IT’S ALL ABOUT THE MONEY Except When It’s Not

If money is the ONLY measure of your success, don’t read any further, please!

In my latest article for Fine Art Views, I shared how taking a risk (what seemed to me a very small risk), brought me many benefits (tangible and intangible) for years.

My intention was to share how even small steps outside our comfort zone can have big results. I wanted to share that what most people see is “luck” ignores what underlies “luck”: Preparation, persistence, and recognizing opportunity. If you don’t recognize the opportunity when it appears, you won’t reap the potential rewards.

What started out as a very small thing (submitting an image of my work for the gallery section of a craft book) resulted in an opportunity to write and publish a book.

Most people applauded that concept. But to my surprise, some people focused only on the money.

Exactly how much work did I do for “free”, and how much did I get paid? (In today’s dollars, it would seem modest, but not ridiculously so.)

Am I telling people to work for free for the “exposure”?? (NO.) I did not “donate” to the gallery sections of the book I was in, like charity auctions so many artists are asked to do. I just submitted a photograph for each.

Exactly what did I gain from that decsion? It’s alllll in the article.

Paid projects. Paid to write a book. Foundation for teaching classes. New product lines down the road, even fifteen years later. A reputation for unique work, and for being a reliable writer.

After my work appeared in several books, people started calling me “famous”. (I’m not, of course, but many, many more people were made aware of my work. And many more people recognized my name.)

During open studios, I always have the two dozen or so books I’m in available to new visitors. It always impresses them. (“Hey, working with half a dozen editors across two dozen books? She must be doing something right!”)

I got paid for each project I created. And as I said in the article, they all turned into new lines of work for me. They also became the basis of classes I offer (and I charge for the classes I offer.) So the project books, and my books, offer validation of my skills.

I received a good advance on the book, enough to make it worth my while.

Did I get rich? No. (Although my advance from that book was more than 10x than I’ve made selling my ebooks.)
Did my reputation benefit? Yes, both as an artist and a writer.
Did I get more opportunities to write for pay? Yes.
Did I enjoy it? Very much!
Did other opportunities follow? Yes! My resume was awesome!

Again, if it’s all about the money, and money is THE ONLY CRITERION for whether this risk was “successful” or not….

I have no idea.

My income has gone up and down over the years, as I constantly sorted out what was working and what wasn’t. So any additional income that was still within my skills and interests range was very welcome. One year, making products for a mail order catalog account kept me afloat during a recession.

If I would do it again? In a heartbeat! I listed the benefits in the article. I believe the most important one is how these “risks” broadened my horizons, and widened my world.

Should everybody do this? Of course not! The stamp carver who produced the little booklet on stamp carving would have loved the money. They just didn’t want to commit to a year-long schedule, the amount of writing, etc. They’d written their booklet, and they were done. She gave me her blessing. (Thank you, Julie Hagan Bloch!) My schedule was more flexible, and I love to write!

Do I work for free all the time? Nope. A couple years ago someone reached out to me to write an article for their online publication. They refused to pay me, though they sort of promised I would get paid when their site went viral. (Uh huh…) They used the usual “but you’ll get such great exposure!” But they also kept increasing their demands on what was expected, so I knew it wouldn’t end well. (I started the article but soon walked away. There are warning signs for projects that won’t work to our advantage.)

Do I get paid for everything I do? Nope. There are times where I do stuff for free. I have my own criteria for assessing that. But I never do it when someone demands I do it for the “exposure”, when I sense those warning signs, or when there is absolutely nothing in for me at all, AND I don’t want to do it, period. Give a presentation or talk to art students? Sure! Donate to a charity auction? Only if I get my wholesale price from the sale. And so on.

We all have our unique boundaries, our individual take on where we draw the line between work-for-hire, work-for-free, and the gray areas in-between.

If we insist on being paid for everything, every time, and that is our ONLY criterion for success, we may overlook opportunities that will work in our favor. That is YOUR choice.

But it’s not mine.

This has been one of the most controversial posts I’ve ever written, which surprises me. I have been asked to defend the premise of this story over and over. I have had my integrity, my life experience, and my veracity challenged. (Usually people complained vigorously about how long my articles are.) (So I’m gonna wrap this up!)

Now….Did you know I don’t get paid to blog? :^D

Yes, I do get paid to write for Fine Art Views weekly. (I have permission to replublish those articles here.) But it’s not nearly what I used to get for ONE article when I wrote for magazines.

So, if I ONLY did things I love when I’m paid for them, you wouldn’t be reading this today. :^)

IF my writing has meant something to you…

If you ever felt like what I wrote has inspired you, enlightened you, educated you, shored you up when you felt the world does not want the work of your heart…

If you love the fact that I’ve openly shared for almost 16 years, what I’ve learned by being an artist, writer, martial artist, dog owner, wall climber, hospice volunteer, teacher, mother, etc….and shared it with you, not only because I have to write…

Because I hope someone, anyone, will find joy, learn, heal, be brave, be heard….at no cost to you….

How would you feel if I’d never started a blog?

Er…You can send me a check in any amount anytime. It will most be appreciated!

FEED THE BIRDS

If you build a feeder, they will come.

20150422_115838-2.jpg

I know. Birds. Bird feeders. Blogging. Where the heck am I going with this?? Bear with me….

I write for an online art marketing blog called Fine Art Views. A few days ago, artist Mark Brockman wrote an article about artists blogging that generated a rush of comments.

Mark shared the other reasons artists should blog, besides just generating an audience for our work. He uses it as a sort of professional journal of his process, his intention, his progress with his art–a record of his artistic journey. And he also mentioned that, to help gather those thoughts,  he actually ‘interviews’ himself in his mind. This helps him pull his thoughts together for his posts.

The comments were many, and filled with gratitude for the insights Mark shared. Almost everyone starts out struggling with their blog–what to write about? Who is it for? Where do I start? And will anyone ever read it?

Which brings up a funny story about me that became a metaphor for this.

I have a confession to make: When I first started blogging, I felt the same way. WHAT MERYL STREEP AND I HAVE IN COMMON, my very first blog post, appeared on December 1, 2002. Actually, it holds up well. (Oops. Actually, that was my second blog post. My first was HOLDING ONTO PATTERNS THAT HOLD YOU BACK. It’s pretty good, too. In fact, I should reread them both, daily.)

Radio Userland was an early blog-hosting site. It was clunky in some ways–it’s tricky to search for specific articles, there were no categories or tags (that I know of), and the only way to read them is to start at the beginning and follow the little calendar markers through to my first post on WordPress on May 25, 2007.

I had very few readers when I started out, and it was rare for a reader to leave a comment. But I’m still proud of the writing I did, and, as Mark said, it was mostly for me. I’m a writer, and I have to write. Even if it’s just for myself.

Years ago, before the 21st century began, my husband and I moved into a little apartment on the Old West Side in Ann Arbor, Michigan. It was our first little home, in a family neighborhood, a rag-tag little house supposedly made from lumber salvaged from a defunct railroad car. (I don’t know if that’s true or not, but it definitely had its share of odd construction details.)

We even had a little backyard. And so, of course, I fulfilled a life-long dream of putting out a bird feeder.

It’s embarrassing to even write this, but it consisted of a bag of random, cheap, generic bird seed from the grocery store, poured into the empty lid of a garbage can. “Maybe the ground feeders will like it,” I chirped cheerfully.

I then went back inside to our enclosed porch, perched myself on a chair looking out the window, and waited for the birds to come.

Twenty minutes later, I slumped into the living room and wailed to Jon, “There aren’t any birds at my feeder!! What’s the use?!”

He didn’t laugh. He just gently explained to me that it can take days, even weeks for a new feeder to attract birds. (He forebear to tell me that a garbage can lid wouldn’t even necessarily ‘read’ as a feeder to the birds.) “They’re creatures of habit,” he said. “They have a set route they follow. It will take awhile for them to notice. But if you keep it up, eventually a few will find it, and they’ll tell their friends.” He added that it was a responsibility, too. Once they discover what you have to offer, they count on you to come through for them.

I realized it takes time to build a bird audience. The responsibility thing…well, we weren’t quite ready for that, either. Plus, it rained the next day, and my “bird feeder” turned into a lid of porridge.

But Jon’s remarks stayed with me. They became a powerful metaphor for how to blog.

You write for yourself first. You write because it helps you get your art out into the world–not the art itself, but your intention for your art. You can express that by sharing your technical process (if that’s important to you). But you can also share your creative process–how you select your subject matter, how you prepare to create something, how you feel about it, how you explain yourself. You do it because you now have a written record of your journey.

And you do it because there are plenty of birds out there who are happy to find what you share. Birds are always grateful for those who provide nourishment, for those who are kind, for those who care.

You just have to wait for the birds to find you.

And then they will come.

P.S. This also is reminds me of that old joke from Alice in Wonderland, “How is a raven like a writing desk?”, but my answer isn’t as funny.

 

RETURN TO WONDER

Because the world can never have too many horses in it.
Because the world can never have too many horses in it.
Well, it had to happen eventually. The end of a long-running, highly-satisfying writing gig.

I just didn’t think it would end with a whimper.

Today I turned in my resignation to the magazine formerly known as The Crafts Report, now Handmade Business.

It’s been a wonderful 8-and-a-half year run. (It would have been more than ten years, if I’d taken the gig when they first asked me, but I was working for another fine craft magazine at the time, that they felt was competition.) And I’m grateful to have had the opportunity to share my incredibly disfunctional delightfully wacky sense of humor with thousands of people every month, for more than a hundred issues.

I knew the writing was on the wall when my column was cut back to every other month, then again, when I wasn’t given any deadline at all (they’d switched editors and my email requests weren’t getting through–something that happened with disturbing frquency during my time there.) (And no, that wasn’t my fault!)

I did one last series of four articles for them, on finding, telling and expanding our story to connect our work with others more effectively. The last one should appear in this next issue.

Like the pathetic idiot dedicated writer that I am, I pitched one last column idea to them last night. And received the answer today: “Mmmmmmm……no.”

And so I’ve tendered my resignation, wished them well and moved on.

Okay, that last part? A huge lie. I collapsed in a puddle of self-pity and tears. The magazine seems to be headed on a fresh path with great energy, and I wanted to be a part of that.

They say one door closes and another opens. So far, only a query from a new online publication that wants how-to projects only, for no pay. Nope. I love tutorials as much as the next person, but writing them is not what I’m here on earth to do. (Not that I’m very clear today about what I am here for, and please don’t rub that in.) And even that came by way of a dear friend who knows I’m flailing.

You know what it’s like when it feels like the world doesn’t want your gifts? That’s how I’m feeling today.

And in the midst of this swirl of self-imposed demoralization, a small miracle happened here.

Someone posted a link to this incredible, exuberant, life-loving, robot-hugging truly free spirit, who only brightened our world for a heartbreakingly short time, Zina Nicole Lahr, a delightful woman who died so young, yet leaves a legacy that is simply, joyfully, inspirational.

And I am ashamed of myself.

I am embarrassed that I allow myself to take so much for granted. I’m mortified to act like the world owes me a living. I’m horrified I am not instead simply grateful for what I have–which is a lot.

Of course I want more. That’s human. But wanting is not doing. Nor is standing in a corner pouting because things aren’t going my way today.

It’s up to me to say my piece/peace to the world.

It’s up to me to bring my art into the world.

It’s up to me to create my purpose, my dream, and my journey, no matter what life throws me here and there.

And it’s up to me to embrace my happy thought. Zina’s amazing life reminds me that we are never too old for a challenge, for exuberance, for a sense of wonder.

Wherever you are today, whatever you’re doing, take a moment to think about what good work you brought into the world today.

And know in your heart that the world is truly a better place for it.

LUANN IS FINALLY ON-TREND

I’ve been blogging now for over a decade–twelve years! But I still remember the trepidation I felt about sharing my crazy thoughts to the world.

Not that the world was paying much attention then. Or even now. (Except for you, faithful reader!) But you know what I mean.

A few years in, another friend in the biz–literally, she worked for a major craft show producer–asked Jon for advice about blogging. (He blogged for a living.) He shared some key concepts about brand, sharing expertise, establishing herself as an authority.

I listened, and when the phone call ended, I complained that the advice he gave my friend was excellent, but none of it applied to me. And I was feeling stalled in my own writing.

He laid the groundwork of what I was doing, an insight I didn’t have.

Jon said, “Most people who write about how to make a go of it, write after they’ve made it. Very few people write from the trenches in real time. You’re brave to do that. And people will respond to that, because it helps them where they are, in real time, too.”

This is why you may feel I’ve been “reading your mind”. I’ve learned if I’m feeling overwhelmed and baffled by my thoughts and behavior, and the behavior of others, someone else probably is, too. If I can find a way through the storm, I will benefit.

And if I share that process, someone else will, too.

And I decided if looking stupid, or vulnerable, or less evolved than others, that’s okay. Writing about it helps me get through it (hence the “muddling through” tagline). And hopefully, helps others muddle, too.

He told me two more important things about writing online: Whatever you publish on the internet is going to be around a long, long time. Links and platforms may die, but usually what’s written still languishes. (Like my blog at Radio Userland. It’s still there!) If you trash someone or something, or get nasty, or give in to lizard-brain behavior, it could come back to haunt you. I took that to heart. If I have a gripe, I seriously edit the identity of the entity, so the lesson, not the person, shines through.

There was another thing, but I forget.

So how am I finally on-trend?

Vulnerability. Brene Brown. Oprah approves!

Sadly, this also means I will be back OFF-trend in a few years. I can only hope that prehistoric cave animals become all the rage in 2018.

On a mission to make prehistoric cave art "on trend" in 2016!
On a mission to make prehistoric cave art “on trend” in 2016!

AM I A FALCON, A STORM, OR THE GREAT SONG?

For the last few years, I’ve been teaching writings workshop for people who are grieving the death of someone close, at a non-profit hospice agency here in Keene. Using journaling, simple poetry writing exercises and sharing our scribblings, we gently help each other move forward in our grieving process.

These classes are always powerful, small miracles made visible in the world. They’ve been so successful, I’m developing an art collage workshop, too. We had our second class last night, and I’m amazed how quickly the group has come together already.

In all these sessions, I’m always anxious when I walk into the room. I remember calling my supervisor, the wise woman known as Lorraine, my first week in. “These people are in such pain!” I exclaimed. “I’m so afraid I’ll say the wrong thing, or be too flippant, and hurt them more.”

“People are pretty tough,” Lorraine said frankly. “Trust me, you’re not going to break them!”

She was right, of course. I am constantly amazed at how courageous and strong these people are, shattered as they are by grief. They shine brightly. I learn so much from them, much much more than I teach them.

But I still worry at the start of every session, and I’m anxious at every meeting. When we write, first thing, the three words that describe how we’re feeling, mine are almost always, “Anxious, Unprepared, Clumsy.”

Until the miracle happens. The power of writing what is in our hearts, and sharing our pain, is a balm. The magic of hearing the voices throughout the ages who have suffered the same pain, the same unbearable sense of loss, echoing in our modern day hearts, somehow helps the healing process.

And by the end of class, we’ve wept, we’ve hugged, we’ve shared, we’ve remembered, and we’ve laughed. All in one brief hour.

The last few days, I’ve been pulling together more poetry to bring to these sessions. Here’s one I found last week:

FOR THOSE WHO HAVE DIED
ELEH EZKERAH – These We Remember

‘Tis a fearful thing
To love
What death can touch.
To love, to hope, to dream,
And oh, to lose.
A thing for fools, this,
Love,
But a holy thing,
To love what death can touch.
For your life has lived in me;
Your laugh once lifted me;
Your word was a gift to me.
To remember this brings painful joy.
‘Tis a human thing, love,
A holy thing,
To love
What death can touch.

Judah Halevi or
Emanuel of Rome – 12th Century

I read this to the group. “This was written over a thousand years ago,” I said. “Someone felt this way, and wrote these words to you, people he knew he would never know nor meet. He wrote these words because he knew you would be here, today, and he knew you would need to hear them.”

I also love that people now share their favorite poetry with me. I mentioned that I needed more poems on loss and grieving to some friends. One said, “Oh, you have to read Rilke! He’s good for grieving!” An odd phrase, but I found it to be so true. I found this today:

“Let This Darkness Be a Bell Tower”
by Rainer Maria Rilke
translation by Joanna Macy + Anita Barrows

Quiet friend who has come so far,
feel how your breathing makes more space around you.
Let this darkness be a bell tower
and you the bell. As you ring,
what batters you becomes your strength.
Move back and forth into the change.
What is it like, such intensity of pain?
If the drink is bitter, turn yourself to wine.
In this uncontainable night,
be the mystery at the crossroads of your senses,
the meaning discovered there.
And if the world has ceased to hear you,
say to the silent earth: I flow.
To the rushing water, speak: I am.

Sonnets to Orpheus II, 29

And as I wrap up my preparations for the last class in this session, I find this one grabbing at my heart:

Circles

I live my life in big circles
that surround all things,
that circle around all that is.
Maybe i will not complete the last circle,
But i will attempt it.

I circle around God
that ancient tower,
and I have been circling
for centuries and millennia,

And i do still not know: am i a falcon,
a storm, or the Great Song.

– Rainer Maria Rilke
translated by Br. David Steindl-Rast

Am I a falcon, a storm, or the Great Song?

I don’t even know what that means.

And yet I sense it means…everything.

SAME LAKE, DIFFERENT BOATS: The Power of Writing Through Grief

A talkative guy, Walt always said he invented social media.

Last night we wrapped up another grief writing group at HCS.

Once again, I feel like I’ve climbed a very high mountain, in the company of wonderful people. Once again, I feel honored to be the presence of people who are grieving the loss of someone they love.

Each group has been different: Different people. Different losses. All at different points in their grieving process.

Some are still in the raw, ferocious early stages, reeling from their loss. Some are caught in the soul-numbing middle stage, struggling to remember what “normal” even looks like. They are sure they’ll never feel “normal” again.

They fear if they let go of the grief, of those last difficult memories, they will truly lose their loved one forever.

And then there is this stage, where a tiny glimmer of hope and peace can be seen, and grasped.

The first stage is still scary to me. I remember talking to Lorraine, my supervisor, about taking on this work. I worried about saying the wrong things, or not knowing when to say the right things. If there even is a “right thing” to say to someone whose grief is so fresh and painful. “I’m so afraid I’ll make their grief worse,” I said.

“People are pretty tough,” mused Lorraine. “You’re not going to break them!”

She’s right. And that’s part of the beauty of this work, this writing process.

People begin this writing journey with such pain, it hurts to look at their faces.

We start slowly, with gentle writing “assignments”. We share what we’ve written.

(Yes, I participate, too, and I’m amazed at how it’s helped me. I pick a person I’ve loved and lost for each workshop. This one was for my friend of more than 35 years, Walt Spiller (aka “Walt the Mailman), who died in January.)

We exclaim over the similarities in our “crazy feelings”: “You feel that way, too??”

And yet each person’s journey is unique. Our experiences, the manner of our loved one’s death, their journey, is like no other.

The person we’ve lost is unique. Last night, as we read our last scribblings, one person said, “I’ve come to know who your loved one is, through your writing. I can actually see them!”

Each person has traveled their own road, but yet together. One person said it beautifully: “It’s like we’re on the same lake, in a different boat!”

The same lake…. This is the human experience, after all: We will all lose someone we love. We will all be lost to someone we love. With every birth, there will be a death. To borrow a quote from Canadian painter Robert Genn, “Every puppy begins in joy and ends in tears. So it is with people.

A different boat. Not every death is simple. Some are too fast–loved ones lost to heart attack or accident, no time to say goodbye. Some are too harsh–loved ones lost to suicide or murder. Some are complicated–our feelings for them are conflicted, our love tangled in anger, or fear, or resentment, or worn down to a frazzle after years of care and anguish.

All this, and more, is shared, once a week, in these little groups. Through the power of the written word, ideas are born, feelings are explored, insights are shared. The healing begins. In a safe and sheltering place, people put their lives back together, one little poem and one tiny thought at a time.

How that happens is a miracle. The writing does its work.

For all our frantic scribbling, writing is a meditative practice. It lets us get those swirling, maddening thoughts out of the racetrack of our brains, stops the ceaseless circling and speeding so we can be less reactive, less guarded. We don’t have to worry about the next wreck around the corner. We can slow down and look and see what is in our hearts, and commit those words to paper.

It’s a time to write what’s in our hearts, to say it aloud, to share it with the group. The power of our words–the power of us acknowledging our words, the power of others acknowledging our words–is healing. “I didn’t realize I felt that way!” “What you said is beautiful!” “I feel that way, too! I thought I was alone….” You hear this over and over in this group.

Over the weeks, we build up a portrait of that person. We see the role they played in our lives, and our role in theirs. We remember the times before the loss.

Gradually, instead of the harshness of fresh grief, there is…a softening. Instead of the heavy weight of sorrow, we carry memories–just as strong and durable, but lightweight and supple.

We laugh, we cry, we laugh some more. And we write, and we write.

We are writing down the bones.

There is forgiveness. There is gratitude.

When we part, on the last evening, I see their shoulders, which have been weighted down with grief, set with a bit of strength. I see their new-found confidence, their courage to meet a new day. We hug, we laugh, we cry. And we go home, some to empty houses and shattered lives, but with hope.

So what am I left with, at the end of these sessions?

I’m left with sympathy. Watching people struggle to understand this last, the greatest of human mysteries.

I’m left with amazement at the bravery the courage these people carry, often unaware of their own strength and bravery.

I’m left breathless at the beautiful words they bring forth from their experiences.

I’m left grateful that they trusted the process, they trusted me, to take care of them.

I’m left with respect for the dignity they bring to this journey.

I’m left with peace in my heart.

And I’m always, always left to stand, in astonishment and humility and gratitude, honored to in the presence of these people as they make this difficult, incredible journey.

Walt told a LOT of stories, but now I see they were always told with love, about love.

LESSONS FROM GRIEF WRITING: A Candle to Light Our Way in the Darkness

Writing is another way art can help us heal.

I’ve been leading group writing workshops for people who are grieving–grieving the loss of their mom, their dad, their wife or husband, their child, their sister or brother or best friend.

For this project, I’m ‘on loan’ to the bereavement section of the hospice team. A social worker runs the group management part, and I handle the writing part.

It’s scary space for me. I was terrified I would delve too deep in my prodding, and drive someone into a frenzy of grief. I ran to my hospice supervisor for help. She reassured me. “People are pretty tough,” she said. “You’re not going to break them!”

She’s right. Yes, sometimes the writing assignments bring tears. But tears are good in the grieving process. And people are amazed at the places their writing is taking them.

There’s something about the actual physical act of writing that is very different than speaking, or even typing or texting. It accesses a different part of the brain, thus allowing the brain to process grief in a different way. Many assignments start off on one foot and firm ground. About halfway through, something else comes through, and the writing enters new territory.

It’s startling and new. It’s powerful. It doesn’t ‘fix’ grief–nothing can do that–but it seems to set the healing process in motion. It’s like having an injury that hurts and hurts, persisting through time, until a physical therapist shows you what muscles to soften and what muscles to strengthen. The cycle of inflammation and pain is broken, and true healing can begin. That’s what grief writing can do.

Of course, social workers know the group thing is important, too. Sharing loss with others who are in the same boat is hugely helpful. No matter how shy or reserved we are, we are all still social animals. We suffer in our own unique way, and we feel so alone.

We may suffer in solitude, but we need not suffer in isolation. Being able to connect with others who empathize, connects us to our human condition.

I still believe the writing is the match that starts the candle burning. It’s a flare of energy and insight, making the light that lets us see into the darkness.