Publishing a Memoir Under a Pseudonym

When it comes to writing our personal stories, the question of exposure inevitably comes up. How honest are we willing to be on the page? How will others react to our stories?

This month I had the delightful opportunity to speak with MEG McGUIRE about her struggle with these very questions. Her memoir Blinded By Hope, recently published by She Writes Press, is a story about her journey as a mother through her son's bipolar illness. In addition to being a psychotherapist, Meg is an accomplished writer and teacher of memoir with five books already under her belt; she is someone whose work I admire very much. Given the deeply personal nature of this book, she chose to publish under a pseudonym (Meg McGuire). It was not an easy choice, but this was an important story for her to share; equally important was her commitment to honor and protect her son in the telling of it. 

Read our conversation below to learn more about Meg's process in making this big decision.

feather_break.png

Karin: I remember talking to you about this book seven years ago, during the writing process. At the time you were not sure how the process would unfold given the deeply personal nature of your story for you and your family. Did you always intend on publishing it?

Meg McGuire: I think I always wanted to publish it, because I have already published five books and consider myself a writer. I felt like the material was really important, primarily because I could see how difficult it was for our family to get effective treatment for my son. He's bipolar and at that time had an active addiction. In terms of the mental health field, they either treated the mental illness or the addiction. There weren't any programs at that time treating dual diagnosis. So my experience was of enormous frustration trying to get him treatment. At the same time emotionally it was such a rollercoaster for me, dealing with the fallout from his illnesses. Writing was keeping me sane. It was enormously healing for me.

Three years ago I got an agent, Linda Langton, in New York. Linda was one of the agents on a panel at the International Women's Writing Guild in the summer institute. I pitched my book to her, and she was very excited about it because she had had a partner who was bipolar and understood the issues. What she had me do before we sent it out was create a blog. She felt like I needed to have a platform in the mental health and addiction community.

I worked pretty hard on that blog, so that when she did send the book out - and she sent it out to over 30 publishers - part of her query letter included talking about my platform and my other books. Nobody was interested in it. Part of it was that it was written by the mother. Several editors wrote back and said, “Why isn't her son writing the book,” which tremendously pissed me off, because I felt like it was my story, or certainly the family's story, and that was the viewpoint that I took.

I did ask my son if he would be interested in co-writing it with me and he said no. He also was not in any shape to be able to contribute to it. I didn't realize that then, because at that time I hadn't realized the extent of his addiction. He read the first 80 pages and did not like it at all. But he did make some corrections that were actually very helpful, because oftentimes I was looking at him through the lens of a psychotherapist and misunderstanding his behavior.

But he wasn't willing to provide feedback on the entire manuscript? 

No, he wasn't. He ended up in prison, six years ago now. I write about that in the prologue of the book. He was inside for almost four years. I sent him 40 pages of the book, and he said it was just too depressing for him to read. I imagine it was humiliating, particularly in the environment in which he was reading it.

What about the consequences for your son, say, in terms of employment? Was that a consideration?

That's a really good point. Thank you for bringing that up, because the lawyers who vetted the manuscript told me not to publish it until he was out of prison because they felt that would jeopardize his job prospects. That was when I was going to use my own name. The truth is, it doesn't matter what my name is. Anybody who comes out of prison has a horrible time getting a job, because on every application you do have to answer the question, “Have you ever committed a felony?” It has just been hell for him trying to get work. 

When did the idea of publishing under a pseudonym first arise?

Three years ago, around the time he got out of prison, I was going to pursue publishing even though it had been rejected by 31 established publishers. I had heard about She Writes Press, which is a partnership press, and I spoke with Brooke Warner who started it. She had been at Seal Press when I published an earlier book with them. She hadn't been my editor but she knew my name. I asked her if she would be willing to look at the manuscript, and she thought it was an important book. So I signed on with them. So when I made that decision, I talked to my son again and said, “Would you be willing to look at it now?” and he said, “No, I really I don't want to revisit that time in my life.” Since he hadn't read it, he didn't realize that I had used his sentencing hearing as a prologue; when he did discover that he was unhappy. So that's when we started to discuss my using a pseudonym.

Fast forward to last August, a year ago, the publicity arm of She Writes put the book out with my name on Facebook. I didn't know this was going to happen. I happened to be teaching on the East Coast, and the way I found out was, I got a very angry e-mail from my ex-husband who said basically, "How could you do this to our son? He's getting back on his feet. This can do nothing but hurt him." And then I got a second e-mail from him citing case law for invasion of privacy. So at that point I called up Brooke and said, “I need to pull the book, because I'm not sure how to proceed. I'm not sure whether I'm going to use a pseudonym or just pull the book completely.”

I met with my son and said, “We have three options here. One is, I pull the book completely. Two is, I publish it under a pseudonym, and three, we write an epilogue together.” And he said, “I'm not interested in writing an epilogue. I'm okay with the pseudonym.” So I said, “Okay, I'll pull the book now and then I'll make the decision.”

So last August I pulled the book, which was not a happy occurrence for She Writes, because they had already sent out all of the books for review. They had to recall 50 books. They were very kind to me. I have to say my experience with She Writes Press has been a pleasure. Both Brooke and Crystal Patriarche, who is the head of their publicity arm--which is called SparkPoint--said, “We understand this is a difficult decision. You always knew that this was going to be a difficult book. If you decide to come back and want to do it under a pseudonym, let us know, because we'd like to bring the book out.”

After I pulled the manuscript, I sent it to a friend who is a novel writer, and I asked her to look at it and see how I could tweak it to become a novel. She read it and said, “It's a memoir. You're either going to have to do it under a pseudonym or let it go.”

So I sat on it for a couple of months and re-contacted She Writes and said, “What will it take to publish it under the pseudonym?” And they said, “We already have it in in galley form, we just have to change your name.” We had to negotiate a whole new publicity package, so it took another six months for them to bring it out this June. It really was a hard decision because I can't use my author's platform. I have continued to write the blog, but I obviously can't put the book on the blog. In terms of publicity, they did a really nice job of getting it reviewed. Originally they said, “Oh we've got somebody from Santa Barbara News Press who wants to come out and interview you and bring a photographer along.” And I said, “I can't do that. What do you not understand about a pseudonym?”

What are your personal ethics when it comes to writing memoir? Obviously there's a legal dimension as well. 

My first question is always, “Whose story is this?” I felt like this was my story, the mother's story that doesn't get told. There are memoirs written by fathers about their child's addiction or mental illness but not by mothers. And the mother, for the most part, is the family member who has to deal with getting treatment for her child. People who are writing memoirs to embarrass family members are always wrong. But I always come back to, “Whose story is it?” If it's your story to tell, then you do have to be careful about other people's reputations. There are things that we can do. We used to just be able to change names and identifying characteristics, but that's really not enough anymore. If you can identify the person, the rule is absolute, meaning they could bring a suit against you. You do have greater latitude in writing about a public figure.

In terms of personal ethics, have you presented a responsible discussion of the other person's point of view? That gets left out a lot in memoir, and that's really something that we should all think about. If you are writing about living persons, what is your motivation? That question always has to be explored. That's why a lot of people will write their memoir and then decide at the end, “Well, I don't really want to publish this. Maybe my motivation wasn't as pure as I thought it was, maybe I really was trying to get back at someone.”

I have been asked this a lot in terms of my son, “Didn't you think this was going to hurt him?” The truth is, I didn't. Maybe that was near-sighted on my part. It could have been that I was so tied up with “What's the mother's story?” The other thing is, in writing that book I was trying to find an answer to how to treat his illness. So part of my motivation was, “Certainly I'll be able to figure this out.” Well I wasn't.

So would I do it again?

The writing of the book was tremendously healing for me, mainly because I had to come to terms with my own magical thinking, my own denial, of my own fantasy that, “Oh this time it will be different, oh this time it will be better, oh this can't possibly happen again.” I had to come to terms with that, and I think I do a fairly good job of talking about that in the book. My hope was that it would be helpful to other families, particularly to give them a language. Since there is so much stigma around mental illness and addiction, a lot of families don't talk about it and they just suffer in silence. What I have heard back from families who have walked this path is, “Oh thank God I'm not alone,” and, “Thank you for giving me language to what my whole family is experiencing.” So I feel good about that.

Once you made the decision to use a pseudonym, did it bring you closer to you son?

When I pulled the book, that certainly brought us closer. He was relieved. When I told them it was going to come out under a pseudonym, he said, “That's fine.” Whether it was really fine, I don't know. I feel like I did the most I could do and the best I could do to protect my son. That was my only concern. He has chosen not to read the book. My daughter read the book and was unhappy with me.

Why was she upset with you?

She felt like it would hurt his feelings. She's rather protective of him. 

What makes it so disturbing?

I think it's embarrassment; I mean, this is our family. There's a certain element of shame. She says she is a person who likes to be happy and she likes everybody else to be happy and she doesn't like confrontation. I would say she's the “light” part of the family; my son and I are the “dark” part of the family. So she didn't want her friends to know. It's kind of ridiculous, because all of our friends know what we've been through. But she is very private. So I tried very hard to leave her out of most of the book, and from the beginning she said, “I don't I don't want to be in your book.” So I only mentioned her twice. I was very careful about that.

Do you have any regrets? Or does the overriding call to get the story out in the world transcend any second thoughts?

It's something that I struggle with all the time. I really felt an overriding call to write this book in a way that I have not felt in writing my other books. A couple of people said to me, “Oh my God, after 31 rejections and then having to pull the book, why are you continuing to do this?” I just felt like it was important; I felt like it was an important piece for families who deal with dual diagnosis. I was reading the paper the other day; fifty percent of deaths right now are from addiction. Drug overdoses killed roughly 64,000 people in the United States last year. It's a worse epidemic than existed during the AIDS epidemic. Luckily my son is still alive. But, just think of all those thousands of families that are having to deal with some of these issues. So that's why I wrote the book. In terms of my daughter's anger, I knew that we'd get through it. She was able to express to me that she was unhappy with it. She also said to me, “I don't want my daughters reading it,” which surprises me, because her daughters went through quite a bit of my son's episodes.

What was the most challenging part for you in the actual writing of the book? 

The most difficult part was looking at myself, my investment, and how my rescue attempts were ultimately a failure. Also, coming to terms with the fact that I needed him to be well so that I could be well, and I really didn't get that until I wrote it.

That's a big revelation.

Yeah, really looking at myself and how addicted I was to his recovery. Also coming from an Irish Catholic addicted family, I didn't want him to repeat the same mistakes as my family. I denied the severity of the addiction for too long.

Did you have that revelation during the writing process?

Definitely. I had to experience that shift to be able to put it in the last chapter.

To be a writer is pretty remarkable.

Yeah, I think writing a memoir is. I've been a therapist for 32 years. I think writing a memoir is much harder than doing therapy. I don't mean doing therapy as a therapist; I mean being in therapy. I just think it's an extraordinary process, and it's a great gift to us.

 

To purchase the book, click here.

Read more about publishing under a pseudonym in these blog posts by Meg McGuire:

Unfortunate consequences: writing memoir about family members

Choosing to use a pseudonym for my memoir

feather_break.png

A Conversation with Larry Dean Harris

As summer closes, we can find inspiration from the breathtaking boldness of the recent ECLIPSE to dive wholeheartedly into our creative work.

You might start by checking out Larry Dean Harris's STRONG WORDS storytelling series in Silver Lake, and perhaps throw your name into the hat. Read more about what he looks for in a story in our conversation below! 


LARRY DEAN HARRIS is a New York Outer Critics Circle Award nominated playwright living in Los Angeles. As a storyteller, he's performed in Sit N Spin at the Comedy Central Stage, Tongue & Groove at the Hotel Café, Spark Off Rose in Santa Monica and Write Club at the Bootleg Theatre. He recently teamed with singer-songwriter bestie Sally Fingerett to create Pen Pals, an evening of music and stories. Harris is the creator and co-curator of Strong Words, the long-running Silverlake/Atwater arts event. He proudly hails from Toledo, Ohio, where he created the long-running musical comedy revue “Oh, No! Not Toledo!”

Larry Dean Harris

Strong Words began in Silver Lake when three writers - all members of Body Builders Gym - came together to share their stories in a public forum. The salon-style event grew to include music and visual art fostering a spirit of community. Admission is always free, and programming is limited to 80 minutes to allow for open dialogue after the performance. After four successful years in Silver Lake, Strong Words moved to nearby Atwater Village in 2016 in a glorious new outdoor venue at the St. Francis Center. Strong Words was recently selected to open the 2018 season of the Los Angeles Public Library's “LA Made” series at the Mark Taper Auditorium.

feather_break.png

Karin: Tell me about Strong Words and how it began...

Larry Dean Harris: About six years ago, three writers at the legendary Body Builders Gym in Silver Lake banded together to read their work aloud in front of friends and family. Something clicked, and Strong Words was born.

I love that three body builders had stories they were burning to share. What was the first story you shared on the stage that first night? 

I told two stories that night, but “Confessions of a Calvin Klein Underwear Model” was, by far, the favorite. Here in Silver Lake, we don't blush easily.

With so many other storytelling venues out there, do you have a sense of what makes Strong Words unique? 

Initially, it was our Silver Lake location. When I began as a storyteller, I was performing at Spark and Sit N Spin and having a ball. But we didn't have a show like that in our neighborhood. But now, I think it's our fearless audience. They embrace everything I throw at them with open ears. We opened our last show with a sound bath, and they loved it!

After producing Spark Off Rose for 13 years, it is clear to me that live storytelling and personal narrative is more than a trend, it's a bona fide movement. Why do you think people are drawn to it? What's this movement all about it? Why now?  

We live in a swipe-left/swipe-right world now of instant everything. I think a good storytelling show gives us a chance to breathe, to laugh and cry and absorb new ideas in real time.

What kinds of stories do you look for when putting together a show? 

I love the truth naked and unabashed. I love an economical story with lots of beats, laughs and a surprise or three. But I'm also a sucker for craft, when the writing is so delicious, the audience is swept away.

Do you work with the writers on editing their pieces or are the pieces submitted ready to perform?    

Occasionally, I will help a first-time storyteller with a few notes, like “Your story really doesn't get started until the third paragraph,” but otherwise I give free rein. I do insist on reading the stories in advance to program a well-balanced show with a good arc.

You say that your evenings grew to include music and visual art. In what way? 

Well, there are stories told with words, but there are also stories told with song and with images. So it seemed like an organic way to expand our community of artists. I have this amazing co-curator, Michael Hirabayashi, who has a discriminating eye for both art and photography. He was on a film shoot with a young actor, Joseph Lee, who was painting these fresh, super-compelling portraits on scraps of wood. Michael encouraged him to share his work at Strong Words, and that was his very first show. Now he's getting sizable commissions.

I love the “open dialogue” component after the performance. At Spark it was such an important piece of cultivating community - that idea of continuing the conversation that was started on stage. What have you noticed? 

I think a long show fatigues the audience. I try to keep our show tight - less than 80 minutes - because people do like to linger, have another glass of wine and just engage with like-minded individuals. It's my favorite part of the evening.

What do you do as your day job -- and how does storytelling and producing this event figure into your world? 

I'm a Mad Man. Storytelling is nothing new in the advertising world. I can spin a whole story in 60 seconds and still mention the product by name five times.

What are your dreams and aspirations for Strong Words and yourself as a creative artist and writer? 

Personally, I'm happy right here right now. I love that whenever I have a new story I don't have to wait. I have an audience ready to be rocked. But for Strong Words, I'd like to expand our reach. We're starting to do that, partnering with the Los Angeles Public Library. We're opening the 2018 LA MADE season playing the big room at the main branch downtown in February.

How do people go about submitting to you? Do you have specific guidelines?  

First, I insist they attend a Strong Words show, so they understand the dynamic. For stories, I have three simple rules: Must be TRUE. Must be YOU (your story told in the first person). Must be 1,350 words or less. I haven't met a story that couldn't benefit from some ruthless editing. Writers fight me on it, but afterward, they always thank me (and then grab a lock of my hair to make a voodoo doll).

 

To learn more about Larry Dean Harris, visit the Strong Words website.

See all interviews

feather_break.png

A Conversation with Karen Kinney

One of my favorite things to do is talk to writers and artists about their creative process. What are their daily rituals? How do they go about developing their seedling ideas? While there is no single way, I believe these conversations can offer us insight, give us comfort and encouragement as we discover and learn to trust our own creative process - and come to own what we have to say as creative beings in this world.

My dear friend, Karen Kinney, is a fine artist who just released her book THE RELUCTANT ARTIST which is all about navigating and sustaining a creative path. In our discussion below, we dialogue about art and commerce, how to think about creative blocks, the importance (or not) of talent, and accepting the natural ebb and flow of the creative process. I hope you glean some new ways to think about how and what you are creating. I certainly did!


Karen Kinney is a professional artist whose work has been in numerous exhibitions, both nationally and internationally. Her art was purchased for the Lionsgate film “The Lincoln Lawyer” and resides in private collections across the country, including those of actor Bob Odenkirk and NPR’s Guy Raz. Her work often begins with a paint stroke, a shred of paper, or some ink scratches on pages taken from old books. The use of vibrant colors is important to her, as it contributes to the feeling of something new emerging from what has been discarded. 

Kinney_Karen

In addition to small-scale collages, she also creates large installations and is currently building a temporary installation for the Los Angeles International Airport. She has a Masters degree from the University of Chicago and lives in Los Angeles with her husband. 

In her debut book The Reluctant Artist, Karen compiles helpful insights to release greater creative freedom. She offers guidance and wisdom to navigate a winding creative path and stay motivated over the long haul. Both for those firmly established in a career and those just starting out, she reminds us of the value of creative expression and provides important keys to aid in its development.

To learn more, visit karenkinney.com

feather_break.png

Karin: Let’s talk about art and commerce. You write a whole chapter devoted to it. How do you perceive the relationship between the two?

Karen Kinney: I make money through art, whether that’s through private commissions, selling existing work or public art projects. I also make money through odd jobs. My husband works at a 9-to-5 job. I am of the belief that fine art is best supported to reach its fullest creative potential when the pressure for it to consistently make money is removed, and it is allowed to be more organic and free. There are many other jobs that are more conducive to a regular, consistent paycheck. If I were the sole breadwinner, income would primarily come through other work, before putting pressure on my art to fill the role of a weekly paycheck.

Do you distinguish creativity as ‘pure’ and unrelated to commerce?

Creativity intersects with commerce all the time, and what this looks like varies greatly depending on what creative field you work in. I focus on the relationship between commerce and fine art in my book, which can look different than say, commerce and writing, or commerce and dance, etc. Because creativity is organic, meaning it does not usually take a linear path, generating money through it is more often than not a winding path. Developing a product with one’s art is one way to earn money more consistently. Some creative pursuits lend themselves much more easily to product than others, like offering a class for example. That is very much a product that can be sold and marketed fairly easily. But a product is different than creating for creating’s sake. And I find that in our capitalistic culture, money too easily becomes the lens through which we see all of life, including creativity and art, and I think this can often be to the detriment of creative expression.

I’m a believer in full freedom in terms of artists pursuing the path they want with money, but I think we need to have a conscious relationship with money and look honestly at its effects on art making and examine what happens to your art practice when it becomes solely a commodity. Because I think things do happen to it when it does. And those aren’t necessarily bad things for all people, but they can be. I find commerce can be a box at times that can limit what expression happens because certain kinds of expression just lend themselves better to being a product than others.

And I think we also need to be liberated from the belief that the value of the work we offer the world is only defined by monetary compensation - just because we live in such a capitalist society. I think it's the only lens we ever look at, in terms of valuing what we do in life. If everyone lived according to this belief, much important work in the world would never be done. So I mostly want to advocate that people look at how commerce impacts what they make and feel free to shift accordingly if they feel themselves burning out.

What if, say, you needed to return to social work to support yourself? Do you think that kind of work would suck you dry?

That’s a good question. If that were my situation, I wonder if I would then look at art not so much from a career point of view, which is what I’m looking at right now. I might look at it more as a therapeutic thing that I need to do, just like I need to exercise. I wonder if my focus on it would shift so that it would really be purely something life-giving, to the balance the reality of a 9-to-5 job. I mean, this is just theoretical, but maybe that's how I'd look at it.

So regardless of my marital status, I still wouldn’t want to put unnecessary pressure on my art to make a living from it because of what I know it does to my own particular creative soul.

Would you say that it's important to find another consistent means of income to support yourself so that your art can be free to be what it needs to be?

Yes, I do think creativity operates best when it’s least restrictive. So even if some portion of your creativity is what you rely on for bread and butter -- whether that is a certain product that you made with it or something that sells well -- I think it's important as a creative person to have a space in your life with creativity that is unbounded and unassociated with money only because it fosters exploration. If your entire creative pursuit is dictated by making money, I don’t think you’re going to end up being very happy as a creative person, because where do you get to play? Or make a mistake? Or do something that nobody wants but you actually like it?

Perhaps it's best, then, to make money in something entirely unrelated to your art?

I think it leads to more joy. And I should qualify... this isn't true for everybody. Like some people who are more entrepreneurial in nature might find it really satisfying to make a work of art and have it sell regularly in demand; that might really fire them up. I think it's important to ask yourself, “What brings life to my soul?” That should be guiding the process. But in my experience I’ve met many artists who have gone the route of pure commercialism, believing that to be a successful artist they must make as much money as possible from their art, which I don't personally think is true. I think being a “successful” artist doesn’t have to be related to how much you get compensated. But anyway, I’ve known many artists who’ve gone the direction of needing their art to either produce a livelihood or at least a partial livelihood, and often burn out because it does require having a commodity, a product. 

So if someone likes a rectangle you made on a wall – and now they want it blue and now they want it in red – you churn out the same thing over and over again; for a lot of creative people that can get exhausting. It’s like, “Well, this might be selling and people want this, but I’d really like to make a triangle and not a rectangle, but no one wants to buy the triangle.” So I don't make it, and then I shut myself down. You know what I mean?

Or some people spend all their creative energy making a rectangle, so they don’t even have the energy for the triangle.

Right. Forget about even clueing into the fact that they want to make a triangle!

What would you say to the person whose income-producing job leaves very little time or energy to pursue their art at all?

That’s a very real problem too. Definitely, I feel like that’s really hard to balance, especially when you have a family and child, and you know, that all complicates life choices. I would say for people who feel like they don't see any space for anything. I would just try to encourage them to carve out 15 minutes on a regular basis to do something creative that makes them happy. That could be worth doing just for their own psychological wellbeing, whether or not it goes anywhere. And I feel like that's always doable when we think about just tiny, tiny steps. So that sometimes helps to break it down as opposed to getting overwhelmed by the enormity of, “Oh now I want to become a composer or filmmaker,” or whatever. These big, large ideas overwhelm us and we don't take action, all because daily life is just enough to handle. So sometimes just even small, tiny movement over time can open up something in us that grows potentially.

I'm a big believer that our stories are meant to be shared. So how do you balance valuing the creative process versus the discipline required to complete something so it can be shared?

Yeah, I am also very much an advocate of sharing your creative work with the world. That's probably what drives me the most with creating; I want it to impact people and impact the larger culture. So I almost always create with an end goal in mind. I actually am a very disciplined person by nature, which helps obviously. Especially because a lot of what I do is self-driven, and then once I create it, I go find a place in the world for it. That requires being fairly self-driven and structured. But I try to balance between moving intuitively with my creative work and then bringing in a structure to complete it.

So I'm not regimented when it comes to the actual creative process or thinking up ideas or having the birth of some new thing in my spirit. I kind of let that be very free-flow. But once something's been established in my mind like, “Okay I’m seeing this idea and getting thoughts around it,” then I’d say that's where my structured mind kicks in, and I’m like, “OK let’s start working on this and showing up for this every day to do it.” And then when it’s finished find the right place for it to go. For me that would be a gallery exhibit - or if I wanted to sell work in a store - or find another public art opportunity, or whatever. It takes different forms.

At what point do you step in and start to structure it?

In the beginning, I give things space to just kind of form - start writing whatever it is, or start drawing on the paper, or whatever it is you're doing. But I really take an observer role and I watch it and I don't just let myself go on forever. It's more like I'm working with it. I talk about this concept a bit in my chapter on listening. So as I'm writing, or as I'm painting the thing, I watch what's forming so I can get in sync with what it wants to be. Because I think usually creations have something they want to be if we're willing to partner with them; it doesn't just have to be us imposing our structure on something. I think we can have this reciprocal relationship that we're creating. So as I listen to it and observe it, that actually helps me with the structure. I'm like, “Oh here are clues for what I think this wants to be. Now what structure can I bring in to support what's already forming?”

I love that idea of partnering with our creative projects. So what about writer's block? Do you believe in it?

A writer's block or a creative block... Yes, I think there are always times when we get stuck or don't know how to move forward and I think that happens for different reasons. There are times when we are feeling resistance and we maybe know what's on our plate or we know the project we're trying to birth - and it's just like we're being resistant to showing up for it. And so that would be one category of resistance. In those cases it's helpful to either trick ourselves into creating or jumpstart ourselves - taking a walk or doing an experimentation or whatever mind trick we need to do to jumpstart our creativity again - if we feel like we're just not showing up because we are not feeling it.

But then I think there are other times--and you can look at my chapter “The Ebb and Flow”-- where the creative process seems to shut off completely. Those periods where it's like, “OK I've tried all my little tricks to get myself to create. I've done all these things and there's absolutely nothing, zero. I feel nothing. I have no ideas, like a blank.” I think those seasons also happen on the creative path. And I've learned over time to be much more OK when they come and more able to ride them out. Whereas I think when I first experienced times like that, I freaked out as I go, “Oh my god, what's happening? Am I not going to create ever again? What's wrong with me?” But I think over time I've realized that there is a natural ebb and flow to creating - sometimes there are longer periods where we just aren't creating. I call them dormant seasons and I think it's in those seasons when deeper things are allowed to process and kind of go underground that will surface in our future seasons of renewed activity. Basically there's value in having space in life. We live in a culture that basically says you have to be “on” all the time and I would question that because that doesn't allow for renewal, it doesn't allow for rest; it doesn't allow for new ideas to foster and incubate and then come out later. I think there are periods of what seems like stillness, and I think they are actually necessary and a valuable part of the creative path. But you're not going to get that affirmed in the larger culture; the larger culture doesn't understand. If you're not constantly producing, constantly active, you're told, “What's wrong with you?” But we're not machines.

If something completely new is going to be birthed... I can use natural like pregnancy as an example. When a woman is pregnant everything that's happening is happening inside. But it's certainly super valuable - you don't want to skip that stage, if we're going to be literal! If you're going to produce something really different or not the status quo, it would need time to come out. But the time before it comes out might not look like much is happening.

Do you think much about talent? Whether you or someone else is talented?

It's not actually something I think about very often. I think people do have an innate talent, but I don't think that means people can't be creative. I think everyone has something creative to express, a piece of their soul to express to the world. And so I like to encourage people to see the possibilities in their life. I think people too often get fixated on seeing themselves as deficient. And I think, “Well, that doesn't help get us anywhere.” I can do the same in my own life, like “Where am I not measuring up?” Or “I'm not good enough” you know. That's not a helpful message to perpetuate. I feel like we need to be affirming people's potential and everyone has creative potential. So whether they have a more natural inclination for something or not, I feel like they can still express who they are to the world and leave the world better for it. Really people should just do what brings them joy. Look for what lights you up inside or what's life-giving for you, because you're going to be happier.

Of course, the peaks and valleys are par for the course when creating. So when do you know if it's truly time to shelve a project?

I actually end up finishing most things, which is, from what I understand from other artists, a bit atypical. I have a very strong left brain, in addition to the right brain, so I think that makes me a bit of an anomaly, or less common at least, in the artist world.

I think one gauge is what I referenced before. “Is this project life-giving?” Because I think if a project is feeding us in addition to us feeding it, then it has greater potential to be finished or is easier to see through in the midst of the peaks and valleys or the times we're frustrated or want to end it. I think it helps increase the odds that it will be finished. So that's why for me, if it's just totally life-sucking for me, it makes more sense for me to shelve those kind of things and resume with something that has more of an energetic spark. There has to be life coming back.

Also, I think having a strong sense of self really helps a lot, because if you're clear about who you are and what your own creative voice looks and sounds like, you have a better sense of when a project really aligns with your dharma and it's bursting to the finish line, versus when it might be something that's more in the camp of experimentation and it's not necessarily meant to go all way. So I think having a strong sense of your creative voice can help to make those kinds of decisions.

I've noticed in my writing workshops some people feel compelled to underline that they are NOT a writer. And yet, there they are writing! Why do you think  people are reluctant to call themselves a writer or an artist?

It's a good question, because the whole journey to be able to call myself an artist took time. And I envision the same will be true of calling myself a writer. And why is that? I think people maybe just need to have enough lived experience to feel like they can really own that, whether that's psychologically or confidence-wise or to feel emotionally connected. Who knows how people relate to those titles? But I feel like for me in terms of “art” I needed to be at a certain level of confidence, whether in having completed enough art projects and shown them to the world or done the things which, in my mind, felt like, “This is what artists do and I'm doing these things before I can call myself an artist.” People have definitions around what all these things mean. But whatever those definitions are, I think people need time to journey down their path and own it. And it's not an overnight process. Ownership of identity means different things to different people. It's a very personal journey.

Was there any one thing that helped push you over the edge?

There were several markers that did matter. When people did first buy my art, that was a big deal, it did mean something to me. Or when I was in my first gallery show, that really did mean something to me. So the traditional markers people use did impact me and it did have significance for me in my journey. And even though in my own evolution I've evolved to a place of self-value that isn't reliant on those markers, it doesn't mean they didn't play a role. And so I think when people first purchased my art and the gallery exhibition in particular - when those first began - that was really exciting and it helped me feel like, “Oh, I am an artist.” These signposts for the things that the world defines, that mean you are one, they do still affect me even though I do ascribe to gain value from some kind of higher plane, but it doesn't mean they don't have meaning and value. The only problem for me with those markers is when they become the only things that people identify themselves by and then they start to be controlled by them; then I think that's a problem. But they serve a purpose for sure.

If there is one takeaway from your book, what would it be?

That there's value in your creative expression. I really want people to be -- not just encouraged in a general sense, but hopefully come away with a deeper belief in the value of what they have to offer the world, because that can drive all kinds of good things. And I feel like the other things will get figured out, like where the money comes from and how this works and what the journey looks like; those are all challenges everyone has to figure out for themselves. But if you're driven by a deep belief in the value of what you're doing, that's what's going to propel you over the long haul.

 

To learn more about Karen, visit karenkinney.com

See all interviews

feather_break.png