What will you do with your one wild and precious life? - Mary Oliver

Monday, August 15, 2011

The Paradox of a New Place: Geographic Change Influences Creativity

My daughter Jennifer and her family have recently moved to New Orleans. When my daughters were small we traveled down to New Orleans from Jackson, MS, occasionally. We would stroll around Jackson Square and Jennifer always said she wanted to sell paintings like the other artists who hung their wares on the iron fence across from Cafe du Monde.  Her entire life she's wanted to be with the tarot card readers, the fortune tellers and the street musicians.

Jennifer and her husband have yearned for years to move to the Crescent City. Now they live in the inner-city in an old second-floor walkup with a claw-foot bathtub and window air conditioning units just a stone's throw from the Maple Street Bookstore. He's a chef. She's always been an artist. But somehow since the move her work has gotten better, and she's moved toward a more independent lifestyle.  They have four children, so life has always been a little chaotic and I've wondered how she manages to find time to paint and write while caring for a pre-schooler and an infant.  I know. You just do it. Now she's part of a New Orleans Art Collective and is selling her artwork in the French Quarter. And working on illustrations for her first children's book.
When my husband and I moved to Memphis four years ago (and yes, time has moved too fast), I took a self-imposed sabbatical of sorts to get to know my new hometown.  I visited Elmwood, the Memphis Botanic Garden, The Brooks, Civil Rights Museum, Stax, Soulsville, and dozens of other sites, and of course the riverfront.  I've watched many sunsets from Mud Island.  And I cannot count our visits to Shelby Farms, probably dozens and dozens. Each one of these visits has inspired me in many ways. I began to paint for the first time in my life. I've written more, created more, in this new place.

What struck me most about Memphis is its diversity.  I read letters to the editor in the newspaper from residents who complain about Memphis, then the next day there are letters of praise.  It's never consistent one way or the other, and there seems to be no consensus. The feeling residents have about their hometown of Memphis is a deeply personal thing.

What I've noticed about geographic moves is that generally, if a person is relatively content, then they are content everywhere.  If they are unhappy, they'll be unhappy where ever they go. If the person is hostile and lives in fear, then they will be hostile and fearful everywhere. We must have passion about what we do in life, and I believe it is within that that we find meaning. If we have no meaning in our lives we will not have much happiness and contentment. There is no person, place, job or thing that will give us permanent joy. Find meaning, and you'll find your joy.  Life is like that.

Jennifer's book, Hot Moon, is now published, and available on Amazon.com.

Friday, August 12, 2011

What Do You Do While You Wait?

One of my novel manuscripts has received 79 agent and/or publisher rejections. I should change that to read 6 agent and/or publisher rejections and 73 ignores.

The ignores are the most difficult. I’d rather have a firm “no” than nothing at all. I lovingly send something off with high expectations, then I never hear back. Did they ever receive the package or email, I wonder? The actual rejections have arrived either via email, a form letter, or a self-addressed stamped postcard that I paid for.

While my shorter pieces have been published, there’s been no action on this particular manuscript. I think it’s a good story.  My readers think it is a good story.  But the publishing industry is not in a gambling mood; they want a sure thing.  If it was chick lit or young adult fiction or anything with vampires some agents say it might have a better chance. But here’s the thing, I can’t and don’t write in those genres. I've tried, but I have no passion for that. 

I’ve almost come to enjoy these rejections and ignores, these little efforts to force me into doing better or different work, because when you win there’s no incentive for improvement.  When you receive a rejection, or even an ignore, at least there is a reason to go back and look at your pieces over and over again and make them better.  I decided to engage the services of a professional editor to review this one manuscript.  I know I will learn something from her, even if it means re-writing this novel for the upteenth time.

So what to do while I wait for those acceptances, those affirmations for my life as a writer?  I keep doing it.  Every day. Writing is a solitary activity.  I am usually alone when writing, as are most writers.  I sometimes sit all day and write. I will miss meals and work in my slouchy clothes all day if given the chance, because story material appears every day.  Just this morning I read about an 11-foot alligator caught by wildlife officials walking down the street in Greenville, Mississippi.  That was after the wedding in the convenience store between the Cheez Whiz and the toothpaste. And then there was the grandmother in Florida who tried to sell her infant grandchild. What motivates people to do what they do is the basis of fiction.  What are those internal or external conflicts that we all bump up against? Was the alligator hungry? Was the grandmother? What about the couple who married in that store? Did their eyes meet, did the ringing of the cash register sound like rolling thunder in their hearts? Did they honeymoon at Talladega?

Writers are compelled to write. I carry these stories forward to see what they want to express to the world. There are myriads of opportunities in Memphis to pursue this avenue of artistic expression, especially in the inner city, and especially with our young people. They all have stories to tell.

Writers have an artistic gift, and we need to cast it out into the universe, not keep it to ourselves.  There’s a young man in the Beltline neighborhood that enjoys writing so much that he wrote a play and his mentor helped him enter it in a local contest. He didn’t win.  But he’s still writing. He wants to be a better writer.

If you enjoy writing and want to carry your story forward, helping young people like the young man in the Beltline neighborhood, consider facilitating a writing group for WriteMemphis, a literacy program I started because I wanted to do more than hold my gift tightly to myself. I am compelled to share this gift with the world, and I hope you are as well.  Visit the website at http://www.writememphis.org, and we’ll put you to work while you wait.  

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

House on Fire

Burning Bush painting I did several
years ago and donated to
a fund-raising auction.
"It burns but it is not consumed."
Over at theburninghouse.com is the following question: 
If your house was burning, what would you take with you? 

It's a conflict between what's practical, valuable and sentimental. What you would take reflects your interests, background and priorities. Think of it as an interview condensed into one question.

So I asked myself what I would take.  Actually, I've thought about this question before.  Many times. I've thought about it when I lived in a two-story house and thought about how I would escape if my house caught fire.  All the windows were painted shut.  I had the chair picked out that I would smash a window with - the window that overlooked my deck in the back of my house.  I could jump down from there and maybe break a leg or two but that would be better than a smoke inhalation demise. 

And I thought about what I would save.  Would I have time to save anything? What would I grab after I smashed that window with that old dining chair from my childhood? The one at the foot of my bed that has been at the foot of my bed for all the years I've lived away from the homeplace. The chair with the avocado green damask seat that's so out of style it's back in fashion. So after I smashed the window with my childhood dining chair, and after I grabbed my car keys that I so wisely placed by the side of my bed, and after I snatched my purse with my photo IDs and my cell phone to call the fire department - what then? 

I decide to prepare a mental box, just in case. In that box I place a photo album with my children's old report cards and pictures from their childhood. But perhaps I should just give them those old trophies and their report cards and their childhood photographs and let them store them for a change.  

If I give those items away, what goes in the house-on-fire box? Thinking of course that my husband and our dogs are already outside, what would I really and truly feel the most sentimental about?  

Definitely my computer and my backup hard drive would have to be saved. Everything fictional I've ever written lives there. My twenty journals  have to be saved. I've written in those journals so much creative non-fiction, all about my dreams, visions and synchronistic events that have occurred over the vast years of my life. Can't let those be burned up. To destroy those writings would be akin to dying for me. 

More and more items are piled into that box so that there is no way it would fit through that window now.  What if I did not have time to grab all those things? What if I only had time to save myself (after my husband and dogs have made it outside)? How much do material things really mean to me? Can I re-create all my fiction? Will I be able to re-create the stories and events I wrote about in my journals so long ago? Where do all those memories live? What good would they be if I was gone, but my fiction and my journals lived on? Would anyone take them and read them, or publish them?

On my refrigerator is a black and white magnet that reads . . . Barn's burnt down, now I can see the moon.

This causes me to contemplate what is in the way of truly living? Do we really need all this 'stuff'? 

After I obsess over all of this, I realize to have life is the ultimate gift.  Cherish it.  Save yourself and your creative energies will live on. They will be re-kindled. 

What would you save?