Two months before turning thirty, I separated from my husband, moved into a little house, bought a big journal, and for twelve days, I wrote down every single possibly significant memory. It was the beginning of my commitment to writing.
Shortly after, I was invited to annex a writing class at the local college. The piece I turned in started with a dream that revealed an intrigue I had avoided admitting in waking life. The idea contained a chilling aspect to it, but the submission was ridiculously undeveloped and amateur.
When the teacher, a lanky, 40-year old handed the piece back to me, he said, “You write like a woman. And you’ll never write like anything else.” He swung his floppy hair from his eyes and continued. “Let me tell you what writing is,” he said. “When I walked in my girlfriend’s kitchen the other night, she was making guacamole for the second time in a week. She described it as a ‘Guacamole Summer.’ That is writing.”
I was full of lofty ideas about taking the necessary risks to produce good personal writing, digging for the truth in a situation, turning it into a story, and at least attempting to make it universal. His girlfriend’s example might have been a catchy book title, but it struck my tender heart as merely scratching the surface.
That evening, my boyfriend, who was several years younger than I, sat staring at the walls of his art studio as I described the encounter. Never able to listen for more than thirty-seconds, before I got to the end, he grabbed a hammer and banged the ends of a pile of boards, an unneeded jazzy percussion accompanying the rhythm of my words.
Frustrated with yet another dismissal, from the bottom of my lungs, I started to sob. That got his attention. Unsure of what to do, my lover said, “Come on. What do you care? He’s nothing but a peeny turkey dick.”
By now, I am used to constructive criticism from other writers, and nothing slows me down in my commitment to write. But months passed before I had an epiphany about that emotional day. At the age of fourteen, I announced to my father with great confidence that I intended to be a writer. His response was, “How the hell do you think you’re going to do that.”
Thankfully, my boyfriend’s adolescent assessment detonated the impact of the teacher’s comment and, it is with mixed emotions, I remember that period as the Peeny Turkey Dick Summer. The phrase remains one for all seasons, for too many situations we find ourselves in, including and especially what our country faces these next four years.
Both images by my sister, Melanie Urdang, this one of the Occulus at Ground Zero.
Wow, the first putdown by a peeny turkey dick. Well done, Stephanie.
Just last summer, I had a printing teacher tell me to “think like a man.” By that he meant, “Don’t speak to the other artists in the group, and for god’s sake don’t help them. Only women do that.”
And now, the times are changing, the ground is shifting. New firsts are coming.
Women,are speaking out and they must.
I look back at the various advice I have received through the years regarding my own creative process. Many people, both academic instructors and self appointed critics, have thrown out self serving tidbits that showed they had no idea what my path was, it certainly was not their path. I realize I gave many of them too much power over my creative process which stunted it when I was trying to figure out how to meet their expectations vs my own.
The best advice I ever got as an artist was when I was working as an RN in a hideously busy county hospital in Los Angeles in the early 80’s. I had an elderly lady who was quite ill but stunning in her beauty with an incredible smile on my patient assignment. When I came to introduce myself, check her vital signs and discuss her needs for the shift both medical and personal, she touched my arm and said, “My dear, I can tell you are much than a nurse”. I was taken back by her observation and we started discussing our lives. She had moved to LA as a young woman to dance in the chorus for the early era of silent movies. She had an amazing life as a young woman, her eyes were full of light when she discussed her career. The next day I was off but came back just to see her, bring her some flowers and show her some of my art: hand knitted tapestry clothing and pastel drawings. She touched the garments, smiled and held them up, told me, “You are such a talent, such a bright light. Don’t ever let anyone tell you how to create your magic, this is something that so few have in their heart and soul, those who would give advice on perfection either don’t understand it or are jealous with their own agenda”. I was touched by her words to me that rung true. When I came back to work for my next shift several days later, I was very sad that this lady had died but her words and her smile have always stayed in my heart.
You have a tenderness in your approach that belies criticism….paint your painting without fear and doubt. It is yours.
Thank you so much Ed. Now, no fear other than getting as much written as possible before the end