Tag Archives: creativity

Link! Frida Kahlo: Abjection, Psychic Deadness, and the Creative Impulse

There’s a quote going around, (You deserve a lover who wants you disheveled… etc.) attributed to Frida Kahlo, that doesn’t sound like something she said. It was too tidy… too abstract. It might have been her, I don’t know, I haven’t really studied her.

I looked around for the source of this quote, and couldn’t find one; but I did find her love letters. They affected me. Not in that they were lush, elegantly raw, and moving (which they were), but in the sense that I didn’t feel anything when I read them. I started to cry, because I couldn’t find it in me to feel something. I couldn’t access the part of my spirit that gives and receives passion on that level; but I remembered when I could.

Being cut off from that sucks.

Landing in that emotional oubliette, and not quite knowing how to climb back out, I figured I should keep looking through the library while I’m down here. I found this paper about Kahlo and the relationship between personal desolation and art. I really liked it, so I’m re-posting it here in the hopes to keep it bookmarked.


“Kristeva states that all objects are based on an inaugural loss, that laid the foundations of subjectivity. All abjection is in fact recognition of the want on which any being, meaning, language, or desire is founded.

Abjection summons us to an abyss that haunts and terrifies. It insists on the subject’s necessary relation to death, corporeality, animality, materiality,’ those relations which consciousness and reason find intolerable. The abject attests to the impossibility of clear borders, lines of demarcation or divisions between the proper and the improper, the clean and the unclean, order and disorder…

It exposes us to the unbearable, unnameable, and unwanted dimensions of our mortality, an exposure against which we rebel.”

Read the full paper: Frida Kahlo: Abjection, Psychic Deadness, and the Creative Impulse, by Marlene Goldsmith, Ph.D.


The two most resonant quotes from this article include:

“A painting must not be a battlefield it must be a statement. Set out with something to say and not with the vague desire to say something. Things never simplify themselves they always complicate themselves on the way from the brain to the canvas. Set out, taking your precautions.”

“To be an artist is a guarantee to your fellow humans that the wear and tear of living will not let you become a murderer.”

— Louise Bourgeois on Art, Integrity, the Trap of False Humility by Maria Popova

Read more at brainpickings.org.

What is an Artspouse? I want an Artspouse!

I’ve never had a partner who reads my work, or has taken an active interest in my writing. This used to make me sad.

Then I discovered there are many writers whose partners actively discourage it, saying it’s a waste of time, it would never go anywhere, that they should be doing something “productive.” They can never work in an environment free from judgement and criticism.

I am so thankful, every day, that while I’m not always helped by my family (chosen or otherwise) they have never stood in my way.

As much as I am grateful, I find that my most favorite authors thank their partners or spouses first and foremost. Those partners work with their writer, around their writer, applying their shrewd minds, asking good questions, and pushing their writer to be the absolute best they can be. As a mushy example, the writer in Stephen King’s “Bag of Bones” had his wife type out the last line in every story. I’ve been giving it some thought, and come up with a word to describe this person:  Artspouse

This might be your husband or wife, this might be your best friend. This might be someone you absolutely cannot stand on a personal level; but when you come together to collaborate on a project, the results are absolute magic. This is the person who knows what you’re going through as an artist, as a creative, as a person trying to meet a bloody deadline — and knows when it’s time for chocolate and tissues; and when it’s time to kick the door in, turn the lights on, and yell at you to get your fucking act together.

Within this sphere of your life, on this particular path, they are your partner, your ally, your battle-buddy, your greatest nemesis, your soulmate, and anything in between. They are the constant measuring stick that says you can do better, and the little voice in your ear that helps you get there.

As a test request, here’s what I would look for in an artspouse. You may assume that these wishes are expressed with an intent of mutuality (I would provide the same support I ask for):

  • Interest in the same medium — a reader to my writer, an audience to my show, a hunter to my bladesmith.
  • Complementary strengths — if I’m good at structure, you’re good at emotional resonance. If I’m good at sculpting, you’re good at interior design. If I’m a lighting guy, you’re a sound guy.
  • Matching goals — whether it’s a quest for excellence, or commercial success, or attaining a certain level of mastery.
  • Seriousness of intent — less blah blah, more pew pew. We’re always aiming for the next level.
  • Commitment to your own work — different goals on the same path. It makes sense to run together for a while.
  • Enjoyment of each other’s work — I’d buy your stuff because it’s good, not just because I know you.
  • Fearlessness —  we can argue, we can risk, we can fail, we can get up and try again.
  • No man left behind — I’m speaking at this con, and so are you. I’m getting published, you’re putting on your show. I’m climbing this fucking mountain, and you’re coming with me. And in that vein…
  • On the level — we’re about the same skill level, or same stage of our artistic  careers. Maybe one of us is slightly ahead, but will be outpaced in a moment. They might piss you off a little because they’re so talented, and you have to hustle to catch up. There’s always something to learn, always something to offer.
  • Aw, buddy — we maybe, just possibly, actually like each other. It’s 2am. Let’s get tacos and talk about that weird dream you had the other day.

What do you want in an artspouse?
Do you already have an artspouse?

Must-read Books for Writers


I invaded a conversation today about writing books that still hold up today, or our favorite ones we turn to over and over. Megan, Earl and Andy mentioned some great resources so I thought I’d share them with you.

The War of Art and On Writing have been mentioned over and over by most of my favorite people. Wonderbook, also, made the top five and I’ll endorse it here for its fun and silly approach to writing. It’s super cute, imaginative, and an excellent starter; but probably wouldn’t be of use to people who have been at it for a few years. Same could be said of Bird by Bird.

I brought up another work that applies to any artistic practice — much like the War of Art. Many Solstices ago, my dad gave me Zen Guitar by Philip Toshio Sudo. It’s aimed at musicians, as you can guess by the title, but the primary focus was on how to approach a practice. It emphasized elements of craft — study, practice, repetition, etc, and also encouraged the reader to take advantage of freedom of experimentation. It teaches the right attitude toward mistakes and failures. This is an essential practice to any pursuit that doesn’t have an ultimate goal beyond some vague concept of excellence.

I also recommended Amy Poehler’s Yes, Please because of what she has to say about being a working writer. She writes about how to stay productive, how to strike a work/life balance, and other insights on actually working in the industry. It’s largely aimed at women, but I think it’s for everyone who wants to be a working writer.

That said…

Don’t limit what you consume (watch, read, seek, discuss) to your genre/topic.

The more broadly you read, the more broadly you live, and the more stuff you’ll have to write about.

Whether you’re writing a pile of dick jokes or the next Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, you and I are taking on the exploration of what it is to be, to experience, to live.

The news has value. Academic papers on social sciences, music, cooking, metallurgy, and physics have value. Going to a concert can be just as valuable as Strunk & White’s Elements of Style. Studying the greats of your genre is a good place to start, but you will have more to say in your own way if you also study Malcolm X, Terence McKenna, and Hannah Arendt.

Or whoever else influences your ideology. Because that’s what books do.

And read people who absolutely 100% DON’T agree with you. Familiarize yourself with the difference between presentation and perception.

We’re tapping into something greater than ourselves, drawing connections and finding patterns that have the potential to help other people achieve some kind of anchor or clarity. Yes, heroic stories can have great worlds and cool systems, but the heart of the matter will always be the essence of what it means to be a hero.

Now if you’ll excuse me, my straight-edge, anti-drug self needs to come down from Graham Hancock’s Supernatural.

Purity, Story Ideas, and God on the Rag

I was reading about a holiday called Ambubachi Mela, which is observed by Hindus for three days during monsoon season. This is the first holiday I have come across which marks not the birth or death of a divine being; but their menstrual cycle.

Gods: they’re just like us!

I kid you not, the goddess Kamakhya has a period once a year, when the holy river goes into a flood. The rains and water rushing everywhere represent a positive, renewing force; but there was one fact that brought me to a screeching halt.

For three days, because the goddess becomes impure, she has to go into seclusion the way women traditionally did when they had their cycle. The temple closes during this time. On the fourth day, after the goddess is ritually bathed and re-purified, people can go into the temple and worship. Perhaps this is a matter of art imitating life, but it got me thinking about our perception of blood.

There’s a thick association between blood and primal forces. Blood is life. Blood is sacrifice. Blood is the mark of adulthood, either by ritual or by surprise in your pre-teens. I understand that that blood corrupts. If you hunt and kill something without cleaning it of organs and fluids, it will quickly rot. Open wounds and infections kill us. The thing is, women aren’t meat. It’s not an open wound. Where does purity come in? Just because it’s gross? Blood sacrifice is pretty gross too, but some Aztecs and Vikings still thought it would be a cool present for a divine being. Technically, it’s poor scholarship to compare what’s happening in India with what happened in Mexico and Scandinavia during different eras, but there’s something about symbolic blood that seems to resonate across time and distance.

That said, it seems counterintuitive, or unjust, to say that blood is both powerful and holy during ritual, and then it goes back to being gross and shunned in an everyday context. Ambubachi Mela is a time of austerity and cleansing in the hopes for future fertility, and menstruation is a pretty good mythological metaphor in this case. The thing is, if all ritual is arbitrary, based on our own recognition and application of nature’s patterns, why observe blood (represented by water) as impure rather than divine? It’s part of a divine story, in a divine context, coming from a divine being. It has me thinking not so much about that particular myth, but the idea of purity.

A lot of subjugation has happened over perceptions of purity, but purity doesn’t last. All food turns to shit, eventually. All peoples intermix, eventually. There is a huge difference between looking at a biological function and saying, “that’s gross,” and looking at the person whose chemistry produced it and saying, “you’re gross. You’re so gross you can’t participate in society for three days.”

I understand why a woman would want to peacefully retreat during that week. The sequester isn’t the issue. It’s the specific mark of “impure” that niggles at me as a writer.

So when a writer goes out, settles in, whips out his or her pencil and starts to create a world, that world might include arbitrary rituals. They look great, sound cool, and you come up with a myth and it helps ground you in that world. Purity will come up at some point in the context of the world you’ve built. Call it virtue if you like, but there will be a social stratification between those who do things correctly, and those who will not get the holy high-five.

When someone offers blood as a prayer, is it the blood that holds the power, or the idea of sacrifice itself? Is menstrual blood considered non-sacrificial because it just happens?

If blood is universally divine because it’s an offering of oneself, then surely there are other offerings on par with it. Imagine the kind of world where blood and fine craftsmanship are equally divine. Where the endurance of suffering is all well and good, but the labor and effort of creating something marvelous is more precious — the giving of oneself, rather than the sacrifice of oneself. If knowledge, creativity, and excellence were as valuable as flesh and blood, what then defines impurity?

To be empty. To lack. To starve.

This is the story I’m working on now.

Your Strangeness is Your Strength

There’s usually one question that we get all the time. For the cellist hauling her instrument, it’s, “don’t you wish you played the piccolo?”

For the tall man, it’s, “how’s the weather up there?”

That question gets really annoying, really quickly. The angry responses don’t make sense to the innocent questioner, who was just making a joke. They don’t realize that they’ve rubbed an already sore spot again, and we hold them accountable for all the crimes against our strangeness we’ve heretofore encountered. We alleviate these conversations through well-practiced one-liners, or half-truths, just to move on and not talk about it.

The general populace doesn’t care about the hard-won pride we earned through struggle. There’s no room in small talk for big ideas. We come up with snappy one-line responses to deflect or guide the conversation away from our own strangeness. In the course of this repeated exchange, day after day, year after year, we forget that our strangeness is a valuable tool. What makes us strange, what makes us stand out, may be the key to our destiny.

Captain Awkward posted a blog about the low-mood cycle, and how to break away from it. The most eye-opening part, for me, was that if you’re not around people who support you, get the hell out of there.

Heigh-ho-the-derry-o, get the hell out of there.

Think of that question you get all the time. Maybe it’s about your ethnic background, or the shape of your nose, or the fact that you’re a writer. If you’re made to feel ashamed or embarrassed, you’re in the wrong environment. If you’re made to hide it, you’re in the wrong environment.

The longer you ask yourself to act against your core nature, the dimmer your light becomes. You are an artist. You have the secret power to slip sideways into another reality. No matter how cobwebby the slip-path becomes, you can still get there. Your flame still glows. Follow it.

Yeah, well, artists are a lot like gangsters. They both know that the official version, the one everyone else believes, is a lie.”
– Jocko – Quoted by Russell Banks

The truly great writer does not want to write: he wants the world to be a place in which he can live the life of the imagination. The first quivering word he puts to paper is the word of the wounded angel: pain.
– Henry Miller



“But what is that I don’t even –” “TREASURE IT” Wonderbook, Jeff Van Der Meer

Narrow Range of Passion vs Wide Range of Passion

Passion drives artists to create. Whether you’re sketching, sculpting or writing there’s a drive behind your creation. Urgency and intensity spark the initial act of creation — like the first outline, first draft, or first few sketches. The artist finds within themselves a burning need to tell this story — for it steals their sleep and demands to be wrenched from the soul like a tumor that will eat them alive if it remains where it is.

Or, maybe the artist just had a neat idea they thought they’d scribble down. You know. Whatever.

It’s interesting to see how different people deal with their passions — especially because it doesn’t correlate to being introverted or extraverted.

Some folks have a narrow range of passion. Happy or sad, it never gets too intense. If a family member dies, or there’s a setback at work, they’ll shrug their shoulders and say, “Oh. How sad.” If they come up with something really great, or their kid gets a scholarship, they’ll nod and say, “Oh, well, that’s great!” It’s not that they don’t feel. They’re not boring people, they just have a narrow range of passion. These folks might have a more intellectual grasp on life that gets mistaken for stodginess.

Those with a broad range of passion are much more expressive. When the store’s out of the right brand of chocolate, it’s a tragedy. When their kid has a bit part in the school play, it’s a triumph of which they’ll sing for a thousand years. Bad news will lay them low for weeks. They express their feelings with the utmost extravagance — even if they’re introverted. No matter what they feel, they feel it deep into their bones. These folks (and oh boy am I one of them) fit the Tortured Artist stereotype, and can be needlessly dramatic at times.

These two types often find each other unrelatable and frequently clash. To pick a musical example, Demi Lovato popped up on my Pandora this morning. She’s got a loud, powerful voice. When someone sings a well-known song the way she does, there’s always a backlash. Folks with a narrow range of passion would prefer to hear “Over the Rainbow” or “The Star Spangled Banner” in a more traditional, less vocally acrobatic way. As someone with a wide range of passion, this response irks me. Let her do what she wants. Not everyone needs to rein it in to the degree of, say, Blossom Dearie.

There are times — rare, precious times — when the two ranges overlap. Ella Fitzgerald can slip a needle directly into your heart and fill it with longing. A song doesn’t have to be bombastic to achieve intensity. It’s subtle and understated which satisfies one group; yet overflowing with passion that could make a grown man cry… if he were the type to do so.

It’s interesting to think about where you fit on the spectrum of these two types. How much intensity do you infuse into your life? Do you prefer an even keel in your life and your entertainments; or do you want to ride the full height and depth of each wave? For myself, I find that I have such a broad range of passion that I must compartmentalize my life into ‘safe’ places and places where I have to keep it in. I constantly try to identify which type someone is when I meet them, in order to figure out if they’re “safe.” I want to know the best way to relate to others.

In art, as in life, it’s vital to consider why the Other behaves as they do, so we can hear and be heard with the greatest clarity.


I heart you.
I heart you? What is that? ‘I love you’ for pussies?
– Jenji Kohan, Orange is the New Black