dear readers, you’ll have to forgive my deliquency as a studiola curator. i have been busied recently with the tasks of giving a final reading at u.c. san diego, defending my thesis, and, oh, you know, just getting my MFA ! ! ! (one of my thesis committee members believes that MFA stands for MotherFuckingArtist. i won’t argue with that.)
but now i have returned to you, so close to the end of my grad school career (one more week…. grading mayhem) to share some thinking about how -despite the ways most of us have to isolate ourselves to tackle our creative work- there are many ways that those things we isolate to create actually bring us together.
this post almost feels like an argument. (while i am very much making this argument public and with an audience in mind, it also feels like it is very much for myself. it is very much a way of reminding myself of all of the brilliant and exquisite individuals i have met by doing things a writer can do [going to residencies, starting writing groups, teaching, attending conferences and symposiums, literary community service and teaching] in addition to the act of writing itself.)
why do i need to argue this at all? well, for two reasons. one is because i have spent unbelievable amounts of time alone over the past three years as a grad student working towards my mfa and i am pretty much convinced that’s all i’ve ever done. be alone. (not in a lonely way. well, not predominantly in a lonely way. but sometimes.) so i want to prove to myself that this myth of aloneness is not true. or, even if it is true, that there is more to that truth. that the myth of aloneness is pierced/studded (a starsky is the image here) with connections to other humans.
the second reason for all this arguing is something about isolation. something about the isolation that is perpetuated in the united states (and other westernized? places) by the capitalism we live in and under. i was talking with a friend recently who grew up in a place in latin america (broad, i know), possibly veracruz mexico. she talked about how she misses music here. she talked about how, after dinner, everyone would pick up an instrument (and everyone knows how to play at least three) and play and sing for hours. she talked about how everyone knew their neighbors. and how she and her family and her neighbors and her neighbors’ neighbors would sing and dance in the street at night. she talked about how here, here there is no music. no burst of live song. no life. (which i read/translate as a version of isolation.) i know all of that is a simple reduction. but still. i want this to be an argument of how creative community pushes against the isolation (a kind of death) that the capitalism we live under perpetuates.
it seems the best way to present these arguments is to present them to you as accounts. these accounts include photos and places and names. slideshowish. part show and tell and part resource list of possibilities for you, dear readers.
does all of that even make sense? i guess what’s at the root of this argument is how connecting to people (for me) is exactly what writing has always been about. (despite my persistent habit of solo-ness in order to always be getting something done [blog posts, submissions for publication, applications to residencies, letter writing to distant friends, etc.).
the brontosaurus word processing exchange/the lamplit academy of literary arts and other d.i.y. (do-it-yourself) endeavors:
in 2007ish, my dear friend and fellow writer shannon and i co-created a writing group for queer folks and their allies. we eventually called it the brontosaurus word processing exchange. we met twice a month for two hours at a time. it was an intimate group (6-10 members). we met in living rooms, backyards, city parks, garden sheds, and sometimes at a retreat near the coast or on a field trip at the river.
our meeting structure looked something like this: we rotated leadership, so each meeting was led by a different member of the group. the leader would provide prompts and other things while guiding us through several rounds of freewriting and feedbacking. the basic feedback rules included ‘i will not make disclaimers or apologies for my work’, ‘taking the risk of sharing is encouraged but the right to pass is always available’, ‘we will provide positive feedback only unless the writer requests otherwise’. the idea was to do all that for the first hour, take a snack break, and then spend some intensive feedback time on work that writers would bring in for the week. (so a mix of generative and workshoppy).
not only did our writing group meet, we also performed/read at a local resource center (believe it or not, it is the bookstore some of you might know as women and women first in the show portlandia. in real life, that femenist bookstore-turned-feminist-resource-center is named in other words in real life and began in 1996. (part of the idea for these shows was about creating space for (often silenced) queer voices to fill space and be heard.
in 2009, we organized a low-cost weekend writing (named the lamplit academy of literary arts) retreat at fancyland, a queer land project in northern california that provided enough space and resources for our brontosauri group as well as 10 others to convene for a weekend of writing workshops and some play time (riverswimming and dance parties). again, the leadership was shared. the brontosaurii plus other participants pitched the workshops they wanted to lead and then led them. the resources were shared (we wrote letters to local food sources asking for donations and created a cook/clean chart for all able participants to contribute to, we organized rideshares, we made spreadsheets and timelines.) it was one of the most amazing weekends of my life. why? because we did it ourselves.
the beauty of this set up is that YOU CAN BUILD IT YOURSELF TOO. you don’t have to have much. it is mostly the fellow writers you need, and the other things can follow. (even if you don’t have available living rooms, there are public spaces like parks or cafes or perhaps even libraries that have community rooms that you can reserve). i think for us, part of the key that kept us going (for 4+ years) was something that unified us (in this case, queerness). it seems key to think about what writers you’d like to surround yourself and work with and then build a group based on that. (perhaps the group would be genre-based instead of identity based, or perhaps it would be location-based [wanting to work with folks from a specific part of the city/town you live in]). you figure it out and then put the word out (via bookstores, friends, colleagues, craigslist) and that seems to be what it takes (or at least what it took for us) to manifest a family of writer friends.
signal fire, the art farm and other artist residencies
while perhaps you like working alone in your solitudinous place of quiet, there are places where you can do this while surrounded by those doing the same. so you can move between focusing on your work and talking/eating/dreaming with others who are also focusing on their work in their time away from others. one of my favorite things is the conversations that can be had across disciplines and the possible projects (or friendships) that can come out of them.
for instance, this spring i applied to partake in a week-long backpacking adventure in the back country of the sonoran desert (in the anza-borrego state park) put on by signal fire. not only was it backpacking, but it was backpacking with nine other MFA students under the guidance of two badass artist and activist guides.
while we had most of our days to do as we pleased (which, for many of us, looked like adventuring our way up the creek that ran through our site [in the desert! i still can’t get over that creek in the desert!] and finding shady cool spots to read/write/draw/think/nap), evenings were spent over dinner engaging in assignments/discussions/activities that linked our place to our practice. (the activity i enjoyed most was giving an artist talk powerpoint slideshow without an actual projector or computer. so while one of us would be saying in this slide here, you can see this text based installation… the only thing we had to look at were the stars coming out in the sky above us, the sunbleached rock canyons rising around us and each others lovely faces.)
signal fire offers various residencies/trips adventures that bring artists of all sorts together on public land. this was one of the best things i have done in a long time, and i hope to stay connected with those i shared the desert with that week for a long time. while these trips/residenices don’t require the participants to be a serious athlete or outdoorsperson, because of their outdoorsness locations, their trips/programs are not completely accessible to those with disabilities or in scooters or wheelchairs.
and then, there’s the fabulous art farm! without which, i would not be writing here at the studiola today. that’s right. alison and i got to know each other while putting in our fellow work-exchange hours (12/week) digging holes, mixing concrete, doing math and making measurement contraptions that work with circles as well as with the stars and the dark dry earth we stood on. we were assisting another artist (the amazing AV ryen) build a temple to the goddess vesta. in fact, as i write this, AV is continuing the project that she began last summer. she is returning to the rebar we set in concrete.
alison and AV and others and i drank gallons of limeade. we shared dinners. we talked about our practices both casually and in intentional listening-and-reflecting sessions. AV gave me the term collective grief after reading my manuscript and alison and i made jokes about whatever we could including gigantic combs – the laughter being something that helped power us through our own slumps – gave us light and zest and energy to return to our work. i continue to be in touch with both AV and alison. we write with updates and share quotes/films that made one of us think of the other. sometimes we write letters. sometimes we ask for guidance. and those holes in the ground filled first with gravel and then concrete hold the story of our crossover in them. forever. and i am humbled and reassured by that. that soon, there will be a temple where there was once a field and that those who we were there at the time were part of what built it. and hopefully what we built will lean strong into the edge of forever.
(do you ever think about this? how the ephemera we create/leave behind holds us and the stories of our overlap?)
which brings me back to one of my original arguments, perhaps even a post or so back. if our art isn’t for and made of each other, then how can it even be alive?
in the face of that question, i dare to argue that not only do our words (and creative practices) bring us together… your work/words, dear reader, help keep other people’s work and practice alive. and maybe not even just alive, but perhaps thriving.