Personal Art History — Suffering for Art

The first time I heard the word “patina” was in a high school art class. We’d just done clay sculptures and fired them. The next step was to paint them, but we didn’t call it painting them. We called it putting on a patina. The goal was to make the clay look like bronze.

My teacher did not like me or my work and made no bones about it. He often asked me what I was doing in the art room since I had no talent and I just bothered people.

I don’t know what he saw when he saw me. I don’t know what my behavior was like, but probably very obnoxious. No idea. I wanted attention from my teacher, but all I got was negative attention. “You have no talent,” he said. “I don’t know why you hang around here.”

We had open scheduling so we could just GO to the art room at any time there was no class in session. I did that, but I also went to class. I had a lot of projects in my mind. I did all the assignments — but probably NOT like he wanted me to. He was very, very nurturing and helpful to those he believed had talent, but he hated my work and disliked me.

His own work? In my opinion (even then) everything he painted looked the same. He was of the Western Impressionist school and the colors he used were out of nature’s paintbox for the most part. Yellow ochre figured prominently Yellow ochre is a GREAT color, but not the only one… He, naturally, used large brush strokes, painted directly, and so on, but he encouraged my brother and his friends who were cartoonists. Clearly the man was NOT invested in teaching everyone to paint just like he did.

So…I soon donned the patina of the high school graduate and went to college. I was determined to major in art. I wanted to be a sculptor.

My sculpture teacher told me I had no talent for sculpture, and he said I should stick to drawing which (he said) I was good at. He was explaining this to me as we talked about a drawing I’d done that was taped to the wall in the hallway of the art building next to the soda machine.

“Professor,” said one of my classmates who HAD talent, “I’m so sorry, but I tried to buy a soda and the machine exploded all over some chick’s picture that’s taped to the wall in the hallway.”

The picture was drawn in pencil which isn’t all that water soluble, and was actually improved by the patina of Pepsi.

My drawing teacher, on the other hand, was a real teacher. She watched me drawing one  afternoon in class and assessed the problem instantly. Fear. I’d been brow-beaten into a kind of secret artistic existence. This emerged when I attempted to make art. Our work says a lot and our working process maybe says even more. I was going at a piece of paper with a #3 pencil from 9 inches away. Way too close, way too light, way to tentative. I was a conundrum. I wanted to draw, I wanted to be an artist, but…

“Put that down,” she said of my pencil. “Wait here.”

She returned with a small can of black tempera and a small can of white tempera and a 2 inch brush. “Draw,” she said. “Stand back here where you can see something. And you need to get some better paper.”

She set me free.

Over the years I’ve confronted this over and over. Other artists sometimes have strong feelings about my work. I don’t know why. First, whether a person has talent or not they should make art if they want to. There’s no law that says a piece of work anyone does — even Leonardo — is going to be any good. Second, there are a lot of artists out there whose work I absolutely hate. Yet, they are considered to be great artists (Frida Kahlo tops that list). Is my opinion important in any way? There are other artist whose work moved me at one point in my life and now I think it’s “Meh” (Georgia O’Keefe for example).

This weekend my friend L painted rocks with me. She was trepidatious. She might get it wrong. I got a rock ready and sketched the reindeer, just an outline, with the nose. She sat down and grabbed an acrylic pen. I’ve learned they don’t work that well on rocks. “Use this,” I said, handing her a brush and some tan paint. The paint flowed perfectly into the shape on the rock in seconds. Then she wanted darker brown for the antlers and was going to mix black with the tan. “I’ll mix you some darker brown,” I said. “That black is a higher quality paint than that tan and will just be black.” So I mixed some brown. She painted and began to relax, finally putting an evergreen wreath on his head. 🙂

Then she wanted to do a wreath, but she just had a white rock. “I think you can handle that,” I said. “It’s just a wreath.”

“Yeah, I think I can draw a circle.” She picked up my drawing pencil and drew a circle, very tentatively. I pointed out that the rock was a long oval so maybe she wanted to leave room at the bottom for a bow.

She went at it and was suddenly INTO it. “I’m going to make a peace wreath,” she said — and did! Then she wanted to put leaves on the wreath. She dipped the brush in green and started to “draw” leaves. It wasn’t working.

“Here, let the brush do the work,” and I showed her how to use the side of the brush to make leaf-like blobs.

Then I thought about all that is involved in learning to paint.

How to mix colors, how to use colors, what a brush can and cannot do, what things ACTUALLY look like vs how you KNOW them to be (a tree doesn’t look like myriad leaves attached to branches. It looks like a blob of colors). There’s so much more, and it all takes time and practice.

I’ve had a hell of a time in my life selling a story. My life as a writer (everyone has always said, “Martha Ann, you’re a writer not an artist”) has never “taken off” but I’ve sold a lot of paintings. As I told my friend this weekend, “Just have fun. It is the least important thing in the world.”

Except to the person who loves it and we never know who that is, who that will be.

My friend’s rocks were found by a little girl during the Christmas parade… I think my friend is now a VERY successful artist!!!

Lois Rocks 1

Lois Rocks 2


It’s a bit earlier than I usually write this and a bit earlier than I usually get up. My brain is still dreaming though I’ve managed to make coffee and breakfast and feed the dogs. Unfortunately, my favorite part of sleep is the hour or so before I get up and that would be going on right now. But I like this time of day.

I was thinking about routine. I like routine and so do the dogs. If anything, they are more tied to doing this thing at this time than I am. For me it’s a scaffolding on which I can hang adventure, and today I’m going to Taos with a friend. It’s a 1 1/2 hour drive from here. My friend is an artist — usually she works with fiber and makes “wearable art” — and has work hanging in two galleries. For the last month she’s had a large wall show hanging in one of the galleries and we’re going to take it down.

I never imagined I’d live where I do. In my memory/imagination Taos and Santa Fe were exotic locales one went to for special reasons or because one was very lucky. Even when I was looking at Monte Vista on the map before moving here, I never put it into the bigger picture, looking beyond the boundaries of Colorado.

Taos has been a magnet for artists for a century or longer. I imagine everyone connects it with Georgia O’Keefe. It’s strange to think of D. H. Lawrence having lived there, but he did. What a jaunt from the coal mines of Yorkshire, England to the high desert of northern New Mexico.

The photo above is wild mint growing beside the ditch next to the Monte Vista golf course. When I crushed a leaf, the fragrance was very mild but definitely spearmintlike, the leaves are a little bristly and the flowers are a magnet for the bees.

Take Note

In response to The Daily Post’s writing prompt: “Handwritten.”

Not long ago (like two weeks) I was spending a quiet (so quiet sounds had been sucked out of the world) Sunday morning minding the Art Co-op shop. There was a tablet there used in lieu of a cash register. I had a story on my mind. I knew some of the facts I needed but not all, and I suddenly realized that I could use that tablet for research.

And I did.

I had to take notes “old-school.” On notebook paper. There was a spiral notebook in the drawer. Strangely, it was a pleasure writing by hand, and I enjoyed the whole experience. The pleasure was diminished when I got home and had to figure out what to do with those notes in this very different world. I still don’t know. It seems dumb to transcribe them onto my laptop when, really, they’re more useful on paper I can refer to. I did learn why we used to use desks back in the old days, though. 😉

Dilettante? Amateur? OK By Me

I feel a bit guilty — now that we are getting new prompts in the Daily Prompt and I’m not writing them, well, I am, but not much and/or well. I’ve been feeling the press of life, I guess (and a migraine).

I’ve been thinking a lot about “being” an artist as opposed to just making art or painting. This summer I’ve been in a show and dealt with the co-op and the upshot was that I didn’t like it much. I was excited about it all at the beginning, but no longer. I’m looking forward to a couple of shows I could be hanging my work in, organizations I could belong to (or remain a member of) and, as they say, I’m just not “feeling it.” A friend of mine — well a couple of friends — are professional artists and they spend all their time painting. They are pressured to produce and they produce. I like their work, but I also see that they paint one painting over and over again.

I can’t see how it would be otherwise.

Then I thought of Leonardo.

The guy was not exactly prolific and he had a hard time finishing things. He didn’t win competitions for work and, it seems to me, that he painted but doesn’t seem to self-identified as a painter.

That would be the end of the comparison between me and Leonardo except I have been in Milan.

When you paint and show your work to others you come up against comments like, “You need to learn to use color,” and that from a person who chose to paint in bold bands of pastels and tints and lay contrasting colors side-by-side.

Often it means, “You need to learn to paint the way I want to paint.”


He actually wrote a little treatise on the words “amateur” and “dilettante.” I wish I could find it. Somewhere during his Italian journey, he decided that — as far as visual art was concerned — he was a dilettante. One who delights.

I don’t know what paintings or drawings he did after his return to Italy; I suspect none, or nothing more than sketches for stage sets and costumes, but I really do not know.

But I have also realized that, as a painter, I don’t want to be a business woman or a career artist. I don’t know if I have the talent or skill, but I know that I don’t have the interest in making what has so far in my life been a joy into work.

What’s Art, Anyway?

Last week I had lunch with new friends here in Heaven. They are all artists. We talked about — or expressed ourselves — about what makes art. Some cried out against landscapes. Some cried out against something else. Some expressed the opinion that certain photographs and certain kinds of paintings were steps in the “progress” one makes to become a real artist. Some cried out against painting from photographs. One of them and I agreed that if an artist isn’t pushing themselves, it’s boring.

I came home inhibited. I paint landscapes. I paint other things, but I do paint landscapes and I thought they were art because they’re not easy for me. I also paint from photographs — I consider many of the photos I take to be sketches from which I’ll paint at some point. I don’t see why anyone should sit in a mosquito infested field with a sketch pad and go home and paint from it when they could just take a photo. I do other paintings, too, but painting landscapes and painting from photos improve my technique with the brush and with color.

The great thing of painting, for me, has been freedom, but now I feel less free. As I listened, I also thought, ” These guys have been to school and gotten advanced degrees in art. I didn’t do that.”

As far as getting along with my art teachers, I’m 2 for 2. My experience of “studying” art can be distilled into Stephen Crane’s poem.

“Think as I think,” said a man,
“Or you are abominably wicked; you are
a toad.”
And after I thought of it, I said, “I will, then, be a toad.”

My artistic heroes are the guys who painted day in and day out whatever someone told them to paint because they needed to earn a living. Those guys would have mastered the craft in ways most modern artists never need to. When I was wandering around in Verona, I went to the cathedral and went through the oldest part of the church. The cathedral was an architectural concretion. There were workmen restoring frescoes that were more than 1000 years old. A canvas tarp hung between the passageway and their work to help keep their work clean. I sat down outside the tarp and listened to them talk.

They weren’t talking about the meaning of art or if they were or were not artists. They were talking a bit about the materials they were using (native ochres, mostly), but for the most part they were planning their weekends.

I envied them their skills and training, but, as Goethe wrote, through our lives — especially in our youth — we look ahead down myriad pathways. We go a little way on one and then the other before we find the one that fits us best. He was in his late 30s when he turned away forever from the possibility of being an artist. He was in Italy when he made this determination about himself. He’d lost interest in writing. He was weighed down by Sorrows of Young Werther and the resultant fame and the numerous copy-cat suicides. He wanted to write something else. He wondered if he could. Some months in Italy, and he found his way back to unfinished projects — Tasso and Iphegenia among others. The drawings he’d imagined he would do as a record of his Italian journey became the job of a young German artist, Christoph Heinrich Kniep.

I have a beautiful little book of Goethe’s watercolor sketches of places in Italy and Switzerland, some of which I have seen in real life, too. My favorite is his sketch of the Rheinfall. I have seen the Reinfall several times and it makes me happy to be able to look at the vision Goethe had while he was there.

He wrote about it, too, in Faust II, and I recognized it right away in his words — it is also my very favorite passage in all that Goethe wrote — and it is a painting in its way.

The waterfall I now behold with growing
Delight as it roars down to the Ravine.
From fall to fall a thousand streams are flowing,
A thousand more are plunging, effervescent,
And high up in the air the spray is glowing.
Out of this thunder, rises, iridescent,
Enduring through all change the motley bow,
Now painted clearly, now evanescent,
Spreading a fragrant, cooling spray below.
The rainbow mirrors human love and strife;
Consider it and you will better know:
In many hued reflection we have life.

A landscape.

A photo of the Rheinfalls -- there is very often a rainbow.

A photo of the Rheinfalls — there is very often a rainbow.

Hawk Dream

A response to Bumblepuppies’ Blacklight Candelabra weekly challenge:  “…look at the image and ask yourself what it says about you or what message it might convey.  Analyze.  Be sure to look at individual pieces (for example, the purple corners in my picture) and think about what they might represent.  Then, create a post that includes your image as well as the explanation of what you’ve discovered about that image.”


This picture is every bit as subtle and inscrutable as my dreams. The symbolism in my dreams is so obvious that I often wonder what came first; the metaphor? the reality? In this picture I’m hiking, I see a hawk and there is the night sky. I’m an artist so it’s pretty difficult for me NOT to conceptualize as I go along and while I may like some abstract painting, I see no point in doing it myself. Anyway, I ended up liking this picture a lot and maybe it will become a painting someday. I think it is a painting of my death, my dreams, my past life and a spirit guide I had once upon a time who helped me learn to see. It’s significant that the hawk is perfect and my image is flawed. I believe that is accurate to life. The red tail IS perfect and I have a long ways to go…

Breaking the “Law”

Daily Prompt Breaking the Law Think about the last time you broke a rule (a big one, not just ripping the tags off your pillows). Were you burned, or did things turn out for the best?

Most of my classmates in the workshop know more about the “craft” of “creative writing” than I do. They know the nomenclature and the rules. Their expectations and standards are based on these little tokens they’ve brought away from another class, another workshop, a lecture, a book. When they read each others work, their comments often refer back to one of these rules. Here’s an example, “We know by now the author shouldn’t switch POVs unless you work in the omniscient third person.” What in hell does that mean and who knows it? I don’t know it.

It’s interesting — but not surprising — that the one who most often invokes the “rules” is the retired lawyer… Reading his comments, I find myself channeling my inner Professor Keating, thinking, “Be gone J. Evans Pritchard!”

For me phrases like “omniscient third person” are technical terms that were invented to describe what a writer somewhere has done so that when you have an exam and the (English) teacher asks:

“What is the point of view in this story? Choose one:

A) Omniscient third person
B) First person
C) Second person
D) Quasi-inebriated elevated visionary
E) Semi-omniscient demi-god
F) Unreliable senile uncle

If you’re able to answer the question you get the points. It might help a student down the road when he or she is reading something, but otherwise it serves no purpose at all other than points on an exam — and one more thing that makes students hate English.

It is not a rule for writers. The rule for writers is “Express yourself and your ideas in such a way that others can understand you — if that’s your goal. If it’s not your goal, obfuscate the hell out of your story (poem, novel).”

It’s a rule that cannot be broken.

One of the greatest writers EVER (it’s been far too long since my last Goethe post) is, of course, Goethe. His experiment, The Sorrows of Young Werther, hit the world exactly at the moment it was ready for a story like that told in that (at the time) very unconventional (rule-breaking) way. Goethe was an, uh, you know, an artist. Throughout his life he wrote toward something new both in terms of style and of ideas, visions. He was engaged in reality and it (duh) affected his creative work. I don’t know that he sat there with a book of “rules for good writing.” Instead, he was conscious of what he was exploring. Did he get “burned?” Yes, but the fire was that he was never allowed, in the eyes of his “fan base”, to grow out of Werther. The public always wanted another Werther, not realizing that never again could a novel blaze across the firmament as that one had. It could not happen twice. Why? Because they were not the same readers they had been before they read it.

Art changes people. Rules are there to keep people in order, doing the expected things in the expected way. Important for traffic. Deadly to art.

My Brother Was “the artist in the family”

Daily Prompt: Express Yourself! by Krista on April 5, 2014 Do you love to dance, sing, write, sculpt, paint, or debate? What’s your favorite way to express yourself, creatively?

Only non artists “express themselves.” Artists do what they cannot help doing and no amount of pressure from inside or outside will stop them. In a sense, I now feel there’s nothing LESS relevant than self-expression. Anything we do will express who we are, and in ways we probably don’t even understand. This painting, for example, of cornflowers. I seriously set out ONLY to paint cornflowers, still, they couldn’t have been painted this way by anyone else.

Oil on panel. A bee actually tried to land on the painted flowers, so I knew I had the color right.


I sold it last week from my former Etsy store. It’s painted on a panel that sits on a box. It’s all very elegant wood, well finished. It’s an expensive painting surface. It is not meant to be framed. My listing described this, but I had only one photo of the painting and it did not show the back. The woman who bought it received it and immediately sent me an angry and actually abusive string of emails complaining about the “frame” and calling it “crap” describing it as “horrendous” and accusing me of sending her not the REAL painting but my “training.” I did the only thing I could; I told her to send back the painting and told her that once I received it, I’d refund everything. I haven’t heard from her since, but like a parent, I worry about what she might do to my work. B**** I then closed my Etsy Store, but not before (temporarily) posting this as my banner after I removed all my work. Etsy schmetsy.



I started my adult life (college) as an art major. The thing is, my mom strenuously disapproved of this and made sure it didn’t happen. I majored in English because, in my family, well, here’s the story.

Abstract Expressionism Christmas 1981. Denver, snow on the ground. Clear, still, silent, star-lit. Kirk and I take a walk after dinner. My brother is an artist living in the moment of grand opportunities. A visit to his apartment in Colorado Springs requires painting animation cells for a feature length fully animated film, Leafy Wanders in Space, Leafy being my brother’s two-dimensional alter ego. This year, his wife and daughter are having Christmas dinner at his mother-in-law’s house. His father-in-law hates him and once went after him with a shotgun, so Kirk is with my mom and me.

I’m a visual artist, too, something I was never supposed to bring up, acknowledge, admit to, or otherwise claim as an aspect of my identity. It is OK if I write, but if pencil hits paper and drags behind it a line that does not turn into a word, I have overstepped my boundaries. One summer afternoon my grandmother Kennedy upset everyone by proclaiming, “Martha Ann is the REAL artist in the family!”

Artistic vision is highly individual, but still artists can be competitive, and my brother is even though our work is completely different. He is primarily a cartoonist; his other work is illustration. He loves book illustrations of the ’30’s, the work of Howard Pyle and Disney’s cell animation. He believes in studying anatomy in order to draw the human figure then carefully rendering the proportions with a pencil or crow-quill pen on Bristol board. I believe in grabbing a conté crayon, looking directly at naked people and capturing the life behind the flesh in gleefully drawn gesture drawings on rough newsprint.

Earlier that year — much to his horror — I had a one man show of my paintings, mostly gouache on paper, flat paint, flat surfaces; figure paintings of headless bodies. I sold two before the show opened and more at the show bringing in a few thousand bucks. I thought that was pretty good for a one shot deal. It was more than I’d made from writing. “The thing is, you’re an abstract expressionist,” he says suddenly. I do not know what that is. Anyway, I had moved from painting to linoleum cuts. I didn’t have very good tools, but I use what I have and have a lot of fun. I am about to have more fun because, in the next few days, I will get better tools and my brother will teach me how to sharpen them. He smokes a pipe; it keeps his hand warm inside his coat pocket. His hair is short and curled; he is clean-shaven, lean and very handsome. He is my best friend.

The snow crunches as we walk. I talk to him about art and everything I am thinking. It was during those days that I got the idea that art and god were some how entwined. We laugh. “Well, Martha Ann,” he says, “if you’re looking for God, you need to play Black Sabbath backward at 78. And you need to get some emery paper, honey.” Hilarious and deeply profound. The search for god has always involved arcane and absurd ritual (like listening to Black Sabbath backward at 78) and the sharpening of tools, the perfecting of craft. Well, there it was.

Fafner - work based on a dress and pendant I had as a college student, my short career as an artist's model, and a guy who took photos of me after a modeling session


Oil on panel, metallic paint (fun) Based on a night I spent in Munich.


Learning to paint reflections -- the waterfall near my house. Oil on canvas, sold last year.

Descanso Falls

Mysterious painting that came from godnose where. Oil on panel.

The World is Out There

Ironically (or is it?) I have made all of $150 from my writing. I’ve made several thousand from my painting and my work has been in several juried shows. Still and all, none of this (thank you mom!) has been done “for” money. The best thing she ever did was abuse me out of following my dream. Sometimes having a dream is more necessary to life, to survival, than living the dream.  And at this point in my life, understanding that self-expression is inevitable, I try to express more than just myself. After all, part of my SELF is my relation to the world. Any real art is a journey beyond the self into a larger world. I’ve learned this in both my writing and my painting. It might be Ariadne’s thread.

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Useless or Useful?

591px-Dschuang-Dsi-Schmetterlingstraum-Zhuangzi-Butterfly-DreamAs I wind down my day in preparation for sleep (hot chocolate, actually, and slumbering dogs behind me here) I read someone’s blog post about the uselessness of art. He presented an argument and then refuted it (clearly what was going to happen from the way he set it up). But it reminded me of a parable by Zuangzi.

 Hui Tzu said to Chuang Tzu, “I have a big tree of the kind men call shu. Its trunk is too gnarled and bumpy to apply a measuring line to, its branches too bent and twisty to match up to a compass or square. You could stand it by the road and no carpenter would look at it twice. Your words, too, are big and useless, and so everyone alike spurns them!”

 Chuang Tzu said, “Maybe you’ve never seen a wildcat or a weasel. It crouches down and hides, watching for something to come along. It leaps and races east and west, not hesitating to go high or low-until it falls into the trap and dies in the net. Then again there’s the yak, big as a cloud covering the sky. It certainly knows how to be big, though it doesn’t know how to catch rats. Now You have this big tree and you’re distressed because it’s useless. Why don’t you plant it in Not-Even-Anything Village, or the field of Broad-and-Boundless, relax and do nothing by its side, or lie down for a free and easy sleep under it? Axes will never shorten its life, nothing can ever harm it. If there’s no use for it, how can it come to grief or pain?” 

In fact, art is NOT useless in these terms. Art is often dangerous (to someone), salvation (to someone), food and shelter (to someone). It’s also language transmitted across centuries, including this old story.

A fun version of Zuangzi is Zuangzi Speaks: The Music of Nature (from which I found the cartoon…)

I know my blog title makes a BIG CLAIM

I’ve always written. I wrote before I could read. I had to hand my manuscripts to someone else to read to me. My dad was a man with a great imagination who wanted to encourage me, so when he read my scribbles back, the stories were good. At a very young age I was convinced that I could write.

Though I haven’t seen one in a while, I’m sure they’re still around, books about the experience of writing. I used to find them really irksome. Books about the experience of living (real books?) had more cache with me. Still do. I read some of these writer books — I cannot remember any titles — and it seemed in many of these books that the experience of writing was the one life experience the writer had had. I thought I’d rather not live if that were the case.

There are some writers who have written about writing that interested me. Burroughs, for one, here, “Well, Kerouac was a writer. That is, he wrote.” (Here it is) Truman Capote, also, not so much what he had to say about writing (they all seem to get a little melodramatic, like somehow it’s a curse to be a writer, like somehow it’s the same as driving an ambulance, like those whiny singers with millions of bucks and all their dreams come true singing songs like “Here I am, on the road again”) but what he did as a writer. Except for this, “‘Finishing a book is just like you took a child out in the back yard and shot it.” More on that in a minute…

So, I figure by Burroughs’ definition I’m definitely a writer. Here’s what I’ve learned about it so far.

Being inspired is like being on the most amazing drug you can possibly find. NOTHING in the world is more interesting, more beautiful, more compelling or more true than the IDEA that you are realizing. It’s as intoxicating as love and every bit as blind. In my case, being severely dyslexic  (I can write words upside down on the board in front of my class and not realize it) and being enraptured by an idea makes proofreading impossible. ALL LOVE IS BLIND.

Finishing the book (see? Got here!) is strange. I’d lived for months in this rapturous love affair with my idea and suddenly the characters were finished talking, their world was complete, their story was told and I was DONE. THEY DIDN’T NEED ME ANY MORE! My first experience with this (when I finished the first draft of Martin of Gfenn which, by the way, I thought was absolutely perfect and finished) was the feeling that there’d been a great party at my house and suddenly everyone went home. I left my computer, walked into the living room (which was dark, dogs sleeping on their beds) and I really wondered where everyone was. Capote was RIGHT. It was incredibly lonesome.

Martin of Gfenn went out into the world the first time in the late 1990’s. He quickly found an agent (it was a 90 page novella written in the first person like a medieval confession) but she couldn’t sell the manuscript. “There’s just not enough background here for American audiences to understand the story!” She was right; but I didn’t know the back ground. All I knew was what “Martin” had “told” me during those moments of intoxicated inspiration while I listened to the same song (I won’t tell) over and over.

“It’s a great story,” she said. “Just fill it out a little.”

I did. To do this I had to become a Swiss Medievalist Historian. The book grew to 520 manuscript pages of absolutely brilliant and flawless and riveting prose. Out it went again; early 2000’s. It found an agent — the agent was gambling that the film, “Kingdom of Heaven” would really take off and start a new interest in the Middle Ages, Crusades, Jerusalem and Leprosy. My book had two of those covered and a tiny bit of a third. Jerusalem didn’t enter into the story but no one can say 3/4 odds are bad. Even I had hope that the leper genre would finally find its niche.

The film was not a big win and my manuscript languished until I fired the agent. Back it came. (This was in the transdimensional moment when paper was still the thing, but people were wondering why.)

My life and health went whack at the same time, and it was a few years before I looked at my masterpiece again. When I did I saw that I had betrayed the fictional character who had shared his story with me. I was sad — and ashamed. I’d been warned by Rilke decades before, in Letters to a Young Poet, when he wrote against “…living and writing in heat…”

truman_capote_1981Some months later, fully prepared to accept my sin and move on, maybe never write any more or write another book (I had written another book, actually) I had a dream about Truman Capote. Why? I had no idea, but it was worth noting down, so I got up and wrote about it. Not long after I had another one. In the second, he told me I was a good writer. Then there was a third. We all know that three is the magic number.

I spent that summer reading everything Capote wrote, and I saw exactly what my novel did not have; style. Story, yes, WOW, in fact. Style? No.

After reading everything he had written, it seemed to me that until he “found” In Cold Blood, Capote had not really had a “story.” He had only some bits of some stories (which I love) and experiences with which he trained his voice, honed his craft. When THE story arrived, Capote was fully prepared as a writer to tangle with it.

Capote wrote how static passages are the most difficult because only the beauty of the prose can make them live for the reader; action, dialogue, easy, but description? Situation? Necessary but often so tedious and lifeless. After my summer internship with Capote my novel was half as long.

So what makes a writer a writer? Just writing, as Burroughs asserts? When it comes down to it, without that key element, a person is not a writer. And then, as Burroughs goes on to say;

Sinclair Lewis said that if you have written something that you think is just great and you can’t wait to show it to somebody, he said throw it away it’s terrible. Now this is very often true. I had the experience of writing something that I thought was just great and I read it the next day and said for God’s sakes tear it into very small pieces and throw it into somebody else’s garbage can. It’s awful. And that is one of the deterrents to writing — the amount of bad writing you’re going to have to do before you do any good writing.

I can definitely get behind that idea. My novel had been sent to everyone I thought might even have a slight interest in representing a historical novel set in a foreign country during a historical period many Americans know only from video games. There IS no “Medieval America.” Most of these agents had seen the first proposal; some the second. The third? Everyone KNOWS you don’t send proposals for the same book twice to the same agents. After more than a year of attempting to make up to Martin of Gfenn what I had done to him in my egocentrism, lack of experience and infatuation, I decided that I would publish it myself. I also had friends who were far along in years, whose health was not good, who’d been on my side through the whole process. I didn’t know if they would live long enough to see it published if I didn’t do it myself.

I believe we’re in a revolutionary moment in book publishing (News flash?). It’s easy to put together a lovely book with a Print on Demand publisher. I’ve done it for course materials, too. Using a POD made it possible for me to put my own artwork on the cover of my novel — something I really wanted to do (and did). It reached a gratifying level of success among people who have to read it in their second (or third!) language. It wasn’t what I wanted for my book, but it was so much better than letting it languish, 520 pages of badly written prose, in a box, on a shelf.