of course, bring something to read or work on (though I’m deathly afraid to move my arm while it’s going on – did I mention the needle is GIANT?)

On this particular day I brought with me a printout of a manuscript I recently completed. I’m letting it “sit” – mostly – but on occasion I take a tour through it and check it out, and that’s what I was up to on phlebotomy-day.

I picked out my “clean” recliner, set my manuscript on the side table, and moved the white strip of paper off the seat so I could sit down. It wasn’t until I was settled into the recliner that I noticed I had dropped the strip onto the top of my manuscript. It rested there aslant, as if someone had given it the once over and decided it was ready to go (note that it is FAR from ready to go), that it was “CLEAN.”

And it got me to thinking.

Whether or not the recliners are clean is a pretty objective thing – there’s some procedure that’s followed, a set of defined steps, a particular cleanser that’s used, whatever. The point is, at the end of these steps, the nurse can slap the “clean” tag down and, boom…clean. Nobody’s going to argue.

I recently submitted a new manuscript to lots of people (NOT the one I was reading during my phlebotomy, a different MS). When we writers send our work out this way, it’s a real act of faith. We cringe. We worry. We fret. And we hope, above all, that it comes back with that CLEAN tag aslant across the top, some rough form of it, anyway.

In my particular case, it did – from several folks. (Well, not “clean,” exactly. No piece of writing can ever quite get that particular stamp, but “good” as in “continue revising.”) But a person or two had the opposite reaction. The MS needed a lot of work, according to them, possibly enough to give serious consideration to moving on to a different project entirely.

Because reacting to a piece of writing, unlike cleaning a recliner, isn’t objective at all.

Nope. It’s sooooo subjective.

These reactions have been spinning around in my head for a couple of weeks, causing endless confusion as to What I Should Do Next. Should I move to the next project, leaving this book I cared about and loved so much behind? Should I stick to my guns? Something in between?

I think this is the normal, constant state of the writer – staring off into space contemplating What I Should Do Next. I hope that’s normal, anyway, because, man, seems like That’s All I Ever Do.

So it was that I stared down with some envy at the white strip of paper erroneously declaring my even newer MS to be “CLEAN.” Jealous of those objective, definable steps to that status for the recliner. Wishing writers, too, could rely on a single person to declare a book or a story is “CLEAN”…as in “DONE”, that this assessment was a Yes or No question at all.

Then my envy disappeared, because I realized something else – that subjectivity (or rather, lack of objectivity) is part of the magic of writing. After all, the beauty of how different we are, while still being the same underneath, is one of the very reasons I write.

And the thing is, no writing is ever clean, is it?

  • If your critique partners love it, your agent might not.
  • If your agent loves it, editors might not.
  • If an editor loves it, not all readers will.
  • If readers mostly love it, the critics might not.
  • If readers and critics both adore it, it might get made into a movie, and maybe movie-goers won’t like it
  • Even if you’re Shakespeare, some dude will log on to Amazon and give you one star centuries after your death. Jeez.

So we must learn to appreciate this part of the process, the wonder of trying to get a story right when no one can agree on what right even is.

To appreciate that all of us have our own version of “CLEAN” and it’s different. Awesomely, gorgeously Different.

I still have no idea what I’m going to do. I probably need to decide soon. But phlebotomies, though I kinda hate them, always make me feel a little better. This one especially so.

You Can’t Kill Art

Rose

“Rose”
Artist: Mary Negron

So I was reading an op ed the other day prompted by a rumor that Kentucky Governor Matt Bevin planned to defund the Kentucky Arts Council in his first budget. As it turns out, the Arts Council budget survived, although funding was cut by nine percent.

The author of the original op ed piece, Kentucky poet Maurice Manning, wrote about visionary printer Victor Hammer. He fled Nazi Germany in the ’40s when Hitler tried to eliminate art as part of his reign’s efforts at suppressing culture. Hammer landed in Kentucky and became a big part of the creation of a culture in Lexington that attracted other artists, an “influx” of sorts.

This got me thinking.

We see this a lot, don’t we? Some of the recent insanity in the Middle East has led to the destruction of art and culture. Fascists and zealots and fanatics try to kill art all the time. It’s a tactic employed throughout history, a first step toward subjugating a people, because the artists are usually among the first to challenge and question authority.

Sumi-e Koi

“Sumi-e Koi”
Artist: Mary Negron

Here’s the thing I decided, though. No matter how hard you try, you can’t kill art.

Let me say that again.

You can’t kill art.

Not in a culture or a person or a race or a country. You can’t.

When you bring your heel down on it, like Hitler did, you don’t smash it. You break open a seed pod, and the seeds spread out and away. Like Victor Hammer coming to Kentucky and helping to launch a whole new arts culture there. I don’t have a list, but that got me wondering how many places how many other people forced to flee Nazi Germany landed. How many other arts cultures, conclaves, influxes – whatever – were started in these places by these people Hitler attempted to suppress.

Warrior 3

“Warrior 3”
Artist: Suzy Schultz

And how ironic it is that Hitler didn’t kill art. He couldn’t. He could only spread it.

I’ve no doubt if some artists depending on the funding in Kentucky were forced to leave the state, had it been cut entirely, they wouldn’t have stopped making art. Being artists.

No, they would’ve spread out. To Tennessee and Ohio. To Indiana and Missouri and Georgia.

Because you can’t kill art.

My wife is a painter, and she recently returned from a trip to Marco Island for a painting workshop. One of her favorite quotes from the instructor was that we artists are “tenderized.” We get beat up a lot, told our work has no merit, receive subtle – and not so subtle – suggestions we should quit.

Solitude

“Solitude”
Artist: Mary Negron

I’ve had this experience myself. More than a few people have gone out of their way to make negative comments about my work to me, some without even reading it. All artists experience this. These people exist; it hurts when they speak up. A few times, I’ve even taken a little break after hearing from one of them.

But I always come back to my art, to my writing. Because you can’t kill it in me.

My work hasn’t always touched as many people as I would like it to, but I keep pushing forward, undaunted. Trying new things, being an artist. Pursuing my artistic goals.

And now I have a new goal. I want to spread art.

Last year, I helped my wife and several others write a grant proposal for a children’s art festival. We’ve got lofty goals. A full day of painting and music and writing and theater activities, for kids of all ages.

We were awarded the grant.

Hotel Bloom Lobby in Brussels, Belgium

Hotel Bloom Lobby in Brussels, Belgium

So now our event is this real thing. It will be held in April. If you follow this blog or me on Twitter or Facebook, I’ll announce more details when they’re available. I know at minimum I’ll be leading the writing portion and I’m really excited about that. I’ve even started to plan out the sessions and some other folks have had some great ideas for writing-related booths we’ll have on hand as well.

The thing is, I keep getting a little thrill imagining the next JK Rowling or JJ Abrams might come, and be inspired to create, to let their own unique art light shine, by this little event they went to as a kid. Or maybe a kid who becomes an engineer or a doctor, but harbors a lifelong appreciation of art because of the exposure we give them to it.

In the Garden

“In the Garden”
Artist: Mary Negron

Maybe, either way, we’ll never know. I sort of love that, the idea of sending bottles with little art messages in them out into the ocean, never sure who might be on the other end or how they’ll receive their discoveries.

Here’s what I think I know for sure, though.

I think, once that seed of art appreciation grows in you, it’s hard to kill.

Impossible, even.

It’s Alive!

young-frankensteinHappy Halloween, 2015!

So I’m reading The Sunlit Night by Rebecca Dinerstein, and I’m really enjoying it.

Some books have these passages that strike you. You know the ones – they speak to you in a way that makes you put the book down and stare off into the distance for a few minutes. This morning I ran across just such a passage in Ms. Dinerstein’s work:

===========================

Halfway between the asylum and the town, Nils pulled over and turned off the car. “It’s blue,” he exclaimed, pointing down to a rocky lake beside the road, and also up to the sky. “Blue and orange. Are complementary colors,” Nils said urgently. “If you look at something orange, a paper, for fifteen seconds, and then you look at a white paper, your eye makes blue. The same with yellow and violet. I use yellow and red, and the eye wants violet, so it is living.”

“It is living,” I affirmed, and Nils restarted the car, looking relieved.

–  Rebecca Dinerstein, The Sunlit Night

===========================

One of my favorite concepts in writing is “the reader is your final collaborator.” I’ve probably talked about it here on the blog before. It thrills me that a person can read a piece of my writing, anyone’s writing, bringing with them their own life experiences, and the words can mean something new and unique to them. And the next person, reading the very same passage, may interpret it in his / her own way and completely differently. And that both unique interpretations may be different from my original intention but entirely valid nonetheless.

Having readers brings your writing to life. It completes your writing.

Songs are this way, too. I’m always saying that if I ever told certain artists what their songs and lyrics mean to me, they’d probably laugh because it would have nothing to do with their original intentions.

And so, just like paintings and colors live, as Ms. Dinerstein’s character Nils says, because the viewer’s eye creates a color that isn’t there, or has an expectation that needs to be fulfilled, stories come to life because of the interpretations and experiences and perspectives of their readers.

I think this is so great. I’m really looking forward to the day when I can have that final collaboration with more and more readers. I hope those future readers can look at the white pages with their black words and that their minds create endless colors.

That would be really cool. Because then it would be alive.

It's Alive!

 

 

That Thing Van Gogh said about Fan Fiction

One of Van Gogh's self-portraits in the Musee d'Orsay

One of Van Gogh’s self-portraits in the Musee d’Orsay

This past weekend I found myself in Paris, wandering through the Musee d’Orsay. If you don’t know it, it’s not far from the Louvre, an old converted railway station on the left back of the Seine that became a museum in the 1980s. Its main claim to fame is that it houses a huge collection of extraordinary works from the Impressionists – Monet, Manet, Renior, Degas and on and on and on. It’s really an extraordinary museum.

Leave it to me, though, amidst all that French artistic excellence, to get inspired by the Dutch guy. But yes, it was in the Van Gogh rooms where I was staring at The Siesta, which happened to include an audio accompaniment, that I had some of those “deep thoughts” I tend to have in museums.

I plugged the code for the painting into my English-language audio device and listened to the narration. The piece was a reproduction Van Gogh had done of another artist’s work, Millet. Van Gogh commented on doing this type of activity – painting after a previous artist but applying his own interpretation – in a subsequent letter to his brother:

“What I’m seeking in it, and why it seems good to me to copy them, I’m going to try to tell you. We painters are always asked to compose ourselves and to be nothing but composers.
Very well – but in music it isn’t so – and if such a person plays some Beethoven he’ll add his personal interpretation to it – in music, and then above all for singing – a composer’s interpretation is something, and it isn’t a hard and fast rule that only the composer plays his own compositions.”
-Vincent Van Gogh, letter to Theo Van Gogh circa September, 1889
The Siesta

The Siesta

I stood there a moment and stared at the colors Van Gogh chose to utilize, the subtle ways he had departed from the original work, keeping its essence yet making it his own, and started thinking about the famous artist’s comment about music as it related to writing. It struck me as true that musicians have the unique opportunity to practice their art by performing the great works of those who came before them – Beethoven or Mozart, etc. And that Van Gogh had discovered a way to do this same thing in the world of painting.

But what about writing? I’d heard that Hunter S. Thompson had once re-typed both Hemmingway’s A Farewell to Arms and Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby just to immerse himself in the flow and rhythm of his idols’ words. But you can’t do much with this kind of exercise, can you? I mean, you can’t really “perform” a previous writer’s work. All you can do is copy it. And if you copy it, if you merely re-type it, well, that might be an interesting little project, but you aren’t adding your own spin to it, your own color and interpretation. You aren’t “performing” the work.

I mean, as far as I know that’s true. I confess I’ve never re-typed another writer’s entire novel. And probably never will.

So, it doesn’t really exist in writing, this concept of performance, I told myself.

Then I realized…wait. What about Fan Fiction?

Some Monet, because I really shouldn't post about a French museum without him.

Some Monet, because I really shouldn’t post about a French museum without him.

Honestly, I’ve never felt like I understood it before. But I have been thinking about it some lately. Neil Gaiman’s most recent collection of stories, Trigger Warning, contains a Dr. Who story, with the Matt Smith Doctor and Amy Pond and everything. As Gaiman has written a couple of episodes of the real show, this is probably more Authorized Fiction than Fan Fiction but still, the idea of it intrigued me, as I’ve always been a big Dr. Who fan.

It occurred to me: what a great way to practice the art of writing – to take someone else’s characters, their rich world and continuity – some other art you really admire – and to build on top of it by telling your own story with your own spin, adding your particularly unique color and style.

So I realized…maybe Fan Fiction is this great form of writing practice. Maybe Fan Fiction is an opportunity for a writer, like Van Gogh was doing nearly 150 years ago as a painter, to take another artist’s work and perform their own interpretation, to change the colors, to play with the form. To add to the compendium. To keep its essence but layer your own style over the top.

And suddenly I thought maybe I understood Fan Fiction a little better.

"Small Dancer Aged 14" - Edgar Degas. Because art.

“Small Dancer Aged 14” – Edgar Degas. Because art.

Then there are comic books, one of my first loves of writing and reading. I’d love to write a comic book some day. WOULD. LOVE. I even have plots in mind for some of my favorites – Swamp Thing, Daredevil, Fantastic Four – and almost always they would be stories fashioned after some of my favorite comic writers, inspired by their work with the same characters and worlds, but with my own spin, with my unique color palette applied over the top, like a layer. Or, maybe, like viewing the same world through a different prism, a new interpretation.

Oh, and then there’s reading, where each reader brings his or her own perspective to any writer’s work, acting as the final collaborator so that no book is interpreted exactly the same way when read by different people. This, too, is a sort of performance of the writing, I think. And audiobooks. And movies.

That Van Gogh was on to something, I think.

I’m on the plane back to the States and I’m really tired, so too many deep Van Gogh thoughts might not be the best idea just now. I think I’ll stop here. Besides, if I talk about Fan Fiction too much longer, Fifty Shades of Gray is bound to come up and none of us needs that, I’m sure.

Instead, let me get back to writing up my Swamp Thing proposal. And finishing my Dr. Who story.