The Stories We Tell

Our stories can be a force for good in the universe, or a source of darkness. Choose wisely!

The day I found my “first story” was a powerful day.

I was at loose ends in my life. I was in my late 20’s, and had already met my life partner. I wasn’t sure I wanted to have kids. But I put together a few key concepts that were important to me: I love to read, and I believe reading expands our minds, and our world.

And I liked kids.

I realized the best gift I could be to the world was to share my love of reading with kids.

With the support and encouragement of said partner, I had the courage to apply to graduate school, and get a master’s degree in elementary education.

It was a powerful time in my life. I was fully focused on my goals, and my studies. I met people–fellow students, professors, supervising teachers–who changed my life. Getting my degree was the first time I’d ever pursued a goal I’d picked, a goal that had called to me.

Years later, I realized, for various reasons, I couldn’t be “just” a teacher. (There’s no judgment there about the profession, I mean that literally: In terms of me, I needed more.)

I believe this helped me, when I hit rock bottom (for me) regarding my art, decades later. I told a new story: “I have to be an artist, or I’ll die. And I don’t even care if I’m a GOOD artist, I just have to do it.” And pulled on that success I’d achieved years before, and worked just as hard, with just as rich an attitude, and succeeded.

I started to write “stories” about my journey. Every time I hit a high note, or a low point, I wrote about it. I shared what I’d learned, how I framed my experience, how I realized I could CHOOSE what it would mean in my life.

It’s a powerful thing.

I also remember I shared a story someone else told me about their conversation with another family member. It was beautiful, and sweet. I was actually envious of said F.M., because they got a lot of kudos in the story. It reflected well on them.

And then F.M. called me in a fury to tell me what I’d written was a sack of lies.

They were embarrassed by what I’d written. And of course, I’d was immediately embarrassed I’d written it.

But when I asked for clarification from them, I was confused. It turns out the sense of the story, the heart of the conversation, the spirit of love, the intimacy and power of long-unspoken dreams revealed, all these true.

The “lies”? There were what any writer would consider “minor” details in exactly what words were used, and in what order. “I didn’t say I wanted to do that! I said I’d THOUGHT about doing that!”

I was baffled anyone would take offense, and I was distraught that people think “stories” are “lies”. This was not a “news event” or the records of a city government meeting.

Whenever we tell a story, there are elements that could be marked a “lie”.

First is our memory. Our brains are not tape recorders or DVDs. Our memory is affected by our emotional state at the time, the context of the situation.

There is the fallacy of “the shared experience”. Five people at an event may all have vastly different opinions on what just happened. There’s an amazing episode of the 80’s TV show “Thirty-Something” that shows the two lead couples in a restaurant, from each person’s point-of-view. As the scene replays, over and over again, we see it from each particular person’s POV. Including the totally oblivious, “What the frick just happened??” version from Michael’s seat. (He can’t figure out why everyone else is so upset, because he’s not paying attention.) If I can find it, I’ll put a link here!

There is what we bring to that event: Our filter. How we feel about the other people involved. What our mental and physical state was. What our history is with the other people involved.

There’s also what we DIDN’T bring! What we don’t know, behind the scenes. What we don’t know about the other people involved.

There’s the incredible effect of hindsight–realizing what was going on behind the scenes, etc. Our own personal growth since then. Our own “evolution”, or our own bitterness.

And finally, there’s the simple art of telling a story.

This is where some people are when they accuse us of “lying”.  They think every story is literally, excruciatingly, true. Or it has no value.

A good storyteller frames the story.

They create a context.

They share what it means to them, and what it could mean for you.

They might eliminate details that slow down the narrative, or segues that detract from “the message”. Awkward sentences get edited (unless that would dilute the “message”.)

Some writers would keep the quotes in dialect, because it adds authenticity. Some would leave it out, because maybe it’s harder to read “the message”. Neither is “wrong”, or “lying”. It’s an editorial decision.

Some would record every single sentence and statement, no matter how repetitive, because that’s what happened. Or it’s funnier that way. Others would edit out the repetition, because that gives the story more clarity. That’s not “lying”.

Many people consider the Bible “literally 100% true”, when the fact is, if you are a believer of its faith, it is “figuratively true”. There are plenty of contradictions, if you look for them. As one source says, “…written over 1,400 years, 66 books by 46 authors….” And written by HUMAN BEINGS, to boot. Deeply flawed, deeply earnest, deeply devoted, deeply conflicted, deeply prejudiced humans, just like you and me.

I myself am sooooooo frustrated when I write an impassioned plea for people to set aside their fears and follow the work of their heart, and write (what I hope is) a powerful story to illustrate that, and someone writes to say, “Great article! There’s a typo in the fourth paragraph, VERY distracting!!”  Oh, THANK YOU MR. LANGUAGE PERSON!!!

I can understand the lack of understanding by non-writers. It must be a cognitive dissonance for them! But to take grace, and minor editing, and reworking to create clarity, power, and truth as a “lie”?  As a “lack of integrity”??

I don’t get it.

But….that’s THEIR truth.

Here’s where a lie is evil:

If someone tells lies to manipulate you, to attempt to have power over you, to cover up deeper evils, then it’s bad.

If someone lies to make themselves look good….That takes some deeper thinking, and evaluation. We ALL want to “look good”, and as human beings, we do that constantly. It’s understandable. But not always excusable, especially if our major goal is to make someone else look bad, who doesn’t deserve that.

Making a story more clear, more powerful, is “lying”? Not so much, in my book.

Go for integrity. Go for your truth. Go for compassion, understanding, ultimately forgiveness, if that helps you move forward, if and when you’re ready, on your own terms.

Speak your truth. And let others speak theirs, in their own time and space.

 

 

 

 

 

MAKING ART FOR ME

There’s more than one way to get your art out into the world.

I wrote in my journal this morning, dragging my feet as usual. (I often start out writing “blah blah blah”. No joke.)

I was writing–no, complaining–about not being able to hear myself think over the noise of Jon’s radio. Until I realized it was coverage on the Egyptian people, fighting for the right to govern themselves. Just as I stopped to listen, I heard a woman’s voice saying, “I just want to be a real citizen…”

So then I wrote how embarrassing it was to complain about the noise of freedom….

Then suddenly, I found myself writing, “I want to make a XXXX–for ME!”

(Forgive the mystery, I’m just not ready to talk about these new projects yet. I don’t want the energy of talking about it to replace the energy of doing it.)

Where…did THAT thought come from?

It took me totally by surprise. And I immediately found myself wondering how it could be done as a new product, a new line.

Just as immediately, another thought popped out:

What is it were something I simply made for MYSELF?

I write all the time about respecting your inner spirit, your inner source for ideas and inspiration. I urge others constantly to make the work that makes their heart sing, and worry about finding an audience for it later.

And here I sit, my brain immediately hopping into “How could I sell this?” How embarrassing! (Again.)

So I write, “I don’t have to make something to sell. It’s something I’ve always wanted to do. And I can make it for myself. It’s something I would love to have in my home.”

Buzzy brain bites back: “You HATE it when people refuse to share their art with the world! How come it’s okay for YOU do it??!” (Buzzy Brain is rollin’ today.)

I write all the time about the importance of getting our work out into the world. I love Martha Graham’s famous quote on how we are the only people who can express that unique vision, how others need to see it and do the same. (I’ve posted links to other articles I’ve written about her quote at the bottom of this one.)

So where is the power in making something for myself?

Well….a lot of things started out as something for me. That freedom to please only myself, the peace of working out the details in a place free from outside comment or criticism, the power that comes from making work from my heart…that’s always been my modus operandi.

But then I realized there are other ways of getting that energy, that vision, out into the world.

I can write about what I’m doing, and why. (Ta da!)

I can tell others about that process (of working from my heart), and encourage them to do it, too.

And I can let this process help me be a better person.

I can learn to be aware, to be in tune with the creative force of the universe. I can learn to be someone who knows the joy and the passion and the power that comes from doing our heart’s own work.

Down the road, the private work of my heart may well become public. Perhaps a solo exhibition or an installation. Perhaps a book. Maybe even a new product. I have no idea.

But the freedom to simply make something that will please me is my gift to myself today.

And my heart rests easier knowing, somehow, someday, it will also be my gift to the world.

A list of other articles I’ve written with Martha Graham’s wise words you might enjoy:

BLESSED UNREST
THE DEVIL AT WORK IN THE WORLD
MEAN PEOPLE SUCK #2a: PROFESSIONAL JEALOUSY PART DEUX

WHEN IS A WYSIWYG NOT A WYSIWYG?

When is “What you see is what you get” not what you think? When it’s something else.

(Originally published December 4, 2002)

Last week I got a call from someone on committee. They were in a bind. They needed someone to help with a project–could I volunteer for half an hour? I checked my calendar, saw an open spot and said yes.

I went in today for my assignment. I was greeted by the person in charge and put to work. Half an hour later, the task was done, and I asked the person in charge, “Is that it?”

She said, “Yes. Now, wasn’t that easy? That wasn’t such a big deal, was it?” with a kindly smile.

Being a grown-up, I managed to bite my tongue before the words “I think the words you’re looking for here are ‘thank you’!” popped out. I simply smiled and left.

At my next stop, I related my story to the woman behind the counter, bemoaning how ungrateful some people can be..

“Oh, that’s nothing,” she said.

Last year her fiance was at a local organization here in Keene, NH. He saw their Christmas tree project in the lobby, covered with dozens of tags. (This is their special Christmas project. Each tag has a child’s name, a child who was in one of their community outreach programs, with the child’s age and one wish for a gift.)

It was a week before Christmas, and no one had taken any of the tags.

Her fiance found the woman in charge of the program. He told her he wanted every tag on that tree. He was determined that no child’s wish went unfulfilled.

Together, they went shopping. He bought every single child not only their designated gift, but lots of extra presents as well.

He spent over $2,500.

They returned to the facility and stored all the presents to be distributed the next day. He told her he preferred to remain anonymous. And he had to hurry, because he still didn’t have a Christmas tree himself.

The woman said, “You said you don’t even have a tree for Christmas yet? Why don’t you take that tree home with you? It’s the least we can do to thank you!”

So the took the tree. As he walked out the door with it, the facility director walked in and saw him.

This week (one year later), the man saw this year’s tag-covered tree in the lobby. Again, he approached the front desk, where the facility director was standing. “I’d like to help out again with your Christmas program again this year,” he said.

The director looked at him. He only remembered seeing this guy walk out of the facility a year ago with the tree. He sneered, “I don’t think we’ll need your kind of help this year.”

What you see is not always what you get…..

I told the woman to have her fiance write a letter to the guy, cc’ing the board of directors, the woman in charge of the Christmas program, and the local United Way, which supports and funds this facility. Oh, and the local newspaper, too.

He should explain that last year, he had donated his time and $2,500 of his personal money to make sure no child in their care was left out at Christmas. This year, he had repeated his offer, and had been told his help was not needed this year. And he should say how delighted he was that the facility had been so successful in their efforts that they needed no other help from their membership or the community to ensure every child had a wonderful Christmas.

He won’t do it, of course. But what a lesson for all of us!

Sometimes what you see is NOT what you get.

Sometimes…there’s whole nother story being told.

Update: The generous gentleman preferred to suffer in silence, and vowed never to participate again. But eventually, he realized only the children were hurt by his decision. He continues to make Christmas wonderful for these kids.

P.S. This is a perfect example of BIBS, the Baby In the Back Seat phenomenon. Here’s where I read this concept by conflict resolution expert Anna Maravelas and here’s a recent retelling.) Please read them if you have a moment, it will change your life!

TIME TO SIT ON MY HANDS AGAIN

I write for several venues now. Fortunately, my humorous column at The Crafts Report rarely draws complaints. (Or maybe it does and Jones Publishing is just shielding me from them….??)

There’s another blog I write for every two weeks, usually about getting your art out there. And it seems like every time I write, someone complains I’m not writing about “art”, just about “selling art”. And the monstrous idea of making art “for filthy lucre” raises its ugly head once again.

The idea of “art for art’s sake” is a very common one among many modern artists. I don’t really disagree. I do hold my art passionately, and with integrity, in my heart. Anyone whose read my blog for the last eight years, or heard me talk, or teach, or met me in my booth, knows that. I will always make my art and I will always write, whether I’m paid to or not. (For example, I’m not paid to write this blog and I’ve been doing it for eight years now.)

We all already create our art with passion, with joy and with zest. I often write about my art processes here. At this other site, I figured a bunch of artists might be less interested in my prattling about MY art, and more interested in how to get to get people excited when they prattle about THEIRS.

And most of them appreciate that. I’ve gotten many thoughtful comments and words of thanks for giving people another point of view, for sharing an insight that helps us be more successful artists, or simply more compassionate people.

But art does NOT exist in a vacuum. If our work only sells “if it’s good enough”, and nothing else should matter, that would limit much of the stuff we normally call “art.” And oh, if only it were that easy….

Exhibiting, publishing, marketing, selling are simply venues for getting one’s work out into the world.

I don’t know why our modern times puts such a judgment on that process. When did getting paid to make art get such a bad rap??? Many of the great masters had wealthy patrons or commissions to do their work. The Sistine Chapel was painted on commission, after all. Picasso was not only a famous artist, he is famous BECAUSE he was a master at self-promotion and marketing. Remember the picture he drew to pay his tailor bill? Or the check he wrote and told the recipient if he waited, the signature would be worth more than the amount of the check? Marketing. (See more “myths about artists” here. (I don’t know why all fourteen don’t show up, but if you do a little digging while you go through these, you should be able to find them all.)

Yes, it would be nice if artists only had to sit and paint/carve/sculpt/write/sing all day, and not worry about anything else. I would be terrific if we could all have someone else to promote, market and sell our work. In fact, it would be wonderful! But it doesn’t happen very often. In fact, that’s what that website for artists I write for is for–to help artists exhibit, show, market AND SELL their work.

Saying we shouldn’t care about exhibiting or selling our art is easy. But most of us DO care, very very much. IMHO, many people who say they don’t care of the world sees their work are actually afraid of the world seeing their work. It is so precious to them, they fear and avoid rejection, ridicule, humiliation. Those fears (very human, and very common to us all) are so powerful, the person would rather embrace obscurity than risk it.

And even if we don’t fear these and truly believe our art is ONLY for ourselves, then we inadvertently disconnect art from its very purpose–to enrich the world emotionally and spiritually. The cave paintings of Lascaux weren’t hidden because they were personal. They were protected because they were so powerful. The welfare of the entire community was wrapped up in their creation. Maybe it was hard to get to see them, but they WERE seen. Evidence of torches, evidence of men, women and children (foot prints, hand prints), even doggy foot prints prove that.

A piece of art that is never exhibited, that is not shared, or sold, is a loss to the world, like a song that is never sung, a poem that is never read. Emily Dickinson is often given as an example of a powerful writer whose work was never published and someone who never sought recognition. But she desperately WANTED to be recognized, and she worked hard trying to get her work published. She wanted her art to be visible in the world. And though it didn’t happen til after her death, the world is richer for her words. Her work was certainly “good enough” to make her successful. But for different reasons, that didn’t happen in her lifetime.

My articles serve many purposes. Sometimes I just need to write about an issue to find my way through it. Sometimes I find a deeper truth than what I originally planned. Sometimes I find myself in a hard place; I’ve learned that being honest about that, and sharing that, will sometimes help someone else through the same rough spot.

I ALWAYS try to encourage everyone who makes art, or who wants to make art, to just do it. The world is full of despair and sadness and hardship. Art serves many purposes, but the one I celebrate is its role in healing some of that. Every work that comes from the joy of our creating is an act of love and healing on our part.

Art is a constant reminder that we are all alike, and that we are all very, very different. I like to believe each of us brings something to the world that can be–should be–celebrated.

Some people feel art has a much narrower role, and a sharper definition. They will not be happy with my writing. And being so open about my thoughts will leave me vulnerable to people who are very comfortable with their own rigid guidelines. So be it. I’d rather be open than limited.

Normally, too, I sit on my hands awhile before responding to people. Right now, I’m in between two major gigs–I just finished a nine-day outdoor show (yes, 9 days!!) and I’m packing to leave for a week-long artist-in-residency (7 days). The mind boggles. Perhaps I am not at my most resilient today.

So for the next few weeks, I am totally immersed in the process of showing/talking about/selling my work. The joy of creating has segued into the power of people connecting with and reacting to my work.

It is a different energy, but part and parcel of the entire process.

RUNNING WITH DOGS

Last week I made my first little dog artifacts.

My very first little dog artifact, in faux green soapstone.

Today I have pics of my very first dog pack. I love them so much already! I stayed with a very ancient-looking prototype, with long snout, upright and slightly cocked ears, and a curly tail. The curling tail seems to be the discerning characteristic of a dog versus a wolf or coyote. I could be wrong, but I’m going with it for now.

A whole pack of ancient dogs!

Running with the dogs. For Joanne!

I also have two little otters who are different from their brethren. Their backs arch up. I think they look like they’re doing that thing kittens do, when they arch their backs and hop sideways. And look–see the tiny toes on this one’s feet??

Bouncy otters!

Otter toes!

MY FAVORITE BUMPER STICKER

I had the same bumper sticker on my car for years, right next to my “BRAKE FOR MOOSE, IT COULD SAVE YOUR LIFE!” sticker from the NH Fish and Game Department. (I love the looks I get from it when I drive around in Philadelphia….)

It says:

Those who abandon their dreams will discourage yours.

Some people take this to mean you should only hang out with happy people. Well, yeah, there’s that.

For me, it was a constant reminder that people who nay-say your dreams, your ideas, your business, your art…

They are not necessarily telling you that “for your own good”.

They have their own motivation, their own agenda. And their motive is to not further yours.

I was especially reminded of this a few years ago. I’d hit a roadblock with my work. Wasn’t sure where to go with it, or what to do next. Heck, did the world even want my art? It sure didn’t feel like it….

That was a rough time, a scary time.

What was even scarier was, I became hyper-critical and hyper-jealous of those who did appear to have their act together.

And I also took some big hits from other artists I suspect were in the same scary boat/place.

In fact, some of the biggest crap I’ve gotten from people are people who are shadow artists. Or nibblers.

So my take on this little homily is this:

If you love the work you do, if you are making the best art you can, if making it makes you a better person….

Then it’s good enough to be in the world.

Maybe I don’t like it. But that’s my problem, not yours. It probably serves somebody’s purpose, even if it isn’t mine.

And when other people are giving you crap, don’t take it personally.

In fact, don’t take it at all.

Because chances are, it’s somebody who’s in a really bad place with their own work.

You can sympathize, if you are a big person. (I’m not.) But don’t give in to them.

Because….

Those who abandon their dreams,

will discourage yours.

EATING MY WORDS ABOUT ART SCHOOL

A quick segue today, before the amazing artist statement I promised you yesterday.

I’ve had to eat my words re: what I said about going to art school.

Here’s what I said in a reply to a comment on that post:

Actually, Aza, I recently had an experience that made me see the value of a good art school education. And that is the connections and opportunities that are made possible. I attended a workshop presented by a young woman who just finished post-graduate degree studies at a prestigious art school. In the course of her studies, she visited the studios of many well-known artists; gained access to facilities (museums, galleries) beyond the reach of most people, even allowed access to their “backstage”, so to speak.

It was enough to make me wish I’d gone to art school, too! :^D

I think everyone has their own needs and desires re: art school. If you feel drawn to it, go. Explore. Take what you need and leave the rest. Take advantage of every opportunity to connect, network, and experiment.

And then, be sure to come back and tell us what you learned.

I’ve never said you shouldn’t go to art school. I say you shouldn’t rule yourself out as an artist if you don’t go.

I remember bugging a friend who decided to go to art school late in life. She was already a productive artist–why did she need an art degree??

She replied that no one in her family had ever gone to college before her, and certainly no one had ever achieved a master’s degree.

She wanted to be the first.

I realized that mattered very, very much to her. And that was a good enough reason to do it.

Sometimes you need a college degree for credentialing. Sometimes you need it to prove something to yourself. And now I know the connections, networking and opportunities you get can be worth every penny.

Just know your reasons.

And don’t use not going as an excuse to not make art. Because I know better.