‘Empathy Is the Antidote To Everything’: my interview with author/coach Sara Connell

Eight years ago, shortly after I launched this blog in 2010, I reached out to Ariana Huffington with samples of my work, hoping to interest her in my writing for The Huffington Post. In a rare and wonderful anomaly (how many big CEOs respond to those kinds of emails?), she wrote back—in a writing style echoing her very unique speaking voice—to say she would love to have me onboard, and so I leapt. I was there from February of 2011 until January 2018 (when they shut down the program), and  it was a fascinating and pivotal turn in my writing career, one for which I’ll always be grateful.

Fast forward to almost a decade later. I’m approaching the pub date for my latest novel, and in enters Sara Connell, an author and writing coach out of Chicago, who invites me to participate in an interview with her for… Thrive Global, Ariana’s new endeavor. A karmic moment, indeed, so of course I did.


It was a provocative, far-reaching interview, covering everything from issues of racism, white privilege, my goals in writing this new book, The Alchemy of  Noise, to my perspective on  the writing process and the power of fiction to illuminate essential themes and inspire activism. It was meaningful to get that deep into topics that pull my attention on a regular basis, so I hope you enjoy the conversation we shared:


“Empathy is the antidote to everything” when sparking a movement, an interview with authors Sara Connell & Lorraine Devon Wilke

From Sara: “As part of my series about ‘How to write a book that sparks a movement’ I had the great pleasure of interviewing Lorraine Devon Wilke. An accomplished writer in several genres of the medium, Lorraine Devon Wilke, a Chicago native and one of eleven children, has built a library […]

Thank you so much for joining us! Can you share the “backstory” about how you grew up?

My particular backstory started in Chicago, where I was born the third child of a Greek-American father whose parents emigrated from Turkey, and an Irish/German/American mother who was raised by an extended family of rowdy Irish Catholics after her mother died and father absconded. This dramatic starting point infused my own upbringing with some rather stunning polarities on all fronts, from religion to politics to sex to how to raise children, and I became a very opinionated child as a result.

While still formulating my character, however, my parents fled the city, relocating to as disparate a place as one could imagine: Richmond, a tiny (population 350 at the time) farm town in northern Illinois, bike-riding distance from Wisconsin, as homogenized and white as Chicago was diverse. Too young to grasp the impact this would have my worldview, I reveled in the insular charms of small-town life until I grew old enough to realize I’d be fleeing in reversal of my mother and father…


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Lorraine’s third novel, The Alchemy of Noise, is available at Amazon and elsewhere.

Visit www.lorrainedevonwilke.com for details and links to LDW’s books, music, photography, and articles.

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Rape Jokes. Yeah…Hilarious.

I didn’t see or hear about it until Martha Plimpton’s Tweets in response to the story made news. Apparently shock comedian and Comedy Central golden boy, Daniel Tosh, went on a tear about rape at a live show and a woman in the audience took offense. After she made comment from the audience, Tosh went on, no doubt with his ever-present smug grin, to respond: “Wouldn’t it be funny if that girl got raped by, like, 5 guys right now? Like right now? What if a bunch of guys just raped her?”

Hilarious, right?

As you can imagine, a few took offense.

But as culture is wont to do, righteous offense is followed by justifications and pontifications and a follow-up opinion piece in the Huffington Post by blogger and media mogul, Chez Pazienza, Daniel Tosh vs. The Age of Outrage, took up Tosh’s cause, shaking a finger not only at the offended woman (who had a writer compadre take to the Net to express her outrage), but at the panty-waisted Culture At Large which is clearly too thin-skinned and pussified to get the importance and hilarity of this cutting edge humor:

“Comics stand as the vanguard of our right to free speech — the canary in the coal mine, so to speak. They’re the ones we count on to be able to push the envelope, challenge our sensibilities, even offend us occasionally because it’s necessary for us as a culture.”

Right.

Chez, this may have been true in the days of Lenny Bruce, George Carlin, and Sinbad, to name just a few of our best comedic canaries, but in 2012, when anyone with a mouth, a keyboard, and a video camera can blather any sort of “humor” online or cable, the noble duty of which you speak has long since been washed away in the tsunami of cultural evolution (devolution?).

Comedians are not only NOT necessary to “challenge our sensibilities,” they, in fact, rarely do these days. Anyone who’s been around smart-ass teenage boys has heard it all already. Instead of cutting satire and true wit, now we get Jackass movies, endless vagina and/or penis chatter, lots of trash talk about smacking bitches, and, of course, the always “sensibility-challenging” rape jokes.

Too many comedians, male and a few females, are caught in the over-saturation found in every form of art these days and, as a result, are frantically treading water to stay anywhere near the top. With the interminable competition of Twitter, YouTube, Facebook, StumbleUpon, etc., they appear desperate to one-up themselves, other comedians, and anyone else in view, by raising (lowering?) the bar on sophomoric potty-mouthing and “look at me I’m being offensive” kind of humor. Just check out any number of well-known comics on Twitter who can’t wait to regale us with discussions of bodily fluids, masturbation techniques, and perceptions of known or unknown genitals…always hilarious. The overreaching has become banal and predictable; the transparency in their effort to be the grossest, most scatological, most disgusting and, certainly, most offensive, has set up a race to…what? What finish line are we going for these days? What will be outrageous enough? Comedy porn? Hilarious snuff films? Reenactments of actual rapes?

Daniel Tosh, like many other contemporary comedians, has built his style to appeal to sniggering teenage boys and men young enough to have missed the heyday of Howard Stern. His humor is goofy, in-your-face, and over-the-top, delivered with an imperturbable smirk and knowing wink. Sometimes he’s truly funny, sometimes he’s not; often he’s intentionally offensive and the boys and their preening girlfriends guffaw and giggle regardless. It’s the mode of the day. We’re in the Age of Shock and Snark.

But despite Mr. Pazienza’s delusional assertion that all this offensiveness is good for the cultural soul, it’s more likely contributing to its coarsening; scraping off layers of social decorum, societal empathy, and even a higher standard of humor and intellect, leaving raw the rankest, most loathsome elements of humanity easily found in the humor-couched hate-speak and verbal violence spewed by commenters everywhere.

Good humor does and always has played a vital role in pricking consciousness, picking scabs, and shining light in darker corners of humanity, but gleefully poking sticks at the snakes of offense for no reason other than the satisfaction of a bite back takes no great wit or wisdom. Hollering from the stage about how funny it would be for an offended audience member to get raped by five guys may be a knee-jerk reaction to heckling or a calculated move to get lots of buzzy attention but, either way, it’s unimpressive humor. You can get anyone’s attention by smacking them across the face; that doesn’t mean you’re clever, cutting edge or, God forbid, funny. It means you’re a lazy comedian.

Rape. Yeah. Hilarious.

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Visit www.lorrainedevonwilke.com for details and links to LDW’s books, music, photography, and articles.

The Art of Art Discussion: Just Quiet Down and Go Create

We all need a break now and again from the day-to-day work that holds our focus. Like the vaunted “15-minutes” regular office workers get to stroll into the cafeteria for java and a Danish, we freelancers take our moments, too; often to hop online for a little social media refreshment. I’m as guilty as anyone; there are days when serious-conversation_smmeeting a deadline, finishing a project, getting errands done, or managing my ever-growing list of marketing tasks all require the interruption of some light trolling on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, Huff Po, Fine Art America or any of the groups and discussions one might find here or there. And when I do, I’m typically compelled, by virtue of senses stirred, to jump in. Sometimes it’s just clicks on photos and links I enjoy but, equally as often, the urge for rejoinder is strong. It’s hard for me to read inane chatter, mean-spirited comments, or truly debatable topics without wanting to throw in my two cents!

Certainly political postings corral the lion’s share of this type of response, but more recently I’ve read or partaken in “art discussions” — analysis and deconstruction of style and technique, contest decorum, commerce demands, etc. —  and, much like politics, the tendency for some to veer into cynicism, negativity, and arrogance is apparent. And disappointing.

Like anything else on the Internet, Art is a big topic. Go to any art-oriented site – photography, painting, jewelry design, graphic art, whatever –  and you’ll find opinions on every aspect and angle. And in those discussions, you’ll meet as many wonderful artists as you will curmudgeons, which, frankly, I find surprising. I don’t know why, but I always expect artists to be more uplifting and good-spirited than they often are.

See, I was lucky to have been given a constructive and very positive foundation in my training. My experiences in a wide variety of “the arts” included an overriding message of support, assistance, camaraderie, and the sheer joy of the craft. Certainly there were those who took opportunity for snarky critique, behind-the-back denigrations, sniffing arrogance, or bashing disguised as instruction, but I was fortunate that most of the teachers, professors, mentors, and fellow artists involved in my impressionable youth exuded their own joy in the craft and that imprinted upon me a higher-toned mission statement; one of constructive input, positive output, and personal and communal artistic integrity. Or, as is suggested in this age of The Secret and The Power of Positive Thinking, a “half-full perspective bereft of the toxic effect of negativity.”

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“Either love it or do something else,” I was advised. I was also reminded of the old adage, “If you haven’t got something nice to say, don’t say anything.” Which, unless you’re a bona fide reviewer, opinion writer, or comedian, applies to pretty much everyone else.

So it’s jarring for me to read threads in which artists snipe at each other, knock down the work of others; become “authorities” about what is or isn’t Art (as if they, in particular, know!), criticize and demean the marketing choices of fellow artists, or denigrate any aspect of the industry – art or commerce –  that they, personally, don’t appreciate or wish to partake of. These are the kind of people who find fault and spew criticism, whose toxic brew of negativity was what a mentor of mine used to call “sour-pussing.” Glass half-empty. Discordant. Contrary.

For example; at Fine Art America, the very well managed site that provides hosting, printing and delivery of fine art photography and paintings – and a place where I’ve met a slew of very talented, supportive artists who are smart, enjoyable people – there is a contingent (likely too large a one) that “sour-pusses” on a regular basis. A discussion thread commenced recently regarding the winner of a now-concluded “Times Square Art Contest.” The woman who started the thread posited her prompt with a tsunami of criticism; of the winning piece, the artist, the contest, the overall marketing demands of the art world, concluding with a cranky assessment of “the whole thing.” (Frankly, I wanted to get her a juice box and tell her to take a nap!) But, more disappointingly, what followed this diatribe was a slew of commiserating comments, supporting her thesis to some degree or another. Lots of judgment of other artists’ work, denunciations of the overall state of the industry, snarky rejoinders about contests that “demean” artists into “begging” for votes, right down to a nihilistic grump-fest that included the statements, “There will be artists as long as there is society, but that too is coming to an abrupt halt. America is going under as we speak, and the rest will follow in quick order,” and the exceedingly grim “THERE IS NO FUTURE to ART. Humanity is much more interested in Ipods and marching blindfolded into the future. We are the last artists on this planet.”

All I could think was…WTF?!?

I shook my head as I read this manifesto of negativity, wondering how these people got out of bed, much less found the energy and inspiration necessary to create art. Luckily there were a few bright individuals who spoke up to shoot down the negative trend and did so with enough intelligence, optimism, and artistic good-will to offset, to the degree they could, the snarling hordes but, I have to say, I was disappointed that so many seemed hell-bent on ripping Art, and its artists, a new one! I was tempted to leap in and make my points, but realized, with some weariness, that the thread leader was jumping on every response with her continuing brand of snark and snarl and it was just too nice a day to get involved in that level of crankiness…though I did send an email to the most cogent and wise of her debaters, thanking him for his insight!

While I agree that we all have “the right to our opinions,” as Debbie Downer repeatedly pointed out, too many seem to have missed the lessons of integrity, constructive thinking, artistic magnanimity, and a positive, supportive outlook. Clearly Art has long had a history of creative personalities who were churlish and mean-spirited; many who were (are?) burdened with insecurities, jealousies, schadenfreude, and plain old nastiness, but in the communal world of online art exchange and discussion, there really is no room or reason for all that.

But people are who they are; I can’t change them. The woman running that thread is clearly a person with many other issues in her life that contribute to the attitudes she exudes online. But while I feel sorry for her (and certainly anyone in her near circle!), I ain’t gonna debate her. Because I reserve my perspective, my thoughtfulness; my contribution, for conversations that are constructive and focused on offering views and opinions that transmit something positive and helpful, rather than the banal, deflating, blather-fest of negativity I found on that thread.

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My suggestion to that crowd? Stop talking and go create. If you have that much time to spend tearing down others in a community setting, go make another piece of art instead. Rather than getting some kind of buzz out of stirring up mutual frustration to feed your own, shut off your computer and pick up a brush or a camera. Don’t worry about what others are creating, just create. Quit expounding on what you think is stupid and create. Don’t announce what you won’t do, just do what you will do. If you don’t have the desire to be in a contest, don’t; but don’t cut down others who do. Don’t want to ask people to vote for your work? Again, don’t. But quit yacking about others who have no problem garnering support for theirs. And if someone wins a damn prize, offer congratulations and accept that even if “it’s not really creative” to you, it clearly is to someone else…enough that they won! And if you don’t have it in you to congratulate them…

Just quiet down.

Stop talking.

And go create.

All photographs by Lorraine Devon Wilke

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Visit www.lorrainedevonwilke.com for details and links to LDW’s books, music, photography, and articles.