I had a moment on Saturday evening, sitting at the dining room table while the kidlets watched season 2 of The Muppet Show in the adjoining living room. I had spent the entire day alternating between working on a new song that had suddenly emerged from some noodling on my guitar that morning, and trying to read the entirety of Virginia Woolf's To The Lighthouse in time for Sunday's MFA reading conference on the book.
Somewhere in Woolf's incredible 28-page dinner party scene (28 pages! 14 pages on just the soup course!), Elton John broke into "Bennie and the Jets". The muppets echoed him every time he said "Bennie". "Bennie" he sang in perfect falsetto. "Bennie" "Bennie" "Bennie" they sang in muppetly ragtag fashion. My attention shifted from the book to the show - how could it not? - and then the scene changed. The Swedish Chef chased a chicken across the stage. Scooter, in that ridiculous and joyous unrestrained Muppet way, introduced the guest star's next act, "The greatest talent in the history of the universe - Elton John WAHHHHHHHH!". The curtains opened and the Electric Mayhem band accompanied Elton on his ballad "Good-bye Yellow Brick Road". Animal on drums, Dr. Teeth on keys, Janis on guitar, Zoot on sax, and Sgt. Floyd Pepper on bass. Elton had a new pair of glasses for this song, but more noticeably he was just so young. He was thirty years old in this performance. And so mind-blowingly talented.
What is the point, I wonder sometimes, and again wondered just then in the glow of the television. The muppets flopped, chickens scattered, and Elton crooned. And me? I spent an entire Saturday working on a song that seemed at once divinely inspired and now, in the company of a long celebrated classic, entirely unnecessary. Infantile, even.
And meanwhile Woolf was laid open on the dining room table. This 1981 Harcourt, Inc. edition with Eudora Welty's forward is the second copy I've bought in the past month. The pages are yellowed and underlined and scribbled by a former reader, but as long as I can distinguish my scribbles from hers, I prefer this to the shiny-paged, no-paragraph-first-line-indentation, solid-text-block version I bought in December. Yes, I am getting picky about my publishers, but formatting is a necessary consideration. I awakened on countless mid-nights throughout the month of January with the book in my hands, unsure if it was the writing or the printing that brought on my irresistible sleepiness.
Since twelfth grade I've half-read Mrs. Dalloway and Orlando, have seen the Tilda Swinton film based on the latter novel several times, and been thoroughly amused by the Edward Albee stage-play and joke "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" Me, I have often thought, I am. Too many words, too little plot. Too fluid, not enough grounding. I didn't get it, didn't get her. I simply couldn't get through a Woolf book, despite my deep love for the writer Jeanette Winterson who claims Woolf as one of her biggest influences. If not for this particular piece of required reading, I would not be wading through To the Lighthouse now. And for this reason, thank goodness for required reading.
After three days with my new Harcourt edition, I admit I am still afraid of Virginia Woolf, but now it is for different reasons. Her genius has finally revealed itself to me. Her fluidity is incredible - like water undulating through cavernous rock at high tide, Woolf moves between external events and characters' internal experience with amazing deft. How does any writer step up to that? She captures the constant mind chatter and mood fluctuations of her cast, then passes the thread of experience around from character to character, each tumbling through thoughts like sea glass churning through waves, each shift of judgment and emotion in pristine and exact language. I have never read anything that catches so well subjective perspectives and the interplay of relationships. Granted, there is not much of a plot. However, the grand gestures and broad paint strokes of plot are not the point here. To the Lighthouse is painted with the delicate minutiae of Rembrandt, not the impressionistic swatches of Cezanne. The precision is immaculate.
It is intimidating, actually.
And so I found myself wallowing in that same question again -- What is the point? -- , this time from my reading. And that is when Woolf entirely endeared herself to me. A few pages after my pity party, Woolf shifted from being my tormentor to my savior. Her dexterity, her insight blow me away, but when she used her craft to comfort my aching inner-artist, I melted. Here, it is as if she says, just for you I will put in Lily, the painter, the artist. And so that you know that I know what it is like to be an artist, I will let Lily have doubt, because don't we all? And I will show you how she overcomes it.
For this I must show you with her own words:
...before [Lily] exchanged the fluidity of life for the concentration of painting she had a few moments of nakedness when she seemed like an unborn soul, a soul reft of body, hesitating on some windy pinnacle and exposed without protection to all the blasts of doubt. Why then did she do it? (Yes! Isn't this the same question I wonder always??) She looked at the canvas, lightly scored with running lines. It would be hung in the servants' bedrooms. It would be rolled up and stuffed under a sofa. (Yes! The doubt of unworthiness!) What was the good of doing it then, and she heard some voice saying she couldn't paint, saying she couldn't create (Ah! Those inner voices that enter innocuously and then fester!), as if she were caught up in one of those habitual currents in which after a certain time experience forms in the mind, so that one repeats words without being aware any longer who originally spoke them.
Can't paint, can't write, she murmured monotonously, anxiously considering what her plan of attack should be. For the mass loomed before her; it protruded; she felt it pressing on her eyeballs. Then, (Ah! this "Then" is the glimmer of the new moon, the faith, the passage out of doubt and into doing) as if some juice necessary for the lubrication of her faculties were spontaneously squirted, she began precariously dipping among the blues and umbers, but it was now heavier and went slower, as if it had fallen in with some rhythm which was dictated to her... by what she saw, so that while her hand quivered with life, this rhythm was strong enough to bear her along with it on its current.
So, at the encouragement of Woolf, despite the doubt, I've continued.
On Sunday morning I went running - my first 11 miles since last May's marathon - and spent the nearly two hours of asphalt and trails working out Saturday's new song. I fell "in with some rhythm which was dictated to her...". The rhythm of the subconscious. The rhythm of the artist doing what she loves without ego-doubts intercepting every creative turn.
Sometimes people joke with me after a run. What are you running away from? they ask, and we laugh together. But really, if they wanted to actually hear an answer, I would say this: Doubt. Stories I've been told. Words I repeat "without being aware any longer who originally spoke them."
As it turns out, I don't run faster than doubt, but I do have more stamina. Eventually, every time, the mind chatter loses interest in me. I keep running, singing, writing... and doubt sits down on the side of the road and waits for some other artist who is willing to give it some attention. I feel a little badly about it - leaving the doubt out there for someone else - so perhaps that's why I write this blog. I can't do away with the "can't write, can't paint" words that float around maliciously, but I can keep doing my art despite the doubt, and write about the interplay between art and doubt here. After all, not everyone has the time to get to Woolf.
(But if you do, don't worry - there's nothing to be afraid of.)
Naturally, after years of northeast city living, I walk fast. Last night, soaked from head to foot after a spin class, I slowed my pace. My car (utilitarian, dirty) was in a lot (street level, gated, manned), same place I parked for Monday's class. I noticed the unusually warm November air, and the pitch black sky (no stars, no moon), and the lights ablaze on the backside of a three-story concrete apartment building at the far side of the lot. It's common knowledge that to be a writer one needs to slow down and notice things.
My new book bag arrived in the mail yesterday. Last night after spin, not exactly at their request, I gave Darby and the girls individualized tours of the (let's count together) sixteen (or did we miss one?) pockets. There are pockets within pockets and it gets very confusing, but the most important thing is that there's space for my (printed out, three-hole-punched, three-ring-bindered) reading materials and (new) laptop. In addition to the bag and the laptop, a few weeks ago I went to the eye doctor for the first time in six years and am now wearing new glasses (Prada like the devil). Also, I have more student loan debt. Apparently I am going back to school.
Do I look smarter?
Am I more organized?
Will my new bag and laptop and everything make me focused, disciplined, witty, and desirable in smart, creative, insightful ways?
Dammit, will these new specs and my sixteen (or seventeen) pocket book bag help me achieve all my professional, creative, and life desires, which include a charming, perfectly-sized house in a small town with agreeable weather (some rain, plenty of sun, cool enough for layers, warm enough for bare feet), beloved students and colleagues, published books and essays, and plenty of time with Darby to explore exotic and familiar places where we can be both adventurous and lazy?
Ah, welcome, mind-chatter. Of course. Have a seat, set up shop. Like my new book bag, there are pockets within pockets, and there's always room for more worried inner-dialog. One thing my mind chatter does not refute is that I am an attentive listener.
One of my past writing teachers always insisted on grounding details right from the start. Let the reader know who, what, where, when, and how, she would urge, but look at me here. Even with the MFA acceptance letter, new glasses, and book bag, I cannot hide from the fact that I will fail. I have already forgotten the grounding details.
Who: Yours truly, the timid and fierce dreamer in residence.
What: MFA in Creative Writing with a focus on Creative Non-Fiction (but explorations and possible semester in Fiction). Low Residency program.
Where: Antioch University Los Angeles.
When: Beginning in a few weeks on Thursday December 5 at 6:00 p.m.
How: With a good amount of anguish, I suppose.
The low residency format of this MFA means I will be on campus for ten days each semester, for four or five semesters. Ten days on campus attending workshops and seminars, followed by five months of 'project period' in which I will write and submit, among other things, twenty pages monthly to my mentor. In preparation for one of the upcoming December residency seminars, I re-read a passage in Anne Lamott's book Bird By Bird. In her chapter titled The Moral Point of View she writes,"The core, ethical concepts in which you most passionately believe... telling these truths is your job."
Sorry about the profanity, but Dammit, Jim. What are the core, ethical concepts in which I most passionately believe? Lamott is not asking for a superficial answer about what I like, or to what I am agreeable, but that which I most passionately believe. She writes later, "Reality is unforgivingly complex." Hell right it is. Is there a closet to hide in, because this stuff is pretty intense. How do you unravel your passions enough to get at Truth, with a capital T? Can I not just live in keeping with my values, hopefully bring that to my yoga students and my kidlets? Doesn't she know that the Prada glasses are just a ruse?
Apparently not. Lamott is saying Arielle, dear timid and fierce dreamer in residence, you can quietly live whatever life you want, but if you are going to write about it, you need to step up to the plate. And, by the way, you're the one who put the application in the mail to Antioch, with an excerpt from the book you are writing about the time you toured the country for five months with your band. You went to one of the top music schools in the country despite unholy cries from your nuclear family about how you cannot and should not pursue the life of an artist. YOU HAVE DISMANTLED YOUR LIFE EVERY TIME YOU FOUND IT WAS INAUTHENTIC AND REBUILT THE FOUNDATION FROM SCRATCH.
Yeah, Ms. Lamott. I guess stepping up to plate is kinda my modus operandi anyway. I just wish I could do it with a little less commentary from the inner critic peanut gallery.
In the shower this morning, I held the bar of lavender soap and closed my eyes, trying to find the words to describe the sensation in my hands. No words came, so I simply washed my face. I pressed my fingers against my closed eyelids till sparks of color and geometric lines lit up against the darkness. How would I describe this? I thought, and wondered if it looks the same to everyone. Again, no words.
It's one thing to slow down and notice. It's entirely another thing to have the skills of phrase. Language art. And then, beyond that, to actually say something of substance. Express that which I most passionately believe. Perhaps this MFA is just an expensive way to confirm that you are not gifted in this realm, says my inner voice.
Given this lifetime of dialog between us, I'm thinking I should consider giving my inner voice a name. Like Syd or Pup or Marcia. Yes, Syd, perhaps this MFA is just an expensive foray into failure. Meanwhile, Syd, it's still morning. I've got my coffee to drink, and if you don't mind sitting over there quietly for a while, I will journal for a page or two to clear my mind, and then I intend to sit here at my new laptop for a bit. After all, if you're done talking, I'm in for another day of writing.
I moved to Los Angeles six years ago with a silenced voice and a broken spirit. I was married at the time, to the drummer in my band, and we'd been on the road touring full time for about six months. There was no planned end for the tour, and until a few weeks earlier, no plan to settle in California. There had been no plan to settle at all, actually. We just booked gigs and drove around the country with our bass player, sleeping in relative's spare rooms, stranger's lumpy couches, and on rock club floors. Every day we drove into a different town, every night we drank beer, and every morning we drove off.
It's strange to talk about a music tour and realize that my prominent memories have nothing to do with music. My then-husband and I had spent the money we got from our wedding gifts to buy a van that we rigged to run on recycled vegetable oil. Just before our first anniversary we found a new bass player (our original beloved one had no interest in hitting the road) and the three of us loaded the van with all our most prized possessions - drums, guitars, amplifiers, microphones. We drove out of Boston in the Spring of '06 with an extended Chevy cargo van full of songs and dreams.
I grew up going to folk festivals. All my heroes were singers and road warriors. I'd dreamed of touring for as long as I'd been writing songs. Since my first east coast road trip from college back home, I'd wanted to see the country. My drumming husband and I met at Berklee College of Music where we both did graduate work, and then gave up our jobs and apartments to live out our rock star dreams.
Right from the start I felt ungrounded. Despite the good attendance of our shows at the beginning of the tour, as we made our way down the eastern seaboard I had a sinking feeling. Not sinking, actually. More like drowning. Locked in the van for hours on end, I lost all sense of schedule. Always surrounded by people, I misplaced all sense of creativity. I filled my days with numbers and papers instead of poetry and melody. I sent business emails and phone calls to bookers and promoters, and counted the cash at the end of the night. The unfamiliarity of each new town made me too anxious to venture far from the van. The only exercise I got was the heavy-lifting of sound equipment at the beginning and end of each night. The only time I sang was for the hour or two of the gig. The rest of my days were silent.
By the time we got to Los Angeles, it was just the two of us. I'd started having emotional breakdowns on stage, crying at lyrics I'd sung for years, alternately self-medicating with coca-cola and gin-and-tonics. One night in New Hope, PA the tourist season had ended and the club was near-empty. We played the opening bars to our first song and my throat choked. I cried so hard I couldn't sing. We dropped the bass player in Virginia with his folks, and pointed the van west. I didn't care where we went - I'd go anywhere my husband chose, as long as I never had to sing again. He picked L.A, and to this day I believe this was one of the greatest gifts he ever gave me.
Almost a year into our lives as Californians, a woman I worked with but barely knew gave me a flyer for a 12-week workshop based on the book The Artist's Way by Julia Cameron. I didn't know anything about the book or the workshop, but I instinctively knew that this was what I needed for some deep healing of my creative spirit. I hadn't sung in over a year, hadn't played guitar, hadn't written a song. I was working long hours in the celebrity endorsements department at a top talent agency, lost and trying desperately to find a new dream, a new career.
The Artist's Way workshop that winter was a spirit-saver. I drank up the weekly meetings like I'd been parched. I was parched - desperately thirsty to be around artists of any sort, deeply needing to tap back into my own creative depths. Those twelve weeks helped me begin stitching my creative spirit back together. After the twelve weeks were over, I took some more workshops with facilitator Kelly Morgan, the inspiring woman who I began to consider my mentor. Soon, I became Kelly's assistant in the workshops, meeting weekly at her home with a small group of other assistants, and helping to hold the space for new Artist Way students' healing.
Ultimately the workshop helped me to unveil other desires. I found my longing to regain body-wellness during those workshops and in my weekly one-hour "artist dates" that the book prescribed. I remembered my love of yoga, and found Rising Lotus Yoga, a beautiful studio near where I worked. That summer I delved deeply into my yoga practice in a personal 40-day challenge in which I practiced every day (resting every 7th day). It was the discipline and surrender that I needed, inspired by Boston yoga teacher Baron Baptiste and the transformational journeys of biblical teachers. Later that year I enrolled in the Rising Lotus Yoga teacher training program, and spent the next nine months studying yoga and unraveling my marriage. Whatever is no longer serving us, the yoga practice teaches us, begins to fall away. I felt renewed, like a phoenix rising from the ash, like a lotus growing out of the muck.
In the years since those Artist Way workshops with Kelly and my yoga teacher training at Rising Lotus, I re-found my voice. I remembered my love of writing. I discovered that I love teaching. I learned to nourish myself with good food made well. I would be remiss to not mention the love that has come into my life through my dear man Darby and his beautiful daughters.
Songwriter Patty Griffin has a line in her song Love Throws A Line: "We run out of luck / We run out of days / We run out of gas a hundred miles away from a station.... Just before we can't go any further / Love throws a line to you and me". The Artist's Way, Kelly, Rising Lotus, yoga, California.... they all threw me a line, a life saver when I was drowning in the muck of dreams that were no longer sustaining me.
Last year, when I began The List of 100 Things, I included two lines about a vision I had:
#60 - revise creative yogi proposal#61 - send creative yogi proposal to Rising Lotus
Inspired by all these things and wanting to share the healing, I've created a one-day workshop for the yoga community of creative spirits. There are so many students I have met at yoga studios and in classes who chat with me later about their screenplays, their books, their music, dance, films, paintings. Finally, because of last year's List of 100 Things, I created this workshop. I sent the proposal to Rising Lotus sometime in 2012 and they loved it. We booked a date right at the beginning of 2013 because since it seemed the perfect time to fan the flames of the new year's creations.... and now the workshop is coming up.
That I created this workshop (step one!) and moved past my fear of rejection (step two!) were major accomplishments from my List last year. On January 13 I'll check off item #4 on my List for 2013:
#4 - Teacher Creative Flow workshop
Here's a link to the event, if you are in Los Angeles and interested in attending. There's early bird pricing - only $35 for the 3-hour workshop. We'll do a mixed level yoga practice (appropriate for all levels) to start and then move into writing and interactive exercises. I already know some of the folks who have signed up for this, and I'm looking forward to us all inspiring each other as we uncover, discover, and tap more deeply into our creative spirits.
Here's the blurb from the poster about the workshop:
In this 3-hour workshop we will embark on a hero’s journey –
because we are all the heroes of our own story – and unleash the creative flow through movement of the body and the pen. We will tap creative inspiration and loosen the grip of hesitancy and fears by releasing the blocks of our past stories.
This workshop will begin with a 1-hour yoga practice. We’ll focus on breath, movement, and sweat to quiet the surface thoughts and find our inner strength, balance and joy.
Following the asana, we will move into writing practice, playful sensory explorations, and small- and large-group interactive exercises to spark, inspire, and unlock the creative flow.
January 13, 2013
$35 adv / $40 day of
This workshop is open to all levels of yoga practice.
All types of creative spirits are welcome — actors, writers, musicians, dancers, filmmakers, painters, cooks, parents, teachers…
Bring your journal, a pen, and your curiosity.
Rising Lotus Yoga 13557 Ventura Blvd. Sherman Oaks 818-990-0282 •risinglotusyoga.comm