Songs for the Struggling Artist



A Tale of Two Coffee Shops

When I go home for holidays, occasionally I get a chance to visit my old hometown’s local coffee shops. There weren’t any, really, when I was growing up – but there are several to choose from now. Usually I end up at the one closest to my mom’s house but sometimes I end up Downtown and I have to find a place to write down there. My first choice is generally a place that’s been around for a long while – all my old friends go there. I’ve had friends work there. It’s the cool coffee shop. I always run into people I know there. And it is always crowded.

This is why I don’t go there when I need a place to write. Crowdedness makes the hip coffee shop impossible for my purposes. Instead, I end up at a coffee shop that is remarkably un-cool. They play “relaxing” New Age music (with bird sounds.) The walls are painted with a color palate that suggests a beach house in North Carolina. There’s a fireplace.  Like the cool coffee shop, it has original artwork for sale. The paintings though, are very conservative. They are barns and cows done in a technique I can only describe as Grandma Style. There’s just something about this place that says who it is for. And most of the customers in the shop seem to know. I heard, while I was there, conversations about the old Christian Bookstore and stories on Fox News. All told, the place feels like it’s the Republican coffee shop in town.

In my home town – I clearly BELONG at the cool coffee shop and clearly do NOT belong at the Republican coffee shop. And yet I choose to write where I do not belong. Mostly because it’s less crowded but also because it’s an interesting anthropological opportunity. It leads me to interesting questions. How did this cafe culture develop? Are they marketing themselves on Republican listservs? And how conscious are the people who create these businesses of the culture they are creating around their business? Is the un-cool coffee shop trying to be cool?

These two coffee shops in the same town draw two very different crowds. And I’m fascinated by it. I now live in New York City and I frequent many different coffee shops. None of them have this sense of a unified personality. The people who go to them vary dramatically. In a world with so much diversity, coffee shops don’t seem to create so much culture around themselves. I don’t belong in any one of them – and I belong in all of them. City living creates a kind of contradiction in belonging/not-belonging. That is, I think, part of the appeal of city life. You never belong and always do. All at once.

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This is stock footage of a coffee shop and represents none of the coffee shops mentioned in this blog post.

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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.  https://www.paypal.me/strugglingartist

 



Hedgebrook Rejection
April 22, 2016, 11:11 pm
Filed under: Rejections, writing | Tags: , , ,

Twice Rejected now. Hedgebrook is a residency for women in the Northwest. It’s funny because I was never really attracted to women only spaces before. I’ve been a feminist for forever but never really felt drawn to single sex experiences. I didn’t consider a women’s college for even a second. (An option I now think might have been a really good one.) I didn’t go to women’s festivals or go to women’s groups.

But I now recognize that all of these sorts of institutions actually do help advance women’s lives. I came to understand that with the difficulties at hand in making my artist’s life – that there might be a great deal of benefit in leaning into the “minority” status of my womanhood. I’m interested in Hedgebrook, not because there are only women there – but because it exists to help support women in overcoming the cultural obstacles before them. I need all the help I can get in that department. So. I keep applying. And if they keep giving these residencies to people like Eve Ensler, Sarah Waters and Gloria Steinem, I guess it’s not too likely I’ll get it anytime soon. But I support the idea of it. So… it’s already worth a shot. And I would NOT be upset about getting to hang out at a writing retreat with Gloria Steinem.

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*Wondering why I’m telling you about all these rejections? Read my initial post about this here and my patron’s idea about that here.

You can help me weather the storms of rejection by becoming my patron on Patreon.

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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. https://www.paypal.me/strugglingartist



In which I Turn my Feminist Lens on Legally Blonde, the Musical

After referencing Legally Blonde the Musical in numerous posts, I will, finally, at my readers’ request, give you a full on Songs for the Struggling Artist review of my least favorite musical.

I will begin by saying that I loved the film of Legally Blonde. I didn’t expect to, but I did. The film is surprisingly feminist. I say surprising because the lead, Elle Woods (played by Reese Witherspoon) is not your typical feminist heroine. At the start, she’s the kind of woman most of us feminists steer clear of. She’s shallow and boy crazy and her main interest seems to be shopping. She’s an ultra femme icon. She goes to law school in order to win her boyfriend back, for crying out loud. But we love her and she grows and deepens and she’s one of the few heroines I’ve ever seen who wins by leaning into her femininity. Elle Woods doesn’t transform who she is or what she loves, she just comes to value herself and her substance more.

I’m interested in learning how something I love can become something I hate, so l re-watched both the film and the musical to see what possibly could have gone wrong.

The musical’s Elle Woods is similarly obsessed with pink, similarly ultra femme – though a lot less human. In the film, her break up truly breaks her up. She cries. Spends a week in bed. In the musical, her devastation is about 10 seconds long and is represented by the wearing of a bathrobe.

In the film, other characters reflect the way we, the audience, might feel about her. They think that she’s making terrible decisions. They think she’s shallow and superficial. This helps us root for Elle. She becomes an underdog in a climate of naysayers. In the musical, everyone is on Elle’s side. They all think she’s neat and that she always does the right thing. This helps make me think they’re all pretty dumb.

The music in the film is mostly empowering indie lady rock-pop of the era. The musical’s songs are bland bubble gummy musical. It’s like a tween wrote a “rock” musical in the 80s without any pop hooks. It has the pink without the depth or the irony.

Fundamentally, though, none of that made me hate the musical as much as I do until the scene where her colleague (and ultimately her new love interest) makes her throw away all of her pink stuff. He essentially comes in, kills the characters’ identity so she can buckle down and be the serious person he wants her to become. He sings a song about how she needs to change.

This is the crux of where the musical veers away from the film. The musical has Elle replace one man’s agenda (her ex boyfriend Warner) with another’s (Emmett.) She moves from being Warner’s ideal woman to following Emmett’s instructions. The film is about self-determination – about Elle becoming herself. The musical is about a lady who gets the guy by becoming a lawyer.

There is a moment early on in the film in which we see Elle fully understand that she was never going to be able to bend herself into the woman Warner wanted her to be. She gets it. She says so. (“I’m never going to be good enough for you, am I?”) And then she decides to become a good lawyer for herself. It is step one to finding her self. Step two is when Elle gets the news that she’s gotten the prestigious internship. She sees her name on the list and the responds with the gloriously simple line, “Me!” The camera pulls in, the music swells.

 

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This is Elle getting a sense of herself, seizing it and enjoying it. The film’s story kicks into gear here. Elle builds on the moment by going up to Warner and his new girlfriend and saying, “Do you remember when we spent those four amazing hours in the hot tub after winter formal?” He stammers, “Yea…No.” and she replies with, “This is so much better than that!” That is, the excitement of succeeding in her new career has suddenly surpassed the thing that was driving her life before. She’s experiencing self-fulfillment in a brand new way.

Neither of these moments appears in the musical. There is no moment of “Me!”

In both the musical and the film, Elle goes with her friend, Paulette, to retrieve Paulette’s dog from her ex-boyfriend’s trailer. But in the musical, Elle brings Emmett along. And instead of Elle getting the idea to use her new lawyering skills herself, she gets a little helpful hint from Emmett. Which once again undercut’s Elle’s sense of self-agency and discovery.

It’s not as if the film version of Emmett doesn’t help Elle. He does. But he’s helpful in a very particular way. He mostly just reminds her of who she is. And he recommends channeling the “power of the blonde.” (Blonde here being a symbol of Elle’s Elle-ness, her pink-ness, her femininity.)

In the musical, after Emmett’s “Get Serious, Throw Away All This Pink Shit” number, he sings that “maybe some wise man told her” to do the things he’s proud of her for. What he’s proud of, by the way, is her doing what he told her to do. So his pride in her is essentially pride in himself. Gross.

The film walks the line with some stereotypes but the musical just steps right over the line and leans on in to them. On stage, we get rich princes from the Far East, a sassy black judge, Latin lovers and jokes about women going to the bathroom together. In the film, there is a women’s studies PhD student. She makes suggestions like changing the “semester” to “ovester” for feminist reasons. The character is a stereotype but she is amusing in her specificity. As a feminist, I recognize that I am the target of this joke and I think it’s funny. In the musical, this character just becomes a generic lesbian who is there to become the butt of many jokes. I do not find them funny. There is one joke I liked in the musical. (“Subtext” by Calvin Klein) That’s it. But you know. . .okay…stuff gets broader in a musical. Shit happens. I know.

But a major theme from the film that I really miss in the musical is Elle’s commitment to sisterhood. She’s a sorority sister, yes. But she’s committed to helping women in the broader sense. She’s explicit about honoring her bond with her fellow women. And Warner pushes her to abandon it. He says, “Who cares about the sisterhood? Think about yourself.” She doesn’t though. She stays committed to her community. In a story about self-determination, this development points to a way of thinking about the self that includes caring for others. I love that she eventually includes a woman in that sisterhood who has been nothing but mean to her throughout the movie. Those two women, who come from opposing corners and become allies, have a really compelling relationship. This development is not in the musical.

Also cut from the musical is the one female mentor that Elle has in the film. (Hmm, vanishing older women? Nothing sexist to see here, move along please!) The mentor (played by Holland Taylor) is a pivotal figure. She is the woman Elle fears at the beginning and is saved by at the end. There is no older woman to learn from in the musical. The sisterhood is reduced to a one joke idea of Elle’s “Greek Chorus” – a concept that seems to only exist for the fun of saying that they’re a Greek Chorus. Get it? They’re sorority sisters? So they’re Greek? Like Ancient Greek drama? Get it? Anyway.

I don’t want to imply that Legally Blonde, the Film is a beacon of feminist thought. It does include the cringe worthy “Bend and snap” moment. But the musical takes that uncomfortable minute of the film and milks it so as to induce a week’s worth of cringe.

I don’t imagine the creators of the musical set out to create an insufferable sexist mess. The women who made it must have felt they were being true to the source material; a lot of the dialogue in the musical comes straight out of the film. But something happened in that act of translation.

Partly, I think, it is the medium. It is very difficult to get the complex emotion of a film close-up in a musical. A musical encourages a broadness that can kill any sense of irony. But I also imagine that a lot of this happened on the way to the Broadway stage. I have heard enough stories about Broadway development  to be able to imagine producer meetings wherein, bit by bit, the heart of the original story got cut away. (“What about the male lead? What does he want? Let’s get a song where he gets involved! Give her some advice! Women love when men give them advice!”) With no one with a PhD in Women’s Studies to keep them honest, a fun feminist romp of a film about self-determination got turned into a sexist sitcom show with songs.

What I love about the movie is the way it makes me examine my own prejudices. It helps me see the depth in a character I would usually dismiss. The musical does the opposite. It takes people I think of as shallow and superficial and shows me how shallow superficial people become shallow superficial lawyers. Who also sing and dance. And while this may be realistic (there are shallow, superficial lawyers out there) it doesn’t really make for a meaningful night in the theatre. At least not for this Women’s Studies geek.

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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. https://www.paypal.me/strugglingartist



What Keeps Me Blogging

When I read an article or hear a talk that speaks directly to or for me, it feels like a relief. Soraya Shemaly’s “10 Words Every Girl Should Learn” made me feel like, “Yes. Thank you. That. I didn’t realize. But THAT. That IS my experience. And yes, all of that context.” Caroline Heldman’s TEDtalk on the Sexy Lie is another example. Before I heard her talk, I was baffled by how to explain the difference between sexual objectification and sexual empowerment. The culture is deeply confused on this point, too. I watched her talk and it all made sense. I suddenly understood what it meant to be a sexual SUBJECT rather than a sexual OBJECT and it blew the doors open. There is a great satisfaction in ideas finally clicking into place.

Occasionally, when I post a blog, I get responses like, “This is exactly what I was trying to say” or “I couldn’t put my finger on what troubled me about this and this is it.” There is nothing better. It feels amazing to find a way to say what others couldn’t find a way to explain.

I know there are those who write to generate controversy, to stir the pot – but any pot stirring I do is beside the point. Sometimes I end up saying things I am not supposed to say or stumble into controversy and that disrupts things. Sometimes the truth is disruptive.

Disruption isn’t really my goal, however. I feel called to write about things out of a desire to connect – out of hope that I’m not the only one to feel the way I’m feeling. They’re little messages in bottles and when one ends up in someone’s hands and it happens to speak directly to their experience, it feels like success.

It can be a weird, lonely life, this artist’s journey – and I know it helps me when I know I have company, even if it’s only the virtual kind. So I just wanted to say thank you to all the friends, family and patrons who let me know I’m not alone. You’re what keeps me blogging.

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There are More Rejected than Accepted
March 5, 2016, 11:46 pm
Filed under: Rejections, writing | Tags: , , , ,

I belong to several playwright groups. A post went through on one of them that said something like, “Just got my rejection for the Lark!” And a dozen people replied saying either they had or had not yet received theirs yet. I was one of those who had not yet received that particular rejection email and I found it strangely comforting to get the news of its imminent arrival this way. It was a little like a nurse saying, “”You’re going to feel a tiny pinch in a moment,” while he’s preparing your arm for the needle. It’s like a tiny bit of anesthetic for the pain.

 

It also helps to feel how being rejected in this sort of context is so much more common than being accepted. So many people become a part of the rejected club and the only people who are excluded, the only people who can’t join are the people who actually got accepted.

 

It’s a nice way to turn that dynamic around. It pays to remember this in terms of numbers. Every time I get rejected, I am accompanied by so many people having exactly the same experience.

 

For some odd reason, rejections seem to come with a tiny brown paper package of shame – a little visit from the failure fairy. It’s an experience we’re supposed to have in private. But having it publicly helps with that shame piece. Having it collectively helps, too.

 

There is power in numbers.
In a fight, the rejected would definitely be able to take the accepted in almost every scenario. Then we’d see who the winners are! Ha!

Power to the rejected people!

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*Wondering why I’m telling you about all these rejections? Read my initial post about this here and my patron’s idea about that here.

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Millay and Kerouac Rejections
February 9, 2016, 10:50 pm
Filed under: Rejections, writing | Tags: , ,

I learned a lot about Edna St. Vincent Millay on the Stuff You Missed in History Class podcast. She was one kick-ass lady and her unconventional extraordinary life is an inspiration for us unconventional artists. So I decided to apply for the residency at her house because I could use that sort of inspiration, to get a little closer to her kind of quiet crazy.

I didn’t get in, though – so I’ll have to make my own unconventional life, I guess.

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Meanwhile, Jack Kerouac had a house in Orlando, of all places, which they give to writers to write in sometimes.

I have a hard time imagining Kerouac in Orlando so I applied for the residency because I wanted to experience that for myself.

I’m not very Kerouacy though, so I’m not surprised that I didn’t get it. I’m much more Joyce Johnson than Kerouac – though I definitely got a big dose of inspiration from him in my early years.

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EdnaStVincentMillay

Edna St Vincent Millay

*Wondering why I’m telling you about all these rejections? Read my initial post about this here and my patron’s idea about that here.

You can help me weather the storms of rejection by becoming my patron on Patreon.

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