Friday, June 03, 2005

Bread and Butter Work

I used to resent what I call "bread and butter work", you know, the "real" jobs writers and artists always have to keep their bills paid and pockets full of Starbucks money.

It seemed to me that the nearly universal truth about any type of creative career is that artisans aren’t able to earn a living doing only creative stuff. I always thought it unfair that the artist’s life is a sort of cobbled together patchwork of compromises that alternately feed and kill their creativity.

Over the past few weeks I’ve come to realize that there’s good, wholesome, multi-grain bread and butter work and there’s the floury pasty sort of stuff that makes your jeans not fit if you eat too much.

Unlike bread, you just can’t give these jobs a good once over and make a fair judgment based on the ingredients.

Four years ago, I took a job teaching art and promised myself that it was only until I got a "big enough break."

Last week I was giving a writing workshop at a library and I got the staple question that invariably comes up at these types of talks: What inspires you/ where do you get your ideas?

Of course, anyone who writes knows that is a ridiculous question. Ideas are simply a by-product of things experienced. And you can only amass a limited range of experience at a keyboard or in a studio. This need for outside stimulation, then, becomes the true value of bread and butter work.

My current human-interest newspaper feature is on a cast glass artist who has co- curated a glass exhibit that features some of her work. Glass is her passion, but two days a week, she’s a realtor.

I asked her if she resented this and she said "If I had only the art, or only the real estate, I wouldn’t be complete."

Four years in, that’s what my teaching is to me. It feeds my work and inspires me.
Over the past year, I’ve had the opportunity to coordinate a Writers" Conference. I thought that might be a perfect way to work in the writing field and earn an (albeit tiny) payday.

At one point, I remember lamenting that the experience was like seeing this incredibly stylish pair of jeans on the rack and then realizing how dreadful they look once they’re on.

But it’s not the jeans. As much as I wanted a good fit, the job left me artistically bloated with a schedule full of unwanted poundage.

I don’t really care how many miles a presenter must travel before they can get reimbursed. I don't like drafting meeting minutes and drumming up corporate sponsors.

What I do care about is the fact that the characters I hastily abandoned to deal with all this have become strangers.

I’m pretty clear on how it works, now. I’ve resigned my post at the conference and I’m on summer break from school. I have eleven weeks to get re-acquainted with my characters.

But I’m excited for fall, too. After all, without bread and butter work, I’d truly be a starving artist.

Friday, April 08, 2005

"..but I always wanted to be a Jack of all trades!"

My brother in law often bears the brunt of family jokes for his sudden and seemingly erratic interest in career fields that we’ve never previously heard him mention. As in, "But I’ve always wanted to be a micro nuclear engineer who dabbles in science fiction writing!"

Once, he took to frequent mowing while shouldering a backpack full of bricks in training for lifelong NFL aspirations that we’d somehow missed.

I’m on my third human-interest newspaper assignment, and I feel a little more like him every day.

For me, deciding "what to be when I grow up" has always been like standing in front of the Haagen-Dazs counter with about twenty people behind me in line. Lots of choices, lots of pressure…will I really be satisfied with the raspberry cheesecake swirl, and do I want the harried man with ten screaming kids hanging from his pant leg to be responsible if I’m not?

This is at the heart of why I settled into writing. When I suddenly wish I’d followed up on the budding acting career I abandoned at 21, I create a character who’s in a play and then I erratically join a theatre troupe. Or when I wish I’d gone to art school, I just send one of my characters instead. Then I sign up for scads of workshops at the art center for research purposes. I’m tackling my lost medical practice next. I’ll be sending a character to EMT training, so of course I’ll need to go on a few investigative ride-alongs…

But back to the newspaper assignment. My first subject is this hilarious 81-year old man with these incredible stories. I always wanted to write down my grandfather’s stories, but he was Italian and not very cooperative, so it just never happened. However, Mr. Gillie, my subject, has been most accommodating. His family has now commissioned me to preserve his stories in some type of yet-to-be-determined format. But I’m having a blast and it somehow fills just a little bit of the hole that was left when I didn’t get to do this with my Gramps.

Next, I interviewed a photographer. Low and behold, I was inspired to clear out my under the steps closet with a view of turning it into a darkroom.

Then, shockingly enough, an interview with the director of a children’s grief camp director ended with me volunteering to do their arts and crafts. As an art teacher with a degree in psychology who writes a YA series set at a summer camp, this seems right up my alley.

This is a total blast. I can't believe I found a way to make money being indecisive!

Wednesday, March 30, 2005

Not exactly New York Times, But Not Bouncing on a Stick Pony, Either

Here’s a random day last week. The ringing phone wakes me in pre-dawn darkness. That’s usually good news if it’s Wednesday, which this happens to be, because that means Baker & Taylor is faxing in a book order. In the aftermath of a good marketing campaign, an order could be for as many as mid- twentish copies. Today it’s one. Not exactly sales figures that will get me on the New York Times bestseller’s list, but for a book approaching its fourth birthday, I’m not complaining.

Today I have to excise another 30 words from my newspaper piece. I talk to my editor about a photo shoot tomorrow for my first story. I'm scheduled to go on a "walk-through" of the facility where our Writers’ Conference will be held next weekend. Along the way, I get a hot lead on just the type of story for which my newspaper editor tells me I should be on the lookout.

It’s not a teaching day for me, but I stop by the school to pick up my students’ pottery to take to the kiln. Since I’m not there every day, I get one of those shared classroom situations, but hey, I’m not complaining here, either, because at least I’m not trolling around on a cart like some art teachers. To get to my cabinets this morning, I have to wade through about thirty kindergartens, teachers, and parents in full wild west regalia.

Now, I’m working on becoming one of those people whom, as in a quote I came across by someone of note, "on which nothing is lost." (I’d like to tell you who said this, but I’m a compulsive magazine hoarder who reads in bulk. It could have been anyone.)

So, I’m packing little thumb pots into boxes and I’m watching the K-4 teacher fan her cowboy hat through the air and I remember that at a crossroads four years ago, this is the job I was thinking about taking. Watching her hee-haw her way around the musical chairs circuit, I suddenly realize that this is as close as you get to seeing what "could have been." Like seeing your life with that guy you almost married, or fifty pounds heavier in that bakery you never opened out in Colorado.

Four years ago, I chose to write. I found a journal the other day from that time period where I was wondering what the day to day life of a writer was supposed to "look like," or where it would take me. For now, it seems to be somewhere between New York and the wild west.

Wednesday, March 23, 2005

Like Training Jennifer Aniston

I saw somewhere awhile back that Jennifer Aniston had been dumped by her personal trainer. Seems she wanted to shave off another 10 pounds and he said something like "from where, your femur?"

I'm staring down this 850-word article, and let me assure you, there's no flab here. This is a lean, mean story.

But my editor wants "about" 800 words. I figure that "about" gives me a good 25 words-worth of fudge room.

But not 50.

So I'm like an Atkins devotee at a soup kitchen. I'm faithfully tallying every letter, but it's slim pickings.

I'm down to skeletal structure and now I have to go for the femur.

Monday, March 21, 2005

Queries Aren't Like Socks, Afterall

It's become clear that I have risen to my level of incompetence. After having so many queries, SASE's, and emails disappear like so many socks in the dryer, I guess it never occurred to me that an editor might actually respond. I mean, really, sending these things out is just an exercise in theory, it's just what we do.

Thinking no one ever really reads these training exercises makes us so bold. In a query, anything is possible. Any amount of words, any subject, any time. I'm your girl. Bring it on. I can even sprout wings and fly it to you if you'd like. Heck, if you need it yesterday I'll build a time machine.

How was I supposed to know that I stood the risk of having A SERIES of human interest assignments come my way a week out from the Writers' Conference I coordinate? The week that art grades are due at school. The week I put a hundred things out on ebay and they all sold. The week of meetings, overdue emails, and forgotten luncheons.

Who are we kidding, though, really...of course the ebay is littered all over the dining room table, the students are with a sub, the luncheons and meetings went the way of this year's hockey season.

I'm on assigment, afterall.


Saturday, March 19, 2005

Write Two Letters and Call Me in the Morning

A couple weeks ago, a friend of mine was asked to name her most valuable possession.

What she named was a piece of paper. Nothing on the paper represents any monetary value, yet the page still manages to contain both everything my friend holds dear and the essence of what prompted you to read this.

The item my friend treasures most is a love letter, and that fact has reminded me again about the power of words.

The first time this hit me was during the reading of a captivating, blow-by-blow concerning the makings of the signature Rueben-like sandwich of a northeastern town.

I could literally smell the fresh bread and taste the tang of special sauce. By the end of the article I was ready to grab my keys and take off on an all-night road trip. And I don’t even eat beef.

As writers, we’re aware of the power of the word. We have been seduced by the suggestion that we, too, may wield words with the command to summon a vegetarian to sample a Rueben.

In my role as coordinator for a university writers’ conference, I had to write the annual "message from the coordinator" last week, a sort of "state of the writing community" address that gets printed in the booklet of winning contest entries the conference produces each year. I began this year’s thoughts with the above sentences.

Mere hours after I turned in the article, I picked up the paper and saw the account of how our latest American hero, Ashley Smith, placated a killer in part through readings from a well-known inspirational book. (Yes, under deadline and out of contact with the real-time world, I am the lone American who actually found this to be news when I read about the incident in print media.)

Now, Ashley herself will doubtless be called upon to pen her own account of the events that captured the attention of a nation. Once unleashed, her words, too, will become part of an arsenal effecting change in innumerable avenues through human souls.

As writers, we must understand the value of the commodity we barter. We must view our work as important--no matter how frustrating, or painful, or thankless the job may seem. No matter what hang-ups we need to let go. (My dislike for the word blog was almost a deal-killer for me writing in this forum. For me, the word conjures images of early American maladies. Cholera. Whooping cough. Blog.)

Words can be as sharp as daggers, as potent as tonic, and as scorching as flame. There are times to employ them in each application. When you write, you hold the power to choose. Brandish as needed.


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