Permission to Make Art –Badly

sycamorecanopyHeaderWhen I was in graduate school, writing my thesis, (which ultimately became a memoir, LIFT) I found myself stuck. I don’t just mean that I was having a few bad weeks, stuck. I mean I seriously didn’t know what to write anymore or if I even should write any more.

I had a meticulous outline of the book. It was based on my first season flying a peregrine falcon, which I had thoroughly journaled online and in private. So I had plenty of material. I knew I wanted to write a story about falconry that drew the sort of parallels that A River Runs Through It drew from fly fishing. So I knew what the message was. I was halfway through the book and I suddenly just didn’t have the words anymore.

I had written three books before this, a romance novel and two reference books. So I knew I could finish a book. I knew how to start, follow an outline, work my way through the middle, and write the ending. I understood how books were written.  Until I didn’t.

In desperation, I finally met with my thesis advisor and tried to explain my predicament. I started the conversation by trying to logic my way around my problem. I swore I didn’t believe in writer’s block. I suggested I was just being lazy.

My thesis advisor, Chris Abani sat in front of me, a half smile on face, nodding, but saying nothing. He simply gestured for me to continue.

I wondered if I should drink less tequila …or maybe more.  I thought maybe I should sit in front of my computer and quit flying my falcon until I finally started writing. Any writing would be better than no writing. How hard was it just to write something?  Anything?

Now Chris looked sympathetic and clasped his hands like a priest taking confession, but he still said nothing. He just waited.

I finally cracked. “I can’t do this”, I sobbed. “I just don’t have the words. I don’t know what the words are… Where did the words go?!”

Chris smiled, shook his head and finally began speaking. Grabbing a notebook, he ripped out a sheet of paper and scribbled on it like it was prescription. “I want you to go see, Juan Felipe,” he said. “Juan Felipe will fix you right up.”

I took the piece of paper, but just stared at him. Juan Felipe Herrera was the poetry professor. My thesis advisor was prescribing… poetry??

I’m a horrible poet. The last poem I remember writing went something like this:
Once I had a kitten
He was small as a mitten
I couldn’t think of a name
So I called him cat.

Cat in the hat, my mother called him
Pain in the neck my father called him
He begged for milk
He begged for food
So my brother called him no good…

Okay, I wrote that in third grade, but you get the idea. This was not going to help me, but Chris shooed me out of the office before I could argue and I stood perplexed with Juan Felipe’s name in my hand. (Which I have no idea why I needed, because I knew Juan Felipe and he was just done the hall…)

Dutifully, though, I spoke with Juan Felipe who listened to me very closely, as if some single word in my story might reveal the solution to this quandary. Then he suddenly raised his hands as if the answer was obvious. “Bring me 12 photos of hunting with your falcon,” he said. “They can be on the way to hunt, in the field, on the way back, whatever. Just bring me twelve.”

I was still dubious, but I spent a week looking through photos and trying to choose the right ones. I didn’t know what Juan Felipe was going to make me do with them, but I’d be saddled with my choices. So I considered carefully. And as I did I thought about the day each of them was taken. There were good days, bad days, surprising days, and few funny ones. It was harder to choose than I thought.

When I brought selection of photos to Juan Felipe, he sifted through them quickly, as if they were from a tarot deck and he was picking the appropriate cards, sorting out six.

“Write a poem about each of these,” he said.

I started to protest, but one of the photos caught my eye. It was familiar the candy-colored sunrise over the clouded desert on a drive out to hawk at dawn. I found myself wondering what the right word for that color was. It reminded me of cherry 7-Up. Except that wasn’t quite right either.

So I took back my photos and wrote my poems. They weren’t great, but at least there was no rhyming of mittens and kittens. And after I wrote them, my mind unlocked. I never did come up with quite the right word for the sunrise, but there isn’t one. What I did was come back to my memoir with a fervor and passion for tiny details. And the details led me back into the story.

And Juan Felipe, by the way, well, he became the United States Poet Laureate in 2015, ten years later.

Poetry did so well for me that I took a couple classes. I didn’t get much better. Then I took undergraduate photography so I could learn to use the darkroom. I was okay. I also took screenwriting. I was phenomenally bad.

All of these things, however, brought me back to my own art fresh and at a different angle. Poetry, as horrible at it as I am, saved my thesis.

Adam Grant, in his new book Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World, says that a study by 15 researchers at Michigan State University compared every Nobel Prize scientist with the typical scientists of their era to search for delineating differences. What they found was that both groups obtained deep expertise in their fields, but the Nobel Prize winners were dramatically more likely to be involved in the arts than their counterparts. There were painters, sculptors, glass-blowers, fiction writers, amateur actors, and musicians. Another study showed similar results for entrepreneurs and CEOs. And you know what? I bet a lot of them were doing art badly, just like me.

And it makes me wonder why any of us set aside hobbies that make us curious. Why is everyone waiting to set up their woodshop and start tinkering until after they retire? Why can’t we take a stab at sculpting until we have more time and money? Why, don’t we make bad art when it could make us better at the thing we are best at doing?

While I know that pursuing new avenues of art is also a wonderful form of procrastination, (YAY! PROCRASTINATION!)  I also know that every time I try to edit this novel I’m wrapping up, my gut knots up. The words aren’t right and the right ones are there. So perhaps my new found fondness for coloring anything I can find with watercolor pencils might save it. Maybe I’ll even figure out that word for the particular color of my desert sunrise.

I believe in drawing lopsided birds, writing bad songs, destroying perfectly good recipes, and crafting falconry hoods that are useless because they don’t fit.

I believe in making bad art. Maybe we all should.

xxR

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I am so very grateful for those of you who have been reading along faithfully and helping me with this journey to put into words the things that lift us, crash us, and galvanize us. Many of you have written to share your own journey and have thanked me, which means so much to me. But you probably don’t realize how incredibly impactful you have been ME.

So I made you a little something.

Perhaps doing some out-of-the-box art would be good for you too! Maybe coloring some birds?

I’ve put together three sets of five gray-scale coloring pages of my avian photographs:  Lyrical, Playful, and Fierce. I carefully curated them based on what I thought would create the best shading for coloring and meticulously worked with the black & white channels in Photoshop to get the best output.

This is what my first attempt at coloring one of photographs looked like:

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You can find the pages here on Etsy, where each set is $.99 OR just send me a quick email and I’ll send you the PDFs for free.

Print. Color. Relax. Imagine…  I only ask that you share any of your favorite creations so I can enjoy them and get some inspiration from you as well!!

—If you want printed packets, then you’ll have to wait just a bit. I’m still experimenting to find the best and most economical paper, which will work across a variety of art mediums. (I’ve been using watercolor pencils, but the sky is the limit…)  But these are coming too.

In the meantime, go make bad art!!  Who knows? Maybe it might turn out to be amazing art or even better, give you a fresh take on your own professional or artist discipline. What could it hurt?

On Endings and Things Unfinished

cattleegretHeaderEverything ends. I know this and yet, sometimes it’s so hard to walk away from things I know are over but haven’t given me a satisfactory ending.

This is life. I cling to things lost. I hope to fix the unfixable.  I try to explain the unexplainable to myself.  I want an ending that makes sense.

I hear my friends do the same and I feel their pain. Everyone deserves a finite and understandable end so that we can grieve and move on.

This sounds like a discussion about relationships. And it kind of is, but mostly what I want to talk about is bad relationships with art.

I feel the pain of unresolved endings most especially for my artist friends and their unfinished projects. I hear so often… “I have this other novel, painting, quilt, carving, this project I can’t wait to work on, but I have this THING I’M DOING THAT I HAVE TO FINISH first.”

Why is it that we feel beholden to everything we start as an artist just because we were in love at the beginning? Look, it’s no different than any relationship. No one benefits from a partner staying after it’s over.

In Elizabeth Gilbert’s book Big Magic, she talks about ideas as if they were living beings of energy floating about the universe, bumping against us, and looking for the right partner. I love the thought of this. It’s as if art is actually the prototype for online dating.

Imagine this: You are looking for THE ONE. And you find an online profile that intrigues you. The two of you have this spark, this one thing in common. You banter in the ether and then you try to make something work in real life. It looks extraordinary for a while. It looks like this is your future and everything you’ve ever wanted.

Then it doesn’t.

Because, sometimes that initial spark isn’t enough.

Maybe it’s not working. Maybe the idea fell out of love with you and checked out. Maybe the idea is a fantastic one, but not really in your wheelhouse. It’s possible that someone else could rock that idea’s world and that’s what this idea deserves. Maybe once you had the idea solidly in your grasp you stopped being interested in it. You want to love it. You want it to work. But for whatever reason, it isn’t working anymore.

It’s over, man. Let it go. Pack your bags. Leave.

I think there is no place for this kind of love affair in art. You only have to look in my drawer of abandoned manuscripts to affirm my belief that art has finite endings. I have 14 published books, but also have 6 manuscripts from the last 20 years which have been abandoned half- and even three-quarters of the way through.

Every project is a love affair, you just have to find the strength to love it as best you can while it’s working and have the honesty to admit when it’s over.

Over is okay. It isn’t a waste. You were lucky to love while you loved. You learned. You lived. And whatever is next will benefit from what you accomplished, even if it was never finished. Because seriously…  I’m certain my family takes great comfort in the fact that I haven’t married most of the guys I’ve dated.

Life is too short to write novels you don’t love, to keep adjusting paintings that won’t match your imaginings, or to keep trying to love anything that doesn’t love you back.

What are working on now? What should you be working on? Is the love mutual? That’s all I’m asking you, and for that matter, myself.

xxR

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The Art of Sitting in Cactus

ThrasherHeaderI fell in love with thrashers and cactus wrens while I was hunting with my hawks in Kingman, Arizona last week. They are beautiful birds, but that wasn’t why I fell in love. I was smitten by the enviable way they nestled into the cholla, navigating the pervasive thorns and making what I thought of as inevitable pain look like a cozy home. Desert birds are bad ass.

Living as an artist is like being a desert bird in a cholla, I think. It looks dangerous from the outside, but it’s all about experience and what you know. Everyone is afraid to embrace being an artist or of being an entrepreneur because the cholla looks so daunting. Really though, life is nothing but cactus. You just have to figure out how to manage it.

I’m not saying that being an artist for a living is easy.

The year has barely started and it’s already being irascible. This happens in an artist’s life. It’s what practical people with steady jobs and inflexible responsibilities most fear. The bonus I was promised from a part time writing job didn’t happen, leaving me scrabbling for how to pay the mortgage (which quite frankly is already in a very precarious position). The slew of press releases I killed myself to write over the holidays for a client at the last minute were received with silence and then an admonition that they had done major rewrites in house. The work calendar looks bleak and I would love to buy a cord of wood, get my brakes done, and take the dogs to the vet for their checkups and overdue shots. I’m just going to have to push this all aside and wait for a better week.

I’m not telling you this for sympathy. I’m telling you this, because it is the sort of thing artists never speak about. We don’t talk about money, because we are so very lucky to manage to live on our art. Still, my life is nothing short of navigating cholla.

So here’s the thing. I do live on my art. I AM in an admirable place.  I make it work. Every month I find a way and every month things work out somehow. I have freelanced full time for four years now. I have food, a house that is mine, time to fly my hawks, space to write what I want, flexibility, and a vast expanse of possibilities for what is next.

Here’s what I don’t have. I don’t have security. I could be financially or emotionally devastated at the world’s whim. I don’t have all the things I want. I can’t buy everything that would be helpful to have when I want it. I have to find workarounds for life’s challenges. I don’t know what tomorrow will bring.
And you know what? Even if you happen to have a secure corporate job, are a trust fund baby, have a steady retirement fund, or have just been fastidious about your finances and your family’s future – I’m pretty sure that you are in the same boat.

So what’s stopping you from living the life you want?

I’ll tell you what’s stopping you. It’s called resistance and it’s a very real and very tenacious enemy. Resistance is the spines on the cholla.

How do I know? I face resistance every single morning. Every day I get up and don’t want to face a blank page, don’t want to face another empty-handed falconry hunt, and don’t want to have my writing rejected by agents and editors yet one more time. I want to stay in bed where it’s warm and binge watch bad sci-fi on Netflix and when five o’clock rolls around and the day seems wasted, I want to ease my anxiety with tequila and a long phone call with a friend.

Some days, this is exactly what I do. Most days though, I do what makes this life possible. I do my work.

Steven Pressfield in The War of Art says, “There’s a secret that real writers know that wanna be writers don’t and the secret is this: It’s not the writing part that’s hard. What’s hard is sitting down to write. What keeps us from sitting down is resistance.”

If you haven’t read The War of Art … well, you must. It will help you face whatever it is that really want to do and haven’t. It’s simple, really. You tell resistance to go fuck itself as often as you can and do the work. Pressfield will kick your ass and remind you to find the discipline to do the best you can or shut the hell up and stay in your corporate cubicle.

I am not opposed to cubicles. I yearn for one sometimes.  I’m just assuming that you are reading this because a cubicle isn’t what you want. And if it’s not what you want, I’m telling you right now, you don’t have to trust in leaps of faith and luck of the draw. You only have to believe you can do the work and then make yourself do it.

I’ve published 14 books. I’m not sure how. Most days the hardest thing I do is just to start typing. And some days I don’t even manage to start. But I always try again.  Despite anxiety and heartbreak and unexpected personal tragedies, I try again. And I bet that YOU are already doing that too. So what’s stopping you from the rest of it?

So whatever your resistance: lack of faith, an admirable sense of responsibility, sex, drugs, rock and roll, or falconry, it’s no excuse not to try. We’re all doing the best we can and just showing up is what turns the world. Showing up and doing just a little adds up to a lot in the end.

For the record, after three hard days of days of hawking, my red-tailed hawk Dread caught a rabbit in a stand of cholla the last day I was in Kingman. In my haste and inexperience, I ended up with a rear full of the beastly bits of that evil plant. Fortunately, I had girlfriends willing to pull them out of the embarrassing places I couldn’t see. And you have friends like that too.

So do your work, Dear Readers. Do your work.

Will I go back to Kingman to hunt again? Hell yes. Screw you resistance. I now know what the cactus wrens and thrashers know. You just have to understand how to navigate the cholla — and if you misjudge your path, the spines don’t hurt that bad – but it’s best not to sit in it.

xxR

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