Sunday, August 10, 2014

Art School Madness, the Writer's Life, and the Counter-Culture as Home

When I put this outfit together, I was thinking of an art school look, circa 1980.

You know, like in the movie Fame. Do you see the woman in between Leroy and Coco? Her, the one with the vest, jeans, and pageboy cap. People like her were my inspiration for my outfit.

The hairstyle, a bit like Coco's, just made sense: natural, tousled, a bit bohemian.

There's something somehow irreverent and rebellious about pairing highly tailored business wear with more casual clothes like jean shorts. There's something cheeky in wearing your grandmother's necklace as a tie. It all bespeaks a certain art school student sensibility: wearing the clothes of businessmen in a way that shows a rejection of the businessman's "straight" life.

Shoes: Keds; Shorts: Reitman's; Vest, purse, sunglasses, earrings, barrette, D'Orlan brooch: vintage; Right hand ring: Effy; Engagement ring: Britton Diamonds; Monet Necklace: was my maternal grandmother's; Bracelet: was my paternal grandmother's
As cheeky as it may be, this deliberate rejection of mainstream values does actually reflect who I am quite well. I love this photo of me.  I think it captures who I really am, the good and the bad: irreverent, cynical, caustic, independent, opinionated, vocal, brainy, skeptical, rebellious, iconoclastic, and sad but soldiering on. 

I've just described a perpetual outsider, haven't I? It's possible that I've just described a writer, isn't it? Well, a writer is a kind of artist, isn't she? I've always thought so. In fact, I've often felt that literature and Creative Writing should be considered fine arts and taught in art schools.

There is no doubt that there can be some smugness in the artist's mentality and, yes, it can be reflected in the fashion choices of those who set themselves apart from the mainstream. Take our penchant for second hand clothes and offbeat style. We are, in a way, saying that we reject both the look and the materialism of mainstream culture.

"We're free-thinkers," we seem to say in our demeanor, "not like you guys."

Perhaps I'm able to see the flaws in my own, counter-culture milieu because I grew up in it. I don't have the wide-eyed sense of discovery that those who didn't grow up in have when they first enter the counter-culture. 

Still, I valued the counter-culture enough that I always wanted to go to the school in Fame and, indeed, I ended up at an alternative school not unlike it, and I remain good friends with many of the people I met there, teachers and students alike. Several old classmates were at our recent engagement party.

The counter-culture may not be the utopia some believe it to be but it sure as hell is better than the alternatives (pun sort-of intended).

I've often seen that excited exuberance of youth as they discover art, become artists, and/or leave the mainstream and enter the world that has been my world all my life.

A scene from the movie, Fame
They think that their Art (and it's definitely capitalized), is going to change the world. And in the process, they're going to have far more fun than those stuffy "straights" out there.

In a way, they're probably right.

They're creating Art, man, shattering the hegemony, and challenging people's minds, man.

Though the artist's world wasn't as new to me, I have felt much like these youth. I studied Creative Writing in my first year of university (after having already been on my own supporting myself for a year). I was so darned open-minded about Art and Literature, it makes me chuckle to remember my nineteen year old self. It was all good, and the weirder, the better. Bizarre, inscrutable movies; difficult, non-narrative novels; baffling plays in tiny venues; sexually explicit performance art that turned my stomach; strange and uncomfortable visual art: it was all good, and new, and exciting!

And Important. It was all very important.

With this overblown sense of the importance of one's work, comes inevitable self-doubt. Thank God. It stands in for the humility and tempering of enthusiasms that comes with aging. 

But, all mocking aside, the counter-culture life -- the one usually lived by writers, intellectuals, and artists -- is not an easy one and I don't think its one anyone enters lightly. It's an outsider's life, a life of alienation and, at times, loneliness. It's also often a life of poverty. 

So why would people choose it? Well, to that question, I would ask, is it really a choice?

I know a thing or two about being an outsider. I know about being alienated within my society. I was raised by hippies; I was sex trafficked from the time I was nine; I have a "gifted" level of intelligence; I'm bisexual; I'm Jewish; I was so severely abused, I'm disabled. That's a lot that sets me apart from my society. That's a lot of unchosen alienation.

So why on earth would I choose to be a writer and to live in the counter-culture? For one thing, I feel far more comfortable in the counter-culture, precisely because of all those things that set me apart from the mainstream. I'll never be "normal." I'll never want to be normal. I'm in similar company in the counter-culture.

But I don't choose to be a writer and it is that aspect of who I am that most places me in the counter-culture.

I have to read and write like I have to breathe. I have been an avid reader since I was five. I began writing my first "novel" when I was seven and have been keeping a journal since I was eight. To this day, my high school friends and teachers ask if I'm still writing and are glad when I say that I am. I have book a floor-to-ceiling, wall-to-wall book collection. 

My life experiences might mean I have a little more to say than some writers, but no matter what else had happened in my life -- good, bad, or indifferent -- I would be a writer. It's simply who I am. It's not a choice. 

And so I keep company with others like myself. 


And that is really all that the counter-culture is: people finding a community of others like themselves -- whether they go to art school or not.

(I'm posting this in Visible Mondays on Not Dead Yet and in Shoe Shine on Ephemera. Let's see what others think!)


  1. Writing is definitely an art form! Totally!
    I understand about being an outsider although I have come from a different angle. I grew up as a missionary kid in a foreign culture, I have Asperger's Syndrome, and I am queer(gender and sexuality). I am also a late parent and an artist, musician and poet. These things set us apart and also enable us to see life others don't because they are swamped, being in the thick of it.
    I love you hair done this way! And your outfit is simple and suits you! XO JJ

    1. Yes, I do think writing is an art, or can and should be. It's also my breath and blood. I need to write and always have.

      You're an outsider indeed! It's not an easy place to be but I wouldn't trade it for the world. Suburbs make me itch.

  2. Thanks for this thoughtful post. I follow you since any time...
    I'm also an outsider, but I can not live in counter-culture, here it isn't, where i live... And I have often longing for other peoples like me, but I can not get contacts, as autistic woman. Here in a small town in Germany it means totally isolation, difficult to meet people outside of the mainstream.
    Well , I'm living in my own culture, only created by myself ... - - - (my English is not enoug, I'm learning only since one year, only by myself)

    1. Learning English all by yourself is impressive. I taught ESL for many years.

      The truth is that most counter culture people move to large urban centres to find others like themselves. Even if you did do that, I imagine autism would make it harder for you to build a social set. My partner is simply more shy than I am and has a harder time making friends. Autism would be tough.

      So glad you found my blog though! I never really know who's reading it.

  3. I agree with you - writing is art! And that it is something that chooses you, not the other way around. I write as long as I can remember - my very first little poems started before I knew how to spell. Hardly one day passes by without me writing something. It's the way we live - writing life. Though I only recently have decided to take this huuuuge part of me seriously. It just always has been a part of me, but I have never though of it as my vocation or something like it before. I was not confident.

    I also think that what sets us apart are our inner experiences, the way we feel and see life. I know for a fact that the way I see life is dramatically different from the way vast majority of people see life, artists included. It would be incredibly lonely to be me if I did not meet Justin, we are soulmates. But it's hard at times, because I actually like people and I see beauty in people, often they even do not see themselves the way I see them. So writing, creating is only natural. It is not an escape, it is the only way of living.
    Thank you for this post!

    Loved your outfit here - you look great!

    1. By the time I was twelve, I knew I was going to be a writer. And, boy oh boy, I worked hard at making that happen, living on nothing and editing local newspapers, getting published here and there. But I grew weary of poverty and drifted into teaching. I gave up my dream of writing, and thought I was just becoming more mature -- even though I felt, with my life experience, I had some pretty important things to say.

      Speaking of soul mates, it was Beau who got me writing again by suggesting I start a style blog. He knew I'd end up writing about deeper stuff, but he had no idea how quickly and easily the writing would flow out of me. Now, like you, I'm taking my vocation more seriously. I need to write and I'm pretty sure I have a life story and perspectives born of that story that need to be told.