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6527212 October 26, 2011

Art, Fire, and a Hurricane: John K. Lawson

"The creative cave is the looniest, loneliest place in the world. Ultimately it’s the scariest and safest place as well."

I grew up in a special type of loony, lonely cave. A place where contradiction was king. Creativity enabled me to envision another world, a future where all the confusing fragments of my life might perfectly align. Was I a hungry kid on the streets, in the gutter, or scraping by in a refugee camp?  No, I grew up in Shreveport, Louisiana in the 1970's under the emotional thumb of a mentally ill mother.

It certainly could have been worse.  

Today artist and writer, John K. Lawson, tells us that the creative cave is the looniest, loneliest place in the world. So why the heck am I hanging out in it when I'm still trying to divorce myself from all the lunacy and loneliness of my childhood?  

John also says it can be the safest place. 

I'm not a expert on psychology but hasn't it been said that we often feel the urge to go home again?  I've been simultaneously running away and toward home for years, and it's caused me a great deal of inner turmoil. I don't know what it means or which way I'm supposed to go. My writing and art have given me an outlet for that turmoil, and that's why I'm painfully sensitive about it.  Why I want it to ultimately be meaningful and have inherent value.

I'm one of those borderline philosophical sad sacks who spend pathetic amounts of time thinking about "what it's all for," and "what it all means."  I look at the thousands of words I've written and the art I've created, and ask myself, "Am I pouring years of my life into something that means nothing?"  When I die, will it all turn to dust and blow away?  Am I just a misguided idiot wasting precious time?  Is John?

With regard to creating art, John says,  "It takes guts and sometimes stupidity. You  have to have an ego strong enough to accept that the creative force is not always a pretty smiling greeting card, and what you are making might not fit over the proverbial couch or match the newest art fad."

So if it doesn't fit over my neighbor's couch or become an art fad, is it wasted? The answer is supposed to be no. But why? Is the answer no because it's healing my soul, because it gives me something to do, and provides meaning in a meaningless world?  Is that enough? 

Lately, I'm confused about what I should be painting, what I want to paint, why I want to paint, etc.  Trying to resolve those questions is slowly driving me nuts.  What I do know is that I need to paint.  I don't want to stop.  And if I had to stop for some reason, I'd write.  They are avenues to funnel out a tiny spec of all that rages in my head. If I didn't have a way to relieve the pressure, I'd explode.

John also paints and writes, and he believes that "the continual fire to create, in whatever shape or form, draws from the same source regardless of medium."

Yes, that's it.

I'm burning; there's a fire pit in my soul that just won't die. It's sad to think that it may never actually cook up anything phenomenal.  But I realize now that it doesn't matter; the fire is all that matters. It rages on. 

I think John gets it ... has it ... needs it like I do. 

What's your story (in a nutshell)?

Inside the nutshell, a curious child wonders alone in the busy cracked sidewalks streets always wanting to know what's around the next corner, or why he doesn’t feel cool inside and out because he questions everything, hoping his parents won't notice his rusty safety pin ear rings, his hands covered in spray paint and the poetry books he is reading.

Whispers of lovers, foreign lands filled with new cities and the genuine smile of strangers, beckoned me onward with the chance to experience new thoughts and experience new ideas regardless of the outcome.

Was the journey on a straight or twisted path?

Upon reflection there were many times when the puddle I jumped head first into was really a bottomless pit with slimy cracked walls, armed uniformed thugs, the stench of raw sewage and no toilet paper.

Crawling my way out, I lost many a battle watching the skin on my face and knuckles reveal bare bloody flesh, a locked and bolted door, or worse, a condescending pat on the back making me feel like a snail crawling along the edge of a razor blade.

Unable to look away or behind me keeps the journey constant even though there were many times when one step forward and two steps backwards was the only way to go.

I always knew from a very early age I had to create something. In Working Class England the word artist was never really in the vocabulary. Folks started calling me that long before I considered myself one. These days I accept the label and dig my heels in deeper.

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

Twenty five years ago the concept of working part time and creating art was new to me. Europe was under the rule of Thatcherism and the main reason I stayed in the USA was the abundance of part time work. I didn’t have any formal art training, knew nothing of the gallery scene but was given plenty of opportunity to work with my hands. I made a point of living as frugally as possible, often in ghetto situations, a friend’s van, or abandoned buildings where I could use the money I made to create art.

Quite quickly all I was doing was making art and to my surprise folks started buying it. The day job disappeared and these days it would be impossible for my mind to conceive of doing anything else.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gC5a-4r4hQI]

Are you surprised by your success?

I tend to use the word gratitude rather than surprise. Every morning I look out of my studio window at all the folks working really hard, thankless jobs and inwardly thank the Universe for my lot in life.

Success for me is being able to do my job without any consideration for what others might think, not caring if it sells or not, and enjoying a good bottle of Chianti for breakfast.

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

The adventure is stepping off the crumbling cliff top ledge and plummeting towards the abyss, into the unknown, realizing you have no wings to fly as the inevitable rushes closer. I try to observe the descent, feeling the air fill my lungs, feeling the knots explode in my stomach as I taste the goods. If I’m lucky something comes out of this fall, something new is translated, and some kind of expression manifests. I guess I am an optimist in the sense that as I enter the creative cave I think the end result might be worthy of daylight.

It takes a lot of guts to create something new and refreshing; the “ah- ha” moment is waking up every day and slogging onward.

You have also written a novel, Hurricane Hotel. Please tell us about the book?

Hurricane Hotel is a rollicking street car ride into the underbelly of New Orleans and was started many moons ago while living in a small dive hotel on St Charles Avenue in New Orleans.

The attraction to the hotel aside from the cheap rent was the 24/7 bar and dance hall conveniently located downstairs. An assortment of outsiders, lost souls, artists, sailors, oil rig workers, poets, dancers, ravers, DJ’s and circus performers haunted both at the bar and in the rooms.

During an exceptional hot summer, a mandatory evacuation was given due to an incoming Hurricane. Several of us decided to stay at the hotel simply because we had no place else to go. The flood water came in very quickly forcing us to go upstairs, basically trapping us from the outside world for several days. Without power the intense humid heat and lack of emergency provisions started taking it’s toil on us.

Everything became really wacky when all the booze and drugs ran out. Back then there weren’t cell phones and the hotel was far from Internet savvy. We were trapped like rats on a sinking ship. It was during this intense time that I started writing the novel.

For personal reasons I had to abandon this project for almost 10 years.

Then in the summer of 2005 Hurricane Katrina hit and we all know that story.

I was on a family vacation in the NE at that destructive time and for some strange reason, I had grabbed a box containing all my poetry and the Hurricane Hotel manuscript before leaving the city. My New Orleans home and studio sat in nine feet of floodwater for six weeks and during that time, living in a friend’s apartment in NYC, I started reworking the novel. By Thanksgiving of the same year I felt it was finished and showed a tattered manuscript to my cousin, author Andre Dubus III. He read the novel, told me it was brilliant, and proceeded to write the foreword. During this time, I made 12 hand made copies of the book and gave them to friends as gifts. Their critical response convinced me I had something worth publishing.

The rest is history and for some a good read.

What do you see as the similarities and differences between writing and painting?

Expression means translating a feeling, a fleeting moment, a response to something personal and accepting the end result is simply a snow flake landing in a puddle of tepid lake water.

I believe the continual fire to create, in whatever shape or form, draws from the same source regardless of medium.

What does each bring to you as a creative individual?

Continual room for improvement.

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 (issues), or both?

The creative cave is the looniest, loneliest place in the world. Ultimately it’s the scariest and safest place as well. For the few who can let go of society’s demands and dogmas, and really dig deep enough into the self, eventually a primal place is found. This place can be described as a fountain if you like of unlimited resources where everything is possible and nothing else really matters.

For many years I wrestled with some formidable demons, being a passenger in a strange land and the jaws of poverty kept the monkey on the back, so to speak. I am lucky.  Somehow my art, a small group of loyal friends, and the kind folks at Charity Hospital in New Orleans kept me alive, kept me coming back for more. It would be fair to say I wouldn’t be here now if it wasn’t for my art and a few folks believing in it.

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?

From the very beginning no one understood why I had to make art, why I had to scribble on bathroom walls, deface posted signs, or kick down the barbed wire fence. It’s a very selfish pursuit. It takes guts and sometimes stupidity, you have to have an ego strong enough to accept the creative force is not always a pretty smiling greetings card, and what you are making might not fit over the proverbial couch or match the newest art fad . My friend Bob Hogge, says it best, “If you’re not excited or driven by what you make, why expect anybody else to be interested.”

I think these are very exciting times to be a visual artist. The electronic world has numbed the raw sense of immediacy. Film and television has opened the doors for artists to express their ideas to hundreds of thousands of people, but neither of these mediums can replace the visceral place a painting or sculpture holds.

Alone you have to go into the studio and do battle and in that struggle there is no room for caring what other people think, if you pause you lose. Period. Sure it feels good if some folks dig the end result, but I avoid trying to make art that competes against other art. If my work has any truth to it at all, if what I am saying actually can stand on its own two legs something positive will manifest.

It took me a long time to master the trick of not taking negativity personally. It comes with the ride so get used to it. Everybody is driving their own car and has a right to their own opinion whether I agree with them or not.

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

Discipline can be achieved through daily routine.

Every day I work on something.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sWKj7REtPSY]

Where do most of your ideas come from?

Good question.

Perhaps in the way an opened can of half eaten sardines, imported from Thailand, drowned in red wine, resembles the nape of a lost lover’s neck.

What do you believe places an artist apart from his or her peers?

The inability to sit still and do nothing.

So many are highly talented, but what makes one stand out as truly gifted?

Luck, continually working it and helping folks less fortunate than ourselves.

Do you plan to write more or will your main focus continue to be art?

The 1000 or so coffee stained poems, sitting in a cardboard box, beside me now, salvaged from natural and unnatural disasters, ex’s ex-husbands, and sometimes their wives, mice, and the neighbor’s cat, continue to grow legs and constantly scurry across the floor, walls and ceiling of my rented womb resembling sniveling pesky cockroaches.

No matter how many times I’ve doused them in tequila and lighter fluid, plucked their wings, singed their tails with hot cigarettes, trapped them into remote dusty corners or flushed them down the sink, Providence demands that they fly.

Hurricane Hotel, for all its flaws, can be described as a deranged epic poem.

The fact that Hurricane Hotel continues to be read and is rapidly becoming a best seller is beginning to fuel the notion the contents of my cardboard box is worthy of publishing.

It has been suggested on many an occasion I should incorporate my poetry into my paintings and this may be the next logical step.

What is your primary motto or mantra in life?

Gratitude.

Why is this important to you?

It combats greed and beats stealing from the poor.


"Without poets, without artists, men would soon weary of nature's monotony.  The sublime idea men have of the universe would collapse with dizzying speed.  The order which we find in nature, and which is only an effect of art, would at once vanish. Everything would break up in chaos. There would be no seasons, no civilization, no thought, no humanity; even life would give way, and the impotent void would reign everywhere."  - Guillame Apolinaire

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6527212 August 30, 2011

Swinging into Fiction: Bamberger & Shipnuck

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Will there be more Bamberger and Shipnuck novels?

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

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6527212 July 21, 2010

The Only Way Out is Through: Linda Wisniewski

"As a memoirist, I learned to understand and accept that some people prefer not to look at painful things, but I'm a firm believer that "the only way out is through." 

If you've visited Aberration Nation lately, you've seen BOUNDARIES, BOUNDARIES, BOUNDARIES splashed everywhere. Boundaries is a novel I wrote during my twenties--my first attempt as a novelist. I worked on it for five years, telling only a handful of people that I was writing a book.

I feared that most people would roll their eyes and snicker ... or ask me what the book was about. I couldn't bear to be grouped together with the millions of people who say they're going to write a book someday. I knew I was born to be a writer and that the time had come to follow my destiny. I was still young, bruised, and bleeding. I couldn't bear to not be taken seriously. (I'm still like this in many ways.)

Boundaries is based on my own story--a life I'd spent 25 years trying to hide. After I thought I'd finished the book, I spent a year looking for a literary agent. After finally signing with an agent, the book was read by quite a few major publishers. The general sentiment was that the book wasn't finished in some way, and that I still needed to grow as a writer. Aside from that, one editor said, "This stuff just doesn't happen to people."

Yes, it does.

Although I had lots of friends, I grew up emotionally isolated. Each child is different; my unique disposition and personality played a role in how my environment affected me. But like many children living in dysfunctional homes, I didn't want my friends to know there was anything different, odd, demonic, or unusual about my family.

Demonic? Yes, things were that weird ...

I spent a tremendous amount of emotional energy trying to block out anything abnormal and focus on the normal. It was a coping mechanism and it was tough!

At 25, I never considered writing a memoir. I wanted to take what had happened to me and make some sense out of it. Even at 25, admitting certain truths about myself and my family was simply too painful. Writing a novel based on the truth was much more palatable. Like Pat Conroy, it seemed to work well for me  ... and still does.

My guest today, author Linda Wisniewski, says that the great solace of being a writer is that we can "make lemonade," i.e., a piece of art from our sorrow. I was squeezing lemon after lemon during the years I spent writing Boundaries. I squeezed until my hands ached.  I started the novel wanting to write about an intense, destructive relationship I had during college. I needed to understand how and why it happened. I was haunted by the experience and writing about it seemed the best way to finally find some peace.

As I wrote the story I realized that the events, or aberrations, that struck me during those years--when I was finally on my own, finally away from all the dysfunction I'd tried to ignore--were inevitable; it was an outpouring of all the suppressed emotion that came before. Although sometimes dark and disturbing, Boundaries, is my overflowing pitcher of sparkling lemonade. In the end, it defines who I am and where I'm still headed today. As Linda put it, the novel demonstrates that sometimes "the only way out is through:"

I share Linda's desire to relay to children, especially girls, that other people don't make us happy.  We must choose for ourselves. It's not easy and that's why sometimes we have to wade, break or crash through a lot of crap to come out on the other side. Whether you're a young girl, a 25-year-old woman writing her first novel, or a 50-year-old man, it takes a lot of courage and tenacity.  

Here on Aberration Nation, WE DO NOT GIVE UP. Hope is our weapon, creativity can be our guide, reality is our kingdom, and love of self is our reward.

People like Linda are our champions.   

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

The blurb on the back of Off Kilter says it well: "Even before she was diagnosed with scoliosis at thirteen, Linda Wisniewski felt off kilter. Born to a cruel father and a long-suffering mother in the insulated Polish Catholic community of upstate New York, she learned martyrdom as a way of life. Off Kilter shows her learning to stretch her Self as well as her spine as she comes to terms with her mentally deteriorating, widowed mother and her culture. Only by accepting her physical deformity, her emotionally unavailable mother, and her Polish American heritage does she finally find balance and a life that fits."

I'm not surprised at where I am today, but the twenty-year-old Linda would be. She liked to write but didn't see it as the key to happiness and fulfillment as the sixty-year-old Linda does.

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

Currently, I'm writing a novel about a female ancestor who time travels into the present day. I want to explore her reaction to women's lives in the twenty-first century. The "aha!" came in my cousin's kitchen near Amsterdam, New York, in the foothills of the Adirondack Mountains. Her niece had composed a family tree that went back to a woman born in 1778. I literally felt excitement all through my body in that moment. I wanted that piece of paper, and I wanted to know that woman. There is very little information on her, so I'm making it up based on research. This summer, I'm going to walk in her footsteps in Poland, and I'm very excited about that.

Expression is my primary motivation. It's why I write even when I'm not sending much out--as I'm doing now while I work on the novel. Being heard and acknowledged is very important to me, as I suspect it is to most writers, but I want my work to be good, well thought out, artful, even innovative and unique. That's where "creation" comes in at a close second.

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? 

My creativity has helped me deal with aberrations but a few times got me into trouble. As a highly observant person, I sometimes blurt out things I shouldn't. I tend to be direct to the point of bluntness at times. I have no patience for people making excuses for not doing what they want. This translates into no patience for myself, either. When I want something, I do my best to get it.

During challenging or difficult times in your life, how has art comforted or inspired you?

My journal and reading have always been my refuge. More than art or music, because listening and observing are comforting but also passive activities. For me, healing and solace come from actively creating something new with words, if only a very private personal insight. In recent years, I've come to realize how much nature has been a comfort and inspiration in my life, and I enjoy the nature writing of Kathleen Dean Moore. Right now, I'm enjoying her most recent book of essays, Wild Comfort: The Solace of Nature.

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

I've been very fortunate to have the support of a community of writers in two wonderful organizations: the Story Circle Network, www.storycircle.org which promotes women's life writing, and the International Women's Writing Guild, www.iwwg.com, whose purpose is the empowerment of women through writing. The friends I've made through these groups has sustained me in times of rejection. Sometimes people don't understand why we write what we do; that was my experience when my memoir came out. A few relatives didn't approve of my sharing the negative aspects of my childhood. They felt it was disrespectful to our deceased elders. As a memoirist, I learned to understand and accept that some people prefer not to look at painful things, but I'm a firm believer that "the only way out is through." And the great solace of being a writer is that we can "make lemonade," i.e., a piece of art from our sorrow.

Can you tell us about the work you do to inspire young women through writing.

This is a new venture for me, through the YWCA of Bucks County, www.ywcabucks.org. I facilitate a journal group for young women of middle school age. My purpose is to get them to think about what is important to them, and to put it into words, to find their voices. They also use stickers, markers, and pictures to illustrate the journals, which are strictly private for now. My hope is to someday inspire them to share their writing publicly at a small open mike or coffee house type reading. And this summer, I'll be working with a wonderful local writer, Carla Merolla Odell, on a summer writing project for girls based on Sandra Cisneros' book, The House on Mango Street, also through the YWCA. I'm very excited to be working with young women, as so far I've taught memoir writing at retirement centers and adult education classes. It's a whole different milieu!

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

Yes, I do think there is a big difference between the two. Writer Jessamyn West said, "Talent is helpful in writing but guts are absolutely necessary." In my opinion, too much is made of talent, some innate mysterious ability that not everyone possesses. But everyone has the potential to be creative. The great feminist author Mary Daly said that "It is the creative potential itself in human beings that is the image of God." I believe we have a responsibility to nurture that creative potential, whether in art, music, writing, child-raising, office-managing - all of life asks us for creative solutions, for new ways of doing things every day. For me, creativity is active and much more interesting and fun than "mere talent."

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

My motto is "We create our own happiness." I knew this fairly young, but only recently put it into those words. For most of my youth, I felt powerless. Then I thought love would make me happy. Or the right job, house, even reading a book. I watched my mother try and fail to change my dad, believing that other people don't make us happy. And finally, I gave myself permission to choose to be happy by following my own dreams and desires. Nobody else can give us that. I wish we could teach that to every child. Especially girls!

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