Scarlett and I Are Outsider Artists/Dreams of Burning Man

While Scarlett and I were on the mother-daughter artist retreat last week, I told her our art was different, because we weren’t on the inside track, did not live in New York, did not have friends in publishing, did not teach at a university, and overall, we were outside of every art establishment I could think of.

“Oh, you mean we’re like those Burning Man people,” she said.

“Burning Man? What does that have to do with outsider artists?”

“I’m pretty sure I read somewhere that that’s what they called themselves.”

So I read up on it. Scarlett was right. The Burning Man phenom, which I had heard described by people who’d never gone or even actually read about it, but just heard about it through the grapevine, as “a bunch of wild men and women out on the desert getting high and burning things and going nuts,” is actually described online as primarily a movement of artists trying to sock it to the man, in this case, the Art Establishment of critics, foundations, universities and traditional publications.

I read the article to Scarlett. We had to admit that we concurred with the principles laid down by the Burning Man festival regarding outsider art.

“Maybe we should go to the festival,” I said. But I had to admit, I’d be afraid to go by ourselves.

“Maybe we could get Papa to go,” Scarlett says. “Burning Man might appeal to his offbeat sense of spirituality.”

I was convulsed. “Well, it’s true,” Scarlett continues. “Offbeat is about how I would describe it.”

I think of the Sarasvatti statue in his office, and the Buddha coffee mug. The sitar playing while sitting on the sitar pillow. The entire set of works by the bald philosopher, Ken Wilbur. It’s true. Leo could take all of it straight to Burning Man and participate.

Perhaps Leo is an outsider artist as well. I went home and mentioned the idea of going to the festival to him. He went right into research mode, and after an early burst of excitement we discovered that Burning Man is the last week of August, a time when school teachers like us are generally either in the first week of class or getting ready for the first week of class. Not a time when you could get a week off.

Another hope for adventure crushed, I thought. But Leo, Scarlett and I were still all intrigued by the very idea of being there … when as the pinnacle of the festival, the entire community gets together to rebel against the arts establishment and assert the participatory and egalitarian nature of the true human community, and as a symbol of this they BURN THE MAN!

Should he give up writing? Not so fast, colleague …

ABC_man_overboard_cruise_ship_sr_140116_16x9_992I was reading Twitter last night when an unusual tweet showed up on my stream.  It was a cry of despair, it appeared, and reading it, I had the sensation of a being passenger standing at the rail of on an ocean liner, looking out over the sea and seeing someone in the water, waving frantically to be seen before it was too late.  The tweet was:

“See you later everyone. I’m giving up writing officially. It’s going nowhere. As a hobby it’s a waste of my time if I can’t survive off of it. I’ll be around for another fifteen minutes before I delete my Twitter … “

Man overboard! I thought.  I tweeted back, “I hope you’re kidding … ”

“Nope. It’s a complete waste of my time. No one besides my mom, my brother and two other people (hyperbole) have read my book or cares … “

Oh my gosh.  Yeah, I know.  It’s tough, the rejection, the indifference, the feeling that what you’re doing *ought*  to be getting more attention than it is.

I know. My ego, too, has at times been pulverized, my self-image, regularly diminished.  And yet.

I replied: “I understand.” I wrote:

“Just tonight, I was wondering: what if I just publish a couple short stories, and nothing else, what then? And I thought: well, what else was I going to do with my time? Knit socks? Ride horses? “

I mean, writing is easy and cheap compared to riding horses.  And I prefer, on average, writers as good-time companions to riders.

I tell myself I have to adjust my perspective. Writing is a lifelong journey.  I think most of us intellectually accept that there are no guarantees, in writing as in elsewhere in life, but we have to accept this emotionally as well. I have a vision of the work I want to complete, but I don’t get a guarantee that my vision will be fulfilled.  I wonder every day if by wanting to be a novelist and see my book read by thousands, I am not suffering from grandiosity of a clinical nature.

I said to my daughter, “I want everyone to fall in love with Carl (my WIP’s hero).”

She didn’t say “You’re out of your mind,” but I think her eyebrows did rise a bit. Meanwhile, I vacillate between confidence and self-doubt. A year ago I told my husband, Leo, that I was in despair because I wasn’t sure I could ever be the Writer I Dreamed of Being.

Leo, who has again and again in my life given me good answers to seemingly intractable questions, said “Look, you write, you always write, whether you journal or you direct your energy towards publication. So why not work to realize your vision? You’ll be writing anyway. Try to make something of it.”

He then went on to tell me the story of Nietzsche, the great German philosopher and classicist, who was rejected by the professors of his day because his ideas were, let us say, a little too progressive. He came up with, among other things, the idea of the Ubermensch and the Death of God, which while controversial have become worldwide philosophical koans after his death. But Nietzsche didn’t live to see his work become canonical. He never made any money out of it.  When he died, his books were published in vanity press editions only. No paying editor would touch them. There was just one professor in the entire world who was teaching Nietzsche’s philosophy.  That one man told him he was a genius but the rest of his colleagues said he was an idiot, or worse, irrelevant.

This discussion with Leo made such a mark on me that I can remember it a year later, and since then I have never stopped trying to be the writer I dream of.  I have also come to believe, as I look at the world, that as education expands, and the world expands, there are more readers than ever before, and therefore, there is room for more writers than ever before.  So I think that as I do not allow myself to quit, my twitter friend should not quit, and neither should the readers of this modest blog, almost all of whom, I think, are writers as well.

I concluded my communication with a tweet that for me is the end of the discussion:

“At the end of the day I think the majority of the joy is in the writing itself not being published.” I should qualify that by pointing out that I’ve had work published — short form only, not books — hundreds of times.  So I’m not guessing.

Now that does not mean that I don’t do everything I can to write work that will satisfy my greater vision. It does mean that I understand that as Mr. Spock said, “No man can summon the future,” and I can’t force a solution.

I noticed that this morning my fellow writer who had neared despair was back at work and wrote that he had composed another 1000 words.  I commend all writers on their many journeys. May you all be read, and far more and far longer than you expect in your darkest moments.

Nietzsche certainly was.



Online Memoir Summit from Village Writing School: Going on now, and it’s free!!!

All right, if you don’t have something to do this weekend, and you’re interested in Memoir and Creative Nonfiction, or you just want to listen to  some very cool and inspirational writing videos by some knowledgeable and admirably-published writers, MFA teachers, and industry insiders, here’s your gig.  And you don’t even have to pay for it.  Unbelievable.

What: Village Writing School Memoir Summit

When:  This weekend

Where: Your home computer

How: By Youtube video

Why: Because it’s the exact same type of presentation you get from going to a writer’s conference, without the travel time and the price tag of $100 to $400.

Maniac Miniseries Becomes my Mashup Muse

Maniac_Image2This week, I got the idea to watch Netflix as part of my ongoing work on creativity.  I chose Maniac, a futuristic 10-part series about the attempt by a team of (flawed) doctors to create a computer-pharmaceutical treatment for mental health issues of various types — and the people they treat.  As I watched the show unfold, inspiration flowed into me.  From a seemingly cracked, broken and disordered beginning, the character arcs tie up remarkably. The lonely borderline-personality disordered beauty was going to see that she had the option of making other choices and was going to make them, I just knew. The young man with scizophrenia was going to transcend the mentally-unhealthy label and free himself from his pathological family.  And the sicko scientists who were creating much of the drama in the movie were going to get their just deserts, along with their human-empathy-enhanced psychologist computer.

Maniac functions on a kind of supercharged genre mashup. An incomplete map of the genres and their conflicts follows:

fiction type character(s) conflict
Recovery fiction Owen, Annie Both must overcome mental illness.

Owen: scizophrenia Annie:  substance abuse.

Family drama Owen, his father, and his brother Father seeks to force Owen to lie under oath to protect evil brother
Science fiction all A new type of mental health therapy combines pharmaceuticals and computer tracking of dreams
Psychological fiction Owen, Annie narrators are unreliable and tell incomplete stories
dystopian fiction all Strange and alienating fictional world includes technological advances such as ad buddies, humans whose job is following people reading them ads, robot dog pooper scoopers, and x-rated, whole-body virtual reality devices.

(Not charted:  mobster fiction; fantasy, and probably others) So what happened after I watched it?  I started writing my own genre mashup:  horror meets mythology meets nature writing.  A longer short story, this one will be about a man who goes into the woods and meets a dangerous cannibal hiker guy. It’s based loosely on the ancient Greek story of the cyclops, Polyphemus.

Thus, here I  introduce you to the mashup muse.

An interesting coda:  I watched this with Leo.  At the end, I asked him which character he identified with.  He said Dr. James Mantleray … I was like “What, the mad scientist?” He said, yes, well, when you have a PhD but are not a professor, yes, it feels a little similar, like you have the knowledge but the world doesn’t want you to do the work you’ve been trained for.  I guess I could see that.

As for me, identifying with both the mentally ill characters is a little unsettling.  But hey, I have to own it.  I do.

Submissions Challenge Month Three: Accepting the hard work of writing; rejection statistics of the month

By the end of the month, I had run through my budget for submitting and was only submitting to free markets.

Submission Tracker 3It is now that I begin to see the real hard work of writing.  I mean, in order to get 22 submissions in 30 days, I had to pretty much work on the submissions challenge every weekend day and some nights.  Kindof like grad school.

Actually, it was grad school which made me believe I could do this.  It was clear from finishing grad school that if I was disciplined, I could carve a good 15 to 20 hours of writing/reading/thinking time out of the average work week, with short bursts of up to 40 to 50 hours in seven days.  Deciding to apply that kind of work load to writing was just the next step.

This month I have made 22 submissions.  I received two “warmer” rejections, each with an invitation to resubmit, from literary magazines.  I received five “stone cold” rejections, with one flash fiction piece getting a quick rejection twice.  I wrote “what’s wrong with this story” on its line on the submission tracker and stopped submitting it for the moment.

I did not get a request of any type from any of the four #pitchwars mentors I queried.  Although I’m sure I’m not alone, it was a disappointment.  Made me feel like back when I was in 7th grade, and I wasn’t one of the popular girls. Perhaps I will try again next year.  To the organization’s credit, they didn’t charge me or any other contestant anything, which given some of the other contest fees could be seen as quite generous.

Last month I wrote that I was willing to pay to make submissions and enter contests.  I spent $73 submitting stories this month, mostly for three contests.  In addition, I paid $8.50 for the Literistic List of the Month, which was pretty helpful.  During the second half of the month, I saw several more contests I might have entered. But it just cost too much. By the end of the month, I had run through my budget for submitting and was only submitting to free markets.  We get paid on the first of the month around here.  I had to cut back.

So, to sum up the stats:  9/22 to 10/22

Submissions:  22

Personal or warmer rejections: 2

Stone Cold rejections: 9, including the four from #pitchwars

Still in submission:  23, including six emailed and website-form submissions and 17 with Submittable.

Next month’s goal will be the original first month goal again:  30 submissions in 30 days.

And no, I am not doing NaNoWriMo.   I’m doing my submissions challenge until I get an agent or enough street cred that I’ve got editors who’ll just look at my work.

I admit this may take a while.


I lost my fountain pen over a week ago …

My affection for fountain pens goes way, way back. I first found out about them at the El Patio University Book Store, where I got replaceable cartridges and Schaeffer Scrip fountain pens

No, I haven’t stopped writing, of course, I just switched to a purple gel pen.  But having

The purple gel pen with which I replaced the Waterman, my daily driver

just read a pretty good essay reflection on the writing implement and its connection to writing as such, I had to admit, there is something about your own personal pen that a writer can get attached to.  My pen, a Waterman, has a thick sliver barrel and writes a fine line. I fill it from a bottle of blue or purple ink. I’m pretty sure the lost pen is somewhere around here on the main floor of the house.  Probably under something.

Yeah, I can write without it.

But it’s not the same.

My affection for fountain pens goes way, way back.  I found out about them at the El Patio University Book Store, where I bought my first Schaeffer Scrip fountain pens. These came with a chrome nib, a plastic barrel, two refill cartridges, and a cheap pot metal lid, all for about $6.00.  They became known around the house as “cartridge pens.” I used them for years until they became impossible to find at any store.

The Silver Waterman

Enter Waterman and the Schaeffer brand refillable fountain pens.  They cost about $100 each. I tried other brands but had problems of leaking, skipping nibs, blotting ink.  Or quickly wearing out, the “feed” of ink running dry.

I journal about 500 pages of longhand script per year. My daily driver pen is, metaphorically speaking, a long-haul vehicle.

I used to order the pens from the now-defunct Joon Pen of New York City, but these days, I just get them from Amazon or Ebay.

Fountain pen nibs wear out after a couple years.  On some occasions I buy new nibs. But ultimately, the pen itself always seems to get lost, including the gold-plated Shaeffer which Leo had engraved with my name.  Which is why I’m a little worried about the one that’s currently missing.  Not that I won’t buy another pen. It’s just that I’ve had this one for three or four years and it’s special.

When you order another pen, you don’t know exactly what you’re going to get. It’s like sending off for a mail order bride.  It’s a serious relationship, not one you want to take a chance on, but you do what you have to do.

I will have to get searching the lists of options. The decision is always a fraught one. Once a new pen arrives, there’s the feel of the effortless flow of ink onto a page as I immerse myself in the remarkable spiritual consolation that only writing with a fountain pen can provide.





A muse over my muses

Who or what could be my muse? A real person whom I love? A saint? A creature I believe exists in the spirit realm?

Could a type of event be a muse? Hemingway was inspired by war and by bullfighting. Zelda was Fitzgerald’s muse. Sylvia Plath had her father and Ted, and even her college boyfriend was used to fuel her art. That brings us to Ezra Pound, whose true Penelope was, he said, Gustave Flaubert.

Could your muse be a crime? I’m reading a true crime book, “I’ll be gone in the night” about the East Area Rapist, and it seems that tracking down a killer is author Michelle McNamara’s muse.

How about place? I’ve been inspired by place more than once, writing about California and about Rome.

Now, in the distance, I hear a train whistle moaning, crying. I imagine it rocking past the prairie dog town. Fort Collins is a place with much placeness. One could write about Fort Collins, with its bearded men, many looking marginally educated but then doing complicated paperwork correctly, like the guy at the U-Haul place. The men of Colorado are a study. I get the impression there’s a lot going on underneath the surface.

In Texas I learned how to find other writers. Texas has an active and well-developed literature and writing community but but I never found I wanted to write about Texas. But Colorado is something else entirely.

Yesterday I was driving home from work and as I came across the very last miles of the Great Plains, driving west up to the Front Range of the Rockies. The haze of September had been rained down earlier in the week. And I saw, for the first time, the real mountains themselves. Not the rolling hills I’ve seen before, but mountains, far into the sky, higher than what seemed possible, their peaks unreachable, their slopes laid out in silver granite ridges and saddles filled with snow.

This must be what my grandfather felt when he became a mountain climber, when he with ropes and clampons went climbing the Matterhorn and the Grand Teton and I can’t remember what else.

Half of Colorado is wilderness and mountains. And mountains speak to me of the ineffable, the truth beyond what we know and see …

I wonder if the mountains could be someone’s muse.