Who knew three minutes took so long?

Here is the man with the vision that gave birth to Effin Artist, Scot Bolsinger’s view on the day that three minutes took so effin long.

EFFinArtist

Several years ago, Effin Artist started with a little voice in my head that I’d say to myself time and again. I’d do something creative that would make me feel good.

I’d say to myself, “I’m an Effin Artist, man!”

Then it became a newsletter to family, which then grew into a lark of a website I built only to learn how to build websites. Then it became a blog and a real website that I called my writer’s platform.

It turns out the Great Divine had much more in mind. Effin Artist continues its evolution into something I couldn’t have dreamed up had I wanted to, which is saying something because I do some serious dreaming when I get on a roll.

What is it? That’s coming soon. But with that next evolutionary phase in mind, we gathered to capture the essence of Effin Artist in a three-minute video.

I…

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Litquake and Video Takes

IMG_0040San Francisco has long been known for its ability to draw and inspire writers, from Mark Twain and Jack London to the Beats like Ginsberg and Kerouac, to contemporary authors Isabelle Allende and Dave Eggers. I love this city – it’s beauty, its proximity to the ocean, but mostly because it’s effing vibrant, pregnant with possibility, overflowing with the kind of creative energy that always inspires me to write. Every time I come here it’s a shot in the arm with a creative juice potent enough to rival Red Bull. This past weekend was no exception.

It’s only natural that “The Literary City” should give birth to Litquake’s Litcrawl, the literary equivalent bastard spawn of Woodstock and a pub crawl held annually in the city’s Mission district. It’s 82 sessions crammed into three hours in venues as diverse as laundry mats, hair salons, galleries, restaurants, co-op work spaces, cafes, dark alleyways, and bars. It’s anything and everything that you can dream up related to writing.

My buddy and fellow writer Scot Bolsinger and his long time friend Paul, joined me this past Saturday night to check it out. We met at the Mission Laundromat where an older Latina woman struggled to maintain dominion over the counter where she folded clothes while a crowd amassed and women in pretty dresses read poetry, Twitter-based flash fiction, and non-fiction short stories as part of “Dirty Laundry: Loads of Prose presents Sex, Lies, and Lost Socks.” We headed next to a salon where a large crowd had gathered to witness a literary relay race sponsored by the Castro’s Literary Cooperative. What is a literary relay race? I cannot say for sure, but it appeared to involve the cooperative creation of an original story written by ten writers solely for and during the hour-long session. IMG_0028The vibe in Fellow Barber, where the event was held, was upbeat and filled with the buzz of excited chatter. The authors, each wearing a big number taped to the front of their shirts, had gathered at the center of the salon where they slapped one another on the back and bore faces filled with the kind of calm that comes after the storm of a live performance.

We checked in to hear kids reading their stories at 826 Valencia, Dave Egger’s non-profit organization dedicated to helping children and young adults develop writing skills and teachers inspire their students to write. At The Chapel we discovered a contest was about to begin. We high-tailed it outta there fast lest the other, far more qualified and willing participants discover we were literary trivia posers and beat us to death with their notebooks and pens. On our way out we were intrigued by this sign and stopped to check it out.

IMG_0042Turns out the sign advertised the Hook-Up Truck, a “modern dating solution for safe sexual adventuring” that can be dispatched immediately to any location in the city. Private, secure, and temperature controlled, rental of the room includes complimentary birth control and STD preventatives and optional use of the installed camera. Seeing as Scot is a happily married man and Paul’s a gay pastor, our discovery of the Hook-Up Truck signaled it was time for this lady to head on home. Scot and I had to be up early the next morning.IMG_0046

5AM Sunday morning came too soon. By the time I got my shit together and drove to the Embarcadero (getting lost along the way) it was almost 6:30 and the sky was growing bright with the impending dawn. Scot and a production crew of five were gathered on the roof of Scot’s apartment building when I arrived, Scot lit up like a billboard, balanced atop a bar stool with the Bay Bridge for a backdrop. He smiled with relief when I appeared. Focused and with his back to me, Dave Moutray of Crux Jinx Productions directed one of the crew to repoint the lights. I might have felt a wave of nervousness flood through my gut, but I was too damned tired.

Bruno, the sound man, wired me up, instructing me to run the mic wire he connected to my scarf down through my sweater, same as the actors playing anchormen and politicians I’d seen on TV. I took a seat and watched as they shot. Soon the sun rose, prompting the parrots of Telegraph Hill to leave their overnight perches to fly in wide circles chattering and generally making a lot of noise along the way. The parrots overwhelmed the sound every time they flew nearby slowing progress. I noticed Dave getting antsy and before long he announced the sun was too high. The crew relocated to the shaded deck off Scot’s apartment and I continued to wait my turn in the adjacent living room.

Scot Effin VideoI drank a couple of lattes, read a few emails in an attempt to distract myself from thinking about what was to come, and then it was my turn.

Dave turned the bright lights, two cameras, and his full attention on me where I sat on the soft black leather couch willing it to swallow me. Tired or not, I felt my head begin to buzz, my stomach clamp down on itself, and my blood pressure rise. In an attempt to channel that awful feeling, I rung my hands until my fingers hurt. I wondered if maybe I shouldn’t have skipped one or both of the lattes.

Dawn Effin VideoAs he had done with Scot before me, Dave began, “So Dawn, why don’t we start with you telling me, what is Effin Artist?”

I did my best to answer the “what” and “why” of Effin Artist so Dave and crew could pull together the necessary sound bites to create a three minute video that will reflect the vision that Scot first shared with me last June. But in describing what is now our shared vision, the challenge we are faced with is that the what of Effin Artist is still a moving target. It’s like trying to determine the sex of a one-month fetus – it’s just too early – the naughty bits have yet to emerge. And we’re a little like expectant parents, reticent to share too much before things have developed sufficiently and the idea demonstrates clearly it’s got ten fingers and ten toes.

I’ve never felt like such a complete and utter amateur. Trying to come up with the right words was intense and the sense that “this really matters so I have to get it right” threatened to overwhelm me. By the time we broke for lunch I felt weak and a little nauseous.

For the last shot, Dave sat Scot and I tight up next to one another on that same mushy couch and prompted us to deliver the our call to action – what people will need to do to help make Effin Artist a reality. Sitting on that couch alone under the bright lights was hot enough, now there was a big burly Italian American sitting and sweating alongside me. I felt my pits and the back of my legs getting damp with sweat and hoped that my deodorant was working.

“Sit up straight,” Dave reminded us every time the couch sucked us back down to slouching.

I was so tired I couldn’t get my lines right. I’d managed to pull off the “why” without too many takes, but this was demanding more from me. Finally I nailed it and sank back into the couch in relief.

Then Bruno the Sound Man, so quiet I’d almost forgotten he was there, spoke up, “Someone was tapping.”

Everyone followed his gaze, which rose from his sound monitor and landed on me, “I think you were tapping the couch or your leg with your hand.”

I felt beads of sweat break out on my forehead as my blood pressure rose to make my cheeks flush and my ears burn. I did not want to have to try to get those same words out again. I think I might have yelled at myself. I felt like an idiot. The crew had been shooting for over eight hours and my nervous tapping meant they had to keep working. Nevertheless their mood was surprisingly upbeat. They joked and encouraged, cajoled and did everything in their power to extract the right words with the right tone and feeling of purpose from our mouths.

I felt a little better when Scot blew his part on our next try.

Take Seven was the charm. It wasn’t perfect, but it was pretty effing good. Good enough for horseshoes, hand grenades, and a couple of writers doing their effing best to get their message across. I can’t wait to share the results, the what and the why of Effin Artist and my exciting role within it.

Failing My Way to Success

churchill failureSo I failed. That commitment I made to write 1000 words every day for 90 days? Yeah, I tripped and then I stumbled and fell flat on my face. It happened quickly, within a week I was flailing and not finding time to pen my 1000 words. My solution to missing one day was that I’d make myself write 2000 or more the next. Scot Bolsinger, my inspiration for this whole thing, said he saw my downfall coming when one day I wrote 3500 words.

When I told him what had happened, he nodded sagely and said, “Yeah, you can’t do it like that. That’s like going to three AA meetings in one day. It’s too much and you’re bound to burn out.”

It’s not the first time I’ve failed to keep a commitment to daily or even just regular writing. Not by a long shot. But this time was different. This time in that very short time of making the commitment to write every day, I felt the positive effects of doing regularly something I love. I was energized by the act in a way that I haven’t felt before. And I realized that putting words to paper makes me happy. It buoys me up with a sense of accomplishment and there is something oh so sweet about those moments when the right words come together in a unique way and I’m suddenly smiling because it’s good. I might not be great, but it’s good enough that in those moments I recognize this is one of the things I was put on this planet to do.

So what contributed to my failure? It was a combination, I think, of just what Scot warned me about, biting off too much at a time and life throwing one of those curve balls it’s known to throw at us when we make a commitment to something good. It’s the challenge that says, “Are you sure? Do you really want this? How badly? Let’s see just how badly you want this.” And whammo! Circumstances conspired and I found myself distracted and preoccupied and unable to focus on the writing. I was unable to make it a priority.

I admit I need to learn to prioritize and learn discipline where my writing and my life in general are concerned, but in my defense, the distraction wasn’t some penny ante thing. It wasn’t a sink full of dirty dishes or a floor that needed sweeping. No, it was that suddenly three different people who mean the world to me were in crisis. First my father called with bad news about the prognosis the lung specialist gave him regarding the pulmonary fibrosis he’s been battling for a few years. Hearing from my father that his time is almost up was a blow I didn’t see coming. It took a lot of time and energy to process it. I’m still processing it. Then suddenly the Huichol shamans who were on their way here to Los Cabos to perform healing ceremonies were arrested in Guadalajara for carrying peyote. Their arrest was a huge injustice as their right to carry the sacred peyote cactus is protected under a Mexican federal law governing the religious rights of Indigenous peoples. My fellow peyoteros and I spent the next week doing everything in our power to get them released, including hiring lawyers from Mexico City to come to their aide.

Spanish lesson #1: Peyoteros are people employing peyote as a means to spiritual enlightenment and/or cultivators of the peyote cactus.

To add insult to injury, Mercury, the planet governing both communication and my sign Gemini turned retrograde at the exact same time. I can see some of you rolling your eyes, but believe it or not, I felt the effects of that tiny planet appearing to move backwards in the sky.

The bottom line? In mid-May I experienced a one-two punch at the hands of circumstances and retrograde Mercury that knocked me out. Suddenly I was exhausted, depressed and intensely preoccupied.

Spanish lesson #2: the word for “worried” in Spanish is preocupado from the Latin praeoccupare ‘seize beforehand.’

I felt like someone had let all the air out of my balloon.

Or like my mother used to say, “My get-up-and-go got up and went.”

In the face of this failure to follow up on my commitment to daily writing, I started to question whether I am really meant to write more than a few lines in my journal at night. I started to question whether the project I’m working on is the right project and whether I’m taking the right approach. On top of everything else I was quickly consumed by doubt. Knocked down and chewed up

And then, in case I was thinking of getting up off the mat to give it another go, the Universe delivered a sucker punch in the form of a rather snarky response from a literary icon related to my work and the balloon exhaled its last puff of air and lay in an ugly rubbery inanimate mess on the floor. Or, in keeping with the double metaphors I’ve used here, said icon took my already deflated balloon, chewed it up, and spat in on the floor in a spit-soaked mess of shredded rubber.

I contemplated that rubbery spit-soaked mess, considered my options, and decided not to force it. By their very nature, depression and exhaustion are forces you can’t fight. At least I can’t fight them. Maybe you are made of sterner stuff. But me? I decided to give myself permission not to write and see what happened. Instead I put the energy I did have toward helping my two friends who were wrongly thrown in jail, but I did not write a single word that wasn’t a Facebook post entreating others to their aide. It was the right time not to write. But now over a month later I’m back at it.

So what got me out of the funk?

The fact that my shaman friends were released a week after their detention helped. But what really put the spring back in my writerly step was time spent with supportive and creative people who pressed me to consider my options. Once again the importance of having a creative community to support us in our artistic pursuits and dark nights of the soul was illustrated to me first hand.

En route from my trip to see family in Canada, I was fortunate to have to the chance to spend a couple of days in San Francisco with Mr. Inspiration himself, Scot Bolsinger; Scot and I spent an afternoon at Pier 3 eating, drinking coffee, and discussing my challenges with the dynamic and curious literary agent Michael Larsen; and yet more coffee was downed in North Beach in the company of a wise, artistic friend whom I have not seen in many years.

It was telling that when the subject of my ambivalence towards my writing arose, they all posed the same question.

Is it an option not to write this book? Or will you regret not having pursued it to completion for the rest of your life?

The resounding “Yes!” to the second question drowned out any doubt seeking expression in response to the first. That very simple question is what I must return to every time I falter. It must remain my mantra until this book is completed.

The reality that nags at me all too often is that it is an option to take the easy route and focus the majority of my energy on surfing (and selling real estate). As easy roads go, it’s a tempting, even “sexy” one. But is that who I am? Am I a surfer with a side of real estate agent? Or am I motivated by a desire to be creative in a way that will make a difference in the lives of others? It’s short this time we are given. I’m more aware of that now than ever (reference above loved-one in crisis). I want to make this precious life I’ve been gifted with count. When all is said and done I’m the only one who will remember that awesome wave on that extra-special glassy day. And I really don’t want my epitaph to read “She rode some good waves and kept a clean house.”

In the end, I know that if I don’t do this, I’ll regret it for the rest of my life. I’ll know that I ignored a calling so strong that despite turning my back on it repeatedly, like an understanding and loving friend, it returns to embrace me over and over again.

#SFWC2015 lives on in writing group

Here’s the link to an article that Scot Bolsinger wrote about the writers group he formed and that I am proud to be a part of.

#SFWC2015 lives on in writing group.

Sneak Peak

The author on the beach in Cabo Pulmo

On the beach in Cabo Pulmo

After I stopped working in science in March 2005, I didn’t think I’d ever publish another academic article. However, when I was asked to contribute an essay to the the November edition of the online journal Anthropologies, despite some misgivings related to the academic nature of much of its content, I agreed. While The Challenges of Community-Based Conservation is a far cry from the peer-reviewed scientific articles I once published, it describes, in very short, somewhat antiseptic form, the complicated and painful story of my experience conducting a community-based conservation project in the village of Cabo Pulmo in Baja California Sur. It is essentially the Cole’s notes version of the memoir I am writing minus the surfing, sex, and adventure. 😉

I hope you’ll take a peek and that the story will pique your interest in reading my memoir. I’d love to hear your impressions of whether this is the basis for a good story.

Caged Creativity

The safety zone has moved. Conformity no longer leads to comfort. But the good news is that creativity is scarce and more valuable than ever. So is choosing to do something unpredictable and brave: Make art. Being an artist isn’t a genetic disposition or a specific talent. It’s an attitude we can all adopt. It’s a hunger to seize new ground, make connections, and work without a map. If you do those things you’re an artist, no matter what it says on your business card.

Seth Godin in The Icarus Deception

 I’m writing this on the island of Maui where it seems a different kind of conformity exists. I cannot help but notice, as we drive to the beach at Ho’okipa on the North Shore and especially in the little town of Paia that people here try oh-so-very-hard to be unique, to stand out from the crowd, to be non-conformist. Picturesque Paia is a magnet for surfers, bohemian-types that some might call neo-hippies, spiritual seekers, artists, and some folks who are a mix of all of these things. What I can’t help but notice is that the measure of non-conformity here appears to have shifted to something more extreme, that people apparently feel they must go further to stand out from the crowd. A visual illustration exists in the surprising number of people who sport tattoos over most of their bodies – not just their arms and legs, but entire chests, backs, and necks are covered thickly with images that have been scratched into the substratum of their skin. In some cases the ink has crept up onto their faces. It’s as though the one-upmanship of tattooing has reached its zenith. What will they do when they run out of blank canvas? [I also shudder at what all those dyes and inks are likely doing to their livers, but that’s besides the point.]

When I see these and the people trying so hard to be bohemian that they have eschewed the use of soaps, razors and hair brushes, I question whether they get any pleasure out of their quest for uniqueness or if all that inking and body odor is ultimately just unpleasant and depressing. Ultimately the question that arises in my mind every time I see someone who seems to be trying awfully hard to be different is whether this is an authentic form of self-expression or just another form of conformity within the ranks of the non-conformists. It just doesn’t look “real” to me. It smacks of an act.

Long before she wrote her famed memoir Eat, Pray, Love, Elizabeth Gilbert wrote “The Last American Man,” a true story depicting Eustace Conway’s choice to live life in a back-to-nature, non-conformist, non-materialistic way that bucks the “norm” of modern American lifestyle. In one scene Gilbert describes the affect Conway had on a group of “loud, disrespectful, shoving, shrieking, laughing” teenaged boys:

Eustace was supposed to get these kids all excited about nature…[he] walked across the stage and toward the microphone. The shoving and shrieking and laughing continued.

Eustace stepped up to the microphone with his hands in his pockets. He stood there, thin and serious, for a long moment. Then he said, “I am a quiet-spoken man, so I am going to have to speak quietly to you tonight.”

The shoving and shrieking and laughing stopped. I swear to God. The jerky teenage kids stared at Eustace Conway, absolutely riveted.

When Gilbert inquired later, Eustace confirmed that this was not an uncommon occurrence. She asked him why he thought they responded to him the way they did and he replied:

“Because they recognized right away that I was a real person, and they’ve probably never met one before.”

Eustace Conway and the tattoo and dreadlock-festooned Paia hippies drove me to wonder, “How many “real” people do I actually meet in a day, a week, or will I meet in this lifetime?” Then the more pertinent question I needed to examine hit me square in the frontal lobe:

Am I living authentically?

When I question what people will think about what I write here or in my memoir and then allow it to influence the creative process, I’m not being authentic. When I allow external factors to alter how or what I create I am not being who I was put on this Earth to be. I’ll be the first to admit it’s not always easy to ignore the voice in my head that warns of potentially negative reactions to what I write. Similarly it’s hard to write just for the love of it without regard for the potential accolades.  Try as I might not to, I do give a shit how many people read and comment on my posts. I am guessing you have no idea how hard it was for me to post my previous entry or how astounded I was when it exceeded all the others in the number of hits it received (Really? Profanity was all that was necessary to get you to read? Well, I’ll be a goddamned, shitfaced and fucking astounded motherfucker!).

Speaking from my own experience, I have to conclude that over and above the social pressures we all feel to conform, authenticity has become endangered by the effects of unlimited access to mundane visual media and marketing that reinforce the tendency to conform and make fun of those who don’t. Add to that the systematic brainwashing of youth by systems of education that are outdated, conventional and dogmatic and authenticity gets a terminal diagnosis.

It takes guts to be authentic in a world where the pressure to conform and the desire for love and acceptance are powerful forces pushing us in the opposite direction. In the face of so much conformance to non-conformity here on Maui, I found myself asking, “How much time and energy do I spend worrying about and trying to live up to others’ expectations? And what would happen if I just stopped doing that and instead started using that energy to express my own most creative ideas?”

Like Godin’s quote at the beginning of this post states, being artistic requires nothing more and nothing less than acting on the “hunger to seize new ground, make connections, and work without a map.” I believe we all possess that hunger. Courage and strength are the ingredients that will allow us to escape the cage of conformity repressing the creative artistry inherent in each of our brains. Doing that will make the world a better place.

Guest Blogger for “The Idolbuster”

While attending the San Francisco Writers Conference I had the great pleasure to meet many interesting and motivated writers from the world over. In a blogging workshop at the end of the conference, I met Greg Marcus, a native of Syracuse, NY living in the Bay Area. Greg has an impressive resume that includes such iconic academic institutions as MIT and Stanford and time working in the biotech industry in genome-related research.  More impressive than his PhD from MIT however, is the fact that Greg left the biotech world when, in his words, “I realized that my company, and not my family, was the highest priority in my life.” On his website, The Idolbuster, Greg describes himself as a modern day Abraham who smashes corporate idols to help the chronically overworked find a more fulfilling life.

Having left the rat race to follow my dream to learn to surf, Greg’s story resonated with me. Our conversation turned to my history during which I related my discovery that I was suffering from an illness that was likely the result of the stress of working a 70 hour work week and participating in the scientific rat race. That’s when Greg honored me with a request to write a guest post for his blog about my experience.

Here is the link to that post: http://idolbuster.com/archives/854  Click on over!