Is Writing Revolutionary?

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Art is a difficult thing to believe in these days. Even though I insist on writing, I often wonder, given the state of the world and particularly the country I live in, am I just hiding behind my art? Am I, as artists have so often been accused of being, simply egotistical, self-serving, and shallow for wanting to continue what I started when I was in fourth grade?

Of course, in all that time since fourth garde there were years that I didn’t write. There were years in which I berated myself for not having “discipline.” Also years in which I stabbed at writing something, and looked at my work and thought that it wasn’t “real writing.” It is as difficult now as it was then to believe that my art, that what I create, matters.

And that’s the thing, isn’t it? Art always has be clawed out of some sort of life. The intensity of the world may change but the messages don’t, or they haven’t changed in my life time anyway.

A few of the messages I have received during the span of my writing life:

Don’t quit your day job.
Read Proust, Faulkner, Nabokov, etc.etc.etc.
Read The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Atlantic, etc.etc.etc.
Get an MFA                                                                                                                                     Teach in a college
Travel
Have a platform
Have a brand
Have something important to say
And so on.

I have two things pinned on the wall above my desk. One is a piece of paper that says, “Rise up and figure it out for yourself.” The other is a button that says, “Writing is Revolutionary.”

The “Rise Up” quote reminds me that no matter what sort of difficulty I am tangling with in my prose, I will have to figure it out for myself. No one hands you answers when you’re an artist.

And the button, “Writing is Revolutionary,” reminds me that to carve out any sort of creative life is an act of rebellion. To insist on time to create, to insist on quiet and spaciousness, to clear psychic space for art are all acts that go against the grain. They are revolutionary, no matter what audience the art reaches or doesn’t reach.

If an artist reaches some sort of national recognition for her work, her stubborn insistence on creating time and space for herself is often labeled as brilliance. But don’t expect it while working alone in your studio. In fact, don’t expect it at all. Or even yearn for it. To do so will surely throw you off the rails of the track you must doggedly stay on. Most artists are simply dogged.

Art, in the end, publicly appreciated or not, is a gamble. Art is a crap shoot. Art is betting on the horse with the lame leg ridden by the 300 pound jockey. There’s not a chance of winning, but still, isn’t that jockey, that limping horse beautiful? Don’t they stand out? Did anything stop them from being in the race?

Measurements

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I live in a culture that loves measurements. Resumes, job descriptions, salaries, developments – America loves to count. When I cleaned houses for a living my work was measured not just room by room and task by task, but in bathtubs leaned over and showers leaned into. Rags dirtied and washed and folded and dirtied again. Sponges falling apart, their yellow bits washed down suburban drains. Work was measure in blown out, leaking rubber gloves, and shredding mop heads, and the nubs of feather dusters. In backaches and sore knees and Epsom Salt baths and Tylenol and hours spent on the heating pad, on the couch.

Now my work is measured in how many books I’ve published, in awards received or not, in Tweets and blog posts and movie deals (present or lacking). It’s measured by Oprah and the New York Times Bestseller List, and Youtube channels. These are big, public measurements and there’s not much a writer can do or not do to achieve them. These sorts of measurements are the work of the Gods and Goddesses, and Fate with a capital F. All I can do is show up and write.

I don’t take daily measurements of my writing. I don’t count words or even pages. The daily question I ask myself during each writing session is: Have I moved the story forward? Yes could mean a paragraph or three pages. No could mean ten or more pages, pages that do nothing for the story, pages that stall it out and go nowhere.

I work with writers and many of them study writing in a way that I do not and never have. They study trends. They know the industry standard of word count for a YA book, or a literary novel, or a sci-fi book, and they write to meet those standards.

But asking how long a novel must be is like asking how long a piece of string must be. The answer of course is that it depends on many things – mainly what is the string to be used for. A string to tie one’s shoes will be shorter than a string to tie up one’s tomatoes. A string to tie a 10″ box will be different from a string to tie a 2′ box. A string to wrap around a story will depend on the story, and if the story is dependent on the string, then that string better be cut to fit. And so it is with page count and word count.

The publishing world is a place where you can find a definitive answer to whatever question you ask, but I don’t believe it’s good to look for definitive answers. Nor do I believe the book world should be a place for industry standards. The book world, the world of story should be a place of exploration. But writers just starting out are scared of all the nebulousness. They yearn for information, anything to help get started and keep going. I’m not trying to keep information from anyone, and I understand the urge to search for answers. It’s frightening to me too when I face a story I don’t yet understand, and haven’t yet written.

In answer to my own question of measurement: Have I moved the story forward? there’s an easy answer. Has something happened that is significant? If not have I written something that contributes to the character’s development, or to setting? Am I building a believable fictional world? Does this section contribute or is it just there.

I know the answers to these questions when I ask them, which isn’t to say I know the solution. But it does mean I can recognize a problem and not write into it, not dig post holes and build a wall around it. Acknowledging that the story is stalling is the first step to moving it forward.

Readers want stories that move forward and so do editors. Editors dare not say so though, because they work in an industry, an industry that has gone awry with measurements and bean counting and shiny objects. Pay no attention. Do your work and do it well. The most important measurement of all is how you feel about it, and how your character feels about you. In the end, do you and your character respect each other? If so, you’ve done well, and you’ll be in a better place to defend your work against random suggestions having to do with fattening a book for market.

In Praise of Teachers

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This is a talk I gave at a fundraising dinner for the Artists in the Schools Program sponsored by the United Arts Council of Raleigh and Wake County. It’s about the teacher I had in fourth grade who turned my life around, and showed me that there was something to become that appealed to me. After the talk, a woman in the audience, a teacher who has had visiting artists in her classroom said that she a change in some of her children after the artists’ visits. She could see them light up, see new possibilities, and become more engaged. Art matters! It matters to children, but it matters to adults too. It matters more than ever now because we’ve all go to see new paths. Here’s my talk:

 

I was a withdrawn child. I was shy. I was awkward. I felt dumb. I couldn’t pass tests. And I am pretty sure that I tested out as having a low IQ. The reason I believe this is because when that first IQ test with the little squares to fill in arrived in my life, probably around first grade, our teacher told us we could not pass or fail, and a test one could not pass or fail did not seem very serious to me, so I filled in the squares to make patterns. And once I was committed to it, I kept it up. So, I don’t know how I tested out. I was probably brilliant one year and off the charts in the other direction the next.

I know though that I liked patterns. I noticed patterns. I noticed shadows and sunlight and tree bark and rhythm. But noticing patterns did not help me in school. It has however helped me with art. And I found this out in fourth grade when I met my new teacher. Her name was Mrs. Semonche.

On the first day, she wrote her name across the board in beautiful handwriting, in a straight line, underlined and she said, “Not Mrs. See-man-chee. Not Mrs. Comanche. Mrs. Semonche.” I was extremely impressed with her, not just because she headed off the butchering of her name right away, but because she was young and beautiful. She was slim, wore A-line skirts, stocking and heels, had fake eyelashes that I didn’t know were fake at the time, and reminded me of Jackie Kennedy, our first lady at the time. In short I could tell that Mrs. Semonche was fresh and new. She hadn’t been in the trenches long. She was not jaded and she had a lot of ideas about how to teach us, she was eager to try them out, and she was a big fan of the arts

During this one year of my life, we studied art. We studied every kind of art Mrs. Semonche could fit into our schedule. We sculpted, we drew, we collected color pictures of famous paintings, we learned about the Impressionists, the Modernists, Abstract Art, Surrealism. We’d never seen anything like Salvador Dali.

We also had a unit in theater. We put on a play: A Midsummer’s Night Dream by William Shakespeare. We were in fourth grade. We made the costumes. We created the set. We memorized the lines. Well, some kids memorized lines. I wanted nothing to do with a speaking part, so I signed up to be one of the fairies with my best friend Ellen. Our job was to drift across the stage periodically wearing some great filmy dresses. It seemed enough to me, but not to Mrs. Semonche. She needed an understudy for the main female role Titania, and there was no one left to do it but me, so Mrs. Semonche, in the way that grown ups do, coerced me into accepting the understudy role. But like the IQ test, I didn’t take it very seriously, and I never learned the lines.

One day Sally Hill, the girl whose role I was supposed to understudy was not in class on a day of performance. All morning long kids were hitting me on the arm and saying, “You’re going to have to play Titania. You’re going to have to play Titania.” And I nodded dumbly and mutely. I didn’t know any part of those lines. At what point I would have confessed this, I don’t know, because Sally Hill finally showed up, and I did not have to shame myself. I got away with it.

Mrs. Semonche was right that I needed to learn to speak up, but she was also wrong. I needed to find my own way to speak up. I needed something quieter. And I found it in the next art unit Mrs. Semonche taught called Creative Writing.

What a breath of fresh air Creative Writing was. I started receiving checkmarks on my papers. Nice detail, Mrs. Semonche wrote across my page, the part where I wrote about the smell of grass, the part where I wrote about the pattern of leaves in the sunlight on the ground, the part where I wrote about the filmy curtains in an old hotel room. Finally my penchant for noticing pattern was paying off. I started writing. I started seriously writing. Outside of school, I deconstructed movies I saw on TV and wrote them into stories, which is plagiarism, but I had no intention of publishing them, so really it was study. In the same way art students learn about composition by copying pieces hanging in museums, I was learning about plot and characterization and dialogue at a very young age.

Until Mrs. Semonche entered my life I had not known that writing and storytelling could be things, were things, adults did. I did not know I had a talent for anything. Stories were magic to me, and remain magic, but that magic was legitimized by Mrs. Semonche.

I took Creative Writing as an elective throughout public school. I wrote my first novel in 11th grade. I’ve written six books since then and published four. I’ve learned something from every single one of them. I learn something every day about writing and how to be an artist. It’s a daily education that began for me in fourth grade when I was lucky enough to have Mrs. Semonche as my teacher.

In 2012 I attended my fortieth high school reunion. I’d not really been aware of it at the time, but I went to school with the same batch of kids from first grade through 12th. When asked what teachers we might invite to our reunion, we named Mrs. Semonche. She only taught that one year. In talking to my classmates, I learned that she’d made a difference in their lives too. The arts, they said. She introduced me to sculpting. To painting. To writing. To acting. To a new way of seeing the world. To knowing I was smart. I learned I had a talent. I began exploring. I started reading. I visited museums. She expanded my world. That introduction to the arts was a lifeline. I heard this again and again.

Mrs. Semonche, that one teacher who celebrated the arts and taught her only fourth grade class everything she knew, did attend our class reunion. She had cancer at the time, although none of us knew it. We surrounded her and hugged her and told her what a huge difference she’d made in our lives. Many of us had found a niche because of her. We began to understand ourselves as important and worthy. We started expressing ourselves, and we kept it up through the sixties, through the turmoil of our own roiling hormones, through good decisions and bad ones, she gave us a tool to use for the rest of our lives.

This is what the arts do. They give a feeling of belonging, of expression, of value, of community, of humanity. The arts make us kinder, and we need that. The arts give is different points of view and we need that too. The arts give us empathy and self worth and self trust, and we need all of that. When you support the arts you support much more than that one individual who created something. Your support fingers out into places you can never know about.

I teach a free class at Flyleaf Books in Chapel Hill. I’ve been teaching this free class for 15 years. Sometimes someone emails me and says, “Remember that story I started in your class. Well I finished it, and it’s going to be published.” Just yesterday a student, Don Basnight, emailed to tell me he’s been accepted into The Monti in Durham and to say thank you. And I feel so blessed when this happens. My own career may or may not be going well, but art is never about one person. Art is always about relationship. It is about how we can help each other. Artists are often seen as selfish, but we’re not. We just have different sets of priorities.

Mrs. Semonche passed away a few years ago. She’s someone I will never forget, and although I never fessed up to her about not knowing my lines as the understudy to Titania, I am sure she is aware of this now, and forgives me and is probably having a good laugh too.

So I want to thank you for caring about the arts, for supporting the arts. You never know who you’re touching, and that spread of goodness, even without knowing its exact trajectory, is its own reward. I hope you put your trust in that, because it’s a solid place to stand as a human being. The most stable of all.

Thank you.

Letter to a Stranger

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This was written from the prompt: Write a letter to a stranger. It made me realize I miss this stranger, whom I always saw around Carrboro.

Dear Sir, I love you, and now you are gone, and I didn’t tell you I love you before you disappeared. That’s because when you were here, I did not love you. In fact, you were always annoying to me, but I miss you now, and I think I love you, and I wonder what happened, where you went and can only imagine that you have died.

The way it happened is that one day I noticed you were gone, and realized that I had not seen you for a long time. I don’t know your name, but you, sir, were  a damn good character, and Carrboro, the town we shared, has become so gentrified. There are no good characters here anymore. They can’t afford it. And so I miss you and feel love for who you were.

I miss seeing you in Harris Teeter blowing that one note on your harmonica. It was always one note. Hmmm, hmmm, hmmm, hmmm. It never varied. You never played two notes or a different note. It was like your lips were glued to the one place on the harmonica you always carried and always blew into. You never breathed in, only out, and you walked around Harris Teeter playing your one note. It used to annoy me so badly, but today… today I miss you. Perhaps I’ve grown a little.

I miss your harmonica, but even more than that, I miss your car. It was a big green car, long with a big hood and on the hood you’d glued a huge rag doll in a crucified position, and there was a bumper sticker on the back that said, “Be Patient. God Isn’t Finished With Me Yet,” and on the top, just above the driver’s door was a bunch of bananas. The bananas were always there. They were real bananas too, and they were always fresh and yellow and they weren’t glued down. People would drive up beside you and roll down their windows and point and say, “You have bananas on your car.” And you’d nod and smile and say, “I know.”

You used to run a junk shop out at the county line. It was in an old white house. I stopped in a few times. I even sold you some things. I never bought anything. There was a lot of stuff, inside and outside, and after a time the neighbors complained about your place. They said it was an eyesore, so you lined up barrels along the roadway so they wouldn’t have to see it. They complained about that too, and finally you were forced out and they tore down your house. There’s a Walmart there now, but that’s long after a series of other businesses in a series of other brick buildings. They just couldn’t get that corner right. I wonder if you cursed them.

I think now you knew more that I ever gave you credit for and I’m sorry. If I knew where your grave is, I’d go there, clear the weeds of it, maybe put a jar of wildflowers on it, maybe a harmonica.

I want you to know that I think you wouldn’t annoy me now. I think I’d be happy to see you. I’d love to hear your one-note harmonica in the aisles of Harris Teeter. I’d be happy to see your big green car gliding through the traffic of Carrboro, people staring at the crucified rag doll. I’d love to pull up behind you at a stop light and watch the person in the car next to yours roll his window down, point, and say, “You have bananas on your car.” I’d love to watch you nod and smile and say, “I know.”

Sincerely, Nancy

 

Mute

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How do I carry on when I feel mute?

How do I create art and to whom do I offer it?

Does art even matter anymore?

The answers are:

How do I carry on when I feel mute? I don’t know. I just do.

How do I create art and to whom do I offer it? I don’t know. I just do.

Does art even matter anymore? Yes.

The truth is, even though it seems the world is escalating and spinning out of control, even though I feel closer to the brink of street fighting and/or ecological destruction than I ever have before in my lifetime, even though I know more about my own and other’s suffering than I knew before, these have always been the answers to these particular questions.

Yes, art matters.

You don’t know how you make art or whom to offer it to, but you just do it anyway.

You don’t know how you’ll carry on, but you just do.

Stay as grounded as possible. Notice nature. Make art. Find the things and people that will help you not despair, because despair is not an option. The world needs you and your voice, and this has always been true. And will always be true. And on this you can count. This is truth. Art is a steady and stable place to stand. Artists are often known for being flaky and unstable. The truth is, we are very stable. Because we have to be.

 

 

Reading Books in the Age of Madness

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A few years ago, I sat on a public bench, waiting for a friend and reading a book. A woman interrupted me. (Please note: Do not interrupt a person reading a book!) The woman wanted to know what I was reading. I showed her the cover, and then the woman said she couldn’t read anymore. She used to read. She used to read a lot, but now she can’t. She can’t concentrate. Things have become so unstable lately, so volatile that she can’t concentrate on reading.

“Read,” I told her. “Go read a book. You’ll thank me later.”

After she left I muttered under my breath, “You think it’s hard to read in this environment? You should try writing.”

I know a lot of writers. We plug along. We ride the waves of self doubt and the waves of cultural madness. We have no choice. Being a writer, or an artist, requires a little unplugging. So we unplug. And then we plug back in. And our blood pressure goes through the roof and we unplug again. We write. It’s incredibly selfish of us. It’s incredibly hopeless. And it’s incredibly depressing as we watch the celebrity-titled books fly off the shelves while ours, and those of many authors I know, linger and gather dust.

You want to help the world be less crazy? Support the arts. Support a writer. Buy a book that does not have a flashy familiar face on the cover. And be seen reading it. And then buy another.