The Artform of Uncertainty

photo by rromer

photo by rromer


Is it even any good at all?

I’m sure this is not the thing I should be thinking at this stage of the game. Within the last sixteen months, I’ve read hundreds of articles on ‘Marketing for the Self-Published Author’ and none of the advice said to doubt yourself moments before the release of your book. Moreover, doubting yourself publicly is most assuredly an epic fail.

But if I know anything about writers, that’s exactly what we do.

Why is it that confidence and healthy egos are wasted on athletes, politicians and surgeons? Okay, it’s not wasted on surgeons. We all want surgeons to be super-duper confident. But what about us creative types? Why is it not in our genes? Or is it the other way around? Does our roughed-up self-esteem guide us to choose the arts to torture us, I mean express ourselves?

I don’t need the kind of swagger Rambo has. I’d do fine with just a sliver. I’m a little skeptical of people at the other end of the bold-barometer anyway. But it’s my initial reaction to the overly-confident type that always surprises me. For instance, let’s say I’m in the park and I’m sharing a bench with someone I don’t know. It’s a beautiful day and I say aloud, “Wow, the sky is so blue.” And the stranger turns to me and says, “Blue? Where? You mean green, right? That’s the greenest sky I’ve ever seen! The most perfect green. The kind of green sky you only see in movies. Did you say blue?! That’s crazy.” My first reaction to this, as I sit with my mouth open, looking up at the sky and then back down at this pigment-pundit, would not be ‘what kind of smug, aggressively stupid, color-blind crazy no-holding-back impolite stranger is this?’ like maybe it should be. Instead my first thought would probably be, ‘Hmm, green? Could I have been wrong all these years?’

Maybe the very fact that the arts are subjective and open to interpretation and judgment is the very reason artists fear they may not be understood or appreciated. After all, a stock trader has either a winning day or a losing day, a sharp shooter makes his target or doesn’t. There’s no judgment there. If someone hits a homerun in the extra innings of a nail-biter, no one is gonna say it was a lousy homerun.

But a song or a painting or a book or a dance. There will be plenty of interpretations and accolades and criticisms. Everyone will have a unique opinion. I will see something you don’t; you’ll be moved by something that I’ve already forgotten. Art speaks to our personal experiences, whether they are dreams or fears, accomplishments or vulnerabilities. It has the power to bring people together, to heal, to inspire, to stir, to challenge, to shock, to intrigue, to entertain.

Oh, yeah.

I can do that.

Guest Post on Change it Up Editing

I’m thrilled to be guest blogging today over at changeitupediting.com, where I reveal a few of my writing secrets, namely how I’ve wriggled out a few creative blocks. Come on over and check it out and share your own tales of creative inspiration. While you’re there, indulge yourself in the some wonderful writing insights of editor Candace Johnson. Here’s to a prolific 2014!

How I Forgave Jamie Oliver

Jamie Oliver's Sticky Chicken Thighs

Jamie Oliver’s Sticky Chicken Thighs

If you have the time and the patience, and room in your heart to forgive chef Jamie Oliver for referring to his Crispy and Sticky Chicken Thighs with Squashed New Potatoes and Tomatoes as a “simple pan-baked chicken dish” then I encourage you to try this recipe.

But for God’s sake, know up front that it is not “simple.” Okay perhaps, technically, it is “simple” but “simple” implies “quick.” Doesn’t it? To me it does. And quick it is not. The time alone that it took to de-bone and trim the chicken thighs of the cheesy fat clusters could have driven me to chase Mr. Oliver through his English potato garden with a pair of kitchen scissors. To say nothing of the time-consuming tedious task of individually stabbing, then peeling the skins off all those little cherry tomatoes. Peeling skins!

I typically have a rule in the kitchen never to cook anything that takes longer to prepare than it does to eat.

But alas, if I had stuck to that rule I would not have experienced this glorious masterpiece. Could I have skipped the tomato disrobing? Yes. But then I wouldn’t have tasted how “lovely and sweet” the tomatoes become when cooked stripped to their flesh, and the claim from Mr. Oliver that “their intense flavor will infuse the potatoes.” And after all, “Sometimes in cooking, you know what, it’s not all bish-bash-bosh, you need to put a bit of love in it, a bit of care, and it will taste fantastic.”

I got seduced into preparing this dish after seeing an episode of Jamie at Home. He looked tenderly at his ingredients, calling his potatoes “darlings” and “underground jewels.” Everything was “lovely,” from straining veggies to surgically removing the bones from chicken thighs. He even urged viewers to plant potatoes in their own backyard, claiming they’re super easy to grow and there’s nothing quite like using “freshly dug” potatoes. I’m sure he’s probably right about that. Though I have some pretty solid experience using potatoes which are weeks old−in fact, they’re one of the only vegetables that will last and last, even after they’ve practically grown a clone of themselves right there from their own skin. But maybe I should keep that to myself.

There was something charming about Jamie Oliver serving messy portions of his meals into chipped plates and pottery. And the sight of his charming country kitchen, a busy affair with brick walls and jelly jars cluttering counter tops and stacks of dishes and terra cotta, shelves practically leaning to one side. No granite or marble in sight. Not a stand mixer or cappuccino maker to be found. This cozy setting shouted “You can do this too! You American Food Network viewer, sitting on your overstuffed couch in the suburbs!”

Yes, he was talking to me. Thank God I was listening.

He told me to take the fresh oregano and “bash it up a little. Smash the oregano for butt-kicking flavored oil. You can’t chop it up and be nice about it.” It felt so comfortable, the spills and the clutter, the ruffled shirt. It was like I was cooking in the kitchen with my younger brother, if my younger brother could cook. (Of course you can cook, dear! That was just a little joke!) Did I mention the adorable English accent? Who can resist someone who pronounces oregano with the emphasis on the third syllable? Certainly not me.

I can’t explain to you why or how it happens that a mere six ingredients can produce an aroma transcendent. It leaks from your oven door when you least expect it. When you’re not even in the kitchen! You’re upstairs folding the laundry and bam! It finds you. And you go a little weak in the knees. Oh my gosh, you think to yourself, is that coming from my kitchen, from my oven?

Yes it is.

Thank you, Jamie Oliver. I forgive you.

Do Fiction Writers have an Obligation to Society?

photo by vpickering

photo by vpickering

As I write this, I ask myself if this has any validity. Do fiction writers have an obligation and responsibility to society and humankind? I’m referring to when writers create stories about atrocities which are not documented in history, but conjured and invented with all of its repugnant detail, by the author. A Huffington Post article I read yesterday made me wrestle my own thoughts for an answer to this.

The article talked about Tom Lonergan, the author of Heartbreak Hill (2002), his self-published book about, among other things, the attempted bombing of the Boston Marathon. “The novel was about a terrorist plot to set off a series of bombs during the race, killing and wounding spectators and runners.” In the novel the bombs were held off, diverting a disaster.

When Tom Lonergan first heard about the Boston Marathon bombings on Patriot’s Day earlier this week, he panicked. In an interview he said, “The bombing is especially troubling because ‘I could not help feeling as I saw the news reports on Monday that someone, somehow may have been inspired by my fiction.’”

This brought to mind a reaction I had in 1996 to the release of Daylight, a movie with Sylvester Stallone in which there is catastrophic explosion, due to a confluence of events, in the Holland Tunnel. I was incensed that anyone (actors, directors, producers, studios) could be so irresponsible as to practically hand over on a silver platter an idea so calamitous, to sickos at large who don’t have ideas like this on their own.

And what about the endless debate over song lyrics which give people, especially teens, ideas of violence and suicide. Like the song by Tupac Shakur, which is blamed for the killing of a Milwaukee police officer by two teens who were unwavering fans of the singer and his messages.

As I reflect on what Tom Lonergan grapples with as a writer, and how closely his novel parallels the very real travesty in Boston, I think about all the thrillers and horrors and suspense novels that have been written in the history of time. I think about my own novel, a thriller in which dark deeds are played out within a realistic setting. Do we as writers have an obligation to censor ourselves? I came across this post, Stop Blaming Music for Violence, written by high school newsmagazine, which mentions film, literature and the news media as sources for violent imagery and asks, “To those who believe that it is music causing violence in teens, ask yourselves this – does reading a suspense novel cause the reader to go out and commit murder? Does watching the news cause the viewer to go out and commit that same crime? No.”

Of course the answer is “no.” Someone of sound mind doesn’t feel propelled to execute malicious acts drawn from literature, or any art form. But is there a message here for writers? Is there an invisible line over which we shouldn’t cross? Should our conscience be our only guide? Are there taboo subject matters which are unspoken as untouchable and off-limits?

What do you think?