We live in a time when history is made by Tweets, when what happens there can instantly be known here. A time when anyone with a digital device can express views, publish opinions, or comment on news within moments of it unfolding, making the (somewhat dated) concept of “information superhighway” never more accurate…or glutted.
We want to be informed, we want to keep our awareness sharp, or maybe we just want some good old chatty entertainment, but given the sheer volume of what comes at us daily, it seems truth—and its ripple effects of impact, inspiration and illumination—often gets lost in the shuffle.
Yet truth is conveyed in many more ways than just news and social media, in just non-fiction tomes and memoirs of note. In fact, some of our most poignant cultural truths have been discovered and disseminated through stories, through imagination…through fiction.
“My daughter is being bullied at school for being ugly. Nothing I say is helping and it’s breaking my heart. Please retweet with a message telling her how special she is,” a father desperately posted on Twitter, sharing a school photo of his perfectly average-looking and undoubtedly lovely daughter.
So, people did. Kind people. Compassionate people. People who wanted his daughter to not feel ugly. To not feel bullied. And what did most of them say?
“You are SO pretty, don’t let anyone tell you otherwise!”
“You’re a beautiful girl. People are just nasty.”
“Oh, honey, you are GORGEOUS. They’re just jealous.”
“Look in the mirror, sweetheart. You are BEAUTIFUL.”
“Don’t listen to them, you KNOW you’re pretty.”
And so on.
Spot the trend? In almost every case, the impulse was to assure her, insist to her, convince her that she was pretty, pretty enough to not deserve bullying on that front (as if anyone deserves bullying on that front… or any front, for that matter). That’s all this kid got. The remedy to her shattered esteem. You. ARE. Pretty.
Well-intended, certainly, and maybe what her father was hoping for—a quick sugar high to cheer up a sad little girl—but to my way of thinking the tact was a wasted opportunity. And, frankly, counterproductive. Why? Because “pretty” cannot ever be the arbiter of a girl’s self-worth. Ever. It can’t be the assurance of her value, the assuagement of her hurts, and certainly not the empowerment of her esteem.
I sighed, reading tweet after gushing tweet, itching to jump in with another angle. But, unwilling to risk this child’s already fragile ego, or start a Twitter snit on her behalf (and, frankly, needing more than 280 characters to get it done), I demurred, hoping whatever boost she got from retweeted Twitter-love would suffice until she got tougher.
Female self-esteem is a curious thing. From the moment girls exist they’re awash in observations about their looks and where those looks fall on the beauty spectrum. Gorgeous, beautiful, pretty; cute, all are default compliments flowing from the mouths of appreciative adults, solidifying the implication that this element of a girl’s identity is the most highly sought. Or at least the most noticed.
Certainly there’s nothing wrong with giving a little girl a compliment; everyone loves a compliment. I love a compliment. But even the most evolved of parents struggle with how to balance their daughters’ natural need for validation with how to push the focus beyond physical attributes. Because while it may seem benign to say, “You’re so pretty, sweetheart!”, when that becomes the most oft-repeated comment to a girl (which it so often does), what is the underlying message? Your looks are your greatest currency. And if looks are what elicit the most commentary, how can any other message emerge?
The difficulty is that societal attitudes about attractiveness are pretty much baked in. Studies have documented the cultural bias, conscious or otherwise, of parents, teachers, medical professionals, human resource departments, even the voting public, toward physical beauty. While other attributes may rank high in other, more narrowly defined, circumstances—science contests, sporting events, academic testing—the initial feature most noted in any generic setting is attractiveness. And, as suspected, that’s right from the get-go.
Deborah Best, PhD, is a psychologist specializing in gender stereotypes among young children. She says that the emphasis on appearance starts young.
“Children are exposed to the importance of physical appearance and attractiveness from a very early age,” says Best. “Without really thinking about the implicit messages they send, parents, family, and friends often comment on a newborn’s appearance. ‘What a pretty baby! She’s going to break some hearts!’; ‘Look at those strong legs! He’s going to be a football player!’”
In graduate school, Best studied under influential child psychologist Harriet Lange Rheingold. According to Best, Rheingold observed parents utter the above judgments in the nursery and said parents were more likely to discuss girls’ appearances than boys’.
“Adult comments on children’s physical appearance indicate to children how important it is to ‘look good’,” continues Best. “These subtle messages tell children that appearance is important and also suggest that those who are ‘better looking’ are also better people.”
Attractiveness even trumps other biases, like race and ethnicity. Media is eager to promote “the most beautiful girl in the world” whether she’s a blue-eyed Norwegian or a dark-skinned Ethiopian. By the time we’re adults, it transcends even the most egregious of negatives, like felonious behavior or murderous impulses (think Ted Bundy or the infamous “hot felon” who parlayed prison into a modeling career). We’re mesmerized by beauty, addicted to it; we forgive vacuousness, criminality, a lack of talent if the body embodying those traits is beautiful. The trend is epidemic in the entertainment and media industries, but even in the most unexpected of places it emerges (Esquire once ran a feature called “The Five Most Beautiful Nuns in the World”).
But in grade school, middle school, and high school? Attractiveness is the gold standard. Add the ubiquity of social media and texting, with their ease of weaponry in cyberbullying, and the pressure to please swings to heights so extreme teenagers turn to cosmetic surgery, while teen suicides, often the result of repeated shaming in public forums, are on the uprise. No wonder Twitter Dad panicked!
Now, I’m no expert but I am a woman who was a girl who, 1.) wasn’t considered “Homecoming Queen material”; 2.) had a photographer tell me, “you’re not photogenic”; 3.) worked with an agent who regularly bleated, “you’re not pretty or thin enough to be a leading lady,” and 4.) had a famous soap star tell me he’d date me if my butt was smaller. I do know the humiliation of not being seen as physically ideal. Yet I survived. I transcended. I crushed my dismissers by getting really good at the things I’m really good at that had nothing to do with being good at being pretty.
And this is what I would have told Twitter Daughter:
1. Really get this, sweetheart: Being pretty is not an achievement. It’s not an accomplishment. It’s inherited genes. It’s DNA. It’s clothes, makeup, and hair. It has nothing to do with worth or viability. Don’t over-value it; that’s the lie. Beauty really is only skin-deep. Go deeper.
2. Stop reading comments on social media or wherever, especially those directed at you. It’s hard to break the habit, it really is, but STOP. Just as you wouldn’t allow someone to repeatedly slap you in the face, don’t allow anyone’s caustic words to get inside your head. You can’t control them; you can control you and how you react and respond. Set your victim bar at ZERO.
3. Ask people you love and trust what traits of yours (beyond looks) stand out, what talents and strongpoints resonate with them. Write those down. Add your own. Honestly assess what you’re good at, where you excel. Clarify your “brand,” your most unique and valued sense of self. BE that, proudly.
4. Research people you most admire, personal or historical. Explore what inspired your admiration; note that attractiveness usually has little to do with it. Notice, too, how age becomes the great equalizer of beauty, leaving those who developed little else to become less with their lessening youth and beauty, while those who nurtured and developed their talents, their contributions to society, their compassion and art, endured. Be like them.
5. Don’t give a hoot what other people think or say about you. I know, easy to say, harder to do, but learn how to do it. It’ll be the very best gift you give yourself. And the bonus is, you’ll discover that the worthy people see exactly who you are, the others don’t matter. You do not ever need to fulfill some random criteria of attractiveness to be worthy. You’re worthy. And you’re pretty enough; decide you’re pretty enough, know you’ll always be pretty enough, then let the whole “pretty enough” meme go. Determine, and let anyone asking know, that that’s not the metric with which you will judge or be judged. Period.
There. More than 280 characters. Hopefully enough. Yes, surely enough.
End-of-year lists. I love them. The “best of” ones, anyway. They’re like small-plate nostalgia buffets, filled with tidbits of all the stuff you loved, distillations of an entire year from the various points of view of clever writers, of which there are many. I’m not sure how clever Iam, but as I watched the last sunset of the year dip into darkness, I thought about making my own.
This would not be announcement-worthy except for the fact I’ve found myself damn near speechless this year, particularly in terms of political opining, quiescence brought on by a combination of outrage exhaustion, a sense of swimming in an overpopulated stream, and the fact that so much of what I think and feel is amply covered by the countless other writers op-edding on a daily basis—and for media sources with far higher profiles than my little blog (I still haven’t forgiven HuffPost for shutting down the contributors’ platform!).
Add to that the “churning machine of political horrors”—also known as the Trump Administration—which pumps out ceaseless vomit with such perpetuity one would have to write five articles a day to stay current, and I ain’t got it in me right now.
But as I got to retrospecting, I was reminded that though these last twelve months have been truly nuts on so many levels, they were also replete with tremendous progress, solid wins; the evolution of new voices, and hearty activism. Enough fabulous things happened, both personally and more expansively, that I became compelled to compile.
In no particular order, not listed by virtue of gravitas or merit, the select things, people, and events that helped make this year a wonderful one… despite it all:
What I Loved Best About 2018:
• The Women’s March, Los Angeles, January 21, 2018. We were almost a million strong (750,000) just in LA alone. The numbers worldwide were astonishing. And beyond the sheer power of that many people gathered to protest racism, sexism, corruption, and sexual assault, the event marked the first time in many years I gathered with all five of my sisters (we call ourselves “The Sixters”) to march together. With matching signs designed by our youngest sib, Grace, it was a phenomenal, empowering moment of familial and global solidarity. I do hope whatever pulls and tears have come into the Women’s March group from various quarters of late can be transcended in 2019 to keep the momentum going. We’ll see. But 2018’s event was unforgettable.
• We got a cat. That may sound silly but it’s not. I’ve watched this fuzzy little creature, who came to us from a shelter on January 5th, literally change the tenor of our habitat with her inexhaustible energy and character. I’ve watched a husband who deals with Post Concussion Syndrome become the warm landing spot for an animal who loves him, who follows him around like a puppy; engages with him in absurd games of fetch, and with whom conversation often ensues (on both sides, mind you!). She is a delightful little being who’s brought particular and unique joy to our home and has made walking in the door an event. No small thing. We call her Georgy Girl. She occasionally likes me too.
• The Parkland Kids: While caustic contrarians like Louis C.K. and Dana Loesch persist in using them as target practice for their bile, those of us who’ve been frustrated and horrified by stagnancy within the “gun reform” debate saw a group of high school students who’d survived a mass shooting take their rage, fear, and sorrow and turn it into one of the most powerful political movements of recent years. I don’t care what minor critiques are dragged up, I don’t care how young and occasionally callow they may be at times; I am not remotely interested in David Hogg’s SAT scores or Emma Gonzalez’s sexuality. There is NO ONE who has more quickly, cogently, and fearlessly dragged the convoluted issue of guns into the spotlight and onto the political stage than these kids. On top of that, they rallied thousands of young people to get registered and to the polls during the midterms, activism which contributed to record-breaking turnout, and they are continuing the movement forward from there. I do believe they will create real change… because no group has ever stood up to the corruption and callousness of the NRA with such earnest and passionate fervor.
• Attitudes about Climate Change & Conservation Continue to Evolve: Despite America having an idiot president who denies science, along with the other money-grubbers who can’t see the forest for the green (lining their pockets), short-sighted dismissal about the longterm assignment of saving the planet is becoming less and less acceptable, not unlike how attitudes about smoking or littering evolved. Reports detailing the dire circumstances that inexorably face our planet, horrific fires we’re told will become the norm, droughts, pestilence, and changing tides, all remind us that we’re a finite element in a grand universe that needs, demands, our immediate attention. And more people are paying attention. While Trump and his toadies temporarily regress America on this issue, this detailed breakdown from Quartz shows there is hope across the international stage. Please read it and do continue, however you do, to challenge and lessen your own carbon footprint.
• I found a publisher. This may not resonate widely, or with anyone who hasn’t pursued a creative career, but it was a game changer for me in ’18. As one who has pursued the arts from the time I was told I could sing or cobble a story together of some merit, I have largely been an indie artist “doing it for herself,” as Annie and Aretha might sing. I’ve had scads of people throughout my time—managers, producers, collaborators, agents, etc.—who pushed things in directions I wanted to go (and sometimes arrived), but despite tremendous wins and scores of incredible experiences, no part of my particular journey has been a slam-dunk. I wasn’t the actress plucked from a coffee shop, the singer pulled on stage by a rock star, the novelist garnering literati applause. I was that other one. The one making my own stage. Working with indie film and record producers, self-financed productions, self-published books.
So this year, when publisher Brooke Warner of She Writes Press, a small but innovative and emerging force in the publishing industry, said she wanted to publish my upcoming novel, The Alchemy of Noise, despite it being controversial, despite my independent resume, despite industry resistance to off-trend voices, I felt the embracing welcome of an opened door. I don’t know how it will go when the book’s finally out (April 9th)—I’m hopeful, they’re expert, early reader reviews (so far) are good—but just to have a group of experienced pros choose to work in tandem with me to achieve this goal is a balm.
• The Midterms: In all my life I have never been more concerned, more involved, or more invested in Midterm elections than I was this year. Anyone who knows me, reads me, converses with me, knows what I think about the current administration, so it’s no secret that I believed the outcome of this election truly was “life or death.” The urgency of implementing checks and balances into what has become a blatant flouting of rule-of-law and all manner of integrity felt tantamount to pulling a drowning society from a raging swamp. I spent hours, stamps, and handwritten agony (can anyone handwrite anymore??) sending out hundreds of campaign postcards for candidates around the country, and the unbelievable turnout, the overwhelming wins, the feeling that we now have a most amazingly diverse and capable group of adults stepping into the cult frenzy, is overwhelming. We did good. Let’s PLEASE make sure we do good for 2020. That’s a whole other article. But I think you know what I mean…
• Social Media Activism: Say what you will about Twitter and Facebook (and there’s plenty to say), in 2018 both platforms became an even more powerful outlet for righteous anger and social activism, particularly on issues related to racism and white privilege. When New York lawyer Aaron Schlossberg bombarded a group of Spanish-speaking customers in a sandwich shop with his vile, racist nonsense, Twitter and Facebook outed him without mercy, and before long he was out of a job and had mariachi bands serenading his apartment building. When Barbecue Becky called the cops on a black family “committing the crime” of grilling in a park, Dr. Jennifer Schulte faced an onslaught of pushback that went all the up to her place of employment and had police considering her commitment. The list of perpetrators from every walk of life assaulting good men, women, and children of color is long, unfortunately, but there continues to be conscious, compassionate, and justifiably angry people with smart phones and social media platforms to take them on, giving activist citizens the empowerment of knowing silence is not an option when faced with hate and bigotry.
• Movies with/about music: I don’t mean musicals—thought I love musicals—I mean A Star is Born and Bohemian Rhapsody. I mean movies that climb inside the life of singers, songwriters, and bands, and bring us with them to watch the music evolve, see the excitement and anxiety of the lifestyle unfold, feel the power of creativity. I’m not interested in critiquing these films—plenty of reviewers have done just that—but both the films mentioned had me energized, engaged, entertained, and moved throughout. That’s always an amazing moviegoing experience. And A Star Is Born, particularly, not only resonated with me for all sorts of expected reasons given my band singer history, but the telling of its story touched me deeply. Both stars are phenomenal, and though I have wearied of drug & alcohol related “Behind the Music” narratives, Bradley Cooper did an extraordinary job of bringing vulnerability and true sorrow to the inexorable trajectory his character experienced. It showed a side of addiction rarely seen. And Lady Gaga… well. What can I say: listening to the fragility and crack in her voice on “I’ll Never Love Again” before it transforms into a soaring power ballad wraps me in tears and goosebumps every time.
• Political transcendence: Allowing a corrupt and amoral conman like Donald Trump into the White House has been one of the most egregious errors in American history. I fought with everything I had—my activism, my voice, my articles, my vote—to keep that from happening, but the power of corruption, the short-sightedness of one-issue voting, the collusion and involvement of foreign adversaries, the willingness of too many to ignore blatant bigotry, lack of intellect, and a classless, corrosive worldview, toppled the good sense of an entire nation. We have paid, and will continue to pay, a very high price for that folly. Yet, while the carnage of Trump has shaken us to the core (and when I say “us” I mean anyone who cares more for humanity than stock prices, who believes all people are created equal, who respects and embraces science; who leads with compassion, empathy, consideration, and love), it has also awakened American consciousness in ways we might not have expected. It struck me that my upcoming novel is called The Alchemy of Noise, a narrative exploring the notion of pulling the good, the gold, out of the very darkest of situations, and I do believe America is finding its own alchemy in this era of Trump. (Read this piece: The halfway point: What have two years of Trump’s wrecking ball done to America?. It is quite brilliant and hopeful… I love the line, “democratic renaissance.”) 2018 has been a “democratic renaissance.” That will only continue to evolve. I have faith in that. Don’t you?
• My circle, real and virtual: As I traverse life on a day-to-day basis, whether meeting friends for lunch, gathering with family; singing songs for my mother in hope of shaking her fog, or spending time in virtual conversations with the many incredible people with whom I engage on social media, I am reminded of how lucky I am to have such evolved, conscious, caring, active people in my global circle. The list is long, you know who you are, and though I would need another blog to name each of you, please know how grateful I am for your hearts and minds, your anger and activism, your humor and good-will, your pictures and silly videos, your articles and reviews, your generosity in helping me with my work, writing me blurbs, commenting on my articles, or simply sharing your own thoughtful perspectives either privately or on my pages. It all means something. You have helped me endure the insanity of our times; you’ve made me laugh, shared cakes I want to eat, brought brilliant art to my attention, and appreciated mine. Thank you. Let’s keep doing it all of that. It brings joy.
• The power of love: That may sound treacly, but I don’t mean it that way. I mean it in the most transcendental, soulful, joy-empowering way. This year I had the pleasure of, once again, performing music with my brother, Tom, who I adore, and three other people I adore as well: Ben (his son/my nephew; Jeff, and Erik), and the love shared and experienced in putting our Sixth & Third shows together could light the grid for years. I also spent about six weeks putting a milestone birthday video together for my beloved husband, and, in the process, was reminded of every moment of our lives together, filling my heart beyond words. The family, the friends, the projects, the labors of love, our children, our pets, our closest friends… it was an overwhelming 18-minute blast of love, and it reminded me to remind myself to always remember and never forget… you know what I mean?
There are more, but these are the highlights, the things that made this year resonate and stand up to the opposite side of this list. I don’t want to enumerate the opposite side; I don’t need to. I only need to keep moving forward wrapped in the power and solidarity of the good side, the “renaissancing” side! I have faith in us. I have hope for us. I know love will drive us. Which is good, because, like Todd Rundgren, I do believe love is the answer.
Happy New Year, my friends! And welcome, 2019. Let’s make some history together.
All photos, except where attributed, by LDW.
Lorraine’s third novel, The Alchemy of Noise, has an April 2019 pub date, with pre-orders currently available at Amazon. Visit www.lorrainedevonwilke.comfor details and links to LDW’s other books, music, photography, and articles.
For those who might not know, one of the more sensitive (and dreaded) tasks required during the process of readying one’s book for publication is the procurement of book blurbs. Considered a time-honored tool in promoting an upcoming book, the assignment requires that you reach out to authors you know and whose work you respect; authors you don’t know whose work you respect; those who might be notable in the arena your book encompasses, or, and most coveted, well-known authors whose status might lend yours a bump of credibility. You offer to send your book—or select chapters—in hopes of inspiring a few lines of endorsement that can then be affixed to your cover or review pages. It does feel like daunting duty, all that asking, and, frankly, I know a few authors who’d rather walk on Legos.
Because getting anyone, even someone you know much less a well-known author, to read your work and write a sentence or two of appreciation feels to be herculean. Everyone’s busy with their own projects, deadlines may make it problematic, and even those who initially agree can later back out for one reason or another. Since it requires a significant focus of someone’s time, the “ask” is approached, always, with some trepidation and a big dollop of sensitivity. You don’t want to appear presumptuous, you don’t want to come off as gushing or obsequious, and certainly you don’t want to risk the pang of brusque and/or unspoken dismissal (though if you’ve ever queried agents you already know what that feels like!). So you proceed with as much elegance and decorum as you can muster, and if you do reach out to a “famous writer,” you do so graciously and with the full expectation of never hearing back.
I heard back from Rebecca Wells.
As the author of one of my favorite books, Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood, Ms. Wells captured my admiration years ago when I first read that book and her many subsequent and attendant titles. And while my upcoming novel, The Alchemy of Noise, is not necessarily a “comp title,” a bit darker and more urban than her own work, the connecting point—beyond my creative respect—is our shared category of “contemporary literary fiction.” It seemed worth a shot.
My letter opened with:
“I was sitting in a natural mineral pool in Desert Hot Springs, CA, when I read Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood. I was with a group of women friends, none of whom had had my particular Catholic upbringing, some of whom shared the legacy of a loving, crazy, narcissistic mother, and as I emerged from the steaming water with teary eyes, the goose bumps on my arms were not from the cold: I had been transported. I looked at them and said, ‘I don’t know why I’d ever think of writing after reading this book…it’s one of the best things I’ve ever read.’
“Despite that earnest disclaimer, I transmuted my awe into inspiration and did proceed to write my first novel…”
From there I told her a bit about my own journey as an author; I kept it brief, I asked if I could send my new book, or just a few chapters, with hopes of a short endorsement, and concluded (as prescribed above) graciously and with the full expectation of never hearing back.
And yet I did.
Not even two weeks later I received a sweet handwritten letter on a piece of lined notepaper: “It makes me smile to think of your meeting the Ya-Yas in a hot tub!”
She went on to explain that she was knee-deep in her own soon-to-be-published project, and though she would be unable to carve out time to read and endorse my book, she concluded with:
“Many congratulations on your writing! What guts it takes to sit on our butts and do this… I do send you all the best wishes as this new one goes forth into the world. Thank you for asking me… 84,000 Blessings, Rebecca Wells.”
In an industry (a world!) where far too many make too little effort to respond and relate to those who reach out to them, I’m always astonished when someone does, particularly someone whose high-profile comes with commensurate demands on their time and attention.
Moral of the story: don’t be afraid to contact famous authors you admire. Even if they don’t have time to read and endorse your book (most won’t), you will have made a connection with someone whose work touched you, and who knows where that may lead? And if you’re lucky, you may walk away with not only their best wishes, but their blessings… 84,000 of them, and that is something that—in this crazy world—is always, always, appreciated.
Next up: What I Learned When I Heard Back From Jodi Picoult
One of the things I love about artists is their indefatigable drive to create art—no matter what age, how many setbacks, who and what got in the way, or which well-meaning professional tried to steer them differently. They are simply compelled to continue. And they do. They create. Over decades, through family dramas, health catastrophes, catering gigs, broken relationships, and all manner of distractions life throws onto the long and winding road.
One such artist is my pal, Mark Bryson.
I met Mark back in the late 70s, when he worked at one of those very trendy “waiters-sing-&-play” kind of places in Los Angeles called Hi-Pockets: The Great American Food & Beverage Company. The name was too long, parking could be a bitch, but the food was good, there were amazing ice cream concoctions, and many of the servers were extraordinary singers and songwriters. In fact, the fabulous Lowen & Navarro (whose “We Belong” became a mega-hit for Pat Benatar) originated there too. It was that kind of place. Mark fit right in.
But over time, Hi-Pockets closed, people moved on, and in the ensuing years I lost track of Mark. We’d occasionally see each other at Lowen & Navarro gigs or certain gatherings, and though I knew he was wrangling his own version of “life’s distractions,” I also knew he was still writing. Every once in a while he’d send something for me to listen to, to offer perspective; sometimes he’d get back to Los Angeles to perform, and what clearly stood out, despite the time and distance, was that “indefatigable drive” I mentioned up top: he never stopped dreaming that dream of his—to put together an album that honored his style and sensibilities as a songwriter, a lyricist, singer and interpreter of his own music. And he finally has. Strikingly, artfully, gorgeously.
Riot On Sunset, a 12-song (+coda) collection of lyrical story-oriented tunes, is not only the culmination of that long-held dream, it is a spectacular album, one dedicated to “the City of Angeles, the Creative & Imaginative, and to all of us with Hopes, Dreams, and the occasional nightmare.” Which certainly struck a chord for me…. but what artist who’s ever found themselves in the great city of Los Angeles pursuing a dream wouldn’t identify with that?
Beautifully arranged and produced by Bryson (along with the very talented team of Gregg Olson and Allison VonBuelow, who both play and sing on the tracks), the songs unfold in a variety of styles, with lush harmonies, gorgeous instrumentation, and the eclectic, passionate voice of the man in the middle. There are glimmers of influence—Springsteen, Coldplay, Dave Matthews, even the Beach Boys—but Bryson is solidly original, not only in what he says, but how he says it.
The title track, “Riot on Sunset,” is an evocative tale of yearning, one that locates us immediately in Bryson’s universe on the infamous Sunset Strip (the CD’s photos are shot there). And while “Abbot Kinney” takes us west to Santa Monica, it’s “Girls On the Run” that sprinkles a little Beatles/Beach Boys playfulness into the mix. “Shady Side” spins a dark, urban mood with cinematic imagery, “Into the Light” pulls us in the opposite direction with almost Peter & Gordonesque swing, and “Brave New World” evokes a Coldplay edge of earnestness. “Stranger In a Strange Land” blends a western vibe with what struck me as Jefferson Airplane backups—a mash-up that, oddly, works. “Easy To Fall” (“easy to fall, hard to land”), “End of the World” (“all my Facebook friends are fighting, I’m just not in the mood”), and “Dream Works” (“make our footprint smaller, fit it in a shoebox”), all blend clever, lyrical imagery with messages wherever Bryson can squeeze them in without losing the beat.
The standouts for me are “Johannesburg,” a touching, powerful narrative Bryson delivers with gritty, dramatic vocals, the story of a man whose life touches his own, and “Best I Can Tell,” a simply gorgeous track of deeply personal lyrics (“This is my life, I am the keeper of my dreams… there are no angels watching over me. Best I can tell, I’m still the boss of me.”). Its anthemic chorus (“there’s more we can do when we all pull together”) not only had me singing along, I could picture iPhones held high as audiences sway and sing that evocative line over and over.
Bryson describes his work as “New Age Space Cowboy Surf Poet”—clever, but don’t let his tongue-in-cheek description distract you from the depth of this work: artful, human, literary, with stories and musicality that reach deep to strike chords and touch hearts. It may have taken him a while to get here, but my friend has honored both his journey and lifelong dream with a defining piece of creativity, one whose timelessness will have me listening for years to come.
For a little white girl growing up in the cornfields and cow pastures of the deeply homogenized environs of Richmond, Illinois, a tiny northern Illinois farm town biking distance from the Wisconsin border, it may seem anomalous that Aretha Franklin would be one of my greatest influences and inspirations… but she was.
Maybe it was the Chicago in me; born in that great and diverse city, I spent the first three years of my life there, and maybe the indigenous “blues brothers” vibe rubbed off. Or maybe it was the Greek roots of my father’s parents, whose attachment to music that got one moving (“opa!”) was an integral part of their heritage. Maybe it was that, even while reveling in my early years as a fledgling folksinger, there was just something about Motown that made dancing in the streets a rite-of-passage even for small-towners in flip-flops and shaggy cutoffs.
Maybe it was just Aretha. Yeah. Probably just Aretha.
Both my parents, born and raised in Chicago, were lovers of music and “swing,” (and by that I mean the FEEL of music, not just the style), and any song that provided the right beat, the right rhythm, the right groove factor would set them jitterbugging across the living room floor as we kids watched in delight. It didn’t escape us that “Rock Steady” and “Chain of Fools” were as high on their playlist as any Tommy Dorsey or Glenn Miller song. My dad, in fact, was a particular fan of “Chain of Fools”; always told me that beat, that bass line, were impossible to resist. He was right. That song (amongst other Aretha favorites) has been on my permanent playlist since that time, transitioning from my stack of LPs, to my cassettes, to the inimitable Walkman, right up to top position on my iPhone playlist.
So when I started singing in bands in the 70s, it really wasn’t so anomalous that her soulful, heartfelt, skin-tingling delivery would be what inspired and influenced me. I wanted to emulate her, be her. Fear of “cultural appropriation” wasn’t a trending deterrent back then—my adoration was seen simply as homage—but despite my respect and desire, it quickly became clear that—given her mastery plus my own vocal limitations —I would have to settle for a version of vocal-heart-and-soul that worked for my voice, my style. And so I did. It wasn’t Aretha—damn, surely it wasn’t Aretha!—but it was mine and it not only informed every recording and performance I’ve done since, but I’ve almost never had a band set list that didn’t include at least one Aretha song:
“Oh Me Oh My,” “Rock Steady,” and “Respect” were fixtures in the early days; then followed “Day Dreaming,” “Natural Woman,” and “Chain of Fools” (and, oh, did we do some odd 80s versions of that one!). When the blues/rock band of the 00s came about, we added “Evil Gal Blues” and “Since You’ve Been Gone.” Every one was an honor for me to sing.
Or play… when my son was a baby, “Rock Steady” was the single most relied upon “lullaby” to rock his screaming little self to sleep!
I knew Aretha had been struggling with ill-health for some time now, so hearing that her death was upon us did not surprise me. Certainly it saddened me. It is the conclusion of a great, grand life filled with music and love and passion and creativity that inspired people of every race, creed and color to feel, to dance, to embrace love; to get sassy, or roil in the blues. She was a purveyor of so much SOUL I must capitalize, bold, and italicize the word. That she will not be making more music is surely an existential tragedy; that she’s left so much behind is an enduring gift.
I wanted to use the above photograph because that shot—the very young, just-finding-the-spotlight Aretha—is how she looked when I first became aware of her. When my sister Mary and I bopped around our basement bedroom grooving to her rhythms, certain we were as soulful and funky as the kids on Shindig or Hullabaloo (we weren’t), thrilled by her electric voice and thumping rhythms. It reminds me that we all get to be young and gifted, that we all get our own life story, our own chance to create, impact, influence, and inspire; leave a legacy. Aretha fulfilled that mandate so very, very well. We—I—will miss her greatly.
(Quiet now… “I Say a Little Prayer for You” is coming up… ).
It has no wisdom or insight that allows me arrogance; it’s not notable in any exclusionary way; it’s not even remarkable in its whiteness: beige in warmer months, too pale to be interesting the rest of the time.
It’s just… skin. It makes me white. It does not make me superior.
I didn’t choose this skin. There was no either/or option, no “sorting hat,” no selection process by which I had a say, at least none I was consciously aware of. It was granted by virtue of my parents’ DNA and whatever spiritual, mystical, biological logistics go into the process of life-conjoining-body. It wasn’t an award, a “you are now deemed superior” assignation. It’s just flesh holding bones, blood, nerves and organs; it has that specific job, no other.
What is exceptional about me has nothing to do with my skin. Which is true of all people. Certainly all white people. No one is superior because they’re white. Whatever stellar qualities they embody emanate from those places within: innate talent, natural gifts; productive nurturing; hard work. And, of course, available opportunities…
Which is where whiteness does offer a superior hand-up. It’s called “privilege.” White privilege. More on that later.
Given the daily bombardment of images, videos, and news stories depicting white people “whyting,” as it’s described on social media, it seems clear that, despite any pretense of being post-racial, America remains populated by a good many convinced of their white superiority; entitlement to dehumanize, discriminate, and destroy with impunity:
White cops shoot black men in the back…in the front… in their cars… in their backyards. A white pool guard humiliates a black mother and child who just want a swim on a hot day. A seething white attorney excoriates strangers for daring to speak Spanish, screeching about how he “pays their welfare.” White teachers embarrass students for their “black hair.” A white nurse caustically abuses a black patient as he lies in an ER bed. A white supremacist murderously plows his car into a civil rights march. A white man knives two black sisters at the BART station, killing one. A white business owner in his “Uriah’s Heating and Refrigeration” truck chases down a black man yelling the “n-word” repeatedly, apparently miffed about traffic issues. A white man shoots a retreating black father outside a store, claiming “stand your ground”; he is not charged. White women call cops on Asian grandmas selling do-dads, black kids selling water, black families barbecuing in the park, black boys mowing lawns, black men moving into apartments; black people being… black.
And a president pushes legislation build on his foundational belief that darker-skinned humans are most readily categorized as “terrorists,” “animals,” “rapists and murderers”; “bad hombres.” Even, apparently, the dark-skinned toddlers he’s ripped from their parents and locked in cages.
What he and the others have in common is their absolute conviction of superiority, presumed status they believe grants them power over people of color. Accords them immunity from acts of aggression and discrimination. Bestows permission to denigrate, hurt, humiliate; even kill.
The truth is less forgiving. They are not only not superior, in many cases they are profoundly inferior. In all cases they are misguided and misinformed.
Some would argue that religious dogma makes the case for white superiority, but they’d be negating the hand of biased men in writing said doctrine over the millennia. Some say history shows evolutionary preference for whites by illuminating their successes in forging countries and kingdoms via Viking plunders, Roman empires; British colonization, and Manifest Destiny. But that calculation ignores the concurrent history of the two largest continents—Asia and Africa—who, along with Central and South America, had their own successes in establishing countries, civilizations, and kingdoms… all without the help of white people.
What is undeniable is that history itself has been whitewashed by the very people claiming superiority, leading it to become its own false testimony.
Truth, however, cannot be so easily dismissed. Pulling away from religious dogma, historical spin, ancestral bias, and a current zeitgeist roiled in racial conflict, it becomes clear, in the light of unclouded examination, that white superiority is a lie, a perversion; a fantasy.
White superiority is a myth.
And the problem with myth is its mythiness; its embrace of fiction, invention, and hyperbole intended to convince the more gullible of its validity. White superiority is, in fact, most astutely described by this specific definition of myth:
“An unproved or false collective belief used to justify a social institution.”
That white people (predominantly men) have coalesced wealth and power long enough, pervasively enough, and enduringly enough to perpetrate the illusion of superiority has been effective in preserving the myth. But it remains a myth, and for many reasons. Largely because the most prevalent attribute of that entitled demographic is the inherited, ordained, bequeathed factor of white privilege, anointed status afforded whites by other whites; sociopolitical assignation that pervades every aspect of white life to create ease, opportunity, and power so endemic that many who benefit from it (as all whites do in one way or another) would argue its existence.
It exists. But, like breathing, its presence and function is so unconscious and automatic we might pretend not to notice… but still we breathe. As, still, whites benefit from white privilege.
White privilege is the blood, the nerves, and—since we’re discussing the power of “skin”—the skin of white superiority; feeding it, animating it, holding it in place; protecting it from the “infection” and invasion of reality, the dispelling power of facts and biology with their unremitting sting of truth.
But despite its endurance, it’s a myth that is slowly but inevitably crumbling in the face of changing culture. Because, even in the face of ratcheting hysteria from myth-believing whites resistant to a changing world, diversity remains an unstoppable force; a churning, expanding, inexorable evolution. As more people of color fill the vibrant corners of our country, the illusion of white superiority will meet its reckoning. And whether wrapped in the American (or confederate) flag, driven by irrational race hate, or just “Barbecue Beckies” with phones, the confused amongst us will face those changing demographics with a choice: cling to the myth or join the coalition.
What isn’t a myth is the science that says we’re all made from the same stuff. When we can truly and honestly embrace that fact, allow it to imbue our every step with equanimity and compassion, we will have reached a state of communal superiority. It may take us generations to get there—we may never get there—but if we do, it will be something to celebrate en masse.
This series began eight years ago when, on June 26, 2010, I sat down and emptied my head of the many thoughts swirling on the topic of “empty nest,” which, in my case (at that moment), involved the strange polarity of being the terribly proud parent of a graduating high school senior, while starkly aware that my child’s next move took him out the door. Unfathomable.
Empty Nest Syndrome was not something I took all that seriously in the early years. People made jokes about it; some friends referenced their experiences with chagrin, others denied it was even a thing. When it came my turn, it struck like a tsunami.
No matter how rational thought defines this moment in a family’s life—”it’s perfectly natural,” “it’s the next logical step”; “a chance to see your kid fly”— irrational thought says sending your kid off on his own after eighteen years of deeply-felt all-hands-on-deck involvement was nuts. For me it was like losing a limb: I ultimately learned to function without it, but never stopped feeling it should still be there.
But rather than reiterate the roller-coaster unfolding of that momentous transition, I’ll refer you to Parts 1-5 of the series starting HERE, where the ups, downs, triumphs and heartaches of this maddening time were noted. As for now—this final chapter—I wanted to reflect a bit in conclusion, to bring this series to a proper close as I help the man my son has become choose area rugs and decide which couch best fits the parameters of his new apartment.
I’m a lucky parent: I have a strong, enduring marriage with a good man who’s a good father, and a child who’s both a delight and the single most amazing aspect of my life. I have few parenting regrets (there was that outburst with the spilled apple cider, and the bowl cut was unfortunate), and if the testament of successful parenting is a successful child, my husband and I win first prize. So I approach this final letting-go with, yes, a lump in my throat but the humble satisfaction of feeling parentally accomplished.
But there’s still the matter of someone you love stepping further from your life, and, regardless of their assigned role, there’s sadness in that.
As adults, we gauge and shift within our peer relationships with a sense of continuity, a certain predictability. We, they, may grow and change in any variety of ways, but we’re fully-formed people by then, and those changes are usually subtle and nuanced. Friends have no reason to leave, to move out, to go off on their own simply because that’s an inevitable part of development. The good ones stay, the birthday celebrations pile up; you grow old together.
With our children, the exact opposite is true. Every day, week, month, year brings a new person into our midst—physically, mentally, emotionally, developmentally—and, as parents, our job is to adjust and change as our child requires. What the five-year-old needs is a far cry from the fifteen-year-old, or the twenty-five-year old, and we are obligated to sort out how to be the right parent for the right age. But five, fifteen, or twenty-five, and despite the profound changes that come with child-to-adult transitions, our love and attachment sustain. Which makes their departures, their distancing, their independence, heartrending.
In my case, it’s very simple: I enjoy my son’s company. Not just as a parent, but as a person, a friend. He’s smart and aware; he makes me laugh, introduces me to new music, discusses politics with verve. He’s as good a friend as any I’ve got; he tells me this is mutual, and the ease he clearly feels with me and his father makes sharing a space an easy, natural thing to do. So when some people seemed surprised that he was still at home at twenty-five, I felt I had to explain; to assure them he wasn’t some launch-challenged millennial in dirty pajamas playing video games in a crusty bedroom yelling, “Ma, I need a sandwich!”
In fact, the “cool roommate” he was in his younger years only expanded in the post-college era: he continued to be entertaining and companionable, and he paid his own way, did his own laundry, cleaned his own room; even kept our technology in top-running order. Who wouldn’t appreciate a roommate like that?
I saw this post-college year as a bonus, one we didn’t expect, as he, first, looked for a job; got one at an engineering firm nearby, then transitioned to a much better engineering firm downtown, and while he wasn’t around all that much—girlfriend, sports, game nights with buddies—the warm moments around the dinner table or those Q&A sessions after watching Westworld (I mean, wth?) were precious. I took not a one for granted, and chose not to think about when they, too, would end.
But they did. When he finally announced, after a year of commuting from the beach to downtown LA (dear Lord…), that he was ready to find his own place within walking distance of work, I knew we’d reached the last rite-of-passage: the final move-out. It inspired a tear, a lump, and an acknowledgement that we were there, but it was so inevitable that it struck gently. Softly. Empty Nest Lite.
Maybe because I so well remember when I first set out on my own. My family life was very different from my son’s, my exit far more fraught, but that sense of independence, of staking a claim to adulthood—from picking the apartment, to finding furniture, towels; pots and pans, feeling fully responsible and free to create whatever life I chose—was equally as exhilarating. I could vicariously feel his excitement at the novelty of autonomy, of planting himself somewhere he’d never lived, opening himself to explore and experience new things. It’s heady; I remember.
So when the day came, we pulled his stuff from storage—the college items, the great pieces saved from our Humboldt house, the selections from his room—and headed to his beautiful, sparkling apartment in a downtown high-rise with windows facing west and a view of the vibrant city and ocean beyond, and helped him start his new life.
I was so focused on the tasks at hand, so impressed by his good taste in the place he’d chosen, so anticipatory of having reason to spend more time in the city, so relieved the move went fairly smoothly, that nary a lump was had the whole day. I felt only that my husband and I had launched our beautiful boy with confidence, knowing he is solid in who he is; joyful in his career, clear about his priorities, and committed to an honorable life.
As my dear friend said, “You did good.” We did. We all did. He’s still deciding on a couch, I’m working on my next book; hubby is taking care of business. Life rolls forward, we breathe… growing up, letting go, and finding new ways to build history.
Of course, this wireless router will now have to be managed without his patient tutelage, but I guess we old folks have to learn and evolve just like everyone else! Dammit. ☺
All photos by permission of LDW. Truck photo by Marilyn Perez.
Two years ago I wrote this piece about fathers and fatherhood, moved by the holiday to express some thoughts on the topic. As I sit here in 2018, thinking about my own father—gone now for almost 18 years—while blessedly, lovingly, still able to admire the parenting skills of the very alive man I married, I am once again moved by the role men play in the process of life’s continuation. The piece below makes reference to Mad Men, a series that, while not current, remains an interesting treatise on “fatherhood” from its anachronistic point of view… so it still holds; thought I’d “redux” it… Enjoy the read/re-read!
Noble fathers have noble children. ~ Euripides
I was not initially hitched to the Mad Men bandwagon as it hurled its way to phenomenon status; I missed the kick-off and never jumped on. But once the media analyses and water-cooler accolades became so hyperbolic as to raise the show to “Breathlessly Zeitgeisty Must-See TV,” I knew I had to get with the program; it’s bad enough I never watched an episode of Survivor!
So I’ve been Netflixing the series and, I have to say, it is a fascinating snapshot of a historical time teetering on the brink of explosion. It well depicts the era’s style and panache (now called “mid century”), and paints a clever and sometimes unsettling anthropological thumbnail of human nature at a point when society was remarkably different. While it focuses mainly on only one or two class sub-sets, it does a good job of breathing life into the anachronistic “swells” and “dolls” of the jargon, the girdles and slicked back hair, and the propensity for unrestrained smoking and drinking (after watching several episodes I felt both asthmatic and buzzed!). But what it illustrates most pointedly is the distance we’ve come in our gender politics.
I was a child during those years and though aware of the more superficial elements, was clueless to the nuances and expectations of the roles of men and women in how they related to each other and certainly as parents. It’s one of the truer clichés of the time that “women’s work” was mostly defined as homemaker, house cleaner (unless affluent enough to afford “help”), and primary parent. Despite the Madison Avenue secretaries and the exceptional women who worked their way up toward the glass ceiling (ala Mad Men’s Peggy Olson), most women carried the weight of child raising, and Dads would show up after cocktails to give big hugs, have dinner, then go off to do “man” things while Mom put the kids to bed. Fathers were loving and involved in their way, but the extent to which they were hands-on was minimal. And while certainly there are still fathers operating from the antiquated paradigm of Don Draper, they’re a different breed these days, the product of an evolving and equalizing culture.
Our views of motherhood have remained fairly constant; it’s the role of “father” that has fluctuated and changed with the times. Men’s life expectancy is still up to six years shorter than women’s so, to put it bluntly, Daddies die sooner. While more women work outside the home than ever before, men still rely on them to take the larger role in parenting, meaning Dad’s intimacy and influence with his children is commensurately less. Some family compositions simply transcend without a traditional father: post-divorce custodial mothers, families with deceased fathers, single mothers who never married, same-sex mothers, etc. Statistics show that these families can thrive and be remarkably “whole” and functioning without a male figure, so the question remains: How essential is a father these days?
In families that have them? Very essential. It’s not whether families can survive without a father – they can, that is well documented. It’s whether a family that has a father has one that is fully present, involved, and contributing in the most effective ways possible for a child’s best shot at success.
Scores of books and studies have dissected, analyzed, and deconstructed the role and there is likely no man on this earth who doesn’t have at least some notion of the task based on his own experience as a child. Typically a man either admires the parenting he received and mimics it, or abhors his own father’s choices and becomes determined to make better ones. Which gets right to the point.
Modeling. A father is the first male role model a child has. In most families the father is the BIGGEST, most influential authority figure to first set boundaries, examples, and expectations. Through him a boy conjures his first idea of a man, picking up the nuances, proclivities and emotional expressions he will emulate in his own version of the role. In a father, a girl sees All Men – at least in the early years. She learns what to expect from other men by virtue of how her father treats her (and her mother). Through him, she sets her bar for the level of respect she’ll require, the honor she’ll demand, the self-confidence she’ll exude, and the aspirations she’ll pursue.
It’s a big responsibility, no doubt about it. We have come a long way from the Mad Men who saw their children as so many props, but new eras bring new problems and in a world where too many young men advance into adulthood needing anger management skills, a better understanding of how to be strong without being a bully, and a clearer sense of the purpose of honor and integrity, a father’s work is cut out for him. When a daughter sublimates herself in her relationships with men, loses her sense of confidence in the face of career adversity, or can’t determine how strong a woman to be without losing appeal, she clearly needs wise fathering to help reconstruct her perspective.
There are as many ways to be a good father as there are fathers and this is not to say a mother is any less important to the outcome of a child. I used to find it difficult to find father-themed gift but thanks to the internet and sites like gearhungry.com, father’s day is no sweat! But a father’s role is unique, specific, and very powerful. As we celebrate Father’s Day, it merits mention, as Euripides stated, that “noble fathers have noble children.” So wear that well, Dad, celebrate your nobility. Embrace your role and never forget you hold center stage – and always will – in the eyes of the children celebrating this day with you.
A very Happy Father’s Day to all the “noble fathers” in my life.
My son, four-years-old at the time and sitting next to me with a sticky juice box in hand, offhandedly asked, “Mom, are you an artist?” Surprised by the question from a boy whose typical discourse involved Duplos, Matchbox cars, and the Rugrats, I smiled and answered, ‘Yes, sweetheart, I am.” He looked over with shy admiration and declared, “You’re so bwave.”
Beyond the Elmer Fuddian dialect that never failed to slay me, his comment pricked tears because, regardless of what inspired either the question or the response (he had nothing more to add when prodded), he was right: it does take courage to be an artist. What it doesn’t take? Or, perhaps, more accurately, what is not required, is suffering.
It’s a hoary meme, suffering for one’s art, one that’s likely been bandied since the onset of man + art, conjuring images of sweat-drenched cave painters, bloodletting Roman sculptors; emaciated Frenchmen in grubby garrets fighting off scurvy to complete their latest masterpiece. There are slews of celebrated suicidal poets, iconic authors awash in clinical depression; famed dancers beset by eating disorders, drug-addled musicians, and brilliant comic minds battered by addiction and self-loathing. And from this wealth of damaged artistic souls, the myth emerged: that true art demands such torture, inspires such laments; that those talented enough to wear the mantle of trueartist are inevitably destined to suffer, to angst, to be eternally roiled and ennuied.
I am not impugning the greatness of the many great artists who were/are inflicted by any of this litany of miseries. Nor am I suggesting that suffering prevents one from being a true artist (though with some it certainly can). What I’m saying is there is no linkage. No equation. No cause and effect. They are simply two different things: art and human affliction. There’s no + with a desired = to follow. They do not go together like a horse and carriage. They do not go together at all.
As for artists who are depressed, suicidal, addicted, troubled, and sick, the question must be asked: Would they suffer so even if they weren’t artistic; if they were doctors, teachers, lawyers, scientists, or plumbers? I suspect so. Yet we don’t automatically assign “suffering” as a prerequisite to any of those other professions.
Frankly, subscribing to the “suffering theory” can be detrimental to one’s health: believing it is natural, expected, inevitable for an artist to endure the Sturm und Drang of creative malaise sets one up to wear suffering like a mantle, a red badge of courage. It suggests artistic agony is romantic. It might even give one franchise to “act out” in deference to the dictum, to allow oneself to crash-and-burn as a matter of presumed destiny. As a self-destructive painter once said to me after nearly drinking himself to death, “I’m an artist, it’s what we do.”
I’m attuned to this at the moment because just this week I was inundated by a series of articles pushing the myth, offering impassioned treatises, provocative quotes, sighs of resignation from various artists, old and new, living and dead, in support of the “suffer theory.” And, as is often the case, these quotes and essays were presented with breathless aggrandizement granted by virtue of the quotee’s celebrity, success, or agree-upon excellence. These folks know, therefore this theory must have merit.
What these folks know is their own singular experience. Their individual states of being and how it all goes—or went—with their unique participation in the arts, their chosen allegiance to the “suffer theory” as they found it applicable to them. Their mistake, I’d posit, is in assuming it applies to everyone and, with the power of their celebrityhood, turning it into belief.
“No artist is pleased… no satisfaction whatever at any time,” she cried out passionately. “There is only a queer divine dissatisfaction, a blessed unrest that keeps us marching and makes us more alive than the others.” ~ Martha Graham, choreographer
What I’d suggest is that Martha felt that way, then made a declaration about it, which then became a mantra for those who celebrate her.
But, all due respect to the great Martha Graham, I beg to differ. Many artists, myself included, have found satisfaction in the creation and communication of their art, the outside enjoyment of what they created; the success—minimal or grand—that offered enough encouragement to carry on.
I would argue that it is not “blessed unrest” or “divine dissatisfaction” that enlivens an artist, keeps them creating, drives them to accomplish profound work. It’s not madness, despair, or angst that compels true artistry. It’s the relentless, compelling, burning desire to create; to get out on paper, on canvas; on stage, through instruments and voice; that idea, that image, that sound that demands conception, that tickles nerves and brain and synapses so thoroughly one can’t sleep for needing to express it.
That’s not suffering. That’s the exhilaration of artistic inspiration.
“… being temperamental, we scorn all forms of academic guidance and throw ourselves on the world, eager to suffer — eager to become, through agony, Artists with capital A.”
In e.e.’s estimation, it’s not just any artistic suffering, it’s the kind of agony that alchemizes a lower case artist into one “with a capital A.” What a siren song that must be for the tender, gullible spirit seeking artistic guidance!
Rinse and repeat my response to Martha.
But if you thought the notion belonged only to philosophers of yore, you’d be mistaken. Another article this past week referenced a young, contemporary writer who asserts in Zadie Smith’s 10 Rules of Writing the following:
“Resign yourself to the lifelong sadness that comes from never being satisfied.”
Zadie had other, more useful, items within her “rules of writing” (though such lists are anathema to me, given my subversive view that there are NO rules to writing), but still I’d repeat my Martha response to her last “rule.” Instructing writers to resign themselves to “the lifelong sadness that comes from never being satisfied” is, to me, a disservice. As with Martha, I’d guess that is Zadie’s view as it applies to her. For you? I’d encourage you to reject it wholesale; embrace the “heresy” that you can, should, ought to feel joy, find satisfaction, revel in accomplishment, even fall in love with your own work as you artistically evolve. That is your right as an artist; the other is an assigned burden of no particular value.
As a take-away to all this, let me reference back to my son’s statement: While agony and suffering are not prerequisites to artistry, courage is. Because art—expressing art, pursuing art, doing art—is as close to a person’s entity as skin and bones and heart and soul. It’s not a thing “out there” to be learned at the hands of professors, teachers, mentors, and skilled practitioners. Beyond technique (which can be learned), art—at its most creative, bold, individualistic, daring, experimental, and innovative— is innate, intrinsic, endemic to an artist’s being, the essence of who they are, not just what they do, and in that it becomes deeply, profoundly, elementally unique to that person. It becomes Personal, with a capital P (to borrow from e.e. cummings!).
To be vulnerable and intimate enough to make personal art, then make public that art, exposing it to the potential of rejection, misinterpretation, critique, insults, and painful, hurtful, soul-scraping judgment takes courage. To get up after each onslaught to continue tapping into one’s soul to access what bubbles within takes courage. Honoring your muse by not ignoring or discarding your talent takes courage.
Courage is not suffering. One is necessary, the other is not. As I’ve chosen to be courageous enough to be frequently satisfied, occasionally pleased; persistently enlivened, relentlessly creative, selectively frustrated, mildly self-effacing, but always, indefatigably artistic without suffering, I hope you will too. It’s far less exhausting on body and soul… which only leaves room for more creativity.