Friday, May 31, 2013

"Generation Me" Bears No Resemblance to the Awesome, Ambitious People I Know

I think all of this "Generation Me" stuff is a load of crap.

There's a lot written in the news lately about millenials, young people born roughly between 1980-2000.  We're spoiled, self-centered, and entitled to achievements we didn't earn because our touchy feely helicopter parents gave out too many participation ribbons to boost our self esteem.  We lack ambition, take too many "selfies" on our new fangled smart phones and don't care about anything but our own happiness.  And because we've been coddled so much, we have no sense of the emotional strength it takes to take responsibility for our lives.

Another guy who made a lot of selfies.  Ugh, what a poseur.
It's a seductive stereotype--and it describes few of the people I know.

Sunday, May 26, 2013

How Do You Measure, Measure How Far You've Come in a Year?

Monday night I went to my Birthright reunion.  I approached the event with mixed feelings.   At the most basic level, I always get a little bit of anxiety in any situation involving Judaism or Israel, because my obsession with exploring different views of Middle Eastern history makes it difficult to keep my mouth shut when I feel like only one perspective is being explored.   Unlike most of the people on the trip, I went to Israel when I was 18 on a March of the Living trip, and the closed-mindedness I encountered then was so confusing that it was almost ten years before I could begin to feel like I had a place in that conversation, so for me the trip was less about learning the history of the region and meeting Israelis for the first time than it was reclaiming my Jewish identity.  My initial impetus for finally deciding to go on Birthright was to extend my trip and not only connect with some of my family out there, but also travel to the West Bank and Turkey to get a more well-rounded experience than I had when I was in high school.  But at the last minute those plans fell through, and on our ten-day trip last July I spent a lot of my time frustrated about how our tour guides were subtly pushing this narrative of Israeli and Jewish history that conflated history, politics, and religion in a way that was deeply troubling to me.  I felt bad that I couldn't just relax and enjoy the ride like those who were visiting Israel and developing a relationship to Judaism for the first time. Though these issues were important to me, I didn't want to be the one to (figuratively) tell everyone that Santa Claus wasn't real.

But politics was not the only thing giving me stress that week.

Saturday, May 18, 2013

On Creativity, Confidence and the Struggle for Control

"If I were a painter," Norah Jones sings, "I'd paint my reverie.  If that's the only way for you to be with me."

It's a beautiful idea--the idea of visualizing one's feelings to make concrete one's inner longings.  Would my own experience as a painter had been so dreamlike.

I don't talk about my painting much, but visual art has been one of my great loves throughout my entire life.  My grandmother, Madelaine Ginsberg is an abstract painter and my mother always made sure my life was aesthetically rich.   Though I maintain a rich and vibrant fantasy life, painting in proportion has always been a struggle.  Growing up I used to look in envy at the my best friend Michele Bartos, who effortlessly rendered objects and people with stunning accuracy.  Never would anyone mistake HER elephant inside a boa constrictor for a hat.  Believing that to be a TRUE artist one needed to possess the ability to represent subjects accurately, I would spend weeks in art class copying photos and painting fruit, but to my chagrin there would still be something slightly "off" and at the end of the day even my good paintings would lose at the art shows next to the more photorealistic ones.  A few months ago I read Virginia Woolf's To the Lighthouse which encapsulates my own frustrations in the gap between plan and execution.  Early in the novel, Woolf narrates the inner monologue of an artist struggling to achieve her vision:

She could see it so clearly, so commandingly when she looked: it was when she took her brush in hand that the whole thing changed.  It was in that moment's flight between the picture and her canvas that the demons set on her who often brought her to the verge of tears and made this passage from conception to work  as dreadful as any dark passage for a child.  
But the difficulty in creating realistic images was not the only point of struggle I encountered in the creative process as a visual artist.  While my realistic art failed to make much of an impact, I was well-represented at school art shows.  My high school art teacher, Mr. Rubino, encouraged us to use canvas paper for our palettes instead of Styrofoam trays and egg cartons.  Not only was canvas paper easier to  come by than the trays, but in the end you ended up with two for the time it took to create one.  Consistently, my palettes were far more intriguing than my bland paintings, and one day I decided to cut one up and enter it into an art show, where it won first prize.  I continued to run with this idea, even experimenting with different surfaces for my palettes.   The most honors I ever received in the art show was during my screen printing phase, where I took a screen of two friends kissing at prom and ran it over the newspaper I was using as a drop cloth.  The picture still hangs in my room at my dad's house, and I look at it with longing for the days when I had easy access to Mr. Rubino's screen making machine.

And while it was certainly gratifying to receive recognition, I also felt like a fraud (something Sheryl Sandberg also touches upon in Lean In).  I hated that the work into which I had put the most effort got no attention in favor of works I threw together in 30 seconds.  Over time I developed less and less motivation to put a lot of energy into my work, something I felt was immature and wrong.

When it came time to apply for college, there was a moment when I considered applying for art school. But the accidental nature of my better work was terrifying.  With few true skills to fall back on, no doubt I would be like the Miller's Daughter from Rumplestiltskin, locked in a dungeon with a pile of hay trying to figure out how I once spun straw into gold.  And because in real life magical little men don't appear with cover-up deals that involve a first born sacrifice, I knew eventually I would be exposed as a fraud.  So instead I pursued the more linear paths of acting and later writing.  Maybe linear isn't the right word--these fields were easier for me to intellectualize.  Operating in a more literary sphere, as a language person it was easier to match the thoughts in my head to what ended up on the paper.

I still keep a set of acrylic paints and a craft box with me, mainly for the nights when my writing is giving a headache and I need to prove to myself I can finish something (cooking serves a similar function).  Though my filing cabinet is a mess, the one folder I make sure I can easily find is one that contains spare palettes I accumulate in times of need.  When I am making a last-minute card, I find I have go through my back stock rather than create something new: if I set out with the intent to create a "Materpiece Plus," as Mr. Rubino would say, I will invariably intellectualize it into muddiness and mediocrity.  It is only when I manage to convince myself that it doesn't matter that I can be truly spontaneous.  Somehow it is easier to see the beauty in an older work than a current one because I almost feel as though it's a gift from a different person entirely, like Old Biff giving his younger self the  future sports Almanac in Back to the Future II.

Theoretically, I should be able to apply these same lessons to my writing for the theatre.  But it's harder not to intellectualize it and convince myself it doesn't matter when I'm trying to justify the thousand of dollars of debt I have incurred for my MFA in Playwriting.  My involvement with the art world consists of occasionally stumbling into a gallery in Chelsea on a bad day whereas the theatre world is all over my social life, my professional network, and my Facebook feed.  It MATTERS whether or not I succeed in the theatre in a way that art doesn't.  I can't afford to spend time messing around with scraps of newspaper and my feelings so many of the emerging writer programs end at age 30.  

And yet I'm finding limits to my intellect.   Though it's painful to attend events from which one's work was rejected, I am interested in the qualities in plays that make someone else want to produce them.  What I have noted is a sense of weirdness, a freedom, a spontaneity I rarely allow myself in my writing.  And so I second-guess myself and get frustrated at my own work for being bland, superficial, and formulaic.  Whereas I used to use realistic painters as evidence of my inadequate art skills, I now look with envy at those dramatists whose richly textured worlds seem more richly layered bare, who "go there" in terms of dramatic danger, rendering my own attempts at wit and cleverness bland and superficial.  No doubt these writers also have more diligent writing regimes and take constructive criticism with a humble smile instead of turning into an emotional crying mess that can only be soothed by wasting an evening watching clips of Mad Men on Youtube and crafting fabric flowers. Given this instability and immaturity, it's tempting to convince myself that, like visual art, I lack the discipline to truly deserve the kinds of opportunities to which I aspire.

I suppose the key is to not compare oneself to others.  That seems logical and simple.  But as someone who has spent my entire life cultivating an image of "cleverness," the idea of putting something out there that may be too messy, too awkward, too weird is deeply uncomfortable.  Ira Glass speaks of the frustration those with "good taste" experience when we find that our own work "disappoints" us because it "doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have."  According to Ira Glass, the key is to just set deadlines for oneself and work and work until that gap is reached.    This is perhaps why in my own playwriting I have opted for wit over drama, choosing subjects pleasantly understood and enjoyed as opposed to the kind of mystery that might leave an audience (and myself) offput and lost. So I turn out "interesting" plays, but rarely with the kind of drama and spontaneity found in my paint palettes.  I wonder why I can't write a play as interesting as that screen of Natasha and Ben on the newsprint, but then I remember how much TIME it took before I was in a place where I could create it. Months before I took the photo at our winter formal, then spent a day creating the screen, then a week making print after print until I finally felt relaxed enough that I didn't care whether it was good or not.  

But that brings up another fear:  how long would I have to stay down the rabbit hole before I found my way home? Or worse, would I get lost there, and how many shows, opportunities, and relationships would I miss?   In Sunday in the Park With George, Stephen Sondheim's George Seurat muses on "finishing the hat" with respect to concentrating on a detail of his painting He writes of how "You watch the rest of the world from a window while you finish the hat."  Maybe it's from feeling socially ostracized in middle school, but the feeling that there is always some event, some social interaction or family gathering I am missing is terrifying.  And it's all well and good and worth it if what you turn out to be writing is the next Angels in America, but as Kate Monster astutely observes in Avenue Q, "There's a fine, fine line between love"--in this case the kind of Love for one's art personified in A Chorus Line--"and a waste of your time."There are times when I wish I could walk away from it all.  In an essay soon to be published in The Dramatist magazine, I liken my relationship to playwriting like an abusive lover my friends and loved ones keep urging me to drop for good.

But the fact is I have been telling stories my whole life: though countless plays remain still born and under-developed, I take comfort from the stack of hand-written journals I've been steadily accumulating since age 11.  Maybe the kind of creative success I yearn for is still a few years--or a few decades--off because it might take me that long to get out of my own way and be okay if indeed there are some people, some very smart people who I respect and love, who might look at my work and judge it as inadequate.

In this, I take inspiration from my grandmother once again.  She told me that when she was young, like me, she aspired to be an artist, a writer, and a performer.  But some teacher gave her negative feedback on her work.  Now, in her eighties, she's secure enough in herself as an artist and a person to pursue a career in popular fiction for her own fulfillment, on her own terms.  Hopefully I won't take that long, but until then I can still revel in the paint on my fingertips.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Leaning In...And the Fear of Failing to Keep It Together

I just read Sheryl Sandberg's Lean In in three hours.

The last time I read a book cover-to-cover in one sitting (not counting plays, which operate under different rules), was when I read Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince after picking it up at one of the midnight Barnes and Noble parties.  It was far from my favorite book in the series; while The Order of the Phoenix was downright daring in its messages about government bureaucracy in education, Half-Blood Prince seemed to turn Hogwarts into The O.C.  I think part of my haste in finishing the book was my anxiousness to see whether it would tackle some of my burning concerns from the end of book five.

The speed with which I devoured Lean In may have been motivated by a similar urgency (it's also possible I needed some brain food after grading expos essays all day).  For those not familiar, Lean In is a part memoir, part career advice book written by the CEO of Facebook about how in order to achieve true equality in the world place, women need to not only fight to remove obstacles holding them back on a societal level, but also remove internal and psychological barriers that make them stifle their own ambition.

I definitely came into Lean In with an agenda