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…

 

Houston, We Have a Cover!

If you receive my email newsletter, this is old news to you. If you don’t, you should! Those folks all got entered in a drawing to win an Advance Reader Copy of the book months before it actually comes out. (Don’t worry. There will be more opportunities to enter giveaways. But if you’re on my newsletter list, you are automatically entered into every giveaway I do.)

ANYWAY, what I really want to tell you is that we have a cover!

AND the book is already available for pre-order from Amazon, Barnes&Noble, Indiebound, and CBD. Pre-ordering is an excellent way to support a new author. It helps a book gain visibility in an online marketplace of millions of titles. And it shows retailers that there is an audience waiting for your book, which encourages them to take a chance on stocking a book from an unproven author.

When you pre-order, you will not be charged until the book is shipped. It may feel silly ordering a book six months before you can actually read it! But if you know you’re going to check it out anyway, it’s a simple way to lend your support.

 

Here is what the book is about:

When Detroit Free Press reporter Elizabeth Balsam meets James Rich, his strange request—that she look up a relative she didn’t know she had in order to deliver an old camera and a box of photos—seems like it isn’t worth her time. But when she loses her job after a botched investigation, she suddenly finds herself with nothing but time.

At her great-aunt’s 150-year-old farmhouse, Elizabeth uncovers a series of mysterious items, locked doors, and hidden graves. As she searches for answers to the riddles around her, the remarkable stories of two women who lived in this very house emerge as testaments to love, resilience, and courage in the face of war, racism, and misunderstanding. And as Elizabeth soon discovers, the past is never as past as we might like to think.

Take an emotional journey through time—from the volatile streets of 1960s Detroit to the Underground Railroad during the Civil War—to uncover the past, confront the seeds of hatred, and discover where love goes to hide.

 

Here’s what a couple bestselling authors have said about it:

We Hope for Better Things has it all: fabulous storytelling, an emotional impact that lingers long after you turn the last page, and a setting that immerses you. I haven’t read such a powerful, moving story since I read To Kill a Mockingbird in high school. This book will change how you look at the world we live in. Highly recommended!”—Colleen Coble, USA TODAY bestselling author of the Rock Harbor series and The View From Rainshadow Bay

“A timely exploration of race in America, We Hope for Better Things is an exercise of empathy that will shape many a soul. Erin Bartels navigates this sensitive topic with compassion as she shifts her readers back and forth between past and present, nudging us to examine the secrets we keep, the grudges we hold, and the prejudices we may help create even without intention.”—Julie Cantrell, New York Times and USA TODAY bestselling author of Perennials

 

Remember, you can pre-order through Amazon, Barnes&Noble, Indiebound, or CBD.

I can’t thank you enough for your support!

Who’s Afraid of Imperfection?

Yesterday I took up my journal for the first time in six weeks. Before writing anything new, I read the last entry from March 14th, which began with the question What am I building? 

The majority of that entry asked such questions — Will I ever stop yearning? For what?…Is it resolution? That stories have them but life does not?…Am I too aware of my own insignificance?…Is it simply March, that horrifying month of zero beauty?…Am I always to be utterly mediocre?

At points, it felt psalmic — Where are my friends? Who can understand?

Finally, I managed to get to the crux of the matter — I so often feel bound, stifled, tied by good manners and good decisions and doing things the right way…Can such a life ever lead to great art?

I read that yesterday and thought, Wow…I don’t remember feeling like that. In fact, things have been going pretty well this year…well, other than the weather…and the writing.

The weather is out of my control, and Michiganders are allowed a certain measure of existential angst in March (and this year well into April). But the writing? That’s all me, right?

The truth is, I’ve been struggling to write since last summer. I’ve flitted from project to project, never landing solidly on one. I’ve been anxious about the “wasted” time for about six months. Six months! I should have a new book drafted by now! Instead, I have two chapters each of two novels, ten pages each of two screenplays, half of a TV pilot, and one and a half poems. Oh, and a half-finished painting.

I’m not blocked. I have plenty of new ideas. Too many. What I’ve lacked is time and discipline and follow-through.

I have to allow that October through February were crazy, hectic days in our home (see my last blog post for why). It was pretty exhausting. And when you’re doing that kind of work, you’re going to need time to just decompress with TV, movies, and books. Which I did.

But now all that’s over and, other than the spring garden clean-up, I don’t have so many demands on my time. So why am I still struggling with the art?

Perhaps it comes down to expectations. I expect a lot of myself. I always have. Now that a wider audience is going to experience my work, I expect even more. I’ve begun a new round of self-criticism, brought on by doing the edits on We Hope for Better Things. The edits themselves were not bad. But I’ve begun to second guess some of them. Should I have rearranged that chapter that way? Should I have dropped that line? 

As I ask established authors to endorse the book I wonder, Will they read it and be unimpressed but feel they have to say something nice anyway?

As we work through cover designs, trying to get it just right and trying to get everyone involved on board…So. Much. Angst.

And that uncertainty makes its way to the new projects I’m trying to focus on. Because I don’t want them to simply be good; I want them to be better than what I’ve done before. I know, intellectually, that they won’t be perfect. But that knowledge doesn’t stop me from wanting them to be perfect.

Yet, perfectionism is the enemy of art. Back to that journal entry. Can a life of good manners and good decisions and always striving to do things the “right way” lead to great art?

My husband is turning 40 next month. I just turned 38. We are prime targets for some mid-life-crisis-level self-examination. What have we done with our lives thus far? How much time is left? Where haven’t we been (most places) that we long to go? Are we letting time slip by, unnoticed, while we are busy with what must be done in the day-to-day? Is the time for this or that just…gone?

Neither of us had a wild, rebellious phase. Neither of us took a year to hike through Europe and “have experiences.” We have done the school, job, house, family thing, and neither of us would ever give that up. But, as I have since I was a happy child, I do find myself worrying every once in a while…does such a measured and comfortable life lead to great art?

This morning I read a post on The Art of Simple called When the Art You Create Disappoints You. In it, writer Shawn Smucker tells about how his daughter wanted to paint a very particular scene that she had in her head. She worked on the painting all day. And then, when it didn’t turn out how she’d wanted it to, she painted over it. I have done this. Probably we’ve all done something similar with something we were trying to create. We have a vision of what it can be. We haven’t the skill to pull it off perfectly. And so rather than let this imperfect creation live, we hide it or destroy it.

There is a book I have been planning and researching and imagining for years now that I haven’t had the courage to start because I fear I don’t know enough or will not have the skill needed to pull it off. It’s not one of the several projects I have started and then left hanging since last summer. It exists in no form at all, not even an embryonic outline. Because it doesn’t exist, it can be perfect. The moment I begin to put it to paper, it will fall short of my expectations.

Done right, it could be magnificent. Done wrong, it could be a source of deep embarrassment.

I recently watched an episode of Raiders of the Lost Art that told the story of the theft and recovery of the Mona Lisa in 1911 and 1913, respectively. During the episode I learned something about Leonardo DaVinci I might have intuited, knowing what I know about the breadth of his creativity and the very different and innovative things he designed, from flying machines to war machines. The documentary makers mentioned how experimental DaVinci was and how that makes it difficult to identify newly found works that are purported to be his. One such recent find was La Bella Principessa, which was painted on vellum, a medium he was not known to have painted on.

They also discussed a huge fresco, The Battle of Anghiari, which may be hiding behind a later painting in the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence. It was a technical disaster. DaVinci had been trying out a new technique (on an enormous scale) that simply didn’t work. His paint was not adhering to the wet plaster beneath it. He set up large urns with fires burning in them in order to dry the paint, but instead of drying it the heat caused the paint and plaster to run down the wall. This was a master, commissioned to do a large and important work, and it failed.

One might argue that DaVinci should have stuck with the techniques he knew would work. He should have done it the “right way,” especially with the stakes so high. But was apparently more interested in experimentation, in keeping things fresh and trying out new ideas, than he was in succeeding by way of routine. And actually, by some standards he failed much more than he succeeded, as these two very short films show.

Imperfection takes far more courage than perfection. If perfectionism keeps us from creating anything at all because what if it doesn’t turn out perfect, that takes no courage at all. That’s just following fear where it naturally leads — to immobility, to stasis. But to create despite knowing full well your creation will be flawed? That takes courage.

My journal entry from March 14th may have been affected by the weather. Heck, it may have been hormonal. But at its core, I think it was voicing my frustration with myself for my own stasis when it comes to writing. Before there was the prospect of publication and reviews (and bad reviews) I could write anything without fear. Because if it didn’t work, who would know but me? But now I think I have subconsciously been letting concerns about audience and reception stifle my experimental streak.

Maybe I need a little less caution in my life. Maybe I need to reach back in time to an Erin that existed before responsibility, an Erin who never worried and never counted the cost when it came to creative expression. An Erin who dove in headfirst and figured things out as she went.

You may be wondering about the odd collection of pictures in this post. These are that Erin’s art, when she didn’t know what the hell she was doing. They’re technically immature, often derivative, and parts of them may even have been traced. But that Erin was happy with them in a way today’s Erin is never happy with her own work, whether it be drawings, paintings, poems, or stories. That Erin was fourteen, fifteen, sixteen, seventeen.

And somewhere inside Erin Version 38, that fearless Erin still lives.

 

My New Office Space

Finally, I had some time to take real pictures with a real camera of my real new office space! If you’ve followed this blog for a while, you may remember when I posted these pictures of my office on the main floor of our house (which I shared with my husband’s desk and my son’s desk, which is not pictured because these are old photos). Anyone who has been to our house can attest to the fact that it was NEVER this clean and orderly.

You may also remember seeing pictures of my son’s room the one day it has ever been clean. (He has been in a twin bed for years now, but since then his room has never been clean enough to photograph.)

After MUCH toil and cleaning and painting and hauling of furniture up and down ladders outside, we emerged triumphant in the bid to move my office into my son’s old bedroom.

One of my bookshelves moved up onto the landing (getting it upright after getting it through the door sideways was a miracle of geometry).

The medium blue walls have been repainted with a cool, calm blue called Tropical Surf. The rug came from Target.

My desk is part of a shelving unit I found at a secondhand furniture store here in town (which we call Bikes! Bikes! Bikes! because of the sign outside the store proclaiming same). Oddly enough, this shelving unit weighs five tons. More oddly enough, it was made in Yugoslavia. It’s the only thing I’ve ever seen that was made in Yugoslavia. And I can’t imagine us importing this kind of basic furniture from Yugoslavia of all places. However, I am glad it ended up here.

Now I have room for more of my books — especially my writing books — to be right at my fingertips rather than in another room or even on another floor.

The printer sits under the desk. In the top drawer are all my desky things — pens, stapler, various cords for various devices, etc. The bottom drawer is completely full of my little notebooks, about half of them full of notes and ideas for various writing projects and the other half full of blank pieces of paper ready to receive my ideas.

One of my shelves is graced with my son’s artwork, my souvenir from our trip to Disneyworld last year, my little Bob Ross mini-figure, and other memorabilia.

In one corner, Alistair the canary has taken up residence next to my sewing box full of notions and, at the moment, the wooden elephant statue from my grandparents’ house, which has been mine since my grandfather died in 1986. He won’t stay right there in the long run, but I haven’t quite decided on the best place for him.

In the other corner is my craft area, currently set up for painting but easily switched over to a sewing space.

By the way, behind that little door is a closet that currently houses my big file drawers, blank canvases, my dress form, my spools of thread, my guitar case, and other random items I need but don’t necessarily need to look at all the time.

You may have noticed that most of the walls are bare and that the wall that does have art on it is rather hodge-podgey and random. That’s because I intend to fill most of the walls up with an eclectic collection of paintings, prints, and posters, and even some needlework done by my sister and the super-’70s framed puzzle I got off the side of the road that everyone in the world loves (except my husband). However, I don’t have enough at the moment to fill all the space.

I’m going antiquing with a friend this Saturday and hope to find one or two things to add to the collection. And I have a great poster of an old map of Detroit that I need to get framed. Basically, I’ll be on the lookout for items with lots of green, teal, blue, and coral.

So that’s the office for now. A room of my own. With a door that shuts all the way. And with nothing in it that anyone else ever needs to access (save the printer, which is rare and generally not when I’m in there).

I’ve been completely happy with it so far.

Stay tuned for what the old office looks like now as the master bedroom. And maybe I’ll even take a picture of my son’s new room in all its messy glory.

Goodbye, February

It’s twelve degrees warmer this morning in mid-Michigan than it is in Albuquerque, New Mexico. In fact, we’ve had a string of unseasonably warm days. Last week we had a rapid melt of over a foot of snow, plus two days of steady rain, causing the Grand and Red Cedar Rivers to flood. There were small-scale evacuations in neighborhoods near the rivers. And then we had three days in a row that felt like early May.

We’ll be back down in the 40s for the first couple weeks of March, which is more appropriate for this time of year, and there are still some snow showers in the forecast, but not much. I understand that groundhog saw his shadow way back at the beginning of the month, but I guess marmots are not the best prognosticators of global weather patterns.

I’m always happy to see February drift away in the rear view mirror. This year I have spent most of the month on moving rooms around in my house. A small, enclosed staircase with a right angle is part of the reason it took so long. The crazy weather is another. The stairs mean large items must go in/out an exterior door on the second floor that leads out to the roof of the smoke room, and up and down a ladder propped against it. Which, of course, you can’t safely do in a foot of snow and ice, nor in a deluge.

Everything big is safe and sound in its new room. Finally. After all, I’ve been planning for this move since July of last year, drawing schematics and making lists of the order in which things would have to be moved.

Now we’re down to the little stuff:

  • our son’s old karate belts, which we’ve been meaning to get into a display case
  • a small file cabinet that is mostly filled with things that could be stored in the attic or tossed
  • the light we removed from the old office/new bedroom that we’re going to put up in the living room
  • a random assortment of items that belong somewhere in my son’s new room, but we’re not just sure where yet

I could probably get it all done in a day, but since every spare moment of February has been spent on this project, I actually need to pause and spend some concentrated time on my other big project: first edits on my debut novel, which are due to my editor in twelve days. (Psst, if you missed it because you’re not on my newsletter mailing list, the new title is We Hope for Better Things.)

Hopefully soon we’ll have the last bits of our lives put back together and I can take some pictures to share with you. I’m happy with how well it’s turning out.

And I’m thrilled that, like February, it’s almost done.

 

These Changeable Days

It is a cloudy morning, but a springish light is in the air. Despite it being January. We’re all discombobulated by the weather, bouncing between thaw and freeze, rain and snow, sun and clouds. In the words of They Might Be Giants, “Everyone’s excited and confused.”

Lonely piles of snow still linger in the cold and sheltered places, but much of my world is a dull wash of brown and faded green. One day I walk our little chihuahua mix with her plaid coat on and worry about her little paws and ears freezing. The next she goes out naked, splashing through puddles of meltwater, going ballistic when she sees a squirrel.

This is January?

There is a tall and slender dead ash tree in the back yard that is listing northwest, aiming for the garage. It looks like a rope and a couple of determined guys could pull it the rest of the way down. Part of me worries about it and part of me is rooting for it. But it’s not big enough to do enough damage so that we’d have to replace the garage and might be able to claim some insurance money to get the job done. 

I worry about the fence as well. Katy is small enough to fit through the spaces between pickets. The fence needs to be replaced — it is rotting in spots, pulling away from the posts. But on one side the neighbors have a new metal fence Katy can get under and through with little effort. A tie-out is one solution, though it’s apt to get tangled up in bushes. A mostly invisible wire fence along the neighbor’s metal fence is another. For now, we take her out on a leash.

There’s a strange, unsettledness to life right now. We have more orphaned socks in our sock bag than ever before. I’ve been washing dishes by hand every day as we figure out a solution to a dishwasher problem. The workroom is clean, yet there’s sawdust being tracked through the house. The outdoor Christmas lights lie in a pile by the door, drying out before we can put them away in the attic. The far end of the dining room table is gathering an assortment of papers and Legos and headphones and items with no home. Desks are almost clean. Laundry is mostly done. Books are all half read.

And I have started writing a new novel. A story about sisters and identity and a hiking trip that will go very bad, but ultimately be good.

I don’t know yet how 2018 feels to me. I do know that eventually the seasons will figure themselves out. Eventually that dead tree will come down, one way or another. Eventually the fencing issue will be resolved.

Ultimately, it will be good.

The Worst Writing Advice I Ever Received…and More

I’m over on the Capital City Writers blog today talking about what I’m working on right now, the worst writing advice I ever received, and more. Here’s a taste…

1. What is your favorite part about writing? The most challenging part?

 

It’s hard to say what I enjoy most because I do enjoy all the different parts of the process for different reasons. I love the idea phase when anything is possible, the drafting phase when I am speaking worlds into existence, the revising phase when I am making this lump of words more closely resemble the perfect vision in my head. There are two contexts in which I feel more elementally me than any other: when I am silently and deliberately exploring the natural world and when I am writing.

 

The most challenging part is …

 

Click here to read the rest of the interview.

And tomorrow night I’ll be at Schuler Books & Music in the Eastwood Towne Center leading a free workshop called Empathy over Experience: Writing Convincingly from Someone Else’s Shoes.

The fun starts at 7pm. If you’re a relatively local writer, I hope to see you there!

Big News on the Publishing Front!

For those of you who have been around this blog for a while, watching my slow journey toward publication, I am so pleased to share that the following announcement in Publisher’s Marketplace hit subscribers’ inboxes this morning:

I started my research and development for this novel in 2013. I wrote the first draft in early 2014. I finally found my lovely agent in 2015. It went out on submission in 2016. And now, finally, it is being contracted in 2017. And it is currently slated to hit shelves in a bookstore near you in January 2019.

You can be sure to hear much more about it as the next seventeen months progress. In the meantime, enjoy this series of GIFs that encapsulate how I feel right now.

Imagining a Room of One’s Own

We interrupt these UP road trip pictures (yes, there’s more…I just haven’t had time to edit them yet!) to bring you this special announcement.

I’m scheming and measuring and graphing and starting a new Pinterest board…

 

…because I’m hoping to move my office to another room in the house (which will be ALL MINE…muahahahaha!!!) sometime in the next, oh, let’s say six months.

There are walls to paint, additional outlets to install, shelves to build, and some of the most cumbersome furniture we own to move in order to make it happen.

But it will happen.

And I’m so excited.