The artist’s life. & off we go.

mental health & illness, soulful business, the art of writing

esmeself-portrait

 

Whether or not you live with a mental illness, or are an entrepreneur — if you are a human being, this series is important to you, because you will face challenges in your life, whether that’s illness or not; you do have responsibilities, regardless of whether or not you’re at the helm of an empire. And you need to read this because your fellow humans live with mental illness. You need to hear these stories.

Listen to me read this piece here:

 

I took the self-portrait above twenty minutes ago, with a pile of to-dos — feeling frazzled, receiving frustrating emails, wrestling with WordPress. Oh, the drama! But I dashed into my bedroom and pulled my favorite dress off of my clothes rack. It’s a georgette, blush-pink dress that I bought from one of my dearest friends, and I rarely wear it because it’s old and delicate. I put it on. I pulled a grey sweater on top of it. I grabbed my camera, propped it up on my wedding album (because I don’t have a tripod, naturally), and took a series of self-portraits. I wanted to document this feeling: a combination of anger and strength and vulnerability and fear. My chin is lifted slightly. You can see that I have one slightly lazy eye — it’s very lazy in some photos, including my first driver’s license — because it drifts in certain circumstances, such as when I’m daydreaming. I imported the photos into Lightroom, did some editing, and here we go.

This is how I am on the day before I leave for Hedgebrook.

To recap: Hedgebrook is a writers’ residency on Whidbey Island, Washington, and five writers are chosen at a time to live in their separate little cottages in the woods to do intensive work on a book. Orangette wrote about it here, which I refer to occasionally to get a sense of what life might be like for me there. There is no wireless. There is one computer in the office, and we will be allowed to check email and do brief research. They strongly discourage cell phone usage.

And so I’ve been preparing, though I’m not quite packed. Mentally, I’m preparing. I’m entering the zone of work again, in which I begin to interpret everything as something to make note of, in which I create a stockpile of books to reference and mark up. I have the title of the book, code-named TCS; I have what I think may be the basic structure of the book. I have a box full of notecards, collected over the past few months, that will help me figure out the rest.

In the meantime, I’ll be off the grid. I won’t be on Twitter. I won’t be on Instagram or Facebook or Pinterest. I won’t be answering email — setting up a vacation autoresponder is one of the final things that I need to do today. I will likely be answering phone calls at times, for those of you who have my number.

 

What of this space, in the meantime.

One of the final things that I’ve been putting together this week is a series called Off We Go: Entrepreneurs & Mental Illness.

A series of guest writers, including Nicole Antoinette of Life Less Bullshit, and Beth Kirby of the award-winning Local Milk and Sweet Gum Co., will be appearing here every Tuesday for the rest of April, with a piece about the intersections between entrepreneurship and mental illness.

I’ve been saying this to my friends, and I’ll say it now: this series astounds me. There are different tones. There are wildly different experiences. There are calls to action, and there are pieces that border on heated rants. There are lyrical, lengthy wanderings. They’re all so beautiful, and so necessary.

Whether or not you live with a mental illness, or are an entrepreneur — if you are a human being, this series is important to you, because you will face challenges in your life, whether that’s illness or not; you do have responsibilities, regardless of whether or not you’re at the helm of an empire. And you need to read this because your fellow humans live with mental illness. You need to hear these stories.

I’m trying my best to schedule my social media alerts for when I’m gone; but honestly, I’m throwing this to the wind, a bit. I’m trusting that people will find Off We Go important enough to help me spread the word. And while I’m sitting in my cottage in the woods, yelping or writing or reading or puddling through the rain, a part of me will be here, too, with the Chronicles — with this space — with the Off We Go participants, and the Off We Go readers.

So, if you please, read. Comment, and let these writers know that their voices are important, because they are. Share on your social media feeds. Use the #offwego hashtag, if it so pleases you.

I’m off to finish my errands and deeds. Be well. I’ll be thinking of you.

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What makes an artist unmistakable?

soulful business, the art of writing

andy kaufman

Credit: Andy Kaufman as Tony Clifton

Obsessiveness is what causes artists to go deeper.

Listen to me read this piece below:

 

On Unmistakable Creative, host Srini often finishes his interviews with the same question.

Though he’s switched it up since then, the question used to be this: What makes some artists rise to acclaim and fortune, as opposed to those who don’t? When it comes to unmistakable artists, he asks, what creates the common factor?

In 1995, NBC released A Comedy Salute to Andy Kaufman, and I’d forgotten that documentary until I found myself streaming the 1999 biopic Man on the Moon on my laptop — which then had me reading the Wikipedia page on Andy Kaufman — and voila! Here was an adolescent memory of watching that 1995 film in the living room, and the recognition of a seminal moment in my development, even if I didn’t realize it at the time.

There was, for example, Tony Clifton. Kaufman insisted, in his contract for “Taxi,” that his old friend — a bawdy, obnoxious lounge singer — be given spots on the show. Tony appeared for years in many places, including on TV and in nightclubs, where he’d insult the audience and wail off-key; few people knew that Tony was actually mild-mannered Andy in disguise, though at times Andy and Tony appeared together, given that Tony would sometimes also be portrayed by a friend in the same disguise.

After Andy died of cancer, Tony reappeared a year later — performed by a friend, with permission — and convinced folks that Kaufman’s so-called death in 1984, as with other things in his life, was a performance and a sham. The truth of who Tony actually was, in those post-mortem appearances, wasn’t revealed till 1995. Tony had been Kaufman, and he hadn’t. Tony Clifton had become a creature of his own.

Watching that documentary was the first time that I can remember seeing the sort of obsessiveness that plagues the unmistakable. There was no line between art and life — the art was the life, the life was the art. Kaufman was committed to his body of work as an oddball “song-and-dance man,” as he called himself. Yes, he was on a hit TV show, but he was also “voted off” of “Saturday Night Live” — in part due to his boorish behavior as a misogynistic wrestler (another drawn-out goof, which involved a very real-seeming feud with a brawny pro).

At twelve, at thirteen, I picked up on that obsessiveness, though I couldn’t articulate it at the time. I did call myself obsessive, because I was — an obsessive personality, is what I called it, and I channeled it through useless things until I discovered that I could be obsessed with writing and reading. I could make language my backbone. It could, and would, keep me safe when little else was capable of keeping me safe. It could stick me together when I was shattering.

And speaking of Andys — I watched Rivers and Tides recently, a film about Andy Goldsworthy, upon the recommendation of Victoria Prozan and her extraordinary Creative Ambrosia membership — and of all of the art-making and building, there were a handful of seconds that pierced me. Andy stands in his kitchen, among his wife and rambunctious, beautiful blond children, and he’s not paying attention to any of it. He’s staring into space in a way that I recognize: it’s the look of the writer who’s thinking about the sentence that won’t rearrange itself into the right configuration; it’s the look of the painter who’s considering the unspeakable concept.

The capacity for a single-minded pursuit is, I think, a hallmark of creators who wind up differentiating themselves. But it’s not the actual single-mindedness that does it — though work helps, because doing the work helps get the obsession into a form that others can appreciate.

Obsessiveness is what causes artists to go deeper. Without going deeper, there’s only surface — and surface can create an impact, but it won’t be a lasting one.

 

P.S. If you enjoyed this piece, it debuted a few days ago on With Love & Squalor. I don’t often push pieces from WL&S to the site, but this one asked to be shared — in the meantime, consider signing up for WL&S for mini-essays like this one, as well as the links round-up that used to appear on Saturdays.

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Large & small retreats.

the art of writing

create small retreats

The gift of retreats and residencies are few and far between, requiring applications and recommendation letters and often waitlists, and so I choose some weekends to become miniature versions of them.

Listen to me read this piece here:

 

Structured retreats are where I flourish as a writer. I’ve lived for a month on Toronto Island, taking the ferry back and forth to gather the week’s groceries in a knapsack for my weekly meals. I’ve stayed in Johnson, Vermont, more often than not sleeping on the floor of my miniature studio with a coat flung over my curled-up body. In April, I’ll be living in a cottage in the woods on Whidbey Island.

I’m prolific in these places, which offer pockets of seemingly infinite time. Still, these gifts of retreats and residencies are few and far between, requiring applications and recommendation letters and often waitlists, and so I choose some weekends to become miniature versions of them. I pull time out like taffy. I don’t look at clocks. I sit at my desk and write surrounded by postcards, stamps, candles, jars of flowers, and a sign from the Makeshift Society that says WORKING HARD on one side and HARDLY WORKING on the other, which I flip back and forth to correspond with my moods.

Frequently I rearrange these bits and bobs around my desktop and notebooks, hoping to recharge my creative energies. While I type and hesitate and type, Daphne lies on the stained blue rug beside the space heater, silent and sleepy, occasionally lifting her head if I start to talk to myself, or if C pokes his head in to see how I’m doing.

Retreat weekends mean that I drink mugs upon mugs of PG Tips, which is always in stock at our house, and which is, apparently, England’s No. 1 Tea. All other mugs are relegated to coffee duty, which is more of a weekday, zoom-y beverage. Weekends are more gentle.

If I’m feeling ambitious, I’ll plan dinner before twelve. I leave my studio and go to the butcher down the street. I chat with the men; I pick up what I can’t find there at the tiny market a little further down. Coq au vin in the crockpot is a simple, special occasion. I throw everything in — this is not a gourmet process — before I set the slow cooker on High and leave it alone for the rest of the day.

At about three or so, when the words have been wrung from my bones and I’m craving conversation and good food, I emerge with Daphne trotting behind me. I check on the crockpot: are the potatoes soft enough? What about the carrots? I sit at our farm table, where C is usually reading, and we chat, coming together at the end of the given Saturday or Sunday, letting our evenings ease into food and podcast goofs. The chicken is tender, the potatoes starchy and delicious. We share poems, or articles from the news. Sometimes, we chase Daphne around the house, and her mouth is open, panting, and wild with happiness.

Resources:

8tracks is my go-to for tunes & playlists.
Focus@will is a nifty brain-tuner.
Some writing residencies to apply for include Hedgebrook, the Vermont Studio Center, MacDowell, Yaddo. All of these require applications, and all of them are paid for by the residency — with the exception of VSC, which does offer fellowships.
A recipe for coq au vin.
I’m obsessed with this notecard system for book-making.

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Moving on, and still writing.

soulful business, the art of writing

desk view

To hear me read this post, please listen here:

 

The title of this post is a nod to Dani Shapiro’s excellent book, Still Writing, which shares a title with this piece.

Recently I got off the phone with a friend — an abstract mathematician whom I generally consider to be the only true genius I know, and someone I’ve known since elementary school. He’d just finished reading my first novel, which had been terrifying for both of us. Aaron had been afraid that he wouldn’t like it, and, being an individual who doesn’t mince words when it comes to quality, he’d then have to tell me so. I, too, was afraid that he wouldn’t like it; I still remember the time he read a short story of mine and said, “This is completely meaningless,” in response. And that had been a 20-paged story that I’d spent two months on, not a 250-paged book that had taken four solid, grueling years to write.

I’m going to be heading to Hedgebrook, a writers’ residency, for the entirety of April. According to the letter I received last month, I was one of 45 fortunate writers to receive a place out of a pool of 1500 applicants. Hedgebrook is a residency that believes strongly in comfort and in solitude. Cell phones are discouraged; warm cookies and fresh flowers are provided in our private cottages on a regular basis. They tell us, the arriving writers, that one of the hardest things for Hedgebrook residents to deal with is, at first, the solitude — the silence of being told to write and read alone, in the woods, for weeks at a time — the inability for us to use the Internet without going to great lengths. We are there to write.

And so I’ve been preparing, beginning now in late February, for the April I’ll spend away. I know what I’ll be working on: a second book, which will be a memoir of sorts, about schizoaffective disorder. I refer to it as TCS. I will bring my notes and my laptop, and for the first time in months, I’ll be face-to-face with my own writer’s self, which I’ve been holding at a distance for the last year as my novel — the one Aaron just finished reading — makes its rounds. Holding my breath, I’ve found, is not a particularly effective technique while waiting for a book to find a home; and yet that’s what I’ve done with mine. I spent four years working nonstop on it. I went down the creative rabbit hole with that book and, in some ways, neglected my family while living so deeply in the process. I suppose the thought of doing that all over again, while not knowing what will become of said novel, pained me too much to launch fully into working again.

But, I’m reminded, that’s what writers do. If I am indeed a writer, the fact that I must continue to write is a reality and an imperative. Without the work, I lose myself. Without having a project living in a corner of my mind, I stop paying attention, stop tucking away details, stop noting the particular way in which the butcher weighs and wraps a pound of livers, or the way the air feels in the aftermath of a neighborhood tragedy. I float. I lose my perilous grounding.

The last week has felt like a homecoming of sorts. I’ve been dreaming about both my business ventures for 2014 and about my literary writing career. The illnesses that I live with have taken center stage for months, and I want to feel like myself again; I am beginning to feel like myself again.

Editing services are opening in March. I won’t be working in April, and at least one rare March slot has been filled. If you’re a visionary entrepreneur intrigued by editing services, I recommend that you visit this newsletter for more information — I look forward to meeting you, and to championing your work and the legacy you hope to build.

As for Aaron and my book? He told me that it was beautiful. “A work of art, Esmé,” he said.

I go on. I keep writing. I am, indeed, still writing.

With love,

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Powerful elegance leads to legacy, or, Editing matters.

soulful business, the art of writing

keyboard with green keys

Listen to me read this piece here:


Imagine the following: you jaunt to your local bookstore to pick up a book that you’ve been itching to read, and plunk down your (hard-earned) cash at the register so that you can bring your bounty home. Upon settling in with a warm mug, a throw, and perhaps a furry critter or two, you run your eyes down the first page and notice the following: the author appears to have misspelled the name of a country, forgotten a “the,” and seems to be using run-on sentences in a way that’s sloppy, rather than stylistic.

What would you think of the author, the publisher, and the book itself? How compelled would you be to read on?

Though I can imagine the above, it’s never actually happened to me. I’ve caught typos in books before, but they’re at most two to a volume — and never so frequent as to be distracting.

Yet according to the massive amount of online product I’ve purchased and/or consumed in the last few years, these sorts of errors are commonplace in the Internet-based entrepreneurial sphere. I now become anxious when scanning the first paragraph of a new ebook; I fear that I’m going to spot something that will cause me to not only trust its producer less, but also to resent the fact that I’ve paid good money for something that, 99% of the time, I can’t return.

Missing commas. Too many commas.

It’s versus its. Lie, lay, laid. Facts gone unchecked and quotes misquoted.

Why does it matter?

Just as you wouldn’t want your shopping cart to accidentally overcharge your customers, or your sold MP3 files to arrive corrupted, clear language usage is about professionalism. It’s about the way we appear to one another as communicators, and the way we devalue our customers by mishandling communication. I’m not talking about blog posts, here — though I appreciate being tweeted at for the sake of correcting a typo, I know not everyone is — but rather, the content we produce that we’re asking people to pay for.

If we’re saying that we’re not worth less because a big-name gatekeeper doesn’t head our output, then we need to make that output shine just as brightly as though one of the Big Six were sending our work to press themselves.

Clean writing is a form of powerful elegance. Powerful elegance is the backbone of legacy. (click to tweet)

Choose to shine.

 

And because I’m not just a finger-wagging grammarian and professional nitpicker, here are a few tips for catching typos and odd mistakes:

  • Read your content backwards. Yep. Sentence by sentence, from end to beginning. The reason we often don’t catch errors is that we get caught up in the flow of what we mean to say; reading backwards means that we’re less likely to let context gloss over errors.
  • Read your content aloud. We’re more likely to notice sentences that stumble and repetitive verbiage when we read things aloud.
  • Find an editor or a copyeditor that you trust. I’ve got nifty editing and copyediting services launching in March (hop on the list to learn more as those services roll out). There may also be a grammatically inclined acquaintance that you can bribe with a drink or catsitting services.

Your story matters. Lavish it with care.

Go forth, and wield your words with pride.

With love & squalor,

P.S. The winner of the giveaway bracelet is… Ellen Prendergast-Smith! Ellen, please get in touch with me so that I may bestow you with your Word bracelet. And to everyone who entered: thank you so much. The information that you gave me will be a great help as I develop my writing going forward.

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