What Does Our Art Do for Ourselves and Others?

Last weekend, I visited the Revolutionary Vision: Group f/64 and Richard Misrach Photographs exhibition at the Autry Museum of the American West in Griffith Park. Entering the exhibit took me back to a night late last Spring. I was a dinner guest at Wildcat, the home of Gina and Kim Weston, and I took notes especially when photographers talked about creative process–one of my obsessions. Must. CREATE. In spite of oneself. My output may be different from theirs, but looking at how they spark and to be in witness of another artist, is inspiring.

Back at the Autry, the exhibit details how every member of Group f/64 was a master photographer who not only advanced the art of photography but also brought it to new audiences and venues. Then I stood in front of this photo. Its voice so unique and pure, I probably don’t have to tell you who took it. (But I do in the caption, because, well, it doesn’t belong to me.)

Ansel Adams, Half Dome – Image linked from Autry Museum website

In the introduction to Adams’ series of photographs, the exhibit notes his contributions and many roles. Yet one in his bio made his stand out from the other Group f/64 photographers, “conservationalist.”

Ansel Adams was an activist.

I sat with that for a moment as a woman took a call in the gallery beneath a quote from Richard Misrach, “At the same time, I found myself at the center of the cultural and political revolution that was the sixties. Little surprise that I have been trying to reconcile these two poles ever since.”

I considered the power and responsibility of art–what our work does when it goes out into the world and makes its own way. I thought about creating a voice, unique and pure, one that could be heard in spite of mobile phone conversations and scrolling and clicking. My mind still circles around these ideas in this week of The Sit-In, Brexit, under the intense heat engulfing Los Angeles–the world feels chaotic, heavy, and messy, even more so than usual. We are still polarized but I don’t need reconciliation, just the strength of spirit to continue creating.

#The100Day Project…so far…


I will be one-third of the way through the #The100DayProject tomorrow. (Late to the party? Catch up here.)

Yes, I’m building the muscle to listen – especially to the beat and rhythm of how people talk. I’ve never written music but when recalling what someone says, I play the rhythm in my head just before I touch my pen to the card. So far, here’s the most liked one and my favorite one on #100DaysofOverheard.

The surprise for me has been how others have reacted to my project. My generous friends have loaned me their voices and wit. Strangers on the street, in stores, in restaurants have simply been themselves. Instagrammers have also been interacting with my project – I love that @natbiz211 joined in on the fun!

This index card has also become my ticket to watch other people create and work. One of my favorite is by a copywriter in Austin, Texas (@brandwriter). He laser cuts his fears into a piece of wood and at the end of the 100 days, he’s going to burn them. @100DaysofAdulting cracks me up but this one made me nod – I didn’t even realize I had done that. And I don’t know how @cathydisbrow gets those pieces done everyday. Every time I search on #The100DayProject, it’s like a potluck. Bring something and share.

Stop Wasting Time

LOVE this book!

If time is your writing problem, then stop wasting it. Hey, I get it. The world is INTERESTING. I too like shiny things and already have discovered far too many of them but I don’t have the time to pursue everything anymore. Writing a jump-start is hands-on way to reign in my curiosity and focus it on a long project or even long-term goals. Right now. Quit messing around. Tick tock.

I learned about the jump-start last year while reading “The Writer’s Portable Mentor” by Priscilla Long. On page 19, she lists nine questions and you set a timer for each to “write through your hesitations.” My initial drafts are about two pages long and take no more than an hour. My two favorite questions are list the 10 things this work (poetry collection, memoir, or book, or the long form of your art) needs to include and what questions arise from this subject matter. Do I really have something to say about a subject and do I have enough to sustain myself for the long haul?

I still work on small projects and play in my creative life, but when I feel the spark of “Is this bigger than this handful of poems or essays? Do I really have something here?” — I write a jump-start. I may not answer all of the questions on the first draft but even these gaps are useful in my next steps.

Long suggests that a jump-starts can be a rough draft of the project itself. Instead I use them to vet if I’m ready to commit a big or consistent chunk of time towards it yet. Once a project has a jump-start, I’ll revisit that write-up periodically to write a few lines of notes like things I’ve learned. It’s like a project log.

Reviewing a jump-start helps me answer if this project still interests me and if I am doing what I set out to do. I can even shelve the project and still have these notes if I ever want to return if stories change. It’s so easy to get caught up in what we think we’re doing and jump-starts are a tangible way to help me stay focused in a world full of distractions.


My World Still has Prince in it

I still haven’t read the obituaries — I am in first rate denial. So this week, I’m thinking what his career as an artist teaches me.

Work quickly and finish. Some artists aim for process, others for product. Prince did both. Susan Rogers, his former sound engineer, told the BBC, “Prince once described his creativity as a curse, explaining: ‘If I didn’t make music, I’d die.'” He worked quickly – often finishing a song a day while others took a week.  The myth of The Vault of his unreleased music claims that Prince could release an album every year for the next 100 years. “…As long as the guy was awake and breathing, we would be playing music. And most of that time, he was recording that music,” said Rogers.

Be unbelievable. Three years ago today, I saw Prince in concert for the first time. I was on a group trip to Las Vegas to remember a friend who had died. (This is how my people mourn, don’t judge us.) We’ve had our differences but seeing Prince was the first thing we agreed upon unanimously in 20 years. At The Joint at the Hard Rock Cafe Hotel, when Prince looked up from his guitar, gave us a shy grin, asked, “Girl, how come you don’t call me?” I screamed from the eighth row like a teenager. He started with a cover of “Let’s Go” by The Cars which blossomed into “Wild Thing” by The Troggs. In his hands, of course, those songs were always meant to be together, Prince made them his own. Then he led us into his own music and at the end of the night, Prince – 100, Audience – 0. It’s like Charlie Murphy says, “I mean, it wasn’t even close.” Prince blew us away.

Excellence on your terms, not theirs. There are the funny reminders, like when Prince challenged Jimmy Fallon to a game of ping pong. Then when Questlove went roller skating with Prince. Then there are the serious ones like his dispute with Warner Brothers. There was an ironic, low grade whine last week when fans couldn’t stream his music. This is the hard line Prince holds for all creatives  — that artists should have control of their work and get paid. He called it out without apology, “Tell me a musician who’s got rich off digital sales. Apple’s doing pretty good though, right?”

I’m not ready to feel the loss yet. On Friday, I waved to the guy jogging in his purple t-shirt. My Facebook feed is flooded with screenings of Purple Rain, Prince tribute parties. Cool. I keep telling myself that everyone is just celebrating Prince. I love everyone’s “that time…” stories about him. This one too. Keep telling them. There’s still so much to learn.

#The100DayProject Starts Tuesday!

Do you need to jump start your creative practice? The 100 Day Project might be for you. What do you want to do? Cook? Make jewelry? Take a photo? Draw? Write a poem? Pick something, then every day, starting on Tuesday, April 19th through Wednesday, July 27th, upload a photo to your Instagram feed and show your daily progress with your own hashtag.

Daily progress means small steps.

I attempted this last year and discovered many artists I wouldn’t have any other way. Its creator, Elle Luna, answers all of your questions here.

#THE100DAYPROJECT is a free and open project for anyone who is hungry to jump-start their creative practice, who is curious about being a part of a supportive, nurturing community that celebrates the process, and those who are busy busy busy (🙋🏻) and searching for a bite-sized way to nurture their creativity! Is this you? If so, you’re in the right spot! @peterrific.ph & @gizemicplanets shared this great overview, which I want to share with you: ✔️ Choose your action (an action you will repeat for 100 days) ✔️ Find a unique hashtag for your project, like #100daysof… (This is very important. Choose your own so that you can have all of your work under one hashtag) ✔️ Announce your project on Instagram with your hashtag and #THE100DAYPROJECT hashtag 🏁 Begin Tuesday, April 19th! What will you do with 💯 days of making? We can’t wait to see! Please share this post! 🐢

A photo posted by elle luna (@elleluna) on

I’ll use these days to work on a specific aspect of my creativity — observation. For most of my corporate life, I sat in cubicles or open offices. As a manager, I wasn’t allowed to wear headsets even if they weren’t plugged into anything because it made me look unapproachable. But I still had to get my work done, so unless someone was speaking directly to me, I learned to tune people out. I’d forget to open my ears when I left work, not just for its creative benefits but to also be present in a moment as a human.

Working with Lynda Barry’s “Syllabus” daily has helped me start to break this bad habit. Barry’s advice, “…listen to what people are saying – overheard conversations are full of good lines. Pay attention to how people really speak.”  For the last month, I have been capturing bits of overheard conversation and will continue doing so for #The100DaysProject. I write daily but sending something small out into the world daily has taught me so much about writing and my artistic practice. You may monitor my progress, even if you don’t have a smartphone.

If you’re doing #The100DayProject, please leave your Instagram handle or your project’s hashtag in the comments, I’d love to follow along.

It’s Not Just an Asian Thing: Why Calvin Trillin’s Poem Matters to All Writers

I am Japanese-American and Korean-American.  I am not Chinese-American and I felt funny when I first read Calvin Trillin’s poem, Have They Run Out of Provinces Yet?  His use of “They” in the first two lines pulled me out of the poem and made me wonder, “Does he know that some people who read The New Yorker are Chinese-Americans?”

This is a fair question in the midst of coincidence.  Trillin isn’t the only white male writer who was called out this week.

And buried near the end of the poem’s first stanza, Trillin refers to “the eaters.”  Ohhhh, I get it, Trillin is making fun of foodies, by way of the homelands of Chinese people.  And this is funny how?  In 2016?  In the history of ever?

I have nothing to add to the responses by writers like Franny Choi, Karissa Chen, Celeste Ng, Beth Nguyen, and Timothy Yu.  Trust me, they’ve got this.  Seriously, read this.  Go ahead, I’ll wait.

I do believe that Calvin Trillin should be allowed to write whatever he would like and in the manner he wishes to represent himself.  We all come to the page at different levels of craft.  I will not stand over any writer’s shoulder because that’s censorship.  Write on, Calvin.

Writing is one thing.  Publishing is another.

In my post-AWP glow, I remember attending a panel that reminded us that we’ll eventually be grateful to the gatekeepers who rejected our initial work because this forced us to go back and write better.


The editorial staff of The New Yorker published a poem with rhyming couplets that disrespect sound, where the payoff is overshadowed by elements irrelevant to the poet’s stated intention, the writer seems to be laughing to himself, and the work has no muscularity.

National Poetry Month is a time to invite new readers and writers to poetry.  This is our open house where we remind the public that there are still people who take poetry seriously.  The New Yorker is highly respected for generally excellent writing and they pay their writers well.  They have influence.  Featuring Trillin’s poem as a crown jewel during National Poetry Month is a poor choice.  It wouldn’t be a stretch for an astute reader who is new to poetry to ask, “If The New Yorker doesn’t take poetry seriously, why should anyone?

As of this morning’s Google search, no one has called out David Remnick or Paul Muldoon as gatekeepers.  The conversation about the gatekeepers has seemed more like a raised eyebrow and throat clearing followed by pointing at artifacts like the VIDA numbers, and referring to the magazine by title, not by masthead.  No demands for resignations or rally cries to cancel subscriptions to The New Yorker.  I get it.  Canceling my subscription would be an admission of defeat.  I am complicit.  I am in that long line of writers who would consider a personal rejection from The New Yorker a reason to celebrate.  So, what’s next?  For me, I choose to get back to work.  Read.  Write.  Submit.  Do better.  Repeat.  Never ever give up.

Despite requests from the media, neither editor has made any public comment regarding Calvin Trillin’s poem yet.  Maybe they are too busy curating higher quality poetry for future editions of The New Yorker.  Or maybe it’s because they don’t have to respond.  And I wonder what their silence means to all writers.

What AWP’s Bookfair Taught Me About Submission Guidelines: Getting Beyond “We’re Looking for Good Writing.”


When I learned two years ago that the 2016 Association of Writers & Writing Programs (AWP) Conference was going to be in Los Angeles, many of my local and far away writing friends asked if they’d see me there. I had never attended AWP mainly for the practical reason that with only two or three weeks of vacation a year at a corporate j-o-b, I used my time off to write in workshops instead of listening to panels on craft or pitching my projects. But as friends checked in and announced their AWP plans, it was becoming a local (to me) mini reunion from writing workshops and grad school. I registered for AWP.

Publishing has always been a ritual fraught with peril and is woven tightly into AWP’s conference program and bookfair. If a writer tells you that they never had any anxiety about getting their work published, they’re not working hard enough.

The first panel I attended was a conversation of poets who just published their first books. After an hour of their stories and insight, Richie Hofmann, a friend and panel member, noted they had only discussed the part the writer controls, which really only is about 10 percent, and that one of the biggest factors had not been mentioned. He called it out — Luck.

Talent and hard work are simply not enough.

I’ve returned home feeling discouraged after panels like these at other writing conferences.  With support from my writing community, I’d walk it off, but I’d still feel bad.

I was at AWP 2016 for all three days, meeting friends for meals, attending panel discussions, so in my downtime, I wandered over to the Bookfair, a large trade show floor of booths featuring graduate writing programs, book publishers, literary magazines, writing retreats, and other services for writers. It represents a significant cross-section of the literary community.


Yep. Anne Corbitt nailed it.

But here’s the other thing I learned first hand.

Every writer, every publisher, everyone at this conference has the tough story about the bad timing of a manuscript or the stinging rejection, but here was the first time in my career where agonizing over how difficult it was to get published was such a small part of the publication conversation. The focus was on the opportunities.  AWP was my chance to talk with humans at these booths, about what they were looking for, what they liked, and what they wrote. I took good notes, collected sample copies. 

This was far more helpful and quite different than just reading the submission guidelines on a website that say “send us your very best work” or “we just like really good writing.”  These vague remarks remind me of when a boss at a j-o-b says “Bring me a rock” and you do and s/he says, “Not this one.” Repeat this for 26 years then retire.  

It’s easy to be cynical in isolation or even over a post-workshop beer with colleagues. And this is what I carry from AWP (along with my nifty new tote bag from the University of Nebraska Press) — I have a plan based upon these new connections at the Bookfair, I have done the groundwork for placing my work, and for the first time, I’m looking forward to sending out my work this year. 

It’s true in publishing as it is in life that you don’t know until you go.

What The Velvet Prison Taught Me About Making Space to Create

Back when I worked at The Really Big Company, my boss sent me to the corporate training center nicknamed “The Velvet Prison.” Imagine a US river winding through a forest — on its bank, a sprawling world class facility where an executive chef serves excellent cuisine and an attentive staff addresses every student, not just the company’s executives, by name. Business luminaries teach engaging topics. There are snacks everywhere. It’s a great experience.

A generous artist has offered her vacation cabin to me and another writer next week, and, well, I will have a forest, but no river, no executive chef.  The home is charming and there will be no staff.

Unless I count myself.

On the night before my first class at The Velvet Prison, I signed my room’s guestbook, mumbled to myself, Wow, that’s kind of weird, when I read a former boss’ name in his familiar handwriting. My procrastination complete I opened my comb-bound textbook, expecting their take on Marketing Leadership but found these questions instead.

What do you want to get from this experience?

What will get in the way of getting what you want?

What can you do to mitigate them?

The Velvet Prison knew our worst instincts. We’d take furtive glances when our Blackberries vibrated during class, we’d take and make calls during breaks.  After finishing our group homework, we’d be seen at the bar for a round or two, but then we’d rush back to our rooms at night to read the hundred or so emails from the day, then we’d do our individual class homework too. Many pulled all-nighters in The Velvet Prison. We tried to be everywhere and everything to everyone, and as much as we missed our loved ones, we feared dropping the ball on something back in the office even more.

This the split I feel when I write, especially at retreats and workshops. And until my visit to The Velvet Prison, I faced my worst instincts on my own. Poorly. I’d tell myself, I have something else, everything else that I “need” to be doing right now. I’d write and work during the retreat that was meant only for writing. Then, after I returned to work, I’d wish I spent that time on my writing. This cycle is utterly anti-productive. The right pencil or notebook, the insight of an amazing workshop leader, the great idea — none of this became useful until I created a space within myself to work.  Learning to give myself over to my writing is a journey. I’m getting better at it.  These questions help.

#EatCandy – “Syllabus: Notes from an Accidental Professor” by Lynda Barry


When I was a kid, my elementary school had an art teacher for the entire campus. Once a week, my classmates and I walked across the playground to Mrs. Fullmer’s room. Her studio smelled of water-based paint, paper, and Elmer’s glue. We watched as she demonstrated how to do the project, then while we created, she played a record – a story acted out for us, like Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves. This was not “staying between the lines” as mandated by the pack of eight crayons in the belly of my desk back in my home room. In Mrs. Fullmer’s class, we got messy with finger painting, oil pastel crayons, paper mache, popsicle sticks, and glitter. We folded, tore, brushed, dabbed, drew, wrapped, cut — so many verbs. We played.

At the end of last year, Lynda Barry‘s “Syllabus” seemed to be everywhere — popping up on my Facebook feed several times a week, suggested as craft book in two writing workshops, and several friends mentioned it. What appealed most to me was its immediacy and inclusiveness.  On this journey, writers were going to draw (and write). Artists were going to write (and draw). If you were neither (yet), you would do both too. Everyone gets to eat candy. And we’re going to start now.

I’m in.

“Syllabus” is made much like the composition books I use for my daily writing. It feels familiar with a line of stitching in the middle, black tape on the spine, rounded corners, and every page is filled. Barry doesn’t tell me what to do, she shows me.


The Ivan Brunetti style figures helped me start drawing instantly and Barry helps her readers who might struggle with doing new things. Don’t judge. Keep going.


Doing these five minute daily exercises brings me the possibilities from Mrs. Fullmer’s art class. My notebook and index cards are places to get messy, use lots of art supplies, and observe. I’ve learned a lot about seeing and storytelling during my few weeks with “Syllabus.” I even started a teeny project on Instagram.

Who knows what Spring will bring?

Happy Vernal Equinox!

I made a great photo by PhotoEditor!

I collect comb-bound cookbooks like this one. Its content seems stark by today’s standards. The simple language reads more like a manual than a restaurant menu. These cookbooks were published before celebrity chefs and without words like “artisanal” or “heirloom.” Before every recipe, there are no photographs, no breezy, platform-building prefaces forcing the reader to scroll through the details of the contributor’s philosophy and personal brand, until finally, at long last, mercifully, the ingredients and instructions finally appear.

Instead, these cookbooks are pure text.

If they’re fancy, each section is printed on different colored pages, but don’t dismiss them because they look simple. Many of them aren’t just a collection of recipes, they are practical culinary and rich cultural guides that often begin with a chapter on household and cooking hints, tables of weights and measures, and particularly important at that time in Hawaii, a list of substitutions for ingredients.

I returned from Hawaii a few weeks ago wanting to reignite my blog but read this cookbook instead. Its introduction titled, “Important Observances.” The first section is “The Seasons for Reflection (O-HIGAN).” Here are the opening sentences,

Traditionally in East Asia the Buddhists regard the spring and autumn equinoxes as the seasons for religious reflection. Known as Higan in Japanese, the time between the heat of summer and the cold of winter provides man with the ideal weather to reflect on the meaning of true fulfillment in life.

As Spring begins this Sunday, I return to public observation and reflection on my life’s work. I have learned a lot during my ongoing streak of daily writing and although our seasons aren’t as apparent in Los Angeles, they can be on the page and online. And so as nature in the northern hemisphere renews, so does our conversation here.

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