Songs for the Struggling Artist

If My Pen is Rockin,’ Don’t Come A-Knockin’

The bulk of my writing practice is dedicated to getting myself primed to write with the most focus I can manage. The practice is dedicated to finding a kind of flow. In an ideal session of writing, I will not stop the pen. I just go. And go. I’m sure that I look busy when I’m writing. I’m 100% sure I don’t look like I want to talk with anyone. And yet. And YET.

Several times in the last few months, I have had white men, both young and old, attempt to talk with me while I was writing. One said, after watching my pen moving rapidly across the page for a while, “Can I ask you a question?” I did not stop moving my pen and said “Not right now.” But even though I kept writing, of course, it very much interrupted my flow. It took me a while to pick my thought back up.

Another one, sitting next to me on a café bench at an adjacent table where I had been sitting and writing for 40 minutes, says, almost right into my ear, “Are you journaling?” And fury passed through me as I paused to turn and tell him “No” and attempted to resume.

Why on earth does someone think a woman busy on her own, clearly engaged with a task, wants to be interrupted? Never once has a woman interrupted me to ask an invasive question or start up a conversation. Nor has any man of color. Everyone but white dudes seems to respect my personal space and engagement.

The good news is that there is literally no activity that I am more protective of than writing. I guard my time to do it. I protect it with ferocity – so if some dude happens to intrude, I don’t fall into my usual patterns of being nice or compliant. If you interrupt me, I will not be polite.

This is also the gift of aging. I do not give any fucks about making men feel alright for being assholes. Not anymore.

But it continues to astonish me that even in personal space NYC, where we all more or less leave each other alone, dudes can take me being busy doing something as an invitation.

I suppose it is the activity equivalent of wearing headphones – and lord knows, despite sending a million signals that a woman doesn’t want to be bothered, she gets bothered anyway. I’m thinking of that article about how to talk to girls with headphones on. And the answer of course is – you shouldn’t. Unless you want to talk with a really pissed off woman.

Understanding that not all space is your space is a hard one for the white boys who are used to feeling welcome everywhere. But it is essential for not getting a pen through the eye one day when I’m really in flow and pissed off that you’ve disrupted it. To avoid a pen in the eye…no talking, dude. If you absolutely must talk to me, you can pass me a note. But I’d rather you didn’t.


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Doing ONE thing is a Privilege
May 24, 2016, 12:56 am
Filed under: art, business | Tags: , , , , ,

While listening to the Note to Self podcast the other day, I heard the guest promote an idea that I have heard promoted many times before. The expert on the show suggested that the way to achieve success is to choose one goal and only focus on that. His thesis was that multi-focus was impossible and only one goal would do.

This is a popular theme in business literature or self-help guides – pick one thing and focus on it to the exclusion of all else. And it makes me a little bit crazy. I like to follow good advice. I see the value in having a uni-focus. And yet I have tried it and it is not possible for me. I don’t think it is possible for the vast majority of American artists.

You ask me to pick one thing – I pick Art. Every time. But if I pick art to the detriment of everything else, I end up broke and in debt. Every time. I do not have the privilege of being able to devote everything to my art. I must split my focus. I have to devote PART of my attention to making a living. And I also happen to have to split that day job focus in three because neither of the three ways I make a living pays enough to actually add up to a living.

I am not multi-focused because I’m flighty and scattered. I am multi-focused because I have to be.

Sometimes people assume that because I do so many different things that I must not take them all seriously. That if I have many identities, they must all be at half-mast. (i.e. I’m not a REAL theatre artist, not a REAL Shakespeare consultant, not a REAL Feldenkrais practitioner, not a REAL writer.) And I suppose the preponderance of this belief in the ONE GOAL Philosophy is why I sometimes fear they’re right. But – my recent discovery of the multi—potentialite movement gives me some assurance that it is indeed possible to be good at many things. And that it needn’t be only out of necessity. The man who is a child psychologist and a luthier, for example, is likely not in a position wherein he NEEDS that second specialization. He can be an amazing psychologist AND an amazing luthier. I can see how those two professions might compliment one another, in fact.

Would the ONE GOAL-ers suggest that he quit one to focus on the other? Probably – but I’m not sure that would be the right thing to do.

In my case, I don’t have the privilege of quitting. The one thing it would be possible to quit without major consequence is the one thing I will never quit – never not ever. And I find ways to integrate one thing into another. It all gets into my artistic work, no matter what it is, or how.

Focusing on One Thing is a privilege that I hope that I get to experience one day. I know my work would benefit from being able to give it my full attention, all the time…but in the meantime, I find it more helpful to look to the multi-potentialite community to help me make my crazy multi-focused life work. Their strategies are the ones that will actually apply to my life as it is now rather than the one goal life I can only imagine.


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Writing on the internet is a little bit like busking on the street. This is the part where I pass the hat. If you liked the blog and would like to give a dollar (or more!) put it in the PayPal digital hat.

“It had been years since I really experienced fear.”

I write in cafes and while I mostly mind my own business, sometimes I can’t help but overhear my fellow coffee drinkers, especially when they’ve got their meetings turned up to CONFIDENT!

This particular meeting involved two men in super fashionable slick outfits. They were talking about buying businesses. I think. I wasn’t paying close attention. But then I heard the tall one in the leather jacket tell the other one a story about being in a shaking airplane and feeling afraid. It gave him an epiphany and he realized that it was the first time he’d experienced fear in years. He took this experience as a mandate to take more risks, to find ways to challenge himself. All very sensible. Of course.

I was struck, however, by the profound sense of privilege that there was in that statement about fear.

First, almost every woman I know experiences fear on a fairly regular basis, just walking home at night or riding the subway or walking down the street. I don’t know many women who could say they hadn’t experienced fear in years.

Second, if you’re a person of color in this country, your likelihood of being confronted by the police is so great, I cannot imagine how you could avoid experiencing fear often. Just walking home from work you could be shot for being black. You could be beat up in Alabama just for being Indian. That’s some fear.

Third, if you don’t have enough money, fear is an almost daily experience as well. “Will I make rent this month?” “What if that one gig falls through?” “What if I get sick? Will my family still be able to eat?”

In other words, the absence of fear is one of the great privileges, perhaps the greatest. And not one I’d considered before.

This tall, wealthy, white man in the café needs to FIND ways to experience fear. His life is so comfortable, he has to seek fear like a thrill. He has to court it because it is not ever-present in his daily life.

It occurs to me that maybe a guy like this is able to accomplish so much, not just due to the privileges afforded to him by wealth, race and gender, but due to the absence of fear. He can do a lot with the security that a life with nothing to fear in it gives him.

I thought, you know, it’s too bad this guy can’t step into the shoes of any of the people who regularly experience fear. It might save him some money in thrill seeking. Why pay for skydiving lessons when you can just walk down the street?



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Artists with paint on their shoes

I am sitting in a cafe with a cappuccino, trying to write. I am fighting the usual fight, trying to find the thread I want to follow, the one that will give something back. I’m on the precipice of finding that thread when two young women come in and sit close by. They have loud voices and are happy to speak at volume despite the fact that they are the only people talking. Which is fine, it just means I can’t help but listen.
One of them is a visual artist, a painter, it seems, though she does not sound like a painter. She sounds like a stockbroker’s girlfriend to me. She’s got a sorority girl’s cadence and tone. She’s enthusiastic and, it sounds like, very successful as an artist. She’s organizing high profile events. She’s been interviewed by many publications. I hear her tell the woman who’ll be producing/curating her next show that she can basically guarantee 200-300 people at anything she does. She says this is because she brings a ton of press.
In her mouth, phrases like “post impressionist” and “lyrical abstraction” sound odd but it’s clear she has an MFA and is a darling of the art scene. Which is great for her, I’m sure, and probably her work is wonderful, but I confess that hearing this woman talk makes me long for the people I think of as “real artists.” I can’t help constructing a narrative in which this woman was raised in a privileged environment, encouraged with materials and lessons and able to pay every penny of her exorbitant MFA tuition and now, she’s a bona fide high profile artist, ooh Mama!
I’m hearing her talk and I’m longing for the painters I knew in the past – the ones with paint on their shoes, with their hands stained, with their hats pulled down over their eyes to shield them from the brightness or darkness of the world. It makes me long for a painter I knew who put a paintbrush through his canvas several times from the frustration of trying to make a better painting. That painter took on an administrative job to pay his bills. Then, about 7 years ago, killed himself. I’m not saying he killed himself because he worked in an office or even because he was a frustrated artist. That would be gross over-simplification of a complicated situation, but I miss that painter. And the painters of his school.
This woman whose voice is echoing through the cafe, though clearly passionate about her work, doesn’t strike me as someone who would ever have paint on her shoes. She’s a publicity machine. She’s a good hostess, a creator of events. It seems likely to me that she paid her own way through the channels of the art world.
And I fear that this is the art world now. That there are no more painters with paint on their shoes in the places compensate them.
And I extrapolate and fear the it is the same in every art now. The ones who are thriving are ones who could afford to bring the party, who could spend all their time painting/taking class/dancing/singing and never had to make a living on the side.
It felt like a warning, this eavesdropped conversation. It said, if something isn’t done, all artists will be like this. Art will be (or is it already?) for the rich, the privileged, the endowed.

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