Sunday, February 17, 2013

The Year of the Platypus

This is not the year of the snake. This is the year of the platypus. I made this discovery while doing a little mental blogging, which is, of course, when you compose things so brilliant while changing diapers, washing dishes, and scrubbing floors that you are sure you'll never forget them. Only you do. You forget them before the next meal. They get lost among the dirty clothes, and the stacks of storybook,s and the perpetually muddy boots. Fortunately  they usually leave a little trail of ideas and words and phrases behind themselves like literary Hansels and Gretels. Unfortunately, life seems to be populated by bird like things that gobble them up while your back is turned. If you are lucky enough to find one crumb, you just might be able to arduously follow it to the next, and so on and, after a lot of convoluted wandering, end up remembering what it was that you wanted to say. Generally though, the certainly brilliant way you were going to say it has vanished entirely. Perhaps it gets sucked down the drain with dishwater.

Sometimes you do find the crumbs. I submit this blog post as evidence. I was going about my day trying to find a way to introduce an interesting TEDtalk by Tracy Chevalier, author of Girl with a Pearl Earring. If you're a writer, an artist, or a lover of art, you'll probably find it worth watching Chevalier confesses that she cruises museums stopping only to look at things that speak to her. I concur and approach them in similar fashion. Life is entirely too short to stare at art that doesn't reach back and touch your soul. That is where we part ways. I do not get bored in art museums. There was a time in my life, I think, when I primarily approached them as she does, looking for a story within the image, but not since I discovered the magic that is painting with oils. Now, I am a docent's worst nightmare. Leaning over the rope, as close to the painting as possible without actually touching it, as if to inhale creative genius by proximity, I try to comprehend the individual strokes, the perfectly mixed color, the composition of it all. Perhaps that will help you understand what struck me as the perfect introduction to Chevalier's talk: "I am not a writer, but.." It seemed so perfect, until I comprehended  with horror its meaning: that maybe deep down I wasn't really what I was claiming to be, maybe I was constructing a writing facade with nothing behind it but a desire to paint and draw.

I am a bit of a platypus, I suppose. The platypus is probably entirely happy with itself. It doesn't realize that it looks like an incongruent amalgamation of dissimilar animals: beaver, duck, reptile, snake, bear. It is just itself, and itself is a wonderful thing which is perfectly suited to everything it does. Sometimes, I feel about myself the way I feel about the platypus (not the way I imagine the platypus feels about itself). I have so many interests. Writing  drawing, and painting are only the beginning of the list. I also love cooking, interior design, gardening, architecture, history, anthropology. The list goes on actually. It is hard sometimes to see how all of the parts will fit together, or even to know which ones to pursue or keep.

I discovered a gem of a book this week. Since it's a New York Times Bestseller, it seems that I'm the only one who didn't know it existed. Steal Like an Artist by Austin Kleon is like a concentrated tangible compilation of all the amorphous things I absorbed about making art and being an artist in Hollins' art classes, plus a few more. He writes, "If I'd waited to know who I was or what I was about before I started 'being creative, ' well, I'd still be sitting around trying to figure myself out instead of making things. In my experience, it's in the act of making things and doing our work that we figure out who we are" (27). Maybe I won't end up being a writer. Maybe I'll end up being an artist. Maybe I'll be an artist who writes instead of a writer who draws. Who knows. I'll never find out if I don't explore them all. Sometimes making it as a creative seems to be all about branding and laying claim to a very narrow niche, so it was refreshing to hear a successful writer say, "If you have two or three real passions, don't feel like you have to pick and choose between them. Don't discard. Keep all your passions in your life" (68). All of them are integral to who I am. All of them are expressions of me. I'll never figure out which ones are hobbies and which ones might earn me bread and butter if I  curate before I explore. If I learned anything this week, it's that it's okay, in fact it might even be good, to be a platypus.

Sunday, February 3, 2013

at least the diapers aren't frozen

I borrowed The Irrational Season by Madeleine L'Engle as a treat solely for myself. It's not about being a better anything and it doesn't have pictures. Not that I don't like books with pictures; I adore books with pictures. I'm just not usually choosing them for myself. The daydream attached to this particular book as I picked it up at the library featured me snuggled down into the glider, foot moving rhythmically out of habit, baby at my breast, his little body warm and sleepy, light from the reading lamp falling over my shoulder. I might as well have imaged a hot cup of tea able to hover in mid-air where I could actually reach it without distracting the little guy.

Baby has decided that pretty much everything is more interesting than eating (unless Mommy makes him wait until he is very hungry). If it rustles and Mom is trying to read it, it needs to be inspected and preferably chewed on (if that can be managed). Did I mention the glider is also in the room where my daughter sleeps? So I found myself sitting criss-cross applesauce (because apparently we can't call it sitting Indian style anymore) in the middle of my bed, with the baby more or less slurping down his late night snack, trying to surreptitiously use a pillow to prop open my book. Just when it looked like I might make some progress on the first chapter, he started doing the windmill thing with his free arm and I found myself staring at chapter ten instead. I didn't dare move, so I started reading, and that was serendipitous.

Let me digress for a moment. Last night as I was trudging around the outside house to the basement in my bathrobe, leaving crisp sneaker prints in the snow, and feeling like my hair was going to freeze to my head (because of course I wouldn't be lovable scatterbrained me, if I had remembered to start the diapers before getting a shower), I remembered L'Engle confessing on that very page:
There was, for me, nothing idyllic about struggling to raise our children, trying to keep house in drafty old Crosswicks where the washing machine--once I had graduated from doing the laundry in the bathtub and had a washing machine--froze during the winter months at least twice a week, usually full of diapers; and we were never warm around the edges. (180)
The world was not so difficult after all. My washing machine does not freeze. It's in the basement which stays relatively warm. I don't have to wash diapers. I choose to because it's something I want to do. I don't even have to fold them, or use pins. Diapers have come a long way since I helped my mother change, wash, and fold. We stay pretty warm too, even around the edges, especially when my husband isn't home to turn down the thermostat. I'm not sure what my excuses are for not writing and making art.

L'Engle continues:
There was nothing idyllic in the violent conflict between Madeleine, wife and mother, and Madeleine, writer. I struggled to write under the worst possible conditions, after the children were in bed--that force field of concentration would have been a dangerous idea while they were awake and active. Like most young mothers I was constantly tired. 
I love L'Engle. She is honest--honest about pain, struggle, and imperfection just as she is honest about joy and triumph. And so I keep returning to her work, even though I don't always reach the same conclusions. So often it reaches me right where I am. Sometimes it illuminates where I want to be.

Added to fatigue was struggling to cope with failure, which looked as though it would have no end. I was trying to develop as a writer, but I received from editors nothing but a long stream of rejection slips, mostly the impersonal printed ones, although I had already had several books published, and with moderate success. (180)

This is where I want to be next year. No, not the several published books part. Okay, I do want that but it's about as likely to happen within the next year as my dream trips to the Alhambra or Angkor Wat. I'm not known for being a realist but I do deign to acknowledge what is actually possible once in a while. What I am after are those horribly impersonal rejection slips.

I gave up piano lessons (which I adored) when I was in college the first time because  Dad was afraid I would make a "B" in one of my classes. Later I went to Hollins determined to graduate at the top of my class. I didn't believe in failing at anything. All my life I had avoided everything I thought I might not be great at because I didn't want to disappoint anyone. Yeah, I hadn't done a whole lot. My definition of failing: anything less than an "A." I'm glad I had an advisor who changed that, who encouraged me to take on more than I could possibly do perfectly, who didn't think less of me when I failed, who helped me see that there is as much value in reaching for something great with every fiber of my being, as in actually being able to grasp it.

So this year I am reaching. For the first time since I was a little girl there is a story that seems to exist outside of myself. Not something that I am trying to manufacture but something that I am desperately chasing. It keeps rounding corners and I can only catch glimpses of it. It's a children's story and all of the illustrations keep coming first. Everyone knows that you don't submit your own drawings with a children's manuscript, but I suppose I'll have to drag them out of my head and into a sketchbook anyway, if I ever want to find the words that go with them. This year I can finally chase my dreams, my stories, my art, because this year I am not afraid to fall flat on my face. In fact, I want to. I'll learn something. No matter how difficult writing and drawing seems, at least I can revel in the fact that at my house the diapers don't freeze.