I have a high school junior right now and so my life is filled with college talk. I often find myself thinking back to my own pre-college time these days and trying to remember, what did I want to do with my life? Who did I think I would be? And, seriously, was I this anxious? I ended up being an English major with a focus on creative writing and, after graduation, quickly found myself back in school for education because, after all, who pays anyone for writing poetry?
I’ll admit to being a little confused about who I would become. I’m grateful now that my parents did not steer me away from the arts but believe that I could have been a little more informed about this path. It would actually take me years to find my way back to what I know now was my creative call. Once I was able to begin to hear it, it was patient but persistent. Thankfully, it still calls to me and, thankfully, I now know how to listen better and have conversations with it. Not attending to it leaves me with a feeling of emptiness, of being lost, of not being fully who I am. My work often puts me in schools where I make art with children and, since about 2003, I have been witness to thousands and thousands of little hands answering their own creative calls and this, indeed, makes my cup runneth over!
Over the past six months or so, in an online class, I have had the wonderful opportunity to interface with creative people from all over the world. They describe a similar awareness of their creative call and a need to attend to it. Two women I’ve spoken to this month in some depth about this–both of whom are still in “day jobs”– say that it is all they can think about when they are in their offices and cubicles. They can’t wait until they can focus completely on their dreams and be fully who they are.
This past weekend, we had dinner at Doolan’s Shore Club in Spring Lake, NJ. In the dining room, we were serenaded by Bobby Ballack, whose specialty is “singing the standards.” We enjoyed a candlelight dinner while listening to him croon sweet tunes like “Moon River,” “The Nearness of You,” and “The Way You Look Tonight,” while couples of all ages gathered on the small dance floor to display their waltzes and foxtrots. During his intermissions, Ballack visited the tables to chat with the patrons. When he came to our table, I asked him about his story, about how he came to be a singer, and he described an early life attempt at recording that didn’t go as well as he’d planned and the discouragement of his parents which led him into the family tile business for over thirty years. All the while, he dreamed of returning to singing and now, in his sixties, he has answered that call at last–making music, making people dance and sing along, making his passion his profession.
At the same time that I was getting my first dose of spring along the Jersey Shore and being wooed by Bobby Ballack, a group of fellow authors, illustrators and I were discussing and organizing a collective stance on a recent decision made by the committee chair of the NJASL (New Jersey Association of School Librarians). For decades, NJASL’s annual conference has hosted the “Author & Illustrator’s Alley,” a room full of tables where authors and illustrators can display and sell their books, meet with librarians to discuss school programs and network with other authors and illustrators. Participants, like myself, come from all over NJ to be a part of the Alley because it is so much a part of what we do and because librarians who attend this event truly understand how our work is integral to theirs. Many of us also give presentations and, for this two day affair, we are compensated for our time by a box lunch wrap sandwich and a bag of chips. A sweet woman named Susan organizes this part of the conference. She is a retired librarian who is compensated for her efforts on this only by feeding her love of books and her dedication to her friendships with all of us. And, I suppose she probably also gets a wrap sandwich and a bag of chips.
This year, the committee chair decided to eliminate Author & Illustrator’s Alley.
There was immediate discontent among the artists and writers, as well as the librarians. Think about it… a school librarians conference with no book creators? A couple weeks later, Susan reluctantly informed us that, not only was she off the author/illustrator organizing position, but that the committee had decided to allow us back in, however, instead of a room with tables, we had the option of setting up on small tables in stairwells. Yes, I said stairwells. To add insult to injury, this opportunity would cost each of us $40 (but, hey, it would still include the wrap sandwich and bag of chips). Now, I have paid much more to exhibit many times in art shows and festivals all over the place but there’s something really sucky about this whole turn of events.
The backlash has been swift and fierce on this and most of us have decided to boycott the event unless appropriate circumstances are reinstated. We are angry and hurt that a conference that celebrates books and literacy could have gotten this all so obviously wrong. I have heard that they are trying to figure out how to undo this but, in many ways, the message has already been sent–and twice, at that. The whole thing got me thinking about how those of us who answer our creative calls are so often looking for the win-win because we know it’s difficult for others to imagine we have real jobs, real professions. We are used to being asked to donate, to discount, to do things pro-bono. We are familiar with the attitude among the less creatively oriented folks that those of us who get to do what we love for a job should do it without getting paid because, heck, we love it so much! This willingness to understand the confusion that some people have about what, exactly, it is that we do makes us very flexible in professional venues, like a conference, but not so flexible that we can be walked all over and thrown in a stairwell.
And you know what? These situations, and the emotions they bring up in me, continuously reaffirm my commitment to be a person who answers my creative call and to keep working toward all the new paths, discoveries and adventures that come from being present in this awareness. Because, as it turns out, there are people in the world who will pay for poetry.
TRY THIS WEEK: Think about this… what’s calling you?