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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(Not My) Morning Pages

A fellow artist spotted me in the local coffee shop with my notebook and pen and said, “You’re doing your morning pages?”

Now, I knew what he was talking about and if you’ve read The Artist’s Way, so do you. I read The Artist’s Way in 1996 and it had a profound effect on me. I was fresh out of college, working at my third acting job and had just realized that being an actor was not only going to be really fucking hard but was also not going to be enough for me artistically. The Artist’s Way was my first step toward creating my own work. Along with Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones, it started me writing every day and I have held tightly to that practice ever since.

What’s interesting to me about being asked if I’m doing my morning pages is how I definitely don’t think of what I’m doing that way. Now, just as Julia Cameron (author of The Artist’s Way) would suggest, I write a bunch of nonsense every day. Pages of it. Just blah, blah, blah, journal, diary type “the weather’s beautiful, the weather’s awful” shit. But, I now think of these pages as clearance. When I write pages of nonsense, I’m just clearing the decks. It’s like stretching before the game, not the game itself.
And the thing itself can evolve out of the garbage that spills out of the pen at first. Sometimes in expressing my fury at the theatre business, for example, a little blog post is born.

Eventually, actual writing can emerge out of the compost I turn over when I begin. I can turn up stories or plays or ideas that lead to new projects out in the world. But what is most important to me is the discipline of sitting down and getting to the writing. And I have created a great many structures for myself to keep my head in the game, to keep tending the garden, even when I’m tempted to just keep raking the compost.

It goes like this: I clear the decks. (practice inspired by Julia Cameron and Natalie Goldberg.) I make a list of images (practice inspired by Lynda Barry.) I write in response to a line from Hamlet (a practice that leads to a whole lot of nonsense and the occasional short story) and then I get to ten minutes of timed writing on the thing I’m “really” working on. This is sometimes a play. Or a novel. Or a short story. And it comes last because it is the meat of the matter. I put myself in a number of funny arrangements just to get to those highly concentrated ten minutes. And while this ever-evolving, patchwork practice has been inspired by a great many writers, it is tailored to me and mine.

Sometimes it all strikes me as a little silly – all these structures just to create a something every day but then I think: this is the REAL work of the artist. The work isn’t the stuff that gets seen, although that’s lovely. It is the creating of structures in your life to allow yourself to create. The creating part is easy when you’ve got the right conditions. The real challenge is laying the groundwork to have the right conditions on a regular basis. And really, you can call that whatever you want. Morning Pages. Wild Mind. The Bones. Art. Whatever.

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