The Artist’s Way…

…I was thinking about American Idol on the way home, actually looking forward to watching it, because I enjoy music and hearing a good singer is a pleasure not to be denied. There is perhaps a bit of schadenfreude in the watching of it, but that’s as far as my reality TV viewing goes. I like watching American Idol and hearing these people get honest critiques. Especially in the audition portion. I have to agree with host Simon Cowell when he tells these people they cannot sing. Truly, they can’t.

I’m not a bad singer myself, you know. I can carry a tune, easily mark out a harmony and find the note. Frankly, I never trained; I just have a pretty good ear. It is what allows me to play the piano in a rudimentary way; I don’t take lessons, I am bad at reading the music, but I know when I am right and when it’s wrong. I would never pass myself off as being any kind of musician, though, nor singer. My eldest calls my piano-playing “plinking,” because that’s about it — I can plink out a few tunes and follow the notes enough to play some very short and simple pieces. I like to sing. I am not bad in the car and used to be awesome in the shower. But guess what, folks — that’s as far as it goes. American Idol I am not.

Advice to writers, singers, artists of any sort: Know your strengths. Know your weaknesses. Work at it to improve your craft, but please, please, do not suffer from the hubris of the stage or the printed page. If you are not good, there is no hiding it. Simon said, “There is no underestimating the self-delusion of the American people when it comes to their own singing voices.” I could say the same for some writers, too.

I used to be the publicist for a large, well-loved theater in the Bay Area. They put on three summer musicals per year and I would go every April to watch auditions. The director was an elderly gentleman who had performed on Broadway and had been directing forever. He was — and still is — an amazing talent. He could hear a couple of bars of a song and that was enough; he could hear everything he needed in just that. This gentleman made the “cruel” Simon Cowell look like Mr. Nice Guy. The thing is, onstage, you either have it or you don’t. Auditions are brutal, and if you can’t take it, you won’t make it. I would sit there and listen to these talented singers perform a verse from some Broadway show, and either it was a great pleasure or it was painful. And he would cut them off and say, “Thank you,” and move on to the next. It’s a cutthroat business, and you’ve got to be really good, and a little different, too. Gotta stand out in some way, and be really skilled to boot. Much like writing, to which I will return in a moment.

Watching American Idol auditions reminded me of the April theater auditions — these seasoned performers with their patience wearing thin, and so many wannabes turning up to try to get discovered — shoom, sent on their way with no ceremony, no politesse. Just adios, amigo, and on we go to the next contestant.

I think writing is like that. Try to get yourself an agent, or a few minutes with the editor of whatever journal or zine or publication that you want to get into, and believe me, friend, your song and dance number had better be polished; it had better shine. In other words, your entree — your cover letter, your query, your opening lines — had better be the best thing you’ve ever written, or it will not be read. And you will not be published.

Case in point: Recently I received a request from a would-be writer who wanted to write for the newspaper. His offerings included no newspaper writing, but rather a poem (a fairly frightening example — an ode to water), a critical paper dissecting a beloved poem, and a cover letter. The first problem? Typos in the cover letter. Try using capital letters when you begin a sentence, for one thing, sweetie, and try using this neat thing we call a period. Oh, and commas — they’re very useful, too. The applicant had apparently no knowledge of these useful tools, and no, friends, it wasn’t because he was going for an e.e. cummings sort of deal.

Further note to aspiring writers: You can break the rules if you know you are breaking them. If you don’t know the rules and are merely lazy or illiterate, don’t expect any assistance from those of us who work in the field for a living. It is hard to be impressed by your sloth and ignorance.

Furthermore, in re the aspiring applicant, his critique was not well written and he called the poem “The Ancient Mariner,” rather than by its correct name, “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” throughout. Hmm. So you want to write for a newspaper, which demands well-crafted articles and accuracy as cornerstones of its success. And your clips are sloppy and inaccurate? Hmm. Even a piddly little weekly like mine (and I say that fondly, not disparagingly) needs the best we can get, not whatever dregs fall through the mail slot. So, adios, amigo.

Back to writing: Aspiring Writers, all, please heed my advice. You can improve. You may not be perfect now (none of us started out perfect, and guess what? None of us are perfect yet.) but you will improve if you take the advice of more seasoned writers to heart. Please, proofread your work before you send it out, and get someone else to help you if you aren’t good at catching those errors. Know your weaknesses; with care, they can be overcome.

Alas, my pleas will fall on deaf ears. Simon’s did. He and his cohorts were forced to sit through a cross-country tour of baaaaad singing. If you watch this sort of show, or Star Search, or whatever, think back to your writing and, better yet, turn off the telly and go apply your ass to the chair at the desk. It will be time better spent.

More on this topic later.

Fast Lane…

…Wow, I hadn’t realized how far behind I would be by missing an entire week of work. From Sunday to Sunday I was home sick and came back to 93 e-mail messages on one account, 85 on the other. Plus snail mail, memos, inbox, yikes! Crazy days, but I’m getting back into it. Although it was blissful not to have to drive to work every day, I was too sick to make use of my home time. Instead, though, I did have many clever thoughts (along with some psycho-lurid dreams, courtesy of the flu, eek!). And among those thoughts is the necessity to get a new computer, plus a brilliant idea for a collection of short stories with Jane Austen as the unifying theme.

Now, if only I had the time to write them…

On the Mend…

At least, I hope so. Being ill is never much fun. Especially when one’s workmates can’t live without one. One drags oneself to the computer (damn and blast the e-mail!) and thinks with a few keystrokes the duty will be done. But no, there is more to say and do, and one finds oneself chained to the computer at home, as if in one’s very office! And one hacks and snuffles one’s way through the day, unable to take one’s medicine which would put one blissfully to sleep or at least stop the postnasal drip, because one must needs get on with helping the poor folk in the office. One feels guilty for having had the nerve to become ill, for having had the bad grace to take in the wrong germs and catch cold, and one gets the distinct feeling that one’s officemates think one is shirking one’s duty by not making one’s appearance in the workplace.

Alas! It is all true — I have been ill, I have been working from home, I have not been shirking much, and I have been coughing and sneezing all over my keyboard. Alas for my children, who have now suffered at least three nights of freezer food — French fries! Chicken patties! Frozen burritos! My mother has driven my children to school. My children have done my chores. Only the cat has fared well, having had me to sleep upon instead of the cold armchair. And the Kleenex company, they have done well, as I shred my way through my third box of tissues in as many days.

Illness does not do the body any good. One sees oneself in the mirror and thinks, ick. What a tired old sack I have become in just three days. But there is hope, because the sinuses begin to drain and the sniffles begin to subside, and I should be well in time for the weekend, or at the latest, Monday, when another jolly round of newspaper awaits me at the office.

Can’t help but be grateful when health returns. I’m hoping in the next few days — if I feel up to it — to organize my office at long last, and to get going on a number of tasks. I hope to get started on some bigger writing projects — some chapters for the memoir that this blog is purported to become. Ah, well, we shall see.

Note to Aspiring Writers and anyone who has a cold: Read lots of good books while you can. The real world intrudes again soon enough.

Adult Children…

I am way too young for this, and yet, here it is: my eldest, who fled the nest last August for her own cottage in the hills and a new life attending college, has returned. This is my eldest girl, the product of my wicked youth, the one about whom people always say, “You’re too young to have an 18-year-old.” Well, yes, but nevertheless, I do. I always laughed about the empty-nesters whose adult children had returned, but I never thought it would happen to me.

A few days before Christmas, she was in a car accident, from which she escaped virtually unscathed. This was every parent’s nightmare, and it still makes me ill to remember it. She was driving to work early one morning down a wet, curving country lane, when she began to fishtail. She lost control of the car as the steering went out and the car went off the road, toward a telephone pole. The witnesses, a kindly man and his young son, told me later that the car flipped over the height of the rural mailboxes, then went into a ditch and rolled over twice. It came to a rest on its roof, and he told me he expected to pull a dead body out. Instead, my very shaken daughter crawled out of the passenger window (in an obscenely short skirt and gigantic chunky shoes) and started crying. The car, on its crushed roof, lay there until the tow truck flipped it and hauled it away. I got there just before it left and, after seeing the car, can’t believe that instead of Christmas we didn’t have a funeral. My daughter, who had but a tiny scratch on her elbow and knee despite the outfit, and not even a mild case of whiplash, was scared but otherwise intact.

What a Christmas gift that was, and let’s not forget to thank our guardian angels, either. A few days later, still in the throes of deepest gratitude, I asked her if she would like to move back in and live at home again. Without hesitation, she said yes.

The next thing I know, I don’t have a sewing room anymore. Man, I really wanted that sewing room, too. My youngest two, who have spent years waiting for Eldest to leave so they could have their own bedrooms, were not willing to consider going back to the old arrangement. In this house, the one I moved to in November to be closer to my aging parents and my college girl, there are three bedrooms and a small entryway that is just wide enough to work as an office or hobby room — my sewing room. I haven’t been here long enough to set it up, but never mind that; now it’s occupied by a double bed and so much girlie stuff that I no longer even venture in. Same as it ever was.

But she’s an adult now. So she comes and goes at any hour, she sleeps in late while we hasten out the door to work and school, and she does her own thing. I’m so glad to have her back; I love her to bits. I was happy to have my own bathroom in this house, but now I’m sharing it with a variety of curling irons and cosmetics — my bathroom! I came home from work the other night and not only was my parking space taken by her friends, but the other extra space, and I had to park out on the street! In the rain! As the entryway/sewing room space has no storage, she has moved clothes into my closet, and her brand-new towels and sheets are crowding in with my linens, also in my closet. Her vast horde of snack foods is overflowing in my kitchen. My laundry baskets runneth over.

With her newfound college sophistication, she says, “Oh, hella, dude,” for “yes,” and “For %^*$’s sake,” apropos of nothing. She brought her cat back with her, the kitten who was once such a terror, and has the temerity to tell him (the cat!) to call me grandma. OK, I can deal with the strangely foul language and the curling iron collection and even the smart answers I get for every single exchange, but I will tell you something right now, missy. I am not the cat’s grandma.

As the weeks pass, we are settling in and getting used to one another again. I’ve even come home once or twice to find all the dishes done or laundry folded. I like it! We’re back to having our late-night chats, till 1 a.m. sometimes, which pains me in the morning. (Not her; she gets to sleep in.) It’s more like having a roommate than a daughter these days; most of the time it’s pretty good.

Despite those few minor details like having to buy her another car and deal with the insurance and squeezing four of us into a too-small house and her nonstop barrage of smackable one-liners, having her here — alive, thank God — is fine. As long as the cat doesn’t call me Grandma.