Category Archives: Art

Taking Flight: On WINGS OF WAX, #MFA programs, & Finding Your Voice #MondayBlogs

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March Madness is nearly upon us, dear readers. No, I’m not referring to the NCAA basketball tournament, though I will try to find some time to watch a game or two while conducting a publicity tour around the publication of my debut novel, WINGS OF WAX. Work and leisure balance, right?

WINGS OF WAX is scheduled to hit retailers on Thursday, March 10th, two weeks prior to the release of MY BIG FAT GREEK WEDDING 2, the sequel to Nia Vardalos’ wildly successful 2002 film about the loveable Portokalos family. The movie’s opening date coincides with Greek Independence Day, March 25th, so next month is shaping up to have quite the Hellenic flair. In looking forward to March, I’m also compelled to reflect on the past, waaay back to 2009 when I was a second-year graduate student struggling to find my story in a Creative Writing MFA program.

In 2008, I began graduate school studies at Mills College in Oakland, CA. I spent the first semester feeling my way around campus, taking lit classes and reading novels. I was in a critique group, but didn’t do much writing, primarily due to the fact that I entered the Creative Writing program with what I thought was a completed novel: an urban Oakland tale of a young man coping with the loss of his murdered brother. Each week I submitted sections of this story for feedback. For the most part, my work earned positive response from fellow writers. I seemed destined to cruise through the next couple years in route to earning my degree. Not quite.

Despite the early praise of my novel draft, I didn’t feel tied to the story. In reading over the work, it seemed as though someone else had written it. The characters and circumstances didn’t interest me, though I didn’t want to admit that to myself. Besides, I figured that if my colleagues enjoyed the work, I must have been doing something right.

Fast forward to the second semester at Mills. The same writing excerpts which had previously earned praise were panned this time around. My new critique group’s professor, a well-accomplished novelist who shall remain unnamed, marred my workshop submissions with red pen—truly mightier than the sword—to the point that I began to think of the page as my flesh; the crimson streaks across it akin to fresh wounds.

Each week in class, this professor peered at me across the room, her raven eyes brimming a predatory ferocity below equally dark bangs. She and uttered things like, “You need to do a better job inhabiting your characters. Your people aren’t real yet. This story reads like a TV show.”

A TV show? Ouch!

Unless someone is comparing your story to the likes of The Wire, Breaking Bad, or Mad Men for instance, no serious novelist wants to hear that their work is mere television without the pictures.

“You need to write from a place of authenticity,” my professor went on to say, “Write your story. The word is all that matters.”

As harsh as this professor could be, I began to realize, after shoving my ego out of the way, that she had the best of intentions. She was pushing me, like any good teacher or mentor, to do the work and get better. I know she didn’t mean I needed to literally write my story, but, in some sense, that’s what I began to do.

Heading into the final year of grad school, I gave much thought to the notion that despite the emphasis on the ancient Greeks’ contributions to world culture, there seems very little written in regard to modern Greek culture, and the experience of Greek-Americans in particular. Of course we do have the movie MY BIG FAT GREEK WEDDING, and Jeffrey Eugenides’ stellar novel MIDDLESEX, but what else? The more I considered this, the more compelled I felt to write from my own experience, not in the sense of writing an autobiographical story, but in respect to joining other Greek-American artists in illuminating our heritage.

I began WINGS OF WAX fall semester of 2009, though it wasn’t called WINGS OF WAX at that point. “Flight Paths” was an early title. The earliest draft of the story began with Angelo standing outside of an exotic bird shop, his dreaded place of employment, while pondering the world beyond his inner-turmoil. In fact, the novel’s early incarnations were almost entirely focused on the protagonist’s interiority; a kind of stream-of-consciousness depiction of a young man’s deepest insecurities and anxieties as he tries to forge a place for himself within the local Greek community.

I started the story with no outline, though I did have a vague idea as to how it would end. The writing came fast and easy. It was a fun project—the book I should have been writing all along; the novel I had finally given myself permission to produce. Above all else, that was the greatest thing I gained from the program. Even my old professor, the toughest of critics, saw potential. She told me to keep pushing, to continue forging deeper into the story’s truth. That seems to be the most valuable aspect of attending an MFA program: You allow yourself time to write and read, and in doing so you find your voice.

The next semester, my final at Mills College, the story finally began to take shape to most closely resemble the novel that it is today. At least in the sense that it’s no longer a stream-of-conscious narrative as Angelo’s struggles are reflected in how he interacts with the world around him and outside of his head. This makes for, apparently, a more compelling read.

As graduation neared, I submitted for approval my thesis, sixty pages of a new novel draft, a Greek-American narrative now titled WINGS OF WAX. In the months after earning my degree, I completed the draft. I then spent the next several years revising the book, listening to the valuable opinions of my peers, and sharpening the story’s structure. I submitted the novel to publishers and agents, racked up some rejections, and did some more revision work. I sent it out again, almost signed a deal or two, but they didn’t pan out. Finally, seven years after the story idea sprouted in my mind, WINGS OF WAX is on the brink of soaring into readers’ hands at last courtesy of Seattle’s Booktrope Publishing. I found my story, and a publisher, and had a lot of fun in the process. In reading the novel, you might find that it is your story, too.

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#Art as Life: On Arts Education & Smelly Markers #MondayBlogs

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Imagine, if you will, a baby crawling up a mountainous flight of steps, one little knee at a time, slapping the surface of each stair in announcement of his progress. His ascent is inspired not by the promise of toy or treat, but by a desire to view up close the spectrum of colors and shapes beckoning from above.

I was that baby, and the stairs belonged to some famous New York City art museum, the Guggenheim perhaps, to which my mother had taken me during one of our visits to the Big Apple. It seems I was drawn to art (pun intended), so the story goes, since before I could walk, willing to brave even the most arduous climb simply for the sake of a layered canvas. Growing older, and more mobile, I could often be found reaching for a pencil, or crayon, with which I would fill countless sheets of paper; first with scribbles, and then, as my hand grew more confident, superheroes and monsters. My favorite tools of the trade were those gold and silver markers that emit the smelliest fumes via which I would grow intoxicated and then preform “drunken” dinner songs for family. Ah, but that’s another story.

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A painting by maternal grandfather, Theodore C. Polos.

Mom, no doubt, was an big inspiration for this early creative streak. Aside from taking me to see the framed creations of the masters, she provided visions of an artist at work as she spent countless hours at her drawing table laboring at her craft. Art was, and is, integral to our family experience, woven like tapestry into the texture of our everyday life. My mother is a painter and sculptor, and her father, my papou, earned quite a name for himself in the art world despite his feeble beginnings as a Greek immigrant. My dad, who while in America earned a living through his electrician business, has since, in moving back to his native Greece, dedicated himself to his own artistic talents.

A good portion of my childhood was spent in the company of artists, attending gallery openings and exhibitions–many of them my mother’s–wandering among the paintings in search of both inspiration and a makeshift play space. Now, as an adult, attending galleries and museums is still a favor pastime. When Mom is town from Monterey, it’s a joy to trek out to San Francisco and take in an art exhibit. Each painting, every sculpture, tells its own story. I’ve learned that the point of viewing art is not always to glean “meaning” from a piece (“What is this artist trying to say? What does it mean?”, you often hear people remark), but rather to observe how it makes you feel.

I’m grateful that my family has gifted me with a life abundant in art. Just as I was exposed to paintings, so was I entrenched in the world of stories and poems as our home was one full of books. An artist’s life isn’t always easy, but it is ever vivid, consistently rich. When I was growing up, Mom taught art at my elementary school. I often heard classmates–the children of “square” families–say things like, “Art isn’t important becomes it doesn’t make money.” Well, sometimes it does, and it will, if nothing else, expose one to a spectrum of colors beyond the banality of dollar-bill green.

This post is inspired by the recent news that the Senate has passed an act making arts education part of the Common Core curriculum. Now, I believe Common Core is problematic in of itself for a variety of reasons that I won’t expound upon here, but this is a good thing for all. There surely is a place for art in schools. Today, more than ever, we need people who are unafraid to color outside the lines.