Saturday, January 31, 2015

In Which I Do a Social Media Detox, Quit Reading Books, and Rediscover My Loathing for My Dining Room Table

Week Four of The Artist's Way is a killer.

You're not allowed to read. 

No books. No newspapers. No magazines. No backs of cereal boxes. Nothing. For someone who is pretty much a reading addict, this particular assignment fills me with horror. I make a living --(and I use the word "living" in a metaphorical sense) by writing books. So, reading books is my job. And telling me not to read books is like telling me not to breathe air. 

Side note: I am doing this course called The Artist's Way, a twelve week set of exercises that is supposed to help you rediscover your creative self. I went through the course seven years ago and as loony-tunes as it seemed to me at the time, IT WORKED. See here. 

The first time I went through Week Four, I thought I was going to die not being allowed to read for a week. But funny thing: back then I was not on Facebook or Twitter or Tumblr or Instagram. I did not spend hours answering emails and reading blog posts and scrolling around online. Social media did not exist when Julia Cameron designed the exercises for The Artist's Way, but I have to think that when she says No Reading, she also means No Tweeting or Facebooking or emailing. 

The whole point of Reading Deprivation is to take a break from consuming other people's words, to control what we allow in. "Our reward," Julia Cameron says, "will be a new outflow. Our own art, our own thoughts and feelings will begin to nudge aside the sludge of blockage, to loosen it and move it upward and outward until once again our well is running freely."

Yeah yeah, whatever, Julia. Bring it. 

Last Sunday night I signed off all of my accounts. Goodbye Twitter and Facebook and Tumblr and Instagram. Adios blog posts and Yahoo news. So long BOOKS.  My husband was out of town. When I talked to him on the phone, I told him I was ready for my week of reading deprivation. My prediction was that without my constant farting around online, I'd get a ton of work done on my latest writing project, which honestly, I had been slogging through and not enjoying all that much anymore.   
Also, I would clean the house.

Day One: 

Because I don't check email or read the crap news of the day, I feel peaceful and happy and oblivious. I clean the breakfast dishes directly after breakfast. I walk the dog. I write for most of the day. When my daughter gets home from school, she is greeted by the enticing smell of freshly baked chocolate chip scones. Yay! This is fun! I am Miss Productivity! 

I don't miss reading until I get into bed. It's my habit to read a book at night and to scroll once more through all of my various forms of social media. I am stricken. What do I do? 

I solve this problem by rereading the chapter about Not Reading in The Artist's Way and go to sleep happily. 

Day Two:

I have no idea what's going on in the world or what my friends on Facebook or on Twitter are doing and I am okay with that because after I finish my day's writing, I'll be busy cleaning my office. 

Later, as I am taking books off the bookshelves, I realize that I don't want all of these books. Some are books that I read and didn't like and never plan to read again. Some are books that I haven't read and admit I never will. 

And come to think of it, what about the books on the bookshelves in other parts of my house? The ones gathering dust in my bedroom? The ones on the shelves in the living room? The ones piled in the bathrooms and next to my bed?

I don't want some of those either. 

I make a vat of homemade lentil soup. My daughter informs me that she does not like lentil soup.

The aromatic sofrito base of my lentil soup

Day Three:

My dining table is covered with books.

My office is a disaster area. Thinking about what books I really want and don't really want has made me question everything in the room. Why do I have these curtains? These beads hanging in the closet that my daughter hung when this was her bedroom annoy the hell out of me. And I never liked this rug. It's ugly. 

Day Four:

I sneak a peek at email and realize that I am not as important as I thought I was. I suspect the worlds of Twitter and Facebook are rolling along just fine without me too. I am both saddened and relieved. 

My daughter's home sick from school. She's watching a Dance Moms Marathon. I have never watched this show and immediately begin to mock it. Three hours later I am still mocking it, while my ailing daughter snoozes on the couch beside me. 

I pull down the curtains in my office. I throw out the closet beads. I roll up the rug. I eat the hell out of leftover lentil soup.

I write my ass off. 

Day Five:

Daughter's home sick again and I am secretly happy so I can watch Dance Moms with her. I eye the cluttered dining room table with despair. In addition to books, I've now added pictures I've always hated, clunky bookends that I refuse to put back on my pristine organized bookshelves, various ceramic cats from that time in my life when I thought it would be fun to collect ceramic cats, stupid plastic plants that exist only to gather dust, and a bunch of shoes I haven't worn in years.

I don't want these cats.

I eat leftover lentil soup.

I realize that I don't like a lot of the things I have in my house. Some stuff's kinda neutral and pointless. A gift that's not my style. A thing that has no meaning or purpose. Other stuff has a halo of negative connotation surrounding it. Gifts with strings attached. Or worse, guilt. Ugly things I used to like but can't remember what the hell I was thinking. Plastic fruit covered with beads? Why do I have these things? 

That's it. They're going on the dining room table. 

I write and write and write. 

Day Six:

I don't like the dining room table. Truth be told, I loathe it. There. I said it. 

I have an epiphany. What has been blocking me in my writing project is that I have been holding onto an earlier version of the story. Once I decide that I can let it go, I feel a surge of energy and excitement. I know what to do now. 

The entire dining room is filled with things to give away, including the dining room furniture. 
My daughter and I are watching Dance Moms when my husband calls from the airport on his way home. 

"How was your week?" he asks.

"Pretty good," I tell him. 

Day Seven:

My husband and I walk around the house together expressing our loathing and love for a quarter century's worth of accumulated stuff. I head up to my office to tackle a file cabinet. My husband begins to excavate the basement. 

I work a bit more on my book. I love it again. 

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Inspiring Blogger Award

YAY! I won an award! WOO HOO!

It's an award for blogging as you may have caught from the title above.

Side note: I love blogging. I started this blog a little more than four years ago because I'd gone to a writing conference and one of the sessions was about creating a brand for yourself and getting your name Out There and this all seemed like something I MUST DO AT ONCE. Very quickly into the process I realized that I didn't have a brand or want a brand and I didn't even know what the word brand meant exactly.

Also, it was going to be very very hard to get my name Out There when only like, four people were reading my blog, and those four people were my mother, my husband, and a couple of my friends.

Weirdly, I realized that I liked blogging despite the low readership. I'd been writing for a long time and I had this vision that the Me of 15 years before would appreciate the wisdom and experience and all around coolness of the present/future me.

I wanted to give back, I guess you could say. Help other struggling writers like that beginner me who were on the same often weary, mostly solitary journey to publication.

I thought I'd have a book deal in a few weeks and I was planning to gush about that on the blog. Instead, I ended up chronicling the next three years of NO book deals. Of rejections and angst and yearning and making peace and redoubling my efforts and failure and finally making peace again. And then I got the book deal.

Ha ha.

When I was teaching high school English and many days looking out a classroom of bored, sometimes overtly hostile students, I'd imagine that there was one kid who was listening and for that one kid, I threw my heart into the lesson.

That's sorta how I look at this blog. I've still got my four loyal readers (Thanks, MOM! Thanks hubby and friends) and a handful of others who've continued to read these posts, and I thank you all too. One of these lovely readers tagged me for this award.

Okay. It's not really an award. Maybe more of a Tag You're It chain-letter-y kind of thing. But you know what? I'll take it. Thanks Susan Brody over at The Art of Not Getting Published for tagging me and now I am going to pay it forward by:
1. displaying the award on my blog
2. linking back to the person who nominated me
3. stating 7 things about myself AND
4. nominating a few of MY favorite bloggers

Seven Things About Me:

1. I just got back from an awesome visit to St. Paul where I sat in on brilliant lectures and readings and discussions at Hamline University's MFA in Children's Literature program. I was there mostly to support my writing friend Donna who is a student in the program and was presenting her critical essay: "Psychic Distance in Non-Fiction Picture Books." (She did an awesome job.) 

2. While I was at Hamline, I met E. Lockhart, Anne Ursu, Jane Resh Thomas, and Laura Ruby! Later, I ate dinner with Carrie Mesrobian and Justina Ireland!  

3. I want to go back to school!! I forgot how much I love being a student, and this glimpse into the MFA program reminded me. I like taking notes and listening to writers speak about the writing process and the craft of writing. I like hanging around with people who like talking about books. 

4. I like listening to Carrie Mesrobian talk about sex and other stuff that was on her mind. For example: furniture. 

5. The only downside of the trip was I missed my dog. I missed my husband and daughter too, but they seemed totally fine--even a little giddy to be rid of me for a few days-- but my dog, my sweet Zooey--was the one I most worried about. 

Yeah. I can't believe I just shared that either. 

But look: 
(That's Zooey a few minutes after I came home. See how stunned and happy she is to see me? Please don't leave me again, Mom. Please please please is what she's saying there.)

I forgot what I was talking about. 

Oh yeah, number 6 about me. I wrote a book called Thin Space. But yadda yadda ya. 

I love that book, don't get me wrong, and I love that I wrote it and it was published and it's sitting on library shelves, but now I want to write another book and another book and another. 

7. I also have a cat.

(This is Zelda. She may have missed me too.
Or not.
It's hard to say)

And now here are a few of my favorite blogs:

*The Art of Not Getting Published. This blog is funny and smart and written by a writer who I am sure will one day be published and then she will have to change the name of her blog. Read it and you'll find a variety of good stuff about books and traveling and art and the law. (The writer is an attorney.) 

*Rachel Writes Things. I've been following this blog for a while. First, because I like the book reviews. Second, because many of the posts are about the writer's publishing journey. It's been very cool to watch her talk about the book she's been writing, and recently she's caught the eye of an agent. Next step, book deal. Crossing my fingers, Rachel...

*Mary Cronk Farrell's blog. I met Mary at a conference and then read her riveting book Pure Grit, the true story of American nurses who were taken prisoner during World War Two. Somewhere in there I signed up for Mary's newsletter, which links to her blog. Every few weeks I get an inspiring email that features the story of a historical or modern day hero.

*Stacked. This is THE blog you must follow if you love reading YA books. Two librarians, Kelly and Kimberly, write book reviews and analyze trends in book publishing and point out all kinds of cool--sometimes uncomfortable observations-- about teens and reading and life itself. 

And for a dash of fun, there's my new favorite,
*Carrie Mesrobian's Conversations with My Fake Boyfriend. If you're a writer and you're procrastinating, check out the conversations Carrie REALLY had with one of her fake boyfriends. Guaranteed to make you smile.

PS: Before you go about your day, I leave you with this lovely picture of ice circles drifting upon a Minnesota river:

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Interview with Patti Edmon

A few years ago-- okay, it was more like ten years ago-- I was living in Lexington, Kentucky, and I was (sorta) pursuing my writing--working on a novel, collecting rejections for another novel, but mostly NOT writing. Mostly, I was driving around Lexington with my kids, taking them to piano lessons and viola lessons and watching them practice soccer and attending school board meetings and being the mom who went on field trips and made cupcakes for school functions.

The other moms I met along the way were just like me--on the surface--carting the cupcakes into the classroom and sitting on the soccer field sidelines, alternating between sweating our butts off and shivering with cold. We'd talk about what teachers we wanted our kids to have and how to throw together decent crockpot meals or we'd complain about the weather and the crazy Lexington traffic.

Very rarely the talk would turn to something else. Work. Or work we used to have before we quit or went part-time to raise our kids. Hobbies. Goals.


I always felt really weird talking about my writing. It was personal. Private. My writing dream felt silly/pathetic/selfish. It wasn't something I went around blabbering about.

One day I was dropping my daughter off on a play-date. My plan was to take the two hour break of time and drive downtown to the main library and work on a revision. Somehow I got to talking to my daughter's friend's mom about what I was doing and she told me she liked to write too and she was also working on some art and suddenly we were talking about the creative process and the work and time involved, and before I left, she was thrusting the book Escaping into the Open: The Art of Writing True by Elizabeth Berg into my hands.

The book was illuminating, and I realized I'd found a fellow creative companion in this mom. But our daughters didn't have any more play-dates and then my family moved from Lexington, and we lost track of each other (except for brief moments on Facebook). But once in a while I'd think of her and wonder how she was doing, what she might be working on, if anything.

Until one day a few months ago, BOOM, suddenly, this woman -- her name is Patti Edmon -- began sharing her art on Facebook, and I was entranced and excited. She's an artist, I thought. Look at that!

So I wrote to her and asked if I could interview her and she very kindly agreed...

Me: Patti, I've been looking at your paintings and I am totally in awe of your work. Can you tell me a bit about it? --the medium you use, the subject matter you're drawn to?

Patti: Lately I've been working with bright colors and lots of detail – flowers, angels, abstracts. The base of every piece is acrylic paint – on canvas, board, paper, whatever’s handy. I love to layer – in most every painting there are layers of papers– tissue paper, scraps, old book paper, along with found objects and ‘stuff’, along with pencil, pens, markers, chalk and pastels.

Over the past few years I've done a lot of assemblage, collage and painting, but I paint entirely from a place of intuition rather than reality. I greatly admire those who can capture a setting or person but I’m too impatient and I like for my work to come from my imagination.

Me: I like that: "a place of intuition, rather than reality." I always ask writers where they get their ideas. We like to think there's some logic behind it, as if we choose--well, maybe some writers do.

They say, I want to write about this particular subject or whatever. But most of the time, it seems like the idea or ideas just pop up. Is that how it is for you?

Patti: I often do a series, such as The Sistahs and Angels… one recent painting was based on song lyrics, but I usually start out putting color down and seeing where it goes. That’s a primary difference, I think, between writing and art. When I was writing fiction I had a character in mind and capsule idea of the story. When I paint I can literally just pick a technique, substrate or color palette.

Me: Maybe we're not so different. I like to free-write. Put the pen on the page or start typing. Worry about revising later. Do you approach a painting that way too? Or at some point do you plan out where you're going with a piece?

Patti: I haven’t yet painted from a sketch, but I think regular doodling, like journaling, keeps the creativity active. The times I have tried to achieve an idea or end result I end up so far away that I usually just jump in and play. I’m happiest when I’m in a state of ‘flow’ described as total immersion, i.e., unaware of time, surroundings, thought, etc. And, editing in art is adding something to see if it works, or putting in the recycled bin.

Me: It's interesting --that editing in art is about adding. In writing it's more about cutting. The similarity is how a lot ends up in the recycle bin. So many drafts that didn't end up working. I like how you approach what you do as play. It has a much nicer ring to it than work.

I always ask writers how many books they wrote before their first book deal, and how many rejections they received along the way-- do you have many paintings "in a drawer"-- early attempts that you now would not display? Or projects you worked on that went nowhere?

Patti: I have a great deal of work – the entire evolution – in my studio, pieces I did in workshops, experimental pieces and art I didn't produce with the intention of sharing. I believe that art is similar to writing in that we don’t usually share our journals and a lot of the work is, well, part of the journey.

Me: That's the key-- trying not to think about those earlier efforts as time wasted but as necessary practice.

What kind of work schedule do you have every day?

Patti: I try to get to the studio every day, but that doesn't always happen. I like to paint in the morning, before the distraction of all the below! I spend anywhere from an hour to three or four, depending upon the project.

Me: When we met, we were young moms with the carpooling and PTA stuff, but now the kids are older and somehow there are still tons of things to do (or tons of things we think we have to do) and it's a struggle to let that stuff go so we can work play. Is that how it is for you? How do you balance your creative time with your other obligations?

Patti: I used to view doing the dishes, dusting, laundry, meal prep, and other household chores as obligations. Now I am obligated to paint first and use whatever time/energy left over to make it appear as though I’m on top of everything! I started making art in 2006 after I ‘retired’ from our marketing/advertising business due to a chronic illness that still claims time and energy and it’s frustrating but I don’t watch television, read the newspaper or have much ‘idle’ time, which I think some call it relaxing.

Me: I like this attitude!

You're selling paintings now. Has that changed how you work? I guess what I'm asking here too, is if you--as an artist--have changed now that your work is getting attention commercially? Do you have to use time that would have gone into painting, to promote?

Patti: I've had pieces in several shows over the past few years and sold here and there but now it is different. I don’t have a gallery – yet – and I worked on a marketing plan during the holidays and have entered several juried competitions. The business end of art - pricing, marketing, keeping up with my blog, shipping – is a challenge, but it doesn't interfere with painting time and it hasn't changed my approach to art!

Me: I like this attitude too!! Art first. Everything else, second.

What are you working on now?

Patti: I’m working on a series of angels, notecards, and incorporating new supplies and techniques. I need to be working on my studio, as it’s a disaster after my recent creative bender. After the holidays I plan lots of experimentation.

Me: I am so excited to see what you create next. Thanks so much, Patti, for chatting with me today.

Readers, if you are interested in seeing more of Patti's art -- it is available for sale -- check out her website for more details.

Patti Edmon

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Lexuses and Coffee Tables and Designer Handbags and other Wants I Didn't Really Want but Wanted anyway (also how I know it's time to read The Artist's Way again)

I am not much of a wanter of things. Ask my husband. I drive him crazy before birthdays and Christmas.

What do you want? he asks me, and usually, I shrug and say: Nothing. Or sometimes I will say something like, Well I just got a kinda expensive haircut, so that can be my present.

He ends up buying me stuff and I admit I like what he buys me. Nice cushy slippers. A fancy tablet. A vacuum cleaner that roams around the room on its own (I suspect I may trip over it and crack my head open, but that is a post for another day.)

This post is about wanting. Wanting things. Wanting dreams to come true. Wanting to craft a certain kind of life for yourself, especially when the life you are leading seems to be slipping away or it's a life you've fallen into or it's a life that's veered off on a different path from what you once upon a time envisioned.

When I was growing up, I wanted to be a writer. I also wanted a nice stable family and home life. For a long period of time I did not know that I could have both. I sort of plodded along, giving up writing for family and then daring to think that maybe I could still be a writer too.

Cue New Agey-style sitar music, light an incense candle, plump up a pillow on the floor, and sit in a lotus pose upon it, because I'm gonna tell you a secret:

You can have what you want. 

The trick is you have to be able to verbalize the want. You have to imagine that you can have such a thing.

This is much harder than it seems on the surface.

Go ahead, right now, make a list of what you want. Objects. Dreams. Watch how a voice jumps in to say it's silly or crazy or impossible or selfish.

Seven years ago my family moved from one state to another. I left behind a teaching job I loved and dear friends and a much-adored house. I turned forty that year and the combination Move/Possible Mid-Life Crisis was a jolt to my system. I'd always been writing, but the writing had become a hobby that slipped slowly down my to-do list, until some weeks it wasn't on the list at all.

I moved into a new town where I knew absolutely no one and the kids were in school all day and I didn't have a job outside the house and the house was old and drafty and uncomfortable, and I realized I was uncomfortable.

I wanted something.

I wanted to call myself a writer again.

I found this book called The Artist's Way by Julia Cameron, and no offense to Artist's Way followers out there or Julia Cameron fans, but I started reading the book and immediately mocking it in my head. Julia Cameron talks about stuff like rediscovering your inner lost creative child and how you need to play and take yourself out for artist dates and let the Creator speak through you and other whack a doodle stuff like that.

It's a twelve-week course. With exercises. Like listing what you want.

Julia Cameron says you don't have to believe in it for it to work.

I didn't believe a damn word of it, but after much pooh-poohing, I wrote a list of wants, things I didn't even really want all that much. A new coffee table? Who gives a crap, but okay. I'll put new coffee table on the list because I don't like the one we have.

A designer purse. Hmm. Why not?

Our van was breaking down at the time, the fanbelt literally falling off whenever you made a left hand turn in the rain. A new car would be cool. How about a Lexus?

Here's something bizarre. I never showed anyone the list, but that year a neighbor gave us a coffee table. One of my brothers gave me a designer purse for Christmas. My other brother passed on his old Lexus to me.

I wrote more lists. I want a yellow kitchen. (done. That was easy. I bought a couple of gallons of yellow paint and painted the kitchen myself.) Ditto the herb garden and the row of asparagus plants and the new windows to keep the house warmer.

I want a published book on the library shelf. 
I want to speak at writing conferences. 
I want to go on a book tour. 

Once I started, I couldn't stop. The list scrolled out. I wanted more and more.

When I wasn't wanting, I was working. Painting the kitchen and planting the herbs and asparagus. And I was writing. I was writing like a maniac.

Over the next two years I wrote three novels and a bunch of short stories. I wrote articles and started this blog. In September, 2013, six years after I made the Want list, my book Thin Space could be found on library shelves.

I don't know what happened but somewhere in there I got pretty much everything I wanted-- (except for a dining room table. I don't know why I put that on the list.)-- and I was grateful and happy and humbled and honored, but I was also incredibly busy and the new life I'd crafted--the one I had always dreamed of having--became normal and then somehow became meh and even, at times, bluh.

What do you want for Christmas? my husband asked me a few weeks ago.

Nothing, I said.

I've been writing, and it's so hard. I read reviews of my book and I believe only the bad ones. The book I am writing right now sucks.

But this morning I was sitting in my warm yellow kitchen and I pulled out The Artist's Way again. I read the beginning and immediately started mocking it. What a load of absolute hooey, I said to myself.

And then I started making a list.