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6527212 November 20, 2013

Finding Natural Audience: Marc Zegans

Talent and giftedness are traps. Worrying about whether we have talent or a gift when we’re young diverts us from doing the work. Seeing ourselves as talented or gifted when we’re more seasoned sets us up to be victims, “Why isn’t the world coming to me if I’m so talented?”

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6527212 February 24, 2013

Some Thoughts on Figurative Work

Who Am I in This Crowd?
detail of larger work
I've been thinking a lot about the value of figurative work in terms of its ability to be progressive rather than retrograde in nature (as Currin said in a 2009 interview).  I also heard recently from an art dealer that figurative work is harder to sell because people don't necessarily want to hang a painting of someone they don't know in their home. I get that. The selling part of the comment didn't bother me as much as the idea that when someone looks at figurative work they might naturally feel removed from it.

In his 2009 interview, Currin also said that a true artist has less to say in the type of art he ends up creating than one might think.  I get that, too, and realize that, like Currin, figurative art seems to be my path. And I want people to feel uniquely drawn into my work rather than removed from it. I don't want to create a categorical wall between my art and the viewer simply by virtue of the work being figurative.

Seeing older figurative work and being hit with the realization that this specific person once lived can be a powerful reminder of the passage of time and the never ending surge of humanity. But what if the viewer could feel something less retrograde? What if I could capture something more alive than merely a specific person you've never met? What if you looked at the figure and saw every person, a common soul, emotion, and that recognition made you think and feel and somehow evolve?  

Detail of larger work in progress
Sometimes lately I think about the concept of God creating each of us. When I'm painting, I think about Him sitting there pulling each of us straight out of His own enormous soul. Putting us on canvases together in all types of colorful scenarios.

If that's true, I believe He does it for the sake of progress. He isn't looking back; He's looking forward. That's what I want to do.

False Dichotomy
23" x 15" Acrylic, Casein and Ink

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6527212 September 29, 2011

Gifted and Hot: Tim Harakal

" ... I cure most of the unavoidable bummers in life with creativity."

It's interesting how connections are made.  A few months ago, my husband and I went to the Sands Casino in Bethlehem, PA.  While my husband was playing craps, I wandered off to the Fusion Lounge.  (I chose it because it was orange.)  As I sat at the bar, sipping my martini (also orange), I noticed that the bartender and another nearby customer were chatting about their weekend plans. It turned out that the customer was the father of the young bartender.

By the time I was downing my second martini, we were all chatting. 

I soon learned that the young bartender is an artist named Justin Klement.  He told me about his work, and handed me a CD for which he designed the artwork.  The CD is packed with fantastic original music by his good friend, Tim Harakal.   

According to Tim's site, his self-taught hands are at one with the guitar strings; they have become an extension of his heart, soul, and spirit. Influenced by his favorite band, Metallica, his music has morphed into an acoustic art form with a pop-rock edge.

I liked Tim's music so much that I just had to have him on Aberration Nation. (I also hope to have his talented buddy, Justin, on soon.)

Tim tells us below that his most recent 'ah-ha' moment was turning 25 this summer, and realizing he'd better get cooking.  From what I've seen, he's hot already.  I told him to imagine turning 45.  That's more of an 'oh-crap' moment.  Twenty-five seems awfully young, but I understand Tim's sense of urgency, and suspect it will follow him throughout his career.  It's a critical piece needed for success in any creative field.

I felt the same way when I was 25, and still do. At that age, I had a three-year-old daughter and one degree.  I had just married and relocated from Louisiana to Northern New Jersey. I was happy about all that but was terribly homesick.  That's the year I began writing my first novel. I was sure I'd already wasted quite a few years, gotten the wrong degree, etc. I had to get moving!

Every creative has a unique journey that (hopefully) continues until we expel our last beautiful breath. Mine has been a bit twisted and convoluted, similar to the diagram below. I suspect that after twenty years I'm still somewhere in the middle of that tangled mess, but I'm definitely light years ahead of where I started.

There are certainly numerous ways to measure success.  For me, the beauty of being creative is that, as Tim points out, it can cure the unavoidable bummers in life.  We can overcome all those unexpected dips and detours, and crappy things that jump out at us simply by recognizing that it's all part of the sometimes gut wrenching truth that defines being human. And we can funnel that brutal honesty into our work to create phenomenal, lasting art.   

So here I sit at 45 writing a blog article about a hot, young 25 year old musician.  Am I supposed to hang my slightly wrinkled head, wring my vein-popping hands, and feel elderly. No, because my journey continues, and it's one of value.  I spent years writing novels, then began to paint in 2008, and subsequently spent the last year and a half focusing on my art. Within the last two weeks I've come full circle to hit upon a creative idea that combines my love of writing with art. It feels like a new beginning. 

I feel 25 again. (And today at work someone told me they thought I was 35. That was icing on the cake!) 

I believe my life has a creative purpose.  I don't care if it takes 25 more years, I will continue to move forward even if I have to go in a few convoluted circles to do so.  I have high hopes that Tim will have a fairly straight path to the top, but come what may, I hope he'll always remember the diagram above.  I hope he will never forsake his wiring, and that he will keep moving despite all obstacles.  During those detours and snags, we have to remind ourselves of the power our creative spirit's offer. 

We hold a genuine cure in the palm of our hands that many people lack.  That's why creativity is called a gift.

What's your story (in a nutshell)? Have you always loved music?

Music has always been a part of my life. My parents listened to folk music and my dad played guitar, so I was exposed at a young age to a lyrically driven guitar based genre. Then, somewhere in the natural progression of things I developed an unnatural attraction to heavy metal that lead to the whole “I need to be a rock star” thing. I picked up the guitar at 16 and aside from some basics my father offered, I taught myself to play.

The singing didn’t happen until my senior year in high school. Who would have thought a metal head would have sang “I Wanna Be There” by Blessid Union of Souls for the talent show? I will never forget being half way through the song, mustering up the courage to open my eyes and seeing an auditorium lit with open cell phones (lighters were prohibited). Hook, line, and sinker ... look at me now.

With regard to your current creative focus, was there an "ah-ha" moment you can tell us about?

Yes…on August 1st I turned 25 and realized that I have to get things moving.

For you, is music more about creation or expression? It could be both, but does one dominate with regard to your need/urge/desire to be a singer/songwriter?

To me music is more about expression. How you perform the piece is what gives music life and allows it to do work. So, as a singer/songwriter, I feel most accomplished when I perform my music.

How would you describe your musical style, and why does this appeal most to you creatively?

I think my music has many personalities and therefore many styles. The songs are all so different. I have jazzy songs, funky songs, folk songs, pop songs, and I even have a song that is hip-hop inspired. So, I’m not sure how to describe the style … acoustic American maybe. Music as a creative outlet works for me because I’m a quiet guy who doesn’t read too much.  So I’m not all that great at writing or spelling. Music allows me to communicate and not have to worry about grammatical or spelling errors.

Do you believe some of the various attributes related to being highly creative have caused you aberrations in life, helped you deal with life's aberrations, or both? 

The attributes have affected me in both ways. I often find myself sacrificing for the creative process. On the flip side, I cure most of the unavoidable bummers in life with creativity. In the end, it’s all positive. Being creative is a good thing.

Have you had to deal with people in your life failing to understand your creative personality, interests, or drive? If so, can you tell us about it and how you've dealt with it?

My creativity is misunderstood all the time. Sometimes I don’t understand my own creativity, but who really wants to understand everything? For example, magic would suck if we understood it. I guess what I’m saying is I accept and appreciate being misunderstood.

Unfortunately, many creative people never achieve the success they dream about. You're just getting started. Have any of your dreams come to pass yet? What do you dream of achieving now?

My dream is that music will allow me to live a comfortable life. I’m not quite there yet, but I know it's coming.

Do you ever wonder if what you're creating or expressing is as meaningful to others as it is to you? How important is that to you with regard to your overall goals? If you've created something that purely expresses who you are, is that enough, or is the circle only completed when someone else says, "Yes, she understands me" or "Yes, that's how I feel"?

Writing and performance is just a way of expressing myself. I don’t give too much thought as to how it affects other people…although I do try to keep the songs positive…and applause is kind of nice.

Is there a difference between being creative and being talented? What are your thoughts on this?

I think you are born with the capacity to be creative and you can learn to be talented.

What is your primary motto or mantra in life? Why is this important to you?

Every little thing is going to be all right.

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6527212 August 30, 2011

Swinging into Fiction: Bamberger & Shipnuck

"Whether it’s Tiger or other fallen stars, I’ve always viewed their travails like everyone else on the outside, with a mix of fascination and judgmental superiority."

I admit it.  The thrill-seeking me would love to be a star. The money, glamor, and excitement would make it a tough opportunity to turn down. However, the highly sensitive, introverted me is not so sure I could handle it, especially given my recent peak into some of the unique challenges.

I can barely cope with my often well-meaning, yet highly judgmental mother much less a million plus people all craning their necks to see what I'm writing on Facebook, eating for dinner, or doing with the little spare time I have. And that's on top of their ongoing evaluation of whatever the heck it is I would be doing to warrant such a mob following.

My guest today, Alan Shipnuck, along with his colleague Michael Bamberger, has delved into the exclusive challenges of being a famous athlete. Alan and Michael, both successful writers for Sports Illustrated, have brilliantly swung over to the realm of fiction in what seems to be a fateful collaboration between two golf experts who discovered they were both driving in the same direction.  Their novel, THE SWINGER (Simon & Schuster) illuminates the life of the modern world-class, life-by-the-tail athlete. It's also a meditation on love, sex, marriage, friendship, celebrity, and the media.

The world is expanding as our technological capabilities skyrocket. Our lives are becoming open books strangers can easily flip through during coffee breaks or while getting the oil changed. Maybe that's great for creatives; maybe it's helping us express ourselves and reach out in new ways.  But it's painfully true that every rose has its thorn.  All of us, especially those who are watched the most, are increasingly more vulnerable to both lies and the truth.

I like to think of Aberration Nation as a unique hub where highly creative individuals can share their stories ... warts, successes, and all.  I was thrilled to have Paul Rudd join in that happy, dysfunctional  circus, and was embarrassed over how it turned out. I realized that some of those who have achieved high levels of success may not be free to support a grassroots forum like Aberration Nation. 

Apparently, some celebrities must protect themselves from lies involving hackers and stalkers, and some, like Tiger Woods, must work to protect against the truth. They give so much of themselves in their chosen fields, but it seems that in many cases, they must hold back the very thing we'd benefit from tapping into--their true spirit.  I suspect that, in many cases, that unique spirit somehow enabled them to rise above so many. It somehow made the difference we are trying to achieve.  Imagine how much could be learned from uncovering and studying the journeys (PR machine free) that these highly successful people have taken, and the real price they pay to stay on top.    

We're all human no matter what we may have achieved. Alan writes that "Whether it’s Tiger or other fallen stars, I’ve always viewed their travails like everyone else on the outside, with a mix of fascination and judgmental superiority. But writing this book was a visceral experience and at times I could feel Tree’s panic and exasperation and shame. It certainly has given me more empathy for what a guy like Tiger has gone through. Certainly Tiger has acted very selfishly and made some poor decisions but he’s also paid an incredibly high price for actions that weren’t unlawful." 

He and Bamberger have written a great novel that shines a light of reality on celebrity that, in Alan's words, "allows us to go deep into the life of a cloistered, conflicted star athlete. The result is fiction that in many ways is more true than real-life."

The journey to celebrity is much more than simply a series of fortunate events.

You have both had interesting, successful careers in sports journalism. What was the mutual key driver for tackling fiction, and how did your partnership come about?

Michael and I have both shared a fascination with fiction. We grew up reading novels, and it’s such a venerated art form. But making that leap is intimidating for a career reporter. Whether it’s our work for SI or previous non-fiction books, we both pride ourselves on our ability to gather information. To just sit alone in a room and make it all up? That was certainly a different challenge, but we both ultimately felt liberated having to rely on nothing but our imaginations.

As for the partnership, Michael and I had both independently come up with the idea of writing a novel about a fallen golf hero but neither of us got very far. Still, we felt there was a great story to tell and felt invigorated by the idea of teaming up.

THE SWINGER focuses on Herbert X. "Tree" Tremont, the most dominant golfer of all time and the richest sports figure in history. According to Simon & Schuster, the novel is written with a smile, not with disdain for athletes like Tree, but with empathy and affection and hope that Tree's transformation, redemption, and return to greatness may be around the corner. What about the character Tree, and real top athletes who may have similar lives, inspired you to write the novel, and why should readers be interested in this particular story?

Well, clearly there are some echoes to the life and times of Tiger Woods. To deny that would be silly. But this book isn’t a forensic recreation of Tiger’s scandal; really, that’s just a jumping-off point. We wanted to write a story that was uniquely our own. It is only through the magic of fiction that we can go behind closed doors and get to know every thought and emotion of the world’s greatest golfer. We can place him in the middle of a tabloid frenzy and eavesdrop on every conversation, not only of the embattled superstar but also the enablers around him and the reporters who are treating him like prey. I think readers will appreciate the intimacy of this story. As reporters we’re merely proxies for the public – it’s been frustrating for all of us to never get to know Tiger, and the revelations about his secret life certainly drove home how elusive he’s been. The book allows us to go deep into the life of a cloistered, conflicted star athlete. The result is fiction that in many ways is more true than real-life.

With regard to THE SWINGER, was there an "ah-ha" moment you can tell us about?

Not one moment in particular. But I remember when we were four or five chapters into the writing there was this exhilarating feeling that what we had was pretty damn fun to read and I could see the rest of the book stretching out before us. This was strictly an experiment in the beginning. We didn’t have a publisher and for a while we were considering just posting the chapters anonymously on the Internet as we went, or self-publishing. It was truly just a couple of writers writing for the sake of writing. At some point we showed the material to a few readers we trust and their enthusiasm and interest changed the trajectory of the project, but really this started out as mere farting-around.

Each novel I write seems to change my life or create a shift in my thinking or perception in some way. Did writing the novel change or impact your lives in any way that perhaps goes beyond the other sports journalism that you do?

It’s certainly changed how I think about future projects. The idea of doing another non-fiction book is pretty daunting. All that flying around and doing interviews and transcribing tape – man, that’s so much work! I’m definitely eager to dabble more fiction, and not just golf. This book has a lot cool insidery stuff about the PGA Tour but it’s also a meditation on love, marriage, friendship, sex, celebrity, the media. Writing about so many different things has given me the confidence to branch out from just sports.

With regard to your work with Sports Illustrated, some folks may struggle with understanding why and how creativity factors into the delicate mix of relaying real life information in a powerful way. In general, how does creativity factor into sports writing?

Subscribers don’t get their SI until Wednesday afternoon, or maybe Thursday. Long gone are the days when we’re informing people who won or lost. The challenge in this 24/7 media environment is to give readers something new, to take them places they haven’t already been. So fresh information is important, as is unique analysis and access. But storytelling is also paramount. There is so much byte-sized information, I think readers want to get lost in something longer and more elegant. The creativity you mention can be through the use of certain devices, like writing a magazine story in the form of a screenplay or a diary, to cite two things I’ve done in the past. But really I think the challenge is to make every story compelling and different from what’s already out there. I feel like that’s my mandate every time I sit in front of my computer.

Do you believe some of the various attributes related to being writers have caused you aberrations in life, helped you deal with life's aberrations, or both? How so? Did those experiences help you to identify with Tree in any way?

After all these years I’m definitely more comfortable expressing emotion through the written word. Give me a blank greeting card and I can make almost any family member cry, but it’s much harder for me to express these kind of feelings face to face.

Writing Tree’s story definitely affected me. Whether it’s Tiger or other fallen stars, I’ve always viewed their travails like everyone else on the outside, with a mix of fascination and judgmental superiority. But writing this book was a visceral experience and at times I could feel Tree’s panic and exasperation and shame. It certainly has given me more empathy for what a guy like Tiger has gone through. Certainly Tiger has acted very selfishly and made some poor decisions but he’s also paid an incredibly high price for actions that weren’t unlawful. Why do we feel such disappointment in him and hold him to such a high standard? He’s not a minister or an elected official, he’s just a jock. Certainly some of these feelings inform the book.

Have you ever had to deal with people in your life failing to understand some of the personality traits, interests, or drive that goes along with being a writer? If so, can you tell us about it and how you've dealt with it?

As a writer it’s hard to turn your brain off. When I’m in the middle of writing a feature I’m always thinking about it. There have been plenty of times when my exasperated wife has caught me staring off into space during a meal or standing motionless in the shower for half an hour, just thinking and writing in my head.

I’ve always believed one of the best ways to improve your writing is to read a lot. Again, I can be easily distracted. My house often has a half dozen dog-eared magazines laying around, and stacks of books here and there. So I guess it takes a certain understanding from those you live with. It’s not like an accountant who leaves all his work at an office. A writer is sort of constantly haunted by words.

Have you developed a specific process that enables you to meet both your nonfiction and fiction writing goals? If so, can you tell us about it, and also share any thoughts you may have on the role of discipline and organization?

We wrote the bulk of this book over the winter, when the golf season was more or less dormant and we had some downtime from our days jobs at SI. It would be very hard to find time to write fiction during the heart of the golf season.

Modern life is not conducive to writing. There are so many more intrusions than there used to be. Writers love to procrastinate anyway, and the Internet is the greatest tool ever invented for avoiding work. Then you throw in the constant barrage of emails, texts, phone calls, tweets – it can just be hard to find the peace to get lost in the process of writing. It’s embarrassing to admit but when I need to do some serious typing I sometimes disable my Internet access just to make it a little tougher to let my focus wander. I also do a lot of my writing after 10 p.m., when my wife and kids are asleep and the rest of the world has stopped bothering me.

Were there specific challenges to writing a novel as a team that you can share with us? How did you deal with these, and also, what were the advantages of teamwork?

It was a very seamless collaboration. We spent a lot of time talking about the direction of the book and hashing out plot details and then we just let if fly. Writing a novel can be a lonely experience; while there were certainly moments of banging my head against the keyboard, it was a huge help to have Michael there to bounce around ideas and pick up the thread whenever the muse departed. Certainly I wanted to keep impressing him every time it was my turn to type. Importantly, there was no ego invested in who wrote what. We were both editing and improving each other’s work and cherry-picking each other’s best ideas, and over time this helped meld the two voices into one.

Will there be more Bamberger and Shipnuck novels?

Michael and I had dinner during the week of the PGA Championship and we kicked around a few ideas for a sequel to THE SWINGER. We have great affection for these characters and it would be fun to revisit their lives and careers. At this point Tree and the gang are like old friends—we don’t want to lose touch with them. But there’s nothing to announce…yet.

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6527212 April 08, 2011

Water Diviner: Michael Seif

"I know that the camera long ago acted as a shield between me and the outside world."

If creative folks need an outlet to carry on, are we attempting to hide behind or step forth? I'm driven to write and paint to express what I can't otherwise seem to relay.

Does that mean something is wrong with me? 


Or could it mean I have something to express that goes beyond what the average person needs to relay?  Perhaps I'm uniquely wired, and without the right outlet, my inter workings will implode in a jumbled up mess of despair, frustration, and loneliness. 

That could be it.

Late, I have come to a parched land
doubting my gift, if gift I have,
the inspiration of water
spilt, swallowed in the sand.

To hear once more water trickle,
to stand in a stretch of silence
the divining pen twisting in the hand:
sign of depths alluvial.

From Dannie Abse's The Water Diviner

Sometimes I want to explode into some kind of bizarre animal state. I long to strip off my clothes, jump in a lake, and swim like a fish until my skin shrivels up. I want to wildly race off a cliff down into a giant pool of weightless water, and struggle until I drown in a flurry of rich life. I want to be alive in a way that doesn't seem easily accessible for me.  I want to feel the wind against my skin during that zooming fall, and feel the pain of my body slapping that cold sheet of water.

Do other people need that?  Do you?

Are these peculiar desires the very thing I'm hiding from, or what I'm trying to push forth?  I've come to the conclusion that the best I can do is try to understand myself.  If I can define who I am and how I feel, then maybe I can look over and see much more than just your interesting face glancing my way.  Maybe I can break through the mystery and feel another human being as deeply as I feel myself.  And maybe you'll find and feel me, and that will be enough of a fall for both of us.

Am I too self centered?  Probably. Sometimes I think that if I were a better person, I would spend all my time feeding the poor and figuring out how to achieve world peace.  I might be the woman my mother wanted me to be, and spend all my energy sharing God's word.  But I am not that woman.  Although I'm quite willing to engage in some of those activities, my place is with words, colors, sentences, and shapes.  I am somewhere in that churning mix.  That's where I am best when all else fails.  That's where I feel at home in my own skin. In other places, I'm a fish out of water.  I get by, but I'm always dreaming of the next chance I'll have to suck in a deep satisfying gulp.

My guest today, photographer Michael Seif, photographs nudes in water. Like fish, they swim beneath the water's surface in various formations.  The images he captures demonstrate that life is a flowing, sensual experience that somehow goes beyond flesh and blood, hiding, stepping forth, world peace, and self-centeredness.  He aims to capture the basic core of life we all share, especially when swimming in waters we call our very own. 

I recently met Michael at an art opening in New York.  His long-time commitment to this creative idea was inspiring.  He told me a story about how taking a gross anatomy course in graduate school influenced his thinking about the essence of life, and how it animates the inanimate body.  His thoughts on this led him to the concept of visualizing how our bodies move in water.  How that ebb and flow can demonstrate the spirit that is apart from the body.

My goal is to find that place in my life where I'm swirling, floating, moving naked and comfortable in my own skin.  It is there that I will discover the kernel that makes me tick.  I feel myself moving closer.  My feet are in the water.  Similar creatures are circling.  There it is!  A flick against my ankle, a brush against the toe.  My skin is tingling.  I think I'm nearly there.

What's your story? How long did it take to establish yourself as an artist? Was the journey on a straight or twisted path? Are you surprised by your success?

I've always enjoyed doing creative things - making silver and gold jewelry, writing fiction, woodworking, and photography. Over almost 50 years, I've gradually dropped the other things, but photography has remained as my creative drug of choice. In the 1960s I photographed on the streets and in the subways of NYC. Since then, I've photographed trips to Mexico, Europe, India, my daughter, my grandchildren, and for the past eight years, I have been working on photographing the human figure in nature.

I photograph for two main reasons. One is to save the past, to have something to remember in the future. The other is to see better. Photography makes me get up early when the light is best, makes me do things that might be uncomfortable so I can see what I would otherwise miss.  It causes me to look harder and more carefully at the world around me.

It was only about 10 years ago that people started referring to me as an artist, something I found hard to accept because I didn't think of myself that way. And it was a series of fortuitous events that led me to have even the modest success I have today--my work being accepted in juried shows throughout the country, some sales, and praise by those whose opinions I respect. So, yes, I am surprised by what success I have been able to achieve.

With regard to your current creative focus, was there an "ah-ha" moment you can tell us about?

There were actually two ah-ha moments:

First, was in 1969 when I took a class with Lisette Model, a photographer of world renown, at the New School in NY. In a tough critique in front of the class, she dismissed my photographs as derivative of just about every other photographer, until she saw pictures of a friend's feet I had taken with just a desk lamp as illumination. "Flesh," she said. "You should be doing flesh." So I hired models, set up a no-seam in my Manhattan apartment and tried photographing nudes. But when I looked at the work of other photographers, I saw my work wasn't doing anything new, so I went off in other directions.

The second ah-ha was more than 30 years later, when I went for a swim in a Maine granite quarry, where everyone swam nude. The site was deep in evergreen woods, the weathered granite quarry walls were lichen covered, the people of every age swimming and sunning, all led me to say - wow, what beautiful photographs there are here! Through a few interested people I met in Maine, I was able to obtain models and work on these photographs for over eight years now.

Many artist focus on one particular subject or style. How important is this for career development? Have you ever grown tired of photographing the same types of things, and if so, can you tell us about it?

I photograph lots of subjects because I simply enjoy making photographs and I like how photography helps me see better--travel, friends, family, flowers, landscapes. But my photography of the human figure is something that has drawn me in over the years, and which I feel I am doing better and better over time. This time has been necessary to allow me to move from what other photographers have done to doing something original. This takes time, and I will keep doing it because it is so rewarding to me personally.

Do you believe some of the various attributes related to being highly creative have caused you aberrations in life, helped you deal with life's aberrations, or both?

I know that the camera long ago acted as a shield between me and the "outside world." I could see what was going on, but was occupied. I only had to interact if I felt comfortable doing so. Now I'm a bit more outgoing and sociable, and the camera helps me connect with people. Through my photography I have met wonderful people and have made many new friends.

Have you ever had to deal with people in your life failing to understand your creative personality, interests, or drive? If so, can you tell us about it and how you've dealt with it?

In fact, just the opposite has happened to me. I always photographed for myself--it was something I just enjoyed doing. During the 60s and 70s, my wife put up with a lot as I transformed the bathroom into a dark room on Sundays.  Yet she was always encouraging.  For more than 40 years I have been accumulating boxes of tri-X negatives and color slides and film--with no idea of what I would do with them. When digital printers became available, I scanned some of those old photos and printed them, and decided to try selling some at a local town fair. A representative of the town art center asked if I was a local artist (I told her I was local but not sure of the "artist" part) and she kindly found a venue for me with my first solo show at the town bank.

I received other encouragement by being juried into group shows, and one juror, a curator at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts kindly spent an hour with me critiquing my work and encouraging me to continue. Because I had little formal art training, that kind of support was crucial to me being able to feel a sense of validation, and to grow as an artist. A gallery owner in Maine was encouraging, too, and provided me with a show of my 1960s black and white photographs of New York City. She was instrumental in enabling me to find models for my most recent work, and has been nothing but encouraging.

Have you developed a specific creative process that enables you to meet your artistic goals? If so, can you tell us about it. Where do most of your ideas come from?

When I began my series of nudes in the outdoors, one woman agreed to model for me. She swam in the quarry as I photographed from a ledge, and suddenly she made a quick turn. I asked her to do that again. (It turns out she had been on her high school synchronized swimming team.) Her body and the wave she made as she turned became almost one, and I gradually realized that the motion of the water implied that the figure was moving, and this led to a way of showing the human being as not just sculpture, as so many photographs have done, but as a living, moving creature of nature. I quickly acquired more models who were themselves creative and saw that I considered my work with them as a joint effort and were eager to help me make innovative and beautiful photographs.

At first, I was concerned that I would run out of ideas, but after eight years that is not a major worry anymore. The models and I look to nature (schools of fish, swimming seals), to dance, and to art for inspiration. We talk about what we want to do. And then they get into the water and they organize themselves, and they try variations, and they keep working as I take hundreds of photographs. Finally, I look at the photographs on the computer and am thrilled if I see three or four out of each 100 that are ones I am eager to print.

What do you believe places an artist apart from his or her peers? So many are highly talented, but what makes one stand out as truly gifted?

I think that the truly gifted have, in fact, received a gift that provides an inborn potential to create new art, and perhaps even new forms of art. But, whether highly talented or truly gifted, the ability to keep working is what sets apart the creative artists from those that "dabble."

In a photographic critique class that I took in Boston, most of us in the class were middle-aged or beyond. The (younger) instructor commended us for doing art while working, raising children, volunteering in civic organizations, and doing all the other things that encompass a busy life. The instructor found that among his younger students in other classes, there were some who were dedicated to their art, but most who loved the idea of being artists (loved the coffees with friends, the talk, the paint-smeared clothing) but were less eager to do the hard, often lonely work of actually doing art. He referred to them as poseurs.

I really believe that while talent is important, lots of hard work is often what separates an artist from his or her peers.

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6527212 March 11, 2011

Astronomical Odds: Douglas Preston

"I know some writers who like to talk about it more than they do it, who've been writing a book for ten years."

If you've been following my blog, you know that I've been writing novels for over twenty years.  I've also been working full time, among other things that tend to suck up time.  One thing I can say for myself is that I've been consistent and dedicated.  Over the years, I've fought diligently to find time to write. 

And I have won that battle.

When I began painting three years ago, I viewed it as a crazy experiment.  With that said, I had a powerful urge for it.  All I wanted to do at that time was experience the feeling of sliding a brush dabbed in gooey paint across white canvas.  I wanted to know what that would feel like because I had so vividly experienced it in my mind.  It was similar to the desire for food, water, sex ... deep,  urgent, and animalistic.  I never believed I had the ability to create visual art despite my sometimes alarmingly active imagination.  I grew up assuming that every mind contained the same dynamic world that exists in mine.  That everyone could envision the detail, color, and complexity that I create and see in my head. 

I came to realize that's not the case. 

Just when I was beginning to think that I had pieced together the puzzle of who I am, I picked up that paint brush and bam! I realized I had only been focusing on one area of a puzzle that is much larger and more complex.  I'm still trying to understand and define my creative place in the world, but after twenty years of writing and only three years of painting, I realize that it's not exactly what I thought it was.

I don't know how many years my guest, bestselling author Douglas Preston, has been writing.  What I do know is that he's written over twenty successful books. 

In his interview, Douglas shares how he got his big start.  He was working at the American Museum of Natural History when he got a call from Lincoln Child, an editor at St. Martin's Press, asking if he'd be interested in writing a book. 

Twenty-five books later ... the rest is history.

What are the odds of that happening, you ask?  They're likely astronomical.  However, something similar happened to me.  When I was working at Johnson & Johnson, an editor from McGraw-Hill called to ask if I'd ever thought of writing a book.  The result was my first book, Six Sigma for Business Excellence.

So the immature, emotional child in me asks with a pout on my face, "How does Douglas now have twenty-five books published and I have only two?" 

The adult visionary in me replies, "Who cares?  Things happen for a reason."  I'm content with my journey, no matter how hard fought it may be.  My philosophy is that if I keep moving down my own personal road, I'll eventually reach my destination.  I don't care how many years it takes.  It is what it is.  I am who I am.  I don't need to be Douglas Preston, or any other fantastic author out there.  I'd only fail where they succeeded. 

I have failed where they succeeded.

After just three years of painting, this month my work is being shown in an international art show in New York City curated by Monkdogz Urban Art, one of the top contemporary art galleries in the world.  I've been told that the odds of that happening are beyond astronomical. 

My third book, Centerpieces, will be launched this summer. 

What's your writing story?

I had been writing a column in the magazine Natural History, published by the Museum, where I worked. An editor from St. Martin's Press named Lincoln Child, who had been reading my pieces, called me up and asked if I wanted to write a history of the Museum. I said yes -- and that became my first book, Dinosaurs in the Attic. After the book was published, I gave Linc a tour of the Museum -- at midnight. I showed him all the best places in the Museum to which I had access--the dinosaur bone storage room, the collection of 30,000 rats in jars of alcohol, the whale eyeball collection, the preserved mastodon stomach with its last meal inside, and a lot of other unusual things. We ended up in the Hall of Late Dinosaurs around 2:00 a.m., with only the emergency lights on, the great black skeletons looming in the darkness around us--and Linc turned to me and said: "Doug, this is the scariest damn building in the world. Let's write a thriller set in here." And that was the birth of Relic, and of our partnership.

Was there someone in particular who inspired you to love books and/or take an interest in writing?

There are certain teachers and librarians who encouraged me -- most particularly the late Darcy O'Brien, who was a professor at Pomona College where I went to school. He was writing his novel, A Way of Life, Like Any Other, when I took a creative writing class from him, and he shared with us the drafts of his novel. It was an extraordinary experience. His novel was rejected by 26 publishers and finally published--and then it won the prestigious Hemingway Award! So he was both a great teacher and a lesson in the perversity of the publishing business.

Where do most of your creative ideas come from?

They come from every direction -- from personal experience to articles in magazines, news stories, factoids on the web, and most of all from my extensive world travels. The key is always being open to a new idea, because we are surrounded by a sea of brilliant ideas, if only we can open our eyes and see them.

With regard to your current creative focus, was there an "ah-ha" moment you can tell us about?

I was doing research on potter's fields when I came across a strange factoid: that in New York City, sometimes limbs amputated in hospitals are not treated as medical waste, but are placed in a small coffin and buried on Hart Island, New York City's enormous potters field. I called up Linc and in twenty minutes we had worked out the basic plot to Gideon's Sword.

Do you believe some of the various attributes related to being highly creative have caused you aberrations in life, helped you deal with life's aberrations, or both? How so?

Both. It may have made me difficult to deal with at times, but I find the writer's life to be ideal, for me, if a bit lonely, and I have no regrets.

Have you ever had to deal with people in your life failing to understand your creative personality, interests, or drive? If so, can you tell us about it and how you've dealt with it?

Sometimes people don't respect a writer's working time. I've been interrupted by people in the middle of the day for various trivial things -- people who, for example, would never call me in the middle of the day if I were a corporate lawyer or an auto mechanic. But that's rare. My family has always been very supportive. They get it.

Have you developed a specific creative process that enables you to meet your writing goals? If so, can you tell us about it, and also share any thoughts you may have on the role discipline and organization play in reaching creative goals?

Writing is like exercise or playing the violin: you have to do it every day. You have to carve out uninterrupted time. And then you have to have the discipline to stay at your desk and write, write, write. I know some writers who like to talk about it more than they do it, who've been writing a book for ten years. Sorry, unless you're writing Ulysses I don't buy it. Discipline is huge. Even after twenty five books, I find myself looking for every excuse not to write.

You're written both as a solo author, and as part of a team. What are some of the advantages and disadvantages of both scenarios?

Writing with a partner has a lot of advantages. You have someone to brainstorm with, bounce ideas off, not to mention a partner who shares your triumphs and tragedy. Writing is a lonely business. The downside is that you share credit for a piece of work. But for me, that's not at all a problem. Linc is the best writing partner anyone could ask for.

You've also written both fiction and nonfiction. How do you see creativity playing a role in nonfiction?

Creativity plays a huge role in nonfiction. Real life is messy, formless, sprawling, and mostly boring. The key with nonfiction is to extract the story from this formless mass, to boil it down to its key elements, to order it so the reader can follow it--and on top of that, to be absolutely accurate both in fact and in spirit. This to me is more difficult than fiction and it takes a great creativity.

What's next for Douglas Preston?

I'm working with Linc on a new Gideon novel, Gideon's Corpse. We're having a wonderful time writing this book.

What is your primary motto or mantra in life? Why is this important to you?

Compassion. The word says it all.

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6527212 February 23, 2011

Parentless Parent: Allison Gilbert

The scarecrow could not understand why she wished to leave this beautiful country and go back to the gray place called Kansas. "That's because you have no brains," answered the girl. "No, matter how dreary and gray our homes are, people would rather live there than anywhere else.  There is no place like home."

L. Frank Baum

Almost all of my childhood memories before age nine are in black and white.  I think I've said that before. Why do I keep saying it?  Why do I keep drifting back to that gray, long ago place?  It's getting ridiculous.  I used to carry the shame of that overwhelming lack of color on my shoulders.  Now, at middle age, I'm beginning to feel the shame associated with still not being able to fill the hole it left me.

Most people don't understand the deep reaching impact of growing up with an emotionally disturbed parent, one who ensnares you with their sad brand of charm, makes you their caregiver, their lifeline when they have nothing else.  Most people can't imagine a five-year-old child somehow rising up to parent a parent, to provide an emotional load of assistance, and what the cost can be.  As the child rises up, they are left with a sinking hole, a blank spot that can never be filled because the time to fill it was that day, that year, that moment.  The moment was lost.

When I was twelve-years-old, my mother said that God told her that my daddy was going to die so that she could marry our pastor.  We were in our car going somewhere.  She told me this as if it were a casual FYI.  I asked her about the pastor's wife, and she replied that perhaps she would die as well.  That instant sticks in my mind as one of the single most devastating moments of my life.  It was the moment when I realized something was horribly wrong.  I remember staring out of the car window as I felt my heart break in a brand new way that only happens when you're finally old enough to grasp the notion that life is filled with complexity.

I somehow lost my mom that day.  Since then, I've lost her over and over again.  I keep trying to find her, to pull her back, to make her see me, to make her love me.  I keep wanting to find that gray place when we were both so young again because it was my home when everything was simple, when all I felt was my overwhelming, pure love for her.

It's just not working.  

Life is often ironic. A few days after I spoke with today's guest, Allison Gilbert, about her new book, Parentless Parents, I lost my mom ... perhaps for the last time. 

Once again, she is here but not here.

Allison has explored and written about the challenges of raising children when your own parents are missing from the puzzle; they are deceased.  I asked her about folks whose parents may still be alive, yet emotionally or physically out of reach. She recognized that there are similarities, but explained that Parentless Parents focuses on the singular situation of deceased parents.

Soon after I spoke with Allison, I happened to call my mother at a time when she was working to balance her monthly budget.  She spoke about her finances, and became more and more agitated.  Then she said, "Adult children who do not provide for their parents should be prosecuted under the law!"  As you can imagine, this was a loaded statement packed with years and years of struggle. In my heart, a five-year-old heard the words, "I need you to take care of me!"  I remained calm, knowing that if I became upset, she would become more upset.  Finally, I said, "I doubt that adult children could be prosecuted under the law, based on the fact that their parents have had years and years to make numerous adult decisions regarding their own financial well-being."  I was attempting to provide a logical answer that she might relate to.

It didn't work.

Within an hour, my husband and I received a abusive email informing me that I was no longer her daughter ... again.

So here I sit, a parentless parent in my own category.  Regardless of its primary focus, I need to read Allison's book.

You've worked in television news for nearly twenty years, and have won numerous awards, including three Emmys. I'm sure you did a lot of writing in that professional space. What inspired your focus on book-length projects?

It's really was a gift.  I felt that TV news provides an incredible opportunity to cover the most important news of the day, but no matter what, an article can only have a certain number of words, or television story only allows for a certain amount of time. So I felt that if I was going to use all the same skills, then I was going to use all those tools toward a project that I had much more opportunity to explore. I wanted to put those tools to use on a topic that meant so much to me personally.

You write nonfiction. Is that what you've always wanted to do, and if so, why? Will that continue to be your focus?

Yes!  I think so.  I really enjoy it!

I always enjoy asking writers who focus on nonfiction how creativity plays a role in their work. Do you view creativity as a component in your work? If so, how and why?

For sure!  Even though it's nonfiction and it's based on very real facts and interviews, I believe that how we pick and choose what to include and in what order to include them has everything to do with creativity. That is because you do want people to enjoy the books they read. You want people to want to turn each page. Picking and choosing what stories to tell, and how to tell them, determines how interesting the book is to people. It's all about creativity.

You've written several books. Have you developed a specific writing process that enables you to meet your goals? If so, can you tell us about it. Where do most of your ideas come from?

I get up really early!  So my process is to do the work when everyone is sleeping because I feel that my day is never long enough.  I create time where I didn't have time before, and so I continually get up at the crack of dawn. I have coffee. The house is quiet. I'm able to be in my work space for a few hours.  That's really the best tool I have. I carve out a time when nobody is going to interrupt me.  This has been a real gift.

With regard to your current focus, Parentless Parents, was there an "ah-ha" moment you can tell us about?

There are two parts to that answer:

(1) After my last book came out, Always Too Soon, the one part that everyone wanted to keep talking about was how the loss of our parents impacts and shapes how we parent our children.  I thought that was really interesting. That was the primary issue that everyone wanted to talk about. 

(2) The other part was me.  It was my personal story.  I was dealing with being a parentless parent day in and day out.  

So in response to my readers, the topic emerged as something important for me to take on both professionally and personally.

In conducting research for my novel, Aberrations, I read Hope Edelman's books on Motherless Daughters. The protagonist of Aberrations is motherless; however, my interest in writing about a motherless daughter was driven by my own profound feeling of motherlessness, which existed despite my mother being alive. She was there but not there. Did you come across any research related to situations where the parent(s) may be alive, but yet emotionally or physically absent from the family unit? Can you share your thoughts on any similarities or differences between the two scenarios?

That's a really good question!  My research was extremely focused.  There are so many variables that could have been included, such as parents who were emitionally or physically absent, parents who may have been incarcerated, etc.  There are a lot of reasons why parents are not involved.  Because of my experience that they were gone due to illness and eventual death, I kept my focus very limited.

Your web site has tons of great information for parentless parents. Can you tell us about some of the top issues that parentless parents face emotionally, and why?

There is something I write about called the I factor, where I stands for irreplaceable.  This refers to the loses that are specific to losing one's parents via death. It's not about parents wishing they had more babysitters, for example, because that's a very easy thing for people to brush aside. For example, they could say, "Well, my parents live in California and I live in Idaho so they can't babysit either." I tried to come up with the I factor as a way of explaining why there are the differences in being a parentless parent versus not being parentless. 

One of the big differences is not having a connection to your own childhood in terms of a direct link.  It's often those very specific and detailed tidbits for which a parentless parent lacks access. Parentless parents read blogs and parenting books, and do all the things you do as educated group, but the real information they need is specific to them. They are never going to get that info from those other avenues. Really important details that could impact their parenting choices are lost forever.

Not having a parent or parents, whether deceased or emotionally absent, is one of those major aberrations in life that are thrust upon us. There must be a loneliness factor involved. Is it only me who has that big hole, or is it there for everyone? If so, can a person ever really fill that space? Could it be that the gap exists only in cases where the relationship was lacking as opposed to losing a parent with whom there existed a healthy relationship? Can you comment on this?

I think there are going to be tremors of the loss or aberration forever.  It becomes part of your DNA. It becomes part of your fabric. It becomes a part of who you are.  I believe there are many things you can do, not to completely fill the void because I actually do think that's impossible, but rather to put a very healing and effective band-aid on top of the wound. 

What I mean by that is finding support.  It's hugely important that anyone who has an aberration of any sort connect with people who are of the same mind set and experience.  Finding support groups, whether in person or on line, is incredibly important.  For example, people are joining the chapters of Parentless Parents, which are spreading out across the country.  Those are great places to go; in person connections are really important.  Also, I think the Parentless Parent group page on Facebook is another great place.  So many people are on line and on Facebook already, so for people to be able to easily, and in the course of their general day, check in and connect with others who are in a similar situation is another incredible value. It helps folks feel supported. 

The last thing I would say is that family doesn't have to be what you're born with.  I truly believe in the soul of my souls that family is what you also create.  It's your best friend.  It's your aunt who may be a fill in for you mom.  Maybe it's your best friend's mom.  Maybe it's just people who you've met in the course of your life, or on Facebook who may get you perhaps better than your own spouse does. 

What was so interesting about the surveys I did is that so many people who were happily married felt that even their spouses didn't understand where they were coming from. 

People process these aberration differently.  It's a matter of putting yourself in a place where you can connect with people who can proactively make all the difference in your world.

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6527212 February 08, 2011

Art of the Nude: Ilene Skeen

"It's a dangerous thing to believe that one part of you is at war with another.  It's not a good message to teach children; it leads to all kinds of trouble."

Growing up in the Deep South during the decade of free love and the one that followed, I was taught that my body was the worst thing about me.  What did it do? I wondered. Oh, it wasn't what it did, it was what it was going to do. Flesh was synonymous with sin, and we were all infected.  Apparently, only with God's help could I ever dream of overcoming my lustful nature.  I was taught to search for a way out of my own skin before I even had the chance to get comfortable.

I don't blame my parents; we were all part of a larger societal picture.  I stood at its center, gigantic plaid bows on either side of my tiny head, wondering how I could ever be a good person inside such a nasty shell.  The packaging I couldn't possibly escape was a large part of why I was so unfairly doomed from day one. Although that painful fight never quite made sense to me, I tried to fit in; to do the right thing.  I struggled to be as gosh darn good as everyone else appeared.

This led to all kinds of trouble. Self fulfilling prophecies ran rampant.  Needless to say, I failed.  The guilt and shame was unbearable. Remembering it now makes me sad, and a bit angry.  When I should have been celebrating my youth, I was waging a full scale, unnecessary war against myself.

Years rush by ...

Now I've gone and done it.   

When Bob Hogge (Monkdogz Urban Art) suggested that I step outside my comfort zone and paint a few nudes, I wasn't sure if I could pull it off.  It wasn't so much the actual painting that bothered me. The dark shadow of those old battles caused me to shake a bit in my boots although the war had long been over.  But because I've grown stronger than my past, I forged ahead.  Doing so enabled me to move to a new level in my painting. 

My guest today, Ilene Skeen, knows a thing or two about the great nude. She's become a champion of the art form. Unlike myself, Ilene was taught from an early age that questioning the world around her and formulating her own opinions is a great thing.  As an artist, the complexity of nude art has always fascinated Ilene. In 2003, after retiring from a technology-focused career in the publishing industry, she decided to create a web site devoted to the art of the nude.  After studying anthropology to gain a greater understanding of the cultural issues around art, she launched Barebrush.com in 2006.

On Thursday, February 10th, the first "brick and mortar" Barebrush art show will open at The Rogue Space Gallery in New York City.   

So this week in the Big Apple, the kid from the Deep South who was taught to wage war against her own body will cross paths with the kid from the Northeast who learned that thinking for yourself is a wonderful thing.  We'll find ourselves surrounded by flesh.  As Ilene puts it, we won't see "a shell of meat that has no spirit or a spirit that has no shape."  Instead, we'll immerse ourselves in an exquisite sea of full-bodied art to be appreciated and celebrated.  I plan to stand there, head held high, finally at peace with myself.

I can't wait.

Descartes said, "I think, therefore I am," spurring the cultural idea that the soul resides within the mind. Let's not forget the profound significance of that tender, vulnerable shell cradling it all.  For it's the two together who make us who we all are.

How has creativity shaped your life?

I’ve always been two-sided, being strong in both analytical thinking and creativity. I’ve never been purely one-sided. This is a key part of who I am. When I went to art school years ago, I didn’t receive any skills training. They just told me to be creative. Well, that didn’t work for me. At the end of my education, I wasn't confident that I could be an artist so I went into the business world. My creativity and analytical skills served me well there.  When I found myself unexpectedly retired in 2003, Barebrush emerged as my project.

How did Barebrush.com come about? Was there an "ah-ha" moment you can tell us about?

Around 2000, I was selling art through Yahoo auctions. Then Yahoo changed its rules and it became uneconomical.  However, I continued to paint.  When I retired, I decided that I was most interested in why people need to create art.  I tried to find the answer to this through an art history course, but they told me that’s not what art history is about. I ended up getting an MS in anthropology.  They invited me to study this question. After I earned my MS, I revamped my website, which had been on hold. In doing that, I realized that a group of artist on the same site would be much more interesting than just one artist. My watercolor series was called the Barebrush, hence the name. In 2006, I grabbed the domain name and drew my logo. Armed with a web site name and a logo, I bought a full year worth of advertising from Gallery Guide.  I knew I was going to do it.

I think the Gallery Guide guy thought I was crazy, but it worked out.

When I began painting nudes, my youngest daughter (age 10 at the time) asked me why I was painting naked people. She thought it was weird. I told her that many artists enjoy painting things from nature such as landscapes, animals, trees, water, etc., and that the human body is an important part of that. We represent a major aspect of nature and we shouldn't ignore that. She thought it made sense. Perhaps the answer is obvious, but from your perspective, why do some people have difficulty embracing nude art?

It’s a very good question! I’ve come to the conclusion that religion and the public school system teaches us that our minds are superior to our bodies. Many of us are taught that our bodies are either inferior, sinful, or something to be ashamed of. Artists who do nudes are concentrating on something that the rest of us are told we shouldn’t pay attention to.

Only athletes and dancers are encouraged to focus on their bodies. It’s an insidious and wrong approach. The mind doesn’t work without the body, and vice versa. You are one person with both aspects.  It's a dangerous thing to believe that one part of you is at war with another.  It's not a good message to teach children; it leads to all kinds of trouble. I’m really against it.

Have you always had an interest in art of the nude, and if so, why? Will that continue to be your focus moving forward? 

The first time I drew from the nude was first day of college. In my first art class on the first day, there was a male nude. Three or four people got up and walked out.  The teacher said, “Okay, that’s the way to eliminate people who are really not serious about art." (And in those days, male nudes models wore jock straps.) It so impressed me and it’s such a challenge.  I'm endlessly fascinated, so yes, I will continue. I’ve done other things – people, clothes, portraits, landscapes. But nothing fascinates me like the challenge of trying to represent both the physical and the spirit at the same time. That’s what I try to do, representing the body fairly, but more importantly, I try to bring out the essence of the person. I try to present the body as one the way I believe it is, not a shell of meat that has no spirit or a spirit that has no shape. I am dedicated and focused on that.

Nudes will continue to be the main focus for Barebrush, recognizing that there is a lot of other art. I was also interested in the controversy of nude art.  It is held apart, yet after a while I realized that nude art is just as much a part of life as our landscapes and pots. If I showed them all, then folks who shudder to think of looking at a nude may actually do so. My idea with Barebrush is to raise or increase the number of people who are aware of and can appreciate the art of the nude. I’ve had to walk a fine line with the other genres to make sure we don’t lose our main focus – nudes.

Kelly Borsheim
Have you had any major set backs regarding your creative endeavors that you can share with us? If so, how did you manage to keep moving forward?

Art school was a major set back because it confused me. I earned an art teaching degree, but decided that I couldn’t inflict my confusion on little kids.  I couldn’t bear the thought of not understanding what I was teaching, so I decided to keep my art to myself. For a long time I didn’t paint; I did other things. I found a lot of outlets in my regular work to use my creativity in positive ways, and I was well paid. I got into computers early on. Writing programs--making something out of nothing--fascinated me. You’re given a vague idea and then create what others envision. I would analyze, spec it out,  ask questions, research and put a design forward that would solve the business problem. There's a lot of creativity in solving business problems.

Eventually I got back to art. I began studying it. In the 90s, I took a course at the New York Botanical Gardens. For the first time, I was taught skills--perspective, shading, etc. So I have a certification in botanical illustration. The skills I learned brought me back to the nude. I decided to apply them to what I was most interested in. 

Aberration Nation focuses on creativity and life's aberrations. Some folks out there may believe that being so focused on nude art is an aberration in itself. Do you believe some of the various attributes related to being highly creative have caused you aberrations in life, helped you deal with life's aberrations, or both?

I have to say that I was encouraged to think for myself when I was a kid, to look at facts and make my own decisions. I was not brought up to be one of the herd. I don’t think my parents did that purposefully to make me into a nonconformist. They just taught me to look at situations and assess facts.

I’m a pretty poor politician because I blurt out things that I probably shouldn’t say. I’ve learned over the years to keep my mouth shut and stop the tongue before it gets off the deep end.  In general, I’ve learned to stand up for the truth, for what’s right. I’ve had examples from my family that inspired me that way. If standing up for the truth and standing up for yourself is an aberration then at least whether you win or lose, you know you did the right thing. There’s no point in sitting something out, or having something you regret bothering you for the rest of your life.

Penelope Przekop
Have you ever had to deal with people in your life failing to understand your creative personality, interests, or drive? If so, can you tell us about it and how you've dealt with it?

I think I’ve had trouble being understood since day one so I’m used to it by now. You just have to keep going.

Do you think there is a difference between creativity and talent? What are your thoughts on this?

For me, neither of these words have any real meaning. I believe in focus and hard work. If you know your basics and you work hard at it, you can get there.  I suppose creativity is the ability to put things together that are not obvious, and talent is the ease at which you do it.  You have to put in the time and effort to become skilled. Yes, it’s easier for some people, but none of us are going to be Michelangelo in a week. He didn’t become Michelangelo in a week. I believe that if you focus, work hard, and then assess what you’ve done ... you make progress. As you make progress, things fall into place and people say, "You're so talented!  You're so creative!"

Michael Seif
You've stated that the upcoming "brick and mortar" Barebrush show will be the first of many. What is your vision for Barebrush?

I would love for the shows to continue! What I’m hoping for is the ability to connect art dealers with our artists. It’s happening in a small way in that some of the art in this show has representation. If there is interest, there will be a dealer involved who will make the sale for the artist. Rather than get the Internet to take the place of the dealer, I’m trying to attract artists who know how to get folks excited about their work.I would like Barebrush to provide a way to promote and manage art.  Then also provide artists with an  invitational show in New York City.

Sandro La Ferla
My plan is to start focusing on other genres as well.  I also envision 'click and buy' technology being part of the Barebrush site (with only a small, reasonable commission for Barebrush).  The other genres will be bigger. Nudes represent only 5% of the art market. The other genres could have their own shows ... so I think I’ll be pretty busy.

What is your primary motto or mantra in life? Why is this important to you?

It’s hard for me to say off the bat. I really have a hard time following an authority just because someone says to do so. I learned that from the type of family I had. I was taught that you could get things right without having to tear the house down to do it.

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6527212 January 27, 2011

Beautiful Alien: Emily Lisker

"I always knew I was a Martian of sorts."

About ten years ago, my brother, my mother, and I had a conversation about high school.  My brother commented about how everyone around him seemed to be from another planet--not his.  Then my mother went on to describe similar perceptions.

I sat, quietly, choosing not to offer up my own story.  Doing so seemed as if it would somehow belittle my own memories. Listening to them, I wondered if every teenager feels that way, or if we simply were different as a family, that maybe we shared certain oddities due to our genetic code.

I felt sad that I failed to realize during those years that my brother, who is just over a year my senior, was feeling so much like I was.  We somehow missed a valuable opportunity to connect and find some solace within the family. We were lonely together and lonely apart.

After all these years, I'm not convinced that every teenager feels like an alien.  Perhaps they do for a moment, a day, or even weeks at a time.  For some of us, it has been a lifetime.  Like my guest today, artist Emily Lisker, I've learned " ... to counterbalance. My whole body is my antenna, it's very intense physically and sensually to be a human on this earth. I try not to push my emotional limits, instead I try to live like a farmer, early to bed, early to rise, fertilizing and nurturing my crops."

In my non-scientific research into the hearts and souls of creatives, I've noticed that more artists than writers have relayed this feeling of being alien.  I've always thought of myself as a writer, first and foremost; however, I can say without any hesitation that I grew up feeling like the biggest, brightest alien in the Universe. I was an avatar, creeping around inside an unfamiliar body.

I recognized my alien nature as young as 4 or 5 years old.  I knew I was different.  My major flawed assumption was: Something is wrong with me!  I held onto that belief for years.  It guided my early life, creating a self fulfilling prophesy.  I also assumed that I was different for a reason, and that became my great counterbalance. My dream in life was to find that reason.

Everyone is different.  Each person is unique and to be celebrated. I absolutely believe that.  It may be politically incorrect to say so, but some people are significantly different in various ways.  They are outliers on the graph of what's normal.  Some of us realize early that we are dangling on a bell curve tail.

I've never met Emily. I can't tell you where she actually fits on the curve.  All I know is that she gets it. I suspect that I could sit with her and describe my life, and she would get it. More and more I question the significance of my realization that most of the artists I interview seem to get it more than the writers. What does that mean about me, and where I'm headed?

I will always be a writer, but I'm becoming an artist.  It feels right.

What's your story (in a nutshell)?

I was from a family of artists in Westchester, New York. My parents and step-parents were in different aspects of advertising. I ran away from home, first to Brooklyn and then Chinatown in NYC, then finally to Providence RI at age 17. I worked odd jobs, then enrolled at the RI School of Design and studied painting, literature, and photography. After graduation I became a freelance illustrator for magazines, newspapers, theater productions, children's books, etc. Eventually I decided it was time to make paintings.

How long did it take to establish yourself as an artist?

I got hooked on drawing and painting as a young child, and never stopped. I had a lot of artistic confidence by the time I graduated from college, and then got lucky landing a lot of illustration work right away. Editorial illustration disappeared with the advent of the computer, so I started over with children's books. In publishing, though, you don't so much establish an artistic record as establish a sales record, and I became weary of that attitude. So I started over again, trying to establish myself as a painter. I'm 50 now, and I have a respectable local reputation. Thanks to the Internet, I got hooked on publishing my words and paintings online, and that has certainly increased my audience.

I've seen a lot of strange art in galleries, as well as more traditional pieces. How do you define great art? Is it more about the technique or emotion? What the heck is it about?

Art can be a pyramid of tomato cans in an Italian grocery store - it's about vision, not about the art object. Inspiration for that vision comes from all places. I have no idea how to define great art and I'm not sure I could for another person. I just know that I am constantly engaged in making art, and it comes out through all of my senses and pores. I exercise my receptivity - the more avenues I have to express my vision, the deeper and more widespread my receptivity. If you are doing your work your appetite increases.

But the vision has to be true. There can be no falseness, no compromise. I recently saw art that moved me and changed my life because it was visionary, and it was sincere. You can smell the slightest insincerity. The artist in this case was self-taught, his craft exquisite, but it was his vision, the truth of it, that made for greatness in my eyes.

With regard to your current creative focus, was there an "ah-ha" moment you can tell us about?

I believe we must counter the forces in our schools and our society that say unless you are THE BEST at something, you are not allowed. Imagine if everyone shared their food and played music with their neighbors and walked everywhere, rather than hiding in their pod cars and houses, hiding behind computer screens? Yes, I am a dreamer and an idealist, but this belief is very meaningful to me. I worry about a society that is not stressing the vital importance of making music, art, poetry as part of daily life. Don't give creating over to the celebrities! Embrace it, love it, encourage it in each other! It's about engaging in life in this moment and all moments. Be alive! Live!

For you, is making art more about creation or expression? It can be both, but does one dominate with regard to your need/urge/desire to be an artist and why?

I'm not sure I know the difference between creation and expression, or, maybe for me there is no difference. My imagination is like a wild horse that needs daily runs, a stall, hay, and carrots. My imagination must be used, otherwise I get stuck on worrying and making myself miserable. I call creating the opening of the ziti. I open, I receive, something moves through me, I visit another planet, I look over the edge at the abyss. What comes of that is my expression. I never really know what that will be, and it isn't really the point. The creative energies will turn to disease if they are not harnessed and expressed.

Many artists focus on one particular subject or style. How important is this for career development? Have you ever grown tired of painting the same types of things, and if so, can you tell us about it?

I wouldn't know anything about career development, or the development of style. My audience tells me that I have a distinct style, but it's not what I focus on. When I am painting, I first sketch freely on canvas until an image strikes me as being something I'd like to develop further. Certain images may come up repeatedly in a batch of paintings, then over time new obsessions take over. I never run out of ideas. Its a bit like how I write. I write spontaneously in longhand, and stuff jumps out at me to develop. Then I write, standing at my computer and moving words around.

What I take in from reading and looking worms its way into my imagination while I walk and sleep, and things develop unconsciously. Visually I've developed a language, a style, which evolves naturally and organically through regular visits to the studio. I don't worry about it. My vocabulary is always evolving. I had a fabulous art teacher in high school. She used to show us slides from art history, not letting us draw or paint right away until we'd filled up, bursting to express. I still do this. When researching to solve illustration jobs I always load up on imagery. Now my writing makes me hunger for reading ten books at once. As I play the sax I hear everything more, just like drawing makes you see more.

Do you believe some of the various attributes related to being highly creative have caused you aberrations in life, helped you deal with life's aberrations, or both? 

I had to look up aberration to help me with this one.

1. A deviation from the proper or expected course. A deviation from what is normal, expected, or usual.

2. A departure from the normal or typical (aberrations from the norm).

3. Psychology A disorder or abnormal alteration in one's mental state.

I guess I can relate to all of it. When people admire my imagination and humor, they see me as crazy, in a fun way. When they see the truth behind what I do, they are terrified. That is the artist's role, to be the fool, the jester, and also the prophet, the myth maker. I am actually very non-crazy. I continually try to ground myself through writing, walking my dog for miles each day, baking bread, washing my clothes. I have always had a delicate chemistry that can carry me up, up, and away. So rather than fly off like a rocket I have learned to counterbalance. My whole body is my antenna, it's very intense physically and sensually to be a human on this earth. I try not to push my emotional limits, instead I try to live like a farmer, early to bed, early to rise, fertilizing and nurturing my crops.

I guess you are asking about crazy artist syndrome. I do see the world from the ceiling as if I were dangling from a swinging chandelier, and this is helpful for my art. As a child I noticed the differences, for example, between myself and my older, more conventional sister. I figured some part of my brain had melted from the ether I was given during my tonsillectomy. My husband says no, silly, you were born this way. Biologically I am blessed with a sensitive temperament, moodiness, and all sorts of stuff I've had to befriend and ultimately respect. I've needed to figure myself out. Read, read, read, hunt down books at the library! Libraries are the churches of my heart.

During difficult or challenging times in your life, does writing soothe or inspire you? Is it therapeutic in any way?

Totally. I started writing as suicide prevention. I tell this to everyone because it was that bad, and writing worked to lift me up S-L-O-W-L-Y one word at a time. When I wanted to build my own guillotine to chop off my head, my friend Susan said to me, "Try writing." When I started keeping a journal, I actually went to the window to make sure there wasn't someone there to shoot me for writing. That's when I knew I should keep writing, that writing was important, and that I had things to say.

Painting grabbed me at age 12, especially when my step-father introduced me to an amazing painter who was exhibiting in a Soho sidewalk sale. But it worried my parents when I was in high school that I was chasing poets, not boys. I still would prefer being in my studio or walking my dog or dancing in my living room to Brave Combo than being most anywhere else. The poets are my heroes, they are our national treasures, our royalty. I look to them to understand my job.

Have you ever had to deal with people in your life failing to understand your creative personality, interests, or drive? If so, can you tell us about it and how you've dealt with it? 

Only my husband and fellow artists REALLY understand me to the core. People are either frightened, entertained, or recognize me as a fellow traveler. Mostly they are frightened. I have taken the word friend out of my vocabulary. It gets me in trouble. I have acquaintances, pals, audience. I do not generally hang out with people.

It has been crucial for me to recognize that I can support my drive without apology. I've never had a huge desire to be normal, or to fit in, or be cool (perhaps I knew it was impossible!) so in this way I have been extremely lucky. I see many people get caught up and distracted by this need. I always knew I was a Martian of sorts. I was also lucky that my few high school friends were poets. I didn't suffer peer damage but I did suffer family tribal damage.

How did I deal with it? I ran away to a safe place, and I sank into my art. Nothing else worked. I couldn't drink or take drugs, they've never helped. I still loathe parties. I now think I was lucky in this way. My life is still beginning anew each day. I am excited that I will be teaching art again to high school students. That was a crucial age for me growing up. Having mentors and adult artists in my life helped me envision a path. So I'm excited about being part of this for students now.

Have you developed a specific creative process that enables you to meet your artistic goals? If so, can you tell us about it. Where do most of your ideas come from?

I am drawn to work, to communicate, and I am drawn to the solitude I need in order to do so. As a kid it was because I had a crush on this artist or that poet, etc. But now I am motivated to communicate in both a personal and creative sense. My ideas come from feeding myself food, literally and metaphorically: imagery, story, music, but also getting out each day walking, and really sleeping well at night too. All of this ferments in the brain and the magic is how it comes out. I love what Ray Bradbury said, "Your intuition knows what to write, so get out of the way."

He also said:

"If you want to write, if you want to create, you must be the most sublime fool that God ever turned out and sent rambling. You must write every single day of your life. You must read dreadful dumb books and glorious books, and let them wrestle in beautiful fights inside your head, vulgar one moment, brilliant the next. You must lurk in libraries and climb the stacks like ladders to sniff books like perfumes and wear books like hats upon your crazy heads. I wish you a wrestling match with your Creative Muse that will last a lifetime. I wish craziness and foolishness and madness upon you. May you live with hysteria, and out of it make fine stories - science fiction or otherwise. Which finally means, may you be in love every day for the next 20,000 days. And out of that love, remake a world."

Isn't that wonderful? That's how I feel.

What do you believe places an artist apart from his or her peers? So many are highly talented, but what makes one stand out as truly gifted?

I'm not sure I can be the judge of that. Perhaps it's about having a particular vision or take on things. I know that when an artist has affected me I don't see the world the same way again. Last night I read Haywire, a book of poetry by George Bilgere. This morning at five AM I woke up from a dream and raced to my desk to get down the words inspired by the book. His poems had been messing with my head while I was asleep, and I am grateful. This happens a lot when you eat good poetry, art, music.

A few months ago I saw the art of Stephen Huneck. I had my library find a book of his art, and I spent all night reading about him and looking at his art. My life has been forever changed. When I first heard Brave Combo's music, I sobbed I loved it so much, and felt I had wasted my whole life not being a musician. So I began playing music. Obviously their music released something important in me. Years ago I read The Fire Eaters by Bill Cobb, and I was forever changed. I had to write!

I love to write fan letters. It's a habit that started when I was 13 and wrote to some of the illustrators my step-father represented. He was their agent, and I would bring home samples of their work and study them. I often got to meet them in their studios. It is so important for kids to meet artists. Still to this day I write thank you notes to poets and musicians and playwrights whose art has affected me. I am actually shy, so letter-writing is how I converse. I never expect a reply, but I have had lovely experiences corresponding with some of them. And once in a while what I am doing interests them, too, and then it's a lucky love-fest.

What is your primary motto or mantra in life? Why is this important to you?

Communicate! Connect! Envision, all through your art! I guess I am communing with life when I engage in these things. Now that I am fifty I want to make sure I pass along the enthusiasm to the ones in my community just starting. I write, I paint, I play music, and I need to do it all, to keep dancing! My name means emulate, and perhaps that is what I do. I try everything in the banquet of life.

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6527212 January 11, 2011

Incendiary: Chris Cleave

" ... literature is my tool of persuasion."

The term incendiary has a lot to do with bombs, as does Chris Cleave's latest novel, INCENDIARY (launched today by Simon & Schuster).  Incendiary also means "tending to inflame the senses," and "a person who stirs up strife, sedition, etc.; an agitator." 

I spent last year writing a novel which I dedicated to my mother.  After reading several pages, she shut it down.  She refuses to read it. It agitated her, stirred up strife, and inflamed her senses in such a way that she couldn't bear to continue ... not even for her daughter.  

A big part of my wanting to write the novel (DUST) was to persuade my mother to open up and finally see my perspective regarding who I am, who we are together, and what we are missing.  In the best way I know how, I committed myself to expressing my opinions about the deepest and most serious issues in our adult relationship.  I knew that those opinions and emotions reflect various universal truths that go beyond one mother and her daughter, thus providing the basis for a great novel.

It wasn't an easy story to write.

Yes, a part of me is devastated that she won't read the book.  That pain has already been neatly packaged and tucked away by all those efficient coping mechanisms I worked so hard to create and perfect beginning the day I emerged into my mother's stressful life.  Meanwhile, the manuscript sits in my computer now, a lonely file, waiting to be discovered by someone who will not only read it, but who will also appreciate its intrinsic literary and entertainment value.

Hearing this strife-filled, family drama, sob story, you might ask, "Did you say entertainment?" 

Absolutely!  Like all my novels, DUST not only serves as an enlightening, persuasive work of art, it also aims to absorb, enthrall, engross, captivate, and even provide a little comic relief.  In the end, I seek to entertain.  In the words of my guest today, author Chris Cleave, "Although my work has a strong persuasive element, I aim to write novels that are joyful and interesting things, rather than political tracts." 

After all, isn't that what truth in literature is all about?  Regardless of our views, ideologies, religions, politics, etc, our shared humanity is what enables us to understand and ultimately navigate through the perplexing landscape surrounding us ... wherever that may be.  Each of us is absorbing, enthralling, captivating, and even comical.  We are all part of a universal story.

My 22-year-old daughter pointed out, "If your mother was actually capable of reading and understanding the book, you'd never have written it." 

As a creative individual, I've come to terms with who I am.  I'm a person who can write a book like DUST, a book I believe in despite my own mother wanting to bomb it.  It relays something important to the world; it contains truth.  In a weird sort of way, my amazing mother gave me that gift.

I'll not stop hoping that someday she'll read and understand my words.  Until then, I'll continue to accept the support and peace of mind I gain from the wonderful guests on Aberration Nation.  When I read the inspiring words of folks like Chris Cleave, Marya Hornbacher, Antwone Fisher, Darin Strauss, Tom Grimes and all the others, I am renewed.  I carry on, believing that someday I will also be heard.

What's your writing story? Tell us how LITTLE BEE became such a success. Beyond being a fantastic novel, were there any specific pivotal events or situations that helped fuel its success?

I started writing when I was a kid – I drew satirical cartoons about our schoolteachers to make my friends laugh. I wrote a few novels that weren’t much good, and then in 2003 I quit my job, just before our first child was born, so that I could try to write full-time. I’ve had two novels published since then – INCENDIARY in 2005 and LITTLE BEE in 2008 – but I’ve written two or three more that were a bit too weird to publish. INCENDIARY has just been re-released by my publishers, which I’m delighted about because I think it’s my best work and I think people will enjoy it. I’m currently nearly finished on what I’m sure will be my third published novel.

Beyond the work itself, there are several factors that made LITTLE BEE a success.
  • First, I think the American reading public should take a lot of credit for taking the book to their hearts – it is after all quite a political and a challenging novel at times - not what one might typically expect to be a bestseller. So, more power to them.
  • Second, booksellers were very important in launching the book. We didn’t have much of an advertising campaign, so it was the kind support of the independent booksellers and the public librarians that brought the book to people’s attention.
  • Third, I was lucky to get a lot of support from Borders, who put the book front-of-house pretty early on.
  • Fourth, I worked my ass off touring the book and trying to give an interview to everyone who wanted one, big or small.
  • Fifth, I worked hard online to tell people about the book.
Also, and most importantly, I had an incredible agent, a terrific editor, and a courageous publisher. That’s not always the case when a book is published, and that’s why there were better books than mine published this year that didn’t do as well as mine.

You have said, "I see my job as providing new information in an entertaining way." That vision is certainly apparent in LITTLE BEE. I've always wanted to write novels that not only entertain but also bring something new to the table for the reader, whether emotionally or intellectually. For me, entertainment alone just isn't enough when I consider how to spend my time, and how to explore, dissect, and/or share my world. Why is it important for you to write novels that surpass being merely entertaining?

I’m from London and I like the UK, but I think it’s fair to say that we don’t have much of a democracy. We have two houses of parliament: the smaller (the Commons) is elected by the public from a set of candidates appointed by the established political parties, and the other - the larger in terms of the number of members - is simply filled with political appointees and hereditary law-makers (the Lords). There are no primaries, no fixed term limits, and no written constitution to protect the political process from the rapacious interests of media and banking tycoons. The main parties are centrist, establishmentarian and weak, and the civil service runs rings around them.

Since I believe in the potential of the political process to make life better for people, but faced with the reality that one’s vote counts for very little in the UK, I’ve decided that the best way for me to be politically active is to work on changing public opinion about political issues such as terrorism and immigration, using persuasion rather than violence. Literature is my tool of persuasion, and happily I enjoy the work too. I aim to make books that are joyful and interesting things, rather than political tracts.

Was there someone in particular who inspired you to love books and/or take an interest in writing?

Yes, my incredible mother.

Where do most of your creative ideas come from?

I don’t know. I’m sorry. I just sit quietly and think about things, and ideas come into my mind. I know that’s an unsatisfactory answer and I’m sorry – but I just don’t know how my head works.

With regard to your current creative focus, was there an "ah-ha" moment you can tell us about?

I’m working on a book about athletes at the moment, and the relationship society has with them. The big moment for me was when I was starting the research, and I went to watch some high-level cycle racing. I saw a huge crash, in a criterium race in the rain, and I watched all these young men picking themselves up, bleeding profusely, and getting back on their bikes if they could. And it was freezing, and no one was getting paid much, and people were riding with broken bones. I finally understood the everyday suffering these people go through just so that one or two of them can prevail and the rest of us can get a nice patriotic feeling once every four years when we watch them race in the Olympics. It made me feel a bit sick.

Do you believe some of the various attributes related to being highly creative have caused you aberrations in life, helped you deal with life's aberrations, or both? How so?

The work I do is creative, in the sense that I’m producing something out of nothing, and when that is channeled into a project that is going well, I get on a terrific high because it feels like magic. That in itself is a problem, because it means that I neglect everything else. And when the work is going badly, or I can’t get other people to like my work and I end up in a vortex of re-writing, I have this quite terrifying abandonment of everything else in my life as I struggle to make the work right, because I do believe in my stories and I am fiercely determined to make them work.

I love being a writer but I don’t find it an easy job. You’re working with strong forces, and strong people, and you can’t always be the master of them. That’s true in a lot of jobs, but few of those jobs are so solitary. I think that’s the crux of it – there’s no one to quietly tell you: enough.

Have you ever had to deal with people in your life failing to understand your creative personality, interests, or drive? If so, can you tell us about it and how you've dealt with it?

I have some wonderful people in my life – my wife and children, my family and friends. People are very kind to me on the whole, and I think they make allowances for the fact that I am sometimes preoccupied or reclusive. I just try to do my best, and I think people appreciate that’s all I can do. And most days, I think I’m pretty entertaining company. I hardly ever have problems with people.

Have you developed a specific creative process that enables you to meet your writing goals? If so, can you tell us about it, and also share any thoughts you may have on the role discipline and organization play in reaching creative goals?

My default setting is to work all the time, so really my biggest creative challenge is not discipline or organization, but finding a way to switch off sometimes. That’s easier said than done.
  • First because (as in any worthwhile job) it’s exciting and it keeps you awake.
  • Second because you can’t really plan your time.
You might deliver a book after a year of very intense work, and be planning a month off to recuperate, but the publisher doesn’t love the book and you need to get back to work immediately, and on an even tighter deadline this time. Combine that with newspaper deadlines and family commitments, and you can see that the greatest challenge to your creativity is the very real prospect of burning out. I’m sure the creative challenge is the same for all writers – you need to find a way to sit down at your keyboard remembering that it is fun to be there.

What's next for Chris Cleave?

Deliver the new novel. Take a month off. Do things real men do, like shop for power tools and sledge across Alaska, eating the huskies if necessary.

What is your primary motto or mantra in life? Why is this important to you?

What a great question. I toyed with some glorious mottos that made me sound tenacious, brave and dashing, but in truth I suppose my motto is the same as any parent’s: “Try not to die or go mad until after your kids have left home and settled down.” I would rather my wonderful children remembered me as a good parent than a good writer, so my aim in life is to provide for them and have fun with them. Actually that’s a pretty good rule to live by, because it puts everything else in perspective.

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6527212 December 29, 2010

Blue Man Rising: Scott Heydt

"My previous employer failed to appreciate and understand my creative personality, interests, and drive."

When I went to bed last night my throat was a bit scratchy.  I woke up this morning feeling terrible.  I'm sick. My head hurts. My ears hurt. My throat hurts. My back aches. I'm congested and tired.  Sitting here writing this, I'm also sick of editors not falling in love with my novels; not having enough hours in the day to do all that I'd like to do; and a mother who somehow manages with almost every word (whether intentional or not) to make me feel guilty for who I am.

I've had it!

On the other hand, tonight I'm going with my family to see The Blue Man Group in Philly. I'm also starting a new job in the pharmaceutical industry on Monday.  I have a great husband and two wonderful kids.  I have a roof over my head, and plenty to eat.  Life is good!  I feel better than I did twenty years ago, ten years ago, and even three years ago.  I'm still evolving into the person I was born to be, and it feels awesome.

My guest today is Scott Heydt, a young man I met a few years ago at a book signing event.  My youngest daughter and I read his book, O.Y.L. together, and we both loved it.  He's an excellent writer who I've seen go through some ups and downs recently. But he keeps moving toward his goals, following his passion.  I so admire that and am honored to have him on Aberration Nation.

In his interview below, he writes about an employer who didn't understand his creative personality. I've been there. In my situation, even with great yearly reviews and successes, I felt that I wasn't quite 100% there.  Something was missing.  As fate would have it, I had the opportunity to take a few years off to focus on my creative endeavors.  During that time, I wrote two additional novels and began painting. 

What I learned, and what I believe Scott has learned, is that life goes on and that in the end, we must be true to ourselves to find our best self.  I'm still finding mine. I'm headed back to the pharmaceutical industry within a week, and I'm optimistic that I'll bring my best self to the new job. Over the last three years, I've gained confidence by pulling together the scattered pieces I longed for--the pieces I thought I had to hide, subdue, and disguise to be successful in the corporate world.  They are all here now, front and center, along with all the more traditional aspects of success I honed over years of hard work.

I'm thinking a lot now about what I want to do next with my writing.  I have three novels circulating with editors.  I'm in transition again with regard to agents.  I'm discovering the world of electronic publishing.  The good news is that over the last three years I've gained a tremendous amount of confidence in my creative abilities, and I will without a doubt carry on the dream that took spark so many years ago.

As a little girl, trying to soothe a screaming mommy, imagining all the dark, scary demons she saw around us, I knew that it was all happening for a reason.  I was born blue, and all that angst and stress deepened the shade. But somehow I knew that the reason for it all would ultimately be something positive.  I'm still reaching for that promise.  The screaming is no longer part of my life.  The demons have fled, but I still remember them.  In the end, if the reason is as simple as the ability to now feel true joy on a day such as this--filled with an aching body, a pounding head, and underlying rejection (of my creative work)--I will gladly take it.  That feeling of happiness alone is all I ever wanted.

Scott says, "Writing makes me hyper-sensitive to my life and my surroundings ..." He wonders if I consider that an aberration.  Yes, I do.  But those of us who find positive ways to channel that sensitivity are lucky. Now I know that being blue is a gift.

Tonight as I watch those larger than life blueberry guys beating drums of vivid, splashing color, I will celebrate my past, present, and future.  Aches, pains, rejection, and all ...

What's your writing story (in a nutshell)?

Six years ago, my extracurricular life consisted of marathon running. When several injuries requiring surgery sidelined my running career, I used my recovery time on the couch to write. This first literary surge since college produced my first novel, O.Y.L. Running still plays an important role in my life, but now shares equal time with my passion for writing.

With regard to your current creative focus, was there an "ah-ha" moment you can tell us about?

My current creative focus involves teenage brain
growth and building relationships. This first nonfiction venture evolved during the final year of my Masters degree work at Duquesne University. I’ve read so many books about the teenage brain geared toward parents and teachers, but few address the brain’s owner—the teen. Gray Matters: Build a Relationship With Your Teenage Brain is a guide for teenagers to harness their powerful, changing brain through practical, relationship-building tips.

Have you had any set backs that you can tell us about, and if so, how did you manage to keep moving forward?

In 2009, an independent press awarded my second novel, Mice Don’t Taste Like Chicken, an honorable mention in its first annual contest. Soon after, the same press offered a contract for publication. For nearly a year, I edited, created a book-specific website, and pre-promoted. One month before my publication date, I learned of deceptive and illegal practices within the company. Since then I’ve regained the manuscript rights and will now publish through my original publisher, Helm Publishing. Trust since then hasn’t been easy, but I have renewed hope with every word I write.

You write books for kids. Is that what you've always wanted to do, and if so, why? Will that continue to be your focus moving forward?

I’ll admit, I read young adult and middle grade fiction more than I read adult fiction. This not only keeps me current with my young students (I teach as well), but it keeps me knowledgeable about the genre I enjoy. I doubt I’ll ever stray from writing for kids, although I have a stronger gravitation toward young adult fiction and nonfiction the more I hone my craft.

Do you believe some of the various attributes related to being highly creative have caused you aberrations in life, helped you deal with life's aberrations, or both?

Writing makes me hyper-sensitive to my life and my surroundings (if you consider hyper-sensitivity an aberration). The highs and lows are more substantial when I consider how I might turn my emotions to words or transfer events in my life to story. I wouldn’t trade this sensitivity, though, because it makes me a passionate and caring individual.

During difficult or challenging times in your life, does writing sooth or inspire you? Is it therapeutic in any way?

While I certainly find writing therapeutic, this question is best turned on its head—the difficult and challenging times in my life sooth and inspire my writing.

Have you ever had to deal with people in your life failing to understand your creative personality, interests, or drive? If so, can you tell us about it and how you've dealt with it?

My previous employer failed to appreciate and understand my creative personality, interests, and drive. While I loved my co-workers, I knew that to compromise my drive is to compromise my values. With my wife’s support, I chose to leave that position. Since then I have joined ranks with several close friends and colleagues that share my creative personality and drive: the difference is indescribable.

Do you think there is a difference between creativity and talent? What are your thoughts on this?

I believe the two work in tandem, creativity acting as the accelerant for talent. I can write creative sentences day after day, but unless I can work tirelessly to weave those sentences in a unique way, I’ll never develop talent. Sure, some creativity and talent is inborn, but the majority (especially of talent) comes from hard work and dedication.

Have you developed a specific creative process that enables you to meet your writing goals? If so, can you tell us about it? Where do most of your ideas come from? 

I draw my ideas from life. Wherever I go, my writer’s notebook is not far beyond reach. I don’t stalk, but I do people watch. If you’re observant, twenty minutes in a crowded mall or restaurant can transform into 100 manuscript pages.

What is your primary motto or mantra in life? Why is this important to you?

My mantra is “Live, Learn, Teach.” Education is my life. I must live fully, learn from my relationships and experiences, then pass along that knowledge in service of others.

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6527212 November 12, 2010

Climbing the Mountain: Justin Bua

"I wanted this my whole life, but when I got it I realized there is so much more."

Yesterday I mentioned to a friend that I just keep doing what I feel driven to do, assuming that someday it will all make sense.  What-could-she-possibly-know Miley Cyrus tells us it's the climb that counts most.  We're all scaling some sort of mountain, at times desperately clinging to sharp stinging rocks.  Living in the moment gets tough when the pain digs in.  

Growing up many of us were told to reach for the stars, focus on the end goal, never give up.  All great advice; however, they often failed to mention that the mountain actually never ends and that those stars just keep getting higher. Perhaps they couldn't bear to slam us with that reality as we gazed up at them with shining eyes full of hope. 

My oldest daughter's boyfriend's best friend was found dead this week.  He was 28 years old.  Sorry to bring up such a sad thought, but folks are dying all around. I'm sure you can name a few.  One of my closest childhood friends died at 18.  I still dream about her several times a year.  I wonder what mountains these two young people aimed to climb.  Had they even identified their peaks yet?  Had they perhaps seen them looming in the distance? Knowing they lost their chance could make us all feel like folding up due to sadness.  We could choose to stop and simply cling to what and who we have.  It makes me want to lay down flat, close my eyes, and focus on the sound of my 11-year-old laughing, the smell of dinner, and the hum of my computer. 

It's perplexing.  I know I can't be happy on flat ground.  I need something to climb towards, yet knowing that the climb, once started, may never end, is exhausting.  My guest today, artist Justin Bua talks about how in his most recent "ah-ha" moment, he realized he was spinning in a moment he's always dream of -- he was at the mountain peak -- or so he thought momentarily.  When the dust settled, he found himself in another "ah-ha" moment.  He saw that the mountain never ends.  

Justin suggests that we be true to ourselves and just keep going.  I often wonder why Salmon swim upstream to mate.  It's so hard.  Why would they do that?  Perhaps for the same reason that I keep climbing and climbing and climbing.  At least they know what their reward is.  What is mine?  What is Justin's?  And will it be enough to justify the hard work, the sacrifice, the longing?

I think it will be.  I have to believe that.  I believe it for the 18 year old girl who lost her life in a car accident in 1984, and for the 28 year old man who was found alone in his apartment last week.  Both were extraordinary individuals.  I climb for them.  I sense that Justin climbs for those he paints, those whom he dubs the underground icons of our time, the under-appreciated souls similar to those Van Gogh painted on days that scorched his soul and hunger ate away at the belly he eventually shot.  Somehow I think all the climbing upstream has to do with love.  With respect to the creative climb, perhaps it's the way people like us express some kind of specialized, never-ending, mountainous emotion that seems to fester in standard avenues of expression.  

I don't know the answer.  I wish I did.  All I know is that today I don't care how jagged, rough, steep, or slick my mountain is.  I'm grateful to have one to call my own, and I will cling to it for as long as my arms can hold on to love, art, words, joy, and pain.  It means I'm alive.  My job is to move as high as I can until the end.  On the way, I'll breath deeply and try to smile.  I'll look to you, and I'll know I've found my true path.  As long as we can see each other, we'll be fine.

What's your story (in a nutshell)?  How long did it take to establish yourself as an artist?  Was the journey on a straight or twisted path?  Are you surprised by your success?

I’ve been surrounded by art my whole life.  My grampa was a letterer, a graphic designer, and a painter.  He did the original letterings for Felix the Cat as well as Prince Valiant and many more comics.  He was amazing!  Also, I remember back in kindergarten I had an amazing art teacher.  She made me do books on my life and that was the beginning of a whole new world!  I had characters who would make rainbows from rainbow machines and all types of insanely creative people in my books.

I studied at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena in Cali.  That experience was amazing and it helped lead me to a successful career not only as an artist, but as a professor of drawing at the University of Southern California.  You know every day I strive to get better. I am a teacher but I am also a student and I try to grow all the time.  Michelangelo was 81 when he said that he was just beginning to learn how to draw… You never arrive and if you really feel that it’s over, it drives you to grow and explore new levels.

With regard to your current creative focus, was there an "ah-ha" moment you can tell us about?

Perhaps a show I just had at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.  It was amazing.  Everyone came out from Mr. Wiggles to Mix Master Mike to Flea from Red Hot Chili Peppers.  It was an “ah-ha” moment because it was so out of body that it was as if I was looking down on myself saying both “ah-ha"-- I get it … My work is justifiable because they are hanging in a Museum -- and at the same time I felt like “ah-ha” -- that doesn’t make you great or terrible, it makes you fortunate.  I wanted this my whole life, but when I got it I realized there is so much more.

For you, is art more about creation or expression? It could be both, but does one dominate with regard to your need/urge/desire to be an artist and why?

Expression.  The artists that I like are mostly emotional painters.  Artists like Van Gogh, Kathe Kollwitz , Daumier , and Goya all paint emotionally.  They also paint the underclass and the common people.  This is what I really relate to and who I love to paint. 

Many artist focus on one particular subject or style.  How important is this for career development?  Have you ever grown tired of painting the same types of things, and if so, can you tell us about it?

I’ve never grown tired of painting the same types of things.  I’m from the hip hop era, so the characters I paint are kind of the iconographic heroes of my time. Whether it's the DJs or the MCs, they are the underground icons of our generation. The artists throughout history have always painted the heroes, painting popes and kings.  I paint DJs and b-boys, those are the people I really emulate, who I look up to.  I’m currently working on my next book entitled, "Legends of Hip Hop", which pays homage to the great heroes of our time.

I was a little burned out on painting characters playing pianos so I taking a hiatus from that but not to worry, I’ll be painting characters playing piano in the next year or ten years… or twenty. 

Do you believe some of the various attributes related to being highly creative have caused you aberrations in life, helped you deal with life's aberrations, or both?

Both ...

During difficult or challenging times in your life, does painting sooth or inspire you?  Is it therapeutic in any way?

I write to soothe myself, but I also balance myself with painting!   It is my yoga.

Have you ever had to deal with people in your life failing to understand your creative personality, interests, or drive? If so, can you tell us about it and how you've dealt with it?

Yes, my high school teacher who didn’t let me enter an art contest.  I don’t want to mention any names because I don’t believe in throwing anyone under the bus—Mr. Stember!!!

Have you developed a specific creative process that enables you to meet your artistic goals?  If so, can you tell us about it.  Where do most of your ideas come from?

I work very traditionally.  I do a thumbnail, develop a full and realized drawing then I do a value key and then a color key and then the painting.  This process is interesting because half way through the painting I usually want to redo the whole thing!  I’m my own worst critic!

What do you believe places an artist apart from his or her peers?  So many are highly talented, but what makes one stand out as truly gifted?

The advice I’d give to any young artist just starting out or trying to get started is, just put your art out there to the world and you will shine.  Whether or not the world embraces you as an artist or not isn't the point.  You should paint because you have to and that's the way it is, and that’s how you’ll stand out as truly gifted.  It is a competitive world, but as long as you keep it real and don’t trick yourself into thinking that you’ve arrived then you’ll be good.

What is your primary motto or mantra in life? Why is this important to you?

Just be true. Its like KRS-One says: what does it mean to be underground, you have to be real to be underground. I think that people can smell bullsh*t from a mile away. So don't copy, don't bullsh*t, be you, and work hard. Be blue collar about it, put in the hours. The harder you work, the luckier you get, right?

I respect people who try to create awareness for art and the art movement.  Also, just be yourself!  Respect and love because that’s real hip-hop.  Woooooord!

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6527212 November 05, 2010

Holding onto Her Hat: Marya Hornbacher

"Dealing with a wayward mind can be so tricky; creative work or even a creative way of looking at the world can give you a means of holding onto your hat in a way that does not require an adherence to a “normal” or “average” way of thinking or living."

Sometimes I wonder if my interest in art and literature is selfish.  I wonder how valuable my contribution really is, and to whom.  Who really cares what I do, and why should they?  Of course, if I'm the only one who cares--if I do it for myself--back comes the selfishness.  This thought process pulls me into the heart of Aberration Nation, the part about how much life can suck.  All the responsibilities, the cultural expectations, and the cost of it all weighs me down. 

All I can really do is somehow hang onto my hat, focusing on what makes it all feel worthwhile. I recently read about Maya Angelo saying if she couldn't see the world through the lens of writing, she just wouldn't make it; she wouldn't see a purpose in it.  The parts of life that excite me keep me going.  Despite how small and insignificant they may seem to others, they bring me purpose. 

I've been asked, "Why do you need a purpose?" 

I don't know the answer to that question.

There are lots of folks who don't seem to focus on having an ultimate reason for being here.  They just do what they have to do, moving through life at a steady pace.  Sometimes I think they're the lucky ones; the unselfish ones.  On the other hand, I'm constantly nitpicking over who I am, what I should be, why I'm here, what I'm supposed to be doing with what's in my head, etc.  I'm overwhelmed by the sheer numbers of people in existence, and I can't bear to be an ant in a pile of something that looks a lot like crap.  It makes me sound like a self-centered narcissist, but I'm not. 

My mind is like a train station.  Numerous trains of thought, pieces of who I am, crisscross through at any given time.  I can focus in on one train, or I can step back and view the bigger picture.  I know them all so well, moving back and forth across the terrain of my soul.  I know where each one came from, but I don't always know where they're headed.  What is their objective and when do they rest?  When I'm writing and painting, they somehow come together.  They miraculously begin to move in the same direction.  I see the beauty of their connection and alignment. I begin to see something that makes sense emerge from the hodgepodge of my life.    

My guest today, NY Times bestselling author Marya Hornbacher knows what it's like to struggle with mental demons; however different they may be from my own.  She's knows how never ending cycles of crazy thinking can drive a person to the edge.  I absolutely love her writing!  I respect her ability to navigate through the complex emotional maze that is her life while delivering phenomenal creative work.

Among other things she says here, I love her comment about creativity providing an avenue for hat holdingI get it.  No matter what I'm actually here for, I know that without my hat, I'm doomed.  So I keep holding on, and by doing so, I move forward while the trains in my head zip endlessly along the circuitous routes they travel.   

The path to publication seems to be a little different for each writer. How did it come about for you? Are you surprised by your success?

The path to publication for was, for me, a little odd. Like many writers, I started out in journalism, which was both something I loved (still do) and something I needed to pay my bills while I wrote and published poetry. Publishing in journalism and literary magazines was quite traditional. Things took a sharp left turn with the publication of an article I wrote on eating disorders. The article won an award, and the judge called me—if I recall correctly, I was wearing my pajamas and puttering around the house—and asked if he could be of any help in my career. I was twenty. I was a little startled. I had no idea how he might help me. The long and short of it was that he passed my work along to an agent, the agent signed me, and suddenly I found myself writing Wasted. I absolutely never intended to write a memoir. I certainly didn’t intend to do so at 21. So, departing from my grand plans to be a poet, I found myself in a totally different world.

The word “success” gives me the willies. I don’t really understand what it means. I suppose that technically I have had some. But frankly, I feel most of the successes in my life are personal, not professional. And those successes mean more to me, too. So, yes, I’d have to say I’m surprised by the very concept as applied to me.

How old were you when you realized that you wanted to be a writer? Can you tell us about any specific role models or mentors who inspired and/or encouraged you?

I was four. I had been given a blank book as a present. I remember the blank pages made me very nervous, so I decided I would write a novel so they would not be blank. I wrote a terribly derivative thing, based entirely on a play I had seen. Shortly after that, I wrote a short story called “Clouds,” having discovered the copier in my mother’s office, and promptly made 500 copies of “Clouds,” because that was pretty nifty. My first poem was called “Yellow,” and began, “I like yellow.” For this poem, I received an F; it did not rhyme. I was pissed; I didn’t think poems had to rhyme.

Mentors: at first, my parents, who were voracious readers, had a spectacular library, and read to me constantly. Years later, when I was a student at an arts high school, I was blindsided by all the possibilities writing contained when I studied with novelist and poet Jack Driscoll, screenwriter Terry Caszatt, and my lit professor, Nick Bozanic. These men introduced me to such a range of writing I’d never encountered that it made my head spin; they also made me work so hard I thought I’d positively explode. It was heavenly. In my early adulthood, I was mentored by poet and journalist Paul Trachtman, with whom I continue a thrilling discussion of poetry to this day. My dear mentor and friend Brian Anderson, journalist, recently passed away, and it broke my heart. These people have been astonishing gifts to me, and have taught me, pretty much, everything I know—which is that I know not very much.

You've written both memoir and fiction. Do you have a favorite, and if so, what drives that choice? Can you share your thoughts on how and why you're able to express yourself through both genres?

I vastly prefer writing fiction, though it is excruciatingly difficult for me, and takes me ages. I don’t much care for writing memoir; both my memoirs were written because I believed there was a hole in the literature that my perspective might be able to begin to fill. Perhaps I should provide a caveat; I do not like writing memoirs about things so difficult as mental illness and addiction. I enjoy the personal essay form just fine, and much of my journalism is written in the first person; but the two memoirs I’ve written have been very painful. My first novel, The Center of Winter, is my personal favorite of my books, possibly because it took me an absurd amount of time and I know it so well; the book I’m working on now, a second novel, is much broader in scope, and I feel like I have far more control over it than I did the first one. Which makes some sense, I suppose; writing a first novel, one is sort of flying by the seat of one’s pants, which isn’t so fun. This one is more fun.

A note on the phrase “express [oneself]” with regard to artistic work of any kind: I’m not sure that’s really what one is doing. My sense is that one is more connecting with a reader (or listener, or viewer), not as much expressing the self per se.

In your memoirs, Wasted and Madness, you describe your struggle with mental illness. How has being highly creative has helped you deal with those aberrations over the years?

I think more than anything, a creative streak has given me a sense of humor. Without that, I’m not sure how I would handle mental illness, or how I would interpret or experience it in a way that was tolerable (let alone readable). Beyond that, I think I’ve always been able to hold onto the knowledge that my creativity was one of my strong points, one of the only things I really believed in about myself, and having that gave me a kind of ballast through the various storms. Dealing with a wayward mind can be so tricky; creative work or even a creative way of looking at the world can give you a means of holding onto your hat in a way that does not require an adherence to a “normal” or “average” way of thinking or living.

I grew up believing that there was a strong link between creativity and mental illness. It was a belief that kept me from fully exploring my own creativity. I know now that mental illness can strike all types of people, and that all types of people can be highly creative. Given that you are a highly creative person who has struggled with mental illness, do you believe the link is a damaging stereotype in our society? What are your thoughts on this?

There’s definitely a genetic tendency in people who are predisposed to mental illness to also be creative; but, as you say, mental illness is not necessarily a determinate factor in creative people. There are many, many people who are highly creative who do not deal with mental illness. So I think the perception that one must be “mad” or a “mad genius” is, frankly, absurd, though it has roots in ancient cultures that believed people with mental illness to be accessing the voices of the gods. So that’s probably an idea old enough to discard, yes?

       The other problematic factor in the mad-genius theory is that it creates a resistance to treatment in people with mental illness who worry that their creative abilities or creative tendencies will be lost if they take medication, stabilize their moods, or in any way take care of their mental disorder. The fact is, while those things (medication, mental stability, lack of mania) change the way in which one creates—for example, I no longer write maniacally all night long for weeks on end—stability does not in any way spell the end of creativity. It spells the consistency of creative production. Those manic weeks of nonstop work, which I didn’t want to lose, turn out in retrospect to have been mostly productive of inconsistent, not very high-quality work after all. The work I am able to do now—sitting down at my desk every day at 8 and working till 5—is vastly more consistent in quality, quantity, and voice. The mind, when out of control, cannot produce consistent creative work; it can soar and crash, but not steadily produce. So I stick with my meds

Have you ever had to deal with people in your life failing to understand your creative personality, interests, or drive? If so, can you tell us about it and how you've dealt with it?

I was lucky enough to be born into a highly creative family—mostly artists, writers, and teachers—and so my creativity was really sort of taken as a given, as was my general eccentricity. My drive to do creative work was—I am very thankful for this—encouraged at all times, except when work in general overtook my health, which is ultimately counterproductive anyway and obviously damaging to the mind. Certainly I’ve run into people who thought I was (to quote Shakespeare) “passing strange,” and have had relationships of one kind or another with them that felt awful and constraining; it was difficult to explain my need to work on writing when others thought I might need to work on, for example, laundry or dinner parties. The funniest thing my husband ever said to me was, after I’d been locked in my office for two months writing a poem, emerging mostly to eat and sleep—anyway, we were fighting about the fact that I was totally undomesticated and no help whatsoever around the house, and I yelled, “I’ve been working nonstop!” and he narrowed his eyes and said, “What exactly do you do?” Which of course made me want to hit him with a pan. But over time he’s gotten pretty used to my oddities, and realized that mostly I’m going to write, and that’s that. So in truth, I’ve been lucky—and at the times when I’ve encountered people who didn’t get it, I just threw up my hands and let those people think whatever they were going to think.

When the sh-t hits the fan, many of us tend to wallow over our imperfections and situations as if nothing could possibly be worse. We feel sorry for ourselves, guilty, and undeserving of happiness. We forget that there is always someone out there who has it worse than us. How were you able to avoid letting those powerful emotions sabotage your happiness and success?

I struggle with that stuff as much as anyone else, I suppose—the feeling of being undeserving, unsuccessful, yada yada yada, obsessing about imperfections, and so forth. What I do is mostly ignore myself and proceed with the work. A great line by Mary Karr, when discussing her need to work: “It was time to apply my ass to a desk chair and just get it done.” I am totally misquoting, but the point stands. When I do start to feel that I have it worse than anyone else (cue tiny violins), I volunteer and do work for people who IN FACT have it a hell of a lot worse than me and struggle constantly with things I tend to take for granted. I spend a good deal of time doing pro bono and volunteer work, and honestly that work is far more important to me than anything else that I do. It keeps me sane, honest, and in my place.

Have you developed a specific creative process that enables you to meet your writing goals? If so, can you tell us about it, and also share any thoughts you may have on the role discipline and organization play in reaching creative goals?

My writing process involves a great deal of neurosis which, as I said above, requires concentrated ignoring. Mostly what I find effective is the ass-applied-to-desk-chair approach. The best line I’ve ever heard on this was from Nabokov, maybe? or possibly someone else? Anyway, this person was giving a lecture, and a young audience member asked him, “Do you write only when you’re inspired?” and he replied, “Yes, and I’m inspired every morning at precisely 8 a.m.” I have that posted above my desk. Sometimes the writing (or whatever creative endeavor is yours) is there and flows naturally; sometimes it’s like pulling out your own teeth. Either way works, but you have to make the effort. When it comes to feeling like I have “writer’s block,” I just start writing whatever—lists, nonsense, general ideas—and wait for the real writing to come, and whether that takes an hour or a week, it always does come. When I hate what I’m writing, I write something else. When I don’t want to write, I read something better than I can write myself and at least try to learn something. But in any case, discipline and organization are deeply deeply deeply important for me, and I hear for a lot of other artists as well.

With regard to your current creative focus, was there an "ah-ha" moment you can tell us about?

I realized the other day that the book I was writing was actually two books. This is not the first time this has happened. So I had to put half the book in a drawer—the half I had written—and start the second half—the half I had NOT written, and had merely sketched out. In short, I had to start from scratch, because that was the book I really wanted to write right then, so that was the book I figured I’d better write. I find conversations with myself and with other people extremely helpful in spinning out my thoughts on what I’m writing and finding out what I mean by saying it out loud; equally helpful is hearing other people talk about their work and their ah-ha moments, because it reminds me that the process of creative production is mostly random and exploratory rather than logical and orderly (this is why the imposition of organization and discipline is necessary).

Another ah-ha moment of late is realizing the writing (creative work of any kind) is more like an archaeological dig than it is like a race—the work is all in there, just waiting to be discovered, and it requires patience and little brushes and spades and a huge amount of effort, but you can’t expect it to just appear fully formed on the page. It won’t do that. It has to be found.

     What is your primary motto or mantra in life? Why is this important to you?

“Of those to whom much has been given, much shall be required.” It keeps me mindful of just how damn lucky I am in countless ways, and that therefore I have the responsibility to give back, all the time, in any way I can. This is the work of a life, not just the work of a creative life. And it seems to me that while my creative life can in some cases be a way of giving back, there’s more I need to do, so I try to do it.

What's next for Marya Hornbacher?

I’m at work on a novel and a collection of poetry. I’m teaching, which is more inspirational than anything I know besides reading voraciously, and in the next few years I’ll be going back to school to do a PhD in literature. The next few books will be novels, then the poetry, and then I’ll get back to nonfiction.

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6527212 October 29, 2010

Art and Science: Santiago Betancur

"Two different points of view (art and science) are converging."

Despite already envisioning myself as more of a "liberal arts" student, when we studied vision in the 6th grade, I was fascinated. It was one of the few times I came home wanting to explain something I learned to my mother. I remember her patiently listening to my 11-year-old scientific explanation.

When I hit junior high, I was faced with some not-so-great science teachers. My 7th grade teacher made us stare into microscopes during class and draw what we saw.  I liked the drawing part but didn't learn much about what I was drawing. My 8th grade teacher had such distracting facial tics that I couldn't pay attention to what she was saying (not her fault, of course).  I don't even remember 9th grade science teacher.  Then finally, for 10th grade, there was a teacher all the kids loved; I was looking forward to her class.

Come that September, her husband had a heart attack; she took a sabbatical.  In her place, we had a substitute who knew nothing about science.  By the time I was eligible to take chemistry and physics, I had ruled out science as an interest.  Instead, I took courses in creative writing, library science, and got a credit serving as student aid for one of the English teachers.  By my senior year, I was so bored that I graduated early.  I couldn't take it anymore!

Through a twist of fate, I stumbled upon my 6th grade fascination with science again in college.  Four years later, I graduated with a degree in Biology.  Sometimes, I'm still surprised that I have a science degree.  But then I remind myself why.

A lot of folks view science and creativity as mutually exclusive.  I saw them as one and the same.  Sitting in my college biology classes, I found a new kind of creativity--that which can be found in nature.  My degree program was focused on human biology so I took courses such as genetics, molecular biology and genetics, physiology, cell biology, histology, and medical microbiology.  The intricate, fascinating machinations of human biology stimulated me both intellectually and creatively.  The creativity in nature never ceased to amaze me. 

My guest today, artist Santiago Betancur, focuses his work on the fascinating interweave between science and creativity.  He deeply appreciates art in nature, and seeks to express it on multiple levels within his work. His fascinating art seeks to lesson the divide between the worlds of science and art, and has been praised on both planes. Given that I share his belief that it is within nature that we find the highest levels of creativity, his work both captivates and inspires me.

"Using a mixture of acrylic paint and pure water, Betancur worked on life-size figure paintings that can only be described as a synthesis between Da Vinci's anatomical sketches, Goya's Black Paintings, and of course, the undefined substance of Betancur himself." 
Anna Visnitskaya, Krasa Fine Art

Santiago is one of the gifted owners of Area 23 Gallery in Miami.   Watch this video to see Santiago at work.

Can you describe what makes you feel successful as an artist?

My life has shown me an unavoidable way to express what I feel through art, especially in the hardest moments and during crisis. I have felt the most amazing success when I see the reaction of the public interacting with my paintings. This is because I perceive that the people can't avoid feeling a deep psychological impact, which shows effective communication that is sometimes almost vertiginous.

I see that I’m going deeper and deeper in to the human experience, never stopping.

What are your current goals?
My goal is to generate new concepts for how humanity views itself in many fields. It may sound pretentious, but my process has shown me how complex, mysterious and fascinating we are, and I aim to explore that. Doing so provides me with a special and beautiful feeling of humility each time I capture in my art the miracle of life and all that it implies.

During the last two years I've been showing my paintings in Miami. The last eight months this has been in my own gallery in the Wynwood Arts District. The gallery is a collaboration with a few other artists. Our goal is to partner on focusing on new and better levels of technique and expression, and obviously, additional exposure for our work.

With regard to your current creative focus, was there an "ah-ha" moment you can tell us about? 

 My painting ah-ha is happening now. It’s based on my close relationship with the science world.

In the last few weeks, my paintings have been praised by doctors and scientist who recognize, feel, and see (in my anatomy work) concepts and knowledge concerning their fields of study. Two different points of view (art and science) are converging. This means a lot to me because bringing these aspects together is one of my primary goals.

For you, is art more about creation or expression? It could be both, but does one dominate with regard to your need/urge/desire to be an artist and why?

Maybe we are created to express. Perhaps our ability to create is to echo or provide a resonance of our connection with the different aspects of nature; a tribute to life, to its beauty, or to God. Sometimes these tributes of expression are made possible with a sense of sacrifice common to the "tormented artists." The paradox is that this blessing comes from suffering, which enables us to understand a certain level of beauty.

Many artist focus on one particular subject or style.  How important is this for career development?  Have you ever grown tired of painting the same types of  things, and if so, can you tell us about it?

Actually, I try to focus on the same things; my obsessions are permanent. But I'm always trying to use different techniques because art asks for experimentation. If you follow that call, the results are usually enriched. You won't be let down.
Life is filled with aberrations. Do you attempt to capture those in your work as you focus on the beauty of humanity?
Rather than the aberrations, the feeling I try to capture in my art is the greatness of the human being and the miracle of life. I do this even when the darker face of my work is present. It enhances the sense of mystery and the disturbing power of art. This may enable the spectator to reflect on his aberrations while also recognizing the beauty in life.

During difficult or challenging times in your life, does writing sooth or inspire you? Is it therapeutic in any way?

I set a dialogue between doctor and patient within me. I'm both simultaneously, as a painter and a subject. That is like going to the space in my mind where I can find both my diseases and then my cures.
Have you ever had to deal with people in your life failing to understand your creative personality, interests, or drive?

Each moment of your life can give you the creative satisfaction of finding the subtlest things that show you that you are headed the right way.

Have you developed a specific creative process that enables you to meet your artistic goals? If so, can you tell us about it.

Identifying methods is fundamentally what we need to do. As I paint, I know that I need to keep a special image related to specific feelings that want to get out in my imagination, prefigured, then I exploit. Vibrate till burst, like the cicadas.
What do you believe places an artist apart from his or her peers? So many are highly talented, but what makes one stand out as truly gifted?

It is not relevant considering that a true artist competes only with himself.

With regard to gifts, increasing them is the responsibility for each talented person. In my case, you could say that I'm doing that through my connection with the world of science and the knowledge that explains to us the functions of the universal shapes. I find here my natural field, because I'm always appreciating the beauty plus the intelligence with the same emotion.
What is your primary motto or mantra in life? Why is this important to you?

Now I'm trying to be aware that we are only neurons achieving the best information that we can get from the Universe. We are his feedback; this concept led to the title of my series of self portraits, which is "Worshiper."

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6527212 October 01, 2010

Hell's Best Illustrator: Allen Koszowski

"In general, horror artists are not promoting evil; in their world, good triumphs."

Creative folks often use art to express what we cannot otherwise fully articulate. As everyone knows, among other things, art is an outlet. 

Although this outlet concept isn't rocket science--it is.  Entire books and college courses have been created around the study of why specific writers, musicians, visual artists, etc. gravitated toward a particular form of expression.  On the other hand, we could just say something like, "Shakespeare was a romantic guy who was interested in family dynamics."  

Despite the level of complexity, this outlet stuff sometimes causes trouble for creatives. Some folks incorrectly identify the driving force behind an artist's need for a particular outlet. My guest today, artist Allen Koszowski, has run into this issue as an acclaimed horror/science fiction/fantasy illustrator. 

Allen focuses on the type of art that gave him immense pleasure as a kid.  He just simply loves it!  Having an outlet that keeps his intense boyhood love alive is something he needs; it gives him a sense of meaning. Okay, maybe we could dive in and create a college course on why, but that's not the point.

When I was growing up, my brother and I weren't allowed to watch Bewitched or I Dream of Jeannie.  Those were evil shows because they dealt with magic.  My mother believed that watching them would open us up to all kinds of demonic influences. Although her reasoning didn't make sense or seem fair to me, I was terrified. 

To my mother's dismay, my brother developed an intense love of horror/science fiction/fantasy novels, which evolved from an earlier interest in comic books. Needless to say, I spent my entire junior high and high school career listening to her claim that my brother's hobbies were causing evil spirits to infiltrate our bodies and our home.

Interestingly, my brilliant brother had a learning disability; he struggled with reading.  Comic books rescued him from those difficulties. As he got a little older, horror/science fiction/fantasy novels were the only books that seemed to trigger his interest. He dove in like a mad man, devouring book after book after book while my mother screamed in his ear.

After I grew up, filled with numerous, unreasonable doubts and fears, I realized that books, shows, games, or music didn't usher evil and fear into our home, my mother's behaviors did.

My latest novel is, among other things, about how an intense focus on religion can rip apart relationships. I know more than a few folks who will likely claim that its theme of tolerance and balance somehow promotes evil. 
Helen Keller said, "It is wonderful how much time good people spend fighting the devil. If they would only expend the same amount of energy loving their fellow men, the devil would die in his own tracks of ennui.”

Don't hate Allen or me because what we create is, in any way, terrifying, uncomfortable, chilling, or filled with aberrations.  In the end, we all want good to triumph.  The more horrific or uncomfortable the plot or picture, the more good we must generate to overcome it, and the more love we seem to find. Maybe that's why we do it.  For some of us, perhaps it's about the generation of greater and greater hope.
How long did it take to establish yourself as an artist?

As a child, I was constantly sketching and drawing on every surface I could find, my schoolbooks were a mess with sketches of hands, tanks, fantasy oriented sketches of every kind, comic characters, monsters, etc. So, it was probably fairly obvious that I had an artistic bent. However, outside of art as a major in high school, I have had no formal artistic training whatsoever. It never occurred to me that I could ever have an art career at all. 

It was only later after I got married and settled into a routine that I discovered the world of the small press. When I started reading and enjoying these little magazines, it occurred to me that the sketches I used to do, just as a diversion, were better than much of the art I saw in these small-press publications. So, I started sending out little drawings and spot illustrations to many of these publications. When to my surprise I started getting back checks (for very small amounts), I was thrilled! But it was even more thrilling when the contributor's copies would arrive in the mail and I would see my efforts in print.

I was hooked! I became very well known in the fantasy/horror/science fiction small press world as I had hundreds and hundreds of illustrations published in these magazines. At the same time, I made many contacts with names that have also since become well-known in the genre. So things sort of mushroomed from those small press beginnings to a world fantasy award as best artist a few years ago. I never expected this to happen. I didn't map out a career.  Things just fell into place over the decades.

With regard to your current creative focus, was there an "ah-ha" moment you can tell us about?

Since I'm partially color-blind, I have devoted myself mainly over the years to black and white, pen and ink illustrations. I never took any painting courses or things of that nature because I thought that color was an area that would be unproductive for me. I got that impression in high school when my art teacher, who was very "high" on my art, would often come to me and complain about my color tones in some of the assignments. This was quite embarrassing because he would point this out in front of the class; however to me, the colors seemed fine and I couldn't understand the complaints. I didn't know I was color-blind.

It was only later when I took some tests that this was revealed. So, I have neglected color. However, recently (within the past few years) I have learned how to get around some of these difficulties.  I've taken to coloring many of my old black and white, highly detailed pen and ink illustrations with Prismacolor markers. I have become better and better at doing this.

Best of all for me, this method allows my intricate details (which I am very well known for in the field) to show through. This was an ah-ha moment for me which continues to grow, as I find that I enjoy working with colors very much. My fans seem to enjoy the color work as well, and this has opened up new areas for me!

For you, is art more about creation or expression? It could be both, but does one dominate with regard to your need/urge/desire to be an artist and why?

The way things have evolved artistically with me, I think of myself more as an illustrator than as a fine artist. I've been illustrating for years in the small press and professional markets (illustrating such people as Stephen King and other well-known names in the field) so I have for the most part been illustrating other people's vision as I have had to depict scenes from their stories and articles. But, just as often, I do freelance work with illustrations that have been taken directly from my own imagination. For me, it is equally about creation and expression.

Many artist focus on one particular subject or style. How important is this for career development? Have you ever grown tired of painting the same types of things, and if so, can you tell us about it?

Career development has never been a concern of mine. It has always been about the escape and the enjoyment that fantasy/sci fi/horror has provided for me ever since I was a young child, sneaking away to read genre magazines and comics in the 50s and 60s. So, to create illustrations that deviate from what has brought me so much joy in my life and what has basically become a glorified hobby would not be productive. Art for me has always been enjoyable, not a way to earn a living (although making money with my art has certainly been an unexpected and happy benefit)!

Do you believe some of the various attributes related to being highly creative have caused you aberrations in life, helped you deal with life's aberrations, or both?

Art has helped me tremendously in my life as it has given me a focus, basically some meaning to my existence. It has given me unexpected prestige, friends, awards, extra income and has taken me around the world. It has been a welcome escape.

Conversely, it has also, at times, become an obsession which had the tendency of keeping me away from growing in other areas. I used to spend many hours (and when I say many, I mean MANY) agonizing over minute details and nuances of my illustrations.

When life has thrown me a curve ball, art has been my friend and shield. Perhaps that shield may not have always been a good thing. I have sometimes used art as a way to avoid tough situations. It can bring joy, but it can also bring melancholy and depression at times.

Have you ever had to deal with people in your life failing to understand your creative personality, interests, or drive? If so, can you tell us about it and how you've dealt with it?

I have definitely run into those problems over the years, particularly in the horror field (and to a lesser extent, the fantasy and science fiction field). Horror is not very well accepted by the general public. Many people consider the horror writer or artist to be one step from evil. Some feel almost that a person who enjoys to create obviously disturbing or violent images must somehow feel close to the images that he or she creates. Often, people do not hesitate to express their discomfort with these types of creations. In general, horror artists are not promoting evil; in their world, good triumphs. What these critics do not understand about me in particular, is that my art is often just for child-like fun. It is a way of keeping my childhood alive, like telling scary stories in the dark, around a campfire.

Do you think there is a difference between creativity and talent? What are your thoughts on this?

I do think there is a difference. But those who can manage to combine both are more likely to be successful & satisfied.

What is your primary motto or mantra in life? Why is this important to you?

My primary mantra is easy! "Do unto others..." I think everybody should be this way.

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6527212 September 24, 2010

Coaster Rider: Dario Posada

"This journey has been like a roller coaster."

During the last week, I completed the draft of my latest novel, DUST.  I also finished a new painting.  Amazing authors Marya Hornbacher and Darin Strauss recommended me for a Guggenheim in fiction.  My agent gave me some encouraging news, and I had lunch with a VP/Associate Publisher of an A-list publishing company. On the same day, I got a call about a Senior Director position in the pharmaceutical industry.

It sounds thrilling, doesn't it?

I'm on the ascending arch of a gigantic coaster.  The anticipation is electrifying.  I'm wondering if I should prepare to hold both arms up in the air and scream my guts out.  I try not to focus on the inevitable drop ahead.  It always comes in some form or fashion.  Down, down, down, I go, and it's terrifying.  I've learned over time that the drop is easier to take if I scream bloody murder, if I let myself experience the absolute, pure emotion of it, the life.  Doing so enables me to recover more quickly, and dig up the strength to embark upon the next ascent.

That crazy ride keeps me focused in an odd way.  It's delicately controlled.  It's an outlet.  I'm in a seat with safety devices surrounding me.  There's a system, a balance, and a design.  Before I mustered the bravery to get on that ride nearly twenty years ago, I was all over the place, spinning in a crazy, unsafe, circuitous world of emotion, ideas, and frustration.  I didn't know what to do with myself; I was getting nowhere.

My guest today, artist Dario Posada, says that painting keeps him sane.  No matter what happens in his life, he must paint.  It's his big, beautiful coaster.

This week, as I drove toward the Trenton train station, heading to Manhattan to meet with my friend, the Associate Publisher, I asked myself, "What do I really want?"

See, during the course of that busy morning, I realized how much I miss my commute to work.  I miss reaching over to take my travel mug out of the cup holder to the beat of my favorite tunes.  I miss seeing interesting people day to day, and having a shared vision and mission.  I miss being part of a team, and leading teams.  I came to the conclusion that, at some point, I want all that back again, but wished I could find it within the publishing industry.  Then I realized that if and when I do find it within a publishing house, it still won't be a daily gig.

I'm a writer; I will always be alone in that role. And I also want to be alone.  I need to be alone, submerged in my own internal world, with my words and the clicking sound of the keyboard.  I need to reach for my coffee cup while feeling the ecstasy of a perfect sentence.

Below Dario talks about how he realized that painting is about more than just brush strokes and color.  This week, I remembered that being a novelist is about more than a computer and words.  It's about expressing the experience of life and its exquisite complexity.  The personal coaster I ride somehow illuminates humanity for me.  It cracks open and teases apart layers and layers of preconceived notions and self-limiting ideas. It gives me something to chew on, and quenches my never-ending thirst.

Who knows what will happen next? But no matter what, I will keep writing.  It keeps me sane.  In the end, it's the big, beautiful coaster I ride.  It doesn't need to look like yours.

What's your story (in a nutshell)? 

My first mural was done at the age 12.  I painted Che Guevara.  I didn't even know who he was, but I liked his image. I was born in a poor country that was engaged in war (Colombia).  I studied fine arts and environmental engineering. It took four years to convince myself that I should only be painting.

This journey has been like a roller coaster: Colombia, Germany, Spain, Italy, USA, Kenya.  I've been  in each of those countries, both legally and illegally.  My paintings have always taken me further than I expected. She's (the art/talent) stronger than me.

With regard to your current creative focus, was there an "ah-ha" moment you can tell us about?

In 1998, as I was leaving my house to take a painting to an exhibition that I had that same evening, one of my paintings fell out of the truck that was transporting it to the gallery.  The canvas split in half. I didn't know what I was going to do.  The show was just minutes away.  So I decided to sew it and put oil on top to cover the holes that could be seen from the sewing. That's when I understood that the painting was more than just brush strokes and colors.
For you, is art more about creation or expression?

I believe art is an expression that has its on language.

How would you describe the life of a true artist?

A true artist is always sensitive and sincere to himself and everyone else.

Do you believe some of the various attributes related to being highly creative have caused you aberrations in life, helped you deal with life's aberrations, or both? 

By nature I'm a very aggressive person,  Painting helps me channel my strength onto the canvas.

During difficult or challenging times in your life, does painting sooth or inspire you? Is it therapeutic in any way?

Going through tough times has never changed what I am painting--just the way that I paint.  Something is happening, coming out onto the canvas.

I think people understand when they see the success.  The best test that you can give them and yourself is by exhibiting your painting at an art gallery. People will see it differently than the way the see it at your studio.

Have you developed a specific creative process that enables you to meet your artistic goals? Where do most of your ideas come from?
No, I don't have a process. I don't know which painting will be the next one created or sold. My ideas come from everywhere.

What do you believe places an artist apart from his or her peers? An artist needs to be alone with his painting in order to create it. So many are highly talented, but what makes one stand out as truly gifted?

Discipline--meaning constantly working.

What is your primary motto or mantra in life? Why is this important to you?

Paint no matter what happens. It's what keeps me sane.

Dario's work is currently being shown at the Area 23 Gallery in Miami.

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6527212 September 15, 2010

Beating Back Grief: Darin Strauss

 "... grief, (and even the weird feeling of guilt without culpability) if not vanquished, can at least be beaten back."

Last week I had a challenging conversation with my chronically troubled mother. After she lectured me on how to vanquish the grief of my disturbing childhood by finally apologizing to her for my failures as a daughter, I explained that my grief can never be completely vanquished, only beaten back and put in its proper place.

She didn't get it.

Maybe you can understand.  I'm quite certain that my guest today, Darin Strauss, will get it.  In fact, I wish I'd had his interview answers in mind during that frustrating conversation with my mother.

I would have explained to her that during my childhood, she and I were headed in opposite directions. As I innocently drove toward some kind of magical future, she swerved time and time again, trying to escape the present. She crossed established boundaries, crashing into me. Each time I saw it coming, I desperately tried to miss her--to save her--but it was impossible. I did the best I humanly could to end her unhappiness and pain, the repetitive death of her spirit.

I do not owe her an apology.

Instead, I explained that because I was so young, because my body and soul were evolving at a cellular level, those experiences contributed to the core of who I am, bit by bit.  To reach into myself and yank all that out now would cripple me. I'm stronger with them than without them.

To quote Darin, "... of course I would change it if I magically could. But short of saving her life, if I were given the power to change places with my friend who sat in the passenger seat--in other words, someone who was pretty much unaffected by it--I wouldn't."

As Darin and I both know, some folks have it much worse than the two of us.  Everyone has their own aberrations and crosses to bear.  On Aberration Nation we've read about a woman who lost her entire family to war, a man who was stabbed 39 times as a child, people who were physically abused, etc.  Realistically, we'll never know who feels pain the deepest, who cries the most tears, or who has the most regret.  We all live in our own self-contained emotional jungles. Even when we're blessed to have visitors who share our internal world, they must still see it through their own eyes.

I suspect my mother's view has always been distorted by all that constant swerving and crashing.  When I was a child, she used to inform me with a harsh tone, "This is not your life, Penelope."  That always bothered me, as if she were belittling my very existence, turning me into some sort of ghost revolving around her.  I remember standing there, thinking, but I'm here, aren't I? I'm living. I desperately wanted to be in my own life; I wanted to be the hero of the story.

Darin has gifted me with the notion that perhaps in a way, my mother was right.  As he so simply phrases it below, "It was her story, and my part in it was to go on living."

What's your story as a writer, and how does your new memoir HALF A LIFE factor in?

I always loved books, and first attempted a novel as a 4th grader (Army of Frankensteins, a young American general, shockingly bad writing). But I didn't think of becoming a writer professionally until college. I didn't know anyone who'd tried it. But PORTNOY'S COMPLAINT changed my life. I thought: I can write about this?

HALF A LIFE is a big part of my story.  I was a normal high school kid who had a car accident. A girl cut across two lanes of a busy highway and crashed right into my car. She died. I was changed by this in ways I only fully understood 20 years later. The book is an attempt not just to tell the story and make sense of it, but to also show that grief (and even the weird feeling of guilt without culpability), if not vanquished, can at least be beaten back.

With regard to HALF A LIFE, was there an "ah-ha" moment you can tell us about?

My new book is all about ah-ha moments. I thought I would never write about this. (I published three novels before this book, and assumed I'd just go on writing fiction.) I found myself feeling better about the accident than I ever had before. I didn't know why, but dealing with it as a writing project--something you tinker with, shape, and turn off at night--helped. I felt some guilt about that--the fact that it was getting easier.

Then I learned that the way psychologists now deal with Complicated Grief Disorder (a disease of people much more floored even than I was) is that they have sufferers speak into a tape recorder about what is the most painful thing for them. And then the patients have to play that tape for themselves every night. This sounds like mental torture. But the transformation of personal grief into an object that can be turned off is the best path to healing. And I stumbled into it.

But when you write a memoir (something as a fiction writer I was sure, again, that I'd never do) you learn things all the time. If you're doing your job, anyway. Oh, yeah--I forgot that this happened. That was a notion I had daily.

Aberration Nation currently focuses on creativity, but it's also about how life's aberrations (whether physical, emotional, or situational) can become the kernel of our strength. In Half a Life, you write about a tragic event that shaped your life. No one wants to believe that someone's

This is kind of the nexus of the book's questions. Someone died. So of course I would change it if I magically could. But short of saving her life, if I were given the power to change places with my friend who sat in the passenger seat -- in other words, someone who was pretty much unaffected by it -- I wouldn't.

That's something I never would have believed in the years and years I was agonizing. But it made me who I am. The accident happened when I was 18. It wasn't my fault that she died; she swerved in front of me, and I tried my best to avoid her. Going over that one-tenth of a second for decades was an act of futility. I tried my human best to miss her, and I didn't miss her, but that was all I could do. And so I realized it wasn't even a story about me. It was her story, and my part in it was to go on living.

But yes, it made me stronger, I hope. And I also hope more thoughtful (in every sense).

When tragedy strikes, many of us tend to wallow over our imperfections and situations as if nothing could possibly be worse. We feel sorry for ourselves, guilty, and undeserving of happiness. We forget that there is always someone out there who has it worse than us. How were you able to avoid letting those emotions sabotage your happiness and success?

I was both wallowing (I felt terrible guilt).  I was also deeply, heart-hurtingly aware that people had it worse than I did (the girl who died's parents).  After they told me they knew for sure that it wasn't my fault--and that they expected me to live twice as successfully and well now, because I was living for two people--and then followed that up by suing me for millions of dollars, I was very wallow-y. That was heavy for an 18-year-old. (If the court case went terribly wrong for me, I could have had my wages garnished forever.) Plus I kept wondering if I could have swerved differently, or done something. So those thoughts did diminish my happiness. Which seemed fitting; again, even though it wasn't my fault, a girl died because my car hit her. That will change you. The key was not letting it define who I was.

Do you believe some of the various attributes related to being highly creative have caused you aberrations in life, helped you deal with life's aberrations, or both?

I think my career has caused aberrations for my wife. As a writer you're never 100 percent off-duty. So sometimes I'm not as present with her as I should be; I'm thinking of a character, a plot turn, a metaphor. But that sounds pretentious. I think it's also been great. And as Philip Roth wrote -- a character who was a writer was at his brother's funeral, and deciding how he would stage the scene in a novel -- this job even fucks up grief. (But that's probably to the good.)

For you, is writing more about creation or expression? It could be both, but does one dominate with regard to your need/urge/desire to be a writer and why?

I think writing is all expression. Expressing a detail, an idea, a half-formed idea. But expression is creation, right? I mean, for a writer -- expression equals creation.

In general, is writing therapeutic for you? How was writing HALF A LIFE therapeutic?

I used to subscribe to something that the writer William Gass said. (And I'm going to misquote it, probably.) "If writing is cathartic, you're not doing it right, because it's so hard--getting the prose and the form right--you can't have time to think about yourself."

But that is what makes it cathartic, I now realize. Losing yourself in the "craft" aspects of it, finding the write punctuation mark, deciding if this paragraph should follow that one, this is the kind of thing that takes you out of your grief.

Have you ever had to deal with people in your life failing to understand your creative personality, interests, or drive? If so, can you tell us about it and how you've dealt with it?

I had girlfriends who didn't get it. I once told a woman that I'd had a hard day, and she laughed. "How hard can it be? You're just making stuff up." That kind of thing.

My wife is very understanding. But it bothers her, even now, how much I work. I wrote for a few hours yesterday (Labor Day), and that drove her nuts. It's something we always have to deal with--manging each other's expectations.     

Was there ever a time when you just felt like giving up? On yourself? On writing? If so, how were you able to cross that bridge?

Sure. You feel that all the time. To quote Roth again, "The difference between an Olympic swimmer and a professional writer is that the swimmer doesn't feel like she's drowning every time she goes in."  So we all feel it--even the Philip Roths of the world.  But the key is: keep getting in the pool.

If you could tell the world one thing about overcoming tragedy, what would that be?

Too hard to answer. I guess, try to face it. Do the Complicated Grief Disorder therapy that I mentioned above. When you're ready--and only then--force yourself to play the tape over and again.

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6527212 September 08, 2010

Christianity and Creativity: Eugene McBride

"Oh, life is bigger
It's bigger than you
And you are not me
The lengths that I will go to
The distance in your eyes."


When I was a tall, gawky eight grader with braces at Northwood Jr. - Sr. High School back in 1980, our Student Council President was a guy named Eugene McBride.  To me, Eugene was a "big man on campus."  He always seemed to have all the confidence I lacked.  He strolled around as if he belonged exactly where he was, which I found interesting, being lost as I was. He always had a smile on his face. Thirty plus years later, I ran into Eugene on Facebook.  He's now the pastor of one of the churches I grew up attending.

Due to my Southern fundamentalist upbringing, one of the themes I tend to gravitate toward in both my writing and art is the close mindedness or "black and white" mentality I have encountered in some of those who dub themselves Christian. The basic religion itself has never confused me but, whether intentional or not, many of people who practice it have managed to twist my understanding until it nearly strangled me in my own guilt and self-hatred. I'm not so sure the belief system has failed me, but I know some of the people have. People whom I trusted and loved. I've never once stopped believing in God, but, like many people, I've lost faith in organized religion. 

Eugene has been reading my writing and loves it because he recognizes it's honesty. His support of my work lead to a friendship that has ultimately brought him to Aberration Nation today. Regardless of your beliefs, I think you'll find our exchange of ideas thought provoking. Both Eugene and I would love to read any comments you may have regarding the interview content.

Because the interview is long and quite meaty, I'll not go on and on.  I'll just say that from my perspective as someone who grew up in a fundamentalist environment, I think one major error that has brought harm to what has traditionally been the foremost American religious institution is a failure to recognize and accept the basic blood and guts humanity of its people. I don't believe we were ever meant to be God-like. When we try, we fail. When someone tries to stuff us in the God box, most of us can't stay.  We kick and scream to be let out. We can't breath in that environment because it lacks the appropriate atmosphere. When we jump out, those who sought to stuff us in chastise us for not staying.  They say we've failed and must be forgiven. It's a painful place to be when all we really need is for someone to see who and what we truly are ... and then say, "I love you."

What's your story? Was the journey on a straight or twisted path? Are you surprised by where you are today?

I was born and raised in Shreveport Louisiana, one of four boys in a Christian home. At the age of 15, I felt the call of God in my life in a strong and real way. I went on to marry my high school sweetheart and graduate from LSUS with a degree in Marketing. In 1990 I was working for a fortune 500 company and was relocated to Texas. My wife and I helped to establish a little church there that would eventually grow to 1500. In the course of doing this, I realized how far I had strayed from the calling that God had placed on my life. In 1998, I left the business culture and went into full time ministry.

In 2008 I was asked to come back to my home church in Shreveport and minister. The church has been through a lot of changes in the 20+ years I have been gone. Even though I said I would never move back to Shreveport, we moved here in September 2009 and I now Pastor New Life Center/Life Tabernacle. I look back at the many decisions and turns my life has taken and I am thankful to be home. I know that God has brought me here for a specific purpose.

It seems to me that being a pastor requires a certain level of creativity. You are required to write an interesting and worthwhile message at least once a week. How do you get ideas for what to share with your congregation each week?

I love communication and the written word. It was only natural that I would be in a calling that required public speaking and an immense amount of reading! I love to read a variety of literature and stay up to date on current events. I do like to keep my messages real and simple, so the majority of my inspiration comes from real life. My family, my own struggles and victories, and from the world around me. The least effective thing I can do would be to teach another generation of believers to live life in a fairy tale world of “proclaimed” prosperity and success. The truth is that life on this earth is not easy, but we are only passing through!

Some people believe that Christianity (and religion in general) requires a certain level of creative thinking. Otherwise nobody would believe it. Others call it faith. What is the difference between imagination and faith?

To some, it is a stretch to imagine that all that we see, all that we know to exist, all that is real, could possibly be the creation of one supreme being. It is in that understanding that we can define both faith and imagination. To imagine something is to “see” it as if it were real. In our imagination we can create worlds of our own, God’s of our own, and ultimately morality of our own. Faith is different in that faith is not the substance of things seen, but is actually a belief in the things NOT seen. The Bible tells us that faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the Word of God. So for me as a Christian, faith is my belief in what I have not seen with my own eyes, but know in my heart to be true.

My faith begins in the Word of God. Many struggle to accept that this one book could possibly be the inspired Word of God. But really it comes down to this, everyone has faith. To say you do not believe in the Bible or in God is to put your faith in your own understanding of what eternity will be. Someday, one of us will be proven wrong. If we get to eternity and all that I had faith in was not true, then I really have lost nothing. But if all that unbelievers placed their faith in is not true, they have lost everything.

The Bible is the most widely read, sold, and referenced book on Earth as well as one of the oldest. Aside from being a religious book, it has all the great elements of literature. Some find it hard to believe that the stories actually happened. And of course, there are differences in interpretation. Is it a good idea to get hung up on how exactly true the stories are? Are the underlying messages more important or are we to believe and accept it all verbatim in order to truly understand the power of God?

To characterize the Bible as anything other than the greatest book ever written would be an injustice to its very nature and inspiration. The Bible is a collection of 66 individual books, written by over 40 different authors over a span of 1600 years. There has been so much research done to disprove the Bible and the claims of Jesus, its central character. Interestingly enough, every major religion in the world acknowledges the life and existence of Jesus. But to answer your questions, I do believe that too many seek to discredit or not believe the authority and power of the Bible because of some difficulty in explaining or accepting one aspect of one story in the Bible. For some, this becomes a stumbling block of faith.

Every denomination and division in the Body of Christ can be attributed to some disagreement or interpretation of some aspect of the Word of God. It is sad but true none the less. For me, I read the Bible daily, accepting its authenticity and accuracy by faith, and find that the moral and life guidelines it encourages bring me security, peace and a reason for being.

When I was a little girl, it was so much easier to believe all the Bible stories and also the underlying messages. It seems to me that there are two groups of people who grew up in the church, particularly in more fundamentalist cultures: 1) those who seem to maintain that childlike believe, faith, imagination (whatever it's called) as they become adults, and (2) those who evolve to another level of thinking that makes it more difficult to believe it all. They take drips and drabs of it with them into adulthood. Is the first group filled with better people/Christians? If so, it almost seems unfair since we're all wired differently ... and God wired us.

I have endeavored to try and answer each question here without quoting a whole lot of scripture and verse, but to be honest… we are encouraged to have a “child like” faith. Having said that I too have seen this great abandonment of faith. As “church” kids grow up, and in their own way of thinking, become more educated and learned, there is a tendency to reject what we cannot explain, or do not fully believe. But to put it simply, it really is not that important if you accept or reject the stories. What is imperative is do you accept or reject that Jesus is the Son of God, sent to this world to be the ultimate payment for the sins and failures of mankind.

This blog is also about the aberrations life throws our way. Have you struggled with aberrations of your own, and if so, how have you overcome them? I know God can heal and bring hope to those suffering but doesn't it also take something within ourselves to stand up and say, "I will not be defeated!"

My life has been an incredible journey marked with great opportunities, worldly success, and also utter despair! I suppose all of us can point to a specific incidence or event that formed us and shaped us into the people that we ultimately become. For me, that moment came when I was about 8 years old. I will make a long story short, but to summarize it, I overheard my mother and father in an argument one night. At the time, my father’s mother was living with us. She was an alcoholic and was dying from cancer. The stress of it all had overwhelmed my mother to the point that she was ready to just leave. My parents thought I was asleep, but in the midst of this argument, I hear my mother tell my father she hates his mother. A few moments later I hear her begin to tell my father of something I had done that day, and how she felt I was just like his mother. Then, I heard her say she hated me too.

I slipped out of the house and ran away. Of course they found me the next morning. Mother tried to explain to me that she did not mean what was said but to an 8 year old boy, it had quite an effect. I became an overachiever. I began to do anything and everything to be loved and accepted. The long term affect is that on the outside I appeared to have it all together and succeeded at everything I did, but on the inside I was a deeply insecure and lonely person. It was only a few years ago that I was truly able to get past this insecurity and come to grips with who God created me to be.

 I do agree that we must decide within ourselves to get up, keep going, and not give up, but I also know that sometimes, despite our best self-help efforts, we need the healing that comes from a relationship with the Lord. Only he can totally erase and replace the hurts that are formed within us by others.

In his book, The World's Religions, Huston Smith wrote, "It is possible to climb life's mountain from any side, but when the top is reached the trails converge." Sometimes it seems closed minded and arrogant to believe that even with the Bible in our hands, we can profess to know and understand the bigger picture. Why would such a phenomenally creative God narrow His plan to only include certain people who agreed to follow certain rules? This confuses me and perhaps others.

It really is simple and I believe that the simplicity is what makes it so hard for some to accept it. There are many who want to believe that “all roads lead to God”, and that ultimately every person will find their way to a meaningful eternity, even if we not agree on who God is, or how to get to this place of eternal peace. Although you used the terms closed minded and arrogant, believe in Jesus Christ is anything but this. My faith is based on 3 simple things. First is the universality of sin, that is all men have sinned and no one is worthy of eternity in heaven based on our own merits or deeds. Second is that because of our sinful nature, some form of punishment is required. According to the bible, the wages of sin is death, or simply put we are eternally separated from God. Finally, I believe that Jesus came to be that punishment for every sin I have committed, and the sins of all mankind. So to summarize this, God has not narrowed his plan to exclude anyone. It is his will that NONE should perish, but that all should have eternal life.

I interviewed a woman on Aberration Nation who felt that being a Christian is one of her aberrations. Have you ever had to deal with people in your life failing to understand your religious passion? If so, can you tell us about it and how you've dealt with it?

To be honest, I am sure there are many who struggle to understand my passion for God, his son Jesus and my faith. There are even many professed “Christians” who think that it is possible to be too passionate for Christ. The truth is that everyone is passionate about something. It may be for Nascar, or the New Orleans Saints, or golf. I have seen people act completely crazy in each of these venues but then question how I can live my life so committed to what I believe. I can sum it up like this. Belief creates attitude. If I believe that the New Orleans Saints are the best team in the NFL, then I my attitude will show that in my fanaticism to support them and defend them. Then, my attitude creates my behavior. My believe creates the attitude, the attitude is demonstrated in my behavior.

The same is true in my faith. I believe that Jesus Christ came to this world as a payment for the sins of mankind, including mine. Because of this belief, I have an attitude that says “It is no longer I, but His spirit within me”! Because of this attitude, my behavior reflects that. I live for Christ, I love my fellow man, I seek everyday to be a reflection of the Christ who now lives within me.

I'm just finishing a novel about a man who goes to his "afterlife," meets God, and finds out that it wasn't quite what he was expecting.  Do you think there are people who miss life because they are so focused on the afterlife? There are those who say life isn't important because it's what they will have in heaven/the afterlife that matters. Well, what if they're wrong? Or what if God intended them to explore and be all who they are as individuals in order to play a critical roll in his plan? How can they do that if they're only focused on what comes next?

There is a saying in church circles that goes like this: “That person is too heavenly minded to be any earthly good.” I believe that eternity is in the heart of every man. Even the unbeliever has eternity somewhere within his heart. If that were not true, there would be no fear of death. God did create us to be individuals, with different abilities, desires and purposes to fulfill in this earth and the life we live on it. I personally seek to use all of the unique gifting God has given me on this earth, but also remembering that my primary purpose here is to be light in a world of darkness, and to share the same hope of Glory that I have received in my relationship with Jesus Christ.

Some people may not like this comment but over the years, I've observed what I call the "Christian personality." For me, this is a person who, overtime, seems to sweep who they are as an individual under a rug and take up a recognizable personality that focuses nearly 100% on Christ. And I do have to say that I observed this more in the Deep South. They put Bible verses on Facebook. They listen to religious music and read religious books. They mention scripture, Christ, etc, in nearly every conversation they have. In the end, I almost feel that they have the same exact smile and twinkle in their eye. They may say that it's the love of God I'm seeing. Honestly, this is who my mother would love for me to be. But I never wanted to be like everyone else. I just couldn't, and I felt that the part of me that couldn't was the part of me that God made, so how would I ever be able to take on the "Christian personality?" What are your thoughts on this phenomenon?

It really does disturb me that some abandon the faith that has so sustained me because of the perceived shallowness of the “Christian Personality”. The truth is that many do put on the Christian persona, without truly living the Christian purpose. I will take exception to your statement that the “Christian Personality” you are lamenting is about “sweeping who they are as an individual under a rug and taking up a recognizable personality that focuses nearly 100% on Christ”. A true believe is one who will be a total reflection of Christ. Having said all of that, I find it quite amusing that the more liberal individuals in our society are relentless in pushing their liberal agenda and beliefs on the rest of us while at the same time utterly refusing to allow the very mention of Christ or Christian morals and principles in any public forum.

I grew up with the understanding that Christianity was about loving your neighbor, accepting others, etc. If this is true, why do we see so many fundamentalist Christians judging other groups of people? This is disturbing to me as I don't believe it follows God's message of love. Who are we to judge others or to take up residence as God's army against something we don't feel comfortable with? This mentality was pervasive during our country's long, tragic history of slavery.

One of the biggest lies that exist in the mainstream thinking today is that because the church speaks against such things as abortion, homosexuality, and other liberal issues that we do not “love our neighbor.”. To love something is to seek to preserve it, protect it, and ultimately save it. It is our belief that living a lifestyle contrary to the Word of God will ultimately lead to eternal damnation. Now I could choose to just ignore it and watch many continue in that lifestyle, or I can choose to love them, serve them and hopefully by the example of the life I live for Christ, bring them into a forgiving and loving relationship with Jesus. I agree that slavery was wrong that our country prevailed upon the God given freedom of our fellow man. But that does not change the fact that the bible specifically speaks against sin and there will come a day when every knee will bow before our creator. Some will bow in honor and praise having chosen to live their lives for Christ on this earth. Others will bow in fear and regret for having not accepted the love and the truth of Jesus that I seek to share with all men.

Growing up, I often heard, "I hate your sin, not you." But in many ways, we are our sin. Sometimes there are deep, complex reasons why we make the choices we do. And some of those choices feel like the only choices at the time, and we learn tremendous lessons from them. They ultimately help mold us into who we are. Hatred of my sin implies a judgment against me and my life. Instead of saying "I hate your sin, not you," I would rather someone say, "I love you." Isn't that a much more positive message? What are your thoughts on this?

I do believe the message is love. John 3:16 says that “God so loved”- even when we have sinned, and failed and rejected him. “That he gave”- God gave us a way out… a way to find the peace we seek and desire. Other religions of the world require you to work to obtain your salvation, or to rise to some level of reward and achievement. “His only Son”- Jesus came as a total and final payment for the wrongs this world has committed. “That whosoever believes”- this is not limited to a select few, or a narrow group… anyone who believes in Jesus as the crucified and resurrected Son of God will be saved. “will not perish but will gain eternal life.”- there are two choices… believe and gain salvation, choose not to believe and perish.

That is the most powerful love letter ever written.

What is your primary motto or mantra in life? Why is this important to you?

If I had to sum my life’s purpose in one statement it would be this:

I have a God to serve, a world to save, a devil to harass, and a message to live. 

Everyday I am reminded that I live to worship and honor God my creator. As I worship him I am a reflection of His Son Jesus to a lost and dying world. Every opportunity I get, I am going to resist the devil and stand in victory over him, and ultimately live my life for a higher cause.

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6527212 September 03, 2010

Talented Weirdo: Joshilyn Jackson

"Oh Lord! Are you asking if I am a weirdo? Hell yes, I'm a weirdo."

If a tree falls in the forest but nobody hears it, does it make a sound?  And if talent exists but nobody notices it, is it real?

Author Joshilyn Jackson admits to being a weirdo. That's interesting.  I'm a weirdo, too!  I've been called weird quite a few times.  I've even been called psycho despite not having any documented mental illnesses.  I've done crazy shit, made goofy decisions, taken wrong roads, been hurt, hurt others, had a different perspective, and barked up the wrong tree more times than I care to admit. I've had to take unconventional actions to get myself past unexpected situations; some I never asked for and others I brought upon myself. You get the idea.

I'm probably just like you.

Aberration Nation started with a focus on what it means to be human, and how we're all aberrations of someone else's definition of normal.  I miss that discussion.  Lately, I've thinking about how I might bring that back to some extent.  I'm currently finishing a novel called DUST that thematically focuses on how religion can define the norm, and how sometimes that definition has absolutely nothing to do with the deepest mysteries of the Universe.

I'm excited about completing my fourth novel (and fifth book). Over the last three weeks, I've oscillated between feeling intense optimism about my writing career and the drowning feeling that I'll end up writing thirty novels that will all turn to dust before they're embraced.

According to Joshilyn, "You have to have talent, and after that you have to have discipline, and after THAT you have to have perseverance. But it can be done."

I know I have discipline and perseverance. I hope I have talent. Some days I feel like a weirdo for having such a peephole focus in my life, but that small open hole keeps me going.  It pulled me forward past all those wrong roads and trees. It enabled me to view the world in ways that kept me interested in staying here at times when I felt giving up my very life might be the best medicine. It gives me light when I'm lost. It shows me that weirdness, failure, and pain are all breathtakingly beautiful after all.

Despite all my professional accomplishments, I bring home a failing grade every day.  I don't enjoy cooking so I can't cook.  I usually ruin clothes in the washer so my husband has been doing the our laundry for the last 17 years.  I'm terrible at money management.  I'm not as good a friend as I should be. I struggle against a sweet, doormat mentality daily. According to my mother, I suck at being her daughter. I was never good at relationships until I met my husband, the only man who could ever put up with me and laugh about it.

And that's just the G-rated list I'm willing to share on the Internet. 

No matter how hard I peer through that peephole, no matter how many books I write, I'll always be a weirdo.  I'll always be human, and as strange and lonely as it feels sometimes,  I can't stop it.

What do my shortcomings and my peephole have to do with Joshilyn Jackson?  Maybe nothing. Maybe everything.  A few of the things she shares here strike a major chord with me.  She says that, "It’s worth noting I did all this from rural Georgia with no connections to NYC publishing. I just wrote the best books I could write and never said die."

I'm a little nobody girl from Louisiana who happened to fall off the turnip truck into Philly.  I've never had ties to NYC publishing.  I've persevered through four literary agents.  I've now written five books, two of which have been published.  I currently have two novels and a nonfiction book proposal circulating in New York, and will soon have a third novel out there.

If you think I'm giving up now, you're psycho. Despite any aberrations, faults and issues I may have, I won't forsake that peephole. It keeps showing me who I am and who I can be. If Joshilyn can do it, so can I.

Watch out cynical world, here I come.  Even if it takes thirty novels.

What's your story? How long did it take to establish yourself as an author? Was the journey on a straight or twisted path? Are you surprised by your success?

I wrote and wrote and wrote and wrote. From the time I was old enough to hold a crayon and make letters, I was writing stories, making picture books. I eventually wanted people other than my mom to read what I was writing, so I started trying to write things that were polished and crafted and good. I failed. I practiced, read everything I could get my hands on. Mostly I read actual books, not how to books, and I read them like a writer. I read them to see how the author did what he or she was doing. If I cried, I tore the scene apart to figure out why. I read to understand pace and tension and character and show don’t tell. I read the classics, of course, but I concentrated on reading people who were publishing currently. I started sending stuff out. And I got a hundred million gazillion rejections and cried and went under my bed and picked my hair out, and then I came out and lathered, rinsed, repeated.

I am SO lucky. After years of this, a publisher got excited about my work, and they did all they could to get the word out that my books were worth reading. I was lucky enough to find a readership who agreed with them. I’m shocked as hell, and hugely grateful to the readers and booksellers and editors and colleagues who all have supported me and given me this job I always wanted.

It’s worth noting I did all this from rural Georgia with no connections to NYC publishing. I just wrote the best books I could write and never said die.

You have to have talent, and after that you have to have discipline, and after THAT you have to have perseverance. But it can be done.

With regard to your current creative focus, was there an "ah-ha" moment you can tell us about?

Every day. I am an organic writer. I never know what is going to happen next when I write a book. I only know the characters. Very well. I don’t start until I know each one down to the chewy pink middles of their black and burned up, or gray and greasy, or red and raw hearts. So I get surprised daily. It’s how I know a book is working, when it starts going almost without me, and I have to run to keep up with it.

Writing Backseat Saints, my biggest aha moment came when I realized the whole book was structured – plot, character, even geographically – exactly like a three card tarot read. Rose has her cards read by an airport gypsy right at the start. The cards represent past, present and future, and I realized I needed Rose to almost have three voices to tell it. It starts in Texas, in the present, and in the middle of the country. She has to travel east, back to Alabama and through her own past, and then she goes west, sailing over Texas, all the way to California and a possible future. Going west, in our country, is meaningful The west is the future. It’s where pioneers go. It’s hopeful to go west. Once I realized this structure, the whole book shifted, and things I'd been seeing edgewise suddenly made all kinds of sense. I love days like that.

For you, is writing more about creation or expression? It could be both, but does one dominate with regard to your need/urge/desire to be a writer and why?

Expression. Response. For me, writing is my half of a conversation with a story. The reader has the other half, later, with the story alone, and I don’t get to be part of that conversation, same way the reader doesn’t get to be part of mine. But we are both friends with the book (I hope!) and that connects us in a weird, pleasing, bizarre way.

I don't believe in writer's block. I view the situation like priming a pump. If you just keep pumping, the water will eventually start to run. Do you ever run out of things to say, or do you experience an endless river? What are your thoughts on this?

I don’t believe in it either. It is like an under-the-bed monster. If you believe in it, it will manifest and pluck your eyeballs right out of your head. I firmly and decisively deny it exists. So there.

Do you believe some of the various attributes related to being highly creative have caused you aberrations in life, helped you deal with life's aberrations, or both?

Oh Lord! Are you asking if I am a weirdo? Hell yes, I'm a weirdo. But that’s okay, because I married a big weirdo, and together he and I have produced more little weirdos, and it turns out everyone I like at all is some kind of major league weirdo, too. At this stage of my life, I have begun to suspect that aberrations are actually the norm.

During difficult or challenging times in your life, does writing sooth or inspire you? Is it therapeutic in any way?

Not at the time, no. Later, I can look back on a book and see the personal connections much more clearly, see how much I invested of myself. At the time I am writing though. I am very involved with world building and theme and character and place and craft.

Have you ever had to deal with people in your life failing to understand your creative personality, interests, or drive? If so, can you tell us about it and how you've dealt with it?

I am so lucky. I have parents who did their best to foster that in me. I married a man who is the same way. I had, for the most part, wonderful teachers who mentored me. It’s one of the reasons I so enjoy teaching, when I get the chance. I want to pay that back to the universe. It’s a big karmic debt. Because of course I have had it the other way, too. I had a miserable, twisted, small, hateful professor once who was so afraid that one of her students would surpass her! She spent a large amount of her time and energy trying to undermine anyone she felt was talented. And I had another professor who fostered and mentored male students wonderfully, but hated women, saw us as sex objects and belittled us even as he grabbed our butts. You just have to gravitate to the people who support you and support them back.

Do you think there is a difference between creativity and talent? What are your thoughts on this?

Of course there is a difference – in fact, I am not even sure they are close relatives. All humans are creative to some degree or another. In the same way that we are rational in some degree or another.

Talent is just what we are good at, and talent doesn’t have to even be creative.  I have a talent for following recipes. I can make things look like the picture. My husband has a creative talent for cooking. He can smell spices and make a dish better. I am a creative person, and I have a creative talent for writing novels and acting. These are strongly related in my head, and they (or it--it feels the same) is my ONLY creative talent. If I try to play an instrument, the poor thing always ends up sounding like it is in pain. I can’t draw. I can’t dance, etc. etc.

What is your primary motto or mantra in life? Why is this important to you?

Be kinder every time. Because I am human and petty and awful and flawed, and I want to be good. I think goodness, kindness, is how we manifest love. Goodness, kindness, is all that matters in the long run. Talent is nice. Creativity is fun. But Love wins.

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6527212 August 18, 2010

Deal With It: Randy Thurman

"There is only one way I have found to deal with it - WORK!" 

This morning I woke up wondering why the hell I keep writing this blog. While the traffic is good, it needs to be better. While I seem to have a lot of regular readers, they don't often leave comments.

I guess I do it mostly for myself. In the past, I've written about how blogs seem a bit self centered. Maybe that's my issue. 

My guest today, artist Randy Thurman, says that working helps him deal with folks not understanding his creative drive. Working helps people like Randy and I deal with a lot. I suppose that's why writing this blog is good for me whether or not anyone actually  reads it.

Maybe rather than selfishness, Aberration Nation is driven by self preservation, like eating a healthy breakfast, going to an AA meeting, or taking medicine.

So what if most people don't understand? They don't have my disease.

Although I'm currently working on my fourth novel and also painting, the blog helps me feel connected. It also offers me a way to express myself through a nonfiction outlet. It often reminds me of all the years I kept a journal. I guess I did all that work that for the same reason. No matter what, writing helps me think. It helps me decide and define how I feel and who I am.  The interviews teach me a tremendous amount, and give me prompts.

I need to write to occupy my mind to a certain degree. I need characters and places and situations to mentally weed and wade through because doing so focuses an overactive imagination and a highly obsessive element that has gotten me into trouble more than once. No matter what ails me, working is the medicine I need.  Whether it's writing or painting, creating and expressing myself in these ways gives me both the soothing feeling and the rush I crave.

I may never know what's wrong with me--why I need these sort of meds. I don't know why I sit here writing words that very few folks care to read. I don't know why I have all these paintings stuffed in my house, or why I keep writing novel and after novel that may never be published.

It just helps me deal with it, whatever it may be. If you have anything to say about it, leave a comment.

What's your story? How long did it take to establish yourself as an artist? Was the journey on a straight or twisted path? Are you surprised by your success?

My story really begins in March 2006 when I had a health crisis that changed the direction of my life. Instead of focusing on the restrictions of my health, I immersed myself in painting and music, which had always been integral parts of who I am.

Even before the illness, my wife had urged me to show my work, but I had always declined. Reluctantly I said "OK" and she sent some of my work to Bob Hogge and Marina Hadley at Monkdogz. Then in January 2007 I had my first exhibition at their gallery in Chelsea New York. That's how it started.

With regard to your current creative focus, was there an "ah-ha" moment you can tell us about?

A succession of "ah-ha" moments would better describe how my creative process has evolved to where I am now. For me the "ah-ha" moments are just acknowledgments of what I already subconsciously know.

For you, is art more about creation or expression? It could be both, but does one dominate with regard to your need/urge/desire to be an artist and why?

If it is possible to separate creation and expression, different artists might consider one more important than the other, but for me they are interdependent and of equal value. To me, expression is the fulfillment of the creation.

Many artist focus on one particular subject or style. How important is this for career development? Have you ever grown tired of painting the same types of things, and if so, can you tell us about it?

I have explored different styles in both my painting and musical compositions. Those experiences led me to my current focus. Success in following one or more styles really depends on the individual artist. For me, painting and music have always provided inspiration for each other. That has always been a natural part of my creative process. Professionally, several exhibitions of my work have also included my musical compositions. Each has opened opportunities for the other. For me it works.

Do you believe some of the various attributes related to being highly creative have caused you aberrations in life, helped you deal with life's aberrations, or both?

There are many factors that condition our ability to interact with or connect with other people. Being highly creative can certainly be one of those factors. At times it caused feelings of separation and isolation for me. Then through exhibiting my work I was able to make connections with other highly creative people who have experienced some of the same aberrations.

During difficult or challenging times in your life, does painting sooth or inspire you? Is it therapeutic in any way?

The actual physical part of painting has never been soothing or calming for me. The process is very intense and focused. It's more like an adrenaline rush.

Have you ever had to deal with people in your life failing to understand your creative personality, interests, or drive? If so, can you tell us about it and how you've dealt with it?

I think it is a situation that all truly gifted people experience. You have to have confidence in your work and your ability in order to push through it. There is only one way I have found to deal with it - WORK!

Have you developed a specific creative process that enables you to meet your artistic goals? If so, can you tell us about it. Where do most of your ideas come from?

If I have a creative process it is visualization first, then finding a way to make that vision tangible. Resourcefulness is key to using whatever means necessary for achieving that goal. For me it varies and is constantly evolving. I basically follow my intuition.

What do you believe places an artist apart from his or her peers? So many are highly talented, but what makes one stand out as truly gifted?

All highly talented artists possess a strong intuitive sense of their surroundings. What makes an artist stand out as truly gifted is having the courage to follow that intuition and the determination to see it through. They heed the call.

What is your primary motto or mantra in life? Why is this important to you?

I don't really have a specific motto or mantra. The qualities I value are having confidence in your ability, accuracy in your intent, and the tenacity to follow through.

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6527212 August 12, 2010

Nose to the Creative Grindstone: Tracy J. Thomas

" ... it has been difficult to convince those who choose to follow more traditional paths in life that my focus on and passion for creative expression is as valid a career choice ... "

Those closest to me rarely read Aberration Nation. They're all too busy. This includes my oldest daughter, my husband, my brother, and my parents. While they're all highly supportive of my creative endeavors, they still can't make the time. A couple of them have a desire to better understand me but they still don't read.

Last week, I gave my daughter the manuscript of my new novel, DUST, which is almost finished.  She agreed to read it after finishing the first Sookie Stackhouse novel by Charlaine Harris.  Three days later, she was reading the second Sookie Stackhouse book.  She said she was sorry; she just couldn't resist. I guess this is why Charlaine Harris is on the bestseller list while I'm only on my daughter's to be read (TBR) list. I know she'll get to it soon.

My wonderful husband is supportive yet misses my J&J paycheck. While he fully understands who I am, my never ending drive toward a larger payoff eludes him at times, especially when there are new soccer shoes and school supplies to buy. 

My guest today, photographer Tracy J. Thomas, talks about the doubts of others. She has dealt with their lack of faith by continuing to believe strongly in herself and putting her nose to the creative grindstone in order to earn continued recognition and success.

I do that, too.

It sounds so easy, doesn't it? 

Well, it's not. Last night I cried because I've been rubbing my nose on that grindstone for twenty years, and I still can't guarantee that my writing career will ever take off. Thirty minutes earlier I was elated to get a call from my art mentor, Bob Hogge (Monkdogz Urban Art, NYC), saying he plans to start showing some of my work this Fall. An hour before that I was down because I haven't yet heard from any of the publishers who are reading my work. Two hours before that I was elated because Dtown Magazine is doing an article on me and my work in September.

Among other things, it's a roller coaster.

All these busy folks in my life who don't read this blog agree that I'm talented.  They want me to succeed but, like me, they get tired of waiting. That blinding spark that keeps me going resides in me; I feel it but they don't. To use Tracy's words, they also don't share "all my sordid memories which spark in me the drive and passion to create something beautiful, pure and healing by contrast." I need that. They don't. Perhaps this is why I need people like Tracy and a blog like this one.

In the August 16th edition of Newsweek, Tony Dokoupil and Angela Wu tell us that blogging is declining in popularity. In their article, "Take This Blog and Shove It," they state, "While professional bloggers are 'a rising class,' according to Technorati, hobbyist are in retreat, and about 95 percent of blogs are launched and quickly abandoned."  They say that, as it turns out, folks are just too lazy to write or read blogs in a consistent manner since, of course, there's no financial pay off.

This news makes me want to call Aberration Nation something other than a blog. It makes me want to be a professional blogger.  It also makes me glad that all the hobbyists are clearing out. It reminds me that human nature is set in stone. Everyone wants and needs a pay off.  Everyone needs to eat and buy their kids soccer shoes.  While I may be highly creative and talented, I'm also not an idiot. I can, however, go without eating. But I can't deny my child soccer shoes.   

In case you're wondering, there is no answer to the conundrum of spending time on creative activities versus those that provide a steady paycheck. I can't stop what I'm doing. This week I ate a fortune cookie. The message was, Genius does what it must, talent does what it can. I don't know if I'm a genius but there is a must in there somewhere. I must write. I must paint.

People like Tracy understand. We do the best we can to juggle--to give ourselves what we need while also giving those we love what they need.  We often walk a fine line between what sometimes feels like selfishness and altruism.

I write this blog because I don't have the time or ability to surround myself with creative people who share my glorious struggle. I search for them here. I read what they have to say and with every word, I understand myself a little better. With every introduction I write, I scream out, "This is who I am! Do you see me? Look at me!"  

So what if, according to Dokoupil and Wu, a recent Pew study has shown that blogging is withered as a pastime with 18 to 24-year-old crowd. I'm trapped in a beautiful cage where magic happens. The mirrors I lacked in childhood appear and people like Tracy come to visit.

I just wish those closest to me would stop by a little more often. 

What's your story? How long did it take to establish yourself as a photographer? Was the journey on a straight or twisted path? Are you surprised by your success?

My career journey as an adult has lead me down multiple paths and was pretty far removed from photography, however most of my jobs did entail some sort of creative or artistic skill. It wasn’t until the age of 42 when the technology industry took a nosedive and I was handed my pink slip and a package that I began to focus on more creative and artistic outlets once again. I was off work for a little over a year and during that time decided to build a wooden canoe, focus on my writing and picked up my camera to begin shooting once again.

Long story short and a few years later, I was sidelined for 4 months by Achilles tendon reattachment surgery, purchased a new DSLR with a long lens, began to drive out to the local wildlife area to photograph birds out of boredom, developed an even more passionate love affair with photography, applied to and was accepted into the M.F.A. program at the Academy of Art University in San Francisco and am now happier than I have ever been in my life.

As far as success goes: I believe that success will come to any individual who follows their true passion with honesty and humility but it does require hard work and dedication for all the required pieces to fall into place.

With regard to your current creative focus, was there an "ah-ha" moment you can tell us about?

My most recent “ah-ha” moment came when I was presenting my thesis project proposal to the committee at the Academy of Art University this last November. I have always known I had a certain talent when it comes to writing, however my studies in Photography were obviously in the Visual Arts so I tended to place my writing by the wayside and focused more heavily on the visual and narrative aspects of my photography alone. There was of course a rather long writing requirement involved with my project proposal and I suddenly found myself enjoying the writing as much as putting together the photographs I was to present to the committee. I ended up receiving a full go ahead for my thesis project and was pleasantly surprised to hear the committee praising not only my photography skills but my writing abilities as well. They encouraged me to begin to marry the two along with the addition of video.

I realized at that moment I had been holding myself carefully inside a box worried about meeting specific project criteria involved in my thesis while the committee was instead encouraging me to think and reach further outside the box to allow all these creative possibilities to merge into a far more powerful piece of expression.

Out of this came my Blog where I merge my photography with my written words and I am now currently in the throes of videography working on a couple of short documentary pieces and planning a video supplement for my thesis. Stretch and experiment…don’t hold back…you will be pleasantly surprised!

For you, is photography more about creation or expression? It could be both, but does one dominate with regard to your need/urge/desire to be a photographer and why?

I think there is a necessary melding with the creation process behind all modes of artistic expression. So I would have to say it is a little bit about both for me. Sometimes the process of creation itself (out somewhere shooting whatever with my camera in order to create something tangible) evolves into an unexpected jewel for personal expression. Certain photographs I take begin to stir feelings, opinions, ideas within me that move me a step beyond mere creation and into the realm of a need to express something to the world. In that sense, photography, like my writing, becomes my vehicle for expression.

I am a relatively quiet, deep thinker. I have always observed the world from a distance and formulate strong opinions and observations based on that quiet study. You could say those opinions and observations and visual captures begin to fester up inside of me after awhile and I find a strong need to give them voice. My chosen mode of vocalization and expression is through my writing and my photography. Over the past few years I have found a way to merge the two to create an even more powerful mode of expression of my ideas, feelings, thoughts, opinions and beliefs.

Many artists focus on one particular subject or style. How important is this for career development in photography?

During the learning curve as a photographer, I think it is important to experiment with a multitude of genres and subject matter in order to find your perfect fit or passion. Along my photographic journey I have toyed with event and wedding photography, nature and wildlife, fine art, documentary, photojournalism, product, and portraiture; pretty much the whole shebang. Each genre has a unique set of characteristics and intricacies that require a different skill set and approach. Experimenting with the lot has provided me with a well-rounded learning curve and skill development I would not have received if I had focused on only one area or subject matter.

The ability to shoot most anything also provides you with a plethora of money making opportunities as you begin to build your business. When the economy goes sour and people stop buying fine art, there are always weddings to shoot and baby portraits to take. The ultimate goal of course should be to find your niche and exploit and promote it to the maximum. Right now my professional niche is HDR (High Dynamic Range) fine art photography supplemented by the occasional wedding shoot. While my M.F.A. niche at the Academy is focused on documentary/photojournalism for the completion of my degree.

Do you believe some of the various attributes related to being highly creative have caused you aberrations in life, helped you deal with life's aberrations, or both?

I have always felt a little deviant or different in terms of the way my mind thinks and in what I believe. I have never really felt comfortable with conforming to the “norm” nor with being just another sheep that blindly follows some self-possessed shepherd. This is most likely due to being born with a creative mind. People have often looked at me differently, scratching their heads when I have refused to conform to what they deem to be “normal”. So yes, being highly creative has caused aberrations in life, though it has certainly helped me deal with life’s aberrations as well.
I grew up in a highly dysfunctional home and gravitated towards my creative abilities as a means to release a lot of the tension that was built up from those horrid life experiences. Both my writing and my photography continue to be a form of positive therapy for me and have allowed me to face, work through and have provided me with a voice to express pent up anger, angst, sorrow, etc. As ugly as they have been, I have come out of it all with an internal strength and passion and I often turn to those sordid memories which spark in me the drive and passion to create something beautiful, pure and healing by contrast.

During difficult or challenging times in your life, does photography sooth or inspire you? Is it therapeutic in any way?

Photography and writing both sooth and inspire me. It doesn’t matter how stressful my life is, when I have my camera in hand and I am shooting, I am sucked completely into the moment and all that tension suddenly vanishes. When I don’t have the opportunity to get out and shoot, I can always turn to my writing which is one of the most therapeutic things I have ever done for myself. Writing allows me to gather my thoughts and make some sense of the chaos of life. It also serves as a pressure valve when a million thoughts are building up in my mind. The ultimate therapy happens when I am able to meld my writing with my photography to get my point across. I experience instant release.

Have you ever had to deal with people in your life failing to understand your creative personality, interests, or drive? If so, can you tell us about it and how you've dealt with it?

Yes, at times it has been difficult to convince those who choose to follow more traditional paths in life that my focus on and passion for creative expression is as valid a career choice as sitting 16 floors up behind a desk for 8 plus hours a day. I already traveled that route for many years in my life and discovered how miserable it made me regardless of the steady paychecks, world travel and ability to purchase what I wanted whenever I wanted it.

I have dealt with their doubt by continuing to believe strongly in myself and putting my nose to the creative grindstone in order to earn continued recognition and success. You can achieve great things with a dream and the belief in your ability to do so.

Do you think there is a difference between creativity and talent? What are your thoughts on this?

Every single person in this world has the capacity for creativity. We can all dip a paint brush in paint and move it around the canvas, cut out a snowflake from a piece of folded paper with a pair of scissors, place pen to paper and make up a story, cut our favorite photos from a magazine and glue them on a piece of poster board, or pick up a point and shoot camera to capture a beautiful sunset. In fact I believe all people should have some sort of creative outlet simply for the fun of it and to balance out their life.

Talent is another issue entirely. I believe certain people are born with inherent gifts and talents. If those talents or gifts lie in the area of a creative medium such as painting, sculpture, writing or photography, then that innate talent adds more fuel to the fire during the creative process and the end result is usually pretty outstanding.

Part of the journey for creative people with innate talent is reaching the point where they recognize and believe in their own talent. Once you believe in your innate abilities and have discovered your desired mode of expression then passion should drive you to create, experiment, stretch and share your gifts with the world.

Have you developed a specific creative process that enables you to meet your creative goals? If so, can you tell us about it. Where do most of your ideas come from?

The majority of my ideas come from my personal life experiences. I draw a lot on my experiences (both the positive and the negative), especially the experiences that move me to emotion or passionate reaction. I am a fairly well read individual who loves to peruse political events and opinion pieces from the major news organizations. When I feel myself reacting to a political hot button topic, social or environmental injustice or human interest story, I am often moved to create something in order to express my personal feelings or reaction surrounding that subject matter. Facebook offers an endless stream of fodder for creative thought and expression based on the multitude of personalities and belief systems that merge in one place across the Internet.

I also spend a lot of time just watching people from a distance. For my thesis project I take long walks through the seediest parts of the City in order to develop a better understanding of my subject matter (the homeless). As I walk, wander and chat with the people on the streets, my creative mind begins to kick into high gear with all the possibilities. I am a realist (thus primarily a nonfiction writer and documentary photographer) and I have a need to be immersed firmly in reality before I can clearly express what it is I intend to say or create.

What is your primary motto or mantra in life? Why is this important to you?

"You yourself, as much as anybody in the entire universe deserve your love and affection." – Buddha

I am not a practicing Buddhist; however The Buddha’s words often speak strongly to me. The aforementioned quote resonates deeply for me because for many years in my childhood and my young adult life I failed to love myself. Coming out of the abusive environment in which I was raised I did not feel much confidence in my individual abilities and talents, and I definitely did not believe I was worthy of self love or even of love from another human being. I stand here now happy to say I was able to work through that self doubt and lack of self love and am finally confident in my abilities and the gifts I am now able to share with the world.

All photographs in this post are copyrighted by Tracy J. Thomas.

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6527212 July 29, 2010

Making Ideas Happen: Scott Belsky

"Society shuns what society celebrates."

I grew up noticing the injustice around me, feeling helpless to change anything. Maybe it was because I emerged from a highly religious environment where everyone was supposed to turn the other cheek, love thy neighbor, and forgive ad nauseum.

In my impressionable mind, to be successful at loving all my neighbors, I had to find something lovable in each one--so that's what I desperately tried to do. Sometimes that took a lot of observation, creativity, and free association on my part.  Everyone deserves to be loved, but for a kid experiencing a bunch of crazy, mixed-up adults saying one thing and doing another, it was often tough, confusing, and downright impossible. The kid develops creative coping mechanisms to achieve those challenging love-thy-neighbor goals.

When a kid like that grows up and finds herself in the heart of corporate America, guess what happens? In the midst of office politics, corporate initiatives, raising bars, employee evaluations, and a million directives, that kid observes and uses the same creative gifts to navigate tricky waters while also trying to accomplish company goals. Let's face it, sometimes the office can be like a dysfunctional family.

Well, guess what? Many sectors of corporate America don't always appreciate the creative soul.  Sure, I'm far from perfect, but my approach has always been based on a combination of brains, tenacity, and creativity:  
  • Let's see how we can miraculously accomplish the goals with what they've given us to work with. 
  • Let's see how we can make this team super high functioning when our numbers are few but our directives are numerous. 
  • Let's see how we can generate usable data with sub-optimal tools and little time. 
  • Then let's go a step further and see how we might be able to avoid these issues next time. 
Anyone who says creativity isn't an asset in industry is missing a few IQ points.

Aside from the day to day challenges in the workplace, there's also product development. It's a given that those involved in coming up with innovative gadgets and whirligigs should be creative, right?  I often wonder what roadblocks those creative souls crash into on the way to making all their fantastic ideas happen.  Is it easy for them?  Or could it be that the pervasive corporate aversion to risk taking, and the push of ongoing operations dampens their efforts as well?  Wouldn't it be great if there was a way to identify and fully utilize all the creativity stuffed within the dark bowels of corporate America? 

My guest today, Scott Belsky, believes there is a way.  His book, Making Ideas Happen, focuses on how to tap into, organize, and execute creative ideas, particularly in business environments.

I find Scott's work fascinating. I'm a creative who ended up with degrees in Biology and Quality Systems, and spent twenty years in the pharmaceutical industry. A few years ago, I wrote a book for McGraw-Hill on how to apply the underlying concepts of Six Sigma (a popular quality management methodology) in day-to-day work--no matter who you are or what responsibilities you hold. In my study and work in corporate quality systems, I rarely came across a focus on creativity.

Here's an idea! Perhaps creativity should be added to the most common underlying concepts found in the major quality philosophies and methodologies that are driving American industry forward: customer focus, collaboration, data-driven management, process focus, and strategic planning.

When I read about Scott and his book in Newsweek, I was interested in interviewing him both from a creative and quality systems perspective. He has identified a gap that I've personally struggled with and have had to work around in various ways over the years.

As the kid who was taught to turn the other cheek and love my neighbor, I put my best foot forward every single time I was asked to keep my head in the corporate box while pleasing my superiors, handing them deliverable after deliverable, and keeping my overworked employees happy.  The creative woman who is blind to boxes has been waiting for Scott for some time now.

She is cheering!

What's your story in a nutshell? Why are you into creativity, and how did your interest evolve into building a company that develops products and services for creative industries?

I did study some design as an undergrad, and I always had a fascination with business and the creative industries. There are two things that really inspired me to start Behance:

1) The stuff that makes our lives interesting - the art, the design, and all of the original content - is all created by the creative professional community. But, unfortunately, creatives in particular face unique obstacles when it comes to actually making their ideas happen.

2) There is SO MUCH discussion in the creative world about inspiration and creativity, but very little discussion about organization and execution. I found this VERY frustrating. It seemed that creative professionals would become more effective - and thus benefit society even more - with assistance on execution, efficient self-promotion, and organization.

I was fortunate enough to meet Matias Corea, our Chief of Design, in the early days of the idea. Together, we discussed the role of design in solving these frustrations and created Behance with a very specific mission: To organize the creative world. We are not trying to increase creativity. On the contrary, we are trying to help creative leaders harness their own creativity and actually make ideas happen.

I think it's safe to assume you're a highly creative yourself. Were your current philosophies and methods around creativity developed through your own trial and error? If so, can you tell us about that?

My own experience as an entrepreneur and a practitioner of idea generation/execution has certainly proved a valuable laboratory. But I must credit the research - and countless interviews - that went into my book Making Ideas Happen as the most helpful base for me to learn how to be a productive creative and run a productive business in the creative industry.

I worked in corporate America for twenty years and was often frustrated by the lack of or fear of creativity. It often seemed that the unwritten rule was: Think outside the box! -- as long as you stay within the distinct parameters we've set for you by creating a tiny bit bigger box. Can any industry or company be a creative one, and if so, what so often holds them back?

Yes. Two big things that hold large companies back:

1) Risk. When you are big and successful, the potential costs of taking risk often outweigh the benefits. This stifles innovation and encourages us to stay close to the status quo.

2) Gravitational Force of Operations. When you're running a large business, it is hard to focus sufficient energy on NEW ideas because the daily demands and "urgent" stuff is always prioritized over long-term strategic initiatives.

I once had a new boss, a Vice President, ask me, "So what is unique about you? What is the one, most important thing you'd like me to tell the board about you?" I thought it over and replied, "I'm creative." She literally laughed in my face because apparently that trait held little value to her and her colleagues. A sad story, in my opinion. (Note: She promoted me within a year for my ability to get things done in a challenging environment.) What does corporate American lose the most when creativity is undervalued or squelched?

Well, I do believe that the ability to execute and push ideas forward is as (if not more) important than the ideas themselves. But creativity is also the source of answers to our gravest problems. Corporate America will lose the global fight for innovation across industries if creativity is not valued, hired for, and then supported.

I've also been concerned about the often difficult team mix of creative and more traditional thinkers in the workplace. Both are valuable to team success. Do your philosophies and suggested methods around creativity touch on this particular topic and how?

Absolutely. In my book I try to describe the three types - Dreamers, Doers, and the Incrementalists.

The Dreamers have the tendency to always think of a new idea - and jump from idea to idea to idea.

Doers have the tendency to focus on the practicalities; and ground ideas with restraints like budget, timeline, etc...

The Incrementalists have the ability to shift from Dreamer mode - to Doer Mode - to Dreamer, etc... But Incrementalists get in trouble when they create too many projects and are unable to scale any one of them.

No doubt, a team with a mix of people that round off each others tendencies is the best possible chemistry.

Have you ever had to deal with people failing to understand your own creative personality, interests, or drive? If so, can you tell us about it and how you've dealt with it?

All the time. Especially in the beginning... The way I look at it: If everyone understood the value of what I was doing, it wouldn't be new or lucrative enough to pursue. Society shuns what society celebrates. College drop-outs who leave to pursue their ideas are doubted by society until they are celebrated once they start Microsoft or Apple.

Gain confidence from doubt. Listen to feedback, but take it all with a grain of salt.

I often ask if there is a difference between being talented and being creative. What are your thoughts on this and how does the distinction play out in the workplace?

Yes, there is a difference. Talent can relate to specific skills, but does not necessarily mean that one uses them to generate new ideas and solve non-traditional problems.

In your opinion, what qualities does an organization (and perhaps an individual) need to be successful in transforming an great idea into reality?

I believe there are three main FORCES that make ideas happen, noticeably ORGANIZATION, COMMUNAL FORCES, AND LEADERSHIP CAPABILITY. The most productive leaders and teams across the creative industries have found ways to tap into these forces. Structure, it turns out, is a competitive advantage (even though we, as creatives, sometimes despise it).

What is your primary motto or mantra in life? Why is this important to you?

Nothing extraordinary is ever achieved through ordinary means. Whenever I regress to the way things were done, or should be done, or the status quo...I remind myself of this truth.

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6527212 July 14, 2010

Hyperallergic: Hrag Vartanian

"I can’t help but think that creativity requires both constructive and destructive forces to make it really work."

Over the last couple of years, Aberration Nation has convinced readers that life sucks ... and that it sucks the life out of us.  It may seem sad but many years ago, I decided to embrace the concept and simply accept that regardless of how my life is defined (e.g., single, married, working, out of work, homeowner, apartment dweller, parent, full, empty), it will carry a touch of suckage.  There's no magical situation that will dissipate the sinking realization that everything wonderful, right, and spectacular eventually ends, including life itself.

So what we do with all that crappy reality continuously banging at the door?  Well, I could be wrong, but I believe that many highly creative folks bust open the lock and welcome it in, knowing that real life offers wealth that goes beyond rainbows, roses, and pots of gold. Yes, this best kept secret spinning down through the ages continuously offering up riches could be more earth-shattering than the power of positive thinking. Sorry Rhonda Byrne. It's simply called creativity

In this week's edition of Newsweek, Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman tell us that creativity requires divergent thinking (generating many unique ideas) and then convergent thinking (combining those ideas into the best result).  In their fascinating article, The Creativity Crisis, they also note that highly creative people are very good at marshaling their brains into bilateral mode, and that the more creative they are, the more they dual-activate. In 2008, I wrote about my own right brain / left brain partnership in my blog post, Left, Right, Left, Right, Left. 

Like many of the artists, writers, musicians, etc, whom I've interviewed, my guest today, writer and art critic Hrag Vartanian seems to recognize beauty in the unshielded cornucopia of life.  He knows that it ultimately reflects the larger human condition, which in the end is nothing but truth--real truth that doesn't sugar coat, mask, or mislead us into believing we are more than exactly what we see in each other.

In the end, we're all made of the same juicy constructive and destructive stuff whether we live in the ghetto or the White House; in a studio apartment in New York or on a farm; in the middle of Hollywood or the suburbs. After all, without a shared and honest full range of knowledge, emotion, and insight, how can an individual expect to produce anything of lasting value within ourselves and for the human race? Over time, culture changes but that kernel of humanity remains steadfast in its endless march toward the final reality of death. It's our glorious and tragic shared humanity that we recognize when we gaze upon, read, or listen to our greatest works of art--the ones that remain relevant for all time.

Hrag often says he's allergic to anything other than New York City. In some parts of America, the Big Apple is considered one of our nation's sin cities.  Yet its left-right-brain-diverging-converging environment coupled with constant blasts of hustle and bustle, good and evil, and a million constantly evolving stories has given birth to unparalleled levels of creativity.

Newsweek warns that we're failing to foster creativity in our children while other nation's efforts are surging. I can't help but wonder if it's in part due to decades of working so hard to create a collective environment of smoothed over loveliness. Many creatives know that lasting achievement comes from embracing both the yen and the yang, good and evil, constructive and destructive because embracing it all ultimately bring more to the golden converging brain table. Perhaps if more of us were comfortable enough to finally rub off the sugar and throw down our masks, we could collectively rise out of our education system, corporate American, ghettos, energy and penal systems, finance, politics, and suburbs to create something worthwhile and sustainable for our children.

I just wish certain people would stop asking us to please think outside the box ... as long as we stay within the boundaries of the larger box they've handed us.  Perhaps then more folks Hrag (and me) wouldn't have to suffer from so many allergies.   

What's your story? Are you surprised by where you are or did you always see it coming?

I’m an Armenian Canadian writer who lives in Brooklyn, is gay married to an Armenian American and I should mention I was born in Aleppo, Syria — since people usually have preconceived notions about what that means. Am I surprised? Always, every day and that’s a great thing.

With regard to your current creative focus, was there an "ah-ha" moment you can tell us about?

That’s a funny question because I love asking other people that same question. Well, the funny thing is that tragedy often serves as an “ah-ha” moment for me. It is often a source of inspiration. So I have to say that my most recent “ah-ha” moment was the summer of 2009 when my then 92-year-old friend was hospitalized. Even though there was a great disparity in our ages, we shared many lovely moments together and I used to visit him once every month or two for the last 8 or 9 years. When he became ill I was reminded how short life was. He had many regrets in his life and I didn’t want to feel the same way. His illness made me realize I had to focus my creativity and it pushed me to launch Hyperallergic.com. Tragic moments often generate bursts of creativity for me. I don’t know if that is same for others, but it certainly is for me.

For you, is writing and art more about creation or expression? It could be both, but does one dominate with regard to your need/urge/desire to be a writer?

The decision to be a writer was an easy one. What to write about was much harder. I think people forget how much writing is an act of creation, even nonfiction writing. Writing is about forging narratives and I feel the pressure of fashioning new narratives everyday, which can be tortuous. The advantage of blogging — which I love to do — is that you don’t always have to create a new narrative but you get to continue them over days, weeks, months or even years. When I get to play with established narratives it becomes more fun for me. When I don’t have to worry about the “narrative” it feels more like a form of expression.

Do you believe that a highly creative person can give more than one art form 100% of their ability/soul (i.e., writing and painting, music and art, etc)? Can a person succeed at more than more, or does trying to do so dilute what they have to offer?

Yes, I think it’s certainly possible. But I see very few people who do it really really well. I do think certain art forms naturally fit together, such as poetry and music, or architecture and sculpture. There are aesthetics that are common to many art forms, so it’s not a big stretch to use the same ideas across platforms. Though part of me believes people should submit to one art form at some point in their life. I guess it’s like a relationship. There are monogamous people and then there are others. I’m more of a monogamist; it just feels right and wonderful and challenging everyday. Though some people may argue that creatively I’m polyamorous

Do you believe some of the various attributes related to being highly creative have caused you aberrations in life, helped you deal with life's aberrations, or both?

As I said before, life’s “aberrations” often inspire me. I can’t help but think that creativity requires both constructive and destructive forces to make it really work.

Have you had to deal with people in your life failing to understand your creative personality, interests, or drive? If so, can you tell us about it and how you've dealt with it?

Umm, did I have people who failed to understand my creative personality? Yes, it was called my childhood. Parents are great but they are not always equipped to deal with everything. My mother understood my love of books and writing (she’s a big reader) but even she wanted me to be a lawyer or something. I was fortunate that there were strong people in my life who did “get” it. I simply gravitated to those individuals and listened to everything they had to say. They came up in some of the oddest places in my life. One was a debating coach who was such a character.  She was an odd person but so welcoming to my aspirations of being a writer or creative individual. She was probably one of the first people I met who seemed to embrace that notion so completely.

Unfortunately, many creative people never achieve the success they dream about. Which of your dreams have come to pass and what do you dream about now?

I have the freedom to write, which is a very big deal and I consider--a success. I often think about people who are persecuted for writing in countries where freedoms are limited or monitored. I lived in Beirut, Lebanon, for a year in the late 1990s and as free as the Lebanese are, there are taboos that aren’t written about in the media, it was shocking for me as someone who grew up in the West.

Other successes, well, I have become an art critic in New York City (which I dreamt about as a kid), I write what I please. I consider these all successes. In terms of the future, I would like to write more long form works.  I find my writing shines in long form. So, next up are books, novellas, short story collections, biographies …

Is there a difference between being creative and being talented? What are your thoughts on this?

Talent is overrated. Even the most talented people have to work at developing it. You can always tell when someone’s talent is underdeveloped. Creativity is multifaceted, talent isn’t really. That’s just the way I see it.

What is your primary motto or mantra in life? Why is this important to you?

That’s a tough one. I don’t have a motto or mantra but I do believe in questioning everything, following your inspiration, and feeling things passionately. I’m sure my mantra is buried somewhere in between all these things.

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6527212 June 08, 2010

Believe in Yourself: Liimu McGill

"I love the creative process and honestly, it is so much like motherhood."

Aberration Nation is not a mommy blog. There's absolutely nothing wrong with mommy or daddy blogs; the world needs them. But Aberration Nation is about humanity and creativity. If we also happen to be moms and dads, that's great too.

Interestingly, my guest today, singer/songwriter Liimu McGill, brings up the thought-provoking comparison between creation and motherhood. I've often thought of my novels as my babies. Most writers know the metaphor about sending children and manuscripts out into the world. Both situations are scary as hell.

There is, however, a major distinction between the two. When my children become adults and leave my side, they will continue to morph, grow, and evolve into fully realized individuals. On the Border's bookshelf, my bound manuscript continues to be the shining vision I once turned into reality. That accomplishment belongs to me, my children do not.

Liimu poses the question, "Are my children simply something I created, or are they an expression of me?"  She goes on to imply that they are both, as is her music. Although I understand the intent behind Liimu's comparison and agree to some extent, I struggle with it on a personal level.

Growing up, I had a parent who wholeheartedly believed I was her creation and vessel of expression. Perhaps if I'd been a novel, I would have become her masterpiece. I would sit on shelf after shelf after shelf, never straying from that grand vision she once had. But I'm not a book, a story, a room to be decorated, or a song to be performed, I'm an individual.

My saying this bears no reflection on Liimu; she's a fantastic mother. Like her, my mother is highly creative. One of the things she longed to create and be part of was a perfect world. Like Father Knows Best and Leave it to Beaver, we'd play our roles to perfection. 

"My, that's a wonderful dream," you say with a pleasant smile on your face. 

Too bad life got in the way.

Then you begin to wonder about this highly creative mother. Your eyes grow wide and you ask, "Gee, Wally, it doesn't seem to take too much creativity to imagine a perfect world, does it?" 

Oh, that's the easy part. 

Last week, I wrote about dedication. Well, my mother's dedication to her dream of a world of  psychological and social perfection was so incredibly intense that it began to exist for her. Anyone who stepped out of line or failed to follow the hidden script became a threat. Their cruelty in refusing to participate in her subconscious agenda was perceived as verbal abuse. As you can imagine, my mother has suffered incredible harm from all sides. She became a victim whose perpetrators were everywhere, and worst of all, they were her children.

Creation and expression are beautiful, invaluable gifts, but when a creative person loses their ability to distinguish between what they have the right to create or express, trouble follows.

"Censorship!" you cry.

Don't misunderstand. I'm merely suggesting that when we can't help but gaze at our children and consider them more beautiful, interesting, and amazing than the greatest works of art the Earth has ever seen, let us step back and accept that it's their humanity and their unique individuality that makes it so.

They will never sit on a shelf or hang on a wall.

What's your story? Are you surprised by where you are or did you always see it coming?

Saying I’m surprised that I’m still making a go of this music thing has got to be the understatement of the year. I sang in my first production at the age of eight, and sang in choirs and musicals throughout high school. I went to NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts for my first year of college, and was told I showed great promise. I didn’t realize it. Hell, I didn’t realize a lot of things, not the least of which being that my addiction to alcohol was going to come and knock me on my behind, squashing all my dreams in the process. I dropped out of school and hit a hard bottom within just a few short years. By some miracle, I was able to get sober but was told that pursuing a career in the music industry wouldn’t be the smartest idea. So, I put it on the shelf. I focused all my energy on getting solid recovery and decided about five years into it that singing in wedding bands would be a safe way to release my continuing passion for music. I met my husband at my first audition and about six months later we fell in love. We played together in wedding bands for about ten years until, after the birth of our third daughter, I decided to just give it up. I reconciled myself with the fact that perhaps I would be able to vicariously enjoy a career in music through one of them.

That wasn’t the plan, apparently. Things changed one day when a friend told me about an audition for a new “American Idol” type show called “Clash of the Choirs,” where celebrities would assemble choirs and they would battle it out in performances on national television. I told her she was crazy – I couldn’t audition for something like that. My four year old had a birthday party to go to! Long story short, I did audition and not only got in the choir, but got hand-picked by our celebrity choir director, Patti LaBelle, to sing a solo on national television.

This led to a relationship with one of Patti’s producers, Tony Moore, and his company TM Muzik. Tony encouraged me to work on a solo project and helped me to rekindle my love and penchant for songwriting. My husband signed on to help me assemble a band and quickly became my musical director and sole cowriter. To date, we have written nearly a dozen songs, and are gearing up to release our first EP. We’ve even set up a studio in our house and Glen will begin working as a professional freelance producer and songwriter for other local artists.

I had assumed that because my original path got diverted and delayed, I couldn’t have a music career. Silly me. In some ways, my music seems to have a life of its own, insisting on being created and performed whether I think it should or not. People seem to like it, and I love to perform it, so I’ll continue to do so, regardless of the outcome.

With regard to your current creative focus, was there an "ah-ha" moment you can tell us about?

When I was asked to put together my first show for TM Muzik, Tony wanted nine songs – six original songs and three covers. I hadn’t been doing any songwriting for nearly 20 years at that point, but one song, “Believe in Yourself,” had stayed fully written in my head for all that time. So, I came to the show with a whole slew of covers and that one little song that I wrote in about 20 minutes in the days following my father’s death in the fall of 1989. The crowd and Tony’s reaction to that song was my “aha’ moment. In the audience, I saw people closing their eyes, wiping away tears, staring transfixed as I sang of the pain of losing my father and the comfort I got from hearing his voice ringing in my head. I heard myself singing to them about how all those years ago he had told me to just keep going, to just keep dreaming, and most of all to keep believing in myself, and that all my dreams would come true. And as I stood there on that stage, I realized that they had come true, and they still are.

For you, is music more about creation or expression? It could be both, but does one dominate with regard to your need/urge/desire to be a singer/songwriter?

I love the creative process and honestly, it is so much like motherhood. So, is motherhood about creativity or expression? Are my children simply something I created, or are they an expression of me? The other thing is that being creative and expressive are just part of me, so it’s not like it has impacted my need to be a singer/songwriter. There has only been a brief period of time when I wasn’t singing or writing songs, and during that time I gave writing fiction a go. (I’m a much better songwriter, I must admit, though I haven’t given up on the dream of perhaps writing a book one day.) When I gave birth to my third daughter, focusing on that creative effort took every ounce of energy I had and all other creative pursuits had to take backseat, but only for awhile. So, I would say that I am inherently a creative person and by honoring that, I express myself through whatever it is I create.

Do you believe that a highly creative person can give more than one art form 100% of their ability/soul (i.e., writing and painting, music and art, etc)? Can a person succeed at more than more, or does trying to do so dilute what they have to offer?

Absolutely, I believe that a creative person can pursue more than one art form. Look at what Michelangelo, a sculptor, did in the Sistine Chapel! Look at how well Jennifer Lopez has done lending her talents to dance, song, and acting. (And I’m sorry, but until you have seen “Selena” and “U-Turn” reserve your judgments about her as an actress. I would argue that it is the area where she has the most genuine talent.) I think that those of us who are guided in our creative process by a higher power of some sort actually need to lend our talents in multiple areas, because we’re really not the ones who are ultimately in control of how and where our talents are most needed in the world. Today, I feel like I need to be writing and singing songs, but tomorrow, it may be time for me to tell my story.

Do you believe some of the various attributes related to being highly creative have caused you aberrations in life, helped you deal with life's aberrations, or both?

Which came first, the breakdown or the song about it? Well, as someone who has literally sung my way out of a mental institution, I can honestly say that there’s no easy answer to that. I have always felt like I feel things very, very deeply and I needed creative outlets for all that emotion from a very young age. The challenges I have faced in my life have only given me more to write about. That doesn’t mean that they were any easier for me to overcome, but I always felt, even as I was going through them, that they were contributing to my story in some way.

Have you had to deal with people in your life failing to understand your creative personality, interests, or drive? If so, can you tell us about it and how you've dealt with it?

The people in my life have been very supportive, to be honest. The one criticism I have gotten over the years, and continue to get, is that I have my hand in too many things at once, that I am overextended. This is probably true, but when I don’t do a lot of things, I get bored. That’s when I get into trouble.

Unfortunately, many creative people never achieve the success they dream about. Which of your dreams have come to pass and what do you dream about now?

I will always be able to look back on the experience of singing with Patti LaBelle as a shining moment in my career. Having sung live on national television for 10 million viewers is something I will never forget. But the dreams I am most proud of have more to do with what I have accomplished in private. I am so proud to have created a space with my husband in which we can cowrite songs and, in the future, encourage our children to pursue music if that’s what they want to do. I am so proud that I can call myself a songwriter today and that my girls have seen me evolve from a singer into a songwriter, that they like my songs and sing them, and brag to their friends that their mom is going to be famous. Even if that doesn’t happen, I love that I have rekindled my dreams and in so doing, have taught my children that having dreams is what’s important, regardless of when and how they come to fruition.

Do you ever wonder if what you're creating or expressing is as meaningful to others as it is to you? How important is that to you with regard to your overall goals?

I create for God, myself and the world, in that order. I love when my children sing my songs, because I love having created something that brings them joy. Looking out into an audience and seeing someone sing along makes me happy, and yes, seeing someone well up with emotion when I sing a song that comes from a deep emotional place also is very satisfying. It’s satisfying not because of anything it says about what I have done or written, but it gives me affirmation of what I suspected to be true: that the songs I’m writing come from a higher place and are not really “mine.” As soon as I write them, they belong to everyone. So, when I see someone wiping away a tear or when someone comes up to me and says they were using the word crazymaker in a sentence when they were at work and can’t stop singing the song, I know that I’ve brought some joy or some comfort to their life through the music. In other words, the music has done what it came here to do.

Is there a difference between being creative and being talented? What are your thoughts on this?

There are plenty of people with talent who choose not to be creative. Just because you CAN sing, doesn’t mean you have to necessarily exercise your ability to do it. And you don’t have to write songs to be creative, as anyone knows who has heard Fantasia sing, “Summertime” from Porgy and Bess or Patti LaBelle sing “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” I do think that I have learned through my journey the difference between being creative and talented, though, because I spent many, many years just being talented, performing renditions of songs that were exactly like the originals. I enjoyed that for a long time. I enjoyed just singing songs and got and gave pleasure by just recreating something beautiful, rather than creating something new. It was scary and took me out of my comfort when I showcased my original music for the first time in August 2009. But creativity is like a muscle that becomes stronger with regular use, and now I can’t going through a day without exercising it anymore than I can imagine letting my gym membership lapse!

What is your primary motto or mantra in life? Why is this important to you?

God doesn’t give you more than you can handle, so do what you can and He will handle the rest.

I feel like it’s important for me to remember that I’m not running the show here. When I feel like I’m in charge of the earth spinning on its axis, I start to feel overwhelmed and paralyzed with fear. I feel incapable of taking care of myself, let alone anything else, and I have a lot to do in any given day, so this is a dangerous mindset for me! This mantra reminds me that I can believe in myself and my ability to do what needs to get done and everything else will be taken care of. That gives me peace and happiness, and ultimately, peace and happiness are the goals, not fame and fortune. If I achieve peace and happiness, then I have won.

To learn more about Liimu and her music, also visit her on MySpace.

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