Tag Archives: arts

La Gilbert

Liz BN EventSay what you want about behemoth bookshops. Barnes & Noble has been quite good to me over the years, if only for the fact that they have provided me with opportunities to exchange a laugh or two with people who completely inspire me.

(Note to self: tell the story about meeting the graceful Susan Egan in a New York City BN and how she subsequently, divinely, and synchronistically sent you the elusive sheet music you had been seeking out for months. Well, actually, that’s pretty much the story.)

Last Monday, Barnes & Noble sent me Elizabeth Gilbert.

Yes, I’m a big Eat, Pray, Love fan. Who isn’t? Who didn’t read that book and all of a sudden treat themselves to luxurious artist dates consisting of solitary brunches and meditative labyrinth walks? Who didn’t follow her journey and repetitively conjure up friend after friend who would appreciate this section or that? “Oh, Suzanna would love this part about Italy,” I would think to myself while reading, and “I wonder what Stacia would think about this part in the ashram?” or “I can absolutely see Lisa and Tatiana and I having this conversation over dinner at French Roast.” And on it went. Book clubs happened. Copies were wrapped in Christmas paper and sent to the post. It was, and still is, at the top of my reading recommendation list.

But I think the appeal of that book is more than the fact that it’s a good read. I think the appeal comes from the fact that it’s so incredibly relatable. The voice is not an unfamiliar one. And as we watch the author “Frankenstein” her way through her experiences, as she might say, we get a sense of how to go about unpacking our own journeys, or at least perhaps how to  summon the courage to try. (Please note: the word “Frankenstein” can only be used as a verb if it is accompanied with the proper Frankenstein’s monster-ish walk, a proper illustration of what it is like, sometimes, to do “new and scary things.”)

“Writing is the thread that has sewn my life together,” said Elizabeth Gilbert at the Barnes & Noble event space adjacent to the loudly colorful children’s section. At least, I think that’s what she said. In a moment of haste, regretting the absence of a notebook in my purse, I busted out a pencil and started scratching in the back of my copy of her latest offering, The Signature of All Things. Anyone who knows me has witnessed those moments when I am caught scrutinizing my own writing as if it were a secret message from Orphan Annie and I am sans a decoder ring. (Yes, my life revolves around Christmas references. Get over it.) So, bear with me.

I think anyone who calls herself a writer would recognize that notion of not being able to truly understand things until they’ve been… I was going to say “written down,” but actually I think “written through” is the more accurate preposition. To “write something down” has such finality. To “write through something” implies work, journey, understanding. Joan Didion said it so many times in her personal essays: “I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means.” Even now, I have a dear friend who is Frankensteining her way through unpacking her childhood abuse, writing through her experiences, bringing light to the dark corners.

I don’t know if Liz Gilbert feels exactly this way, but she contended that she even after the great success of EPL, she knew she couldn’t leave writing behind, get a big house, and “raise Corgis.” And so it is. Writing as necessity. In her own “Thoughts on Writing,” she says, “I never promised the universe that I would write brilliantly; I only promised the universe that I would write.” Joan said, “We tell stories in order to live.” Indeed.

Of course, this blog is about the not writing, the question of what happens when that is true and yet the words/space/time/healthy psychological headspace don’t seem to come. Liz had some things to say about this, too.

Starting with something like “stop trying to find your passion.”

Instead, she said, seek out curiosity. “Passion” is a word so fraught with anxiety, she said, that it becomes yet another weight to bear sometimes. Follow curiosity, that “small tap on the shoulder that makes you turn your head just a quarter of an inch. It’s smaller, quieter, and less intimidating.”

Cue the cumulative sigh of everyone in the room abandoning their stressful adherence to “finding their passions.”

I love this about Liz. (I can call her “Liz,” because we are obviously BFFs now.) She completely dispels the idea of the tortured writing process. “Artistic torment is a really romantic idea,” she said in an interview with Globe and Mail last month, “but it’s not very conducive to output.” In other words, she admits that her artistic process “would not make a very good biopic.”

Since she was raised on a farm, she says, her writing process is seasonal: the season for inspiration, the season for research, the season for writing, editing, and finally, for rest. Sometimes these seasons can take days, and sometimes they can take months. Sometimes, like winter in Westeros, they can take years.

The Signature of All Things was written from a 70-page outline, which was constructed from the index-card fruit of three years in the research season. (Shout out to her West Civ teacher, Mr. Kisco, and his index card research methodologies.)

Three years of research. Three years of preparation. Three years of curiosity. After that, writing was like painting a room where the the furniture had already been moved and the windows pre-taped.

“I feel sorry for the girl I was in my 20s,” she laughed, who would often try to paint only to realize there was a couch in the way. She spoke of sitting and staring at the blank page wondering where the inspiration was going to come from. She would later discover the way of the creative warrior.

“Inspiration is like a one-night stand,” she said. “Creativity is a 40-year marriage.”

elizabeth-gilbertTEDOf course, we’ve all seen her eloquent TED talk, where she outlines the potential parameters of genius, inspiration, and creativity.

But the counterweight to creativity? Compassion.

In a discussion about women and artistic pursuits, Liz pointed out that we are very likely a “new species.” We have no role models, no history, no mythology to reference as we go about our lives making decisions about family and career and balance. Never before have we had such freedom of self-determination. Here, she referenced Martha Beck, fans of her Facebook page, and also her sister as examples of the one thing that will enable us to truly embrace who we are and shine appropriately – compassion, for each other, but most importantly for ourselves.

“Martha Beck defines the mystic as the woman who chooses family, or career, or both, but has enough compassion for herself not to constantly berate herself for not choosing the other path,” said Liz, sort of. She then told a tale of her sister and a significant gesture of compassion she extended towards another mother who was spiraling into an oblivion of unworthiness after witnessing the gingerbread houses that her own kids had put together while being babysat by Liz’s sister. That conversation started with “You’re a better mother than I am” and ended with, simply, “Let’s not do this to each other.”

The Facebook has become an extension of this compassionate community, aka “Tribe Liz,” and visiting her page is like a run-in with someone offering free hugs. But, the cool part is that she is quick to return the embrace. She keeps track of her people, reaching out to them when necessary, tethering them to the font of support which that space has become. There is the story of the young woman on the other side of the world who has shared her hardships on the page, who was sent a copy of The Signature of All Things, who responded in broken English with “You care on me!”

“Yes,” said Elizabeth Gilbert. “I care on you.” And, the funny thing is, in this world where our heroes are constantly disappointing us, she really does.

Check her out on book tour now.

me and Liz

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Write Out the Dark Spots

Cue scary self-imposed writing assignment.

When I started this blog, I thought it would be a great place to catalog my creative musings, my challenges, my inspirations, and my understanding of the writing process as I experience it.

(Insert eye roll…here.)

While these things have made for some interesting, if not relatively entertaining, writing, and I have received some amazingly supportive feedback for which I am extremely appreciative, I have recently realized that these goals that I had in mind are really all just pretense.  There is, in fact, only one reason why I’ve started this blog, and it’s taken me 26 entries to figure it out.  Basically, it is this:

I am a writer who is not writing.

I want to know why.

These past 26 posts have therefore been a surreptitious journey of self-discovery, or as I now like to call it:  throw everything against the wall and see what sticks.  My secret hope, I think, was that if I could publicly display my inner sanctum of creative wrestlings, then maybe, just maybe, I could hold myself accountable long enough to actually finish writing…something.  So, out on the wall has gone my list of three, my heroes, my mentors, my places of inspiration, my strategies – each a perfectly valid ingredient of my creative process.

But nothing has stuck.

Except for the idea that I am sort of fooling myself.

Because every post is really just dancing around the issue.  The main issue.  The one issue.  The only issue.

As a writer, I am struggling with more than just time crunches and inspiration wells.  There are more barriers to my creative output than just figuring out when I can actually sit down and write or what to write about.  My struggle, as I’ve mentioned, is actually how to keep going.

But, more truthfully (insert deep breath here), my real struggle is why I should keep going.

Yes, I mean why on a rather large, rather dark, sort of scale.

1.
Death.
We seem to understand each other better these days. 
Maybe it’s because I’m stalking him.  I don’t know. 
I don’t have malicious intentions.  I just want to know him better.   
I ask him, “Hey, Death.  What’s up?”
Sometimes, we sit next to each other at Starbucks. 
We don’t say much, just sip our coffee and share space. 
Sometimes Death asks me, “Why do you want to know me so badly?”
Sometimes I answer, “I just want to try you on sometimes.”
“How do I fit?” he asks.
“Too easily,” I say.
“Well, that won’t do,” says Death.  “After all, you like things extra complicated.”
It’s true.  Death knows me well.
Finally, I say to Death, “Let’s go home.”

Someone said to me recently that it is necessary go into the dark places so your light can shine brighter.  While this may sound cliché (and a little bit like science!), it has lately become an insistent and overwhelming theme in my own morning pages:  “Write them out!  Write out the dark spots!” my pink handwriting scolds me over coffee and strains of Josh Groban.

My first reaction:  “What dark spots?  I don’t have any dark spots.  I’m sunshine and blonde and smiles.  There are no dark spots here.  Why are you looking at me like that?”  Then, I think of Susan Aston, my first year acting professor, who quietly regarded me after one of my monologues before simply stating, “You have rage.”

Gulp.

So, okay, maybe there are some shadowy places, but even so, no one wants to hear about that.  Not my parents, not my friends, not Smile Scavenger, not the anonymous readers out there in the blogo-dark.  This blog is supposed to be at least 10% inspiring.  How inspiring could discussing that possibly be?

Pretense.

If I really want to get to the bottom of why I’m not writing, I have to address this.  As scary as it may be to say aloud, the truth of my unwritten-ness lies in these dark spots, the ones we don’t talk about at parties, as Col. Jessup says.

But more so, the truth of my actual writing is that it is always about this darkness, whether I like it or not.  Because in not acknowledging it, everything I produce is merely an avoidance of it.  This avoidance, even unconsciously, colors every word I write, makes me less truthful on the page, and severely limits any skill I may possess.  Sooner or later, if I am going to continue on this particular path, I have to face these demons.  And, unfortunately, I can’t fake them out with fairy dust and glitter bombs.  Or year-round Christmas music, for that matter.

2.
I find Death in the bedroom where he is hanging curtains.
“Death,” I ask.  “What do you think of Christmas music?”
Death doesn’t stop what he is doing, but he looks over his shoulder and watches me, my head bowed in concentration, spinning through my iPod playlists.
“I like Christmas,” Death says.  He goes back to hanging the curtains.
“But what about the music?” I persist, looking up at him.
Death stops hanging the curtains.  He turns around.
“Why are you asking me about Christmas?”  He is stern.
“I just want to know,” I reply.
“Do
you like Christmas music?” he asks.
“Yes,” I say.
“Then why am
I here?” Death asks.
I stare at Death for a moment and then I leave the room quickly, cheeks burning. 
Shut up, Death, I think.  What do you know?

So, what are those demons, exactly?  It’s a valid question.  I don’t have an answer.

All I know is that they come, fast and furious, swooping into my mind and body like shadows of freezing rain.  I stop writing.  I stop smiling.  I wake up in the morning surprised I am still here.

Those who know me may be a little surprised at this point that any dark thoughts at all go through my head ever.  Those who know me really well are aware of my struggles with questions like “What is the point of all of this?” – struggles that have often left me crying in random places like workplace bathrooms and libraries.

As a person, in life, I generally present as happy and life-loving and that is not a lie.  But, just like artists who don’t paint and singers who don’t sing and – insert any creative type who doesn’t fulfill her inner calling here – , writers who don’t write are not complete people.  And when I’m faced with a blank page, the darkness creeps in so easily.  I wonder, if I’m not going to fulfill my potential today, then what am I doing here in the first place?  And the more my thoughts spin on these meditations, the more painful it can be just being in my own body.  And that’s when the darkness can become…well, really dark.

This is hard to write about.  From an outside perspective, I understand these feelings as selfish, whiny, and, of course, ones that should not be indulged.  More so, this sort of darkest dark has gotten the better of at least one person close to me in my life.  I know it as a very scary, very helpless place to be.

Nevertheless, there it is.  Ever-looming, ever-present, ever-daring me to run past it if I can and actually create something amazeballs.  And honestly, sometimes I just don’t have enough energy for the Red Rover.

3.
My mother wants to stop in and see my grandmother at her retirement home. 
I ask if Death can come. 
She looks at me, smiles awkwardly, and gets into the car. 
I look at Death and shrug. 
“That’s okay,” says Death.  “You know how I hate that place. 
Everyone is always staring at me like I’m out to get them or something.”
“Some people are just bigots, Death,” I tell him.  “You can’t take it personally.”
Death nods.  He goes into the house. 
After a moment, I hear the sound of the television.

It was on one of these days of feeling too tired to fight that I started writing “Creepy Little Death Poems.”

I have no idea why exactly, but that day, while I was crying in a library, I decided that instead of trying to write in spite of the darkness, I would instead write about it.  “Tiffany, just do your work,” was also something that Susan Aston used to say and, in that moment, that was the only work I could do.  I’ve never been sure of anything in my life except that I’m a writer.  So, I wrote.  Now, it seems like a no-brainer.  Then, it was a quiet revelation.

Charged with addressing what was in front of me, I began to personify my darkness – the looming, ominous, oppressiveness that holds me prisoner from my own creativity.  Eventually, I gave my darkness a name.  I called it Death.  (Not very creative, I know.  Thinking back on it, I probably should have called it Carl, or Albert, or Francois.)  Unshockingly, as I started to describe Death, I couldn’t help but picture The Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come from A Muppet Christmas Carol.

Maybe Christmas will help me out of this after all

Once I had my darkness described, I could start talking with it.  My conversations became little poems.  And the little poems actually made me laugh.  And because I started laughing and stopped snotting on library books, my darkness called Death in that moment didn’t seem so vast and incomprehensible and oppressive.  He became sort of a pal.  Admittedly, not a very, you know, comforting pal.  But a pal, none the less.

In this forum, I felt courageous enough to address my feelings and ideas about the darkness that I would not be comfortable talking about with actual people.  Because,  you know, Death wouldn’t judge me for having dark places.  He’s Death.  He totally doesn’t care.

The more I began to write about my own dark places, the less I became afraid of them, or ashamed of them, or more depressed because they existed in the first place.  Instead of passively experiencing them, I could, instead, actively explore them.  Within the bubble of my creative work that day, I felt powerful instead of powerless.

For the first time ever, I experienced my own writing as transformative.

Plus, it cracked me up to think of this large, lurking figure just kicking it with me over mochacinos.

4.
“Where’s Death?” my mother asks.
I look around.  I spot him out back.
“He’s out by the pool,” I say.
“Well, see if he wants a sandwich.”
I wander through the sliding glass door.
Death sits with his feet dangling in the pool.  He is lost in thought, watching the sunlight dance on the clear, chlorinated water.  He looks up at me as I approach.
“Mom wants to know if you want a sandwich,” I say.
“No,” he says quietly.  “I’m good.”
There is an awkward pause.  Then, I sit down on the hot cement next to him and stick my feet into the cool water.  We sit in our familiar shared silence for a moment.  Death keeps staring at the deep shimmering water.  I watch Death stare at the water.
After a moment, I ask.  “Do you ever think about…”
“Sometimes,” says Death.
“But you wouldn’t ever…”
 “Probably not,” says Death, quickly. He looks at me.  “It’s a little redundant.”
I look down at my feet through the water and swirl them around. 
I knew he was going to say that.

I’m not going to lie.  It’s extremely uncomfortable to be writing about – let’s call it what it is – depression – in a public forum.  I certainly am not presenting any sort of quick fix and even this strategy does not work for me all of the time.  But “writing out the dark spots” turned out to be a literal task, and a good one, sort of like cleaning out the corners of a room I was so used to seeing filled with dust that I never realized they didn’t have to be like that.  And frankly, it is a relief to admit the stark reality of my own creative blocks, instead of just opening a giant can of whitewash.

Sometimes we have to write about things in order to understand them at all.  Joan Didion taught me that.

Let’s be clear:  I do not think that my death stories will be my literary legacy.  But, the writing feels – maybe for the first time? – truthful.  So, maybe if I “write out the dark spots” for a little while longer, I will understand more fully what it is to write truthfully.  Then, maybe, I won’t have to write about the darkness anymore.

A long time ago, I said to a friend of mine that I thought my writing would one day save my life.  When I said that, I was thinking that it might bring me fame and fortune, or at least a sustainable income.  I didn’t think it would bring me “Creepy Little Death Poems.”

But, nevertheless, I was right.

 

creepy little death poems picFebruary 2, 2014: Tiffany Tang has since published a volume of ‘creepy little death poems’ due to the overwhelming response to this post.

The book is available here.

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First Friday Five – Dominic Carrillo

On this Friday, an addendum to the First Friday interview from last week.  Enjoy…

Gentle Reader – I have always been fascinated by the specifics of a creative’s life.  As one who seems to handle no less than four or five employment or volunteer opportunities simultaneously, I have found that the nuts and bolts of accomplishing my personal creative work sometimes seem elusive.  In short, I dread making routine out of what I feel should be reserved for the realms of inspiration.  Cut to my unfinished novel.  It is therefore my intention to grill First Friday writers mercilessly on their particular writing habits in hopes that, one day, my muses and I may agree on a somewhat habitual appointment schedule for our meetings.  – TT

Five Questions for Dominic Carrillo

1.  Novel writing takes tenacity.  What keeps you/kept you coming back to the page?

What helped at first was the illusion that it wouldn’t take very long to finish a novel.  I imagined a few weeks of getting it all on the page, and then maybe a few months of revising.  I was also forming To Be Frank Diego by piecing together some stuff I had already written, so I thought I had done maybe half the work and the rest would be easy.  So, I was delusional, really.  I naively believed it would be a much easier and shorter process.  Once reality kicked in though, I still believed I could and would finish the novel—and thought I had finished it on at least three different occasions.

Once I started really “seeing” the story, it did become easier to write and want to finish it.  What I mean by “seeing” is that as I kept writing and revising, visual images of the scenes in each chapter became more and more vivid, which made the writing more enjoyable too.  I saw the story unfold in a certain way—kind of like a movie–to the point where it felt as if I were simply retelling a story that actually happened.  Towards the end, about a year and a half into it, my motivation was mainly in finishing it and making it better. The homestretch wasn’t fun and it wasn’t pretty, so I had to set deadlines for myself and seek professional editing help.  I’m by no means dependent on the encouragement of others, but I’d be lying if I said that didn’t help too.

2.  Is your writing style different now from when you began writing the novel?

My writing style is different now than it was two years ago, yes. I find myself self-editing more as I write because I know my tendencies and bad habits a little bit better.  For example, I know I can be redundant.  I’m also more aware that I sometimes overwrite, or make sentences more complicated than they need to be.   And the list goes on.  But the point is that now I edit as I go in an effort to make my voice clear, simple, and occasionally funny.  I think when I wrote my first draft, I used a lot more grad school type words (ubiquitous and repudiate and such) in an effort to prove my literary chops, or intellect, or whatever you want to call it.  After re-reading it I thought, “Not only do I not talk that way, but I don’t really like it when people talk to me that way either.”  So the tone of my writing has come down to earth a bit more. It’s less academic.  I’m no longer trying to impress anyone with my word choices.  Now I’m simply trying to tell a story that flows, feels authentic, connects to people, and has some sense of humor.

3.  What is your typical writing schedule?  (time of day/duration/location/music?)

 I don’t know if I have a writing schedule.  When I begin a big writing project—and this is a grand total of three times in my life so far—I isolate myself for at least a week.  I get obsessed with an idea that’s been marinating in my head, and dive into writing about it with little regard to the time of day, my food intake, other humans, etc.  Once I emerge from my cave, I let the story sit for a week or so, and then return to it for a few hours each day.  I’m not a morning person, so I like writing in the afternoon or at night, either in silence or with instrumental music on in the background.  And I need to be alone at the beginning of the process.  For re-writing or revision, I like to go to a coffee shop like the one I’m sitting at right now.

4.  Did you have a vision of what this project would be before you started?  Did the book fulfill that vision or depart from it? 

I wanted to write a novel for maybe seven years, but I had no strong vision of what it would be.  About four years ago, the idea of Frank Diego’s story began to develop.  At first I visualized only a few scenes, then (about two years ago) the story concept came together and I wrote 80 pages in two weeks.  Since then the story and its characters have evolved quite a bit.  Many chapters have been added and cut.  But I knew from the time I wrote those first 80 pages that it would become a novel– mostly because I knew of the online self-publishing industry, and I knew anyone could “publish” a novel these days.  Now that it’s in printed book form, it’s just a question of: Is it decent and interesting enough to be purchased and read by a large audience?  That still remains to be seen.  So, the initial vision of To Be Frank Diego has been fulfilled and has evolved far beyond my first concept of the story.  But the project itself will not be finished—or fulfilled– until I’ve promoted it far beyond my friends and Facebook contacts and had some anonymous critical feedback.

5.  Who was your most influential teacher? Author?

I have flashes of many good teachers who’ve influenced me.  First, there was Dr. Bennett, who somehow made me feel like I was smart back in the eighth grade when I felt pretty dumb.  He was encouraging and inspirational.  I also remember my first writing teacher my freshman year in college.  When we met and discussed my creative writing assignment, he sounded very sympathetic and told me he was sorry about my traumatic childhood experience I’d written about.  He explained that he could tell it really happened to me.  When I told him it was pure fiction, he was a bit embarrassed, but it gave me an indication that I might be a decent writer.

Jervey Tervalon was my creative writing teacher at UCLA.  He was the first published author I’d met, so when he encouraged me to write more, it meant a lot.  He also advised me to write what I know about most, based on personal experience, and that’s stuck with me.  But the most influential teachers over the last ten years have been, hands down, my own students.

Dominic Carrillo will be signing books at the Art Bar in New York City on Thursday, July 19th, 6-8 pm.  You can read more about him and To Be Frank Diego here.

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