Songs for the Struggling Artist

Tell an Artist You Saw/Heard/Experienced Their Art

Because I come from theatre, I am used to immediate feedback. I am used to people who attended the show, waiting to talk to me after, so I know they were there. When the houses are small and I’m onstage, I know who was there because, I can see every single face in the crowd. Even if only a handful of people actually say something nice, they, at least, all give us some applause. They came, they saw, they clapped. We know they were there and if we’re lucky someone will tell us something they liked about it.

But when you make something that is not live, you have no idea who took the time to engage with your work. You don’t know who’s heard it, read it, seen it, whatever. There is no applause. It can feel a little bit like throwing a handful of glitter into outer space.

Just like – uh…wheeee!

The first episode of the audio drama podcast I made in 2020 has been listened to 250 times but I don’t know who those 250 people are. More importantly, I don’t know who the 138 people who stuck with it to the finale are. A handful of people have let me know that they listened, and a smaller percentage let me know that they enjoyed it. We got some delightful reviews on Apple podcasts but I don’t know who wrote them.

It’s such an odd experience to have heard a couple of people call me a genius (thank you, yes, I know!) and experience nothing but silence from everyone else.

In the theatre, if someone doesn’t say anything, if they just leave and don’t let you know they were there, it usually means they hated the show so much they couldn’t find the strength to see you. I’ve had this done to me and I have done it, I’m ashamed to say. Though I do usually try to find something to appreciate and say when a bunch of people have worked so hard to put something on stage.

I’ll give you an example that I probably think about more often than I should. A friend I hadn’t seen in a couple of decades apparently came to see my show when we were performing in his city. He emailed to tell he that he’d been there but that was it. Nothing else. “We were there” was about the sense of it. This was the worst of all worlds. It was clear to me that a person I hadn’t seen in almost twenty years hated this show so much, he couldn’t even do a reminiscing backstage visit. This is a situation, which, by the way, would have precluded having to lie too much because it would be a lot of “I can’t believe it!” and “How have you been these last twenty years?” Like, there’s almost no situation where you’d have to talk about the show you just saw less. But it was clear, at least to my brain, that this guy hated it so hard, he couldn’t even say “hello.” And then couldn’t even find one thing to say in his “I was there” email.  Not even, like, “that was a lot of ribbon you guys used in that show!” We did use a lot of ribbon. Honestly, the bar is so low, folks. So…his silence on the subject has became so loud for me, I really cannot stop thinking about it even almost a decade later. Whereas, if he’d just managed a “cool ribbons” or whatever, I’d have instantly forgotten about it and continued to think fondly of the guy. Honestly, it would have been better if I hadn’t known he’d come.

Anyway – there are multiple varieties of silence and most of them lead to the worst case scenario. I wish it were not so – but it is.

So most of us, in theatre, hear silence as dislike.

But in a world where people are reading, watching, listening, seeing work at their own pace, there is no way to know if silence about something you’ve made is:

  1. Because they haven’t read/listened to/seen it (This is the most likely.)
  2. Because they just didn’t think to tell you that they’d read/listened to/seen it (the second most likely)
  3. Because they hated it (the most easily made assumption in an artist’s brain)

As a Tweet I read recently said “If you’re not haunted by the possibility that your writing sucks then guess what?” This is how artists’ brains tend to work. No matter how much I actively practice leaning into genius-hood, my brain will be quite sure that what I’ve made is actually terrible and no one wants to tell me. Even when a more sensible part of me has great confidence in something.

People who engage with works of art are under no obligation to tell the artists who made them anything, of course. I’d be very busy if I told every maker of every book, song, podcast, TV show, painting, sculpture, movie, collage, (etc, etc) I ever experienced that I experienced their work and how I experienced it. I’d be very busy if I emailed everyone whose work I enjoyed.

But for the subset of artists that I KNOW, that I have relationships with, I want to be a whole lot better about sharing my experience of their work. I have friends who made a really stellar audio drama podcast a few years ago and I binge listened to it, enjoyed every minute  and never told them. I meant to, of course. I meant to shoot them an email or something. But it just never happened. I think I thought I’d just run into them at a show and gush in person.

But I didn’t see them so it was probably years before I sent them the email and I am as guilty as anyone on this front.

And certainly, right now, no one’s running into anyone else at shows since there aren’t any.

Anyway – it is now my intention to be better about reaching out to makers who are creating the things I enjoy. I hate realizing that my silence on the matter makes it seem as if I didn’t bother to watch/listen to/see it or that I hated it and didn’t want to tell them. It is not easy to make things. It is not easy to receive no applause, especially when you are accustomed to receiving it after a show.

I don’t need much, honestly. It just occurred to me that I might be satisfied with the applause emoji on a post of something. Or an applause gif? Sometime that’s literally all I need. But it is weirdly quite rare.

Anyway – I intend to up my response game – though I give myself permission to just use gifs and emojis sometimes.

I know people worry about saying the wrong stuff to artists about their work, especially when they didn’t love every single second. If you need a guide, I wrote one (here). TLDR: Compliments are always welcome. Questions can be fun. Discussions about issues raised can be interesting.

In this New Year, I hope you’ll join me in giving more acknowledgement to the people who create, even if it’s only an increase in the use of the applause emoji.

Hey – you could just post this pic on stuff people make. This’ll do! Look at that smiling face on these clapping hands!

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I Am a Genius
August 26, 2020, 12:11 am
Filed under: art, feminism | Tags: , , , , , , , ,

Does it make you uncomfortable when I say I am a genius? I can see why it might. Women aren’t supposed to be geniuses, for one thing, and they should be modest, as well, so even if women COULD be geniuses, they shouldn’t go around declaring themselves such. We learn very early that we should hide our intelligence, that we should be quiet about what we’re good at and that we are never going to be seen as brilliant. Because being brilliant, and being a genius, is for boys.

Think that’s all in the past? Well, you’d be thinking wrong. Forbes just published a piece about a study that shows that there is an unconscious bias in both men and women that associates men with things like genius and brilliance and not women. Forbes declares that women tend to not apply for jobs that list a brilliant mind as a qualification. Their solution? Stop putting “brilliant mind” as a qualification.

That’s one way. Another way that I see is to purposefully cultivate an immodest attitude of brilliance. To practice calling girls brilliant and genius. Changing the language on job listings is only a change in semantics – changing how we talk about the brilliance, the genius of women and girls is another.

The culture we’ve been swimming in loves a genius. We are a culture that believes in genius and will excuse all sorts of bad behavior when a genius does it. Picasso! What a genius! It doesn’t matter that he abused the women in his life, neglected his children and made a seventeen-year-old girl his lover when he was 45. The genius effect is powerful and will overshadow any wrong doing.

Here’s his granddaughter describing his genius: ”His brilliant oeuvre demanded human sacrifices. He drove everyone who got near him to despair and engulfed them. No one in my family ever managed to escape from the stranglehold of this genius. He needed blood to sign each of his paintings: my father’s blood, my brother’s, my mother’s, my grandmother’s and mine. He needed the blood of those who loved him — people who thought they loved a human being, whereas they really loved Picasso.”

And here she is describing his relationships with women: ”He submitted them to his animal sexuality, tamed them, bewitched them, ingested them and crushed them onto his canvas. After he had spent many nights extracting their essence, once they were bled dry, he would dispose of them.”

Nice genius right there. That’s genius built from the blood of women. That’s not just a really sharp, smart, cool artist. He was that, sure. I like his artwork very much. But he was pretty awful to the people around him. We excuse it though, because of that genius effect.

But no matter how brilliant a woman may be, no matter how prolific and original, it is highly unlikely that she will be called a genius or even brilliant – and if she made even the smallest of errors, she will be pilloried for it. There’s no genius effect for her.

I am so incredibly tired of this and have made it my practice to call myself a genius and to tell myself I’m brilliant at every opportunity. When the silly video game calls me a genius after I string together a long line of dots, I say to it, “Thank you. I know.” Sometimes I don’t even say thank you because of course my genius is obvious and I don’t have to be polite about it.

Is this immodest? Yep. I’m done waiting for the world to recognize my genius. If the orange dumpster-fire-in-chief can call himself “ a very stable genius,” there is literally no reason in the world I should not declare my own genius. I may not be as brilliant as Einstein but I am for sure more brilliant than the fascist meme machine in charge. He got pretty far by declaring himself a genius. Can I do worse?

But most importantly, I am trying to normalize women being seen as geniuses, as brilliant. I want the next generation of girls to know they are brilliant and geniuses and to apply for and get all the jobs for brilliant minds out there. (By the way, what are these jobs? I’ve never seen a job listing that asked for a brilliant mind ever. Was it because I was looking at theatre and education listings? No one would ask for a brilliant mind in those fields, I don’t think. Not the way they’re currently administered. A brilliant mind would only make trouble. As I often did.)

Anyway – I’m a brilliant genius. I hope you’ll agree. And make it a practice to call other women and girls geniuses, too. Start your practice with me, if you want – because I will, for sure, accept it. If you call me a genius, I will say, “Thank you, I know” just like I say to my game and then you can move on to your next genius, who may have been taught to be modest and deny it. They may be embarrassed and uncomfortable to hear it but call them a genius anyway. One day it will stick.

The only reason I got comfortable calling myself a genius is that I have a handful of people who have called me brilliant, who have called me a genius. It didn’t come from nowhere. You can help me spread it. 

Here’s me with my genius rainbow brain just geniusing it up out here.

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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.

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.


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


Want to give me an hour?

Become my patron on Patreon.


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“She’s a female, so that’s interesting.”
August 30, 2018, 4:45 pm
Filed under: feminism | Tags: , , , , , ,

National Geographic has a TV series called Genius and I read an interview with Ron Howard, who produced it. He was asked why their next subject was going to be Mary Shelley and he said, “She’s a female, so that’s interesting.”
And damned if I didn’t have a little hurricane of a reaction to this sentiment.

Let me begin by saying that unfortunately he’s right about the rareness of women who are recognized as geniuses. Genius tends to mean “man” to most. Genius is rarely attributed to women so, yes, it is “interesting” to focus on a woman in a series about genius. I think, more accurately though, it is a nice change of pace, rather than interesting. It is not her being female that is interesting. Mary Shelley’s femaleness is not actually unique. Over 50% of the population shares that particular trait with her. What is actually interesting is that somehow the world has been convinced that genius is a thing for men so that it has become unique to see a woman on a show about genius. That’s the interesting part. That and the fact that it has taken this long to bring a woman into a story about a genius.

Also – the use of “female” in this context uniformly makes me crazy. I didn’t know why people calling women “females” was so infuriating for so long until I read some articles about it (like this one from Jezebel) and now I can tolerate it even less than I could before. So there’s that, too.

I mean – I do not deny that having a woman on a show about geniuses is much more interesting to me than any previous subjects they explored but ultimately the whole structure of the sentence made me real mad at Ron Howard. I got so mad I found myself saying, “Take a flying leap, Richie Cunningham!”
“Take your ‘interesting female’ ideas and shove ‘em, Opie!”
Which is not very nice to Ron Howard and I’m sorry. (Please hire all my friends who make films, Ron Howard. Make all their movies immediately. Pretend I didn’t say anything.)

But – let’s imagine this sentence reversed. We’re reading an interview with Ron Howard about his subject, Picasso.

INTERVIEWER: Your next Genius is Picasso. Why him?

HOWARD: He’s a male, so that’s interesting.

Mmmm. Is it though?

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Feedback Loop
October 4, 2015, 9:28 pm
Filed under: art, Creative Process, theatre | Tags: , , , , ,

When I first started making my own work, I got an extraordinary amount of very positive feedback. While a lot of it was from the audience, the most consistent voices of support were those involved in the production. Based on their enthusiasm, I thought I must have been a genius – at writing, at directing, at producing.

It occurs to me now, though, that I was doing shows with theatre people and I now understand that theatre people tend to think everything that they’re currently working on is genius. I fear now that I ended up on this path because I believed all those theatre folk when they told me I was brilliant.

I started to think about this recently while accidentally witnessing a production meeting in a coffee shop. The creative team was young and very enthusiastic about the piece at hand. Many of them were genuine in their excitement but the lighting designer, it seemed to me, was just playing the game. He understood that he was expected to blow some smoke and so he did but he was struggling. I could feel him grasping for the words and tone to fit into the love-fest happening at the table. I suspected that most people in the group were fully convinced that this project would be the one to give them all their big breaks, while the lighting designer was there to do the job. It felt like he knew what he was doing and he also knew that the show under discussion was no better or worse than anything else he’d done. He was likely the most experienced artist at the table. I sympathized with his struggle.

A lot of us indulge in that “This shows is going to change everything!” idea – especially at the beginning of a career. And we all encourage each other in this delusion. It really can help buoy up a project. The endless feedback loop of people calling one another geniuses can be the fuel that gets a show off the ground. But it can be very painful when you’re the person in the group who knows that this piece is probably not going to be anyone’s big break. The odds are good that the show will close with not much notice and probably no one in that group is a genius. Most of us aren’t really geniuses and I wonder what we lose in imagining or pretending that we are.

On the other hand, I’m very grateful to each and every one of the people who thought (or even just said) I was brilliant. It was very nice. It felt good. That encouragement kept me going. And maybe what this post is really about is my need to have some of those people around again. It’s been a long time since someone called me brilliant and maybe that is what I need. Even if it’s just smoke. Maybe.

I just started reading The Rise by Sarah Lewis and she opens with a discussion on Mastery. She explores the idea that Mastery is the continued work on improving a thing, regardless of outside influence or possibility. Archers, for example, continue to work on their aim, despite the lack of outside adulation or approval. (There aren’t a lot of lucrative Archery contracts, you see. And can you name a famous Archer?) So, I’m interested in a theatre that is more interested in Mastery than approval. And while I like to be called brilliant as much as the next theatre person, I don’t want to depend on that “brilliant” feedback loop anymore. I want to get my aim exactly right for my own mastery and my own satisfaction. THAT will be brilliant.


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