Random, perhaps embarrassing, insights, updates and opinions relating mostly to popular culture:
—The Deepak/Oprah meditations are bringing me unexpected peace.
—Phantom Thread was dumb.
—Juana Molina’s music is giving me LIFE right now.
—I’m obsessed with a Coldplay song.
—Just completed Whole 30 and it might become Whole 365.
—Life without sugar cravings is a wonderful thing.
—The way that RuPaul’s AllStars works really bugs me.
—Shape of Water was sublime except for several moments of extreme violence.
—Excited to see Black Panther tonight.
—Roxane Gay scares me and I might want to be her friend.
—Junot Diaz writes beautifully.
—I’ve been wondering if I should wear more jewelry.
—I really need to see the Hockney show at the Met. I realize I don’t want him to die.
—Never a Billy Joel fan, I wonder how his supporters defend Uptown Girl (was playing in the supermarket yesterday, ugh.)
—Who is Bruce Springsteen’s understudy?
—Wouldn’t it be great if Bette Midler understudied Bruce Springsteen? Altho maybe not for the Bruce fans.
—The clerk at our local CVS just now reminded me of Kevin Spacey and I wondered what he might be up to now, and I thought: well, maybe he just found himself a job at a drugstore in some small town somewhere.
—I miss Madonna.
I've been taking a course on REVISING. It's been a revelation. It's taught by Chloe Caldwell. Four Tuesdays, the last session is tomorrow night. It's been really helpful. I'm thrilled to be heading into revisions on my own book. Thanks to a very kind, generous and capable copy/line editor, MARIANNE!! my stories are in the best shape they've ever been. I'll have the final fixes on the final four stories later this week and then I'll implement them. THEN, I begin the overall revision.
For those of you who know my stories, you know I write short pieces. The book, It Will Work Out, is a collection of stories that are in roughly chronological order (with major digressions within the pieces themselves.) The challenge is how to have them work as standalone pieces (which they already do) and still have the book succeed as a book a memoir. The subtitle of the book is A Life in Stories. So, there's the big challenge.
I'm going away in the winter with my pal and writing partner, Sari Botton, and we're going to work on our books together. I'm excited--up until now I've been rather intimidated to move from the short, discreet story format to the overall book format. However, the combo of working out the fixes/edits from Marianne and taking this revision course with Chloe AND, the time that it's taken, which has allowed me to STEP BACK and begin to see what I have. Well, I now feel ready. To contain the larger work. To hold the entire thing like I do a short piece and to refine the whole, thread the pieces, braid the themes.
I'm getting ready to finish this incredible project which has been years in the making. Some of the stories are 8/9 years old, some are from this year..
“Whatever it takes to finish things, finish. You will learn more from a glorious failure than you ever will from something you never finished.” -- Neil Gaiman
What are you working on? What are you eager to finish? What's keeping you from finishing? Let's finish together, shall we?
I just got an email from a former student--he sent me a great blurb about the workshop (btw, if you've ever taken the workshop and haven't given me a blurb and you want to, please send it to me)--anyway, Sylvan Oswald wrote this:
"I brought in a project I was about to abandon. Chris Wells’ workshop helped me get back in gear with my own process and locate images that resided deep within the material that it would have taken me ages to find alone. His workshops act as accelerators, as powerful magnets that draw writers swiftly towards the core of their own creative planet."
Last weekend's session of Writing Life in NYC was particularly intense. I was more emotional than usual--edgy. I apologized at one point for being mean to my students--they said I wasn't. But I do think I feel a more urgent need to help folks get their work done and out into the world. Maybe it's my age--I don't feel so young anymore and and I see how time passes and windows close. Or maybe it's the season--fall is such a time for embarking on new ventures, new projects. Or maybe it's the era of divisiveness and fear and polarization--we need to make the things we want to make NOW. There is nothing to be gained by waiting for the "right moment" to create. Thoughtfulness has its time and place, yes, but so many of us are distracted, overwhelmed, anxious--Put It In the Work, I say. MAKE IT NOW.
Here's a shot of last weekend's group--they were great. I get the best people in my workshops. Thoughtful, kind, smart, engaged--I have a one day check in this Saturday in NYC (you can join virtually, too) and, 'm adding another NYC session in January.
If you're reading this for the first time, meaning my blog, my site--please join us. I promise I won't be (too) mean. Instead I will be passionate and excited about you and your work and your ideas--I will act as an accelerator, a magnet moving you swiftly to the core of your own creative planet.
WOW! Love that. xx
I'M NOT A MORNING PERSON; Most people know this about me
So why did I agree to show up for a video shoot at 6am on a SUNDAY--meaning, wake up at 5 to get my shit together, then get picked up by the nice PA from Philly who's name was Klementina, all in the pouring rain. Driving to an OUTDOOR LOCATION where we would shoot all day. And I was wearing a SUIT. Most people also know that I don't really rock a suit anymore these days--I more of a pagan, hippy, athleisure kinda guy. SO WHY DID I AGREE TO ALL OF THIS?
Amanda Palmer, of course.
AMANDA PALMER or Amanda Fucking Palmer, as she is commonly known, performed at The Secret City this past summer in Woodstock. It was, as you can imagine, amazing. She did the Ukulele Song, which is one of my faves. And it was beautiful. We became friends. She's an extraordinary person. She had Bobby and me over for dinner a few times--her house is about 5 minutes down the hill from us. Candlelit dinners in old stone rooms, a circle of artists and freaks, talk about music and love and work and art and community. All the things I love about being alive.
So, when she asked if I'd be in her music video, for a new track called MOTHER--and maybe we'd be dancing together and I'd be a sort of politician wearing a blond wig and a suit and by the end she would have seduced/calm/entranced me into her lap and maybe even breastfeeding would be involved...
Well, Yes. SAY YES TO THAT, right?? THAT is the shit you say yes to.
So, we drove through the dark, through the rain, Klementina and I. And we arrived at Opus 40, an amazing large scale art project that one man built with his hands over 37 years, out of local stone. It's a huge monolith in the woods. We would be shooting there, along with 25 dancers, a group of politicians, a string quartet and, yeah, a huge crew of really great folks. It was INSANE. And beautiful. And hot and steamy.
My pal Claire Fleury was there, she designed an outfit for our gathering of The Secret City last June at Joe's Pub. And Coco Carol was the choreographer--she's incredible. Just got married to my pal Sxip Shirey, a wonderful performer/musician/composer and one of Amanda's bfs. She certainly surrounds herself with a beautiful tribe.
THE NEW SONG comes out this month sometime, which means the video comes out this month sometime. Which means I'll tell you more as we approach. And you can watch it. And see me dance with Amanda. And watch her seduce/calm/entrance me. And see whether breastfeeding ended up being involved. The song is incredible--and might be recognizable to some of you (tease, tease, hint, hint...)
And be amazed by MOTHER, and Amanda, and art and connection and community and making things in these perilous, extraordinary, radical times.
Hosting One of My Favorite Events for One of My Favorite Arts Orgs
New Dramatists is an extraordinary organization. Based in New York City, in an old church on 44th street near Hell's Kitchen, it was founded many years ago--70? 80? I'm not sure--to support playwrights. When I moved to New York I did a ton of work there--readings and workshops of new plays with an amazing group of writers and directors. In fact, one of my greatest honors of my career was being awarded the Charles Bowden prize, which they give to actors who've supported the work of playwrights.
Last night, I went to the city to host one of their annual fundraisers. This one is called NOCTURNAL COMMISSIONS--funny, right? A group of donors is assembled and they commission short plays that are written on the spot. After dinner and a bit of socializing, the donors and other guests go upstairs to the former sanctuary and are treated to a performance of all of the short plays that have been written, staged and then performed by a group of actors.
It's an extraordinary event. So fun and exciting and powerful. Watching artists make work on the spot is always thrilling. And, seeing 'civilians' become a part of that process--it's great.
It's important to make things--plays, songs, paintings, dances, websites, cartoons, blogs, pottery--and to find the generosity to share what we make with others. So much of what I'm thinking about right now is generosity and vulnerability. We need these characteristics -- to be able to share ourselves and our work and our projects and our visions--and to invite others to join us.
Here's to making art together--in all kinds of ways.
In Honor of National Coming Out Day
National Coming Out Day. What a funny holiday, unlikely, to say the least. It's not something I think about a lot, coming out, now that I'm 53 and married to my husband and living an out life that reflects my values. IT certainly used to be something that consumed a lot of my time--worrying about it. COMING OUT. So, as the day was coming to an end, I wanted to commemorate it in some way.
Things that make us feel seen.
I began to think about the things that have made me feel seen, especially when I was young and confused and afraid. Growing up gay, I remember watching for any sign of gayness--in books, tv and movies. It's hard growing up with no models, or no healthy models. This got me to thinking about gay movies. My friend Stephen Webber and I often talk about what are the good gay movies?
I made a list. My sort-of in order, top ten gay movies of all time.
Have you ever tried to make a top ten list? My friends and I actually have a game called Top Ten and you just pick a category and make a list of top then things: salad dressings, fruits, kinds of shoes, trees, rollercoasters, jazz singers--you get the idea. But, making a definitive list of movies, gay movies at that, proved challenging. I LOVE SO MANY OF THEM!
I shared my post on facebook:
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I like my list. It's a good list. Of course as soon as I made it I realized I had to cheat to allow for more than just ten so I did that thing that always bugs me in all of those end-of-year movie lists, I created a few ties. As soon as I got ok with that I realized there were so many more movies that I didn't include. I shared some of those in a chunk of text below the list. Then, because I'm not an idiot and I expected a lot of gay blowback (ahem), and because what else is social media good for if not for crowdsourcing--I asked which movies I had forgotten. Now, the list is appended with a HUGE list of recommendations. I'll work to make this more presentable. In the meantime. Here's the list:
9. HEDWIG AND THE ANGRY INCH
7. THE ADVENTURES OF PRISCILLA, QUEEN OF THE DESERT
6. HEAVENLY CREATURES/MYSTERIOUS SKIN
4. BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN
3. HAPPY TOGETHER
2. MOONLIGHT/PARIS IS BURNING
1. MY BEAUTIFUL LAUNDRETTE
but, wait, what about Far From Heaven, Prick Up Your Ears, Keep the Lights On, Blue is the Warmest Color, BOYS IN THE BAND!!, Cruising, Maurice, Weekend, My Own Private Idaho, Midnight Cowboy, High Art, Boys Don't Cry, Dog Day Afternoon, Beginners, All About My Mother and VICTOR/VICTORIA?!?
What else am I forgetting? [edit: Querelle, Parting Glances, Swimming Pool, Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant, John Waters!, Entre Nous, Carol, Talented Mr. Ripley, Satyricon, Notes on a Scandal, Caravaggio, Edward II, Taxi Zum Klo, Beautiful Thing, The Hours, A Home at the End of the World, Velvet Goldmine, Lust in the Dust, Sebastiane, Go Fish, I Love You Philip Morris, Tarnation, Law of Desire, Shortbus, Times Square, Perks of Being a Wallflower, Rope, Torch Song Trilogy, Bent, Death in Venice, Suddenly Last Summer, Tea and Sympathy, Brideshead Revisited, Philadelphia, A Single Man, Beginners, Another Country and an incredible Japanese film called Funeral Parade of Roses]
Ok, top ten lists are bullshit. But Happy Coming Out Day!
Checking my white privilege by reading books by people of color. With reading lists.
I grew up in a predominantly white, middle-class town. There were a handful of black people in my high school class.. I remember the first Latinos moving into our neighborhood: three sisters wearing flannel shirts and black eyeliner. We had one Chinese restaurant downtown. I knew one Jewish kid. We had some neighbors from India. My parents grew up during the depression; there wasn’t overt racism in our home, rather race didn’t really exist.
Moving to LA exposed me to a larger world but the arts aren’t very diverse, it turns out. And NYC, bastion of multiculturalism, is pretty segregated. In the summer of 2016, in response to the increased, no, more exposed, racial violence in the U.S., I created a bit of arts activism for myself. I’d exclusively read books by people of color for one year: to broaden my awareness, deepen my understanding, cultivate empathy, learn stories by people from backgrounds different than mine.
I am essentially an autodidact. Though I had some college I never graduated. I knew I wanted to act at an early age and sort of just started doing that in my teens and then into my twenties and at some point I started to be a professional actor. But I always read. My folks were both great readers, my mom still is--and, though I have had some great teachers (Bruce Smith, my theater teacher in Lancaster, Mrs. Mouring, high school theater teacher and countless friends, colleagues and strangers who have taught me profound lessons) it is through books that I have been educated.
There have been periods in my life where I DEVOURED books. Some of these have been the most difficult times of my life. Literature allowed me an escape from the pain of whatever I was dealing with AND to learn ways of coping. Empathy. Curiosity. Expansiveness. I'm in my 50s now and I'm a pretty consistent reader. I tend to read fiction but enjoy the occasional non fiction.
Last year, in response to the increased (?), more visible (?), continued racial unrest here in the US, I decided I would use my reading practice as a way to engage with issues of race and racism. Did I get woke? I don't know. But, being a middle class white person in America, I decided to check my privilege by exposing myself to stories of people not of my color. (I had read lots of great writers of color before--but not in an organized or strategic way. You'll see my additional list at the bottom.)
As leader of The Secret City, a community arts organization, I have come to see my participation in art making and art consuming with greater responsibility and urgency. It's a time of urgency. However, In case you haven't noticed, it's also an incredible time in the arts--films, music, literature--there's an explosion of culture that is thrilling. Whenever you feel down about the current state of affairs, I encourage you to turn to the arts--amazing people are making amazing things. RIGHT NOW. They are lighting the way.
I share my reading lists here. By the way, this isn't an original idea--I had seen at least one other person doing this and it struck me as a great idea.
BOOKS I'VE READ IN THE LAST YEAR:
With a few exceptions, these are all US authors.
The Absolutely True Story of a Part Time Indian--Sherman Alexie
Americannah--Chimamanda Ngosi Adache
Between the World and Me--Ta Nahesi Coates
Gorilla My Love--Toni Cade Bambara
Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven---Sherman Alexie
The Ministry of Utmost Happiness--Arundhati Roy
My Year of Meats--Ruth Ozeki
Queen of the Night--Alexander Chee
The Sellout--Paul Beatty
Swing Time--Zadie Smith
The Sympathizer--Viet Thanh Nguyen
A Tale for the Time Being--Ruth Ozeki
The Turner House--Angela Fluornoy
The Underground Railroad--Colson Whitehead
We Love You Charlie Freeman--Kaitlyn Greenidge
White Teeth--Zadie Smith
You Don't Have to Say You Love Me--Sherman Alexie
STILL TO COME:
At some point along the way, I shared about my project on facebook and got a TON of great recommendations. I wasn't able to read all of them in the past year, but here's the list. I draw from it regularly:
Almanac of the Dead--Leslie Marmon Silko
Ancestor Stones--Aminatta Forna
Bad Feminist--Roxane Gay
Balm in Gilead: Journey of a Healer--Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot
Blue Boy--Rakesh Satyal
The Bone People -- Kerri Hulme
Book of Salt--Monique Truong
Breath, Eyes, Memory--Edwidge Dandicat
A Brief History Of Seven Killings--Marlon James
Bright Lines--Tanwi Nandini Islam
Castle Cross the Magnet Carter--Kia Corthron
Ceremony-- Leslie Marmon Silko.
Collected Plays--August Wilson
The Cooking Gene--Michael Twitty
The Count of Monte Cristo--Alexander Dumas
Days of Obligation--Richard Rodriguez
Delicious Foods--James Hanniham
Famished Road--Ben Okri
A Fine Balance--Rohinton Mistry
Hired Man--Aminatta Forna
The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms--N. K. Jemisin
If He Hollers Let Him Go--Chester Himes
Johnny Would You Love Me if My Dick Were Bigger?--Brontez Purnell
Just Mercy--Bryan Stevens
Kafka Was All the Rage--Anatole Broyard
Krazy Kat--George Harriman
Krik? Krak!--Edwidge Dandicat
Lady Sings the Blues--Billie Holiday and William Dufty
The Light of the World--Elizabeth Alexander
Love Bones and Water--Adam Zameenzad
The Lowland--Jumpa Lahiri
Memory of Love--Aminatta Forna
My Bondage and My Freedom--Frederick Douglas
Native Son--Richard Wright
The New Jim Crow--Michelle Alexander
One-Bedroom Solo--Sheila Maldonado
Parable of the Sower--Octavia Butler
Radiance of Tomorrow-- Ishmael Beah
The Star Side of Bird Hill--Naomi Jackson
Times Square Red, Times Square Blue--Samuel R. Delany
Topdog Underdog--Suzan Lori Parks
Venus--Suzan Lori Parks
Walkin' the Dog--Walter Mosely
The Warmth of Other Suns--Isabel Wilkerson
Wild Swans--Jung Chang
Woman Warrior--Maxine Hong Kingston
BOOKS I'VE READ ALONG THE WAY:
A selection of books by authors of color which I read prior to this year's project:
Another Country--James Baldwin
At the Bottom of the River--Jamaica Kincaid
The Autobiography of Malcolm X
Barbarian Nurseries--Hector Tobar
The Bluest Eye--Toni Morrison
Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao--Junot Diaz
The Color Purple--Alice Walker
The Fire Next Time--James Baldwin
Giovanni's Room--James Baldwin
The God of Small Things--Arundhati Roy
House of the Spirits--Isabel Allende
House on Mango Street--Sandra Cisneros
I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings--Maya Angelou
Interpreter of Maladies--Jumpha Lahiri
Invisible Man--Ralph Ellison
Joy Luck Club--Amy Tan
Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse--Louise Erdrich
A Little Life--Hanya Yanagihara
Love in the Time of Cholera--Gabriel Garcia Marquez
Love Medicine--Louise Erdrich
On Beauty--Zadie Smith
One Hundred Years of Solitude--Gabriel Garcia Marquez
Plague of Doves--Louise Erdrich
The Roundhouse--Louise Erdrich
Tears We Cannot Stop--Michael Eric Dyson
Their Eyes Were Watching God--Zora Neale Hurston
10 Books I Wish My White Teachers Had Read--Crystal Paul
Inside Junot Díaz’s class at MIT: What the writer wants his students to read
salon.com|By Prachi Gupta
'The Fire This Time': A New Generation Of Writers On Race In America
At some point in every workshop, I invariably talk about MAKING CLAY.
Wait, isn't it a writing workshop? Let me explain.
A few years ago I was privileged to take a really incredible workshop with a sculptor in Galisteo, New Mexico. Judy Tuwaletsiwa is a brilliant, warm and wise artist whose studio is on a beautiful parcel of land with old cottonwoods that lead down to a dry creek bed. The group of us were welcomed into her spacious studio where she had paper-covered tables laid out with pencils. She led us in an exercise of deep listening and we all drew on the paper, the sounds of soft scraping graphite filling the room. A while later she passed out lumps of wet clay. We were to play with the clay and make a note whenever an image or idea emerged from the grey, damp mass in our hands. We then wrote stories based on these prompts. It was a wonderful exercise and everyone was moved. The thing that really struck me though, and this is where I'm going, is that most artists have a material to work with to make the thing they want to make. Sculptors use clay (or glass or steel or whatever, you get my point), painters have paint and whatever surface they're working with, dancers use their bodies, actors have text and so on. Writers, though. Writers have to make the stuff that they're then going to write with. They have to make their own clay.
No matter where an artist is in their life or career, this is the greatest challenge--making the clay. And we must trust that that dull, shapeless blob of text that we're writing--call it a rough draft, if you like--has within it the ideas, beauty and depth that we are looking for. And that the clay will lead to the novel, the play, the essay, the memoir.
So many of us have judgments about what we make, or we're hung up on the gulf between what COMES OUT OF US and what we know we're capable of. To be able to sit at the blank page, or screen, and just poop it out, well, it takes courage. Can you write when it's not good, when it's not what you want it to be, when it's ugly or stupid? Can you give yourself the gift of writing without critiquing or judging or wishing it were somehow different? There will be time to make things beautiful. That's the easy part, really. But, when we sit down to begin, we're just making clay.
Just back from a 5 day trip to Louisville, Kentucky - my first time. Was visiting my friend/collaborator Rachel Grimes who lives about an hour outside of the city. She and her hubby, Alec, have built a really great house from re-purposed materials - and, on the footprint of a little old farmhouse they took apart to make the new home. It's in the hill country north of the city in a town called Carrollton. Rachel and I met through SITI Company years back - we both worked with the company at various times and intersected at some point and took a liking to each other. We talked about working together over the years - I've tried to get her to The Secret City and she did sit in with the band on a trip through town. Anyway, Rachel called me last year and we got to talking and decided to make a piece of theater using my stories and her music. Rachel is a composer of new music - some people call it post-classical but it's more melodic than that - very moody and rich.
We agreed to meet in June of last year - we had a few days at Skidmore, sponsored by SITI Company - to make a new piece. We put together an evening of new theater - called RC RADIO HOUR - and, it was a great night. Funny, deep, surprisingly theatrical, intimate. The plan was then to make a series of radio- shows-as-theater.
So, all this brings me to last week. Rachel and I made a plan to meet up and continue our work. I flew to Louisville and we hunkered down in the hills of Kentucky and talked, planned, schemed, dreamed - read some stories, played some music and dug deep.
Next step is a one-night performance in NYC - sometime this fall. I'll keep the blog updated. It's a special night and I want everyone to come.
Also, really enjoyed seeing a new place - fascinating, historical Kentucky.