Built of water and desert, I was in that place every artist I’ve ever met dreads. The what the hell do I do next? place. I’ve been pushing rising acid down for months now. Just keep polishing what you have, I told myself. Something will come. It has to. The best thing I can say to those who are perhaps starting out in art school, no matter the form, whether on the graduate or undergraduate level, is that you have to get cozy with uncertainty.
It’s not like I haven’t generated new work this summer. I worked on an essay I’m currently sending out into the world. I revised and finished my first novel. I continue polishing it. I’ve started sending out queries to agents with some promising results. In August, I wrote 6 flash stories with potential, one of which I had a crush on. I don’t know if it’s normal to have a crush on something at this early stage, but for a month now, I thought, it was just that. The piece would exist in its 920-word form. I didn’t take the story seriously as anything with long-term prospects.
But like a facial tick, the big bad totem, the fiend, the shriveled cynical madwoman who looks, in my head, like the dead woman Jack makes out with in The Shining, kept showing up. “But what about your next novel? What if this is all you have? What if the first novel got all the good stuff and you’re scraping the bottom of your brain barrel from here on out? Succumb. Give in. Kiss the corpse.
Middle of the beach sand. Not too wet. Not too dry. The right temperature underfoot. No hangover. Rain. Leaves. Chores. I had no ideas. I submitted a few short shorts. I received a complimentary and personal rejection from a major literary agent. I knew this didn’t happen often. Wilting, I went back to one of the flash stories, pulling at its strings, picking at its scabs. Cutting paragraphs. Inverting sentences. Changing verbiage. I tried to get my head around a smell I couldn’t describe. I’ve always wished I could paint. I think some things cannot be expressed through written language. It hovers just above. But I found a sequin in it. I could see handprints in dust on furniture in an abandoned house. And about that time, I had to stop.
I had to go to the doctor for follow up blood work. Damn. Being a lazy vegetarian for 20 years has left me with an Iron deficiency that must be monitored. I do, however, have a tendency to faint when open wounds, blood, or needles are involved. It’s a good thing I don’t live in a time period when women were expected to wear corsets. I’ve even garnered a concussion or two from this unfortunate trait. My faints also include convulsions. Good times for everyone. I did okay at first. Tiny veins or not, the nurse thought she had it. With my head turned to the side, another nurse asked, “What do you do for a living?”
Tough question. I don’t make a living, but I still claim my profession as writer.
“What do you write?” he asked.
“I wrote a novel. I write short stories. Fiction, mostly.”
“What are your stories about?” he asked, squatting so he could look up at me.
“I have no idea,” I said.
The needle wiggled in my vein.
“This one’s not allowing me any blood. Gonna have to try another.”
“Keep talking to me,” the guy said. “Look at me. Breathe. Nose. Mouth. Breathe.
“I’m getting really dizzy now.”
Nose. Mouth. Nose. Mouth. Nose. Mouth.
Sounds faraway moved in. Climbing out from whatever hovers beneath, when the blood drains, I saw the male nurse. All white. A lot of other faces. Somebody held my head in their hands.
“We’ve got you,” he said. “How are you feeling?”
“My ears are ringing.”
I’d passed out with the needle in my arm. My blood smeared down my arm, on my shirt, and collected in a small puddle on the tile floor. After he was satisfied that I was okay, my doctor walked me to my car.
The Unchained Tour started in a little less than two hours. Artists known from The Moth like Peter Auguero and Edgar Oliver, in addition to the ever-popular Neil Gaiman were part of the night of storytelling. In the darkness, I fell into their words. I did not kiss the corpse.
In a gathering, we puddle into each other.
Listening to these artists tell true stories about sad Christmases, a drawer filled with the sea, losing dreams, and falling in love –without props or decoration from memory jarred something loose.
Word. Story. Sound. Collective longing.
The audience was invited to sign up for a lottery to come up on stage and tell a one-minute story. I put down my double fisted red wines, signed my name, folded the paper, and dropped it in the suitcase.
I was not called.
The act mattered.
I woke giddy, but still sort of a watery image of myself –from crawling out of the black and into others’ voices.
I walked Desmond and Mae. Persimmon trees full. Close to bare Cherry Trees. Dry skin. Sore, blue arm. Nina Simone. Fleetwood Mac. The XX. The Decemberists. Kate Bush. Walking in rhythm. Grass clippings. Churchyard. Cold feet. A Carolina blue autumn sky that shredded every part of me.
I found novel number two. It’s in the 920-word story. I’m not finished with this character. He has more to say. And so do his friends. Self-taught/outsider Southern artists. Let the research begin. Let the slow, glorious process of excavating this story begin.
If you or someone you know is a self-taught/outsider artist, please send me contact information. Of course, I will be conducting plenty of secondary research, but I am looking to get down and dirty with first-hand research as well. Interviews. Apprenticeships. Observations. While I’m open to all art forms, (writers, musicians, cooks, visual or performing artists) I am particularly interested in art that works with found objects. Artists can be either known or unknown, but must have some sort of Southern affiliation.