So as I was saying a moment ago (ahem), Des Moines. The Creative Capital workshop. The way I was cruelly forced to write down an artistic goal. I did, under extreme duress. “Nest,” I wrote, as my entire being shouted “How dare you think you could write a grocery list, much less a book?”
But I had no choice. I had to write down a goal, even if I had made it up that second because I had no experience in having goals. And then, bam, by January I had a chapbook manuscript that I was submitting to contests. By June it was the finalist in a contest. And by October it had won.
Yes I put in hours of labor, but in retrospect it feels like it just happened. Less drama than most of my life, and more ease. As the Creative Capital workbook states, “The act of recording goals…informs thoughts and actions and almost inexplicably [my emphasis] affects outcomes dramatically.” As the other workshop participants and I would put it when I’d run into them later: “Everything we talked about at that workshop magically came true.”
A couple of us got together to write more goals a few months ago. That hour has given me a sense of purpose for 2020. All I can figure about what works about this process is that the big hurdle in art is making something that doesn’t exist a tangible reality. And it’s not the artistic labor that does that–at last not at first. Setting a goal is what makes it a reality. All the rest, to some extent, is execution.
Have you been in suspense in the nearly full year since my last blog post about how my trip to Des Moines went?
Well, it was one of those days that has shaped the entire year to follow and perhaps more. I meant to give a full report of the Creative Capital workshop, reviewing my notes and everything, but instead I’ll just say that one of the exercises was to draft a proposal for an artistic project.
Sweating, I wrote “Nest” at the top of my paper and then “Nest is a book of essays exploring the meaning of home…”
Since then I’ve put together a manuscript and submitted it to five chapbook contests. It includes pieces that have been published, but I also wrote additional essays.
The other day I learned the manuscript is a semifinalist in one of the contests.
This summer I had literally been thinking, “Wouldn’t it be nice if something professionally exciting happened to me that required no effort on my part to make come about,” when BAM, my uber-talented friend Lauren Haldeman won an Iowa Artist Fellowship, which involves a free professional development workshop in Des Moines run by Creative Capital and, in the most Iowa turn of events ever (up there with one’s UPS man giving one a watermelon he’s grown), you can bring a friend.
She asked me, citing my artistic potential but also the fact that I’m “not annoying,” and I accepted, of course. Thanks, universe! And Lauren (who is often in cahoots with the universe).
The workshop is not until this weekend, but I feel like it’s already changed my life. For one thing, I had to fill out a self-assessment in which I estimated how much time I spend doing art. Here’s my current breakdown of my waking hours:
Family responsibilities: 64%
Job/earning money: 27%
Maintenance (chores) [which I took to mean separately from at home/with kids, like getting the oil changed, going to Costco, etc]: 4%
Leisure [like working out, date nights, etc]: 3%
Creative practice: 2%
Art administration (promotion, grants, career maintenance): 1%
Rest: 0% (LOL, what’s that?)
I’ve never quantified it before. But numbers are power; I feel that now I know I spend, for example, two hours a week writing, I could try to nudge it higher. And I also can recognize that there isn’t a lot of give in my schedule right now and lay off the self-criticism!
The same questionnaire asked me to write down three specific goals for the next three years. I came up with two: 1) write regularly, and 2) start a book project. Even just writing those down on a piece of paper, all alone with my green pen, before even discussing it with anyone, is empowering. It helps me think of myself differently.
And lastly, I had to write an artist statement. I’ve never had to do that before. I liked it so much that I’m going to share it here:
For many years now, when the moment for self-introduction in an interaction has arrived, I’ve said, “I work for a literary magazine.” If they already know that, or more is needed, I add, “I also write short essays…about my feelings.” I say this with a self-deprecating pause before “about my feelings” to acknowledge the common critique of creative nonfiction that it’s more self-indulgence or therapy than literature, but also to subvert that critique in a way, to admit and assert the importance of feelings. I’ve written about my father’s death, my husband’s medical condition, the double-sided coin of parental love and fear. Right now, holding down a job and raising two small children, my main task is finding the time and mental space and self-permission to write, but many projects large and small beckon from the horizon: a personal, literary, and cultural exploration of breastfeeding; an ethnography of clutter; an account of starting to learn Korean (my mother’s first language) at the age of 44, concurrently with my toddler son speaking his first words. I’m currently feeling my way through these situations and will hope to find connection with readers’ own feelings, especially the more complex and less easily expressed ones.
Off to Des Moines at 6 a.m. Saturday morning, then! I hope the workshop doesn’t involve role-playing, and I hope things at home aren’t too chaotic without me. (First overnight away from the two-year-old, eep!)
I added my 2017 writing to the “My Writing” page—one print publication, in Mid-American Review, and three essays published online, by Full Grown People, River Teeth, and Tin House.
Also some older pieces, from waaaaaay back in 2005 and 2006 (which, honestly, doesn’t seem that long ago to me).
I don’t know if I share this with all writers or just the super-neurotic ones (although, is there any other kind?), but I have this pretty much constant voice in the back of my head at all times saying “Shouldn’t you be writing?”
A few weeks ago, I got some good news: in one week, three of my short essays were accepted for publication at three different places. For a brief glorious moment, the voice was silenced, and I began to consider myself a Real Writer. But soon it was back again. “Those short pieces represent the sum total of your work for the past year—you need to generate more content!” [cracks whip]
Voice, you are a jerk.
I’ve been listening to a lot of podcasts in my car lately, ever since the election made NPR too traumatizing, and one of them is a series of Tara Brach‘s Buddhism and mindfulness lectures. One thing she talks about is how we think we’ll be happy when—when x, y, or z happens. Then if it somehow happens, we raise the bar and think, “I’ll be happy when…” and come up with something else.
And so our lives go by.
So I’m really trying to be happy with the present moment. Yes, happy with acceptances when they arrive, but happy when I’m rejected because it is a triumph to submit at all, happy when I can peck out a few sentences on my phone late at night, or happy even in the fact of not having time to write, what with my job and two small children Hoovering up every spare moment. Happy in particular when I am able to enjoy other people’s writing or other artistic efforts—they provide stimulation and variety during a time in my life that can seem limited in its horizons: work, home, work, home.
Some art I’m grateful to have experienced lately:
- Went to see a Mountain Goats show. Normally I agree with Nabokov’s sentiment: “Music, I regret to say, affects me merely as an arbitrary succession of more or less irritating sounds.” But when I am dragged to a performance by my music-fan partner, I often like it, sometimes love it. John Darnielle’s lyrics are intriguing, and they’re often memoiristic—they engage me as writing. And he has a riveting stage presence.
- The podcast Terrible, Thanks for Asking. It goes straight for the hard stories, the hard feelings. But somehow pulls humor out of them as well. I feel similarly about The Hilarious World of Depression.
- Books. I recently finished Bohumil Hrabal’s Too Loud a Solitude and Gail Honeyman’s Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine and just started Roxane Gay’s Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body. The last two I’ve been listening to on CD in my car (you may notice a trend here—driving around is when I have the most spare time), and it changes the experience—for Honeyman’s book because of all the delightful Scottish accents, and for Gay’s because she reads it herself, adding another dimension of embodiment to a book that is all about the body.
So yes, I should be writing, but I’m also learning to accept when I’m not writing.
I added another essay to the “My Writing” page today. “Not So Gladly Teach,” which I wrote a couple of years ago for an anthology. Progress!
By the way, despite the title of that essay, the workshop I led for Iowa City Poetry went really well. It was a great group—community members who voluntarily spend one Sunday evening a month writing poetry (or other kinds of writing) together. They could be at home watching Game of Thrones and/or lying prostrate in exhaustion from their week (I’m the latter), but they make it out the door and challenge themselves to be creative. All kudos to them!