Songs for the Struggling Artist


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.

 

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

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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?

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Click HERE to Check out my Patreon Page

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A Better Way to Read On the Internet?

I thought this one post I wrote was pretty good. I know they’re not all winners. There are some that I just sort of throw together and some I really work at and this one sat somewhere in the middle, in that it had the flow of something that just emerged but the shaping of something I’d considered for a while. I guess what I am trying to say is that I was proud of it.

But when I put it out – nothing happened. I shared it on all the platforms, all the social medias it goes to. And I could count the views on one hand. I tried to goose the algorithm on Facebook – since that’s the place I usually get my views. I tried to like my own post (looks like Facebook doesn’t allow that anymore though I was able to like it via the Songs for the Struggling Artist Facebook page) and I used the algorithmic golden word “congratulations” in the comments.

Crickets.

I know better than to take Facebook’s algorithmic selections personally but still – having so few views made me question my own perception of quality. Maybe the post was no good after all. (Again – I know better. Some really great posts have only 4 views total. I know, I know the two things are disconnected. And yet.)

Then one of my friends commented, liked and shared it. Suddenly a post that had had only one view thus far that day had 18.

This is, on one hand, indicative of the reach my friend has but also suggests the power of one person sharing in the algorithmic battle for attention many of us seem engaged in. (Don’t underestimate the power of your share, like and comment. I am heartily grateful for every one. Your click will take my views from 4 to 5. Your share will take my views from 4 to 12 or 18 or more if others share it.)

This all makes me think about what a terribly imperfect way of sharing writing the internet is. It’s also a terribly imperfect way of reading. Facebook pitches its stream of posts as a NewsFeed and it does feel like it has become the place I receive a lot of news – and not just the news – but also the essays and articles and blog posts about things I care about.

But because of Facebook’s algorithms, it decides what I see instead of me. I miss so many things while simultaneously having the illusion that I’m current with the writers I like. But I know that I’m not. I follow Rebecca Solnit there so I see a lot of her writing but I know Facebook doesn’t show me everything. KatyKatiKate is a blogger and podcaster like myself and I want to support her work however I can – but I know Facebook is only showing me a third of what she writes. I wonder what genius posts she’s over there crafting and Facebook isn’t showing me or anyone else because of the algorithm’s quirks. I’m gonna guess she has a few of those orphan posts, too.

In the years before social media, I found it hard to follow writers and bloggers. I felt like I had to remember to go to various websites, various blogs. I just couldn’t remember all the places I wanted to go on the internet to read things I cared about. So when Facebook came around, it provided this very useful service of aggregating those articles, blogs and such. It’s just that it does that so BADLY. Like So Badly.

Twitter is even worse. People don’t really click on articles on Twitter. My sense is that it just moves too fast. The views I get on Twitter are negligible. And I don’t even understand how to share writing on Instagram.

So…what I’m waiting for is some kind of feed for writing. Does it already exist and I just don’t know about it? I want to be on it with my friends. I want to see what they recommended and be able to share pertinent news, as well as indie writing, like KatyKatiKate. The algorithmic bias of Facebook means it will really only promote what is shared – but as much as I love KatyKatiKate’s work, I’m not going to share every single piece. I don’t expect that of my readers either. But I want to be able to at least know about every piece that KatyKatiKate puts out. I want to click like, or love or star or heart or whatever, on all of them and I want to have a list of writers that I love listed on said site or some kind of extra boost for them. How our writings are shared matters and the way they are read and shared at the moment is really not working well.

I rely on Facebook to promote my blog and podcast and we all know how problematic it is. But if it went away tomorrow – or if everyone just deleted their accounts en masse, I’d have no readership whatsoever. I’m dependent on it, at the moment, and I do not appreciate how much control the Facebook algorithm has over who gets to see my work. And, due to the foibles of a writers’ brain, sometimes the control the algorithm has has a great deal of impact on the way I feel and my assessment of the quality of my work. It happens that way sometimes and I do not like it. I’m looking for another way.

 

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

They also bring you the podcast version of this blog.

You can find this podcast episode on Apple Podcasts, 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 Taste of Being a Patriarch in the Patriarchy

For most of the last decade, every day, I’ve been using a line of Hamlet as my prompt for daily writing. The Hamlet Project has nearly 100,000 views and most of them are not people I know. I don’t get a lot of comments on it but when I do, they tend to assume I, the author, am a man. I have been called “sir,” for example, and also “bro.” I think, even when I am not explicitly gendered in a comment, I am assumed to be a man. I don’t know this for sure, of course – but there’s something about the tenor of the comments that makes me feel like I’m being mis-gendered.

What is that tenor? Well. The comments tend to be respectful. They tend to endow me with a level of authority I am not used to receiving in situations wherein my gender is more obvious. It’s just kind of a vibe. And it is very nice, actually.

I’m not trying to obscure my gender identity in this venue but in not making it obvious, it leaves a lot of people room to assume that I am the default gender. I’m also talking about one of the most famous male characters in history – featuring one of the most famous patriarchal struggles – AND – I say on my ABOUT page that the project began from an interest in playing Hamlet. Hamlet is a male character. It thus follows, as the night the day, ipso facto, I must also be male.

Except of course I am not. And depending on the piece that someone might read, it might or might not become obvious. I mean, sure, there’s a lot of feminist content that shows up but maybe I’m just a super woke feminist dude. There’s a way that once the assumption has been made, it will be hard to see the “narrator” differently.

That is, until it becomes obvious. Recently, I started getting lots of views and comments from a man whose website describes him as his country’s “most versatile living writer.” For a few days, I knew he was reading because my statistics reflected a lot of views from his country. He commented several times. I clicked “like” on his comments but didn’t respond to them. Then, he asked me a question, so I answered. The act of commenting revealed my picture and my name and thereby also my gender identity. And wouldn’t you know – I haven’t had a comment or a view from his country since.

I don’t think this is a situation of a person realizing I’m a woman and stalking off in fury saying, “By god, I don’t wish to know what a WOMAN has to say!” I suspect I just suddenly become a lot less interesting. A dedicated reader might just wander off for no particular reason, you know. It’s not sexism, no. It’s just – what’s that over there?

This is the thing a lot of people don’t understand about things like sexism (and racism and ableism and so on) – that it isn’t the overt stuff that gets to us. It’s really the indifference that’s adds up over time and wears us down.

It is actually super nice to be seen as the default. The misgendering is so pleasant because it comes with an assumption of capability, authority and collegiality. I know what those things feel like now and recognize that I don’t usually feel them in any of the other venues (like this one) wherein my gender is a lot more obvious.

Before I tuned into this experience of reading as male, I couldn’t have really articulated what experience I wasn’t having. I didn’t have any sense of what it felt like to have male privilege. I’m thinking of that email experience/experiment those two co-workers had when they switched email signatures for a week. We focused a lot on the male co-worker’s eye-opening interactions when he was perceived as female, how formerly easy interactions became confrontational when he was perceived as his female colleague. The story for me felt like, “See! It’s not all in our heads!”

But now I’m thinking more about what the female co-worker’s experience was when suddenly the way was cleared. I think I imagined it a little bit like that Eddie Murphy SNL sketch where he disguises himself as a white guy and people just give him stuff and throw white people parties on the bus. But of course it’s not that dramatic. No one gave that switched email co-worker an award or a pile of money when she was perceived as male, her job just got a lot faster and easier. Similarly, I’m not getting any special kudos or winning awards or praise or pats on the back in being perceived as male with my Hamlet Project, it’s just a more pleasant atmosphere and I get twice as many views.

I’m not saying it’s a paradise over there. An occasional dickhead makes his way there just like anywhere. But the dickheadery is somehow less dickheaded. The vibe over there is nice.

So I’m in no hurry to disabuse anyone of their perception and I might really enjoy using a pseudonym for some stuff in the future, just because it’s nice to roll around in male privilege for a bit.

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

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Here Is My Blush

In high school, at forensics meets and auditions, people often would look at my chest and get a concerned look on their faces. “Are you okay?” they’d ask. “You’re bright red.”

I had a rather unfortunate tendency for a performer; When I’d get nervous or excited or just pumped up, my chest would turn red or blotchy. I understand now that it’s probably a factor of being an HSP (Highly Sensitive Person) but at the time it was just embarrassing.

It mostly doesn’t happen anymore. I don’t know whether I’ve evened out or have fewer opportunities to perform or when I do, I don’t get nearly as nervous or if it’s the quieting down of an aging nervous system or maybe I just don’t look in the mirror that much but I haven’t seen that bright red chest blush in ages.

Last night though, I went in to brush my teeth, looked in the bathroom mirror, took one glance at my chest, got a concerned look on my own face and asked myself, “Are you okay? You’re bright red.”

And then I realized that in the process of re-engaging with a play I’d previously abandoned, I’d gotten myself as worked up as I used to get when I was performing in high school. I know writing is as physical an act as anything but it’s not usually as physical as that.

But here’s what happened.

Quite a few years ago, I started work on a play about Victoria Woodhull. I worked on it at a residency in Maine and did a preliminary reading there and then back in NYC six months later.

I submitted that play and proposals to work on that play to all the developmental programs and all the residencies and no one gave a damn about it but me and the tiny handful of people who read it or heard it in 2017. Other projects stepped forward and pushed this one aside. I worked on my book for young people during my residency in Vancouver. I wrote a whole new play for the Shakespeare contest at the American Shakespeare Center. The Woodhull play just sort of fell by the wayside. I didn’t actively abandon it – I just never picked it back up to fix those problems in Act Two that revealed themselves after the last reading at Flushing Town Hall. But. I love these characters. I love the play, actually and the pleasure of re-engaging with its difficulties is actually very sweet. And according to my body’s blushing system, it’s a lot more exciting than I realized as well.

Not very many people would seem to be as interested in my play’s questions as I am but after seeing that old high school chest flush return, I know that the re-engagement is as potent as any performance. I also recognize that this is the good part, actually.

Whenever, if ever, this play sees production, it will be as agonizing as sweet to see it realized. While I would surely rejoice loudly and wildly to see it onstage, it will always be compromised, there will inevitably be those moments of agony at misspoken text or misplaced emphasis or whatever details might arise. This writing flush is the play’s purest joy for me, I suspect, and I’m writing this now so that I remember 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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Like the blog? Want to help keep me writing?

Become my patron on Patreon.

Click HERE to Check out my Patreon Page

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If you liked the blog (but aren’t into the commitment of Patreon) 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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