Creative Vulnerability

I have a lot of questions.

As a child, I was one of those dreamy-eyes kids who tirelessly asked questions, then devoured books looking for answers. I loved college and grad school because they offered some answers and raised new questions, and they also provided me with a context and community to discuss and argue and dream.

Questions inspire me to write.

With The Silence of Trees, I wondered about the nature of evil. I wanted to know what made people react so differently to a horrible experience like war. There were other things too: questions about identity, roots, sacrifice, love.

There’s a word in Ukrainian, one of my favorite words: rozdoomlyna. It translates roughly to “lost in thought,” but it always feels heavier and more substantial than that, as if the thoughts themselves are concrete and engulfing like fog.

For the past week, I’ve been rozdoomlyna–mulling something over, rolling it around: the idea of creative vulnerability.

The words came out of a conversation last week at the Everleigh Club. This year I was asked to be one of the Artists in Residence at the Club. I had been one of the finalists for their Naked Girls Reading Literary Prize, and when Everleigh Club founders Franky Vivid and Michelle L’amour invited me to participate in the program, I was flattered and intrigued. We had our second meeting last week, and Franky gave a talk about the vulnerability of the artist. Ever since that lively discussion, two questions have been on my mind: What is creative vulnerability? Am I vulnerable as an artist?

My initial thought on the subject was that an artist who is vulnerable somehow gives his or her audience permission to connect. But how?

I think it’s easier to assess the vulnerability of artists who participate in the delivery of their work: the singer, actor, dancer, musician. They are present in their art, but what about the painter, whose subjects may or may not reflect a part of him or herself. What of the photographer, whose photographs may capture someone else’s vulnerability? Does that also translate into his vulnerability as an artist? What about the vulnerability of the writer?

If writing nonfiction, particularly in the first person point of view, it may be more obvious. But what about Shakespeare? Rilke? Whitman? Tolkein? How do we assess their vulnerability?

The poet seems to project an assumed vulnerability. So too the self-portrait of the painter. Is it only in the self-portrait that we can assess true creative vulnerability?

Neil Gaiman recently released a photograph taken of him with his wife, Amanda Palmer, naked in bed. (You can see the photo here.)

The photo was part of a series by Kyle Cassidy created to accompany Amanda’s song, “The Bed Song” that will only be available via her kickstarter project.

The song and the photograph seem to be wrapped up in this idea of creative vulnerability, as is Neil’s blog entry about the experience, but I wonder which one of the three is the best example?

I realize that I haven’t really come up with a definition of creative vulnerability, and I come back to questions.

Questions seem to be an important part of vulnerability.

We live in a society that does not value vulnerability. It’s often misunderstood as weakness. In school, kids were afraid to ask questions because they thought it made them look foolish somehow.  As an instructor, I knew the opposite was true. However, questions do reveal something about the person who is doing the asking. They reveal an admission to not knowing something. They reveal openness, vulnerability.

Questions are also an invitation to an exchange: of ideas, knowledge, perception, etc.

Questions reflect/suggest intimacy. You don’t usually ask questions if you don’t care about something (Apathy is the opposite of being engaged).

So I suppose that creative vulnerability is Art that invites us to connect with the piece and the artist.

An artist who is vulnerable makes us question: ourselves, our world, our fears, our relationships, our politics, our inhibitions, our assumptions. As artists , we can be creatively vulnerable by asking those questions of ourselves, attempting to answer them in our art in a way that provokes our audience to do the same.

So can I do it? Can I be more vulnerable in my work?

Can you?

Naked Girls Reading and a Love of Listening

On Friday night, I made my way up the stairs to the Everleigh Social Club with a friend, to attend the 2011 Naked Girls Reading Literary Award Gala. The fabulous loft space was candlelit and lushly decorated. We were among the first guests to arrive and took our seats in front of the swing, to the right of the stage.

Inspired by and named after the infamous Everleigh Club of the 1900s, this modern incarnation was founded by Michelle L’amour and is an extension of Studio L’amour. The Everleigh Social Club, while open to members for special events like the Naked Girls Reading Series and SPEAKEASY, is also the home of a modern art movement called Cyprianism, “creating art through a life lived artfully.” (A quote by Franky Vivid that I love. Read more here.)

From what I could see upon my entrance, the spirits of beauty, creativity, and sensuality are alive and flourishing in the Everleigh Club. Not unlike the ritual theater I adore by Terra Mysterium, the Naked Girls create a space and then fill it with intention, charging it with provocative elegance. On that night, the intention was to celebrate the five Literary Prize finalists, and I was honored to be in such good company.

The ladies on the stage disrobed at the start of each of the three reading sessions of the night. They did it gracefully, naturally, comfortably, at home in their skin and on the stage. Then they breathed the stories into life, charging each one with emotion, weaving the web of words around them. The crowd was rapt.  One word kept coming to mind: communion: a sense of intimate fellowship or rapport.

The word “communion” has an interesting etymology, a little different than its more modern and ecclesiastical definition.  It comes from the late 14th century Old French  comunion, meaning “community, communion” (12c.),  and from the Latin communionem (nom. communio) “fellowship, mutual participation, a sharing.”

The act of reading someone a story, or having a story read to you, is intimate. We don’t usually sit and read with strangers or people we dislike. If we read a story, it is with someone dear to us: a parent, child, partner. It’s often a part of a ritual, like “the bedtime story” or a “reading hour.” I love to read, but listening to a story is a different experience than reading a story. Listening takes us right back to our ancestors–sitting around a campfire to share in the storytelling experience, a sacred experience because it revealed ancient secrets, imparted treasured wisdom, taught life lessons, celebrated community milestones. The storytellers were both library and librarian.

Even today, when we listen, we receive something. Yes, it’s the same story. Yes, the words are the same. However we add the element of performance, the experience of emotion conveyed by a reader, the feeling that there is an exchange with a person and not just a text. Communion.

This is one of the reasons I love to listen to audiobooks, especially those read by the author. It’s like my own private bedtime story. In the reading of a story, the author has given me something, more than the words and the world they shape (although those are treasures). In an audiobook, as in a reading, they have given me an experience of the story.

It was an honor to hear my story read aloud on that stage, to experience my words delivered in such a beautiful and provocative way. I didn’t win the prize, but I certainly felt like I was given something to treasure. (It made me all the more excited to hear the audiobook for my novel when Xe Sands finishes recording The Silence of Trees for Iambic Audiobooks.)

The Naked Girls Reading Series is now in cities across America, so you too can experience the glamour and allure of Naked Girls Reading.

Rick Kogan said it so well in an article he wrote for the Chicago Tribune in April 2011:

It is a beautiful and bold experiment to be sure, with the emphasis on, well, beautiful and bold.

After the Naked Girls Reading, with a fully-clothed Michelle L’amour and Greta Layne.