Sometimes uninspired

Botanical gardens

I am a person who likes to keep multiple projects juggling at once, on the belief that it means that when I get bored or stuck on the one, I can switch to something else, while my subconscious percolates on the project that is tripping me up.

Every so often, it backfires though. I look around at a whole room of things “in progress” and wonder what I am doing here, and feel unsure of where to start, and paralyzed.

This afternoon has been one of those days.

Finding Other Small Fish

This post was inspired by Ellie Di, who if you don’t know and worship already, you’re missing out on something fabulous.

At the end of February, I was feeling very discouraged about the internet. I had been reading too many of the comments, not having good human connections, and even my sacred internet safe space (y’all know who you are) had gotten more and more quiet and less fun to interact with.

My husband has a motto: “If you’re feeling unloved, it’s a sign that you need to be more demonstrative in your own affection.” So, after a month of hiding out, and after who-knows-how-long puttering around waiting for others to entertain me online, I decided to make a point of spending more time on twitter interacting, instead of just lurking or whining.

As luck would have it, that very same day Ellie Di tweeted, wanting to know if twitter was dead, and why was nobody commenting anymore. Various ideas were thrown out. A lot of them were about the proportion of promotional tweets. Some of it was backlash against too much branding, or feeling like the good community that used to exist on twitter had gotten buried in just too many voices talking at once.

I’ve been thinking about that conversation ever since. (I am excellent at stewing.) The conclusion I have come to, after many days of pondering, is that part of the problem is trying to find other people to talk to. Everyone follows the same few celebrities, and we tweet at them almost incessantly. Whole twitter accounts are formed just to shout at Lady Gaga, hoping that maybe one day you’ll catch her at the right moment for her to send you 140 characters in return.

Maybe you follow a couple of “minor celebrities” as well, people with only a couple of thousand followers, people who have time to interact with most people who message them. But they still don’t have time to follow-back, to do anything other than respond when they are tweeted to, or to start the conversation.

Which leaves a whole lot of people, like me, who can respond to anything, but can’t start a conversation themselves. People who I know are interesting. People who I would love to interact with. But how do you find them? We’ve gotten past the days when strangers made new life-long friends after a couple of “that lunch looks tasty” tweets. Now it’s a bit strange to get new followers out of the blue. The first question is “what are they selling? what are they trying to promote?” And that seems rather backwards.

So since I’ve been back, I’ve been searching for new faces. Looking at the other people who respond to Ellie Di, and following them. Following people who tweet at Chuck Wendig or Olga Nunes. Paying careful attention to the people with a mere hundred or two followers. Trying to make friends. Trying to reach out.

If we wait for the celebrities to support us, we will wait forever for our turn in line. If we can find each other, and say hello, we will all stand that much stronger. We’re only as lonely as we make ourselves out to be.

Thanks to the Mentors

This morning I read a very moving post by S. Jae-Jones about writing/creative mentors that got me thinking about the important people who have mentored me. I write this with some trepidation after Amanda Palmer’s somewhat crushing recent encounter with a former mentor who recently went on to trash her in the comments of her TED talk. Things change, people change, and you can’t always trust that the respect and gratitude felt as a mentee is returned by the poor soul that put up with your artistic flounderings.

And boy, was I floundering when these fine people put up with me. (Often, I feel like I am still floundering now, even as I am slowly becoming the mentor to other writers!)

My very first writing mentor was David Blixt. I was only 11 or 12 years old at the time, and boy was I awkward. At writing. At everything. At talking with adults. But my mother signed me up for a community writing class for children, and I must have taken that class, 2-3 times a year, for about four years. When I first signed up for David’s class, I didn’t know fiction meant you were allowed to make up stories. I think I spent four or five weeks doing Writing Down the Bones exercises that just involved “I don’t know anything about this”.

Finally, it clicked, though. And life has never been the same since.

David introduced me to Jonathan Carroll stories, quoting from memory the beginning of Sleeping In Flame about regret, a story opening that will always be in my top three story openings. (The other two are the beginning to Conversations in Sicily and If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler… but more on that latter one in a bit!) It was my first introduction to “urban fantasy”– the idea that something could be set in the real world, and yet be fantastical as well was entirely new to me, and I plowed through all of Carroll’s stories in a couple of months, and never really recovered.

He also put up with the worst of my surrealist/dadaist middle-school nonsense as I wrote stories about drunk pineapples, and created a 30+ page “never ending sentence” full of non sequitur run-ons. These things were not his fault. What was his fault was his encouragement to keep going, and his persistence in getting me “butt on chair” to do the writing, when, like most 14-year-olds, I was bouncing all over the room and wanting to chat up a storm instead.

David and I parted ways when I went to high school, but I found him again today on twitter. I also found my second mentor on twitter, the fabulous Dean Bakopoulos. Dean signed up to teach a class on writing at my high school, and looking to replace the hole of no longer having David’s class, I quickly enrolled.

(It’s not particularly relevant to this story, but it was in Dean’s class where I fell in love with my husband. Dean brought out the best in both of us as writers, and while I will already admit that I had a crush, it was really the stories my husband wrote in that class that turned things serious!)

Dean introduced me to Italo Calvino, and particularly to If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler. He took the undirected surrealism I had brought with me from middle school and channeled it into flash fiction pieces that had punch and structure. We read Chuck Rosenthal‘s “The Nicest Kid in the Universe” and debated the role of the narrator’s mother at the end of the piece.

Most importantly, Dean got me asking the question “What’s at stake?” A refrain that I heard for years afterwards, in every writing class I ever took, Dean’s introduction to the idea helped me turn odd into meaningful, and gave me the needed philosophy to understand and analyze any stories I ran across.

Dean, I’m sorry that every time you said the phrase “what’s at stake” I wanted to turn it into a joke about what was “in the steak”. I was 15. I didn’t mean it.

He also had us read Billy Aronson‘s play Little Red Riding Hood. Wickedly funny stuff. It instilled in me a love of word-play that has gone right into my poetry, and has never left me alone ever since. Eyelid melon Friday, if I do say so myself.

There have been others, too, of course. Geeta Kothari taught me most of what I know about revision. Everything I don’t know about revision isn’t her fault– she tried, she really did. And Jeffrey Steiger taught me something indescribable about living the written word– the narrative difference that is equivalent to painting from a photograph versus painting from life.

I wish I had had more time to work with Shelley Jackson while I was living in New York. She was the “mentor that got away”– I was too shy, too intimidated by her talent to request more of her attention. I wish I had had the nerve. What I did learn from her sticks with me in every story I write. She made ideas exciting again, at a time when I was otherwise pretty burned out.

So thank you to the mentors, the giants I’ve stood on. I’m not sure what there is to see yet, but it’s thanks to you that I have a view.

No FOMO Here

Okay, maybe a bit of Fear-Of-Missing-Out is inevitable during SXSW madness. But I’ve been plenty busy already, even without a badge. And the week is only looking to get busier.

Last Wednesday I went to an Uncollege meetup at El Chilito. I will admit to going primarily because my Bureau of Angst Management collaborator was one of the organizers. I hadn’t really looked into the whole uncollege philosophy, and while there is definite overlaps between it and the questions I am interested in, it is not, in itself, a thing that I have particularly strong feelings about one way or another.

However, it was really good meetup, with fabulous conversations and lots of interesting ideas being floated. Since it was a small group that turned out, we really got a chance to all partake in one central conversation, and had several minds turning over questions important to each of us. Jo Welch had some fabulous ideas about the importance of education facilitators as opposed to traditional teachers/instruction. And Lisa Betts-LaCroix hipped us to David Blake‘s Degreed project, which we all agreed was brilliant and well-needed. We ended the night when it got too cold to be at an outdoor taco shop any longer, but it was hard to separate, as we were all still in an intense discussion as to the ideal size learning community. What size opens doors and opportunities as opposed to being too large to be useful?  I’ve seen similar discussions in the social marketing world about the size of one’s network, and it was interesting to see it debated in terms of education and knowledge resources.

Thursday night, I went to the BASHH for the first time in over a year, and remembered why it was one of my favorite regular events in Austin. So many cool and interesting people, and just a grand opportunity to go and talk to strangers. My best chance-encounter of the evening was with Cameron Paxton of Raise Your Vis. We had a good conversation about his ideal clients, which then turned into a FABULOUS conversation about what SEO is, and how awful it is when people Do It Wrong, and how that ruins it (and by “it” I mean EVERYTHING– the whole internet) for everyone, those who would buy and those who would sell online alike.

Fact about Cameron: he wants to move to Estonia. When he achieves this mission, he will probably blog about it here. You know you want to know about Estonia. I know I do.

Also had a good conversation with a teacher from Leander about fancy cars, funny license plates, and those Redbox rickshaws that are popping up all over town for SXSW visitors needing a ride. I think every time I’ve seen one so far this week, I have been with people who have commented on it. They’re definitely getting noticed. I think people are sad, though, that it’s not actually a service to deliver movies to your door like pizza.

Last night I went into the downtown madness, but not for anything SXSW related. Instead, I went to see a friend perform in the Maestro show at the Hideout Theatre. Aside from a tragic groin-region injury sustained by one of the players, a fabulous time was had by all. The highlight of the evening was most certainly Jayme Ramsay (of Hideout’s fabulous show Strange Worlds fame) doing a one-woman performance of a human-flesh-loving, mother’s-love-seeking Winnie the Pooh.

And the madness has only just begun…

Everyone’s talking about Amanda

Amanda Palmer’s TED talk hit the internet yesterday. I’m going to link it, even though I know you’ve already seen it.

The twittersphere is exploding, Amanda is retweeting everyone’s blog posts, and a whole lot of really good conversations are taking place about what “art” means, and “trust” means, as well as other important terms like “success” and “money” and “jobs” (and what it means to “get one!”)

Some people have responded to the video by promising to give away more of their art for free. Some have focused on the injunction to not be afraid to ask for help, and trust that it will be provided.

I know that as a result of this TED talk, I took the time to donate to a kickstarter I would usually have passed over, and gave a $3 tip on a “name your price” bandcamp download. I know that I am not the only one with a sudden “generosity of spirit” for my fellow artist.

It has been a beautiful weekend for giving, sharing and communication in the online art world this weekend, and it has been a lot of fun to be a part of it. Thank you to Amanda for inspiring us all, and thank you to everyone who has been inspired.

Can it last? For some, definitely. Amanda was already a success. Her audience sees her, and she sees them, and it doesn’t matter what the guy in the car thinks. But for the rest of us– will we stop to get out of our car more often, and give to those creating around us? And will the smaller names be able to trust that financial support will be there for them to, or will this “weekend of giving” dry up as fast as it began to downpour?

My metaphors are all out of order. Am I still worth supporting despite this?

What I am most in need of these days is encouragement, not cash. I have seen too much of the promotion game, the self-branding, the content marketing.

Whatever your take on it, Amanda’s video is about hope. I hope it lasts. I hope you see me. Here, have a flower. I see you too.

Preparing for SXSW Part 1

I thought I was going to be out of town this year during SXSW. I was going to buy new ice skates, and visit my nephew.

But those plans fell through, and instead I try to last-minute-prep myself for a week of networking, partying, and “selling my personal brand”.

I don’t know if there is a zeitgeist yet for more honesty in one’s “personal branding”. I think I see it in some of Austin Kleon‘s more recent tumblr posts. I hope that it catches on. For myself, I know that I am too old, too bitter, and too lazy to shine myself up into something flawless. The blog obviously hasn’t been updated in nearly a year, I’ve been very reclusive in my personal networking, practically silent on twitter until this week, and still, even now, do not always have a terribly quick or witty answer to the question “So… what do you do?”

What do you do? What do you want to do? Are they the same question? Is it the destination that matters? Or am I already living the dream by working to get where I want to be?

What do I do?

I exist in a state of flux.

In the morning I get up and go to a job that I like, but I worry isn’t someplace I want to stay for a long time. I wonder if I should take some classes to make the job-specific skills I have more transferable to a different company. I wonder if I should try to go into a different field in the same organization, one with more room for advancement. I wonder about the different ways there would be to do that, and which I would find most satisfying.

Sometimes I get past wondering, and look up the qualifications I would need, the skillsets that other companies would want me to have, the cost of community classes, the people who have made this or that shift before me that I message to ask for advice.

Then I wonder why I am bothering, when if I was a real true artist, I would be plotting my escape. Plotting how to live a creative life 24/7. Plotting how to make money being brilliant and original.

When I come home, I have no television, no children, a few too many hours to fill, and a few too many creative demons to take interest in things like a clean house or a healthy dinner. So I putter, a little bit of this, a little of that, and a lack of direction throughout.

But then I get into conversations with friends about what is wrong with the world, what I wished existed but nobody seems to be making, what I would like to offer the world if only I had more time, more energy, more determination, more follow through…

And those good friends, those fabulous friends, they push me to make those things a reality. Tiny steps at a time. A four week outline for a picture book class that I could offer. You know, if I got around to it. A handout of all of the advice that I have learned through hard knocks about filling out online job applications. You know, for the fun of compiling it. A few character sketches for a friend’s new web comic script. Because they were in my head, I just had to share them. A plot outline for a story a friend abandoned and handed to me, a story that really needs to get written because the premise is just that good. I have a hand in every pot, but I don’t know which to stir first.

So… what do you do?

“I think too much.”

Begin again

1.

“Begin again,” –some time ago, a friend mentioned that she had once read a poem that began this way and repeated this this line throughout as a refrain. She said that she couldn’t remember exactly how it went, or who it was by, but that its general message contained something about the poem not going as intended, and needing to start over mid-poem, mid-metaphor even, for something better.

When she said this, I felt immediate kinship, a certain knowledge, that I too had read this same poem. Yet despite both of our best sleuthing, neither of us could find any poem that matched this description in phrasing and content, let alone one that we would have both read and remembered. (If this is a real poem, and you can shed any light onto its source, I will be forever grateful, as this has been bugging us now for years.)

The best we can assume for now, though, is that it is a snippet that one of us wrote, a forgotten piece lost to the annals of computer crashes and old forgotten social networking sites.

A shame, too, because if I could but find it, I would quote it often.

2.

Begin again.

I have been working, off and on, for the last 10 months on “the fairy story” and have realized recently that I have made a great tactical error. A major plotting problem of near “throw it in the gutter and be done with it” proportions. A major side character could not, in fact, be plotting the actions that I have been giving him this entire time. To have him do so makes the overall storyline unwieldy and inoperable… As I have already discovered the hard way. It also, I realize on reflection, is not consistent with the world I have built and, even worse, is inconsistent with his character, making him appear more stupid and shallow than his other character attributes would indicate.

So, it’s back to the drawing board, requiring major rewrites of the parts already written before I can actually hope to move on and “finish” a first draft. NaNoWriMo novelists would gasp at horror at that statement, and tell me to just keep going and work out the beginning on draft two. But because I must recreate so much of the plot, there is not much hope for that. By the time I reimagine what I should have had the characters do, instead of the missteps I had before, it’ll be just as fast to do the rewrite.

Still, the task is daunting. I stared at the scrivener file for five minutes yesterday in disgust and then walked away, putting my pain on hold for another day.

3.

Begin again, for I have told this story backwards. I wanted to know where my days went, these obligation-free summer days that I declare to be for my art and writing, and yet somehow fail to do either to an extent my perfectionistic mind deems acceptable. Yesterday I began, therefore, to keep a time log, carefully noting how long I spent eating, and sleeping, and checking Facebook, and running errands and and and…

This is how I found that I spent exactly, and only, five minutes working on my writing yesterday.

(critics gasp! She just admitted she did not write yesterday! A writer who isn’t writing is an imposter! A fraud! …these are the things we tell ourselves, patting ourselves on the back that our dedication to craft is more hardcore, that our fingers bleed harder, our self-flagellation more genuine than those that would create without appropriate levels of misery. Putting the pen down, I remember to breathe.)

4.

Begin again.

All of which is to say…

Today I discovered that I spent, without exaggeration, 40 minutes of my afternoon picking at my feet like a bored bonobo.

I am a monkey in my own mental zoo.

Capturing a Space

Invisible Cities coverThese days I have been rereading Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino. I remember first reading it at fifteen, speeding through each city without much thought to what it meant, finishing it in a day or so, and wondering what the point was. This time, my approach is slow, observant. I read, perhaps, two cities a night… stopping between each one to let the image build up in my mind of the place that Marco Polo is describing.

I am looking for better ways to write scenery and setting. I have been working on a piece for almost a year now (referred to these days just as “the fairy story”) and ended up stuck when trying to describe certain aspects of the fantastical fairy realm. Reading the Calvino has brought me new insights into both how to describe the world I want to create as well as new ideas for world-building details.

Picture me, sitting on my porch, finishing Cities & Memories 2 and then rushing back inside to my notebook muttering “But what about the violins??” as I went. Or today, reading Cities & Memory 4 and then sitting outside reflecting until the mosquitoes began to bite, rethinking the idea of travel around my fairy city not as Point A– Point B but as all the shops and houses and lives that live in between these two spaces.

Of course, then I reread that section and replaced every reference to the town name of Zora with Pittsburgh– a city that similarly is described in its “succession of streets”. Without a straight line in the whole city, and with maps that fail to convey the topographical reality of a city composed of many valleys, Pittsburgh’s secret, like Zora’s

lies in the way your gaze runs over patterns following one another as in a musical score where not a note can be altered or displaced.

But this has nothing to do with the fairy story, it is just homesickness.

Summer plans

A friend asked recently what I was working on this summer, and when I listed it all out, I was quite surprised at how much I had on my plate. Current projects include:

a) working on a surrealist NaNo novel about flipping a coin
B) continuing to work on my young adult fairy novel and my middle grade eating disorder novel
c) working on a career guide for new college graduates and
d) starting a career coaching business with a friend here.
E) reading a metric ton of fiction
F) finishing my narcisus and robin hood paintings
G) painting a lord of the rings painting for a friend and building her a miniature clock knot
H) making art dolls again

All of these things have me insanely busy. I have been reading, researching, networking and thinking about the career coaching nonstop for months now, and that has definitely been my biggest time sink since my summer break began. I’ve read several books so bad that I simply cannot mention them, enjoyed You Majored in What? Mapping Your Path from Chaos to Career and The Start-up of You Adapt to the Future, Invest in Yourself, and Transform Your Career and spent hours in the archived blog entries of Generation Meh and Study Hacks

Part of me, this overly honest part of me that is by nature pessimistic and full of doubt, wonders why I am doing this. I am not some hugely successful entrepreneur, my own path to job happiness was frequently one of being lost and feeling hopeless, and as much as I love my work life– both the day job gig that keeps me in cash and my extensive creative ponderings that keep me in spirit– I am still suffering the generational effects of too much debt and no clear ladder to financial stability of the sort my parents had. I read negative comments about career and lifestyle writers promising wealth and happiness who only achieved personal success by selling these dreams to others, and worry that, even if I succeed in my honest goals of helping people find their way out of the post-graduation-doldrums as quickly and painlessly as possible, people will still say similar things about me.

The thing that keeps me from bailing out are the people who have asked me to do this. A friend online who kept pushing me to write a career guide that didn’t suck after we spent forever ranting about the ones we had read. Two friends who have peppered me with questions since their graduation to the point where I’ve already taught a lot of the critical material. My sister looking to get into white collar work without a degree. My indefatigable coaching partner who says at least once every business meeting that I have good ideas worth getting out there where they can help people. If I decided not to keep working on this, those people would be sad.

Which means, if the only thing stopping me is fear (of failure or success!) than I really have no choice but to just keep soldiering on and hope for the best.

New Digs and The Importance of Possessions

Since December, I have been living out of a suitcase. Okay, technically it’s been two suitcases: one full size piece of luggage, and one carry-on sized duffel bag. That’s 4 months of the following items: a week and a half’s worth of clothing, various toiletries, a half dozen books, my favorite pillow, two stuffed animals, and my laptop. Plus my winter coat, which was very useful for Michigan in December, but which hasn’t been worn since crossing the Missouri border in early January.

This past week, everything else finally got unpacked.

On the one hand– it’s just stuff. Clearly, the fact that I spent over four months without it proves that nothing of the 50+ boxes we moved into the new condo was “necessary”. On the other hand– OMG I AM SO EXCITED, I’VE MISSED IT ALL SO MUCH.

I don’t know whether absence makes the heart grow fonder. I know there were multiple times during the past several months where I actively though “Oh, I wish I had that book/eyeshadow/shirt but it’s in the storage box.” But there were also a lot of possessions that I did not realize how much I missed until I found them again. My scissors that cut patterns rather than a straight line, for instance. My favorite pair of boots. My ninja band-aids. These aren’t things I need. The amount of improvement they bring to my life is negligible. The amount of joy I get in their ownership, however, has been surprising in its fierceness. I did not know I was so materially minded.

Of course, there are the duds, too. The shirt I took out of the box and said “wow. That’s really hideous. When did I ever wear that? Certainly not for several moves now. So why do I still own it?” The piles and piles of sweaters, scarves, gloves, mittens, hats necessary to survive a yankee winter that now I have no idea what to do with, as I will never need them here in Texas. Finding where to put these things, whether to give them away or (in the case of the ugly shirt) simply throw them out, has been its own challenge.

Hopefully soon I will have my studio put together, and will be able to share some organizational porn with y’all. At the moment, though, it’s still just a small table surround by piles of boxes. There’s room to work, which in itself is exciting. But the overall space is still not the function retreat that I envision. Soon. I’ll get there. Right now, I’m just celebrating the return of my stuff.