In this issue ~~
From time to time, I like to take a glimpse into the life of a working artist. I was fortunate to meet Linda Armstrong, a delightful person who has achieved success both as a writer and a fine artist.
SHARON GOOD: I assume you began your writing and/or painting as a child?
LINDA ARMSTRONG: Yes, both. My mom had always wanted to be a writer. She went to night school when I was a little kid and studied writing. She taught me to read before I went to school. The first book that I can remember that really meant a lot to me was a poetry book called "For a Child," and I wrote mostly poetry when I was little.
My dad [Charles F. Keck, www.cfkeck.org] was a water color painter in California. On weekends, I was taken to galleries, and artists and people who were interested in arts came to our little apartment. I sat in the corner like a little mouse and listened to them talk. And so, art was always a big part of my life.
I got A's in art class, but what I did never seemed to fit exactly what they wanted. It wasn't until much, much, much later that I found that that was an advantage. To skip way ahead, I had a breakdown in my mid-30s, because I was really depressed, and ended up in the loony bin for a couple of weeks. It really changed my life. I had taught school for 18 years, and it got me out of teaching. Also, it gave me this thing like, Well, I'm nuts and I have nothing to lose.
So, one day, I did a bunch of little, tiny paintings – they were like 8x10s. My assignment to myself was to cover these little canvases and to do one a night for a month. I took pictures of them and took them in to my shrink, to see if he could fathom any deep meaning in these crazy things. He said, "Have you shown them to anybody?" And I'm going, "You've got to be kidding!" Then I thought, "Well, what, really, do I have to lose?"
His office was down the block from the then art strip in Los Angeles, on La Cienega (it's in Santa Monica now). So, I took these slides into the fanciest, biggest contemporary art gallery on the street. Now, who would do this? Only somebody who was crazy! I expected her to laugh at me, but she was so nice! She said, How long have you been doing this? I said, A month. And she said, Well, you're kind of all over the place, but come back in six months and show me what you've done. After 6 months, I had gone around and looked at other galleries, and I saw that most people were working much bigger, so I got bigger canvases and I started to work bigger.
By then, I'm starting to have second thoughts, 'cause I'm beginning to be less crazy. So I decide, I'm going to go to another gallery and see what they say and make sure I'm on the right track before I go back to that other place. Well, I took my slides to a gallery that was closer to me, over in Pasadena, and she says, We're putting together a show, and we'd like you to be in it. This is 6 months after I started painting!
Those first paintings were really primitive. But what I realized was that I'm not going to paint like everybody else. And that's great! If I paint like me, then I have my own style, and things that are rare are valuable, right? If you're naturally different, you're going to have trouble with teachers, 'cause teachers have problems with things that are different. But when you get out into the art world, there are people that are going to appreciate work that is fresh.
So, you have to be crazy enough to start trusting the value of your unique take on things. The minute you stop trying to make your stuff accessible to everybody else, that's when you start being an artist. And whether or not it's accepted, what's the point in doing what everybody else does anyway?
SG: On your All at Once website (lindaarmstrong.homestead.com/AllAtOnce.html), you talk about originality versus making money, and that if you want to make money, you have to be commercial and be like everybody else. But it sounds like you stuck with your originality and you've managed to make some money at it.
LA: Well, I have made some money with my artwork, but I couldn't live on it. What I'm making with my writing, I can live on. It's on assignment, and it's for very a specific market. Publishers tell me exactly what they want, and I do it.
Now, that is more original than it seems. In fact, some of it is really original. For one of the education workbooks that I worked on this summer, I did 10 original short stories, and there's a book of poetry that will be coming out from one of the educational houses that has one of my original poems in it, along with a lot of classic work. So, you actually do original work, but it's originality within a framework.
There are several different kinds of things that I've done, but they're all related. One of the first projects that I did was the 4th grade teacher's workbook and student workbook for SRA/McGraw-Hill's All-Star Phonics. That is a textbook that school systems buy. Then, I have done a whole lot for educational supply stores – special stores that teachers go to and spend their own money on supplementary materials that they can photocopy and pass out to the class.
And then, for the children's trade market, I've done 28 adaptations for Disney's Parent & Child Read Together Series. What I did was to take existing stories, like "101 Dalmatians" and "Cinderella," and make them fit a particular format that was designed to help parents teach their children how to read by reading to them. People ask me, Well, did you write the story? No, I didn't write the story. Well, did you come up with the format? No, I didn't come up with the format. But what did you do? Well, I put the two things together, and it's harder than it seems.
SG: How did you get into educational writing?
LA: I work a lot with a packager. She has told me that writing skills are really important, but what the publishers insist on in this particular field is teaching experience. They want books written by credentialed teachers. You probably could write some of these materials without having classroom experience if you did the research, but as an experienced teacher, you have some ideas you would not come up with otherwise and also a better sense of what's going to work.
SG: A lot of people think that to become a writer, you have to start in college and continue writing consistently, but it sounds like other life experience can contribute.
LA: Oh, yes, absolutely. What people need to do is to sit down and make an inventory of everything they've done and of what they know. That's what made a real difference for me, when I sat down and said, Okay, this person over here has an advantage over me because they know that person or because they're a nurse. Now, where do I have an advantage? What did I do? Well, I've spent 18 years in the classroom. In what field of writing would that be an advantage? It really made a difference for me in finding publishers who would be interested in what I knew how to write.
SG: So, you don't necessarily need to come up with a whole concept and write a proposal if you can take your knowledge and find publishers or packagers who want what you've got.
LA: Yes. Nancy, the packager, was in one of my art classes at the Western Colorado Center for the Arts. We first went out to lunch just as friends. Before she took me on as a writer, I did make some proposals to her. She pitched them to people, but she said, They don't want to do any of those right now, but I do have this other project.
Connections are very important. Nancy started to get a lot more work, and she needed a lot of writers day pronto. She gave some of the projects to me, but I couldn't do everything, and her other writers were busy, too, so some of my friends in our critique group got work.
SG: You're in a writing group?
LA: Yes, I've been in writing groups on and off for the last 18 years. In the writing group that I'm in now, we're all children's writers.
SG: So, you have a whole community of writers, all helping each other out and giving each other leads.
LA: Yes. It is very important, in art and in writing, to use networking, to meet people and to remember that you never know who you're talking to. Be really nice to everybody, because you don't know who is going to provide the lead or who's going to be able to help you down the line. It may be the least likely person.
SG: How have you been finding the writing process? I would imagine you've developed a certain amount of discipline.
LA: Well, there are two different kinds of writing and two different kinds of painting for me. For the assignment work, it's extremely important to impose discipline on yourself from the outside. You have to keep an eye on your deadlines, you have to check in with people, you have to check your e-mail, you have to keep certain hours, and you have to keep right at it. People think of it as a part-time job or something somebody can do who has health problems. Uh-uh. It's very demanding. The deadlines are extremely tight.
Now, with a novel or poetry and painting, you have to actually use energy to keep yourself away from them if you have a deadline or something else you have to do. It takes discipline to stop, because you get into that kind of flow state, and you don't know where you are. You know, people have to tell you it's 2 in the morning. You just get lost in it.
I think you start with discipline. The discipline makes you sit down, and the discipline makes you open the project instead of all the other things that you could be doing. And also, when you get in the middle of a novel, the same thing happens. You have a lot of energy at the beginning of a novel. You have a lot of energy at the end of the novel, because you can see how it's all come together. In the middle, when things haven't come together, you need discipline, because that's when you want to sharpen pencils, clean house, do the shopping, do anything not to face the middle of the novel.
In rewrites, you need discipline. If you're getting ready for a show and you have to have eight paintings, and you aren't setting your own pace, then yeah, you do have to have discipline. But, once you get started, then the other things take over.
SG: The other thing you mentioned on your website is the concept of just saying you're an artist. Declaring who you are. Tell me about that.
LA: Well, that goes back to that first gallery. I went in with the slides, and she said, Well, are you an artist? All she meant was, Are you here to buy work, or are you an artist? And I said, Well, yeah, I'm an a-a-artist. It was obvious it was between those two things, but there was resonance in it. The more times that you say that you're an artist, the more you start to believe it, and when you believe it, why should other people disbelieve you?
SG: You create a new identity for yourself. I love that, because so many artists are afraid to declare it until somebody else buys their work or gives them that label or hires them.
LA: Think about how many really great artists there were who sold hardly anything in their lifetimes, but they knew they were artists. It's up to you to define it, really. There are always going to be people who don't like your work, so you can't depend on what other people think.
SG: Is there any advice that you would like to give to people who would like to do the kinds of things you're doing?
LA: One thing is to take disappointments as incompletions. They're never what you think. When your publishing house goes out of business, or your editor moves, it seems like the end of the world, and it isn't. Because that person is going someplace else, and you're eventually going to know an editor someplace else. So, a disappointment at one time can be an opportunity at another time.
SG: It's exciting that you're getting to do the things you want to do. There's a misconception that you have to go about it in a very planned, linear way and work your way up the ladder. Sometimes things just come to you.
LA: Sometimes they do. But you have to be ready. You're always meeting people. Like, many years ago, I met a woman who knew the widow of a very famous writer and had connections with publishers. If I had had a manuscript ready, she could have made some contacts for me, but I didn't have a manuscript ready at that time.
SG: So, just keep doing your work and putting yourself out there, and you'll meet people, and the work and the people will come together.
LA: That's right.
SG: There's a quote from Seneca, the Roman philosopher: "Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity."
LA: Exactly. I couldn't say it better.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Broaden your horizons! Try something new with your creative work. For example, I heard recently of an artist who switched to a different style, and all the discomfort she felt with her painting just fell away. Try a different medium or a completely different creative outlet. Playing a musical instrument may be just what you need to make your writing flow!
"We are each gifted in a unique and important way. It is our privilege and our adventure to discover our own special light."
"Those who are fired with an enthusiastic idea and who allow it to take hold and dominate their thoughts find that new worlds open for them. As long as enthusiasm holds out, so will new opportunities."
"This is the time for every artist in every genre to do what he or she does loudly and consistently. It doesn't matter to me what your position is. You've got to keep asserting the complexity and the originality of life, and the multiplicity of it, and the facets of it. This is about being a complex human being in the world, not about finding a villain. This is no time for anything else than the best that you've got."
(click on the book graphic to see a description at Amazon.com)
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