Discover more from Adventures In "Journalism" by Sari Botton
I Took Myself on an "Artist Date"—AMA
It was so mentally rejuvenating, I'm going to take myself on many more of them.
When you publish a book, a precious object that has taken you years (in my case, years and years and years) to produce, the first thing many people in your life will ask is, “What’s your next one going to be?”
It’s a terrifying question! I mean, I know there are career authors who immediately start working on a next book after they hand in revisions on the prior one. I like the sound of “career author,” and would like to join their ranks. But given that it took me until 56 to publish my debut memoir, and that financially I need to juggle many day gigs to stay alive without a significant book deal, it will probably take me a while to produce another of those precious objects.
Recently I realized that creatively I’m too gummed up from longstanding burnout, and from the writing, revising, and my (never-ending) publicity efforts for And You May Find Yourself… to have any idea of what I’d like to write next.
That’s not to say I haven’t been kicking around next book possibilities in my head on my own. Should it be a follow-up memoir like some readers have suggested? The book of short fiction I started playing around with a while ago? The novel I started in 2016? Which would I feel most passionate about? Or should I focus on which would be more marketable? And which could I complete most quickly and efficiently? I sure would like to take a faster (and more lucrative) route to publication the second time around.
But recently I realized that creatively I’m too gummed up from longstanding burnout, and from the writing, revising, and my (never-ending) publicity efforts for And You May Find Yourself… to have any idea of what I’d like to write next.
Honestly, lately I’ve felt too creatively gummed up to write just about anything let alone a book—including this very post, which has been rattling around in my brain for roughly two weeks. And it’s a post about a thing I did to ungum my brain, at least a little bit!
Alright, pardon me for burying the lede in the sixth graf, but what I did to ungum my brain a little bit was take myself on an “artist date.” For the uninitiated, that’s a term coined by Julia Cameron in her iconic creativity book, The Artist’s Way. Over a few months in the late ‘90s, I got a lot out of that book. It helped me open up creatively and get a flow going in the hours when I wasn’t engaged in mind-numbing reporting for trade magazines. Cameron offers many useful tools and exercises, the “artist date” being a surprisingly powerful one, considering it’s a practice in which you actually refrain from working on your art.
The Artist Date is a once-weekly, festive, solo expedition to explore
something that interests you. The Artist Date need not be overtly
“artistic” — think mischief more than mastery. Artist Dates fire up the
imagination. They spark whimsy. They encourage play. Since art is about the
play of ideas, they feed our creative work by replenishing our inner well
of images and inspiration. When choosing an Artist Date, it is good to ask
yourself, “what sounds fun?” — and then allow yourself to try it.
In those days, when I was single and lived in the East Village, I took myself on artist dates regularly. I’d check out museums and galleries, catch movies at Angelika Film Center, go to readings and plays, and to hear music—by myself. I mean, I did those things with friends and boyfriends, too, much more frequently. But for artist dates I went alone—just me and whatever I was going to see, and the opportunity to be quiet with it, my mind and heart in conversation with that art, unburdened by the need to converse with others. Those outing were so nourishing to me in so many ways. I always came away from them brimming with new ideas, and new energy.
What I did to ungum my brain a little bit was take myself on an “artist date.” For the uninitiated, that’s a term coined by Julia Cameron in her iconic creativity book, The Artist’s Way.
I suppose I stopped taking myself on artist dates when my husband and I moved upstate in 2005. I’d pretty much all but forgotten about the concept. Now I’m bringing them back, if not weekly, then monthly, to start.
The artist date in question came about somewhat inadvertently. A friend who’d read my book insisted I go see Jill Sobule’s F*ck 7th Grade at The Wild Project in the East Village, because he felt there was a strong resonance between the show and my book. But living in Kingston, NY makes it difficult to go to the theater in the city at night, especially now that Trailways and Amtrak have cut back on their schedules so that there are no longer any trains or buses back upstate after 8 or 8:30pm. I’d have to spend a night in the city.
At first it occurred to me to try and make a work-related appointment somewhere in Manhattan or Brooklyn to justify paying for a round-trip bus ticket ($60), a theater ticket ($40.90), and a cheap hotel room I found at Madison LES Hotel on Hotel Tonight ($140), plus meals out and subway fare. Could I schedule a meeting with an editor or colleague? I tried to make a plan with a friend with whom I’d discussed collaborating on a project. When she told me she wasn’t free, I knew what I really wanted to do: treat myself to 24 hours in New York City unburdened by plans with anyone else. Just me and the city, and a rock musical I knew I would love from just the title and the poster.
Reader, I had a grand old time by myself, frolicking around downtown Manhattan like in the old days. It helped that it was sunny and not too cold. (Nothing worse than rain or other uncomfortable weather conditions ruining a rare city trip!) It was so nice out, I walked all the way from Port Authority Bus Terminal to my hotel at the south end of Chinatown, a block from the FDR and the river.
Along the way, I indulged in a favorite ritual—walking by old haunts in the East Village, including my old tenement building on E. 13th, then the former Children’s Aid Society orphanage-turned-Yeshiva-turned ramshackle loft building that I lived in with Brian on the corner of 8th and B, until we got evicted in 2005.
I tried to make a plan with a friend with whom I’d discussed collaborating on a project. When she told me she wasn’t free, I knew what I really wanted to do: treat myself to 24 hours in New York City unburdened by plans with anyone else. Just me and the city, and a rock musical I knew I would love from just the title and the poster.
I stopped for spinach sautéed with shrimp and whole garlic cloves at a wonderful old favorite, Mee Noodle, still on my old corner of First Avenue and E. 13th Street (although now in a different building). I browsed in some galleries and shops. I tried on glasses at Sol Moscot on Delancey Street. Shortly after I made it all the way down to my hotel and settled in, I walked right back up to my old neighborhood and had bún thịt nướng, noodles with pork, at Vietnamese Sao Mai for dinner.
As I walked and browsed and ate, ideas started percolating in my head. A new essay I wanted to write…new ideas for an essay I’d been meaning to write for so long…a book idea…a movie idea..? (really?)…all rapid-fire, one after another. At dinner, I took out my phone to capture some of them in my notes app, but I found I couldn’t type fast enough to get everything down. I needed a notebook!
With about 45 minutes to spare before curtain, I stopped into new favorite bookstore, Book Club Bar (which kindly hosted my memoir launch in June). After spotting my book in some pretty amazing company on its shelf there (including my pal Elissa Bassist’s Hysterical), I ordered a cup of tea, purchased a slim Rhodia notebook, sat down at the bar, and recorded my many new ideas as quickly as I could. My hand could barely keep up. I felt so overjoyed and inspired, I started to cry.
As I walked and browsed and ate, ideas started percolating in my head. At dinner, I took out my phone to capture some of them in my notes app, but I found I couldn’t type fast enough to get everything down. I needed a notebook!
Then it was time to go two doors down to The Wild Project to see the show, where I cried some more—and laughed, and sang along and danced in my seat. Oh, my god, I loved that show. It was tender and righteous and funny, and touched on the experience of being ostracized as a kid for being considered weird, in one way or another, which I talk a lot about in my book. There are differences in our stories, but so much of Sobule’s show was recognizable to me. You can read more about my experience of seeing the show at Oldster Magazine, but suffice it to say that I recommend you go if you can, as there’s now an additional run of dates from January 23rd through February 11th. (I’m going back and taking my husband and some friends!)
I was so energized after the show that I walked all the way back down to my hotel at the southern edge of Manhattan. When I got there, I wrote a little more, but then I felt the need to stop; I needed to go back to taking thoughts in instead of putting them out. Still too wired to sleep, I turned to yet more art: I streamed Bette Gordon’s Variety, which I’d learned about only the week before, when I met Gordon at a book event I took part in.
A ground-breaking film when it was released in 1983, Variety is about a young woman whose job taking tickets at a porn movie house leads her to try and get inside the minds of the theater’s patrons—to try and understand the straight male gaze. Starring Sandy McLeod, with a script by Kathy Acker based on a story by Gordon, it features downtown icons Acker herself, Cookie Mueller, and Nan Goldin.
While it felt dated in many ways, Variety was also a perfect time capsule for me to get absorbed in during my little NYC nostalgia trip, especially since I lived in the East Village when the Variety Theatre was still on Third Avenue and 13th Street, a block-and-a-half away from my old apartment. (The movie was filmed there, although the story relocates the theater to Times Square.) I saw some really great plays there in the 90s when I had a subscription to The Drama Department. As much as I appreciated the story and performances, even more I enjoyed revisiting images of the city as it stood in the early ‘80s. It sparked new ideas for an essay I’ve been playing with about what it’s like for me when I go back to my old stomping grounds.
When I awoke the next morning, my brain was on fire once again, so I got busy writing down my new ideas in my notebook. The urge to capture it all was so strong, I put the dinky hotel room coffee maker to work. (I fortified the weak brew with half of one of the packets of Starbucks Via instant that I keep in my suitcase.) I kept at writing until just about checkout time, 11am, at which point I headed to Erin McKenna’s gluten free bakery on Broome Street for a bagel, plus other treats to bring home.
When I awoke the next morning, my brain was on fire once again, so I got busy again writing down my new ideas in my new notebook. The urge to capture it all was so strong, I put the dinky hotel room coffee maker to work.
Then I walked and walked again, all the way back up to Port Authority. (I ended up never once stepping into the subway this trip.) On the bus ride home, I made time to engage with posts aboutrecommending Oldster Magazine on The Active Voice podcast, a huge thrill, then put my phone away and let my mind wander as I took in the view along the drive.
I felt so good when I got home—so optimistic and rejuvenated. And then I got right back into my grind, which is mostly filled with work that’s meaningful to me, and which I enjoy doing. But I have to do too much of it, and I’m burned out, and you already know that. Which is why it took me two weeks to spit this out. And why I need to have more artist dates, to make a regular practice of it. Maybe this is my New Year’s resolution to myself.
I’m bringing artist dates back in 2023. I recommend you try them, too.
In other news…
Next Thursday, December 8th at 7pm Eastern, Zoom into this free, virtual event celebrating Poets & Writers magazine’s “5 Over 50” debut authors: Madhushree Ghosh, Shareen K. Murayama, David Santos Donaldson, Jane Campbell, and yours truly, Sari Botton.
I had the great good fortune of speaking with Cheryl Strayed for my “How’s the Writing Going?” series in Catapult’s “Don’t Write Alone” series.
For Yes! Magazine, I wrote “All the Sexy Older Ladies,” about a hopeful shift I’m starting to see with regard to representation of older women in media.