Teaser

Thanks for visiting, as always! This week I’ve started a new project, and thought I’d post a short teaser from it here. The very short story below is going to be part of a larger collection, all dealing with the experiences and challenges artists face.

Quick explanatory note: Vera is an artist; her discipline is whatever you’d like to imagine, whatever resonates most with you. Twist is one of her three feline-shaped muses.

Hope you enjoy!

**

Vera sighs. For a while now, she’s been walking along her path, carrying her current project. She has carried it sometimes on her back, sometimes in her arms, with the same care and delight she would feel in carrying a child. For a while, her path has been straight and smooth. Sunlight has brightened it every day. The art she carries has seemed to have no weight at all. Having it with her has only filled her with more energy and strength, as if taking care of this precious burden means she can cover any distance and do anything.

Today, though, the path seems steeper. Loose rocks and gravel have turned up underfoot and Vera can feel them, sharp under her shoes. She’s tripped a couple of times on tree roots she didn’t see. The weight in her arms feels much heavier, dragging at her shoulders, but when she tries putting it on her back, it bows her down until she can barely put one foot in front of the other.

Finally she unships it and sets it down on the grass at the edge of the path. She sits down next to it, looking at it as if maybe it will get up and start walking on its own. Maybe it can lug itself along for a little while. Today she doesn’t have a whole lot more to give.

Twist saunters out of the grass. When they’re walking together, Vera is used to him coming and going however he wants. He is always around, but the sameness of the path can bore him when the air is full of scents and sounds.

He rubs his long body against Vera’s knee. “Why are we stopping?” he asks.

“I’m tired,” Vera says. She looks at the art, lying there mute in the grass. “I don’t know, Twist. What am I doing with this, anyway?”

The sun is out again today, but this time its rays come through a bank of cloud, creating a white glare. In the unfriendly light, Vera doesn’t think the art looks as beautiful or appealing as it used to. In fact, in this moment, she can’t really imagine picking it up again. Why should she, when it’s so heavy? What if it’s not worth dragging along anyway?

Twist sidles over to the art and sniffs it. He prods it lightly with a paw. Finally he rubs against it the same way he did with Vera. Mine, the gesture says.

He looks up at her. His eyes are green at the pupil, changing to gold at the edge of the iris, and they’re set wide apart on either side of his broad nose. Their heavy lids often make him look half-sleepy, but there’s no sleepiness in the look he gives her now.

“It’s yours,” he points out.

Vera sighs again. She runs her hand along his back. His fur is soft, but she can feel the texture of the individual hairs.

“I don’t know,” she says again. “It’s not very good, is it?”

Twist sniffs. “Good, not good. Who knows?”

“If I could tell for sure,” Vera says. The harsh sun-through-clouds glare really does make the art look ugly, she thinks. All the time she’s spent carrying it up to now, she never noticed how unattractive it really was. Or how heavy. She probably wasted a lot of effort just getting it this far.

Twist stretches out on the grass beside her. He can get comfortable anywhere, in no time at all. He turns his head to look up at her. From this perspective, his face is upside down.

“How can you tell if it’s good,” he asks, “when it’s not done yet? If I’m chasing a mouse, I don’t know if it’ll taste good until I catch it.”

“Twist!” Vera scolds. “That’s disgusting.” He’s never caught a mouse, and she never wants to see him do it, but he likes her to know he could be a great hunter if he wanted. She believes it. He’s fast and smart.

Twist rolls over onto his back and folds his front paws under his chin. “Sorry.”

Vera can’t help laughing. In one quick movement, Twist is back on his feet, sniffing at the art. “Mice smell good,” he tells her. “This does too.”

Vera laughs again. “Really?”

The green-and-gold eyes find hers. “Yes. I think you should chase your mouse a little more.” Twist stretches, pushing his big white front paws into the grass. “Besides, it’s awfully quiet around here, isn’t it? Let’s go find some excitement.”

Vera doesn’t really want to pick up the art again, but when Twist rubs against her leg, pushier now, she knows she doesn’t have a choice. She gets up and hoists the weight back into her arms.

Somehow it doesn’t seem quite as heavy as it did before. Twist sets off along the path, picking his way between loose stones, his long tail held cheerfully high. Cradling her work, Vera follows.

Fergus not on the table (2)
The original Twist: my writing buddy Fergus
Fergus nap bed
Proper snoozing technique: a demo
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Why Imagine?

This one is for my fellow artists, especially the writers…

A number of years ago now, I read an article by a writer whose name I’m sorry to say I don’t remember. In the article, this writer was talking about the experience of getting her first book published, and all the challenges and setbacks that finally led up to that accomplishment. Specifically, she talked about how it happened a lot later than she’d initially hoped when she was an up-and-coming twenty-something. She’d had an earlier first book, which had landed her an agent, but after the usual period of effort, her agent hadn’t been able to sell that book. This experience sent the writer into a tailspin of despair. The rejections and the loss of hope were so difficult that she had to walk away from writing for six years.

When I read this, I was somewhere in the middle of my own first-book trajectory, trying to figure out what to do with To Love A Stranger and what might ever happen to it. (I still didn’t know a whole lot about the craft, and my efforts from that time would definitely qualify as “sins of my youth.”) My response to this lucky published writer wasn’t very sympathetic. You quit writing for six years? How could you do that?! I decided that anybody who could turn their back on the craft for that length of time just wasn’t very serious about it. I saw that writer’s exodus as a kind of tantrum, an “I didn’t get what I want, so I quit!” fit of bad behavior.

Now, though, with the perspective of a few more years and a lot more rejections, disappointment, and loss of hope of my own, I have to say: I get it, sister. I really do.

irvine field view

We writers and artists give ourselves an uphill task every day. We’re creating work that doesn’t exist until our imaginations yield it up and we weave it into something that holds together, something that captures some fraction of the beauty or message or thrill we hoped for when we started. We do it knowing that no work will ever seem perfect to us, and we often have to struggle against our own inertia and the constant intimidation of that “ideal product” that we know we’ll never create. And for a lot of us, the investment of so much time and energy into something so uncertain – will I ever get a return on this? will people like it? will it (maybe, possibly, ever) sell? – feels like a risk we maybe can’t afford.

I felt this way, profoundly, about my second novel Fourteen Stones. I’ve written elsewhere on the blog about the anxiety that set in after a particularly difficult rejection connected with that book. What I hadn’t expected after the rejection, though, was the experience of starting to attack my own imagination and, quite literally, my ability to write. It was as if my brain decided that I shouldn’t imagine things, shouldn’t write, shouldn’t take pleasure in or even be able to do something that had given me so much satisfaction…when, after all, the great gamble on that novel hadn’t paid off the way I’d hoped it would.

We artists tell ourselves we have to be tough, resilient. We tell ourselves we have to get up and keep fighting every time rejection and setbacks knock us into the dust. What I experienced over this past summer made me question whether – assuming I still could manage to do the work I loved – I should still try. Because, after all, if I let rejection knock me down and hold me down for so long, if I “let myself” feel so terrible about it and “let it” make me unable to imagine, create, or put my ideas on the page: if all those things were true, then maybe I just wasn’t cut out for it. Maybe I wasn’t meant to do this work after all.

That other writer might have experienced exactly this when she walked away from her work for years. Or maybe her experience was a little different, but in any case, I now understand why someone would make the choice she did. I understand how it feels to question the value of your work, question the reason and worth behind investing so much in the products of the imagination. Why dream? Why create?

I continue to struggle with this, months later. Once anxiety gets its claws in, it doesn’t want to let go. Working around it every day, one step at a time, the single biggest thing I’ve learned so far is that I must not give up on the imagination.

prettyboy view

Why do we artists do what we do? Why dream, why create, when there’s so much risk, and when the rewards sometimes seem so few, transient, and so very far between?

Because what we create would not exist without us. Because only we can do the work we do. No one else could write my book. No one else could paint your painting, or compose your music, or tell your part of the story that is an irreplaceable piece of the greater story of the world. And – maybe even more importantly – because no change is possible without imagination. Artists dare to dream about ideals. We dare to see people and the world differently. We dare to believe that the things we think, feel, and create in our work can reach others, and that as we reach out in the way only we can, we can create change in the world.

It’s a crazy dream, right? It can feel huge and scary and impossible, but the fact is, our work has power. When someone takes in something we’ve created, they’ll experience something they’ll never find anywhere else. They can’t find it anywhere else, because it could only have come from us. And it starts with the work of our imaginations.

So if this game has knocked you down: believe me, I understand. If you need a break from it for a while, I know exactly how that is. But in the long run, please don’t let it make you quit. Now more than ever, we need to see how things could be. We need the dreams and creations only you can bring to the overarching story of the world.

rocky point view

Keep On Keeping On

Two blogposts, two weeks in a row! Maybe I’m getting better at this… 😉

Last week I wrote about anxiety, as related to the performance I was scheduled to give that afternoon. I’m glad to report that – as was maybe expected – the performance went fine, and my well-seasoned performer training kicked in and did what it needed to do. It felt good to follow a familiar pattern. At the same time, it felt even better to know that no matter how tense or scattered I was, I could think on my feet and tailor my program to the audience the way I always do. All of that helped to reassure my over-reactive hindbrain that I’m still getting through life reasonably well, and it doesn’t need to rush to protect me countless times a day.

When I first started having problems with intense anxiety, over the summer, I’d hoped it might run its course in a couple of weeks, like a bad flu. Little did I know! I certainly never thought that three months later, I’d still be trying to work my way through it. A new medication I started taking about a month ago is helping, but most of all, keeping on with my usual routine and doing the things I have to do makes a big difference. I’ve done a lot of reading about anxiety and different ways of treating it, and one of the wisest pieces of advice I’ve come across is that we have to keep living as if we don’t have anxiety. In other words, is there something I would normally do, enjoy, look forward to? Then I must do that thing, even when my brain tells me I can’t or shouldn’t. Pushing myself to do things “anyway” can feel stressful and exhausting, as if maybe I’ll push too hard and snap, and it can also feel like I’m trying to fake it ’til I make it (which might actually be the case). But I don’t want to hunker down and sideline myself until some indeterminate down-the-road day when I might finally feel better. Life is short. I’d rather not waste the time I’ve got, especially not by giving it up to the paranoid twitchy mess in my own head. 😉

minebank view
Therapeutic view

So this week, I’m thinking more about all the things I want to be doing and working on. Another piece of advice I’ve read is that it’s a good idea to plan out what you’ll do with any given day, promise yourself you’ll do those things, and then stick to it. Today I intend to work on the first brand-new short story I’ve started in months; I haven’t written anything new from scratch since before what I’ve named Super-Anxiety (the anti-superhero). Working with words is now a pretty big trigger for me. In the wake of some rejections of my novel Fourteen Stones, earlier in the summer, I definitely got it into my head that I’m not much of a writer and shouldn’t be doing this work. Anxious hindbrain took care of the rest and does its best to freeze me with panic every time I think about sitting down to write. However, anxious hindbrain and I both need to understand that I am and always will be a writer, rejection doesn’t define my work or me, and I will carry on with wordcraft for as long as I live: hopefully a long while yet. There are so many stories I want to write. (And also, anxious hindbrain, let’s not forget that Fourteen Stones is a damn fine piece of work I am proud of. It was a joy to create, and whatever happens, I can think of no better use of my time and the best of my energy.)

It’s good to focus on getting back to work, and to know – no matter how much I sometimes resist the idea – that I can work, no matter how I feel. If you’re like me and you struggle with anxiety, you know how sometimes you win, and sometimes it wins. I’ve had days where, all day long, without even thinking about it, I successfully avoid doing whatever activity scares me most. I’m trying to get better at noticing those days and when I’m coming up with excuses not to do the scary thing. When I can catch myself in the act of avoidance, I can challenge myself to push back against it. You’re scared to write? Go sit down right now and write a paragraph. Two sentences. One line. Every time I resist the avoidance, I get another piece of myself back from anxiety. Even before Super-Anxiety, I was always good at finding ways to avoid the things that make me uncomfortable (highway driving, anyone?). These past three months have been teaching me that I have to face fear, rather than run from it, and I think they’ll result in some permanent changes. (Silver lining!)

If you, like me, struggle with anxiety, what particular thing would you like to do today, or need to do today, that maybe scares you or you feel you can’t really accomplish? Maybe you can promise yourself, right now, that you will do that thing. Write that one sentence. Go for a quick walk. Drive on the highway from one exit to the next one. Show your mind you are okay, and keep on keeping on.

As always, thanks for reading. See you next time!

cat trio sickbed
Therapeutic view 2