The Artist, Undressed

No one likes to be vulnerable in front of others. Unfortunately, if you’re an artist of any kind, your best work will only come when you do just that.

Click here or on the graphic below for the story of when I was at my most vulnerable in front of an audience…

 

Rediscovering the Power of Idleness

In the second episode of Mad Men, Roger Sterling walks into Don Draper’s office and says, “I can never get used to the fact that most of the time it looks like you’re doing nothing.”

As both a professional copywriter and a novelist, I knew exactly what that meant. Creative work, whether you’re coming up with sales angles and headlines or plot twists and character arcs, requires marination — periods of time in which the writer looks like they are doing nothing at all when in reality there is a whole hell of a lot going on behind the scenes, as it were.

Whether lying on the fabulous mid-century modern couch in your swank NYC office, taking long walks in the woods, or just staring into space at your desk, “doing nothing” is important. It looks to all the world like idleness — laziness, even — especially to those with more visibly active jobs. But it isn’t.

I was recently talking with a friend whose kids are intensely scheduled — school, music lessons, sports, and other extracurricular activities, one right after another, nearly every day of the week. I felt exhausted just listening to her list them all out. When I commented on how that seemed like a lot for a kid to do, she responded that otherwise her son got bored. I’m going to go out on a limb and predict that her son will do something amazing with his life (and knowing his parents, I’m sure of it) but that thing will not be becoming a writer.

From my earliest days, I was a “lazy” child. After having had an extremely active (maybe even hyperactive) first baby who climbed and ran and tumbled all over the place, my worried mother actually asked the pediatrician if there was something wrong with little Erin, who spent most of her time sitting and staring off into space.

“She’s just thinking,” was his wonderful reply. And I guess I was.

As a kid I spent a lot of time drawing and reading and sitting in trees, all activities that allowed me to do a lot of thinking. Sure, I played sports and acted in plays and played an instrument as I got older, but most of the time, I preferred to just observe and think. I was never bored. I was never looking for more to do. In fact, I was really good at doing nothing at all, which, as I grew up, I realized not everyone can do.

My childhood talent for idleness came from my father, who loved nothing more after a long day at work than to turn the stereo up loud, sit down, and listen with eyes closed, drink in hand. He wasn’t someone who always had a bunch of projects going. He wasn’t going off to parties or performances. He liked being home and relaxing by himself. I can’t imagine him ever feeling lonely or bored during these times.

I certainly didn’t get my talent for doing nothing from my mother, who couldn’t sit down to watch a movie without also ironing or folding towels or cleaning out her purse. She was the list-maker, the errand-runner, the shopper, the one making dinner and cleaning the house. She was always productive in a way my father and I were not. Nowadays she’s learning to enjoy relaxing with a book (though I suspect she still can’t watch a movie without a sewing project in hand).

As a teenager, my sister jumped at the chance to get a job and earn money that she could spend while out with her friends. I resisted getting a job for as long as I could. I didn’t care about earning money because I didn’t go out with friends. I didn’t care about having a car, going to movies at the theater, going to the mall. Everything I liked to do, I did by myself and none of it cost more than I could earn doing chores around the house (which I would always put off until the last possible moment).

I was lazy and content.

Then at some point, perhaps once I was done with college, I turned into my mother.

With just a job and no school, I suddenly had a bunch of empty time to fill and a bit more money to spend. I began making lists and thinking up little projects and shopping for stuff I didn’t need. I started hobbies — scores of them — and filled my time with stuff to do. I still didn’t care to do the stuff that actually needed doing — like cleaning and laundry and grocery shopping — but by golly I made a lot of cards and jewelry and quilts.

I kept busy and I somehow got the notion into my head that any recreational time I had should be productive. That there should be some visible result or product of anything I did. Something to show for my time. I have no earthly idea where this notion came from. It certainly wasn’t a concept I was raised with. My parents never told me that “idle hands are the devil’s workshop.”

Maybe it was just the natural result of reading DIY magazines. Maybe I spent too much time at Michael’s and Jo-Ann’s. Maybe it was just living long enough in a frenetic, get-ahead-or-get-left-behind culture. I have no clue. But somehow I had lost the white space in my life. And while my twenties may have been extremely productive years in terms of things created, they were barren years in terms of creative thinking. They were years I thought about how I’d like to write . . . and yet didn’t write a word worth reading.

Lately I’ve been reclaiming my down time, from both responsibilities to others by quitting a few activities and from the arbitrary busyness I have tended to create for myself. I’ve spent entire afternoons reading and not felt guilty about wasting time. I’ve spent entire days closing myself off in a room to write. I’ve spent entire weeks off work without checking my email. I decided that it’s okay for my garden to just be pretty and not productive. It’s okay to binge-watch The Joy of Painting with Bob Ross. It’s okay to amble through a park and watch ducks and collect pretty leaves.

Nothing has to come of it all. It’s just pleasant idleness. It’s just enjoying myself, my family, and my world.

And in rediscovering the idleness I was so good at as a child, I find that I am recovering the “empty” time I need in order to write.

“I can never get used to the fact that most of the time it looks like you’re doing nothing,” Roger Sterling said to Don Draper. But he wasn’t doing nothing. He was doing his job, and doing it in such a way that he made his company quite successful.

At the end of our super busy months of September and October, I told my husband that I was not going to say yes to any invitation to go somewhere and do something on any Saturday in November. And except for one Saturday in December, the same conviction holds true. I don’t need the time to do anything specific at home beyond rake the leaves and do the laundry. I need that time to just do nothing. 

I know that to a lot of people this seems kind of rude and selfish and antisocial and lazy. But it really isn’t. My 9-5 job is writing. My avocation is writing. And my writing well is not filled by engaging in activity for activity’s sake. It’s filled by reading, walking, observing, thinking. It’s filled by things that look like nothing.

Writers like Virginia Woolf, Ernest Hemingway, William Wordsworth, Henry Miller, Charles Dickens, Henry David Thoreau, C.S. Lewis, Madeline L’Engle, and many others understood the importance of giving the mind room to work by simply taking a walk, and this article has a lot to say about why that is. I heard a speaker at a recent conference relay some advice she had drawn from another writer (whose name escapes me) that “If you aren’t reading so much that you feel guilty about it, you aren’t reading enough.”

“It is in our idleness, in our dreams,” said Virginia Woolf, “that the submerged truth sometimes comes to the top.” And if I, as a writer, intend to be about the business of discerning and presenting truth, I need the time that I need in order to discern it and present it in such a way that the reader experiences it in the most fulsome and lasting way possible.

If you are a writer or a painter or a poet or some other kind of artist who has been feeling guilty about the time required to do your art well, I invite you to join me in recovering and relishing your “idle” times — which of course we know are anything but. Others may not understand, but what they don’t realize is that every time they read a book or watch a movie or listen to a song that speaks to them, they’re enjoying the result of someone else’s strategic idleness.

On the Death of Artists

The literary world was dealt a double blow this week as two very different writers passed away at ripe old ages — Harper Lee at 89 and Umberto Eco at 84. Harper Lee published one book during her lifetime (evidence suggests she had little to do with the publication of Go Set a Watchman); Umberto Eco published around fifty, a combination of bestselling novels, literary criticism, and books for children. Practically every American who reads has heard of Harper Lee, while I would wager that only a small percentage of the US population has ever taken note of Umberto Eco, despite his prolific output and international success. Upon hearing of Lee’s death, people took to Facebook and Twitter to mourn. Eco? Two people I know (only one American) mentioned it.

It brings to mind questions of output, influence, and reach. What makes everyone able to connect Harper Lee and To Kill a Mockingbird while most of us scratch our heads when faced with a headline about Umberto Eco? Why does one morality tale from an unassuming Southern woman outshine decades of intellectual rigor and innovation from an Italian man who was, by all accounts, a literary giant?

I’ll be the first to admit when I heard Eco had died I was a bit embarrassed that I couldn’t call to mind even one of his books. I knew I’d read Eco’s literary criticism in college, could even remember the professor who had assigned him, but I couldn’t immediately call to mind any titles. Scanning his book titles online, nothing jumped out at me. I’d forgotten him.

Surely I’d find him in one of my anthologies, those bricks of onion skin pages English majors lugged around in college. I’d see what I’d underlined and it would all come rushing back. Only, he wasn’t there. Had I imagined it? Had I simply seen and heard his name so many times in literary circles that I assumed I had read him? Or, perhaps more likely, my professor had made copies for his students to read from some out of print book, copies I simply lost track of or threw out sometime in the last fifteen years.

Had I ever read a word of Umberto Eco?

Now, there are all sorts of explanations for this. Americans heavily favor American writers when teaching literature. (The prof who had assigned him in my World Lit was from Gibraltar.) Americans don’t read in translation. Americans don’t read foreign-sounding names. American institutes of higher education have lower standards and expectations than those of Europe. Americans are stupid and self-absorbed.

And sure, a lot of those criticisms are based on valid, quantifiable data. But there is also the plain fact that reading Umberto Eco can be hard work.

Let’s compare Eco’s bestselling historical mystery/philosophical treatise The Name of the Rose with Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. Both seem to have sold about 50 million copies and both are sitting pretty in the top ten or fifteen Amazon ranking in their categories, depending on what edition you’re looking at. Both have about four and a third stars from their many Amazon reviews (though Lee’s 8,385 reviews as of the writing of this post far outstrip Eco’s 550). Both books have been made into movies with big stars, Gregory Peck in To Kill a Mockingbird and Sean Connery in The Name of the Rose.

All in all, they seem fairly similar. But check out these reviews of Eco’s work:

“The book became a hit despite some obscure passages and allusions. This deftly abridged version…retains the genius of the original but is far more accessible.” — Library Journal

“Although the work stands on its own as a murder mystery, it is more accurately seen as a questioning of “truth” from theological, philosophical, scholarly, and historical perspectives.” — The Merriam-Webster Encyclopedia of Literature

One Amazon reviewer called it “a rewarding but painstaking read.” Another said “As others have said, it’s wordy and at times difficult, but it’s very rewarding for those who persevere!” And these seemingly contradictory words from a review of his second novel, Foucault’s Pedulum, are revealing:

“If a copy (often unread) of The Name of the Rose on the coffee table was a badge of intellectual superiority in 1983, Eco’s second novel — also an intellectual blockbuster — should prove more accessible….Dense, packed with meaning, often startlingly provocative, the novel is a mixture of metaphysical meditation, detective story, computer handbook, introduction to physics and philosophy, historical survey, mathematical puzzle, compendium of religious and cultural mythology, guide to the Torah (Hebrew, rather than Latin contributes to the puzzle here, but is restricted mainly to chapter headings), reference manual to the occult, the hermetic mysteries, the Rosicrucians, the Jesuits, the Freemasons– ad infinitum . The narrative eventually becomes heavy with the accumulated weight of data and supposition, and overwrought with implication, and its climax may leave readers underwhelmed. Until that point, however, this is an intriguing cerebral exercise in which Eco slyly suggests that intellectual arrogance can come to no good end.” — Publishers Weekly

Now compare those to these words about To Kill a Mockingbird from Amazon reviewers:

“I was simply floored while reading this novel. I wasn’t expecting a ‘classic’ to be so readable.”

“It is so well-written and moving that it reads like poetry.”

“This novel is beautifully written, transporting the reader into the souls of all the characters…If ever a book was written that should be mandatory reading (not necessarily in schools but rather in life) this is that book.”

Did you notice what I noticed? Readable, readable, readable. Both authors explore interesting and important issues. Both have devotees (and Eco’s are generally more erudite than Lee’s when it comes to the reader reviews). But one is difficult and the other is not. Both are described as slow in other reviews I saw (Lee’s at the beginning and Eco’s at about the 2/3 or 3/4 mark), but one is compared to the slowness of a hot, sultry, summer day while the other is compared to slogging through mud.

Eco lovers might argue that he is dealing with far more complex philosophical and theological issues than Lee, and therefore he needs those 200 extra pages to get his point across. And that is likely true, and I don’t mean this post to be critical of such writing, because I certainly like reading (and especially rereading) difficult books when they deliver the kind of reward Eco’s are known to deliver. I recently had my first brush with Italo Calvino, another Italian writer, and found him both endlessly frustrating and completely riveting. As a reader, I don’t mind being frustrated. But I think I’m in the minority.

At any rate, Lee’s world of racial strife and systemic oppression and generational sins, and Eco’s world of 14th century religious schisms and hypocrisies, both seem, on the surface, to be just as important and applicable to life today. Our country is as racially broken as it ever was, and criticism of the church is always in vogue. Both narratives follow crimes and seek to divide the guilty from the innocent. And, quite honestly, I’m sure that just as many people have an unread copy of To Kill a Mockingbird at home as those who have an unread copy of The Name of the Rose, though likely most Americans have had at least a brush with Lee’s book in high school, whether or not they really did the required reading.

When it comes down to it, perhaps the difference is found in these terms: experimental versus experiential. Eco’s tome is very aware of its form and structure, and plays with those elements purposefully if the reviewers are to be believed (and why shouldn’t they be?) whereas Lee’s book is rooted in the world she lived in and the people she grew up with. Eco seems to have written what he thought about. Lee wrote what she saw and what she lived. And unfortunately, most of us today see it and many today live it too. She wrote what she knew, and what she knew is still in many ways our reality.

When David Bowie died last month I was amazed at how devastated people seemed on social media. With a few exceptions where it was obvious that the person had been deeply affected by his life as an artist, I had a knee jerk reaction to most of the postings, and it was the same as my reaction to people crying in the halls in high school when Kurt Cobain died: You didn’t care about him until he was dead and I can all but guarantee you don’t own even one of his albums.

In contrast, when Michael Jackson died I felt that most people who expressed sadness were likely actually sad about it because his music had been the soundtrack of their young lives. Worldwide internet searches for news on his death crashed Twitter and Wikipedia and forced Google to block searches because they thought is was an attack. People weren’t just searching and posting about him so they would seem like they were part of an elite group, like they wore a badge of artistic superiority. They were searching for something that exposed it as a hoax. They were searching for someone who would tell them it wasn’t true. Because to like Michael Jackson didn’t take a lot of effort. His music was experiential, melodic, catchy — readable. Bowie’s was experimental and odd. (Though, admittedly, they were both quite odd and provocative in appearance).

I imagine reviews for the music of Michael Jackson and that of David Bowie might mirror those of Lee and Eco. One accessible and singing a melody we are now more than familiar with, the other less accessible but worth the effort. And I wonder, when all is said and done, if fifty years from now Bowie’s influence on music might be far greater than Jackson’s, if Eco’s influence on literature will far outstrip Lee’s. And how much of it is the listener or the reader looking for someone to tell them how to feel about things rather than allowing the artist to leave it up to the audience to sort out on their own. When artists expect us to do our part, are we less likely to embrace them? If so, why?

One thing of which I am certain in all of this, is that whether you write one book or fifty, whether you’re the King of Pop or a wily rock subversive, to die as an artist who contributed something of yourself, who offered up your ideas and visions for others to make of them what they would, is a noble death, whether it comes in your sleep in your 80s, from cancer in your 60s, from an overdose at 50, or a gunshot wound at 27. It is in a small way to live on, in the hearts and minds of your audience and in the work of the artists who come after you who might point to you as someone who influenced them.

We may wish our favorite authors and musicians and actors wouldn’t die, especially when they die in tragic circumstances. But an artist is never really dead as long as their work continues to be experienced, in large numbers or small.

What can we glean then from the death of an artist? A call to press on, to create, to share, to contribute to the story of mankind. Make your mark. And make it a good one.

7 Favorite Movies about Writers and Writing (and Reading)

I love stories about writers, writing, and books. I love movies about the same. So here’s a list of some of my very favorite movies about writers, writing, and reading. Most are movies I watch over and over again. Some I’ve only just seen for the first time recently.

I’ve left off some with great concepts but poor execution (I’m betraying my fantasy-obsessed childhood self, but I have to put The Neverending Story in this category because it is SO very cheesy when you watch it again as an adult) and I’m sure I’ve left off some good ones because I haven’t seen them (so please add them in the comments if you are so moved so I can put them in my Netflix queue). Also, I very much doubt I’m covering any new ground here, but for what it’s worth, and in no particular order…

[WARNING: These trailers give away a lot of fun surprises in the movies (Why do they DO that?) so if you just want to experience these movies without the little spoilers, please refrain from clicking and just go find them on Amazon Prime or Netflix.]

Adaptation


I know that you either love Nicholas Cage or hate him, and that will color your decision to watch or not watch this movie, but who doesn’t love Meryl Streep and Chris Cooper? No one. What I love about this movie: I love when writers enter their own story; I love the commentary on genre, on being true to one’s own style and method of writing, and on the tired old cliches that we love nonetheless; I love Nicholas Cage. There. I said it.

Stranger Than Fiction


Proof positive that Will Ferrell can act (ergo, the question is raised, Why doesn’t he do this more often?) and that he can be believably romantic. Also Emma Thompson and Dustin Hoffman are fantastic. What I love about this movie: Again, I love the mixing of worlds between writers and their characters; I love slightly illogical and slightly surreal stories that couldn’t really happen but the creators offer absolutely no explanation as to why it’s happening because it doesn’t really matter in the long run; I love how morbid and off-kilter Emma Thompson’s character is.

Midnight in Paris


Dare I admit that this is the first Woody Allen film I’ve actually seen? I’ve heard so much poo-pooing of his movies over the years that I haven’t sought them out. But this is a wonderful, magical film about writers, artists, and other creative types; about the seductive power of nostalgia; and about taking the right chances. What I love about this movie: Owen Wilson; the huge supporting cast of fantastic little surprises; the costuming and lighting; the unique storyline (which doesn’t come through in the trailer, but I’m not going to spoil it for you).

The Hours


This film enchanted me even before I knew I loved Virginia Woolf’s writing. The same story told through three different women in three different cities in three different eras–one writing the story, one reading the story, one living the story. What I love about this movie: Fabulous performances (how could they not be with that cast?); the examination of the power of story; the feeling that the words we write have life and meaning far along down the road.

Julie & Julia


Another film starring Meryl Streep? Yes. It seems the woman loves literary films as much as I do. But isn’t this movie about cooking? Yes, but also writing–a cookbook, letters, a blog. Writing your passion onto the page in the form of recipes. Writing about your life to your closest friend. Writing about your crazy experiment to perfect strangers. But always writing (and eating). This movie will make you hungry and inspire you to get Julia’s cookbook (the chapter on eggs alone can change your culinary life–seriously) and buy some really good knives.

84 Charing Cross Road


Oh, how far we’ve come in the world of movie trailers. This little bit gives you almost nothing of the tender quality of this film. Anthony Hopkins is a London bookseller and Anne Bancroft is a New York City bibliophile who can’t get the rare books she wants in NYC. These two characters begin a correspondence after WWII and get to know each other over a couple decades through letters and books. I loved seeing the economic and social differences between post-war Britain (with its deprivation and rations and ruins) and America (with its prosperity and expansion and optimism). A great film about the power of books.

Under the Tuscan Sun


She’s a writer whose marriage is over. At the behest of her concerned friends she takes a trip that will change her life and her writing. Based on a memoir (which I haven’t read), this movie is wonderfully brought to life through Diane Lane’s acting and narrating. The thought of spontaneously starting over in life (especially in a foreign country) is the impetus for many a literary character’s actions and holds such a romantic fascination for us, doesn’t it? Plus, it’s a movie about a house, an old house, and bringing that house back to life. What’s not to love?

Oh, I know I’ve missed some great ones, along with ones I haven’t had a chance to watch yet. And I haven’t included TV shows, but if I did I would put Mad Men in there.

What are your go-to literary movies?

You Have Been Chosen

On Sunday we had my son’s fifth birthday party with his crazy little friends at Impression 5 Children’s Museum. Calvin wanted a Toy Story theme, and so I made these little cupcakes for dessert.

Oooooooooooo!

For the uninitiated, these are my best effort at making a bunch of Pizza Planet aliens from the claw machine. Observe…

As the writer seeking publication or even representation, it’s easy to feel like one of those little alien squeaky toys, waiting in a sea of other aliens–er, writers–for some mystical outside force to pluck us from obscurity. We long to be “chosen.” Some, like Woody, will search out another, more indie avenue. Others, like Buzz, will be chosen without even having waited at all (those lucky-ducky writers who are at just the right place at the right time and know the right people).

But most of us are aliens. Waiting and hoping.

But while you’re busy waiting, be busy writing more, revising again, making everything you create as creative and as strong as possible. So that when The Claw closes around you and draws you up above the crowded masses, you will be ready to take full advantage of that “better place” to which you are going.

And here’s hoping your agent or publisher is nothing like Sid.

Why didn’t I think to describe someone as “mouldy?”

After a rather long hiatus, I have once again picked up Virginia Woolf’s abridged diary in the evenings. I’m absolutely enraptured with Woolf’s ability to use a few precise, often unexpected words to describe a person or a situation. Here are a few I’ve underlined.

“Roger is becoming one of the successes of the day as a painter of perfectly literal and very unpleasant portraits.”

“I doubt that anyone will say the interesting things but they can’t prevent their coming out.”

“Whether people see their own rooms with the devastating clearness that I see them, thus admitted once for an hour, I doubt. Chill superficial seemliness; but thin as a March glaze of ice on a pool.”

“Being an editor has drugged the remnants of ambition in him, and he is now content.”

“Sometimes everything gets into the same mood.”

“In my heart, too, I prefer the nondescript anonymous days of youth. I like youthful minds; and the sense that no one’s yet anybody.”

“I meant to write about death, only life came breaking in as usual.”

“It annoys me to be like other wives.”

“She has been working over these old stories so often, that they hold no likeness to the truth–they are stale, managed, pulled this way and that, as we used to knead and pull the crumb of bread, till it was a damp slab.”

“Ethel’s [tea] was a ghastly frizzly frying pan affair.”

“No I don’t trust him; I don’t trust any human being, however loud they bellow and roll their rs.”

“Such is human nature–and really I don’t like human nature unless all candied over with art.”

“I know why I am depressed: a bad habit of making up the review I should like before reading the review I get.”

“Here at the age of forty-five are Nessa and I growing little wings again after our lean years.”

“And now there’s the Femina prize to record–an affair of dull stupid horror.”

I’m happy to be once again immersed in the world of a very thoughtful writer who truly considered everything in her life and felt the compulsion to write about it–parties, visitors, scenes on London’s streets, the impact of a solar eclipse, books, homes, hairstyles, the subtle interplay between couples. Everything was literary. She inspires me to see all of life through the lens of what I might write about it.