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6527212 August 13, 2011

The Critic who Thought a Duck was a Cow

Story of the Day: Animal announces that she's a duck. She walks, quacks, and swims around like a duck. Critic watches her closely and writes, "She said she was a cow but she's actually a duck. Stupid thing ... she doesn't even know she's a duck. She's a terrible cow. I suppose she put up a good fight trying to be a cow but she failed." Perplexed, the Duck says, "What the duck? I'm a ducking duck, you duck! I ducking said I was a duck. What the duck is your problem?" Then the duck waddles off and writes a blog post ....

- Facebook Status, 12 Aug 2011

I had my first run in with a critic yesterday ... and I freaked.  After a couple of hours and many tears, I calmed down and evaluated what the critic actually said.  I then realized that much of it makes little sense. While I respect the time taken to read my novel, CENTERPIECES, and write the review as well as her honesty, I feel compelled to respond to a few of her comments and questions. 

A little background:

Despite not being published by a major house, or having a trust fund, other famous creditials, or MFA, I've have been able to obtain quite a few reviews for my novels, ABERRATIONS and CENTERPIECES.  I've also received many comments about Aberration Nation from highly creative folks including award winning and bestelling authors Joshilyn Jackson, Lisa See, Darin Strauss, Anneli Rufus, Antwone Fisher, Margaret Weis, Marya Hornbacher, Terri Cheney, Marisa Acocella Marchetto, Melissa Walker, and Susan Cheever.  Of all these reviews and comments, only one or two have included anything that could be construed as negative. 

Being that I'm a sensitive, borderline drama queen, those couple of negative comments were devastating, but I got over it.  Those minor ego setbacks luckily occurred after years of constant rejection from agents and publishers.  Those are the folks I cut my teeth on.  They thickened my skin and taught me how to barrel through at times when it seemed the world was laughing at my creative efforts.   

So why did I freak yesterday?  Well, the review was not only written in a negative tone, it stemmed from an inaccurate assumption about my novel, CENTERPIECES.  I won't bore you with a boohoo story about how horrific it was to read.  Instead, I'd like to explain a few things to the critic. 

Despite the pain involved, I'm always willing to hear constructive feedback, assess it, and then apply what I feel is useful to my work moving forward.  I have operated that way for years, and have seen my work grow as a result.  I respect that approach, and believe it's critical for the creative who wants to continuously improve and evolve. 

With that said, in this case I feel compelled to respond:


"The author Penelope Przekop's second novel, CENTERPIECES, is a novel that bravely tries to be a historical fiction about Van Gogh, art and the creative drive, but instead turns out to the a twisted narrative that describes a stifling world of corporate ladder climbing."


According to the CENTERPIECES press release, "Penelope Przekop takes readers on a thought-provoking journey as corporate executives follow their creative urges in 'Centerpieces.'"

CENTERPIECES is not marketed as historical fiction.  The novel is categorized on Amazon as Fiction / Alternative History.  This is defined as:

Alternate history or alternative history is a genre of fiction consisting of stories that are set in worlds in which history has diverged from the actual history of the world.

My intent was not to write a historical novel.  The intent was to write fiction based on the interesting facts of Van Gogh's death, and what transpired afterwards.  My idea was to weave those facts with his creative temperament and my own observations about corporate life and creativity. 


"Przekop herself, a 'global quality director,' for the pharmaceutical industry--a title as vague and important-sounding as many of the details in her book - is a business woman who 'stepped back' from her career to become a writer and painter." 


My title was Director, Global Quality Management, with the global Johnson & Johnson pharmacovigilance organization.  This is a common type of title within not only the pharmaceutical industry but also in many other service and manufacturing industries.  Further, I don't believe the details of my novel are generally vague or important sounding (whatever that means).  Those details that are vague were made to be so purposefully.

Of note, my current title is Senior Director, Global Quality Assurance & Training.  Maybe she will like that one better. 


"Chapters set in the latter part of the 19th century, however, in Van Gogh's actual time period (of which there are thankfully very few) are, however, written in an awkward style and are filled with odd thematic sentiments."


I spent months reading all available literature about Vincent and Theo van Gogh, including the lengthy letters they wrote to one another over many years.  The writing style and thematic sentiments in the chapters set in the late 19th century were closely based on the style of written communication that Vincent and Theo used in their own personal writings to one another.  This was fully my intention so while the comment is quite negative, I am happy to know that I succeeded in mimicking their awkward, overtly sentimental communication style.


"CENTERPIECES as speculation historical fiction feels misleading, as readers will not learn about the artist, his life or work, from reading it."


Again, the primary intention of the novel, clearly communication in the Press Release and jacket description, was not to teach readers about the life or work of Van Gogh.  I'm not sure how the critic has misunderstood the entire intent of the novel.  She states that the novel's few informative facts are listed chronologically in an afterward.  The entire novel takes place after Van Gogh's actual death so the facts listed in the back of the book are those that occurred after his death.  The novel is fiction woven around those facts.  Again, alternative history ....


"Ironically, both men seem as miserable in their extended lives as they were in their real ones." (meant negatively)


This is like saying, "Ironically, she seemed as miserable in her later years as she was in her younger years."  I don't see any irony in this.  Long term happiness is never guaranteed.  We all make choices based on the facts and situations that are presented to us.  Of course, we should look to future outcomes as part of our decision making.  Often we believe we are making the best choice at the time, only to learn later that we didn't realize all of the implications.


"Following the revelation that Ellis and Tom are Vincent and Theo, come a series of implausible and confusing events that lead us to believe that the brothers are vampires, or are at the very least vampire-like.  This assumption is based on vague but foreboding dialogue about 'living in the light,' not wanting to 'return to the darkness,' a drug called 'teperaquin' that they supposedly need to stay alive and too much biting and killing to go unnoticed - though it does go unexplained."


The vagueness around their being vampires was intentional as my goal was not to write a "vampire" novel.  Of course being a vampire is implausible.  It's fiction.  Teperaquin is a drug that enables them to be in the light, not to stay alive.  There is very little biting and killing in the novel, and the details around how those were covered up was relevant to the novel.


"Przekop doesn't seem to realize she has on her hands an interesting novel about the mentalities, professions, and industries that unnecessarily stifle creativity, and created as a distraction too many artificial moments of interest."


I do realize what I created.  Apparently, the critic didn't realize what she was reading.  As for "artificial moments of interest" that is the critic's opinion.  From my perspective, every detail and scene in the novel served a specific purpose, althought every reader may not "catch" every detailed, complex connection upon first reading.


"Is Mimi a stripper simply so Przekop could write a juicy chapter describing Mimi's sexuality?"


No.  The novel includes one scene about Mimi's stripping.  Mimi's being a stripper is important for her characterization and the plot.  It is how she knows Ellis and Tom, and why she does not tell Holly that she knows them.  This night job is part of her characterization, which ties into her telling everyone that she's a vampire.  All of this is necessary to the plot with regard to what happens at the end of the novel.


"Why does Holly, who longs for emotion, color and life, turn away from Van Gogh when he reaches out to her with the truth about his unnatural life?"


Her disbelief and assumption that he is mentally ill is realistic.  I deeply long for emotion, color and life, but if someone told me they were Vincent van Gogh, I wouldn't jump for joy and accept it with no questions or hesitation.  If I were already involved in a romantic relationship with that person, their belief that they are Vincent van Gogh would be both disturbing and conflicting.


"Why would Vincent, who ended his own life, wish to be immortally unhappy?"


See my response above regarding the choices we make in life.  Why would a woman marry a man who then made her unhappy for the rest of her life?  On the wedding day, I'm sure she though all her dreams would finally come true.  Despite our best intentions with choice making, there are often negative outcomes that we didn't foresee.


"Why would he become immortal only to allow himself, for 200 years, to be ordered never to paint again by his brother?"


The initial decision that he would not paint was part of the plan that he, Theo and Johanna created together.  The evolution of that decision is based on many factors that are clearly explained in the novel.  Theo's power over Vincent in the novel is based on the dynamic that evolves due to Vincent being responsible for making Theo a vampire (without his consent) and thus making him lose the woman he loves.  I believe that the dynamic is based on realistic physcological and emotional relationship factors that are true to life, and follow the actual personalities and dispositions of Vincent and Theo van Gogh (based on my extensive research).


"Why would Vincent keep alive the brother who stifled him with his faith, devotion and lack of understanding?"


If the critic is referring to Vincent making Theo a vampire, her assessment about their relationship is inaccurate.  Theo was Vincent's primary support throughout his life, and his closest friend and relative, despite any relationship difficulties they may have had. 

On another level, no matter how much a sibling might drive you nuts, would you let them die if you had the chance to save them?  Further, if you were both healthy, would you just kill them off because they were causing you trouble? I think not. Should we all just kill our relatives and spouses during tough times? 

In conclusion, it appears that this critic has misunderstood CENTERPIECES on multiple levels.  Perhaps that is my fault as a writer, and perhaps it's unprofessional to respond to the review.  However, based on the reaction of my other reader, I'm confident that the book, press release, and actual novel are not as misleading as she found them to be. 

And I am not as dumb as she has assumed. 

I admit that I'm highly emotional, sensitive, impulsive, and sometimes immature. However, I have diligently worked for years on my craft, and am proud of my accomplishments. I stand by my novel, CENTERPIECES, and believe I've succeeded in accomplishing my goals with the project.

If you're interested in reading the novel to decide for yourself, I'm posting the entire book here on Aberration Nation over the next few weeks.  Links to the available chapters can be found on the sidebar.  I'm not promoting the book as much as I could due to my current focus on art, but I do hope that a few folks will read and enjoy it. 

One critic wasn't crazy about my novel.  So what?


You can read her review here.

To read the CENTERPIECES press release and back cover copy, go here.

To start reading CENTERPIECES on line, go here.

Read more →

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.

Read more →

6527212 October 14, 2010

Writing and Basketball: Christine Baker

" ... without creativity in sport, there would be no sport."

I was a cheerleader.  My daughter is a basketball player.  When she's at her best, jumping for a rebound or flying across the court for a steal, I get an amazing glimpse into what makes her tick.

I see her potential, not just as an athlete, but also as a woman.  She's only 5' 7", but she wears size 13 shoes and can palm the ball.  We don't know how tall she'll grow, or how far she'll go in basketball. After all, she just turned eleven.

What we do know is that basketball is the activity she loves the most.  The game inspires her to do her best.  It pulls her outside in 15 degree weather to practice shooting, snow on her hair and eyebrows.  It makes her proud to be tall for her age.  It gives her confidence and tests her focus.  It provides her with a positive outlet for her highly energetic disposition. It teaches her head strong personality to be part of a team.

It's a good thing.  She may soon give up her love for Justin Bieber, but we hope she won't give up her star-reaching, 11-year-old's dreams to play for our local high school team, in college, and then in the WNBA.

My guest today, Christine Baker, knows how my daughter feels about basketball, and why.  She's interview numerous players at all levels to find out why they play. Christine grew up enveloped in a deep love for basketball.  She also adored writing.  In her book, Why She Plays: The World of Women’s Basketball (University of Nebraska Press 2008), she masterfully brings these two diverse loves together.  

When I read Christine's descriptions of how basketball defined her life, I immediately felt at home. They also described how writing has defined mine.  I've never considered myself highly competitive.  There's only one person I constantly compete with, and that is myself.  We've played an ongoing game of one on one for years.  In reading Why She Plays, I realized that what I share with Christine is heart.  We're champions because we refuse to give up.  We constantly challenge ourselves to improve.  We work hard at what we love because we hate to lose, especially  when we know we have what it takes to win.

In her book, Christine says, "You can't measure heart.  There will never be a test to effectively gauge it.  Mediocre teams have beaten superior ones on heart alone. Human beings since the beginning of time have erupted from difficult circumstances to attain glorious achievements because of the desire in their hearts that only they know was present all along, because talent only gets you so far."

My daughter may not get her athleticism from me, but perhaps I've given her heart.  As each year passes, we see her vision, stamina, focus, and self-motivation increase exponentially. Christine's book taught her the concept of  basketball IQ, and now she wants that, too.

I can't say to either of my daughters, "Never give up on your dreams," if I give up on mine.  How can I doubt that my children will accomplish extraordinary goals when I sit around dreaming of a Pulitzer and millions of readers?  I may never achieve that level of  accomplishment, but as my dad always said, "If you don't shot for the stars, you'll never get off the ground."  I've always figured that someone has to reach that star; why not me?

Christine's book and her answers below remind us what winning and losing is all about, and how the ups and downs remain part of the human experience for a profound reason.  When we experience a phenomenal basketball player flying through the air for a perfect shot or a talented ballet dancer soaring across the stage; when we read an unforgettable novel or hear a song that melts into our soul; when we see great works of art; we see the human heart in its greatest form.  We see the same struggle, the losses, the wins, the hard work, and the never say die attitude that carries humanity forward in the hearts of soldiers who fight for love of country, parents who  sacrifice for their children, and individuals who survive horrific experiences.

Playing AAU 12 basketball as a 10-year-old
I see all that human potential in my daughter's 11-year-old tall, lanky body soaring across the court as if in slow motion. She grabs the ball in her unusually large hands, lands hard on the court with her giant feet.

Turn and face.

Triple threat position.

Does she shoot?  Does she pass?  Does she dribble?  What will she do and where will she go?  Only time will tell.  All I know for sure is that she has my heart.
What's your writing story? How long did it take to establish yourself as a writer? Was the journey on a straight or twisted path? Are you surprised by your success?

I’m not sure one ever really establishes oneself as a writer. The short answer is: I’ve dreamed of being a writer since I was a little girl. But my career path initially went the direction of public relations and marketing. In 2005, I decided to quit my job as director of publications and advertising at Ramapo College in order to pursue the idea of writing a book about women’s basketball. So I’d say it was at that point that I really made a conscious career choice to focus on writing. Of course now five years later, I’m back to doing marketing and PR, but on my own terms and I have found a way to incorporate my writing projects with my consulting and PR work. It’s taken me a while, but I’ve found a great balance.

You asked if I am surprised by my success. It might sound a bit arrogant to say no. But the truth is, I have always been the type of person to go after something and not stop until I get it. If I do something, I do it 110%. It was no different with my writing. I work at it constantly as a craft and know that if I believe in my abilities, good things will happen.

With regard to your book, Why She Plays, was there an "ah-ha" moment you can tell us about?

Yes. I interviewed many people for the book but it wasn’t until my final interview with Becky Hammon (WNBA all-star and point guard for the San Antonio Silver Stars) where I really found the title and the framework for the book. Without realizing it, I always asked my interview subjects why they played the game of basketball. I didn’t see the connections until all of the interviews were done. It’s a good thing I had that “ah-ha” moment because I was beginning to panic that I had no idea how to put the book together!

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 Why She Plays, you write about how an intense love and connection to basketball shaped your life, and about having to leave playing behind. Can you share your thoughts on what losing basketball games and losing the game of basketball have taught you about life?

What people don’t often realize is that participating in team sports is an intensely personal experience. I am a highly competitive person. I don’t like losing a game of checkers or a game of basketball. Losing basketball games taught me the value of hard work. I realized that I hated losing so much that I would work harder than anyone else to avoid it. That in itself is a powerful life lesson that I’ve used every day of my life – whether it be in my writing, in my professional life, or even in my personal life.

When I graduated from college and focused only on my career, I felt the pain of losing the team aspect of the sport- the team camaraderie, the two hours every day where I could burn 1,500 calories and ignore the rest of the world, disappeared. I missed that terribly. I went from being a leader on a team to not having a team to lead. It was difficult for me to find balance in my life, and it took me quite a few years to realize how much I missed the game and how much I wanted it to be a part of my life again.

Losses in life, no matter how small or large, test the spirit. It hurts to lose. It's not surprising that so many people stop trying after a loss. After a great loss, many of us tend to wallow over our imperfections and situations as if nothing could possibly be worse. We feel sorry for ourselves, guilty that we didn't somehow do more, and as if we can't win next time. 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?

Sometimes we lose because someone else is better than us on a given day. There is no shame in trying your best but coming up short. There is, however, shame in not giving 100%. My goal every single morning is to wake up and give 100%, no matter what the tasks ahead of me may be. I know for a fact that I am harder on myself than anyone else could possibly be. Sometimes I have to remind myself to lighten up, to enjoy life and live in the present. It’s easy to dwell on the negative. It’s harder to remain optimistic even through difficult circumstances. I’ve learned that if I focus on the negative, I bring more negativity to me and if I focus on the positive, I manifest more positive outcomes.

In Why She Plays, you mentioned that great basketball players often have creativity on the court. Can you explain what that means? How critical do you think creativity is for athletes?

In the game of basketball, there is a framework to the game- rules, court dimensions, team positions, etc. There are plays that the team works on every day in practice. But to be successful in basketball, one cannot be a robot. A player must learn how to work within the framework to create. Athletes are so unbelievably creative with their bodies in motion, that when done well, does look like art. Look at Michael Jordan dunking a basketball in slow motion and tell me that is not creativity in its highest form. So to answer your question, without creativity in sport, there would be no sport.

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?

Hmm. That’s a great question. I feel like this is a left-brained or right-brained question. Writing for me is a combination. I treasure the process of creating something new. And, I have always felt that writing offers me a vehicle to express myself in ways that I might not be able to otherwise. For me, it depends on what I am working on. If it’s a poem, I would say expression. If it’s the script I am currently writing based on the life of Emily Dickinson, I would say creation.

As describe in Why She Plays, the act of playing basketball offers various levels and types of therapy for top athletes and for those who love it. It's an outlet. In general, is writing therapeutic for you? How was writing Why She Plays therapeutic?

Writing is very often NOT therapeutic. LOL. Sometimes I wonder if I have rocks in my head for sitting at a computer 10-12 hours per day. Only sometimes when I really hit my stride does writing feel therapeutic for me. That said, writing Why She Plays was cathartic for me on three levels:

1. It brought me back to the game of basketball and forced me to articulate how much the game meant and still means to me.

2. It was the first time I was published, so it was self-affirming.

3. I made a huge career change to write that book, and took a big risk. I had a great deal on the line.

When it was published, it was extraordinarily therapeutic because it meant someone else believed in me and my abilities to write as much as I did.

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

Absolutely! I wear many different hats. I find that it’s difficult for people to see me as a whole person. It’s much easier for people I work with to see me as only able to write and pitch a press release, or develop a media plan. It’s often frustrating to me that we tend to pigeon-hole one another. “Oh, she’s good at marketing, but wait, she writes poetry and teaches too?”

Aside from that, some people have not been able to handle the level of intensity I bring to life. I’m learning that I only want to be around people who possess that kind of positive energy, and similar values.

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

Never. I can honestly say that “giving up” on something is just not in my vocabulary. I’m not built to give up on anything, so it’s never been a bridge that I’ve had to worry about crossing. I believe that everything will work out the way it should. If I work hard and do things for the right reasons, I will always find success and opportunity.

When I was a senior in college, I was burned out and tired of playing basketball, but it wasn’t about giving up. It was about wanting to ensure I was good at something else in addition to basketball.

If you could tell the world one thing about overcoming the loss of a dream, what would that be?

It’s okay to change a dream and it’s okay to dream as we get older. Dreams aren’t just for children. I said in the book that dreams give us hope when hope is a tall order. The world is a better place for having dreamers among the doers.

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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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