How do you survive as a creative in a world stacked against you? I had the chance to talk to Cary Tennis, author and columnist about finding your way and making it work. I first came to know Cary via his work at Salon.com. As an advice columnist, he spent 12 years advising millions of readers on love and life – thoughtfully, and through the lens of a creative. As writers, performers, musicians and creatives – or those who want to forge their own path through life and not follow the crowd, we often seek reassurance that we’re on the right path. In Cary’s advice column, he always responded in a wise, considered and writerly way about the problems we all face.
In Cary’s book, Citizens of the Dream, he writes: “The idea behind the title “Citizens of the Dream” is that as creative people we live in our own country with its own physics and history, its own atmospheres and rivers its own maps. It is a strange country but it is where we belong. It is our country. When we try to live in “the real world” the way we think we’re supposed to then we become unhappy. We do not know why we are so unhappy living in the real world because we figure we ought to be able to live in it just like other people. But we are different. We are citizens of the dream. And we might as well accept that we’re different and set about establishing a way of living that meets our particular needs.”
Welcome to the ChockaLife podcast. Today I’m talking to Cary Tenis. He is a writer, an advice columnist, long time salon writer for about 12 years. He also leads writing retreats in California and Europe. He just moved from San Francisco to Italy. Welcome Cary.
Cary: Hi Ingrid. It’s nice to be here.
Yeah and thank you so much. I just have been such a long time fan. I almost hate to use that word because I just respect what you’ve done, how you’ve lived your life, and the different chapters in it. If you could just talk to me a little bit about your writing career and how that came about?
Cary: Yeah sure. I was one of those kids that wanted to be a writer from a really young age. Probably when I was … I wrote my first story, I think, when I was … Well, I wrote my first story actually when I was 10, but it was just a little story about these people who were trapped in a coal mine. I don’t know … I saw in the news that some people were trapped in a coal mine.
I didn’t really know what a coal mine was. We were living down in Florida on the Gulf coast. I wrote a note. I said, “Help, we are trapped in a coal mine” and I put it in a bottle and I threw it in the river hoping that someone would find us and I never thought how it would possibly get from a coal mine into the Gulf of Mexico.
I was just interested in the idea of stories and imagination in other worlds so I would come down to the river looking for a response every day. I think that’s part of my motivation too. Looking for a response. Trying to communicate with the outside world.
The bottle just floated back but it had the same note in it. No one had taken it out and said, “We’ll come and rescue you” or something. I was just really interested in stories and then I read Gill and Thomas’ poetry when I was in junior high. I got high … I mean I really experienced the power of words to transport.
I came from a family of writers. My grandmother wrote a column for a little paper in north Florida when she went to France, Travels of a Grandmother. My grandfather wrote a column called A Trace of Milkweed. My uncle was a writer, my mother wrote the valedictorian poem for her high school in Maine. My father was off and on a writer and radio person.
It really seemed like the way to go so I just always would try wherever I was, I would try to be a writer. In high school and in college on the newspaper. Then when I came to San Francisco I didn’t know … I didn’t have good career instincts or training. I would just go and say, “Can I write something for you?” I would just write things and that’s really been it.
I went to Creative Writing Graduate School at San Francisco State. Then I worked for the San Francisco Weekly and the San Francisco Bay Guardian. I wrote Rock and Roll interviews and criticism. I did a lot of stuff.
It’s interesting because I didn’t know that about your background. You kind of came from a family that just really encouraged imagination, encouraged artistry. You sort of had that push as a small child that it was okay to follow that kind of dream I guess if you’d put it that way. That way to take your career.
What’s interesting is I thought that you went to school for writing and you went to graduate school for creative writing, but you also took these paths that took you out of that a little bit. You had a band for a little while. I’m just wondering about those creative times.
Did you live the artist life where you’re just barely making it, and you’re doing your thing and following your dream, or did you always have the steady underpinning of a job while you did those things?
Cary: Yeah, I was pretty much scuffling as an artist and musician and writer. I did not have good career skills, but I also … I was ambivalent about the role of journalist, and I was also ambivalent about entering the academic world.
When I got out of graduate school, I wanted to find out what the real working world was like. I tried that and that was a trap because I found out what it is – when you work a real job it takes everything you’ve got and you don’t have any time to create. It was not a good period actually. I am a guitar player so I had a band.
What I was thinking is I did an interview with Road Trip Nation – I don’t know if you have seen them on PBS. They go around and they talk to people about their careers. They don’t limit it to maybe your dream career, artistic or creative, but all kinds of people. What’s interesting is, I think, you come from the creative side which to me is interesting because I’ve pursued that a bit.
It is difficult to balance the pursuing your art and then actually being able to make money to feed yourself. I think that that is a really … That’s a difficult thing to do at any time, but particularly now. I think we’re all looking at ways to do that.
I know you took a job in the middle of your life. Mid career you went and worked for Chevron which is about as corporate as you can get, even though you’re absolutely an artistic person. I think the struggle is how do you make it work? You wrote an advice column that was basically talking to people of a more creative nature for the most part and struggling with these same issues. I’m wondering what you’ve learned though that.
Cary: Right. Well, yeah I learned a couple of things and I have some convictions. One is just a real passion… I went to graduate school because I thought it would prepare me for taking a role as a writer in the world. It didn’t really. It prepared me for a role of a writer in academia.
I wanted to be a writer in the world. I didn’t know what that meant, but I wanted to be an actor in the world, a proletarian person not in an ivory tower, but participating in the culture as a resistor, as a dissident. Just being who I am felt like a form of dissent at the time. Just being who I was and I also really like the idea of doing that in public.
San Francisco in the early days, the late 70s, the famous San Francisco lawyer, Melvin Belli, had an office on Montgomery near Columbus Avenue. His office was on the ground floor. He would be in there pacing around talking on the phone, talking with clients. You could walk by, look in the window, and see him at work.
This world famous lawyer. It just touched something in me like, I don’t want to have that wall. There’s me doing my work and then … I wanted to be visible. I just wanted to be a writer in the world. It was not easy.
You know what’s interesting that you say that. I read an article that someone wrote about you. They said something. Tell me if this resonates with you. “If you grow up in Tidewater, Virginia and all your life you long to be in the middle of things. It is intoxicating to look around one day and discover you are.”
I don’t know if that fits in here, but you did not want … You wanted to be in the thick of it. You wanted to be a participant in the world. You didn’t want to be, like you said, with the ivory tower and what’s interesting is the graduate school writing degree, everyone gets excited about getting into the Iowa Writers Workshop. I’m thinking how can you train that artistry?
Cary: Yeah, yeah. I don’t know.
Cary: I was very lucky to have parents who valued creativity. I was, but on the other hand they were not practical people, and they had no clue or advice about how to go about securing say a job as a reporter on a mid-sized daily. They were pretty impractical people.
I had the drive to participate in the culture that way, but I just had to stumble along, and find out for myself what the stumbling blocks were. Taking a job and finding out, “Wow, this is really exhausting. I don’t want to do anything now that I’m off work.” I totally understood what working is like.
I didn’t know because I had been pretty lucky. I had been supported through college and graduate school, but yes, exactly. I wanted to be where the action was. I thought it was in San Francisco, and in certain ways it was. Turns out it was really in New York, but in New York in the late 70s and 80s was very dangerous.
Cary: I wasn’t ready for that.
Completely different from what it is now. It’s Disneyland now.
Cary: Yeah. I was scared. I went there and everybody I talked to said, “Yeah well you’ll be mugged. Face it, get used to it.”
Cary: Lenny lost his saxophone and got mugged on the street, oh boy. San Francisco was welcoming and it was pretty exciting especially in the ’80s with the music scene it was really, really interesting. I loved being there for that.
I don’t know. What I wanted to say about the passion is I think that one wants to have a creative life. One has to be willing to go into uncharted territory. It has to be the driving force, and one has to be ready to not have a stable income and to experience sudden shifts and difficulties.
Really I think that’s the only way. Unless you’re one of these people who is really well schooled in working within institutions and if you understand or maybe you have good family connections and so you can move into say a dance company or move into a … There are people who are well balanced and creative and also can navigate but a lot of us can’t.
I’m in the camp who don’t really know how to navigate and set out on their own and look carefully, watching what other people do, and trying to emulate them, and try to figure out where are the door ways and how can I get in and yet still retain my own peculiar sensibility.
It’s easy to be excluded. It’s easy to blow it. If you really believe in free speech and being true to yourself, it’s very easy to get yourself excluded. It’s just tough but I always did have that abiding belief that there is a true path. It’s political as well as personal.
It has to do with one’s relationship to the state and one’s sense that the state has become this cruel, monolithic, crushing institution, and that we have some kind of responsibility to just resist just by being ourselves.
It’s interesting you say that because I think in the 70s and 80s it was rebellious to go and do your own thing and not follow the corporate path. Maybe not so much in San Francisco. You were in kind of a rarefied atmosphere there, but in the rest of the world. Now it’s almost expected that everyone follow their dreams.
You have the millennials are wanting work/life balance. They’re wanting to do something they love and make a difference. Yet it’s actually, I think, harder to do that now in some ways, than it was, even before when that was considered rebellious and unexpected.
Yet it’s more tolerated now, but I think it’s much more difficult to make your way in the world and make a living say and follow your dream. It’s kind of interesting, I think, the dichotomy of those things and what we see out there. Plus you have people that can blog and do their own thing, but that’s not a living as well. It’s just an interesting time.
Cary: It is. It is. It’s very confusing. It feels like a trick has been played on us, because the role of the rebel has been sort of commodified. It’s been turned into an image that’s very hip and attractive. These people are working like 12 hours a day. They’re sleeping 3 to a room in apartments in San Francisco. It’s absurd. They’re working all the time and corporations have learned how to offer the blandishments of a hipster lifestyle.
I don’t know. The ping pong table and all that. They’re working the hell out of these young people. They have no recourse, and they’re saddled with debt, college debt. It’s a very confusing time.
Yeah and I do wonder what is the advice? What is … How can you escape that trap?
Cary: Yeah. Well, it helps to have an analysis of the culture. Frederic Jameson, the postmodern philosopher, is very hard to read. He’s very complex and difficult, but one of the things he says which just rang true for me in his book about what postmodernism and capitalism is that we are in a period of postmodernism and the hippies, the 60s generation, he, if I get it correctly, he figures we are the last high modernist generation.
What he means by that is we had a, what he calls, the depth model of the self. We had a coherent sense of self. We had that because we did not grow up in this media saturated culture to the degree that young people do today. We could feel alienated because we had a secure sense of self. Now we seem really outdated and sort of corny with all our high ideals and our searching for truth because he says that people who grow up today, in this constant stream of images, are adapting normally to a postmodern world, but what it means is that their conception of self is different.
I don’t know because the passion and the clarity and certainty that I feel … I know that it would probably be impossible to feel that if I’d grown up in say after maybe 1990.
Right. The bombardment of everyone’s ideas and the snippets of this and that that continually invade your mind. Yeah, I think it is very difficult to even know who you are, know what your choices are. It’s an interesting time.
Cary: I think that our model may be inappropriate and if any younger people are troubled, I would say just you’re processing the world that’s coming to you and you’re probably doing fine given the kind of world that you grew up in. The divide is probably pretty normal. I wouldn’t worry too much. I’m not worried. I’m optimistic about this generation. I think they’re going to find solutions, system type solutions to the global problems that we have.
On the good side of it is that it seems like everyone’s a rebel, and has a voice whereas I think it was harder to get your voice out there. The good thing about Instagram and Twitter and blogs is that people are sharing what they think and feel across the world. It’s going to have a huge impact, and things don’t necessarily get ignored anymore as much.
It’s an interesting time. Can you tell me also a little bit about the writing workshops that you lead, and how do you typically get people to get grounded in their creativity and actually write?
Cary: I was writing a column for a lot of years and I finally went and I looked for a book about how to manage my relationship with my creative self. I found Pat Schneider’s book, Writing Alone and With Others. I read it, and it prescribed a workshop method called The Amherst Writers and Artists Method. I went to her workshop. She’s a poet and activist from Amherst, Massachusetts.
I took a workshop with her and it opened my eyes to a way of coming into a room with a bunch of writers and everyone writes in the room to prompts. Then they read aloud and we respond only according to a prescribed menu of responses. I started doing this in October, 2007. I started by putting posters up on telephone poles. Litquake was starting in the fall of 2007. It had been going for a few years.
I had workshops in the house, and it relieved me of this habitual anxiety about how my work would be judged. It relieved me of this egotistical, constant, pitting myself against others, and thinking how I stack up, and worried about how I’ll be seen.
The model I had for a writer was this hero on the mountain, this solitary figure hurling bolts down, powerful and that was the reason I didn’t have community as a writer. I was really seeking community. This workshop helped me get to a place of humility and community where I could share the creative moment with other people.
We’re doing that and I’m talking about it in my column. Then people writing and saying, “I’d love to come to the workshop but I live in Massachusetts or London or Tokyo…” We thought we’ll do getaways where people can come. We started that in Tomales Bay at Marconi’s Conference Center. Great, serene location.
Then my wife was working at home. We were both working at home, and it was very foggy in the sunset district of San Francisco. She said, “This is the last August I’m going to spend shivering in the cold. We’ll find some place…”
So she found this place in Italy, and it worked. We told people, “We’re going to rent this place in Italy. Come and do the workshop method there.” People came and it was fantastic. We did that for 3 years and then last July, July, 2015, we just thought, “Let’s just sell the house and move to Italy”, so we did.
There’s another piece of this I just want to mention. The method was really great at getting people to open up and write freely, but not enough people to my mind were taking it to the next level and submitting their work to journals. I really wanted to see it happening. For me, I want a writer to have a voice in the culture. It’s okay if you just write for yourself. For me personally, that’s not what it’s about.
It’s about allowing your voice to be heard in the culture. That’s the thing especially if your voice is kind of unusual. The more unusual the better. It should be heard. I started doing this thing called Finishing School. We come together and we just focus on taking steps to bring work to a point of completion.
It’s like the whole other side of the creative mind which is on the executive functioning part of the person which many artists are weaker in. The organization, the planning, all that.
I had a friend who was working on a book. She’s done a lot of books. She got stuck and she came to Finishing School, and she got unstuck on her book. She told her agent, and together they thought, “Well maybe this is a book.” Now she and I are writing a book about Finishing School. Penguin has agreed to publish it, and it’ll be out in the fall of 2016.
I hope this will really enable people not only to come together and create together, but to help each other. We have a kind of buddy system and it’s a method people can take and use on their own anywhere where you get mutual structured support to take you through to completion of a project.
What’s interesting you talk about that because definitely writing is a lonely vocation, but in the end it has to be shared. I love the idea that you are helping people get their voice out there. I think it’s so important. What do you find is the most challenging thing for people who are trying to finish a novel or get their voice out there? What stops them?
Cary: In the book we talk about these emotional pitfalls that people get into. Doubt, shame, arrogance, fear. We go into some detail about that. People have been told that they’re viewpoint isn’t valuable or they’re afraid of being judged. We’re all judged so harshly on our work when you’re learning to write. You’re just learning the language and they’re all about correcting your spelling and your punctuation.
I had a pretty well-known, respected psychiatrist come to one of our workshops. He had this wound from elementary school. Just seeing her page with all these red marks on it. That stings and it stays with people. You don’t sometimes know that it’s there if you haven’t done a lot of work to uncover why you’re suddenly uncomfortable writing. A lot of people … I think that’s a political issue too because our narrow standards tend to stifle outside voices.
It does it at such an early age that we’re not getting the benefit of these voices. There’s a million impediments and I was so lucky, now that I look at it, that my dad and my mom, they were all about, “Oh you’re writing? Oh good, good.” Some people’s parents, “You’re writing? Why are you writing? You’re supposed to do your homework. You’re supposed to be preparing for a career.”
Cary: I was lucky that way, and in the workshops I bring that attitude. “Let’s just come together and make stuff up. It’s kind of a revolutionary thing. We’re just going to make stuff up. Whatever comes out of our heads is going to be cool.” It’s great. I love it. People really respond because we’ve all got so much material in us. Just open it up.
Yeah, yeah. It is truly amazing. People don’t realize that they have these voices in their head or what’s been told to them until it’s sort of brought out in a group or with a workshop. It’s pretty startling. That’s what I was talking about at the beginning. That was a tremendous gift that you got from your parents that they didn’t look at you like, “What are you messing with that silly stuff? You need to do your homework and figure out how you’re going to make it in this life and pay your bills.” You really got that creative push at such a young age. That’s a huge thing.
Cary: Right. Consequently I did not know how to pay the bills.
Right. Exactly, but you’ve done all right though. Just a little bit, can you tell me about moving to Italy because I loved what you wrote about packing up in San Francisco. I just absolutely loved how you came to decide on, “I’m making this huge leap later in life.”
Cary: Right. It was amazing because I guess we had both been building toward it because my job at Salon had ended in 2013 and my wife, Norma’s career as a graphic artist and designer for magazines had pretty much dried up. She had made a transition to the web. We were running the business and we could see that it just wasn’t going to make it.
Neither one of us really wanted to go out and get another job at this point. We had done so much. The job at Salon had been just this wonderful oasis where I was there for 14 years and 12 of them I was writing this column which was the most amazing opportunity for a writer. To take a form and reinvent it and go where ever you want to go with it and not ever be hectored or counseled to please reign it in. Very rarely.
I got to go where ever I wanted to go. It had been kind of a paradise and then when it stopped and we looked around us, we saw that San Francisco had really changed, and was not this free wheeling city of love that it had been. Where anyone could come, there was cheap rent, cheap food, great entertainment all the time, lots of writers. It had really changed.
Artists, writers, and musicians were being priced out and evicted. It’s just an ugly time in San Francisco because the progressive people and the artists who remain are kind of manning the barricades. It’s a battle type atmosphere.
Tech people, who are marvelous people, bright, idealistic, hard working, young, hip people, they’re being vilified because they have a lot of money. It just wasn’t a good atmosphere, and the choice was do we stay as progressive, creative people, and do we try to fight this or do we say, “Okay later. We’ll see you later.”
We came there because we wanted to be some place that suited us, and it didn’t suit us anymore. We were sitting at the table, and yeah it was that moment. I just, “What are we going to do? I’m sick of this place. It’s no fun anymore. It’s just fight, fight, fight.” I love the tech people. These programmers are brilliant, and they’re totally transforming the world in their way.
It’s unbelievable, but I don’t speak that language. I don’t understand what they’re doing at all. They’re not interested in me. She said it. She said, “We could just sell the house and move to Italy.”
Just like that.
Cary: Yeah. That was really cool. I was always, “Hey have you thought about moving to Guam?” I was like, “I’ve always wanted to live at the North Pole.” She knows that about me. When she said it, it was really serious. Within 4 months we were here. We love the people here. Alfa, Tanginelli and the Fabinelli family. They’re just lovely, lovely people.
Are there a lot of artists there? Are you kind of odd man out?
Cary: Not really. Kind of yeah. We’re totally the strangers. I’m really dislocated. I go to Florence and I’m trying to hook up with writers there. I went to the British Institute of Florence. They have English language events. I saw a writer, Baret Magarian last night and a guy Lee … Now this is funny thing that happened. In, I guess it was September, Norma and I were having dinner with some relatives at The Ristorante Milano in San Francisco. We were talking and I’m preparing to do this moth presentation – which was a few days later.
I was talking about that and I was talking to the waiter. I said, “Yeah I’m doing this and doing that. I’m a writer and I’m moving to Italy.” He said, “Oh you’re moving to Italy? Near Florence? You have to meet Lee Foust. He was my teacher and he’s there in Florence. He’s doing writing. I was like, “Okay, Lee Foust. I’ll have to remember that.” Two nights ago I went to this reading. I was looking around and there was a guy in a pork pie hat.
I was like, “Lee Foust.” He was in San Francisco during the 80s, he’s a writer. I’m trying to hook up with writers and artists in Florence because there’s a lively, English speaking community there. Up here, hour and 20 minutes out of Florence, we’re just these oddball Americans. It’s quiet here and that’s what I want because I’m finishing up a novel and I’m writing this Finishing School book for Penguin.
We just wanted out of the heated political thing. We wanted out of America frankly. Having worked at Salon I had gotten into the habit of paying attention to the political media. For a while it was my job to keep up with it. I want to stop paying attention to the political media. It’s just gotten too weird.
Yeah. It’s really over the top now.
Cary: It’s over the top.
I’m sure the interesting thing is if you go overseas and then watch us from afar, it’s even crazier I think. You’re not in the midst of it. I’m sure you had a huge perspective change just that way.
Cary: A little more relaxed. I was writing about that the other day. Italy has a crazy political atmosphere too.
That’s true. That’s true. Bunga bunga.
Cary: It was great to get out and to experience a different culture. People are just warmer here.
Don’t you think it’s because they have more time to be? I think in America it’s so difficult. You’re just treading water to stay afloat, to stay alive then try and squeeze out a little bit of creativity after that.
Cary: Yeah. It’s terrible.
These people, they take 3 hour lunches. Even if they’re working.
Cary: Yeah. Exactly.
They all have community at the end. On Sunday they go out to dinner with each other. It’s such … The Italians know how to live. There is no doubt about that.
Cary: They do. I feel like I’m here for that. I’m here to learn how to live. You see America has really gotten itself in a bad spot. Everyone is over worked. That’s probably one reason for all the craziness. We’re just working people too hard. They need time and they need a sense that they’re going to be taken care of. There’s so much fear about if you lose your job, you’re going to lose your apartment and you’re going to be on the street.
It’s a well justified fear unfortunately.
That’s what you get in Europe. You really don’t have that huge underlying fear that underpins American society which is expected of Americans because if you don’t work hard, you don’t deserve anything anyway.
Cary: Yes. That’s terrible.
Italians it’s the opposite.
Cary: If you work hard you’re a fool.
Exactly. Why wouldn’t you drink wine and have a 3 hour pasta dinner?
Cary: “What’s wrong with you? They’re telling me already. What’s wrong with him?” My wife goes out and everyone hugs her and kisses her and says, “Where’s Cary at?” She says, “He’s writing.” They say, “Oh, exxageratto!. He exaggerates, he’s working too hard.” I love it.
Cary: I have a pretty deep and serious critique of where America’s at. America has so much promise and so many resources. Why are we squeezing the populous? It’s a terrible thing. I hope we get out of it, but it was a good time to step away.
Yeah. Yeah I mean that’s a whole other discussion we could definitely go into, but … Cary what is next on the horizon then for you?
Cary: I have this novel that I’ve been working on a long time. Part of the reason for creating Finishing School was my own difficulty finishing work. The one thing I want here is to be able to walk around and reinvent myself once again as just a writer. Like the kind of writer who writes whatever. A poem, a short story. My dream is to do more workshops here, to invite everyone to come over – for more workshops and truffle hunting, cooking lessons or whatever.
Get some of the Italian vibe. Then for me to finish this novel and get an agent and get it published because that’s … It’s a deep, life long dream because my father was very creative but he was not good at finishing things either. There’s that legacy that kind of … I know we can’t fix the past but it’s a powerful motivation for me to finally finish this novel and get an agent and get it published. There’s that. What else is there?
Me and Norma eating Italian food. Maybe coming back to America. Also, doing music. Living.
Yeah. Doesn’t it feel like it almost a whole world has opened up getting into a place like that where you’re living in Italy and the freedom. The freedom to create?
Cary: Yeah. I can take a breath. Invite other people here. Now we’re really learning all the ins and outs so we’ll be able to point out … We’re getting a pretty privileged look at Italian culture from the inside. Even though we’re outsiders but Alfao and Miranda and them are introducing us to the neighborhood. It’s not a touristy neighborhood. It’s really an old, old town. We’re beginning to see people in their natural state.
Yeah. The best. Well, thank you Cary. I really appreciate you taking the time to talk to us about The Creative Life and I wish you all the best in Italy and thank you so much.
Cary: Wow. Well thank you, Ingrid. It’s really been a pleasure.
Want to attend one of Cary’s incredible writing retreats in Tuscany? Take life-changing workshops in breathtaking places here.