Monday, November 15, 2010

Almost Alternative: Navigating the murky terrain between the bohemian and the bourgeois

Being self-employed has a long list of pros and cons, so to tip the scales in the favor of eating regularly, last spring, I acquired myself a mentor. A spit-fire writer in her early seventies, she dishes out equal parts encouragement and criticism, never mincing words although she says she’s like a priest—confessions exit her head as quickly as they enter it.

Recently she called to tell me that she’d finished reading my manuscript.

“You’re a real talent, Valley,” she said, “but the question is, what are you going to do with it? You need discipline! Reading your writing is like racing through a museum with too many paintings on the walls. You need to slow down.” Essentially she was saying that I had something readable that needed to be entirely rewritten. I felt my spirit soar and then flop as it always done when my as yet unrealized potential is held up for inspection.

But instead of balking, I listened. You can’t just pick up a mentor on special at Martin’s. They are hard won. In fact, I feel I deserve special recognition just for having one. A reference to our working relationship really beefs up my self-esteem and my resume, a few short lines after “Waffle House Waitress” and “Food Lion Coupon Distributor.” She went on to quote Gustave Flaubert, who said, “Be regular and orderly in your life like a bourgeois, so that you may be violent and original in your work.”

“Get boring, girl!” she said.

I agreed that I would try, but getting more boring than I already am is a task. All of the bohemian types I once knew, like me, now have dental insurance and mortgages. Well, that’s not entirely true. One friend is living in a corner of an abandoned warehouse, another sends me emails about her skinny dipping expeditions in Sierra Leone. But by and large the ramblin’ fever with which I used to burn has been watered down.

While there are many ways that I do live on the edge (I actually don’t have dental insurance), I am, for all intents and tax purposes a wife and a mother living in the suburbs. This is a set of facts I often find difficult to accept, much like Steve Martin who refused to believe he was anything other than a small black boy in “The Jerk.” My once bleached, dreaded hair now gets conditioned and blow-dryed. Sensible crocs have replaced the combat boots and fishnet stockings of yore. I can almost say that I am now more comfortable blending in than sticking out.

To enhance the boringness of my life I could stop going to all night dance parties- but oh, wait, I already did that- twelve years ago when I also stopped hopping from state to state, man to man, etc. But what I could really do, that would have an actual impact on the quality of my artistic life, is not say yes when I mean no. I could silence the phone and disconnect the internet when I’ve carved out time to write. I could make a schedule, adhering to it when it’s the last thing on God’s green earth I want to do. I could slough off the outdated belief that being creative means being haphazard and wild. Because being boring and being disciplined are two entirely different beasts; beasts that must be slain politely and with decorum, in the manner of the bourgeois.

From Belle, November 2010.


  1. Interesting that as you have found yourself moving toward the more-boring, I have found myself trying to shirk the boringness of my earlier years, so that I may live a more colorful life. It feels strange to do this in my 30s when my peers experimented two decades ago, and like you, I have found the discipline aspect - toilets that get cleaned more than once a month, a family rhythm that gets the laundry done and food on the table but also provides time for art and spirit - to be difficult.

    How do you preserve your spark while travelling in the land of the responsibly insured? How do you find your spark if you forgot to look for it before crossing into this land?

  2. If I could correctly spell Hallejluiah, that would be my comment, but this is one of those words that I forever struggle to spell so I'll just leave it as "close spelling." What a delightful column and post. I'm right there with you, but I still pine for my fishnets and combat boots, occasionally breaking them out for all-night dance parties. My back and feet ache the next day. Ah, Valley, you are a real dream and talent.

  3. As an artist, I seek stability: entropy is my dread fear.

    What guides me is vision. If you stay true to the vision, the clutter tends to fall away. Vision sustains me.

  4. Thanks so much, everyone. I'm terrible at moderating or even noticing comments but when I do they mean a lot to me! Back at you, each and every one.