Portrait of the artist

Portrait of the artist looking for the red EXIT signs?
Portrait of the artist looking for the red EXIT signs?

Had my photo/portrait/post office mugshot taken today as I begin the final week of my three-week stay at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, where I’ve done lots of work on a novel — inspired by the life story of the real-life 1920s Italian anarchist with the unlikely name of Severino DiGiovanni — and where they have invited me four times in the last four years to spend time as a fiction-writing fellow because, nearest as I can figure, I’m a fellow who writes fiction.

Anyway, however I got here, I’m very excited about this novel. But I’m wondering about this photo.

A writer friend who’s very smart and very hip and very talented and very published just messaged me to say “Great picture!”

My brother, on the other hand, who I can always count on for his support because he’s blood, emailed back: “You look like a serial killer.”

So, let’s say early reviews are mixed. I myself don’t know what to think.

Do I look like an author? Do I have that intelligent, slightly bohemian, interesting, he’s-a-genius-but-an-approachable-genius look that I suppose all writers — or maybe it’s just me — crave?

Or do I look like I’m lost? Like I’m being interrogated by the NSA and CIA and FBI and KGB all at once in order to save time? Like I have amnesia and I’m wondering why I keep hearing nothing on the radio but country music and fire-and-brimstone preachers? Like I’m doing a screen test for Andy Warhol’s Incredible Plastic Inevitable?

Or like I’m just about finished contemplating and now I’m about to answer a reporter’s question: “What, Mr. DiGiovanni, is the meaning of life?”

Well, if I’m in the mood, and I think you’re all ready to handle it, I’ll answer that question in my next blog post — but in a pre-screened post that will be available only to people who, like my astute writer friend, with declare with great enthusiasm: “Great picture!”

Peak performances atop Mount St. Angelo

Virginia Center for the Creative Arts...my studio is at the far left

The view of the Blue Ridge Mountains was spectacular. The setting, high on a hilltop called Mount St. Angelo, set way off the highway connecting Lynchburg, Va., and Charlottesville, Va., was perfect, complete with a bluebird and cardinal who appeared outside my studio window every morning to flit and flutter in the first weekend’s snow, complete with a freight train which rolled through the valley every few hours (complete with beautifully haunting train whistle in the silent moonlit Virginia night).

And I managed (despite those happy distractions — and many more, including one or two that were even more happily distracting) to add a big chunk of words (more than 10,000 words during my two-week stay) to my novel-in-progress, “City of Gracious Living.”

Even though I’m glad I left just in time to avoid the devastating snow storm which paralyzed that part of the country, I wish I could have stayed forever in my beautiful little studio at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts.

Two of the highlights of my visit: Encounters with artist Melora Griffis and jazz trombonist J. Walter Hawkes. Melora’s paintings are provocative, haunting and beautiful. Plus she’s nice, interesting, smart and unpretentious. Walter’s soulful and skillful solo jazz and blues performances on the trombone and the ukulele are a sight to behold and sound to be heard in person to truly appreciate his rare talent.

The highlight among highlights for me during my stay with a few dozen other VCCA “fellows” had to be the next-to-last-night of my stay, when Walter and I collaborated on a reading/performance, with me reading a chapter from “City of Gracious Living” and a chapter of another of my novels, “Half Moon,” while Walter expertly improvised jazz and blues and big-band riffs before, during and after my readings. It was a true honor and a certifiable thrill.

Thanks, Walter. Thanks, Melora. Thanks to all of the other talented artists and writers I met at the VCCA — sharing excellent meals and excellent conversations. And thanks most of all to the VCCA for giving me such a wonderful two weeks.

When you’re making other plans…

Life is what happens to you when you’re making other plans. So sang John Lennon — and that song’s been a soundtrack for me during the past year as my own life has swerved and careened and accelerated to warp speed and slowed to a near halt, as it has sometimes seemed like someone — when I wasn’t looking — flipped a switch to put me on automatic pilot, my destination programmed and out of my control. It’s been a sad, chaotic, disorienting and often disillusioning period of my life.

But it’s also been a time in which I’ve encountered unexpected wonders and wonderful revelations. And many of those wonders and revelations have had something — everything — to do with love and its power to heal, inspire, rejuvenate, to restore one’s faith, to revive, to resurrect, to make life come alive once again, to appear and come to the rescue when you least expect it and all seems lost.

I’ve experienced a miracle. I don’t mean I’ve seen the blessed Virgin bearing messages or had stigmata appear on my hands and feet. No flowers have fallen to the ground when I’ve opened my cloak. I have not, like St. Catherine, risen to the top of the room. I have not heard voices — except the tender, warm, soothing voice of true love and pure affection. How many people can say that? I’ve realized there are so, so many people in this world who never feel true love.

These thoughts are inspired by a piece of writing, a burst of emotion, that’s way, way better than what you just read.  Read the latest installment of SilverLining (complete with great photos of a young deer encountered on the path around a pond). Speaking of miracles. Speaking of giving thanks. Speaking of love. Speaking of life happening to you when you’re making other plans…

Here’s Ella Fitzgerald — from my hometown of Yonkers, N.Y. — singing about hope and happiness…singing about blue skies: