Songs for the Struggling Artist


“Is this what it feels like to be a man?”

I recently finished watching Seasons 1 and 2 of Call the Midwife. My first thoughts, after watching an episode or two, were “Is this what it feels like to be a man? To see your gender entirely at the center of stories? To have a wide variety of characters and not just one pretty one to be the romantic interest for the lead?”

It has been remarkable to watch stories not just featuring women but about some of the most quintessentially female experiences you could have. Watching stories about pregnancy and childbirth, for one, but also abortion, domestic violence and motherhood.

That all feels pretty revolutionary to me.

But in addition to things like the thrill of having the main romantic story happening to the most awkward of the women, there is also the extraordinary effect of watching so many women in authority.

Every single midwife in the series finds herself in a position of authority at some point, so we watch the younger ones struggle with it and find their own voices and power. That, in itself, feels instructive as this is not a narrative we ever really get to see in the media. But the other part of it is the way authority sits on the older women in the show. They are in charge and there is no question about it. It occurs to me that I have spent most of my life watching media that models for men how to take on authority (or how not to) but leaves women to figure it out for ourselves. 

To watch a community of women in full command of themselves and the world around them is something I don’t think I’ve ever had an opportunity to watch on screen before. I love Orange is the New Black and its community of women, too, but because it is set in prison, all authority rests in the hands of the state, so even though the show is fantastic, it doesn’t have the same empowering effect. 

Call the Midwife isn’t perfect (It’s very white, it can be way sentimental and sometimes the plot twists make me roll my eyes) but it is thrilling to experience a TV show that offers so much female-ness.And given the way theatre tends to follow TV and film, it gives me hope for a future when we could also have this sort of thing can stage. More please. More of this.

*call the midwife

P.S.  On another note, I also love Masters of Sex. Set in almost the same time period, dealing with women’s health and created by women with a woman at the center. I am particularly thrilled to see a story that is so concerned with women’s sexuality and ambition in a way that we rarely see on TV. It doesn’t have Call the Midwife’s variety of bodies and ages or its authority – but it embraces some of the darkness and pleasure that Call the Midwife couldn’t possibly engage in. What would happen if these worlds could collide? I would definitely watch that show.



Reframing Rejection

Getting up the energy to apply for things can be really challenging. Whether it’s grants, fellowships, residencies, festivals, contests, publications or production, all applications amount to buying into RENT SEEKING, an economic concept (There’s a great podcast about it on Econ-Talk .) This is all to say that applications are highly inefficient way to distribute resources. When I’m the person expending all the effort to apply, it can sometimes be very hard to motivate spending the many many hours of work for either no return or very little return, especially when I weight it with resources spent. Because of this, I’d severely slowed down on applications like this round about the time I went to grad school. Until last fall.

A year ago, author, Monica Byrne published her rejection list (called her anti-resume) on her blog. It is an extraordinary document – and one of the things that particularly struck me about it was the sheer quantity of places she’d submitted her work. She endured a STAGGERING amount of rejection and just kept applying to things (theatres, literary agents, residencies, magazines, prizes.) After reading her list, I decided I need to up my game and apply and apply and apply to everything, no matter how many resources I wasted in this process. I was a flurry of applications this year, of all kinds, and I was pretty proud of myself for doing it.

Then a few months later all the rejection letters started to roll in. Some of them were more disappointing than others. But they were all the same. No, Again and again. Grant? No. Fellowship? No. Residency? No. Prize? No. Production? No. Writer’s Group? No. An endless parade of No, from many different avenues.

The applications were for me, for my company or some combination of the two. It’s a whole lot of No. One day, I got three rejections in a row. One in my mailbox and two in my email. And from an economic perspective, this is ridiculous. If I’d gotten paid for all that work, I’d have a decent salary. (Shame I didn’t!)

But from another angle, these sorts of attempts are the only way to transcend the artistic ghetto I’ve found myself in and I probably just need to keep applying to things until something hits. Byrne submitted hundreds of applications before they started to hit and once they hit, the odds went up and she started to hit more and more. At least that’s what it looks like from her list.

The trick for me now is to try and figure out how to continue to motivate myself to apply even when the odds aren’t good, even when rejection is almost a foregone conclusion. Could I switch my thinking to see if I could get as many rejection letters as possible? Have each rejection be a celebration of some kind?

When I did a lot of auditioning, I sometimes managed to think of those auditions as my job, to see the audition as the performance, as the end goal and not an attempt for something beyond it. It helped. Because I like performing.

But I’m struggling to find a way to convince myself that filling in applications is the end goal, because I don’t enjoy filling out applications. And while I love writing, I don’t enjoy writing artistic statements of varying word/character counts or plot summaries or answering “Why I want this residency” questions.

Every time I spend hours (or days or weeks) filling something out, I have to convince myself I really want to get that thing in order to write convincingly about it. And every time I don’t get it, it becomes harder to apply to the next one.

So I’m in search of a re-framing device, some way to have receiving a rejection letter be good news and affirming. In their book Switch, the Heath brothers talk about Triggers (setting up an automatic response to something.) I want a new trigger for rejection letters. Some way to tie pride or contentment or some positive emotion to receiving them. I thought about getting myself an ice cream every time I received a rejection – but I really don’t need THAT MUCH ice cream. There are the writers who wallpaper their bathrooms with rejection letters – which I would totally do – except that 90% of my rejections come in my email now. And I’m not printing those things out just to smear paste on them or tear them up.

The Heath brothers also talk about this idea of an elephant and a rider, that when we’re riding a (metaphorical) elephant, the emotions of the elephant really determine where we go, that the rider can only do so much when the elephant’s emotions get involved. So I’m trying to figure out how to motivate my elephant to do something that generally makes me feel bad and somehow find a way to make it feel good.

Have you solved this? Suggestions welcome. I can’t imagine I’ll ever be in a position to be able to avoid applying for things altogether. So I need a way to make peace with the labor of applying and the rejection that comes after.

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A Tale of Three Teaching Artists
July 21, 2014, 10:51 pm
Filed under: art, education, Shakespeare, theatre | Tags: , ,

Once upon a time there were three teaching artists. These three were the entire teaching staff of a Shakespeare program. Between the three of them, they had a lifetime of experience teaching Shakespeare to young people. They inspired each other and complemented one another’s styles. Where one was weak another was strong and they made a circle of knowledge that benefited both the institution within which they worked and the young people they worked with.

They cared deeply about this program that they had all spent a considerable amount of time and effort in helping to craft. They went to meetings about how to improve the work. They saw managers come and go and changes go along with them.

They had a lot of collective strength but found themselves increasingly at odds with a changing institutional culture, and the sacrifices they’d made to keep doing the work started to seem less worth it. One by one, the unit fell apart. The first to go went to teach English full time at a high school, where her students are privileged to have the full extent of her teaching and she has an actual salary and benefits. The second to go threw herself on the whims of the marketplace to become truly freelance, as she had been before the institution (for whom she used to freelance) became more institutionalized.

The third remains there and is now surrounded by artists with much less experience and much less perspective. She doesn’t get paid any more than these new artists but must, continually, educate her colleagues as well as her students.

And it is the institution’s loss. It let a solid formidable program fall apart because it could not recognize the value of what it had. And this is what happens when experience is undervalued and obedience is the rule of the hour.

All three Teaching Artists are doing just fine. But the Institution has lost.

 

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The Value of a Liberal Arts Education

There’s a really interesting conversation happening in the media these days about the value of a college education. From the Freakonmics show “Is College Really Worth It?” to The Economist article, “Is College Worth It” the worth of higher education is clearly on the table. The Federal Government is thinking about it, too. There’s a plan in the works to assess university education on affordability and value. Many people are trying to quantify what an education should be worth and judge institutions by whether they fulfill that promise. The stakes are high as Federal Funding hangs in the balance.

My alma mater has gotten in on the conversation early. As mentioned in a story on  Marketplace, the college is worried about the proposed measures of financial success of its alumni as a measure of value. It’s fighting for the place of Liberal Arts in the culture.

I find myself with mixed feelings about all this. I have great affection for my small elite liberal arts college. I believe in the values they’re discussing in the media and I am grateful for the role the college and those values have played in my life. What the college claims to do is exactly what it did for me and I value those skills. But I’m broke. And I wonder about the role Liberal Arts education has played in my broke-ness.

My small elite liberal arts education was expensive. At the time, it was the most expensive in the country. I was only able to go because of some extremely generous financial aid. When I was there, one half of the students basically paid for the other half.

It was a beautiful, rarefied place to learn. The atmosphere of the place encouraged deep thinking and analysis. It encouraged independence and challenging the status quo. We all left with a degree in Liberal Arts.  We all left with a lot of conversations about Truth and Beauty and literature and philosophy and history behind us.

What we didn’t leave with were jobs. Or desirable job skills. Which was fine at the time. We’d learned about something more important than money. Our values were marinated in philosophy and Art. I wouldn’t have had it any other way.

My college prided itself on its uniqueness (slogan: We’re different, so are you.”) It attracted (and still attracts) people with an interest in independent thinking, people who are different, people who cluster at the margins of things. Studying there helped us develop our uniqueness. It trained us in individuality and independent thinking. As a rule, if there is a box, my fellow alumni and I are particularly skilled at thinking outside of it.

The problem is that, at the moment, all the money seems to be IN the box. I sometimes wish I’d gone to a place that trained me to think more conventionally – just so I could make some conventional dollars.

I started to think about all this after an alumni Holiday party where I encountered one alumna after another who was struggling with money and in the middle of a career transition. We all loved our alma mater but were a little mad at it too. There was a sense of “Shouldn’t we be seeing some financial return on our elite education?” Like, shouldn’t we be part of the elite having gone to the most expensive college in the country?

At some elite colleges, there is a pipeline. When you leave those institutions, you have a club membership, you have an introduction to the halls of power. Your degree can open doors. You go to Harvard, for example, you can go work with other folks from Harvard, whether in law or in comedy.

There is no such pipeline for us and maybe it’s because my fellow alumni didn’t go on to become investment bankers or politicians. They’re poets, philosophers, teachers, film-makers, journalists, musicians, theatre artists, visual artists, etc, (basically all the middle class jobs that are vanishing in the information/digital economy.) I think we partly chose the place because we were interested in those creative/academic lives – which is why I can’t blame the institution, as much as I’d like to.

I mean, I chose to work in Theatre. As Lewis Black said about theatre work in a recent podcast interview, “Crack whores make more money.” Theatre is what I studied and what I chose to pursue. So it’s my own fault, really. But I can’t help noting that if I’d studied Theatre at Yale, I’d have some worldly access that I don’t have with my degree. Is it the institution’s job to care for its alumni once they’re gone? Probably not.

But I also note that one of the hopes of elite liberal arts education as a whole is to transcend class, to give people a leg up the ladder. And it seems like, in my college’s case, the students who came in Low Income have remained Low Income and those who came in Middle Class have remained Middle Class and so on. And maybe the same thing is true at Yale. Maybe it’s NOT the Yale connection that opens doors but the socio-economic class that accompanies the student to Yale.

If that’s the case, then a measure that gauges economic success is really just a way to measure where people with money tend to go to school. It’s not so simple.

Would I have changed my elite liberal arts education? Nope. Not at all. It’s exactly what I wanted and it did all of the things it now claims to teach. The discomforting thing is how little those things seem to be valued out in the world. In a way, a liberal arts education is education for an ideal world. It educates aspirationally, almost as if people really cared about art and literature and philosophy.

I’d like to live in a world in which everyone were trained in thinking analytically, expressing ideas effectively, bringing innovation to things and thinking independently but, we live in a culture that seems to only care about money, that wants to measure what you learned by how much money you make, that wants to value people and experiences this way. A liberal arts education hopes that there will be some other measure out there – some other way of doing things and sometimes this means a major crisis in its students when we discover that no one really cares about our ability to analyze literature – and when we discover that all the things we loved and trained in are things that the culture has continued to devalue – artists, teachers, academics, etc.

Adjunct teachers around the country (who make up around 70% of faculty) make so little money that many of them have multiple other jobs. Adjuncts make peanuts. I know because I’ve been one. The most famous example was a beloved French teacher with decades of years of teaching at a college who died at 83 without health care or any sort of safety net. And my elite Liberal Arts College isn’t paying adjuncts any better than anyone else. Adjunct faculty are teaching students for pocket change, while the students are paying crazy amounts of tuition to learn from them.

And yet we persist. Because we love poetry. Or philosophy. Or whatever it is. And the college persists, in hope, I’d guess, that one day the world will organize its values a little differently.

Maybe in the future, when we are all artists, as Seth Godin suggests in Linchpin, our independent learning will start to pay out. No one knows. Meanwhile, if I were a parent, (I’m not, I can’t afford to be) I’d have big questions about where to send my child. To an elite liberal arts college where they will learn how to learn? Or to a college that might help them make a decent living when they’re done?  (Although, no guarantees now – I heard that there are so few law firm positions open that lawyers are waiting tables now, just like actors.)

I don’t have an answer for any of it. I wish that it weren’t an either/or situation – that the skills and values of a liberal arts college were so valued in the culture that everyone would come out of school and get PAID. And then a measure of how students do financially after going to school somewhere would be an actually sensible measure.

So, good luck, Federal Government, on your quest to figure out how to place value on all the colleges out there. You’ve got a hell of a task ahead of you.

 

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How Patronage Feels
July 15, 2014, 10:17 pm
Filed under: art, writing | Tags: , , ,

I recently published one of the first blogs I’ve posted since I joined Patreon. This means that for the first time, I will actually be paid for writing this stuff. It’s not a lot. At my current numbers, I’ll make $20. But it feels tremendously different than making no dollars for my writing.

I’ve only been paid as a writer a couple of times before (for productions of my plays at theatres and schools.) This is the first time, though, that I’ve been in a position to know that I would get paid for something I put out in the world. That is, I make something with the knowledge that there will be a financial return. It feels good, it feels direct and I start to understand what it must feel like to regularly be paid for things you value.

It feels so good to have a squad of people who like my work (or me) enough to want to support it or me. It makes me want to be better, do better, just for them.

In addition to feeling really good, this new patronage has started to shift the work itself. It’s not changing the writing so much yet. With the exception of this one, most of the current wave of blogs were written many months ago. But patronage has made a big impact on how I edit these things. It means that I take more time to look things over, to re-write. I take 4 passes at it, instead of 2. It means that I take the time to find the perfect links within a post. I take time to find the right images and I take more care with the way the text makes the switch from my word document to the wordpress platform. In general, the $20 my patrons are donating are paying me for those extra hours of care. Partly this is because I know people are paying for it but also because I know people are interested enough to support it and/or read it.

The pledges I’ll receive each time I post a blog are still nowhere close to paying me minimum wage for the hours I put into blogging, but they are a vote for this work rising up my priority list.

As a freelancer, I spend the majority of my time doing things that may or may not yield direct results. I go to networking events with the hope of meeting future clients. I update my websites with the hope that someone might end up there and hire me. I make posters and hang them in the appropriate locations. I fundraise for a project, which hopefully will be enough to pay me too. Very few things I do are a direct exchange and much of my time is spent trying to work out which thing will rise to the top of my to do list.

So this – I-write-something-and-get-paid-thing feels pretty revolutionary to me.

So, while this is, yes, a big thank you to my Patreon supporters (Thank you!) It’s also a plea for arts funding in the bigger picture. When you fund things you can make them better. Sure, that artist might make her dance without $20 . . .but $20 might buy her an extra hour of rehearsal space and that extra hour of rehearsal space allows the dancers to really drop into the piece, moving it out of adequate and into excellence.

The more directly you fund art, the more difference you will make in the work itself. That is, when you fund artists directly, rather than institutions, you can you’re your donations have immediate impact on what they are able to create. Take it from an artist who will be paid directly for her work, for the very first time.

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Class Questions

We were in the kitchen of our small house out in the country. The wood stove might have been kicking out its dangerous warmth. The buckets of drinking water from the ice from the creek may have been melting nearby. That’s if it was winter – but I don’t remember the season. We were at the kitchen table, though, I remember that. And I asked my mother what class we were.

I was in elementary school and somehow the subject of class had come up. Almost all of my friends identified as middle class. But I was confused because middle class seemed to mean you had some money and we didn’t really seem to have much. We didn’t have plumbing in this house, for one thing. At the time, my mom worked as a secretary and my dad drove the Bookmobile. So at the dinner table that day, my mother eventually answered my question with “lower middle class” which reasonably settled my confusion around the lack of money we had compared to my friends.

Many years later, I find I am newly confused about this class question. Here in America, the myth of our classless society remains – even as income disparity becomes more extreme. The only class Americans are meant to have is the middle class. This is the only class we’re allowed to discuss. The working class, which in other cultures can be a point of pride, is an aspiring Middle class and the Upper Class is either the Elite or Upper Middle Class.

It seems to me that there is another class in operation that we don’t talk about and that is an Artist class or the Cultural middle class. Financially, I am not even close to middle class. I have been eligible for food stamps at many times in my life (though I’ve only used them that time the application came along with my contract at the theatre where I was working full time for $50 a week.) But I’m culturally middle class. I have a Master’s and a Bachelor’s Degree.

One of the things that’s awkward about this artist class confusion is that we operate in a world that is completely in line with us culturally but out of line with us financially. When our friends from college go out for a birthday dinner, they throw down $40-a-person like it’s no big deal. So usually we don’t go out to our friend’s birthday dinner because that $40 is our grocery money. We get farther away from our cultural peers as their lots in life improve and ours remain hand to mouth.

If you choose to make a life as an artist, it’s very likely that you will find yourself in this awkward middle space – with all the indicators that would suggest upward mobility but the reality of a downward mobility. Should we identify more with the working class then? At my first meeting with the League of Independent Theater, John Clancy proposed the idea that we’re not getting anywhere until we acknowledge that we’re actually working class.

I’m interested in this idea. As Planet Money recently pointed out, most artists have extreme downward mobility. Daughters and sons of doctors and lawyers become artists and their salaries never rise to meet their parents. But because these artists grew up middle class or upper middle class, perhaps identifying with the working class is loaded somehow. It may create a kind of cultural cognitive dissonance.

We don’t have a metric for people who are culturally rich but financially poor. But there are tons of us. And we spend a lot of time and effort pretending we’re doing better than we are. We go into debt to buy clothing that will help us fit in with our cultural peers. We go to those dinners with our friends. We go see the Broadway show even when we really can’t afford to. I mostly don’t do these things anymore myself but sometimes it’s unavoidable. And I’m not saying you have to be poor to be an artist. It’s just that it often turns out that way. Most artists I know who’ve stayed out of poverty consistently have managed it by finding well-paid day jobs.

People talk a lot about the Starving Artist trope but when’s the last time you met an artist over 25 who actually acknowledged that they were starving? People say it’s romanticized – but the romance is almost always in the past. It’s Paris in a Garret in the 1800s. It’s Robert Mapplethorpe and Patti Smith when the Chelsea Hotel accepted art in lieu of rent. But I’m sure, even then, starving wasn’t so romantic. Last year’s troubles and all that. Poverty sucks. It sucked before and it sucks now. But pretending we’re not poor because we are culturally rich means that not only are we denying our own experience but also the opportunity to band together with the working class, to use our cultural capital for good.

We have a class society, whether we acknowledge it or not, and maybe we need a designation for the artists. There was that movement towards the Creative Class a while ago but it didn’t really catch on, not among actual creatives. Maybe that’s part of the reason it turned out to be ineffective. Meanwhile, the middle class that we might have aspired to is vanishing.

I wonder if it’s all just a distraction from the real stuff at the heart of it all. That is, a living wage for everyone, artists included. It seems that while our primary value as humans is money, all of us, the poor, the working class, the artists, the cultural rebels, the back-to-the-landers, the non-profits, will all be left out of the benefits of a money-driven society.

If someone asked me at my kitchen table today what class I am, I couldn’t give them an easy answer. That question would probably yield more than the asker was bargaining for. The answer would be as long as a blog post.

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(Not My) Morning Pages

A fellow artist spotted me in the local coffee shop with my notebook and pen and said, “You’re doing your morning pages?”

Now, I knew what he was talking about and if you’ve read The Artist’s Way, so do you. I read The Artist’s Way in 1996 and it had a profound effect on me. I was fresh out of college, working at my third acting job and had just realized that being an actor was not only going to be really fucking hard but was also not going to be enough for me artistically. The Artist’s Way was my first step toward creating my own work. Along with Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones, it started me writing every day and I have held tightly to that practice ever since.

What’s interesting to me about being asked if I’m doing my morning pages is how I definitely don’t think of what I’m doing that way. Now, just as Julia Cameron (author of The Artist’s Way) would suggest, I write a bunch of nonsense every day. Pages of it. Just blah, blah, blah, journal, diary type “the weather’s beautiful, the weather’s awful” shit. But, I now think of these pages as clearance. When I write pages of nonsense, I’m just clearing the decks. It’s like stretching before the game, not the game itself.
And the thing itself can evolve out of the garbage that spills out of the pen at first. Sometimes in expressing my fury at the theatre business, for example, a little blog post is born.

Eventually, actual writing can emerge out of the compost I turn over when I begin. I can turn up stories or plays or ideas that lead to new projects out in the world. But what is most important to me is the discipline of sitting down and getting to the writing. And I have created a great many structures for myself to keep my head in the game, to keep tending the garden, even when I’m tempted to just keep raking the compost.

It goes like this: I clear the decks. (practice inspired by Julia Cameron and Natalie Goldberg.) I make a list of images (practice inspired by Lynda Barry.) I write in response to a line from Hamlet (a practice that leads to a whole lot of nonsense and the occasional short story) and then I get to ten minutes of timed writing on the thing I’m “really” working on. This is sometimes a play. Or a novel. Or a short story. And it comes last because it is the meat of the matter. I put myself in a number of funny arrangements just to get to those highly concentrated ten minutes. And while this ever-evolving, patchwork practice has been inspired by a great many writers, it is tailored to me and mine.

Sometimes it all strikes me as a little silly – all these structures just to create a something every day but then I think: this is the REAL work of the artist. The work isn’t the stuff that gets seen, although that’s lovely. It is the creating of structures in your life to allow yourself to create. The creating part is easy when you’ve got the right conditions. The real challenge is laying the groundwork to have the right conditions on a regular basis. And really, you can call that whatever you want. Morning Pages. Wild Mind. The Bones. Art. Whatever.

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