“Submit to your Art. Yield to your Art and what it calls for and requires. Your Art should not be something disconnected and separate from you. It shouldn’t pull you around by the nose like some frightened traveler journeying through unknown places. If you’re committed to creating Art for as long as you can possibly imagine, then ask your Art what it needs. But ask by creating and dedicating enough time to your work that through that very love and obsession with what you make, you’ll know whether: Should I move to this or that city? Should I apply for this or that residency? Would it bother my psyche and be too painful to show up at this opening? What type of relationships make sense for the continuation and health of my work? Your Art is not about you. Your Art IS you. It will tell you if you listen. So listen through your art.”
The most challenging thought from this paragraph I pulled from Wangechi Mutu's Yale University School of Art commencement speech is: “If you’re committed to creating Art for as long as you can possibly imagine, then ask your Art what it needs. But ask by creating and dedicating enough time to your work that through that very love and obsession with what you make, you’ll know [what to do next].”
What to do next is the question that’s been panting after me since I completed my short story collection. What to do next is the question that has been nipping at my heels as I’ve walked into panels and readings, into conversations with other writers, and into the dealers’ room to browse books here at the Wiscon Feminist Speculative Fiction Convention. Wangechi's answer—create and dedicate enough time to your work so that the love and obsession that you invest will tell you what’s next—is not so much a throwing down of the gauntlet, but a puzzling koan.
It is certainly true that you can see the marks of love and obsession in works by artists who have fully committed to their form. I look at visual art and can almost see that the art before me is the result of thousands of hours of riffing, exploring, deconstructing, removing obstacles, submitting to the pull until the purest expression of whatever vein the artist is following is laid bare at her fingertips.
Mastery revels in the commitment of time. Simultaneously, everyday life takes time. Both art and life logistics loom huge, each requiring its own type of focus, its own reservoir of energy, its own field amongst the vagaries of your life. This is the boulder pushed up the hill by every artist: the commitment to the work—what, or who, are you willing to sell to get that time? Time with friends? Supporting your spouse? Your duties and responsibilities at work or at home? Spending meaningful time with your children? The empty calories of mindless entertainment that you use to scrub yourself of the day’s work? What will you shred, do away with, turn away from in order to “dedicate enough time to your work so that the love and obsession you invest will tell you what to do next?”
My brother once hypothesized that you had to be an asshole to be a great artist. I disagreed. I said that you had to be single-minded and to that end, you made cold decisions. While others are showing up for the responsibilities and necessities in their lives, the great artist is showing up to practice. Woodshedding, as it’s called in jazz. The koan is how do you do both? Can you do both? Can you commit enough love and obsession to all the areas of your life that need it?
The only answer that sits well with me is: yes. Yes, you can commit enough to all areas of your life. Yes, there is enough time, focus, energy, dedication to go around. I have that faith, but I have still not found the secret formula. For me, it is a particular spark that, when caught, I am gone—creating work in all manner of impossible circumstances. Painting in bed at night, writing on the train, editing at work. I am always capable of finding these magic pockets of time during which I can put in the hard work. I am not always capable of connecting with that spark that wills me to create in an insanely demanding day-to-day life that takes stamina to survive, even without the addition of artmaking.
I am in the phase of seeking that next spark. Which project, I wonder, will awaken that mania within me. I dabble in my novel (no spark yet), I dabble with my nonfiction book (definitely no spark), I paint a little (still spark-less). Here at Wiscon, listening to people read, my paralysis looms large. My failure to find the spark for the next project swells and my eyes threaten to spill over with tears. Tears that want to bear witness to my stagnation; tears that wish to comment on the hours unspent on the work; tears that need to show frustration for the creativity unexpressed: the work, that should be here, the undelivered ideas, the not-quite-yetness of my full artist self.
I am truly in a delightful time in my creative life. While I have not been creating at full tilt for the past ten years, my personal growth has informed my artistic growth. I am a better writer than I was five, ten, fifteen years ago. My thoughts are more sure, my presence more solid, my flexibility more durable. Yet, I worry that my growing personhood is not matched by a growing productivity. It is almost as if I am sharpening my knife, not for whittling a masterpiece, but for throwing it at the wall, if only to hear the dull thunk it makes as it embeds into my obstacles.
I will never stop thinking of myself as a long distance runner, dogged in my pursuit of the finish line. Even amidst all this worry, I still see my artistic output, arranged in foreseeable goals down the road. But even as I continue to walk forward in faith, I am also looking over my shoulder at the passage of time and chiding myself, darling, you have stretched, you have trained and, yes, I love the fluorescent laces on your shiny new sneakers, but it is time to run. No more stalling, let’s run!
*** BOOK REPORT: Tracking the Progress of Ancient, Ancient *** My friends are full of questions about what’s happening with the collection and it has occurred to me that news of the book’s presence may be valuable to KIS.list readers. So I will share the ups and downs of my progress with the book at the bottom of my missives. Please feel free to connect with me if you have any questions, tips, or suggestions. I am fully on the journey.
The big question that people keep asking me is “Is your book out yet?” Notes on Ancient, Ancient being out: My book was published by an extremely small press: Aqueduct Press. They found that, as such a small press, the only way that they could maintain their autonomy and stay true to their publishing vision was by *not* working with a distributor. Distributors have a lot of power and make a lot of demands. This artistic freedom is great. Aqueduct has been able to publish a wide range of feminist writings in a number of book formats. However, without a distributor, questions such as “Is the book out yet?” will flourish.
Answer: The book is out! Bookstores can order it from Aqueduct Press. You can get the ISBN from Amazon and then have your independent bookstore order it from Aqueduct Press.
The book is also available at Amazon, but, get this, it is out of stock. They won’t order the book from the publisher unless they think they will sell it. They won't think they will sell it until people order it. So if you have any patience, please order the book and Amazon will order it from the publisher and get it in stock. Otherwise my book will simply be another ghost on Amazon.
Meanwhile, the publisher is selling them here at Wiscon, but it is sort of like an “if the tree falls in the forest and no one hears it” type of situation. Amazon is the biggest book distribution game in town. If a book buyer doesn’t buy it from Amazon, it was not purchased. If someone does not review it on Amazon, it was not read. If a verified Amazon-purchaser of the book does not review it on Amazon, then it was not legitimately reviewed. Quite the headache, right? This is why diversity matters. One gun in town, means one set of laws, and currently Amazon is the law of the land.
In addition to trying to get patient readers to order the book on Amazon, wait for it to arrive, then post a review, I am also busy hunting down book blogger reviews. I have been emailing the book to reviewers like a mad woman and currently it seems there are three possible reviews coming my way. Funny, now that I’ve written the book, I have to prove that it exists by having other people validate it, see it, speak of it, buy it, know it.
“You are searching the world for treasures, but the real treasure is yourself.”—Rumi, Hidden Music
I am finding as I age that there is as much wealth, interest, and novelty to be discovered by traveling inward as outward. There has been nothing so exhilarating in my life as travel. Searching the world for novelty, new adventures, surprising ideas, customs, and cultures, delicious experiences and shocking revelations. And now I am finding, that I am absolutely spellbound by exploring what I’m capable of, trying new challenges, speaking my mind, finding novelty in the same old same old, creating ease in the headwinds of stress, discovering the magic in myself. It is wonderful to go running to the beach, with a pail and a shovel, and go digging to see what you can discover. There is nothing like the feel of the sun on your skin, sand between your toes, water beating against your limbs. But oh, how miraculous it feels, too, to find the oceans within your own self. How absolutely magical it is to peel back the soggy outer layers and free an ever-rejuvenating wellspring of power, passion and creativity, to uncover the treasures in the self.
On a recent episode of a television comedy, one character advised another: Get out there and let it get messy! He was referring to dating, but this advice is powerfully potent for us all. Fear of making a mess, fear of making a mistake, fear of errors, confusion, and slip-ups can keep us paralyzed. Then, once a mistake is made, we keep ourselves penned up in regret. “Get out there and let it get messy.” This means in your art, in your promotions efforts, in your dreaming and actualization of your dreams. Messes will be made, that's how we make discoveries, uncover paths, create styles, genres, and futures. I find in my own life, my habit of avoiding mess can be so well entrenched, that I don’t even notice myself holding back, avoiding mess. I’m taking on that challenge this year. Let it get messy. Which doesn’t mean to run out searching for mess, but it does mean follow those whisperings of your heart, those creative urges and curious wonderings, and when the only thing holding you back is fear of error—set aside that fear, and let it get messy.
I love how nonlinear life is: how shifting and movement in one area of your life can influence another. That’s why taking a walk can trigger ideas, that's why slacking off and playing a game with a kid can help you solve problems. Sometimes it can be easy to fall into a rut—which to me is an (unhealthy?) embrace of stillness/stagnancy in a certain area of life. There has been a stillness in my physical environment, my art has been languishing in closets, wrapped up in the dark. This weekend, I enjoyed wonderful little sparks of activity that reminded me of what it feels like to connect with my creativity. The first spark came when I was trying to give my daughter and her friend something productive to do. They painted a sign, I went behind them to finish it up and that bled into me finishing a painting of my own. Then I went to see a neighbor play music for a band that has been out of commission for many years, and I ended up hanging up new artwork in the apartment.
I am fascinated by what stops us from moving and what gets us going. Sometimes the best way to get moving is to move anything—a conversation, a thought, some art, some furniture, an idea, an obstacle. And, as you're pushing forward, let go and allow the thrust of motion to permeate the rest of your life.
All of this ruminating is a form of moving things forward. It reminds me of a post I wrote in 2005, inspired in part by a wonderful book called Free Play by Stephen Nachmanovitch. We can give ourselves the most potent gift ever by allowing ourselves to detour into “pointless” creativity that seems to have no point, no importance, and no profit. In so doing, we are perfectly poised to open the floodgates and let in the muse and let out our creative genius.
Parenting—and motherhood, in particular—is central to the human experience. Literature is rife with explorations of the mother on the page. Recently Jesmyn Ward's Salvage the Bones looks at motherhood through an absent mother and a dog. Regarding the centrality of mother to her narrative, Ward says: I was nurturing the idea of writing a book about a girl who grows up in a world full of men for around two years before I began writing Salvage the Bones. Esch’s character was the seed for the book, really, and in order for her to exist in that lonely place without women, her mother had to be dead. The fact that she was such a strong presence, in life as well as death, was actually a surprise for me.
Who can escape the power of the mother? The truth is, motherhood is not for sissies. It's a profoundly intense job that is as full of conflict (internal and external) as it is full of hugs, kisses, and cuddling. For today's Sunday Shorts, I am profiling, "Pod Rendezvous," the final story in my collection, which revolves around a young woman who will soon be committed to motherhood as she has run out of options for her future. At approximately 60 pages, it's the longest story I ever wrote. I just kept following it and it never seemed to want to end.
EXCERPT: "Pod Rendezvous"
The chaos of her party was just as she had left it, but
she was not prepared for what she saw standing before
her. She startled, then scrambled to her feet. At first she
thought it was the mother-unit — her mother-unit — looking
down on her. But when her mind cleared, she noticed
the faces. She could see eyes, noses, lips. All the women in
this unit had thinned their cloaks so that the part of the
veil covering their faces had become transparent.
“M… M… M…?”
“Mahini,” the mother-unit sang together.
“How did you…?” Questions flew through Laki’s
mind. How could a whole mother-unit fit into a pod? How
did they get past the concierge? Why were they here?
“We never answer how,” sang Mahini.
“You looked cold,” sang one mother.
“Happy, but cold,” sang another mother.
Laki bent down, scooped up the cloth, and draped it
over her shoulders.
“You are the girl who is going into a mother-unit tomorrow,
are you not?”
“So why are you wearing a marriage belt.”
“Have you changed your mind?”
Laki pulled the cloth tighter around her body. She was
having trouble accepting what she saw before her: a mother-
unit with faces. She examined the expressions in their
eyes, the set of their mouths.
“Can you leave the unit?” Laki burst out.
One of the mothers smiled. “I believe we asked you a
“This…” Laki said, throwing one edge of the cloth
open to reveal a glimpse of the belt. “…is a souvenir. I can’t
seem to get it off…and you, can you all leave the unit?”
The women of Mahini shook their heads. “Temporarily,
in an emergency, but our cloaks are bonded.”
“We are one,” they sang together.
“What about your children? What happened to them?”
“We refused to accept them. They belong to someone
“…and we belong to the world.”
“We mother those who need it.”
“We mother with our songs.”
“We mother those who have never heard of us. ”
“We mother each other.”
Laki’s head bounced around as she looked into the face
of each woman as she spoke.
“Where do you…” She began to ask a question, but
“We don’t answer where,” Mahini sang.
People love stories of overnight sensations and instant stardom. And people (including this person) love to ask why? Why isn’t it working? Why is it working for them and not for me? Why am I not seen and heard? And this questioning can make you bitter and your bitterness can turn your invisibility into a repellent. Adding injury to the insult of (perceived) failure.
Of course an overnight sensation is rarely overnight. There are years and years of pushing, promoting, working that are invisible to the outside eye. We are in a new era, an era in which a voice can be amplified many times over with the push of a button. This makes it easier to be heard, but no matter the amplification, you still have to speak to be heard. Creating a swell, or a swarm, of attention means constant sharing—which is surprisingly difficult for some of us, even those of us whose art form consists of speaking.
We are all so full of stories and experiences—a swarm of stories, if you will—and while it’s easy to think of the work of promotion, it’s amazing how sharing yourself, pushing yourself to share more to create a swell of activity and content for others, you are really just building more human connections that—while intending to promote your materials—actually give so much energy, open-heartedness, new dimensions, information to the world.
The older I get, the easier it is to seal myself into my own insular world. Putting myself on the promotions path is actually putting me on the path of more sharing, more community, more reflection and more sharing.
I just received a post about this year’s great migration of the red admiral butterfly. The butterflies are so ubiquitous, one article states, that even “non-butterflying people take notice.” Isn’t that the point of promotions, to make you and your message so ubiquitous that even people who would usually not be aware of you sit up and take notice? For me, nature is an empowering teacher, one that makes me more open to push myself to evolve. I have to say, I am so tickled watching other people’s swarms build. And I’m happy to be caught into the gusts created by their swarms and to create a swell of my own.
A Mr. Salvador Dhali @King_Saladean on Twitter just tweeted: "You have to be open to introducing new blood into the game in order to survive." It can be said that much of our life is seeking new blood of some sort or another. We want to be entertained, so we seek novelty, new blood in the form of a person, an experience, a sensation, a happening. We want love, so we seek a new person with whom to experience ourselves as new all over again. (Wow, it just occurred to me that perhaps getting tired of a person, really is just getting tired of how you experience yourself in relationship to that person. And you really only like the new you, the new face you show to people. Boredom with a relationship is really boredom of who you are being in that relationship. But I digress...)
Artists are constantly seeking new blood, whether it be new blood of inspiration, new blood of new works, new blood of a fresh perspectivethe blood must run fresh for new ideas to flow. When I went to the Antioch University MFA program, I felt like I had run dry. I still had my talent, my intellect, my faith in my future as a writer, but all the play had left me, the energy to put effort in my work had been squashed down. We had to bring material to be critiqued into our first writing workshop. I had nothing new and was not inspired to create something new. So I brought something old, not only something old, but something that had already been publishednothing new there.
"Rosamojo" was published in the anthology Mojo: Conjure Stories, edited by Nalo Hopkinson. I didn't reveal that "Rosamojo" had been published before receiving my critique. I took the critique, and didn't mention its publication history to anyone. During the critique, they found a gaping hole in the story. In a family drama, after the main character takes an extreme action, I skip to weeks later. What, everyone wanted to know, happened to the mother? Did she know what her daughter had done? If she did, what did she do about it? When the instructor learned that the story was already published, she told me this was not a wasted critique. Stories are always re-published, re-used, reworked, she explained. She promised that I would have the opportunity to address the issues in the critique.
Fast forward to six years later and I am editing my short stories for my forthcoming collection, Ancient, Ancient. When I come to "Rosamojo," I knew what I had to do. I wrote a new scene with the daughter and the motherit is intense, emotional, possibly the story's critical turning point. The thing about new blood is that it's not always about doing more, sometimes it's about going deeper in (this is also true, oh so true, of relationships).
The newly-edited "Rosamojo" will appear in a new ebook anthology, Under the Needle's Eye. If you have a device that supports Kindle e-books, you can get a free copy of Under the Needle's Eye. It will be FREE for 24 hours, on today, Thursday, May 10. Click here for your free copy.
Under the Needle's Eye Trailor
Under the Needle's Eye is anthology of 11 of the writers who participated in the 2001 Clarion West Writers Workshop. Clarion West is a six-week speculative fiction writing workshop in which participants write a story a week with six different mentors who are active in the literary field. Our first instructor was the late Octavia Butler. Now a decade+ later, we've come together to publish an anthology. The writers in this collection have young adult series, they have won awards and award nominations, they have self published to great successin other words these are writers at work. If you have an e-reader, check out the collection. This anthologyno matter how old the works arewill be new blood to any readers setting their eyes on these stories for the first time.
KIINI IBURA SALAAM is a writer, painter, and traveler from New Orleans, Louisiana. Her book--"Ancient, Ancient," a collection of speculative tales that revolve around the dark, the sensual, and the magical--was named one of the Best Fantasy and Science Fiction Collections of 2012 by editor Jeff VanderMeer. http://www.amazon.com/Ancient-Fiction-Kiini-Ibura-Salaam/dp/1933500964
Kiini's work is rooted in in eroticism, speculative events, and women's perspectives. Her fiction has been anthologized in such collections as Dark Matter, Mojo: Conjure Stories, and Dark Eros. Her nonfiction has been published in Ms. magazine, Essence magazine, and Utne Reader. Her KIS.list e-report chronicles the ups and downs of the writing life and is currently being serialized in the e-book format. The first volume is titled On the Psychology of Writing: Notes from the Trenches. http://www.amazon.com/Psychology-Writing-Notes-Trenches-ebook/dp/B009NNHTOU/ref=la_B007YU4GWC_1_16?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1355940255&sr=1-16
Stay in touch with her activities by clicking "Like" on her Facebook author page at www.facebook.com/kiiniibura