Monday, September 28, 2009

Distractions and the iTunes Elves

It seems that whenever I turn my iTunes on “shuffle” and just let the music play, the right songs - with the right messages for that moment - come through. Cold Play, “A Message,” Eva Cassidy, “Songbird,” then “Thank U” by Alanis Morrissette, “Your Body is a Wonderland” by John Mayer, and finally “Feelin’ Groovy” by Simon & Garfunkel. I was needing a message - a song of hope - to remind myself that when I am feeling low, to be thankful anyway, and no less to remember that I am a wonderland and that makes me feel groovy. What’s up with the little elves in my computer that know just what to play for me, exactly at the right time and depending on my mood? I was needing inspiration, and I got it. Music heals, I tell you. Truly does.

I apologize to my ten subscribers (p.s. I love you!) that I haven’t written a blip in about three weeks. Like many other things in my life, I’m often gung-ho, uber-psyched for the first few rounds. It’s just the next thousand that I need help with. My friend, Christine, made a similar comment about exercise. The first week, we loose five pounds of water weight and feel amazing. The next week? We gain .5 and that second slice of chocolate cake looks way to good to be wasted. What is it that makes us – let’s call ourselves – artists (we all are in some way) loose our momentum? Distractions? Yes. The television. An amazing king-sized, super-soft bed and a God-given ability to hit the snooze button as many times as we darn well please. A phone call. Dinner. The opposite sex. Sex, for that matter. That incredibly interesting 7th episode of Lost (season 1) that I just have to see because I can in an instant (…now that I got Netflix. I tried to avoid the whole scam that is television by conscientiously choosing not to have a television, but Netflix has me hooked. Do you know about this service, people? You should! --- just kidding. I’m the turtle in the tech race…but, remember who won the race, folks! That’s right! anyway…)

Speaking of…distractions, digressions…these things that keep me from writing. What is so darn compelling about them that they pull me away from what I love? I love writing. I really do. I get lost in it. Time rolls by. Suddenly it’s three hours later and I’m taking a breath. It is the “Rhythm of [my] Life” (Paula Cole song presently playing on my iTunes shuffle). I love writing, so why is it always the first thing to be sacrificed when the schedule gets full? Or better yet, why do I fill my schedule with everything but writing? Why do I not carve out time for the thing I love most? This blog is so fun! I don’t even care if people read it (though it is extremely gratifying to get a “comment’ in my inbox…so keep ‘em coming fellow artistas!)!

I just love to write stuff. Since I was little. When I was like seven or eight, I wrote this really funny 7-page story. (I remember being very proud of the number of pages – SEVEN!). It was very complex. I wrote about a cat that chased a mouse around the house and finally the mouse stopped running one day to ask the cat, “Why are you doing this?” The cat couldn’t come up with a good answer for the senseless roundabouts, so the two decided to become friends.

I wrote the story in big block letters in a little black journal. I think I even skipped lines – I was taking myself very seriously. The left margin, however, progressively crowded in towards the right margin, which made the text on each page shaped like an upside-down pyramid. I had a hard time with margins, I suppose…and coloring in the lines for that matter. In fact, my kindergarten teacher told my mother I would never be creative. Isn’t that funny? What is it with those kindergarten teachers? Well, I did turn out to be creative (So there, Mrs. Whateveryournamewasnotnicewoman!). I’m just right-brained (hence, the right-leaning margins). Anyway, the cat/mouse plot was my first creative story. It had an exposition (“once upon a time…”), some rising action (…”round and round they went every day…”), a climax (“…the mouse turns to the cat and says, “Why are you chasing me, anyway?”) and a resolution (“…and they lived happily ever after.”) Not totally original, but a story nonetheless. I was in 3rd grade maybe? I have kept a journal ever since. I think I wrote a story for a contest in Owl Magazine, too. Didn’t win a Pulitzer for that one, but it’s all good (they probably just lost my entry). It’s not about the fame, anyway, but for solitary souls like us writers, seeing something you’ve written in print is quite gratifying. (Hence, the blog.)

Okay, back to my thoughts about distractions (speaking of) and iTunes songs. Since my recent layoff and the ending of an important relationship in my life, I decided to dive headlong into going back to graduate school to get my PhD. Well! If that’s not a reason to stop writing and get my ass in gear, I don’t know what is! Right? Right. No. Wait. Really? I’m not sure it is. I think I just wanted something to do (as if “doing writing” is not doing really anything). Studying for the GRE’s, however, (both the regular one and what they call the “English Literature Subject Area” GRE – a horrible, tortuous ETS joke), and researching schools, and emailing professors, and browsing through impossible-to-understand faculty “areas of research” and trying to figure out which one could be a mentor for me…whew! Now that’s DOING something! There’s so much to do, bygonnit! No time to write. What a silly pastime! A PhD…now that’s a worthy pursuit!

Well, that was three weeks ago and no blog since then. And guess what? I don’t like it. I feel overwhelmed and over my head. Tonight, after talking to my too-wise-for-his-age brother, I realized I’ve gotten into something that might be considered a distraction. I need to get back to balance. Writing heals me. It understands me. Even when I have nothing to offer it, somehow it still appreciates me and gives me an opportunity to grow.

The PhD? Well, the verdict is still out. I have been studying like a madwoman for the GRE’s (which are in November). I’m revisiting Chaucer (Old English, right?), Alexander Pope (Restoration period poet…got the flashcard), and Lord knows who else is on the list next (Norton Anthologies are my best friend these days). My mind is a-flutter. It’s nearly impossible to study ALL of English Literature, but somehow the ETS folks decided what constitutes the basics of what any undergraduate English major should know (and remember…ha! the cruelest joke of all!) and then puts it together in a test which is used as a determiner of your ability to be successful as a PhD student. Whatever! Being a PhD candidate, I’m finding out, is A LOT different than just extended MA or BA work (all the academics go, “DUH!”). You actually have to start researching and writing, like, cutting-edge rhetorical theories and literary philosophies and discover areas of literature that have not yet been discovered! But…no pressure. I just want to write a book or two and teach college, man. Why all that other stuff? Can’t I just get back to my simple cat and mouse story, a cup of coffee, and a syllabus that no student reads?

So here I am. At my desk. The mouse just stopped me and said, “Why are you doing this?” (this, being the PhD chase.) Cool it, man. Let’s be friends. Let’s write simply, which is my way through this. I am not sure which path to take. Or perhaps all the paths I see are good to take a few steps into, and one will prove the right way while the others fall away. Maybe I should put aside the distractions, stop trying to “play the perfect dream” to suit my mood, and just put my dreams on “shuffle” and let the little elves choose the right dream to play. Right? Shouldn’t it be that easy? I think so. Let go of the distractions and, maybe just listen, follow the insights, and grow.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

My Own Confusion

Walking with my dog through downtown, I stopped into this kitschy but creative retail store on the main street where I’ve purchased some strange and goofy gifts from in the past (like magnets of cat butts and a book about horrendous baby names) for my good-humored sister and brother-in-law. There was a "Help Wanted" sign on the door and so I thought I'd fill out an application - a writer needs to supplement the income, right? And how glorious to work in a store that might actually make me laugh! It would be a welcomed change from a classroom of teenagers that usually made me cry (sometimes, yes, they did).

Anyway, I walked up to the counter and a young, stylish Indian girl was talking with an old, Asian female customer. The Asian woman was leaning over the counter and saying, "You need check your computer! That 27 dollars. That too much!" The Indian girl said impatiently, "No, it's 26 dollars." I got the feeling this wasn't the beginning of the conversation. I just stood patiently. The Asian woman spoke again, "Oh?" she said, and stared at the Indian girl, who just stared back, confused. Then the Asian customer repeated, "You check. 27 too much. Check computer." The Indian girl spoke with irritation, slowly, "Yeah. I checked. It's 26." The Asian woman threw up her hands with a “Humph!” and walked out of the store.

The Indian girl was clearly shaken by the confusing non-conversation. She turned and looked at me, but didn't say anything, her eyes wide. So I just waited for her to get her bearings. I smiled. She finally said, "Oh! Sorry. That was really weird. I think that woman was drunk!" We both laughed, and I asked for an application. She said they only accepted resumes and didn’t have applications to fill out. “Oh. Okay,” I said. “Maybe I’ll bring one by later,” and turned to leave.

Almost to the door, I stopped at the funny magnets section (I always do). There was one that had a photo of Obama that said, "The President of the United States: Now with 20% more funk!" I chuckled. Then I saw one with a photo of Jack Kerouac, whose writing I just got into after visiting the old Beatnik bookstore, City Lights, in San Francisco this summer. In fact, I’m almost finished with Caroline Cassidy's book, Off the Road. She was the wife of Neal Cassidy who was Kerouac's friend and the inspiration behind Kerouac's wild main character, Dean Moriarty, in On the Road. Caroline was probably in her 40's or 50's when she wrote her book, which is inspiring. And, hey, she's quite a good writer! Imagine the insecurities she had writing her book, being surrounded by such Beat greats as Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg! Jack was actually in love with her; they had an affair. Lord, talk about confusion! That poor woman had to endure some serious craziness being married to the infamous Neal Cassidy and being a lover to Jack Kerouac. Talk about ups and downs! It too much! But I won't spoil it for you, and...I digress.

So, ANYWYAY, it was cool that there was actually a Kerouac magnet at the store. How apropos, I thought, since I’ve been getting inspired by the Beatniks' wicked antics and strange quests for spiritual knowledge through their writing. The magnet said, " 'I have nothing to offer anyone except my own confusion.' - Jack Kerouac " Lovely! Confusion, indeed. Apparently, Kerouac was lambasted by most critics for On the Road when it was first published. Even Ginsberg, Jack's good friend said something about the stream-of-consciousness style being appropriate only for someone who thought like the author, which, I think, was insinuating that Jack’s style was a bit unliterary and boorish, and his writing unattainable for most readers. But, Jack kept writing anyway, though he was plagued with doubt and insecurity. (His alcoholism was likely a way to numb those thoughts, I'm sure. It's such a bummer about that!) But, anyway, I liked what Kerouac said about offering others our own confusion. Somehow, that was comforting to me. It was kind of like seeing the wide eyes of that Indian girl behind the counter who looked at me in utter confusion. That was all she had to offer me at that moment, and, hey, we both got a good laugh from it!

Too often we think we shouldn’t be confused. We should know the answers all the time and right away. We can’t just sit still in our confusion for a bit. We look to self-help books and priests and gurus to sort out our confusion and help us find the answers instead of trusting our own wisdom. We even look to books that are not self help, but that at least tell us a nice little story that has a message that we hear or a mystery that we can solve and has a last page we can finish and a cover we can shut and a shelf we can put it away on or, better yet, a friend we can pass it along to – a conclusion to the confusion. But I think confusion is part of the process, and it's part of the plot. It’s what most books are about - the long and arduous process of figuring it out. The exciting climax is the shortest part of the book! It’s the instantaneous tipping point that hopefully results in some resolution, some end to the confusion. And we sigh with relief! But maybe we don’t have to wait to the end to sigh with relief and we can actually laugh along the way. Like right now, I'm confused about how to be a writer, but I'm trusting the process and being okay with not knowing (most of the time). Right now, all I have to offer is just that – my confusion! At least I'm clear about it (ha!).

As for the little Asian lady...well, hopefully she had her resolution somewhere, later that day. I appreciated the girl at the counter being open with me about her confusion, and Kerouac, too…because, hey, we're all still learning, right? We’re all tangling and mangling around in the plot part of the book most of the time. But, then, our book comes to a climax and we’re okay. We have a resolution. We have a magnet. Hallelujah! So I guess when we are confused, we might as well just smile, sigh, get our bearings, keep reading, and know we’ll eventually be okay. And in the meantime, we can all have a good laugh about it - with 100% more funk!

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Day 1 - Taking a Risk

So you wanna be a writer? What does it take? Well, I'm not sure. Wisdom and strength, I guess. I've tried to be a writer for several years now, and perhaps have had the wisdom, but not the strength; or had the strength, but not the wisdom. (I fear I cannot get both in the same moment.) I'm 37 and still haven't stepped out and actually done it. I recently saw the movie Julie & Julia and was inspired to start a blog. Not in the hopes of getting a book and movie contract (my story - at this point - is anything but's not even written yet!), but simply because the movie drove home the fact that sometimes you just have to take a risk to do your art; whether it's writing, cooking, or making a movie, for that matter (congrats, Columbia Pictures).

I've read a lot about living an artistic life and tried to do it. About six years ago I did write and produce a music CD and even dared to step out for a national grass-roots tour with it. I am constantly irked by my guitar sitting idle in the corner of my apartment. Am I just too old? I love The Artist's Way by Julia Cameron, Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott, and On Writing by Stephen King. These writers have all taken risks to create the art that compels them, drives them. (I what point did Stephen or Anne reply to a stranger's inquiry regarding their occupation, "I'm a writer!"? Oh, to be able to answer so boldy! And then, at what point did their family members reply in kind when asked - "Gee, what's Anne up to these days?"...the true test.).
I am at my wit's end, as well, being that I was laid off from teaching (along with 6,999ish other California public school teachers) and have no job prospects to speak of. So, really, I've got nothing to lose. I'm wondering how I'm going to pay my rent, feed my dog, and actually start writing a book. I guess I'll have to take a risk. I even came up with plan that chaotically includes playing music, tutoring English, and part-timing at a restaurant and a retail shop in town. (Somehow, I will need to fit writing into the mix. Early mornings, here I come.) I don't know what I have to lose at this point, as I don't have much, but it feels like a big risk. I'm scared; but it also feels exciting. I guess I'm not sure which feeling I should pay attention to.