The Best Thing that Ever Happened to my Writing

A number of things have helped my writing along, but best thing that ever happened was to stop caring so much.  This came about gradually. In fact it took a couple of decades.

Rejection hastened things along. “No. Sorry. I’m afraid I’m not the right for this.”  “You have me stumped; I can’t do a thing with this.” “Just didn’t connect.” “Too ambitious for us.” And the mean spirited: This has no artistic merit whatsoever.”

I was crushed by the first rejections, but I kept going and subsequent ones got easier. I understood that taste is personal and that reasonable minds can differ. Sometimes the rejections would reach me after the piece had already been published elsewhere. Twice, pieces that were rejected ended up with Pushcart Prize nominations.

Eventually, I gave up listening and trying to please. I gave up explaining and apologizing, and best of all, I gave up the rules.  Oh, I wasn’t stupid about it.  I continued to seek opinion and always considered what was being said, but I no longer worked to please another.

Instead, I shifted my focus to one thing only: the work and what I thought it required.

And that’s when it started to be fun. I wrote things the way they impressed me.  I took example and insight from other art forms—especially painting.  I left out all the boring parts and just wrote the interesting things. I paid zero attention to form. Right now, for example, I have a bunch of notes from a coffee shop in Amsterdam that I’m thinking of running as raw notes.   Would raw notes work for a blog on the writing process?  Maybe. I might try, and see where it takes me.

To stop caring so much means you let your internal compass guide what you hope to achieve and how you will get there. This allows you to work with a new vigor. You can throw away piles of pages, and start again, or not—no worries. You can take the one scene or character that you liked, and change the whole project, the entire point. In the painting world, you can throw the paint at the canvas or even tape the dripping brush to the wall and call it art, if you have your reasons.

And when your heart starts racing at the possibilities, then it’s going to be a good working day.

Comments welcome and edited to include first names only, and website, if provided; never your email. Photo by Thorsten Becker.

The Company You Keep

There’s a curator at a museum here who cuts a certain figure in this town. Smart and smartly dressed, sweet and hard-hitting, he’s built a reputation for cutting right through the rhetoric to get to the point.

I was sad to learn that he was leaving for another job, a bigger one waiting for him in Hawaii; he, his partner, and their brand new baby girl would soon be gone.

Until his last day here though, he was working. And there he was on a panel as well. The topic that packed the auditorium? How to get a curator’s attention. He said it straight, as always and maybe especially so, for he had nothing to lose.

Do this, this, this, and this, he said, ticking off the basics, and a roomful of artists scribbled down every word.

And then he added one more thing: Think about the friends you keep and make sure you hang out with other really good artists.

What? Pick my friends according to talent? Rather cold, isn’t it? But he had his reasons.  

He said that if he sees an artist who’s connected to someone he already knows or admires, it tells him certain things:

  • that the artist in question is serious about his work, serious enough to want to learn, to want to take a risk and jump into the conversation;
  • that the studio visit will be interesting;
  • that the conversation will be substantive; and
  • that any business that might ensue between them will go smoothly.

Does it mean that he will like the artist’s work? Not necessarily, but with his curiosity sharpened, he will look.

So, what’s this mean to a writer? Two things. The first is that you must continually seek out and learn from your betters, that to do so will not just improve your work but mark you as someone to take seriously. Second, if you are still debating whether to attend that class, that conference, that lunch, that gathering, that lecture, that forum—put on your smiley face and just go.

Comments welcome and edited to include first names only, and website, if provided; never your email. Photo credits: three women “Grandpa’s friends” – freeparking; two boys – Stu Seeger.

The Writer as Thief

Once, I had a painter boyfriend who used me as a model—a second-story paint studio flooded with light, one stool in the middle, and endless hours in a warm sun. He must have painted some four or five canvases, flowing long dresses, my hair twisted up on some. I don’t know where any of those portraits are today, or even if they exist, and the whole idea of them rests uneasily.

Decades later, I hired a painter to render images of my boys. She came, took lots of photos, went to her studio, and painted. The pictures turned out well and hang still in the house. But a year or so after that, I came across my own image done by her, big as life, in a show she was doing downtown, throngs people looking.

From her photo archive, she had constructed a portrait of me, and there it was on her very yellow wall. Shocked? Yes. But how irritated could I be with her? Didn’t I, too, draw freely at the well?

The writer is always on the take. He needs information, impressions, answers to his questions. He needs to observe, understand. And when his cup is full, he retreats to his hidey-hole and works to create something fresh and new. But in the process, has he taken something that belongs to someone else? Even if subtle: an image, say, a character trait, a bit of someone’s personal history spun for his own good?

How to stay a writer and minimize the effects of being a thief?  For me, two rules help.

First, I ask.

Sure, I’d rather just sit here and sip my coffee and press PUBLISH whenever I feel like it, but if it involves you, say, even if only sort of, kind of, I’d have to check first, make sure you won’t feel ambushed, or robbed, or betrayed. I might even want to verify some facts. And I might too, depending upon the circumstances, seek a definitive blessing to proceed.

Next—and the harder of the two—I strive for clarity.

This is an intricate subject, involving everything from the quotidian mechanics of a decent sentence to the larger questions of science and law. But certainly, and at a minimum, we are well served with an arm’s length perspective and a super sharp pair of ruthlessly wielded pruning shears.

Photo credits: thief –

How Much Does it Weigh?

I know an artist who works in metal, using tools like anvils and a blow torch in an unheated warehouse studio. Hard-tipped shoes are a good idea if you’re going to hang around and watch.

Sparks fly, and the racket of her creation can be heard halfway across the field. In that field, by the way, are giant metal cloves of garlic—so soft looking, you touch, and she doesn’t mind. She likes the feel of metal herself. Paper, she says, just crumbles in her hands. But metal can stand up to her process. This artist likes to wail and command. And yet, remarkably, she can turn out delicate things like her series of pin-up girls—Whoopsie girls, she calls them—ruffles flounced and hemlines lifted a la Marilyn.

Hers is a genuine vision: no deceit—just a woman, all female, all attitude, who loves her tools.

Watching her, I am reminded: we writers are in the same business as these visual artists.

We, too, have a vision, strain against obstacles, and want to push our medium to do things that seem impossible. We, too, in our flailing and banging, seek to produce something strong that matters.

How we pull it off—our skill, our wit—is irrelevant to the reader. And what we might mean by it—our message, our purpose—is the booby prize. All that matters for us, as is true for the visual artist, is how a finished work sits with a person. Does it have weight? Does it have resonance?

As writers, we can achieve this just as we see this metal artist go about it: by pursuing something that makes sense to us, by following process, by having a really good time with it, at least on a good day, and never mind the noise, or the dangers, or least of all the outcome.

Photo credits: welding torch – Alejandro Macias, sxc; anvil – Andrea Brancaccio, Italy, sxc.

Flamingo a-go-go . . . fixing a mistake.

If you’ve never made a mistake, you’ve never tried anything.

Artist John Brickels was reminded of this when he agreed to decorate a pink plastic flamingo for a fundraiser to benefit the local arts community.  He incorporated it into one of his clay pieces, thinking he could bring his artistry to bear to “overpower the bird,” but the bird won.  The Flamingo Must Go

A typical Brickels work speaks to a bygone era, a gentler age of automats, voluptuous cars, and gas station attendants.  He recalls with nostalgic pleasure how people used to dress to go downtown, pert little hats and white gloves on the ladies headed to  Hudson’s, Detroit’s best department store.  He still vacations here to be closer to the automotive industry. As a young man, his dream job was to be able to carve the automotive models out of clay. Machines do it today.

Never mind. He would make his own machines, carved of clay. Gorgeous things, but without any birds involved, so when he learned that my husband bought this pink flamingo piece, he was anxious to get it back. “Bring me the bird,” he said in an email, and I dropped it off at his studio.

A couple of weeks later, I returned to pick up the piece, and it had been transformed into quite a beauty. He had removed the front grill, extracted the bird, and filled the clay cavity with hand-carved gears and screws. He added wires, a working gauge, and LED lights, as well, and the capstone was a masterpiece: a Rayethon tube, circa 1950s.

He flicked a switch, and the sculpture ticked, hummed, and glowed.  “It was liberating,” he said, his face alight as he reflected on weeks’ labor. Before me stood a very happy artist, and I think how only those who make mistakes can feel this joy.

Ten photos follow, the finished piece and elated artist at the end. Caution, several are gruesome, but gruesome moments can be part of the process when setting right a mistake.

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Photo credits: Lead photo and the two of the artist by Michael Metz; other photos, property of the artist.

The Lines

I knew an artist once who stood before a human-sized canvas and drew  lines from left to right, over and over and over, all the way down the canvas from her head to her blue-shoed, paint-speckled toes.

I hung around some mornings on the couch in her studio. It was attic space, unheated in that year but plenty of light, and no need to tidy up if it didn’t suit her. I kept my coat on, tucked my feet under me, and drank the coffee she did without. This was freehand. She couldn’t risk the shakes.

She worked, and we talked, all the highs and lows of the neighborhood taken on. What is lucky about a visual artist’s work is that there can be a portion of it where they can socialize. At that point, it’s about the hand, not the mind. I don’t find anything comparable in a writer’s life, and I envy that luxury.

Still, though we conversed, she held her concentration to the canvas. Over and over, her back to me, she drew her freehand lines across a black canvas, pencil on black paint, enough lines by which to write a novel by the time she was done (not really, but a lot).

I watched her careful craft, never mind the art, and wondered what it was that brought her to do this work, no coffee, even, no heat.

I never lingered more than an hour. I had my own blank pages waiting for my lines. At least it doesn’t matter in my work if my hand was shaky.

Why do it at all?

Possibly, it’s a form of obsession. Perhaps we, who insist on filling blank spaces with our scratching, do it from some nameless urgency to reduce a thing to its most specific, most useful, and most exact form. Call it a search for precision in a messy world.

Turns out, that line painting came my way. It’s hanging outside my office.

The Flamingo Must Go

It’s my good fortune to know a lot of visual artists. Painters, mostly, but also potters and printmakers, landscape architects, photographers, and people who work in fabric, stone, glass, metal, bottle caps, trash, and who knows what else in this rich community. John Brickels works in clay. All his pieces are brown.

In years past, he was interested in things in gentle decline, like his falling-down barns and beat-up cars. Lately, the pieces are sleeker and industrial-looking. Picture nuts and bolts, or castoff plumbing, or machinery, the purpose for which is unclear, and still of brown stoneware. Cocoa-hued and steam punk, as one reviewer put it. These things carry weight, have mass.

Recently, the organizers of the Art Hop, a popular art event in town, asked Brickels to turn his artistry to the decoration of one of its emblems: a plastic pink flamingo. Brickels, a nice guy, worked it into one of his sculptures. That piece was auctioned off at a fund-raiser, and my collector husband bought it.

But there’s a problem. When one looks at the work, all one sees is the foreign element. There it is: a bird in captivity, the head sticking out of one end and its pink plastic body a long way away.

The bird is a distraction. It isn’t Brickels. And, apparently, the artist has rethought the matter as well. His e-mail, arriving months after the event, was brief: “The bird must go.”

It will take two of us to get the sculpture back to his studio, where he will address the matter. What’s he going to do? Fire it? Melt the bird? Carve it out? Disassemble the piece and start over? He isn’t sure.

Meanwhile, I intend to keep the head and will add it to the flower pot in the corner of our living room where all the other flamingos from past Art Hop events reside. It’s a reminder to me as to what can happen when one ambles too far down the road in a direction that just isn’t true to the situation, to what the artist wants to achieve. Whatever else, an artist must be true to his vision.

I’ll let you know when the piece returns.

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Photo credit:  top – Donald Cook; right – Michael Metz