Tuesday, July 28, 2009

creativity interview, part 2

Frank Vitale, a filmmaker who attended my Creativity Workshop, is diving in for part two of our conversation on the same topic.

Frank: Ann, you’ve given us permission to play unencumbered. I imagine a child finger painting. But I want to create something professional to communicate with other people. How do I get from here to there?

Ann: Your challenge as an artist is to access that child-space where you can have fun, create new worlds and—as you say—get your hands messy. Once you have exhausted yourself that way, you need to back off from the work. Even the subconscious—the inner child—needs a break, nap time, milk and cookies, whatever!

Once you’ve guided that child, whom I call the Wunderkind, out of the room, it’s time to invite in the Editor. The Editor loves to create order out of chaos. The Editor will sort, select, try out, rearrange. More adult than the Wunderkind, the Editor is also playful and daring: like a teenager with some knowledge and the adrenaline to try something new.

Frank: I’m glad that I can still play. I thought the Editor was going to be a taskmaster and I’d have to be clear-headed and detached. I’m not sure I am capable of that.

What does the Editor look like at work?

Ann: When you get tired after sustained creative activity or don’t know what to do next, that’s time to call in the Editor. You may have a longing for order—to rearrange dishes, sort through clothes, or clear the basement. Those transition activities can help summon your Editor. They create time and space for a shift to occur in both your brain and environment.

There’s a definite shift. To create a manuscript, I may spread poems on the floor. My Editor will quickly select and group them, put them together and pull them apart. It feels fun and intuitional—I have no idea where my Editor is leading. Days later, I may move several poems. My Editor is fine-tuning. I trust her completely.

Another way to invoke the Editor is before sleep. I can think, “I need help editing this poem.” It’s like placing an order: I go to sleep while my Editor turns on the lamplight and gets to work. The next day there may be some new ideas.

What would you ask your Editor for help with?

Frank: I want to know if my work makes sense, communicates, engages – in short, is it any good?

Ann: You would ask, “Is there anything I need to do to improve the film?” You might live with that question for a week. Step away from the creative churning for a while.

Frank: I am curious how your Editor interrelates with other Editors—in workshops, writers groups and with writer-friends?

Ann: My Wunderkind loves workshops and sharing work with others. She enjoys seeing what other people are doing. She finds inspiration and challenge among other artists.

Editing, however, is a solo practice. If a document is circulated, edits input by each person require quiet and focus. In graduate workshops, when 15 Editors suggested edits, I never knew which had the most merit; many were contradictory. My Editor felt overloaded and overwhelmed.

Teachers encouraged us to find two or three people we could turn to over a literary lifetime. Integrity is crucial here: Editors who constantly applaud work are useless. Similarly, Editors who do not understand the poet’s intent offer no value. I am blessed to know two award-winning poets whose Editors love to work with my Editor. We know we are there to support, challenge and promote one another’s work.

Frank: I learned something about giving feedback from my film class. For the first five years I taught it, I critiqued students’ one-page scripts. One semester, I got two scripts, one well written and the other—an incoherent script.

While the good writer made a so-so film, the incoherent writer created a spectacular one. I realized their scripts could not wholly convey their ideas; furthermore, my criticism could have been destructive. For 25 years now, I haven’t critiqued student scripts. I find what is good in them and bring that to students’ attention. This unconditional love works wonders—their film quality is much better.

Ann: Your story illustrates the interplay between the Wunderkind and the Editor beautifully. That student with the tidy script allowed her Editor to participate in her project too soon. Sure, she could hand in a great script—but the Editor’s continued presence created a less than adventuresome project.

The second student, with the crazy script, allowed her Wunderkind to be in control—its incoherence shows that a preverbal Wunderkind was guiding her project! That audaciousness and playfulness continued into the film.
Here’s the lesson: The Wunderkind and Editor cannot be in the room at the same time. The Wunderkind thrives on creative chaos and the Editor on patterns and order. If the Wunderkind is playing, the Editor will say, “What on earth are you doing? Here, let’s clean this up now!” And the Wunderkind looks around meekly and shrugs, “Okay.” Editors by nature are authoritative and that’s intimidating to the Wunderkind.

I once coached a man who could not get started writing his manuscript. I explained that his Editor was in the room. “What will you say to your Editor to make him leave?” I asked. He thought and said, “’I value you and will need you later. Right now, I am asking you to leave.’” After that, his manuscript poured out in a matter of months.

It takes 10 years for the Editor to learn his or her chosen craft. And, once we learn those rules, we can break them. That’s the Editor’s choice too. That’s why the Editor can end up being just as playful as the Wunderkind—but in a more adult, conscious, deliberate way.

What does the Wunderkind feel like to you? Your Editor? When do you know they are battling?

Frank: My Wunderkind is fear. When I explore a project, I feel it’s good it if it scares me. For my last documentary, “A Perfect Stranger,” I would go to Starbucks or Washington Square Park, find someone that interested me based on their appearance, then ask if I could do an in-depth profile on them.

Approaching strangers is scary. So is pushing them to reveal who they are. I paralleled the idea with an attempt to find out who I am. Now that’s really scary! (see the doc) I like walking on the edge. To me, art is on the edge.

Ann: Georgia O’Keeffe spoke about walking a knife’s edge, knowing she will probably fall off, but being compelled to do so anyway. If you think about it, a kid would never have any problem walking up to a stranger and saying, “I want to make a movie about you.”

When the Editor is in charge, make sure the Wunderkind doesn’t sneak back in. The Editor needs solitude. If a novelist is putting final touches on a book, the Wunderkind might say, “Let’s have aliens land in Chapter 3,” or “Why can’t the main character live happily ever after instead of dying?” Sometimes there can be valuable insights but mostly it’s an attempt to derail completion.

In the final moments of completing a project, stay tuned with that energy that brought you to this point. Say, “I still don’t know where this is going, but I trust the outcome.” If you are picturing reviews, visualizing the audience, take a break. Do what you need to do to get back in your zone—whether saying a prayer, doing a little writing, or going somewhere for a walk. Art is a spiritual practice and any background noise needs to be addressed.

Frank: That is really useful and I know it will be to others as well.

Thank you, Ann. This has been great. I look forward to the final character in your triumvirate, the Advocator.

Ann: My pleasure, Frank! Next time we’ll talk about getting our work out in the world.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

your philly freedom annogram

Galileo at the Franklin Institute
With a few Westchester Amateur Astronomers, we made a pilgrimage to see Galileo’s hand-crafted telescope at the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia. We looked through the telescope—first time out of Italy—as the great scientist did. “Galileo, the Medici and the Age of Astronomy” included intricately carved brass astrolabes, compasses and replicas of Galileo’s observation notebooks and personal correspondence. Galileo (1564-1642) was first to discover craters on the moon, moons of Jupiter, phases of Venus similar to our moon—proving the sun, not the earth, is the center of our universe.

And Star Trek too
We also viewed the Star Trek:The Exhibition, substantially less exciting than Galileo. Of some interest—Star Trek: The Next Generation costumes worn by Picard, Worf, Guinan and Counselor Troi; a cast head of Data; and USS Enterprise model used in the original series. Much more exciting was the 60,000-ton steam engine at the Franklin which offers a ride a few yards, and the lobby’s laser tribute to and towering statue of Ben Franklin.

Philly’s Historic District
Led by our friend Bill Newell, and driven by our pals Angela and Mike Virsinger, we enjoyed touring Philadelphia’s Historic District. This meant sitting in George Washington’s pew in Christ Church, the first Episcopal Church; driving past Independence Hall, the Arch Street Quaker Meeting House and the residence of Dr. Physick, the first American surgeon; visiting the charming Elfreth’s Alley—the oldest continuously inhabited homes in the United States; throwing pennies on Ben Franklin’s grave, as custom dictates; touring the Betsy Ross (1752-1836) house—where she made flags and musket bullets for Washington, outlived three husbands and had seven kids.

Good eats
In the great Philly cheese steak eat-off, our meat connoisseurs proclaimed Pat’s King of Steaks victor over Geno’s Steaks next door. At the Reading Terminal Market, we went to Delilah's at the Terminal, whose mac n' cheese Oprah selected as the best in America; my husband Michael, Bill Newell and I agreed it was delicious. I made a beeline to Bassetts Ice Cream, the oldest purveyor in the country—so good, we ended up going there twice. If you remember being able to actually chew cold ice cream, then you will know what Bassetts is like. Oh vanilla, to thee I sing!

The Female Sower
Loretta Fay noticed women on the train sometimes pull out a piece of paper with a quote—perhaps scripture, perhaps poetry—for encouragement. That observation led to The Female Sower, Loretta’s custom purse business. After a career in textiles, Loretta offers women more than 20 fabrics to design their own purse. Inside, she affixes a printed message of the woman’s choice. Made of durable upholstery fabric, these hand- and shoulder bags can be spot-cleaned and their linings are breathtakingly beautiful. When I saw them in person, I was amazed by the quality. To express your individuality, create a personalized purse for someone special, or give a gift certificate, e-mail Loretta at

Chappaqua Rocks
An unexpected summer pleasure was the free Friday concert by Chappaqua Rocks—a genuine“school of rock.” Each group had their own band name and performed recognizable songs—from “Pinball Wizard” by the Who to “God Save the Queen” by the Sex Pistols. Pint-sized kids were wind-milling with the best of ‘em—and instructors on-stage helped with the beat and lyrics. Fourteen-year-old Evan Schwartzman (at right) expertly played drums, bass guitar and later sang the rap song “Sugar” by Serj Tankin. See last summer shows this and next Friday, 4:30 p.m. at the Music Conservatory of Westchester.

MYGRAIN at the Bitter End
How many grown-ups wish they could play the Bitter End? Success comes early for some—including MYGRAIN, a band of Chappaqua Rocks students who recently rocked the Bitter End: Dante Palmenteri on vocals (on left above), Evan Schwartzman on bass and background vocals (on left, center), Karel Ullner on rhythm guitar (on left, at far right), David Batten Lead Guitar, Cole Parham on drums and Julian Fernandez on keyboards.

Gigi and the Lend-Me-A-Hand Band in Peekskill
Fresh from headlining July 4th in Philly, Gigi and her band opened the Peekskill Waterfront Festival this week to a huge outdoor audience. Joey Elluzzi, son of Gigi drummer Guy Elluzzi and action leader Patty Elluzzi, made an awesome debut on the trombone. Lead guitarist Michael Cefola and bass player Larry Schwartzman, Gigi’s spouse, go back to Joey's age as friends! And Gigi’s mom, Granny Franny, is always a star in her own right on keyboards and vocals. Playing a mean sax is long-time friend Paul Rutkowski, who gives the band that New Orleans spice. Everyone loves the Gigi band—especially Maria, who's holding a Gigi CD giveaway on her moms blog, Maria’s Space.

Fear—does it hurt or help artists?
Find out in part 2 of my conversation with filmmaker Frank Vitale. Frank and I just completed another eye-opening discussion on the creative process. Sure you’ve got talent—but does it control you or do you control it? Look for this interview in your inbox.

‘Round the Net
As usual, I am grateful for intriguing links sent by:

· Ann-Marie Cutul at the Scarsdale Library for this literary traveler link.

· Lucy Barber, extraordinarily talented painter—praised by The New York Times—whose paintings can be now seen on her blog.

· Elaine Gregory, my sister-in-law, for this amazing video by Highland sheepherders.

· Viki Holmes and Kate Rogers, for the Not a Muse Anthology Facebook page and announcing the Haven Books booth this week at the Hong Kong Book Fair.

· Katharine McCollum, my cousin, for this great interview with Oklahoma’s poet laureate, poet/translator Jim Barnes.

· Linda Simone, award-winning poet, for this talk by Elizabeth Gilbert (Eat, Pray, Love) on creativity.

· Meredith Trede, Toadlily publisher and poet, for the new revamped Toadlily site.

Wishing you summer pleasures,