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It’s Not Me, It’s You!

Reasons why I can’t see my friend Philippa Hughes anymore:

1. At the artist salon she hosted last night,  I made contacts with a performance artist who I hope to interview for my day job, an art consultant who I’d like to learn more about, and reconnected with an arts PR person who I’d met briefly several years ago who I think will be a good colleague in organizing some sort of regular meet-up for arts PR folks in DC.

2. After the presentation, when I was talking to Philippa, she reminded me that I’d been talking about starting a magazine for nearly a year, encouraged me that there did need to be a space focused on post-40 “late bloomers,” and offered to start the magazine with me. So today, in between getting my regular work done, I’ve been starting to think about my action plan for getting the magazine started.

3. When I arrived home from the artist salon, although it was nearly my bed time I wrote a list poem/blog post inspired by something the performance artist said and put out a call on Facebook for other poets/writers to join me in a month-long writing marathon on the subject of “place.”

4. I then stayed up until nearly midnight listening to a couple of episodes of the radio show—the Van Gogh Sessions—Philippa does with her good friend Karen Yankosky, which not only made me laugh but reminded me of how important it is to dare.

In other words, after a few hours with Philippa I was inspired and fired up!

I’m joking, of course, about not hanging out with Philippa anymore. But as I was thinking about last night’s burst of creativity, the old adage popped into my head:  “You are the company you keep.” In other words, if you want to live a more creative life, if you want to have the courage to dare when you’d rather sit on the blue couch, then you have to hang out with those who are also daring and dreaming.

I’ve been fortunate that throughout my life, I’ve had groups of creative friends around me. In Chicago, it was my writing group—the Divas—most of whom I met because I dared to sign up for a poetry workshop on the very last day that registration was open. In the last couple of years here in DC, I’ve dared to do things like go to artist salons and performance events. I’ve dared to join virtual groups, like the online writing group I do poem-a-day challenges with several times a year. I’ve dared to reach out personally to artists I’ve met professionally and with whom I’ve especially clicked. And when I saw that in January, Philippa and her friend (and now my friend, yay!) Karen were doing a blog-a-day challenge, I  invited myself to join them.

I think I’ve written before about the true meaning of networking: it’s not about finding the person who’s going to get you your next job with a big promotion and tons of perks (though that’s always nice). It’s about finding those people who are traveling down the same path as you so you can help each other—with advice, with encouragement, with support, with wisdom.

The older we get, it’s harder to meet those people. In my 40s, it feels so much more intimidating to even say “hello” to someone I don’t know at a gathering. It can be uncomfortable,  you can spend time feeling like an outsider, and it can be a little dispiriting if the coffee date with the person you met at that cool event turns out to be a dud, or if you send out e-mails to the folks you met at the event and no one even wants to have coffee. But it’s worth it.

In the poetry world, they say that if you have a folder full of rejection letters, you’re doing it right. It means that you’re engaging, you’re trying, you’re putting your work out there because there’s no chance at all of publication if it just sits in the drawer. I think the same is true when it comes to building a creative community around you. Not every interaction will be a success, but eventually, if you persist, you end up with a friend—and hopefully a group of friends—who inspires you,  challenges you, and keeps you going when it feels like the creative well is going dry. Friends who remind you of your goals, your dreams, and will do what they can to help you get to wherever it is you’ve decided to go. And that, I’ve learned, is absolutely worth the risk of rejection.

I went to hear Bill Drayton, CEO/Founder of the Ashoka Foundation, speak the other night. And he said that what’s holding us back from all being change-makers (or artists, or creative people or whatever your particular goal is) is that we just don’t give ourselves permission. So go ahead, give yourself permission to talk to that artist at that party, comment on that blog post, politely barge into that conversation because you know you have something to offer. Go ahead, I dare you!

p.s. IMHO you should sign up for the Pink Line Project mailing list so Philippa can inspire you too.

p.s.p.s. The performance artist from last night is Kathryn Cornelius. I believe she has a couple of shows up right now, and you can learn more on her website

Learning Curve

“When I began writing those poems I had had the dream that I would celebrate my sixtieth birthday with a book of joys, a book speaking of fulfillment and happiness. But on the final re-reading I saw clearly that is an elegiac book and that the seeds of parting were in it from the beginning. This is where poetry is so mysterious, the work more mature than the writer of it, always the messenger of growth. So perhaps we write toward what we will become from where we are.” — May Sarton, Journal of a Solitude

A poem for me begins with a phrase that swims its way up from deep within my body, or a snatch of conversation that tumbles over and over on my tongue, or sometimes even a method—a collage poem or something excavated from someone else’s text. But it never starts with an idea. There is no plan for what I will write. Though I know I will discover something in the writing, I do not know until the words are secure on the page what my question is. Writing poetry—and actually all of my literary writing—is like speaking in tongues: I let go and let my better self takes over, the part that never strays from its intimate conversation with the Creator. I remember when my first chapbook was published how shocked I was when everyone said that the poems were so sexual. It took years for me to see that the poems I thought were just a celebration of music and musicians who moved me were also poems about hunger, about longing, about wanting to be touched. In retrospect it’s clear that the person I was then—caught between my fear of intimacy and my equal fear of being in relationship—would puzzle that out on the page. Writing is my way of thinking, it is my safe place to feel and my safe place to reveal myself to myself.

I have always thought my best poems were the ones I didn’t understand. I instinctively know that the logic of them makes sense, that they are “right,” but I usually can’t articulate why I feel that way, what is so right about them, or even what I am trying to say in them. Over time I’ve found that those poems, the ones where I almost can’t decide if they are successful or not, are usually the ones in which I’ve made some huge leap forward—in style, in understanding—and it may take months, and sometimes years, for me to understand what the attempt is.

Poems are mysterious creatures to me. I am suspicious of high school teachers who claim that what is going on in a poem can be assessed with multiple-choice tests. While I agree that there are many poets who are better at probing the mysteries of their poems than I am—I am not the type of reader (or writer) who needs every metaphor to be logical or every motive to be crystal clear for a poem to be satisfying—I also think that even the most ardent sleuths of their own work are, at most, just giving their best guess of what the poem is about. And that to me is the most joyful part of writing, that the more we write, the more still there is to be discovered.

How I work…

While I love reading other people’s “rules for creativity” (check out Austin Kleon’s Steal Like an Artist) I don’t think of myself as having any particular such list. Or at least I didn’t until yesterday. I ran into my friend A who is so excited about a new writing project that she can’t stop talking about it—in that infectious way that makes you want to be part of her project in whatever way you can. The more I thought about A’s project, the more I thought about how inspiring it is to be friends with someone who’s so creative. Which made me realize that the people I seek out and get along with best are those that are actively creative, whether or not they are professional artists. I also realized that though I don’t usually articulate them, I do, in fact, have a set of principles that surround my art practice. I’m not sure this is an exhaustive list, but these are the ones that seem most apparent to me.

Surround myself with people who are actively engaged in living a creative life. One of the reasons I love my day job is because I spend a great many days getting to talk to and interact with artists, some of whom I’m interviewing, and some of whom I work with. There’s no greater boon to my arts practice than an invigorating conversation that leaves me inspired and ready to dare. And while I do happen to meet a lot of practicing artists in my line of work, living a creative life isn’t restricted to those who are artistically gifted. Give me your museum goers, your theater lovers, your nesters who can’t stop rearranging the furniture and hanging more art on their walls. You are who you hang out with. (Check out today’s post on art is fear for a really good take on this idea.)

Plan. I’m as surprised as anyone at my #2. Despite the fact that my day job depends on my ability to plan (and plan b and plan c….), I’m actually not a fan of planning. I want to write poems as they come, on whatever theme, whatever schedule, whether or not it fits with what I’ve already been working on. And I also try not to consciously think too much while I’m writing. I write much better, I think, when I act on instinct, and allow the poem to be as much of a mystery to me as any other first reader. Last year, however, I spent a great chunk of time immersed in Hermione Lee’s brilliant biography of Virginia Woolf. And what struck me—in Lee’s book and also in Mrs. Woolf’s own diaries—was how much thinking Mrs. Woolf did around her work, really thinking through what effects she was going for, in what order she wanted to write things, etc. So when I knew I had a poem-a-day challenge coming up last November, I tried out the planning thing. Which in my case turned out to be a great deal of thinking about general subject matter (love poems) and how I would handle the days I really had nothing to say (found poems from interviews with a certain actor). While I still felt free to write what I wanted and how I wanted, having those two guidelines in place made a huge difference, and I wrote a new poem nearly every day. Ultimately, I think that for me, planning is about anticipating stumbling blocks so you can sail right over them without breaking the flow when you’re deep in the writing.

Pay attention to how I work. The fall before I turned 30, when I’d been seriously writing for a few years, I somehow managed to win a winter writing fellowship to the Fine Arts Work Center, one of the most prestigious writing and visual arts fellowships in the U.S. When I arrived, I was one of only two of the ten writers who didn’t have an MFA. Instant intimidation. I also had a tendency to wander the streets of Provincetown—going to the library, checking out the used book store and the record store and Norman Mailer’s house—while pretty much everyone else holed themselves up in their studios emerging only as the sun set and our evening shenanigans (by which I mean drinking) began. Even though I was writing, the fact that I was doing it in fits and starts, in between devouring huge stacks of books and wondering if I should buy a pair of Blundstones, clearly meant I was doing it wrong. I mean I’d go whole days (and weeks) without writing much more than some journal entries. I was surely a fake and didn’t belong with the real artists. Luckily, the poet Carl Phillips was a visiting writer that winter, and somehow I ended up out at dinner with him, a dinner at which he professed to being a binge writer. He’d write a chunk of poems at a time and then go fallow for weeks or months. Despite the fact that he wasn’t at a desk every day, the number of books—really good books—he has to his credit was proof that he was indeed the real deal. I will never be that writer who spends hours at a desk. Heck, I don’t even really like sitting at a desk, period, it makes me feel trapped. I need the freedom of physically wandering, even if it’s only from one end of my apartment to the other, to set my mind free to wander toward the poems that are waiting. It’s fine to try out other people’s work habits (see #2) but ultimately I believe we each have to figure out what best supports our art practice, whether it’s painting overnight while everyone sleeps, like my painter friend S, or writing in bed like H, or something else that works for you.

Set up play-dates with my muse. I know you’re not supposed to sit around and wait for inspiration, but, let’s face it, starting with inspiration sent from the heavens is way preferable to staring at the blank page when you’ve either got nothing or too much of everything to say. But I’ve learned that there are certain sure-fire things that will provoke a poem out of me—reading other people’s poems and visiting visual arts exhibits. I actually don’t read a lot of poetry because reading a poem to me is a call to write, and, quite honestly, when I come home from work, I want to play, not do more work. That being said, I can barely sit still through most poetry readings cause the right turn of phrase, the exquisite image, and I want to get to work on my own stuff. I mean I have yet to get past the first poem in Terrance Hayes’ Lighthead cause he brings on the muse and how! As for the museum shows, well, there’s no other way to say this—the paintings (or sculptures or photographs) talk to me. It doesn’t always happen, but there are certain shows I walk into and my neurons just start firing. It happened with the last Cy Twombly show at the Art Institute of Chicago and the Richard Diebenkorn show at the Corcoran this summer, and when I saw Holly Bass perform a piece at the (e)merge art fair. It’s as if this conversation starts up in my head over which I have no control. All I can do is listen and try to get it all down. I should add that when I encounter visual work that makes me act in this way, it’s actually kind of freaky because the poem doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with how I’m consciously experiencing the work. I thought the Diebenkorn Ocean Series pieces were luminous and joyful, yet the poem I “heard” was about a couple breaking up. (I also used to get creatively turned on by live music, but since I left Chicago that rarely happens…sigh…)

So, those are just a few of the ways I keep my creativity flowing. I’m curious to know how you stay creative.

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