Thanks to Emily for today's interview on Persist: The Blog... And to Roberta Allen, for graciously participating in our series:
It is with great pleasure that I introduce to you Roberta Allen, a New York based artist, writer, teacher, and coach. She has been teaching at The New School University since 1992, but is entirely active in her one-on-one coaching and writing workshops. In fact, for all you New Yorkers, one of her workshops is giving a reading at The Cornelia Street Cafe, 29 Cornelia St. in the West Village on Monday Sept. 27th, 6-8PM. She warmly welcomes new faces! But for the time being, please enjoy this unique and honest conversation with a figure of great influence to many.
Persist: Can you tell us a little about your creative process as a visual artist? What about your process makes you feel pride in being an artist regardless of any kind of success or lack there of? How about writing? Is it a similar process?
Roberta Allen: When I’m involved in making art or writing, the outside world goes away. Time doesn’t exist. There’s only my world. That involvement, that flow is life-giving, life-supporting. What is difficult is being between projects. I’m looking for publishers for two recently completed manuscripts, my memoir, DIRTY GIRL, and a short short story collection, EVERY MAN’S NIGHTMARE. While waiting, I try things out, there’s a lot of starting and stopping until I discover where my energy wants to go--art or writing. It’s important to let myself be wrong. That’s an uncomfortable feeling but I live with it. It’s part of the process.
Persist: Which came first, a desire to be an artist or a teacher? From your experience, could you more easily do one without the other, or do you find that being an artist/writer enhances your ability to teach and vice versa?
Roberta Allen: I’ve had eight books published and have been mostly writing in the last two decades or so but I’ve never stopped feeling that I’m an artist. I do think my creative activities and teaching feed each other. Teaching my private classes is very satisfying. I love the energy that’s generated. I love to see writing improve.
Persist: Were you always a writer? What prompted the transition in your career to writing?
Roberta Allen: I have always been a visual artist--since I could hold a pencil. But writing was very important in my conceptual art. I explored the meaning of signs and used verbal labels to try and expand our perception. I don’t think I would have become a writer at all if I hadn’t been fixated on my father (which I discuss below) though I didn’t have that awareness when I began writing. In fact, it was only after discovering in therapy that my father wasn’t illiterate--he stopped school after 3rd grade--that I let myself write: I didn’t want to be better than him.
Persist: Do you find yourself shifting between the two genres regularly or does your success in one or the other effect where you focus?
Roberta Allen: Writing and teaching don’t leave me much time for making art. I have private students as well and I want to start a tele class for writers outside New York City. I make art anyway but so far I haven’t figured out how to make time to promote it.
Persist: You began to share a rather unique story about your relationship to the art world and your reasons for leaving. Would you like to share a little of that with us now or shall we just look forward to your memoir DIRTY GIRL?
Roberta Allen: In the course of writing DIRTY GIRL, I realized that I left the art world because I couldn’t leave my seductive father who had abandoned me when I was 17. It wasn’t the first time he had abandoned me but the last time was the major trauma in my life and I believed it was my fault. I had tremendous guilt. Every art dealer I worked with became my father and in my fantasy I was going to make it “right.” That, of course, didn’t work. I ended my art career because I couldn’t give up my father. It’s a decision I regret but I couldn’t do anything else then. After a serious outburst, my NY gallery found me a therapist. I saw her for ten years. When I left my dealers in New York and Germany, I began writing. I had to write about my father in order to understand. But I (mostly) disguised him in my stories and other books.
Persist: What is one of the more important skills you hope your students might take away from a workshop?
Roberta Allen: Most important I think is that they continue writing--PERSIST--as Peter Clothier would say. But they won’t unless they keep tapping the ENERGY--the excitement, the interest--that made them initially want or need to write. I show students how to keep digging with my exercises until they find that well of energy--and it gushes forth. That is when they know they’ve found their material, the material that really moves them. But it’s important to keep writing from that energy. I teach other tricks to keep them doing that. Whenever work feels dead and that sometimes happens, it’s because the writer has gone in the wrong direction. I think the same can be said for visual art. That’s when you need to return to the source of that energy. It may not be something you can articulate, it may only be a feeling you can’t even name but you know when you’re “on it.”
Persist: Tell us a little about how you got into the world of private coaching…
Roberta Allen: After a reading I did, a talented young writer in the audience said she wanted to study with me. I told her that if she found two other people I would start a private class. She did--after posting flyers everywhere. That was 1991.
Persist: Many of your students are very successful. How do you address the issue of “success” with your writers versus simply being creative and continuing to pursue their passions? How do you define success to them if at all?
Roberta Allen: Some of my students have published books later. I hope that what they learned in my workshops helped them achieve their goals. We can’t control what happens “out there.” We can only control what we do, how we think, and what we feel about our work. I know how good it feels to create something I’m happy with and want to share. I don’t deny how happy I am when others appreciate it. But it’s not always possible to share what we create with “the world,” or to put it another way, the world we share our work with may be small indeed. But even a small world has its satisfactions. In my workshops, for example, we bond and create a community among ourselves that feels very alive and nurturing.