Guest Blog Post, Michelle Bracken: When Your Writing Comes Through the Ether

 

Photo courtesy of author. A chance encounter with the muse at LAX. 

I’m a slow writer.

It’s been three years since I’ve actively written, rewritten or revised a solid piece of writing. It’s been three years since graduating with my MFA and for all kinds of reasons, the writing was put on pause.

That’s the question when you’re in an MFA program. What’s life like afterwards?

For me, it was a hopeful one. I’d continue working full-time and write in the evenings. On the weekends. Be finished with my novel in a year, tops! Wouldn’t I be so much more productive without my night classes at Cal State?

Then life happened. I fell in love. Sold my house. Moved to a new city. Got married. Every now and again, I’d pull up a story, or part of my novel, and see the parts that needed change. I’d reread sections and see where I could make things better. Wrote notes about future characters, and little scenes that seemed full of promise. And then I’d put them away, and tell myself that later – I’ll have time later.

That’s why I’m a slow writer. It’s not that I wait for inspiration, or the muse to appear. It’s more of a feeling, a yearning, for what I’m not sure, but when I feel that sense of longing or nostalgia, I can spend hours, sometimes days, fully committed to the page. The last two years, however, I just wasn’t feeling it.

After getting married, my husband and I were in the early stages of designing our home, which involved tearing down his parents’ garage and in its place constructing a mother-in-law suite of sorts, formally known by the city of Los Angeles as an accessory dwelling unit. This would be our home in his parents’ backyard. Drafting and designing plans with an architect fully took up whatever free time we had. As we hit the spring of 2018, we had been married all of four months, and were excited to break ground in the summer.

A decision had to be made. After moving to LA, would I continue my full-time position and make the two-hour commute each way? And what about the writing?

This seems like a roundabout of a story. But here’s where the writing comes into play. I had been aching to write again, to feel that sense of urgency on the page, and this next chapter in my life seemed to be the perfect moment for me to make a big decision.

People say you don’t need to quit your day job to pursue your passions, and for a while that rang true for me. It did until it didn’t. I wanted the luxury of time, if only for a year, to spend my “full-time” energy on the writing. To just see what I could make of it, and then go back to the grind.

My grind? Teaching. For years, every waking moment was dedicated to my students and how I could be better for them. My writing needed that version of me.

It seemed crazy to just quit, to lose my medical benefits, to live off of savings. But then, along the way, there’s been a sign or two that perhaps it’s not so crazy.

I believe that your writing speaks to you. That even when you’re not working on it, it’s there, in the background, hovering. It goes where you go, your shadow of sorts, helps you see the light differently, hear the conversations of folks you didn’t know you needed to hear, and sometimes it’s silent until it’s ready to remind you of what you really need to do.

I know this to be true.

Three weeks before I was to give my employer notice, I attended a work event in the desert city of La Quinta. It’s only relevant to my narrative because of the last day. I wanted to treat myself to something nice, to have a small moment of luxury before we broke ground on our little mother-in-law abode, and so scheduled a pedicure at the resort salon in which I had been staying.

When I arrived, there were two other women also waiting, and we sat quietly in the lounge. That week, I had been thinking a lot about my future, and if I was really going to go through with quitting my job. As I sat reviewing the pros and cons, the nail technician, a petite woman with dark blonde hair pulled back in a bun, approached me. I’ll never know why or how I was lucky enough to have her work with me, it could have been any other person, but the ether determined that it was meant to be her.

“I’m Isis,” she smiled. We shook hands, and as we did, I just kept thinking about her name. Here is where the writing came through the ether and said hello. The muse coming to life. You see, the main character in my novel-in-progress, her name? It’s also Isis. I couldn’t get over this coincidence. It’s not a name you hear beyond CNN and Fox News.

And yet, I had found Isis, or she had found me. I first met my Isis in 2009. She was my third grade student, all of nine years old, spunky and lively, and the muse behind my novel, the protagonist I had been carrying with me ever since I met her. I never imagined I’d encounter another person with her name.

And yet, here we were. We talked about the origin of her name, why her father chose it, what it meant to her, and how since 9/11 no one likes to say it. How they shorten it to Is or Izzy. When I told her I was writing a novel about a young girl named Isis, her eyes lit up, and she was genuinely moved. “When you finish, you must send it to me. I would be so happy to read it, just to see my name.”

This moment between us was like the stars had aligned in that small desert community. Here I was, on the precipice of leaving my career and tenure, questioning my decisions, and there before me was the namesake of my project. It was like a slap in the face, but in the kindest way, telling me, yes – you need to do this. It was the writing speaking to me, assuring me of what I needed to do.

*

It’s three months later and I’ve quit my job, moved to LA, and live in my husband’s childhood home with his parents. Days are spent on site of our construction project, and to make extra cash, I work as an education consultant. The writing? It still hasn’t started. I have many excuses, and they’re all valid. But I know I need to push myself harder to make it happen.

I didn’t know it then, but a trip to the airport would be the push that I needed. It happens one early September morning at LAX. I’m leaving for a work trip to Kentucky, tired, and unaware that I’m about to encounter another muse of mine. On my lengthy search for something to eat, I find a small food court not far from my gate, and in that court have a moment of reckoning.

The food is unimportant, a breakfast burrito, but it’s where I sit that matters. I could have walked back to my gate with my suitcase and burrito, I could have sat at a random table across the room, or simply eaten standing. But for whatever reason, I situate myself at an empty countertop in the back corner of the food court. It’s attached to a restaurant not yet open, and I’m not yet aware of what it is, or anything beyond that nice spread of a counter, where for someone at LAX, seems like heaven.

I pick a stool and sit, and then move over a few more. I’m not sure why, there’s no real reason, no one in my way, I just intuitively move. I reach down to pull a water bottle out of my luggage, and that’s when I notice it – my muse, the image of a bird, from La Loteria deck of cards, painted on the wall beneath the countertop bar. I am firmly planted in front of El Pajaro.

La Loteria is a card game of chance that uses images on a deck of cards. Each image has a distinct name, and a number. And in LAX, it’s also the name of a restaurant. Here I am, sitting at the counter of La Loteria, the wall beneath lined in these beautifully iconic images. There’s El Gallo, La Sirena, La Luna, but only one is most important to me.

El Pajaro, the bird.

Years prior, my professor Merrill Feitell gave me the same card (I still have it) and told me to write a story about it. A few months later, that story appeared in The Superstition Review, (you can read it here) and so here we are.

My writing is again speaking to me, reminding me of the work I must complete, regardless of all the hopping around I’ve been doing, from city to city, job to job, from uprooting my life, to starting over – there is one item that needs to be at the forefront. The writing. All of it. Every story, every character, every draft that needs a revision, every note I had written down, those scenes of promise – they demand my attention and I owe them that much to give it. Isis and El Pajaro – they were the necessary reminders I needed to get it together, and finish what I set out to do all those years ago.

Have you ever had your writing come through the ether? Maybe you’re not as slow of a writer as I am, and don’t need that kick in the rear. But I do, I did, and I’m so thankful for it.

Guest Post, Rachel Stiff: What’s up with the Sky?

Rachel Stiff bio pictureIn Los Angeles, California the air has a certain quality to it. Light behaves differently here as well. Smog and moisture pair up each day in different quantities to determine the forecast. Sidewalks, concrete walls and highway overpasses show sign of human presence. Graffiti is a constant companion. The city is home to the largest homeless population in the United States. Watch out for scatological debris. Beautiful flowers and thick monstrous foliage line the interstate. From behind the steering wheel of a car, a traffic jam allows for much time viewing the ditch and searching for inner stillness.

One summer, I was granted an artist residency in Chinatown. This area is known as DTLA or Downtown Los Angeles. Miles of industrial buildings loom sleepily–warehouses of decommissioned factories begging for the downtown artist movement to breathe life back into them. After the three-month long residency was over, I decided to stay in L.A. Wanting to make a little history for myself, I sought exhibitions. Some of them hard earned, while others came as invitation.

I kept my studio downtown, but found a job on the Westside in Venice. The commute after work was a nightmare, and I was often too tired to make it happen. Day to day logistics can be tough in a city this size where almost everyone has a car and must use it. Not having much experience with big cities, I was in awe at the enormous population and constant activity. There is immeasurable human history compressed between seemingly endless layers of buildings, landforms, plants, cars and interstate systems. I was enjoying new friends and nurturing connections, but couldn’t shake the feeling of being caged in.

What's Up With The Sky, Painting by Rachel StiffCommuting to Las Vegas nearly once a month, I enjoyed watching the city limits gradually give way to barren desert. It was a shift in thinking; a different state of mind. City life with its complex relationship to the natural world is swept up into the strict order of a new eco-system. The austere and beautiful design of the Mojave Desert appealed to me. When returning to L.A., an omnipresent heavy smog can be observed, looming eerily beyond the San Bernardino Mountains. Around this time, I had a breakthrough in the studio. As with any new movement comes uncertainty. ‘What’s up with the Sky?’ has proven successful on levels both aesthetic and as a true representation of my love-hate relationship with Western mega-cities.

Intern Post, Ofelia Montelongo: What You Make is Your Power

This semester, I had the opportunity to be a trainee for Superstition Review, and when they announced a group of interns would be traveling to LA to AWP, I didn’t hesitate to join them in their adventure. Even though I wasn’t 100% sure what AWP really was, I knew I heard of it before in some other conference. I’ve heard that thousands of writers go there to meet, to talk, and to share their love for written words.
AWP

For someone who can barely pronounce “literary,” going to AWP was more than a fun and glamorous trip to LA. This was a great opportunity to interact with different writers and publishers from all over the world. I had a lot of firsts: it was my first experience with Uber (great storytellers). My first time in my 30’s sharing another room with girls I barely knew, who at the end of the first day I was lucky enough to call them my friends. When you share a passion like writing, becoming friends is easy, unproblematic, and so natural that it seems a little magical. And life sent me the best roommates I could ever ask for, Jess, Alexis, and Leslie! And I realized that when a passion unites us, age doesn’t matter.

Awp Panel

It was also my first time in a book fair with more than 800 exhibitors. Even though at the beginning, my mind compared it with the Phoenix Women’s Expo, but with authors, literary magazines, and MFA programs, it soon became overwhelming and a little challenging to see it all. However, I was still able to learn new things. I learned there is a bilingual press here at ASU, how did I not know this? I obtained information on MFA and literary presses from around the globe. Also, from the book fair I got different freebies, including enough tote bags to give away to my entire family, and a t-shirt that I was able to use in a non-planned 5k race on Saturday morning. I also was able to start my own pin collection.

AWP Pins

One of the best parts of AWP (besides having the compulsive feeling of wanting to buy every book, and wondering if the next J.K. Rowling is in the same room) was being able to represent Superstition Review in different ways: at the table giving information about the magazine, being engaged on Twitter documenting our AWP experience, and basically at every moment during the conferences interacting with people. The greatest thing about representing Superstition Review is realizing that I’m luckier than I thought I was, being able to work with Trish, founder and pretty much the soul of the magazine who has attended 13 different AWP conferences, is rewarding and inspiring. I was only for a few hours at the s[r] table, but during that time I had multiple people come by and ask about her; they wanted to meet her, they were excited and honored to be published in Superstition Review, they were grateful to be read and heard.

Besides the book fair, there were more than 500 readings and panels.  One of the advantages of having multiples panels to choose from is that you can invest your time in topics that really matter to you and contribute with your own ideas.  One of the panels I attended to, was Latinos in Lotusland, where I was able to share my opinion about Frida Kahlo not being “cool” in Mexico anymore and I shared my opinion on staying true to our own voices and to not follow what it is “cool” on the market. And my favorite part of this is that I was heard. I was reminded that even though I come from a different culture and I speak another language, I have a story worth telling and that I should never stop my writing spirit.

AWP Bag  Awp Program

For many writers, AWP is a reunion; an excuse to see each again, for me AWP was a warm welcome to the literary world. It was like I was being told, “Welcome Ofe, welcome to the literary world where you really belong.”

See you in Washington, DC!

LA Artcore’s “Connections to the Natural World” ft. Sarah Kriehn, Monica Aissa Martinez, Carolyn Lavender, and Mary Shindell

Are you in LA this weekend and looking for something to do? We suggest checking out the last weekend of “Connections to the Natural World” exhibit at the LA Artcore Brewery Annex. This collection features the personal responses to nature through various media of seven unique artists, four of those artists being past SR Contributors. Sarah Kriehn, a printmaker, uses nature as a visual framework for intuitive play. Monica Aissa Martinez works to experience and understand nature through human anatomy in her intricately rendered paintings. Carolyn Lavender explores natural preservation while portraying the fake and the real of flora and fauna in detailed graphite drawings. Mary Shindell reframes nature’s geometry and reorganizes its special relationships in her large-scale installations.

This collection is only on view until January 30th during normal gallery hours (12-5 pm Thursday- Sunday). Be sure to admire these artists’ brilliant work in SR. Sarah’s paintings were featured in Issue 10, Monica’s drawings in Issue 9, Carolyn’s drawings in Issue 9, and Mary’s work in Issue 11.

unnamed (1)

Screen Shot 2016-01-26 at 6.13.14 PM
Screen Shot 2016-01-26 at 6.13.32 PMScreen Shot 2016-01-26 at 6.13.56 PM

 

Past Intern Updates: Sarah Murray

Sarah Murray, Issue 9 Fiction Editor, shares where she found her inspiration after Superstition Review and her future plans.

Sarah Murray

Photo by Ken Camarillo

My initial plan after I graduated from ASU was to take some time off. I was going to move back to Los Angeles (which I did), recover for a couple months, and then start looking into Grad school. Study for the GRE. Take the time to actually write and get published. Possibly learn guitar. Possibly start looking into getting my EMT certification. And, of course, probably get a job.

What I didn’t bank on was getting a job with some of the most determined, open-minded people in all of Los Angeles. One day I’m at home, minding my own business on Facebook, when I see a post from AIDS Walk Los Angeles advertising a job opening. I applied and was hired in about a week.

I consider myself an activist. In college, I was involved with a variety of organizations that were dedicated to eliminating social stigma in one way or another, mostly in terms of queer activism. My senior year I was predominantly involved with a nonprofit called HEAL International, which was dedicated to HIV/AIDS awareness and education. When I graduated, I was hesitant to apply to just any position. I wanted to pick a job with a mission statement that I agreed with, something greater than myself that I could have a hand in progressing. AIDS Walk Los Angeles allowed me to do that. I was a Team Coordinator/Fundraising Specialist, which means that I worked on an individual basis with hundreds of people who formed their own teams for AIDS Walk. Teams range from corporate teams to teams made of friends and family members. I specifically was in charge of school and university teams.

AIDS Walk Los Angeles was held in West Hollywood on October 14, 2012. Now that it’s over, I am going to keep with my original plan of continuing my education and other assorted aspirations, and in the meantime I am going to look into volunteering at 826LA. I am also in the process of getting a thesis of mine published (final edited draft for Queer Landscapes: Mapping Queer Space(s) of Praxis and Pedagogy due March 1st; keep your fingers crossed!). But, let me tell you why, when I was working for AIDS Walk, I was the most inspired person you could hope to talk to. First off, I worked with students. Students are my absolute favorite people. I was a student leader myself for many years. At AIDS Walk, I talked to them on the phone all day long. I sent them emails. I visited their schools and answered their questions. I was a resource for them to take advantage of, a point of contact between themselves and the event. The kicker, though, is that I was in charge of empowering all these students (if they weren’t already empowered, which, to be honest, half of them were).

Now that AIDS Walk is over, I’ve mostly been reading and writing. But there’s that damnable itch that’s starting again. Sometime soon, I’m going to end up working for another nonprofit. Maybe even AIDS Walk again. Change is a comin’. I can feel it.

An Interview with Artist John Sonsini

John and BritneyOn Saturday, February 9, artist John Sonsini presented his artwork at the opening of his exhibition at Phoenix’s Bentley Gallery. Upon walking into the gallery, the size alone of the paintings commanded attention. The life-size portraits made an instant impression. While I stopped to view the paintings, I came to realize a commonality that I am rarely able to see in most artwork: the voice of the subject.

We often see art as a discourse for political and social statements. The opinions of artists can often overshadow the person that is being painted; the subject is a tool to express a particular belief. In Sonsini’s portraits, however, he embraces the simplicity of focusing on a particular person, and allows us to see the complexities that are hidden in the faces and gestures of everyday people. To him, this is what his art is all about.

Viewing the Work

In the following interview Sonsoni states, “I have always been interested in painting faces, figures. That always interested me. But, of course, for many years I’ve been painting portraits only, painting from life. I usually am interested to paint someone who has strong features, a commanding presence.”

These presences were obvious to me as I viewed the portraits, as I was able to sense the appreciation that Sonsini has for the men he paints. By creating a scene on his canvas that is relatable, real, and unblemished by any silent statement, the audience is exposed to a kind of art that goes beyond the norm.

Because of this simplistic approach to the meaning of his art, I was curious to know how Sonsini decided he was ready to expose his craft to the public.

Sonsini’s desire to exhibit his work is definitely to the advantage of all who are able to view his portraits. By letting the characteristics of his subjects speak for themselves, we are able to admire a portrait of raw emotion and qualities.

Thank you, John Sonsini, for answering Superstition Review’s questions.

1. Q: Who/what gave you the idea to become a public artist?

A: Well, of course, there are artists who don’t view exhibiting (which is a public experience) as all that important. But, in my case, I had always intended that exhibiting my work was an important continuum of the process of making art.

2. Q: Are there any artists in your family? What do they think of your career and work?

A: Actually my father was very gifted, in particular when it came to drawing. He had a natural ability. He really could draw anything. My family was very set on my being an artist. They always encouraged me to go in that direction when I was young. And, I believe they’ve enjoyed seeing me develop a career in the arts.

3. Q: How do you decide who/what to paint?

A: I have always been interested in painting faces, figures. That always interested me. But, of course, for many years I’ve been painting portraits only, painting from life. I usually am interested to paint someone who has strong features, a commanding presence. It’s quite difficult to sit for a painting. It takes a great deal of concentration and focus. Not everyone I’d like to paint is interested in modeling, or even has the time available. I ask each prospective model to work five hours each day until the painting is completed. So that does take quite some time. So, you see, ‘who’ I want to paint is all tied up in ‘who’ really can commit to that sort of focus and daily sessions.

4. Q: Do you believe that skilled painting can be taught and learned? Or is it a natural talent?

A: Well, you refer to the ‘skill’ of painting. You’re asking IF someone can be taught the skill of painting, as in a classroom. Well there are all sorts of technical issues that can be passed along, taught. But, really how one uses those things…I think that has to be just learned from doing, working, and of course, the best lesson is probably just…trial and error. But, sure, there are certain technical skills that could be taught and learned.

5. Q: Why do you use oil paints to create your art? Do you use any other mediums? Why or why not?

A: Yes, I work with oils. I like the fluidness of the medium. Because oil remains wet for quite some time, it is very suitable for working and reworking from day to day. And, of course, the color, the pigment in oil I find to have a saturation that I haven’t found in other mediums.

6. Q: What have your sitters thought of the process and your finished portrayal of them? Are you able to cultivate a kinship with them? How long does a piece usually take to complete?

A: Before I set out to do a large painting of someone, I always ask that we work for a few days drawing or a small painting. In this way it allows a new model to kind of test out the work before we launch into a large project. Most sitters seem to like the process. It’s very organized. We take a break about every half hour, then a long lunch break mid day. Most sitters seem to enjoy the finished painting. And, especially after so many days working on a painting, and getting to see the process, and understanding that the painting is a handcrafted object. In other words, anyone who’s expecting a photographic likeness well, I think, after a few days working, it would be obvious that my painting will be a far more painterly portrayal. A full figure portrait usually takes about 10 – 14 days to complete.

7. Q: Do you have any hopes or plans for your future in the art world?

A: A new painting I’m working on at the moment for an exhibition at the Autry National Center of the American West, here in Los Angeles. I’m painting a large portrait of two vaqueros/cowboys as part of a new installation at the museum, organized by Museum Curator Amy Scott. And then a group show in NYC at Salomon Contemporary in the Spring. And, of course, I’m very pleased to be showing my most current group of paintings here in Phoenix at Bentley Gallery.

John Sonsini’s paintings are on display at Bentley Gallery in Phoenix until tomorrow, February 28.