Tag Archives | Melissa A. Bartell

Welcome to Issue #10: Cultivate

Among the many definitions of “cultivate” offered by Webster’s Dictionary are, “to develop or improve by education or training; train; refine,” “to promote the growth or development of (an art, science, etc.),” “to devote oneself to (an art, science, etc.),” and “to seek to promote or foster (friendship, love, etc.).”

Clearly, cultivation is a versatile concept, one that goes far beyond getting our hands dirty by planting seeds in soil and caring for the resultant sprouts, watching as they grow into flowers, trees, fruit, or vegetables.

And yet, that first, most basic association is no less valid than the abstract uses of the word. We cultivate our arts and sciences in much the same way that we cultivate soil. We foster the growth of our friendships (or, we should) with every bit as much care as we give to plants. We constantly reach, grow, hone, refine, perfect, and protect every aspect of our lives and ourselves.

Welcome to Issue #10 of Modern Creative Life: “Cultivate”

“Solitude is the soil in which genius is planted, creativity grows, and legends bloom; faith in oneself is the rain that cultivates a hero to endure the storm, and bare the genesis of a new world, a new forest.” ― Mike Norton, White Mountain

When we were discussing this year’s themes, we all got excited about the choice of “cultivate” for our spring quarter. After all, most of us do some gardening, and all of us try to keep our artistic selves in a state of growth and tender care.

What could be more perfect, we thought, then to celebrate the many ways we cultivate the various aspects of our lives?

“By looking for the unexpected and discerning the surreptitious features in the scenery within us, we apprehend our personality, find out our identity and learn how to cultivate it. Taking care of our fingerprints will be an enduring endeavor. ( “Looking for the unexpected” )”  ― Erik Pevernagie

What does “cultivate” mean to each of us? What does it mean to you? Can we apply the work we do in backyard gardens or front porch flower pots to art, writing, and music? Can we foster spiritual growth and nurture our bodies the same way we cultivate friendships and enhance our romantic relationships?

Is it possible that a life which is too carefully cultivated can end up being as soggy as an over-watered garden or as parched as desert sands?

Don’t we need to find balance in our cultivation, as we do in all things?

These are the concepts we are exploring in this issue, and we invite you to join us in the experience.

In this issue, you’ll get a peek into the daily lives of other creative folk in our Studio Tours and Typical Tuesday series, and meet people walking fascinating creative pathways in Conversations Over Coffee. With photos and fiction, poetry and essays, as well as all kind of enlightenment, help each of us find a deeper understanding into all the ways in which you create.

As always, our mission at Modern Creative Life is to honor the pursuit and practice of joyful creativity. We believe that the creative arts enrich our everyday living, enhance our environment, create lasting connections, and sustain our souls. Please join us as we look to other creatives for ways in which they nurture and tend their own creative life so that they regularly find their process – and lives – feeling nourished instead of parched.

As we share the stories of other makers, use their experiences to illuminate your path into your own Modern Creative Life.

“Cultivate your craft. Water it daily, pour some tender loving care into it, and watch it grow. Remember that a plant doesn’t sprout immediately. Be patient, and know that in life you will reap what you sow.” ― J.B. McGee

What stories might you have to share with the world? Share the results of your cultivation with us! Don’t be afraid to dig deeply into the fertile soil of experience, memory, and imagination as way, not only to tell your story, but to help others learn from your mental, spiritual, and physical adventures.

We are open to single contributions as well as new regular contributors. Email us at moderncreativelife@gmail.com.

—Melissa A. Bartell, Editor at Large

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One-Way Trip by Melissa A. Bartell

0199 - Mil Gracias via Facebook Flash-PromptHe’s waiting there, at the edge of the parking lot, in the spaces where flitters and aircars are parked nose-to-nose with family-sized SUV’s, the end of a cigarette between his teeth. His skin is weathered, his hat is likely as old as he his, but his eyes, faded blue – like old denim – are gentle. It shows his age, but he’s got a bolo-tie strung round the collar of his shirt.

Señor, are you the one we are meant to meet? The Helper?”

The woman holding the envelope of cash in both trembling hands can’t be more than sixteen. Maybe seventeen. But she has two little ones clinging to her cotton skirt and her eyes are ages old, and hold too much knowledge for ten lifetimes, let alone one.

He knows her type: Single mother by circumstance rather than choice. Probably from one of the remaining ranches in southwest Texas. Not that the One Earth government acknowledges ‘Texas’ as anything but a geographic reference, these days.

,” he answers, keeping his craggy voice soft and gentle. “You need to get Across, I’ll get you there, you and the wee ones, too.” He pauses, takes in her gaunt face and the way the kids’ lips are pale and cracked. “When’s the last time any of you ate?”

“We had bread with us, but the train driver took it away. The water… we could not pay.”

Of course, they couldn’t pay for water. Mag-train fountains require a credit chit. This woman has only cash money. It’s a miracle she could even get boarding passes.

“Come with me.”

He leads them through the parking lot and into an all-night diner. It isn’t anything special, but the food is hot and cheap, and most important – real. No texturized this or reconstituted that.

“Four for breakfast,” he tells the hostess. “Is Sam working today?”

“I’ll put you in her section.”

They are hustled to a booth in the back, and Sam – her glossy black hair woven into countless braids – appears within seconds. “Coffee?” It was her customary greeting.

He glances at the woman across from him. Sees her hesitant nod. “Two, with cream. And chocolate for the kids.”

“Gotcha.” She fills coffee mugs, pours hot chocolate from her other pot, leaves menus, and disappears again, though not before she admonishes him: “You know you can’t smoke in here.”

He sighs and pinches out his cigarette between a calloused finger and thumb. Then he sips from his mug of coffee.  “Protein,” he says after a beat. “The hot cakes here are amazing, but you’ll want protein to cushion your systems. I’m guessing you’ve never Flown before?” He says it with a capital-F, so they know he means a ship and not a plane.

“No señor. We have been earthbound. We never planned to leave, but the government took more and more of our ranch. Took the cows, took the children’s dog. Took my Julio, too.”

He reassesses the young woman’s age. Maybe she’s older than he thought. Yeah. More like twenty. Still, too young. Too damned young.

They order eggs and bacon and fried potatoes, and all of them eat with quiet urgency. Sam comes back once to refill mugs, and a second time with the check and four water bottles. “Kids eat free on Tuesdays,” she says, giving him a knowing look.

They all know it’s Friday, but they accept her gift.

Gracias,” the young woman whispers. “Mil gracias.”

Sam grips her shoulder briefly, a sign of encouragement. “Don’t be afraid,” the waitress says. “This one will take care of you.”

They head out the back way, climb into his truck, and take the old road out to the municipal launch pad. It’s a long trip. The kids are asleep before they’ve hit the half-way point. Their mother finally closes her eyes when they’re two hours out.

He lights another cigarette as soon as she does.

His ship is waiting, older than dirt but sound, even so – waiting in the light of false dawn. He hates to wake the sleeping family, but there’s no time for dallying. “Okay, everyone,” he puts as much energy as he can muster into his voice.  “We’re here. As soon as the ramp is down, you’ll cross the tarmac. Make sure you have everything with you.”

In the early-morning sun, the pavement is not yet hot, and you can’t tell that there are places on the ship’s hull that have been patched and re-patched over the years. The hatch opens with the press of his remote. The ramp unfolds with aching slowness, stretching toward the ground like an old man flexing his limbs first thing in the morning.

“Go on in,” he tells his sleepy passengers. “Get comfortable. I won’t be long.”

He watches the three figures scurry across the tarmac and into the ship. His ship. It’s been his life these last several years. The second pick-up truck shows up a few minutes later, parking next to him, so the driver-side windows are adjacent. The other driver is young, bright-eyed, optimistic.

“You sure about this?” The younger man’s voice is full of concern. “Never thought you’d be making a one-way trip.”

“It’s time,” the old man answers. “Long since. I got a grandkid waiting for me. Promised to take me fishing at the Underground Sea.” A faint smile flits across his leathery face. He clears his throat. “Nothing left for me here, since Hildy’s gone.”

“You’ll be missed.”

“Doubtful.”

The younger man sighs. “Alright. Whatever. You got the money?”

“IDs first.”

A Manila envelope is handed from window to window, and the old man takes his time, untwisting the strings on the clasp, pulling out the documents and examining them. Three chits, each with the photo he’d provided. His own ID was legal; his departure approved months before.

“All good,” he says. He passes over the envelope of cash. “I’ll wait while you count it.”

“No need.” The younger man takes a beat. “You will be missed,” he repeats.

The old man merely inclines his head. It isn’t the time or place to argue. He cuts the engine on his truck, offers the keys across. “Take these. Give the truck to someone who needs it. Doesn’t look it, but she’s got another decade in her, easy.”

The younger man hesitates, but eventually does as he’s asked. “I promise.”

He waits for the other man, the young one, to leave before he stubs out the cigarette he’s been smoking, leaves his own vehicle, and boards the ship. His passengers are already buckled in. Their bags are stowed. Good.

“Launch prep will take twenty minutes,” he says. “Trip will take six and a half days. Once we’ve cleared Earth’s atmosphere and are cruising, you can move around. There’s food replicators. A decent head. Sonic shower. I’ve got some games and vids in the back to keep you occupied.”

He brings up the ramp while he’s talking, punches in the prep sequence for launch. The computer’s warm tones ran under his speech.

 – Oxygen mix completed. Outer hatches sealed. Inner bulkhead doors secured. –  

“Okay, any questions?”

“Just one, Señor. You know that I am Claudia, and the children are Miguel and Rosa. If we are to be with you for all this time, por favor, what is your name?”

He is startled by the question. Thirty years of running refugees across the space from Earth to Mars, and not one has ever asked for his name. Maybe she’s the one passenger who can sense the truth. This trip is different. This trip is one-way.

He’s quiet for a moment. Giving her his name is… is permanent. Real. He’ll stop being ‘The Helper’ and become a person once more. His voice cracks as he answers, “Thomas. I’m Thomas Maxwell. You can call me Tom.”

The woman – Claudia – smiles at him, and it’s like a benediction.

Mil gracias… Tom. Mil gracias.”

He looks away from the view-screen, meets her brown eyes with his own faded blue ones. “You’re very welcome, Claudia.”

 

About the author: Melissa A. Bartell

Melissa is a writer, voice actor, podcaster, itinerant musician, voracious reader, and collector of hats and rescue dogs. She is the author of The Bathtub Mermaid: Tales from the Holiday Tub. You can learn more about her on her blog, listen to her podcast, or connect with her on on Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter.

Sunday Brunch: Office Space

When we ask people to do studio tours, we do it for two reasons. One is that it gives us, and our readers, a sense of the person giving the tour. What you keep on your desk reveals more about you than you might be comfortable stating in a conversation. The other reason is that it gives us (and our readers) ideas for decorating/modifying/changing our own workspaces. It’s a great cycle of sharing and inspiration.

MAB-01I’ve long been the kind of person who likes to switch things around from time to time. Changing the position of a chair, or a table, or a couch can change the energy of an entire room. For years, every time my husband went away on a work trip, he would beg me not to move furniture while he was gone. Partly, he didn’t want me to hurt myself, but partly, he didn’t want to come home to a house that had a different layout from when he left.

A recent diagnosis of a torn ACL (surgery will be in early summer) means that I’ve been forbidden to climb stairs, so Fuzzy and I spent last weekend (with the help of a friend’s kid who was willing to work in exchange for being taken to lunch) turning our formal dining room into my office.

To be honest, I’ve had designs on this space since we originally looked at this house almost fourteen years ago. The original owners had been using the dining room as the headquarters for their home office, and I wanted to do the same. Instead, Fuzzy and I each claimed one of the four upstairs bedrooms (our bedroom is on the ground floor), eventually turning the other two into a dedicated guest room and a library. In the time we’ve lived here, I’ve moved offices several times. Originally, I was set up in the room across the hall from Fuzzy’s, so we were both in the same ‘wing’ of the house. When I quit the mortgage industry and started doing audio work, I moved to the big room (really a second living area with a token closet) on the far side of the house, which had room for my weight machine. I moved back to the smaller room when a friend moved in with us for a while and reclaimed the big room when I realized we’d made life here too cushy, and that he’d never leave (he’s since left).

So, change is something I embrace.

But I hadn’t expected our rearranging to click as well as it has.

Two years ago, we bought a library table and four chairs to use in the kitchen, and I joked that if we ever got tired of using it in that room, I’d want it as a desk. Well, now my parents’ old teak table is back in the kitchen, and the library table is positioned across the arched front window in the dining room. We brought down a desktop credenza (it’s full of envelopes and postage stamps, sealing wax and staples) and my collection of geeky toys to make the space feel like my space and not just a temporary change. After all, I’ll be avoiding stairs until almost the end of the year.MAB_02

A printer stand we’d been using as a coffee table (and which is full of board games) is now holding an actual printer, and my grandfather’s red leather chair is sharing space with an ancient denim wing chair we bought in 2002 so I have a special place to sip coffee or tea and read.

We couldn’t move the hutch, but since it holds my collection of Día De Los Muertos art, it feels appropriate. One of my pieces is even a mermaid!

Possibly the best part of this space is that, since there isn’t a coffee table occupying the center of the room as there is in my upstairs office, all the dogs can roam in and out or sack out on the carpet without ruining anything with the stray swipe of a happy tail.

I expected this switch to be convenient.

I didn’t expect the energy in the room to be so welcoming, so enlivening, that despite constant low-level pain, I’m more creative than I have been in months. (Okay, part of that is because I’ve finally recovered from writing twenty-eight plays in February, but still…)

And so, this latest revamping of our household, meant to accommodate my injury, has become an artistic and creative boon. I’m working surrounded by art pieces that we’ve collected and acquired over the years, and my own toys. I have a window that looks out to the front of our house, and the daily routine of our neighborhood. I’ve even found that the sunny yellow walls, rather than being too bright for every day, are warm and cheerful.

I told Fuzzy, and many other people, that I love this new space so much I might not relinquish it once I’m allowed to use stairs again.

Fuzzy’s okay with that, though, as long as he can have the room I vacated. It has a full-sized sofa in it, you see, which is perfect for those all-night maintenance calls he sometimes has to monitor.

Do you have a dedicated space for your work or creative endeavors? Do you ever want to change things around in your house, just to see how it feels?

MAB-O3

About the author: Melissa A. Bartell

Melissa is a writer, voice actor, podcaster, itinerant musician, voracious reader, and collector of hats and rescue dogs. She is the author of The Bathtub Mermaid: Tales from the Holiday Tub. You can learn more about her on her blog, listen to her podcast, or connect with her on on Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter.

Sunday Brunch: 28 Plays Later

Last month, I wrote about the first few days of an intense writing challenge I was part of: writing twenty-eight plays in twenty-eight days. The project, sponsored by Theatre Delicatessen in London, involved a couple of hundred writers from around the world (mostly in the U.K., though) and one Evil Overlord (well, he’s not really evil) named Sebastian.

Every day at 4:00 PM (U.S. Central Time), we’d receive the daily brief from Sebastian, and then we’d have thirty-six hours to write a play using his brief for inspiration, although the last twelve hours of a given brief overlapped with the first twelve of the next.

Copyright: <a href='https://www.123rf.com/profile_dedivan1923'>dedivan1923 / 123RF Stock Photo</a>

Very quickly, I began to question the wisdom of committing to the project. I’d never written a play before (not really, anyway) and I spent a good chunk of the first week fighting with formatting. WORD, my software of choice, has a downloadable screenplay template, but not one for stage plays, and even the screenplay one is kind of klunky. Eventually, with some encouragement from friends, I scrapped the template and did my own thing. Freeing myself from the constraints of someone else’s formatting did much for my mindset.

But I was still floundering.

The first few briefs had been relatively simple. The initial prompt, for example, was the phrase, “Brave Little Soldier,” with bonus points for setting it in your hometown. Well, my actual hometown (as opposed to the town where I live) had a significant number of losses when the towers fell on 9/11/01, so I made my characters the adult children of people who had died that day. Emotional, yes, but relatively easy.

As the challenge progressed, the briefs became more demanding. When I wrote about this in February, I mentioned the first weekend challenge, about nightmares, but once I got past my fear of the material (my nightmares are weird… and personal…) I ended up having fun with it. After all, the brief also said we had an unlimited budget to work with.

More than once, I was tempted to throw my laptop into the pool and never write again. Ever.

More than once I whined to friends, family, and the dogs – basically whomever would listen, or pretend to – that I was too stupid or too boring to respond to these things that expected you to come up with edgy, even avant garde ideas.

More than once my husband had to talk me down from the proverbial ledge.

My friend Clay, the Creativity Guru I mentioned in my previous post – the one I’d convinced to do this challenge with me – finally gave me the key to my frustration.

“Look,” he said. “You’re a level 40-something human.”

“Forty-seven,” I specified.

“Okay, but you’re only a level one playwright.”

“That’s fair,” I responded, “But I’m a level thirty-seven writer.” (The first ten years of your life don’t count.)

“Yes,” he said, “but you’re using that writing muscle in a new and different way. And really, this shouldn’t be called ’28 plays in 28 days.’ It should be ’28 shitty first drafts of plays.'”

That conversation became my guidepost, and parts of it morphed into a mantra, over the rest of the month.

And as things evolved, it turned out that the briefs I balked at the most, or felt like I had nothing to offer for, ended up resulting in my best work.

An instruction to “write shite” and “let yourself go” inspired me to pull a bunch of my notecards (sticky notes leftover from the 100 Days of Making challenge, each with a scene, sentence, or snippet of dialogue) off the fridge and order them into a play. A couple of weeks later, given a time-restriction exercise, I went back to the fridge for more notecards, and I really feel that the two plays that resulted from those  – “Scenes From a Marriage” and “Theories of Everything” – are the most cohesive of my creations.

But there are others I’m proud of. The math brief led me to a piece where the dialogue was all based on the Fibonacci sequence, and mentioned Phi and the nautilus shells. (“Nautilus”) A brief asking us to interview people and then write a monologue suitable for teens, making it seem as if it was one person speaking, gave me “Wo(Man)Hood” about a young woman who experiences anxiety but is also bi-gender, and a brief asking us to write about truth and art inspired me to write a monologue about body positivity – and the really cool thing about that one is that when my friend Nuchtchas read it, it inspired her to make art.

One brief, in particular, I have dubbed “Calvinball from Hell,” and when I read it, I told Clay that I was certain Sebastian had once been kicked out of an improv troupe. Here are the instructions we were given:

Let’s be super duper strict. Below are the rules for your play:

1. You must have 4 characters in the play – and the gender for 3 of them must be undefined! You can add two more – but only if they are not human.
2. One of the characters plays the banjo – really badly, and one character only speaks in rhyming couplets (can be the same if you like).
3. There must be a minimum of 3 pauses in the play, one of them must be a super long pause (think Pinter to the power of Pinter).
4. One of the characters has had relations with everybody else in the play (as well as characters that are mentioned but not seen).
5. Every line of dialogue must have one of the following: either 7 words, 12 words, 22 words, 29 words, 56 words or 99 words (you can punctuate as you like).
6. The play will contain three acts/scenes, but you can add one more if it’s a dream.
7. At some point, everybody on stage falls down to the ground.
8. Each scene/act must contain one person being told off for shouting (even though they didn’t shout), and another person revealing a big secret (even though it may not be true).
9. Each scene/act must have at least 10 lines of dialogue and 10 lines of actions.
10. Oh – and you must pick one letter of the alphabet (not Q, X or Z) for each character (each one can have a different one or the same) that they are not allowed to use in their dialogue at all.

If just reading that gave you pause, you’re not alone. And I admit, I whined about it  and railed against it for a good chunk of my available writing time. But in the end, I ended up with a play called “Frapping Pachelbel,” where all the characters were the instruments in a string quartet, except the Conductor, and Cello complained about their part, but in the end Viola was jealous over Conductor’s relationship with Cello, and started a duel (with bows used as swords, obviously) and everyone died.

Admittedly, it was kind of silly, but being outrageous felt like a breath of fresh air at the halfway point.

Others of the difficult challenges were less happy.

One of our challenges was to write something that would offend people. The obvious choice would have been using a lot of blue language – and honestly, that was one of Sebastian’s suggestions – but after nearly twenty hours with zero ideas, a meme posted in a feminist forum I belong to resulted in a play about the way men who commit domestic violence are not out of control, but so very in control that a group of them was able to come to a consensus about how long to wait, after starting a new relationship, before actually abusing their partners.

Chilling stuff.

Writing it made me squirm, and after I submitted it, I had to have my husband bring me a mug of cocoa and stay with me for cuddles.

The final week was my favorite. One challenge was to complete an unfinished piece of our own writing. Since I didn’t have any unfinished scripts, or any scripts from the challenge that I was ready to revisit, I adapted one of my own pieces of flash-fic into a play: “The Weather Man,” and for the penultimate challenge, which was to pick a previous challenge and go a different direction with it, I asked two of the people who’d read everything to pick for me.

My friend Fran asked me to revisit the challenge that required us to begin with this line: “Take of the girdle, Gertl, and tell me everything about Onun’s onions, or else little Dicklberg here will get it.” My first use of the line went in a science-fiction direction. My second use, for challenge 27, went to a more noir place, though, technically, there was a voiceover line before the first exchange of dialogue. Still “Up in Smoke,” is one of the pieces I’m really proud of.

So. What did I learn from this experience?

Well, I’m probably never going to be a playwright – and that’s okay, because I don’t really want to be a playwright. I much prefer to watch theatre or perform on stage. When it comes to writing, essays and narrative fiction are where I’m really comfortable, and I prefer to exercise those muscles.

Still, it’s good to stretch, from time to time. I accomplished something that scared me, and I learned a lot about myself, as a person and as a writer, in the process.

Will I participate again next year?

Ask me next January.

About the author: Melissa A. Bartell

Melissa is a writer, voice actor, podcaster, itinerant musician, voracious reader, and collector of hats and rescue dogs. She is the author of The Bathtub Mermaid: Tales from the Holiday Tub. You can learn more about her on her blog, listen to her podcast, or connect with her on on Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter.  All 28 of the plays she wrote for 2018’s 28 Plays Later challenge can be found here: http://www.missmeliss.com/category/28-plays-later/

Portrait in Pen and Ink by Melissa A. Bartell

Paper and Ink

She didn’t collect selfies on her phone, and rarely allowed photos to be taken at all. When asked why she would joke that she was the most unphotogenic (which isn’t a word, but should be) person in the world.

But it wasn’t true.

The truth was that when she was five, her mother’s first husband (NOT her biological father – that’s a different story) said that when she smiled she looked like she’d swallowed lemons.

 

She lived a lifetime of avoiding photos because no matter what she did the image on the film or the screen was always sullen, or silly, or stupid, and she was none of those things.

 

She never kept a journal.

Why write things that no one will ever read? she asked, not really rhetorically.

But no one ever gave her a satisfying answer.

 

So she filled spiral notebooks with stories, stacks upon stacks of green-lined paper filled with glossy black or peacock blue. Wet ink. Roller balls. Micro-fine points. And when writing online became accessible to the masses, she did that, too, coding her first website in Lynx, creating her first blog in OpenDiary because LiveJournal hadn’t yet been invented.

(But you don’t keep diaries, she was reminded.)

(No, she said, I don’t write words that no one will read; people read this.)

 

The archives on her current blog, which is too infrequently updated these days, go back sixteen years. For a long time, she posted content daily, until she realized she didn’t want to write who she was.

 

She wanted to write who she wasn’t.

She wanted to take reality and give it a twist – just there – and a tweak – and in so doing, she revealed far more of herself than people realized.

 

She doesn’t keep journals. She doesn’t save photos of herself or others.

She doesn’t need external sources to help her retain the things that are printed indelibly on her memory: her mother’s singing (off-key, but enthusiastic), her husband’s eyes (twinkling blue, like the ocean she loves, and full of adoration), her grandmother’s gnarled hands and crooked fingers, her grandfather’s slightly bow-legged walk, the way her dog comes to visit her when she’s in the bath – biting at the bubbles and then shaking his head in confusion.

 

If you want to see me, she doesn’t say out loud, but expects people to understand, read my words.

 

That ink is my blood.

That paper is my body.

 

Handwritten scenes stuck to the fridge on brightly colored post-its.

Scrawled phrases in purse-sized Moleskine notebooks.

Digital files full of stories, some that are ready and some that are still perking.

 

She thinks in music, because music was her first language. (Foghorns and sea birds and boat horns and her mother’s singing. )

But she lives in lines of text.

About the author: Melissa A. Bartell

Melissa is a writer, voice actor, podcaster, itinerant musician, voracious reader, and collector of hats and rescue dogs. She is the author of The Bathtub Mermaid: Tales from the Holiday Tub. You can learn more about her on her blog, listen to her podcast, or connect with her on on Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter.

Sunday Brunch: The Play’s the Thing

I wrote a play yesterday.

Actually, I wrote plays on Thursday and Friday as well, and, with the exception of a couple of audio drama scripts for which an outline was provided, these are the first three plays I’ve ever written.

Copyright: <a href='https://www.123rf.com/profile_icetray'>icetray / 123RF Stock Photo</a>

I don’t have any plans to become a professional playwright or screenwriter. In fact, these last three days have taught me that I vastly prefer writing straight narratives to scripts, but I’ve committed to a challenge to write twenty-eight plays in twenty-eight days, and even though I want to quit about once an hour, my husband and the friends who are following this process with me won’t allow it.

Truthfully, I won’t allow it, either.

Even more truthfully, I don’t think I’ve felt as unprepared or afraid of a creative project since the night I walked into the West End Market in downtown Dallas to audition for ComedySportz.

While I’m not an organization queen, or even a basic list-maker, I do like to be somewhat ready for these undertakings. When I’m auditioning for (or have been cast in) an acting role, even if it’s just bit part in an unpaid audio drama, I make sure I’ve read the whole script (not just my part), listened to a few episodes to get a feel for the piece, and/or done research on the setting, theme, and creators.  I won’t interview authors unless I’ve had time to read their books, and when I used to interview celebrities for All Things Girl, I made sure I knew their work, but also what sorts of questions they’d responded to favorably in other interviews.

But this project, “28 Plays Later,” which is sponsored by Theatre Delicatessen in London, isn’t something I could really prepare for. I mean, I didn’t even know about it until sometime in January, and the first prompt was issued at 4:00 PM (U.S. Central Time) last Wednesday. I’ve been in plays and musicals, and I’ve read a lot of scripts, but I’ve never really tried to write one.

When I told some of my friends what I was doing, I was asked if I could pre-write anything.

 

Technically, I suppose, I could. After all, there’s no requirement that you accept the daily challenge prompts, only that you submit a play every day by the deadline. (Challenges are issued every 24 hours, but you have 36 hours to complete each one, so there’s a twelve-hour overlap. So far, I have finished each challenge before the next was assigned, but today, I went down to the wire.)

The prompts, however, are useful. They give you a jumping-off point. They also foster community, because we all discuss how we’re interpreting the instructions.

Yesterday’s assignment was to use our dreams and nightmares as fodder for a surreal piece of theatre. We had an unlimited imaginary budget and were encouraged to create ‘hallucinatory images’ and disrupt order.

Despite the fact that I’ve been dabbling in writing horror for almost the last six months and consider the original A Nightmare on Elm Street to be one of the best horror movies of all time, at least conceptually, I was in tears as I tried to figure out how to approach this challenge. I’m not proud of it, but I complained about having no ideas to everyone who would even pretend to listen. I asked my husband for ideas. I whined about the fact that I don’t know how to translate things into a visual medium.

I even asked a friend who is also participating if Day Three was too early to quit.

“Yes,” he said simply.

“If I asked the same question on Day Fifteen would your answer be the same?” I demanded.

It was.

And so, even though I’m typically nocturnal, and my husband had an online game event that was going to keep him awake until well after three in the morning, I went to bed at midnight, with a frustrated brain and a discouraged heart.

Three hours later, I was awake again, dragging my laptop into bed with me, doing research on the amygdalae – the two almond-shaped clusters in the human brain where emotions and memories live. Two hours after that, I had an outline of a three-act play that included nightmares, tangos, Dracula, Winnie-the-Pooh, and a finale that took place on roller skates.

By nine yesterday morning, I was awake again, and writing like a demon, until, finally, I had twenty pages of script that involved a Dreamer giving lessons in ‘dreamology’ and a Child going through her safe sleep ritual.

Is it next year’s Tony winner?

Not even close.

But writing it forced me to stretch beyond my creative comfort zone, to try new things, and think of new ways of expressing old concepts.

Eleanor Roosevelt never actually said that you should do one thing every day that scares you, but she did say, “You must do the things you think you cannot do.”

I wrote a play yesterday that scared me, just thinking about it. I was sure I would miss the deadline and fail the challenge.

Instead, exhausted and jumpy, I wrote – and shared – something I never thought I could start, let alone finish.

And now?

Now, I’m going to brew a pot of tea and maybe open one of the boxes of Girl Scout cookies that my husband bought for me, and then I’m going to do what I did yesterday.

I’m going to write a play.

Photo Copyright: icetray / 123RF Stock Photo

 

About the author: Melissa A. Bartell

Melissa is a writer, voice actor, podcaster, itinerant musician, voracious reader, and collector of hats and rescue dogs. She is the author of The Bathtub Mermaid: Tales from the Holiday Tub. You can learn more about her on her blog, listen to her podcast, or connect with her on on Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter.

Sunday Brunch: On Silence

Silence. Most of us either love it or hate it, sometimes both depending on the circumstances.

From our earliest ages we’re taught that certain places are meant for silence. We are shushed in church, and reminded to be quiet when we visit libraries. We write poems about silence, repeat proverbs about it, and even sing songs lauding it, or, in the case of lullabies, we sing songs to coax it from others.

But those early types of silence, the enforced silences, are radically different from the kinds of quiet, of silence, that we embrace as adults. We might take our morning coffee out to the deck or patio to enjoy the quiet of an early morning. We make time in the middle of a busy day to meditate or pray. We seclude ourselves in the bathroom and soak in a scented bath in the evening.

And in all those moments, we think we’re experiencing silence, but really, we’re not. What we’re truly hearing is the lack of intentional sound. We may have turned off the radio, set our phones to do not disturb, or locked the bathroom door against chattery interlopers, but that isn’t really silence.

Fireplace

Last Wednesday evening, my husband and I sat in our darkened living room and listened to the crackle of the fireplace. We’d just finished eating tacos by candlelight. It wasn’t the meal I’d planned for us – I try to limit our ‘wrapper food’ to the occasional lunch – but the power had gone out late that afternoon, and our house has an all-electric kitchen.

It was late enough in the day that neither of us had fully-charged phones or laptops. We’d received an initial text that power would be restored at five pm, then seven, and finally midnight. It was supposed to dip below freezing that night – not as cold as the conditions our friends and family in the Midwest and Midlantic states were experiencing, but cold for Texas, where houses are built to shed heat, not retain it.

So we stoked the fire, and we lit all the candles and we brought blankets out to the living room and cuddled on the couch. We played games on our phones while we could, but eventually, we lapsed into quiet.

Into silence.

It’s a strange thing about modern life. We so rarely experience true silence. Even when snow blankets the world with its special, magical hush, we are still surrounded by electrical hum.

But when the power is out… when the fridge ceases cycling and the clocks stop blinking in digital blue or green… when light pollution is suddenly dimmed… that’s when silence truly falls.

As a rule, I’m not a fan of silence. I can’t sleep without white noise distracting me from the external house sounds that come with life in outer suburbia and muting the often too-loud thoughts inside my own head.

Last Wednesday, silence was an annoyance. I complained loudly to my husband. I even texted one of my friends that it was too quiet, that instead of being soothing, the silence felt oppressive and creepy.

But eventually, I relaxed into the softness, the cool darkness, and the almost perfect soundlessness. I went to the bedroom to curl up with my dogs and let the steady sound of their breathing – the only discernable noise – lull me into sleep.

My husband guarded the fire until it had burned low enough that it was safe to leave it, and then joined me in the bed. We lay together in the darkness, not speaking. Not really touching. Just breathing in the silence.

Shortly after midnight, the power returned, jarring us out of our quietude and into wakefulness. I wish I could say that we looked at each other, laughed, and turned the lights back off, but we’re tech addicts and habitual night owls.

We went back to bed around two in the morning, our usual hour, but something of our evening of enforced silence lingered. We were gentler with each other that night and the next day, more mindful.

I’m still not fond of silence.

But I like quiet.

And I love the peacefulness of snuggling on the couch with my husband, not talking, not watching television, just being together.

About the author: Melissa A. Bartell

Melissa is a writer, voice actor, podcaster, itinerant musician, voracious reader, and collector of hats and rescue dogs. She is the author of The Bathtub Mermaid: Tales from the Holiday Tub. You can learn more about her on her blog, listen to her podcast, or connect with her on on Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter.

Sunday Brunch: Winter Flames

“The darkness of the whole world cannot swallow the glowing of a candle.”  ~Robert Altinger

Christmas. Hanukkah. Yule. Whether you come from a single faith tradition, or from a family like mine, that blends and merges traditions from several cultures, there is no shortage of winter holidays to choose from.

All are radically different. Christmas celebrates the birth of Christ. Hanukkah remembers the Maccabees and their defeat of the Seleucids as well as the rededication of their temple and the miracle of the oil, which was only enough for one night, but lasted for eight. Yule originated as Nordic and Germanic midwinter celebration that involved feasting and gift-giving (and in the oldest celebrations, sacrifices).

And yet, these winter holidays all have something in common as well – aside from the tendency to celebrate with incredibly delicious, albeit unhealthy foods. They all bring light to the longest nights of the year.

Copyright: arcticphotoworks / 123RF Stock Photo

True, in this age of technological wonders when we can have books in our hands at the touch of a button, and get antsy when we’re away from our smart-phones or tablets for more than a few minutes, and are limited in our ability to work late into the wee hours, not by waning daylight, but only by our stamina and the amount of caffeine we’re willing to ingest, we no longer rely on candles or firelight for physical illumination.

And yet…

And yet we light candles to mark the progress through Advent.

We light them, one at a time, to count the eight days of Hanukkah.

We build fires in our hearths as symbolic representations of the bonfires our ancestors might have danced around, or we build actual bonfires and invite our friends to dance with us.

We fill our homes with candles that represent nothing more than a cozy glow, and we gather ’round our gas logs or Franklin stoves even when our houses are fitted with central heating systems, because there’s something – some magical thing – about fire that seems to drive away the stress and darkness of winter in a way that electric light never can.

I think we forget, sometimes, that the holidays aren’t always merry and bright. They’re not always full of smiling faces and joyous laughter.

These winter holidays come to us at the end of the year, which means they’re both an ending, a sort of finish line we’re all racing toward, and a final hurdle we must overcome before we have the opportunity to start anew. We fill our homes with those colorful candles and crackling fires as much to keep the shadows at bay and drive away the darkness, as we do to celebrate the light.

Our flames aren’t some form of denial, though. Rather, they’re sort of a nightlight for our souls. They keep our hearts warm and our homes welcoming, and remind us that all winters end.

Hanukkah begins on Tuesday evening. Yule comes with the Winter Solstice on December 21st. Christmas follows a few days after that. Whether you’re celebrating one of those old holidays, or you’ve embraced something newer, like Kwanzaa or Chalica – or even Festivus – may the flames you ignite keep you warm in body and soul this winter.

About the author: Melissa A. Bartell

Melissa is a writer, voice actor, podcaster, itinerant musician, voracious reader, and collector of hats and rescue dogs. She is the author of The Bathtub Mermaid: Tales from the Holiday Tub. You can learn more about her on her blog,  listen to her podcast, or connect with her on on Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter.

Instrumental: Farmbox Adventures by Melissa A. Bartell

Two years ago, driving home from a visit to my husband’s family in South Dakota, we were in rural Nebraska when we passed by a lush, green, field. It was the kind of farmland typical of a postcard image, and it was beautiful, until we saw the sign “Presented by Monsanto” at the corner of the field, just outside the fence, and our hearts fell.

Summer Farmbox by Melissa A. BartellNearly ten years ago, on another trip to South Dakota, we saw the number of family farms that had been bought by commercial soybean growers, and found an eerie response in the fact that the high school had been made smaller, and the population was going down.

Both of these images have haunted me for years, but even though I strive to buy vegetables in season, to buy locally-sourced or organic products whenever possible, when you live in Outer Suburbia doing so can be a challenge, and while my city does have a farmer’s market that operates throughout the year, its hours are far too early to be compatible with my extremely nocturnal tendencies.

Ironically, it was my friend Tabitha (she of Sunday Sensations) who gave me the key to making a difference in my own life, as well as in my community. She’d mentioned her recent delivery from a local-to-her CSA (community supported agriculture) organization, and it spurred me to find something similar in my own neighborhood.

Choosing a CSA was easy for me: of the several that exist in my region, only one delivers to my address. I spent the weekend of my birthday reading all their information, and made my first order that week. Thus began my relationship with FarmboxDelivery.com.

While many CSAs operate as co-ops – you buy shares and get a box that represents the number of shares you have – this one is a bit simpler. They have several ‘sizes’ of boxes ranging from wee (which is apparently their most popular option, and, they say, is ideal for a two-adult household) to boxes large enough for corporations to share out (or use in the company kitchen, maybe?), and we also have the option of choosing all fruit, all vegetables, or a mix.

Even better, there’s a way to ban certain items from ever showing up in my box. I’m one of those people for whom cilantro tastes like soap (this is genetic – it means I lack a specific enzyme), so I’ve asked that they never deliver cilantro. Similarly, I’m not a fan of kale (and as someone who is extremely hypothyroid, I’m not supposed to eat it, anyway) so I’ve asked them never to send me that.

My CSA allows me to customize my box, as well. Every Friday, I can access the list of the next week’s box, and if there’s something I have too much of, or isn’t included but is available, I can add or change a few items. As well, I can add some meats, dairy, and eggs, all from local farmers. We’ve become big fans of the cherry-smoked bacon and Mexican-style ground chicken sausage we can get, and I no longer buy milk in the grocery store unless I’m making something that requires a lot of it. The milk we get with our farm box isn’t raw, but it is low-temperature pasteurized, and it comes with the cream on top.

In addition to exploring many of the various add-on options, I’m having a blast discovering new-to-me vegetables, or learning new ways of preparing familiar ones. Farmbox Sausage by Melissa A. Bartell

This fall, I’ve received acorn squash three times, butternut squash once, and delicata squash twice, and the latter was previously unknown to me. Another week, I received Swiss chard, which I’d never cooked before, and really enjoyed trying.

Even though the farm box I receive is meant for two people, there are days when I’m just not in the mood to cook, or I’m not home. When we had to make an emergency trip to South Dakota over Labor Day weekend because my mother-in-law died, the friend who kindly took care of my dogs was invited to take home anything that wouldn’t keep, and when we get behind on using things, she isn’t offended if I beg her to take things off my hands, so they won’t go to waste.

My Wednesday night routine now involves setting the empty carton from the previous week’s farm box out on the front porch (along with any empty egg cartons or cold-bags) to be picked up when the new box is dropped on Thursday.

My new Thursday ritual is opening the new farm box.

Often, I am greeted by the earthy smell of potatoes – they leave them loose in the box – but equally frequently the first thing I encounter is the greens. (I confess, I often sing “The Witch’s Rap” from Into the Woods when I’m unboxing lettuces and other greens. My life is a musical, after all.)

As I write this, we’ve just finished a lovely dinner of broiled teriyaki salmon, Yukon gold potatoes sautéed with yellow onions and garlic, and a salad of green leaf lettuce, cucumbers, and tomatoes, and except for the garlic, every vegetable came from my farm box. This is a fairly usual occurrence now, and there are some nights when I try to make an entire meal solely from farm box products (so far, our favorite is quiche made with the afore-mentioned chicken sausage and mushrooms).

You might be asking me, is it worth the money? Well, I pay about $25/week for my box. $5 of that is a delivery fee but when I add milk and eggs, the total isn’t much different, because I’m over the minimum price for free delivery. It’s probably slightly more expensive doing this than it would be just buying veggies at the store, but not only does it mean I’m not heading to the grocery store as often, I’m also supporting local farmers, which is vitally important.

If only my CSA delivered coffee, I’d be completely happy.

Farmbox Unboxing by Melissa A. Bartell

About the author: Melissa A. Bartell

Melissa is a writer, voice actor, podcaster, itinerant musician, voracious reader, and collector of hats and rescue dogs. She is the author of The Bathtub Mermaid: Tales from the Holiday Tub. You can learn more about her on her blog, listen to her podcast, or connect with her on on Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter.

Welcome to Issue #8: Hope & Wonder

“God puts rainbows in the clouds so that each of us — in the dreariest and most dreaded moments — can see a possibility of hope.”
~Maya Angelou

You see a rainbow emerging from a cloudy sky, and you can’t help but smile.

You stop at the mailbox on your way home from work, and take a moment to consider what might be inside. A letter or card from a dear friend, maybe, or the latest issue of a favorite magazine.

You catch a glimpse of your dog or cat, nose pressed to the window, waiting for you to come home – even though you’ve only been out for ten minutes.

“A snow day literally and figuratively falls from the sky, unbidden, and seems a thing of wonder.”
~ Susan Orlean

You stand on the patio as a squall builds, and you let the mounting energy of the storm invigorate your heart, mind, and body.

You spend more time in the kitchen, cooking amazing foods, laughing with your best friend, your partner, your parents, as you slice and dice and saute and stir.

You wake in the middle of the night to silence, the magical hush of the season’s first snow.

“He who marvels at the beauty of the world in summer will find equal cause for wonder and admiration in winter.”
~John Burroughs

You try to capture these feelings – hope and wonder – that exist hand in hand, and are so close to the surface as the holidays approach.

Maybe something you overhear in a café or witness while shopping sparks a story. Perhaps there’s a poem waiting in the crackle of your fireplace or the pattering of rain on the roof. A child playing in the last of the autumn leaves might make a perfect photo, or inspire a memory of your own childhood, your cheeks rosy from playing in chilly air.

“Once you choose hope, anything’s possible.”
~Christopher Reeve

Welcome to Hope & Wonder, the 8th issue of Modern Creative Life, and the end-cap of our second year of publication.

While this issue is slightly abbreviated (the first issue of our third year will launch in mid-January), it’s also packed with content.

In Hope & Wonder, you’ll get a peek into the daily lives of other creative folk in our Studio Tours and Typical Tuesday series, and meet people walking fascinating creative pathways in Conversations Over Coffee. With photos and fiction, poetry and prompts, essays and enlightenment, you’ll find a deeper understanding into all the ways in which we all create.

As always, our mission at Modern Creative Life is to honor the pursuit and practice of joyful creativity. We believe that the creative arts enrich our everyday living, enhance our environment, create lasting connections, and sustain our souls. Please join us as we look to other creatives for ways in which they find peace in the shadows, or succor in the sunshine.

As we share the stories of other makers, we invite you to use their experiences as a guide on your quest for your own Modern Creative Life.

What do you hope for, or wonder about? What gives you hope, or makes that childlike bubble of delight and wonder surround you? We invite you to share your stories, poems, essays and photos with us as we celebrate the hope and wonder all around us, and the way each helps to nourish our creative selves. We are open to single contributions as well as new regular contributors. Email us at moderncreativelife@gmail.com.

About the author: Melissa A. Bartell

Melissa is a writer, voice actor, podcaster, itinerant musician, voracious reader, and collector of hats and rescue dogs. She is the author of The Bathtub Mermaid: Tales from the Holiday Tub. You can learn more about her on her blog, listen to her podcast, or connect with her on on Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter.

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