Oh, that green-eyed monster, envy

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Hello everyone,

If you’re like me, you fervently hope that your work will be recognized by an audience. When you’re making your artistic work you do it partly, yes, for the creative expression; and you also do it partly for having your work recognized by an audience, by having it published/shown/purchased/displayed.

And when one of my friends or colleagues has their work published or selected for an honor, I’m really happy for them. But – sometimes – I’m also feeling a little sad, like I didn’t measure up to the same standard, that I’ll never achieve success, that my work will languish in the darkness of never-read, never-viewed work.

And yet I so often forget about the relative success I have enjoyed! What’s up with that?

What have I done? I’ve achieved an M.F.A. in Creative Writing. I’ve written three novels. I’ve written countless stories. I’ve had my work published in professional-level fiction markets – recently!. Not only that, but I regularly receive compliments on my work in the form of personal rejections from submission editors.  “We like your writing, we just couldn’t use this story.” I have a blog that connects me with other writers and artists who are pursuing their own artistic paths, who share suggestions and encouragement for writing and art processes, and who often take the time to read and respond to my blog posts. All achievements, all successes.

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We are wired to compare ourselves to the next person. Last year I read a helpful article in the New York Times about how to diffuse the intense envy that comes from learning of the success of someone close to you. The research indicates that yes, it does hurt more when the success is for someone you know well, friend or family member; isn’t that interesting? The suggestion to counteract the sting of this personal form of envy was to reflect on your own path and how it has been different from the successful person’s path. So, for instance, if one of my fellow MFA colleagues published a memoir and he seems to be getting rave reviews and large-audience book reading events (as happened recently), following the suggestion in this article I might say to myself, “Yes, that’s great that he’s finally got his book published, hooray! And even better that it isn’t just sinking into oblivion, that’s wonderful . . . and unlike him, remember, you have a Ph.D. in engineering, a successful and happy relationship with spouse, children, and extended family, not to mention the work you’ve been doing recently as a community and neighborhood activist. Making a difference. Along with all that you’re getting somewhere with your own writing!” And indeed that helps me to feel much less like a failure and much more forgiving of my friend’s success.

As an aside, if you’re like me, it’s temping to think that you’re running out of time, that if you don’t achieve X success by Y date, you’ll never make it. Well, I read another article recently about research indicating that the “big discovery” or the “big achievement” in well-known accomplished people’s lives has come at all different points in their career; not necessarily at the outset, not necessarily when they are toward the end of their career, not necessarily in the middle. That Big Success can happen at any time along the way! So, even if like me you’re in a later phase of your artistic career without having won a distinguished award or having seen the success you are hoping for yet, that does not mean you won’t achieve an amazing accomplishment down the road!

And of course, we’re at our most envious when the other person’s achievement hits home, when they have a success that is exactly the kind of success we are hoping for: a published book, the sales record of a best-seller, a particular award or honor that is the same field as our own work. Right? But a good friend always reminds me, “When you’re feeling super-envious, that only points to the thing that is most important to you.”

So, in this early part of the year, perhaps you’ll take a moment, like me, to remember that that “ouch” point of another person’s success is like a compass pointing to the thing we want most. And then, we might take a moment to reflect on what we have already accomplished, and remind ourselves of the successes we have already achieved. And if you’re feeling particularly hopeful, perhaps you’ll take a moment to imagine that “big success” that may still be ahead in your artistic career. Woo hoo!

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I have a friend who tells me he really enjoys the little flash pieces when I post them. This week I did a small flash in my “word improvisations” that I wanted to share. Here’s it is!

When the sea curls its granite lip

The poem found itself gleaning, gleaning, what was in the poet’s mind. Turbulence, seagulls, fortresses. Foundational elements of poetry. Meter and rhyme.

And yet detritus, so much detritus in among the salient bits. Robert Hass’s book is somewhere on my bookshelf, where did I see it last, I would like a clubhouse sandwich for lunch but I’m hungry now. Where did that pen go, I only want to use my good pen, my lucky pen, the pen I used for that last poem that the New Yorker almost took, but that pen seems to have disappeared. Oh, now the dog has come in, she needs a walk but I won’t get anything done if I take her out now, old Mrs. Pendleton waters her lawn at this time of the morning and she stands there with the hose hoping people will walk by and she can corner them and talk to them about the city’s inability to pave the streets properly and hasn’t she been here since 1949 and they should know that there is a law about citizens being served properly by city government since her husband was a city attorney for many years before he died in that awful plane accident and left her a widow with only her schoolteacher’s salary to raise four boys on, and do they ever call her or see how she’s doing? Not a one, those ungrateful boys-turned-men who married women that moved them out of state and for all she knows there are grandchildren now who she’s never put eyes on thanks to those women with their cutting-remark eyes and avaricious tendencies, but she was only a widow who did her best, including doing her best for all the students in her classroom who didn’t follow rules but made her life more difficult, not easier, as a teacher in the schools, where did the discipline go, where did it all go away, once they took away juvenile hall and detention everything went to pot, but now all she has is this house and the unevenly paved streets the city should have taken care of long ago and not only that, there was this cat that hung out, peed in her garden and killed her vegetables, must have belonged to the new neighbors who look like they moved here from out of the country and she’s not saying anything against them but you can tell things have changed since they moved in.

And now the poem is writing itself, all about xenophobia but not in a direct way, the poet using the pen that is not her lucky pen but just her second-choice pen lying next to the desk lamp and the white-white watercolor paper she salvaged from the kids’ art class when they were still in school, no need to let it go to waste, and the poem spools itself out over white textured paper as though it were the watercolor paint spilling, spreading, falling into microscopic crevices prepared for paint.

Ah, the poem thinks, this is the life, this is really the life, spilling and falling like a waterfall, like the enormous waterfall pictured in so-and-so’s blog that the poet viewed yesterday, the poem can feel the fluidity of movement in the words, the vocab the poet is trying out, juxtaposition of words that is a thrill all its own, and then and then and then the final sweeping phrase, the turn at the end that cinches it, the feel of cleverness that is not too cloying, and the poem breathes, breathes, breathes until it is closed and the draft is done and the poet sits back and smiles. Smiles because there is something new that was never there before and it has taken the form of poetry and movement and a waterfall despite there being no water in sight. A good day.

Take care and good writing,

Theresa

The New Year’s Resolution – or not?

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Hello everyone,

This time of year really entices you into thinking of renewal. Maybe it’s the dark-dark well of Dec. 21st, the shortest day of the year, reminding us that when we round the corner of the solstice in late December we do see light beginning to come back into our days. For some reason I noticed the bleak feeling of the absence of the sun on Dec. 21st this year more than I have before. It might have been my late-afternoon walk with my son that brought me right up against the darkening air around me. At our latitude here in Seattle we get the sun setting around 4 pm at its earliest, where I noticed in Arizona where I was born the sun seems much more forgiving, setting as late as another hour or so beyond what we have here. Not only that, but we have had some blustery rainy storms (yay!) in the past couple of weeks that I’ll be remembering with fondness when we get to summer’s blistery 85- and 90-degree days without rain next August.

So. New Year’s resolutions. This time of year we get lots of media attention on changing our habits. In this morning’s paper I noticed articles on how to diet better, how to exercise more, how to get things done around the house, how to be more productive at work. January is the month for aspirations, for expectations, for hoping that things will be better. Isn’t it? How often we are asked, “Do you have any New Year’s resolutions?” And just as often we suspect that making a New Year’s resolution is just the first step to failure in whatever we have resolved to do.

I’m not sure how you like to think about New Year’s resolution, but a few years back I shuffled off the idea of resolutions and instead thought: what would I like to have more of this year? At that time I said to myself, I want more humor in my life. As it turned out, that year (2014? 2015?) I did succeed in laughing more, in paying more attention to the amusing, or the bemusing, rather than to the “must-dos.”

“Evolving Wing and the Gravity of Presence,” Eric Robertson, Seattle City Hall Lobby, Photo by Theresa Barker.

This year I was thinking about a new theme for the year. Here’s what I came up with: I’d like to try being more mindful (hah!), to enjoy the experiences around me, to take the time away from the “must-dos” and to dabble in the “would be nice to do”s. As far as my writing goes, I am in the process of learning, really learning, what it takes to be a novelist. This sounds strange, yes, partly because I have already written a couple of novels previously, and also because, don’t we all think if you know how to write, that’s all it takes. But there’s more to it, I’m discovering. With a story you can hold the entire plot in your head and write in out, usually, in a few days. After having spent the past three years writing short stories, editing and sending them out, and having a few published, I feel like I know HOW to write a story. But a book takes much more. It is an endeavor that brings you out into a vast sea of scenes, characters, subplots, developments, description, dialogue, and on and on. You may be paddling around in a rowboat – or a kayak – touching base here and there with your oars, now coming to an island or a long sand spit where you can pause temporarily, figure out where you are, get your bearings, and then you have to set out again into the borderless waves. I’m learning to do this. It may take the entire year, or longer – and it puts me in a place of uncertainty and questioning of my skills and ability – but I’m also looking forward to the journey!

Here is an excerpt of some of my writing this week!

The adobe house with the tin roof

Her grandmother had left Vivian the house in her will. She thought she didn’t want it. But she went to the town to take a look at the house before making a decision about what to do with it.

When she came into the village, the first thing she saw was the newly refurbished downtown. In her mind she remembered the last time she had visited, was it ten years ago? Back then the shops downtown along the Main Street were all sadly in need of repair, half of them empty, and the ones still occupied were nearly mordant. Now she saw a  brightly decent hardware store, a crafty bakery. The old diner had been spruced up, and the Main Street was bookended by two brewpubs.

She turned left onto 4th and drove the three blocks to her grandmother’s house. As she came toward the end of the block where her grandmother’s house sat, Vivian winced inwardly. She prepared herself for shabby, rundown.Yet the houses she passed were brightly painted, the yards decked out with cactus and succulent plants. Everything looked done up and cozy. Where had this miracle come from?

When she came to the end of the block she slowed the car and pulled over to the curb. There it was, the white-gray adobe exterior she remembered, complete with green baize canopy over the front door to shade the entrance. The paint was peeling, yes, around the window frames, starting to split and curl where the wood had not been properly maintained. Perhaps the only hope for the house she could see was the front door, the bright green-Irish color gleaming amid the dull-dishwater color of the house itself. It was strange that the door should still be in such good shape given the neglect that the rest of the house had sustained, but there it was.

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But when she stepped out of her car, when she saw that friendly welcoming front door greet her, Vivian found herself stepping onto the porch with warm remembrances of her grandmother’s baking and gardening. She could almost smell the hot biscuits her grandmother used to make. She took out the key from the envelope sent by the estate attorney and slid it into the lock above the ornate wrought-iron door handle. It went in smoothly, as though she belonged her.

She swung open the door and stepped inside.

Wide-slabbed hardwood floors. Open-beamed ceilings. She walked through the little hallway to the kitchen, which had Mexican-ceramic tiles on the floor and painted-ceramic tiles on the counters, still in good condition, from what she could see. She remembered wonderful times of baking in this kitchen. She caught a glimpse out the kitchen window of the little garden her grandmother used to keep, or the remnants of it. Yes, it was weedy and overgrown, but the outlines of the vegetable garden on the right and the flower garden on the left tugged at her heart. Her grandmother had spent many afternoons watering and caring for those little plants that grew in her garden and it had been a treasure to have the fresh vegetables in the oven and fresh flowers on the table. She turned back to the interior of the house. The familiar feeling of the rooms surprised her. It was almost like the house was haunted, or un-haunted. The house was putting on its best effort to keep her here.

Take care and good writing,

Theresa

So you want to be a writer

Photo by Theresa Barker.

Hello everyone,

Last week my spouse and I were driving on a short road trip north of Seattle. Having nothing to do in the car but pass the time, I started talking to him about what started me as a writer.  Confession time: I have had an on-again, off-again relationship with writing. It’s complicated by a huge amount of perfectionism (hah!). But now, as I was remembering back to my youth, I recognized that there had been a kernel of hope and heart for becoming a writer when I was very young.

When I was young we had a couple of neighbor girls a few years older than me who babysitted me and my younger sister. They told me: You should write books! I was flattered, of course, but I said to myself: But I can’t even finish a story of my own! Yes, I was a reader. I read constantly, even in bed, especially in bed under the covers with a flashlight – how many of you did the same? Yes, I told long and detailed stories in our make-believe games after school with other kids on our block. But write a book? I couldn’t even imagine how I would get started.

As I started to tell my “story of writing” to my husband in the car, hurtling past mountains up by Bellingham and past the clear blue water of Lake Samish, as I floated back into the past and talked about how I didn’t think I could be a writer when I was young, I suddenly realized that I shouldn’t feel ashamed of believing that I couldn’t write, even when others encouraged me. Perhaps they could see what I could not.

It’s a funny thing that one feels ashamed as a child of what you cannot do. I have these wonderful gem-memories of the times when a teacher inspired me about my writing, or encouraged me to become a writer. At the same time I have feelings of futility, of not being able to do it. Another name for this is “Imposter Syndrome,” right? – When you’re afraid everyone will find out you really can’t do it (whatever it is they think you can do).

This week I had a chance conversation with an acquaintance who told me, hesitantly, that they hoped to write a book someday, a children’s book, or another book. Usually this is just wishful thinking (sorry!) but this person seemed very sincere and I thought she might have good stories to tell. I always try to be encouraging, especially if it’s a young person. Maybe because I didn’t have a good way to break down how-to-be-a-writer when I was young, and that stymied me for many years (“you just start writing,” right? hah!). So I told her I’d put together a few “starter” writing books and resources for her to take a look at.

There’s a ton of “how-to” writing books out there. I know, I’ve read a lot of them! Most of them are very prescriptive – they tell you how to plot, how to devise characters using bio worksheets, how to amp up the tension, etc. But that doesn’t work so well for me. And it took me many years to figure that out. Disclaimer: external plotting, outlining, character worksheets, index-card scene designs, all work for SOME people. So if that’s you, hurrah! But, also, it helps to figure out what YOU need, which may not be what someone else is telling you to do.

Photo by Theresa Barker.

Here are a few suggestions for books I’d recommend to my younger self, if I had the chance:

  1. Steering the Craft, by Ursula K. Le Guin. This wonderful book is accessible in its content, but it also goes “beyond the obvious” in lessons about storytelling, characterization, and the rich richness of language that Le Guin always brought to her writing. She includes wonderful exercises to try, and if you can do them with a friend-writer, even better!
  2. “On Writing” books by authors like Stephen King; Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott; If You Want to Write by Brenda Ueland and Becoming a Writer by Dorothea Brande. Here’s my caveat about these and other “how to write” books – take them ALL with a grain of salt. If their words speak to you, great! Pay attention and gobble up every word. If, however, they seem to be off the mark, set them down and look for others. Life is too short to spend time trying to fit yourself into the mold of another writer’s process!
  3. If you’re looking for nitty-gritty craft “starter books,” you can’t go wrong checking out Writer’s Digest books. I’ve found a lot of value in their catalog over the years. Again, if the information in those books is helpful, great! If not, then move on. (Don’t forget, Writer’s Digest publishes Writer’s Market, updated every year with thousands and thousands of short story and novel markets, and agent contacts.

AND: for writing inspiration, don’t forget to read books by authors whose writing you’d like to emulate. Getting their words steeped into your brain, noticing what they do with dialog, with description, with character development; with beginnings and endings and middles; with titles and the mere flow of language. It’s gold!

Here is a little something I wrote from a poetry prompt recently, after reading the beautiful poem “Listen. Put on Morning,” by W. S. Graham . I discovered this poem from the Poetry Foundation’s “Poem of the Day” email list. If you haven’t checked it out yet, go on over to their website and take a look!

Listen. Put on morning. You’ll wear those pinks, those pale blues, with such aplomb. You were made to be on the horizon, you were made to fly along the rainbow. Put on the morning sadness, the morning feasting, the morning that you knew you were a foreigner. Think of French bread, think of croissants, think of the one center of raspberry jam that you know fills the filling of a pie. Of jam. Of a biscuit-scone of the State Fair. Think of how much you love butter, melted butter on hot toast, and of how much you have to give. How much you are looking forward to the next time you are gone.

Listen. Put on morning. You’ll feel much better later.

Take a little biscuit, go out on the patio, with a cup of tea, and make your day start over. Put on morning.

Take care and good writing,

Theresa

“Artist Dates” – good idea or waste of time?

Photo by Theresa Barker.

Hello everyone,

If you’ve ever read Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way, you’ll be familiar with Cameron’s advice to regularly take time to do something that interests you – but that is not directly part of the work you are doing as an artist. If you’re a musician, a painter, a photographer, a poet, or a writer, the Artist Date is doing anything fun or interesting that is not writing a new song, applying paint to a canvas, looking through a camera lens, putting words on paper, whatever you do in your art practice. The idea is to give yourself a new perspective, to gather new material, to have experience that may fuel a future creative effort, even if you can’t see how it will fit.

If you’re like me, you probably think, “What a great idea. I should do this more.” But then, you get busy with your art – writing, making music, photography, painting – not to mention Life – preparing food, caring for family members, working to pay the bills – and it’s all you can do to just make a few pieces of art around all the other tasks you have to do. It feels awkward to take time that you could be using for art and do something else.

Experimenting with nanowrimo last month, being intensely focused on writing a couple of thousand words each day, I felt that same reluctance to go out for an Artist Date. But I also knew it would help make my art more magical, more engaging, more interesting, if I did.

In Seattle we have a lovely place called the Japanese Garden. Oh my gosh, this is a special place. Toward the end of November on a cold Thursday morning I turned away from my desk, bundled up, and went over to walk through the garden, catching glimpses of bare-limbed trees and one amazing persimmon tree with small golden orbs of glistening fruit hanging from its branches. It was a gray day, but it felt delightful. Maybe one day those persimmons will turn up in a story I am writing!

If you’re like me and you’d like to experiment more with Artist Dates, here is one list of ideas: https://theartistswayblog.wordpress.com/2010/10/17/101-artists-date-ideas/. Meantime, here’s an excerpt of my writing from November that happens to be about a garden!

The garden was weedy and overgrown when we moved in. Charles wanted to pull it all out and get a landscaping company in to put in rocks and gravel pathways and a huge stone patio and things on the outside borders and things on the inside beds. I said No. We could not do such a thing to a garden before we had been there, before we had seen the light in the morning, the light at night, the seasons change, the way the leaves floated down and caressed the heather and foxglove. He frowned and pouted like he always does, but he did not hire the landscaper after all. He told me, you wanted to leave it as is, you deal with it. I did, gladly. In the fall I started with just a little tidy-up, trimming the brown branches that stuck into the lane between the rosebeds, raking the dusty pathway, speaking to the flowers and telling them how beautiful they were. Charles huffed. It wasn’t worth it to him. But it was to me.

I wish I could say our marriage lasted longer than the garden, but it wasn’t true. You’re thinking, after all that, she left Charles, or asked him to leave, and she stayed in the garden. Didn’t she stay in the garden? She loved it so much! But no. Charles was a professor, he was a literary man, and he met another literary woman at a conference who turned out to be the woman he left me for. He left me. Don’t cry. He got to have a downtown condo penthouse in Chicago with his woman and I got to stay in the garden.

Take care and good writing,

Theresa

 

Daily life Part 8 – more thoughts about art

Back from vacation now, here are two more prints from our hotel room wall.  What do you think of these?  I tried to like the clown painting (on the right), but it just made me feel sad and wistful.  A clown with hand pressed to temple, thinking . . . perhaps dreaming of what he’d rather be doing than acting as a clown.  I liked the tulips painting more (on the left), especially for its simplicity; no individual petals on the tulip blossoms, just the round-egg shapes of the blooms, with leaves and blooms arching everywhere.  It seemed a calm painting, very stable and reassuring.  How about you?

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To those who have encouraged me to post more of my own sketches, thank you!  I’m including three more sketches below … (left to right) spiderweb & leaf, sandstone rock formation, and scraps of paper.  The spiderweb is not as successful as I’d hoped, but I thought I’d include it to demonstrate a “failure.”  I enjoyed making it, even though it’s not the end result I wanted . . .  we learn from failures, right?

My grandmother was an artist, and she told me that when she was in her 20s, she painted lampshades, for a living, in her  town in Iowa.  She moved to Arizona when she was a young mother, and I’m fortunate to have received several paintings from her when she passed away,  most all illustrating the desert Southwest.  I feel lucky to have them on my walls!  When I’m sketching, I can almost feel what it might have been like for her to draw and paint all her life.

Have a wonderful weekend!

Daily Life Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6 | Part 7