Austin-based writer and activist Murphy Anne Carter truly practices what she preaches. The director of the Freehand Arts Project, a non-profit organization that brings art, writing and literature classes to individuals incarcerated in Texas, Murphy balances a rigorous teaching schedule at the prison, in addition to studying Public Policy at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at UT Austin. Beyond Murphy's unwavering belief in the power of art and language in the lives of some of America's most underserved individuals, her wonderful motto, "Discipline is remembering what you want," serves as a reminder for all of us to courageously pursue whatever it is that we love.
How would you describe what you do?
I spend a lot of time reading, writing, listening, writing some more, collecting. I’m a graduate student with a background in teaching. I still teach, but now at the county jail. I study something super rigid—public policy—but the subject I teach (and the joy I return to) is creative writing. I run the non-profit that brings creative classes (creative writing, poetry, visual arts) to the county jail, and I try to create myself. I repurpose old books with collages and my own writing. I submit to zines and bookbind. I strive to be a “culture monster.” Maybe more than anything, what I “do” is try to figure out how all of these different realms relate to one another—what I teach at the jail, whether it’s a Marie Howe or Terrance Hayes poem, always winds up in my understanding of a history or policy class I’m in. Microeconomics (for however dull it can be) and visions of the end of civilization (Neo-Keynsian or not) will wind up in my prompts for class at the jail. Somehow, they don’t feel so disparate, because there is such a vast universe inside of each space, no matter if the classroom’s at UT or in Travis County Correctional Complex. It’s tricky. After I verbalize all of this, I don’t know if I describing what I do right now takes up as much of my brain as how I want to be doing it. That answer is a lot simpler: with integrity and heart. They seem so lofty when I characterize it that way—but there’s so much excess that sluffs off when there’s no need to second-guess if something’s right or cool or whatever when you do anything with integrity and heart. I’m even fine with one out of two of those, or even none out of those so long as I’m trying. Moving between the “inside” and the “outside” and paying attention to it is what I try to do.
How do you deal with the continual ebb and flow of “success” as a creative person?
I think I have a hesitancy toward acknowledging success to begin with. It’s something so fleeting that once I name it I feel like it’s already slipping through my fingers. Last summer, the non-profit I’m running, Freehand Arts Project, was awarded an $18,000 grant. I still don’t think it’s registered. I don’t know if that’s indicative of my relationship with success, but if it is, I think my way of dealing is to keep blinders on and not let it dictate your behavior or decision-making. It’s like a far-away paradise that’s beautiful and occasionally in a Corona commercial—I know what it looks like but it’s not the actual content. It’s not why we’re here.
When is a time you felt really successful? Or a time you felt like you failed?
I feel like I’m always failing, and only recently has that become a positive thing in my life. Last fall, the month leading up to my 25th birthday felt cataclysmic. The hits just kept on coming, and I exploded like a snotty, tearful volcano in front of a mentor whose known me since I was 19. She’s in her 70s, French, fabulous. We were sitting at a beautiful restaurant, and she ordered us red wine, a steak and fries. We split the food, and in my wallowing puddle of doubt, she managed simultaneously to acknowledge and validate my feelings while telling me to buck up. I’m paraphrasing, but in her sweet accent, she essentially said that failing is a good thing. “Discipline is remembering what you want.” And ever since then, I have this memory on tap that I replay in my head when I find myself slipping into a solipsistic hellhole of doubt. I think of that dinner and its perfection, and I remember not only have countless people been in this place before but also that I have been in this place before. They got a director’s chair with my name on it here. I know the ropes. Rather than focusing on “success,” I guess I’ve been rebranding failure, working on best practices of failure, denying the existence of mistakes. I’d rather pay attention to the world around me and be delusional about my “success” than vice versa.
What is your biggest struggle as a person in creative industry?
What is your daily routine? Your weekend routine?
Daily: I tend to have class in the morning, which is a blessing in disguise/from the skys. Once upon a time, I believe in breakfast, but now I believe in coffee—and laying your clothes out the night before, packing your bag the night before, showering the night before. After class and sufficiently doodling during class, I’ll come home and eat some food, get ready to go to the jail once or twice a week (which normally means changing clothes because there’s a lot of restrictions on attire). Teaching at the jail is the best time for me. I’m away from my phone, my computer. We read, write, and talk. I’ll try to go to the pool and move my body afterward. I usually go for a long run/walk at the end of the day. Each chunk of time is punctuated by reading and writing and listening to music on headphones or in the car. I live in my head so much that I wedge something corporeal in the middle to try to re-energize. Around 9 p.m. I put my phone on airplane mode – if there isn’t a deadline I’ve been ignoring – and read and write and stretch. I set everything out for the next day and kind of give that ritual to the evening. I guess it’s the best time for me to reflect on the past/present/future. I struggle with temporality, and time collapses once I’m left alone for an hour or so. That’s probably my favorite time (pun-intended). Weekends: Free for all. But rather than having to deal with class or emails or coffee, I deal with movies and friends and reading. I talk to my Dad on the phone. My housemate and I will fix some food. I save “Still Processing,” which is my favorite podcast that comes out on Thursdays, for a Sunday waltz around my neighborhood.
How do you motivate yourself to actually get things done? How do you maintain such high levels of productivity?
You get up, you crack some eggs, you put on your shoes, you call a friend to ask them about their morning. It’s all un-glamorous and amazing and the thin veil of magic covering everything will always be there if you remember to see it, surround yourself with others who see it, or even ignore it for a while but trust it’ll always be there. In terms of what that maintenance looks like, I have little notes around my room: “Discipline is remembering what I want.” That’s the closest I got to motivation. I can make myself do things I don’t want to do sometimes—namely if it’s a stepping stone to really attaining something I want. But I shrink at the idea of motivation. If I choose not to do something I don’t want to do, I can do it with awareness of the sacrifice. But I’ve gotten to a space where I trust what I want, and I try to remember it.
How do you manage the stress/anxiety that’s inevitable with putting yourself out there?
Fuck’em if they can’t take a joke. (Who knew I was so into axioms?)
How do you know when it’s time to rest?
When I start spiraling into repetitive lines of thought. Like everyone, I got tired train tracks of where some thoughts lead to an abandoned station of self-doubt, even self-loathing. A long time ago, my mom said you got to move those train tracks one at a time. That sort of mental housekeeping was so integral to my first years away from my parents, being an “adult,” living in New York. I did so much of that work, that now, if I start trailing along those tracks I know there’s something up. Bed time, food time, Steel Magnolias time.
How do you manage the internet/social media?
I don’t want to admit it, but sometimes it manages me. My new friend: Airplane Mode. (I see you, Cardi.)
Do you collaborate, and if so, what’s your collaborative process like?
Always. Open, positive, very wordy (including lots of prefaces about how I’m not sure, where my point of view is, checking myself), and bad jokes. Bad jokes are absolutely essential.
What’s your big dream? Do you have one? How do you set goals/set yourself up to achieve?
DREAMS. Big dreams. The craziest thing, too, is that I really believe in them. Yes, you need to actually write endless lists, wake up early (hit snooze, wake up again, and so on) and do the actual work. But that’s probably the real thing, in my starry-eyed, pathologically optimistic opinion. Believing that you’ll achieve them. There’s just no other option. I always use this example, but if you could believe in free will or not, why would you ever choose not to? If it’s all fate’s doing anyway, I’d rather believe in free will. I actively ignore this circular reasoning, and sort of ask myself, if I’d rather be the person that does or doesn’t believe in their own volition. Maybe it’s a personality trait, or dependent upon astrological signs and whether or not you hit all the lights green on the way to work in the morning. But seriously, are they dreams or goals if you don’t believe in them?
How do you deal with people not liking you, liking your ideas or being jealous of you?
See: How do you manage the stress/anxiety that’s inevitable with putting yourself out there? Seriously though, it’s always a working project. But if being kind or open or trying either of those things isn’t working, then fuck’em. There’s so many other amazing things to do and people to meet and lessons to learn. Criticism and curiosity are nonnegotiable. They need to be a part of the creative conversation. But not liking you or your ideas or jealousy carries a kind of destructiveness without creativity. It’s missing the point, because, and maybe I am wrong about this, but it’s not about being liked, it’s about seeing and hearing. It’s (ideally) about activating something, so there’s an interrogation or nuance that can be flawed and tangled and completely amiss. If that’s taken into an ego, it’s sort of a shame. The chances for anything to be shared or learned, hell even the chances to smile or laugh, dwindle.
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