Last week I got to teach a 3-day Sprint Workshop on hybrid genres and literary collage to students in Miami University’s (OHIO!) MFA program. On the first day I said, “Here’s some paper, a bone folder, an awl, and some string. Make a mini-book!”

On the second day, they wrote poems and postcards, they cut and pasted:

That night, I put my game face on and gave a reading from The Bitter Life of Božena Němcová.

On the third day, they typed on a typewriter, arranged an accordion, glued pictures of corpses and houses and ice sculptures, and made pockets and postcards and silhouettes. They finished their books as I channeled Tim Gunn and counted down the final minutes saying, “Make it work, designers, make it work!”

That night we shared and celebrated:

Thanks so much to Jody Bates, Margaret Luongo, Cathy Wagner, and especially the MFA students for an awesome week!

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I guess it’s no surprise that I would resort to writing metaphors for the state of my life and house, but here it is. In the last few years I have undertaken a major revision of my life. I got a divorce, fell in love, moved in with my beloved, and, in my creative life, wrote a different kind of book (my first with personal nonfiction also the first with visual art). During that time, another major change: my daughter went away to college, and now she’s about to study abroad in Italy for a semester. All these revisions led to a lot of chaos and accumulation of material, and now it’s time to edit: to pare down, to get rid of extraneous material, and to make my life, as the editor of my first book advised, “lean and mean.”

Each year I come up with a word, phrase, or guiding principle that becomes a focal point for my intentions. This year it was ORDER. So it should be no surprise that six months into my year of ORDER, I am reading about The Joy of Less, The More of Less, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, How to Live More with Less, and Breathing Room, and am seriously following the advice.

My faves are The Joy of Less and the Tidying Up book because, while all of the books address the psychology behind our clutter, these two give you rational permission to let go. They acknowledge, for example, that we keep some things for aspirational reasons (someday I’ll write that book and need this source; someday I’ll be thin enough for this outfit; someday I’ll learn to play that guitar), and that it’s OKAY to let go of those aspirations and thus those things. It will even be freeing, psychologically and spatially. If you DO someday take guitar lessons, you can get a different guitar.

(My 20-year-old daughter, for example, wants me to keep a completely pointless pretzel maker because SOMEDAY when she has her own apartment, she wants to have people over and make them pretzels. This is a very clear vision in her head.)

These books also address objects we keep for sentimental reasons. Like that box of cutlery my boyfriend has been lugging around and will never use? Francine Jay in The Joy of Less puts it this way: “The most important thing to remember is that these items were simply things they owned–just like the things you own. Do you feel that you’re embodied in your dinner plates?” And she follows by saying “Your memories are infinitely more precious than any ‘things’ they leave behind.”

This advice is especially freeing for me because, while J. doesn’t even know whose cutlery he owns, I have very treasured memories of my grandparents, and a number of objects associated with them–but not all of those objects pass the “spark of joy” test. (In the Life-Changing Magic of Tidying-Up, readers are instructed to hold an object in your hands. If you feel a spark of joy, keep it; if you don’t, don’t.)

Francine Jay uses the metaphor of a curator: you are not deciding what to get rid of (in the museum of your house), you are deciding what to include, what to keep, what to feature in your life. Marie Kondo suggests going through your photos, choosing a limited number to keep (she gives some criteria in her example), and putting them in an album where they can be viewed and enjoyed. It’s editing: selecting the best and getting rid of the rest.

I especially appreciate Jay’s approach in The Joy of Less. First, she addresses furniture (and our American preclusion to oversized furniture and multi-piece sets), and she reminds us to think of the floor as an important part of our space. Don’t cover it up with so much furniture. Second, she encourages readers to rethink the use of rooms and furniture: when she lived abroad, she and her husband didn’t have a TV or couch because they went out a lot and didn’t use it. In their bedroom, they have a mattress on the floor, eliminating the need for end tables! She is not recommending these approaches to readers, but she wants readers to use their actual lived lives as the guiding principle for choosing furniture and using space. Finally, she offers an (albeit gentle) critique of capitalism, reminding us to think of how we are manipulated by ads in our consumer culture (you’ll be happy if you buy this) and of the three components of a product’s life: production, distribution, and disposal–and to consider the financial and environmental costs behind the goods we over-consume. She also reminds us to consider the labor: “who made it and under what conditions.”

In terms of method, Jay suggests going room by room; Marie Kondo insists that you declutter by theme: first clothing, then books, etc. (because you may have these items in multiple rooms and they need to be decided together). I’ve been doing a combo. Both insist that you have to empty out everything and/or put all the objects together.

So yesterday I emptied a bookshelf that was overrun with dozens of CDs mostly from the 1990s, a stack of those awesome Time Life books on topics like evolution and the body that I bought at Goodwill 15 years ago and just returned to Goodwill, a couple of gifts that I didn’t know what else to do with, old photos in tired frames, and a weird family heirloom from Slovakia.

And I started in on some of books. These are just the ones in my bedroom!

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I’ll keep a lot of them (many are by my friends!), but over the years I have bought a lot of books I *don’t* need and don’t want. Or that I loved so much I bought them twice!

It feels good, this Life Edit. It gets me thinking of all the ways we create: we accumulate drafts and material, we move it around, look at in different positions and angles, we start new files on our computer, forget about old drafts, dig them up again, we get too busy to write, we come back to it and revise and figure out what the hell the story is, and then, at last, with new focus, we cut, we prune, we make a piece of art.

 

 

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All signs point to SAW

First, to get this out of the way: I don’t like comics. Or at least I didn’t think I did. I definitely don’t like the cartoony aesthetic or formulaic narratives that I thought defined comics.

Then again: when I was a kid I loved the Sunday comics. I had a page-a-day Far Side calendar that never ceased to amuse me. In high school, after a particularly traumatic loss to the cross-town rival soccer team (I was the goalie and took it hard when I got scored upon), I stayed up drawing copies of comic characters late into the night: Charlie Brown, Garfield, Calvin, Hobbes.

Fast-forward a few decades, and this summer I was awarded a grant to work on a graphic narrative. How did I get here?

There are probably all sorts of grad-school, elitist, even gendered reasons why I decided I wouldn’t like graphic narratives, but I’m in the midst of discovering a form that has both been here along and that is also coming into its own, and it’s pretty exciting. I would say my gateway artist was Maira Kalman, an illustrator with a quirky style and a witty, beautiful voice that emerges in the short commentaries she pairs with her images. Here are a couple pages from her awesome Principles of Uncertainty:

Her work inspired me to create short graphic narratives from painted pages in my journal, and in my book, The Bitter Life of Božena Němcová, I created art and images to pair with the text.

More recently I discovered Poetry Comics, especially the strange and wonderful work of Bianca Stone:

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Then I came across the dreamy work of Aiden Koch:

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And it was as I tried to find out more about her work that I first found the Sequential Artists Workshop, known as SAW, where she had recently given a workshop. SAW was conceived, created, and is now fearlessly led by the amazing Tom Hart (author of Rosalie Lightning, which I’ll discuss in my next post). SAW is a small, unassuming space with a fully stocked library and terrific artistic energy. In the video below, Tom (on the left) calls it “bare bones” and a “work in progress,” but that’s exactly what makes it such an exciting and inspiring space. You can get a great sense of it in just the first few minutes of this online open house (which is good because you can get seasick from the live cam!):

SAW has a year-long workshop, but once or twice a year they do a low-res, week-long workshop, which is what I did in May of this year. I had never been to Gainesville, and I sort of fell in love with it. All the UF students were gone, and the town had great restaurants and outdoor seating, all within walking distance of SAW. There were just a handful of students in the workshop, so it was intimate and focused. There are three main faculty that teach, and each of them took a day or part of day for artist talks and instruction:

  • Tom Hart gave an engrossing thematic overview of his work over the years and led us in some exercises including a scavenger hunt of images and texts from his library that we copy-and-pasted into our own mini-comic books.
  • Justine Andersen gave us some real-talk about the life of an artist, shared her amazing portfolio, and gave instruction in inking (how to hold a brush, how to use the ink, how to make lines, even how to clean brushes).
  • Jess Ruliffson shared her comic journalism projects and gave a lesson in working with gouache.

There was also time to work on our own projects, and I managed to finish the art on something I’d been thinking about and had roughly drafted: a story about an aquarium fish I had that would not die and that lived through several of my major life changes.

Since I’ve been home, I’ve been delving deeper by enrolling in a couple of SAW’s online workshops: Comics for Writers, Nonfiction Comics, Creating Your Graphic Memoir, etc. The online classes are organized well and offer short videos that walk you through excellent examples of whatever is being taught in each lesson. Every time I watch a video lesson, I add new books to my reading list.

Because the cost of the low-res workshop was so reasonable (<$400 for the week), we could afford to rent a great AirBnB house and were surrounded by Spanish Moss and a lake full of gators.

Thanks for reading. My next posts will be about the graphic memoirs I’m reading (and loving) and, if I’m feeling brave, about the graphic memoir I’m trying to create from scratch this summer.

It’s been a busy and inspiring coupla months. Here’s a little recap of things I saw and did, starting with the AWP Writers’ Conference in Washington, DC, where I was on a couple of panels, did a reading, and got to sign some books at the Rose Metal Press table. Those are my books on the left side of the sign:

My colleague and friend, David Dodd Lee had a book release and art show at Lang Lab. Here he his reading from his latest Ashbury erasure book, surrounded by his fans and collages:

I was thrilled to have my visual essay, “Empty Nest/Emptiness,” published (in full color!!!) in the latest issue of Passages North. It’s 14 pages, something I made when my daughter left for college:

Speaking of my daughter, I got to see Mamma Mia in Bloomington, IN with her and her bestie for her birthday. The next morning I saw the whole cast and crew in the lobby of my hotel!

Colson Freaking Whitehead came to my campus, Indiana University South Bend, and I got to sit in the almost front row. Here he is talking to Darryl Heller of the Civil Rights Heritage Center:

I invited the comic artists Marnie Galloway and Scott Roberts to visit IU South Bend, and the room was full for their artist talks:

Then the poet Steve Henn came to talk to my classes about his new book by Wolfson Press: Indiana Noble Sad Man of the Year. Here he is showing off his “tour” T-shirt:

Another visual/collage essay published in Quarterly West!

I already blogged about being the guest author at Butler University’s Litfest and doing a workshop for the Indiana Writers Center, which was an honor and a blast.

And over the weekend, Wordman and I headed to Chicago and saw Lambchop at Lincoln Hall:

Then I got to read at Sunday Salon Series with amazing fellow readers and a fabulous crowd. Here’s Howard Axelrod reading:

Got some partial views of the Navy Pier Ferris wheel from the hotel window:

And made it to the Bean for the first time, and took the requisite selfie:

 

Thanks to Bryan Furuness, Chelsea Yedinak, Barbara Shoup & the Indiana Writers Center, and all the other folks who hosted me at Butler University’s Litfest over the last couple days. I got to play some trivia, hear students read terrific poems and stories, give a reading, judge some manuscripts, eat pastrami and Mexican food (at different times), and teach a workshop on Writing the Novella/Memoir-in-Flash. Much of it took place in Jordan Hall, the 1923 building pictured on the left. (When you walk in, you automatically feel smarter, seriouser.)

And now I get a little rest before spring break ends and I become the hostess. This week, two awesome comic artists are visiting at Indiana University South Bend: Marnie Galloway and Scott Roberts. My students have been studying their amazing work, and they are going to meet with my class Thursday and give a public artist talk afterward. If you’re in South Bend, please join us. (Free pizza!)

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The AWP gods are against me. Last year none of my panels was accepted; this year all three were accepted so I had to drop one. And the two panels I’m on are in the first and last slots of the conference!

In between panels, I’ll be at the Rose Metal Press table (#629) to sign and hopefully sell a few copies of The Bitter Life of Božena Němcová. Because the second half of the book is my memoir-in-postcards, the first 20 people to buy a copy of the book will get their choice of a Prague-themed postcard hand-painted by me. They are made on watercolor postcard paper and have all the postcard markings on the reverse to be sent in the mail.

If you’ve ever been to Prague, you have seen these posters around town:

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And here is the Golem as seen on a Prague sidewalk, a hearty glass of pivo, and Kafka’s head based on a new statue in Prague:

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And here is Kafka’s tiny house at No. 22 Golden Lane on the grounds of the Prague Castle:

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I still have a few more to make this weekend. What should I paint? Accepting ideas in the comments!

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– Here are my events –
Hope to see you! Say hello!

Feb. 8-11, 2017 – AWP in Washington, DC
Thurs. Feb 9, 2017 at 9:00-10:15am
PANEL: “The Long from the Short: Turning Flash Pieces into a Novel, Novella, or Memoir”
Abigail Beckel, Lex Williford, Kelcey Parker Ervick,  Tyrese Coleman, Tara Laskowski
[Rm 206, Washington Convention Ctr, Level Two]

Thurs. Feb 9, 2017 at 10:30-11:30am

Table 629: BOOK SIGNING AT ROSE METAL PRESS TABLE with Lex Williford

Fri., Feb 10, 2017 at 12:00-12:30

Table 629: BOOK SIGNING AT ROSE METAL PRESS TABLE

Fri. Feb 10, 2017 at 6:30-9:30pm

OFF-SITE READING with authors from Rose Metal, Cupboard, and Soho Press

at BABY WALE DC

1124 9th St. NW

Sat. Feb. 11, 2017 at 4:30-5:45pm

PANEL: “Attempting the Impossible: Strategies for Writing Creative Biography”
Kathleen Rooney, Sarah Domet, Anthony Michael Morena, Kelcey Parker Ervick, Sarah Blake

[Rm 101, Washington Convention Ctr, Level One]

“Be regular and orderly in your life,
so that you may be violent and original in your work.”

-Gustave Flaubert

It’s Friday the 13th! This year is almost two weeks old, and I am at last prepared to announce my New Year’s Non-Resolution. Instead of resolutions–which I resolve to do one day but forget to do the next–I come up with an idea, theme, or guiding principle. A word or phrase that sets the tone for the year. I’ve blamed everything in the last two months on the fact that I came down with Mononucleosis immediately after my last post in November about my book launch, and I am tempted to blame it on this untimely announcement. But the fact is, I tried out several ideas for 2017 and none of them felt right.

Until now!

Since I have already waited almost two weeks, I’ll just out with it. My theme for 2017 is Order.

Order is not a very sexy theme; perhaps it’s the least sexy theme ever. But look at the quote by Flaubert at the top of this post. Order may not be sexy, but making violent and original work/art/writing is.

Backstory: A week ago, I thought my theme would be “meander.” I was feeling stressed by my constant desire to getthingsdone compounded by my procrastination, so I liked the idea of letting myself meander about, slow down the pace. I even painted a river with lots of meanders (from a photo of one in California).

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But it didn’t settle right. Then I hit on “Wabi Sabi,” a phrase I think I could say multiple times a day and feel delighted, and which means, basically, “nothing is permanent, nothing is finished, nothing is perfect.” I love this so much, and I tried it out this week, but the problem with both Wabi Sabi and meander is that they both already speak to my aesthetic, so I felt they weren’t really pushing me in a new direction.

I needed a word that I don’t already sort of do. 2016 my phrase was “Own It” because I had a book coming out, and I have a tendency to apologize for things. (“I’m so sorry I wrote a weird book.”)

I’m a pretty productive and reliable person. I get a lot done in writing and teaching. But it ain’t pretty; in fact it can be pretty chaotic. And it often takes its toll on me in terms of stress. What I need is ORDER.

Each day of 2017 I want to take small steps each day toward ORDER in my life. And I want to be WILD in my art.

(What are your resolutions and non-resolutions, dear reader?)