July 30, 2012

inspired: kenneth lonergan interview

I recently caught an interview with playwright/director/writer/actor Kenneth Lonergan on NPR's program "Fresh Air." Interviewer Terry Gross discussed his film "Margaret," just released on DVD in two different versions: a theatrical release and an extended cut. At one point in the interview, Ms. Gross notes that the two DVD versions differ significantly from one another, not only in scene edits but also in music choices and placement. She inquires about the tedium of this process and the thousands of choices it must have required of him. Here is his reply to that question, along with one further interview question and reply:
KL: "It's very daunting. You can't really do it if you don't have an internal track you're following. And when you lose that track, my feeling - my definition of technique, whatever that means - is to use your conscious mind to slowly and stupidly find its way back to your unconscious mind, where all the really intelligent and interesting and meaningful thoughts and feelings come from. But you can't edit or write line by line. I was listening to a Beethoven symphony at the time I was editing and at one point I was very frustrated, and I was like, 'How does he decide every single note? There are so many notes in the symphony!' And then I thought, 'Well, you dummy, of course he doesn't decide every single note, he hears it in his head, and he writes it down.' And that's where you try to get..." 
TG: "OK, so if you feel that way, it must be very difficult when someone else intervenes or somebody else tries to logically tell you why you made the wrong decision, if you are working from your gut. But then you have to defend it rationally as opposed to intuitively. It can get difficult, right?"
KL: "Yes, and if you haven't found it yourself yet, and that happens, it sometimes can prevent you from finding it for months, whether it's a positive comment or a negative comment. If I'm in the middle of trying to decide whether to include a scene or not and someone tells me they love it, then next time I go back to it, instead of having a private relationship with it, I keep thinking, 'Oh my God, Josh said he loved that scene! It must be very good, I must keep it in.' And the scene maybe should be cut. And of course the opposite happens. It's even stronger if you put in a piece of music and you're not sure about it and someone walks in and says, 'Boy that music isn't doing any favors.' Suddenly that's what you hear in your head. I'm particularly - I don't like to use the word 'defensive,' because I don't think it's accurate or fair - but 'protective' of the material as best I can be, because you have enough of your own bad ideas to wade through without other people coming and joining in." 
I am fascinated by his thoughts on these aspects of the creative process, his belief in finding the most true answers within his own unconscious mind. I have been thinking about this idea a lot since I heard the interview, and I am inspired to continue to dig deeper within my own creative self to discover my answers, too. Do you believe, like he does, that the most true answers are located within, and that this internal process needs protecting?

I am definitely curious to see "Margaret," as well as his previous film "You Can Count On Me," after hearing this interview! Have any of you seen it? You can hear the entire interview here.

July 26, 2012

"writing writing"...

Just about every writer friend I know uses this phrase regularly: "writing writing." In case you are not one of the writers who uses this phrase and it is foreign to you, I will illustrate further...

"Cayt, how is your writing going?"
"Great! I have been writing a lot lately. Not 'writing writing,' but hey, any writing counts, right?"

I find myself using the phrase often, and most often when speaking with other writers or creators about my creative process. The phrase is added into regular conversation, with no clarification or further explanation offered, yet it is remarkably differential and surprisingly indicative. To my writer-friends, it does not need clarification. I use the phrase when differentiating between my morning pages and the short story concepts I am working to develop. Or even to differentiate between my non-fiction versus fiction blog posts. I use the phrase automatically: it is my pages of writing put onto a scale and weighed for the inherent value I have assigned them. I use the phrase as a form of measurement when I am recounting my progress in my writing practice: Have I been writing lately? Well, do you mean "writing writing," or just putting pen to paper? 

I have caught myself using this phrase when speaking to my friends who are not writers or artists, when they are kind enough to ask after my creative work. When I realize that the phrase has come out of my mouth, I am amazed my friends do not write me off as crazy! It must sound ridiculous. It reminds me of junior high, of whispers and notes passed back and forth among friends, "Do you like him, or do you 'like like' him?" Apparently the repetition indicates more extreme validity. It's not just true, it's really, really true. So does that mean that when I am "writing writing," I am really, really writing? Or does it mean that if I have not accomplished "writing writing," I have really, really not been writing? Now I am beginning to confuse even myself! Yet when the phrase appears in conversation, it almost always makes perfect sense to me.

It occurred to me how absurd this phrase might seem to someone who does not need to differentiate creatively this way. Are all artistic pursuits like this? Does a painter only boast of finished or commissioned work, or work that begins with a clear aim or destination? (I will have to ask my painter friend!) Does a musician say they are writing songs but not "song songs?" Does a dancer dance, or do they "dance dance?" In measuring my own art this way, I feel like sometimes I take away from my own progress and effort. My response can undermine all that I am accomplishing by taking each next step, because I am drawing a clear line between what is successful or not. 

I find that what I really mean when I use this phrase is "Am I writing something in order to publish it?" Because that is the goal for me and for most of my writer friends. It takes so much practice to get to that place, to work through those pieces of writing that could one day go so far as to be published. It seems the line between a successful writer and an unsuccessful one: a fixed mark of success or failure. Sure, we all know that everyone starts as an unpublished writer. Surely, those published writers have to write a ton of "regular writing" before their "writing writing" gets them somewhere. Does all of their writing become "writing writing" once they are published, or does that remain a valid term in their creative paths, too? At which point does a piece of writing become legitimate? At which point does the time you spend writing become something you value and prize as being truly important?

I want to think more about this, these ways that I sell myself and my art short by differentiating, in a million tiny ways, between what is legitimate and what is a waste. Surely no writing is a waste - what a heartbreaking thing to believe about any creative pursuit or even vulnerability of any sort! I throw myself a bone; I give myself a half-credit for putting pen to paper or for posting on this blog, but deep down, my inner critic echoes 'round and 'round that my work is not "writing writing." I want to be more proud of my effort, and more gentle toward my art. When my husband writes a song, he enters a place of  abandon as he begins with just a few notes or melodies. He calls it a "song" from the moment it takes even the smallest shape. It may be hours or days or months before he finishes the song, but it is a song all the while. And when it is finished, that seed is traceable and I marvel at the journey from beginning to completion. How much does his belief in that small seed of a beginning empower that seed to grow strong and steady, into its full potential? What if I were to believe that much in one sentence, or paragraph, or even a word? Would my beginning blossom to become as strong? 

Why, as writers, do we tend to be so bad at giving ourselves this gift of validation? I believe that we do have a strong sense within ourselves of which of our writing is best and most true and valuable to us. But how many beginnings do we stop short, because we have written them off as not being "writing writing?" And at what point should we give our work credit, and believe that it will really become something? I am learning so much about the many ways I am my own biggest obstacle. It can be disheartening, but it is also a wonderful truth to realize, because you are the only thing you can do something about. 

Do you struggle with the curse of "writing writing," too? 

July 25, 2012

beach house in the city

Ryan and I attended Pitchfork Music Festival for the first time this year. I don't know how it hasn't happened before, but with my previous busy retail schedule and Ryan's travels, it just never did. And we can't really own that we fully attended this year, since we only joined in on the last night of the festival. But we were both really impressed with how grown-up this festival was! We planned our trip in order to see Beach House live, as they are one of my favorites and I have never had the chance to see them. I had been hoping to catch them sometime and was so happy this worked out!
We decided to make a day of it, and spent the afternoon in Wicker Park browsing shops and eating at our very favorite Native Foods Cafe - YUM! I saw a pretty pink bike in the Copenhagen Cyclery shop window that gave me pause and definitely earned a photo moment. And I really loved the way that Free People modified this old hanging sign to fit their beautiful aesthetic. It was such a pretty, feminine touch in the midst of this area. 
Our favorite store, which we had somehow never before discovered, was The Boring Store. We loved every inch of this place, and how exciting that the proceeds of the shop benefit 826CHI, the awesome non-profit writing and tutoring center. Ryan, who is not usually much of a shopper, even picked out a couple of birthday gift ideas, which I promptly snatched up for him.  (If you have not been there, you should definitely visit their site here! And even if you have, I promise you will enjoy it again...)

After an early dinner we drove over to Union Park, home of the Pitchfork Music Festival. It was, unfortunately, a miserably hot day, and I think we were both growing very skeptical that this festival thing was going to be a good idea. Usually, in our experience, the last night of a festival has meant littered grounds and drunk people, and dirt and dust everywhere. We arrived early enough to wander around a bit before Beach House went on, and I must say, we were delighted to be proven wrong! The grounds were still well-maintained, and we encountered NO hooligans. This is the first music festival I've attended that had as many or more vegetarian and vegan food tents as other options, and the Flatstock Poster Fair aisle was really, really impressive. I could have browsed for hours!
Pitchfork's marketing and design for the festival were really, really great! Whimsical yet orderly, fashion and function. We loved the fold-out maps and pocket guides! Every bit of information plugged perfectly in so that you wouldn't have to check your phone for anything (although of course, there was an app for that). Even the passes we wore were super-fancy compared to most of the festivals we've attended. We got to spend some time with our friend Jamin, founder of Kill Screen, a really amazing videogame arts and culture company, who was visiting from New York to promote their new project "Soundplay," which is very, very neat. And we got to taste a delicious vegan mint chocolate chip ice cream cone from Temptation
By the time we joined the crowds standing at the Red Stage waiting for the band to go on, the sun was setting and the day was cooling with the passing breezes. Beach House was really, really great live - SO authentic to the integrity of their recordings, which they pulled off with only three musicians! Their stage design was amazing - bold black and white striped panels, lit from behind in shifting patterns, and an occasional blanket of stars above them below the stage's roof. We did not even try to get up close, even though I tend to be the nerdy kid who prefers to see the expressions on each artist's face as they perform. It was just too crowded and hot, and Pitchfork had a great jumbo-tron setup that gave us enough glimpses to keep me happy. They performed most of my favorites, with the exception of "Take Care," which holds a special place in my heart because our friends Dan and Therese chose it as their wedding song. Hearing the song always transports me right back to that lovely day. But I will give Beach House a whole-hearted thumbs-up anyway, because their performance was magnificent.
All in all, it was a great day of adventure, and I am really glad we decided to go this year! Did any of you attend Pitchfork this year??

July 24, 2012

inspired: lost in the trees

Even just their name evokes daydreams: "Lost in the trees." 

While listening to an afternoon show on my local NPR station a couple of weeks ago, I randomly caught an interview with Ari Picker, the frontman and central creative force behind North Carolina folk band Lost in the Trees. He was on the show to discuss the band's second album, recently released, titled "A Church That Fits Our Needs."
What I heard first when I turned on my car radio was a combination of gorgeous orchestration, haunting vocals and bewitching melodies. Before I could process what I was hearing logically, I was swept immediately into the emotion of the music, in a way that rarely, rarely happens for me. Even some of my current favorite artists have been acquired tastes, growing on me over time. But the song I heard had me absolutely transfixed, and I lost all sense of time and place as I began to try to determine what I was hearing. As much as I enjoy listening to "The Afternoon Shift" with Steve Edwards, I tend to hear discussions about city politics and other more news-radio-ish bits. I checked and double-checked that it was really my NPR station, thinking I had maybe caught a college indie station or something. As the song finished playing, I heard the familiar talk show host's voice return as he continued to narrate the interview. I was definitely going to listen in for this one.

I appreciated hearing songwriter Ari Picker's perspective on the album and his writing process - it is always oddly comforting to hear such familiar life cycles and patterns articulated by strangers who just happen to have the same type of job as Ryan. There are always many aspects and patterns that sound the same, and also some that are not. From the interview, I gathered that much if not all of the subject matter of the record centers around Picker's personal experience processing his mother's suicide a couple of years back. He spoke of wanting to empower her, to protect and honor her legacy, to eliminate the myth that because she took her own life, she must have been powerless. No wonder there was such incredible depth and emotion. 

After a short conversation, they played another song from the album (I had missed that first song title), this one called "Villain (I'll stick around)." The host explained that the song would begin with an audio clip of Picker's mother, salvaged from a cassette tape he had found while sorting through her things. She herself was an artist, and this was a clip of her interviewing another local artist many years before. This song is officially my favorite. Listen to "Villain" here
I sat in the car until the interview concluded, because I didn't want to miss any of it. I bought their album the same day, and I have listened through it only a few times, because I find the music and melody so moving that I can only handle listening to these songs when I can give them my full attention. They evoke a similar response as a poignant scene in a dramatic film, or a particularly lovely passage in a novel: art which demands savoring. I love knowing that the album is there in my iTunes, ready and waiting for those moments when I can linger in that space.

If you have not heard of "Lost in the Trees," I encourage you to check them out here on their website. And you can hear the interview that I originally heard here!

July 23, 2012

the write things: rifle paper co. notebooks

I am a planner. Try as I might to embrace the flow of creativity and let loose in search of inspiration, I always feel most comfortable with a system in place to collect and organize my thoughts. I like to begin with structure, sort of like a home base for my ideas and plans, and then I can work on being more flexible as my intentions unfold into reality. If nothing else, a system helps my brain to push ideas out. Once I write my creative ideas down, I can step back and gain perspective, and see how a theme might be emerging or how inspiration begins to take shape.
While I am a tried-and-true journal-keeper, I find that if I write outlines or lists in my journals, it is almost guaranteed that I will not go back to read them. I like to give my daily journals, filled with my morning pages and other writings, space to sit and breathe before I go back to unearth what might be buried inside. So I have found it really, really helpful in my creative practice, to use slim notebooks or journals organizationally, and keep my journals just filled with actual writing. I have used these Moleskine journals before, and they are a really great option, but my current favorite is this set of three journals from Rifle Paper Co. (a brand that I absolutely, always adore!). 
Are they not SO pretty?? I am seeing more and more sets of slim notebooks as I shop here and there, and I am really excited to see so many more options available nowadays. I am using the aqua notebook for my blog planning, the pink one to keep track of some of my short story ideas and progress, and the red one remains empty for whatever purpose or project I will find next! (I like having it there, ready and waiting - it is great motivation for me to dive right in with new ideas. I think I should always make sure there is a blank notebook waiting, don't you?)
The details continue inside the journals, making them even more special! I love the artwork at the tops of the pages, and since I was small, I have loved filling in the portion where it says, in any notebook, "This notebook belongs to..." The two journals I am using are already engraved with my ownership.
It really helps me to plug my creative ideas into some form of organizational structure. I use these 4x6 lined pastel Post-it notes and these Martha Stewart page tabs to organize my notebooks and keep all of my thoughts really accessible! Both the tabs and the Post-it notes are removable and can be rearranged as often as I need in order to keep up with the structures that seem best at a given moment. And I love how when the journal is open right to the middle, you can see the line of red stitching that holds it all together. What I find most wonderful about incorporating these notebooks into my creative practice is their flexibility. They are an organizational tool, sure, which gives my structured brain an outlet to coordinate a lot of my creative efforts. Otherwise they are all sort of floating in and out of my head and consciousness and could be gone at any moment's notice. But I love that these journals also provide an opportunity for a fresh new start - an opportunity to make mistakes or try something out. In past, I have sometimes used shorter journals sometimes just to feel like I am achieving something sooner, when I fill them! 

You can find this same set at Paper Source, or visit the Rifle Paper Co. website to see the other lovely items they offer! And you can read about some of my other "write things" here!

July 20, 2012

inspired: eskell

Sometimes I forget how boundless creative inspiration can be. I limit myself to seeking inspiration in books and writing, or even other conventional forms of 'entertainment,' like film and music. But I recently wandered into the shop Eskell in Wicker Park, and was reminded that creativity and inspiration take all forms! 
I first heard of Eskell, which is both a shop and designer clothing line, several years ago. I read about the designers, Kelly Whitesell and Elizabeth Del Castillo, in a magazine article and was immediately charmed by their story and style. I have visited their Chicago shop a few times over the years, and have always found the shop absolutely delightful. There is passion in all their details: from their lovely, curated lines of both designer and vintage clothing to their pitch-perfect accessories. Even their business cards and jewelry boxes are the definition of loveliness.
On this trip, I purchased these pretty vintage-inspired sunglasses, which were only twenty-five dollars! They will be a perfect accessory for my summer wardrobe and beyond, and I completely adore them. 
And this 'Sonia' necklace below is my new very favorite possession, I think. It is a little longer than my other delicate necklaces, and I want to wear it with everything!!! As I was checking out, their really sweet sales associate, Gina, told me that this line of jewelry is custom-made for Eskell, which makes me love it even more!
The shop carries some other really amazing designers as well. These Zodiac Constellation bracelets by Julie Nolan are so beautiful, yes?
There were so many lovely pieces, so many textures and colors and shapes: my creative brain began humming productively from the moment I entered the store. Visual inspiration, I believe, feeds my creativity just as much, and even more sometimes, than other forms. It is why I gain so much from spending a few minutes on Pinterest (or a lot of minutes, if I'm being honest), or reading fashion and lifestyle blogs and magazines. Sometimes visual inspiration - this gift of creative connection that does not necessarily have to be specifically described or articulated or defended - can really open my mind back up and help me relax into the joys of creative passion. In my art, I live for that moment when you well up with joy at those connections. It is amazing when that feeling comes as I put pen to paper, but I know I will only benefit from experiencing those feelings in as many ways as possible.
I wonder now what inspiration I have missed along the way, with my nose in a book or my thought patterns and processes limited to words? I am vowing to myself to continue to let the flow of inspiration enter my brain in whatever order it is meant to come, and I can not wait to see what I will discover next! What has inspired you visually lately??

July 18, 2012

writing practice: sensory triggers

I have read about this practice in multiple books on creativity and writing, but the concept of sensory triggers came most into play for me when I participated in NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) last year. The daily discipline of sitting down to write 1700 words in the midst of a busy schedule (and throughout cross-country travels) proved to be quite a challenge. Some days, I only had one period of time when I could write, and it was so important to make the most of that time! I believe that creativity requires a combination of discipline and inspiration, finely balanced to very personal specifications for each of us. Sitting down each day to write was, for me, the 'easy' part. Coaxing inspiration and getting my thoughts to flow freely was the bigger challenge.
I had come across this idea of writing triggers before, and decided to incorporate them into my writing practice for NaNoWriMo. I hoped it would create some important consistency for the project and allow me to rise above place, time of day, and other distracting inconsistencies in my environment. I have always loved a chance to create an atmosphere - nurturing my senses really strengthens my creative self! So I chose a favorite candle, and a delicious blend of tea, and began each writing session with those sensory triggers. I am really good at telling my body to "sit down at the desk now, and open your computer." But I was amazed at the way these triggers served as a wake-up call beyond words and instructions, stirring my creative brain to pour into words on the screen. 
My very favorite candle is this Peony-scented glass filled candle by Henri Bendel. It is an investment price-wise, but the scent burns soft and clean and steady, and as it burns, I am immediately transported! The brand offers many other scents, a few of which I have tried, like Pomegranate and Lemon Verbena. Every scent lived up to its source and was exactly what you want from a fancy candle. Their 9.4-ounce candles have a 60-hour burn time, so they last a lot longer than you think, too! If you want to try them out with a smaller price tag, you can also get many of their scents in a travel size for less of an investment. Even their artwork and package design inspire me: so lovely!!
I am somewhat of a tea connoisseur, and so there has been a lot more variety in my tea trigger choices. This "Paris" blend of black tea with fruits and bergamot by Harney & Sons is one of my favorites! I love a good cup of looseleaf tea, but sometimes when traveling or pressed for time, a bagged tea (or "sachet," as Harney & Sons chooses to call them, much to my pleasure!) is the most practical option. Harney & Sons is my favorite bagged tea brand for several reasons, other than just the word "sachet!" Their sachets come in a pretty triangle shape and once again, the package design is unbelievably lovely! I also appreciate the quality of this tea, which seems closer to looseleaf than most bagged tea. This brand is also readily available in a wide range of flavors in both loose-leaf and sachets, at many stores, including Williams-Sonoma and Barnes and Noble. While I am no expert, I have tried many different brands, and I think you get an amazing flavor and quality in these teas!

The other trigger I began to embrace was writing to music. When I am writing organizationally, like in blog posts or editing drafts of a piece I have already written, I really benefit from silence. I need the emptiness available, so that I can hear my own thoughts and organize them into that empty space. But when I want to coax my thoughts to spill onto the page, to get that raw content within me out and have something new to work with, certain music really helps me to achieve this flow. I tend to prefer music that has strong, soft melodies, and often many layers of orchestration; less "song" and more "composition." And I have noticed that even songwriters I choose have this in common: their lyrics fall back in the mix a bit and do not catch my attention as much as their melodies do. This is opposite of how I usually enjoy music, and it feels like something important to observe. Creative practice requires new territory sometimes! Typically, when I listen to a band or artist, I am most attracted to and aware of vocal melodies and lyrics. My personal favorites often gain my admiration because of the poetry between melody and lyrical content. I am such a word-based processor of a person! But in creating, I need the words to fall back from focus and I need to be moved by the music and able to concentrate instead on the words within myself. Some artists I love to listen to while writing are Bon Iver, The National and Beach House. 
But perhaps my favorite writing-music this past year or so is the work of Dustin O'Halloran. I first heard his music in Sofia Coppola's film "Marie Antoinette" and was immediately obsessed with his simple but breathtaking "Opus" pieces featured on that film's soundtrack. I can not believe I waited so long to look up his other work! His album "Lumiere" is perhaps my very favorite at the moment, and has been the soundtrack to the far majority of my writing sessions this past year. (Totally coincidental with my blog name, if you can believe it! I actually did not notice the connection until just this moment, but I'm sure my subconscious mind knows otherwise...) Hearing just the first few notes of the intro track of the album, "A Great Divide," capsizes the content of my heart as my words spill onto the page. 

As I traveled and completed my NaNoWriMo project (I "won"!! Learn more about NaNoWriMo here!), my sensory triggers proved to be wonderful companions in my creative practice. They awakened all of my senses: the sight of the candle flame, the smell of its scent, the sounds of the music and my fingers typing, the taste of the tea and the sensation of steam rising to touch my face as I sipped. It is comforting to know that when I am stuck and find it difficult to focus, these gifts are there to nurture my process. I try to incorporate my trigger elements in my writing as often as I can, to protect the connection and spark! Do you use any sensory triggers as a part of your practice? 

July 17, 2012

a birthday message for my love (an attempt)

What words can even begin to describe the best friend and partner a girl could ever have? 

This girl has that partner, the one who is indescribable (yes, I am absolutely the luckiest!). Today is his birthday, and this is one of those moments when words fail me and fall oh-so-short of all that I want them to convey. We are in our twelfth year together, and the line of our love moves closer each year to the mark of half our lifetime. Half our lifetime - it is amazing to me! The moments we have shared have been so many we can't keep track, but then the magic lies in the way we both keep trying. And that is where the words fail. How do you sum up so much lifetime?

I will try anyway, but do not hold these words against me when they fail to do justice to this amazing one I love...
My love is kind-hearted and compassionate above anyone I know. He is thoughtful of others in all the ways that truly matter, with a bottom line of love and sincerity and earnestness and purest of intentions. He really does mean to give his best, always. If he learns a better "best," he will try to give that, too. 

He is brave-hearted, willing to risk more than anyone I have ever met or imagined in order to believe in those he loves (in order to believe in me). He is patient, he is willing to keep on giving and focus his sight on that one little spark of potential, no matter how deeply it is buried within. He does this with those he loves, and with his music and art.

He is a true artist. He breathes his gifts with an effortlessness that few artists ever attain - a place of surrender and yielding that I could never in a million years hope to match. He has found the honest place of abandon and openness, he reveals so much of himself and does not draw the lines we all like to hide behind. In his music, you can truly hear his soul. (That is why it is so lovely, I think!)

My love has taught me so many things: to laugh and to relax, to listen and to let go, to dream and to dare. He has taught me to believe in my creative passion and purpose. He has believed in me longer than I have believed in myself. He has been there with words and understanding in the moments when I have fought against my own self, my own potential and hope. He has labored to learn who I am at my core, so that he can better sort the good from the bad and nudge me gently toward the good. 

Cliche, yes, but there are no better words, nothing more true than these: He has been the best friend I could ever have. 
Thank you, Ryan O'Neal, for being my best friend ever and for all your love. Happy 29th birthday - I hope it will be your very best one yet!! xoxo

July 16, 2012

road trip: iowa city book festival

I miss working in a bookstore. I am really happy with the life I lead right now, but there was something so amazing about working daily in that environment of books. I worked in bookstores for seven years, and gained an invaluable education through those experiences! Keeping track of new books as they came out, following authors' journeys as they released new works, and the unpredictable daily adventures of helping our customers find books that we would never look up on our own: this was truly a wonderful way to spend our days.  We built our mental catalogues like virtual bookshelves as we kept track of our learnings and observations. We formed friendships with our fellow booksellers and customers alike, as we discovered, through books, common ground that we might never have imagined or sought otherwise. We played the roles of 'expert' and 'student' all at once, in a field of learning which always held so much new knowledge, no matter how much you already thought you knew. 

Nowadays, I really have to work to keep track of what is happening in the book world. There are blogs and newsletters and social networks to help with this pursuit, and I try to adjust my expectations and do the best I can in keeping up. But there is no match for good old-fashioned conversation, for "book talk" with other readers and writers, and this camaraderie and friendship feeds the soul like nothing else! Now that I am not in a bookstore daily, any chance to drift back into this world of books and catch up on all that I have missed learning is an absolute must!
(Stacy, Missy, Cayt, Chris and Ruth: AWOL friends forever!!)
This past weekend, I traveled to Iowa City, IA with a few friends to attend the third annual Iowa City Book Festival. We attended two days of the three-day festival, and we all really enjoyed our adventure! It was my first time attending this book fest, but my second trip to Iowa City with these amazing friends. Missy, Chris, Ruth and I all worked at Borders Books together years ago and have tried to keep in touch over the years since then. Chris suggested last year that we gather together for a day trip and meet up with Missy, who now lives in Iowa. Iowa City was an ideal destination since it is not only mid-way between us, but also because the town hosts several fabulous book shops! 
We headed home from that first trip with our tote bags full of books and our hearts full of so many wonderful moments and memories! (Sentimental, but true!) We had SO much fun on that trip that we decided to make our friendship even more "official." And so we four ladies christened ourselves as the "AWOL Literary Society." "AWOL," as in "Adventurous Women Obtaining Literature," and most definitely not the military term.

When Missy heard about the events at this year's Iowa City Book Festival, she proposed our second AWOL expedition! We decided to stay overnight and really make an event of it, and enjoyed ourselves even more than we expected. We attended the fest's Literary Carnival on Friday night, where we played carnival games for book prizes, such as "Plinko" for a festival t-shirt, a literary cake walk, and darts for books by authors participating in the Book Festival. We all won at Plinko, and wore our XXL shirts (the only size available) proudly as pajamas that night! And we made some lovely cards through a block-printing process with designs created specifically for the festival. Chris was our only darts champion, and she was excited about her winning!!
We ate dinner together at the delicious "Crepes de Luxe Cafe" together (which is now an annual tradition, too!) and sipped mint iced tea and Earl Grey hot tea (which was accompanied by a tea straw to strain the loose-leaf as you drink - new to me!), enjoying every bite and sip. Back at our hotel, we were joined by Stacy, one of Missy's friends from Iowa, who is a great new addition to AWOL! We stayed up late to play a competitive round of the literary board game "Booktastic" before getting what sleep we could before our day of author events.
Saturday's author events were so wonderful that I hesitate to even begin to summarize them adequately! We attended some events together and some on our own, depending on our interests, and we made sure to squeeze in some book-shopping in-between at Murphy-Brookfield, Prairie Lights, The Book Shop, and The Haunted Bookshop. (I would highly recommend that you visit any or all of these shops online or in person, if you get the chance!) We ate lunch together at a new Iowa City gastropub called Moonrakers, which featured yummy panini sandwiches and french fries with aioli dip - a new favorite! And Ruth and I snuck away just long enough to indulge in some Whitey's ice cream single-scoop cones: Turtle Tracks and Cup O' Joe, respectively.

Between us, we heard a wide range of authors speak, so I will just give you a rundown of the authors I heard personally. My first event was authors Dean Bakopoulos (My American Unhappiness) and Patrick Somerville (This Bright River), speaking on "Literary Friendships" and discussing their new novels. I have not yet read either of these authors, but I was really inspired by Dean and Patrick as they spoke: their thoughts on the writing process, their experiences as authors, and their perspectives on writing novels set in the Midwest. I bought each of their books and I am really looking forward to reading them. Next I heard Laura Moriarty speak, whose book The Chaperone is my most recent read, which I thoroughly enjoyed! I really love her work and had heard her speak a couple of times before in Chicago. I am always inspired by her humility and openness as she discusses her work. She is really down to earth and passionate and she read some beautiful passages from her novel. Next I heard Ridley Pearson, who is one of the most entertaining elocutionists I have witnessed! I have not yet read his works but recently picked up Peter and the Starcatchers and had it signed - I am looking forward to reading it! And our last event of the day was Zach Wahls, whose 2011 testimony of his experience as the child of gay parents impacted not only the Iowa House of Representatives but millions more people through the YouTube video of his speech. He was an impressive speaker and read portions from his recently-released memoir, My Two Moms, which seems really beautifully and thoughtfully written. 
All in all, this two-day road trip replenished my reading soul and was another incredible source of inspiration in my writing practice. I am motivated to seek out more "book talk" and literary conversations and keep my reading soul better-nourished from here on out! How do you nourish your reading soul??

(For more info on the Iowa City Book Festival, click here!)

July 13, 2012

artist date: water tower

My artist date this week was more spontaneous than usual - I was in the city having lunch with my lovely friend Mary Claire, and after lunch I decided to see where the afternoon would lead me. I began to drive south on Lake Shore Drive and the afternoon sunshine relaxed me and filled my heart up with joy. As I passed the lakefront beaches, I marveled again at all that life, congregated together. I realized that I was craving a crowd. 
I have spent a lot of time alone lately - more than ever before in my whole life. It has been really helpful in devoting more of myself to my creativity: when I am with others, I have a hard time pulling away from a focus on the human connection and interaction in order to listen to my own creative voice. But I am finding that when I have spent a certain amount of time alone, I really begin to crave time in a crowd. I adore the hustle and bustle of people. I am so challenged and stimulated by the dynamic of so many lives pulled together in one place. I am comforted, even in the midst of hundreds or thousands of complete strangers, by the idea that our shared humanity creates the potential for a million different connections and combinations, right there if we are willing to accept and pursue them.
I exited Lake Shore Drive at Michigan Avenue, pulled into the first parking spot I found, and began to walk. The first street I walked along was not so busy, and as my mind wandered, I caught myself glancing down a lot at the ground. I started to notice all of the patterns beneath my feet and was really inspired by this aspect of the nature of traveling: all of the ground we cover as we get from place to place. After walking a few blocks, I found myself entering the little park area on Michigan Avenue by the Water Tower monument. I have walked through this park more times than I can count, and rarely stopped to take notice or to linger here. But it is a space that is always full of people: sitting, walking, taking pictures, gathering, dispersing. I found a spot to sit and watch.
My mind remained fixed on the movement of the crowds, all of the comings and goings, representing so many lives crossing paths. I was really inspired as I took these random shots of people's legs and feet as they passed by. When I went back to look at what had been captured, I was amazed at all of the diverse movement and personality represented in one space, in such a short period of time. So many different ages, races, socioeconomic classes; so many postures and choices; so many journeys with so many destinations. I especially love how the children stand out, because they can be completely represented in half the space of the adults.
After sitting and observing for awhile, I decided to walk around more and see what caught my eye and spoke to my creative brain. I really loved these patterns and textures:

I was also so inspired by these reflections in shop windows that I passed; it makes me want to spend a whole day sometime just catching what is reflected...

And yes, of course, I did have to stop and pick up some Sprinkles cupcakes... they are my absolutely favorite!! Their featured cupcake flavor right now is Salted Caramel, which is at the top of my cupcake-list, and may have helped inspire the location I chose for my crowd-watching, hehe. It was a wonderful way to end my artist date and I brought some home for our family, too, including a doggie-cupcake for little Wilco, which he loved. 

This artist date was such a wonderful experience, so inspiring and stimulating for me creatively, that I am already craving another date in a crowd. How about you? Do you feel inspired and motivated in crowds or does that seem like a crazy way to spend an artist date? What dates have you taken that filled you with awe and delight and got your creative juices flowing??

July 12, 2012

postcards: catalina, 1930

They had never been on a trip like this together. Myrtle had never even seen the ocean before. Frank had spent some years in the Navy, and sure, he had told her all his stories. But the stories tended to center on people and events: the time he got into trouble on leave, or the ways he and his sailor friends entertained themselves on their 60-day stints out on the water. She always asked him to describe the ocean to her - she had seen pictures, but they looked like something from a painting, and beyond anything she could grasp from her own experience. He was never much of one for poetry, and the only words he used were “immense” and “impossible to describe.” But she could tell in those moments how he welled up inside with the nostalgia of those memories. His breath seemed to drift up slowly from his diaphragm, high into the top of his head. He grew a little taller, even as his expression softened: a juxtaposition of posture and expression exactly opposite of his usual self. And this light would come into his eyes, as all that soft breath settled at the top of his strong, level head: it was like looking into a reel projector at the tiny circular source of the image it projected out into the darkness, the microscopic scene playing out in its most true form from the reel. Myrtle loved these moments.She had not really been prepared for her own first trip to the ocean, for the wonder of it all. Frank’s words had failed to conjure up much, they seemed so bland and generic. She attributed it to his maleness, his seeming inability to communicate in these conversations and every other. Now that she was out on the water herself, she understood his wordlessness for the first time, and perhaps the most she had in their twenty years of marriage so far. She sat down to write the postcard to the Carlsons, their kind-hearted neighbors who were watching the girls for them while they were away. As she set her pen to the picture postcard of the Catalina ship, she tried to harness the words that had flooded her mind at that first glimpse of the water from the shore. "Lovely, majestic, breathtaking, endless, powerful, serene, captivating, gorgeous, magnificent, marvelous, amazing..." She summoned the words to the tip of her tongue and willed them to organize themselves into neat and orderly sentences, but they failed her grasp and danced away into the back of her mind as she wrote.They had set out on their journey from Chicago in celebration of their twentieth anniversary of marriage. Myrtle had been hinting that she would like to find a proper way to celebrate ever since their fifteenth anniversary, which had come and gone without any proper sense of the milestone she believed it to be. The girls were just ten and thirteen then, and Frank had just started his new job. Their finances were tight, she knew, and he couldn’t take much time off. So she hadn’t made a problem of it; she did not like to be a pessimist. Instead, she put her focus on the next milestone to come: year twenty. She tried to wait a fair amount of time to mention her hopes to Frank. She shut down her thoughts anytime she caught herself daydreaming about what type of celebration they might choose. But she could not help letting her mind wander from time to time. A big theme party? She had read in a magazine a list of the top trends in themes. Flappers (this would be fun if they chose to dress in costume), Speakeasies (certainly an adults-only party, and Italian was such a fashionable new cuisine), and Murder Mysteries (this one was her personal favorite to consider, as she was quite taken with a newer author named Agatha Christie and could imagine a million possible ways to incorporate her theme): these had been her favorites from the list. 

She did not mention a word until one week before their sixteenth anniversary, when Frank asked if she would press his best white shirt in time for a celebratory dinner. She had, of course, already thought of this, but she simply said, “Yes, dear.” She paused to let him continue, as she knew he would. “Where would you like to go to celebrate?” His questions and planning always arrived out of order. She mentioned the new steakhouse downtown and he nodded in agreement; he would make sure to be home by five-thirty sharp that night so they could take their time and enjoy their evening. She appreciated that she did not have to explain this to him. Once he thought of something, he was pretty good about the execution. And she praised him now, “Thank you, dear, that will be really nice,” before she continued on to plant the seeds of hope for year twenty with a quick mention of her idea for a party.
By January 1930, at the turn of the new year, her list of ideas had grown even longer: Mickey Mouse was a very fashionable new cartoon in the papers, and seemed like a perfect fit for a family party that might include the children as well. And a “Hollywood” themed party would offer many ideas for costume and decor and could be tailored to any group dynamic. Myrtle was proud of her discretion: she had mentioned her high hopes to Frank just once in each interim year leading up to 1930, and always in relation to the current year’s plans, looking lightly ahead. If she knew anything about her husband, it was his dislike of nagging women, whether it was her or his sister or their neighbor-friends. He believed that nothing needed to be so complicated as all that fussing and nagging. So she dropped her thoughtful mention each year and hoped that it would all work out when it came time.
In March, as the weather warmed a bit and Springtime came on the horizon, she considered bringing up her ideas for a party. The days grew busier as the school year approached its end, but each night, after the girls retreated to their rooms and all the dishes were put away, Myrtle and Frank spent a quiet hour or two in the living room together on the sofa. The stress of his day dictated whether or not they would invite the company of the Amos ‘n’ Andy broadcast in to join them on the Crosley Bandbox radio that was Frank’s pride and joy. Many nights he chose to read instead, or to complete the crossword puzzles he clipped from the newspaper each morning and saved in his old cigar box on the bottom shelf of Myrtle’s round English mahogany side table next to the sofa. She sat on the other end of the sofa with her knitting: a baby blanket in pink or blue for their newest relative, or a brightly-colored winter hat or scarf for the latest charity project her group of friends had chosen as their cause. Typically, their conversation remained brief, but one or two nights a week the words would stretch out longer and they would dive deeper into the learnings of one another that came with a good discussion.
It was a Tuesday night when Myrtle decided it was time to bring it up officially. Frank had a good day at work and the girls had gone to bed, and it was not yet time for their radio program to begin. In the quiet of the evening and the soft light of their two matching lamps, she pulled out her knitting just as Frank shuffled through his crossword clippings to make his choice. She waited for just the right moment. His short pencil began to scratch over his crossword in rhythms like Morse code. Her fingers back on a knit row, she kept her eyes down as she began. “Frank dear, I have been thinking about our anniversary.” “Oh?” “Well, as you know, I would like to celebrate a little bit more this year, and so I have been thinking of themes and ideas.” She paused. She looked across the sofa to catch his eyes, to see if he was keeping up alongside her as she chose her next words. But the light in his eyes was much brighter than she expected, and his eye contact much quicker, more immediate than usual. And his answer left her speechless: “How about we take a trip to California to celebrate?" 
“I am on this ship bound for Catalina and very thrilled. I am on the Pacific and it is a beautiful day. We get a trip on the glass bottom boat and another trip on the island also our lunch. Myrtle”

(To read more about my postcard prompts, click here!)

July 11, 2012

ambition vs. actuality

When I looked ahead to our road trip this past weekend, I was very ambitious. The main goal was to spend time with Grandpa, but in the moments in between, I looked forward to spending lots of time writing. Writing in the car, writing in nature, writing in our hotel room in the morning and late at night, and maybe even finding a coffee shop somewhere, to sit and spend a few hours writing there. An hour into our drive, I remembered my ambitions, pulled out my journal to write, filling a few pages. But that was the last time I opened my journal until the morning after we got back. 

I grow so discouraged when I sit back and compare my ambition to actuality. It was not for lack of time, or lack of opportunity that I did not write more. There were a million reasons, but none of them are really good reasons at all. This is a regular pitfall for me creatively. I berate myself for my lack of willpower. I consider the time I have lost. I think back on what I could or should have done differently. I am harder on myself than anyone else could be, I think. And from this perspective, I move ahead in my creative journey from a place of negativity instead of positivity.

As I came back to my writing that next morning, I mostly felt discouraged. But I am trying to challenge myself to be more accepting and nurturing towards my creative actualities, not just my ambitions. There is a list of creative affirmations in Julia Cameron's The Artist's Way, which I have posted on my wall to remind me to be gentle with myself in my creative practice. Creative Affirmation #3 is: "As I create and listen, I will be led."

I may not have spent much time writing on my trip, but I spent a lot of time creating in other ways: dreaming and thinking and taking pictures, and discussing creative thoughts and ideas with Ryan. And maybe this trip was about listening, too? As I think about my trip, maybe I can choose to listen to all that I experienced. So much joy and inspiration came in other forms than pen and paper. Here are some of the moments that inspired me:

I am still filled with ambition to find more ways, more time, and more chances to write. I still aspire to be more disciplined, to better exercise my willpower and write SO MUCH MORE! But I am grateful for this lesson in listening. I have a chance to accept my actualities and practice my belief that they will lead me exactly where I am meant to be. "As I create and listen, I will be led."

Do you measure your ambition vs. actuality? Do you grow discouraged, like I do? How do you bounce back and stay motivated?