Welcome to Syllabus

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Remember college? Sweet, sweet structured assignments. I turn 30 in two weeks, which means I've been out of my small, online Creative Writing program for five years. Before that I went to a community school where the world's most nurturing creatives are hiding out, pouring their lives into individual students like me. From 18 till graduation I had a creative impetus other than melancholy and drive; I had a syllabus. 

After the births of Vivian and Eleanor, I had a choice to make. Not whether I would stay an artist at heart, but whether I would stay a functioning artist. A producer. Most of that thinking shut off for the first 18 months of their lives, but right around the time when they dropped to one nap (praise Jehovah on high) the thoughts returned. The subtle knocking at the door. The tugging at my skirt. I have called my creative work my third baby. 

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Jokingly, I often say this baby is dextrous and naughty and dangerously climbs out of their crib at inopportune times. "Get back, baby!" I say. I'm not afraid to whack this baby with a newspaper (I have never had a newspaper in the house, but I really should given this scenario). But this baby is relentless; I've never actually considered giving it up or locking it away. But I have wondered how it will fare as I nurture myself and my true babes; how atrophied it will become under my neglect as I toss it a few crumbs here and there.

Pleasant, right? Enter Syllabus. I posted in Stories recently about how to practically juggle art-making and full-time mothering time-wise. I see no philosophical conflict with the two callings, but a fiercely divided clock. Child-care and adjustment of expectations topped the list of suggestions, and I need both in my life pronto. But the one that appears clearest in my mind's eye is this: work ethic and time management. Wah wah. 

Since having children I've realized how solitary my life till marriage was. As a girl I spent hours in the backyard by myself (gathering rain samples in film canisters and feeling scientific af). As a teen I was absolutely glued to my walkman (hey now) then iPad then computer. I drowned out the emotional rev-screech-crash-fire-rescue of my alcoholic household with music and visual art. I papered my walls with posters and locked the door. I made collages and drawings and wrote for hours every single day. As a result, being alone, making, is my homeostatic state.

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You're anticipating the conflict, right? A deeply held desire to be home with my girls, feeding their bodies and souls each day. But then, the house. The life that needs propped up on stilts and refuses to walk on it's own. The question slowly getting clearer: how much art can Cinderella make in a day? Week? Month? Year? I'll tell you! A good amount provided she is willing to work harder than she has before. I have had to change.

I haven't figured it out. I often stay up way too late to the detriment of the next day. My husband (who knows exactly who and how I am) sometimes comes home and I simultaneously run out the door after inspiration or under emotional collapse, leaving a trail of unfinished business and no dinner plan behind me. I am reading Mary Oliver's Upstream right now where she details (and justifies - woop woop!) the phenomena. Creating isn't all muse and inspiration and voodoo, but for the most part this child is a bad baby; this child does not obey the rules.

Despite my martyrdom, I tend to give baby the side-smile. Her tirades take me from the quotidian and tether me to painters and writers and photograph makers before me. Slowly I am seeing how I can function well in both worlds. Emphasis on slowly, okay? 

Back to college. Assignments! Deadlines! Those great motivators of humankind. In that effort (and as a way to psychologically return to the collegiate landscape though I'm currently not student or teacher) I have created the Syllabus series. As much as I'd like to make this a public service, with delightful offerings for the creative mind, I'm starting in seed form. Small (small, doable) assignments for myself. Challenges to say: you have a window, use it. 

Assignment 01: CREATE PHOTOGRAPHS THAT MAKE ME FEEL WITHOUT FILM

 Taken with 5Dii, edited with VSCO + Lomograph app

Taken with 5Dii, edited with VSCO + Lomograph app

Dear God, this "tampeen!" She loves it not only because it is a giant bouncy surface, but because this is what certifiable big girls do. No matter how many times she falls belly-first (the more the better from her perspective) the experience is one of mastery for her. "I'm doing it!" says that little grin.

My first assignment was inspired by being out of film on an overcast day. Welp, no use picking up a camera today! Wrong. I rely heavily on film + light to tell the story I am forever chasing, so I posed it as a challenge to capture photographs without those tools. What's left? Emotion, action, story, composition, edit. So I gathered the digital tools I have lying around (5Dii + iPhone) and set out to see if my voice could find it's way. 

No matter how much I try to reign in the clicking with digital, it's simply a fact: I have unlimited attempts. I find this unavoidably degrades my creative process; that nervous energy and consequence of pressing the shutter with film makes the cream rise to the top of my work. Second to aesthetics, the confines of the shooting experience is my reason for shooting film. You have to get it right. The sixth sense awakens fully, and you are forced to See.

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Proposal to end world hunger: gather all the apples that children have taken three bites of out of and reuse. After taking these photos and running them through the mill of post, I remembered the bottomless pit of digital editing. How no matter what you do there is still a glossy, grainless surface that covers your photos in saran wrap. After seeing some trending (I could be months behind on this - or years - lightyears) photos on IG edited to look like VHS tapes and disposable cameras (PSA: shooting with a real disposable is magic, spend the $15 and ditch the lie that it's inconvenient) I decided to look it up in the app store. 

When I saw the Lomograph app I was intrigued by the name (no association) the examples and the price (free!). It adds distortion and light leaks that don't look half bad in my opinion. Although the truth of film (book title!?) ever-calls to me and I basically can't be forced to pick up a digital camera these days, the app added an emotional layer to these photographs that I consider non-negotiable in my work. I wouldn't have shared them without it.

  SOOC vs Lomograph app

SOOC vs Lomograph app

Is this a strong photograph because it was edited to look like film? No. It brings us back - to childhood and to Eden, my creative aims - and we not only see but feel. Recall. The emotional brain responds. When I wanted to take better pictures, film was the answer. Film don't lie. Your actions are recorded in chemical form. But a good picture is a good picture, and taking good pictures is what matters to me, what sets my heart ablaze.

In this assignment, I got two portfolio-worthy images using a system I've completely outgrown (5dii + great glass + VSCO) and my phone. The experience was one of force; you must try harder, take more steps than usual to arrive at the same end. But because of my digital process, the waste is abundant. There are only five that struck me of about 100 (this says more about me than it does about digital) and two that I find heart-worthy. Strong. In a typical school that would come out to an F, but this is the millennial school of shooting-while-protecting-Eleanor-from-swinging-girls-and-trampolines-with-no-nets, so I hereby give myself a participation award. 

What about you? Do you give yourself assignments? What should my next assignment be? Film shooters, could you create images that stop your heart with digital? Mamas, what's the secret to nurturing creative and domestic life? Here's my take, copied from a recent Instagram post:

I am comforted by the idea that a creative life only requires doing to qualify. I see, I intend to act and then (eventually) I do. I observe the form I’ve made and react. This feedback loop supplies a quiet dignity amidst practical life; not requiring validation in any form (cough likes cough). I am devoted to the practice, so I create. In this doing I live a creative life. Using this measure (devotion) has been transformative for my work. Stated simply: just make, every single day.

A with love