Posts Tagged ‘art’

I’ve been feeling all organized because last weekend I made a list of topics for my next several posts. And then this morning I read a blog post offering some misguided writing advice. (No, I’m not going to link to it. I’m sure way too many writers read it as is.) Cue complete topic derailment.

I’ve already written about writing advice in the past, but the more I think about it, the more I think this issue isn’t confined to advice about writing. It isn’t even confined to advice about artistic pursuits. Over the years I have certainly received a great deal of advice about basic life topics, some of which has thrown me for a loop and later proven to be completely wrong. (My favorite? “Oh, Amy, you just have delusions of grandeur” in response to me having big artistic dreams. Way to try to ensure they’ll never happen.)

Add to this the undeniable fact that I sometimes give what could be construed as advice right here on this blog, and I feel almost obligated to write the following.

Read, learn, listen to other people’s point of view and feedback. Think about what people say, try out various ideas. Don’t automatically assume you know the one true way to doing anything. But ultimately, DO WHAT YOU WANT TO DO. Do what you need to do (assuming that what you need to do doesn’t involve anything blatantly illegal, of course). And more than that, do what works. Advice, even the more strongly worded variety, is merely a suggestion that we can take or leave according to our own inclination. Even if it’s good advice, we might not be ready to implement it. And if it’s bad advice, we might accidentally harm ourselves or take the plunge into regret that I talked about last week.

That’s one of the really wonderful things about life. We get to choose our own adventure. Sure, we can’t control everything or even most things, but within our small scope of decision, we act as our own kings and queens.

It’s not such a leap to believe that creative types need to follow their muses and express their personal integrity and vision of the world in their art. But what if we take a step farther and consider ourselves to be art and our lifetimes to be our canvas of expression? The expressions “Follow your heart” and “Follow your gut” are close but incomplete representations of this kind of life. Follow who you are, and even more, follow who you wish to become.

Choosing to live this way can mean leaving a lot of the advice behind. The Backbone Project has really opened my eyes to this. Why do people care whether I drink alcohol or not? Why do they care (especially women!) if I self-identify as a feminist? Why do people want to change my writing process? Often I think the answer is that they don’t actually care about me personally at all. Instead they are seeking to validate their own way of life and their own choices. Instead of following who they are and finding a sense of rightness in that, they need reflection from the outside world to reassure them. Instead of deep and subtle thinking, they allow themselves to fall into the black and white thinking trap: I’m right and you’re wrong. Because this doesn’t work for me, obviously it won’t work for anybody. Something needs to be fixed; you need to be fixed. If I have a big bad problem, that means you must not have any problems at all or else you’re trying to compete with me, but it doesn’t matter because my problem must be the worst. (Or flip it around: if you have a big bad problem, that must mean my own problems aren’t important at all.)

Don’t take my advice about this, though. Think about it, and make up your own mind. Choose your own adventure. Turn your life into art with every choice you make.

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A few weeks ago I read an essay by one of my favorite bloggers, Penelope Trunk, about how to think outside the box. The entire essay is well worth the read, and I might discuss other aspects of it some other time (yes, that’s how good it is). But for now I’m going to focus on just one brilliant paragraph:“We are all creative. The only thing we really have in this world is the ability to craft a life. One day your life will be over, and we are largely unsure what happens next, but during the time we’re alive, we get to choose what we do. We create a life.”

Crafting our lives is the ultimate form of expressing ourselves, and we all do it, every single one of us. The decisions we make on a daily basis form the shape of our story, both in our own heads and in the outside world. That’s one reason why I’m so big on priorities: your priorities can quite literally determine the direction your life follows. Our priorities are the guiding vision for the complex artistic creation of who we are.  (more…)

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When I was a teenager, I enjoyed dreaming big. I wanted to be a novelist, I wanted to work on animated features at Disney, I wanted to write games at Sierra (this was back when they were still doing cool stuff like Quest for Glory, Castle of Dr. Brain, and the King’s Quest series). I wanted to be a singer and actress and perform in musicals, I wanted to write musicals, I wanted to direct musicals. I knew that many of these aspirations were unrealistic and difficult, but I wanted them all anyway.

However, a family member who shall remain nameless said something to me one day, perhaps just an offhand remark, that became fully lodged in my young impressionable brain. “Amy,” the person said, “you have delusions of grandeur.” They might as well have said, “Why try, because the only possible outcome is failure.” Even today, half my lifetime later, whenever I think of trying something daring or risky or simply ambitious, those words go through my mind. “I don’t know if I can do this,” I say to my husband, “because so-and-so said.” And then he has to go through the work of convincing me to do whatever it is anyway.

Photo by Tony Fischer


I was reminded of this when I read Christie Yant’s recent essay, Lessons from the Slushpile: Good vs. Great. She discusses what distinguishes the great stories (and incidentally, the ones that are bought) from the rest, and one of the distinctions she’s made is that truly great stories have something to say. They say something that matters, that makes us as readers think or question or feel. They are ambitious, meant to illuminate as well as entertain.In my limited experience, these kinds of ambitious stories are rare, but it was by finding them that I first learned to appreciate, and later to love, short stories as a form.So why are these stories thin on the ground? Perhaps for one or more of these reasons (and there might well be others):

1. It’s difficult to come up with something to say in the first place.
2. Even if you’ve got something to say, it’s difficult to express it in a clear and original fashion.
3. Writing such a story means that on some level, you’ve got to have delusions of grandeur.

I think I had it right as a teenager. Delusions of grandeur are what allow us to strive, to push ourselves beyond our perceived capabilities, to dive into projects of vast scope. They give us permission to take risks, do things that make us uncomfortable, and ignore those who don’t believe we can do it. Delusions of grandeur are what allow us to become great.

So right now, I’m going to finish up this essay, and then I’m going to sit down and work on a short story that scares the pants off me. It makes me uncomfortable, it kind of makes me want to cry, I’m not quite sure I know where it’s going, and even if I did, I’m pretty sure I don’t want to follow it there. All I can do is believe in its potential, as I believe in my own.

Delusions of grandeur are the necessary caterpillars if we want our words to fly.

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Not enough people have heard of this little gem, even though it won the Tony Award for best original score in 2005 (Spamalot won the Tony for best musical that year, but let’s not even go there).  The music is so beautiful, it makes me feel like there’s something inside me stretching towards the sky, and that’s really the top attraction for this show. The story line is interesting enough, the character development for the main mother character is well done, and the lyrics are passable although on the whole nothing special.  And given the music they accompany, they almost feel beside the point (which is particularly telling since I am usually all about the lyrics). 

The Light in the Piazza is not a “belty” show, as are most of the new shows we’ve been seeing on Broadway.  No, Adam Guettel draws less on rock and pop music and more on opera and classical music to create his romantic score, filled with soaring violins and Classically trained voices.  It’s possible that this choice is partly why the show isn’t more widely known, but I’m glad he made it just the same. The lush music suits the story and the setting (Florence , Italy).

My local theater company put this show on last fall, and after one of the performances I heard an audience member mention that the story was “creepy”.  Or maybe she said “strange”.  This reaction might also factor into the relative obscurity of the show.  I actually really like the story, although I will admit it’s challenging in that it takes a lot of thought, and it also depends a lot upon the interpretation of the role of Clara.  The general idea is that Clara, now 26, was in an accident when she was eleven or twelve that froze her mental and emotional development, so ever since she has led a very sheltered existence.  But now she and her mother are on holiday in Italy, and suddenly love strikes from the sky like lightning.  One of the questions the show pivots around is, exactly how impaired is Clara?  This is a question that is never answered explicitly, so one just has to guess.  Is she, as her mother finally comes to believe, capable of more than they’d assumed?  Can she aspire to a “normal” life with a husband and possibly even children?  Is she mature enough to truly love?  Or, is this all wishful thinking doomed to dreadful disappointment?  Plus we explore the obligations of disclosure (how much does the mother have to tell Clara’s lover? What about his family?) and we watch events shape and change Clara’s mother, whose worldview has been turned on its head by the end of the show. An ironic twist that happens mid-way through Act 2 highlights the differing values of the two families in question.

The fact is, a lot of these issues and questions are uncomfortable, so I can understand why audience members might be uneasy afterwards.  But for me, this is the best kind of theater: theater that makes me re-evaluate myself and how I see the world, and that leaves an open question.

A few favorite moments, both from the Second Act:

“The Light in the Piazza”, sung by Clara in Rome, when she wishes to return to Florence (and the man she’s fallen in love with).  One of my personal favorites to sing.


“Fable”, sung by Clara’s mother Margaret at the end of the show.  This song is truly epic.


Ah, so beautiful!  If you like what you’ve heard, “Dividing Day,” “The Beauty Is,” and “Let’s Walk” are also songs worthy of attention. I’ll definitely be on the look-out for any new work by this promising composer.

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A few days ago, I read the excellent article “Writing and Mortality” by Rachel Swirsky, and I’ve been thinking about it ever since.  I recommend reading it and coming back here, but since I don’t always do that myself, I’ll summarize. She talks about some advice she read about writing, how if the project you’re working on is not the project you’d be working on if you only had six weeks to live, then it’s the wrong project. Rachel calls foul on this advice, saying that if she had only six weeks, she’d be busy spending time with her loved ones. “Artists,” she says, “aren’t only real artists if they would spend their last few days creating art.” 

I agree with Rachel one hundred percent. Creating art is a high priority for me; in fact, I’ve structured my life around increasing my time to do so. But it’s not my highest priority, and that’s okay. This truth was brought home to me recently when I was suffering from root canal complications.  Mostly I was thinking, “My god, the pain, the pain, please make it stop, I’ll do whatever it takes to stop the pain.”  But when I could focus beyond the immediate suffering, what did I care about the most?  I wanted to spend time with my husband and my little dog, and I wanted to write long e-mails to my best friend.  I’m an ambitious person, but when it came down to it, I wasn’t thinking about my writing anymore.  What mattered to me was the people I love.

Taking a step back, this entire discussion was sparked from a piece of writing advice. I read a lot of writing advice every week.  I even occasionally write some writing advice.  It’s amazing how much helpful information about writing I can learn from the internet (although at this point, a lot of the advice I read is a reminder more than a revelation).

But this advice is not infallible, and it cannot be followed blindly.  Each piece of advice requires consideration, and if you find it doesn’t work well for you, that doesn’t mean you’re wrong or a bad writer or anything else.  It means that advice is not for you, full stop.

People try to give me advice all the time (and not just about writing, either).  Here are some examples of advice I do not take:

1. You should write every day. Yeah, I don’t write every day.  I usually take weekends off, and then I come back to the computer on Monday full of fresh ideas and vigor.  That’s what works for me, for now.
2. You should write what you know. Sorry, I don’t actually live in a world with working magic or a world set in the future, but I still write about them.  (Yes, this advice has deeper connotations that are more helpful, but its phrasing can be misleading.)
3. You should write x words every day. Unfortunately, only I know how many words I can write per day, and this number changes over time and depending on circumstances (like, for instance, a root canal or quitting the day job).
4. You should only submit to pro paying markets. I actually kind of follow this one, but the more I think about it, the more I think it’s silly.  Really I should submit to any markets I feel like submitting to, right?  If I’d be happy seeing my work at a certain publication, then I’ll submit.  If I won’t feel happy or I think the publication is shady in some way, then I won’t submit.  So this advice isn’t for me.
5. You should/shouldn’t outline. Um, really good writers go both ways on this one.  So I’ll do whatever I like, and experiment with both.  (For those wondering, yes, I outline for novels.  For short stories, it really depends.)

I could go on, but you get the idea.  Advice is in the eye of the beholder.  People give advice about what works for them as individuals.  But we are not cookie cutter people, and therefore some of this advice will not work for you.  The trick is to learn what you can, and then adapt that learning to fit your own lifestyle, your own priorities, your own artistic strengths and weaknesses, and your own voice.

I would love it if you would comment with some advice you have read or received (writing advice or otherwise) that doesn’t work for you.  It can even be something that I have said here on the blog (gasp). I can’t wait to see what you all come up with!

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I have loved musical theater since I was a little girl obsessed with watching movies such as The Wizard of Oz, The Sound of Music, Mary Poppins, and Annie over and over.  I watched those movies so often that I memorized the accompanying commercials.  I’ve studied musicals seriously over the intervening years, as a vocalist and performer, as a composer, as a critical audience member, and as a musical director.

I’ve noticed that my associations with musical theater are very different from those of many people I encounter.  I often don’t mention my interest, and when I do, it’s even odds whether my companion’s eyes will glaze over, or he’ll try to change the subject, or worst of all, she’ll make a derisive comment.  About musical theater.  To ME.  Musical theater has gotten a bad rap, and ignorance is rampant about much that moves and interests me about musicals.

Not every musical is an Oklahoma!, with energetic grinning and almost insanely enthusiastic dance numbers that consist of singing about the weather (and once you’re aware of the historic connotations of Oklahoma!, it’s a lot easier to take the aggressive cheerfulness).  Not every musical is a puff piece of finely spun sugar that melts in your mouth, leaving nothing of meaning behind.  Not every musical is overwrought rock opera from the 80s.  Not that I have anything against any of these types of musicals.  I enjoy and am interested in musical theater of all shades.  But.

Not all musical theater is created equal.

My very favorite type of musical theater may or may not feature any dancing.  It often consists of a fairly small cast.  There may or may not be fancy lighting or other technical derring-do; in my musicals of choice, the spectacle of the experience is not the point of focus.  I tend to adore musicals that have something to say and say it with passion.  I look for deep characterization and a satisfying narrative arc.  I want lyrics that are both clever and true, and music that drives home the themes of the piece.  My goal is to take something away after the show that has nothing to do with a snatch of a tune to hum for the next month.

Musicals are a form of performance art, and like the best theater, are capable of teaching us about ourselves and the world around us.  They make us feel, they make us question, and they make us wonder.  My favorite musicals will linger with me for months, or in many cases, my entire life.  Yes, musicals do feature characters who spontaneously burst into song (unless it’s through-sung like opera), but if done well, the music can harness the emotions of the character and present them in a visceral and memorable fashion.  If done by a master, the music can actually both cause and illustrate character development.

This post is the beginning of a series I plan to write and publish every Tuesday for the next month or so, discussing each of my favorite modern musicals (I currently have four), all of which were written and produced in the 1990s and 2000s.  I’ll be talking a small amount about the music and lyrics, but my main focus is going to be on the narrative and thematic ambitions of each piece.

For now, if you’re a musical theater buff, what shows are your favorites?  And if you’re not, what is your general impression of musicals?  Do you like Buffy’s “Once More With Feeling” or “Dr. Horrible’s Sing-a-long Blog”, or are all musicals equally anathema to you?  Weigh in and let me know!

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The Tate Modern currently has an exhibition of Soviet era propaganda posters.  I spent a lot of time looking at them, but here is the one that sticks the most in my mind:

"Road to Talent"

On the left, we are shown a (presumably) talented violinist in the U.S., cold, poor, and hungry, wandering the streets at night and being unable to make a living from his music.  On the right, we see a similar violinist in the U.S.S.R., his skills being properly nurtured by the state, elegantly dressed, performing with an orchestra.  Of course, what the poster doesn’t show are any of the drawbacks of the state-sponsored system. 

My husband told me this poster wasn’t so far off the mark.  Many Soviet-trained musicians immigrated to Israel and it was common to see these world-class musicians busking on the streets.  There were simply not enough orchestra seats in the country to accommodate all of the incoming talent.

This got me thinking about the price we pay, as artists, for our art.  When does the price become too high?  Although in some ways the Soviet Union was ideal for artists, many were stifled: denied religious, sexual, or political freedom, not allowed to manage their own careers, censored.  For some musicians, it was obviously better to be busking in Israel than having a glamorous concert career back home.

Here is the U.S. the price for artists is very different.  There is the money/time trade-off: do you get a day job for money and then run low on time, or do you take the time for your art and embrace possible financial insecurity?  Can you achieve the dream of being successful enough to have both time and money?  Or can you find a compromise between the two like I did?  There is the rejection price: lots of hard work, often for years, with very little recognition or reward beyond that of the creation itself.  There is the voice of public opinion, wondering at the value of what you do, telling you that you’re wasting your time, confused as to why it’s taking you so long to become “famous”.  There is the pedestal-pit price of everyone either telling you how what you do is impossible (“I could never sing”) or how what you do is so simple (“I’ve always thought I could write a book”), to the point that it becomes hard to explain that art is rarely either impossible or simple, consisting mostly of a lot of hard work.

American artists complain about all these prices a lot, and that’s fine.  We’re letting off steam so we can go back and focus on our work.  Or we’re commiserating with one another.  Or we’re educating the public and trying to change the necessary prices.  But overall, I think we’re lucky.  I can write a book including controversial interpretations of American history or compose an opera on the evils of capitalism, and I won’t be thrown in jail.   I can believe what I want and talk about it ad nauseam on my publicly accessible blog.

Sure, the price can still become quite a hardship sometimes.  But we all have a choice about what priorities we’ll set, and we can even change our minds later on if it’s not working out the way we hoped.  I’ll choose the life of that violinist wandering around in the dark every time.  The confusion in the dark makes the art even more valuable in my eyes.

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