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Order Up!

What if everything we make– Art– is because someone else, thousands of someones, placed their order??

What if nothing is made in a void,

what if nothing is birthed into the world without being called into the world by an audience,

by a tribe,

by its own family?

So literally every Thing we make exists in this world because it has a home in other people’s hearts already waiting for it?

Then artists are in the business of delivering answers to prayers.

Being Your Own Ambassador

I was feeling some drama (Sadness? Stress? Overstimulation?) about asking for something professionally. So I scrolled through Seth Godin’s blog for a little reset of perspective.

He writes:

Other people don’t believe what you believe, and they don’t see what you see.

You have to speak to them in their own language and on their own terms if you want to change their minds or convince them of something.

And why the conflict can feel scary:

Our fears burn so bright that if we truly face them, we think we might be blinded. …[But] once we’re truly clear about the fear, it fades. It might even disappear.

And why it can feel unfair:

In all markets, the market leader gets an unfair advantage… because it feels easier and safer...

The strategy, then, is not to wish and dream of becoming a big fish.

The strategy is to pick a small enough pond.

And that there’s a difference between projects and tasks, and that freelancers, or anyone “making a ruckus,” is doing projects:

Your goal is to create an extraordinary outcome, not to perform the tasks. The work done is simply a means to an end.

[It is not] saying, “I’m going to move this paper from here to there.”

Claim the project before you start the work.

(Hello, email, which has long been an inspiring, inconsistent, contextless task).

And finally, emphasis mine, why I want to avoid asking:

From an early age, most of us were taught to avoid [initiative]… Wait to get picked. Wait to get called on. Become popular. Fit in. Maybe stand out, but just a little bit. Failure is far worse than not trying.

The only way to get initiative is to take it. It’s never given.

Stand Still & Listen

Jay and I applied for the same conference (coming up this weekend). He was invited, I wasn’t, and today I’m feeling sad about it, as if it is the Only Conference In the World, aka, the Only Chance to Make Cool Friends or Have a Career in the Arts.

I want to be picked! I want to be with My People! I don’t want to have to hold political office (Roberts’ Rules! Group Decision-Making!) in order for people to value what I do! How unfair!

But here’s the Lie: That’s the only way to get picked: be some way I’m not.
And here’s the Truth: They wanted what Jay offered. 
And also: They didn’t want what I offered, but that doesn’t mean that no one does.

I’ve never been to this conference. I don’t even know if it’s made up of My People maybe, maybe not. Is it only my ego, then, that’s bruised?

It’s such a weird, weird balance: making art, dancing with inspiration, sharing it, and hoping someone comes to the show. 
(Hoping everyone comes to the show! That those who didn’t come regret it bitterly and beg for an encore performance!).
As if the only way to truly be loved is to be Loved Too Much. To be Clamored After.
That doesn’t sound like a very artsy, introvert-friendly lifestyle.

So, what do I really want?
I want the flow and exchange of delight with my audience, with My People
I want to know that when I have something to share, there are people who will get it, love it, connect with it– an impossible guarantee.
I want to trust that I can follow the Muse and be paid well, not live precariously on promises and wishes.
And I want to be just right for this job– more Capricious Zephyr and less Executive Suit that I am.

I feel sad I didn’t get picked, because the Lie says: I’ll never get picked. 
But that’s not how cause and effect work, and it’s not at all how Magic works.
I feel tired because the Lie says: I have to do it all myself, I can’t rely on anyone else to see the value I offer. (I didn’t get picked for a conference? I must– obviously!– start my own conference!) 
How exhausting.
And I feel embarrassed because the Lie says: Professionals don’t get so upset about not being picked, so I must not be a Professional.
Maybe “Professionals” don’t, but Humans do. Kids do, and I like them more than pretty much anyone else– because they’re honest and open and they know Magic.

Ennis’s school’s philosophy is “Go slow to go fast.” They have no homework at first. They build up to it. They truly master the foundations of learning, they connect with their own creative curiosity without shame. They aren’t in a rush to prove something.

(The Lie says: I’ve had plenty of time to go slow and it’s taking too long and if I don’t hurry up there won’t be any opportunities left.)

When I read The Highly Sensitive Person for the first time, I had a vision of myself on my elementary school playground. I was running, running, running to try to keep up with the pack of kids, and I was exhausted. I could barely do it. (And I certainly wasn’t having fun). Everyone else seemed fine; the pace was no problem. Every time I caught up to them, they ran off, rested and ready to go. (I had a real-life experience just like that on a canoe trip once, and it’s amazing I ever picked up a paddle again).

But I realized that surely not everyone could be running full-tilt across the field. Surely I wasn’t the literal only one who wanted to explore the secret little nooks and crannies of the playground. 

And when I stopped running… there were the others like me– My People. The other kids who didn’t think a breakneck pace was fun. The others who wanted to whisper secret messages through the PVC tubing, crawl under the decking, or set up camp in the tire tunnel. 

There were fewer of us than the mass of bodies that ran as a pack… but how many playmates did I need? How many do any of us need? Wasn’t it better to have one or two or three companions who saw (and loved) the world as I did? 

(More recently, I’ve heard Seth Godin describe this as finding your Minimum Viable Audience).

It still feels scary to stop running. To stand still. Even though I like the view far better this way: all the details visible, the colors distinct instead of being a blur; I like the quiet crunch of gravel under my shoes, the echoes of distant voices, the stillness like a lake within my body. 

So, do I still hope I get picked? Always!
But do I want to play every game, sprint every race? No. I don’t. 
Sometimes we say “No, thank you” ourselves, and sometimes someone else says it for us.

On Monday I taught the first of three “Build Your Own World” classes to a bunch of 9- to 12-year-olds. I can say without hesitation that they are definitely My People. I basked in their presence, I left inspired and energized. There was no posturing, no second-guessing, no fear, no shortness of breath. Just mutual delight as whole universes were created between us.

Maybe “Who picks me?” is really the same question as “Who do I pick?” And the thunderous chase can’t catch the answer to either. 

Maybe I must stand still, legs trembling and breath held, and– ear to the pipe– listen to the words whispered within.

Lake Superior Selkies

Last winter I saw a photo of these two fabulous ladies swimming in Superior… in January. I said, “I need a wetsuit!,” and next thing you know, one showed up at my house!

This was a magical swim– an hour (an hour!!) in the big lake.

We hailed he passengers on the Hjørdis as she sailed into the East Bay.

We swam through a passage between the rocks.

We sat mermaid-like on the reef just beyond Artist’s Point.

It was magical to be at eye-level with the lake, especially on a day when the water was a glassy, platinum blue and the sky reached down like a bowl, as if the edge of the world we’re just Over There and if we were bold enough, we could swim to it, and beyond.

Roald Dahl & the Writing Shed

When I was a kid, Roald Dahl was my favorite author. I loved “James and the Giant Peach,” and thought of it every time we flew to England to visit my grandparents. I looked for cities in the clouds, for the people who painted and hung rainbows. I imagined the BFG gathering dreams, though I couldn’t picture him coming to my rural Minnesota farmhouse to blow them into my bedroom; but in England on narrow streets between small brick houses, it seemed he was real.

When I watched “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory” I felt betrayed— how could Roald Dahl have made Charlie and his grandpa behave so badly? It didn’t feel like his other stories— and sure enough, when I re-read “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” I discovered my hunch was right: Charlie was the only child who didn’t act selfishly (and Willy Wonka wasn’t creepy).

Maybe because I had British grandparents I read more BritLit as a child, or maybe that was just what was good. (“The Chronicles of Narnia,” everything by Enid Blyton, the many adventures of “Dr. Doolittle”). I felt drawn to Roald Dahl not just because his stories were so fantastical— a grandmother who smoked cigars! a girl who stood up to her horrible principal! a giraffe with a telescoping neck!— but also because he and my grandad blended together in my mind. My grandad wrote me airmail letters on thin blue paper, always with a fountain pen in all capital letters because otherwise, he said, I wouldn’t be able to read his “poor penmanship.”

Getting a book by Roald Dahl was like getting to be with my grandad, though I don’t recall him ever reading any of them to me.

When I was about nine I told my mom I couldn’t wait for his next book (I’d read everything for kids by then). “When do you think it will come out?” She had to tell me that he’d died a few years ago. In my memory, that was around the same time as other blows: my parents’ divorce, my grandad dying suddenly of a brain tumor (and us not flying over for the funeral).

Roald Dahl was an adult, but he wasn’t like any adult I knew. He was wicked and weird, and he had gone to boarding school in England (worse, even than going to my small town school and not really feeling I fit in).

As an adult he is still one of my most favorite writers. I aim to write books that could be the children of his and Astrid Lindgren’s work. I’ve read his adult short stories. I’ve read his twelve month memoir of a year, and I’ve thought off and on about how he had a little writing shed on his property, and the marvelously odd assortment of things he kept on his desk (including the head of his own femur after he had it replaced!).

But it had never occurred to me, a child of the era when tvs still had clunky knobs that turned with a chunk chunk, that I could search for videos of Roald Dahl on the internet.

… They exist! He only died in the ‘80s, so there are BBC clips and whole documentaries! I watched a short one today in which he walked us out to his shed! It was cluttered and the plaster was peeling in a way very reminiscent of when my studio was bare sheetrock with so many black screw heads they made a constellation! He sat down in his armchair, put a long packing tube across the arm rest, laid a large writing board on that at an angle, sharpened six pencils (“always six”), and began to write. In a voice over, he described what he was doing and how the whole process went, which was, of course, fascinating. But what made me shout with delight and surprise was he said he always sits in a sleeping bag, pulled up to his chest! I was, at that very moment, in my own backyard shed (wearing a big fur coat), with my own sleeping bag pulled up to my chest!

It reminded me of the many times I’ve thought of printing off portraits of writers and others I admire: Roald and Astrid, of course, Philip Pullman, Neil Gaiman, Lorna Landvik, comedian Maria Bamford (the newest addition), and marketing and business genius Seth Godin.

There have been days when I lugged Stephen King’s “On Writing” around and then held it to my chest. Or I propped it up on my writing desk next to Anne Lammott’s “Bird by Bird” and Amanda Palmer’s “The Art of Asking.”

Why does this matter? Why does it help?

Though I live in a very creative community with a higher saturation of artists than your typical small town, I am still so alone. I’m alone in that the norm is still to have a Regular Job or a Professional Career— the kind that you don’t have to provide a definition for at parties when someone asks what you do. Even in the arts community I tend to feel alone: it’s not like traditional oral storytelling is part of the Academy Awards and in the public eye. I’m alone because that’s just the general background music in my life— it’s not as tragic as it was in my teen years, and it’s a feeling I expect to have my whole life. How could I not? I’m a pioneer, an explorer gazing West. All the things that interest me require me to go where I’ve never gone before.

Being alone like this is both wonderful (I am an introvert, after all), but also a little crazy. I recently visited my alma mater, an arts high school in the Twin Cities. I was nearly floating off the ground with happiness by the time I left (rather like Charlie and his grandpa in the erroneous film adaptation, before they realize they’re going to be sliced to ribbons by the ceiling fans). Why was I so elated? Because I was reminded that for two years, Monday through Friday, I lived in a community of artists. Everyone was there to explore, to be creative, to learn, to practice a craft, to try weird stuff. And, as my theatre teacher so off-handedly commented, it was an ensemble program; there were no divas or super stars. We did three months of improv before moving on to other subjects. I dream sometimes of what it would be like to be surrounded by other middle grade writers— how much more I would be likely to write if every casual conversation at the coffee shop or grocery store was about word count and trying to figure out just what the protagonist wanted, and how cool but complicated it was to invent a language for pixies.

Seth Godin talks often about marketing as “People like us do things like this.” As in, you speak to your tribe, to your niche, to your tiny, specific, weird corner of the world. And I thought, “But what if there aren’t ‘people like us’ around?” What if I’m not bumping shoulders with 299 other people pursuing a life built on art, because at least in my physical, everyday life, I’m not.

I suppose that’s why I watch actors interviewed on late night shows, or watch the Oscars. It’s why I listen to Seth’s podcast. It’s why I watch Maria Bamford’s comedy. And it’s why I want to put those portraits up in my studio. I want to remind myself, This is where I come from. This is my family tree: Roald and Astrid, Uncle Lewis and his magic wardrobe, the next door neighbor who writes about daemons and parallel worlds, even Stephen, whose books are too creepy for me, because he flies so far past “normal.”

So I was delighted, I felt Roald Dahl was visiting me, having a chat in my garden shed when I came across his interview. I ask myself, “What would Roald do? How would Philip say it? Would Astrid be worried what people think?” I line their pictures up in my mind; I know they would root for me, nod in approval, tell me to keep going, because though it is frightening to step into the unknown, it is also marvelous.