Songs for the Struggling Artist


You know what I don’t need?
August 19, 2015, 11:09 pm
Filed under: art, business, Non-Profit | Tags: , , , ,

Advice.

There was a stage in my artist development when I soaked up all advice like a sponge. It was a period when I’d take everyone’s suggestions. And the great thing about that period was that people love to give advice.

But after so many years of running a non-profit arts organization, I’ve grown so incredibly weary of hearing, “Here’s what you should do – “
Because I have plenty of things to do.

What would I like to hear instead?
“Here’s what I can do. . .” or “Here’s how I can help. . .”
Instead of “Have you tried. . .?” I’d love to hear: “I can try this. Would that help?”

I don’t mean to seem ungrateful to those who would like to assist with their ideas. This desire to assist is probably coming from a good place. But there comes a point wherein unsolicited advice ceases to be helpful.

Fourteen years in, I can say that I have tried just about everything I can think of and just about everything everyone else could think of, too. I have no shortage of ideas – what I don’t have are extra hands. I’m a one woman show with a whole lot of ambition, ideas and the wherewithal to chase down only a handful of them. Other people’s ideas just add to my list. Odds are that I have tried whatever it is that’s been suggested or that it is well out of the realm of possibility. (Like, when folks tell me I should just get my show on Broadway or people suggest to my composer boyfriend that he should just write for films, like John Williams.)

Also, I’ve gotten some advice over the years that was really just criticism in an advice jacket. It has usually sounded like: “You’re going to have to. . .” and “If you want to do X, you need to do Y”. And there’s often a strange aggressive tone under it.

For years, I’ve struggled to understand this response to me and my work, especially from people who know me. But I think I’ve got a handle on it now. Generally, it comes from people who know me and have seen my work. They like me. They see an intelligent, ambitious person who they would have placed a bet on for succeeding. They saw work that was good and full of potential. They’re confused by my lack of success. It creates a kind of cognitive dissonance for them. They want to believe that good work will find a place in the marketplace. They want to believe that the world is fair and just and that success comes to those with talent, intelligence and rigor. And when they see me not fitting in to that belief system, they start throwing shade. I would like to believe in a world like that, too. But we’re not there yet.

I think people look at me and my trajectory and try to explain for themselves why my career doesn’t look like they imagined. They search for flaws in me. They make things up if they have to. And once they feel like they have an answer. (“She’s not aggressive enough.” “She didn’t focus on the right thing” etc.) That’s when they start giving “advice.” Which is actually just criticism and feels lousy to receive.

I get it. I would like to believe it was just some simple thing I’m not doing, too. Then I would do that thing and pull myself out of the artistic ghetto. But it’s just not that simple.

And it’s not just me, either. The many many extraordinary intelligent, talented, rigorous artists I know who are all just as unacknowledged as I am, show me just what a crapshoot an artist’s life is.

I once believed artistic success was a meritocracy and the good and committed rose to the top while the lousy and lazy sunk to the bottom. It is not so. I know a brilliant unacknowledged artist in almost every art form. What I’ve come to understand is that the system is flawed, and rigged and unjust. And I know it causes cognitive dissonance to deal with that. Believe me, I’ve been readjusting for years to take it in. It’s troubling, I know. But – you want my advice? Don’t give advice unless you’re asked for it.

If you want to help, I thank you. Really and truly. I appreciate the impulse to be of assistance. And I have gotten some amazing advice over the years for which I am very grateful. But what I could use most is action and support, not criticism or more things to add to my very long list.

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What I Learned from an Old Train
August 12, 2015, 3:13 pm
Filed under: art | Tags: , , , , , , , ,

Riding on the Holiday Nostalgia train (which runs every December) is an opportunity to step into the past a bit, to ride on an old train, read old subway ads, feel the breezes of open subway windows and the whir of the open blades of the fans in the ceiling. It is full of train aficionados and retro wardrobes. The inside of the train is a delightful confluence of diverse geekery.

My favorite part happens outside the train, however. I sit by the windows so I can watch the faces of the people on the platform as the train comes into the station. Almost no one expects this magical retro train to appear. I love to see people surprised by this mysterious arrival. What astounds me, however, are the vast variety of responses.

To me, the appearance of this train is a little miracle. I imagine that if I were on the platform and this train from the past just appeared out of nowhere, I’d be so delighted. I’d probably clap my hands with glee. To me, the proper response to this train is something in that territory. But very few people actually respond that way. More common is suspicion and confusion. I’ve seen people scowl at it or give the train the evil eye. The train is unexpected and many people are seemingly troubled by its arrival.

This tells me something about how people respond to art, too. I strive to create work that has the potential to be as delightful and unexpected as a nostalgia train and occasionally, I’ve gotten reactions that I haven’t understood. I have taken some of those reactions personally in the past. But the train shows me that that variety of responses is normal when exploring the world outside of the very day.

When I see something that is unexpected and delightful, I’m often surprised to find that everyone does not experience it that way. I think, as a theatre maker, I have, at times, really believed that an audience could have a uniform response to something. The nostalgia train shows me that they do not. Something that makes some people slack jawed with wonder will make others pulse with fury.

I have always thought that all people crave the wondrous, the unexpected, the extra-daily but the train has taught me that some people find it very disconcerting. I take this to heart and it helps me make the things I want to make, to not be dependent on the reaction of the audience but to just create the wonder I want to see, even if it makes people uncomfortable.

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Rolling Deadlines just roll on By
August 6, 2015, 5:30 pm
Filed under: art, Rejections, theatre | Tags: , , ,

I applied for a travel grant that had a rolling deadline. I almost submitted it earlier several times but a rolling deadline is a little trickier to motivate when there are three or four other things in the works with hard deadlines. But this was a grant I wanted maybe more than any other. I labored over it over many weeks.

Not long after I finally submitted it, they wrote back to say that they’d received my application but could not grant me a grant yet because they were out of money. Which I hadn’t realized might be a risk of the rolling deadline.

Luckily, this organization has plans to somehow refresh their granting coffers and asked if I’d like to be submitted to the next granting cycle. Um – yes, please.

So while I did not get the grant – it is not yet an outright rejection. That may be coming. (Though at this point, I’m skeptical, it has been over 6 months.) Meanwhile, I’ve learned a lesson about the perils of a rolling deadline – and next time I’ll jump as soon as applications are released because it seems like, with rolling deadlines, it’ll be the early grantwriter that gets the worm. And the grant.

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“You are Such a Free Spirit!”
July 29, 2015, 10:31 pm
Filed under: clown | Tags: , , , ,

As I was leaving a dance class I’d attended, an observer of the class said to me, “You are such a Free Spirit!” This surprised me because I do not think of myself in this way at all. Maybe this is because the phrase “Free Spirit” conjures gypsy skirts and patchouli oil with maybe a crown of flowers over long flowing hair. The idea of a free spirit conjures flightiness, and a general disregard of others. So it’s hard to take being called a free spirit as a compliment. In fact, the tone of it made me a little angry. (Which is probably why I started writing this post. . .)

But – I suppose I do enjoy a certain amount of freedom. I recognize that I am rather freer than your average bear. I think what this observer was seeing was my ability to be uninhibited while dancing, to embrace the unexpected and to generally not be afraid to have a good time. All those thing are hard won, though, and have more to do with how I cultivate those qualities than any particular free spirit within me.

I am not so much a free spirit, as a clown. And there’s a bunch of training behind that. I learned how to enjoy myself wherever I can, how to take risks and generally not be afraid of making on an ass of myself. I really don’t mind being the first out on the dance floor. I will happily look like a fool. (Which, I think is really what this observer was implying with her comment. Subtext: “You look foolish!”)

And too, I think, by virtue of just having spent the last 20+ years choosing my own path as an artist, I am basically not afraid to be unconventional.

I see other dancers afraid to make any sound at all when we do the punching movements in this class (even though making the sound makes the movement easier and also feels good.) I see others trying so hard to do things right that they miss an opportunity to enjoy the moment.

Maybe being a free spirit is the same as being a clown, I don’t know. But a clown in a gypsy skirt is still a clown – and I guess I could really take being called a free spirit as a compliment. You won’t catch me wearing any patchouli, though.

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Space Grant Rejection
July 28, 2015, 12:48 am
Filed under: Rejections | Tags: , ,

I don’t do this often, but after I got the Space Grant rejection notice, I got an email from them with a link in it that announced the winners. I looked at who got it instead of me. And, perhaps predictably, it made me mad. I think I hoped to see other companies like mine, to see my peers, knowing what they’re working on and go, “Oh, of course. I’d have given them a space grant, too! They make great work and they’re working on that thing!”

But what, in fact, happened is that the list I saw included mostly well established theatres, many of which have spaces. Some of them have actual theatre spaces, which is hard to do around here. So it seems that theatres with premium spaces apply for more space and now have lots of space. And that’s awesome for them. They have a little less fundraising to do to support their big time operations.

Meanwhile, for me, having a space grant or not having a space grant can mean the difference between making a piece and not making a piece. It means having no resources for starting a project. Can I start one anyway? Of course. But having a space grant is like a little seed in the ground – both for creativity and for fundraising. People like to donate to things that are already supported.

But congrats to all the spaces with space grants. I mean, it’s not easy for ANYONE, even if, probably especially if, you have a space already. I get that as one’s budget grows, the difficulties can also grow and everyone could use the boost of a rehearsal space but I am sad that this is the direction this program is going. And I’m sad for all the other tiny companies like mine who used to be much more likely to receive such grants.

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Rejection for a fiction fellowship
July 22, 2015, 10:52 pm
Filed under: Rejections | Tags: , ,

I applied for a fiction fellowship. I knew I wouldn’t get it. I mean, I’m such a newbie to fiction writing; It would have been a little insulting to all those people who’ve spent decades identifying as fiction writers if suddenly a playwright/blogger threw her hat in the fiction ring – if she went, “How ’bout this?” And won a fellowship. It would definitely have been a surprise upset.

But – even though I don’t really identify as a fiction writer, I have to acknowledge that I’ve been writing fiction almost every day for the past few years. So, by virtue of how I actually spend my time, I’m a writer of fiction. I may feel as though I’m a theatre maker dabbling in fiction but I actually spend more hours writing fiction than I do making theatre. So you never know. So I applied anyway. Because you never know. And now that I’ve been rejected as a fiction writer, I can apply next time as a playwright.

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Tylenol for the Rejected
July 20, 2015, 4:52 pm
Filed under: Rejections | Tags: , ,

As someone who has spent a good amount of time writing and thinking about rejection over the last year, I listened with interest to the rejection episode of You Are Not So Smart. I found it fascinating that we experience rejection as a physical pain – so much so that the pain can be reduced with Tylenol.

The show featured a guest who set out to inure himself to rejection by getting rejected on purpose 100 times. The stories are funny and entertaining and they’ve helped this guy significantly. (For one thing, he got a book deal out of it!) He did things like ask for a ride from a stranger or order donuts in the shape of Olympic Rings. But what struck me most about his rejections were that they didn’t require a great deal of investment beforehand. He just figures out what he’s going to try, goes in, tries it, either gets rejected or he doesn’t.

In other words, his sorts of rejections are much different than mine. Mine are less painful in the moment, I think. (I don’t think Tylenol would help, for example.)  But they are more painful in the upfront costs. I spend a lot more time and effort preparing applications, grants and such. I don’t avoid filling these things out because I am afraid of rejection, I avoid filling them out because they take so much time and effort and the odds are such that this effort is 90% likely to be wasted effort.

If I were mathematically inclined, I’d make some kind of proof demonstrating the difference in STYLES of rejection, where X = time invested in asking and Y = the pain in getting rejected, with the answer being some mystery number representing  the willingness to risk rejection again.

And as ever, in my case, an additional integer in this proof would be the addition of the brilliant support of my Patreon patrons, who boost that willingness to put the effort in, to fail, and then fail again, as is ever the way.

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