Let’s Go on a Date

This week, I learned octothorp is a cute synonym for hashtag, or the pound sign (#). I recognized my mother in a painting by someone else who has never met her. I found shimmers of pearly mica in paper.

These were the unexpected discoveries of going on a date to somewhere new to do nothing. On purpose.

I’m in Week 2 of Julia Cameron’s The Artist Way book, which guides creators (whether writers, sculptors, musicians, visual artists, custom iguana costume designers, you name it) to unblock their creativity. Her double-barreled recommendation is to write morning pages every day and take yourself on an artist date each week.

In her book, she calls artist dates “a necessary frivolity,” a time to take your artist-self out for a spin to somewhere new and then reflect. A dual experience of going out, then looking in. Unstructured playtime to inspire you and fill up your well of creative inspiration. And surprisingly, she says you may find yourself avoiding it, or allowing things to be scheduled over it.

As a bonafide workaholic, I can totally see me ditching my artist date at the first opportunity. When I stumble upon that stranger called Free Time, I think, what can I do to use this time to get ahead on my to-do list? But the concept of doing something new just for creative inspiration sounds pretty fun, so I’m trying it.

Last week, my artist date was attending the virtual American Christian Fiction Writers’ conference Fri-Sat, but this week, I had to think of something new.

Julia asks:

What did you do?

I’m new to this artist-date business and staggering under the weight of pandemic stress, full-time work tasks, and the joyful yet undeniably constant roles of serving as a wife and mom (oh, also, we’re selling our home, so that’s a whole thing in it of itself!), so forgive me for a pretty obvious artist date.

I went to an art museum.

The Weatherspoon is free to the public and located on UNC Greensboro’s campus, just over a mile and a half from my building. In my eight years of working at UNCG, somehow I’d never entered the Weatherspoon. It was high time, I decided on Wednesday at lunch.

Determined, I parked my car in the lot outside the building, strode past outdoor sculptures and circular tables with lemon curd-bright yellow umbrellas and the sounds of chimes, and pushed my way into the glass doors.

There is something special and uncomfortable about going somewhere new, especially if you’ve been living like a hermit during a pandemic lately.

My heels on the floor echoed around the rotunda entryway. I wobbled, having worked from home for over a year now and worn high heels only a handful of times during then. Far ahead of me was a welcome desk with pamphlets, and far to my right was a hallway. Uncertain of myself but still filled with the adrenaline of Having Made A Decision To Come Here, I chose right.

It was so quiet that I was startled to see the gallery filled with young adults. Each had a notepad or iPad and was peering at the framed artwork then scribbling notes. Only one sound reverberated through the room: the deep voice of an instructor saying, …notice how ink and glue were mixed together to form this rich pattern. See how the artist made this rubbing with the wood blocks…

I’ve never been comfortable in art galleries. Am I standing too close or too far from this picture? Is there an unspoken flow to which direction I should go? I feel like I’ve seen all this painting has to show; is it rude to walk away now and does it show my ignorance that I didn’t linger longer to fully appreciate it? Are they watching me instead of the paintings? They’re all in a class, maybe they know each other; do I stick out like the outsider I am? Am I even looking at the right things in this painting?

Worse still, some objects in the museum like benches and light fixtures were artistic as well as functional; was I even looking at the right art?

I’m like Steve Trevor in Wonder Woman (2017), admiring an object before realizing it’s just a trash can.

I hushed those voices, remembering the affirmations Julia mentioned. I am allowed to nurture my artist. Through the use of my creativity, I serve God. As I listen to my creativity, I am led to my creator. I realized how much I was thinking “should” and “is this right”, and I let that kind of negative, narrow thinking go.

Ok no, I didn’t remember Julia’s specific affirmations in the moment, but I did remember the spirit of what she wrote, and decided to go for it, to embrace the discomfort and silence the frantic voices inside my head telling me to walk briskly out of there, back to the parking lot, and hide in my car.

I walked up to the first framed photo. I let my eyes travel the flawless, calm face, the arms with no imperfections, the delicate brush strokes of her eyebrows and hair, and the vibrant flowers and stars of her gown. The plaque on the wall identified these paintings from Shinsui Itō, from a collection called Twelve Images of Modern Beauties.

But what caught me most was the attention he paid to the backgrounds. The handmade paper that winked and shone with flecks of mica. The muted red and black tones from rubbing against wood blocks that seemed to have secret, faint patterns.

And that’s what it took. I relaxed, standing inches away from paintings, no longer counting the seconds I lingered, moving on eagerly to the next one, to discover the less-than-obvious strokes and shades.

I puzzled over some penciled, grayscale art. Leaning in closely, I saw the drawing was comprised of rows and rows of thousands of tiny hashtags (octothorps, the plaque said), some of which were dark and some light, all forming an impressionistic picture of something larger.

Ivana Milojevic from Serbia says her drawing displays the physical and mental parallels of a woman as a mother, wife, and daughter. Even before reading this, I saw my mother in her painting, the lines of her limbs forming the angles of our home, her forearms like the row of piano keys she plays, her legs like the spines of the books she’s encouraged me to read, and now write. It was shocking, to say the least.

I found a series of art from Carmen Neely, based in Chicago, who says the repeated elements across her paintings are like characters, even friends.

I saw Shinsui Itō’s signature in vertical kanji along an edge of a painting, and the plaque beside it said because it has a signature, this may have been a gift for someone.

I’ve been to many art galleries throughout my education and travels with my parents, but between Neely and Milojevic and Shinsui, this was perhaps the first time I truly thought about the artist. That these paintings were moments in their lives, how they carry meaning for them no one else might experience the same way.

And I saw paintings that I couldn’t make sense of, paintings that confused me, like staring at a math problem I hadn’t the least idea of how to begin solving.

And that was ok. It’s ok to not understand all art. It’s ok to accept that not all art is meant for me.

In some ways it was like Scripture. I may not understand all verses when I read them. I may get the words’ general gist but still have a sensation that deeper meaning waits, eluding me. But perhaps in time I will understand more, when the meaning is meant for me to grasp, after I’ve matured or lost or listened.

How did you feel?

So you see: I was uncomfortable. Insecure. Uncertain. Curious. Surprised. Moved. Inspired.

And glad!

What this experience indicates for my writing, we shall see. But I am definitely glad to have ventured out on this artist date.

Will you go somewhere new this week?

Me at the Weatherspoon, sitting on an artsy bench that was (probably) meant for sitting on, and definitely not an art exhibit. I think.

So you see, the date went well. I’ve been out of the singles dating game since March 15, 2014, thanks to my husband, so this might be terribly outdated but here we go: I had a good time. Let’s do this again sometime. Text me!

Tune in Next Time…

To be continued…

Tune in next time…

Remember seeing those awful words on-screen at the end of a show?

Those words always brought me misery, because I wanted to know what happened next now. There was the uncertainty that I wouldn’t be able to find out the ending, as I might miss it.

Here’s the story of how I joined the ranks of authors torturing readers an episode at a time by writing the story, Extinction Isn’t for Everyone.

Throughout high school and college, I spend free time reading stories from fanfiction.net, which is a delightful (free) community of writers who reprise their favorite characters in entirely new lives (an “AU,” or alternate universe), inject themselves as new characters into stories (the “Mary Jane”), bring characters from one story into another (the “crossovers”) and more. It is a dazzling play place of asking, “What If?” So naturally, I read nearly everything out there related to stories like Phantom of the Opera, Harry Potter, Dragonriders of Pern, The Immortals series by Tamora Pierce, and other personal favorites.

Those stories were told episodically. Authors–everyday people like you and me!–posted their chapters one by one.

Fearful of engaging a story that an author would abandon and thus be left on an eternal cliffhanger, I filtered stories by whether they were Complete or In Progress, and I’d typically only read the completed ones.

Now, in my emerging career as a writer, I’m finding that episodic writing is terrific training grounds for me. Here are a few reasons why:

  • Releasing bite-sized episodes enables me to focus on one portion of the story at a time and not get overwhelmed.
  • Feedback from readers per episode helps me hone my understanding of what readers like. (And don’t like!)
  • Writing in episodes gives me good practice for scene-writing in a novel. Episodic structure requires me to practice ending each scene with a question or cliffhanger or something to “hook” the reader into reading the next one.
  • There are no barriers to entry so publishing is fast and up to me. No publisher or agent to wait on to approve the story. (Downside: No one else is reviewing the story pre-publication to tell me whether it needs improvement or not! Yes, I could ask someone to…but like most writers once I’ve written something, reviewed it myself, and I’m impatient to share it!)

For these reasons and more, I’m trying out Kindle Vella, Amazon’s new episodic storytelling platform. In a nutshell, I can release an episode immediately or set it to release at a later date. There’s no limit to how many episodes there can be. Episodes are encouraged to be a minimum of 600 words and a maximum of 5000 words. I can go back and edit episodes if *gasp* I discover errors (it’s happened more than I care to admit). Readers can “Like” a chapter and, if they spend money on tokens, they can “Fave” one story per week.

Screenshot of “Liking” a chapter.

There is a small payment which authors can earn if readers choose to spend tokens to unlock an episode at a time (hence the importance of ending each episode on a cliffy so they want to read the next one!), but it’s so small as to be really unimportant to me now (which is why I didn’t even list it as a benefit). Essentially it’s roughly 1 token for 100 words, and readers can buy 140 tokens for $1.99, and authors gain 50% of the royalties. So, “if a reader spends $1.99 to purchase 200 Tokens, then spends 50 of them on your 5000-word story, you receive $0.25. This comes out to $.0005 per 100 words.” Or often, even less. (SOURCE) So I harbor no illusions that this is a worthwhile source of profit. What is important is the practice and the motivating excitement of releasing the story into the wild!

I was surprised when Amazon sent me a bonus payment of $37.16 for the activity on the first few episodes! Whew, big money! Haha, I know it’ll likely be the most that I will make on this story. But what fun! Thanks, Amazon. That was pretty cool of you.

Email from Amazon. A nice surprise!

They’ve provided a dashboard and slowly begun to add functionality to it. Right now it looks like this:

Behind-the-scenes snapshot of the dashboard for “Extinction Isn’t Everything”

There are other episodic publishing platforms; some of the best-known are Radish, which started in 2015, and Wattpad, which started in 2006. These are far more established than Vella, which just began this summer of 2021, and offer better dashboards, tons of stories, more complex author payout structures, and long-running story options. But…from what I see, they tend to be saturated markets already, and the majority of stories run to R-rated content. Vella offers the opportunity to be one of the first authors on the platform just due to its novelty, and Amazon has the deep pockets and wide reach to promote Vella stories more broadly to readers. Though Amazon has tried other forms of serialized storytelling, which didn’t work out so well, there a few reasons Vella seems like it might stick around. So, I gave it a shot.

I wanted to give myself a break from the long and getting longer Christian fiction novel I’m writing. Currently I’m wading through the middle of the novel, and putting all the pieces together is giving me a headache. (The second act of novels is notorious for being a bit difficult compared with the first and third acts.) So, I wanted to reinvigorate myself by embarking on a departure from novel-writing and doing this completely unrelated monster fiction story.

And thus “Extinction Isn’t for Everyone” was born. Well, ok, it’s still in the middle of being born. Bad metaphor, haha. Let’s say it’s planted, put down roots, sprouted leaves, and the bud is beginning to blossom. I released Episodes 1, 2, and 3 in July (the first three episodes are free, so the pressure is on these to set up the story and hook the readers to want to read more!). With glee I sat at my in-laws’ kitchen table, waiting anxiously to see if I could search the Kindle app and see the story. Then suddenly, it was THERE! For the whole world to see! Just as I’d written it! The feeling of delight and heart-pounding terror that people would see it and know I’d written it was extreme. What if they wouldn’t like it? What if they judged me? What if there were errors in there I hadn’t caught? What if it was dumb? All of those questions stabbed and stung like poisoned arrows for the next few days. My sister-in-law Leslie helped me overcome my self-constructed house of horror by just asking, “Are you proud of it?” And yes. I am. So there it is, world!

With a mixture of relief and disappointment, the number of readers and likes didn’t really rise for the next few weeks. It illustrated to me that just because you make something and make it publicly available, people won’t necessarily find it. The “Field of Dreams” quote, “If you build it, they will come,” is not actually the case. I posted it on Facebook stories, and sure enough, the numbers rose. For someone with a graduate degree in Marketing, this shouldn’t have been such a surprise. Marketing is something that I know about and plan to invest in when I have a novel ready to promote, and I’m actively attending seminars on marketing through Goodreads, social media, BookBub, and more, plus investing in my Facebook account and this WordPress blog (and eventual newsletter) on occasion. But for now, my focus is on the writing moreso than audience growth.

I decided to continue writing the episodes, because well, it is a really fun story to write! My original reasons for writing it as practice and enjoyment for myself remain true, regardless of whether there’s a large volume of readers. (Though even a few are a major boost to my motivation!)

For a time I published an episode a week. With feverish joy I’d set up camp at a coffee shop, research mythical monsters and sketch out an episode, write it in fits, then review it when I could take a break from it to approach it with fresh eyes. Then I took a break for a few weeks as episodes 7 and 8 were especially critical in answering some of the question I set up. Now I’ve got the final episodes 9-12 sketched out, and I cannot WAIT to write them (which is a mix of plotting and pantsing, which is writer jargon for seat-of-your-pants discovering sentence by sentence) and call this story Finished.

It’s a small step. As usual I’m tuning in to Andy J. Pizza’s Creative Pep Talk podcast, and the latest episode (vastly simplified here, you should just listen to it!) encourages artists to not expect that everything you produce is Shakespeare. Whether it’s fine art or not, we’re making something new. And that is squarely where this lands for me: I’m making something new, it’s good and fun for me, and it’s energizing for now!

If you’ve read all this, thanks! I hope you’ll check out Extinction Isn’t for Everyone and let me know what you think! And, of course, tune in next time…

The Artist’s Way

Morning pages, every day.

Artist dates, every week.

Julia Cameron has touted these two primary tasks for years in her books and workshops on creativity. In the podcast I often listen to, Andy J. Pizza’s Creative Pep Talk, Andy and others have mentioned her book as a great resource. (Andy takes care to explain that recommending a resource doesn’t necessarily indicate he agrees with every single part of it, and I’m glad he said so, because I feel the same way about this book so far.)

The Artist’s Way is a 12-week guide inspired by her workshops. It’s an international bestseller that has earned acclaim and criticism over its 25-year existence.

And one chapter into the book, I already see why.

Informed by the workshops, this book has special value:

  • She anticipates the resistance, questions, and reactions I’m experiencing in my inner voice as I read, thanks to hearing these comments from her workshop participants. In this way, she engages me deeply by answering my questions as I go along.
  • She provides examples of other artists who participated in the workshops and the challenges and successes they faced. I see bits of my journey in the examples she shares and almost feel as though I’m going through this workshop with others.
  • She uses elements from the workshop in the book, such as signing a Creativity Contract.

She provides practical tasks and creative ideas. I especially loved the Creative Affirmations–a set of 20 statements to help orient and confirm our sense of purpose, ability, and connection with God. The quotes throughout from a wide variety of artists, not only authors, added pithy moments of profundity, humor, and corroboration to her words. It feels like she’s coaching me through the book, and I find myself motivated, encouraged, and very “seen” with the challenges she describes in becoming an artist. I believe that by engaging in morning pages (3 pages a day to unblock creativity, on any topic, no editing or rereading them) and artist dates (playing, going somewhere new) I can develop a more consistent habit of creativity. I’m going to try it for the next 12 weeks (ok, I’m notorious for starting things and not finishing them–anyone else like that? And November seems so far away from now…) to the best of my ability and have set calendar reminders. I am eager to see what Week 2 holds.

And yet, even the opening paragraphs feel somewhat defensive, akin to a chapter on apologetics. Cameron expressly describes creating as a spiritual experience (yes!), then tries to gently wade readers in by thinking of the universe as a “vast electrical sea,” then states there is a higher spiritual power. She writes, “Christ said, ‘Wherever two or more are gathered together, there I am in your midst.’ The god of creativity seems to feel the same way.”

2 reactions to this:

Maybe that is a particular version of the Bible, as there are many which vary, but in the English Standard Version I typically prefer, the statement is, “For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.” In her version, it’s slightly misquoting to leave out the “in my name” bit. I checked this in a few other versions and that does seem to be a consistent element. Splitting hairs? Maybe. But to me, the essential difference is that when people gather in Christ’s name, He is there, not necessarily at every gathering of people. Commentaries like this one and this one on the importance of context of this verse aver that this verse specifically relates to church discipline and how Jesus would be present in those difficult conversations. I’ll leave it to the theologians as to whether the “in my name” is critical axiologically and whether this can be applied more broadly to creativity as well as church discipline, but for me, it seemed she’s using Biblical quotes while conveniently dropping the part that points back to Christ and taking this quote out of context. All the same, she wouldn’t be the first.

Secondly, it’s interesting to quote Jesus, who Christians view as the one and only God, and then to state “the god of creativity seems to feel the same way,” either implying a lowercase “g” god who is not divine but rather a concept, or another god who is separate from Jesus and has authority over creativity. She’s had the challenge of teaching this spiritual approach to both Christians and non-Christians, and the effect seems like a bit of pandering to both in order to smooth over the edges and find some murky middle ground, where we all recognize that spiritual creativity is mystical but there is a creator with whom you can have a relationship. She says, “Again, I do not ask you to believe this. In order for this creative emergence to happen, you don’t have to believe in God. I simply ask you to observe and note this process [moving out on faith] as it unfolds.” Maybe that’s fair enough.

As a Christian who believes that God is a distinct being and definitely the God of creativity, the Creator of all things, her approach semi makes sense to me even as it’s off-putting with the backpeddling that you don’t need to believe in God and, as she suggests in the Introduction, can instead insert an abbreviation, “good orderly direction,” or “flow,” each time you see the word “God,” to help you tolerate her mention of God. Eh. It feels as though to try to wrangle the vast spectrum of beliefs she’s speaking to, she’s trying to acknowledge the challenge, offer a buffet of bland options to appease all tastes, and ask you to shovel it down quickly so we can get past it. I trust that she’s done this workshop enough times that she feels it is necessary to do it this way so we might progress past an endless philosophical, religious debate that spans lifetimes and march into the program’s actual start. At the very least, it’s probably good she does this right in the Introduction so that if it is upsetting enough, people will stop there. For me, as a religious studies major with a fair amount of experience seeing people attempt diplomacy on the subject of God to a diverse audience and the knowledge that I can absolutely learn from people who have substantially different beliefs than my own, I am able to move on to see what can be learned from the rest of the book, but it did suspend my engagement enough as to react in this blog post.

Overall, notwithstanding the Bible quote roadbump, I feel extremely encouraged by this first chapter. She has a veteran mix of motivation and tough love that I’m responding to. I didn’t expect to take on the 12-week challenge, but here I am, within the first week and doing my morning pages daily (ok, I missed Thursday) which are very satisfying and an artist date (taking off work Friday to participate in the ACFW virtual writers’ conference! Ok, that was preplanned, but it serves the purpose!).

And now, back to the writing…current project is finishing up Extinction Isn’t for Everyone!