Songs for the Struggling Artist


This Hour Is for You

My priorities seem pretty screwy to a lot of people. Because Art is the most important thing to me, I tend to value my time more than money. There is not much that money can buy me that seems better than time to create in.

This means that I have made quite a few sacrifices over the years. There are things I don’t have. Places I don’t go. Shows I don’t see. Experiences I fail to enjoy. But I do have time. I have time to write, time to stare out the window, time to learn new songs, time to play guitar. I have time to read and time to wonder if I’m wasting my time reading.

It has not always been this way. At this point in my life I know I could probably be less Money Poor if I was less Time Rich but I’m actually reasonably comfortable with the current balance. It’s not at all sustainable and it won’t last forever. But it is a gift for the moment. It’s a gift I sometimes feel guilty about – like, am I allowed to mull and ponder like this? Wouldn’t I be a more productive member of society if I got out and sold something? Did some “business” or sent emails for a boss all day?

But then I read Brigid Schulte’s article, A Woman’s Greatest Enemy? A Lack of Time to Herself, and something snapped.

I am not just taking time for myself, for my art, though it can feel that way. I am also taking time for all the women who can’t spare an hour.

By taking time for myself the way Popeye takes spinach, I can, perhaps, begin to counteract the way the Patriarchy has stolen so much time from women over the years. I don’t just take an extra hour for myself, I can take one for Henry David Thoreau’s mother and sister who did his laundry and made him meals while he wrote out by the pond. I don’t just retreat to solitude for me and my play, I do it for Alma Mahler who might have taken some time for herself instead of tiptoeing around her husband. I take abundant time for all my friends, caught up in the mesh of childcare, who cannot take more than 15 minutes at a time to do much of anything for themselves, much less work on their art.

It feels as though it is my solemn duty, as a woman unburdened with the usual domestic duties, with my particular tolerance for financial insecurity, to take as much advantage of time alone as humanly possible. I would have thought that by now, what with the progress that has been made, we could have made space for women’s creativity – but no. Creative pursuits are still largely seen as a man’s rightful place. When have you heard a woman called a genius? When have you heard of a woman, gifted with time, who was supported and catered to in the way that all the “geniuses” were?

Are there women who have managed to grab moments of creativity in the cracks of their domestic lives? Of course. But I am heartbroken for all the women who never got a full afternoon to themselves to just drop in to their own minds or their creative work.

There are probably many women who have never even tasted uninterrupted time and might believe they do not need it. They may feel a stolen moment or two is enough to get some art done. (Neuroscience says otherwise. Humans are not nearly as good at multi-tasking as we think. We are also incredibly good at fooling ourselves on this front. “Why, I just happen to think better when I have Twitter scrolling by me!”) But what wonders might the women, hemmed in by domesticity, have made if they’d had more than a whisper of time to create in. We might have called a woman a genius once in a while instead of just catering to the boy geniuses.

And the thing is – it’s not JUST geniuses who have been catered to in this way. Women have lost acres of time to as many (if not more) dolts as they have to geniuses and all levels in between. Many a man thinks himself a Henry David Thoreau and many a woman does his laundry as if he were.

Sometimes I think I do not deserve to take time alone because I am not genius enough – or because I haven’t achieved the sort of success I imagined would justify having taken time. But fuck that. Just fuck it. I will pretend to be a motherfucking genius even when I least feel like one. I deserve it. I will treat myself like a 19th century boy genius. I will cater to myself, give myself the best chance I can get and enjoy every goddamn minute.

So, in honor of all the women who can find nary a minute alone in which to create, I pledge to stop feeling guilty for my productive solitude. I pledge to soak up every minute, every hour and make the best work I can make. I’m guessing that for the women without a minute, for the mothers and movers, this hour that I honor them with is actually not nearly as good as actually having an hour. So, I also pledge to give some hours to help watch your child or aging loved one so you can have an actual hour. If you’re in my city, you have some hours in my bank that I will happily give you so you can create, too, you genius woman.

This post was brought to you by my generous patrons on Patreon.

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You can find the podcast on iTunes, Stitcher, Spotify or wherever you get your podcasts.

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Every podcast features a song at the end. Some of those songs are on Spotify, my websiteReverbNation, Deezer and iTunes

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Finishing Things
August 22, 2019, 5:50 pm
Filed under: art, Creative Process, writing | Tags: , , , ,

When I first started making things, I thought the hard part of making things was the making of things. I was always reading about people who never wrote their novels or their plays or songs or whatever. From reading all these creativity books, I got the sense that just FINISHING something would put me ahead of the pack. This sense is often reinforced, even now. Just the other day I was listening to a podcast about writing and the guest and the host agreed that 95% of writers don’t finish their manuscripts. They made it sound like, just by finishing something, you were already well on your way to success.

But I’ve been finishing things my whole creative life and I’m no closer to the front of the pack than I was when I began. Despite a large body of work behind me, I still feel like I’m running like mad to keep up.

I finish things. It’s not that special. I’ve got, just sitting on my hard drive – four novels, six short stories, three children’s picture books, twelve full length plays and eight short ones. There are also a couple of complete series of poems. I finish one of these blogs approximately every five days and record a song and podcast for them once a week, as well. Given all the hype given to finishing things, I think, early on, I thought a marching band might burst through the wall and play me a congratulatory fight song every time I finished something. But that has yet to happen.

In fact, if I want to see any kind of acknowledgment for ANY thing I create, I have generally had to create some kind of structure for it myself. Wanted to see my plays on stage? I had to produce them. Wanted to share my novel for young people with more people than I could read it to at a time? I recorded a podcast of it.
Wanted anyone to read my thoughts about struggling artistry or the state of the arts or feminism or whatever? No one would publish such things – I had to start a blog.

Part of all of this is that I am impatient. I do not want to wait to be discovered. I do not want to wait to submit to all the appropriate authorities or even wait to find out who the proper authorities are. I recognize that my “I’ll just do it myself” impulse is sometimes a block to finding someone to do it for me and therefore a block to a standard sort of success. Maybe if I were better at submitting and waiting, I might have found some other path after finishing – but waiting is just not my way. Finishing things IS. And I guess I feel like I was sold a false bill of goods at some point. Somewhere I got the idea that finishing things would make me so special that success would be more or less guaranteed. It is not.

I mean – sure – finishing stuff is important. An unfinished novel, play, screenplay, story, essay, whatever, is for sure going nowhere. But a finished thing can just as easily go nowhere. I guess a lot of people have to believe that the marching band will come in when they finally finish their thing – just to keep them motivated. But I have no such illusion anymore. I know that whatever satisfaction I have at the completion of a work has to come from the work itself and not whatever goodies I imagine it might yield me.

I read Marge Piercy’s “For the Young Who Want to” when I was young and wanted to and her line about work being its own reward has been strong within me ever since. Unfortunately, her poem didn’t tell me what to do when I finished something – so I had to work that out for myself. I’ll share it with you, in case you need that bit, too. Yes, finish something. Then start the next thing. And if you happen to get a marching band, enjoy it! Then start the next thing.

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Every podcast features a song at the end. Some of those songs are on Spotify, my websiteReverbNation, Deezer and iTunes

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How Blind Are Blind Submissions?

There was a booklet of the winners. It featured their credits and productions. The winners seemed to share a commonality of relative success. They had – more or less – won the same awards, been given the same grants, been produced by the same theatres. I realized as soon as I read through this booklet that I did not stand a chance of being accepted there.

Then I saw that the application asked for blind submissions – that is – the plays submitted would be read without their author’s names attached. I thought, “Well – in a blind process I might stand a chance” and went ahead and applied, just because it’s always best to take a shot, even if it’s a wild one.

But I kept thinking about the Blind Submission process and who ends up selected. How is it that something that seems to be structured to focus only on quality yield a group of winners who seem to be chosen on their credits?

You could assume that the system is entirely meritocratic and that all of the best plays are chosen by the award committees and theatres and such – that there is a direct match up between quality of work and opportunities. But I have seen too many amazing unrecognized writers’ work and too many terrible plays in fancy theatres to ever believe this, however.

So…this blind submission process is somehow still yielding the same sorts of plays that unblind submissions do. Why? How?

In this particular case – only the first part of the selection process was blind – the rest of it involved looking at resume/bio and a statement. So it’s possible that all the amazing people without fancy credits are weeded out at that stage.

But even in more strictly blind situations, there is a sameyness that runs through the winners. It could, I imagine, reflect the sameyness of tastes of the people who make these decisions – that is, they like what they like and when they see more of the same, they reward it.

Or they like something because it is sort of familiar – the way current pop songs are designed to remind you of other pop songs you liked before so you have a happy resonance of familiarity when you hear it the first time.

Of course, it is a question of who is reading and what they are reading for. Are they choosing plays they like or plays they feel they should like or that they’d like to be seen liking?

Possibly, given that the winners have all achieved a good measure of success, the readers are already familiar with many of the plays they read – making them impossible to be truly blind and also get the boost of familiarity. If the readers have seen productions of those plays, they will have had the benefit of being able to vividly picture what is on the page.

I think, in the end, that very few blind submission processes are truly blind. Depending on the circumstances, there is a lot of information hanging off a play that does not require a name on it to glean.

The spirit of a blind submission process is probably well intentioned. The blindness idea is to be like the screens that hide musicians auditioning for orchestras. That process has helped orchestras radically transform the gender bias that had previously prevented gender parity. But, as I recently learned, there is still a great deal a trained ear can hear when listening to a classical musician auditioning. It will likely be clear, to the trained ear, with whom the musician trained and therefore also their age and location. Even these famous “blind” screen auditions are full of information.

Which is not to say we shouldn’t do them. The implementation of the screens for orchestras was incredibly successful at evening out a gender gap – but of course it doesn’t address any gaps that happened on their way to that audition. By the time you’re auditioning for a major orchestra, you are already in the top echelon of musicianship. Everyone playing is capable of doing the job. But along the way, I’m sure there are major gaps in accessibility – be they economic, racial, ableist or geographical.

So what does this mean for all these blind submissions I do? Not much, probably. I was sort of temporarily comforted and lulled into applying for something I am unlikely to get because of the illusion of a blind submission. I think that is why we continue to have them. They make people on both sides of a submission process feel like a meritocracy is at work. It isn’t. Meritocracy doesn’t work. (See this lecture.) But…perhaps we need to pretend it does. And pretending didn’t do anything but encourage me to apply for something I am unlikely to get. That’s fine. I collect rejections like stamps. Keep ‘em coming. I can take it.

This post was brought to you by my generous patrons on Patreon.

They also bring you the podcast version of the blog.

You can find the podcast on iTunes, Stitcher, Spotify or wherever you get your podcasts.

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Every podcast features a song at the end. Some of those songs are on Spotify, my websiteReverbNation, Deezer and iTunes

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I Am Literally Making All This Up

When I apply for artist residencies, I am almost always asked to describe the project I would work on while there. Sometimes a rather substantial word count is suggested for such things. I suspect that the application lives or dies based on my ability to pitch a possible project. (Mostly my applications die – so it would seem I am not great at this part. Either that or the application ACTUALLY lives or dies based on the résumé, in which case the project may not matter at all.) But the truth is, whatever I say in these project descriptions, I am just making things up.

When I say I’m going to work on my Witch/Hysteria play and then list all the things I’m going to be doing, all those things are things I made up as I wrote the application. The only exceptions are when I list things I have already been doing. For example, in the applications for which I’ve applied with this Witch/Hysteria play, (Failed to Burn,) I can tell them I’ll be reading Malleus Maleficarum and The Discoverie of Witches because I have already begun to do that. I’ve been applying with this play everywhere – not because it’s my top choice for development but because I think I have a decent pitch for it and that pitch is not one I have to make up anew.

As I write this, I am in the middle of one of my DIY writer’s retreats. My friend offered me her house for the week so I happily arrived without a single plan for what I would work on. I’ve recently finished several projects so it wasn’t clear at first what I was ready to dive into. I’m on the Waitlist for a Residency where I said I’d work on Failed to Burn there so I’m keeping that project in reserve. Just in case. That left me with 5 to 6 projects in various stages of abandonment. They were all equally sticky, tricky and in dire need of the gift of dedicated time. How to choose?

None of them was calling to me particularly. I tried to reason my way through it. Maybe I should choose the thing that was the least pitchable. Maybe I should choose the oldest. Maybe I should choose the one that had gotten furthest along. You can see how I might be able to spend my whole residency deciding instead of writing.

In the end, I found a random decision generator and put all the choices into it. WheelDecider chose a project for me and I was delighted with what it chose so I went with it. (If I found I was not delighted with the decider’s choice, I would have removed it from the selection and then spun the wheel again.) I have happily been working on it ever since. I don’t have a plan for it. There was no outline and no proposal. The play is telling me what I need to do. It is the optimal way for me to grapple with a creative work. If I were to retrospectively write down all the things I actually did to develop this project, I’m sure it would make an impressive project proposal but I’ve already done them and I could not have known what I needed to do until I was knee deep into the project.

There’s not a single thing I could apply for with this bit of truth. “I would like to come to your prestigious artist retreat without any particular project in mind and just spin the decision wheel when I get there to make the choice. Or I could spin the wheel before I come. That’s okay too. But not too long before. I’m not always sure what I’m going to be working on 6 months in advance.” That application would stand even less of a chance than my already slim chances.

But just once I’d like to able to apply to something with a list of possibilities instead of a well formulated “plan” for some work’s development. I mean, the fact is, for me – if I get as far as a reading list, or a plan, or an idea of how I am going to proceed, it will be very hard for me to not just go ahead and proceed. I don’t have plans for working, I just work. I am literally just making all this up. Just like the people who make up these applications for me to fill in. Just like everyone with everything. We are all just making all this up.

 

This post was brought to you by my generous patrons on Patreon.

They also bring you the podcast version of the blog.

You can find the podcast on iTunes, Stitcher, Spotify or wherever you get your podcasts.

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Every podcast features a song at the end. Some of those songs are on Spotify, my websiteReverbNation, Deezer and iTunes

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A Rejection in a Decadent World

The theatre company that rejected me most recently is one that was founded a year or two after mine. I know this because they interviewed my puppet designer for one of their first productions. They didn’t hire her (their loss) but due to their timing and their mission, I have followed their journey pretty closely.

They do good work. Let me say that, first. But I have always felt like they had some leg up when they began that I could not quite identify at the time. (I can guess now that it’s probably mostly being male. The leg up was maleness. Man-osity. Boy-i-tude.) I resented them for a long while – because I felt like they came up behind me driving a hot rod trike while I was running a three-legged race and they surged ahead before I even knew what the game was. But they won that race so long ago now, I’m finally over myself and I swallowed my resentment and pride to write them a ten minute play on spec for their short New Play Festival. I don’t do this usually – but – like I said before – they do good work and fundamentally that is the most important thing to me. More and more, I feel I don’t have the will to produce my own work the way I used to, so I have my eye on people who do good work. Anyway, despite my little play’s “high merits from our readers” it did not make the final round.

This letter concluded with my old (least) favorite: Keep Writing!

The problem with the specificity of the requirements of this short play festival is that it means the play I wrote for them is really not likely to be to the taste of anyone else. I mean – maybe I’m wrong and someone out there is dying for a ten minute companion piece to The Changeling by Thomas Middleton. (Don’t all come clamoring at once!)

Asking for these kinds of things feels like the height of decadence – the ultimate artistic rent seeking (this is an economic concept I’ve talked about before) and in this case it is for such a small reward. Because here’s the thing – I’m almost certain my little play (“The Apothecary’s Daughter”) will never see the light of day anywhere else – which is fine, I have a lot of plays like that. But I can’t help thinking of the other ten minute companion pieces that other writers wrote for ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore and Women Beware Women and The Spanish Tragedy and such and how every year “record numbers” of playwrights churn out a record number of plays in this vein and how there’s just a storehouse of Jacobean themed ten minute plays sitting in the files of playwrights around the country and more are added to that rather useless collection EVERY YEAR.

And this is just one tiny short play festival. All around the country there are multitudes of other plays written for other people’s highly specific specifications that then go on to accumulate dusty storage deaths and I don’t know – this is one hell of a decadent world to ask so much of a bunch of theatre people without a lot of open doors available to them.

Anyway – I guess I’ll keep writing anyway since the producer of this short festival told me to but I’m feeling a little sad for all those lost short plays out there. Not sad enough to produce them myself, mind you. But sad.

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

This post was brought to you by my generous patrons on Patreon.

They also bring you the podcast version of the blog.

You can find the podcast on iTunes, Stitcher, Spotify or wherever you get your podcasts.

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Every podcast features a song at the end. Some of those songs are on Spotify, my websiteReverbNation, Deezer and iTunes

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An Editor’s Rejection

Due to the way the publishing business works, one doesn’t get to submit directly to editors very often. Literary agents are the keepers of the gate and so one mostly can just submit to them.

But, because of my membership in SCBWI, I was able to submit to a couple of editors after attending their workshops at the winter conference.

I didn’t really choose the workshops strategically – just by what I was interested in – but I submitted to the editors to whom I was permitted to submit. The first one I heard back from was via the most recent rejection. I will say that it was the most interesting and useful rejection I have gotten so far. First, she mentioned some things she liked and appreciated (always nice) and said that the protagonist seemed a bit younger than her usual middle grade books. That part is the useful bit. I know now that (to someone who reads a lot of books for young people) my main character reads younger than other main characters in the genre. As I know very little about the genre or its expectations, this is useful information for me. I don’t quite know what I will do about it yet but it does give me something to do – a lens with which to take another look at the book.

That’s all good and useful. And I feel like I hit a funny milestone. At the conference, I heard so many people talking about “voice” and characters being “voicey” and I did not really understand what the deal with that was at first. I was told it was a common reason for rejection. And voila! Here it was – (the editor didn’t connect to the character’s voice.) I may have been rejected but now I’ve joined the rejected by voice club.

(Side bar – one of my Patreon patrons sent along this Instagram post wherein an artist illustrated her rejection…so I thought it might be time to get out my colored pencils and follow her example. I decided, though, that I just wanted to remember the good parts.)

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This post was brought to you by my generous patrons on Patreon.

They also bring you the podcast version of the blog.

You can find the podcast on iTunes, Stitcher, Spotify or wherever you get your podcasts.

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Every podcast features a song at the end. Some of those songs are on Spotify, my websiteReverbNation, Deezer and iTunes

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Medusa Long Shot Rocket Rejection

I started working on my Medusa play sometime around when I started my theatre company, which was close to 18 years ago. I abandoned the play after doing a reading of it but then picked it back up a few years ago when an actor, who’d read one of the parts that first time, asked after it. I don’t know if it had been a full decade at that point but the fact that it had stuck with him after so long made me feel like it was worth grappling with.

After much wrestling, I got the play into shape and did a reading in Brooklyn and after it, I felt like I still wasn’t sure if it was worth anything. One of my listeners pointed out that I might not really know what was actually there until I had the exact right actors. He suggested I think big.

I knew who I needed. As the person who gave the single best performance I have ever seen, I knew that hearing HER read it would tell me everything needed to know. I also knew that in order to have that happen, I needed to make the play good enough for her. I imagined her reading it as I was writing and the play got better.

I did another reading in Queens with a game group of lovely actors and I got even closer to what I thought the play wanted to be. All along I was thinking of this sort of lodestar of a performer and how to get it to her, how to connect with her, how to strategize for this play’s future.

As time went by, the play was selected as a semi-finalist for the O’Neill National Playwright’s Conference but went no further. All of my attempts to make a connection with my Medusa lodestar failed.

Then I saw that she’d be performing in a public park – so I printed out a copy and brought it with me in case I could be brave enough to give it to her. I was. I was brave enough and it was mortifying. Completely and totally mortifying. I don’t recommend this sort of experience to anyone. But – even though she wouldn’t take the stack of paper in the moment, she told me to send it to her agent. And believe me, it had been suggested to me to send it to her agent before but that information is not particularly easy for an outsider to find so the principal value in standing before the actual person was that I could ask her who her agent was. Then began the tricky task of finding her agent’s information. You realize, when diving in to this sort of world, that so much of it is designed to intimidate and keep you out. The world of agents is built to make it difficult to find them. There are services you can pay to simply get an email.

But with the support of a clever friend, I finally got to the agent. Also, with a lot of coaching from my clever friend, I did some finely crafted emailing to just get this play to the woman who had been its muse. After about a week of back and forth, it was, in fact sent to her.

Just getting that far felt like a great leap. It wasn’t just the labor of the week to get it to her – but the years of putting it on my list to figure out and all the attempts before. I launched the rocket into space.

Within days, the rocket fell to earth as I heard back that the play was not for her.

Strangely, given how intimidating the world around agents is, the rejection was one of the best I’ve received. It was succinct, clear and gentle. I wonder if that agents learn that skill because they never really want to give anyone a hard no. What if Julie Taymor suddenly decided to put my Medusa on at the National Theatre with a million dollar salary? Would my muse be interested then? She might. Or at least there might be another conversation to be had.

So weirdly, I find myself wishing other rejectors could be more like an actor’s agent. Reject us like you might have to make a million dollar deal with us next time – because you just never know.

Meanwhile, here I am watching my last real hope for this play float away. I know it makes no sense to set a bubble of hope on an actor’s interest but it was literally the only idea I had for the future of this play. I can’t produce it myself. It’s too big for the resources I can gather. It’s not the kind of show you can do at your local community playhouse.

So…this particular rejection hit me hard – even though I knew it was a long shot. It was the longest shot. And it’s going to take some time to gather the strength to build another rocket – or even just a wagon. It’s going to take some time to reassemble some hope. Maybe it’ll be another ten years. Or maybe never at all.

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

This post was brought to you by my generous patrons on Patreon.

They also bring you the podcast version of the blog.

You can find the podcast on iTunes, Stitcher, Spotify or wherever you get your podcasts.

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Every podcast features a song at the end. Some of those songs are on Spotify, my websiteReverbNation, Deezer and iTunes

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Want to help me keep building metaphorical rockets?

Become my patron on Patreon.

Click HERE to Check out my Patreon Page

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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

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