The Maybe of Muses

On July 28th, I went to the NC Museum of Art. The kids were back at school. We were 21 days post move. I needed to recenter. To come back to my creative self. The months of March through July were so tumultuous and busy and mind numbing that I was afraid I would need an ice pick to chip my way back to my creative core.

Art, the visual, is one of the fastest ways for me to touch that core. Music can be fleeting, at least for me. Each song brings its own emotions but when the last chord sounds, it’s gone, dissolved into the air again, it can be hard for me to pull it back.

But art? Art for me hints at a story. It shows me just enough and nothing more. It leaves me with questions and, on a good day, avenues for answers, the possibilities spinning, weaving, endlessly simple, inextricably complicated. Someone saw something – a bowl of fruit, a blackened barn door, a look between lovers – and captured it in paint, on film, in stone. The subject is nothing without what the artist brings to it. And when it is combined correctly? Pure magic.

I wandered the over air conditioned museum, happy I brought a sweater so I wouldn’t be distracted by my physical feelings. I happened into a temporary exhibit of photography. I was floored. I was immediately sucked into the fifteen to twenty photos on display. I love photography, although admittedly couldn’t name any famous photographers beyond the big A’s: Ansel Adams and Annie Liebowitz. But this photographer intrigued me. Or rather his work did. I moved slowly, staring down each one. Going back. Taking a closer look, then a wider. I think I made the security guard nervous. I was in front of the same two photographs for so long I think he suspected I was planning to make off with one. And if I had a malicious mind and could have figured out how to get away with it, I might have.

The months passed and I can still call to mind his images. There were the famous Woodstock photos and the chilling images of a waxen Martin Luther King laid out in his coffin at his funeral that would certainly stick. But there were also the images of twisted and blackened books with only a few words still visible through the carnage from his “Burned” series. There was the back of a blackened barn from his “Just Add Water” series, the barn’s doors thrown open wide in the front, our perspective making it impossible to see what could be hiding inside, discarded bottles littered the weeds around it, dents and scratches marred the exterior walls, and there is the black. The barn painted in some haphazard fashion of what looks like buckets thrown at it, black drips streaking like tears, blank spaces cloudy like smoke. These images left me wondering, thinking, considering. They left me melancholy, yet full. They sparked. The creative core in me had warmed.

But this was all months ago, remember. A long time. Spark ignited, I was back at the keyboard, working on my own projects, the blackened barn now just an image in my phone.

Then, today, during lunch, I grabbed the Sunday News & Observer I didn’t have time to read yesterday from the counter. There, on the front page of the arts section was a beautiful feature on a North Carolina photographer. He’s embarking on a fascinating portrait series celebrating African American culture. His thought process and care with each subject were fascinating. I found myself curious when they mentioned his bio, his credentials. They seemed so familiar. Could it be? The same man? The one who caught my eye months ago at the art museum?

It is. A quick Google search confirmed it. So why? Why is Burk Uzzle suddenly popping back into my life? Coincidence? Maybe. Sure. Probably. Perhaps it is no more than that. But what if it’s not? What else is it?

I have been scrolling through his web page and staring at images (the black barn is in the Just Add Water gallery on his page). I have subscribed for updates on the documentary currently filming on his life and work (watch the trailer here). I have written this post all without really knowing or understanding why. I just feel I need to. I just know that his work is flat out beauty to me. Beauty in the honesty of it. The heart of it. The ugly truth of it.

Maybe it’s his camera’s insistence on shining a light on things often forgotten or hidden or silenced. Maybe it’s his sense of humor (just check out some of the titles of his work). Maybe it’s simply good photography and I appreciate his art.

Maybe.

Or maybe it’s a muse. Maybe it’s someone trying to tell me something. Show me something.

Maybe it’s all those things. Maybe none.

 

But whatever it is. I feel it. In that creative core. Something has been planted. What it grows into, only time will tell. When it has blossomed, though? That will be the story I tell. Then it will be my turn.

And so the cycle continues.

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Voices

I attended the Women’s March on Washington on January 21.

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Why?

I had so many reasons. I posted them on my personal Facebook page in the days leading up to the march. I thought and prayed on it.There seemed to be so many reasons and motivations floating about in my head. I thought I understood it.

But I didn’t. Not truly. Not in my bones. Not until I was there.

Somewhere, in the sea of humanity that morning, pressed between people on the Mall, the sweet voices of a group behind me singing “This little light of mine” to calm those of us who were starting to wonder where the fresh air was when all I could see in every direction were people, as I clutched the arm of my friend or she clutched mine and we both fought back tears, one simple word bubbled up out of the depths:

Voice.

Out of those hundreds of thousands of people:

Some marched for science.

Some marched for equal pay.

Some marched for black lives or Muslim lives or gay lives.

Some marched for abortion rights.

Some marched for health care.

Some marched for the environment.

Some marched for respect.

Some marched for impeachment.

Some marched to be funny or to be serious or to be humble.

Some marched for their grandmothers.

Some marched for their granddaughters.

It didn’t matter if we didn’t completely agree. We all marched. As women, we stood up and said enough is enough and we came together to give power to our voice. It didn’t matter in that moment what the group had to say. The group gave the power to whatever you needed to say.

We don’t all have to agree. We don’t all have to assimilate. That’s the very point. Or at least the one I came away with.

I left feeling powerful. Finally. There are so few times I can say I’ve ever felt powerful in the four decades of my life. That’s a long time. A very long time. I can, however, name dozens of times I felt powerless. It was a seismic shift to feel that change.

And when it was over. I was jazzed. I was inspired. I was motivated. I cried for nearly the entire first hour of my four hour drive home. I was overwhelmed by what had just happened, what I had been a part of. I was joyful and sad and all of the other things.

Then I came home. I hugged my boys and let them stay up well past their bedtimes as I told them about the march and what I had seen and what I had heard and what it meant to me. I posted pictures. I rested. I tried to process all of it.

And then Monday came. I started to see the wedge. The criticism. The put downs. Other women trying to tear it down with flippant dismissals. Men trying to stereotype the kind of women who marched.

I wanted to rail. I wanted to fight fire with fire. I wanted to battle back with logic and facts and statistics. I wanted to try to explain. I had this voice now. I wanted to use it.

But none of what I wanted to say – the carefully crafted posts I had tried to write last week, the thoughtful responses to social media posts, the attempt to explain and explain and explain – would have mattered. Not to those who don’t want to listen or who aren’t curious to understand the other side.

So I started to lose my voice.

In one short week.

Powerlessness began to seep back into my soul. And I felt uncomfortable. I could feel the battle waging inside.

Here’s the thing. I’m not a boat rocker. I’m a people pleaser through and through. I have a very hard time standing up for myself. And when I do, I replay every moment over and over to make sure I didn’t hurt anyone’s feelings in the process.

The problem? These feelings from the march, the motivations, the momentum, they are still there tickling at my edges, clarifying my vision, keeping me awake at night. The power hasn’t left. I had simply stuffed it into a corner in order to keep on with my regular life.

Until I finally had a realization: Fuck it.

(The people pleaser in my wants to apologize for the use of language…I’m still a work in progress). 

I will write. For myself. For this blog. For Facebook. For whatever. It’s how I process. Sometimes that might get shared and sometimes not. But I will write.

I will stand up for what I believe in. In big ways (I have called my senator’s office about senate confirmation hearings that mean the most to me to voice my opinion. I will call today about the Muslim ban and encourage the creation of effective and clear immigration and refugee policies that help, not hurt, those that need the most protection) and small ways (I have emailed my church to amend one of our weekly prayers of the faithful that felt exclusionary, not inclusionary).

I will teach my children our most treasured values – hope, peace and love – and how to protect them not only for our family, but for all families.

I will be curious. I will read books, I will watch documentaries about lives different from mine, I will continue to learn and be an educated citizen of this world.

I will volunteer my skills and time. I have offered pro-bono writing services for women running for local offices.

I will use my voice to protect my values. Not my politics. It’s time we blew up the party lines and spent a little time truly searching our souls for the values we hold dear and then protecting those.

That’s how I plan to use my voice. How will you use yours?

Forcing Creativity

Writing a book is not a unique pursuit. There are many of us writers out there going about day jobs, pounding away on keyboards at night, at dawn or at the kid’s baseball practice. The difference between those that succeed in actually becoming a published writer and those that do not – I have been told and cling to as if these words might keep me afloat in a flood – is simply writing. It’s that easy. One verb: write.

I have an E.L. Doctrow quote pinned over my desk that says:

Planning to write is not writing. Outlining a book is not writing. Researching is not writing. Talking to people about what you are doing, none of that is writing. Writing is writing.

E.L. Doctrow

Or, as the old Yoda adage goes:

Do or do not. There is no try.

Yoda

And yet, for some reason, writers still find this hard. I, for one, now picture myself doing nothing but this job of writing and yet each morning I sit down at my computer and think “Oh, God. Not this again. I suck at this. I should go scrub the shower instead. Or get a “real job.” Or maybe take a nap.”

Instead, I try to start typing. Sometimes it works (yesterday I knocked out 1,300 words in two hours – hooray!). Sometimes it doesn’t (the day I wrote one sentence in two hours- ouch). But even when it isn’t working, I’m working. I’m there, committed, waiting for the muse, the inspiration, the tiny train of thought that will show me where we’re going.

Can you force creativity? Can you demand that inspiration join you on the page? How much of a creative pursuit is in our own control versus the elusive muse? And what happens if she doesn’t show up?

Creating, whether it’s writing or painting or photography or building, takes practice, time and a whole helluva lot of behind the scenes work that you probably don’t want to know about. It takes commitment and stamina. It is not for the feint of heart. It is a soul-wrenching, doubt-whispering, self-flagellating process that leaves the creator empty and beaten until they take a step away. It’s in the step back, when we take a look at that painting or re-read that essay or reconsider a photograph’s lighting, that we realize somewhere in all that work there was magic, muse, inspiration. We then become Michaelangelo and must work to free the sculpture from the morass.

This month, I am working on creating the morass. I have committed to writing 20,000 in the current work in progress for the Women’s Fiction Writer’s Association Write-A-Thin. I am no stranger to gimmicks to get me working. Back in 2010, I did NaNoWriMo. I am not the only one. More than 325,000 writers and growing participate in NaNoWriMo each year. Because sometimes you need someone to hold you accountable. Because sometimes you need a kick in the pants. Because most of us don’t have a Yoda whispering in our ears. But mostly because inspiration, magic, muses, whatever you call them, they don’t show up unless you invite them.

I sit at the keyboard again today and wonder will today be the day the words run out (no)? Will I cry (possibly)? Will it work today (maybe)? Will it be worth it (damn straight)? Thankfully, every morning when I drag my feet to the desk and grunt as I open the work in progress, I have a husband who reminds me “it’s not supposed to be easy.” And he’s right. Through all of the struggle, I still love it. I still love seeing that perfect phrase emerge in a string of keystrokes on my screen. I still love when my characters surprise me. I still love when I finally find the answer to what my protagonist does for a living and it fits so absolutely perfectly no matter how small a role it may play in the book. I still love realizing that two hours passed and I had no idea. I still love the potential, the promise, the process. Even when I hate it. Maybe especially when I hate it.

The point? We can’t all wait for inspiration to strike. It’s simply unfeasible. Yes. It happens. And when it does, it’s wonderful and fantastic and pure magic. But more often than not, we have to remember to invite inspiration. And the only way to do that is to start the work and see what happens.

This month, I’m inviting my muse to join me daily as I work towards my 20,000 word goal.

To all of you out there who are struggling with your own creative pursuits, perhaps you need a gimmick, a challenge, a Yoda to keep you accountable. Whatever it is, find it. Promise it. Pin it to your wall. Do it.

Writing is writing.

Do or do not.

I am right here with you.