Cafe 42 Blog

Making It With Your Muse

How do you get good at anything? Practice.

How do you get great? Obsession—Practice most all the time.

Pick any famous author, artist, musician, and they’ll all have obsession in common. And while we, the public, enjoy the fruits of their creative labor, those closest to these individuals were/are generally left wanting.

Charles Schulz, creator of the Peanuts comic strip, “was an indifferent and often inattentive father and husband.”

Rod Serling, of Twilight Zone fame, “worked 12 hours a day seven days a week, [and] his wife, Carol, tended to their daughters, Jodi and Anne.”

Adrienne Armstrong, wife of Billy Joe Armstrong of Greenday said of her husband after the release of the album American Idiot, “I think it challenged us to a new level, pushed us pretty far, the farthest I ever want to go.” The creatives above are all men. All married and all had/have children.

Now lets explore a few famous women.

The romance novelist Jane Austen never married. She was, in fact, ‘relieved in later life to have avoided the pitfalls of married life, not least the huge risks of childbirth, “all the business of Mothering.”’

Georgia O’Keeffe, the surrealist artist “wanted to have children but agreed with him [her husband, Alfred Steiglitz] that motherhood was incompatible with her art. She needed to focus all of her attention on her painting.”

Oprah Winfrey, the media mogul has never married, “the very idea of what it means to be a wife and the responsibility and sacrifice that carries — I wouldn’t have held that very well.” And she never had children. “If I had kids, my kids would hate me. They would have ended up on the equivalent of the “Oprah” show talking about me; because something [in my life] would have had to suffer and it would’ve probably been them.”

Ms. Winfrey had the guts to address the unvarnished, unspoken truth when she referred to the “responsibility and sacrifice,” in being a partner and parent. The investment of time, physical and psychic energy it takes to keep a marriage vital, and the even greater demands of being a conscientious parent, interferes, and often waylays the creative process.

Men have historically been the breadwinners in the family environment. And while this trend is slowly changing, the fact is women who seek personal excellence, especially in the arts, often have to choose between pursuing greatness and being, at least, an available partner and parent. Even today, men rarely have to make this choice. Regardless of this disparity, anyone, man or woman, obsessed with becoming great [at anything] should recognize the ‘sacrifice’ and costs to pursuing brilliance.

As a wife, mother, and a writer, my creative muse is constantly vying for prominence over the needs of my husband and especially my children. When my kids were babies, the creative process encountered fewer distractions. I could stay rapt in story, run dialog in my head while changing diapers or pushing them on the swing at the park. Small kids, small problems. Big kids, big issues. Now the parent to a tween and teen, my siren is often overwhelmed by the very real traumas and trials of adulthood my children face every day. To help them navigate these tumultuous times, I question, probe, even invade their space to stay connected, be there for them as a sounding board, a trusted confidant to lean on, to envelope them in a hug and hold them when they’re falling.

I chose to marry, to have kids. And while I willingly choose to be present, available for my family, forfeiting the relentless pursuit of my creativity is a battle I engage in daily. Much of my fiction focuses on this internal war, as in my novel Reverb, through James Whren’s obsession with his music, the cost to the lives he touched and the price he eventually paid absorbed in making it with his muse. My recent novel, Disconnected, explores the propaganda of the 1960s still being sold today, as Rachel struggles with the reality that we can’t ‘have it all,’ be everything we want to be, and still be there for our kids and family.

We glorify the brilliant author, the renown artist, successes in business, often secretly wish to be one of the famous. But to become great at anything means obsessively working at the job or craft, honing a skill set with relentless practice, which is the fundamental reason why genius is so rarely achieved. The price those who solely engage with their creative muse must pay is actualizing a full and balanced life.

United We Stand?

It was early November in 2001, two months after 9/11, when I went down to the end of the cul-de-sac to meet the new neighbors. We had just moved into San Ramon a few months earlier ourselves, a semi-upscale San Francisco suburb in the east bay. It promised good public schools, and gave the impression of a safe, friendly environment in which to raise our children. That afternoon several of the local residents were hanging out at the end of the block with the new neighbors, sharing beers and casual conversation, watching their children play together in the street. I joined them, introduced myself, and my [then] one year old daughter and three-year-old son, who both ran off to play with the other kids.
 
The new neighbors asked me about my children, their ages, where we had moved from, and the like. Then the woman asked me to repeat my last name.
 
When I told her again she said, “Oh, you’re the Jewish couple then? I heard that there was a Jewish family that had moved in recently.”
 
It was clear that she was tickled by the idea of living near Jews. Unlike L.A., or New York, the Bay area has little Jewish population to speak of. Suddenly, the three other couples standing there plugged into our conversation. Though our last name was often mistaken for Jewish, it’s derivation was German, and isn’t always a Jewish moniker. The woman’s assumption was ignorant, but typical, especially in an area where Jews were such a novelty.
 
“Actually, we’re Atheist. We don’t practice any religion.” I tried to sound casual.
 
Blank stares. Total silence. It was like I had just said that we were registered child molesters. My words hung like lead in the dead air until one of the neighbors we’d previously met broke the silence.
 
“You know,” she tried to sound casual too. “I heard this broadcast on NPR the other day about Atheists. They’re actually very non-violent, friendly people. The Atheist on the air pointed out that you never hear of Atheists blowing up buildings.”
 
The vacuum that followed her comment made it clear that the new neighbors would have preferred we were practicing Jews, or Mormons, or even Muslims at that point. “You mean you don’t participate in the holidays?” the new neighbor asked, mystified. “Not even Christmas?”
 
“No. Not even Christmas.”
 
“Well, Christmas isn’t a religious holiday.” As absurd as her comment was, I hear it all the time. I refrained from reminding her that Christmas celebrated the birth of Christ, the very foundation of Christianity.
 
“We have five nights of winter presents which compensates quite nicely,” I explained. “And we celebrate birthday’s, special occasions, Fourth of July, Thanksgiving and so forth.”
 
She bobbed her head up and down, but I could tell I’d already lost her. I was the anti-Christ, the infidel, the soulless she was so afraid of. And though her fear was unwarranted, there isn’t a religious person I can recall that I didn’t get the same bounce from when I revealed I was an atheist. No God? No values. It’s common wisdom, right?
 
I didn’t set out to set myself apart. My brief stint in Sunday school was forced upon me until I was 13, when my parents had to acquiesce to my unshakeable conviction that there was no God. My mother spent the next 30 years convinced that I would come back to religion when I grew up, got married, had kids. But the certainty of a godless universe, one ruled by entropy, not empathy, still resonates with me. The values I question are those that focus on an afterlife instead of on the life at hand, and the contributions we each can make to insure the survival of our race.
 
At the start of every December several of the families in the cul-de-sac adorned their front lawns with small cement statues of The Mother Mary and Baby Jesus. They are subtly placed, though clearly visible in clumps of bushes and at the base of towering Redwoods. Christmas lights go up early, and stayed up well into the new year.
 
Since that first encounter, the new couple has gone out of their way to avoid our family. To date, she and her children ignore us, even my kids casual waves in passing. They do not acknowledge us at the store, in restaurants. The other neighbors do not include our family in their neighborhood parties, nor have they asked my husband to join their Sunday golf group.
 
When we moved here, I didn’t stop to consider the religious leanings of the community. As an atheist, in a monotheistic society, wherever I live I’m on the fringe. I am deeply saddened that my children are being ostracized because of our beliefs. In allowing them to define their own spirituality, I fear I have inadvertently set them up for rejection, condemned them to the fringes, which is a very lonely place to live. But I do not foresee bringing religion into my home. I cannot teach them what I do not believe.
 
This last holiday season, in a brief lapse of reason, I thought of throwing a Hanukkah party and inviting the neighborhood. If they needed us to be something, we could pretend to be Jewish. But, the thing is, I am proud of who we are and our spiritual choices. And I am proud to be an American, where we are free to practice any religion, or none at all.

Inside Out. Or Flat Out Crazy

REVERBI’m participating in one of the creepiest, weirdest, most…surreal experiences I’ve ever had.

Greg Tremblay is a voice actor currently producing the audiobook for my novel Reverb. We met through ACX, Amazon’s audiobook portal which hooks up authors with actors/producers for creating audiobooks to sell exclusively through Amazon and their channel partners. I hadn’t consider Reverb as an audiobook until several readers inquired if I had one available. I’d never heard an audiobook before. Every time I try to listen to one my mind drifts, generally first to whatever is in front of me, then it begins a-wanderin, drowning out all sound to the muse in my head. It does with TV too. Can’t help it. Not much holds my attention the way my imagination does.

I’m currently reviewing the chapters of Reverb that Greg has recorded to date. A practiced professional, he’s ‘playing’ all characters true to their voice and nature. It’s bizarre, at best, giving voice to the people I’d only heard in my head, but he’s particularly nailed James, the protagonist in the novel, with his cultivated British accent, the rich tenor of his voice. And it’s creeping me out. I get anxious, breathless, listening. The story, in parts “brutally raw,” is hard enough to read, yet alone hear, and the intensity of Greg’s deliver is so palpable it feels real.

James had been inside my head since I was a kid. Made him up when I felt afraid. Started when I was little, pretending to be a guy because men were supposed to be stronger than women, and when I felt scared I sought strength. I found it in James. He was brilliant, what I always wished to be, and insular, like most men seemed to me.

As I grew, James took on a life of his own, with a complex history. Through my teens I ran scenes in my head of how James would respond to mean family members, or bullying by contemporaries. Traveling around the world on my own in my 20s, I summoned James often. In the middle-east when I was stopped by soldiers, I cloaked James, stood tall, looked them in the eye, addressed them aggressively, like a man. In times of black loneliness, I’ve worn James, delved into writing, drawing, creating, as he did with music, shrouding himself from his own feelings with his career, as so many men do.

While I never lost the reality that James was fiction, someone I made up to serve me, there were times I felt his presence projecting from me so powerfully, the line between reality and fiction blurred. It scared me. Absorbing myself with myself every time I felt scared or lonely was not leading to the intimacy I wanted to share. By my 30s, it was clear I was distancing myself from the relationship I sought as a woman, when I took on James, and projected a man.

In an effort to distance myself from James, to shed him from me completely, I felt compelled to write about him. In giving him his own ground, perhaps I too could find some, learn to handle fear on my own.

It took a year to write the novel, and another year editing it to leached James out of me and onto the page. For quite some time after finishing the novel, I stopped thinking about him. He simply didn’t come to mind. Fear is still choking, often, but now I deal with it instead of cloaking James. He’s merely a character in a novel, after all.

Until now. Greg’s audio narration of Reverb has given James a voice. He’s been actualized, made real. And having James out there now, playing out his life story as I write this blog, is on the extreme end of surreal.

The most exquisitely bizarre bit—I can’t wait for the next chapter Greg delivers to hear James again, be with him, in the same room, the same space, camera pov, a fly on the wall—listening, seeing him in my mind’s eye. “Addicting read,” several reviewers have called Reverb. I get that now, and other reviews like, “frantically turning the pages to see what happens next.” I can’t wait to hear the rest of his story, like I didn’t write it. Someone else who knows James did.

I’m bemused where other authors get inspiration for their characters, and wonder if my feelings, this surreal experience is typical for other writers who’ve had their work actualized into voice or film. I’m grateful I’ve endeavored down this audiobook path. After I completed Reverb, I thought James and I were done. Through Greg’s interpretation, I’m now getting to know James outside of my head, as an individual. And while I’ll always feel affection for him, having helped me through all those moments of fear, our separation is now complete.

Writer’s Block

…or The War Inside My Head

fhji

I have time to write the 2nd draft of PT. Or, at least, I can make time. But I’m NOT WRITING it.

Why? WHAT IS THE FUCKING PROBLEM?

I CAN’T THINK OF STORY. HELL, I CAN’T THINK other than about my fucked up sitch, in the REAL WORLD, outside of fiction!!

So, what to do with that. I’m thinking enough to write this, right?

Yes.

Then write something else.

Like what?

PT.

Fuck off. Are you NOT hearing me?

Yes. I hear you. OK…so you can’t write PT. Can you write something else in fiction? Non? A blog?

I don’t want to write a blog. I want to write PT, but I can’t THINK!

Hmm, we went over that. You’re thinking right now. Just not about the right thing. So, lets break the problem down. You say you need story for PT. OK. Make some up.

But that IS the problem. I CAN’T THINK OF ANY. Are you deaf, can’t hear me screaming at you? Stupid? What’s your deal?

You. You’re giving yourself no out, no way to hear your muse, let alone create with her. You’re back in algebra, the gates of your brain shutting down, like the steel doors on the Get Smart opening.

Thanks, for stating obvious. You’re not really helping me here.

OK. so, you want ideas for PT.

Yes. Please. Now would be good.

Hmm…dystopian, right?

Yeah, but on the verge. Just a bit forward.

Pitch of important points, in order: Predictive modeling gone wrong; Absolute power corrupts absolutely.

Yup. But I got that bit. And that’s not story. It’s exposition.

OK. OK. Chill! Jeez. Give me a minute…

40 years later.

If you don’t shut up, it will be.

So, what happens next…

We ARE What We DO

catLion21In the car with my 10 yr old daughter the other day, she asked me what Ego meant, one of her vocabulary words for the week.

I laughed. Good question, I replied. What do you think it is?

I wouldn’t ask if I knew, mom.

Well, use it in a sentence, in context. You’ve heard the word enough to have an inkling what it means. And an inkling is as close as you’re going to get to defining an abstract like Ego.

Her brows narrowed and I could see her pondering in the rear view mirror.

My ego got hurt when Ms Brown told me I was singing flat this morning. She paused. And she did, mom.

Sorry. We’ll get back to that. OK? So Ego is feelings then?

Not exactly. It’s more like how we see ourselves. To me, I’m a good singer. You can hurt my feelings by being mean to me. But you hurt my ego when you tell me I’m not how I think I am.

Do you think you were flat this morning in glee?

Well, yeah. When I listened. I guess I’m not such a good singer.

Ah, but you could be, if you practiced singing. And not the perpetual off-key humming you do, but really practiced, daily—sing along with your favorites, or sing the notes when you practice piano. I glimpsed her rolling her eyes at my suggestions in the rear view mirror. Being a good singer doesn’t happen inside your head. What is the only way to really get good at anything? (One of my many canonical refrains.)

Practice, mom. She sighed.

I sighed. My beautiful daughter, I think your explanation for Ego is excellent—it’s how we see ourselves. Ego is an idea, even an ideal—who we want to be, but it isn’t real. We are what we do, my dear (another of my refrains). If you want to be a good singer, you’re going to have to practice becoming one.

So you don’t think I’m a good singer, she asked woefully.

Were talking about ego, right?

Yeah. And my ego says I am one. So is ego always fake, just pretend inside my head?

You tell me. Do you think our ego ever gives us an accurate depiction—paints a real picture of how we are, who we are, in the real world?

Probably not. She sighed again, deflated. Just cuz you think you’re good, or talented, or special doesn’t mean you actually are to anyone besides yourself, except if you’re famous.

Really? So, there’s a famous chef, recognized for his delicious creations. It’s not just his ego talking that’s telling him he’s a good chef. He decides to create a new dish, and serves it to five friends. And all five hate the meal. The combination of flavors tastes just terrible. So, is the guy delusional that he’s a good chef—it’s just his ego talking—or is he really good?

My daughter considered my little tale carefully before answering. Well, if he thought of himself as a great chef with everything he made, then his delusion was that he could be good all the time, that everything he created would be a masterpiece.

So then, ego is never an accurate depiction of self?

I guess not. Just like there is no such thing as smart, mom. She quoted another of my canonical refrains. Her bright smile in the rear view mirror lit up my world.

My DH and I NEVER tell our kids they’re smart. In fact, when other people do, we smile politely, turn away and snicker. Our kids are consistently at the top of their classes because they work at it. A lot. There is no such thing as smart, we preach. Smart is an abstract, merely an idea, a concept, like democracy, or love, potential, or ego. Smart is as smart does.

It is not how we think, or what we believe, it’s ONLY what we DO that defines us.

We are what we do.