Songs for the Struggling Artist

No One’s Asking for Your Art

Probably, there is no one who can’t wait to read your next play. Probably, no one is itching to read your novel. No one is clamoring for your new album or begging for your next dance piece. Probably you have some loved ones who are very supportive and tell you how excited they are to read your latest writing but 9 out of 10 people really don’t care and even the most supportive person you have on your side won’t see or read EVERYTHING. Your friends might feel obligated to go see your show or listen to your album but they probably won’t come every single time or listen more than a few times. Probably when you tell them about your latest creative venture, they’ll tell you they’re excited about it but they probably won’t come. (Life happens. To everyone. Everyone can’t see everything.) I’m not saying your people are not glad that you make art but the odds are they’re not clamoring for your latest thing. Especially if you make a lot of things.

This is why you have to untie yourself from your potential audience. If you have the instinct to create, you have to do it for yourself first because no one wants whatever you have in mind more than you.

I think this is true even if you’re a popular artist who people want to hear from. Let’s look at J.K. Rowling. Her fans wanted Harry Potter, now and forever. No one wanted her to write a book about a small-time English Village council election. No one was asking for that. But she wrote it anyway. If Rowling was completely tied to what people wanted from her, she’d have been writing only Harry Potter for the rest of her life. But no, not only did she write a novel about an election, she also went and wrote a whole crime series under a pseudonym. I bet you no one was asking for her to do that when she started.

If you’re not J.K. Rowling, your audience might not want anything at all from you. The most likely response you will get to your art is indifference. And you cannot let this stop you. Just because no one particularly wants you to do it, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t.

If you’re called to create, you have to do it. For you. No one else. Or maybe one other person. It could even be an imaginary person. I have one dedicated fan of the podcast. I record it for him. And even he doesn’t listen to every single one. A more logical person might leave such an enterprise aside. But I don’t make a podcast for logical reasons – I make it for artistic ones. My reasons understand that not every artistic expression is for every one. And that as long as I feel inclined to create, that’s how long I should do it.

No one wants it. But if you DON’T express that unique sparkling thing in your soul, it will fester. Or at the very least, wink out of existence.

If you need people to want your work, you might just want to go ahead and work in advertising. You can go be “a creative” in marketing or some form of industry. They’re going to want your words, your ideas, your drawings, etc. They’ll give you assignments, structures and feedback. They’ll ask you for all you have. They will read everything you write for them. They will listen to all you record. They will look at all that you draw. And you will get payment, one way or another.

But if you feel called to be an artist, you’ll need to be prepared to go where no one is calling to you, where there is no encouragement but your own creative spark. The practice of a life in the arts is learning how to nurture your own spark, how to stoke your own creative fire and encourage it to blaze so it becomes harder and harder to ignore. Learn how to be your own match, your own oxygen, your own kindling, your own log and you have a practice for life.

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Writing on the internet is a little bit like busking on the street. This is the part where I pass the hat. If you liked the blog and would like to give a dollar (or more!) put it in the PayPal digital hat.

I’m Done Watching Nashville And It’s Probably Not Why You Think
April 17, 2017, 12:20 am
Filed under: Gender politics, music, TV | Tags: , , , ,

No one was more surprised than me when I became a fan of Nashville, the TV show about country music stars. It happened after I read an interview with Callie Khouri, the show’s creator, in which she explained how much her feminism was informing the show. In 2012, there weren’t many folks in show business talking about their feminist work, so I sought the show out immediately. And I loved it.

The show did so many things I’d not seen before on TV: multiple women at the center, women grappling with power, grappling with sexism in the music business. It seemed to have a female gaze, even when directed by men. There was a scene in the first season that was one of the sexiest I’d seen on broadcast TV. It was bold. And it didn’t let us forget that the nice man we all liked so much was once a violent alcoholic. It dealt with domestic violence in a harrowing and sensitive way. The show wasn’t perfect. It was soapy as hell and it lost its few characters of color pretty early on. But it was always an empowering blend of music, ambition and relationships. This year, after being dropped by CBS, it was picked up and given a 5th season by Country Music TV, a very logical choice. I was excited to see it return after such a long hiatus.

But from the beginning of this new season, I felt a strange lack of ease around watching it. The cast was still in place, the characters aligned with their histories, the music still at the center. But I noticed after a few episodes that I just didn’t feel like watching it anymore. Something was missing.

What I realize now was that Callie Khouri was missing. In her showrunner chair are now two men. (It takes two men to replace one bad ass feminist women apparently.) The show had earned my feminist trust so things that would normally be red flags for me didn’t flag at first.

At first, I was so glad to have some people of color back on the show, and for them to be acknowledging the existence of racial tension, however awkwardly.  I was so busy applauding the inclusion of a trans character, I missed what was happening to the other characters. But the show started to irrevocably turn for me when Scarlett, who has always been the emotional center of the show, was bullied and sexually exploited by a film director. Because the show had some feminist cred in the bank, I thought that might be handled deftly at some point, like the domestic violence plot in a previous season. I thought that Rayna (the woman at the center of the story and a woman with tremendous authority) was going to step in and realize that this video was degrading and horrible and that Scarlett was being gaslit and abused. But no – a young silicon valley dude bullied Rayna out of intervening.

And then. SOMEHOW…this film director bully convinces Scarlett that he’s shown her something amazing and true about herself by forcing her to wear a low cut dress and crawl like a cat on a dining room table and so in the last episode that I will ever watch of this show, she decides she has feelings for him and sleeps with him in his hotel.

I hate this plot so hard. And I tried to twist it. I tried to think the best of the show (due to aforementioned feminist cred.) I thought, “Oh, maybe it’s a long game. Maybe they’re going to have Scarlett work out that she’s been gaslit later in the season. Maybe they’re sending her on some path of a feminist awaking by pairing her with a gaslighting bully.”

But I don’t think so. I think that the new showrunners maybe think they’re giving her a sexual awakening brought on by a wise video director who knows what’s best for her. (They are, after all, such fellows themselves.) I think they think this video director seeing Scarlett as a man-eating dynamo prowling through a crowd is somehow empowering. It ain’t.

I was thinking, before I realized how much had changed in Nashville’s world, that this would eventually get sorted. Then I read a review, which exposed me to reviews of the subsequent episodes and discovered that…(SPOILER ALERT TIMES A LOT. IF YOU’RE GOING TO WATCH NASHVILLE AND DON’T WANT IT ENTIRELY SPOILED SKIP THE NEXT BIT… Spoiler: They’ve killed off Rayna James. Now, I understand that Connie Britton, who plays her, has bigger fish to fry and wanted to leave the show. So, I’m not so much mad that they’ve killed Rayna so much as sure there will be no extracting themselves from the sexist mess they’ve gotten themselves into now. The thing is – Rayna is the only woman with any real authority in the show. She is the only character who can right the wrongs when things go lopsided. She is not just the moral center, she is the only advocate for the younger women in the business. Without her, and without any peers like her, the show doesn’t stand a chance of reclaiming its feminist glory. SPOILERS COMPLETE.)

When this show started, it sparked articles like “Is Nashville the Most Feminist show on TV?” and “As an Urban Feminist, I was Surprised to Fall in Love with Nashville.

It’s clear to me that that period is over. Nashville has lost its feminist showrunner and so has lost its feminist sensibility. I’m not saying men can’t be feminists. They absolutely can be. But these particular men are doing a very bad job at feminist TV making. And this feminist can’t bear to watch it any more.

The Nashville Cast and Showrunner at Paley Fest 2013. This photo would have a lot more dudes in it this year.

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Writing on the internet is a little bit like busking on the street. This is the part where I pass the hat. If you liked the blog and would like to give a dollar (or more!) put it in the PayPal digital hat.

Theatre’s Loss: Janelle Monaé

From the first time I heard “Tightrope,” I was a fan of Janelle Monaé. I was head over heels for her music and her aesthetic, as well. She was musically exciting and theatrical in her style. Seeing her in concert was an incredible ride. She took the audience on a journey, the likes of which I have rarely experienced at a concert. She is a consummate showwoman and a brilliant connector. I’ve heard her described her as a contemporary female James Brown.

This year, Monaé went from making exciting, surprising music to making exciting movies. I thought she was just trying something different, building on her music career with some film exploration – but in an interview, I discovered what was news to me. Monaé trained as an actor. She started in theatre. In acting, she is returning to her roots – not doing something new. I’d been thinking about this since I learned it. Then I saw a short biography of her on Pandora. It said she trained at AMDA, did some off-Broadway theatre but then moved to Atlanta when she realized that there weren’t roles for her in musical theatre. This blew my mind. It shouldn’t have. But it did.

I mean, of course, there weren’t roles for her. For a whole host of reasons I have surely written about before. BUT. What strikes me, now that I know this information, is how Theatre Lost. We Lost. One of the most brilliant artists of our lifetime and Theatre didn’t have a place for her. I mean, I can’t help but imagine a Cindi Mayweather Musical full of androids and tuxedoed dancers – a Black Lady Ziggy Stardust for the stage. I mourn for what we could have had – how Monaé could have invigorated the entire medium given half a chance. But she wasn’t given half a chance. Her creativity was too much for the American Theatre and there was no place in it for her. This does not speak well of our art.

Unlike Office Depot, which also famously had no place for Monaé, the American Theatre could really have benefited from her perspective, skill and artistry. But we failed her.

Now – I’m not entirely sorry that theatre failed her. If theatre failing her meant that she turned to music, then I’m grateful. I’d rather have “Electric Lady” than Monaé stuck in some production of Wicked forever. But…I think it is entirely Theatre’s Loss. We had this brilliant performer, writer and creator in our midst and no one saw it. No one made space for her to create. This is a problem. Because I know for a fact that Monaé isn’t the only artist that this has happened to. The Doing Things the Way We Have Always Done Them means true innovation is always happening elsewhere. In music, in film, in technology. We have to find a better way to nurture theatrical minds. We just have to. We lost Janelle Monaé. But maybe she’ll come back to us. I will definitely go to an Android Musical and I’m gonna drag you all there with me.

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Writing on the internet is a little bit like busking on the street. This is the part where I pass the hat. If you liked the blog and would like to give a dollar (or more!) put it in the PayPal digital hat.

The Resistance Will Be Handcrafted
March 22, 2017, 10:41 pm
Filed under: art, music, puppets, resistance, theatre, Visual Art | Tags: , , , , ,

Since the digital age really kicked in, I have watched a lot of things that were important to me fade away. In a world that values social media currency and digital art and so many things on screen, my analog skills of theatre-making, performance and presence have felt less and less valued in the world. While I have adapted as well as I can, I have at times felt like an analog girl in a digital world – a handwoven basket in a factory town.

But since the world turned upside down on Jan 20th, I have found that my old-school art skills are suddenly relevant again. At a recent rally and march, I suddenly realized how many skills I was pulling out of storage to be there. Some examples were: creating an impromptu puppet, gathering protest props that not only can pop at a protest but be light-weight and fit in a bag so I can carry them on the subway, putting a costume together, singing loudly, helping ladies find a pitch when a man is leading the singing and puppeteering.

And it’s not just me – there’s a call for all kinds of analog skills that might have felt lost to the digital age. Examples: Painting signs, playing drums, marching bands, one man (woman) bands, creating spectacle, knitting. Art supply sales are booming. There is something poignant about our old-school skills suddenly being useful again. We can’t rely on video to save us. We need things in real life. Now more than ever.

In a way, it’s a shift of our public spaces out of the internet and into actual spaces. We are all out in public more. And I find I want to bring out even more things into that space. I want to cry in public space. (I was a little disappointed there was no keening at the mock funeral. I could have used a good cleansing cry.) I want to read in public space. (What if we had a Read In?) I want to just sit quietly with a bunch of my fellow introverts and shush anyone who gets too loud.

There is something about this moment that is calling us to really stand behind what we value and those values may not always be obvious. It reveals all the things we’ve let dwindle – things we actually once loved or felt were necessary. Journalism. Theatre. Music. All things we stopped paying for because we could get them for free. If there’s anything to hope for in this depressing mess of a year, it’s that adjustment of value. It’s that subscriptions of newspapers and magazines are back up, people need music like never before and theatre might just make a difference again.

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Writing on the internet is a little bit like busking on the street. This is the part where I pass the hat. If you liked the blog and would like to give a dollar (or more!) put it in the PayPal digital hat.

How Some Coffee House Music Almost Defeated Me
November 30, 2016, 11:53 pm
Filed under: art, music | Tags: , , , , , , , ,

Full Disclosure: I play an acoustic guitar. I write songs. And I sing them. Not as often as I used to but it is a thing I do and have done. I am fully qualified singer-songwriter. If they gave out certifications for folky singer guitar players, I’m pretty sure I could get one.

And yet – the singer-songwriter mix at one of my local coffee shops made me want to smash my guitar. And I love my guitar. But this coffeehouse mix nearly put and end to it, and me.

It didn’t bother me right away. At first, I thought, “Oh nice! Some singer songwriters! I don’t really listen to this sort of thing anymore.” But by the end of my hour there, I couldn’t take another song. And I couldn’t really work at why for a while.

Then I broke it down. Most of the songs were sung by a morose dude over a twiddly guitar part. They didn’t seem to be about anything. They were designed to be inoffensive. They’re like the soundtrack to a Hallmark commercial. I‘ll call this genre Hallmark Twiddle.

And the thing about it is – even though it seems inoffensive…it also seems like music to get date raped by. Like – it’s “nice” guys with guitars who just want you to come up to listen to a few songs, baby.

At the café, the same few songs cycled back again and again. I had never heard them before but they began to make me feel crazy. I figured they were some Pandora or Spotify “Coffeehouse Mix” designed to have performance reviews meetings over. There’s nothing there that might accidentally make you tap your foot or feel something. And then occasionally there’d be some song I love and I’d get all confused. I came home from this experience all messed up and after some research, discovered that this was, indeed, the Spotify Coffeehouse Playlist. And the songs that drove me craziest had thousands and thousands of plays. (probably all of them at this same café where this is the only music they play.) I’ll tell you, I’ve never been a particular fan of hardcore or punk – but when my boyfriend played me some Dead Kennedys as an antidote to this experience, it really hit the spot. I felt a palpable relief.

So how does this happen? How did one Spotify playlist almost defeat me? I feel like so much of culture is like this now. It’s just designed to play in the background without interrupting your life. Don’t worry about it. It’s just aural wallpaper, baby – but it’s insidious. Its blandness can get under your skin and make you go crazy. There were only a couple of women in the mix but they were singing in a baby voice over a cute ukulele. (Check out my amazing friend Lydia’s song about this genre.) In this world, the majority of the tunes are sung by a guy with a guitar. But that guy isn’t Bob Dylan or Billy Bragg and especially not Bill Withers. He’s not someone trying to change the system or even just consensually get into your pants. A guy with a guitar now sort of half plays it and half sings over it to generically tell you it’s going to be okay and don’t worry, he’s going to take care of you, baby. Keep sipping that drink; there’s definitely no roofie in it.

This experience made me long for the days when the music in a place had to be chosen, when it had to be selected each time an album ended. When you had to put on a new record or tape or CD, you had to choose the music each time. You had to say, “Yes. We will be listening to Beleza Tropical here at the Flamingo Rotisserie again. I choose you, Patty Larkin. Today our customers will be dining with Oasis. That’s how it’s going to be. I’m choosing it.”

I find it hard to imagine an actual person choosing songs on this Spotify Coffeehouse list again and again. It has the feeling of someone selecting the music in the same way they selected the brand of plastic cups. I want more out of music. If it’s all twiddly guitars and drippy voices, it’s just like a faucet dripping all night. Actually, I’d rather listen to a faucet drip.


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Writing on the internet is a little bit like busking on the street. This is the part where I pass the hat. If you liked the blog and would like to give a dollar (or more!) put it in the PayPal digital hat.

In Praise of Not Knowing

This whole Shakespeare controversy may be silly but it’s gotten me thinking a lot. My initial post on the “translations” looked at the news through my experience as a Shakespeare educator. My second one didn’t really have to do with Shakespeare so much as the power of money in the arts in America. All of which has led me here.

The more I think about it, the more this project seems to be about a discomfort with not understanding, with not knowing every word of Shakespeare. It is a discomfort with ambiguity and mystery. While this particular project might stem from one businessman’s need to understand everything, I think people around the world are struggling with a similar need to have all questions answered.

We live in a world now wherein most of the answers to our questions are a moment away. As comedian Pete Holmes has said, having the internet at our fingertips means that “the time between knowing and not knowing is so brief that knowing feels exactly like not knowing.” (Watch this whole bit if you can. It pretty much sums up this entire blog post.)

Why do camels spit?  Where did Yoko Ono go to college? What answers are people searching for? I can know as fast as I can type (or speak to Siri/Google.) We don’t need to wonder, to try and resolve it on our own, we just look – and we know. Which is magnificent. I love knowing things.

However – there are fewer and fewer opportunities to really sit inside not knowing. Most film and TV is pretty straightforward. So is contemporary theatre generally. You don’t leave Mamma Mia or The Gin Game with a lot of questions. And even if the work is a little more abstract, like The Bald Soprano, you will likely still understand every word of a play performed in your native tongue. Shakespeare’s language requires a kind of surrender to not understanding everything. It is a chance to exercise the quiet muscle of taking words in without boxing them up in relentless meaning. It’s also an opportunity to not know, then find some answers and then discover how much there still is to discover.

This, I think, is one of the functions of art in general. To help us accept and appreciate what we can’t understand. Because as much as it feels like we now know everything (as long as we have access to the internet,) we cannot possibly grasp all the mysteries. I may feel I know my best friends but there are depths, dark corners and bright lights in them that I will never see, never know. Anyone who has ever been in a relationship can attest that no matter how well you know someone, there is still an ocean of things about them outside of your knowledge. You can’t Google a soul.

In years previous, you might have gone to a certain kind of college to get access to knowing things. A professor had the information and then relayed it to you. This style of learning runs counter to a style of learning wherein the information isn’t the goal. It is, rather, the skill of learning, of engaging, of building a self or developing a soul. In other words, grappling with the mysteries. Arts and humanities are the technology for this. And making peace with ambiguity is one of the tools. A concerto doesn’t mean something. A dance isn’t necessarily “trying to say” anything. A painting doesn’t have to represent something. Sometimes that’s hard for people.

Sometimes it’s hard for me, I’m not going to lie. I am a meaning maker. I try to make meaning out of just about anything. But stretching my ability to sit in not knowing what something means is very good for me.

And of course, Shakespeare is made of words and those words do mean things. But some of those words can have two or three or sometimes even four meanings. How can we make peace with a quadruple entendre if we’re uncomfortable with ambiguity?

We’re at this funny moment culturally. On one hand, we are understanding more and more, only seconds away from knowing things we didn’t know before – and on the other hand understanding less – about what we’re supposed to do with all this knowledge. And all the institutions that would help us deal with that question are under threat. The Education Minister of Japan wants to cut all humanities programs in higher education there. Arts programs are on the chopping block all over the world. The Arts Council of England has been painfully defunded by the current government. Here, in America, we’re giving our playwrights words to translate instead of asking them to help us reconcile the mysteries of the current moment.

Not knowing things is very important. But I want to be clear that I’m not asking for ignorance. There are things to know, yes, lots of things, and there are things to Not Know. Real education teaches how to know the difference and make peace with the unknowable. Exceptional art helps us sit in the mystery.

Belinda He, choreographer, in the mystery

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