Sunday, April 12, 2015

Adventure and Failure

Adventure and Failure

I got this idea--who knows why—to make a polka dot cake for Easter. I saw instructions in a magazine that directed the cook to make up some cake batter and bury donut holes of a contrasting color in the batter. Then bake. When the layers are assembled, frosted and cut—voila! Polka dots!

So that was exciting, but my husband wanted a chocolate cake, and I wanted to put the whole project over the top with an Easter theme.

I found a recipe in White Trash Cooking for Resurrection Cake, which calls for dousing the finished cake of your choice with a bourbon  and butter syrup.
This seemed like a good idea.
 The first red flag came when I noticed the 10 purchased donut holes seemed a bit hard as I was burying them in batter. I wondered if they'd resist the diner’s fork. Actually, they would resist most cutlery, bandsaws included.

And as I was assembling the baked cake, I had to admit that indeed these puppies were like rocks. I stabbed the cake multiple times with a toothpick and poured on the syrup. Hoping everything would  soften up.

I put raspberry jam between the two layers and piled them up. More syrup, which soaked in, then I used the mocha frosting from wonderful Dorie Greenspan’s Baking.

To maintain the Easter theme I dyed coconut green for grass, and put colored eggs on top along with a ceramic bunny.

It was one odd cake. The donut holes were still tough, and there weren’t enough of them to give the full polka dot effect when it was cut. Probably they should have been soaked in the bourbon sauce before baking—treated like very big raisins.

The cake was not light and spring-like, green coconut notwithstanding. It was lugubrious and European without the class. It was the kind of cake you serve captives—well intentioned perhaps, but both of you just wanting to get away. 

I write about this because it’s easier to figure out what went wrong in a cake than in a novel chapter or an art installation. Easier because there are not so many steps to analyze and also because there is less self recrimination involved. It's just a cake, soon to be a mere memory. I take the failure less personally. And yet a botched recipe affords a good opportunity to think about failure.

Truly, I wish I had this attitude about other creative projects, a good number of which bomb. An artist needs to be calm in the face of failure, because art is usually new territory. There are going to be false starts, wrong turns, offhanded dismissals by people you longed to impress.

I am much more unrepentant about recipes. I figure that if people want my adventurous cooking (which  they seem to), they have to face the fact that sometimes I fall off the edge.  That’s what adventure is—there’s some danger of some kind involved.

Where we got the idea that everything has to work all the time, I don’t know. Maybe that has more to do with business and product. And we've come to expect that our soap should be wrapped, that things be predictable.

But in the context of creativity, it’s nonsense. You cannot be creative and live in some blandly perfect, no-surprises bubble. Making, doing, and enjoying art is about taking a conscious risk.

I’ll soak the donut holes next year, and maybe make the cake mint chocolate. But then there’s the green coconut….

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Do the Thing You Love

            We are all challenged to use our time well. We have so many options offline and on, that deciding what is the best use of time can be overwhelming.
I find this is particularly true of people who have something creative on the agenda, something close to their hearts that no one else is clamoring for them to finish: the book, the quilt, the sculpture. When it’s just you wanting to create something, it can be very challenging to make time for that project. This goes both for people who try to squeeze their art projects in around the edges of work and family, without calling themselves artists, and for those trying to grow artistic careers. It’s hard making time for our passion.
            Maybe it’s exacerbated living in New England. I sometimes think we’re especially haunted by the self-denial of uptight forebears.  My mother always counseled doing the scut-work first to get it out of the way before rewarding oneself with some pleasurable activity. But that work had a way of never being finished. There was always something more she could do to: if she’d cleaned the kitchen, she could get dinner started, or suddenly it seemed imperative to clean out the fridge.
            It’s not so unusual to come to the end of your life without having attended to that one elusive thing your soul called out for you to do.
            My mother’s daughter, I’ve also tried to use my creative pursuits as a reward. Do your taxes, then you can work on the novel or on designing that blouse, or on writing that short story. But somehow that reward always stayed slightly out of reach. I’d slog through my chores--which seemed to take forever-- and then it would be time to pick up kids, or make dinner or collapse into bed, exhausted.
            On the way into town to do errands today, I opened the topic up with my husband.
His answer was immediate and emphatic: pay yourself first. Do the thing you want to do. The resulting joy will give you energy to power through the chores in 1/3 the time you’d otherwise take. You’ll have made progress on something important, which will give you confidence.
What’s more, he said, following the Pay Yourself First plan simplifies all the other decision making you have to do. Things become clearer to you because you have not lied to yourself about what really needs attention. You also save yourself and those around you a lot of frustration. You are, in short, a happy camper.
This feels so weird and new, it’s going to take a leap of faith, then some practice, to achieve. But I think it’s worth a shot.
A Buddhist saying pops into mind: There is no path to happiness. Happiness is the path.
Could this be what they meant?

Thursday, March 27, 2014



The secret to endurance is finding a way to keep the embers of progress alive somehow. “Progress” can be anything that inches you toward your goal. “Progress” could be just surviving. Living to take another breath, another step.
As the mother of small children, I counted it a huge accomplishment to put up a new shelf.  Later, I would get up at midnight to write for two undisturbed hours, and considered myself lucky.
Keeping creativity alive sustains hope. So when I look back on this long winter at some of my wackier projects, like making dog biscuits (“Banana Bones”) from scratch or découpaging my clogs, I see them as placeholders for projects that required more focus and concentration than I could summon at the time.
Similarly, when my husband was taking care of his ailing mother, he didn’t have the concentration to read, let alone write, but he could paint. Even mixing colors was enormously refreshing.
I also believe in a good dollop of magical thinking.  
            Take Cinderella, who has earned the scorn of people who consider the story demeaning to women. Are we really supposed to sit around scrubbing floors, waiting for some prince to rescue us? That interpretation is to take the prince fantasy literally, and deplore it. But I see it as a story about endurance.
Sometimes, especially as children in confusing and frightening circumstances, the best we can do is endure. The grown-ups are either hostile or clueless, our peers are preoccupied or actively malevolent, the situation seems hopeless. And so we put one foot in front of the other in a dreary slog from one day to the next.
I find there’s a certain nobility in this, however humble, in just keeping on, without even knowing why.
Those of us who haven’t suffered these hardships should be very careful about denouncing the dreams, however unrealistic, that sustain people who are in trouble.
I had dinner with a friend the other night who disparaged magical thinking. She went on at some length about how Americans were particularly prone to the idea that anything is possible, as well as to its corollary, that technology can fix anything. And what rubbish it all was.
Although I agreed that we can get carried way with pipedreams, it made me uncomfortable, thinking, first of all, If you only knew how much I believe in second chances, miracles, & happy endings!
But as a nation, we decided to walk on the moon (what a nutty idea!) and then did it.  Diana Nyad took six attempts to swim from Cuba to Florida, (what about the jellyfish, and throwing up all the time?) and did it—at 64.
And about all our failures to reach our goals? Dreaming and trying gets you further than not dreaming.
I see it as being like moving my back foot from the deep lunge of the yoga Sun Salutation forward until it’s up between my hands. If I imagine that foot 18” above my hands, I can get it between them. If I only imagine getting my foot between my hands, I fall 12” short.
So dream on, blow on the embers, give yourself credit for small improvements. Despite my photo of the Terrible Pile of Snow outside my window, I know spring is coming. We heard a redwing blackbird yesterday. Crazy bird! What are you thinking? It’s 25 degrees!

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Have I stumbled onto the cure for procrastination?

Have I stumbled onto the cure for procrastination?

I’m antsy, sitting here thinking of all the things I would rather do than revising this novel.
For instance:
1. I would like to go to the movies. An outing! But: It’s a 40 minute drive to the nearest movie theater and my husband’s standards are way higher than mine. He doesn’t want to see what’s playing and I don’t want to go alone—that would be way too self-indulgent.
2. I could go for an x-c ski. Though the wind chill has to be at least -5, there’s a bare covering of snow.
3. I could make a carrot cake! We have carrots raisins and cream cheese. No. No. No.
4. I could catch up on filing. Oh Please. That’s like your mother suggesting you clean your room when you’re bored.
5. I could make a cover for the leather couch that is beginning to show claw marks from cats springing and having to grab hold or slide off.  It would be Progress. Besides, that polar fleece I ordered just came in, and it would be a cinch to do. Marshall would be very happy. Family Happiness is important.
6. I could research Flash fiction venues. Also Progress. But I dread it. There’s the fun of writing and then there’s getting ready for the blind date of submission. Progress, I guess, but nerve wracking. Didn’t Eleanor Roosevelt say that you should do something you’re afraid of every day? Yeah, but….
7.  I could file my nails. They’re a mess. How am I supposed to concentrate with nails like these?
8. I could get wood for the stove. This would definitely be Progress, plus a little exercise.
9. Speaking of which, I could do my exercises a workout with Dr. Oz and two women who’ve lost tons of weight doing hundreds of pushups, smiling all the while.
10. I could work on Flash fiction. Somehow those revisions are more fun than the novel’s. Why is that? Because they’re 500-1000 words. I write when I get an idea, going from one piece to another. I don’t push.
11. I could read The Signature of All Things. I started the first page and it’s wonderful. It’s due in only two weeks. I did promise myself I’d get a lot of reading in this weekend. Other people are waiting for it at the library. It would be very inconsiderate to make them wait by not reading it right away, even though it was supposed to be the reward for revising the novel.  But: did Elizabeth Gilbert get her 499 page novel written by goofing off?
12. I could do laundry. Progress, But: see #4.
13. I could start some sprouts—that would be an excellent January project.  It’s also healthy, though not immediately so. Progress, still.
14. I could answer the phone. Oh yippee! But it’s not for me.
15. Or,
I could just break down and do the revision.

P.S. Which I did. Feels good to have done it.
So if you list all the things you’d rather be doing—with every bit of flakey rationale, maybe you can embarrass yourself into doing the task you’ve been avoiding. 

Monday, November 4, 2013



            As arts education continues to suffer terrible cuts, I’m constantly looking for proofs that the arts are an important component of anyone’s education. Many educators still tend to see the arts as frivolous, and STEM subjects as being the real, demonstrable engines of progress. 
            One important thing the arts teach is the value of practice. Our musician friend, Nate Hundemann, recalls starting music in junior high, and being  terrible at it. But over the ensuing months and years, he learned that practice is indeed transformative. For with diligent practice, he became a very good musician indeed. Arts education teaches us that practice is the muscle of transformation.
Some people never learn that. Having been taught that talent is paramount, many people give up on subjects that intrigue them merely because they aren’t yet good at them. That giving up is the source of a lot of despair, especially later on in life.
We over-value early genius but are terrible at nurturing it. There’s this insidious idea that genius flowers without practice, that being naturally good at something is all, and that talent alone will take you where you want to go.
Practice can seem quite mysterious to the novice—how will scales help you play real music? Sometimes you just have to trust and do the work.

A few months ago, I attended an unusual performance in which a young violinist, Rafael Rondeau, played five different instruments—violins and violas—to demonstrate each instrument’s voice. They were all hand made by a local luthier, Doug Cox.
 I’m not a musician, so I blithely thought this should be as easy as picking up a story and reading it aloud. It was actually more like speed dating —in front of an audience.
You can’t just pick up an instrument, scrape away, and expect it to sound great. You have to get acquainted and that takes practice. He did practice, on his own violin beforehand, trying out pieces that might highlight each instrument’s unique voice. But it was a gamble. That Rafael agreed to perform in this manner, without prior introduction to each instrument, is testimony to his diligence, skill, and let’s face it, bravery.
I used to fling myself into new pursuits without warm-up. I was fueled by  impatience, curiosity and a vast ignorance that may have looked like overconfidence, even arrogance. I was not at all assured of success, though. More often than not, it was a bruising way to go about new challenges.
It began to occur to me that perhaps the fling n’ flail method could be improved upon. I like success, and have noticed that planning well increases one’s chances of achieving it.
Perhaps you could say that practice is a kind of blind planning, whose endpoint, mastery, isn’t always visible from where you are. Not very glamorous, but it’s essential.


Tuesday, October 15, 2013

How Facebook Got My Butt in Gear

How Facebook Got My Butt in Gear

            Everyone talks about what a waste of time Facebook is. As a new addict, I have been sheepishly agreeing, as I consider the time I’ve spent ogling beautiful photos of New England foliage, or signing petitions about the latest political outrage.
            But as I really think about it, I’m less sure it’s such a waste.
A few days ago, I came upon a wonderful clip from the movie, Girl Rising, that showed young girls getting ready to go to school all over the world. It was so uplifting, so lovely and modest, but at the same time, so important, I was in tears. I vowed to watch it every morning for a month, just to see where all that emotion could go, and how I could put it to good use.
Let’s be clear: I am a privileged middle-aged woman with an education, whose family is loving and stable, whose health is good. I am beyond fortunate, and am very grateful. So I see myself at one end of the female spectrum, being able to help women at the other end. Figuring out what form that help should take is a little more involved.
Facebook and the Internet inundate you with good causes. It doesn’t take long to feel overwhelmed. Or that whatever you contribute will go toward running another incendiary ad or sending you address labels as a “guilt gift” to get you to send in more money.
That is why developing a personal mission statement can be very useful. Does this sound too anal-retentive? If you write a good one, it will help you sort through requests for your time and money, work opportunities, even hobbies.  You will not be forever running around willy-nilly.
That very moving one and a half minute segment of film is helping me coalesce such a statement.
Here’s the other part. After a lot of soul searching, I’ve discovered that what I really want to get done while visiting this planet is to write. Fiction, mostly. As someone raised (albeit gently) in a do-gooder family, in earnest, hippie states and cultures (Vermont in the 60’s, Berkeley in the 70’s; you’ll have to trust me regarding the former) it took me a long time to come to grips with wanting to do something so, well, frivolous.
For some reason, I always separated Service to Humanity from Art.
I know some of you will be taking to your beds with cold compresses and/or bottles of gin after discovering how truly dippy your little friend has turned out to be. I mean, really: isn’t To Kill A Mockingbird a service? Or The Grapes of Wrath? Of course they are. Perhaps, on a more subtle level, so are the Stephanie Plum murder mysteries by Janet Evanovich. But I suspect my talents and proclivities are more in the Evanovich than in the Lee or Steinbeck camps.
Funny thing is, I’m writing a novel about a woman who’s been in a mental hospital for 20 years. Because of defunding, she’s being let out and must figure out the world. The woman’s name is Maria.
My saintly readers have just given me comments to the effect that what I thought was a pretty smokin’ second or third draft, is, in fact, a terrific first draft. And part of what I now have to do is to clarify what Maria (who is all over the map about all sorts of things) wants. She is not just there to be entertaining and kooky. This last bit they were too polite to say. I discovered it all by myself.
Seeing the clip from Girl Rising reminded me to take Maria more seriously. Perhaps writing  fiction and helping don’t have to be at odds.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

10,000 Hours

Ten Thousand Hours

I have put in 10,000 hours on writing—and then some. I may be slow writing royalty, having spent 30 plus years learning how to do it. I’ve published freelance nonfiction,  do freelance pieces for radio, and am now working on fiction, which I’ve also taken my time to learn. All I can say is that it’s been a privilege.

It seems fairly straightforward. If you are doing what you love, you will not resent the time it takes to master your craft.
Every once in awhile, though, I come across some bright young MFA whose life has been a beeline from one success to the next, and I wonder: Could I have been a teeny bit more efficient? Could my learning curve have been shortened by a couple of decades?
Here are a few things I have learned.
Read your work. Don’t just write for a year and then return to read what you have done. Which I did. It is a brutal shock to learn that the brilliant prose you remember having put down is actually closer to gibberish.
Read your work aloud. It is a brilliant and cheap way to edit out pomposity and boring asides. No audience necessary at first.
Let other people read your work. You have to choose your victim carefully. You want someone who’s insightful, sympathetic but also tough, who is not out to sabotage your desire to write just because you happen to write badly (which I used to do—so badly, I was afraid to show my work). A saint, in short, who also has great taste and is humble enough to know that we all must start somewhere, and wise enough to know that some very wonderful writers have started way, way behind the starting line. (If you don’t believe me, read Eugene O’Neill’s earliest work).
To edit, start by cutting out the boring parts. This is Amy Hempel’s advice and it remains the best I’ve come across. And as you reread your work repeatedly, more of it will bore you. The parts that you secretly questioned as not quite belonging begin to lie there, on the eighth time through, like road kill. Unload them.
Read what you love. There are masters in every genre. Powerhouse agent, Alexandra Machinist, once described her very serious, very well-educated German grandfather as emerging from his study to announce, “Georgette Heyer iss a geniuss!”
Oh, yes, and write every day. Start with three longhand pages—the Morning Pages as described by Julia Cameron--to get through the venting, awfulizing  and snarking. Longhand frees up one’s mind, and is, in my experience, a good cure for writer’s block. It’s also a sort of quotidian magic—by the third page, a new idea, a good phrase, something pops out. And sometimes it’s an idea that will take you wonderful places.