Weekend Edition: Loss of an Artist Plus Good Reads and Writing Tips

The Purpose of an Artist

Image from mayaangelou.com

Image from mayaangelou.com

I had never read Maya Angelou before this week. I cannot account for this gap in my education, a gap which until Angelou’s passing this past Wednesday had gone mostly unnoticed. I had heard, of course, many of her famous quotes, my favorite being, “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” But I had never read so much as a single poem.

Still, I felt the loss the world suffered with Angelou’s death. As the great, boiling cauldron of the Internet overflowed with grief and mourning for this artist, I could not help but feel an echo of the sorrow that others voiced through articles, blogs, and social media posts. This, I thought, is the legacy of an artist and a person who knew how to be in the world. Her sudden absence illuminates the depth and breadth of her imprint on our collective and individual souls and psyche.

Though I was touched by this outpouring of love and recognition for a woman and a writer who clearly influenced so many lives, I was also disheartened by the lemming-like flood of empty lamentations from people who, like me, clearly knew little about Angelou’s life or work. Sandip Roy’s Huffington Post piece, When Maya Angelou Becomes a (Facebook) Status Symbol sums the situation up brilliantly if somewhat cynically. On the other hand, my friend and fellow writer Angela Raines wrote a lovely piece in which she shared a personal story of how Angelou’s poem Phenomenal Woman had given her courage at a young age. The poem Angela shared gave me my first experience reading Angelou. So, thank you for that, Angela.

Writers, painters, singers, dancers – all artists have the same goal. Though we employ hundreds of mediums and countless voices, we all work to accomplish one thing: to touch peoples’ hearts. Everything we do, we do for that purpose and that purpose alone. Yes, art is something we see or hear, touch, or even taste, but ultimately art is something we feel. The song that makes your heart ache, the painting that makes you long to walk the moors of Ireland, the ballerina’s soaring leap that makes you feel as if you have taken flight … all of these things and an infinite number more exist only to help us access our own emotions and sense of existence. Art is the physical manifestation of the soul. It is a finely crafted reflection of the human experience. It helps us know who we are.

Perhaps by coincidence, perhaps not, last night my beau and I watched (for the second time) a documentary about another artist who touched many people with his life and his work. This Is It is a behind-the-scenes film about the development of what was to be Michael Jackson’s farewell tour, the tour that never was. I was and am a fan of Jackson’s music, but more than his music it was his sense of love and his boundless dedication to his art and to creating an experience for his fans that put me in awe of him as both an artist and a human being. Like all of us, he was flawed, but the feelings he was able to evoke through his art transcended much. Watching the clips of rehearsals, I could not help but be swept up in rolling waves of emotions, both high and low. There are few things that touch me more deeply than watching an artist break open in the attempt to give everything, to capture the raw reality of what it means to be alive, to courageously stand before an audience and deliver a performance that is simultaneously so vulnerable and so powerful that people are moved to tears without even knowing why. This is what Angelou wrote about in her tribute poem for Jackson.

Though I do not yet have the ability to put the quote in the context of her full body of work, I cannot imagine that Angelou ever got it so right as she did when she said that people will forget everything except how you made them feel.  I have only realized just now that this is the reason I cannot let go of certain books. Though my recent move forced me to once again cull my library, I have resigned myself to the fact that there are some volumes that I will always carry from place to place. It isn’t necessarily the books themselves, many of which are tattered and torn. It is the aura of experience, of something each one made me feel, that binds me to them. Each one is like a touchstone in my emotional history, too precious to give away.

This is what we seek as writers, as artists – to bestow the gift of deep and lasting experience. That is what Angelou and Jackson


What I’m Writing:

pin agatha dishesThere are few artistic experiences more delightful than being woken in the night by a good idea. Though I have not yet put pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard), I have spent part of the last few days considering just such an idea that arrived, unbidden, at about two in the morning. Happily, I had the good sense to snatch my iPhone from the bedside table and quickly peck out an email to myself on the tiny, glowing keyboard. Idea captured.

Though I am sometimes discouraged that most of my fiction “writing” these days does not involve any actual crafting of sentences, I am encouraged that I am at least able to find time (and the creative energy) to come up with and slowly nurture story ideas. I recently read a great quote (which, despite spending the last twenty minutes on Pinterest has eluded me) that went something like “ninety percent of writing happens before you ever put pen to paper” … or, something like that. (Damn. I wish I could find it.)

I believe that’s true. I believe we spend our whole lives developing – subconsciously and then, one glorious day, consciously – the stories we must tell. Each day of our lives goes into the making. Though I would like to be closeted with my ideas and vast stretches of free (and uninterrupted) time to write, I am content at this stage to be collecting my thoughts, making notes, mulling ideas. I know that this is all part of the process. I realize that it cannot (must not) last forever, but I am also not so anxious that I feel I must rush through this stage of creation. Already I have latched onto and then discarded dozens of story ideas. Each time, I save the good bits and work them into the next iteration.

So, though I am not engaging in the physical aspect of writing, I am still working on my writing. I am reading. I am learning. I am developing ideas. It’s all good.

What I’m Reading:

book fantastic imaginationHaving finished (mere hours before our meeting) my book club’s latest pick, Finding Colin Firth, I had the pleasure this morning of selecting my next read. There is something so delicious about choosing a book to read. I have at least a dozen contenders sitting on bookshelves and bureaus around the house, to the task wasn’t an easy one, but in the end I decided to indulge in a thick fantasy novel that had earned raving cover blurbs from not one, but two of my favorite fantasy authors: Ursula K. LeGuin and Anne McCaffrey. I’m not yet ready to reveal the title, but let’s just say that one chapter in and I’m already hooked.

While I’m not sharing this latest read until I’ve finished it, I would like to share an “oldie but goodie” – one of those beaten up paperbacks that I’ve been carting from home to home for more than three decades. The Fantastic Imagination is a fantasy anthology that I bought at an indie bookstore somewhere along the Pacific Northwest coast. I was on a thirty-four day road trip with my family. Mom, Dad, my sister, and I were touring the states in our VW Rabbit. I was, if I’m remembering the dates accurately, just out of sixth grade and an avid reader of all things fantasy and SciFi. This book includes stories from the likes of George MacDonald, Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Peter S. Beagle, and Lloyd Alexander. I have such fond memories of escaping into its pages even as I was enjoying a real life adventure. Holding it in my hands today, I still feel a sense of being a young girl in search of magic … and that’s a kind of magic in itself.

And let’s not forget the blogs. Here are a few of my favorite writerly posts from this week:

Finally, a quote for the week:

writer window

 Thanks, as always,  for sharing part of your weekend with me. Here’s to your writing practice, whether today’s work is reading, or writing, or just staring out the window thinking about your story. 
Jamie Lee Wallace is a writer who also happens to be a marketer. She helps her Suddenly Marketing clients discover their voice, connect with their audience, and find their marketing groove. She is also a mom, a prolific blogger, and a student of the equestrian arts, voice, and trapeze (not at the same time). Introduce yourself on facebook or twitter. She doesn’t bite … usually.

18 thoughts on “Weekend Edition: Loss of an Artist Plus Good Reads and Writing Tips

  1. thanks for calling this out: “I was also disheartened by the lemming-like flood of empty lamentations from people who, like me, clearly knew little about Angelou’s life or work.” this has been driving me bonkers. I feel like people just jump on a story to drive traffic and likes as opposed to sincere expression. I loved what you wrote here. I had the privilege of hearing her speak in Detroit several years ago and got to meet her – just a lovely and engaging presence

    • Social media can do strange things to people.

      I wish I had heard her speak. From what friends have told me, she was – though utterly charming – quite a formidable woman. It must have been quite the experience to meet her. Glad for you that you have that memory of her.

      Enjoy your weekend!

  2. Hi Jamie; I saw the last article on giving characters a Myers Briggs test. That is actually where I start when I build a character. I use MB to start the character, and then pick four characteristics from the Ackerman / Puglish Character Thesaurus for each of their personality rings. It’s fun.

    Like you, I had never read any of Maya Angelou’s work. It makes me wonder how much else I miss out on.


    • That sounds like quite the character development process! I clearly have many new techniques to explore. 🙂

      There is always so much we miss out on. It can’t be helped. I believe, however, that the things we need most will always find a way to get in front of our noses at the right time. Though I have never read Angelou before now, perhaps I will now pick up a copy of “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.” Who knows? Perhaps now is the perfect time.

  3. I thoroughly enjoyed this post, especially your description of how we as artists try to reach peoples’ hearts. I also sing and act but my partner is a pro at both and I so admire people’s capacity to reach waaaayyy down to speak the truth of their being in painting, in music, in drama and, yes, in writing. thanks.

    • ” … capacity to reach waaaayyy down to speak the truth of their being …”

      Yes, that’s it.
      Watching Jackson work those rehearsals in “This Is It,” I was moved almost to tears by the intensity of his commitment to the process and the experience. Even after all those years, even though he could have done nothing more than walk on stage and the crowd would have gone wild, he reached way down and pulled out every last ounce of creativity and courage in order to create an experience that matched, as close as possible, the vision he had in his head of that truth.

      Pretty damn amazing.

      Thanks for coming by and adding your voice. 🙂

  4. Great post Jamie! fab and inspiring articles thank you 🙂 We writers are so hard on ourselves aren’t we? I love how you remind us throughout your post that ‘daydreaming’, reading and ‘developing ideas’ is all part of the process. For the longest time I felt that doing all three for days on end was a ‘waste of time’ but now I know better. Will watch This Is It…

    • Hi, again, Yolanda! 🙂
      As writers, we DO spend a lot of time in our heads, but that’s where it all happens, right?
      Though I am also a believer in just putting your pen in motion and keeping it going, that’s only really valuable as a practice, not as part of the story crafting process.
      Coming up with stories and characters and settings … that requires a lot of time just creating those things in our own mind’s eye.

      Love to hear what you think of “This Is It.”
      TKS for coming by!

    • Thank you so much. I’m so glad to know that people find some value here. I so enjoy putting these posts together and always learn something myself!
      Nice to “see” you. Enjoy the rest of the weekend.

  5. I never read any of her poems either. Just some famous quotes and I think there was an excerpt from one of her poems in school, but I can’t even remember which one. On the day she passed away, I spent a good part of the day reading up on her. I even felt like writing about her! I had goosebumps.The way she recited her poems sent shivers down my spine. And at that moment I felt shame for not having read her before. But the great thing about writing and writers is their immortality. I will read more and more of her work in the coming years that’s for sure. Nelson Mandela and Michael Jackson are two of the most inspiring people I can think of. Maya Angelou just joined the list. Great post as always. I look forward to your blogs:)

    • Thank you, Nida, for joining me in my (temporary) ignorance of Angelou’s work. I’m relieved to know I’m not the only one. (Some of my writer friends’ jaws hit the floor when I confessed my lack of experience with her writing.)

      I’ll be joining you in some exploration of her poems and memoirs and am looking forward to it.

      Thanks for stopping by!

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