One of the artists I mention explicitly, if not by name, in my fiction is Tehching Hsieh, a performance art hero. I am deeply moved by the Time Clock piece in particular (see video below), not for its feat of endurance, but for the poetry of the act. It is a powerful metaphor for the ways we compromise our bodies and our lives to regularize our work, our livelihoods, our accountability, etc. The time-lapse film of the year of punching the clock is mesmerizing. And strangely, he appears to mark the hours with a degree of joy. I love this piece.
About twenty years ago I was talking to a poet friend about one of my favorite fiction subjects: preacher's kids. When she found out I'm a preacher's kid, she said, "So you're like a white, straight, female James Baldwin."
After a laugh at the absurdity of her comment, I went home and started rereading Baldwin. I had encountered his fiction in undergraduate school, but under the pressure of the lit class, hadn't fully felt the work yet. Boy, did that change. Go Tell it on the Mountain is the model preacher's kid novel, and its territory on the knife edge between sacred and profane moved me deeply, as did his brimstone prose. But I found myself responding even more to another thread in his stories, that of the artist working in the artist's community, finding chosen family, battling the demons of the artist--ego, addiction, loneliness, failure to communicate. Over time, I have become more and more drawn to this subject matter in my own work as well.
Baldwin's short story "Sonny's Blues" is often taught in creative writing workshops, with good reason. I find it technically incredible in its verbal rendering of the nonverbal beauty in art--specifically music. It also is a perfect example of showing a character, in this case the narrator, learn empathy through suffering. For readers new to Baldwin, I highly recommend this story as an entry point. Here is the narrator finally noticing the work of his musician brother, and, I believe, Baldwin's meditation on the life of the artist:
I had never before thought of how awful the relationship must be between the musician and his instrument. He has to fill it, this instrument, with the breath of life, his own. He has to make it do what he wants it to do. And a piano is just a piano. It's made out of so much wood and wires and little hammers and big ones, and ivory. While there's only so much you can do with it, the only way to find this out is to try; to try and make it do everything.
Trial and error. Isn't that everything? And risking failure?
Baldwin was a powerful speaker also, and his wisdom on the United States' deepest wound--our legacy of slavery--has been quoted much in recent months, as old pain has resurfaced and found its way to the streets. I highly recommend reading his nonfiction on this subject. It feels prescient, though it isn't really, as the wounds are hundreds of years old. I recommend The Cross of Redemption: Uncollected Writings, was published in 2010, which contains a diverse selection of his speeches, essays, and literary criticism.
I am deeply inspired by his views on the role and journey of the artist. The practice is vital, spiritual, and in service to the world, not the artist. There is a profound sense of duty in what he did. (Is it the preacher's kid?) Listen to him talk on the subject in the links below. "The poets--by which I mean all artists--are finally the only people who know the truth about us. Soldiers don't. Statesmen don't. Priests don't. Union leaders don't. Only the poets."
My esteem for Lynda Barry is no secret--I attended her class, Writing the Unthinkable, years ago and blogged about it a couple times here and here. I also picked up her method of journaling in list format, which I shared later on in this post, Fifty Views of the Pacific Northwest, Tin House Workshops, Family, Gardens, Walks, and Critters.
Work that I started in that class (which is not a workshop), has since seen publication, though that was never the goal of the class. The class was about accessing what she calls the "image" and rendering it well. The image is a powerful thing.
What sticks with me, in addition to her flair for the concrete, is her understanding of the way writing is rooted in the body. It is an activity we do with our hands. There is a connection between the mark on the page and the composition of an image in the brain. She wrote Cruddy with a brush and ink. This shows me patience and a trust for the connection between hand and spirit. Since that class, I have very rarely composed at the keyboard. The friction of pen on paper is my preference. The words come out better without all that percussion. Yes, they're slower. But they're better.
Since I took the class, I have encountered and been inspired by the work of several people who were also changed by her tutelage. Austin Kleon, newspaper poet and encourager of creatives is one. Heather Sellers, writer of fiction, memoir, and self-help books for writers is another.
How to keep the Lynda Barry magic going after the class is over? Or if you can't squeeze your way into the class anytime soon? There are so many ways!
1. Read her Tumblr, The Near-Sighted Monkey. She uses it to share her syllabus with her comics students in Wisconsin. Pretend to be one of them! Do the exercises! In crayon! I check in frequently to improve my mood.
2. Read her books, in particular What it Is, which is as close to her class on the page as it gets. Collage, brush drawing, and awesome instruction.
3. Check out the Lynda Barry Channel on Youtube. Videos made by Barry, while she's snowed in!
4. Watch and listen below. Some of her wonderful shtick, followed by a slideshow of her collages and comics, as well as her study of drawings by children and scientists.
I write fiction about performance artists because they feel like such easy targets. When I see an easy target for ridicule and parody, I immediately want to push for more empathy. What do people think of when I say "performance artist?" Is it narcissistic monoperformers in love with the sound of their own voices? I have been deeply moved by performance art, and that is the feeling I want to convey. And it can be pretty badass, rowdy, and fun, not to mention smart. And often illegal, like the performances in my stories.
One of my early influences was Survival Research Laboratories, based in San Francisco, who have been doing machine-based performance since the 1980s. Below are a few videos. I love the titles. Enjoy!
Swans are playing Brooklyn tonight, and I'm not there! But I'll certainly blog about another one of my influences, percussionist Thor Harris. He embodies the creative resourcefulness I aspire to.
Harris is a survivor of depression, which I am not, but I am deeply moved by this video from the Mental Health Network in which he describes coming out on the other side. "The secrecy is so potentially lethal," he says, regarding going public about his mental health issues. His keys to survival: exercise, accepting love, and creative expression, in particular, "making things." This guy invented the freak flag and flies it all the time. And there are dogs everywhere, so he had me at hello.
He is a proponent of keeping down the overhead, like all my favorite creatives. Check out his advice for living like a king, with pragmatic morsels like "7. Learn to fix things. Tons of great books and youtube vids on fixing anything. Or ask an old dude. People used to fix things. No shit."
How can you not love this dude, especially when he says his key to success has been cold-calling the musicians he likes and asking if he can play drums for them. Amanda Palmer, and Bill Callahan (aka Smog), and of course Swans, among others. What a diverse list!
And of course, the music itself. Here's a morsel of Swans. It's religious.
Artists, writers, everyone who just wants their minds blown today--the key is the right state of mind. Try reciting this poem, "Electric Magistrate," by the amazing Emily XYZ. Stand up. Sometimes I recite this poem to myself while I walk the dogs. It's pure courage.
Emily has been a big influence on me since I first heard her perform with Myers Bartlett in a little gallery in SoHo, sometime in the early 1990's. She writes about money. Until I heard the poem below, "Matt Kahn's Email," which still gives me the chills, I hadn't realized how poetic (and important!) a meditation on money can be. Now it is one of my favorite subjects. And not because "more is better than less."
And while we're on the subject of money poems, here's a classic, "Cash." Enjoy!