Sunday, March 31, 2019

Focusing On the Process

Our Almost Six-Year-Old's Portrait of His Mamma
(That is to say, me!)

Our almost six-year-old is fearlessly creative. And, as you might have guessed, there's a lesson in there for the creative process.

When he was home with the flu, we watched the movie Black Panther. Then he wanted to make a Black Panther paper costume and asked for construction paper, tape and scissors. I was hesitant since I knew neither one of us could create something that would look anything like the movie character. I didn't want to set us up to fail.

Bu our child was eager to try. Even as the cut out eyes in the mask were too close together for him to see out of and the mask was too small to fit over his head, he didn't give up. When he encountered a problem, he tried to fix it or start that part over. He was thrilled to show us the final project that he taped directly to his cheeks.

He (inadvertently) practiced many skills in the process (holding a pen correctly, drawing intended lines, cutting those lines and measuring - and re-measuring - distances.) He relied on his memory and creativity to create something out of a different material from the original. What mattered was the process, but he was also building on past skills and working towards future skills.

It seems that most children, given some space, will essentially educate themselves through play. This is an important part of any learning process and something adults should continue to practice.

Adults working towards writing projects often forget about the process. We are fixated on the final product and don't "count" unrelated tasks as a part of the drafting process. Sure, we shouldn't only generate work and ignore editing, but there's value in creating for the sake of creating. We should each spend some time exploring our craft in different ways and taking chances. We might find that we have unexpected skills, learn something new about ourselves or understand our creations in new ways. If nothing else, we are likely to enjoy ourselves in the moment.

I've been trying to write children's stories. I've gotten myself all tangled up in complicated stories that don't work on many (or sometimes any) levels. I decided to write some stories that are exceptionally simple and direct in an effort to practice writing plot for children. Are the stories generally bland and boring? Sure. Am I having fun? Yes. It feels productive and I'm learning something by completing these exercises. I am also feeling free to try some new things since I'm not sitting down with any expectations of greatness. None of these stories will ever be submitted for publication as I view them 100% as process.

I will always remember my high school art teacher, Mr. Paul Aspell, saying something like, "Never sit down with the intention to create a masterpiece. You'll be too frightened to create something new."

I encourage you to create something new today without any expectations. See what happens.

Sunday, March 24, 2019

Twitter Pitches

This weekend I attended SCBWI's 2019 MD/DE/WV Regional Conference: Steering the Craft. Literary Agent Beth Phelan talked about finding an agent, including Twitter pitches. After I got over feeling old (so old!), I was able to focus and learn about this (not as new as I would ignorantly think) trend.

A Twitter pitch is a very, very short pitch in response to a call for pitches from an agent or an organization. Your goal is to succinctly summarize your project and use the appropriate hashtags so that an agent can find your pitch and review it. If the agent is interested, your next move is to send a query letter to the agent with more information (for more on query letter writing, check out Jane Friedman or Mary Kole.)

Here are some resources to get you started:

@BrittneyMMorris offers a formula to get you started:
[Age] y/o [Name] is [critical backstory]. When [inciting incident] does [major plot change], [pronoun] must [major decision] or else [stakes]. [comps] [hashtags]

Carissa Taylor has put together resources, including researching literary agents and a pitch generator.

When you're ready, Meg LaTorre keeps an updated calendar of upcoming Twitter pitch parties (days to pitch within particular genres.)

To help navigate the many hashtags and genres, Dan Koboldt has a comprehensive list of hashtags and more how-to information about pitching.

To learn more about what agents are looking for, follow the website Manuscript Wish List and follow the Twitter hashtag: #MWL

If you want to find a mentor and participate in Pitch Wars, click through here.

You might be interested in following Writer Beware as you continue to learn more about the publishing world.

Thursday, March 21, 2019

Poetry & Music: Lauren Spavelko's composition, "Baby Book" performed by Laurel Irene

Thanks to composer Lauren Spavelko, my poems continue to have a new life in the form of songs. Recently, Laurel Irene sang Lauren's song cycle, "Baby Book", in a West Coast premiere. If the video below doesn't work, you can watch the video here and view or buy the score here. Read and hear more about vocal artist and voice educator Laurel here.

If you are a writer or composer looking to connect with other writers or composers to perhaps collaborate or discuss your art, please join our Facebook group, Composer Writer Connection.

Thank you again to Lauren and Laurel. It is so moving to hear these words transformed into another art form.

Tuesday, March 12, 2019

Post-Residency & the Writing To-Do List

A paint palette and typewriter pin that reads, "create something new"
to mark our time creating together

My mother and I had a lovely and productive time during our Artist Residency in Motherhood. I set clear goals for myself and mostly stayed on track during the week. Sure, I was also teaching my online classes, but by being away from my usually busy, parenting life, I was able to make more space for creativity and thought.

A few weeks before I left home, I started a residency specific "writing to-do list." I have my long term writing to-do list, but this list broke my goals into smaller pieces that I could slowly work on. Of course, my whole list got mixed up when, at the train station, my husband hit on an exciting idea for me to try that would pull together some of my pieces (more on that another day.) That said, the to-do list was a good place to start and helped me to keep on task each day.

I spent my time drafting, revising, submitting, reading literature and reading about humor writing. I tried stand-up comedy and that experience - especially the experience of preparing - became a metaphor for or new approach to editing.

I'm already looking forward to next year's retreat!

For more, read:
An Artist Residency in Motherhood 2019
Writing Lessons from Stand-Up Comedy
Writing To-Do List

Wednesday, March 6, 2019

Writing Lessons from Stand-Up Comedy

Helium Comedy's stage (no photos allowed during the performance)

When I tell people, "I think I might be funny," they often laugh. It is hard to tell if it is the delivery or the content.

This winter I took Second City's Writing Satire for the Internet with Brooke Preston. It was challenging and fun. (Browse Second City's online classes here.) I'm feeling more confident to write and submit new things. Whatever happens publication wise, I learned some new drafting and editing techniques.

It is always helpful to a new writing genre to hone your writing in general. My mantra in writing classes is that the work should be "as precise and concise as possible." This is, of course, hard. Funny pieces need to be precise and concise in a different way from, say, a poem, so drafting these funny pieces has been a helpful exercise, sometimes with good results.

During my Artist Residency in Motherhood, I tried stand-up. I signed up online the week before to have a three-minute slot at Helium Comedy Club (years of signing our Kindergartner up for hard-to-get-into classes had me ready to click the minute it opened up!) Thankfully, it called for a "tight three" rather than Mrs. Maisel's "tight ten."

I got some laughs! Some comedians congratulated me when I exited the stage into the green room! One woman in the bathroom kindly compared my set to Jenny Lawson's work, which was high flattery.

I wrote, practiced and practiced, timed myself, and practiced some more before going up. I had just about exactly three minutes prepared. Sometimes I went over by twelve seconds and sometimes under by twelve seconds, which was vaguely baffling. There was about thirty seconds wiggle room, so I was fine.

I sometimes suggest to writers that a good editing technique is to close the document you're working on and try to rewrite it from memory. What you forget to include is either an accident or excess words   that you didn't need to begin with. This can be a helpful fat-trimming exercise.

I found that practicing my set produced the same results. Extra words, explanation and details that weren't key to the jokes naturally fell away. (Also, I became self-conscious about my hair as I practiced in the mirror, but that's another issue.)

This is all to say that practicing to do stand-up is both terrifying and the perfect editing exercise.

Other things I learned? I had been warned that the comedy scene would be a "total bro-fest." That warning was not unnecessary. Lots of men and penis jokes. In fact, I opened with a joke about trying stand-up for the very first time and bringing my mother. "Hi, Mom!" A later comedian then opened with questions to my mom about how she liked the, ahem, penis jokes. Luckily, my mom is a very good sport and laughed. (Did I? Well...years of being trained in how to behave as a woman had me smiling uncomfortably.)

There were twenty-one of us in total for the open mike show. We were asked to wait in the green room three comedians before our set, so we were ready to go. There was chatter about a guy who announced it was only his second time. No one could believe it! When I said it was my first time, the group quieted before I was thoroughly man-splained: Comedy clubs are terrible places to try out because the audience is ready to laugh! You'll get laughs and be ruined for "real" comedy at bars where there are only comedians in the audience. Comedians will never laugh at each other's jokes.

I also learned that comedians and comedy clubs are much more serious about length than, say, poets at poetry readings. There was a red lightbulb on the ceiling pointing towards the stage. We were instructed that it would flash to give a warning that your time was coming to an end, change to a solid red light if you went over and then, if you continued for more than twenty seconds, your mike would be cut off and the stage would go dark. Based on my experience at poetry readings, open mike or otherwise, I expected many folks to have their mikes turned off. But no one did. The comedians were prepared and well-timed. Impressive.

Will I quit my day job for comedy? Never. I love teaching and my child and I naturally wake up early. I'm not built for late nights. But, I will continue to write funny things, learn from the process and maybe try stand-up again.

If you're curious, here are some funny things I've written:

Accumulated Wisdom from the Mom with Kids Just a Little Bit Older Than Yours (McSweeney's)

Do Your Parents Have Amnesia About Parenting? (Hint: Yes) (Sammiches & Psych Meds/ Mock Mom)

Dear Young Neighbor Who Complains About My Baby (Scary Mommy)

How to Answer Your Nosy Family’s Questions Like a Toddler (Sammiches & Psych Meds/ Mock Mom)

Fried mozzarella sticks and Philly cheesesteak egg rolls

Monday, March 4, 2019

An Artist Residency in Motherhood 2019

I packed not only my favorite coffee pot, but a little astronaut
because if humans can go into space, surely I can keep writing.
Last January I completed An Artist Residency in Motherhood in Florence, Italy (read more about my experience here and the other mothers completing the residency in the same period here on Cut + Paste radio.) This year I am doing the same thing, only this time I am in Philadelphia with my mother, Melabee Miller, a visual artist. 

Astronaut looking out on a snowy day.
I'm still teaching my online classes, but I'm also spending substantial hours a day drafting, editing, submitting, and reading. It has been a very productive and generative time, which feels wonderful. While my mom and I are enjoying each other's company over meals, we're mostly focused on our own work.

We I chose Philadelphia since it is more or less between our homes; we found an airbnb close to the museums so that she could visit them easily. Of course, the many sites of Philadelphia and friends nearby call out to me and I hope to be back soon to see more. I'm happy to be writing and sad to be missing so many people and things, but that seems to summarize the life of both a parent and a creative person, I suppose.

Today I snuck out with my mom to visit the Rodin MuseumBarnes Collection and the Free Library of Philadelphia. Below are a few related pieces of art: a mother with her child and women reading. (Yes, I do wish that I had seen paintings by women artists showing women reading, but that's another post.) There was also Pierre Bonnard's Young Woman Writing, but I missed taking a picture of it (see it here.) You might be interested in reading about the raven who inspired Poe, Grip. I was surprised to learn that he both exists (stuffed) and is on view at the Free library.

Rodin's Young Mother in a Grotto

Jules Pascin's Girl in Blue Dress on Sofa

Henri Mattise's Figure with Bouquet

Henri Matisse's The Venetian Blinds

If you are a mom artist, I do encourage you to look at the many resources on An Artist Residency in Motherhood's site here. Happy creating!

Thank you again to my husband for helping to make this possible!