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Dirty Words for Dirty Work.

I had a Big Day Out in the City this week! I was invited to meet with an art journaling group for brunch on Wednesday in Manhattan.

I know! Brunch on a Wednesday! It was my first clue that this group probably had a lot of water signs in it. You know, Pieces and Gemini and Cancer, all artistic and inventive, lively and emotive.  I’m a Capricorn. Earth sign, as in dirt. As is “Dull As”. It would never occur to a Capricorn to eat brunch on a Wednesday.

And you know what you get when you mix water and earth.

Q:  What do you get when you mix Water with Earth?

A:  Either something very useful, like adobe, or  mud pies.

This group of artists invited me to join them because of my book, which seems to give certain kind-hearted readers the impression that I am artistic, and interesting. When, actually, all I am is a Dirt Sign who sits for months on end alone in a room, cursing at my paint brushes while flailing at blank sheets of paper, or stabbing at  blank sheets of paper with a Bic pen while cursing. The fact that I am able to produce a book with illustrations and text is purely accidental, merely the result of playing the odds that with enough cursing I’ll be able to spew a few usable words and pictures.

When I wrote my book (When Wanderers Cease to Roam, which I mention for those of you who are just joining us in this blog) I did not know about Art Journals. But the first people who picked up the book, the first readers who wrote to me about the connection they had made with my stories and pictures, were Art Journalers, and I was thrilled to have such a cool  name for what I’d done. (My agent and my editor just called my stuff “very odd”; the word “quirky” also gets mentioned a lot when I’m talking  with publishing types.)

But the more I make the acquaintance of true art journalers, the more I realize that what I do is sooooooo not art journaling. Art Journaling, when it’s done badly, is too over-wrought, facile, and self-referential. I have in the past been hammered by art journalists who are fond of that kind of art journaling (loading up each page with every singlecrafting technique they know) for saying that that’s not art journaling, that’s just torturing the page. Puh-leeze. I’m not that bad.

But then I meet art journalers who are skilled, highly esthetic, and deeply inventive — people who make their own paper, bind their own books, experiment with their own pigments — and I realize that I’m not in that league. I don’t belong at the brunch table with real artists. I’m a really bad art journaler. Because I am not in love with the process of art at all.



I buy a very cheap, lightweight ready-made paper that doesn’t even pass muster as watercolor paper, and I paint with very inexpensive paints that don’t even come in tubes. My process doesn’t include much curiosity or commitment to the materials or the philosophy of art; my process runs on a lot of anger, luck, and tons of relief when it’s over. In fact, my process involves so much anger that really, if I could find a way to just curse for a living I’d cut out all that bothersome painting and writing.

So, any way, I got to sit at the Real Artists table  for brunch on Wednesday (no mud pies; I had eggs Florentine with hollandaise sauce in the Time Warner building) and then I got to go see an exhibit on contemporary African design at the Art and Design Museum (skip it, unless you are dying to see how utterly pretentious mediocre design can be) and then I had to hurry downtown to hand-deliver my Damn France Book manuscript to my editor at Bloomsbury.

And my darling editor went to bat for me with the evil money bags in the Accounting Department and she persuaded them to give me a small budget for travel to Seattle!! So yes, definitely, I am going to Seattle!! Throw me a fish, someone!

So if you have any suggestions, or you have a book group or ladies club or English class who might be  interested in hearing the world’s worst art journaler talk about my Useful Travel Tips for Staying Put, please let me know. I’m available in  May 2011 (exact dates TBA). And if you’ve by any chance already been to one of my talks, please let Seattle know that  No, I don’t curse when I’m out in public, talking about my work. Much.

And what do you think? Is a negative attitude the most useful tool in your creative process?

P.S. (added the next morning): Top Cat just read this post and is worried. He says that I seem depressed, that I’m being too critical of myself. Good lord. The man lives with me — does he  not know that if I weren’t in a bad mood I’d have no personality at all?  I am being light-hearted here, making the most of my limited talents etc — forgive me for not being as funny as Helen but then, I’m not Australian so I wasn’t born with a head start in the lovableness department. (god I love Australians.)Have no fear, dear readers — I’m in no worse shape today than  usual — and it’s snowing again! Got a new Champagne-O-Meter out in the backyard!

(Photo above, of mud pie, is by Timothy Valentine. Thanks, Timothy!)

14 comments to Dirty Words for Dirty Work.

  • Whatever we do and however we get it done, being a creative and offering our perspective in life to life is the bottom line. Art Journal, Travel Journal, Journal. It’s all just a name. Putting your best foot forward is the goal.
    It was great to meet you and I hope you will venture out again soon.

  • bunny

    I went to your talk at Malloy College in November on Long Island and it was great. You talked about creativity and being true to thineself and you were inspiring and funny and honest and made me feel like I wanted to start writing my own book as soon as I got home. I don’t remember a single swear word — did I miss something? I took your Travel Tip for Staying Put Number 4 (I think it was No. 4) and I took my husband out for a grilled cheese sandwich at 2am at the local 24-hour diner, saw a slice of local life that I’d never seen before. Really got me out of my rut. Hope you find a good 24-hour diner in Seattle.

  • Mindy

    Is there any chance you can make a side trip to Portland while you are here in the great Northwest?

  • Deborah

    Yep. Anger is a great motivator for me. I remember reading Eudora Welty saying she just couldn’t write when she was mad and thinking maybe that’s why I’m not enamored with her work. When I’m happy, I’m just too busy enjoying being happy to work. This from a very watery-signed person who does brunch any day of the week!

    I’m still pulling for via Louisville but the May timeframe might make Seattle possible (yay!)

  • Vivian

    I must say that I start off happy as a clam when I begin to work. It’s the WORK that makes pisses me off! I want it to be genius and it never is so I throw a tantrum. Also, it would be really great if the stuff wrote itself but nooooooooooo…the universe makes ME do it. Hardly seems fair.

    You’re thinking of coming to Seattle?!! Want to go out for a grilled cheese sandwich at 2AM at [insert locally famoust all-nite Seattle diner]?! And when I say “grilled cheese sandwich” I mean, sadly a “grilled cheese sandwich”. Sadly, that’s what I do at 2AM these days. My knees are shot from dancing on too many tables in my youth, and my metabolism can’t handle booze after midnight. (And when I say “midnight” I mean 8PM.)

  • Janet

    Vivian, this entire post made me smile all the way through it. You don’t sound depressed at all. If being creative and looking at life through an interesting prism was easy, everyone would do it and who would buy a book that they could just as easily write themselves? Swing by the only wonderful city in Texas (Austin — just ask anyone who lives here) on your way to or from Seattle or any other time, and I’ll take you outnfor a breakfast taco at 2 am. Cheese is meant to be wrapped in a tortilla here.

  • I came to your talk in Pelham, NY. It was lively, inspirational, funny, informative, and generally a well designed information period about traveling ( or not) and why. I was inspired to go home and work on the book I have been “doing” for years.

    As far as being an art journalist, I agree. THAT is a personal endeavor, meant to only be understood by your own self, and a rendition of what you see in the world.–
    And different from YOUR book. A chapter a day can keep me busy. The artwork is superb. I can’t believe you spent all those hours writing in your own hand! It’s a great book.
    I wish I could fly to Seattle. I’ll wait til you do another talk in New York. Sign me up.

  • DEPRESSED? Never. You always give a cheerful and frustrated outlook on writing AND artwork, which, by the way; very few people have the capacity to do both. It is, after all- hard work.

    We look forward to Mondays and Fridays.
    How is Penelope? Beautiful Penelope on the kitchen counter.

  • Curmudgeon!!
    What I now think of when I see your name is that beautiful painting of the couple (was it you and TG?) with the umbrella and the wet, glistening, masterfully painted pavement. Above the buildings was the lightening sky – the end of the storm.
    I know, I know. You’re going to rant and rave about how many hundreds of times you painted it until it got to that point.
    Like I said: Curmudgeon (who paints beautifully).
    Come out again

  • Nadine

    There’s an old joke among programmers: If you torture the data long enough, it will confess. It was a blameless way to tell the programmers they’ve gone too far with a bad plan and it’s time to start again with a new approach. Seems that artists need that reminder some times, too.

    I went to one of Vivian’s talks and there was no cursing that I remember. The talk that was about how to be a wanderer in your own town. You have to shift your attention to the things you usually ignore — like the shapeless stone thing in the local park whose plaque you finally read and discover it’s a tribute to the town’s sons who gave their lives for the country in WWI, or you go to a local diner in the wee hours and see who’s up & about in your town at that hour. And to never ignore the eccentric who minds the draw bridge in your town.

  • Maryann

    Two things:

    Thank you for writing this post!
    Hahahahahhahahah!! You are VERY FUNNY!!!!!!!

  • Nice try at the self-deprecation speech but we’ve seen your work. Brilliant. Loved meeting you. xo

  • I agree completely with Teri. Anyone who can create such magnificent little watercolors must be hiding their love of art and the process of creating. Thanks for a sneak peek. Hope we can repeat brunch again.
    From a Gemini who didn’t know I was water not dirt….

  • Sandy

    Oh Good LORD – you are talented and you do journal whether you admit it or not – that is what you do – and we Love it.

    And I have been to NYC and sketched with Shirley L and I am green with envy that I was not invited to the shin dig!!!

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