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Earlier today a student came to my office for a conference, and I keep trying to figure out what I could have said instead of what I did say.

We bantered for a bit about literary magazines and publishing in general, and then he got to the point: “I guess I really just want to know if my writing is any good.”

And suddenly we were having “the talk.” Not the birds and the bees, but just as awkward. I would have preferred him to ask about that. All aspiring writers want to know whether they are talented and have what it takes, and some of them are bold enough to ask their teachers. I never was.

As I always do when I am asked questions along these lines, I stuttered and stammered through an explanation of why I did not, in fact, want to tell him whether his writing was good.

“I don’t want that kind of power,” I said, invoking a weird image of me tapping a sword on his shoulders, as if proclaiming his knighthood. (But I called the sword a magic wand, mixing my metaphors and confusing things further.)

“Nor is this the only question to be asking,” I added, citing the importance of things like artistic vision, persistence, determination, desire, inner strength, 500 pounds and a room of one’s own.

But then, feeling like I’d de-emphasized the importance of good writing, I blurted out, “But good writing is important too!”

We sat in an awkward silence while his original question hung in the air.

——

This semester while I am teaching writing, I am also taking art classes. I took an 8-week figure drawing class at the South Bend art museum, and a couple weeks ago I took a week-long mixed-media workshop in Mexico City over spring break (which I have lots to blog and post about!). So all semester I have also been a student of something I really really want to do well.

When the instructors would come around and look at our works-in-progress, I would feel myself get nervous, and if they praised me, I would leap with joy (you know: inwardly).

I'd never used pastels before. My teacher told me these sketches reminded her of Giacometti's drawings. I took that as a major compliment because I love his sculptures. But when I looked up his drawings, I saw that they are mostly scribbles.

My teacher told me these sketches reminded her of Giacometti’s drawings, and I took that as a major compliment because I love his sculptures, but I’m not sure that’s how she meant it. When I looked up his drawings, I saw that they are mostly scribbles!

 

In other words, I want and need external validation as much as my students. I would love to ask an art teacher, “Hey, I know I’m like 20 years late to the game, but are my drawings any good?” But I guess I know that the answer would matter and not matter. That it’s up to me. That it’s a process – the learning of the craft, the shaping a vision, the commitment to a certain type of life.

Plus I’m of the ilk that thinks: go figure it out for yourself. If you want to do it, do it. Don’t wait around for permission.

Thus, I didn’t tell the student that his writing is good (even though it is, yes). I did ask what he thinks of his writing (he thinks it’s good). I tried to tell him that there are other questions to ask. I didn’t think to tell him I’ve had dozens of students who are excellent writers doing everything from finishing up MFA programs to quitting school to raise kids. I did tell him to email me in 5 or 10 years and let me know what he was doing.

——

I started my “How to Become a Writer” interview series because I was surprised to see how much my own idea of “becoming a writer” had been shaped by wrong and romanticized ideas based on black-and-white photos of writers smoking.

It was only after I’d been writing for a decade that I realized how much of it was about the things I’d been doing all along: writing, revising, going to conferences, meeting people, meeting deadlines, writing reviews and blurbs, reading literary journals, figuring out how and where and when to submit, writing more, revising more, reading my fellow-writers’ work, etc. Occasionally I attended a party where someone smoked a cigarette.

So, maybe I should have directed my student to my super long list of interviews with writers who advise aspiring writers to persist, keep going, believe in yourself, and don’t stop believing.

But maybe I should have just said, “Yes, yes, your writing is good.”

Because man it’s nice when a teacher tells you you’re doing something well.

 

Frida and Fallingwater

July 23, 2014 — 1 Comment
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Frida Kahlo, of course. Taken at her studio.

 

Frida Kahlo visited Fallingwater in the late 1930s after Edgar and Liliane Kaufmann purchased two of her paintings at the Julian Levy Gallery. The story goes that Frida was accompanied by Julian Levy and that he and Edgar Kaufmann competed for her affections that night. (And that Levy won.)

In my book, Liliane’s Balcony (which – can I mention? – has received a couple awards since I last blogged), I invoke bits of this story and imagine that it is Liliane Kaufmann who is so drawn to Frida’s dark imagery of open wounds and painful births. These are the two Kahlo paintings the Kaufmanns purchased:

“Recuerdo de la Herida Abierta” (“Remembrance of an Open Wound”) combines Frida’s ongoing physical pain with the emotional pain of Diego’s infidelities:

“Mi Nacimiento” (“My Birth”) is a graphic image created in the wake of one of Frida’s several miscarriages as well as the death of her mother. The painting is currently owned by Madonna, who bought it from Edgar Kaufmann jr. She told Vanity Fair in 1990: “If somebody doesn’t like this painting, then I know they can’t be my friend.”

There are several works by Diego Rivera at Fallingwater, but I’m not nearly as excited about those.

Anyway, earlier this month I was in Mexico City where I was geeking out on all things Frida Kahlo and Leonora Carrington. I got to go to Frida’s home/studio/museum, and there on the wall was a picture of Fallingwater!

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(It’s the one in the middle.)

More images from her studio to come. It was freaking amazing.

 

ACT Banner draft 2 final

This is one stop on Zarina’s virtual book tour.
Keep up with the rest of the tour here!

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I have a tattoo on my wrist: You must become who you are. It is a quote from Nietzsche.

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Zarina Zabrisky is the author of two short story collections IRON and A CUTE TOMBSTONE (Epic Rites Press) and a novel WE, MONSTERS (Numina Press). Zabrisky’s work appeared in over thirty literary magazines and anthologies in the US, UK, Canada, Ireland, Hong Kong and Nepal. She is a three-time Pushcart Prize nominee and a recipient of 2013 Acker Award. Read more about the author at zarinazabrisky.com. You can purchase A CUTE TOMBSTONE here.

IronRead more by and about Zarina:

Story: “The Twilight of Liberty

Video: Zarina reading “Pig Legs.”

Short Story Collection: Iron

Novel: We, Monsters

Interview:The Nervous Breakdown

How Zarina Zabrisky Became a Writer

This is the next installment in the How to Become a Writer interview series, which will post here at Ph.D. in Creative Writing every other Sunday (or so) until I run out of writers to interview, or until they stop saying yes. Each writer answers the same 5 questions. Thanks to Zarina for saying yes!

1.  Why did you want to become a writer?

I wrote my first poem at six.  My first novel at eleven. There was no “why.” But if I have to rationalize, I would love to quote Josef Brodsky: “I’ll just say that I believe – not empirically, alas, but only theoretically – that, for someone who has read a lot of Dickens, to shoot his like in the name of some idea is more problematic than for someone who has read no Dickens.” So, I figure, if I write anything anywhere close to Dickens… at least, I can try.

2.  How did you go about becoming a writer?

It is not becoming a writer for me. It is being a writer.
I was in Queretaro at a writing workshop last summer. I wrote a poem there:

There is a knitting shop
On the corner
And three old women are knitting,
Needles dancing.
Their faces are still, bronze,
Their eyes fixed on the wall,
Not on the knitting.
Their fingers know
How to weave.
Their hands remember everything.
Their patterns come from their hearts
Or, maybe, from the spirits that live on that big invisible mountain.

They don’t knit,
They became the knitting.
Same for me:
I don’t write–
I became the writing,
And my fingers dance blindly
Across the page.

As for becoming oneself, I am still working on it… I have a tattoo on my wrist: You must become who you are. It is a quote from Nietzsche.

We Monsters

3.  Who helped you along the way, and how?

My father liked my writing before he passed away. He didn’t do or say anything that stuck in my memory but I remember his face softening and the expression of pride or happiness in his usually sad or withdrawn eyes. Then I became a closet writer and no one had an opportunity to help me–they did not know I needed help.  I didn’t know that myself.

I found a whole new dimension of helping each other in the creative process through literary collaboration with my writing and life partner, Simon Rogghe.  Through listening to each other, and hearing, we write and discover. Being heard is the most important–and almost impossible–type of help that a writer can use, I think.  Together, we have gone on many adventures: performing our poetry to music and even dancing it and taking it around the country–from Pittsburgh and Cleveland to Seattle and Portland; writing poetry duets on an imaginary journey in Mexico and creating visual concepts for it.  This went so well that the book of collaborative poetry is forthcoming from amazing Numina Press, in November 2014.  The book is called Green Lions and in it I will debut with my illustrations–the visual concepts found together with Simon.

I was also very lucky to have my publishers, Epic Rites Press (Canada), Numina Press (SF) and Nostrovia Press (mobile and everywhere) work with me and support my books.  The independent publishers are passionate, powerful and insanely talented people, of a rare kind.

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Vaslav Nijinsky

4.  Can you tell me about a writer or artist whose biography inspires you?

So many… From Salinger who managed to run away from it all to just write, to Vaslav Nijinsky, a legendary ballet dance, whose diary was the book that impressed me the most, perhaps. Nijinsky is the dancer who became the dance.  The diary was written in Switzerland in a short spurt, and in a matter of weeks schizophrenia won over one of the most unusual and creative minds of the last century.  But before he sank into decades of mental non-being, Nijinsky pulled up the curtain of the theater which only can be called Universe.  There is no bullshit in that book.  He even says that it should be read the way he wrote it: in his rushed cursive, in French and Russian. I did that: went to the NYC Performing Arts Library and ordered the microflims.  Read them in the dark room for hours…  Also, Jim Morrison.  William Blake.  I am inspired by people who stayed true to their core and vision despite of any circumstances.

5.  What would you say in a short letter to an aspiring writer?

“You must become who you are.” Also, write and read. In particular, read Ezra Pound’s ABC of Reading. The only good book on writing I have found.  The book cuts into the bone marrow of language, brain work and the intangible realm called poetry. No frills and no politically correct New Agey nonsense. He can be blunt and rude, but if you read his ABC you might end up with better writing.

I think my biggest epiphany about writing was fairly recent: it happened when I remembered how much fun writing was when I was a child.

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Theresa Williams is a University Lecturer and author of The Secret of Hurricanes (MacAdam/Cage 2002). Her short stories have appeared in The Sun, Hunger Mountain, and other magazines, and poems in a number of magazines, including Gargoyle, DMQ Review, Paterson Literary Review, Lilliput Review, Barnwood International Poetry Magazine, Apple Valley Review. Her chapbook, The Galaxy to Ourselves, was published in 2012. She is the creator of The Letter Project, an online repository for actual letters–written and sent.

Featured at Talking Writing: This interview is part of a partnership with Talking Writing magazine. The How to Become a Writer Series here at PhD in Creative Writing now includes interviews with Talking Writing’s featured writers.

4142JPXV0ZL._AA160_Read more by and about Theresa:

Essay at Talking Writing: I Hear the Woods Beating

Novel: The Secret of Hurricanes

Chapbook: The Galaxy to Ourselves

How Theresa Williams Became a Writer
This is the next installment in the How to Become a Writer interview series, which will post here at Ph.D. in Creative Writing every other Sunday (or so) until I run out of writers to interview, or until they stop saying yes. Each writer answers the same 5 questions. Thanks to Theresa for saying yes!

1. Why did you want to become a writer?

I always knew I wanted to be an artist, but the desire to be a writer evolved much more slowly. The first step was when I took my first fiction workshop at East Carolina University. I took it on a lark. That’s what started my adult writing life. But I think my biggest epiphany about writing was fairly recent: it happened when I remembered how much fun writing was when I was a child. I used to make newsletters to entertain my friends. I’m back to that concept now: writing for fun. It’s glorious!

278Williams T cov2. How did you go about becoming a writer?


University classes got me started. But it was hard to maintain the writing life after graduation. After I finished the MFA, I didn’t write for five years. When I started writing again, it was like starting all over. It took a lot of soul searching. I had to force myself to go into my writing room and slave away. It was like digging holes in hard dirt. Now my writing life isn’t separate from the rest of my life, and, as I said earlier, I’m having fun.

3. Who helped you along the way, and how?

Without a doubt, the editors who published my early work. They gave me hope, and without hope, all is pretty much lost. I still credit editors of magazines, big and small, with keeping writing alive, not just for me, but for many people.


4. Can you tell me about a writer or artist whose biography inspires you?

I’m inspired by writers and artists who overcame great obstacles to keep writing and making art. I look to writers like James Wright and Theodore Roethke who had mental conditions that affected their ability to write. James Wright wrote a lot of tortured poetry, but he also wrote things like:

Each moment of time is a mountain.
An eagle rejoices in the oak trees of heaven,
Crying
This is what I wanted.

5. What would you say in a short letter to an aspiring writer?

Actually, I write lots of letters to aspiring writers. I believe in letters and encourage people to write letters. In my letters, I remind aspiring writers to read a lot and to write a lot. I remind them that they are unique and have things to say. I tell them that if they write with honesty, people will want to read what they write.

I also try to answer their questions about writing honestly and to give them the sense they have truly been “heard.” Despite all the connections we make on social media, I think a lot of people suffer from the condition of not being heard, so they learn to hide their innermost desires as a form of self-protection. It’s like putting their diamonds in a lock box where they will be safe. The problem with a lock box is that the beauty isn’t accessible. Eventually, one even forgets it’s there. The diamonds are our imagination, our art, our spirit–what keeps us truly alive.

Joseph Cornell, Taglioni’s Jewel Casket (Image from MOMA)

The Bohemian Bone Church

February 2, 2013 — 7 Comments

This week’s WordPress Weekly Photo Challenge is UNIQUE, and what is more unique than a church decorated with the bones of 40,000-70,000 people? (Actually, lots of other bloggers have some equally unique photos, so you should check them out.)

My version of unique is the Sedlec Ossuary, aka The Bone Church, which happens to have been my destination when I spotted the young Czech lovers from last week’s photo challenge (Love at 16:28).

The story goes that in the 13th century, the abbot of the church went to the Holy Land and brought back some Holy Soil that he sprinkled in the church cemetery. Suddenly, everyone was dying to be buried there! A century later, the Black Death was invented so that lots of people could die all at once. When people still continued to live, the Hussite Wars came along to try to finish the job. The little cemetery got too filled up, so a half-blind monk was assigned the task of unburying people. (Thanks, Wikipedia!)

But what to do with stacks of unburied people? Turn them into chandeliers and shields, of course!

Once again it’s time for the Weekly Photo Challenge. This week’s theme: GREEN.  Since my photography is not really meant to speak for itself, here’s a Gallery of Green Art with a quiz. See if you can match the artist and/or relevant information to each of the images.

1. Van Gogh close-up at Chicago Art Institute
2. Some dude in flip-flops (at the John Lennon wall in Prague)
3. Monet close-up at Chicago Art Institute
4. NOT Monet (but could have inspired him). Taken in Czech Republic.
5. British people, who think anything can be made pretty and weird, even cannons!
6. Hans Christian Andersen (and me!). Technically he’s the subject, not the artist. Copenhagen
7. Me imitating Alfred Henry Maurer
8. Collaboration between Frank Stella and Santiago Calatrava hanging in building designed by Mies van der Rohe (yes!)
9. Unknown Art Nouveau artist, but maybe Alphonse Mucha, since it’s at an absinthe bar in Prague.
10. Frank Lloyd Wright
11. John Cage (okay, well, my winnings at a John Cage exhibit at DOX museum in Prague)

(If you REALLY need the answers, post a comment in which you beg for them. Be convincing.)

How Jac Jemc Became a Writer

November 11, 2012 — 3 Comments

I love to read, and so I want to write things that I would like to read. It’s the only thing more rewarding than reading for me.

Jac Jemc lives in Chicago where she makes monsters and writes fiction and poetry. Her first novel, My Only Wife, was published by Dzanc Books in April 2012 and a chapbook of stories, This Stranger She’d Invited In, sold out at Greying Ghost Press in March 2011 .  Jac’s writing has been twice nominated for a Pushcart Prize, finished 2nd place in the Marginalia College Contest and placed as a finalist for the Rose Metal Press Chapbook Contest and Sentence Firewheel Chapbook Contest.  Her story “Women in Wells” was featured in the 2010 Best of the Web. Jac received her MFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and has completed residencies at Ragdale and the Vermont Studio Center. She is poetry editor at decomP and member of the editorial team at Tarpaulin Sky. She has served as a guest editor of Little White Poetry Journal  and and Hobart Web, and worked as a reader at Our Stories and The Means. In 2012 she was the recipient of an Illinois Arts Council Professional Development Grant.

Visit her web site: http://jacjemc.com

Read more by and about Jac:

Novel: My Only Wife

Novel excerpt: My Wife, the Weight at Melusine

Story: The Grifted at Collagist

Story: Prowlers at Necessary Fiction

How Jac Jemc Became a Writer

This is the next installment in the How to Become a Writer interview series, which will post here at Ph.D. in Creative Writing every other Sunday (or so) until I run out of writers to interview, or until they stop saying yes. Each writer answers the same 5 questions. Thanks to Jac for saying yes!

1.  Why did you want to become a writer?

When I was in the third grade, I told my teacher my dream was to write a 100-page book. Then I forgot about that for a while, and tried some other things: music and acting, but I continued being a big reader. When I was in college I started writing again more seriously, and I realized how important it was to me, and that I could accomplish what I wanted to express in a way I hadn’t been able to achieve before. The more I read, the more ways of telling a story there seemed to be, and that made writing more and more attractive to me. I was finishing out a degree in theater, but I discovered that I really preferred working alone.  I think I might not be a terrific collaborator because I tend to want to follow through my own idea from beginning to end, and theater had a few too many variables for me. I think the short answer though, is that I love to read, and so I want to write things that I would like to read. It’s the only thing more rewarding than reading for me.

2.  How did you go about becoming a writer?

So all of the things I just said go into the actual steps to ‘becoming a writer.’ But I started a double major in English Creative Writing and worked with some terrifically supportive professors in undergrad. I made a couple independent studies in novel writing and playwriting (which I realized was not for me) that seemed super important to my development. The novel writing independent study was with a poetry teacher, so I was already on the road to hybrids. When I started looking at grad schools, the School of the Art Institute of Chicago seemed ideal because they’re one of the only schools that doesn’t make you choose a concentration. You can take a poetry class and it might be full of painters who want to talk language and you can take a fiction class that’s full of poets, and the world just opens up. Luckily (haha) it was the only school that I was accepted to, so I wasn’t given the chance to mess up that decision. At SAIC, students have the option to meet weekly with advisors, which I found to be the most valuable part of that program.  I started by setting goals for how many hours a week I want to write. I try to stick to a schedule – if not a regular time every day to write, a certain number of hours a week. Of course, life intervenes and messes with the schedule often, but setting that expectation and working for it is what makes me feel like I can call myself a writer. As soon as I stop making that time a priority is when I’m in jeopardy of “writer” not being a word that applies to me.

3.  Who helped you along the way, and how?

Those advisors in grad school were huge helps. They taught me how to ask the right questions, and the right question is usually, “Is this what I want it to be? How do I make it what I want it to be?”  Advisors that were invaluable to me were Beth Nugent, Janet Desaulniers, Carol Anshaw, Ellen Rothenberg, Bin Ramke. I could go on; the whole community was just life-changing. My peers are my biggest motivator now. I’m surrounded by people that write AMAZING work that is exactly what I want to read. I see how hard they work and how true they are to themselves, and I makes me want to work harder.

by Edward Gorey

4.  Can you tell me about a writer or artist whose biography inspires you?

Edward Gorey comes to mind. What an entirely singular vision. He made what he wanted to make even though there was no category for it, and he lived his life in a way that seemed just wholly true to himself, too.  And he LOVED to work! That is so exciting to me.

Eileen Myles, too. Her novel, Inferno is about her life, and she is such an inspiration. She was so fearlessly herself. Patti Smith, too. Lynda Barry. Andy Warhol. All of these people have a way of weaving their work so seamlessly into their lives. That sounds like the perfect world to me, to erase that divide between my creative life and the work it takes to live and keep going.

Book trailer for Eileen Myles, Inferno:

5.  What would you say in a short letter to an aspiring writer?

I’d say: Read. Write exactly what you want to write, even if it seems like a piece of crap while writing it. Learn how to listen to criticism in a way that allows the writing to become better, but learn how to recognize the suggestions you do and don’t want to follow through with. See lots of art and watch movies and be with people and live your whole life. It’s easy to feel like you need to accomplish everything immediately, but you need to live, too.  There is time. So much time. You can be Woody Allen and put out a movie every year, whether it’s good or bad, or you can be Terrence Malick, making a film a decade: whatever works for you. Read and write.