Songs for the Struggling Artist


“Believe in Yourself!”

In the bathroom at my local café, someone has written on the wall with chalk, in what I’m sure is meant to be an inspirational font: “Believe in Yourself!”

I hate this note. I know it’s meant to be uplifting but I cannot imagine that anyone could look at a note on the bathroom wall and change their belief or lack of belief in themselves. In response to this cheery message, I may have given a bathroom wall the finger. I’m not proud of it – but I think I’ve been pushed to my Believing in Myself limit.

My having reached Believe in Yourself capacity is probably coming from my time in acting where the main career strategy is to Believe in Yourself hard enough that good things will come to you with secret attractive magic. But then – ironically – if a director told an actor to believe in himself while acting in a scene – he would be at a loss. “But what do you want me to DO?” he’d ask in frustration. That’s always my question, too. But what should I actually DO?

The thing that’s dangerous about this Believe in Yourself business is that it often becomes a way to explain one’s success or lack thereof, particularly in fields where luck plays such an extreme factor. As people search for explanations for why we succeed or fail, it often tends to boil down to, “Well, he didn’t really believe in himself, did he? If he had – he’d be doing great!” Belief in self becomes this mysterious magic that can be dark or bright.

In my earlier years, I often took this sort of thing to heart. Someone would try to instill confidence in me by telling me that I just needed to believe in myself more and I believed them. I thought that the reason I hadn’t achieved whatever I was trying to achieve was because I hadn’t had enough confidence in it, that my belief in myself had been insufficient to achieve the goal. It strikes me now as insidiously destructive. The magical thinking that pervades the arts makes our success or failures hinge entirely on an unmeasurable metric of an ethereal thing when most of success is actually based on a series of systemic advantages or disadvantages. To transcend the disadvantages, one needs a champion or champions. I think we can all agree that the fabulous Billy Porter probably believes in himself. But he does not credit his self belief in the same way he pays tribute to the people who supported him. Here he is in an interview with Diep Tran for American Theatre talking about his relationship with Huntington Theatre:

Yeah, Peter DuBois and I were both working at the Public Theater under George C. Wolfe back in the early 2000s. Peter was a producer, and I had a writing/directing residency there. When he got the artistic directorship at the Huntington, he called and asked me to direct there. He believed in me. He has believed in me as a director from the very beginning. He’s one of the few who has given me the opportunity to exercise that muscle and become the best that I can be—because you can’t get better unless you have a space to practice. He’s given me a really safe theatrical home for me to expand my art and help everybody else understand what that expansion is.

I am so glad that Peter DuBois supported Billy Porter from the beginning and on through the years so that we could have him inspiring us now and only wish I’d had a Peter DuBois. I long for someone who might have provided me the same sort of support and encouragement and a safe theatrical home.

I have seen men do this for each other over and over again. It makes no difference if the mentee is as brilliant as Billy Porter or as mediocre as the most mediocre white bread man in the world – men escort other men into the circle. I have seen it happen over and over again. I have anecdotes. I have receipts. And I have never seen a man do this for a woman. At this point, I think there are not quite enough women in the inner circle for women to be able to do it for other women, either. The women I know who made it into the center did it by banding together and getting their crowd through. No one brought them in or made space for them.

Maybe we don’t need everyone believing in themselves more. Maybe it would be good to try believing in someone else, for a change. Choose someone and be their champion – be their best believer. That has a whole lot more value than believing in yourself.

This was not the message on the bathroom wall. This is far more arty and tasteful. (It is by HaseebPhotography via Pixabay.)

 

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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.

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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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The Hamlet Project – ‘Tis a knavish piece of work

The café where I came up with the idea is long gone. I think it’s three to four businesses ago in that spot now. But the project that was born there took me through eight to nine years.

It started in that café out of a need to goose my creative practice. I was finding my writing process to be a little less smooth than I liked. When I turned on the faucet, the creativity didn’t always flow the way it used to.

I felt I needed a structure within my daily practice that might drop me in to a better state of flow. Hamlet came to me because – at the time – I was working toward playing the role. I had a goal of getting back to acting and Hamlet was the top of that mountain.

I thought if I wrote in response to Hamlet, I’d tackle two goals at once. I could prepare to play Hamlet while goosing my writing practice.

I didn’t play Hamlet, really, and now I’m probably too old for it – but I did perform a soliloquy for my friend’s Hamlet rave performance and my other friend and I organized a reading wherein I got to prepare for and read the part. So I scratched the itch, even if I never held Yorick’s skull in front of an audience.

As for the writing practice – well, it was always a practice for me. It was part of a process to get me into a state of flow for whatever I thought was my “real” writing for the day. So it served me very well in that respect.

I’m not sure why I decided to share the process, really. I think I figured that only a handful of people would read it, like everything else I put on the internet, so it wasn’t really a big deal. I think I was interested in a kind of transparency of creative process so why not?

As of this writing, The Hamlet Project has received 94,113 views – so, despite my not paying it much attention – it has become the most seen thing I do. Oh, the irony!

When I wrote the last line in my notebook a few weeks ago, I thought I might feel some sense of finality – like I’d just closed a show or something. But I didn’t, really. I gave it some ceremony – just to mark the moment – but the next day, I just began the same process from the first line of Cymbeline.

So what did learn from spending a little bit of every day with a line from Hamlet? First and foremost – I am not as close a reader as I would like to think. The thing is – I was already very familiar with Hamlet. My first acting job was in a touring production. I taught it fairly often in schools. The play was not unfamiliar when I decided to dive deep into it. But writing in response to single lines made it almost impossible to gloss over meaning in the ways that I was (apparently) wont to gloss. It became very clear that I had previously been pretty satisfied to just have the gist of the line. Working with single lines forced me to not cut those understanding corners.

The process of reading so closely led me to some surprising interpretative places. I developed a whole theory about Marcellus – which caused me to really wonder where he disappeared to. Previously, I couldn’t have made much distinction between Marcellus, Barnardo and Francisco. By the time I got through Marcellus’ scenes, I was ready to write his own play.

I also uncovered a fair amount of experiments I’d want to see. There are a lot of What Ifs. What if that scene between Claudius and Laertes were played as a Vaudeville routine? What if Horatio was the spy? Not just Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. What if Hamlet Senior had killed his father to become king? What if we saw that? What if Claudius saw it and we saw him see it? Do we develop sympathy for him?

There are so many imaginary productions and/or production moments that I found I wanted to see. This is kind of interesting because after all these years of seeing so much Shakespeare, I find it hard to get excited to see my twentieth Hamlet or seven millionth Romeo and Juliet. But it’s clear that I’d be 100% bought in to see any number of text based experiments.

Other themes that came up a lot were related to Shakespeare’s genius with the little lines. I was moved, over and over, by all the lines that seem like they’re no big deal but are actually packing extraordinary narrative or poetic punch.

My relationships with the characters didn’t change much (except for good old Marcellus.) I suppose I grew to sympathize with Ophelia instead of just being annoyed by her obedience. And I have some thoughts about that English ambassador who comes in at the end and I never paid him any mind before. There are a lot of characters who I’d enjoy seeing receive the Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead treatment – and getting their own plays.

Some of my favorite moments were the lines that inspired their own longer narratives – separate from Hamlet. There are stories about a carp, a monster and a witch that bubbled up out of the source. There’s also a list of rejected ways for Laertes to kill Hamlet with an organ that still cracks me up. I did a fair amount of making myself laugh.

Most of the lines ended up as just a conversation between me and the sentence. There are a lot of entries of me trying to work it out in front of you. I’m showing my work – like a math problem.

That’s probably the Shakespeare educator in me. I am never interested in explaining a line to students but I can happily take someone through a process of figuring it out. A lot of lines are just me figuring it out.

There’s a lot of project here. There are a lot of lines in Hamlet! But in a way, that’s why the internet is a good place for this. It is much too much to read all at once. I think it would be a rather relentless book. Words connected to line after line start to become too much after a while. But as a place you can just click around, it’s a reasonably fun playground. It’s a place where, if you felt like reading JUST Polonius’ lines – you could.

It’s done now. And also not done. I’m still uploading lines I wrote about two years ago. It may be a while before I reach the end of the play on the internet but my writing process is complete. The uploading goes on.

If you were one (or many) of the 94,113 views, thank you. It means a lot to be seen.

The rest is silence.
Or – actually – the rest just needs to be uploaded. Then it will be silence.

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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.

 

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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.

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Atmosphere, Art, Magic and Souffles
February 18, 2019, 10:18 pm
Filed under: Creative Process, writing | Tags: , , , , , , ,

As I write this, I’m at a table under a palm tree facing a late afternoon sun over a blue green sea. It is a beautiful location – perfect for reading or bird watching or people watching. But it is curiously not perfect for writing. At least, not for me.

About a week before, I was in a restaurant with a storied history, with a legacy of writers and revolutionaries at their tables. It was not my usual sort of spot and I didn’t have nearly enough time there – but it was perfect for writing. Why? Why? Why does a café with dusty old photographs on the walls have more power than a beautiful sunset beach?

The answer is atmosphere. There is something in an atmosphere. There is something in an atmosphere that speaks to a writer and gives a little lift to the pen. That is why a soulless Starbucks, despite a comfy chair and the “arty” décor, does absolutely nothing for me and the Hungarian Pastry Shop (if I can find a table) is magic. There is a sense of magic in a place where other artists have hashed out their arguments and ideas. There’s a kind of possibility patina of the past on the walls.

I imagine there’s a similar magic at an artist’s colony – like a Millay, an O’Neill or a MacDowell – a sort of creative breeze that blows through there, whispering concentration, inspiration, whispering solidarity perhaps?

As lovely as a beach is, as pleasant as the atmosphere can be, the beach’s inspirational voice is not so writerly. It feels very elemental, asking you to consider the sun and the moon and the waves and the primal rhythms of the universe. And none of those things make very good drama – so the atmosphere does not so much serve the work I’m interested in. Maybe if I were a nature poet it would be my fairy dust – but as it stands – the magic is most likely to happen in a dingy old café with mismatched chairs and a surly waitstaff who mostly leave you alone.

Can I write without it? Of course. I can write anywhere with coffee and a table. I can set words down in any old place. One of my regular spots is a bubble tea place with almost zero atmosphere. Seriously, the music is terrible, the lighting is terrible and the seats are uncomfortable. But it’s fine. I make it work. However – if I get a chance to be in a place that gives me more than basics, there’s more chance for magic.

I think about the practice of writing as being a little like cooking (and I’m not much of a cook so if this analogy falls flat that’ll be why.) But certainly when you set out to cook, you gather the ingredients and you can probably make a reasonable meal. Let’s say you’ve got some eggs and some milk and some flour and butter. If you mix ‘em up and put them in the oven, you’re going to get something edible.

But only under the exact right conditions are you going to get a soufflé. It can literally depend on the atmosphere.

The fallen soufflé will taste fine – you can eat it, no matter what – but to get the delicious light texture of a soufflé, you’re going to need good atmosphere. A door slam can ruin the whole thing. My writing process is the same. The ingredients are pen, paper, coffee and uninterrupted time.

In the right atmosphere, I can write a soufflé – in most instances, I’m just writing an omelet. It’s fine – it’s good – whatever atmosphere I’m in will make it’s way into the work a little bit – so if I can, I prefer a place with atmosphere that might push me past the boring old omelet and into soufflé territory.

This post, for example, is not a soufflé. It’s fine. It gets the job done – but I wrote it on a beach with tourists shouting over me about happy hour and constant interruptions and some really lousy coffee. This post could never be a soufflé – and I knew it the moment I sat down. That’s how it goes.

I sit down with the same ingredients every day and if I’m lucky, if I’m very very lucky, a soufflé will happen even in less than ideal circumstances – but mostly I just get some utilitarian art food out of my labors. And some days there’s magic.

photo by Donna Shaunesey

This blog is also a podcast.

You can find it 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

The digital distribution is expiring at the end of February for the second album, so I’m also raising funds to keep them up. If you’d like to contribute, feel free to donate anywhere but I’m tracking them on Kofi – here: ko-fi.com/emilyrainbowdavis

If you have a particular album you’d like to keep there, let me know!

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