New Writing: 12-Bar Blues in Pilgrimage

A story I wrote, 12-Bar Blues, is in this fine publication.
You’ll find a short story I wrote, 12-Bar Blues, in this fine publication.

I’m very pleased to announce that one of my short stories, 12-Bar Blues, has been published by Pilgrimage. Right now, it’s only available in print. Consider ordering a copy and showing your support for this fine literary journal. Though the Pilgrimage Press website needs updating to include this issue, you can still order it by going to this page and entering Volume 38, Issue 1. It’s $7.00 per issue and they accept PayPal. There is talk of an updated Pilgrimage website that might include some of the stories and poems they’ve previously published. If/when this comes to pass, and if 12-Bar Blues is one of the stories they publish online, you can be sure I’ll let you know.

In case you’re new here, I’ve been working on a short story collection in addition to the documentary, A Life’s Work, and this is the fourth story in that collection to be published. Personally, I like this one the best so far.

If you’re interested, here’s the story’s convoluted history. I began writing 12-Bar Blues at a residency, Playa Summer Lake, in February of 2012, but a key component of the story goes back to the fall of 2010 and another residency, Blue Mountain Center. It was there that I came across a hand-crafted classical guitar. (You can listen to me try to do the guitar, and Chopin, justice.) That guitar was the inspiration for making one of the characters in the story an apprentice to a luthier. And I suppose I could take this story even further back, since it is a sequel to There Is Joy Before the Angels of God. (Published in The Literary Review in 2010 and begun prior to 2007 [I know I worked on it at Jentel, a residency I attended March-April 2007]).

Now let’s jump forward. In March of 2013, while at Ucross (another residency), I picked up the story again and thought it was close. I sought feedback and received suggestions from a fellow resident. I revised it and submitted it to three journals over a few months time, including Pilgrimage, which had put out a call for work for their “Grace” issue.  I thought 12-Bar Blues fit that bill perfectly, but Pilgrimage had other ideas; they wanted it for their “Labor” issue. Who am I to argue, it fits that bill well, too.

If you should read 12-Bar Blues, or any of my work, I invite you to let me know what you think, ask questions, start a dialogue, whatever. I try to keep the links current, but sometimes things get kerflooey. If you can’t access a piece, email me and I’ll hook you up.




Get Thee to an Artist Residency: Advice from an “Expert”

Why Artist Residencies

Bitter? Who Me?

I think often of something Jill Tarter, ex-Director, Center for SETI  Research, said when I asked her about working on a project she might not see “completed” in her lifetime:

I’m not going to be bitter and disappointed in my old age. I’m going to celebrate the fact that I was lucky enough to be part of getting something started that has the potential of having a profound impact….

Tomorrow, the SETI Institute may fold up its tent and go away because we can’t find the funding to keep it going, but it’s also enormously satisfying and there’s something about the opportunity, the privilege to work on a scientific question that everyone can relate to. That’s it. You can’t say anything else other than it is a privilege to be able to spend a career doing that.

Even though I have the memory her saying this to me directly, and have her saying this captured for posterity, it’s still easy slip into the role of the bitter aging artist. The work can be slow and tedious and it seems never to go right. And will it ever be done? And why aren’t people returning phone calls? And why has the computer decide not to open the damned file? And why does everyone  on Facebook have such a fabulous, successful yummy life? And what’s the point of making a movie anyway when people are just going to watch 58 seconds of it on their iPhones and then stop to text friends and check email and go on Facebook and read The Onion headlines and never return to your film again? Why ef’ing bother? Nobody cares. What’s the point?

Yes, it’s easy go down this road.

Which is why on the days I have to work on MY work, I drink my coffee out of one of three mugs. These mugs have magical powers; they can (sometimes) keep the bitterness at bay.

There’s this one, purchased during my first artist residency (Centrum Creative Arts and Education in Port Towsend, WA). I walked to the nearby Port Townsend Marine  Science Center and bought this mug because of the curious octopus.  I left a favorite red mug I had brought there and this came back home with me.

Port Townsend Marine Science Center mug

There’s this one, which was a gift from an estranged friend. I’ve always loved the paper cups with this design. But more than that, the words resonate: “We are happy to serve you.” It is important for me to remember that I am serving the film and whatever else I happen to be making, that those things are bigger than me.

We are happy to serve you  

And then there’s this one, purchased when I was a fellow at the MacDowell Colony. I save this one for days when I am way on the low and bitter side of the spectrum. It bolsters my ego a little to remember that some folks thought highly enough of my work to let me in their club. But also this mug reminds me of one specific moment.

MacDowell Colony mug

I was in my rustic studio editing. I had set up my work area so that when I sat at the computer I looked at a wall with my notes on it and positioned a moveable wall to block any chance of gazing out of the window while I was at my desk. One could gaze out those windows for hours if you weren’t careful.

I took a break and made a cup of coffee. My guitar sat in an armchair, stories and a dictionary consumed another desk, a book of Flannery O’Connor letters rested on the nightstand. I looked out the window and down the tree-lined dirt road. It started snowing and suddenly I felt blessed. Blessed to be where I was at that moment (MacDowell makes it easy to feel this way), but also blessed to be able to do what I do. What a privilege to be given time and space, and not just at residencies, but in my life, to do these things. To read, to play music, to write, to work on a film with amazing people about amazing people. I was profoundly happy that moment and I said out loud to myself, “Remember this. Remember this. Take this with you to the grave.”

It seems there’s a big difference  between someone, even someone you greatly admire, explaining to you why you’re privileged and apprehending it first hand. And I can’t always summon that feeling, but I can remember that I had it, that I understood with all of my being what a privilege it is to be able to spend a life doing this. Sometimes all I need is a mug, sometimes  that’s enough.

Do you have a mug, pen, notebook, article of clothing, etc. that has special powers? I’d love to hear about it, or see it. Leave a comment or send a photo. Really, I mean it!

Noodling, or How I Spent My Month at Ucross

I’ll be honest, I wasn’t thrilled with my productivity at Ucross. This had nothing to do with Ucross, they provided an atmosphere that nurtured creativity and productivity. It was the headspace I brought with me from NYC. The best work I did there was document a performance piece done by one of the residents. My work, feh… I brought some stories to revise and one of those seemed okay-ish (it’s a sequel of sorts to There Is Joy before the Angels of God) so I was happy with the draft I produced, though it’s still far from being anywhere near done.

I brought the 25 or so clips of A Life’s Work and arranged and re-arranged them. I came up with some good transitions, I took a lot of notes, I thought a lot about how to incorporate Jeff Stein, Paolo Soleri’s successor, into the film. I also re-realized that the clips are works in progress as well and will require re-editing in order for them to be part of the whole film. Not earth-shattering news, but there it was. It was a little frustrating not having all my footage on hand, but that was impossible given my gear and travel arrangements.

I played a LOT of guitar: I recorded a Villa-Lobos Prelude al fresco, I worked on a Scarlatti piece, and I noodled.

Noodling is what musicians call aimless playing. In my case, it was playing a straight up 12 bar blues romp with your basic blues licks thrown in. I also worked on my finger picking.

My right handIt’s a curious thing, as a classical guitarist I trained the fingers of my right hand to work independently. The kind of work I conditioned them to do and the more pattern-oriented finger picking are related, but very different skills. So spending time on that was very satisfying. I think it shook up my creative juices a bit.

I can hear you: “You went to a residency and all you did was play guitar? Was that on your application?” Yes. And no, it wasn’t on my application.

But the good news is that from that noodling came several musical sketches that might be of use in A Life’s Work. I certainly don’t plan on composing the music myself, but these sketches might start a discussion between the composer and me.

And that’s something to look back on and feel good about.

If you want hear some classical guitar music, just click on the Music page.

Ucross – Slideshow

I’m leaving Ucross today and preparing for a bumpy re-entry. They always are.

Here are some photos taken during my residency. Hope you like them.


March in Wyoming – Thank You, Ucross!

For the month of March, my home computer monitor will look like this —



— that is, off, because I’ll be at the Ucross Foundation artist residency in Wyoming.

“What Is It with You and Artist Residencies, Licata?”

I’ll be writing, but I’ll also be working on A Life’s Work. It seems I’ve reached a point where I have to start thinking about putting together all these sections (three to six minutes long) I’ve been editing, some of which I’ve revealed on this here little blog.

The film’s narrative structure is straight forward. It begins with a brief Overture where each subject speaks in broad terms about their  subjects. For example, Jill Tarter of the SETI Institute says —

Throughout recorded history humans have wondered what their place in the cosmos actually is. Are we alone? Where do we fit in? Is life somewhere else going to be at all like us?  And how much more is there than what we’ve been able to experience on this one planet?

Following the Overture section,  I have the rest of the film organized thematically, so that Tarter, Robert Darden of the Black Gospel Music Restoration Project, David and Jared Milarch of the Archangel Ancient Tree Archive, and Paolo Soleri of Arcosanti talk about their Goals, Beginnings, Challenges/Meeting Challenges, Setbacks, Successes, and Other Successes. Organizing the themes to create a narrative structure is pretty straightforward, but organizing the order of the subjects within each theme will be a huge challenge, and that’s where I’m at. You can see the mathematical possibilities are quite numerous.

So I’ll be shuffling all these sections around within each theme. I will be looking for strong transitions, because this film is going to … not live and die by the transitions, but sparkle or not by the transitions. I’m taking a laptop loaded with iMovie and these sections. I’m not looking to do any fine editing. I just want to move stuff around and see what happens.

It should be an exciting month.

And though the posts may slow down a little, you can be sure I’ll be uploading some photos of the Wyoming landscape. Hopefully  the blizzards will wait until I’m back in NYC.


Why Artist Residencies

Here’s a post from the early days of the blog, December 2009. It was written at VCCA, where I am right now, though I am typing this in C2, a composer studio, and not in the corn crib. I think it’s as timely as ever and worth reposting. And this one has especially good comments.

Last week I had the honor of being asked by Sheila Gulley Pleasants, Director of Artists’ Services at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, to screen my film Tango Octogenario to the VCCA Board of Directors and say a few words about the value and importance of artist residencies. I don’t remember exactly what I said, but it went something like this.

A name tag I didn't mind wearing at all.
Here’s one name tag I didn’t mind wearing.

Time and space are the most obvious gifts a residency provides, but just as important is the interaction between artists of different disciplines. I storyboarded Tango Octogenario at Centrum Arts and Creative Education. Could I have done that in my apartment? Probably. But while I was at Centrum I met a choreographer and told her I was making a dance film. She invited me to her rehearsal and asked me to videotape it. As I did, the ideas were buzzing in my head like bees in a hive. Many of those ideas then made their way into the storyboards. Could that have happened in my apartment? Not very likely.

Here at VCCA, I met a poet, Alex Chertok. I told him about A Life’s Work and the Black Gospel Music Restoration Project and he told me that his father owns a collection of rare jazz films. Did he have any gospel? I asked. Alex put me in touch with his father and sure enough, he does. Will I be calling on him for footage? It’s very likely.

And then there’s the deep stuff. Listening to the readings, looking at the sculptures and paintings, casually conversing in the bucolic setting or around the dinner table about art, travel, food, histories, who knows what’s seeping into our subconscious and how it will manifest itself in our work down the line? And the friendships that develop may be fleeting or lifelong, but they are always significant.

I hope that I give back half as much as I get from my fellow artists at residencies. I hope, too, that I can someday give back to these havens that have given me so much. For now, my screening and talk will have to do.

Thanks again for the opportunity, Sheila.

Sweet Briar College – Guest Artist, The Guy Making A Life’s Work

I did my stint as guest artist at Sweet Briar College and I’m happy to report that it went very well. After consulting with the teacher, Paige Critcher, we decided it might be more beneficial if I showed my earlier, shorter work. Showing the 36-minute sample didn’t seem like the best use of a one-hour class where I was supposed to talk about where ideas come from, how to make your first film, etc. So it went a little something like this ….

Sweet Briar College Students
Sweet Briar College Students Watch 8 1/2 x 11.


8 ½ x 11: First Film, Film School

I showed 8 ½ x 11 and gave my spiel: the inspiration for the screenplay, how I found cast and crew, and how making that film was very much my film school. I was a little anxious, because I have shown this film, which is about going on job interviews, to college students and it’s fallen flat—they couldn’t relate to the experience. But these Sweet Briar College students got the joke and laughed at all the appropriate places.

Tango Octogenario: Second Film, Unlike the First

I then introduced Tango Octogenario, telling them that I wanted to challenge myself and make something very different from the first film. Here again, they totally got it, and I heard someone say at the end, “So sweet.” I liked that.

After Tango screened, we spoke about the challenges that film presented and how different it was from 8 ½ x 11. Then …

A Life’s Work: My Life’s Work (so far)

The hour was going by quickly, so we showed the trailer for A Life’s Work. After that, one of the students asked me an excellent question, one I had never been asked before. “When you’re preparing to interview someone, how do you know that you’ve accumulated all the questions you should ask?”

Kind of a stumper, isn’t it? I said you really don’t know, not until it’s too late. But I usually interview people at least twice, over a span of some time, so I have time to go over the transcript and if I see that I missed a question or an opportunity for a follow up, then I’ll ask that next time.

It was a great experience, and I would do it again in a heartbeat. In fact, next time I’m at VCCA (if I’m so lucky), I will try to do it again.

Special thanks to Sheila Gulley Pleasants of VCCA for connecting me with Paige Critcher at Sweet Briar College. Extra special thanks to her awesome students. 


Off to VCCA

I’m off to the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. I’ve been there twice before and it’s always been good to me.

Why am I going this time? To write. I’ve been working on the film all summer  and need a break. So I’ll spend the next three weeks working on the writing.

But I am also going because Jeff Stein told me to go.


VCCA - the view from my windowIn September, I learned that Jeff Stein, AIA, president of the Cosanti Foundation, was coming to NYC in the fall and I was excited to interview him in front of the camera. But then the residency at VCCA came up. Jeff and I were coordinating dates and I was worried we’d miss each other. Finally, after a number of email exchanges, we worked it out and he signed off with:

“Get thee to Virginia, sir.”

How can I defy such an order? So, to Virginia I go.


Bad Math

There’s a saying I’m fond of: Don’t do the math. What math? The bad math that tells you how much time and money you spend on your art in relation to how much money you earn from your art. The math that reveals your acceptance to rejection ratio and the hours of suffering to hours of elation ratio. For most everyone, the results are grim.

Recently, I discovered another math not to do: the number of drafts. The excruciatingly talented writer John Yearley hipped me to a nice little psychological trick: name your drafts with the date and not a draft number. So instead of MyStoryVer193.doc try MyStory031812.doc. Of course you could just count those 193 drafts, but it’s less in your face this way.

But there are times when doing the math isn’t bad. There is, as I discovered at the Playa artist residency, a good math. About two weeks into my residency at Playa I decided to write 1,000 words a day for thirty days. These thousand words had to be part of new stories, a couple of which I had in mind before I arrived. That would theoretically yield 30,000 words. That’s about 100 pages. For me, that would be a colossal output.

I inherited from my father a fondness for numbers.
I stuck to it, and from February 1 until March 4, I wrote 1,000 or more words. (I took three days off and one day I wrote about 500 words). The result was a total of 31,416 words and 12 new stories generated. The 1,000 words forced me to come up with new narratives. At the end of 30 days, I was cooked, but happy.

I know that 90% of these words are crap, and the stories little more than sketches. Some of them will be developed, some of them will merged, others discarded. But the point is I now have a giant chunk of marble to work with, to chip away at, to carve and polish. For the first time this collection feels and looks like a book.

So what next? I need to get back to A Life’s Work, trying to find money to hire an editor and complete the film. And while I do that, work on that giant chunk of marble. I’ll also be trying to avoid the bad math and trying to embrace that good math.

Homeward Bound

I leave Playa today. It has been a remarkable experience. The environment has opened up a creative vein, the people have stimulated, inspired, and nourished. As a writer, I have been more productive here these last two months than I have been in the last three years combined.

Spending two months in a place like Summer Lake makes me wonder: could I live in a place like this? Let’s put aside for a moment the fact that spending that amount of time at an artist residency is not living in a place. I have been living in a fantasy world where things like money, work, family obligations, health issues, and food shopping are shoved conveniently to the background.

Have you put that aside? Great. While you’re at it, let’s put aside the question entirely.

In NYC I don’t need to leave my building to have an impromptu dinner with my beloved niece; I can meet my friend S. in the middle of a Friday afternoon for coffee and insightful conversation; J. for Sunday Thai brunch and chuckles; M. for hearty early breakfasts and heart to hearts; bike across 57th Street to the Upper East Side to serenade lil’ E. and have takeaway with J.; bike over the Manhattan Bridge for an eggy lunch with W. and P.; head uptown for cheap ethnic eats and a catch up with the globetrotting A.; meet S. for Vietnamese food and share many laughs over sometimes painful subjects; teach my wonderful guitar students in my welcoming apartment; exploring Chinatown and other neighborhoods with my dearest El. These are some of the people in my life in NYC.

The New York Public Library, Lincoln Center in the summer, SummerStage in Central Park, Central Park, the Hudson River, the bike path along the Hudson River, Fairway, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Noguchi Museum, Sullivan Street Bakery … The things I cherish in NYC are too numerous to list.

And that, I think, answers the question.

So, it is with gratitude and a little sadness that I say goodbye to this place, to these new friends, and to the hawks. But it is with excitement that I look forward to saying hello again to my loved ones and to being home.

Here are some photos of Playa.