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The Halloween Story

Last weekend I finished editing the fourth draft of my novel. Which means two things. One, I don’t want to look at it anymore. And two, that’s good because it needs to cook for a while. I need at least a month between drafts to let the yeast rise—or fall, depending on how badly the revision went.

In between drafts of the novel I usually focus on my picture books. This week I re-read some of the manuscripts I’ve been working on this year. A few months ago I thought they were great. I read them again a few days ago and became transfixed with my own mediocrity. I thought the sudden wave of self-loathing would zap me of all creative ambition, but the opposite happened. I became possessed.

Perhaps because I’m a glutton for punishment, I went to my bookshelf and pulled out This is Not My Hat. I wanted to read something by someone who actually had talent and knew what they were doing.

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Again, if removed from this situation and asked to bet on my reaction, I would have bet that reading Jon Klassen in my current state would have sent me into a pity spiral, knowing I’d never be able to write anything as good, funny, or original. But no, I opened my computer and vomited two new picture books onto the screen. Then I revised an older one. Then the next day I wrote one more. I think they’re pretty good. Don’t worry, in a month or two I’ll think they’re total spit wads. They probably are; I don’t know.

It’s mid-September now, which means I’ve been in Halloween mode for two weeks already. I can never get enough. Bring on the pumpkins. Bring on the scary movies. Bring on the chill in the air. The decorations. The costumes. Monster Mash and Thriller on repeat. Bring. It. On.

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What I’ve really always wanted to write was a Halloween book, but an idea eludes me. Let me preface that by saying that I don’t normally have blocks on ideas for picture books. Perhaps that well will run dry one day, knock on wood, but I currently have a list at least twenty ideas long that I haven’t even touched. Not a spooky one in the bunch.

I think I want it too much. I love it too much, maybe? I don’t get it. This morning I sat down and simply started to write down the things I loved about Halloween. That has turned into a decent poem, which could be a rhyming picture book. Who knows, maybe it will one day see the light of day, but my intention was to write something in prose. Something with a beginning, middle, and end. That, I still can’t do.

I have cherished memories of reading “scary” books in my childhood. I devoured everything from The Berenstain Bears (well, it was Berenstein in my universe), to Goosebumps, to Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark. Stephen Gammell’s illustrations still haunt me in the absolute best way.

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I could actually draw a direct line from my current love of writing back to my childhood love of reading scary books. I would have thought I was destined to write kids horror, but I just can’t get it out of me. It feels stuck. Like I can actually feel it, in my stomach, a big stuck thing.

What do you do when you have a creative block? How do you get unstuck?

Oh and Happy Halloween.

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In The Eye of the Hurricane

I know a staggering number of successful people. I often can’t believe it, like, is this normal? I don’t think so. And they’re all people I grew up with in one way or another, meaning I knew them at the beginning of their journeys and have watched their success unfold. High school, college, or right after college. I won’t drop names; that’s not what this is about. I’m not here to brag; I’m here to marvel. It’s just insane. Movie stars. Plural. Broadway stars. Yeah, plural. Novelists. TV stars. Directors. Designers. Comedians. Screenwriters. All plural.

I’ve managed to narrow down a few reasons for this. The first is the potent creative energy of Sacramento circa the turning of the century (it probably continues to this day but I haven’t lived there for many years so I can’t speak to it). Lots of folks from my little theatre community in my little town have gone on to much commercial success. I can’t really explain why our fair city turns out so much talent, except to say that Sacramento is awesome. As a city it is, for the most part, free from industry pressure, which creates a fertile environment for growing creative wings—the only pressure being the desire to one day go out and spread them.

The second reason I can explain. I went to a prestigious conservatory for undergrad. Notable grads include Julianne Moore, Alfre Woodard, Geena Davis, Uzo Aduba, Ginnifer Goodwin, Jason Alexander, Marissa Tomei. Lots more. The odds that someone from my class or a surrounding class would go on to join this list was always high. The time has come, and now that’s happening, and again I marvel.

The third reason is living in L.A. If you live here long enough and have even a peripheral relationship to the industry, and you’re not a jerk, you will eventually either become or befriend greatness.

I’m not jealous. Merp. Sniff. Sigh. No really, I’m not.

No seriously, I’m not. I’m amazed. I’m proud. I don’t know if it’s normal for a little gal like me to be surrounded by so much greatness. I stand here, still, as all this creative success swirls around me. My jaw drops and I’m smiling, and yes I fluff my feathers a little bit that I happen to know these people.

But I’m so still. I’m watching it all happen around me, and I don’t seem to move.

In the eye of a hurricane
There is quiet
For just a moment
A yellow sky.

I wonder what’s coming for me? Will I continue to walk along in the middle of the storm, quietly, admiring its madness from my calm seat in the center? Will I be pulled in at some point? Sometimes I dip a toe in to see what it feels like. Sometimes it feels good, and sometimes it feels overwhelming. It does look like fun, though. One helluva storm. I like rain. Will I be pulled in or will I have to jump? It’s not my style, jumping into things. I wait for windows. I tiptoe in and let the wind help. Then I fly. That always works out better for me.

I’ll keep sitting here, amazed, and I’ll keep writing. It’s a really very nice place to write, in the eye of a hurricane. Quiet. A yellow sky. One of these days, when the winds are right, I’ll write my way out.

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Becky’s Favorite Picture Books

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I really do love making lists. Lately I’ve been so tickled to share picture book recommendations with friends that I got the idea to compile a list of my all-time favorites. This list could go on forever, so let’s see if I can limit the number to fifty—for now. It should be noted that I haven’t included any Dr. Seuss books here, as the Doc really deserves his own list. Also not listed here is Winnie-the-Pooh, which falls somewhere in between picture books, chapter books, and middle grade, but just know that no matter what, Winnie-the-Pooh is always on the top of my list.

I do so deeply love picture books, and not just because I write them. I love them because they introduce human minds to the concept of reading. How weighty is that? I love them because they are a perfect marriage of the written word and visual art. We don’t get that enough in the “adult” world. Much of the art you’ll find in picture books is daring and experimental. I love them because when you condense storytelling into such short form, you often can’t help but end up with myth and fable. To read a brilliant new picture book is to witness a fairy tale being born. It’s exciting.

If you’re wondering about my taste, okay I’ll tell you. I like books that pull on specific strings in the old heart. I like books that make me cry hard, laugh hard, or feel weird inside. It’s like I’ve got these book-shaped holes in my heart and my favorite books are the ones that were meant to fill those holes. I’m not one for lukewarm books. That sounds negative, but I don’t mean it to be. There are plenty of books in the world that are solid from beginning to end and I read them and I didn’t necessarily cry or laugh or question much, but I liked it a whole lot. Knuffle Bunny comes to mind. It’s a great book. It’s charming. It’s lovely. It’s solid. You should read it. I just wouldn’t put it on my fifty list.

Here they are, in some particular order but certainly not in any sort of scientific ranking. My favorite picture books:

  1. Extra Yarn by Mac Barnett illus. Jon Klassen
  2. Heckedy Peg by Audrey Wood illus. Don Wood
  3. The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein
  4. Sam and Dave Dig a Hole by Mac Barnett illus. Jon Klassen
  5. The Polar Express by Chris Van Allsburg
  6. Miss Nelson is Missing by Harry Allard illus. James Marshall
  7. Goodnight Moon by Margaret Wise Brown illus. Clement Hurd
  8. The Tale of Peter Rabbit by Beatrix Potter
  9. Finding Winnie by Lindsay Mattick illus. Sophie Blackall
  10. A Child of Books by Oliver Jeffers
  11. Penguin Problems by Jory John illus. Lane Smith
  12. Du Iz Tak? by Carson Ellis
  13. Dream Snow by Eric Carle
  14. The Snowy Day by Ezra Jack Keats
  15. Chu’s Day by Neil Gaiman illus. Adam Rex
  16. This is Not My Hat by Jon Klassen
  17. The Dead Bird by Margaret Wise Brown illus. Christian Robinson
  18. Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak
  19. The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales by Jon Scieszka illus. Lane Smith
  20. Waiting by Kevin Henkes
  21. Egg by Kevin Henkes
  22. Tough Boris by Mem Fox illus. Kathryn Brown
  23. Boats for Papa by Jessixa Bagley
  24. The Day the Crayons Came Home by Drew Daywalt illus. Oliver Jeffers
  25. Flotsam by David Wiesner
  26. The Friend Ship by Kat Yeh illus. Chuck Groenik
  27. A Letter for Leo by Sergio Ruzzier
  28. Chloe and the Lion by Mac Barnett illus. Adam Rex
  29. Otis by Loren Long
  30. Lon Po Po by Ed Young
  31. This is Sadie by Sara O’Leary illus. Julie Morstad
  32. Leo: A Ghost Story by Mac Barnett illus. Christian Robinson
  33. The Rough-Face Girl by Rafe Martin illus. David Shannon
  34. The Tale of the Mandarin Ducks by Katherine Paterson illus. Diane Dillon
  35. The Snurtch by Sean Ferrell illus. Charles Santoso
  36. Clever Jack Takes the Cake by Candace Fleming illus. G. Brian Karas
  37. Creepy Carrots by Aaron Reynolds illus. Peter Brown
  38. Orion and the Dark by Emma Yarlett
  39. Nerdy Birdy by Aaron Reynolds illus. Matt Davies
  40. Too Many Tamales by Gary Soto illus. Ed Martinez
  41. Old Bear by Kevin Henkes
  42. Tea Rex by Molly Idle
  43. The Watermelon Seed by Greg Pizzoli
  44. The Paper Bag Princess by Robert Munsch illus. Michael Martchenko
  45. Aberdeen by Stacy Previn
  46. President Taft is Stuck in the Bath by Mac Barnett illus. Chris Van Dusen
  47. Journey, Quest, and Return (Journey Trilogy) by Aaron Becker
  48. The Whisper by Pamela Zagarenski
  49. Teeny Tiny Toady by Jill Esbaum illus. Keika Yamaguchi
  50. Guess Again! by Mac Barnett illus. Adam Rex

Oh goodness there are many more, but I promised to stop at fifty. There are lots of books that I love for specific reasons, e.g. how they address a certain issue, but for this list I tried to stick to my general favorites. What do you think? Any big ones that I missed? What picture books would you add to the list?

 

top illustration from A Child of Books, by Oliver Jeffers

Running Home . . . Take Two

Imagine a cottage in the woods. The siding, dark walnut panels, blends with the trees, but the sienna door gives it away as a house. On the deck, rocking chairs lilt back and forth in the wind. They are old and inviting. Cats take naps there. Before you go to the sienna door, you walk along a path lined with stones and brush, to the back of the house where you discover a fire pit with logs for sitting and sticks for s’morseing. There is a back deck and a canopy for when the sun barrels down through the trees. It is cold now, no sun barreling. At the way back of the property sits a tiny shed, with nothing inside but many vases full of silk flowers, a desk, chair, and a small fireplace.

You follow the path back around to the front of the house and walk inside, feeling the crunch of cold pine needles with every step. The sun is setting, and you can see your breath. You hope there is a fire burning in the living room. You walk up the steps, onto the porch with the comfortable chairs, and grab the handle with your mittened hand. The door is unlocked and you are welcome.

Your boots thud against the hardwood floors until they find a soft area rug stitched with Navajo patterns in bright colors. You take off your boots and curl your toes. In front of you a staircase leads up to a loft, where you will sleep, but not yet. The room feels like being inside a drop of amber. Everything is warm and bright. On the walls you inspect the various accouterments of adventure. A vintage canoe re-purposed as a bookshelf hangs above a gray couch, the bookshelves filled with camping manuals and cookbooks. On a ledge that makes its way around the room sit glass lanterns and baskets, plants, and the occasional teddy bear. Rustic California whimsy—you call it.

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To your left a desk is situated against a large window where you will sit and spend your weekend writing. You run your hand against the oak, a perfectly fine surface for creativity. Outside, the sun has disappeared and a gentle snow falls against the moonlight and dusts the trees. To your left, a stone fireplace rages, sending crackles all the way through the living room and back to the kitchen, which opens up on the other side of the staircase.

In the kitchen you find your husband, or friend, or mom, or adventure partner. They have joined you for the weekend and got here early to start cooking a stew while you investigate the area and pick up extra firewood from the market in town. You give him, or her, a kiss, or a hug, and sneak a taste of the beef stew to which he has just added dijon mustard for that extra kick he knows you love. Your nose follows something sweet, and you look through the window of the oven to find a strawberry rhubarb pie bubbling in the heat. You know that means there is vanilla ice cream in the freezer, and your heart skips a beat. You sit down at the red table in front of the kitchen, and turn on the Craftsman lamp that hangs above your head. There are hummingbirds stained onto the glass, and when the light shines through you think they might fly away.

Your husband/friend/mom/adventure partner brings you a cup of coffee.

“Long drive?” he says.

“Not too bad, just an hour and half. I left Venice at 3:30.”

“Good time. Took me closer to two hours but that’s still not too bad.”

You walk back to the staircase but instead of going up it, you open a small door underneath it, where you place your bag and your boots. You look around for Harry Potter—like always—but alas, just a plain room under the stairs. You walk back through the living room and see there is a hallway behind the stairs leading to a bedroom with bunk beds that look like a tree, and a downstairs bathroom. That’s good because it was a long drive and you suddenly realize just how badly you have to pee. The cold stones of the bathroom floor send a shiver up your spine, but you like it. You try to decide between a long soak in the clawfoot tub, or a quick wash in the stone shower so you can get back to that stew—and pie. You opt for the shower. There will be time for a bath tomorrow.

After dinner, you engage in a snuggle session by the fire, reading books and talking about which hike you’ll take this weekend. Perhaps around the lake? Or up to heart rock? Once its decided, you agree to turn in early. You walk up the staircase, which is painted to look like Seussian plants and warm sunsets, and collapse onto your queen-size four-post bed. You crawl under the white sheets and handmade quilt, and lick your lips, enjoying the remnants of strawberry-rhubarb that linger there.

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For the rest of the weekend you hike through the trees, dip your toes in the freezing lake, and seek inspiration in the best possible environment—where people pepper Mother Nature, not the other way around. You hike, you eat, you shower, and then you write. You designate hours of writing time where your adventure partner knows not to disturb you, other than to bring you the occasional pot of tea and perhaps a lemon cookie. You turn off the heater and don a cable-knit sweater, because it’s better to write when the world around you is cold. In the evening you read some of what you wrote that day to your husband/cousin/neighbor/adventure partner, and they love it. Of course they do. You know they are not the best test subject but that’s alright; in this moment all you need is encouragement. Tests will come later.

Before you pack up for the weekend you look around your adventure cabin and imagine all the other worlds available to you because of it. You can make a movie. You can host a retreat. You can rent it to fellow adventure-seekers. You can offer it to friends who need to get away from the rat races and the hullabaloo. You can host Thanksgiving, or Christmas. You can name it. You’ve always wanted to name a house.

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Sounds good, right? I think we’ll take it.

Brad and I are running home. A little less than a year ago we proclaimed our tiny plans. Little did we know at that time how very unwelcome tiny homes would be to the grumps who create zoning laws. Our dreams are still tiny, but now they look more like a tiny-ish California Adventure Cabin. It’s an us thing to do, which means it’s perhaps not the normal thing to do, or the conventional, or the completely practical, but it’s right. It feels right, and so we run toward it.

Into the woods.

 

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Chrysalis: a preparatory or transitional state

I look into my tea leaves and what I choose to see is the life of a writer. A quiet house by the sea or in the country, a child playing in the living room, a husband editing in the study or rehearsing for an audition, and me in a nook with a computer diving deep into other worlds. In Maui we dove down to 120 feet at Molokini Crater—the deepest we’ve ever gone. I swam at the bottom of the sea with eagle rays and octopus, but writing feels deeper. In a marathon writing session the real world melts away and suddenly I am through the sea, on an adventure with Niguel, Iris, and Gus, trying to escape the vengeful Callum before he gets to Iris’ father, Peter Applegate.

94fac0ae1d47570c0ffb191c99cf4bc8You have no idea what I’m talking about, I know. These are characters in my book. They’ve become close friends of mine, and I know they feel neglected.

Nymphalidae_-_Danaus_plexippus_ChrysalisThe neglect is making my wings hurt. I feel them pushing hard against the chrysalis that has protected them for 32 years, and if they don’t make it out soon the bones will break. I know this to be true, so why am I making it so hard to break free?

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In writing the first draft of my novel, several challenges emerged, one of which was knowing when to finish a chapter. Often, it was clear. The chapter finished itself and I sailed on into the next. Sometimes, though, sometimes, I’d want to stay in a chapter for reasons that were perhaps unclear, but what was clear is that I knew it was going on too long. The third chapter of my novel was such a one. I kept writing and writing, knowing that nothing about the chapter was helping to move the story along. I loved the characters in the chapter. I found the action of the chapter humorous and charming (if I do say so myself), even though I knew it was irrelevant to the ultimate motor of the book. In my heart I knew I should end it, perhaps even cut out the whole thing, but I liked it too much. It was comfortable. It was clever (if I do say so myself) and it had the desired effect of distracting me from making the book truly great.

I wonder if I’m a bit stuck now, in my life, spending precious time in a chapter that is comfortable and full of clever characters. It’s hard to know when to move on.

That’s not true, I suppose. Knowing is the easy part. It’s the moving on that is hard.

1af9d0cd9c6a6ed51e786e33437282b6Growing up makes moving from chapter to chapter effortless in a sense, because the pages were turned for me. I was born. I started school. I twirled baton. I survived middle school. I went to high school. I got into college. I studied in London. I graduated from college. I moved to L.A. The outline was all there, and then—suddenly—the outline stopped. Suddenly it was up to me to structure the chapters. I’ve done pretty well so far. Chapter 10: Rebecca gets a job. Chapter 11: Rebecca joins a theatre company. Chapter 12: Rebecca gets married. Chapter 13: Rebecca works at jobs and produces plays and spends a lot of time on Facebook and watching Netflix.

Chrysalis Emerging 3In revising the third draft of my book, I got wise and removed the chapter that was gumming up the action, but I didn’t delete it. I moved it to my “Some other time” folder. I’ll bet the characters and the very humorous dialogue (if I do say so myself) will appear in a future book, but they will only find their right place and time if I let go of them for now.

My wings hurt. Soon, very soon, I need to decide how important it is for me to fly because wings can break and wilt. Of course I know how I feel. Flying is the only thing I’ve ever truly wanted to do. If there is a heaven, I know it involves flying.

monarch-in-flight-1024x576It’s time to write the next chapter. Like a mystery shape on the horizon, I’m not sure yet if it’s a ship, a whale, a lighthouse, an island? Time to grab Brad’s hand (Brad is in every chapter you see), and swim out there to find out. Time to let go of this chapter that I’m in—turn the page. Come back perhaps “Some other time.”

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Chapter 14: Rebecca, author 

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Little Spirit

Every now and then someone can say the smallest thing to trigger the most sensitive nerve. It’s like a tiny paper cut right on the most delicate part of your ego and it makes your brain explode and your soul implode and your skin feel like an ill-fitting coat. They didn’t mean what they said to have such weight. But that’s what we always take for granted, isn’t it? The weight of words? We must be careful and speak considering the nerves in the cross-hairs of our words. We’re all fighting blind, and as we speak we never know when we’re going to hit one.

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But only malice, even the most diluted dose, can throw punches. You can speak anger. You can speak pain. You can speak frustration. And you can do it in such a way that will never strike the nerve of the other person, as long as you consider them. Are you opening your mouth to speak your truth, however painful, with the intent of making yourself clear and your relationship stronger? Or are you speaking to hurt? Perhaps you are annoyed. Perhaps you don’t like this person. Perhaps you find them ___(insert pejorative of choice). If you speak from that place you will strike a nerve. Eventually. It will happen. And nerves damage. The more you strike them, they damage irreparably.

But I’m just a stupid girl who cares far too much about rules and says silly things. I’m ridiculous, and trivial, and annoying in my hang-ups. I’m not cool, or sexy, or appealing in any way shape or form. I’m something to be tolerated, never invited, never welcomed. I’m put up with. I’m often forgotten, and the ways in which I combat invisibility are shallow and predictable. And unoriginal. I am a hack. I have no talent. I have nothing interesting to offer, or interesting to say. Ever. God knows I cannot write. Who do I think I am? I could stay in bed for a month and no one would mind. Some people might notice I wasn’t around, but they wouldn’t much care. I care too much about things that don’t matter. I don’t know how to hold onto someone because eventually I’m found out. How annoying I am. And fat. And weak. And did I mention annoying? I’m always found out. 

One little sentence triggered all of that for me. One phrase, said casually. All of that. Like stepping on a land mine.

It’s in there all the time you know. It’s in most of us. The scared little spirit that’s just waiting for the world to find out we’re a hack. It’s in there and it is so sensitive. And when this spirit is poked it’s usually told that it’s being too sensitive, and it probably is when weighed against the objective bluntness of the weapon, but being too sensitive is its entire purpose. This of course only causes the little spirit to feel more sensitive. And dizzy. And horrible.

Stranger still is that I’m fairly certain this sensitive little spirit is best friends with the most brilliant part of ourselves. Little spirit is a sentinel for our creativity, our ideas, our potential. He keeps the channel open, but must remain vulnerable to do so. He is a brave one. So easily wounded. I wonder at his resilience. It is not endless, I know that. Poke the nerve enough and eventually it will die to mitigate the pain. With the death of our little spirit comes the collapse of the tunnel leading to our best selves. We must be so careful with each other.

Time to go to bed and maybe cry. Crying seems to comfort my little spirit, and like a shot of Novocain, soothes the nerve.

You might be wondering who it was that said such a thing. Perhaps no one. Perhaps this entire story is made up. Perhaps. Either way, don’t worry, it wasn’t you. Or you. (Or you).

A Familiar Beast

I have questions about rejection. I do hope you’ll bite and share your thoughts in the comments. As a student of the arts, I met rejection at a young age. I’ll never forget silently weeping in the back seat of our car when I found out that I wasn’t cast as a Von Trapp child in The Sound of Music when I was 12 years old. I was relegated to the chorus of nuns—or, rather, novices. Not even a full-fledged nun. The dealer of rejection in that instance was the director, aka my mom. I don’t blame her. She was my director and she made the best casting decision for the show. In hindsight that was a very important lesson for me to learn as an artist; nothing has ever been handed to me. But yeah, rejection was personal from early on.

We’re told repeatedly that rejection is an unavoidable element of our artistic lives, like a smelly beast with whom we must learn to live. I get it, but man, some days that beast is smellier than others. On those days I stop and ask myself in earnest, why? Why am I doing this? Will the glimmers of success or artistic satisfaction make the years of rejection bearable? I mean really, this is haaaarrrd. Will it be worth it? I don’t know the answer, but I theorize that even with “success” the beast will not leave me alone. I imagine it will change shape, change color, change smells, but the rejection will continue at every level in different forms, won’t it? In the form of bad reviews, higher stakes losses, chronic self-doubt, disappointing second novels, etc. So why? Why the torment?

Then I started asking more questions. Is this beast unique to the arts? Is there something about artistic fields that lend themselves to more rejection? Or does rejection exist equally elsewhere? Do my friends in STEM fields, or law, academia, business, entrepreneurs—do you experience the same frequency of rejection as my friends in theatre, film, TV, visual art, music, publishing? Are you as well-acquainted with the beast? Maybe you’re just better at keeping him on a leash. I’m genuinely curious because I’ve been so entrenched in the arts for so long that I fear my field of vision has become quite narrow. I also want to feel less alone. I want affirmation that I should not abandon my art for another path because a new beast will in fact be waiting for me on the “easier” roads. Is that true? Or is there a less painful but equally gratifying way to walk through life other than that of a perpetually rejected artist? My non-artist friends, enlighten me.

He shouts and hogs the bed. He never bathes. His claws are sharp. No I’m not talking about Brad! Brad is an angel and takes very good care of his nails. It’s the beast. My invisible housemate. On the other side of my horrible beast is a tiny promise of glory. Is it real? A trick? If it’s not a trick, is it worth it? I don’t know, but beasty and I know each other so well at this point, even without the taste of glory . . . I’d probably miss him. And that, my friends, is the true madness of the arts.

 

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