Make Good Art

I’m a leaf on the wind, watch how —

Wash, Serenity

When I die, I hope my last words are memorable. You know, something clever or haunting, not anything silly like ‘turnip’. Doesn’t quite have the same ring to it as “I go to seek a Great Perhaps”, does it? If I had the chance to choose, I think I’d go with darkly comedic, like Henrik Ibsen: His nurse turns to him, lying in his sickbed, and says, ” ‘You seem to be feeling better this morning,’ and Ibsen looks at her and says, ‘On the contrary,’ and then he dies.”

If either of those sound familiar, you’re either inordinately fascinated with last-words, or a fan of John Green’s Looking for Alaska. I’m the latter, and if you are, too, then you probably know that mothers don’t react well when you start enthusiastically sharing peoples’ final words around the dinner table. My mother certainly wasn’t what you’d call pleased. And when my stories picked up darker moods – venturing into abuse, rape, mental disorders, and the like – I’m sure she started having the most pleasant dreams about chopping Looking for Alaska into little pieces and feeding them to the neighbor’s cat.

I don’t blame her. The shades-of-grey, wrenching-your-gut, sides of life are certainly disturbing and morbid, but I never thought it was horrible or silly to write about them, and I certainly never thought it was negative to contemplate death. I think it makes you live more fully. That said, all I’ve ever been able to give to that vague term is a connect-the-dots outline. Death is a stranger shrouded, something and someone and someplace that I can only draw a hazy silhouette of. Death is commonplace, and death is outrageous, and death is something expected, and something shocking. There’s no doubt it exists, there’s no doubt that we all have a little expiration date tattooed in our blood, and yet we never expect it to hit anywhere close to home.

My grandmother died this week, and I didn’t see it coming.

I had just come home from the airport, I’d been in the house for maybe 2 hours, when the call came. I was holding the remote, about to play the 2nd episode of Young Justice, begging my mom to ignore the phone, grumbling when I heard it was from India. I was busy being absurdly frustrated that this stupid cartoon about superhero sidekicks kept getting interrupted, when my mother started crying. The timing was so ridiculous, so comical, I almost laughed. Imagine this: a family gathered around the kitchen table, sobbing, holding each other, and in the background is Boy Wonder’s face, frozen on the line “Why isn’t anyone ever just whelmed?”

It was insane. I’m still not sure that night really happened. It feels more like a seriously shitty movie sequence. Shells of us went to bed, got up, kept going, but I don’t think that it was until my neighbor knocked on the door just to give us a bowl of plums that our bodies gained any substance. Paraphrased to the best of my ability, she said:

When someone dies, you don’t understand how the world can still be spinning. Your existence has been shattered, but the sun is still rising. There are still cars speeding by, the same mundane shows are on TV…and, you get a little angry. You want to yell at them, shake them, ask them what the hell they’re doing. STOP. Someone just died. This is important.

But I also think that’s what saves you, in the end. The world’s gonna keep going, and so must you.

Her simple words captured the confusion and sadness we were feeling in a way symbols and metaphors can only dream to do. So, I’ve kept going. I ate, I cried, I ran (literally, not emotionally, I promise). And, most importantly, I wrote – this and other things.

This, I’ve written to help excise my thoughts. I’ve written this to send out a heartstring to anyone else out there, hurting. The lump may not go away, but maybe it shouldn’t; if you’re on artist, you can always tug on it – and if you’re not, then it’s a way to keep a memory, to sow it into the heart of you.

And I’ve written this because, what else do I do? I can’t bring her back. Crying can only do so much. So, I’m practicing what I preach. I’m making art. And I’ve found – I can now attest to it – that it helps. Every word you put in front of the other is a little step forward. I’ve said it once, and I’ll say it again:

Put one foot in front of the other
And soon you’ll be walking ‘cross the floor.
You put one foot in front of the other
And soon you’ll be walking out the door.

You never will get where you’re going
If ya never get up on your feet.
Come on, there’s a good tail wind blowin’
A fast walking man is hard to beat.

– Santa Clause is Coming to Town

Curing Writer’s Block

writers-block_Joanne

 

Writer’s Block.
Why does something so insidiously paralytic have such an innocuous name? If it hadn’t been something my teachers warned us about and we all lamented over since elementary school, I don’t know what definitions my brain would have jumped to…a tool only gifted to the most prestigious of writers? A kung fu move reserved for literature buffs? (See what I did there.) An incurable condition? (Alternatively, the real reason why it strikes fear into the hearts of parents worldwide?) Or…
Writers-Block_Calvin

…an…actual…block?

*sigh*
I wish it were that simple. The incurable condition definition comes pretty darn close.
Despite our sincerest prayers, you, me, and every person on the planet who has ever had to put together any body of words coherently has suffered an orgy of writer’s block. (No, not the fun kind.) On top of that, there’s no incantation, no magic pill, no decongestant that can *poof* make it disappear. There’s no tool, no weapon, no element to burn it off. The only way I’ve ever succeeded in curing my writer’s block is by finding some way, any way, to write anyways. So, here are some ideas:

Stream-of-consciousness:
As a thought bubbles up in your brain, write it down – everything from my arm itches to what if the dinosaurs aren’t dead. One thing about writers (okay, people in general…) – we’re really self-judgmental. Just because it feels like you have no thoughts, doesn’t mean you actually don’t have any; what’s more likely  is that you think all the thoughts are bad and unworthy of being written down. Sure, you don’t see any interesting directions in which your sparks can grow, but maybe that’s just because your thoughts are disorganized. So, write it all out, and piece it together later, like a puzzle.

Find a Muse:
This one’s another classic. Take a phrase, idea, song, question, title, character, era, and use it as your personal Muse – an inspirational prompt. If you can’t think of any, ask Google, a friend, a teacher, or just ask WordPress!

Repeat a Word:
Andandandandandandandandandandandandandandandandandand eventually your brain will come up with some other word to follow. Before you know it, you’ll have a sentence. And then another. And another.

Microfiction:
Finish a story. Any story. I don’t care how long it is – maybe all you got is that some chick named Jill tumbled down a hill. Cool, write it. Then write another, and another, as many as you can. Sure, maybe it’s not the bookshortstoryepicpoem you want, but what you’re doing is sowing seeds. Come back to them later; you never know what’ll spark your imagination – or that some of your little stories already interconnect!

Time it:
Sometimes, all you need is a deadline. That’s how I got any essays done in college whatsoever – a ticking clock and a burst of adrenaline will put words on paper.

Don’t Finish:
I know I get obsessive about ending my stories – if I can’t find some place for it to go, I might as well have accomplished nothing. Not true! Got a great opening scene? Put it down, and then send it to a friend. Let them pick at their brains for the next scene and send it back to you.
For the more private of writers, try it online: http://www.storytimed.com/

Eat a Kit-Kat:
Take a break.
But listen, this is important: COME BACK TO THE PAGE. This doesn’t mean banging your head on the same story you were working unsuccessfully on. Just come back, that day, and write anything. Otherwise, that short break can and will turn into a week – a month – or several months. And before you know it, the same frustration and insecurity that necessitated a break will now shell you out and make it even harder to come back to any page.

I’m not saying that any piece you write will turn into your masterpiece. But, it will stop you from becoming the Tin Man; it’ll keep your mind well-oiled. Remember, your brain is a muscle. It needs exercise like any other part of your body, so pick up a pen, or bring your fingers to that key board, and do anything you can to get your creative juices flowing.

Any ways you combat writer’s block? Comment below!!

The Blessed Unrest

MarthaGraham

There is a vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all of time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and it will be lost. The world will not have it. It is not your business to determine how good it is nor how valuable nor how it compares with other expressions. It is your business to keep it yours clearly and directly, to keep the channel open. You do not even have to believe in yourself or your work. You have to keep yourself open and aware to the urges that motivate you. Keep the channel open. … No artist is pleased. [There is] no satisfaction whatever at any time. There is only a queer divine dissatisfaction, a blessed unrest that keeps us marching and makes us more alive than the others.

– Martha Graham

If you didn’t feel the power, the sheer intensity, of those words, read them again. Read them until you feel it in your skin, hear it ringing through your bones, and when that thrilling surge of hope and motivation rises in you, don’t you dare listen to the little gremlin whispering in your ear, telling you doubt it all. It’s the curse of the artist, I think, to always have the questions: am I good enough? is this good enough? can I even decide that?

That’s where Martha Graham comes in.

No you can’t decide that. Don’t decide that. Take away the measuring stick, erase the line, drop the harness, run away from the world that you know, because the one in which you must write is boundless, incomprehensible, and free. This path you’re attempting to tread is not burdened with any measuring tools, any demarcation of “good” and “bad”.

Does it scare you, this world without rules? I understand: we grew up in systems of learning in which the sole measure of progress was a grade scale. How can I know whether I’m doing better than I did before without a gold star, an A on that paper, a smile of approval? How do I know that the way this sentence has fallen onto paper is right? It must feel like the ground has shifted, like you’re floating in some expanse of space where even the strictest rules of grammar are allowed to collapse in order to shape your expression, to fuel your creation. It’s like living on Earth without gravity: our most fundamental understanding of how the world works simply don’t exist.

So, what the hell do you do?

When you start out on a career in the arts you have no idea what you are doing. THIS IS GREAT. People who know what they are doing know the rules, and know what is possible and impossible.You do not. And you should not. The rules on what is possible and impossible in the arts were made by people who had not tested the bounds of the possible by going beyond them. And you can. If you don’t know it’s impossible, it’s easier to do. And because nobody’s done it before, they haven’t made up rules to stop anyone doing that again, yet.

– Neil Gaiman

Just write. Embrace all that you cannot know, and understand that you do not need to know it. There will always be that little gremlin. At the very least, it will keep us humble; if we’re not careful, yes, those questions will consume and debilitate us. I doubt that we can ever overcome it, but I also don’t think we ever should. Where would we be without it? The minute we think we have achieved, the minute that we are no longer pushed or pulled to keep writing, the minute our insides do not burn to put those words on paper, is the minute we can no longer write. What keeps you going, if not the fact that there is a story inside you that must be told?

We can never be good enough, not in our own eyes. But being perfect in our eyes isn’t the point. Don’t forget: “There is only one of you in all of time, [and your] expression is unique…if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and it will be lost. The world will not have it.’

In dimming your own light, you are being selfish. You are withholding vitality. Instead, embrace that unsettling sublimity, the blessed unrest that drives us. Don’t push away the pen, crumple the paper, slam the keyboard.

Keep the channel open.

Home Is Where the Art Is

It’s been thirteen days since my last post. Which has some odd poetry to it, because on that exact date in June, I turned my tassel from the right of my cap to the left, and finally put on my big-kid pants.

That’s right, I graduated.

Five days ago, Pauley Pavilion herded me out the door and put up a DO NOT ENTER sign, shutting me out as effectively as the clanging, tall metal doors of a fortress would. But, in all honesty, I barely felt its finality. Graduation shot over my head like that bouquet I’m sure to miss catching at your wedding, the significance and importance escaping me, to the point that my ‘special day’ felt more like a group decision to dress up in unattractive, faux-trash bags – just so we could say we did. The kick in the gut came two days later, when I moved out and the definition of ‘home’ officially changed.

If home is where the heart is, UCLA stole the show. That view from the rooftop of MS, the deliciousness of sticking my toes in the fountain at Jans Steps, the sorely-sought practice rooms in Shobo, the luxurious naps in Powell, Jans, Young, the Sunken gardens (you name it, I’ve slept there)…everything from the Beauty & the Beast mosaiced halls of Kerkhoff, to the ‘MAY LA FORCE BE WITH YOU’ pillar in Anderson, seeped into every crevice of my beating heart. That campus and the people I met there gave me one exhilarating, inspirational ride – pushing me to the very precipice of pursuing my dream. So many heartstrings of mine were unknowingly tied to those places that when I picked up my bags and pushed through the door, I didn’t expect the strain. I didn’t prepare for the tearing. I didn’t know how much hope and motivation I was leaving behind.

So, it’s been thirteen days since my last post. I’ve been a little too lost to write, a little too scared to write, a little nervous that this new, shelled creature I am no longer had the words to piece together. I had to build a new home for my heart, let its tendrils stretch out and grab something new. What I didn’t know, what I couldn’t have known till I’d dragged my fingers back to this keyboard, is that I didn’t have to look very far; in the middle of that whirl of pondering the Great Perhaps, I had forgotten the simple, powerful phrase that I based this blog on: MAKE GOOD ART. When you’re tired, when you’re sad, when you’re nervous, when you’re happy, when life is threatening to eat your insides out and tell you what you’re made of – MAKE GOOD ART. Lo and behold, all I had to do to sweep up that fear, send it on its way, push my fingers onto these keys and start.

So, I’d like to make an addendum to the old adage: Home is where the art is. I’m keeping this new heart in words.

I want very muc…

I want very much to tell, to talk about, the wholeness inside every human being. It’s a strange thing that every human being has a sort of dignity or wholeness in him, and out of that develops relationships to other human beings, tensions, misunderstandings, tenderness, coming in contact, touching and being touched, the cutting off of a contact and what happens then.

– Ingmar Bergman

Salinger

What really knocks me out is a book that, when you’re all done reading it, you wish the author that wrote it was a terrific friend of yours and you could call him up on the phone whenever you felt like it. That doesn’t happen much, though.

– J.D. Salinger