Thursday, March 26, 2009

Can a writer be attention-shy and successful?

While waiting for my son on Sunday afternoon, I tried to make a short video of myself using my new (cheap) Flip camcorder and found I had nothing to say when the camera was pointed at me.

How can a person who proclaims herself to be so visual and verbal be so shy when it comes to presenting herself in person?  Aim a camera at me or have me stand up and share my thoughts in a crowd and my mind freezes, but I'm able to pour words onto a page without any hesitation, whether spontaneously or on-cue. I can more easily shape my thoughts with my fingers than my mouth.

I'd thought about creating a video for YouTube where I would read some of my musings and link to my blog, just to garner more traffic to the site. Given my discomfort at being taped or photographed, I'm obviously not going to be any kind of visual media star. I am uncomfortable being the center of attention. I prefer being on the sidelines, tucked into a corner, scribbling, or speaking among friends, in a lively give-and-take.

Would I really want to garner a lot of traffic to this site? Perhaps I would feel more shy about writing a few paragraphs of whatever was on my mind if I knew, right away, 5,000 people were waiting to devour it. The words would have too much weight, then; I'm not sure I could get them out. When I write blog posts now, it is to a quiet, unseen audience. It is the writing itself that is the focus, the joy of getting the words out and shaping ideas, without any need to persuade or influence.

Yet, I don't want to end up like women who have kept their thoughts in notebooks that are tossed into the fire or sent, unread, to the dump after they die. Is there a middle ground here? Perhaps to be just a little bit read, by a wise and selective few or by a small crowd of friends?

Mainly I write these blog posts so I will have a place to store my thoughts, which won't disappear if my hard disk crashes or my house burns down. And also so I will write something at least once a week; otherwise, the time would probably slip by and I wouldn't write anything down.

So, why should I expect readers to seek out my small musings when this is really no more an electronic version of my writer's notebook? I don't have the answer for that right now.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Words lost inside a machine

The family computer crashed Saturday night. I took it to the Apple Store Monday, hoping they could revive it, but after an hour of working on it, the technician basically called it at 11 a.m.

At the end of his work, he pulled out its non-functioning hard drive and placed it in the palm of my hand. In a soft voice, like a mortician, he told me he would dispose of the shell of my old Mac Mini for me. It's hard to believe that almost all of our family information was contained in the small green, gold-specked rectangle that now fit in the palm of my hand.

I've written a previous post on the danger of relying only on digital storage. And I took my own advice, backing up most of my files on an external hard drive. But there are things I never backed up, like email. Gone are all the messages we've received in the last three years from our children's schools and teachers, from people writing us as a family. There are thank yous and inquiries that I meant to write/send but now I can't remember if I did. Only the small, brain-dead hard disk knows and it is silent, sealed in an envelope.

In the book, Clear Your Clutter with Feng Shui (a book I find sometimes wise and sometimes silly), Karen Kingston says that floods and other unexpected disasters offer people "wonderful heaven-sent opportunities cocreated with their Higher Self, to give them a fresh start in life." (This passage would be wise if it hadn't been so all-encompassing. A small flood in the basement—maybe. A tsunami that wipes out a village—no.) Maybe my hard disk crash was a way to de-clutter my life of all those emails I failed to throw away, until we had over 1,000 messages in the "Sent" folder alone. 

I know that email is a temporary communication that shouldn't be held on to and that most emails should be deleted within a certain time frame. But I rarely make the time to wade through and decide what is worth keeping and what should be trashed. It's painful to get rid of traces of one's self and one's emails with friends, especially since there is almost no other kind of written communication these days. I still have a 2002 email from a friend who has since died. I can't bring myself to delete it. If it were a letter, I would place it in a box with all my other letters and it would have a definite boundary and time frame. The email gives me  false hope—if I open it, I believe I can hit "reply" and David will write me back.

What is worth keeping? I think we all must ask ourselves this question, through life transitions and moves. It's something writers particularly have to ask themselves. In another passage of her book, Kingston says clutter is "stuck energy" that can "keep you in the past" and "distract you from important things." Are my writing notebooks "stuck energy"? Are my teenage journals keeping me in the past if I rarely pull them out of the filing cabinet? Or are they material for future stories?

Trying to find paper records of things that might have been on the dead hard drive, I sifted through two drawers of old files yesterday and found scraps of paper documenting moments and emotions I had forgotten; a novel I had started that I thought had been lost in the last computer crash (which maybe should have stayed lost); letters from friends in the days before ubiquitous email; files with photocopied research for topics I had wanted to write about; and stuff I now know I no longer need. I threw some of it away but there was such a flood of emotion that came from unearthing my past that I finally had to shut the drawers and walk away. 

I am not ready to edit my life. That's probably one reason I'm not sending anything out to publishers now. I find it difficult to decide what to choose and toss. As a person, I want to think that every moment, every thought was valid. As a writer, I need to be vicious, selective. I still haven't figured out how to let the two peacefully co-exist.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Artist Profile: Chandra Garsson

I knew of only two other people in college who were as low on funds as I was. One was Therese, a dancer/choreographer who was so broke she auditioned for and became the Chicken at the Santa Cruz Boardwalk. The other was Chandra Garsson, who wanted to spend her time making art and was always scratching up money to pay the rent. Once she and I were so broke we had six dollars between us and we decided to blow it all on going to the movies—three movies in one evening, skipping from theatre to theatre in a small multiplex, a desperate, extravagant gesture (and the reason why “Gregory’s Girl” somehow loops into “Blade Runner” in my memory).

Chandra and I once spent several evenings designing postcard collages for money, which neither of us knew where to sell once we were done. Not knowing where to sell something I’ve produced has been a theme in my life since that time. Chandra has managed to do better in this regard—she has had exhibits and gallery openings, including Insomnia (Awakening), an exhibit sponsored by Pro Arts Gallery, and the city of Oakland. But her art has not been a constant or stupendous source of income for her.

Chandra is the only artistic person I’ve known since college who can still claim being an artist as her main identity. The rest of us have gone on to work as professors, teachers, editors, librarians, etc. Although she also dedicated much of her life to teaching art, she has consistently continued to produce visual art, and has held an exhibit almost every year since then.

The last time I saw her she was living in a section of an artists’ warehouse, the Dutch boy, in Oakland. Her junkyard chairs had been painted royal blue, with a golden skeleton sitting in each. Her couch was covered in canvas that had been painted beautiful, wild splatters of primary, secondary, and tertiary colors. The walls of her studio were covered with paintings, prints and collages, and corners held mannequins that were painted in keyed-up metallic colors and transformed into assemblaged surreal, other-worldly archetypes. She now lives in a smaller apartment by a lake in Oakland, having lost her battle with her former landlord, who wanted to turn the art studios into luxury apartments and office space. These days, she concentrates on smaller projects, including making jewelry, due to her smaller living space and her art studio being separate from where she lives.

For more on Chandra, see, a web page devoted to her art or her Facebook Fan page (which I started).

WH: What is the biggest difficulty for an artist starting out, as you did, after college? Did you have any connections with galleries or people who ran galleries? Did art professors you had help in any way?

Chandra Garsson: Poverty has always been my greatest challenge, along with exploitation by an almost wholly unregulated rental industry, both residential and commercial, legal and illegal. (I am fortunate in my landlord at my present art studio. It is an equitable, friendly relationship, with a very kind family.) I formed initial connections to galleries and museums. I did gain some renown, so I was at intervals contacted and recommended for exhibitions. While after graduation from BFA and MFA programs professors helped with letters of glowing recommendation, it was not always apparent from the many rejection letters I received over the years that images were viewed or the letters were read, perhaps because nothing was immediately translating for the recipients into dollar signs.

How did you forge ahead with an art career? Did getting a Master of Fine Arts degree help?

C.G: I’m not sure I did much “forging ahead,” except in the work itself, as must be distinguished from the career. Of course the MFA is helpful to most artists in their creative work, certainly it was to me. Knowledge is the only real power, and the discipline and exposure to voluminous visual and written materials, other artists, a constant tour of galleries, museums, artist’s studios, is beyond measurement.

Have you tried to do other things, or has art always been your main focus? (Did you ever consider being an art teacher? Is it difficult to get that gig?)

C.G: I have been as one-pointed as any, and most artists are. I have devoted much of my life as an artist to teaching, a secondary yet fully compatible calling. The symbiotic relationship for the artist between creating and teaching worked especially well for me. I am a communicator, visually and verbally. Colleges have increasingly cut back what is offered to teachers since I have been in the job market.

What types of jobs/work have you done to supplement your income as an artist?

C.G: Aside from teaching, I have been a telemarketer and fundraiser, a waitress, switchboard operator, home health care-taker, baby-sitter, elder-sitter, day-care teacher, housecleaner, youth hostel cleaner, hospital cleaner, chai walla (in an office building in Amsterdam), dishwasher, kitchen worker at a Yoga Center, seamstress, department store cashier, and more…plus my favorite job, sitting in a campus Art Gallery, a very easy job I did for several years. In those days all that was required of me in this work was to watch and make sure nothing was stolen, greet people in a friendly manner, have conversations when desired by a visitor to the gallery. I conversed with friends, studied, dreamed up art projects, and sneaked the occasional catnap. I think this is the job that spoiled me for all other jobs. Sigh.

Has the economic downturn had any effect on the sales of your art, or is it always about the same?

C.G: Sales of my art have always been very up and down, most often down. The jewelry was doing better until the economic downturn, then sales fell off sharply. It seems to me the downturn has been coming on for longer than a decade, but that could just be me.

How would you describe and summarize your artwork in a few sentences?

C.G: My artwork is largely autobiographical, hugely environmental, and wonderfully humorous in its willingness to address the darker, scarier aspects of the world around me.

How is it environmental?

CG: Largely, most of the components that go into my work would have ended up in a landfill. I estimate that I have saved at least 50 tons of trash, including industrial trash I found around my old studio at the warehouse in East Oakland. I’ve also used items from junk stores and flea markets, and things that people have found and have given to me, including dolls, mannequins, antique glass slides and animal bones. I have been poor in money and rich in materials!

When did you start using mannequins and dolls in your work?

C.G: I have always had an affinity with dolls, and mannequins to me, are large dolls. Dolls are, after all, sculptural representations at various stages of the human being, usually girls and women, which I was and am, respectively. They echo back to a helpless, vulnerable time in my life, when as a child, art and dolls were intricately intertwined as expression of an inner world that only I controlled. I suppose it could be said that this has never changed.

Are you doing more assemblage/collage than anything else, or do you do split your efforts between printmaking, painting and assemblage?

C.G: I’ve been doing all of the above except for printmaking, an art I have not practiced for many years. Lately I have been working with raw minerals and crystals such as Carnelian, Turquoise, Amber, Ruby, Prehnite, Moonstone, Garnet, Amethyst, Emerald and Flourite.

If I could wave a magic wand and affect your career, what would you most want to happen? Sales? Exhibits? Recognition? Something else?

C.G: 1. Recognition. 2. Something else (a greater sense of community between artists, myself included, and various systems of support for the artist). 3. Sales. 4.Exhibits.

What would you like to happen in your life and your art in the next ten years?

CG: I would like to find good homes for all my artwork in the next ten years. They all need to be adopted into good families or to individuals that would take good care of them. A museum or several museums could house them all.

You told me once that you had transformed a public bathroom into a painting studio because it had good light. Are you still there, or how long were you there? Were you ever caught?

C.G: That was at Kala Institute, in Berkeley, where I made etchings and monotypes. It was a bathroom, large and light, custodially cared for. I kept my taboret and supplies in one of the stalls, and crawled under a door to unlock them, brought them into the center of bathroom to paint by the open window facing northwest. The sun filtered in afternoons, it was an idyllic place to paint. Almost no one used it, but one day someone came in, and told the director of Kala, Archana Horsting, about it. She confronted me, I explained, she listened, and reminded me to keep the supplies locked in the stall, out of the way. She reminded me to clean up all the paint each time. She sent me on my merry way. Archana is a fine person. Kala is a wonderful printmaking facility.

Do you feel that the artist is justified in doing anything; taking anything she needs, as long as she produces good art? (Does the artistic end always justify the means?)

C.G: Generally, there is a great deal to the notion of artistic license, as long as no one, including the artist, is hurt. Your use of the word “anything” is more than a bit open-ended. Come to think of it, the word “take” is more than a bit suspect. I have always striven for the quality of harmlessness. I am quite a moral person, one could say didactic, in the messages of my work and life.

Have you known artists who have achieved fame, undeservedly, because of who they knew or who they slept with?

C.G: Goodness gracious, girl! Um, let’s just say that as an artist who has not made it to the top, I do not personally know artists at the top, so I do not know, and let’s leave it at that. If it were to happen, I would view it as unfair exploitation of the artist, by one with far greater power than the artist in our world ever has, unless a jolly good time was had by both parties.

Has doing yoga had any effect on your art?

C.G: Yoga has had a profound effect on my art, and my art has had a profound effect on my yoga practice. They are compatible practices—one informs the other, both are enhanced by the dual focus.

How about being Jewish?

CG: Being culturally, racially and spiritually Jewish is also compatible with yoga and art.

And being feminist?

CG: One of my professors, Sam Richardson, told me several times in grad school that my work is strongly feminine. I have realized since, over the years, that my work is emphatically feminist—which is completely compatible with being Jewish, environmental and doing yoga.

What keeps you going as an artist?

I have important things to say and art is the best way for me to communicate those things to the world.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Postcards from Santa Cruz

Color comes to my blog for a day...

Here are some of the postcards I made alongside Chandra Garsson in Santa Cruz throughout the summer of 1982. (This will be mentioned in my interview with her tomorrow). We had hoped to have them reproduced, to sell as artsy postcards, but back then color xerox was $1/page and we couldn't figure out how to make a profit on the endeavor. 

I spent most of 1982 writing, taking photographs and doing collages, nearly unemployed and broke, supposedly writing my undergraduate thesis on The Aeneid (which I ended up writing and typing up one week in June 1983, just before it was due). It was a hard year. I was sick a lot, partner-less and didn't know what I was going to do once I had my B.A., which was one reason I kept putting off writing my thesis—as long as the thesis wasn't finished, I was still a "student," not just another Santa Cruz hanger-on.

And yet, seeing these postcards again, and remembering the many nights that Chandra and I stayed up together, working to make art for money but ending up with odd and sometimes beautiful collages as well as a lifelong friendship, I don't see that summer or even that year as a waste. 

(This postcard is a pic I took of Chandra that summer, painted and mounted on pasteled paper)

That summer of frenzied art also helped me realize I don't have enough guts or talent to be a visual artist. That's why I admire Chandra so much. She kept at it while I retreated to the quieter craft of words.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Look elsewhere, writer

I was reminded of Thomas Wolfe—specifically, Look Homeward, Angel—while reading the short story "Bible" by Tobias Wolff the other day.

[Do people read Thomas Wolfe anymore, or are they too impatient to wade through his excessive prose? Look Homeward, Angel is 522 pages in very small type, and it's one of Wolfe's heavily edited works. And yet I loved it when I was a teenager, so much so that I went to live in Asheville for a year and often sat on the porch of the Thomas Wolfe house there.]

Surprisingly, it had nothing to do with the similarity in last names, or the biblical/angelic reference. I was reminded of the passage in Look Homeward, Angel when Wolfe describes his father's intense desire to carve an angel's head as beautiful as the one he saw in a Baltimore stone mason shop:

"He felt that he wanted, more than anything in the world, to carve delicately with a chisel. He wanted to wreak something dark and unspeakable in him into cold stone. He wanted to carve an angel's head." (LHA, p. 4)

And the eventual revelation that he would never be able to master it:

"He never found it. He never learned to carve an angel's head. The dove, the lamb, the smooth joined marble hands of death, and letters fair and fine — but not the angel." (p. 4)

Wolff's short story, which appears in The Best American Short Stories 2008, is not about stone cutters or angels, but a school teacher. In the opening paragraph, he sets the scene and sets up the action to come with a few simple sentences:

"IT WAS DARK when Maureen left the Hundred Club. She stopped just outside the door, a little thrown by the sudden cold, the change from daylight to night. A gusting breeze chilled her face. Lights burned over the storefronts, gleaming in patches of ice along the sidewalk. She reached in: her pockets for her gloves, then hopelessly searched her purse. She'd left them in the club. If she went back for them, she knew she'd end up staying - and so much for all her good intentions...." (p. 312)

I could immediately picture this scene, painted without the use of color or verbose description. I was standing on the sidewalk with Maureen, freezing cold.

I'm not sure I've ever been able to do this in any of the fiction I've written; I'm not sure I will ever do it this well. I felt a similar recognition when I first read The Onion. Until then, I had considered myself a competent writer of humor, but my parodies seemed clunky in comparison.

I don't want to give up writing fiction because it's always been so pleasurable for me to immerse myself into someone else's life and to try to figure it out for them. So, I'll continue to chisel away at prose, seeking (in Wolfe's words) "the great forgotten language, the lost lane-end into heaven, a stone, a leaf, a door...."; hoping something—a novel, a short story, an essay—might somehow, successfully, emerge.