Inspiration : "Steal Like an Artist."

This week was sort of lack-luster, in case you couldn't tell from my last post. I'm not one to let the weather get to me often, but the incessant rain left my spirit sodden with... ennui.

Yet, hope springs new when you need it. My friend Kate shared a link with me on Facebook the other day, and it was a fresh well of inspiration:

Austin Kleon, author of Newspaper Blackout shared some intriguing and true insight for artists in his recent post "How to Steal Like an Artist (And 9 Other Things Nobody Told Me)." One thing that really stuck out to me in his post was this thought:  

"An artist is a collector. Not a hoarder, mind you, there’s a difference: hoarders collect indiscriminately, the artist collects selectively. They only collect things that they really love. There’s an economic theory out there that if you take the incomes of your five closest friends and average them, the resulting number will be pretty close to your own income. I think the same thing is true of our idea incomes. You’re only going to be as good as the stuff you surround yourself with [...] 
Identify one writer you really love. Find everything they’ve ever written. Then find out what they read. And read all of that. Climb up your own family tree of writers. Steal things and save them for later. Carry around a sketchpad. Write in your books. Tear things out of magazines and collage them in your scrapbook. Steal like an artist."

I remember when I took the class that convinced me that writing was the only thing I could do. I was a senior in high school taking Mr. Zonyk's Advanced Composition class. I was introverted, quiet, and starved for answers to big life questions: Where should I go to college? What should I study? Who do I want to be? (Clearly, not much has changed.) Zonyk, who I am convinced was Sean Connery's inspiration for Finding Forrester, gave us an assignment that I will never forget. He gave us passages of classic literature and ask us to replicate the sentence structure using our own words and subjects. In a sense, we were mimicking the writers. Yet, Zonyk was not encouraging us to rip them off, he was teaching us: 

We were learning how to uncover the secrets of good writing by examining sentence structure, vocabulary, and voice. After taking that class, I was a ruined reader - in a good way. Every time I read a book and fall in love with it, I find myself compulsively re-reading it to find and understand patterns and structure that distinguish the author. And I was a ruined writer - also in a good way. My new questions: 
How can I write about this or that experience? How can I write it better? I needed only to read, read and read some more to find the answers. 

So, thank you Kate, and thank you Austin Kleon, for reminding me that when we feel starved and empty of inspiration, or rain-sodden and depressed, we must continue to soak up the good things that will spur us toward new and better work. 

Keep going, friends. 


Shel Silverstein tells it like it is...

I opened my eyes
And looked up at the rain,
And it dripped in my head
And flowed into my brain,
And all that I hear as I lie in my bed
Is the slishity-slosh of the rain in my head.

I step very softly,
I walk very slow,
I can't do a handstand--
I might overflow,
So pardon the wild crazy thing I just said--
I'm just not the same since there's rain in my head.

Can I go on vacation now?


Poem : Easter Sunday

Easter Sunday

My heart is most thankful at the end of a day
when my appetite for life is deeply satisfied.
When working hands are stilled
stomachs filled
and eyes have cried the tears that say,
"this is my life - 
take it all from me"
because I know
that You are so much more adept
at making it beautiful.

How was your Easter weekend, friends? Mine was less about momentum with my blog and work and more about catching up on life at home since I've been so busy. I had time to rest, clean, make Easter dinner for my husband and a friend (steaks, roasted carrots and parsnips with a honey glaze, basil mashed potatoes), and - most important of all - reflect on my faith.

Sometimes stepping away from my work can go a long way toward recharging my creative energy - when I went to bed last night my mind couldn't rest without jotting a few thoughts into a poem after a whole weekend of no writing. I think sometimes putting our hands to work helps our minds rejuvenate. Today I'm ready to put my nose to the grindstone and get back to making plans, dreaming big, and writing.

What are the things that help you rest and refocus?

Mine: cooking and cleaning.

Much love to you on your Monday, friends.


Creative Influences

Recently, my wonderful husband and I watched all three Anne of Green Gables movies start to finish. That's right. Matt not only sat through them, but he's the one that suggested we watch them in the first place! On VHS, no less.

I hadn't watched them in several years, so watching each of them again reminded me of my early teens when I watched them endlessly, amused at Anne's often silly yet sincere attempts to become a writer.

Funny as it is to reflect on now, I think it was watching those movies that encouraged me to think about becoming a writer. There are so many influences that encouraged me when I was young, but there was something about Anne's character and her desperate yearning to be a successful writer that mirrored my own imagination and passion for reading and writing.

If I think about it, there were dozens of stories, films and books that influenced me when I was young, that "raised" me as a writer, in a sense. Belle of Beauty and the Beast loved to read, Judy Blume's Starring Sally J. Freedman as Herself is about a girl with a wild imagination and a flair for story-telling, Louise Fitzhugh's Harriet the Spy encouraged me to journal (although I didn't journal about spying on neighbors and classmates), and there were many, many others. Yes, most of them female.

Further example: last night Matt's bandmates came over to practice new songs. Afterward, Matt's longtime friend and bandmate, Thad, pulled his old video cam-corder and played "old-skool" video footage from their old band. Some of the footage dated back 10 years, to their days of pipe-pants, spikey hair, pop/punk tunes and the occasional "rude-boy" outfit. It was hilarious to see and hear some of their influences, to listen to them laugh about their old haunts, friends, clothes, and how much they tried to be like this or that musician.

Influences can come from anywhere - books, film, music, images, fashion, and more. From stage of life to stage of life - from childhood, adolescence, young adulthood to adulthood - creative influences shape our imaginations as fixed icons that speak to us and later help us remember who we were and what we were like and what we loved when we were young.

After mulling over this concept through the past several days, I came across this quote:

"At all ages, if [fantasy and myth] is used well by the author and meets the right reader, it has the same power: to generalize while remaining concrete, to present in palpable form not concepts or even experiences but whole classes of experience, and to throw off irrelevancies. But at its best it can do more; it can give us experiences we have never had and thus, instead of 'commenting on life,' can add to it." — C.S. Lewis

This speaks more to writing and fiction than music or fashion, but even so, when we think about how art influences us, when we recall those images, words, or sounds that inspired us most, we regard them as a part of what made us who we are now. They speak of life in terms that we understand, and therefore add to it.

So my question for you is : Who were your influences growing up? 

Do you have boxes of tattered and love-worn books from your youth? Old movies you watch on occasion? Albums or songs that throw you back in a time machine of places, feelings, friends, sights and smells? Stacks of magazines with corners folded to favorite looks that you still try to emulate or wish you could wear? 


Whirlwind Work Week

In the midst of perhaps the busiest work week of my life, I got worried that my little blog was growing stale without a new post. What a sweet surprise to return to it today and see your overwhelmingly supportive comments - and most of them from readers I’ve never met! (I get a little thrill from finding new friends on here.) A little time away is good for blogging, apparently. Thanks for your supportive words and for sharing your thoughts. It’s great to know I have so many kindred spirits out there.

This week was an exercise in proving myself capable. Most days my work is the same series of tasks:  write and post a press release or two, monitor social media stats, direct inquiries, write content for our publication or website, email intermittently. On Wednesday my organization held an inaugural event that featured a former U.S. president as the keynote speaker. Exciting, right?

In the days leading up to it I was terrified. Working for Communications means that I’m responsible for helping with public relations and marketing efforts. It’s a big responsibility when you’re trying to attract more than 1,300 attendees. Among my responsibilities were proofreading print ads and brochures and programs, preparing press releases and story pitches, coordinating interviews with business leaders, dignitaries, faculty, staff and students, preparing questions for the interviews, conducting the interviews, collecting quotes from the keynote address and moderated question and answer sessions, promoting the event through social media, and doing any other task my boss requested of me.

I was worried that things wouldn’t get done. I was worried that I’d forget to communicate with people on changes made or that I’d miss glaring errors in our press pieces or that I’d say the wrong thing to our media contacts or that I wouldn’t be able to read my handwriting well enough to quote people accurately.

Well, there were things I didn’t finish. And of course there were changes made even in the midst of the event. There were a few missed interviews and yes, I really couldn’t read half of my handwritten notes past the third page.

But. We made it. It’s over. I’ve caught up on sleep and more importantly, we accomplished all of our primary goals though this opportunity and even discovered some surprising results along the way.

Driving home on Thursday I felt a sudden urge to weep. I can’t imagine what it’s like to hold a position where you handle these things on a regular basis, but for my first time participating in a project of such magnitude I feel like I’ve come out on the other side of this with a deep sense of gratitude and relief and surreality.

Did I really just do that?

And also this thought,

Let’s do it again!

As exhausted as I’ve been this week - physically, mentally, emotionally - I feel totally exhilarated. I’ve always been attracted to journalism, but this experience gave me a glimpse of what it would be like to dive into it and commit to it fully.

I love asking questions and hearing people communicate value. I love listening to leaders, entrepreneurs, and creative people talk about what makes them tick, the principles that inspire them in their roles, the concepts that move them to lead. It’s a powerful thing to hear leaders speak candidly about their mistakes and failures and lessons they learned through them, as well as the moments that affirmed their potential. In a room of more than 1,300 people, I felt the energy rise as the audience caught a glimpse of the surprising challenges and rewards of leadership.

In a strange and unexpected way, this experience was an affirmation of what I discussed in my last blog post. This side of it, how could I settle for anything less than what I am passionate about?

Every person has been given a passion for something. It could be writing and journalism, it could be culinary arts, it could be design, architecture, gender studies, teaching, music, theater, ministry. Whatever it is, we’re called to pursue to it. When we’re in the moment, it doesn’t matter how exhausted we are. The exhilaration of doing what we love and doing it well will tell us what we need to know:

This is what you’re meant to do.  


The Dream Job : Going the Distance

It's never good when you get a text from your best friend that says,

"I don't know if I feel like going out tonight. I'm all weepy and crabby today."

Knowing her, I realize I have two choices:

1. Take her word for it, because when she says she's in a bad mood she means it. No use arguing with her; things will only get worse.

2. Test the waters. Feel her out. Maybe what's bothering her is worth confronting, debunking, even comforting.

I bit the bullet and chose option two. 

"What's wrong, love?" 

"Oh, probably the weather and I started freaking out about school earlier." 

She has decided to quit her full time job working as a customer service representative for a hearing aid manufacturer [what joy] to go to culinary school. The risks are real - she's taking on school loans, she's going to try and juggle school work and a part time job to support herself,  not to mention that she's quitting a full time job when more than 8 percent of the country can't even find a part time job. She has every reason to be terrified. 

And yet. I've seen her in a slump, exhausted of repeating the same conversation with customers more than 100 times each day. Personally, I'd rather see her bustling around a bakery, whipping up delectable pastries we can devour, even if we gain 100 extra pounds in the process. Hey, since we're talking sacrifices, right?

But it's a toss up, a whole lot of "I don't want to do this part" no matter which path she takes. She doesn't want to work the job she has forever, but she doesn't want to take on debt, risk her financial well-being and her stamina to make it through school.

"What if I fail?" she asked in the car on our way to see my husband play on Friday. Thankfully, she had changed her mind and decided not to wallow in worry over something that's months away. 

"I'm sorry, what? You? Fail school?" I asked.

"Yeah! What if I get so frazzled trying to support myself and get through classes that I flunk out?"

A silly question, in my opinion. She, of all people I know, is least likely to fail.

But as I've spent the last several months fiddling with blog ideas and freelance work, I've asked mself the same question about nearly everything.

Grad school: what if I flunk out? So I decide to wait until life "settles down" a little bit. [I have no idea what that means, either.]

Freelancing: I'm not a business person - what if I can't handle the responsibility?

Blogging: what if they don't like what I wrote? What if no one cares about this but me?

I've come to the realization that with any dream job or career path we chose, we have to keep in mind the journey and not just the destination. We have to be willing to ask, how will I get there? And we have to be willing to go the distance.

Freelancing and blogging require a lot of capabilities that I wish I didn't have to think about. I've had to work on a business plan for my freelance work. Did anyone else know that this requires math?! Even with a calculator and guidance from other freelancers I know, my brain hurts. It's excruciatingly painful to admit that my teachers were right [although I have yet to use algebra, mwahaha.]

I've also had to learn HTML coding. Don't get me wrong, I only know a handful of code thingys [is "code phrases" the proper term?] but still, who knew that ugly series of letters and symbols actually did things, and that if you can't figure it out things might disappear?!

And apparently "not being a morning person" is not conducive to productivity. If I could change my biological make up, I would, but for now I'm just trying to find some sort realistic incentive that will convince me that God created 6 a.m. for anything other than sleep.

I can't tell my best friend not to look at the big scary numbers or not to think about how she's going to be able to support herself on a part-time job while she's getting her degree. I can't be a successful freelancer and blogger without coming up with a business plan and crunching my own numbers. I can't even tell her where she'll be at the end of it; she'll have a degree, but will that mean she'll find a job right away?

And will I want to be a freelancer forever?

I mean, aren't I a little young to be thinking about being my own boss?

And think about all the taxes and invoices I'll have to keep track of if I'm going to do this! 

And is this blog going to be a part of my writing career for the next 30, 40, 50 or more years?

There's so much responsibility involved, and how will we know for sure that the destination is worth the journey it takes to get there?

We don't have the answers. I don't think we're meant to. But if we're too scared to even ask the question, to pursue the "what if I try this?" then we are choosing to live in the void, the unknown of what could have been.

So here are a few inspirations from around the web to keep you motivated : 

I'm officially a Midnight Hustler, are you?

Part of pursuing our dreams requires being selfish.

Writing as an expression of life. I need to read Natalie's book (and Melissa's blog!) more often.

The Literary Ladies' Guide to the Writing Life. A great article and a book I need to get my hands on.


Notice Anything Different?

I have a new header for my blog! I AM SO EXCITED I can hardly contain myself. I want to dance, sing, feast and hold a ribbon-cutting ceremony for it. Over dramatic, you say? Not in the least. I've been dreaming up plans for new features on my blogs for awhile (months) and feature by feature, step by step, plan by plan, my dreams for this space are coming to fruition. This is what happens when you pursue your dreams, people. Excitement and inspiration cannot be contained.

The design was sketched by myself, and the swirls and "& Rights" pieces are in my own handwriting, but the full layout* was created courtesy of my dear friend Kat of Cheshire Kat. I'll be creating a post about her and some of the other awesome things she's created over the weekend, so stay tuned!

*The font for this post was taken from dafont.com


Why I Write : A Good Read.

Sometimes, in the simultaneous business and laziness of daily life, I forget how truly delicious it is to devour a good book. For as much as I love writing and reading, I don't read books as often as I'd like. Several dozen of my favorites lay waiting on my shelves, gathering dust and whispering to me,

"Have you forgotten the moment when Michael discovers Hanna's secret? Have you forgotten the scene when Claire and Henry meet in the library for the first time? Remember that favorite line you read over and over in Stafford's poem, 'the signals we give-yes, or no, or maybe- should be clear: the darkness around us is deep.' Or the sensibility you felt when you finished The Great Divorce? Open me. Read me."

 I neglect them, thinking, I've read you before. I need something new, something that will take me by surprise. At the same time, I have an annoying habit of buying or borrowing books that I don't finish. Even classics that others rave are their favorites lay half-worn and dog-eared to page 54, and the next 200 pages lay completely untouched.

So when I grabbed Bernard Schlink's Homecoming to take with me on the train downtown this weekend, I wasn't expecting to get caught up in it. I loved Schlink's The Reader from the page one, but Homecoming, with all its intricacies and seemingly unrelated circumstances that surround the life of Peter DeBauer, did not earn my momentum as easily and so it lay discarded and half-read on my shelf for two years. It was the lightest book I could grab on my way out the door to spend the day in the city - just in case I had a spare moment of boredom and found myself in desperate need of distraction. Somehow in reading it this weekend I was able to push through my disinterest and finally understand Peter's voice in the story.

I don't think it was Schlink's writing that was to blame for my previous neglect; I am woefully immature when I open a book. If it's from an author I've read before, as is the case with Homecoming, I have a set of expectations that need to be broken down and replaced with something better than I could have imagined. The author needs to simultaneously break my expectations with something entirely different, and yet they also need to offer me pieces of them that I found fascinating in their previous works. For Schlink, he has this habit of creating highly introspective characters that take the time to ask the questions that the reader is wondering, too.
"Why? Why does what was beautiful suddenly shatter in hindsight because it concealed dark truths? Why does the memory of years of happy marriage turn to gall when our partner is revealed to have had a lover all those years? Because such a situation makes it impossible to be happy? But we were happy! Sometimes the memory of happiness cannot stay true because it ended unhappily. Because happiness is only real if it lasts forever? Because things always end painfully if they contained pain, conscious or unconscious, all along? But what is unconscious, unrecognized pain?" 
"What is law? Is it what is on the books, or what is actually enacted and obeyed in society? Or is law what must be enacted and obeyed whether or not it is on the books, if things are to go right?"- Bernard Schlink, The Reader
Schlink does not do readers the disservice of trying to offer an answer. That his books revolve around post-war Germany and their attempts to rebuild after the World Wars tells us : we may never have an answer to these questions, whether on the larger scale of reconciling past mistakes as they pertain to feuding countries, genocide, or law, or on the smaller scale of personal relationships between men and women, parents and children, strangers and friends.

And Schlink has a knack for plot twisting. You can sense as you read that pieces of the puzzle have yet to fall into place, that beneath all the questions and examinations of law, culture, society, and archetypal themes, an unforeseeable truth lies waiting for you and the protagonist. Once revealed, the effect is stunningly perfect; the beguiling maze of its progression now makes complete sense, even while you wonder, mournfully, why it had to end that way for the characters.

Needless to say, I'm enjoying Homecoming so much that I almost didn't take the time to write this post, yet reading it is so inspiring that I couldn't help but write about it.

That's what a good read will do for a writer, and that's why it's so important to continue to feed our imaginations with as many stories as possible.

Reading spurs me on toward new ideas and possibilities, and soon my well of inspiration is overflowing onto the page.

Feed your hunger for a good read, and your own page will never starve.


Come on, feel the Illinoise!

Happy Sunday, dear readers. How has your weekend been? Mine has been glorious. My brothers came for a visit, which of course meant a day downtown.

A day in Chicago gets me excited every time. It doesn't matter if I'm walking the same beaten path to the Art Institute or the Shedd Aquarium or Wrigley Field, I love it. The possibilities are endless.

We planned to spend the afternoon at the Shedd, but to our surprise and dismay, the general admission price has nearly doubled since we visited two years ago. Not exactly in the budget yesterday, so instead we wandered along the lake shore to Navy Pier. It turned out to be a beautiful warm day, perfect for walking and admiring the glittering architecture, the brilliant blue water, the pedestrians and their pets, the brave little sailboats, the trees with their arms reached to the sky waiting to be twinged with green any day now. Sometimes, wandering in the sunshine is just as enjoyable as wandering a museum, except it's free [always a plus in my book.]

Later we ate at Gino's East, meandered down Michigan Avenue, and visited the Skydeck at Sears [Willis] Tower. Traveler's tip: go to the Skydeck at dusk or after dark. The wait is much shorter, not to mention how positively romantic it is to see a million city lights twinkling endlessly in the dark.

As I looked out on the teaming city streets and twinkling lights, I felt that gut instinct again -  This is where I belong. 

I feel blessed to live in a hub of art and culture and intellect and opportunity. Living here feeds my constant hunger for learning and exploring new things, whether it's a new restaurant or a museum exhibit or meeting someone new that shares my interests in writing and art and music.

Chicago, every time I visit you I love you more than before.  

by Sufjan Stevens

"you came to take us 
all things go, all things go 
to recreate us 
all things grow, all things grow 
we had our mind set 
all things know, all things know 
you had to find it 
all things go, all things go..."