Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Day 73: The Art of Happiness (or the Happiness of Art)

I've run across a couple of quotes the last two days which seem to be trying to tell me something.  The first, on Chris Guillebeau's brilliant blog The Art of Non-conformity:

"Some singers want the audience to love them. I love the audience."

Spoken by none other than Luciano Pavarotti, the opera singer in me naturally took note of this.  Chris was highlighting how writers (bloggers specifically) are always asking "how can I get more" (attention/readers/money) instead of focusing on "how can I give more".   Having gone through a few days of feeling discouraged that my blog hasn't yet become an international internet sensation, this really struck me.  Instead of thinking about how can I get more audience, I might do well to think about how I can give more to my audience.  I started to wonder about this beyond my blog, to how it might apply to my playwriting, my singing, all my art.  Have I been too selfish as an artist?  Has it been too much about what I get out of it?  Why I need to do my art?  Is that was has been holding me back? Then this morning, this quote was on my yogi tea bag:

"The art of happiness is to serve all." 

As an artist who is trying to figure out how to be happy, the particular phrasing of this quote struck me. The art of happiness.   Not "happiness comes from giving" or "you serve yourself when you serve others" or any number of other ways this could have been expressed, but "the art of happiness."  Which implies of course that happiness is an art, a craft, something to be cultivated, finessed, mastered.  And that one accomplishes this by serving others.

Ah, but art can be such a self-indulgent enterprise!  And it is so easy to get lost in the "I" of it all, especially when you are hoping/longing/dreaming of actually having a money-making career at it.

I don't want to sell myself short here -- while I love applause and adulation and good reviews and lots of blog hits as much as the next artist, I am most deeply moved and humbled when someone tells me that my singing or writing has changed them in some way, has caused them to feel something, think about something differently, or even just delighted them.  Those moments are why I do this.  Those transcendent moments when the art breaks down the barriers between you and other people, and you all become one in an experience.  That is what I live for.  While I hadn't forgotten that, I needed the reminder.  I think I have been focused too inward.  Focused too much on how can I get more.  Time for me to remember and reexamine how I can give more.

Perhaps that is not only the art of happiness.  Perhaps that is the happiness of art.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Day 71: My hour of discontent

(for the Shakespeare scholars, I know it's "winter" of discontent, but "winter" seemed to imply something more than what I wanted to say.)

I went to a most delightful cabaret show on Friday, called The Kid Inside, conceived and performed by the fabulous Alissa Hunnicutt (I only wish she had more performances of it I could steer you all to!).  Her song selection, arrangements, singing, use of puppetry (yes, cabaret with puppets) were all top-notch.  I enjoyed it so much that I left the club in a fit of depression.

Yes, depression.  It brought back the ache of missing singing with such force that I felt like someone had just unplugged me.  All my sense of purpose with my writing, my goals to get this play done, to see where this blog will take me, all the clarity I've felt about pursuing this new path -- poof.  Gone. And left in its place a giant, gaping, still-smoking hole in the ground.

I miss singing.

When my boyfriend asked me what my plans were for last night, I told him "drinking myself into a stupor is sounding pretty good about now."  He encouraged me to spend the time in a way I would feel good about, whether just playing the piano for an hour, or doing something fun (instead of just wallowing in my misery, was the implied second half of that advice).  I remembered back to a therapist who helped me discover that singing the songs I most loved as a star-struck teenage musical theater nerd was a great way to get me out of anxiety attacks.  I thought perhaps it might help for this fit of depression (with a lower-case 'd') as well.  So I came home, put dinner in the oven, poured myself a martini, and pulled out my music.

I started with some opera arias.  It's nice to know that I can still do that.  Then I pulled out some of my favorite old cheesy heart-wrenching musical theater ballads: Tell Me on a Sunday, Someone Else's Story, Send in the Clowns.... My voice felt in better shape than it's ever been (though it's possible there was a little bit of the martini talking there).  I started to get ideas about auditioning again, because my little ambition brat doesn't know how to sit in the corner and be still.  While that is a question for another day, at the moment I am duly reminded that I love this, I need this in my life.  Plans are already in the works for some kind of cabaret show with some other phenomenal singers in the not-to-distant future.   Because I am the crazy woman who can't stop giving herself projects.  Because I always want more.

"It's good to want more" my best friend told me yesterday.  Yes, I suppose it is.  It keeps me moving, keeps me striving, keeps me living.  But what about when it keeps me from being happy where I am?   I would love to be content with where I am, and still want more.  Is that possible?  Doesn't contentment breed complacency?  I think I've always looked at contentment as a cop-out, the easy road, boring.  I remember writing an essay in high school about preferring a life of exhilarating highs and devastating lows to a life of even contentment.  Because then at least you get the exhilarating highs.  I held on to that belief for many many years and made a lot of my life choices based on it.  That belief was a lot easier to hold at 16 than at 38.  I've had a lot more of the "devastating lows" now (especially in the last couple of years).  Contentment is looking a little shinier to me these days.

Even if I do find my way to embracing contentment -- and I'm working on it --  I know I don't ever want to be complacent.  I will always be striving for something, that is who I am.  I also know that unless (until?) I somehow end up with a career as a singer, I will always have this ache, the way I will always miss my grandmother.  It won't always be at the surface, and I'll go long stretches without noticing it or shedding a tear.  But just as every once in awhile I will feel my grandma's presence and miss her as fiercely as I did when she died 13 years ago, so will I also feel the little 8 year old girl inside me who is watching Patti LuPone on stage and saying "I want to be Evita when I grow up".  I think she will always be there, egging me on.  She's egged me on to a lot of incredible musical experiences in my life, if not to an actual money-making career.  Maybe I can learn to be content with that.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Day 69: Spring Cleaning

Today, I cleaned out my closet.

No, this is not some metaphor for purging a lot of skeletons of old ideas or characters or worries or dreams, I mean literally.  I had 2 free hours between my photo shoot this morning and my students this afternoon, and I got possessed with an overwhelming need to clean my closet now.  I could have taken that time to write, but the closet cleaning had to be done sometime, so after a momentary pang of guilt (assuaged in part by the knowledge that Gretchen Rubin lists clean closets as one of her personal top 10 secrets to happiness), I did it.

This has kind of been a week for that.  I also spent several hours preparing my tax deductions for my accountant.  These were both things that had to be done, though the time I spent on them I certainly would have preferred to have used for something creative.

But I made a choice.  I decided not to resent having to do these things, but instead to just do them.  To recognize that no matter what particular hours I chose to do them, those hours would always be hours I could wish I was spending doing something else.  I could be frustrated at the lack of time either this week or next week or the week after, and in the mean time spend all that time feeling itchy and annoyed with myself for not having gotten done these things I had to get done.  That's energy wasted.  

And the reality is, I haven't wanted to write this week. 

There are probably lots of reasons for that. I was so sick for several days, I just couldn't summon up the mental focus or energy to write.  I was also feeling a little discouraged on Sunday that the scene I had written last week turned out to be superfluous and not really taking the play anywhere.  And I was tired of feeling so much pressure on myself to use every spare second of every day to be doing something important.

On Wednesday, when I was still home all day but feeling well enough to teach a few students, I used the extra time I had to get the bulk of my tax work done.  I completely took all pressure off of myself to write (except for my blog).  It felt so good.  I had this moment of clarity where I thought: wow, this is what my life would feel like if I didn't keep giving myself these projects and deadlines.  I could just work, get done what I need to get done, and then relax.  Be with my boyfriend.  Be with my friends.  Go out sometimes.  I felt all this time and space opening before me and surrounding me like a warm yellow light, and began to wonder if I want to keep going with this project.


I've been here before.  My experience tells me this is one of those moments where the grass is greener no matter which side of the fence you are on.  As soon as I find myself without a project, I give myself another one.  I can't help it.  My creative drive is so strong, it won't nap quietly for long.

But I think I do need to let it nap.  I think I need to take "life breaks", even in the middle of my projects.  A few hours, a day, a few days, maybe even a week where I take myself off the hook and just take care of my life for a bit.  No excuses, no guilt, no justification, no endless agonizing over how I "should" spend my time.  (if you don't know how I feel about the word should, read Day 47.)  I sure like the sound of that.  

So, I guess I took a life break this week.  Maybe there was a little metaphorical closet clearing going on after all.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Day 67: Health Care and the Artist

As I have been laid up sick with the stomach flu the last 3 days at the same moment that the health care reform bill was being passed and signed into law, I can't help but reflect upon our nation's health care system and the effect it has upon its artists.

Since my divorce, the greatest overriding factor in deciding how to support myself has been health care.  Not income, not what I am best at, not what I most want to be doing, not even this lousy economy: health care.

For a country that values choice, freedom, and entrepreneurship; that believes in the ability of anyone to grow up to be whatever they want to be; and that has an insatiable appetite for arts & entertainment, we don't make it easy for people in this country to live as artists.  Given the fact that about the only way to afford decent health care is to be tied to a 40-hr/wk corporate job, and the miniscule percentage of artists who make anything close to a full-time living at their craft, the artist (or entrepreneur of any sort) has few options for actually making their art.   Some of us are fortunate enough to get on a spouse's plan, or be a part of a union that offers benefits we can buy more reasonably, but many of us go without health insurance all together.  Either that or we take the full-time corporate, non-artistic job and try to squeeze in whatever art we can in the spare time left after the grocery store, laundromat and vacuuming.

What choices we might have if there were universal health care!  Or even, say, an affordable public option anyone could buy into!  I would gladly live on a lot less money in order to have more time to pursue my art.  But right now I have to hang on to a certain number of hours at my corporate job so that I have the option of benefits there.   And I'm one of the lucky ones -- I at least have an option for coverage.  I have too many friends who are completely without health insurance and have no way to get it.

I am not putting the artist's plight on par with the people whose lives are devastated (or even ended) by our shameful health care system that denies so many people medical care for themselves and their loved ones (though certainly many artists are amongst those folks as well).  I'm also not looking for any kind of special treatment or hand out  -- I work, expect to work, want to work.  The artists I know who are trying to make a career of it are incredibly hard-working people, many of whom work the equivalent of two full-time jobs trying to pay their bills and be creative.  I am saying that I think we all deserve to have more choices.

Whether you are an artist or someone who has hobbies you are passionate about, what kind of life would you choose if you weren't locked into working 40 hours a week in order to have health care?  Would you choose to work fewer hours and live on less in order to have more time to do the things you love?  Would you start your own business?  Take a moment, close your eyes, and imagine the choices you might have before you if you didn't have to worry about health insurance.  Would your life be different?

Day 66: Balancing act

Once again I find myself in a place where my life is out of balance.  I have been so caught up in my own world, with my own stresses of my work/teaching schedule and my self-imposed creative deadlines that I haven't been giving the people I love in my life what they need.  I've been here before.  It scares me.  I don't want to drive people away because they feel like I don't have time for them.  I want to be the partner/friend/family to the people in my life that they are to me.  And not out of some sense of fairness: I like being good to the people I love. 

But I honestly wonder if it is possible to live a balanced life when one of the pieces you are trying to balance is as unwieldy as Sisyphus' boulder  - the never-ending (and impossible) attempt to "do enough" to become a successful artist.  No matter how much you get done, there is always more.  Every day, you push the boulder up the hill.  And for most of us, the boulder just rolls back down and you start again.  Even when you're lucky enough to get a gig, as soon as that one is over, there you are, pushing that boulder back up that hill again.  Or maybe you get really, really lucky and the boulder doesn't roll back down, but instead you discover there is now a giant mountain in front of you you have to push it up if you want to keep going.  Very, very few of us ever get to rest at the peak.  Many of us just keep pushing that boulder up that damn hill, determined and forever hopeful; many others of us decide that maybe we'll just leave that boulder at the bottom and go hang out at nearby stream instead.

How do you balance other things in your life when you are compelled to pursue such a sisyphean task?  Do successful artists have good relationships?  Wait, I'm not sure I want you to answer that.

I know I can be a selfish person (and I have been accused of it before).  But I can also be very giving.  And I really, really try to balance my personal needs/desires with those of the people in my life.  I think being a artist requires a degree of selfishness, though.   It takes a lot of time to study, to train, to create.  And, when you are so deeply passionate about something, when there is something that defines you more than anything (or any person) in your life, that is as much a part of you as your arm, and as much a need for your survival as breath, that is the thing you will choose.   Not in every individual moment, but in the balance.

I cannot choose between being an artist and the people I love in my life.  As my marriage counselor said at the last therapy session my ex and I had, that is like asking me to choose between killing my mother and killing my father.  So how do I balance the two?

There are times I wonder if maybe the word I need to examine here is not the word "artist" but the word "successful".  Successful, which really means money-making.  And, I'll admit it, famous.  Not famous for fame's sake - the kind of fame reality shows and the like offer has no appeal to me - but famous in the sense of having my talent recognized.  For how else do we consider an artist to be successful?  Van Gogh was a brilliant artist long before he was ever famous (one might argue more brilliant since he was, well, alive), but he never got to know anyone else felt that way.  Did he feel successful, looking at his own paintings? (I'm guessing not, with the whole suicide and all).  Mozart was buried in a pauper's grave, never to know his music would still be revered the world over almost 250 years later.  The most glorious tenor voice I have ever heard is on an obscure recording of a masterclass taught by Maria Callas - and no one knows that man's name and he never had an opera career.  I'm guessing he didn't feel terribly successful as an artist either.

What would it mean for me to just be an artist and forget trying to be "successful"?  Can I be satisfied with reading the comments I get on this blog about what an inspiration I am, about how much people relate to and enjoy what I'm writing?  Can I be satisfied with the occasional singing performance in a bar with Opera on Tap?  With producing my own little no-budget productions of plays I write?  With the incredible growth I see and hear in my voice students?  Can I give up the ghost of trying to be famous, damn it?

I don't know.  But if I don't want to short-change my relationships any more than I want to stop being an artist, maybe that is the secret to the balance: just be an artist in whatever capacity I can, live my life, enjoy it, take the pressure off myself to try to be "successful".  I wonder if I can be happy with that.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Day 64: Voices

One of the things I find most fascinating about the playwriting process is figuring out a character's "voice": the way they speak, the words they choose, the pace and rhythm of their speech.  I have always kind of wondered how playwrights did that, as I don't feel like I walk around consciously observing the differences in people's speech patterns.  From the first scene I wrote in playwriting class, I was worried about how to do that.  I still don't know "how", really, but it seems to be something that I am learning to do by instinct.  I start to hear the characters talk in my head, and sometimes I'll just write a line and realize "no, that's not how they would say that."  Then I'll try something else and feel in my gut "yes, that's a Frank line".  

This was something I started noticing even before I officially started studying playwriting,, when I was writing the book for the family cabaret show Kat and I created and performed together (I've posted a our demo reel at the bottom of this page if you're curious about it!).  I was writing dialogue for the two of us to perform, but as the show developed it became clear that the characters of Nat and Kat were not the real Nat and Kat.  They have their own distinct "voices", distinct not only from the real Nat & Kat but also from each other.  There were many times in the rehearsal process where we would realize, wait, that's a Kat line, not a Nat line.  It was hard to say why,  but it was something both Kat and I could just tell.  And as soon as we would switch the lines around, a previously troublesome scene would suddenly work.

The Frank scene I wrote this week brought back Vera, a fellow nursing home resident character I had originally written almost a year ago in the very first scene I wrote for Frank in playwriting class.  As I was going back through the rough draft of the new scene, I noticed that Vera's voice didn't seem quite right.  She wasn't distinctive enough from the other characters, and wasn't quite coming across like she had in the first scene I wrote for her last year.  So I went back and re-read that old scene, and immediately was able to hear her voice in my head again.  From that moment, I felt like the scene began to write itself.  I'm quite enamored with it; we'll see what my class thinks when I have it read today!

Speaking of which, I must run or I will be late to said class!

Friday, March 19, 2010

Day 62: The Birthing Center

Since Wednesday evening, I have been anxiously awaiting a phone call informing me that one of my best friends is heading to the birthing center to give birth (to an actual baby).  There were signs that labor was imminent on Wednesday, and I was delighted at the very real prospect of the little tyke sharing my birthday.  But here we are, 2 days later, and we're still waiting.  Every time the phone rings, I think - this must be it!  But these things come in their own time, I guess.  I wonder if he'll arrive in the middle of my other two friends' joint birthday party tonight. 

From the wonderful comments left on my blog, I've noticed that so many of my readers seem to be working on creative projects of your own.  That combined with the expectation of heading to the birthing center to help my dear friend through her labor got me thinking: what about a "birthing center" for creative projects?  A place to hope, plan, and dream; to get support and guidance through the challenging, painful moments; a place to get inspired; to publicly state your goals; and even to network with other people to help bring these "babies" into the world -- whether it be a play, a book, a new career, a painting, a song, a garden, or your own business.

I've created a separate page on my site called the Birthing Center (the link is at the top of the page). I want to grow it into something more elaborate some day, but this is a place to start.  I hope you'll visit and post about what you are trying to give birth to.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Day 61: The Birthday of the Playwright

Today is my birthday.  I'm going to go out on a limb and announce to the world that I'm 38.  Though most tell me I could pass for younger, I'm proud of where I am and who I am and I've earned every one of the nascent crows feet around my eyes.  While I had hoped I would be more successful (read: famous) by now, I have lived my life large.  I've accomplished a lot in my 38 years so far, if I really think about it.

There, I said it.  I've accomplished a lot.  Why is that so hard for me to say?  I guess because I have had such big dreams that didn't come true (yet).  Having fallen short of such high goals, it's easy to focus on what I haven't managed to do (become an internationally famous opera singer or a Broadway sensation) and forget what I have done.  There aren't that many people who can say they've sung the role of Carmen, for example.  Not to mention the couple dozen other opera and musical theater roles I've performed with companies in California, New York and even one in Italy.  I've written and performed my own cabaret shows, self-produced a family theater show with Kat, studied with some of the greatest people in the opera world, spent a summer studying in Italy, and had the guts to leave a good-marriage-turned-sour at age 36 and completely remake myself.

When I think about the last three birthdays, it's astounding to see what incredibly different places I was in on this day in 2008 vs 2009 vs 2010.  On my 36th birthday, I was 25 pounds heavier (I'd only just started Weight Watchers), desperately trying to save a failing marriage, had just started performing cabaret instead of opera, and hadn't even discovered writing yet.  On my 37th birthday, I was my current weight, 7 months single and living in my own place for the first time, had only had a couple of dates with my now boyfriend, and had just started trying to write my first book for the family musical theater show.  Now at 38, I'm still maintaining my weight, have the best-boyfriend-ever, my voice teaching studio is off and running, and I have become a playwright and a blogger. Whew.

I am so grateful for everything that has come into my life, all the amazing people I have around me supporting me and cheering me on.  This birthday has shown me how I want to continue to live my life: surrounded by love, friends and great art; taking care of myself by nurturing both my body and my creative spirit; and making time for the things that matter most to me (and always examining what those things are).

I'll make a deal with the universe: if all my future birthdays can be this good, I promise never to complain about getting older.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Day 59: The Good Stuff

"Just think about the good stuff.  That's what's important."  

These were my boyfriend's words to me as I was anxiously anticipating the unpleasant task of seeing my ex in person for the first time in a year to sign some papers today.  "Just focus on the good stuff - the fantastic birthday party you just had, the fact that you have a loving relationship, all the voice students you're getting, how well your writing is going,  the amazing concert you're going to tonight..."  And of course, he was right.  There is so much good stuff, why let a little weirdness/unpleasantness mar that?  So I focused on the good stuff, and I survived just fine.

This reminds me of something my playwriting teacher said in class last night, that really resonated with me: "Pay attention to what you like, not what you don't like, because that is where the energy is."   On a first draft, there will be so much material that will be tossed out, it is pointless to worry overmuch about the stuff that you don't like or isn't working, because it will just fall away as you rewrite.  Focus on what people like, what they respond to, because that's the stuff that tells you "more of this, please."  It tells you the direction you want to go.

This further reminds me of the visualization my therapist had me do, where I was unpacking old happy memories I had stored away, as a way of saying more of this, please.   I had denied myself many of my happy memories in the aftermath of my divorce.  It's so much easier to focus on the bad stuff.  It's probably even an important part of the healing process, to be able to move on.  But there comes a time when I have to ask myself, if I'm focusing on the bad, am I asking for more of that?

Focusing on the bad stuff can keep us from moving toward the good stuff.  Sometimes it's useful to have something to push against, something to move away from, to be able to say I know I don't want that.  But unless you can then follow it up with but I do want this, you have nothing to move towards.

I don't want to move forwards by backing away from things.  The direction I go in might not end up being the direction I'll stick with, but at least if I'm facing front - moving towards more of this, please - I'll surely get further or at least be able to enjoy the view along the way.  To quote a line from the phenomenal-beyond-words Sondheim birthday concert I went to tonight: "The choice may have been mistaken, but choosing was not."  I have chosen something to move towards - writing - and am trying not to spend too much time looking back.

Focus on the good stuff.  That's where the energy is.

Day 58: Humility

I love feeling stupid.

Not in the condescension/humiliation sense (I'll leave that kink to other folks), but in the I-love-being-surrounded-by-people-smarter-than-I-am sense.  Or if not necessarily smarter, then more well-read, more experienced, more talented and/or better skilled at things than I.  I love to be challenged; inspired to do more, read more, become more.  If you aren't surrounded by people like this, it's too easy to become passive.  And passivity is the ultimate enemy of the human experience, at least according to a playwriting classmate (and likely also Chekhov, according to our class discussion tonight!).

The Playwright's Guidebook: An Insightful Primer on the Art of Dramatic WritingTonight was my first playwriting class with Stuart Spencer, the man who wrote  The Playwright's Guidebook.   It was a humbling experience, on two levels.  One, I felt stupid.  Spence sets a very high intellectual bar that I find compelling, refreshing, and inspiring.  He speaks off-the-cuff about Aristotelian theory and the difference between protagonists and central characters; refers to plays by Sophocles, Shakespeare, Ibsen, Ionesco (yes, I had to look up how to spell that), Beckett, Williams, and more.   While I had heard of every play he mentioned - and read or seen many of them -- there were a few I hadn't ever read or seen.  And that was just the first class!  I realized that I have a lot of reading I need to do if I'm going to be serious about this craft of playwriting.

The other humbling element to tonight's class was the complete opposite of the "feeling stupid/challenged" kind of humbling: it was the humbling that is related to the feeling of honor at someone else's praise of your work; the "really, do I deserve that?" feeling.   I was told that I have a real skill for writing well-developed, well-crafted scenes with nothing extraneous; scenes that "land" with the audience; that I created a very vivid character in a mere page and a half; that two of my scenes were so highly specific that the words felt like they could have only been spoken by those two people and no one else; and that I made one woman choke up by page two.  She was mystified as to how I managed to do that (so am I). 

These kinds of humility inspire me.  I am so inspired to figure out what the next scene of my play is, but unfortunately it is extremely late and I have a very long day tomorrow.  I'll be humble and beg of you not to hold it against me for not writing on my play today.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Day 57: Having my cake and eating it too

This week, I was able to do it all: work my office job, lead my last three weight watchers meetings, and teach 15 students; have an old college buddy stay over on his way through town; celebrate my best friend's boyfriend's birthday; go to a jazz concert & reception hosted by my boss; go to the gym twice; post 5 blog entries and update my website; write a very-well-received new scene of my play in time for class today; and throw one of the most perfect birthday parties I've ever had.  (So I actually did have my cake and eat it too -- the most amazing chocolate cake my boyfriend and I made from his mom's recipe).

If my life were merely a matter of my crazy hodge-podge work schedule and various social engagements, it would be hectic.  When I add the self-imposed pressure of writing a play and maintaining a blog, it becomes insane.  So how did I do it?  Twice I got up at 6:15 to write and go to the gym before the office.  Other times I set my timer and made myself sit at my table instead of on my bed/couch so I wouldn't fall asleep while writing.  I asked for - and received - immense amounts of help and support from my best-boyfriend-ever.  I carried my journal around with me at all times and wrote in it whenever I had the chance and also made notes and lists when I thought of something I needed to do or wanted to remember.  But perhaps most importantly: I stopped myself from wasting time wishing I had more free time and just made choices about how I wanted to spend the time I had.

I can scarcely believe the outpouring of love and friendship I experienced at my party last night.  In the midst of the torrential downpour and 60mph winds that turned New York into an umbrella cemetery, so many people from so many different facets of my life came to celebrate my birthday with me.   Performing friends, playwriting friends, burning man friends, a weight watchers friend, a student, and even my dear friend who is due to give birth tomorrow.  I feel so incredibly loved and valued that I'm at a loss for how to express it.  On top of all that, I even got to sing: as has become tradition, Kat and I trotted out a few numbers at the party.  Other folks got up and played and sang too.  Did I mention it was the best party ever?

When I next have a moment where frustration overtakes me, like in last Friday's "AAARRRRRGGGHHHH" post,  I want to remember how I feel right now (to steal a phrase from one of my best friends):

I love my life.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Day 55: Attention

I got to hear jazz pianist great Randy Weston play at Symphony Space last night.  Though I was awed by his talent, technical skill, and musical passion, I noticed that my attention kept drifting while he was playing.  At the beginning of each piece, my mind would be sitting there in its chair, paying attention like a good little student, but then it would sneak out the back of the hall to wander down various side streets.  I would suddenly notice it was gone and call it back to listen again, but after a couple of moments it would whisper another "I'll be right back" and take off once more.  I used to feel bad about this when it would happen, like I wasn't being disciplined.  But through the process of learning how to write theater, I've come to realize that it's not the responsibility of the audience to pay attention -- cell phones, crying babies and inappropriate conversation aside -- it's the responsibility of the material and the performers to hold the audience's attention.

The playwright's hardest job is to keep the audience members' minds from getting up and leaving the theater (even if their butts manage to stay in the seats).  The two main questions my playwriting teacher always asks after a scene is read in class are: "what held your attention?" and "where did you drop out?"  I can often dissect what it is about a play that does or doesn't hold my attention, but I've never thought about music in those terms before.  What was it about the performance last night that didn't keep my mind in the room?   It wasn't a lack of energy or expressiveness or skill on the part of Mr. Weston -- quite the contrary -- I believe it was the music itself.

The kind of jazz Mr. Weston plays is the very free-form, exploratory jazz music that uses incredibly complex harmonies and alters melodies so much that it is hard to recognize them past the first couple of bars.  Music like this, that meanders down various paths of the musician's melodic and/or harmonic fancy, makes my mind meander, too -- down its own path.  I just can't follow its arc; I can't hear its story.   When I think of the music I love best -- regardless of whether it is Baroque, Classical, Romantic, 20th Century, jazz standards, musical theater, or pop -- I think it always has some kind of arc that my mind can latch onto.

Poetics (Penguin Classics)Obviously this is not completely universal, as many people love that kind of jazz.  And some people love endless hours of electronic dance music that never feels like it has any kind of beginning, middle or end to me either.  But I do think our minds generally hunger for some kind of structure, some kind of form, some kind of narrative to follow.  We like a good story, whether it is in music, visual art, poetry, dance, theater, or books.  There's a reason why Aristotle's observations on the theater still hold true to this day.  All he did in Poetics was observe what it was about certain plays that made people keep coming back to them over and over again; what it was that held people's attention.

I think I'd best sign off before I lose yours.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Day 53: Sunset

Yesterday's sunrise experiment was an unmitigated success.  I was pleasantly surprised to discover that my unfiltered meanderings on Monday night actually did comprise something of the start of a scene, so I was able to continue from there.  It felt great to have done my writing before I left the house at 7:40am, for, as reader Jillian commented on yesterday's post, I was able to "walk around the rest of the day knowing you're a writer despite your other jobs and responsibilities."  I had no guilt coming home after the friend's birthday and just enjoying being with my boyfriend before going to sleep.  All in all, writing in the morning helped make for a great day.

But I didn't write this morning.  I find it harder to focus when my boyfriend is around (something we both deal with since he is a composer/musician himself and also needs time to write and be creative.  We are trying to learn to be able to work in each other's presence, but it's still a bit of a challenge).  I also knew I would have time to write this evening.  So I instead enjoyed a little bit of extra sleep and quiet time with him, then took care of some emails and such before heading off to my last regular meetings as a Weight Watchers leader.  It was bittersweet, saying goodbye to members I have grown to know over the last 8 months, and in whose progress I am personally invested.  The support and encouragement I received for my new career path was tremendous, though, and many of them promised to be in touch and even stop by and visit my blog.  So perhaps we'll get to see some comments from them now and then.

The transition from the end of one thing into the beginning of another is always a bit painful, even when it's what you want.  I have had a lot of those lately: career dreams, relationships, pets, jobs, apartments -- I've had deaths and rebirths in all of these facets of my life in the last two years.  Sometimes I think I wouldn't mind a little stasis for awhile.  But who knows, maybe then I'd be bored.  Fortunately, every sunset is always followed by another sunrise. 

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Day 52: Sunrise

I'm trying an experiment.  I looked at my day today, and realized the only way I was going to get an hour of writing done was if I got up at 6:15am.  I have to meet my personal trainer by 8, then go to the office for several hours, then scamper to three different students in their homes, then meet my friends to celebrate a birthday.  I knew that waiting til after that birthday dinner would mean another frustrating session of falling asleep in front of the computer.  So, here I am at 6:34am about to attempt my 3600 seconds of writing.  I've never tried writing this early in the morning.  I must start now.  I'll let you know how it goes.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Day 51: Huzzah!

I've got my mojo back.

The 3600 seconds per day (most days) last week culminated in 9.5 new pages for Frank, his daughter Vivian and granddaughter Angie.  I brought the pages into playwriting class yesterday, and the material was incredibly warmly received: "loved the scene", "characters were very real and rich", "very moving", "didn't drop out anywhere", "love the grandfather character", "lines were very clean", "the questions that came into my mind were all answered".   All things a playwright hopes to hear about their work.

These new pages depict a moment no one ever wants to have to face, on either side: the moment you have to tell your parent or grandparent that they can't take care of themselves anymore. This is an even harder conversation to have when the father and daughter have barely spoken for the last 25 years, and it erupted in some pretty hurtful dialogue between Frank and Vivian.  Frank was even brusque with his granddaughter Angie, whom he adores -- which really surprised me.  I didn't know he had such a dark and bitter side.

The biggest question I had about this scene was if the harsh words were over-the-top; if the conflict felt like it came out of nowhere; if it was unbelievable that people would really talk to each other that way.  Not only was this not the case, the class pretty unanimously felt that the conflict didn't go far enough.  One person said they were "too nice", and others said that I dropped the conflict between Frank and Vivian too soon; that I could have let it go a couple of beats longer and really let Frank express the disappointment he has in his daughter.  I was so surprised! 

I think I see where this comes from:  I was the self-appointed peace-maker in my family growing up, and as such am a very conflict-averse person.  Arguments, fights, or conflicts of any kind make me incredibly uncomfortable.  What may seem like a minor, insignificant outburst to some feels like a giant blow-up to me.  As scenes like these are a big part of what make great drama on stage, I'm going to have to get over this.  Perhaps it will be somewhat therapeutic for me -- to let my characters have some of the fights I've always avoided in my real life.  Maybe I'll learn something from them.

I can't wait to see what these characters do next.  I just hope they'll tell me soon, 'cause I have to admit I have absolutely no idea what the next scene is going to be. 

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Day 50: 3600 seconds redux

Today is day 7 of my week of attempting to write for 3600 uninterrupted seconds per day.  I didn't succeed in doing it every day, but I did get 5 out of 7, which isn't bad.  I also learned a lot about myself and my writing during the process, and came up with a few rules that will hopefully help me get to 6 out of 7 this week (I'm going to let myself off the hook the day of my birthday party). 
1) Write, don't fix.

I get most stuck when I am looking over what I have previously written and try to "fix" it.  I can tinker over 2 or 3 pages almost endlessly.  That kind of work will have to happen later, but right now as I'm trying to get a first draft completed, I need to just write.  The times when I forced myself to write without editing were by far the most productive, and it was surprising how much material I could get down in a mere hour when I didn't stop myself.

2) Write before dinner.

When I first began writing last year, many of my most productive writing sessions were after midnight.  For whatever reason, that is not working for me at the moment.  Lately, if I start writing after 10pm at night, I fall asleep in front of the computer.  My most productive sessions this week have been before dinner or, like today, in the morning.  I intended to write for many hours last night, but as I was again falling asleep in front of the computer at 11:30, I decided to go to bed and set the alarm for 7:30am even though I didn't have to be anywhere til 2pm today.  It's only 10am and I've already done my morning pages, written an entire scene, had breakfast, set loaves of homemade sourdough bread to rise, cleaned my kitchen, and am now writing my blog post for the day.  I have 2 1/2 more hours to tidy up 10 pages to bring to class today.  I'm stoked.

3) Make writing time sacred.

Figure out when I'm going to write, put it in my schedule for the day, and don't let anything supersede it (especially given rule #2).   I have not mastered this practice yet, but I've recognized that I must do so.  

4) Have lots of healthy, low-cal snacks on hand.

Why does writing make me want to eat?  It's as if my mouth has to be chewing in order for my brain to be working.  I don't want to put back on any of the 30lbs I lost 2 years ago, so keeping popcorn and veggies and fruit around is imperative.  Either that or perhaps I should learn to kick this habit.  Anyone else experience this?

5) Quit Firefox.

Oh, how easy it is to turn away from the page and check my email, or facebook, or see how many people have viewed my blog today.  At least when I close the program, I can't just hit command-tab to get over to the endless time-suck that is the interweb.

6) Set a timer.

This turned out to be a fantastic idea.  Setting a timer for an hour made me actually not do anything else for that time -- not check my email, not get up to make a snack, not send a text message to my boyfriend, not go back and fix all those other pages.  It's like I could shut up my little brat by saying "it's only an hour, then you can come out and distract me again."  She seemed content with that.  This is the rule that makes all the other rules work.

Perhaps by the end of this week, I'll come up with 4 more rules so I can have my personal "10 writing commandments".   In the meantime, I'd love to hear from you about what helpful habits you have discovered help you get things done. Given that days like Friday will likely happen again, I can still use all the help I can get.

Friday, March 5, 2010


There are moments when I just feel: I can't do this.

Not I'm not capable.  Fortunately, my self-esteem is pretty good when it comes to feeling like I have the requisite talent to be a successful artist (read: money-making artist).  But rather, this is impossibleI can't make this work.  I can't pay my bills, have a social life, and be an artist.  I don't waste a lot of time -- if I gave that impression in my "desire vs. discipline" post, it is because I was being very hard on myself.  I don't even own a television -- I watch a little bit of tv/movies on my computer, but I'd be very surprised if that totaled more than 3 hours a week.   But I don't want to get into defending myself here, that's not the point of this post.

Tonight is one of those nights when the pain and frustration of being a struggling artist can bring me to my knees.  Snapping at my boyfriend, crying on the bus, uttering doomsday statements like "I'm ready to give up this project altogether", doubting the choices I've made like "what if I made the wrong choice giving up my opera career?".  I asked my boyfriend tonight: "are most writers just complete and total hermits with no social lives?"  He snorted and said, "yeah, that is pretty much the classic stereo-type.  And bloggers are known for sitting around in their pajamas all day eating Cheetos."   That is so not me.   Which makes me wonder -- have I chosen wrong AGAIN?

(If you're wondering what precipitated all this, here's a brief run-down: my best-boyfriend-ever and I have had little quality time together lately between my schedule and him spending a lot of time visiting his mom in New Hampshire as she recovers from surgery.  In an attempt to rectify this, we came up with a brilliant plan: after I got off work at 2:30 today, we were to go to a 3 oclock movie, grab some dinner fixins, head back to my place, spend my hour and a half writing on my play, cook/eat dinner, then have some free recreational time together.  When I did the math in my head, I never dreamed that we wouldn't get home until almost 8pm after seeing a 3:15pm movie.  Suddenly I was back in this position of not being done eating til 10pm, and having to write while exhausted and likely falling asleep in front of the computer.  Something about that -- at the beginning of a month where I am not going to have a single full day off until April 2nd -- just made me snap.  It seems even when I plan out a day perfectly balanced between work, social life and writing, it just doesn't work.)

I long for the days of the patron system.  Oh, for someone who believes in and enjoys my art so much that they are willing to pay my living expenses so that I can create art for them.  Heck, I'd be immensely grateful for someone who would just grant me enough to cover a few hours of work.  Anything so that I didn't have to work 6-7 days a week.   So that I could have just a handful of hours each day to devote to my craft.  I'm not a lazy person.  I don't mind working for a living, I really don't.  It's just .... it's so hard to be an artist and an admin assistant and a music teacher and a weight watchers leader (fortunately only for one more week) and a girlfriend and a sister and a best friend and a daughter and a healthy person who eats well and goes to the gym.   How on earth do people do this?  Is it possible to be an artist and not be frustrated and tired and financially struggling and torn and lonely and disappointed and angry and sad?

In the midst of all this frustration, I am so very grateful to my boyfriend, my dear friends, my family, and my gentle readers for all of your heartfelt, kind words of support and encouragement.  To read comments from you that I have given you things to think about, or made you feel less alone, makes all this frustration feel worth it.  If I may ask only one small favor in return:  If my blog has struck a chord with you, please pass it on to those you think might also enjoy it.  I'm not sure exactly what the path is, but maybe,  just maybe, my writing can help bring me to a place where I can support myself from my creative endeavors and have all the more to give back.

Gratefully, play-fully yours,


Day 48: My Artist's Date

I finally took myself on an artist's date last night.  I'm sad to admit that I can't remember when the last one was, but proud for getting back to this very important practice.

The Artist's WayWhat's an "artist's date" you ask?  It's one of the two main tenets of Julie Cameron's The Artist's Way (be sure to check out my new Recommended Reading list in the top left corner!).   The idea is to take yourself, once a week, to something that nourishes your creative self: a play, a museum, a concert, a beautiful spot outdoors.  Ms. Cameron insists that this be a solitary exercise - only you and your inner creative self along.  This was an incredibly important practice for me in the weeks and months immediately following my separation.  Having been half of a couple for 17 years, I wasn't in the habit (except when traveling) of going places by myself.  I discovered what a delicious treat this is, and did it pretty regularly for awhile.  Then I got my wonderful boyfriend, and once again found myself not taking the time to do my personal artist's dates.  I already have so little time free to spend with the people I love, it's hard sometimes to remember that *I* am one of those people I love, too.

So last night I took myself to God of Carnage, the 2009 Tony winner for best play.  Jeff Daniels (from the original cast) was back, along with Janet McTeer (love her), Dylan Baker (who plays a fantastic asshole) and Lucy Liu (my crush on her is completely revived -- turns out she transitions incredibly well from film to stage).   Before hand, I took myself out to my favorite pre-theater wine bar, Riposo 46, ate a delicious flatbread pizza with prosciutto, arugula, and parmesan, and drank a couple of lovely glasses of wine (I recommend the Malbec over the Rioja).  Apparently my creative self likes to be wined and dined a little.  I decided she deserves it -- she's been working hard lately.

The play is witty, sharp, fast-paced, intense, hilarious, and extreme.  I say "extreme" because the characters in it go beyond any place you would expect them to go - beyond a place that feels realistic (at least to me).  I don't mean that in a bad way -- good theater does not have to be true-to-life (far from it - take just about any opera).  It's part of what makes great theater -- people doing outrageous things.  In many ways these characters do things that secretly we wish we could let our guard down enough to do.  (For those of you who haven't seen it, I won't give it away.  But go see it!  $32 tickets are available on tdf if you're a member.)

Going to the theater is a different experience now that I'm a writer.  In addition to the audience part of myself who may just be sitting there, enjoying the play, the writer part of myself is analyzing the piece and the writing style, asking why does this work, what makes this great, can I do that?  In this case, the answer is a resounding no -- I could never write that.  I don't necessarily mean I couldn't write anything that good (I don't know the answer to that yet), but I could never write that style.  One of my greatest writing strengths is naturalistic dialogue, and this was not that.  I wish I were more skilled at writing that kind of crisp, sharp wit, with every line feeling like a beautifully sculpted piece of word play.  But I'm not.  At least not yet.

I came away from the evening excited, happy, fulfilled -- and tired after a long day.  I wanted to get my 3600 seconds of writing on my play in, but at 11pm I knew I was too exhausted for any attempt at that to be worthwhile.  After beating myself up over that for a bit, my boyfriend convinced me over the phone to cut myself some slack (after all, it's not like I was just watching tv) and promise to do an hour and a half today instead to help make up for it.  That I can do.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Day 47: The Paralysis of "Should"

Should I go to the gym this morning?  Should I try to go back to sleep so I don't fall asleep during God of Carnage tonight?  Should I write?  How should I spend this hour before I have to go into the office?

I hate the word should.

There is no motion in the word should.  It does not imply any direction towards the thing you are feeling you should do.  You are standing here, that person you think you should be is over there, and you are just looking at each other.  Sometimes that other person is even sticking their tongue out at you and saying "yeah, you wish you were me.  Too bad you don't have the guts to actually make a decision and get on over here."

Should implies some absolute right or wrong, some external arbiter who has determined that one course of action is the better.  This is a dangerous path for me -- this thinking that there is one right answer.  The fear of doing the wrong thing can lead towards doing nothing at all, or (more likely in my case) trying to do a whole bunch of different things at once and not being able to do any of them well because my time and energies are too divided.  That is its own form of paralysis.

(I'm reminded a bit of Gretchen Rubin's post on "Demand Resistance" the other day: when people freeze up at being told "don't do this" or "no more that"; how it's more constructive to take out the negative and say "do this".  Might be some of the same thing here.)

At some point over the last few months, I started noticing how often the word should appeared in my morning journal pages.  I started a practice of crossing it out every time I found myself writing it and replacing it with "I will" or at least "I want to" or even sometimes "I need to".  At least those words come from within me; they help me get in touch with how I feel about the choice I'm facing. 

Of course there are sometimes when there is a clearly better choice.  Should I eat a bowl full of raw chocolate chip cookie dough?  Indubitably not.  Should I go the gym?  Indubitably so.  But when the choice is between going to the gym and much-needed sleep, or between the gym and much-needed time to write, which of those choices is better?  More right?  That is where the phrasing of I want is helpful to me.  Or perhaps what do I want more.  Because I often want all of those things, but alas I can't always have everything that I want.    At least there is motion in the word want, it leads me towards being able to say I will (like I ended up at I will write this morning).  That is much preferable to the paralysis of should.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Day 45: Promises

Yesterday I made a couple of promises:  1) to write for an hour every day this week and 2)  to let you know how the first day of that went.  So despite the fact that I am literally falling asleep in front of my computer, here goes.

Last night's session was great.  I got 3.5 pages written, and discovered Frank and his daughter Vivian talking to each other for the first time in a good long while.  Side note -- it's challenging to write a conversation between two people who don't like to talk!  Tonight I continued that conversation, though unfortunately my hour didn't end up being quite a full hour due to the complete and utter lack of sleep I got last night (thank you, neighbor #1, for your car alarm and thank you, neighbor #2 for singing in the hallway at 6am).  But I did discover some important information about Frank and Vivian's relationship, and added another page and a half.

When I first began writing again last night, I was dismayed to realize that my last true writing session on this Frank play was January 30th.  How did a whole month go by?  Between the rewrite of Spirit Dust for the competition submission and the performance of All in the Shuffle  - not to mention life - February disappeared. 

This has made me re-examine another promise I made: to co-produce a collection of short plays with two friends of mine this May.  While I really want to do this, I fear that the energy and copious amounts of time I would need to dedicate to making that happen would not allow me the space and time I need to write this play.  As I mentioned in Day 43, I have been trying so hard to create space in my life to allow room for the things I want in my life.  My top priorities right now are time to teach and time to write my play and this blog.  If I fill up what little space I've created with yet another project,  I fear I will find myself again with months of writing time lost.  With my goal for birthing this play in October, I can scant afford to lose more time.  So I fear I must back out of my promise to my friends, which pains me greatly.  Since they are also writers, I sincerely hope they will understand.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Day 44: 3600 seconds

3600 seconds, that's all I'm asking of myself.

For those of you who have recently found my blog, you might be wondering: what of this play she's supposed to be writing?  She hasn't said hardly a thing about it.  I'm starting to wonder the same thing.

My time (and desires) are pulled in many directions, and it's very easy to end up so busy with other things (including writing this blog) that I don't end up getting any writing done on my actual play.  I have a myriad of incredibly valid excuses, but in the end they are still that -- excuses.

As I once again looked at my week and felt an utter sense of panic at the lack of time to write, I decided to approach this in a different way.  I am committing myself to writing for one hour (minimum) each day.  I will set my kitchen timer for an hour, and just write, whatever comes out.  No second guessing, no filtering, just write.

I begin as soon as I finish this post, with the complete support of my best-boyfriend-ever who is sitting beside me and doing his own music work, even though we haven't seen each other in several days.  I will let you know tomorrow what I discover.