Tag Archives: creativity

Thanks For the Reminder, Ira Glass


Video by David Shiyang Liu, Words by Ira Glass

OK, I’ve been waiting for this moment. You know, that moment where you open your brain and the words pour out onto the page. Fully formed ideas and sentences, complete thoughts. You see, I’ve had a little writer’s block.

I just heard this little piece of recorded wisdom by Ira Glass. I don’t know if, when he was speaking these words, he was thinking, “Oh shit, this is brilliant. I gotta share it so I can inspire people and change the world.” But really, it is. And he actually might.

I, like most of you other writers out there, love that moment when I write something wonderful, and it feels like I’m really a writer, you know? Like I know what I’m doing, and I am so witty and funny and poignant, and all that. I love how it feels to pour my emotions into my prose. It’s like a massage, or a balm, a good drink, a long hit of weed, great sex. It. Just. Feels. Good.

But you know what? That good feeling you get from writing? It doesn’t always translate. I’ve gotten high and been inspired by my chemically induced visions to compose poetry, and when I’m writing it, I feel like I’m touching the stars. OK, I’m high, so that kinda figures. But the next day, I read it, and it’s crap. Utter rubbish. It’s like an attempt to capture the brilliance of a sunset on a cheap, disposable camera – the kind you used to be able to buy at a drugstore at the cash register for five bucks, and sometimes they’d put a whole bunch of them out at the tables at a wedding, and you could get the pictures developed in the mail. And when you got the pictures back, your thumb covered half the shots, and the ones that did come out are in this weird shade of orange, out of focus, and the crap on the front lawn is taking up most of the frame. That. The crappy writing the day after a good high is written in some cryptic code that is only readable by other high people. It’s worthless.

Then there’s the other kind of writing that feels so good to get out of your body. It’s like a good purge. It’s the kind of writing that’s tantamount to sticking your finger down your throat and vomiting up the contents of your stomach. The acid, the bile, the half digested chunks. It’s pretty disgusting, really. Who wants to read that nonsense. Go to therapy. It belongs in your journals, your morning pages, your private notebooks. Aaah, blogosphere, you went and gave us permission to publicize all of this private processing. That was one boundary that would have been better left undisturbed. We’ve all done it. The Facebook rants. The confessional blog posts. The public sharing of private feelings, the exposure of raw nerves. Yes, we’re all in it together, we are the world, boo hoo, I’m sad too. It’s not good writing.

Then there are the online articles that start to pick up page views, and likes, and shares. Oh, the stat whore in all of us comes to life. They like me, they really like me. I’m popular, I’m getting more hits, I’m driving traffic, I’m a thought leader, I’m getting more followers, they’re pinning me. This roller coaster is exhausting, it’s illusory, it has no meaning. There are no standards, just the winds of popularity blowing in your direction. Keep it up for a while, make it consistent, and then perhaps you’ve got something. A brand, a platform, a voice, a career, an ad magnet, a source of income. Maybe. Good writing? Who the hell knows…

They say in order to build your brand online (dig the etymology there, as though our identity is valued by its ability to be properly sold), that you need to maintain a steady presence, a regular, consistent output of material. I confess, I haven’t been very good at that type of regularity. For a while there, I was cranking out regular pieces of experimental fiction and with a couple of deadline type assignments, a consistent level of output on several blogs. But things change, and now it’s all on me to make sure you don’t forget me. Now I need an internal clock, like an animal responding to the cycles of the seasons and the rotation of the planets around the sun, and sometimes, well, the cycles don’t coincide with the working week and the optimal posting times, and all that jazz.

But mostly, there’s my realization that more important than regular output and steady presence and recognizable brand is the need to write well. If you google me, you will find a boatload of stuff I’ve written. Some of it is good. A lot of it is uneven. Much of it is crap. I am still in process as an artist, as a writer, as a human being. My shortcomings, thanks to the lure of the internet and the need for public reassurance, have become part of public record. I hope they make you feel better. Feel free to trash my early efforts, or even the recent ones, if they serve to prop up your own sense of relative artistic capability.

But really, I hope that my willingness to fail in plain view will be a reminder, mostly to myself, that this writing thing is a craft. It’s a learned skill. Sure, we bring to it a certain amount of inspiration, a bit of  spirit and courage, and a bunch of bravado, but all of that is but a small portion of the process. Mostly, it’s hard work and doing it again, and again, and again. And again.

It’s being willing to tear apart the passages we thought were genius and throw away the pieces that don’t work – maybe even the whole thing. It’s being willing to learn craft from others who are really good at it. It’s being willing to acknowledge that I will never stop learning, and I have to keep practicing, every day. Even when I feel hopeless, that everything that comes out of me sucks and I would rather scratch out my eyes than read another cliché ridden, hyperbolic, melodramatic, narcissistic passage of my so-called memoir.  When I think everything I know is wrong, and I will never know what it feels like to be recognized for what I know is the pretty damn good writer lurking inside me, just out of view of the webcam.

Thanks, Ira, for reminding me that it’s OK to suck, because it won’t stay like this forever.


Stop Me If You’ve Heard This One


Last August, my longtime friend Deb Margolin performed her magnificent play “Good Morning Anita Hill…” at the Todd Mountain Theater Project, a summer theater festival in Roxbury, NY that was founded by another old friend, Suzanne Pred-Bass. Having written previously about this play, I thought it would be a hoot to go see it again in its latest incarnation, and hang out with both of these women whom I’ve known for so many years.

I thought I’d share with you this letter I wrote to Deb when I was still thinking of going.


Dear Deb,

I will tell you a funny story. Stop me if you’ve heard it before.

About six years ago, Suzanne produced Anne Bogart’s play Room at the Todd Mountain festival. In a fit of synergistic ecstasy, I decided that since I knew both women for many years from completely different tracks of my life, that I should drive up to the festival and review this performance, in the context of the larger implications for me and my creative life.

Room image

Ellen Lauren in SITI Company’s “Room” – image courtesy of SITI Company

The Saturday morning of the show, I had taken Josiah [my son] to a friend’s daughter’s birthday party in a big playground in Stuy Town, in Manhattan, where he fell on his face and shredded it to pieces. Not to be deterred from my great creative moment, not to mention mom’s first sleepover away from husband and child since childbirth (he was 3 at the time), I decided it was only a flesh wound, and we could still go forward with the “boy’s weekend” (Dad, Josiah and Uncle Hector with pizza, movies, etc.) while Mom drove upstate for a weekend of creative and professional ecstasy. I even carried my bloody child in my arms around the aisles of Best Buy, purchasing the DVD’s I’d promised to bring home…

Despite Ivor almost having a heart attack upon seeing his wounded child and a very traumatic washing of the face that took all three adults to hold my son down in the tub, I remained steadfastly and completely disassociated from any maternal instincts and persisted on leaving for the trip.

Of course, I wept most of the way upstate, and ended up being late for the performance – never a good idea for an Anne Bogart show. She is a former army brat and notoriously strict about classes, rehearsals and shows starting on time. I was lucky I was able to gain entrance.

My interview with Anne went well. It was a great reunion. She and I knew each other back from the early 80’s when I appeared in an accidental production of a deconstructed version of A Streetcar Named Desire, called Sehnsucht, that came about when an earlier show we had been rehearsing lost its funding. It was a post modern tour de force, in the great tradition of Jerszy Grotowski and Squat Theater, occupying an entire three story vacant building in downtown Northampton, MA, where I was living at the time, both inside, in various rooms, looking out to the street from the glass storefront and then at the entire building from across the street. I played one of ten Blanches. Several years later, I was part of an experimental theater workshop we organized with Anne at St. John the Divine, and then still later I took a directing class with her at Playwright’s Horizons, where I was promptly declared one of her weekly favorites. So our history ran deep to my sense of what theater could be and who I could be in it. I was thrilled to catch up with her on the last decade plus of our lives.

That night, I guiltily enjoyed the opening night reception, chatting up complete strangers while trying to ignore the fact that my family was without me in the Bronx, and then even managed to indulge in a bottle of wine with Suzanne and a couple other members of her inner circle who were also invited to stay with her at her residence that night. I was totally immersed, a theater person, dammit, just like I thought.

I drove home the next day, filled with grand thoughts about how I would roll out this post-modern tale that wove together so many strands of my life. And when I arrived, I found grief, relief, and silent judgement. By the time the next morning rolled around, Josiah’s face wounds had become infected, dangerously close to his eye, and we had to take him immediately to the doctor. A round of topical and oral antibiotics later, disaster was averted, eyesight saved, but my conscience deeply, perhaps permanently scarred, like my son’s cheek, that still bares the faint outline of the injured swath of skin that ringed around the outside of his right eye in the shape of a #7.

I never wrote that article. I was never able to complete it. Instead, I was blocked by the guilt of choosing my own need to be an artist over the welfare of my child (an artificial and untrue dichotomy to be sure, but try and tell that to a guilty conscience). I also carried the sense of failure of having promised a piece of journalism to two creative people whom I admire deeply, who took time to speak to me about their life, their craft, their work, and expected me to deliver a story in return.

To this day, although I have pages of notes from my journal before, during and after that trip, the interview I did with Suzanne, the two I did with Anne, one upstate and one in NYC at a SITI Company rehearsal, I have never been able to bring myself to articulate the story I wanted to tell about how everything came together from my past and present to bring to life a show based on Virginia Woolf’s book, A Room of One’s Own, whereupon a woman finds the joy of speaking her voice and baring her artist’s soul. Can’t you imagine the possibilities? With so many layers of symbolism, and parallel realities, and art imitating life imitating art??

So, you can understand why the fact that you are now doing your wonderful show up there stirs up certain desires in me to reconnect, bring the story to the present.

It’s actually not a very funny story. Not funny ha ha. But you know what I mean… Maybe this is just where it all led…



It turns out, I did not get up to see Deb’s play again last summer. Instead, I am left to share the vestiges of a vision where art and life intersect in many layered splendor, the desire to re-connect with old friends in this unique configuration relegated to a letter that describes what could have been…