Women on the Verge: Volume Two
No one religion can console this enormous country.
No single philosophy convince it.
No therapy relieve it of its burdens.
No legal system comfort its injustice.
No medicine deliver it from pain.
No government give it joy.
Only art does that.
— playwright Romulus Linney
Welcome to my brain …
ARTemis was founded for women artists at all levels, but the challenges and needs differ, depending on whether you are fresh out of school, shifting to a new medium and starting the learning process all over, or have made your mark and are trying to maintain it against some serious odds. So, not every woman’s individual situation can be addressed in these blogs. Hopefully, you will find bits and pieces that, together, will inform and support you in whatever you aim to do.
Whether you are on the VERGE of diving into creativity for the first time, or the VERGE of reaping the rewards of your dedication and hard work, or the VERGE of giving up your dream — at some point you weren’t identifying as a poet or dancer, actor, writer … publicly. Do you remember what triggered that shift? Was it an internal process; always there, always prodding, and you just got brave enough to take the risk? Or was it external; encouraging words from a teacher or colleague in a time of self-doubt? Or, are you still trying to figure out when to straight-up call yourself a photographer, or painter or choreographer? When is it no longer just dreaming? When do you, officially, become a director, designer, playwright or screenwriter?
Why do we say: “I’m a receptionist at a dentist and a musician on the side,” instead of “I’m a musician, and on the side I work at a dentist.” Is it because we don’t believe it ourselves? Is it because one is a legitimate occupation, whereas the other seems more a leisure pursuit? (For those working hard to be recognized, there’s nothing leisureabout their hours and hours of effort.) Or are we afraid to put our creativity front-and-center, because we dread the inevitable follow-up question? There are several versions: What have you written that I might have read? When’s your next exhibit? Where will you be performing again? These usually reflect genuine interest. Yet, sometimes it can feel like the person is seeking proof of your legitimacy. Especially in a highly-competitive environment. So, I’m dragging my girl, Eleanor Roosevelt, into advise us. “No one can make you feel inferior without your permission.” Until you take your creative self seriously, it is not fair to expect others to.
Artists seem to be the only group who must continually justify their work as real work. This being a capitalist country, value is tied to income – or lack of. Forget skill, talent or professionalism. If your creative projects don’t generate funding of one kind or another, you will, at some point, struggle with this core identity issue. If your work isn’t producing the income you had hoped for, that could be due to unrealistic expectations or ignorance of the market. But, most likely, it’s related to your attitude: Do you think of yourself as a professional artist? Do you create professional-level work, or do you submit your second or third draft? Do you put yourself out there on a consistent basis? Or, do you audition only for parts that are comfortable for you? Sing only when you feel like it, dance only steps you’ve already mastered, return to the keyboard only when your muse strikes, never step outside your comfort zone, never skill-build, and fail to educate yourself about the business of art? If so, then what you have is a “hobby.” There’s nothing wrong with a hobby, as long as you don’t expect professional things from it.
Eleanor Roosevelt’s in my ear again: “You must do the thing you think you cannot do.” Put another way: If you wait until everything else in your life is in order, until you have the time, until you are more comfortable with putting your work out there to be considered and, yes, evaluated — then you’re not a writer or actor or dancer. You’re a “waiter.” And waiting is perfectly understandable; who wants to voluntarily invite the potential criticism and rejection that come with the territory? Professionals. That’s who.
They’ve learned how to use critical notes and rejection to their advantage. (A tool I’ll be sharing with you in a future blog.)
Many artists don’t take a straight path from school or apprenticeship to “dream achieved.” My path was definitely squiggly, with false starts and sudden off-shoots and quite a few dead ends, including nursing school. I ended up a writer, but could not say that was my original plan. Yet, the other day, I found evidence to the contrary: Two poems published in my 1962 high school literary magazine. I have no memory of writing them. They’re hideous by any standard, and I would deny association, but there it is, my name beneath. I had just been dumped by a boy and wanted to set the record straight. An accompanying photo of me in a black turtleneck sweater and black beret provided the gravitas I lacked: These poems must be deep; they were written by a Beatnik!
Like so many before me, I did not call myself a writer until I was paid. That piece, an essay in The Los Angeles Times, catapulted me into another world. Until then I hadn’t thought of my work from the reader’s perspective, because I was fine with being the only reader. I simply enjoyed the process. I knew it wasn’t perfect — and I knew I was an unknown — but I felt it was “good enough.” The incident I wrote about had lasted no more than thirty seconds but still haunted me six months later. After submitting it, I was hooked on the chance to tell a story to over a million people at one time. Even better: I imagined the morning, all over Hollywood, when that edition of The Times was being delivered to bedrooms on breakfast trays, or set on patio tables next to fresh-squeezed orange juice, or stuffed into briefcases for the commute. I knew that, although I would never have the pleasure … at least my work would land in Warren Beatty’s hands. Yum.
Even after we embrace the artist within us, take on the arduous task of attending to her demands, navigate the culture’s biases and patch together enough courage to poke the bear and put our work out there for others to respond to, we still must – in the absence of an alternative source — find ways to support ourselves until our art, alone, is enough. It’s no secret that the vast majority of artists work more than one job. The most I ever had at one time was three: I was teaching at an art school during the day, counseling on a suicide/crisis line until 11:00 at night and coaching artists on weekends. I was 57 at the time and exhausted. Too exhausted to write. But not too exhausted to take notes. And those notes became a long essay. Because my brain is always creating. Even when I’m not aware of it. And so is yours.
Like all artists I’m always gathering ideas: snippets of conversation in a café; catching an interesting gesture by someone arguing with a lover; discovering my fingers tapping out a rhythm I didn’t realize was seeping into my brain; studying how a young man’s florid delusion is playing out on the bus. As they say, “It’s all material” … whether you’re a writer, dancer, actor or singer. When most folks go to work it’s in an office or hospital or at a construction site or factory. When their shift is over, they’re done. Artists arenever done. While cooking, we’re hearing the next note, then the next. While changing a diaper, a perfect line of dialog slips through. Waiting for an afternoon bus, we “see” exactly how to connect the dance steps we awoke with at 3am. Creativity is a 24/7 job, but — because so much of it is an internal process — much of the work is secret. No wonder we’re treated like it’s a hobby; from the outside it looks like a hobby. I remember being in a paint store, choosing just the right color for the wall of my study. I knew I wanted something close to the color of bamboo. I told the guy at the counter, “It has to be just the right green, because it’s my work space.” He asked me what I did in there, and I replied, “Think.” But I could have said, “I stare into space a lot.” The first response being what I’m actually doing. The latter being what others see.
Like I said, for some, the path is a straight one, with a predictable outcome. But for us, not so much. Take a few minutes to map your own trip from there to here. Notice when you were diverted and why. Check out when you found the road again and what brought you back. Remember those adventures and misadventures that only made your determination stronger. Laugh at your young, clueless, self. Forgive your middle-aged detours to nowhere. Find compassion for yourself during those times you did a U-turn and found yourself back in your miserable but familiar — and therefore safe — situation. Remember when you arrived at a fork in the road and were not willing to take a risk. Not willing to ask, “What if …”
Three Degrees from Picasso
All of us come into this world naturally curious. (“I wonder what my foot tastes like.”) And we’re willing to take high risks in order to satisfy that curiosity. (“I wonder how many beads I can stick up my nose.”) Even before we learn our native language our brain is prodding us with the core question of all creative endeavors: “What if … ?” In this sense — although they are usually presented as complete opposites — there is actually a thin line between science and art. Scientists and artists are both driven by the need to answer that question through constructing and deconstructing and reconstructing theories. (What did you think you were doing when you rewrote that opening scene ten times? When you hit that note then tried another, then another? When you changed that blue to vermilion?) More importantly, both scientists and artists must face the reality that this creative loop produces far more failed experiments than successful ones. The difference is: Scientists do not take “failure” personally. They appreciate that even less-than-desirable results generate valuable information. However, many artists – especially those in the early stages of their careers – do take it personally and fail to recognize that success has little to teach us; only through repeated failures does what we ultimately produce come closest to our intention, our vision. (Knowing how to use failure is another tool that we will explore in a future blog.)
So, the next time someone questions the seriousness of your work or your intentions, say something like, “You might be surprised to know that when I’m in my studio, I’m asking myself the same questions that Darwin and Einstein and Curie asked.”
There is a famous 1948 photo of a couple walking on a summer beach in France. He’s holding an umbrella over his enchanting companion, who’s walking ahead of him. He is Picasso, already acknowledged as a creative genius. Even at 66 – his age on that beach — he has never lost his child’s “eye” nor sense of wonder. He’s the poster boy for “What if?” (What happens if I put an eye here?) The young woman he is attempting to catch up with is Francoise Gilot, 27, who will become – not only the mother of his children, but an acclaimed painter, art critic, and art director of the Virginia Woolf Quarterly. She will later marry Dr. Jonas Salk, who pioneered the first vaccines for polio. (Polio was my generation’s AIDS.) I often think of their coupling: She, a dynamic artist. He, a brilliant scientist. Both asking, “What if?” … in the studio … in the lab.
In the 1980’s I worked up the road from the Salk Institute in La Jolla, California. At the time, I was searching for a therapist who might understand the loneliness of being married to a significantly left-brained man. Dr. Salk’s first wife, Donna, had a private practice. And, with that, I became one degree of separation from Jonas, two degrees from amazing Francoise and three degrees from Picasso, himself. Walt Disney was right: It is a small world after all. And, sometimes that fact can work to your advantage.
“Connections” and timing are the extras in that recipe for success. Sometimes you get one but not the other. If you find yourself in a position to do so, take the chance and mention your work. But don’t do it until you have reached a level where you can talk about it in a professional manner and with confidence. Those, who are in a position to possibly assist you, do not have time to listen to you ramble on and/or apologize for your art, unless you lead with something intriguing; something that sings with originality. More often than not, these brief encounters come and go with nothing productive. But, each attempt makes it easier and easier. If you know someone, who knows someone. who knows someone, you have nothing to lose. But, even well thought out plans can’t guarantee satisfaction: When I was dipping my toe into fiction, I slipped a short story into a box of home-made cookies and stood in line at a book signing for Garrison Keillor. As soon as I fished the box out of my book bag an assistant swooped in and took it. I have no idea what happened: Did he read it? Did he like it? Did he get food poisoning?
Something to Think About
Some artists rely on rituals and incantations, ceremonies and procedures to conjure the creativity within. This is all good, if you are making art for yourself, alone. But if you want to make your mark in the real world, yet rely only on these — more often than not – you will find yourself frustrated. The real world – the commercial world — is not concerned with your intentions. It is concerned with what you can do FOR it. Can what you create add value? Will what you are doing draw attention? Do you have more in you? To satisfy these demands, you need to know as much as you can about the creative process, including the ability to “get” what’s happening on the other side of the equation. Yes, there is a mysterious aspect to the creative process. But – regarding intentions, alone — as they used to say at Planned Parenthood: Hope, is not a method.
Questions for Consideration
1. What needs to happen for me to take my creative self more seriously?
2. Am I fear-driven (avoiding the difficult) or passion-driven (moving toward risk)?
3. What conclusions have I come to about myself as an artist? Are these still valid?
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