Interview with Rachel Clark

 

Rachel Clark is an artist from Stafford Springs, CT. She received her BFA from the University of Connecticut in ’08, where she studied painting and printmaking. You can find more of her work at her website, as well as the work we’ve published at The Slag.

 

CARLETON WHALEY:       So, let’s start with your series “Same Time, Same Place.” How long have you been working on it, and what inspired it?

RACHEL CLARK:       That started when I was getting ready for a show at Sabor 44. I knew I wanted to work on larger paintings than what I had been doing, and I wanted to have something that tied them all together. I didn’t think of it in advance, but as I was working on them I thought “what do these make me think of, and why am I doing this?” I liked that idea of familiarity, that there are things like this happening all the time around us, and I guess it ended up being an open-ended theme, or investigation, because I never really stopped. It was like “Oooh this is interesting, let me keep looking at it.” There are different things I do that are to the side, side projects that don’t really go with it. So, the series has been going from 2015 to now, so I guess 2 years. I guess that’s pretty normal for an investigation of the topic: people, buildings, places. I like the idea that you can see someone on the street and think “hey that person looks really familiar” and you don’t know if it’s because you’re in the same place all the time and you just see each other, if you actually do know each other, or if it’s just that something about them is familiar. I like that, and I feel like you can get that from buildings and places as much as you can from people. Like “I feel like I’ve been there before” and sometimes that’s just enough to get me interested, and then I have a little idea and I want to start painting from it. I start thinking about the lines, and—sometimes just making arches and I’m like “Ooh I recognize that” and that’s kinda cool.

C:       A lot of the people I’ve shown your work to, that’s the first thing they’ll say: “Oh, I know where that is,” or “I know that gas station!” Which one is it, actually?

R:       I mean, a gas station is a gas station, but the one I shared with you guys is up in Portland Maine, and I think it’s by a restaurant with a goofy name that we went to a few times. I take a lot of pictures just because I like something, and sometimes I recompose them later. Actually, I’ve been taking a lot of pictures of gas stations at night lately. I like the way the colors change, the way the color temperature of the lights around the filling stations is juxtaposed with the ones in the windows, along with the streetlights—the way streetlights can have that warm, orange light.

C:       A lot of people have been arguing about that painting in particular, actually. They’re each convinced that it’s somewhere specific, like in Vernon.

R:       Yeah, well, a lot of the places that I’ve painted are sometimes local, like in Stafford, but most of them are just New England small towns. And New England small towns are, well, New England small towns.

C:      What makes you excited to start a new project?

R:      I get an idea stuck in my head, like how you get a little bit of a song stuck in your head. I just have this thing that I want to make, based on one of the pictures that I took, or that idea I’ve been pursuing. For instance, last summer, when I was at an event in orange county, California, I just saw something cool really far away and took a couple pictures. Because of the distance, they were terrible quality pictures, so then I put them on my computer and I cropped them—and there was really only so much I could do with Photoshop at that point, because it was so busted and grainy. But it still got stuck in my head, and to deal with it while I was in school that semester, I made a small version of it in clay to fill one of my assignments. I had a ceramics project, but I made it about painting, and made a small miniature and I was like “There, I knew I was right about that, I knew it was something I was interested in,” and then just like that, last weekend I finished it up in my studio. It’s not huge, just like two and a half feet square, but it was stuck in my head.

C:       Do you have a usual process, or is what you just described sort of how things normally go?

R:       That’s usually my process. I wander around and make the people I’m walking with stop while I take pictures of things, or I’ll make them move so that I get their reflection in windows. Sometimes it takes a while to get from the parking lot to the restaurant. And I’m constantly figuring how to store all these pictures that look like terrible photos in my computer. They’re all huge files, because I try to take them as large as I can. That’s something I’d like to be better at, actually, the photography aspect of my art. I probably could learn to just take pictures, but I really just love painting. I get excited while I’m painting, even though people in my studio will be like, “oh, you’re doing that again” and I’m like “ooh, I just made a marker!” It’s still exciting to me. The picture taking is just a buildup to that, gathering a big pile of material to work from.

C:       Along that same line, some of the newer additions to your series are digital. What are your feelings about moving into another medium?

R:       I really like learning, and problem solving, figuring it out, which is what the digital stuff has let me do. It wasn’t something that I sought out—I just had to do it for a class. But then I got into it, and finding ways to engage with it like I do with painting. What I like about it is that it’s different, and the results that I get from it are different than what I would normally get out of paintings. What I like is being able to experiment, so with photography I’m not wasting paint or canvasses or trying to sell something. I’m just playing with layers. But they’re the same type of photos that I use to start my paintings. They’re taken for the same reasons, but where I go with them ends up a little bit different because of that process of experimentation. It’s the same with clay; you can squish clay if you don’t like it.

C:      So how is it working up in the studio? What’s it like having that community?

R:      It’s great to have that space, that studio, those people. It’s such a great resource that I don’t think that I’d be able to paint the way I do if I didn’t have it. And we do a pretty good job of sharing it. We love being right above the coffee shop, where we can come down and get coffee and refreshments as needed, and in the summer it’s really cool because they play concerts in the park across the street, so we like to open the windows. It’s great painting while those concerts are going on. It’s good light, good space, good people. Trying to keep it organized can be a challenge. I couldn’t do this in my house—there’s just too many materials, and I need too much space to do it in my house. And I’d probably have to go do laundry. Or dishes. And I wouldn’t focus on painting. So, if I’m up there I have to paint, it’s the rule.

C:       Who or what are your greatest influences as an artist—from beginning to now?

R:       Well, I really like John Singer Sargent. He was an American portrait artist, but then he went into these paintings that were more impressionistic. He had the art that paid the bills, and the art he was curious about. There’s one that’s like a Venetian street scene with somebody looking out, and another person looking another way, and that’s something I was looking at when I painted the New York scene you used for the cover. I really like the connection he had with the viewer. He manages to convey expressions while still experimenting around the edges. So that’s like, my old guy. Then, more recent ones? I’ve got a file on my computer of pictures from artists that I like, there’s some really great people working right now, like Kim Cogan’s street scenes are so cool, you should definitely check them out. It’s just like buildings and buildings and buildings. You can tell he loves it. There’s some really good figure painters—I can’t remember his name, I remember the picture, I could sketch it out but I can’t remember his name. There’s like, figures that are all angular with striped clothing. Don’t worry about that. Jenny Saville is fantastic, she does portraits with big brushstrokes—she gets these giant canvasses and they’re incredibly fleshy and expressive portraits.

C:       Do you have any dreams like that? Like, “If I could just [insert something here]?”…

R:       I’d like to be able to paint even bigger than what I do. I thought when I made some of the paintings in this issue, that those felt really big to me, but they’re really not. They’re like 8×4, and, yeah, it couldn’t fit in my living room, but it’s really not that big in the world of painting. It’s cool what some people do with giant canvasses. But then you need to store them, and sell them, and hope that you don’t have the heat and humidity problems that make canvasses warp. I did a six-foot-tall canvass that warped. So, I’d like to be able to go bigger. But then it’s also more of a commitment. With small ones, you get to make them really quickly, so they’re not as precious, and you’re not as invested in them as with bigger pieces.

C:       So, making them in separate pieces helps them with warping?

R:       It makes them easier to transport and to install, as well as with warping. The wooden panels that I made for some of the paintings helped with that. But still, I could have done that differently, or better. But there’s always things about your art that later, you want to re-do or critique?

C:        Can you go on about that?

R:        The things that I’d want to critique?

C:        Yeah, sure!

R:        Sure, let’s point out all the flaws in the pieces you published!

C:        Well, not necessarily, more like in general, what are things that looking back on them, you would have done differently, or need to work on?

R:        Well, I’m always working on my use of color, and painting quickly. Getting the ideas down in fewer brush strokes, I guess. Also, not being so tied down to the image in my head: more experimentation.

C:        What have been some of your struggles as an artist?

R:         Definitely balancing my home life with my art life. That’s the hardest thing, setting aside time for it as well as prioritizing things like getting the laundry done, or going to the grocery store. I could write a paper, but I could also paint a picture. Just balancing that is the hardest thing, and not making excuses for not painting. Cause there’s a lot of good TV series on right now. Actually, sometimes what I’ll do is play them in the background and just listen to them, so there’s all kinds of movies and shows where I’ve heard the entire thing, but I don’t recognize it if I walk in and see someone watching it. I listen to a lot of television while I’m painting, as well audio books.

C:         Does it ever invade your work?

R:         No, but what’s weird is sometimes I can look at a corner of a painting, or part of somebody’s face, a line maybe, and remember what I was listening to at that point. It doesn’t connect at all, but sometimes it’s like “this headphone cord here is from the chapter in that audiobook where the character’s looking for his wife.” I can remember weird parts of TV shows from parts of my paintings. It’s not very useful. I’m not gonna write a thesis statement about it or anything, but it’s in the background sometimes.

C:         What’s some advice you’d give to an artist just starting out?

R:         I think it’s just what everyone says: just keep making lots of art and work, and don’t think too much about what it’s going to look like in the end, just that you’re making it. And also, you can actually learn. Your brain is totally squishable and learnable—you can totally learn. Even if you’re not going to be the next Michelangelo, you’re gonna get better, and find your own style.

And the Winner Is…

Credit to Kate and Colston for letting me borrow their markers for this quick, muddled sketch. This sketch is only based on professional speculations and may not be entirely accurate. 

NOVEMBER 8TH, 2016

Today will go down in history as the day aliens finally touch down on U.S soil to share a very important message. Their big purple ship will land right in Washington (the state, because they’ve got a new guy (who is a little spacey) working navigation and he missed the memo that Washington D.C is different than Washington the state) where they will take control of our television networks. Millions of TV’s will switch channels just before the polling information from the last 5 states is released. Humans will at first be enraged until they see the big purple ship broadcasting a single message. It will sound like, “HOQkj (clicking noise) GNoING, FLEX!!!!”

(There is another new guy who is still figuring out how to work the translation machine. The aliens have had some trouble with their crew, admittedly.)

Eventually they will get it to work, and we will all hear a single line: “EVERYONE NEEDS TO CHILL THE FUCK OUT.”

That’s right guys, what’s done is done. It’s time to relax. Let’s face it, you can talk about it as much as you want, hate on your neighbor, stop buying tomatoes from people who you think are supporting the “wrong” candidate, cry about the fate of our country, get in a fight, whatever! The result will still be the same: no matter who the winner is, the country will still be a reflection of who YOU are. You are the only one who is absolutely responsible for how you treat other people.

The fact that a presidential race is changing how we act towards our friends and neighbors is something I absolutely cannot comprehend.

The countless discussions about our options have made me exhausted. The point has been worn more than your 4-year-old’s favorite pair of pants. To put it in perspective, I was woken this morning by an alert on my phone* saying, “TSR should write a blog for election day!” and I shrugged. I rolled over so I could respond asking another editor to do it, and then I remembered I was the one who made the alert weeks ago. This was my idea and I’m totally regretting it.

I’m exhausted because we’re getting so high-strung over opinions that we’re starting to tear ourselves apart, which is a big no-no. I mean, I don’t study politics or history and even I remember Abe’s warning, “A house divided against itself cannot stand.” Even the aliens can’t sit back and watch us do this. And they’ve sat quietly through a lot of crap.

I am happy that Election Day will be over by tomorrow, and I am happy to see what’s happening on Facebook today. The Internet is lookin’ pretty positive right now. I am proud to see all those voters out there, especially if this is your first election. It’s amazing to see that even in a hazy confusion of badgering candidates, our people will still rise to the occasion to make their voice heard. What will we tell our kids in the future? That even in the face of change we perhaps did not like, we came together as a country of American people.

Remember that this country is a reflection of who you are. We will elect leaders, but how can one man or woman represent the millions of us that make up this place? That’s why they change every four or eight years. And while we have a leader, we still choose how to lead our own lives. We still choose how to treat other people. We choose for ourselves whether to put the gun down or not. That type of independence is the heart of this country.

Now, I think the main event we should be worrying about today is the aliens who have now come forth from the shadows. We’re talkin’ slimy, big-eyed**, extra-terrestrial beings who simply couldn’t watch us tear ourselves apart any longer! They have us cornered on our planet, but we like it, don’t we? Onto the next challenge.

Tonight, after we’ve voted, let’s sit together on the couch and watch the results play out with a bottle of wine, because at the end of the day we’ll still have each other, and our new alien friends.

 

 

*Actually, to be completely honest, I was woken by my little cousin sneaking into the room saying, “SHHHHH!!! SHHHHHHHH!! Therese is sleeping!” To which I responded, “Not anymore,” and proceeded to pass in and out of consciousness while she played a clanking game of pin ball on the 1950’s machine located in the bedroom.

**Slimy, yes, but in a good way, the type of slime that exfoliates your skin if you touch it. And big eyes? That’s adorable! 

Looking Back, Charging Ahead: A write-up for our debut

We are fast approaching the release of our second issue, and honestly the fact that any of this has happened is pretty insane. With that, I realized that, although we had a photographer friend of ours, Chad Browne-Springer (all photos courtesy of him), document our debut launch party, we never wrote about it, never published the pictures, never really told anyone how the whole thing went down. So I’d like to do that now.

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The magazines came out beautifully thanks to our printer, David Gorski, and were accompanied by ingots of aluminum and copper we had recently melted down, the latter of which destroyed our forge in the process. It’s an interesting story.

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We shared a studio space for the night with Studio 4, an independent artist collective in Stafford Springs, CT. It was cramped, and it was almost 95 degrees Fahrenheit outside, which meant the tiny studio apartment without air conditioning was swelting. Luckily, we were cooled off by sweet, sweet sangria. We had no idea who would show up, other than some of our contributors, like Lillie Gardner, pictured above.

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To our surprise, we had an enormous turnout, and although the air grew thick and humid as people poured in and stuffed themselves into corners, then pulled at us asking things like “Why metallurgy?” “What the hell are you doing?” and “Where’s the sangria?”,  I was just so grateful.

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Just look at the gratitude on my tired, sweaty face.

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But for real, the support was insane. Ellen Litman, author, professor, and friend, showed up and eagerly purchased one of our magazines. From submissions, to spreading the word, to simple advice, we owe a great deal of the success of our launch to the UConn community, but especially to her, since both Therese and I worked with her on the Long River Review-2016, and in many ways she inspired us to go forward with TSR.

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As you can see from the look of quiet bewilderment on Tom’s face, we had no idea how to deal with what was going on. People showed up. Friends, family, strangers from the street who happened to see that hooligans were hanging out of the windows and were curious what could be going on, all of them filed in, picked up a magazine and went “What?” And all we could do was shrug and explain that people made things, and somehow we convinced them that our magazine might be the right home for the things they made.

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Like Harry Elfenbaum, whose artwork adorns our cover.

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And Lillie Gardner and Zach Bradley (front left in white), who both read, even though they had to stand in a dark corner (because we couldn’t figure out how to turn on the lights), and were probably sweating profusely (because we had to close the windows to block the sound of the band playing down on the street). It was that kind of debut. That messy, who-are-we, how-is-any-of-this-working, could-fall-apart-at-any-second, is-so-haphazard-but-beautiful-for-that-fact kind of party, and I will never forget it.

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We’ll be doing it again in three weeks, and it’s likely to be just as crazy. Hopefully it will be cooler, and I can wear a jacket.

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And we’ll be selling cool stuff alongside the next issue, so that will be fun. We’re excited to be trying new things, even if we end up messing up. That flower pot there was used as an unconventional forge cover, and in some ways its charred, cracked form is not unlike our aesthetic, which I have carefully described to friends and newcomers as “Fucking up, then rolling with it.”

That’s the point of slag.

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Thanks for starting this journey with us-our next issue will be out on Friday October 14, 2016. We’ll have some great things to share with you.

-Carleton Whaley

The Stories Your Body Tells You

When I was a in college, I was working a part-time job as a full-time student with several extracurriculars. The year that I first moved off campus was a particularly stressful one, and I recall one day I was stuck in traffic and rapidly ascending into road rage when I stretched into a yawn, pulling a muscle in my neck. Ever since, I’ve had shoulder pain that has not gone away despite several treatments. Recently, I started seeing an acupuncturist in hopes that he could stab my shoulder back into shape, which brought me into the world of Chinese medicine.

Now, I’ve dabbled in unconventional treatment before. I have practiced yoga for years, but I wouldn’t say on an expert level; the meditation at the end always stressed me back out because I didn’t know how to lie down still in the middle of the day in a room full of strangers. I have never shopped at Lulu Lemon nor posted an Instagram picture of myself doing a headstand on a beach at sunset. One time, I bought a moonstone ring from a vendor who specialized in crystals, and he told me that it was “balancing” and would “enhance intuition.” It was pretty until the stone fell out and I lost it. My intuition didn’t help me find it.

yoga-at-sunset

Needless to say, I felt pretty skeptical when I walked into my first appointment. My acupuncturist began with looking at my tongue and taking my pulse. He later explained that a tongue diagnosis includes looking at the shape, color, and coating in order to see where problems are manifesting in various ways throughout the body. There are different locations on the tongue that signify different major organs and body areas, similar to different placements for sweet or sour taste buds on the tongue.

Besides specific pain symptoms, acupuncture can be used to treat a variety of issues such as autoimmune diseases and mental illness. He gave me an example, explaining that redness on the tip of the tongue shows heart heat, indicating a person has been unable to release that energy and may be depressed. “You ever know anybody who may be extra giggly at everything? That’s how they may be trying to release that energy and become happier,” he explained, accurately describing about 60% of my friends.

Another example is the presence of pronounced white spots along the edge of the tongue, which indicate higher levels of anxiety. He would ask me about my lifestyle at the time, given possible stress factors like work and school, and gage how this was affecting my body.

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The most perplexing factoid my acupuncturist shared with me was a new theory he picked up while at an acupuncture lecture of some sort in San Francisco. The lecturer, a well-renowned practitioner, shared that one could actually garner an understanding of a person’s childhood and how their parents raised them, just by taking their pulse. He proceeded to test this on several of the attendees, my acupuncturist included, who said that the man gave him an uncanny profile of his mother. Here I was thinking I came in for a mild, polite body stabbing, when in fact I accidentally rolled into a therapy session where my heartbeat rats out how my family screwed me up.

Traditional Chinese medicine includes the meridian system, which is the belief that there are paths in the body through which the life-energy of “chi” flows. He told me about one anonymous patient he had who suffers from a tense trail of pain from her toes up to the back of her head, which he describes as the “bladder meridian.” Apparently, people who have issues specifically with this meridian had troubled childhoods, and the suppression of this trauma manifests along this meridian in the body (The main message of acupuncture, as with all medicine, is that your parents have ruined your life and are to blame for all your problems).

I realize this may sound like new age-y nonsense, but, after a few appointments, my shoulder pain has gone away. Whether this may be from the chi or meridians or heart heat, I’m not sure, but I think it may be more along the lines of learning about the practice.

Acupuncture takes an optimistic approach different than what I am used to; the concept that the body should be capable of healing itself, and if not, then something is being slowed down or out of balance that needs to be prodded along in order for the healing to begin. With my treatments, I’ve become more aware of my body. Based on all the stories my acupuncturist has told me, I think the most important take away is that your life takes a toll on the body, and it will communicate when something is wrong; whether through stiffness, numbness, or pain, your body is trying to tell you something, and you should never be too busy to listen.

A Liberal Arts Degree at Work

So, here you are, fresh faced out of the old cap and gown, back-floating on chasms of debt. A steady stream of e-mails from Great Lakes Borrower Services tells you to start paying off your loan interest and currents of envelopes rush in from banks, offering credit card after credit card because credit is all your broke ass has.

Welcome back home, young one, because all the independence you thought you secured in your four years away from home were just a vacation. There is nothing wrong with moving back home; you are very fortunate if you can do so. You save tons of money and catch up on family bonding so you can remind them why they missed you so much while you were at school. But its quite a heady feeling when you realize time travel is very real and possible as you wake up every morning to a childhood bedroom, perhaps confronting the cartoon puppy border that never got taken off the edges of your powder blue painted walls or the piles of Jonas Brothers shirt lying in the corner you still haven’t sold on E-Bay.

Instead of focusing on the inevitable stress of paying off student loans, I began focusing on the struggle of getting off the couch–an equally harrowing task. So, as most do in similarly trying situations, I began the clingiest relationship I have ever had: the job search.

Indeed.com is now the emotionally unavailable boy I always pined after in high school. Attractive and full of promise on the outside, but he was playing me; I was not the only unemployed college graduate that was seeing him. I withstood rejection after rejection and swore I could do better, but I always ended up going back. I started to get desperate, checking my e-mail multiple times a day. Why haven’t they called? I thought they would call. Is it me? Why do I care so MUCH?!

Then, I found it. The one. Just like they say, you always find them when you aren’t really looking. For me, I actually wasn’t looking anywhere because I was fast asleep when I got the phone call. Fate was calling. Naturally, I perked right on up and spoke to the woman from the temp agency as if I was a person that regularly woke up before noon on a weekday not next to an empty bag of Doritos.

Now, here I am, employed as a copywriter. A college success story. A liberal arts degree at work. The American dream in the making. The agency didn’t even try to make me watch the clerical safety video or take the online test to prove I know how to use a computer before giving me the job because, in the agent’s words, I’m “college educated.” Its what I’ve been told all my life in practice; having a college education really does put you ahead in the job market. A degrees almost like a get-out-of-menial-tasks-free card.

Everyday, I sit behind a computer pumping out product information and photo manipulation like a first class white-collar sweatshop. I battle rage in 9-to-5 commuter traffic like the rest of the snails out there on the road. As a temp worker, I have about zero interaction with other humans. I spend my lunch breaks eating egg and cheese sandwiches that are half ice because I don’t bother wasting more of my free time on them being in the microwave, but I get to eat outside. Its not as glamorous as the jobs other people I know, who immediately went from the loins of college to living the life in young cities like Boston, to the height of trend and hipster-hood in Brooklyn, those that got hired by corporations which then paid for them to take more college business classes. But its easy work, I get paid, I come home to see my dogs everyday, and they think I’m doing a great job. There have been weirder shaped stepping stones, and I’m getting paid. Just look at me now, Ma. (I mean, I’ll see you at dinner anyways.)

 

Stories in the Sky

Starry summer nights are fantastic. Grab some blankets, beers and friends (heck, you don’t even need friends!) and post up beneath the canopy of stars. You could sit there for hours, especially with a meteor shower going on.

I usually take those moments to start blabbering about the Big Dipper and Cassiopeia, and OH! how you can use them to find the North Star. If I’m with a cute guy or girl, I’ll then use my smooth tactic of making up a constellation and telling a story about it. It usually ends in some romantic hint that I’d like to make out with them. “How do you KNOW all this, Therese?” they ask, moving closer, totally falling for my ploy. We both know it’s because I’m a boss. But I share a simple sentiment:

“It’s not that difficult!” (then, cue the make-out session)

If you want to know how to find the constellations, check Google. I went to the local library and read about it. I’ll draw you a star chart right now.

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See? The Big Dipper!

That’s not the point of constellations. Adrastus didn’t turn to Despoine in 1300 b.c and say, “Hey, look at this cool shape of dots I saw in the sky,” just to look smart or get laid, because he could have gotten his way in that regard without the help of the stars. The ancient Greeks and other civilizations used the stars to tell stories, chart movement, and make scientific discoveries.

And that’s what you should be doing with your sky – telling stories, being imaginative, sharing history.

Now you might look up and say, “Hey wait a second. That looks nothing like a dragon!” Ok, Nancy, sit down and let me tell you something: we’re projecting the human imagination onto something that previously existed. By saying that it doesn’t look perfect you are choosing not to have any fun, and that’s simply not my problem.

Go outside tonight, sit yourself down beneath those stars and look up. It’s ok if you feel intimidated. What you need to remember is that you’re safe – no one is going to make fun of you. The heavens have painted a big canvas for you to explore. Use it as an opportunity. Let your mind wander, especially if it hasn’t in a while. Now go on and tell a story. Make one up if you must! Find shapes and explain how they got there. It might be dirty and raw at first! How beautiful.

Now don’t hold back simply because there are previously established constellations up there, because there are TONS of benefits to storytelling. It activates your imagination and strengthens your memory to name a few. Don’t let anyone stop you. Learn the old constellations if you want! Remember, you’re growing. You don’t need to know everything or anything for sure.

 

The sky was never about showing off how much you know – it’s about what you can find with it.

Maybe it’s a treasure map, and there are dangers along the way: cages, traps, lions, birds. But there are also ways to fight back, with boats and swords and castles. Or maybe it’s simple, like the Great Lawn Chair constellation. See? It looks like this.

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I lounge on it all the time.

Do not cower beneath the sky. Use it to tell your story. There’s no knowing what wonders you can find within yourself or your world after storytelling. You’re just as imaginative as those who named the constellations in the first place.

Plus, it’s a great excuse to make out with someone.

Want to Write Better? Notice Pockets.

It might sound crazy, but my obsession with pockets has made me a better writer.

It might sound crazy, but I think my obsession with pockets has helped in my struggle to improve my writing. Let me explain.

As part of the generation reared alongside a certain boy wizard, the memories of reading Harry Potter books the day they came to my door on hot summer mornings left an indelible mark on me. After the series ended, and I got older, I realized that I was consistently drawn back to the initial book in the series, and to many of the more mundane facts about this strange world. Chief among the objects of my fascination was Rubeus Hagrid’s moleskin coat. According to the Harry Potter Wikia, and supported by different passages in the book, the contents of this coat’s pockets were as follows:

  • a pink umbrella
  • a slightly squashed chocolate cake
  • a copper kettle
  • a packet of sausages
  • a fire poker
  • a teapot
  • several chipped mugs
  • a bottle of “some amber liquid” (I see you, Hagrid, I see you)
  • a live owl
  • a long quill
  • a roll of parchment
  • a dirty, spotted handkerchief, which might actually just be a tablecloth
  • a couple of dormice
  • bunches of keys
  • slug pellets
  • balls of string
  • mint humbugs (British impersonations of candy)
  • teabags
  • wizard money
  • moldy dog biscuits
  • Harry’s vault key

Finding this passage again, I thought “This must be how it started.” You see, since I was a kid, I have always needed to have as many pockets on my person as possible, and if you were to stop me on the street and demand I empty them, you would find them all full. Hagrid’s coat was a kind of holy grail. Who would ever need to carry a bag if they had a coat where they could stuff an owl? Every pair of jeans I own has five pockets, every jacket has at least two outer and one inside pocket, and I usually wear button-downs with one or two breast pockets. Those who know me well might remember me jokingly challenging friends to “the pocket game,” where whoever has the most stuffed in each of their pockets wins. This was, of course, unfair, and you can probably tell that I was very popular. Yeeeeppp.

Anyway, “How does this relate to writing,” you might ask, if you were rude and enjoyed interrupting people. But you’d also be right in asking, because it does sound ridiculous. Here’s the thing: writing is all about practice. There’s that famous quote from Hemingway that “Ninety percent of writing is showing up,” and while that’s true, some percent of that is cultivating a mind that notices things, that seeks to tell the story of everything that the eye sees.

Do you have pockets? What’s in them? Where did it come from? Who made it? Would you give it to someone? What’s it for?

Do you not have pockets? What would you put in them if you did have them? What are you aching to tell the pocket-havers, and what can you share when you have nothing?

So yes, this is a strange and circuitous way of saying practice, damnit. But not just in sitting down to write. Practice thinking, noticing, and seeing behind what’s in front of you. Pockets are simple. Almost everyone has them, but you notice when they aren’t there. On the other hand, if you’re like many of the women I know, maybe you notice when they are, and especially when they’re fully functional. What else don’t you notice as much? Go out and write it. As an artist, you don’t have time off. While that might sound oppressive, it’s actually incredibly freeing. You might remember, if you’re like me, posting on author’s websites, writing in forums, or even (god help me) writing a letter asking for advice on how to get a book published when you haven’t written anything. I was eleven. It was to Christopher Paolini. I hope he never got it. Anyway, I’ve always been preoccupied with what I was going to do in the future. But when you take yourself seriously as an artist, really get into the habit of noticing things, it forces you to live in and appreciate the present moment. Get obsessed with life, with everything around you. And pay attention to the things that you are most caught up in. Chances are you’ve already noticed something about those that no one else has. So don’t freak out. Just sit back and watch, listen, and write.