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September 1, 2014 / lauraleeauthor

When Your Plans Fall Apart You Grow Wings

wingsThe ballet dancer David Hallberg tweeted this picture of one of his famous feet encased in a cast following an operation that has sidelined him for the rest of this season.

I am sure resting and recuperating were not big things in his day book leading up to this. Things do not always go exactly according to plan, which is why I am so taken with his wings.

When things go along according to plan there is a certain momentum, you tend not to stop and reflect or change course. Whether you’re working hard, or coasting or content or frustrated with your life, you keep on keeping on.  So having to deal with the stuff you didn’t want to happen can, it turns out, spur creativity.

For the past several years my partner, Valery Lantratov, and I have been traveling across America presenting master classes to students. We have seen more of the country than almost anyone at this point, and we enjoy it. All of this travel was done in my 1998 Ford Escort. For the past couple of tours I have been keeping my fingers crossed, hoping it would last just one more. Alas, it has toured its last. At about 260,000 miles, it threw a timing belt and bent the rods while we were coasting in heavy traffic on the New Jersey Turnpike. Having a ballet dancer push a car through New York City area traffic during rush hour is not something I planned, nor is it something I would particularly recommend.

Being without a vehicle 2/3 of the way through a three month tour was not something I relished either. Here’s the thing, though. Having to change my plans has led to a burst of new activity. (The tale of the quest to find a company that would rent us a car for more than a month with a debit card is a drama to relate on another day.) Because one-way car rentals are so expensive, we had to return the vehicle to the city where we got it– New York. (Technically, Newark, NJ actually.)  For some time I had been wanting to explore the special collections at the New York Public Library for my current biographical obsession. (You can scroll back through the old posts here if you want to know anything about that.) In lemonade from lemons fashion I decided to use the opportunity to spend a few extra days in the city and do that work before finishing the tour.

The only problem was, I was not sure I could afford it. The repairs to my car before it died, the changes in our travel plans, the rental cars had all sucked up my profits from the tour. (Not that there is usually all that much of that anyway.) I didn’t want to pass up the chance, but how could I do it?

This led me to try a Kickstarter campaign. Ultimately, it was unsuccessful, but it got me excited about trying something new, being a bit more adventurous and less stuck in my ways. My partner and I (I wanted to say “dance partner” because he is my partner in the dance, not the writing side of my business– but that makes us sound a bit like Fred and Ginger) started looking at the site and we started to talk about our original plan, before we launched the master classes, of a performance tour. We have decided that we are going to make that happen for the 2016 season.

Even though my campaign to fund my biographical research fell through, I decided it would be a shame not to take advantage of my stay. (My partner is actually flying back into New York, and for some reason it didn’t occur to me that I could plan a trip then.) Because I didn’t have backing, I would have to do the whole thing on the cheap. This is what led me to Air BNB to find a place to stay in Manhattan. I made my first jump into the sharing economy in the deep end. Showing up at a stranger’s apartment in the upper west side with your bags is not entirely natural. Yet my host was so welcoming that there was absolutely no worry or stress. I had a place to stay, privacy, and I got to experience what it is like to live in the city. (The room was actually larger than I expected.)

I know there are some people who think of me as a bit adventurous, but I have always thought of myself as rather cowardly and risk-averse. I often talk myself out of interesting adventures just because I can’t see the future and don’t know quite how it is all going to go. I have always wanted to be a travel writer, and I have also always enjoyed the idea of the “sharing economy” of sites like Air BNB and Couchsurfing. That is where the idea came to try a new adventure. I propose to make the 20 hour trek from the Detroit area to Austin, TX and back (to do some more primary research) using only these types of accommodations and to write a book called The Kindness of Strangers about my journey. Like any idea that is worth doing, it makes me a bit nervous. It is something I’ve never done before. In the spirit of the “sharing economy” I am going to try to fund it through Kickstarter. With this one, unlike the New York research trip, if I do not reach my goal, I will not be able to make it happen.  Everyone who gets behind the project will see his or her name in the book, and I will send post cards along the way to anyone who pledges $25 or more.

My point is, if the car had not thrown that timing belt I would not have thought of any of this. Sometimes, when your plans fall apart you grow wings.

[Maybe David Hallberg will have time to write a book as he recuperates. Who knows?]

September 1, 2014 / lauraleeauthor

Is Joseph Gordon-Levitt the Reincarnation of Andre Gide?

Andre Gide500 Days

August 30, 2014 / lauraleeauthor

The Complexity of Creatives: The Case of Oscar Wilde and Lord Alfred Douglas

WildeFor some time now I have been reading everything I can about Lord Alfred Douglas and by extension Oscar Wilde. (This is, of course, backwards to the order in which most people approach these two.) This is what, in my insular little word, constitutes fun.

I was reading yesterday a book called Oscar Wilde as a Character in Victorian Fiction by Angela Kingston. I quote here from the introduction:

In the space of twenty-three years– from his first foray into public life to his death in 1900- no less than thirty-seven discernible portraits of Wilde appeared in novels and short stories by his peers… His refusal to take a definite shape clearly left many contemporary authors unable to resist the temptation of molding him themselves and offering their satisfying ‘complete’ Oscar Wildes to a reading public consumed with curiosity about the elusive man behind the self-fashioner.

This is, of course, why so many contemporary writers take him on as a biographical subject. It is a wonderful challenge to try to find the topic sentence of him. Each depiction of Wilde whether in fiction or biography is the product of someone’s fascination with some aspect of the man and most likely with its tension with other aspects of him. Every biography is a relationship between the subject and another writer’s imagination. It is because it is so difficult to sum him up that writers keep coming at it from different angles.

Alfred Douglas was every bit as contradictory, perhaps even more so. This is what has fascinated me about him since I first encountered him by reading his letters to Shaw. He is a monarchist, a traditionalist, fond of rigid rules and unchanging structure and yet rebellious, and contemptuous of public opinion. He is as polite and charming as he is volatile and argumentative. Romantically he liked the traditionally “feminine” role of being pursued, courted and nurtured. Yet he also liked the traditionally “masculine” role and wanted to be strong and dominant. (In his time with Wilde he managed to exercise both sides by being nurtured and courted by Wilde while being dominant with rent boys.) He will lift his eyes and plead for sympathy like a hurt puppy and then lash out like a junk yard dog. In his letters with Shaw he manages to be an eternal child and also a cantankerous old man, nostalgic for old-fashioned ways.

To say that these contradictory forces resided uncomfortably in him (or in Wilde) would be wrong. He managed to live with all of these personality aspects just fine, thank you very much. It was other people who found the apparent contradictions difficult to live with. It is hard for one person to love equally the rebel and the conformist, the polite and the rude, the free spirit and the rigid, the eternal child and the old fuddy duddy, the masculine and the feminine. Perhaps it took someone as complex and multi-faceted as Wilde to appreciate (or at least put up with) all of those contradictions.

When writers say of either man “He was not arrogant, he was generous and kind,” they are telling a kind of truth and also  kind of lie. They were both arrogant, selfish, generous and kind.

After reading the introduction to the Kingston book, I remembered the book Creativity by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi which I read probably 15 years ago or so. It stuck in my memory not only because it is one of the few books in which the author’s name is twice as long as the title. Csikszen… The author had done an extensive study of the personalities of creative people and he concluded that the one trait that made them different from average people (I hesitate to use the term “non-creative,” as everyone has the ability to imagine and create something) is their “complexity.”

By this I mean that hey show tendencies of thought and action that in most people are segregated. They contain contradictory extremes– instead of being an ‘individual,’ each of them is a ‘multitude.’ Like the color white that includes all of the hues of the spectrum, they tend to bring together the entire range of human possibilities within themselves…creative persons definitely know both extremes and experience both with equal intensity and without inner conflict.

He goes on to highlight a few areas in particular in which artists and other professional creatives tend to differ from the general population.

1. They seem to have a strong does of eros and at the same time a certain spartan celibacy is also part of their makeup.

Douglas especially personified this going from a wildly promiscuous youth to complete celibacy (and denunciation of sexuality) in his later years.

2. They tend to be smart, yet also naive at the same time.

3. They are both playful and disciplined, responsible and irresponsible.

Wilde was the perfect example of this. He was a prolific, hard working writer, and he also had a huge capacity for play. Although Douglas was better known for play than work, he chose for his art form the sonnet, which is not written without focus and labor. He took this work very seriously. As an audience we focus much less on this side of him simply because we moderns don’t care all that much for sonnets and get bored when he starts to pontificate on them. What fascinates me about Douglas as an artist is how he managed to channel his volatile energy and emotion into the “deliberate cage” of the sonnet. (The words in quotes are from his Sonnet on the Sonnet.)

4. They alternate between imagination and fantasy and a rooted sense of reality.

5. They harbor opposite tendencies on the continuum between extroversion and introversion.

Thus you have Oscar Wilde begging Douglas to come to him when he has gone away to write, and then cursing him for taking his focus away from his work. This is a very typical writerly behavior.

6. They are remarkably humble and proud at the same time.

“Another way of expressing this duality,” Csiks… sigh, writes, “is t see it as a contrast between ambition and selflessness, or competition and cooperation.”  Thus both Wilde and Douglas came across to some observers as unforgivably arrogant and to others as generous and kind. Douglas, it must be said, had a bit more of the arrogance than the humility. (He was “…abnormally, damnably, touchingly conceited…” as the artist Max Beerbohm put it.)

7. They have a tendency toward androgyny.

That is to say, regardless of their sexuality, they are able (and desire to be) both dominant and submissive, nurtured and nurturer, object and objectifier, artist and artist’s muse. Sarah Parker wrote an interesting chapter on Alfred Douglas and his wife the poet Olive Cunstance in her book The Lesbian Muse and Poetic Identity. Cunstance was attracted to men with feminine qualities and seduced Douglas by sending him a picture of herself dressed as a boy. Because their initial courtship was carried out by post, he was able to imagine this figure and fall in love with the personality in the letters. He had never been courted and wooed by a woman, and was thrilled to discover he had a capacity to love a woman. In her book, Parker explores how the gender roles in the muse/artist relationship were originally reversed with Douglas serving as the object– the male muse and Cunstance as the artist, and that the poles flipped when they married and Douglas placed his wife in the role of muse. This, she argues, had a detrimental effect on Cunstance’s ability to produce work and on their marriage.

8. Creative people are both traditional and conservative and at the same time rebellious and iconoclastic.

“Being only traditional leaves the domain unchanged,” wrote the author of Creativity, “constantly taking chances without regard to what has been valued in the past rarely leads to novelty that is accepted as improvement.”

9. Creative persons are very passionate about their work, yet they can be extremely objective about it as well.

This applies to Wilde, but not really to Douglas who was absolutely certain he was a poetic genius and loved to dish out criticism of other’s work but could not accept any criticism of his own.

10. Finally, the openness and sensitivity of creative individuals often exposes them to suffering and pain yet also a great deal of enjoyment.

“…research shows that artists and writers do have unusually high rates of psycopathology and addictions…Divergent thinking is often perceived as deviant by the majority, and so the creative person may feel very isolated and misunderstood. These occupational hazards do come with the territory, so to speak, and it is difficult to see how a person could be creative and at the same time insensitive to them.”

Thus, Csiksentmihalyi had found, creative people seek one another out. They seem to need to be in the company of others who share the same struggles and who value the same “divergent” things.

Wilde made something of a religion of something that is a default psychological setting for artists– that the purpose of life is to experience everything and express what you observe through art. There are always people who will be wired this way, and they generally find themselves in conflict with social structures built around ideals of commerce or social status. Artists must be “willing to subordinate their own personal comfort and advancement to the success of whatever project they are working on.” This puts them out of step. Artists require reassurance on a fairly regular basis that their self-imposed poverty and lack of security have some greater meaning. Wilde was able to provide this to young poets in spades, and that is why they surrounded him.

The muse/muse relationship that is formed when two artists fall in love is fascinating and wondrous. 














August 8, 2014 / lauraleeauthor

The Multi-Faceted Lord Alfred Douglas

There are only 24 hours to go on my staff pick Kickstarter project to fund research into the life of Lord Alfred Douglas. One of my backers says she thinks it will rally at the last minute. Is she right?

Thank you to those who have supported this quixotic project, and those of you who still might, I wanted to give you a small idea of why I find Lord Alfred Douglas so fascinating.

In 1980, Gary H. Paterson of King’s College at the University of Ontario published an annotated bibliography of writings about Lord Alfred Douglas. The 32 page article summarized writings about the poet to that date with brief quotations and descriptions their subject. The following is a list of the adjectives used to describe him. In a few words it paints a clear picture of a complex and contradictory character and the wildly different impressions he made on people:

amusing, aristocratic, attractive, blue-eyed, brilliant, brutal, cantankerous, changeable, charming, childish, complex, conceited, courageous, cultured, defiant, desperate, desastreux, devoted, diabolical, egotistical, exigeant, exquisite, fair (in coloring), false, fanatical, fiery, gifted, generous, good-hearted, gracious, handsome, headstrong, human, idle, imitative, impatient, impossible, independent, indiscreet, infatuated, inferior, insistent, imperious, likeable, jealous, loyal, mercurial, mindless, misguided, obsessed, outspoken, overwhelmed, over-zealous, pallid, plain, pretty, proud, rancorous, reckless, selfish, self-righteous, spoilt, talented, touching, treacherous, uncompromising, unreasonable, unsophisticated, unstable, venemous-tongued, vengeful, violent,  well-read, willful, witty

August 5, 2014 / lauraleeauthor

In Praise of the Boring

“Few have cared to think or talk about the uninteresting.”-Lord Alfred Douglas

This was the premise of an article Lord Alfred Douglas wrote when he was an undergraduate at Oxford University.  An essay in praise of the boring has comic potential. Potential, it must be said, the young man failed to realize in his Spirit Lamp article. He chose, instead, to complain about the tediousness of Oxford dons, as students are wont to do.

But I think he was on to something. He lived at the beginning of the era of the media celebrity. Oscar Wilde, himself, might have been the prototype of today’s stars. He sought attention and headlines for his personal traits– his bon mots, his manner of dress– before he had achieved much of anything. He used being known as path to a career rather than becoming known for having done something notable. That is the modern way.

Alfred Douglas, however, represented the old world. It was a world in which honor and dishonor were the main measures of a man.  Oscar Wilde always tailored his speech to his audience. Alfred Douglas said whatever he thought without much regard for how it would come across. “Give a man a mask and he will tell you the truth,” Wilde famously said. Douglas had no mask. He was, as Bernard Shaw would say “unpoliced.”

Oscar Wilde would have done well on Kickstarter. Lord Alfred Douglas, probably not. And perhaps one of the tragedies of his life was that he was so ill-equipped to navigate a world of fame.

As I have been exploring my hype-challenged Kickstarter project to some of the most successful projects out there, I have noticed that people instinctively give money to the thing that entertains in the moment even if, in the case of Bunch O Balloons, it has already achieved 800% funding.

A case in point is Nothing in a Bottle, in which a guy from Michigan named Dave, promises to send you a bottle of nothing.

nothingIt is a clever little post, he’s not asking for a lot of money, and he has nice lettering on the tag of his bottle of nothing. So he reached his goal.

The reason the famous “I’m going to make potato salad” Kickstarter went viral is that it made people laugh. People said, “Yeah, that’s funny, I’ll kick in a few bucks for the smile it gave me.”

Why not? But note the past tense. “It made me smile.”

Kickstarter was conceived to take potential energy of ideas and turn them into kinetic energy through financial backing. It is about supporting unrealized potential.

All of the entertainment value of the potato salad project was already realized in the Kickstarter post itself. It aimed to entertain, and it did. The people who support it are not actually paying because they hope the guy can pull off a potato salad.

This brings us back to the Alfred Douglas question. How do we support the uninteresting? That is to say, how do people and projects with an entertainment challenge make a go of it in a hype centered world?

Some projects are uninteresting because they cannot promise specific results and do not lend themselves naturally to clever premiums. Investigative journalism falls into this category. People generally recognize that investigative journalism is vital and in the public interest. It has also come into hard times as news organizations prune their budgets and 24 hour cable news channels compete against America’s Got Talent for eyeballs. Big news is a bottom line business, driven by ratings, and so the most sensational (and easy to cover) stories will lead.

Many people have suggested crowd funding as a means to support this important journalistic work, but it tends to fail and for the same reasons that big news organizations cut funding for long-term, high risk, no-guarantee investigations. There are no immediate results to show. Much of the research cannot be announced before the work is done. It is hard to hype and hard to make entertaining– even if the end result has the potential to be explosive down the line.

I looked up “investigative journalism” on Kickstarter and the first project that came up in the list has no backers.  (Admittedly in this case it could be because there is so little biographical information about the reporters. Potential backers can’t judge whether this team can carry it off or not.)

Research is another area that lacks entertainment value. (My project falls into this category.)  Research is all potential energy. It should be, in theory, exactly the type of thing that Kickstarter would do best. It is not. When I looked up “research” four featured projects came up. All of them are 0% funded right now.

(The projects are for the creation of a platform for crowd sourcing cancer research– a kickstarter for cancer research if you will, research on humpback whales, a tiny house research project, and a guy doing genealogical research.)

Fixing a theater’s roof will always be less entertaining than videos about a new theatrical production even though the roof is necessary to allow those productions to take place.

So perhaps we should start to talk more about the uninteresting.

And if you would like to take your first step into funding the uninteresting, consider backing my project to research a 20th Century poet who insisted on writing in a 19th Century style. Just how uninteresting is my project? It is research– so I don’t know what I will find– and it is the first step of a larger project which will only come to fruition somewhere down the line. I am writing about a master of a poetic form most modern readers do not respond to.  If you want to support the uninteresting– it is a great place to start.




August 4, 2014 / lauraleeauthor

How Will Non-Fiction Writers Fund Research with Decreasing Publisher Advances? Hype, Victorian Poets and Water Balloons.

“I do not actually find a great deal related to your venture from a hype viewpoint.”-guy who sent a message to me via Kickstarter hyping his hyping services. (I would have found a great deal more related to his hyping talent were he to have written me in more standard English.)

For the past couple of days I have been looking at successful campaigns on Kickstarter to see what they have in common and to see how my project compares “from a hype viewpoint.” The staff member who named my project a staff pick called it “a very cool use of the site.”

So, you see, I am cool.

Before I get to the serious hype, let me explain what I think the staff picker found “cool.” Back when I wrote my first work of historical research, more than a decade ago, I was able to secure a publisher with my resume (much more sparse than it is now) and a well-worded promise that I would find really interesting stuff if they would just unleash me in a few libraries and church archives. Somehow my concept– to write a biography of a building– struck a chord without all that many specifics, and they gave me a small advance which allowed me to pay my bills while going to local history libraries and basically asking people if there was anything interesting there related to my subject.

There are fewer publishers around these days who will take a chance on a non-celebrity author. They want to see even veteran historical writers come to the table with the bulk of the research complete. This means that these kinds of books need to be written by people who are of independent means.

There are a lot of great writers out there who are not men and women of independent means. If the audience values books that require travel and time to research, we will need to find a way for writers and researchers to eat while doing this work. Kickstarter could be a vehicle for that. So that’s the cool part– this idea is part of a larger vision that goes beyond my particular book proposal.

Specifically, I want to do primary research into the poet (and intimate friend of Oscar Wilde) Lord Alfred Douglas to produce a detailed sample chapter that will be the centerpiece of a book proposal I have been working on for two years.

I find it hard to see how anyone could come up with something more sexy than that, but just to improve my chances from a hype standpoint, I have been posting articles here that detail the many similarities between Lord Alfred Douglas and some of the most successful campaigns currently going.  I have already explained how much my project has in common with the “I’m going to make a potato salad guy” and an ap to stalk people’s cats over the internet.

Today, for reasons of propriety, I decided against illuminating any similarities between the poet and the “Gay Men Draw Vaginas” Kickstarter proposal, although I assure you this is a thing.  I thought, instead, to compare and contrast a biography of Lord Alfred Douglas with Bunch O Balloons, a project that is 8081% funded. Yes, that is 8081%.  (Compare this to 6% funded with 5 days to go for my project.)

balloonsBunch O Balloons lets you fill up to 100 water balloons in a minute. I don’t have a great deal of call to do that, but a lot of people seem to because it is funded to the tune of $809,021 as of today.

When it came time for me to do a top ten list of things Lord Alfred Douglas has in common with 100 water balloons being filled simultaneously, I have to admit I was a bit stymied.

The sad truth is, you cannot fill water balloons with Lord Alfred Douglas. But all is not lost.

When I look at the last three popular Kickstarter projects I have featured, I have come to the conclusion that people will instinctively give money to anything that is clever and entertaining. I am in luck, because Lord Alfred Douglas was nothing if not clever and entertaining.

bosie1When Bosie, as he was called, was a boy (when was he not?) he could pull the most outrageous stunts and get away with it by assuming an expression of cherubic innocence. It worked far more often than it had any business doing because he looked like the image to the left and he had such impeccable manners.

He had cards printed up which read “Lord Alfred Douglas presents his compliments to…. and regrets that he will be unable to…. in consequence of……”

When he had more pressing matters than study– poems to write, games to play, famous playwrights to go to dinner parties with and so on– he would fill in the card and leave it for one of the dons at Magdalen College.

“Lord Alfred Douglas presents his compliments to Professor Smith and regrets that he will be unable to show up an essay on the Evolution of the Moral Idea in consequence of not having prepared one.”

Like him or hate him, surely this is as clever and entertaining as a bunch of balloons being filled up with water. Maybe it is not $800,000 clever, but that project is already fully funded, mine is not. So if you have $25 to put towards something with the potential to amuse you, visit my Kickstarter page and help me dig up more entertainment. I hope you will agree that I have now done a bit more for my venture from a hype point of view.


August 2, 2014 / lauraleeauthor

Lord Alfred Douglas Knows Where Your Cat Lives

Yesterday I promised to continue my series on how similar my Lord Alfred Douglas Kickstarter project is to some of the more popular ideas on the site. Today I would like to focus on a project called “I Know Where Your Cat Lives,” which is more than fully funded at this point to the tune of $3,111. I Know Where Your Cat Lives is an ap that visualizes public photos of cats on a world map using coordinates embedded in their metadata, the site says.

It is usually cats that stalk prey, and this site gives humans the opportunity to turn the tables by stalking cats. The innate appeal is obvious. I am pleased to say that Lord Alfred Douglas has a great deal in common with I Know Where Your Cat Lives.  First and foremost:

1. Feasting with panthers.

This is what Oscar Wilde called his adventures into London’s underworld. The feline reference is right there in the name. Wilde and Douglas stalked quite a bit of metaphorical prey together in their day. Moving on…

2. Once you find a cat using the ap you will always know where it is because cats always come back, as did Lord Alfred Douglas.

As a friend wrote of him in the Catholic Herald, “I am very sorry to heat that Lord I Alfred Douglas is seriously ill. and has been anointed. Though much of our correspondence has been acrimonious, each series of quarrels ends in a reconciliation, for Lord Alfred, who never attempts to disguise his feelings, is as ready to offer the hand of friendship as he is to tell you just what he thinks of you.”

3. Cats are playful, as was Lord Alfred Douglas.

Douglas wanted to remain forever a child. He told George Bernard Shaw that you could be whatever you wanted in Heaven and he wanted to be a child.

4. Cats have an air of haughty superiority, as Lord Alfred Douglas often did.

Douglas learned all of the proper skills for a man of his station. He was schooled with impeccable manners, he knew how to dress properly for each event and time of day, he learned ride horses, write poetry, to play the piano and sing. In later years Douglas would often make the mistake of writing things for the (middle class) public as though they shared his aristocratic values and assumptions, alienating them when he wanted to gain their sympathy. He truly did not understand that people born without silver spoons might find it hard to sympathize with his brand of “hardship.”

“The lot of a younger son with the courtesy title of ‘Lord’ and no money is indeed a miserable one,” Douglas wrote in his autobiography. “…I believe the most constant cross I have had to bear is precisely that of having been born, and having had to go all my life being, a lord without money.”

5. Lord Alfred Douglas played the piano. Cats play the piano.



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