How do you say thank you when your heart is exploding with gratitude? It calls for a truckload of admiration and love. And so, to everyone who has helped me throughout this Women Float book launch and throughout my creative and artistic career, this truck's for you. Specifically, I give you this truck of zinnias that I helped pick from the fields at Fairview Gardens to show my deepest appreciation for your comments, kind reviews and help.
To summarize the Women Float Book Launch Party for those who couldn't attend, here are the results: we sold out of books, I got some great local press coverage and I've had about four lovely online blog book reviews. Both pre-orders and the book launch sales broke preview records for the publisher, CCLaP, and about 50 people showed up to buy books on June 7 and to hear me read. (To read the reviews and articles, check out the bottom of the Women Float page on my website, here.)
Wow. This is more than I ever imagined. I am truly in awe of the kindness that has flowed towards me. In some sense, however, working and living on a farm prepares you for abundance, in all its forms, like the compliments and kind words I've received lately around my book. The key is not to assume that abundance will arrive, but to know how to manage the explosion of nature's bounty if and when it shows up. Like a tree full of apricots or a field of strawberries or zinnias all blooming at once, there can be too much, too soon, all at once. What to do? Make jam. Turn the farm into a u-pick stand.
Or, in the case of the zinnias shown in the truck above, recruit anyone with two free hands to pick like crazy. The day before the huge Santa Monica farmers market one day before Thanksgiving, two of Fairview's main field hands called in sick. This was a near disaster. The head farmer, Julie, knew that she could sell anything she brought to that market, but without people to pick the zinnias, she was out of luck. That's when I got the call to abandon the office yurt where I was designing a new farm program curriculum for local elementary kids and take to the fields. So, off I went, with Julie and two other female volunteers. We bunched all the zinnias seen above and finished by noon. The feeling of cutting and gathering the vibrant colors, on a hot California fall day, was one of perfect delight at doing work that didn't feel like work.
In the moment of cutting those gorgeous zinnia stems and chatting playfully with a group of interesting and new women, I felt raw delight. We were surrounded by our bounty, and, at the end, that felt completely normal and totally astounding. That's how I feel now, engulfed by this unexpected full-body embrace of generosity from longtime friends, family and even total strangers. I am trying to channel that day at the farm and remember that it is both perfectly average and delightfully momentous to be the bearer of so much that is good, beautiful and alive. So, again, thank you and here's to the possibility that we all deserve and can receive generosity.
Does anyone remember the Richard Scarry children's books about various animals engaged in everyday misadventures, like a cat flying a kite that gets caught in a tree or a fox as a carpenter banging his foot? With characters like Lowly the Worm and Huckle Cat? (See the above YouTube video for an animated version of his stories.) Well, I've been thinking of these bizarre remnants from my childhood all week for two reasons.
First of all, the characters in these brilliant books all drive cars that echo either their personality, job or both. For example, Lowly the Worm drives an apple-helicopter and the monkey drives a giant banana-shaped car. I loved this as a kid. It made so much sense to me and these whimsical automobiles were so much inspiring than the typical vehicles I rode around in.
So, after more than 30 years of dreaming of my own car that mirrors my true persona, I now have my own mermaid-car. Well, sort of. I don't drive a long, voluptuous, half-naked fish woman with flowing locks (yet), but I made my first step in that direction by sticking on a car magnet with the cover of my new novella, Women Float, on the side of my very pedestrian ride. Now, stuck in traffic, I imagine people looking at me and wondering about the book and how to get their hands on one and how cool I must look with a book car magnet on my door.
The second reason I keep thinking of Richard Scarry is because of my daughter. She loves the image on the side of my car and she toddles over to it and points at it repeatedly, a high compliment for her. I also had an 8-year-old girl from the afterschool group I lead at the farm admire it. Mermaids are making me big with the pre-pre-pre teen crowd. Are there any marketing stats on this group? I'd call them neener-tweeners and let me tell you: mermaids are huge.
Is it the mythic fish-lady or Richard Scarry that is appealing to my daughter? See, just she started reading her first Richard Scarry book. A friend got it for us at a Carpinteria Friends of the Library Used Book Sale. I understood why the board book was on sale as soon as we got home. Each of the 10 pages included a jigsaw puzzle embedded in the page, all of which fell out and were lost as soon as we got home. No problem. My daughter doesn't worry about something trivial like losing puzzle pieces. She's still got pictures of Huckle Cat riding Lowly around on his bike and then watching him buzz off on his applecopter. And she now gets to admire Sargeant Murphy pulling over the monkey, Bananas, in his banana car.
I can't confirm this, yet, because she's not really talking but I think my daughter has re-named me with my own Richard Scarry-esque persona name, now that my car has a makeover. I think I'm now Wawamama. (That's Watermother to you.) I'll let you know for sure in a few months when I can discuss all this, and more, with my little reader.
In the mean time, thanks to everyone for their cheers of support for Women Float. Jason, my publisher at CCLaP, told me to tell everyone who pre-ordered that books should start arriving this week. The book is now officially for sale here and I look forward to the book launch, this Friday, in Carpinteria. Come see me so I can sign your book and we can discuss why so many of the Richard Scarry characters wear lederhosen.
Today, my debut novella Women Float launched. I'm at a loss. My book and I existed so well underwater, underground, entombed in that kind of perfect solitary wind tunnel that any artist understands. Input and output, all occurred in secret, a great compost heap of digested memory, experience, fantastic imagining, poof, into the brain and out through the great Play-Doh spaghetti factory of imagination. Never to be seen by anyone looking in from the outside.
Until today. You'd think I'd be prepared. Ready. It's not like I've never seen my writing in print. For better or worse, I've slaved or scammed a thousand fast and easy stories for weeklies, monthlies, newspapers, websites, anything. When people have asked me what I write, I've sometimes answered, "Anything that pays."
Is that like literary prostitution? If so, then I'm guilty of being a woman of the write. But writing on assignment, regardless of how minor the water board meeting or major the red carpet, was never like this. Because Women Float feels personal. The book feels like me.
I know, I know. I can hear you writing workshop graduates. I am not these words or the ones in my book. But I've cared for my characters, nurtured them, fed their existence and conjured them from air. I want everyone to love them, without judgement, like me. Besides my dear characters being exposed, there's also me, their writer. I'm their creator. I always wanted to publish a book and when I hadn't for so long, I became familiar with that, too. That void, like the unborn child or lost beloved or cancelled vacation. I got used to this feeling of something both precious and unattainable, and then I built stories around it to make myself feel better and then I inhabited those stories and wrapped them around myself like a warm Alpaca shawl, homely but comfortable.
Today, I removed that ugly sweater of failed writer-dom. Today I also ate the season's first ollalieberries from the forgotten bushes leftover from my family's abandoned u-pick berry farm. I shared them with my daughter, her first taste of that dark and surprising blackberry. Then, my daughter picked her first ripe apricot and showed it to me. I broke it in half and she pushed the half-moon into my mouth again and again, smiling as I admired the tartness, flavor. She smeared the leaking orange orb across my face, until the clear juice stiffened like white glue, drying in the sun as a reminder that the world is too much sweetness.
This important day of delightful publication is both unprecedented and uncomfortable. Fear of failure sandwiched neatly by fear of success. Today, I bite my first fruit of true writing success and it is all sweet, with no bitterness at all. I force myself to rest here, for one, two, three, four breaths. I will engage just one reader at a time. That is all. That is enough.
Four of the 32 postcards I created and sent through the mail for the Naropa Postcard Project.
I was recently invited to participate in an amazing project with my former grad school friends from Naropa. One of them, Chris Mazura, rounded up a group of us to participate in what he's calling the Naropa Postcard Project. Here's the basic idea: a group of writers all received about 30 blank postcards which we were then tasked with transforming in any way we felt using writing, text, art, drawing or whatever. The writers were then required to mail the postcards out to other writers on the list. So, all 30 writers should receive 30 postcards. The idea was inspired by Ken Mikilowski's Alternative Press Postcard Project that the lit mag Bombay Gin covered when I helped edit the magazine. Cool idea, right?
So, about a month ago, I got a slick manila envelope filled with 8-sheets of printer friendly paper perforated into postcards. I couldn't believe Chris pulled off the logistical genius to get all the addresses and everything together. Then, my artist brain kicked into high gear and I decided to use the eight blank pages as mini art pieces, incorporating text and image and variety of mediums: graphite, colored pencils, water colors, oil pastels and permanent marker. The timing was perfect. I've been so overwhelmed with raising my daughter, working my day job at the organic farm, working on edits for Women Float and trying to cultivate a healthy marriage (not to mention the garden at home), that art has gone completely out the window. But the Postcard Project gave me the two key things every distracted creative person needs: peer pressure and deadlines.
Each time I received a beautiful, inventive postcard in the mail, I'd pause and think, "Right. When are those due? What am I doing?" I broke the project down into chunks: time for creating the images, time for addressing the backs, time for writing the short messages, time to go to the Post Office to buy stamps. And yesterday I finally did it: I mailed out all 32 postcards! Did I really mean 32? Yes. 30 for the participating writers and two extras for whatever. So, I sent one to Hoot a postcard-related lit mag and one to President Obama, just for safe keeping. I'll post that one below, called "Ode to Eileen Myles," just so you can see my great leap into the art-political circus.
The takeaway? First, we all need friends to inspire us and get us out of the dark creativity doldrums sometimes. Second, deadlines are amazing. Third, I'm so excited to have connected with my former creative co-conspirators. It's never too late to revive past artistic connections.
For more on the project or if you want to participate in the next round, check out Chris' blog here. Oh, and if you need anything to read, Women Float is now available for pre-orders here.
As I explained in my last post, my long-lost novella manuscript, Women Float, s being published by the Chicago Center for Literature and Photography early this summer. They have a distinctive business model of issuing the small press books both as pay-what-you-can digital e-books and simultaneously as beautiful hard back hard copies that are handmade and gorgeous art objects. As if the whole strangeness of having this book rediscovered isn't odd enough, it also appeared in its first life as a handmade book.
Granted, back then it was in an edition of 12 copies only and I published in March 1998 under the imprint Avocado Press while completing my undergrad studies at Kenyon College. I'd just learned how to make books from the artist and professor Claudia Esslinger. I'd taken a screenprinting course from her and was totally thrilled by the Japanese style binding she showed us. I'd written the book as an Honors English project and wanted a sense of completion by producing it as a book, so I used the techniques she showed me to produce the small run. (I've gone on to produce dozens of handmade books with the skills she taught me.) One of those funky first versions of Women Float still lives at the school's library.
Fast forward 15 years of carrying that strange purple-blue handmade book around to Colorado, Baton Rouge, New Orleans, San Francisco and finally back to Carpinteria to January of this year when I first found out from Jason Pettus at CCLaP that the book was getting a second life. After recovering from the joyful shock of getting to see the book published (via e-mail while waiting for my order in a Santa Barbara In 'N Out burger joint) I dug out the original version and thumbed through it. Then, for fun, I photographed them. I've placed them side by side above this post.
Seeing all four images together, I was struck both by their similarities and differences. In terms of colors, both books feature blues and greens. Mine, of course, was produced at the very embryonic moment of the Internet and digital age, so while I laid it out on a word processing program and printed it out with my own printer, the pages are photocopied onto a nice cream paper. On the other hand, the CCLaP version is a complete stepchild of the Internet: the web is how I found CCLaP and the photographer who did the cover image, how I'm editing the book and how I'm talking to you about it now.
Again, seeing them all, I'm struck by the sheer moxie, persistence, stubborn drive it takes to give a book life sometimes. Fifteen years of stupid insistence that Women Float see the light of day. But it wasn't me. It was the mermaids. I credit the fantastic creatures with guiding this book into its final form. I think they worked while I slept, like the shoemaker's elves, to swim this book to the world. In their honor, I painted a mermaid onto a bus bench yesterday at my hometown's annual volunteer bus bench painting day (see the photograph of her below). Now, she'll look over the city and its visitors everyday with that coy, siren's smile, beckoning all to imagine the things that exist beyond the real. Creativity, folks. Like taking the bus, it's both totally ordinary and a daily essential. Long live the mermaids and long live your own personal artistic ambitions!
The mermaid I painted on a Carpinteria city bus bench yesterday, through the annual Carpinteria Beautiful volunteer day at the Carp Arts Center on Linden Ave.
Before my daughter was born, back in my 20s, I had this idea that I would have my first novel published before I had kids. Ambitious, fresh out of grad school and focused on a writing career, I knew what I wanted. Then, over the years that idea developed and grew its own branches and leaves: a book before a baby, so I'd be an established author before my life got pulled into the inevitable morass of bottles, diapers and sleepless nights. I had this notion, pre-kids, that having a child created a fissure, an ending, a void. My life would be over and nothing interesting would happen after that, so it was critical to have my book done and finished first.
Then an everyday miracle happened in real life: a baby appeared in my body without that mythic novel ever arriving on the shelf. Delighted by her arrival (and totally exhausted from the sheer physicality of waking, rocking, holding, picking up, burping, pumping and more), I still felt the vicious bite of the inner critic: you didn't get the book out and now it's too late.
It's too late. That's how I felt in the early days of my baby's life last spring. I'd never get the time, mental focus or pyschological space back to continue painting and writing, much less the energy to send out my manuscripts and endure rejection. Like a creativity biological clock, I felt my days ticking away without that stupid self-invented marker of success: my book. Friends tried to encourage me by reminding me that life would settle down, time would come back and that my daughter was the most profound creation I'd ever made. I agreed, but I'd always wrapped my identity around my artistic life and that life seemed over. Gone. Vanished.
But then this second miraculous thing happened after I gave birth: I became both miserable and fearless. I'd seen the void, that fragile silk thread holding death to life, in the process of giving birth and I'd felt the physical toll after growing and expelling another human. This raw state produced a new side to my creative life and I found a warrior. My life was over, but a new one appeared. I found courage in wanting to be the best artist possible, not for myself anymore, but for my daughter. And so, with my husband's constant encouragement, I dared to send out a long-dusty manuscript to a small press that was profiled in Poets and Writers, despite countless rejections.
The third miracle then shot forth from the clouds: a book! The Chicago Center for Literature and Photography asked for edits and then accepted the manuscript, nearly exactly a year after my daughter's birth in February 2012. So, here I am, with a book in process and a growing child. I'll send the book's birth announcement as soon as it arrives, hopefully in May. As for the meaning of these two auspicious events and their reverse order in real life, I'll leave that to the Fates to decipher. After all, there are so many things in a creative life that remain a mystery.
I no longer live in Louisiana. Strange but true. And like so many other times in my life, just before I left there was a sudden burst of creative energy that fizzled into a lull once I completed the move back to California.
What do I mean? Well, during the last two weeks of my Louisiana adventure, I modeled my wearable art piece "Sadness Jacket" at the Old Governor's Mansion in the 2011 Uncommon Threads Wearable Art juried show in Baton Rouge. My writing was accepted in Artichoke Haircut and Spittoon. I participated in a final poetry reading with the women in my Milk & Honey Writing Workshop at the Arts Council in Baton Rouge. And, I sold a painting to a fabulous new friend, artist Tina, and she is kindly helping me show my work on the East Coast the 70 Main Coffeehouse and Art Gallery. I felt dizzy and en fuego, like a whirling dervish of creative fire.
Jump to a stalled car in the desert, or me, now, my feet are now firmly on the ground and my face turned toward the joyous and infinite task of generating work. I have unpacked the paintings I produced in Louisiana, like the Queen of Working Mothers, and it is strange to know that my time there is over. From a hundred miles per hour, my creative engagement has slowed to the pace of flower sprouting its first tentative leaf up from the moist soil.
Still, the life here on the avocado ranch reminds me that there is always abundance: more weeds, more gophers, more leaves falling. Shows, workshops, sales, publications will all return, in time. I've set up a single workshop in October and have leads for a class in winter 2013. Slowly, a season changes. The creative life is full of cycles and patterns. Our job is to make sure the soil is ready for the rain.
"Rua and Magnolia Flower" Bird detail on "Train" "Chupakarma" mask
What is it about spring and creativity? There's nothing like the warming weather and blooming tulip trees, after weeks of bundled fingers and frosted geraniums, to draw out my inventive play. And this week, after a thrilling break in the cool temps, I've been taking cues from all things twitching, moving and flying in my work.
Actually, my animal-obsession started last fall, when Britton Estep and I decided to enter the Uncommon Threads Wearable Art Show with its 2009 Crytozoology theme. We produced "Chupakarma," a sculpture/costume, and felt elated when it was chosen. In December, a model paraded down a catwalk wearing our beastie.
Well, that wasn't the end for the terrifyingly cute animal. Inspired by Mardi Gras, I produced four more masks (with Maia Elgin) and flaunted our invented species in the French Quarter for Fat Tuesday. Amazingly, no one figured out our creatures indigenous origins, but strangers were fascinated by the cardboard fangs and bulging eyes. More than a few photographs were made of the small pack of Chupakarmas ten days ago, before the Lenten seriousness descended.
Now, birds are on my mind. My old elongated dove motif appeared in a painting, surrounded by bottles, words and bright colors. And, now in two paintings, our dog, Rua (a red cattle dog) glares out from the paintings, with the same plaintive glare she gives me when she wants to escape our house and chase squirrels.
What animals are occupying your waking hours? Take a moment to sketch them, describe their calls or follow them into unknown alleys. Spring is the perfect moment to return to our primal selves and screech the body ecclectic.
Lately, I've found myself outside in the garden. But don't get any grandiose ideas. By garden, I mean the bathtub-sized patch of overgrown dirt that separates my Southern porch from the sidewalk. I keep compulsively bending over the two rectangular container gardens that I planted, every time I take the dog outside for a walk or leave for work.
The container gardens are planted in two leftover recycling bins. (Baton Rouge changed from the green boxes to large rolling cans.) Reduce, re-use, recycle and grow, right? I'd been dreaming of planting a container garden for months, but was waiting for the right moment. I found it three weeks ago. On an epic trip to the hardware store, I bought tons of seeds and organic soil, but I was stumped when it came time to purchase a box or planter or pot.
A terra cotta pot (to match the rest on my porch) was too heavy. A galvanized beer tub felt too industrial. I spotted a red, flexible rubber tote box, but it seemed too bright, too modern. Then I remembered the green bins. And my Martha Stewart epiphany arrived; I needed burlap.
At home, I rinsed off the crusty, green boxes and shrouded them in burlap (to hide the bright Baton Rouge Recycling logo.) Then, I dumped in the dirt, carefully buried the seeds and said a quick prayer to the Goddess of Growth.
Isn't she a great one, that Goddess of Growth? She's like Ganesh in a pair of overalls, holding a spade and hoe. She shows up when she wants to and always makes a scene, that one. Like the uninvited party guest who arrives with a make-your-own Mojito kit and stories of pirates on distant shores. You can't exactly ask her to leave. But when she stays, you know things will never be the same.
Which brings me back to my teeny greenspace. Maybe that explains all the time spent, staring into the two by three cubic feet of growing sprouts. Perhaps, I'm trying to invoke some serious moments of change, one tiny, unrolling leaf at a time. Or maybe it's a fundamental connection to the creative source I'm looking for. Whatever the case, I'm a woman possessed. A sprout watcher.
So, when you think of me, imagine me out there. Bent over the boxes, surrounded by an audience of technicolor geckos and fire ants. We're all waiting. We're looking for signs.
"Then one day Joe fell in love with a girl they called Maureen