About a week ago I got a surprise email from Stacie, asking me to participate in a blog meme. I love Stacie’s blog. I can always count on her posts to touch me and inspire me to respond, either in the comments or in my own journal. Whether she’s writing poetry, short fiction, or sharing slices of her New York city life — and every time I’ve seen her in person — she always exudes the kind of compassion, grace, and intelligence that I aspire to in my own work and, indeed, my life.
Stacie recently set up a fund to help her travel to the VONA workshop this summer, where she will work on her autobiographical comic under the mentorship of Mat Johnson. If you can, consider donating. And she offers cool perks!
The “My Writing Process” meme consists of four ostensibly simple questions:
- What are you working on?
- How does your work differ from others’ work in the same genre?
- Why do you write what you do?
- How does your writing process work?
They’re the kinds of questions you might ask any artist, say at a dinner party, or perhaps while cutting their hair (at least, my hairstylists always seem to). Breaking a bit with the meme rules, Stacie also said she’d like to hear about my visual/painting process.
What are you working on?
I hate this first question. I never know how to answer it, and my inability to do so always makes me feel like a fraud. How can I not know what I’m working on? The truth is — and I try not to let this trigger my impostor syndrome — I often don’t. I can tell you what I’m doing today, and I can tell you what I am trying to do in the lifelong sense, but I’m rarely ever just working on one thing, or two things, or even three. It’s not so much that I’ve got a dozen balls in the air but that there are about twenty balls that have followed me around for my whole life and every now and then they disappear or come back or turn into something new.
If you held me at knifepoint, I would say I am working on a fiction project, I’m cleaning up my blog archive, and I’m making at least one floral painting a week. Notice how I couldn’t come out with this concrete answer until there was an imaginary knife involved. What kind of hooligan would hold someone up at knifepoint for creative progress reports? Maybe I should hire this person. I bet I’d get a lot more work done.
How does your work differ from others’ in the same genre?
This assumes first that I even have a genre, which I’m not sure I do. When people ask, “What do you write?” I tell them creative nonfiction, and when they ask, “What do you paint?” I say, “Oh, watercolors,” but none of this conveys anything really, except that I don’t write Regency romances or political biographies or paint gigantic murals or moody abstract oils. My favorite answer to the genre question is that of my onetime instructor Jaime Cortez, himself a multi-disciplinary artist, who says on his website: “No matter what it looks like, [my] work is usually informed by five recurring themes,” which he goes on to list.*
And that, I suppose, is also how my work differs from others’: it’s interdisciplinary, or as I like to think of it, transdisciplinary, since I am not particularly disciplinary in any of my pursuits (“inter-” implies the junction of two or more disciplines, “trans-” implies something beyond discipline).
This is a strength, but it is also not, because it means I come to my various arts looking for something I can’t attain in the others. I have written prose entirely without description, because when I want to think visually, I work visually. Meanwhile, my visual art isn’t always as expressive as I want it to be, because if I want to get my feelings out, I tend to use words. And I was trained not as an artist or a writer but as a historian, which helps a lot with certain things (critical thinking, documentation, chronology, cultural context) and not so much with others (freedom, right-brain thinking).
Why do you write (or paint) what you do?
The answer to this first appeared in my artist statement, some time back. I create to capture a particular something that will no longer be available later in time: a flower, a human (or feline, or canine) individual at a given moment, an emotion, a frustration, a conversation. Sometimes these are large and universal (death), sometimes these are exceedingly small and specific (a bunch of carrots). And ultimately my philosophy is that nothing will ever be available later in time — this is mono no aware, which is also one of Jaime’s themes — and that is why it is all very precious and worth memorializing.
Actually, this is probably the answer to “What are you working on?” as well: I’m working on whatever strikes me, in this moment, as precious and in need of capturing. Which, yes, is everything. Which is probably why I feel so overwhelmed all the time.
How does your writing/painting process work?
To be frank: there is a terrible lot of self-doubt, comparing myself to others, despair, house cleaning, cooking, and computer gaming involved. In other words, I spend too much time thinking how awful I am, and trying to dull/avoid this knowledge by making myself busy with other things. Then, eventually, I come to some kind of wisdom or extreme desperation (I have concluded these two states are closely related), and then I make something, and then I feel better. Wake up the next morning, restart cycle all over again. Sometimes I don’t make it out of the first stage. Often I don’t make it out of the first stage. And then I feel even worse. On the other hand, sometimes I go whole days or weeks actually remembering that creating makes me feel better, and then I’m very productive.
But maybe you want to know about my process in a more nuts-and-bolts sense. Well, I used to write longhand, but my wrist problems got worse, so now it’s all on the computer. I put in my earbuds, put on — not too loud — some odd/soothing, usually instrumental music like Marc Ribot or Christopher O’Riley playing Radiohead or Arcangelo Corelli, set a stopwatch, and go. I usually keep wifi enabled because I like to look things up as I write. I write well for about an hour, and slightly less well for the next half-hour to hour after that. But if I’ve actually been writing for two hours, usually my hands/shoulders/neck are shot and then I’m useless and cranky for the rest of the day.
As to drawing and painting, if I’m out, I sketch with Marsgraphic markers in a plain Moleskine-type book. If I’m at home, I don’t have a dedicated painting space, so I blue-tape a piece of watercolor paper (usually cold-pressed, which is lightly textured) to a lightweight drawing board and prop it up on a bin and the edge of my desk or dining table, spray my palette with water, put on — rather loud — some slightly strange music like Sapporo Safaris or Jolie Holland or this gorgeousness or something I can rock out to, set my stopwatch, and go. I get up every now and then to stretch, pee, or drink some water, but if I leave the picture, I lose the mood, so I try to do everything in one go. This is not the best because — as with writing — I lose steam after about an hour and a half, but I’m hoping my stamina will increase with practice. It has done, in the past. And then I try not to use my hands too intensively after that, which doesn’t work so well if I’ve procrastinated and am painting right before it’s time to make dinner.
I set the stopwatch because it soothes me to count the hours I’ve worked. Actually it doesn’t soothe me, because it’s always so so many fewer hours than I think it ought to be. But I still want to know. I’ve been doing this for thirty-six weeks now and the number of hours fluctuates madly from week to week. I’m still hoping it will increase eventually.
Want to watch me make the spheres painting above? It’s sped up 8x from the original 29 minutes, and accompanied by some of the music I listened to while painting.
I’ve asked Kuukua to take up this meme next week, because I love her emotional honesty and her stories about navigating many different spaces and selves (and cooking!). Like me, her background is in nonfiction writing and she brings a very personal perspective to everything she creates. Also, quite frankly, I just miss talking with her about writing. Give her blog a visit, and look for her writing-process post next Monday the 12th!
*Jaime’s themes are Narrative, the Marginal, Figuration, Humor, and Mono no aware. I’m not sure what my themes are, but mono no aware looms large for me as well.