Giving Thanks to the Artist in Everyone

I finally had a chance to finish watching Ken Burns’ documentary, The Vietnam War. It was a commitment to watch all 10 episodes, and I’m so glad I did. I’m grateful for Ken Burns and how his documentaries have educated this nation and shown us the human face of war and history.

Toward the end of the documentary, we are introduced to Maya Lin, the 21-year-old artist whose design was chosen for the creation of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. They mention some of the controversy around her design, and how people said she was too young, too inexperienced, too ethnic, too female to represent the conflict accurately.

Then they cut back to the people they’d been interviewing throughout the documentary, men who fought, and men and women who protested the war. In nearly every case, they said a visit to “The Wall” brought them to tears. Even talking about it on film, they still cried. This piece of art, this “scar in the landscape,” healed a nation and deeply moves even those of us who visit it and have no direct association with the war. This artist, whom some found undeserving, stood by her art, and we are better for it.

So this Thanksgiving Day, I will speak my gratitude for all artists. Those who do it professionally, and those who do it for themselves or their families.

I’m grateful for the artists who arrive at their “day jobs” yawning because they were up all night working on their real job.

I’m grateful for the artists who persevere when people tell them they are too young or too old; too uneducated or too knowing; too undeserving or too privileged; too innocent or too jaded to produce their art.

I’m grateful for the young people who have committed to pursuing their art knowing it’s never going to be an easy path.

And for the artists who take risks or who write and produce art outside of their own experience, even when they are told they shouldn’t.

I’m grateful for the artists who work to the point of exhaustion to meet the demands of success and fame, and those who work to the point of exhaustion trying to achieve success and fame.

I’m grateful for the artists who aren’t “very good” but stick to their art anyway. They teach us it’s the making of art that really matters.

And I’m grateful for the artists who are so talented they set the bar impossibly high. Their work takes our breath away and inspires us to try harder.

I’m grateful for the artists who are really prophets. And for the prophets who inspire artists.

I’m grateful for the children who climb on statues and point at graffiti and take a leaf home and paste it into their coloring books. They don’t have to be told to admire art, they just do.

I’m grateful for the mothers and fathers who read to their children at bedtime and play songs for them on the piano and sit at the table and mold sculpting clay with their kids.

I’m especially grateful for those who follow their muse, even when it terrifies them to do so.

But most of all, I’m grateful that even in times of trouble, we can still sing together in church, recite poems at our community gatherings or our rallies, read books together in our book clubs, and gather around the virtual water cooler to talk about the hottest new movie.

I’m grateful for those of you who practice the art of medicine, education, innovation, science, agriculture, business, and more. Thank you for sharing your art with us.

In the immortal words of ABBA, “without a song and a dance, what are we?” Thank you, artists, for giving those to us!

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How to Truly Thank Our Vets This Veterans Day

Today is Veterans Day. Before it was Veterans Day, it was more commonly known as Armistice Day, a holiday set aside to commemorate the cessation of fighting during World War 1. The armistice was signed during the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918. It’s also called Remembrance Day in some countries, and is often marked by the handing out of red poppies.

Several years before I knew I would someday be writing stories about World War II, I was rushing into a grocery store to pick up a few items. An older gentleman was standing outside selling purple fabric poppies for a dollar to support veteran causes. I was very young and very poor, and a dollar was a lot of money to me then. But there was something about this man, who smiled and nodded in my direction even as I appeared to be passing him by, that caught my attention. On the way out, I handed him a dollar, and he gave me a poppy and his thanks. I hung that poppy from my rearview mirror, where it stayed for years, to remind me of people like him who had made sacrifices beyond anything I could imagine, and to remind me that history must not be forgotten lest it be repeated.

Recently, I heard a discussion on NPR about the practice of telling veterans, “Thank you for your service.” People say it with the best of intentions, especially when speaking to Vietnam vets who never heard those words when they returned from war. I sometimes say it too, but it often feels hollow to me, at least as a lead-in to a conversation. The vets on the NPR interview confirmed my feeling that it can often create an awkward exchange. One vet said what she really wanted was for people to get to know her and ask about her service. It makes more sense to me thank someone after you’ve taken time to understand what they have done.

I recall talking to a vet once who told me, “I hate it when people say, ‘Thank you for your service.’ I joined the military to get the GI Bill. It was the only way I’d be able to go to college. I joined to benefit me, so you don’t need to thank me.” I’ve talked to other vets who don’t want to be thanked because they feel undeserving. They believe the only soldiers or sailors who truly deserve our thanks are the ones who died or were injured in war. And I’ve talked to some who have said the phrase doesn’t mean much when said in passing. “What exactly are they thanking me for?” one man said.

To me, there are two ways we can truly support our troops and thank our vets:

1) We can make sure our children learn about American history and the wars we’ve fought. We do a poor job of teaching history in this country (placing no blame on our teachers). Our curricula put history on the back burner and many episodes in our past are glossed over or left out altogether. Our children need to hear the stories, not just memorize the dates for a test. They need to be taught to question whether our actions in wartime were right or wrong. They need to be encouraged to embrace their civic responsibility to be informed citizens and to vote.

2) We need to talk to our vets. Hear their stories. Ask about their lessons learned. See them as the people behind the uniform. I have several friends who are working to record veteran stories on the page and on film, and I admire the work they do. If you don’t know any vets, read their stories. Read the many memoirs by World War II veterans (male and female), read the personal letters from the Civil War soldiers and their wives, read biographies and well-written historical fiction. And read the World War I poets, who more than anyone, brought the full experience of war home to the reader.


In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

Lieutenant Colonel John McCrea ,1915


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My Perfect Place to Read and Create

A reader of this blog recently wrote to ask me how I would describe my perfect reading nook. Being a writer, she assumed I must also love to read. And I do! She described her own perfect place, which intrigued me. But when I went to respond to her, I realized I couldn’t identify just one spot. It could be:

My Bed: under the warmth of my down comforter reading a great novel in the soft light of my reading lamp.

My Kitchen Table: with my morning newspaper and a steaming cup of coffee.

My Front Porch: sitting in our Adirondack chair catching up on my magazines and waving at the neighbors as they walk by.

My Study: in my comfy, green recliner next to the bay window with my overly cluttered bookshelves behind me.

My Office: devouring the hundreds of books I use to research my World War II novels.

My Bathtub: on the rare occasion I have time to soak away my worries.

My Exercise Bike: because reading helps the time fly.

My Big, Blue Couch: in my family room at the end of a long day, when all I want to do is shut off my overworked mind.

I was talking to a writer friend once who explained how she uses four chairs when producing her work. One chair is where she reads. Another is where she goes to do research. Another is at her desk where she sits to write. Another is a chair set aside just for proofing her work. As she moves locations, she triggers different parts of her creative mind.

I have a magnet on my refrigerator that says, “A room without books is like a body without a soul,” a quote from Marcus Tullius Cicero. I would take this one step further and say, “A room without art is a like body without a soul.” Music, literature, and art should surround us at all times.

So here is my answer to my reader’s question: wherever and however we engage with art is the best place to do it!

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A Little Applause for the Audience, Please

I recently saw a touring production of the Broadway show, Something Rotten. It’s a hilarious story about two brother playwrights trying to compete with their rival, the great and popular William Shakespeare. Though written for anyone, the show has special appeal to musical theater and Shakespeare buffs. It’s full of references only we would get.

We were there on a Thursday night and the Buell Theater in Denver was full, but not sold out. Still, it was one of the most enthusiastic audiences I’ve seen in a long time. After the numbers “A Musical” and “Hard to be the Bard,” the applause went on so long that, at one point, the lead actor actually laughed in disbelief.

You see, we weren’t just applauding well-performed numbers, we were applauding ourselves. We were patting ourselves on the backs for getting all the subtle and not-so-subtle references to the things we love, musicals and Shakespeare. We were sharing those passions with everyone else in the theater who got it too, audience and actors alike.

When art really works, it doesn’t just ask us to notice or observe, it asks us to participate. We don’t just “read” a book or “listen” to a song or “watch” a play, we experience them. We become part of them. We see ourselves in the characters, we recognize our own feelings in the lyrics, and we imagine ourselves into the worlds we are visiting.

This year, I read the book A Man Called Ove. On first appearance, Ove is nothing like me. He’s an older man, a curmudgeon, a Swede, and yet, the entire time I was reading that book, I was thinking, “Oh my God, this is me. I’m Ove.”

So in the end, it’s not about us, it’s about the people we hope to reach. The ones who will read our books or watch our plays or listen to our songs. It’s about being raw and showing ourselves so they can see themselves too. Sometimes they’ll laugh, sometimes they’ll cry, and sometimes they’ll hate you for what you show them, but always, a connection will be made.

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Does Your Gender (Male or Female) Inhibit Your Art?

Recently, I was interviewed for Veteran Voices: The Oral History Podcast. The show features people who tell veterans’ stories in creative and interesting ways, including oral historians, authors, poets, playwrights, videographers, photographers, etc. The host, Kevin Farkas, invited me to talk about my World War II novels, all of which are based on real people I’ve interviewed.

Before we recorded the podcast, Kevin asked me an interesting question. Given that my first book is based on interviews with civilian construction workers who were taken prisoner by the Japanese, he asked whether I thought that my being a woman had affected the interviews in any way.

It’s a fair question. After all, I was in my early 20s when I conducted those interviews, naïve and very feminine. And these men were talking about torture, injury, illness, death, etc. Did my age or gender cause them to hold back maybe? I didn’t get that impression at the time, but I did notice they’d often apologize for cussing or would preface their comments by saying, “Now this is a little rough” or “You sure you want to hear this?”  Would they have said that to a man? Maybe. I’m not sure.

Because I behaved in a professional manner, because my questions were well thought out, because I showed sincere interest in their stories, and because I treated them with respect, I don’t think they held back much.

But I wonder now how often gender does affect our art, and not just because, once again, a Hollywood mogul (Harvey Weinstein) is in the news for harassing his female employees. Certainly sexual harassment has been a problem for female artists going way back. And think of the female writers or photographers who first covered front-line battles or were the first to enter the locker room at a sporting event. We all know the challenges they have faced.

But what about men? Does their gender ever inhibit them? Were the women they interviewed while writing their books or plays as forthcoming with them as they would have been with a female interviewer? Does a male photographer have to change his demeanor in order to make his female subjects feel more secure or, conversely, less inhibited?

I’ll go out on a limb to say my female artist friends seem to struggle more to get their work done. We still live in a world where women are expected to deal with most of the household and child concerns, are mostly responsible for aging parents, and do the bulk of the volunteer work in our communities.

This is a conversation that could go on and on and has so many layers. It’s a conversation I hope we continue to have. The more we understand each other and our unique challenges, the better we can support one another. And to me, that’s what it’s all about.

If you are curious about that podcast (Kevin dug a bit deeper into my artistic processes than most interviewers), you can click here.

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When You Can’t Even Give It Away

A few years ago, I started giving away free art on my newsletter. When acquiring the pieces, I have only two rules: 1) I can’t know the artist and 2) I have to purchase the art so it results in a sale. This is just one of many ways I strive to support the arts.

I’ve given away all kinds of art via the newsletter, CDs, books, jewelry, pottery, photographs, glasswork, wood carvings, fabric art, etc. Some months, as many as 20 people enter the drawing. Other months, only 5. It’s been interesting to see which pieces garner the most entries, but I also suspect entries are higher at certain less-busy times of the year.

Lately, though, interest in the giveaways has gone down, and I wonder if I should continue. People are just so overwhelmed by e-mail and social media they can’t be bothered to open a newsletter to see this month’s item or to click the link to enter.

And I so get that. I used to pine for more information about what was going on in my town. Now, I get three Facebook notifications a day about three local events all taking place at the same time. Concerts, talks, fundraisers, readings, etc. How do I choose? Who do I support and who do I let down? You can’t do everything!

As artists, we struggle constantly with wondering about the value of our work and effort. I produce this free blog every week, and every week I wonder if anyone is going to read it. People are so busy. Heck, I don’t even have time to read half the blogs I subscribe to!

But then someone will send me an e-mail saying, “I loved your post this week. It was just what I needed to hear.” I breathe a sigh of relief. If just one person was motivated or inspired by my words, the effort was worth it.

At least I know the people entering my art giveaways really want that piece of art. They are always so excited to win. And the artists are grateful for the sale and the exposure. And I’m happy to serve my fellow artists. So all things considered, it’s a win-win-win.

I know it feels sometimes like we are singing into the wind, but better that than not singing at all. Do what brings you pleasure, do what you believe in, and trust the wind will carry your song to the one person who needs to hear it.

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Should You Tell Your Story?

Last night, my husband and I went to a PechaKucha Night. These events are billed as showcasing “the art of concise presentations.” Presenters are allowed to show 20 slides for 20 seconds each and talk about those slides. The presentation advances automatically, so the speaker has to keep up. He/she can share ideas, work, passions, thoughts, just about anything.

I’ve noticed a growing interest in storytelling lately. Our local newspaper is hosting storytelling events. So is another organization. I’ve seen more calls for storytellers at open mic nights. And local storyteller groups are attracting new members. Why this sudden interest in sharing our thoughts and experiences in person, out loud, to total strangers?

Chalk it up to our disconnected, social media-addicted, binge TV-watching culture. There are only so many hours you can spend staring at technology devices before you crave the feeling of warm bodies all around you, and the look of recognition and appreciation in a fellow human’s eyes.

Storytelling is our oldest art form. It came before visual art and written language. Maybe dance and performance came along with it, maybe it came first. But since the dawn of man, we’ve felt a need to express ourselves.

Stories taught us lessons, showed us how to survive, and helped us feel connected. They also taught us, I suppose, who to fear and maybe who to hate. They helped us understand our natural world and the worlds beyond. Stories are at the heart of every piece of art ever created.

So maybe it’s natural that people are moving beyond telling their stories in blogs and YouTube videos and back to sharing them with people who can laugh or cry or applaud as they speak. They say we Americans are more “divided” than ever. But stories bring us together.

And so we gather in coffee shops, and restaurant patios, and college lecture rooms and listen to people talk about their harrowing climbs up a mountain or the backyard toy they invented or the best advice their mother ever gave them.

“What makes them want to do this?” my husband asked me. “They’re not getting paid. They’re not trolling for clients. Why tell their stories?”

“Because we are all important. We all have something to say. We all have something to teach. You should do it.”

Pause. “Maybe I will.”

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Home is Where the Art Is

I recently returned to my hometown of Boise, Idaho. My cousin and aunt were visiting from Houston and St. Louis respectively. Both enjoy great architecture and history, so we took them to the old section of Boise near downtown. We admired the architecture inside and outside of St. John’s Cathedral, the Capitol Building, The Egyptian Theatre, and Bar Gernika, in the Basque Block.

I grew up regularly going into and driving past those buildings. I’d taken a school field trip to the Capitol Building and later made deliveries there for the law firm for which I worked. We went to many a movie at the Egyptian. It was my favorite theater in town! And I’ll never forget the beauty and wonder of Midnight Mass at St. John’s, the choir’s hymns rising to the painted ceiling. But it’s been years since I walked into any of those sites, and you forget.

You forget to notice the magnificence of the art you pass every day. The stained glass windows in a local church, the wall paintings in a 1920s movie palace, the wood carvings on the walls of an old bar. We revere these places because some architect took pains to design a building that would bring pleasure to our eyes and ears as well as provide a roof over our heads.

All around you, on every street corner and down every alley, is the evidence of some artist at work. A decorative iron fence, a statue in a courtyard, a carved window box, a song drifting through an open back door. Like the sky above and the flowers that grow, they create a landscape that lifts the spirits.

Next time you go on a walk through your same old neighborhood, take your ear buds out, lift your gaze from your phone, quiet your scattered thoughts, and just notice the art that surrounds you. You may be surprised by what you see and hear.

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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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