A few thoughts I’ve been having lately about art (some of which are way too honest)


I’m going to talk about Carlos Santana. He’s not my favorite musician, and I’ve never met him. But I do like one of his old songs very much, and a lot of people in my family generally like his music.

One of my all-time favorite songs is his “Dance, Sister, Dance.”* I really like Greg Walker’s passionate vocals on it, I like the guitar solos and the Latin drumming, and I like the fact that the song’s “story” was ambiguous to me as a child, changing as I got older. First I thought the narrator was literally singing to his sister. Then I thought he was singing to a stranger who was Latina, like himself, and therefore his sister in an overarching way. Then I realized the singer was black. Then it occurred to me that his appreciation of this woman went beyond mere admiration and he probably wanted to sleep with her. But no matter who he was or who she was, her dancing inspired that song, right?

Every time I hear that song or any other one by Santana, it makes me think of several things: the old St. Joseph/MECA festival that took place every fall in my old Houston neighborhood, young men in my neighborhood who built lowriders, barbecues in my dad’s back yard, Sunday drives at Memorial park, my cousin tracing the art from a Santana album cover, and the Passengers Tuff Club remix of Michelle Branch’s “Breathe.”

I don’t know Carlos Santana in real life. I don’t know much about him, other than a handful of his songs and the fact that he’s Mexican and the fact that he has a line of shoes. And yet, he’s an important part of my life because of the feelings and memories described in the paragraph above.

I know he’s probably rich now. I’m sure he deserves to be.

*Note: I don’t care if you think I’m cheesy for liking that song or for liking ’70s rock — just un-follow/un-friend/un-like me now if it bothers you. Not to be defensive, but I’ve seen a lot of people whining about people who like 70’s rock lately (and I don’t just mean my Gen Y husband) and I’m so over it. The whining and the blatant fear of uncoolness only makes me want to like that music more.


Last night I watched Work of Art and saw Contestant Ryan get sent home for his umpteenth “too literal” interpretation of a challenge. Like a zillion other people, I think the show is ridiculous and does not inspire good art, but I watch it, anyway. Last night in particular, I got emotional over Contestant Ryan’s story about his mother abandoning him because he chose to stop being a Jehovah’s Witness.

I get why the judges kicked him out of the competition, but I wished the cameramen/editors had shown us more of his piece. He put up pictures that looked like child’s drawings: of himself as a pirate, of himself as a child with his mom, and of something else. Under that, he had a bunch of angrily crumpled drawings and supplies. I wanted to see the pictures better, even if they weren’t good enough “art.” I wanted to see how angry he’d allowed them to be.

I hope he went home and did more art on the subject. I won’t feel sorry for him, because just being on that ridiculous show might have connected him to people who will buy his art. Also, it probably helped, on some level, people who felt abandoned by their parents because of religion or cults. At least it made them feel less alone in the world, right?


We rented the first three seasons of Mad Men and watched them all within the past few weeks. If you already watch the show, you don’t need me to tell you how good it is. The writing’s really good. The show makes me feel like I’m reading and I take the time to consider and interpret, which is rare and awesome for TV.

I went to IMDb and looked up some of its writers and was amused to see that some of them used to write for Baywatch and Star Trek: Enterprise. Then I was happy for them, yet sad for people who might be writing for cheesy shows right now and wishing to God they could score something better/more worthy of their talent.

I hope everyone who creates Mad Men ends up rich.


Whenever people tell me that they downloaded a bit torrent of someone’s music/art/writing for free, I think of that scene in The Craft where Fairuza Balk’s character tells the bookstore-owning witch that “everything in Nature steals.” I believe that she was right — that everyone steals. But I think if you can afford not to steal, you should try not to steal art. I used to download MP3s for free. But now I get more pleasure from buying them. I imagine the musicians seeing my purchase on a list of their statistics and feeling glad for it.

I’m really glad that I can afford to pay 99 cents for a song or 9.99 for a book, because I believe that’s a really low price to pay for something that will make me happy for hours and maybe stick in my mind for decades.

I wish I could afford to buy visual art. I can’t, yet. But visual art is generally worth the thousands of dollars per piece, I think. I sometimes buy books about art, or prints of art, or little pieces of merchandise based on art. I buy what I like, when I can.


I’m a writer. An author. I’ve sold eight books now in the span of ten years.

Before I wrote my first book, I had certain motivations. I will tell you, without undue judgment on my younger self, that those motivations included the phrase “rich and famous.”

Every time I write or try to sell another book, my motivations are different. They shift. Maybe if I were more forthcoming on this blog, I’d be able to tell you that they still contain the word rich, but it’s further down the list and close to the word maybe. But let’s just say that I get older with every book, and a little more realistic than I used to be. And yet I haven’t stopped writing. (Yet.)


Recently, I was talking to another author about self promotion. She was the same age as me, and on the same level, writing-career-wise. She’d been trying venues I hadn’t yet tried, and she reported that they hadn’t made her rich and famous.

She told me that she didn’t mind promoting her work, as we’re all required to do, but that she didn’t want it to take away from the other important parts of her life, like spending time with her family.

I agreed. I will promote my work — I have to, it’s in my contract — but I no longer want to obsess over it, like I did when I only had one book. I want to have a balanced life. I want to try to be happy, like everyone else gets to.


I meet a lot of strangers. I go to a lot of conferences to promote my work, and I enjoy doing that, although maybe not for the reasons you’d imagine. I like to do readings and presentations on stage because I’m good at public speaking and making people laugh. I like to see different cities and different hotel rooms. I do like talking to strangers, on airplanes or in hotel restaurants, but not about myself.

Usually, I don’t have to talk about my work much. Lately I find that telling people I’m an author will make them talk about their own reading habits. Most of the strangers I meet don’t read, or read very little. They apologize to me for that. The ones who read will tell me what they’ve been reading, and the vast majority of it is genre fiction (mystery, romance, vampire) and most of it serial genre fiction. (“I’m on Letter F of Sue Grafton.” “I’m on Book 18 of Anita Blake.”) Sometimes these strangers confess to me that the books they’re reading are boring, or that they don’t really enjoy them. But at least they’re reading, they tell me. At least they read.

I’ve joked around about Twilight fans a little, here, and you might get the impression that I don’t respect people who only read serial genre fiction. But that’s not the case. I meet a lot of really nice, polite, decent-seeming strangers with interesting careers who do good deeds for their communities. How could I be mad at them for going to the bookstore once in a while and buying the genre paperbacks they find on the tables up front?

If you wanted to start listening to jazz, you’d probably try Miles Davis. If you wanted to try eating Thai food, you’d probably start with pad thai. I learned to knit last year. Am I a loser because I started by purchasing acrylic yarn at Hobby Lobby? No. I’m a good person. I try be courteous to others. I try to do good things with my life. I like the Harry Potter books. I used to read Regency romance. I used to enjoy Lilian Jackson Braun’s “The Cat Who Something or Other” series, back when I couldn’t afford books and only read what was at the library, and I will never stop loving genre paperback god Lawrence Sanders. I will probably start reading Sue Grafton soon, because all those readers can’t be wrong, right?


The other day I got a royalty statement in the mail. It itemized how many copies of my first novel got sold. Actually, it did more itemizing of how many copies got returned by book stores who couldn’t sell them.

When I saw the statement, it looked to me like it said, “You have failed.”

As I thought about the statement later, over the next 48 hours, approximately, I remembered it saying, “Writing books is a waste of your time and you need to put full-time effort into advancing in Corporate America.” I was sad about that, then angry at myself for having the nerve to be sad about it.

I was angry at a lot of random, faceless people, and then angry at myself for not working hard enough to sell my work. I told myself that I was lazy because all I did was work a day job, manage a household, and write a few books. If I weren’t so damned lazy, I’d spend more time promoting the hell out of myself and out of the books I’d written.  Or else I’d quit effing around and write something that people actually buy, like a book about vampires, except not vampires because that market’s flooded, so it has to be the next big thing. I’d have to figure out what that was. “Figure out what’s going to be bigger than vampires, you lazy ass! Figure it out right now, or else stop writing and start trying to make more money at your day job!” I told myself, loudly, in my mind. And then I replied, “Stop screaming at me! God, you’re so mean!” And then I wanted to cry, but I couldn’t, because I was dehydrated. So I went to Starbucks and got something that dehydrated me even more.

But after I drank my fourth Starbucks and the 48 hours passed, I talked to some friends and to my agent and forced myself to chill out. Then I re-read the statement and it turned out that it didn’t actually say anything about me or my career. It didn’t say anything but a number. A statistic. And as we all know, statistics can be manipulated or construed into whatever point you’re trying to prove.


I get a lot of emails and Facebook messages from strangers. Sometimes the emails are from people who want to be writers. They desperately want to be published, and they want my advice.

I’m tempted to tell them that whatever they think they’re going to get from being published is probably not going to happen. But I don’t, because writers who tell people that get totally hated on. I see stories about it online. “Dr. Joe Blow snapped and told his Short Story class that none of them were gonna get rich from their writing and they should give it up if that’s what they were hoping for. What a dick!”

I’m not rich and famous, but I keep writing, so I must be getting something out of it, right? For that reason, I go ahead and give the strangers my advice. I give the same basic advice every time:

1. Read as much as you can.

2. Write. Don’t talk about how you’re going to be a writer. Just write. Before you knew my name or J.K. Rowling’s, we were sitting at home writing, alone, while other people went to cocktail parties and told everyone they were gonna be writers.

3. Go to the library and look at The Writer’s Market. It’ll tell you all the steps to being published. If you feel afraid, read The Artist’s Way or Bird by Bird.


Sometimes the emails and Facebook messages are from strangers who’ve read my books and want to tell me that my work meant something to them. Those are, of course, my favorites. They make me very happy, sometimes for as long as 48 hours each. Because, besides the rich/famous thing, one of my motivations has always been to create work that means something to someone.

(What’s cheesier: Classic rock, or the thing I’m about to tell you? I’ll let you decide.)

I believe in karma, probably because I used to be Catholic. Or maybe I believe in something that’s not actually karma, because my dad used to be into Jung. But whatever it’s called and for whatever reason, I believe that it serves me to do good things for others. If I write things that help people or motivate them or make them feel less alone, those actions will create a web of good vibes that will attract the good actions of others and keep me safer than a person would normally be, by default, in this world.

It’s smurfy, but it gets me through the day.


Every year and between every book, I try to figure out how to get what I want out of life. Lately, I’ve also been trying to decide what exactly I’m trying to get. It’s really difficult. So far, the list only says, “Get kids through college. Maybe knit a whole sweater some day.”

After every book, I say that I’m not going to write another. Especially after this last novel I just finished, because that one took a lot out of me and, as a result, put stress on my family and pets. But that phase has already passed, like all the phases do, and I have one or two ideas for future books.

While waiting for my editor’s feedback on this last book, I sent the manuscript to a friend. She read it in two days, finishing it at one a.m. She emailed and told me it was great. That made me very happy. I’ll be happy for at least 48 hours now.


I don’t imagine that Carlos Santana would want to know how I feel about his music. I imagine that he has a really nice house with a pool and a solarium, and that either makes him happy or else it doesn’t, but my opinion of his work has absolutely no effect on his life, either way.

But I also like to imagine that he and Greg Walker and Sheila E’s dad (and the Mad Men writers and Sue Grafton and Ryan from Work of Art) are surrounded by a web of good thoughts — grateful feelings from strangers — that will help them and keep them safe. Even if they never even realize it.

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Posted in Uncategorized on 07/22/2010 04:02 pm
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  1. Your honest but smurfy look at life is what I love best about reading what you write!!
    Thanks for the update Gwen.

    You dont know me; I’m one of those strangers you talk about but oh how I feel like you are my kindred spirit.

    Have fun putting the balance between your writing and your promoting into your life. You always manage to do everything and make it look easy and COOL!


  2. Love this, Gwen.

  3. I love this post, it flows so well. Thank you for sharing some of your heart and even some writing advice. I’ll have to check out some of your books now, “Growing Up with Tamales” seems appealing. Do you mention that annoying bit where the paste pours out the ends when you tie them and you ask mom why you have to make them this way and she says “you just do”. This will happen every year we’re on this Earth making tamales.

  4. I’ve missed your Blog. It was great to see a new post.

  5. Now that was a post worth waiting for!

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