What’s the View from Your Ladder – Revisited

I was recently inspired by a story of a young climber, Mike Price, who died in an accident on Mount Rainier. The story is told in my friend’s book, The Ledge: An Inspirational Story of Friendship and Survival. In one of his travel journals, Mike wrote that success is not defined by summiting the mountain, success comes from what you learn along the way. He argued that the view from anywhere on the mountain can be as inspiring as the one from the top. It’s what we discover in ourselves that truly matters.  Or that’s how I took it, anyway. It reminded me of this post, which I share again here with your indulgence:

The other day, I was listening to an interview with an established speaker who started out, as we all do, as an unknown. One day, through a bizarre twist of fate, a major company asked to partner with him, launching his career.  We’ve all heard dozens of stories like his about artists or entrepreneurs who had a chance meeting with someone who later became their agent or their biggest client. There was a time when I’d hear those stories, look up at the heavens and ask, “Why not me?  I’m just as good as they are. I work just as hard. How come I never get a big break?”

After a while, though, I realized–for whatever reason–that was not to be my path. There would be no leaps up the ladder for me. I’d have to pull myself up one rung at a time. I know plenty of artists who’ve gotten their big breaks, and it’s not always the blessing it appears to be. Suddenly they are working overtime to meet tighter deadlines, they are pressured to deliver a different type of work than they would like to produce, and they’re required to take on a myriad of difficult new tasks. We should never begrudge those who “got it easy,” because in the arts or entrepreneurship, there’s no such thing.

I no longer spend all my time looking up the ladder anyway. There’s something to be said for pausing wherever you are and taking in the view from that rung.  It’s an ever-changing scene, and it’s fascinating. And sometimes, it’s good to look down, too, and take note of just how far you’ve come. Life is long. There’s plenty of time to get where we want to be. In the meantime, why not enjoy the climb?

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Who Said You’re Being Silly?

The other day, I was watching a YouTube video of Lynda Barry, painter, writer, cartoonist, playwright, editor and more. She told a story about watching a mother in a restaurant who was busy on her cell phone, while her four-year-old son tried to get her attention. When he couldn’t, he started playing with his food, making up an elaborate story with his bacon. It was precious. Finally, the mother put down her phone and demanded, “What are you doing?”  Poof, the magic was gone. The boy had been chastised for the unforgiveable sin of using his imagination.

This story stayed with me for days. Why do we do that? Why do we make kids feel bad for being “silly?”  Why do we laugh at them when they try to sing a song or act out a scene? Why do we tell them they’re not good enough to move forward with their art? Why do we tell kids they are “too old” to play?

And why do we, as adult artists, do that to ourselves? At least once a week, I ask myself, “What are you doing?” as if this work is somehow not worthy. I have to give myself permission to write, as if writing were something decadent or illicit or immature or “silly.” I have to tell myself it’s okay if I write a bad sentence. That doesn’t make me a bad writer. I have to turn off what Lynda Barry calls, the “front of the brain” in order to hear the magical imaginings going on in the “back of the brain.”

Making art looks easy. It looks like child’s play when we stand up there and sing, or get messy with paint, or jump up and down on a bed while playing a role, but it’s actually hard work.

Who the hell decided that the creative inner workings of our minds, our imaginations, were somehow less valuable than the parts of our brains that calculate distance or add numbers or keep track of whether we took our vitamins this morning?

Our imaginations and the stories they tell teach us how to live, how to stay safe, how to get along with others, how to conquer our fears, and how to build new inventions to advance the human race. When a little boy is pretending to be a monster about to eat a helpless piece of bacon, he’s exploring relationships, and cause and effect, and the distinction between compassion and cruelty. Artists do the same thing. They explore what could be, what should be, or what once was.

This is not play, but even if it looks that way, what’s wrong with that?

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I Wish I Had a Nothing Box

The other day, I watched a video in which a comedian talked about the differences between women’s brains and men’s brains. He explained how men keep each area of their lives in a separate mental box: job, money, wife, kids, etc. And those boxes never touch.

Women, he said, have brains like a ball of wire. Everything is touching, everything is connected, and the wire is buzzing with activity. He insisted that a man’s favorite mental box contains . . . nothing. He said a man can have a nothing box because he doesn’t really care much about anything. Women care about everything. While his points are all wildly overstated, I realized I would give anything for a “nothing box.”

Especially this past week, when Hurricane Harvey descended on Houston, and people in Japan were told to take cover as North Korean missiles flew over their air space, and someone hung a noose in a dorm at our local university near a black student’s room.

There are so many things to worry about I can’t figure out which should take precedent on any given day. No, in any given hour. Should I worry most about possible war, climate change, mosquito-borne viruses, terrorism, or toxic waste in our water supplies?

With such heavy issues constantly on our minds, what makes us think our little efforts to make art really matter? Wouldn’t our time be better served volunteering for a nonprofit and trying to help clean up some of the world’s messes?

It feels wrong, doesn’t it, to whine about our struggles to write a story or song when other people are struggling to put food on the table? It feels selfish to complain about a lack of time to pursue our passions, when people elsewhere are trying to find work of any kind. It feels arrogant to boast about a good review when others are picking through what’s left of their homes. It would be far easier to just sit in our dark living rooms and take out our “nothing boxes” and pretend none of this exists.

But a “nothing box” never solved anything. It’s good, I think, to take a break when things get overwhelming. And then it’s time for action. Make a donation to help relief efforts, volunteer for a service organization, watch someone’s kids so he/she can lend their skills to a rescue effort, and remember that someday, someone might be doing the same things to help you.

But don’t stop making your art. Give back to a hurting world the best that your talents and skills can offer. While police officers, electricians, doctors, civil engineers, and first-responders work to rescue and rebuild broken towns and broken bodies, artists can work to rebuild broken souls. It may not sound like much sometimes, but it’s all we can do. It’s what we must do.

 

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Never Tell Me The Odds

The other day, I listened to a woman who was a 28-year survivor of cancer tell about the day she received her diagnosis. When the doctor gave her the bad news, she started to cry, of course. Then she asked, “What are my odds of survival?”

“It’s just a number,” the doctor said.

“Then don’t tell me,” she responded.

Only years later did she learn her odds had been 15%.

If you are pursuing a career in the arts, you know there are plenty of odds standing in the way of your success, and plenty of people happy to tell you all about them. People take pleasure in quoting to us the statistics about how few books actually make it on the bestseller list, or how few songs become hits, or how few plays make to Broadway.

And even if you tell them your goals and ambitions are not so lofty, they are pleased to tell you how dismally low are the odds of anyone discovering your work at all, the implication being, why bother?

I could quote you all kinds of grim statistics about our industry. I could also remind you that the success stories you hear are rare, which is why they make the news. I could tell you that chances are you’ll never make a profit off your art or even earn enough to afford your tools and materials. I could weigh you down with dire predictions, sad stories, and promises of failure, but I won’t. There will be enough people on your journey who will do that for you.

If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you know when I was thirteen I fell madly in love with Han Solo. His motto became my motto, “Never tell me the odds.” You may also recall he always made that statement after C3PO had told him the odds. It’s not like he didn’t know, it’s that he chose to power forward anyway.

In the end, the odds are just a number. Your success is determined only by the goals you set for yourself, not the expectations of others. So power on.

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Can Art Overcome Hate?

I remember as a child watching the musical South Pacific on TV, and being struck by the song, “You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught.” I was one of those kids who cried often about all the suffering and hatred in the world. I never understood why people couldn’t just follow the Golden Rule and treat others as they’d like to be treated. I still don’t. It seems so simple.

South Pacific was Rodgers and Hammerstein’s attempt to confront racism. The Broadway musical debuted in 1949, the movie in 1958. In the show, an American nurse falls in love with a French plantation owner, but isn’t sure she can accept his biracial children. And a young lieutenant falls in love with a local Tonkinese girl, another relationship that would have been frowned upon at the time. In the song I mentioned, the lieutenant argues:

You’ve got to be taught to hate and fear

You’ve got to be taught from year to year

It’s got to be drummed in your dear little ear . . . 

This sentiment overwhelmed me as a child. Who would teach their children to hate, I wondered? Certainly my parents had not. What good could come from it? I remember feeling so sorry for kids whose families had burdened them with such heavy and harmful emotions.

I don’t have space to reflect in this simple blog post on what drives hate and prejudice (such as what we saw recently in Charlottesville, Virginia) but I have seen those emotions rear their ugly heads even in the industry I love, the arts.

But I’ve also seen artists confront bigotry, hatred, and fear in their works. And maybe, just maybe, if enough children are exposed to art which challenges hate and promotes love, peace, and understanding, we can serve as teachers too. Maybe some young child will observe our art, as I observed that musical, and question the negative messages being drummed in their “dear little ears.”

Art is not the answer, but it could be part of the solution. So please, reach into your creative souls and give us the encouragement to love and hope and do what is right in these trying times.

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Love ‘Em or Leave ‘Em – Revisited

I love people who laugh at their own jokes. The harder they laugh, the better. Why shouldn’t we take enjoyment from our own creativity? Why create anything if it doesn’t bring us pleasure?

I love people who sing loudly and badly in church. Why? Because they are more concerned with giving praise than in what you think of them.

I love people who take to the dance floor alone. They don’t wait for someone to hand them an opportunity, they go out and seize it.

I love people who stop a total stranger to tell her they adore her shoes. Our clothes are one of the ways we express ourselves. How nice when someone notices!

I love it when poets stand on a street corner and recite their verse. They have learned we don’t need adoring crowds, we just need one person to listen.

I love it when someone says, “I don’t mean to brag,” and then they do. We work hard. Why shouldn’t we be proud of our accomplishments!

I love it when little kids ask, “Are you rich?” or “Are you famous?” or “How old are you?”  They keep us humble.

I love those students who always have their hands up in class. They have learned that everything in life is more interesting if we get involved.

I love people who say, “That’s nice, but I could do it better.”  Go ahead then, show me. You either will, and I’ll be glad for it, or you won’t, and I’ll have lost nothing.

Some days I even love people who drive the speed limit. They remind us there’s plenty of time to get where we are going.

This post was originally published in March of 2015. If you like it, please share


Old Writers Never Retire – Or Do They?

Remember that famous line from a ballad, “Old soldiers never die, they just fade away”? I’ve always thought something similar about writers and some artists. They never retire. Why would we? Unlike other types of jobs, we can pursue our art until we die, right? And don’t we always say that writing is not what we do, it’s who we are? If that’s the case, why would we ever give up a part of ourselves?

Recently, though, we met with our financial advisor. She asked my husband, as she always does, about his retirement plans. She had heard me say over the years that I doubted I’d ever fully retire, so she almost didn’t ask me. So this time, I piped up and said I just might.

Here’s a list of current authors who are still writing in their 70s: Joyce Carol Oates, Margaret Atwood, Sue Grafton, Russell Banks, Lois Lowry, and Isabel Allende. Alice Munro, Toni Morrison, and Tom Wolfe were still publishing in their 80s, and Herman Wouk published his last novel at the age of 97!

But times are changing. Gone are the days when writers (or artists) could sit at their desks researching and writing books, and then go on the occasional book tour or TV show (yes, I know I’m simplifying that a little). Nowadays, we writers spend as much of our time, if not more, working to market our books as we do to write them. That is especially true for self-published authors, but it’s true for traditional authors as well. Every author I know spends an increasing portion of their workday answering e-mail, keeping up with social media, sending in guest blog posts, speaking at events, etc. These are not just things that take time, they take energy.

And gone are the days when a successful author could count on book sales alone to pay the bills. Most of the authors I know still have their day jobs, or work at least part-time teaching classes, editing, doing technical or commercial writing, speaking, etc.

So, yes, for the first time in my life, I’m starting to think about retirement (though it’s still at least 15 years away). It’s hard to imagine not writing, but I can easily imagine no longer having the will or energy to do everything that goes along with it.

And maybe that’s not such a bad thing. Maybe in my retirement years, I’ll finally have time to read again. I can read the writings of the up-and-comers and wish them well on their writing journeys!

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How to Sing, Paint, Write, and Act Your Way To a Fulfilling Life

A few weekends ago, we went to the famous Wildflower Festival in Crested Butte, Colorado. The scenery and flowers were stunning. I took some pretty good pictures, I thought. Then a couple of days later, a friend posted on Facebook some flower pictures she took in her backyard garden, and they blew my shots away. Clearly, I still have a lot to learn about photography.

This coming weekend, a friend and I are hosting a karaoke party to celebrate our birthdays. There are moments, when I’m singing in the shower or the car, when I think I sound pretty good. Then I get the chance to hear one of my singer friends perform and realize, I still have a lot to learn about singing!

A while back, I attended an event in which the cartoonist from The Economist spoke, and he also taught us how to draw a caricature of President Obama. I’ve never thought I could draw anything other than stick figures, but my Obama was not that terrible. Apparently, I could learn a lot more about art, if I wanted to.

Last week, to celebrate my 50th birthday, I wanted to do something outside the box and a little outside my comfort zone, so I took a class called Accents for Actors. I’m glad I went. I learned a lot, but I was in way over my head. I definitely have a lot to learn about acting.

That is what makes the arts so much fun, whether you pursue them professionally or as a hobby. These are things that, on a certain level, look like they should be easy, but they’re not. On the other hand, almost anyone can learn to play the piano or paint with watercolors or write a short story.

And the more we learn, the more whole worlds open up to us; the more conversations we can have with strangers when we discover shared hobbies or passions; the more we start to pay attention to the art that surrounds us when we travel or visit a new friend’s home. Even if we only dabble in certain art forms, the efforts bring us pleasure and stretch us inside and out.

So this weekend, whether you are playing the only song you know on the ukulele and singing around the campfire or going to a songwriters workshop to get better at your craft, tap into how art makes you feel, and the joy it brings to others, and be grateful that art is a part of our lives!

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Can Studying Dialogue Improve Your Relationships?

I’ve read numerous studies about the benefits of reading literature, including its ability to increase empathy in readers. One way it does so is by helping us understand people who are different from us, and by helping us to question how we would behave in similar situations.

This past week, I created a new webinar called Dialogue Made Easy with my partners at Writing Blueprints. I’ve taught this class for years, and whenever I do, the room is packed. Writers, new and experienced, are fascinated by dialogue, which sounds like real conversation, but is not.

Recreating the material as a webinar got me thinking about how studying and writing dialogue all these years may have helped my relationships. Dialogue is, after all, designed to reveal character, create mood and suspense, and move the story forward. So as you craft each line, you are “reading” your character. What type of person is she? Optimistic or fatalistic? Shy or outgoing? Assertive or non-confrontational?

As a writer, you are also looking at the mood/setting of the scene. Is she in her own home or at a fancy restaurant? How would either location change how she talked to her husband? And writers use dialogue to create suspense. What if she were to say something out of character? How would the people around her respond?

Good dialogue often moves the story forward. If she makes a declaration like, “That’s it, tomorrow I go to the police,” we read on to see if her resolve will hold, and whether her action will put her in danger.

Having spent a lifetime listening to how people chat, confide, and argue, and most of my adult life figuring out what my characters should say to get them into and out of trouble, I wonder if I’ve learned better how to talk to different types of people, and how better to read a situation before I speak. I’ve certainly learned plenty of things not to say.

Maybe if we all studied dialogue a bit more, we could see how to improve our own conversations. After all, when you cringe while reading a character speaking harshly to another, you are likely remembering a time when you did the same thing.

All of this is just my mind musing, but the Dialogue Made Easy webinar is pure instruction! You’ll learn simple rules to improve your dialogue and you’ll also receive a short workbook full of sample excerpts of dialogue, and exercises you can use to practice the techniques I share. You’ll get lifetime access to the webinar and a PDF of my slides, so you can revisit the information as often as you like. Click here to learn more. Happy writing and conversing!

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Is Hope a Strategy?

The other day, I was explaining a hope I had for my business as I was opening a stack of mail. My well-meaning-but-wet-blanket husband repeated his favorite quote, “Hope is not a strategy.”

At that moment, I opened an envelope that contained a check from a person I had reached out to with a business proposition. I had not heard back from her, but had been hoping she would sign on.

“Ah ha,” I shouted. “See this? Hope is too a strategy.”

What my husband means, of course, is that you can’t just put your art out there in the world and hope people will find it and buy it. Just because you build it, doesn’t mean they’ll come. To succeed, you need plans and strategies. And to create those you need to do research and identify your competitors. You need good branding and messaging. And you can’t always do it alone. Sometimes you need to hire people to help you build a better website or create stronger sales language or teach you how to manage your social media. You need to embrace marketing and promotion so people find you in the first place.

But my husband is also wrong that hope is not part of your strategy. You can’t tell me Steve Jobs or Bill Gates has never uttered the words, “I hope this new product flies.” Or that Adele has never thought, “I hope people like my new album.” Or that some Broadway actor has never said, “I hope I win a Tony someday.”

No matter what your passion or profession, you gotta hope your work will connect with the right people. In fact, I’d argue that without hope, none of us would ever start a new project. If you think of it that way, hope is the very first part of any strategy.

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