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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.
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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 April 24, 2009

NOTE TO ... Newsweek Magazine

I admit it. I’m downright queer.

So thanks for including Alan Cummings' short, it's-about-time piece on gay icons in your April 13th edition. Mr. Cummings' article, Judy, Barbra, Liza—And Little Edie: How the 'Grey' ladies, and their ilk, became the gays’ ladies, is amazingly aligned with the underlying message of Aberration Nation. His concluding statement hit the proverbial nail on the head:

“I would like to replace the word gay with queer when talking in broad terms about our collective experience. Queer isn’t just about same-sex wedding tackle. Queer is about sensibility. You don’t have to be gay to be queer. Indeed, some of the queerest people I know are straight. My mum is a bit queer. Obama is definitely queer. Little Edie Beale was very queer. I think if more people embraced their queerness, we’d all be the better for it.”

Based on his plea that we all embrace our queer identities, I’d like to officially define queer within the context of Aberration Nation as “having physical, mental, and/or situational aberrations.” Mr. Cummings noted that the original gay icons are "people who, like gay men of a certain age, have faced adversity, and who, like them, have had to fight to become the person they want to be." This inherent struggle and compassion for others is exactly why Aberration Nation includes aberration stories focused on gay men. It's also exactly why I chose to include a gay primary character in my novel, Aberrations, which is set in the late 1980's in the deep South. Angel, the protagonist of Aberrations, has narcolepsy. Based on negative experiences with those who fail to understand her plight, she has retreated into herself as a coping mechanism. The gay character, Tim, (who would now be of "a certain age") emerges as the one person in her life capable of identifying with her struggle and calling her out of the unique closet she has created for herself. By Mr. Cummings' standards, Angel could be a quintessential gay literary icon, and Tim her adoring fan.

In creating Angel and her surrounding characters, I intended to embody the emotions and inner conflicts we all share regardless of our particular aberration. Aberration Nation was created to broaden the concept that the underlying human emotions we experience are often quite similar despite what our story is, and therefore we're all capable of true compassion. I hope my readers, as well as yours, can see that when you strip away sex, political party, race, education, culture, and whatever else seems to define us these days, we are all an amazing animal called human.



I’m naming Alan Cummings as my first honorary member of the Aberration Nation. He'll join the everyday heroes who have graciously and bravely shared their aberrations with the hope that folks out there will finally understand that we're all brothers and sisters of the same huge family.

After all, we’re all queer ... some have simply worked harder on the closets they choose to stay in.

To learn more about Aberrations, go here.

Up Next: Living with Chronic Pain: An Aberration Story

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