Songs for the Struggling Artist

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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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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This blog is also a Podcast. You can find it on iTunes. If you’d like to listen to me read it on Soundcloud, including a small demonstration of my impression of this genre, click here.


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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How to Get Inspired
September 17, 2015, 10:34 pm
Filed under: art, Creative Process, dreams, music, theatre, writing | Tags: , , ,

It may seem like artists just walk through the world waiting for inspiration to hit us – like it’s something that just comes upon you, like a lightning strike out of nowhere. And while this sort of thing CAN happen, it is pretty rare. If you want to get struck by lightning, it makes sense to search out the appropriate conditions and locations. It makes sense to go where it’s raining, for example – and to stand where lightning might be more likely to strike.

I started to think about inspiration while on a trip to Greece. I didn’t go expecting to be particularly inspired. I knew I’d be stimulated and edified and that the experience would enrich and enliven my work in lots of ways but inspiration was pretty much off the table.

And perhaps here would be a good place to pause and talk about what inspiration feels like to me – what I think of as real inspiration. For me, it is a rush of feeling. The closest comparison I have is the feeling of being in love. There’s a tremendous receptivity, an open-ness, a widening of the field – as if I were normally looking at the world through a keyhole and with inspiration, I suddenly see things in 360. Ideas rush in – some of them fully formed, some just little seeds – and I feel like I vibrate at a different frequency for a while. The feeling of this state is so powerful, an idea born from it will often sustain me for years afterward.

It’s different than just having an idea. I have those all the time. Inspiration is being lit up by ideas. If an idea is a lightbulb, inspiration is 25 strings of them.

So it was that a few days into my trip to Greece that the lightning struck and turned on all those bulbs in me. The ideas rushed in – there wasn’t time to write them all down – and it felt marvelous to be in the throes of receiving such gifts from what I was experiencing.

It had been so long since I’d felt this way, I had forgotten what it felt like – forgotten that it was possible. And I wondered about the conditions that created it. I wondered how I could court that muse, so to speak.

First, I couldn’t expect the muse to arrive. She has to show up when she wants, how she wants.

Second, I went to a place that held some power for me. My work has always been influenced by Greek mythology so there was a probable potency to Greece for me that might not have been present elsewhere. Even in Greece, there were cities and places that were beautiful and thrilling and engaging and edifying but that did not pull the trigger on the inspiration gun nor sustain it.
I have had similar experiences in other places that held power for me. Certain locations in London, for example – or Italy.

Third, I had several quiet moments with which to just soak in what I was seeing. Long car rides through beautiful scenery, for example, or writing by the water. It would have been hard for the muse to show her face if I’d been on a crowded tour bus cramming in the sites.

Fourth, and this is probably obvious but – Novelty is powerful. Just going somewhere new and foreign is a key ingredient.

It was an extraordinary privilege to get to go to a place that could give me this kind of inspiration. And in thinking about it, I realize that there are ways to court inspiration in more economically possible ways than traveling halfway around the world. I was struck with a small scale inspiration wave when I went to the National Museum of Women in the Arts in DC. for example.

But even in this small scale example – I didn’t go to that museum cold. I knew there was some work by my favorite painter there (I’d discovered her there!) and I went to pay homage. When I saw a painting I’d never seen before however, quite a few strands of light went on and the play that came from it is now finished and ready for a reading. I didn’t go there to get inspired. I just went to see my favorite painter’s work. I didn’t go to Greece to get inspired. I just went to see the site and culture that has given me so much material in the past. And I think this is how you catch the muse. You come at it sideways, armed with a little bit of love for something and when inspiration comes, it pries you open to love even more.

Inspiration hadn't kicked in yet when my mom took this photo. . .but space was clearing for it.

Inspiration hadn’t kicked in yet when my mom took this photo. . .but space was clearing for it.


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Going into the Arts is like Playing the Lottery
April 21, 2015, 10:19 pm
Filed under: art, comedy, Creative Process, music, puppets, theatre, writing | Tags: , ,

The odds are maybe not quite as bad. Maybe. But the chances for an actual sustainable life in the Arts in this country are very slim. When we begin, we’re all convinced we will be the one to beat the odds but only a lucky few will actually manage it. When you play the lottery, you can incrementally improve the odds of winning by buying more tickets. It stands to reason that the more tickets you’re able to afford, the more opportunity you have to win.

This is how privilege works in the arts, in a sense. Being white, for example, gives you some extra metaphorical lottery tickets. Being male will do the same. If you’re both those things, you’ll get an additional handful of tickets. And if you have some economic privilege – i.e. you can afford to do internships or not pay rent while you do a residency or whatever – that’s an even bigger handful of tickets.

But it’s still not guarantee of winning. This is why it’s hard to see one’s own privilege. It’s hard to feel like you’re winning when you’re losing most of the time. Winners of the Arts Career Lottery will tell you that all it takes to win is to work really hard at your craft and be the best you can be at what you do. The winners are experiencing something known as survivorship bias (to read more about this see: You Are Not So Smart.) Someone with Survivorship Bias attributes anything that they experienced as the reason for their success, that is, they worked hard, so it must be hard work that makes success!

But for every person who won the sustainable career Arts Career Lottery by working hard, there are probably hundreds upon hundreds who worked just as hard, are just as good and yet didn’t win. And there are also the ones who didn’t work very hard and just got lucky. You can do everything right and fail. You can have a fistful of tickets and still not win the lottery. You can have a fistful of privilege and still not win the arts lottery.

And like the actual lottery, sometimes a little win in the Arts will keep you playing. In the lottery, you play enough, you will win $25 or $50 and those small gains can encourage you to stay in the game, giving you hope that you could win. This happens in the arts, where a small bit of progress feels like a signal that you could win. You got that audition. You got that grant. You won that jury prize. So you keep playing. For better or for worse.

Should you play the Arts Lottery? Entirely up to you. The odds are terrible and you can lose a lot of money as well as piece of mind. I can really only recommend it for those who feel that they have no choice – that a life in the arts is the only available path. If that’s you: Welcome to the Lottery. Your odds are pretty slim but if you’re like me, you keep playing, simply because you cannot help it. Just be prepared for the moment when some asshole who’s never bought a ticket before, who’s barely trained and has not paid any dues suddenly hits the jackpot. I’ve seen it happen many times and it does not stop sucking.

But if you can let go of the idea that there might be order or justice or merit in the way the arts magic gets distributed, you might be able to enjoy the game.


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Thinking about JK Rowling and also Marge Piercy, with special appearances by Aisha Tyler and Marc Maron

I’ve been thinking a lot about JK Rowling. And not just because I’m broke, sitting in coffee shops and writing a children’s novel – oh, wait, maybe it IS because I’m broke, sitting in coffee shops and writing a children’s novel – but in any case, I’m thinking of her and how she began.

When she was broke, sitting in coffee shops and writing Harry Potter, no one would have predicted that she’d be a gajillionaire years later. No one. And while she was broke, sitting in coffee shops and writing, I’m sure all around her, people shook their heads and wondered when she was going to get her act together. Now, in retrospect, JK Rowling’s poverty is a funny origin story but I’m sure, at the time, it was as difficult as anyone’s poverty can be.

JK Rowling has made me think about all the other broke people who wrote in coffee shops and didn’t end up with mega-book & movie deals. Her story has made me think about how all of them, those with deals and those without, were all just driven to do it, results or not.

And that is the beautiful thing and the horrible thing about those of us who just can’t help ourselves.

In an episode of the Girl On Guy podcast, Aisha Tyler and Marc Maron were talking about drive and failure. Tyler talked about how much mediocre work artists have to make before creating a great thing. For example, a furniture maker has to make nine mediocre chairs before the tenth one can be great. It’s a way to explain and get through those difficult failing times. And Maron took some umbrage. He told stories about failing and how awful it felt and then said this: “If you’re not driven by something you can’t even understand that’s within you, good luck with creativity.” (It happens at 1:08:15 in the podcast, in case you want to listen. It sounds better than it reads.)

I found myself refreshed by this point of view. There is a sense of liberation from releasing myself from trying to imagine some bright light at the end of this tunnel. No, there might not be a reward. If experience tells me anything it’s that there probably won’t be. It makes me think of Marge Piercy’s poem “For the Young Who Want To.”

Talent is what they say
you have after the novel
is published and favorably
reviewed. Beforehand what
you have is a tedious
delusion, a hobby like knitting.

Work is what you have done
after the play is produced
and the audience claps.
Before that friends keep asking
when you are planning to go
out and get a job.

Read the rest of it here: Marge Piercy’s For the Young Who Want To

The last line is:

Work is its own cure. You have to
like it better than being loved.

I’ve had this poem pasted on my guitar case ever since I was a baby artist but I understand it differently now than I did when I mod-podged it there decades ago. It actually means more now than it did then. I think it is because I actually live it now.  When I first encountered the poem, I was one of the ones who wanted to. Now I am the one whose “hobby” gets more tedious to others the older I get. Embracing this thing in me that makes me make things, in the face of impossible odds, that causes people to worry about me, that is not socially acceptable (except in retrospect with a success story) feels like the next phase of the journey. I am not the Young one who wants to. I am the one who does.

For the post part, I’m not into the stereotype of the damaged artist. Usually, I steer myself clear of the suffering artist trope but maybe seeing that thing inside me that I don’t understand as a thing that won’t quit, seeing it as a fierce little demon, could actually give me some strength when all around me the world seems to be clucking its tongue and waiting for me to get it together.



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