Sunday, July 30, 2006

Small Paris Album

Living room window of our Paris rental, chestnut trees beyond

The Bateau Lavoir today, across the square from "our" building

Graffiti, wall of "our" building

Our metro station, rue des abbesses, stairs down

Neighborhood man, stroking whose fingers is reputed to bring good luck, hence shiny fingers

Musicians, on hot bridge between the islands

Traditional Seine scene, 1

Traditional Seine scene, 2

At the Rodin Museum

Last but not least, the Deep Writing Retreat group! Don't we look talented?

Read more!

Saturday, June 10, 2006

New Toxic Criticism Cover

Former Cover

New Cover

Read more!

Sunday, April 30, 2006

May Day

Yesterday, probably because May Day was coming, I found myself humming the Internationale, the international workers’ song, associated with Communism but, when I was young, associated in my mind with the anti-Fascist Lincoln Brigade that went off to fight in the Spanish Civil War and with other ghosts of Leftie New York politics. I am probably one of the few people around who still hums it and our daughters are probably among the few children to have it hummed to them as their lullaby.

Written by Eugene Pottier and Pierre Degeyter, the Internationale was penned to celebrate the Paris Commune of March-May 1871, an event now celebrated as the first time workers took power into their own hands. The Paris Commune was an informative event for Marx, who wrote in Civil War in France on its significance. It goes without saying that the Commune was destroyed by the conservative French government in Versailles in a bloody massacre cheered on by the ruling classes of the world.

I think that the lyrics of the Internationale remain interesting:

Arise ye workers from your slumbers
Arise ye prisoners of want
For reason in revolt now thunders
And at last ends the age of cant.
Away with all your superstitions
Servile masses arise, arise
We'll change henceforth the old tradition
And spurn the dust to win the prize.

So comrades, come rally
And the last fight let us face
The Internationale unites the human race.
So comrades, come rally
And the last fight let us face
The Internationale unites the human race.

No more deluded by reaction
On tyrants only we'll make war
The soldiers too will take strike action
They'll break ranks and fight no more
And if those cannibals keep trying
To sacrifice us to their pride
They soon shall hear the bullets flying
We'll shoot the generals on our own side.

No saviour from on high delivers
No faith have we in prince or peer
Our own right hand the chains must shiver
Chains of hatred, greed and fear
E'er the thieves will out with their booty
And give to all a happier lot.
Each at the forge must do their duty
And we'll strike while the iron is hot.

You can see, I think, why many intellectuals of the first half of the last century fell in love with Communism. Take the French writer Andre Gide. In 1937 Gide traveled to Russia, like many European intellectuals of his time hoping to revel in and celebrate Soviet Communism. The ideals of socialism, an inspiration to a generation of thinkers who felt certain that the growing power of oligarchies and corporations were bound to subvert the western democracies, provoked Gide’s journey, a journey that had become the equivalent of a Leftist Grand Tour.

Janet Flanner, writing from Paris for the New Yorker, recounted Gide’s journey. As did many of his compatriots, Gide came away bitterly saddened and completely disillusioned. As we now know and as Gide learned firsthand, the socialist ideal, as beautiful as it might be in theory, could not withstand the realities of human nature. People were bound to ruin it, and they did. Stalin was only the worst offender in that regard, a titanic tyrant ruling over a multitude of pint-sized tyrants.

Flanner concludes her piece on Gide’s reversal of position with a point of real interest to creative people. “Gide notes,” Flanner writes, “that because of the emotions which Communism arouses, the truth about Russia is usually told with hate and the lies with love.” This rich observation extrapolates. We artists, roused by emotion, often do the same thing. In our work, we end up hating more than we should and loving more than we should. This tends to make our work too cynical, on the one hand, and too romantic, on the other.

We excoriate our small town because our disrespect for its values and its denizens has turned to hatred. At the same time we eulogize the plight of the one poet our small town has produced, turning her into a troubled saint, when in fact she was just a smart anorexic better at words than at life. In the process of hating our town and loving its poet we distort and make unrecognizable the truth about our environment, our neighbors, and our artists. A great gulf is manufactured and our intentions to see clearly tumble into it.

How can we love and still see clearly? How can we feel the legitimate outrage we feel and still see to either side of it? I think that these are harder tasks than anyone imagines. I think that our enthusiasms blind us and our hatreds blind us in ways that confound us. An artist may inadvertently paint unicorns and never stop painting them, or inadvertently paint violent gashes and never stop painting them, exactly because he is trapped in an infatuation, like the intellectuals’ infatuation with Communism. This infatuation, compounded of wishful thinking and raw emotion, does not let reality or maturity in.

Humming the Internationale, I am taken a long way back. I have no idea what my politics now are, but I know that humming it feels excellent. I am in complete solidarity with something and one day I will know what that something is. Read more!

Saturday, April 15, 2006

Toxic Criticism cover

Coming this Fall ... Read more!

Sunday, March 19, 2006

Apple Seeds and Wabi-Sabi

I can no longer find the reference, but somewhere I read that the imperfections in Victorian windows are known as apple seeds. This being San Francisco, many such imperfections are on view. We are a town of apple seeds. We are also, because of our Japanese connection, a town familiar with the idea of wabi-sabi, the Zen aesthetic that honors that nothing lasts, that nothing is finished, and that nothing is perfect. Wry and sorrowful, serene and melancholy, we work to let go of our longing that life live up to its reputation.

Intellectually, we are easy with the wisdom of apple seeds and wabi-sabi. We understand that a novel of ours may appear with three typos, a plot lapse, and a leaden minor character. Intellectually, we accept this, just as we accept that a hundred thousand books appear each year to swallow up our small offering, that the editor who loves us is entirely likely to leave her publishing house and start selling real estate, that the idea that made so much sense in a dream at dawn looks horrid on the page. We know to detach, to forgive the universe, to smile. These things we know.

Viscerally, however, we can hardly tolerate such shortfalls. They make us want to scream. They make us want to tear out of hair. They make us want to murder. They drive us mad. One small example: the painter Chaim Soutine. Plagued by the poor quality of his cheap pigments, Soutine would call up a collector to see if the painting the collector had recently purchased had cracked yet. Often it had. Soutine, intent on repainting it, would demand it back. If the collector refused, suspicious that Soutine had a new, higher bidder for the painting, Soutine would throw a fit, trembling, turning pale, foaming at the mouth, and suffering a seizure.

Not very Zen. But very human. Our (Western) heart hungers for masterpieces, excellence, immortality, pigments that don’t crack, novels that stay in print, symphonies made up of equally fine movements, dancers who do not fall and break our spell. Our (Western) heart believes in museums, bookstores, CDs and other valiant efforts to make the ephemeral long-lasting. Our (Western) heart, at war with our (Eastern) mind, hates the first dent our new car receives. Our (Eastern) mind knew it was coming but couldn’t adequately prepare us for it.

Imperfection isn’t the goal, only the reality. Read more!

Saturday, March 04, 2006

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Phoebe Writes A Novel. 4. The First Day of March

The first day of March dawned frigid. It had dropped below freezing overnight and water pipes froze, jade plants died, and windshields frosted over. It was still freezing when Phoebe awoke. Tucked under several layers of blankets, with only her nose exposed to the chill air, she felt a squirming and wiggling at her feet that was impossible to ignore. She peeked out from under the blankets and pulled the covers up to expose her brightly stockinged feet. She also exposed five muses, huddled together for warmth at the foot of her bed.

"Sorry!" Phoebe exclaimed. "But what are you DOING there?"

"You were working very hard on your English paper last night," Harold Spider replied. "We were keeping you company and it got too late. We missed the last bus home."

"That is the most--" Then she remembered something.

She shot out of bed.

Today was Awards Day. It had become a tradition at Lincoln to give out awards on March 1st, rather than nearer graduation, so that eighth graders could enjoy their awards--preen, you might say, and puff out their chests--for some months before school ended. This arrangement always caused grumbling and patent inequities, as a student would win the Math Award, say, and then do poorly on the final, or, conversely, some up-and-coming Spanish whiz would end up with the highest grade but miss out on his or her honor because the award had already been given out. Phoebe wasn't sure what she thought about Lincoln's early awards' policy, but today was that day and that meant that by the end of today she would be a winner or a loser.

She wanted the English award. In her own mind she added the word "desperately." She liked the way she wrote. She admired the way she wrote. Possibly somebody else deserved the English award as well--though she couldn't imagine who, and certainly not Jennifer Tang, whom everybody praised but whose prose was so FLAT!--but she deserved it the most, so if she didn't get it that would be wrong. Not malicious, necessarily, but absolutely wrong. Yes, she had hurt herself many times over, by writing her mind; and yes, in the real world you were likely to be punished for transgressions of truthfulness. But still this was school, after all, a place meant to be more ideal than real, and in an ideal place you should be rewarded for speaking your mind.

She was thinking about these things as she hurried to get dressed. She was also preparing her acceptance speech. Usually the award winners didn’t speak; but Phoebe certainly wasn’t going to miss her chance. She never understood how a nominee at an awards ceremony could, upon winning, come up and have nothing to say. What WERE they thinking? It certainly would not be enough to thank her parents, the teachers at Lincoln for choosing her, and so forth. She wanted something on the order of the Russian novelist Solzhenitsyn's Nobel Prize Speech, which she had recently read on account of some muse's allusion to it. In it, Solzhenitsyn talked eloquently about truth, beauty, goodness and the power of art to make a difference. She needed a speech like that and she would have to compose it on the way to school, as the Awards Assembly would begin right after the first bell.

She hurried her breakfast and rushed off to school. Turning the first corner, she blinked. There were no young children waiting for the school bus. Where were they? The day was already very odd! First the freeze. Then the muses in her bed. Then the specter of awards. Now the missing elementary school kids. Always, as she passed Mrs. Pete's Coffee Shop and Candle Works, there would be twenty or thirty elementary school kids and their mothers waiting for the school bus. Today there were none. Phoebe knew that she was neither late nor early, so that could mean only one thing: the elementary school must be on holiday.

Phoebe shook her head and hurried on.

She was rushing down Pecan when she heard the most awful racket. It was so amazing a racket that she stopped and stared at the culprit house. The closest she could come to an explanation was that someone was banging on pots and pans with a ladle in each hand. In fact, that seemed to be exactly what she was hearing: wild drumming of the kitchen variety. She was about to walk on when she saw a police cruiser pull up. The policemen who emerged from the cruiser seemed alarmingly grumpy. The taller of the two officers knocked loudly on the front door. The drumming stopped immediately. A boy of about nine came to the window, pulled aside the curtain, and peered out. When he saw the policemen, he let go of the curtain and opened the front door.

"Where's your mother?" the officer said unpleasantly.

"At work."

"Is there an adult here?"


"We're going to need to come in."

"Sure," the boy said. "You can leave the door open. The rest of the band will be here soon."

"The rest of the what?"

"We're having band practice. School's off. I'm the drummer."

"Your neighbors complained--"

"Certainly a boy can drum during daylight hours," Phoebe said, coming forward. "I mean, if people can saw and mow and demolish houses, certainly a boy can drum!"

"It's a safety issue," the tall officer said. "Home alone without supervision--"

"He looks safe," Phoebe said. "Are you sure it isn't a noise issue?"

"You move on!" the officer said.

Phoebe could tell that he wasn't kidding. But she wouldn't budge. Without hesitation she stepped directly into the living room. She thought about exclaiming "I am a member of Amnesty International!" but she had the feeling that would only escalate matters. So she kept quiet while the officers conferred.

Phoebe looked around. There were pots of every description turned upside down on the rug and arranged like a drum set. Nothing could be clearer. Of course the boy had been drumming. Just as Phoebe was saying to herself, "He should be allowed to drum!" another third-grader appeared, a girl in dress carrying a guitar case. Behind her traipsed in a very untidy boy with a bass. Then came a second girl with a flute case. Last to arrive was a boy with a clarinet case.

"We're here!" the girl in the dress said. "My mom dropped us off."

"We're called Little But Wild," the drummer told the policemen. The other band members removed the instruments from their cases. "We're ready for paying gigs but if you come to the spring concert you can catch us for free!"

"Give me your mother's phone number at work," the tall officer said. "Right now!"

At that moment a new boy entered the house. He looked sly and worldly for a third grader. "Their manager," Phoebe said to herself. "Or maybe the singer."

An additional police car arrived. Two more policemen entered the living room. Phoebe heard the four of them saying things like "neglect" and "child abandonment" and "social services." She grew livid. How dare they demonize the parents of this boy because their son had a day off from school and devised a band practice! She was about to say something when suddenly the band began playing.

They were horrible. Really and truly awful. Their rendition of what appeared to be "Satisfaction" was so dreadful that you couldn't truthfully say that it WAS "Satisfaction," despite the presence of those famous first eight notes. Phoebe wished she didn't have to listen. She was already late. But it was much more important to guard the rights of these citizen artists, even if they were only nine years old and sounded awful, than to worry about missing her just-and-due reward at the awards' assembly.

"Look," Phoebe said to the still-conferring policemen. "I'll babysit them. If that makes a difference."

"You're truant!" the tall officer replied. "Keep your nose out of this!"

"I have never been truant in my life!" Phoebe retorted. "I'm just guarding the rights of these young musicians, that's all! What if these were Beethoven, Chopin, and, I don't know, Clara Schumann and Sophie Mendelssohn? Wouldn't--"

"For one thing," the tall officer interrupted, "they would sound a lot better."

At Lincoln Middle School, right at that moment, Mr. Wasco, the principal, was announcing the eighth grade awards. The gym was completely packed, even with parents, who strictly speaking hadn't been invited, as there was an awards evening for them to attend. Some had come anyway just in case their child won something.

"The Eighth Grade English Award goes to ... Phoebe Barlow," Mr.
Wasco said.

Of course there was no Phoebe to be found. There was the usual mini-pandemonium as it became clear that Phoebe would not be coming forward to accept her award. Mr. Wasco made a lame joke and handed the plaque to Mrs. Hopkins, Adrienne's mom, who today was serving as awards' custodian.

"The Eighth Grade French Award goes to ... Phoebe Barlow."

The teachers on the dais looked consternated. Their was laughter among the students, who sensed that the administration was feeling foolish; and muttering among the parents, who were witnessing their son or daughter lose to someone who didn't even care enough to attend the ceremony.

"The Eighth Grade History Award goes to ... Phoebe Barlow."

Great applause from the students.

"The Eighth Grade Art Award goes to ... Phoebe Barlow."

Full pandemonium. Foot-stomping and cat-whistling.

"The Eighth Grade Math Award goes to ... Jennifer Tang!"

A mixture of boos and cheers. The teachers on the dais breathed a sign of relief. Jennifer Tang, elegant in a black dress, came forward and accepted her award.

"The Eighth Grade Science Award goes to ... Bellamy Bloom!"

Hoots. Cries of "Popcorn Boy!" and "Belly-me!" Bellamy came forward, holding onto his pants to prevent them from falling down.

"And our highest honor, the Eighth Grade Academic Achievement Award goes to ... Phoebe Barlow."

This brought down the house.

At Pecan, the drummer's mother arrived, having been summoned from work. She got a tongue-lashing about parental responsibility, apologized without meaning it, yelled at the children to be quiet--as they were continuing their band practice--glanced at Phoebe without the slightest idea of what to make of her, and finally managed to mollify the policemen, who with some last reproaches backed out of the living room.

Phoebe proceeded on to school, late but happy. The awards ceremony had completely slipped from her mind. She was thinking about honor, duty, and the hundred pounds the British Philharmonic Orchestra sent to Beethoven on his death bed, claimed by one pundit to be the only wholly creditable act in the history of the British Empire. She had done, in her estimation, a wholly creditable act of her own. Even if the band she'd defended was wholly horrible-sounding! Read more!

Friday, February 17, 2006

Deep Writing Retreat in Paris

I would like to invite the writers among you to join me in celebration of the writing life by coming to Paris in July. I have mentioned my Paris workshop several times previously but today I want to describe it a bit and explain how it differs from other writing workshops you may have previously attended. You can find the “official” description here, at the sponsoring WICE site:

Mine is actually very different from the customary writing workshop. A customary writing workshop operates in one of two ways: you “workshop” writing with the instructor and the other participants, critiquing each other’s work, or you engage in exercises and activities meant to educate you about some aspect of the writing process. Mine operates a third way: you write deeply.

First I invite you to decide what important writing you want to accomplish during our time together. That might be reconnecting with a book (or article, essay, short story, screenplay, etc.) that you’ve put aside, tackling the part of your current piece that’s been giving you trouble, beginning a new piece that’s been on your mind for some time, or engaging with an idea that has arisen on the spot. Having chosen your focus and made your commitment, you then write. My job as you write is to be still, model intention and presence, and hold the integrity of the writing space. To someone peeking in, it would look as if I were doing nothing—but it is a very special kind of nothing.

There is no critiquing of or commenting on each other’s writing. I find that the common three-step workshop routine of writing, sharing the writing, and commenting on the writing causes people to leave the deep place they were in when they wrote and breaks the spell that arises when a dozen people write together, each on his or her own important work. In my workshop, writers have the opportunity to share what they have learned during the preceding writing stint but that sharing is very different from putting their newly-hatched writing on the table. The absence of critiquing allows people to stay connected to their writing throughout the days of the workshop.

I invited Gary Holdgrafer, a creativity coach who helped organize my Deep Writing Workshop in Edmonton and who participated in it, to describe the experience from a participant’s point of view. You can see what Gary and his wife Mary do as creativity coaches by visiting:

Gary wrote about the Edmonton workshop:

“Fifteen writers gathered in Edmonton for a Deep Writing Workshop. We ranged from beginning writers to published authors, with participants working on fiction, creative non-fiction, personal essays, memoirs, spiritual reflections and stage plays. Eric presented principles and practices of deep writing throughout the week but the lion’s share of the time was spent actually writing. We wrote often and for varying lengths of time, from 15 minutes to over two hours. By so doing we had the visceral experience of ‘honoring the process,’ a fundamental principle.

“There was little ceremony. ‘Return to your writing,’ Eric said simply after a concise delivery of content. That directive is fundamental to being a writer and is what we would need to do at home. We learned how much writing we could do, even in a small amount of time, when we were able to ‘drop everything that interferes with writing’ and have our whole brain available to us. We were challenged to dispute our negative self-talk about ‘not having enough time to write’ and learned that when life gives you a moment, ‘return to your writing.’

“We were encouraged to ‘to do the work in front of you’ and not flee from it because of the anxiety that naturally arises when you try to make new meaning. We learned that being a harsh critic of our work is, paradoxically enough, often a way of fleeing from it.

“Unlike many writing courses, we did not read our writing aloud. There were no critiques. We were encouraged to write in order to honor our own process. We made our writing matter to us. We checked in regularly to report what shifts we were noticing in ourselves and in our writing. Eric reminded us that if we do not always do exactly what we had planned, ‘self-forgiveness’ is essential to keep from sinking into a stew of self-blame and stopping the work.

“Eric asked us to be the exception as he guided us through the world of publishing. ‘Give yourself permission to be rejected many times,’ he said. It is better to focus on a single instance of acceptance than on all the rejections. Participants left tired—the good tired of having really written—and pleased with what they had experienced. A community of writers had formed in that week and some of the connections made there are likely to continue.”

Here is a picture of the Edmonton group.

Come be a part of the Paris group!

You can register at:

If you’re on the fence about coming, pick up a copy of A Writer’s Paris. That will tip you right over! Read more!

Sunday, February 05, 2006

Ari's Oasis. 5. The Literal Man

One day a Literal Man came to see Ari. Few Literal People ever visited, as they tended not to have much use for creativity coaches, especially one hidden away in the desert. But every so often a Literal Man or Woman had a vision or epiphany and quizzically sought Ari out.

This particular Literal Man came early, spent time in Maya's shop, and learned what he already suspected, that the prices of her books were not as good as the prices he could get on the Internet. This made him smile. He always liked it when he knew a better place to buy something, whether or not he had any intention of buying that thing. He knew the best place to buy vacuum cleaners, the best place to have business cards printed, the best place to buy Irish linen and Icelandic sweaters. There was nothing in Maya's shop that looked to be a good price.

At the appointed time he made his way down the narrow corridor and entered Ari's consulting room.

"You charge a very reasonable rate," he said by way of greeting. Ari waved him to a seat. "I think you could charge much more, if you wanted,” he continued. “Psychiatrists where I live charge three times what you charge. Business consultants charge five times as much. If they have books published and have been on t.v., ten times more. You've been on t.v.?"

Ari nodded.

"There!" the Literal Man exclaimed.

"You're charging too little."

"Well, but they have different goals," Ari replied. "They are trying to help people. My goal is to disappoint my clients. So I charge less."

The Literal Man stared at Ari for a moment. Then he grinned from ear to ear. "You're making fun of me!" he said. "I guess I seem much less interesting than your usual clients. I have no talents, no dreams, no aspirations. All I really want is a comfortable retirement. Did I mention that my mutual funds are doing very well?"


"They are! They went up eighteen percent last year. I could have done a lot better if I had taken a more aggressive route, but I figured, I'm not a lucky person, so I decided to stay with my mixed portfolio that's on the conservative side."

"That seems wise."

"I'm not greedy. That eighteen percent didn't disappoint me."

"Good. I hope you won’t be disappointed in the future, either."

"Thank you. I've been very happy so far. There were a few bad quarters, but then the market bounced back."

"That was very nice for you."

The Literal Man paused. "You haven't asked me why I came to see you.”

"I presume that you'll tell me when you’re ready."

"And if I hadn't? You would have let me go without getting to it?"

"I would have asked you once or twice, probably."

"Of course! Just a little nudge, because it's my responsibility."


"But just the tiniest nudge? So tiny that I might hardly notice?"

"No. I would have wrestled you to the ground and beaten the truth out of you."

"You're making fun of me!" the Literal Man said, smiling. "I know I'm not interesting like your other clients. That goes without saying!"

Ari laughed. "You take such pride in not being interesting! I'm not sure I've ever seen anyone take such pride in anything! You are a prouder man than my most celebrated clients!"

This confused the Literal Man. He opened his mouth to speak but had to close it, as there were several large flies buzzing about the room.

"You're still making fun of me," he said after a while. Only now he wasn't smiling.

"Only because you like it so much!" Ari exclaimed. "I aim to please!"

"You're still joking. I don't think you're going to stop joking with me."

"Certainly not until you stop joking with me."

The Literal Man put his head in his hands. It was an odd gesture and reminded Ari of Death of a Salesman.

"I'm ready to ask," Ari said. "What brings you here?"

The Literal Man looked up. "I had a dream. In the dream, my older brother was persecuting me. He always did that, so there was nothing surprising there. What was surprising was that in the dream I was potter. I was a Navajo potter on a reservation. I've been there myself, in New Mexico, near Sante Fe, where you go into their houses and they have a little store in the back of their house, where they sell their pottery to tourists. It's not the way to get the best price, but it's very interesting, to see them like that and to talk to them. So, I was the potter, I made those black pots--you know?"


"I had a wife--or maybe a daughter. She tended to customers while I inscribed the pots. It was like, I was doing the inscribing for the sake of the pot, but I was also on display, I was like someone in the window of a department store who's doing something real but who's also there for show. You know what I mean?"


"I woke up very frightened. Actually, nothing much happened in the dream. There was something about the animals I was carving into the pots, the serpents and that sort of lizard--"

"A gecko?"

"Right! And antelope ... it was all very disturbing."

The Literal Man finished. Ari waited.

"Well, what do you think the dream meant?" the Literal Man asked.

"I apologize, but I don't interpret dreams."

"But you do! You wrote a whole book on dream interpretation. That's one of the reasons I came to see you!"

"You're mistaken. I wrote a book about creating while you sleep. In it I said that people had to interpret their own dreams."

The Literal Man looked disappointed, even crestfallen.

Ari smiled. "There!" he exclaimed. "I've managed to disappoint you. You came with very few expectations but I managed not even to meet those!"

The Literal Man made a small sound. "Should I go now? Can I get a partial refund? I mean, it's only been a third of the time."

"No. I'm going to make some tea and you're going to tell me about the great project you want to begin."

The Literal Man recoiled as if shot. "I have no such project in mind! What do you mean? I work for the government. I have a very responsible job. I don't innovate. To try something new I'd have to put in a 2840, that's a form we have for making suggestions and changing procedures--"

"Hush," Ari said. "Let me make some tea. We'll have it with lemon. The lemon is off the tree right there, the one you can see through the open door. You see the lemon tree?"


"Good! Be quiet for a moment and think about how your brother persecuted you. Then we'll talk about you becoming a great artist."

"I can't--"

"Hush!" Ari said affectionately. "Let me get the kettle up. Then we'll do some real dreaming!" Read more!

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Ari's Oasis. 4. The Busy Talk Show Host

Ari gave many interviews, usually by phone sitting at his desk. The things that seemed to bother other writers about interviews did not bother him. He didn't care at all whether his host had read his latest book or any of his books. He didn't care at all whether his host misunderstood his ideas, asked odd questions, or didn't like him. He took each interview as an opportunity to talk to the world, to that part of the world that happened to be tuning in to that particular program. There were things that he wanted to communicate and this was his chance. That was all that mattered.

He knew how to get these things said no matter what he was asked or in what direction the host wanted to steer the interview. Friendly and agreeable, he would nevertheless reframe the question or refocus the host's thought and return to his own agenda. He didn't know about the events of the day, the latest scandal or breaking news, and so he always had to apologize (in his calculated way) when the host referred to anything that might be going on the world. He would apologize for his ignorance and return the conversation to the essentials of human nature, to the things that mattered.

Today the host was a man in Chicago. The time difference was many hours. It was morning drive-time in Chicago but late afternoon in the desert. Ari sat down by the telephone a half-hour early, since often calls came earlier or later than expected. He sat at his desk and thought about what he wanted to say to the world--to Chicago, to commuters heading for the Loop, to people on the Internet picking up this Midwest broadcast in Singapore and Berlin.

After offering up the usual pleasantries, the host revealed his agenda. He wanted Ari to drop names and gossip about celebrities.

"Can you tell us about some of the stars you've helped with their creativity?" the host began.

"No, Tom, I'm sorry that I can't," Ari replied blandly. "I really wish I could. But I can tell you the kinds of things that trouble them and some of the reasons why they come to see me. First, there is almost always some measure of depression. People have been sad for more than a hundred years, trying to figure out if they matter. People who mean to create carry that burden even more, the burden of wondering whether they should live or let nature swallow them back up whole. My work is always the same--I beg my clients, celebrity or not, to try to matter. I ask them to decide to live, to decide to care, to decide to try, to decide to create, despite their doubts and the hardness of the tasks that confront them."

"Dr. Ben Ami, let me ask you. If somebody wanted to be more creative--maybe at work, maybe just in an everyday way--what one or two tips would you suggest? We have about thirty seconds until our first break."

"I would tell him or her that creativity is about self-relationship, not about talent. Tip one: get in better self-relationship. Practically speaking that means bad-mouth yourself less and work on your craft until your hands bleed."

During the break Ari listened to the ads. There was one for cars, one for a dating service, one for a travel agency with great buys on pilgrimages to the Holy Land. Then the host launched into a traffic report, which he completed all in one breath, and then a local weather report, which he managed on a second breath. Then they were on the air again.

"We're back with Dr. Ari Ben-Ami, bestselling author and creativity coach!" the host resumed. "Dr. Ben-Ami, in my own case, I've always thought I had a novel in me to write. Doesn't everyone! But I always felt like I needed to get some training first, maybe do some workshops or go back to school and get a degree in creative writing. What do you think about that? Do people need the kind of training they get in an art school or a creative writing program?"

"No. In your case, Tom, if you wanted to start your novel, all you would have to do is make your world stop. Right now you're too busy to have a thought; and of course a novel starts with a thought. You probably keep yourself so busy that you can’t possibly create. Just the way you've trained yourself to do the weather and the traffic, cramming them in at breakneck speed, tells me that you would have to unlearn your present way of being, which is all about speed, and learn the creator's way of being, which is all about stillness."

"Nobody can slow down anymore!" Tom laughed. "If that's what it takes, only monks in monasteries can create! I don't have a second on any given day to have a thought!"

"But that's dangerous," Ari replied. "Speed kills. We get a million things done that way, but we're undone."

"And that's all the time we have!" the host concluded. "Dr. Ben-Ami, thank you so much for joining us!"

"It's been my pleasure."

Ari waited for several seconds, in case the host or the show's producer wanted a last word with him. Sometimes one or the other would come on the line and express the desire to have him back, which information he would relay immediately to his publicist. But today he only heard that funny silence that meant that they were done with him and on to the next thing. He replaced the receiver very slowly, to make the point that even small things could be done one way or another: mindfully or with the soul absent. Read more!

Sunday, January 29, 2006

Painted Birds

The human spirit is larger than the life a person ordinarily leads. The human spirit vibrates at an heroic pitch and yet there is almost no heroism that a person can engage in on most days, except the not-insignificant heroism that it takes just to meet our daily obligations and live life. Those everyday heroic efforts, however, do not provide us with the felt sense that the poignant cry of our human spirit has really been answered.

How do we try to answer that cry? Most often, by seeking out vicarious means. We live a vicariously heroic life by reading a book about a heart-stopping adventure, watching a movie about saving the world, listening to music that enflames the blood, playing a game of poker “as if” something were really at stake. Much of life can be explained as the human spirit’s restless attempt to meet its need for heroism in the real world—and its repeated inability to do so.

Because of this (often complete) disjunction between the grandness of our human spirit and the paltriness of ordinary life, spiritual discouragement sets in. This spiritual discouragement, and not the many tasks that we tackle, causes people to feel preternaturally tired. This spiritual discouragement, and not too little fiber or too many sweets in our diet, makes people sick. Squash down our human spirit in the way that it is squashed down in the course of an average day and by day’s end we are lucky to still be breathing.

Consider the plight of a good friend of mine. She has worked in the non-profit world for more than twenty-five years, toiling in the fields of good causes. About ten years ago she became executive director of a nonprofit that dealt in environmental issues, then she moved on to become the executive director of a housing nonprofit that helped low-income people buy their first home, and now she is the executive director of a nonprofit that supports scientific research by handing out grants to young scientists. Each of these non-profits adds value to the world—no doubt about it.

What is most true about my friend’s time at these nonprofits is that her spirit has not been served. The same seems true for a great many of the people she comes into contact with on a daily basis in the nonprofit world. They know that they are “on the side of good” but what they feel, as they go about their business of saving this bird from extinction, finding that family the money for a first home, or supporting this young scientist on his dissertation research, is an abiding sense of drudgery, boredom, and smallness. This is not true of all of them; but it is true of a surprising number of them. Why can’t the human spirit soar simply by virtue of the fact that its goals are laudable? Because the human spirit really needs more.

By contrast, an artist who paints images of birds or who conjures with bird energy on canvas may feel her spirit soar, even if, as happens, she isn’t pleased with the result, isn’t sure about its meaningfulness, and isn’t sanguine about its reception. The challenge was somehow appropriate to her spirit: that is the long and the short of it. She might agree with you that her painting did nothing to save actual birds from extinction; she might go on to have a nice chicken dinner, her conjuring notwithstanding; she might destroy her painting by nightfall, reckoning it a failure at the level of craft. Nevertheless, as she painted, her spirit felt satisfied.

This is interesting. In the first case, the fundraiser actually helps save birds. In the second case, the artist only has a feeling of heroism: no actual bird has been saved. Yet the artist feels better than the fundraiser. So the question arises, what should have primacy in an ethical person’s hierarchy, doing work that saves actual birds or doing work that provides her with a feeling of heroism, actual birds be damned? I hope that you are laughing a little and also reeling a little. A little ironic laughter is appropriate, given how the universe has built us, as creatures who need to earn our sense of heroism and who, at the same time, are provided with only convoluted ways of doing that earning.

An interesting answer is the following one: paint the painting, if that is what satisfies your soul, sell it, and donate a portion of your sales to the nonprofit, essentially having your cake and eating it too. Feed your spirit and save the actual bird. This might be a fine, rational solution to the problem of how to meet our felt need for heroic engagement and we should look closely at it. But one thing should strike us immediately. If everyone with a human spirit—that is, if everyone—took this route, there would be no nonprofits to support. Every nonprofit worker would be “following her bliss,” child-advocacy lawyers would be samurai, emergency room doctors would be troubadours, school teachers would be wandering in the wilderness, looking for new worlds and large adventures. Maybe you and I have permission to find ways to allow our spirits to soar—but we can’t give everyone that permission! No one would be left to do the work of civilization.

It looks like it may be the case that the way to relieve spiritual discouragement in the individual can’t also be the way to relieve it in society in general. But that remains to be seen, as we are just at the beginning of our conversation. Next Sunday I want to chat about the following idea: can our spiritual discouragement, rooted in the need to feel heroically engaged, be met by the Taoist/Zen ideas of mindful presence and fully inhabiting the moment? Chat with you then! Read more!

Call for Painters

I am looking to work with twenty painters on a book project. We would work in the following way. I would send out a “creativity prompt” each week and everyone in the group would produce a (necessarily quick) painting provoked by the prompt, along with their written thoughts about the process. Some number of these images and some amount of this commentary would go into the finished book and everyone who participated would be represented.

If you would like to participate in this project, please get in touch with me at I would need to see a couple of your images or visit your website before inviting you aboard. I think this will be an exciting and eye-opening adventure for those of you who choose to join me, especially if you are curious about trying out new techniques, working with new ideas, or producing new subject matter.

Please let your painter friends and colleagues know about this opportunity. If you are able to post this message to a likely group and feel comfortable doing so, I hope you’ll do just that. Thanks!

P.S. As this message may get passed around to folks who don’t know me, let me add the following. I am a creativity coach and the author of many books in the area of creativity, among them Fearless Creating, A Life in the Arts, The Creativity Book, Affirmations for Artists, Coaching the Artist Within, and A Writer’s Paris. You can learn more about me and what I do at Read more!

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Phoebe Writes A Novel. 3. Phoebe Chooses

When she got home, Phoebe found herself wondering whether she should write a short story or begin a novel. A story had the virtue of being short, pithy, and perhaps doable before dinner (which today was tuna fish sandwiches and potato salad, the kind of dinner you could be late for should your story take all afternoon to write). A novel, which would take months to write and could not possibly be finished before dinner, had the virtue of allowing your characters to have the kinds of adventures that could only be found in, well, novels. This matter was taxing Phoebe and she sat by the window in her room thinking and thinking.

Harold Spider crawled by along the window ledge.

"Harold," Phoebe said. "I was wondering. I am in a writing mood and I thought I might write a story about laundry drying out of doors on a clothesline stretched between two trees. It would be a very atmospheric story full of starch smells and the inner lives of shirts and jeans. But I was also thinking that I might work on my novel set in the South Seas, having to do with an all-girl band stranded on a remote and scary island. The girls all have to play acoustic guitar, as there is no electricity! Isn't that clever? What do you think?"

"About?" Harold replied.

"Harold!" Phoebe scolded. "I just told you. Should I write the story or begin my novel?"

Harold scratched his head with several different legs. "I confess I am in a confused state of mind today. Why couldn't you do both? Or am I missing something important?"

Phoebe thought for a moment. Finally she nodded. "I suppose that's a reasonable question. On the face of it there's no reason not to do both. Yet there feels like there must be a reason. Wouldn't a muse know?"

Harold scratched his head again. "It's amazing how much we muses forget! Just last week someone I was visiting complained of exactly this problem--though that was about writing two songs, but it's the same thing really--and I know we arrived at the reason why she had to choose one or the other. But I can't remember what we concluded. She was twenty-three, by the way."

"How is that relevant?" Phoebe wondered skeptically.

"Well, I suppose I meant to imply that people of all ages find this to be a problem."

"Not just little girls like me?" Phoebe complained, trying to sound insulted. But actually she was pleased that her problem was a real, grown-up problem.

"I only meant--"

"Oh, pish-tosh!" Phoebe exclaimed. "Not to worry! But isn't this interesting and perplexing? I could write the short story today and then start the novel tomorrow. Why not? But I'm CONVINCED that I must choose one or the other and put the other one away, say in my little trunk over there, and if I don't I won't be able to get my whole head around either the laundry or the all-girl band."


"Wait! I'm thinking." She put her elbows on the sill and got into her very best thinking position, with her eyes shut.

Harold crawled away, to stretch his legs but also because it was a muse rule to let thinkers think.

"It could be the following," Phoebe said, opening her eyes. But Harold was gone. She looked this way and that and finally found him crawling up the side of her jewelry box.

"Are you off?" she said.

"No, no! Just doing my walking meditation. Shall I return to the sill?"

"Please! Otherwise I have to scrunch down. I don't think well scrunched!"

They resumed their original positions, though this took Phoebe one second and Harold a full minute.

"Here's what I think," Phoebe began. "I have one brain with a lot of brain cells. Agreed?"

"Agreed!" Harold agreed enthusiastically.

"Now, what is a brain like? Probably you will say a computer, because everybody does."

"I have never likened the brain to a computer--"

"Never mind. Grown-ups always do. But I think the brain is like a jungle full of animals. Now, when they are all going about their own business, many things happen. We have thoughts about warm buns for breakfast, maybe we have a worry about the paper we have to write about the barge canals of England, maybe we think about that new CD we so desperately want. In short, we have a common mind full of common thoughts. Are you following?"

"Yes! I know that mind."

"Exactly. Now, in order for the brain to write, all the animals must come together and form a community. The lions and dolphins must get on the same page."


"A little literary license, please! But if the lemurs and skinks--"


"An interesting animal I saw on our summer vacation in Hawaii."

"All right."

"If the lemurs and skinks are muttering about the all-girl band novel, even though they are far in the back of the circle and hardly audible at all, they will be causing a kind of--" Phoebe paused, searching for the right word.

"Upsetness?" Harold offered.

"Pandemonium! A little pandemonium. Which prevents the group from concentrating on the laundry story, even though the majority of the animals have agreed on the story."

"With the skinks carrying on so."

"And the lemurs! So that is my analogy. One has to really choose what one is writing, because if one says, 'I can write both,' that's somehow like letting skinks and lemurs loose, which produces upsetness and pandemonium."

Harold clapped. "I believe I can visualize that perfectly. The fire around which the animals gather, the exotic birds--"

"All right, Harold. I'm done with my analogy. Now--I must choose!"

Phoebe squizzled up her face something awful. It was a dramatic gesture considerably for Harold's benefit, and in fact after about three seconds she could feel a headache coming on.

"That won't do!" she exclaimed. "Choosing isn't like wrestling, after all!"

They were silent for awhile as Phoebe tried to determine what choosing WAS like. Harold cleared his throat.

"Yes?" Phoebe grumped.

"You may take this to be a bit rude--"

"Well, then don't say it! For I imagine that you know perfectly well that what you are about to say WILL be rude, so why say it?"

"Yes, yes, I admit that. But muses do have certain duties after all, and one is to point out this and that. I am pointing out the following: that in the time it is taking you to choose, you could have your laundry on the line already."

"Well!" Phoebe huffed. She had the urge to roll up the magazine beside her and give Harold one great thwump. "That was not just rude, that was idiotic! That's like saying—“ Here she paused and thought hard, because only the right analogy would sting Harold sufficiently. "That's like saying you could already be on the moon, if you didn't waste so much time building your rocket! I mean, choosing is a PROCESS, and processes take time!"

"Of course, of course," Harold agreed. "But it isn't quite so much like building a rocket! I mean, laundry or island. Not to be small-minded about it, my dear, but it's JUST a choice, not literal interstellar engineering."

Phoebe's feelings were bitterly hurt. "Well," she said, a tear or two angling to venture forth from her tear ducts. "So you think I'm just a slacker. A slouch. A sloth. That I am just AVOIDING writing. That I am just talking the talk and not walking the walk. Well. I am quite sure that you are a very bad muse bearing very bad news and I wish you would crawl away and evaporate."

"Now, now--"

"Go away, you mean little spider!"

Harold waited for Phoebe to recover but she looked greener and purpler by the second, so finally he trotted off. Phoebe threw herself on her bed, which wasn't so much of a throw that she was likely to injure herself, and smuffled for fifteen minutes. Then she sat straight up.

"Well. There's something to what that spider said!" she said to Lexington, the closest cat. "But he was also wrong. Right and wrong both, I say! Choosing IS a process. But perhaps I lingered and dawdled a bit too long. Maybe I WAS delaying, not really wanting to start anything. Plus, I'm not sure the laundry story was really my cup of tea. I think I liked the SMELL of it more than the story. Because I could smell that fresh laundry, which was really very delicious. So I suppose that I wanted to write the novel all along. But maybe I was secretly saying to myself, 'What girl writes a novel?' I fear that I WAS saying such a thing, so familiar does that question sound! Well! Who knew. I had NO IDEA I was doubting myself!"

This realization was really breathtaking and Phoebe had to catch her breath. She never consciously thought that there was anything she couldn't do. To learn that she had some doubts about her ability to write a novel staggered her.

"Well, I'll be the skink's pajamas!" she exclaimed. "On to the novel immediately! I will eat late! I will write and write! Where are my pen and pad!"

She was indeed talking in exclamation points, which made Harold smile. On the ceiling, quite visible if you were looking that way, Harold waited another few seconds to see if Phoebe would open her pad. When she did, he trundled off, stopping only to nibble a red ant appetizer. Read more!

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Fanciful Back-Up Plan

From The World of Matisse by John Russell

“At seven in the morning he would rise and make his way to a remote bathroom where he would practice the violin for two hours. Matisse loved this instrument and never painted anything more tenderly than the sky-blue silk lining of its case. But he also had a favorite notion that if his eyesight should ever fail him, he could support his family by playing in the street.” Read more!

Monday, January 23, 2006

Ari's Oasis. 3. The Famous Rock Band on the Verge of Collapse

One day a whole rock band arrived at Maya's shop. The band was very famous and caused a great stir in the bazaar. Maya had to sternly remind the crowd that gathered to be quiet and respectful.

The band milled about the shop, as Ari wasn't ready to see them. The leader of the band apologized to Maya for making the appointment on such short notice but they had been in a nearby city on tour and decided on the spur of the moment to come to the oasis for help. They needed help badly. Maya replied that no apology was needed and that her father would be with them shortly.

Finally Ari let it be known that he was ready. One by one the band members traversed the narrow hall and entered the consulting room, which was dark and cool and always had its back door open.

"Sit. Please," Ari said.

There were five of them—five lean, intense young men.

"My name is Brian," one of them said. “We're the Lime Death Squad. You've heard of us?"

Ari smiled. "No. I'm sorry."

"No matter! Just as well. We're having this incredibly terrible tour. Jason [he nodded at a redhead twisted up in pain] got sick and needed an emergency operation. Andy [he nodded at a sullen, violent-looking fellow whose head looked like a muscle], well, Andy will have to speak for himself. Mike [Mike smiled when introduced] just got married and misses his wife badly and is bitching all the time about being away from her. Moses [he nodded at a young man who appeared to be a soldier in the Devil's brigade] can't think about anything but sex and is always bringing two or three girls around and doing it in our faces. I write the songs and I haven't had a good idea in about two years. It's all hit the fan on this tour and if we don't kill each other it'll be a bloody miracle."

Ari nodded and turned to Andy, the angry one. "What drugs do you use?" he asked mildly.

"Man ... " Andy growled.

"Don't worry. I have a terrible memory."

"Yeah. Right. I use a little of this and a little of that. But I didn't come for a lecture!"

"Crack cocaine, meth, alcohol, marijuana," Brian said.

"Screw you," Andy replied.

Ari nodded. He turned to Moses the rake. "Why don't you write songs? Don't you have songs in you?"

Moses made a face. "That's not my talent. I like to stand off to the side and watch the girls."

"So, Brian. You're the glue? You hold everything together?" Ari continued.

"I suppose so. Though I've just about had it!"

Ari grew quiet and searched each man's face in turn.

"What's your question?" he finally said. “What do you want from me? You look to be a rock band on the road, in the middle of a tour, plagued by stardom, the traveling blues, your own personalities, too much time together and too much time on your hands—all the usual. What's new?"

No one replied. Then Mike, the man with the new wife, broke the silence.

"We used to enjoy ourselves," he said. "We used to have fun. We were light-hearted. Now everything feels dark and unmanageable. Something's changed. Five years ago we rode in a van and were happy. Now we take over a whole floor of some great hotel, we get whatever we want, and we're miserable."

Ari nodded. "You had a dream, to become rock stars, and you achieved your dream. Then you came up against a meaning crisis, which you are now in the middle of. You are without meaning. So you fall back on old, second-rate meanings. Andy does drugs and has his rage, which comes in handy. Moses does sex. Brian creates, but poorly. The group’s meaning has died. The beautiful dream of becoming a famous rock band vanished … by coming true. You are bereft of meaning."

The band remained silent. Finally Brian spoke. "That feels exactly right," he said. "We play our old songs, we work very hard, we take pride in our performance, but it feels utterly meaningless."

"There are five things you must do," Ari said. "First, you have to help others. That is the best--sometimes the only--road to recovering meaning. You might meet with the Mothers of Charity in the city in which you now find yourself. They are very pious, bad-tempered women who minister to thousands of our country's saddest, sickest people. You could give them a million dollars and your tour would improve instantly. Second, each of you must fall in love with two things. You must fall in love with music again. And you must love a real person. Third, you must grow up, which means doing battle with your own disinclination to change. Fourth, you must respect how far you have come and honor the band. Fifth, each of you must create. Not just you, Brian, but all of you. Each of you must go deep inside and provide personal music for your next album. Each of you must contribute like an artist and a hero. If you do these five things, you can survive."

The band stayed for three hours. Ari worked with them as a group and as individuals, prying, pushing, healing, instructing. He made them laugh and he made them cry. When they left, they said the thing that so many of his clients said upon leaving: "We have a lot to think about." Ari simply nodded. As lost in their thoughts as they were, they wouldn't have heard him anyway.

Maya appeared a few minutes later.

"They left you five thousand dollars, father."

"Good. Go on the Net and buy their albums. I'm curious to hear what they sound like."

"You won't like them!" she laughed.

"Their music? Probably not. But I like them. And I think their next album will be very surprising." Read more!

Sunday, January 22, 2006

Creativity Coaching Update. Sunlight Strikes Ft. Worth

It has been a real pleasure starting up with a dozen new creativity coaching clients this year. As we tend to chat every other week, the majority of them now have had their second session with me. Last week I posted before-coaching and after-coaching images from Gabrielle Swain, images that she produced shortly after our first session. Today I am posting some images that arose several days later as she continued the process of breaking free of her previous iconography and previous artistic identity.

Gabrielle is also in my “meaning group” in cyberspace and has been adopting some of the incantations that I am teaching to that group as aids in her exploration process. You will hear some of those “meaning prompts” in the email she sent me about her process. Gabrielle wrote:

“Even though my hard drive crash created a great deal of chaos, I managed to find some time in the studio. Certainly released plenty of anger with this time. While I had to force myself to do the work, once I started working ‘centered’ the energy became focused and calm. The first two pieces didn't make the cut. I realized I had not done any incantations before starting the work. Quickly, I stopped, left the studio and took a few moments to do ‘meaning is a wellspring,’ ‘I nominate myself,’ and ‘I make my own meaning.’ Back to the studio, I started a new piece with a completely different energy.

“What was the difference? An awareness that my studio is not just a room in which to work but a sacred space. The meaning lives within me but there has to be an atmosphere in the place where I work that encourages and allows the meaning to be released. Even though the studio is in good working order organizationally, when I return home from Australia I am going to focus on some areas as inspirational space.”

Here are the four images that Gabrielle sent me. The first released anger. The second and third continued the releasing-and-exploring process. The fourth did something else: it settled into an experience of a shaft of light cutting across Ft. Worth, rendered in a way entirely new to her.

If you would like to get in touch with Gabrielle, she can be reached at and visited at

Read more!

Saturday, January 21, 2006

David and Genevieve in Paris. 4. Color Frenzy

David draws—but his eyes are inflamed by color. Drawing keeps him honest but color keeps his soul alive. Color is his passion, his enthusiasm, his fire. The thousand blues in his mind’s eye are like a harem; the act of painting like a night of endless love.

Of course he has his favorite colors, like every artist. “What a horrible thing yellow is!” exclaimed Edgar Degas. Alexander Calder loved red so much he cried, “I wish I could paint everything red!” Winston Churchill lamented, “I am genuinely sorry for the poor browns.” The teacher Fernand Corman scolded a student, “Wait, where is the ivory-black? My God, you aren’t thinking of making black by mixing blue and red?”

David, inflamed by the palette of Paris, gorges on the color that every stall provides and returns it, digested, onto a primed canvas waiting to be fed. Read more!

Friday, January 20, 2006

David and Genevieve in Paris. 3. Atget and Sadness

The reality of Paris collides in Genevieve’s heart with the sepia-tinted dream. Is she living or is she dreaming?

The question makes her think of hardship. Atget’s photographs, those sepia-tinted wonders, are etched in her mind, as is his story. Born in 1857, he did not see his photographs appear in print until 1926, when his neighbor Man Ray published a handful in La Revolution Surrealist—without giving Atget credit. To wait 69 years!—and then not to get credit!

Genenvieve knows too many stories like this one, stories of the hard artist’s road. Everywhere in Paris she sees Atget’s subjects, the peddlers, garbage collectors, the road workers who toil away at their jobs just as she toils away at hers. She feels kinship and sadness. Not that she needs life to be easy. But must it be as hard as the history of art foretells that it will be?

Still, what are her alternatives? After all, she is an artist. Read more!

Thursday, January 19, 2006

Walking Day

Today got away from me as I raced to get a chapter of the new “meaning book” off to Janet Rosen, my agent, for her feedback; and then Ann got off a little early, so on this beautiful San Francisco day we had to go out walking, from Bernal Heights into the Mission to Puerto Alegre, our Mexican haunt, for nachos, guacamole, and margaritas (rocks, salt); and then on to Eagle Donuts, to finish our trek with one glazed and one chocolate. Cheers! Read more!

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Phoebe Writes A Novel. 2. The Frog and the Bee Almost Come to Blows

The first week of spring passed uneventfully. Saturday morning dawned and Phoebe discovered that she had a lot on her mind. A few days before she had begun wondering why the eye should consider blue and yellow complementary colors, which had caused her to start reading Newton, of all people. She associated Newton with gravity and such-like things but she came learn that he was also 'the father of optics' and, like Phoebe, extremely interested in color wheels.

She also learned that Newton was an odd duck. This caused her mind to wander from optics to madness and, as a consequence, she had begun skimming Newton biographies. This landed her at Lieb and Hershman's Manic Depression and Creativity, one of whose subjects was Sir Isaac. What they had to say about Newton made her shake her head. They adduced his mania from behaviors that didn't sound so pathological, like running for Parliament and promoting the careers of young mathematicians (a behavior Lieb and Hershman called "the generosity of the manic"). How strange!

Something about all this didn't make sense to Phoebe and, feeling intensely restless, she took herself to her favorite cafe (which was also the only cafe she was allowed to frequent, as it was just down the block). She ordered her customary hot chocolate, her brain filled with odd and random thoughts--about Newton's fight with Leibnitz over the authorship of calculus, about whether flavored Fig Newtons were really Fig Newtons at all, and so on--and wandered out back to the patio where it was bright and quiet.

The patio was mostly empty and she could have sat entirely by herself, but, being a writer (among other things), she preferred to sit near people (or whomever) and eavesdrop. She chose to sit next to the frog and the bee, two muses of her acquaintance. Although they were being quite loud and quarrelsome at the moment, which put Phoebe off, their animation piqued her interest. She smiled as she sat down but they took no notice and continued their grumbling.

"Art for art's sake!" the frog was bellowing. "To quote Faulkner, a great poem is worth the lives of any number of little old ladies. And Picasso--didn't he claim that if he ran out of firewood for his kiln he would throw his wife and children in?"

"That's ridiculous!" screamed the bee. "Just what you'd expect from an alcoholic like Faulkner and an entertainer like Picasso! Art is for the sake of PEOPLE, not itself. For the sake of the art maker, his daughter, the eleven people who read his poem, maybe even the executor of his estate who comes upon it after he is dead. But it can't be for its own sake! It doesn't HAVE a sake, for Gosh sake!"

"You want art to have utility! It mustn't! It oughtn't! It shouldn't! Art exists! It just is! It mustn't serve any purpose!"

"You are one stupid academic frog who has lived too long in muddy water!" the bee buzzed, loud enough to scare a couple right off the terrace.

Phoebe couldn't help herself. "Excuse me," she said. "Would you call what you are having a 'philosophical discussion'? I've thought about studying philosophy in college and I'm curious if this is an example of what I might learn."

"I would call what we are doing 'fighting,'" the bee replied.

"I would call what we are doing 'educating a bee'," retorted the frog.

"I would call what we are doing 'listening to a stupid frog," shouted the bee.

"I would call what we are doing 'humoring an idiot bee'!" the frog shrieked.

Phoebe shrieked even louder. The muses turned in curious if not stunned silence in Phoebe's direction.

"Well," said Phoebe, gathering herself. "This strikes me as the biggest waste of time two muses could ever dream up. Is this an object lesson for me about how not to live? Did you know that I would be coming here for a Saturday hot chocolate and stage this conversation for my benefit?"

"Little girl, we have this fight every day of our lives! This is what we DO," exclaimed the frog.

"And I have made thirty-three more excellent points than this nitwit frog and am currently ahead 982 to 949. At least. When I reach a thousand--"

"That is entirely wrong!" cried the frog. "Absolutely incorrect! I am ahead 961 to 709!"

Phoebe shook her head. There had to be a way of talking about creating that wasn't as silly as this!

"I have another point!" cried the frog. "A wonderful point! An excellent point! The BEST point! If you look at art from a Taoist perspective--"

"Not the Taoist tactic! I won't PERMIT it! I will STING YOU first."

"Watch it, you insect!"

The frog puffed up to twice its size and the bee buzzed like a smoke detector. This was probably the way gods on Mt. Olympus squabbled, Phoebe guessed, finally frying each other with lightning bolts and drowning each other in tsunami tidal waves. How silly of muses and gods!

"I have a question," Phoebe shouted above the din. "Shouldn't you be helping an artist, not fighting?"

This question looked to thoroughly perplex the warring muses, who scrunched up their respective faces into serious frowns.

"What do you mean?" croaked the frog.

"What are you implying?" buzzed the bee.

"Well, take Shostakovich," Phoebe replied. "During World War Two he wrote several war symphonies. Each one has a remarkable story, remarkable in the way that Shostakovich butted heads with his putative patron Stalin, remarkable in the way that he gathered musicians in the middle of such unbelievable hardship so that his concerts could be performed, remarkable in the way that starving and homeless people came and filled concert halls to listen to his symphonies. Remarkable in the way that his music unified and helped so many Russians in the middle of a terrible war. It seems to me that that is what an artist is for and I just wonder why you aren't helping some artist somewhere who is trying to do some good work like that?"

There was a long silence.

"Ridiculous!" the frog finally exclaimed.

"Stupendously ignorant!" agreed the bee. "What an idiot!"

Phoebe sat stunned. She was sure that she had said something true and beautiful. Their reaction was incredible!

"But why not?" she cried, close to stamping her foot.

"You haven't asked the right question," said the frog. "Therefore it is pointless to try to answer."

"Plus," added the bee, "activism is such a tired idea! If you won't take the postmodern into account, there is just no hope for you!"

Phoebe turned back to her hot chocolate. "Well," she muttered, "who knew how disappointing muses could be." She buried herself in her drink and drained it down past the dregs. Finally there was nothing left to do but go.

"I am leaving," she said. "Good day to you!"

She turned away quickly. Therefore she didn't notice that the frog and the bee were stifling smiles. When she was out of earshot, the frog spoke first.

"Very effective! Good work, bee. We did her a real service this morning."

"Excellent work, frog. I liked the Taoist reference. Nice touch!"

"Tremendous point she made about Shostakovich. Lovely. I almost started crying."

"Very nice! May I treat you to another mocha latte grande?"

"By all means! That bickering was truly wearing."

As she walked home, Phoebe thought about self-reliance. She had the feeling that there was a Thoreau essay on the subject ... or was it Emerson? At any rate, the point was indisputable. If you were going to write great symphonies in the middle of a world war and stand up to Stalin and make people a little happier with your music and all of that, you couldn't wait for a frog or a bee to come inspire you. Certainly not THAT frog or THAT bee. Phoebe declared that when it came to creating, there was just no substitute for a person taking personal responsibility. Read more!

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Ah, Master, You Can Make Me Immortal

From Egon Schiele’s Portraits by Alessandra Comini:

“When I went out to Gustav Klimt’s garden house in Hietzing I was really prepared for anything, because I knew how eccentric he was with that beard and always going about in a sort of monk’s robe and sandals. When he answered the door he was wearing a big monocle in one eye and looked me sedately up and down without saying anything! Finally he said to me: ‘What do you want to come to me for? You have just had your portrait done by a very good painter.’ I was afraid that he was going to turn me down and so I answered quickly, yes, this was certainly true, but that through Klimt I wanted to be made immortal. He accepted that.”

Flattery works wonders, doesn’t it? Read more!

Monday, January 16, 2006

Ari's Oasis. 2. The Dancer With Too Many Interests

Magdalene, a dancer, came to the oasis.

"I have too many interests, too many talents," she said. She had on the bluest dress, which made her eyes look wild and fierce. "First, I dance. But I also have a painter's eye. And I love to write. I've been keeping journals for years and years and have thirty fat journals filled with my thoughts. I do collages, digital photography, raku. I write songs. I want to put this all together into something, I want to figure out how to concentrate on one thing, because--" She hesitated. "The fact of the matter is, I never complete anything. I start all these incredible projects but then something else starts to interest me more and I begin on it. That's what's been happening," she ended, trailing off as if her thoughts had failed her.

"The thing you want to put together? What is that?"

"I don't know. I want help with that."

"You have some ideas, no doubt."

"Well, I thought I might do a family history, maybe an oral history or a video history of my family, with my own drawings included. I've thought of doing a novel about fifteenth century France--I've made notes about that. It would be about a young woman who stands up to the French Inquisition and is tortured and sentenced to be burned at the stake. But a young priest helps her escape. I've had the idea to do that novel for the longest time."

"You could do those things," Ari said blandly.

"I could." Magdalene fell silent. "I have so many things I want to do!" she exclaimed suddenly. "I can't seem to choose."

"No," Ari said, "It isn't quite that."

Magdalene colored. "You think I'm just avoiding--"

"No. You think that you're just avoiding choosing. I don't think any such thing. I think the problem is quite different. I think you believe that nothing is worth doing, that neither you nor your efforts matter. The problem isn't that you have too many interests and talents. The problem is that you don't believe that you matter."

"That isn't true! I know that art matters!"

"I didn't say that. You don't believe that you matter."

Magdalene slumped down. Ari noticed that a cool afternoon breeze had come up. He could smell the scent of sweet jasmine tea from the tea shop a few doors down, the scent carried on the desert wind.

"When you told your parents that you wanted to be a dancer, what did they say?" Ari inquired.

"They told me to get a job and dance on the side," Magdalene replied softly.

"They told you that dancing didn't matter."


"When you thought about showing them your poetry, what did you think the next split second?"

"That they wouldn't be interested. That they would tell me to get my real homework done."

"They told you that poetry didn't matter."


"When you hung things on the wall--"

"They told me not to make holes in the wall."

"They told you that visual images didn't matter."


"And music--"

"They hated how much money I wanted to spend on music. And the kind of music! They hated that I always listened to music. They couldn't believe that I could do my homework and also listen to music, even when I brought home straight A's."

"They told you that music didn't matter."


"Did you ever try to talk to them about anything you held as sacred?"


"Because they didn't believe in the sacred."

"They went to church--"

"Did they believe that anything was sacred?"


"Did they believe that you were sacred?"


"Neither do you."

Magdalene's eyes welled up with tears.

"What should I do?"

"Decide to matter. Affirm that you exist. Call yourself sacred."

The desert silence embraced them. At a corner of the oasis, near the Great Well that was encircled by twelve date trees, a man with one leg played a reed flute. His song drifted on the breeze and entered through the open back door.

"I always wanted to write a story about summer camp, when I had my first period," Magdalene said in a dreamy voice. "That story always felt different from the other things I wanted to do. Those other things were clever, intriguing, exciting. But this little story, it had a different feeling."

"You could see your soul in that story?"


"Write that story. Will it matter?"

Magdalene hesitated.

"That's the wall that confronts you, the thought you just had," Ari said. "That story has your soul in it. But the instant I asked you if it mattered, an existential doubt so huge that it swallowed up all of your reasons for existing rose up like bile."

"I hate that I've been ruined this way," Magdalene whispered.

"So, the question is, Do you exist?"

Magdalene began sobbing.

"You'll write this story?" Ari continued.

"Yes," she replied between her sobs.

"If you can't, you'll call me. We'll talk."

"I'd rather come back!" Magdalene exclaimed suddenly. She sat up and brushed back her tears. "If I can't write this story I will come back and see you again."

"It's more than seven thousand miles," Ari said, but not in a way meant to discourage her.

"I know! But I matter enough to make the trip!” Read more!

Sunday, January 15, 2006

Exercise Sunday. Two little exercises

Here are two little exercises to try. They are actually VERY big.

1. Intending to Matter

Your ability to create is intimately connected to your intention to matter. If you don’t really think that you, your ideas, or your work matter, you won’t have the motivational juice to create. So I would like you to say ‘I intend to matter’ or ‘I matter’ twenty or thirty times a day. Will you do that?

To do right now: Say “I matter” loud enough for me to hear you. Keep saying it, out loud and without embarrassment.

2. Introducing the ‘big but’ into your life

There are always things up that get in the way of our creating. You might try using the following sentence whenever you hear yourself offering up a reason not to create. ‘Yes, I am tired tonight, BUT I will write anyway.’ ‘Yes, it’s been a stressful day and my nerves are raw, BUT I will write anyway, at least for a few minutes. ‘Yes, I can’t stand it that I’m fighting with John, BUT I will write anyway, even though I don’t feel like it at all.’

To do right now: Take a few minutes and identify two or three obstacles, internal or external, that regularly prevent you from creating Write each one down and append the 'big but.' Read more!

Saturday, January 14, 2006

Eric at Home. On Not Throwing Tantrums

Early this week I got an email from my editor at Sourcebooks, the publisher of my forthcoming The Ten Second Pause, which read in part that “for various marketing reasons we are changing the book’s season, title and cover.” If you have only one thing happening in your life, this sort of news is a calamity. If you have many things happening, it is hard to even take notice. The moral: work intensely on the thing right in front of you and have many irons in the fire.

You will have noticed in the way my editor worded her news that I was not being invited to discuss the matter. In fact, she did invite me to give her a call, but the clear unsaid message was, “When you call, I will just repeat this news.” I often wonder if it would be better for me to be a sociopathic, hysterical, narcissitic writer—known as “difficult” in the industry—who throws plates, threatens murder, vanishes for a year, doesn’t meet his deadlines, lies through his teeth, and is one general menace. It’s an interesting question.

If you watch the reality shows—the celebrity hair cutter, restaurant owner, new designer, faded star shows—you will be struck by how downright difficult so many of these folks are. They brazenly lie; they brazenly cheat; they brazenly sell out their friends; they are remarkably brazen and shameless and interestingly indifferent to the world seeing them for who they are. They really don’t care: and they are the winners.

Is unhealthy narcissism a prerequisite for winning in America? (Doesn’t that sound like a line that Carrie would pen in Sex in the City?) This is a very interesting question. If the answer is yes, what should an individual ethical artist do to have a chance at success? What should creativity coaches be suggesting to their clients?—that they practice throwing tantrums and threatening lawsuits? There is the potential for a deep pool of depression awaiting creators at the bottom of this investigation.

The only saving grace is that there must be exceptions to the rule that grandiosity, arrogance, and unhealthy narcissism are prerequisites for success in America. I have said before that the goal of each creator is to prove the exception. It turns out that we must prove the exception in this regard, too. It is exceptional but true that the occasional nice guy and nice gal can manage to succeed in this personality-disordered universe. Read more!

Friday, January 13, 2006

David and Genevieve in Paris. 2. One Glimpses, One Obsesses

An artist sketches. Color, composition, polemics come later. First comes the drawing. Every artist knows where art begins and praises the pure act of drawing. Tintoretto: “Beautiful colors can be bought in any shop but good drawing can only be purchased with the artist’s flesh after years of patient study and sleepless nights.” Dali: “Drawing is the honesty of art because there is no possibility of cheating.”

The artist in Paris sits and sketches because that is the honest thing to do, because it builds his muscles, because it leads him to his compositions, because it is his joy and his passion. No matter if his love is iron sculpture, totem poles, surrealistic ceramics, or the palest watercolors: he pulls out his pad and draws one line after another. So a drawing emerges, that precious thing Gauguin called “the artist’s secret.”

Genevieve is a little nervous about sketching in public. She calls this her “shyness” and suspects that it will have negative consequences on her life as a painter. Aware of her lack of boldness, she worries that she will paint second-hand art out of an inability to speak up and speak out. She envies artists who are unafraid in front of a canvas and who seem not to care what anyone will think. She wants to get there: she wants to get to that place of alchemical boldness, exactly as much as she wanted to come to Pairs. For now, though, she sketches in hiding, off to the side, too shy to make her presence felt. Everything she sketches feels like a glimpse.

David is a bundle of intensity. He is so wired and wound up that he gets rashes from obsessing about the look of this, the meaning of that. He can hardly sleep, so much is on his mind. Therefore you can find him sketching in the dark, like Van Gogh, who would tape a candle to his forehead so as to be able to sketch and paint at night. David is all in a frenzy, though sometimes that frenzy looks like absolute stillness, as he stands, stares at something—even on a pitch black night—and sketches.

Genevieve has gone to bed early, just a little sad. David has been up all night, obsessing. They will not meet today.

“Drawing is a kind of hypnotism”--Pablo Picasso
“Drawing is the basis of art”—Arshile Gorky Read more!

Thursday, January 12, 2006

I wanted to use Thursdays to chat about creativity coaching as a practice and as a profession. Today, in my first chat, I thought it would interest you to see the movement a visual artist can make after a single phone creativity coaching session. I am indebted to a new client of mine, Gabrielle Swain, for letting me share some of her images and processes.

In her email responding to my request that she tell me a little bit about what she wanted to work on, Gabrielle wrote: “This year has been a transition year for me from very realistic to more abstract work. This change arose from a conversation in which I was told I wasn't revealing myself through my work. I began to wonder if I was hiding behind the imagery and playing it safe. I have always believed art should be evocative and self-revelatory, and while I believe my imagery is evocative I am wondering if I am putting enough of myself in my art and showing enough of myself to the viewer.”

Gabrielle had been producing the following sort of quilt art:




We chatted. I made suggestions. We created some incantations to remind her of the risks she wanted to take and a plan for tackling more personal work. A few days later the following three images arrived by email.




Along with these images came an email. Gabrielle checked in: “You were so right,” she wrote. “I have been all at sixes and sevens the entire week wondering what I got myself into. The first day back in the studio I was so physically uncomfortable that I finished as soon as possible and literally fled from the room. I am feeling exhausted but suddenly while doing the incantations a sliver of awareness made it between my ears. I’m still not sure that I am being personal enough in the work and I’m still not sure that I see any progress. But I am feeling a change internally.”

This is the territory that a creativity coach and his clients inhabit. Could any work be more fascinating? You can contact Gabrielle at and visit her at Read more!