The following are articles and interviews about Joelle Steele, the most recent ones first.
Freelance Magazine, 2005
The Life of a Writer and Artist
A World of Creativity in Self-Publishing and the Internet
by Barbara Cabot
I now have complete creative control over my own works by self-publishing them and then taking advantage of the Internet as a vehicle for marketing them. - Joelle Steele
I moved to San Francisco in 1999, but I have kept in touch with Joelle Steele over the years. I drove down to visit her at her house in Monterey, California, just a few miles south of the San Francisco Bay Area. We sat on her patio in the shade of a trio of pine trees, looked out over her garden, and talked again about her art and writing, and her upcoming relocation to Washington state.
Barbara Cabot: You live in a house now. What a change from your tiny studio apartment in Venice Beach.
Joelle Steele: Oh yes. Big change. Even bigger change on the way because I'm moving to Washington state in just a few months.
BC: But isn't Monterey a great artistic inspiration?
JS: Yes, in some ways it is, but it's not the right place for me. I intended to spend the rest of my life here, but instead it has turned out to be a transitional place, and I'm now done here and ready to move on.
BC: So what has been happening over the past 13-1/2 years since we last spoke? What are you creating these days?
JS: Lots of how-to books. Just finished my fourth for the year. It's about how to create a successful Web site and I wrote it for the horticultural industry.
BC: I notice you have a few extensive Web sites yourself.
JS: Yes. I started the first one in 1994, and I just developed it more and more over the years. It is a tremendous creative vehicle for me. I split it into two Web sites, and then spun off a third just recently. I'll spin off more as time permits.
BC: I see you have pages for all your creative pursuits.
JS: Pretty much. I am very drawn to the horticultural stuff, so that's kind of my priority. That and looking for more cover illustration work.
BC: Where do you find the time to do it all?
JS: It's about all I do work-wise. I spend at least five hours every day writing or designing stuff. I've got more software now that helps me creatively.
BC: Do you draw on the computer?
JS: No. I like the feel of traditional drawing and painting tools and materials. The feel of the pen on the paper, the creaminess of the paints. But I have a scanner and image management software, so I can do things for myself and my clients that I could never have done all on my own when we last spoke in 1992.
BC: For example ...
JS: Well, years ago, if I was designing a cover I would paint a picture or take a photo, and then I'd have to find ways to make it look the way I envisioned it, then get the fonts done, then lay it all out manually and have it shot, and it was just a long and tedious process. Now I do it all from start to finish on my computer and it is very fast and easy by comparison. I can even superimpose the typesetting.
BC: Are you still writing poetry?
JS: Of course. I even self-published a book of poems called "A Tapestry of Eden."
BC: Self-publishing appears to be a significant part of what you do these days.
JS: Yes, and I find that the entire process, from writing the books to typesetting them, doing illustrations for them, and even the marketing, is extremely enjoyable and fulfilling. Self-publishing is definitely not for everybody. But, for me, I now have complete creative control over my own works by self-publishing them and then taking advantage of the Internet as a vehicle for marketing them.
BC: How much client work do you do?
JS: Well, I rarely edit the way I used to, still do some writing for hire, but mostly I focus on my book sales and illustration and design work.
BC: So how are your book sales?
JS: Well, they were very slow a year ago, but now they are greatly improved. I've been working at boosting my Web site's ranking in the search engines, and that is making me a lot more visible, so sales have gone up considerably.
BC: How many more how-to books are on your list of books to write?
JS: Oh, that list! It has really grown. There are about 160 books on it now, and about 40 of them are in various stages of completion. I just kind of pick one, work on it for a while, go on to another one, finish it, pick out another one ... and I also do new books that aren't even on the list. I'll never do all of them, but I never run out of ideas.
BC: What will be your next book?
JS: There are three for the horticultural industry that I'm trying to decide on at the moment. I'm also working on developing more contract templates that I can sell from my Web site and deliver by E-mail.
BC: You've got more outlets for creativity it seems.
BC: And you have a garden.
JS: Yes. It was bare dirt just five years ago. I'll be sorry to leave it. So much of my heart went into it. But, oh my aching back!
BC: Is there a garden for you in Washington?
JS: With all that rain, you can count on it. My house there is almost three times the size of this one and it's on a third of an acre, so there's more room to garden. It also has lots of 180' tall Douglas fir trees. I can't ever seem to get enough trees!
BC: You said that back in 1992.
JS: Well, I guess that means I'm consistent!
BC: What will you be doing in Washington?
JS: I'll continue my self-publishing business and expand it. I plan to break my current Web sites into even more smaller, more manageable ones. And I will still be doing illustration and digital photo restoration, facial features analysis, probably still do landscape design. I'm trying to keep my options open for everything.
BC: You said that before too.
JS: Well, keeping your mind open to all the possibilities is part of being creative.
BC: I see you even wrote a book about expanding creativity.
JS: That would be "Unblocked." I'm very happy with that book. Unfortunately, I don't have any time to market it. It has only sold about 100 copies, so I need to do something with it soon.
BC: Are you teaching?
JS: Not here, but I plan to teach again when I'm settled in Washington.
BC: Will you miss California?
JS: Probably a little at first, but all my family is in Washington and that's the main attraction for me. That and the fact that it is such an incredibly beautiful part of the world.
BC: Do you have any updated advice for would-be writers and artists?
JS: For writers, yes. After more than 20 years of editing, all I can say is, please take classes in grammar, spelling, and vocabulary building. Learn how to write and communicate intelligibly. For artists — and for writers too — learn to use the Internet. It is a fabulous tool.
BC: Years ago you told me you always have a plan. Do you have one now?
JS: I'm working on one ... there are so many options, so many opportunities.
BC: So you don't suffer from the creative blocks you wrote about in "Unblocked"?
JS: I can honestly say that I am never blocked. Can't even recall the last time I was. Must be back in the early 1970s.
BC: You don't ever hit a dry spell?
JS: I wish. I could really use a break sometimes!
BC: How about art? All those abstracts you were going to paint?
JS: They are coming up in the very near future.
BC: So life is good.
JS: Yes, it's great!
* * *
Freelance Magazine, 1992
Joelle Steele Expands Her Creativity
by Barbara Cabot
I'm just a creative person, and I express my creativity in whatever format, whatever media, feels most appropriate at the moment. - Joelle Steele
After attending her presentation on expanding creativity and then reading and seeing some of her work, I arranged to interview local writer and artist Joelle Steele at her studio apartment in Venice Beach, California. We sat by a sunny window overlooking the blue waters of the Pacific Ocean and discussed her work, including her poetry, short stories, and how-to books, as well as her art and illustrations.
Barbara Cabot: This must be a great environment for a creative person.
Joelle Steele: Sometimes. It's really a little too noisy and hectic for me most of the time.
BC: Did you write "Mrs. Wingo's Cat" here?
JS: Yes. I wrote all the stories in that collection here. Oh wait, not "The Waiting Room." I wrote that on a plane trip to and from Florida.
BC: What took you to Florida?
JS: I went there to speak at a horticultural conference. I go there at least twice a year.
BC: You write books for that industry.
JS: Yes. I publish a monthly newsletter for interior landscapers and write articles for a lot of professional horticultural journals.
BC: Well, I see from all the plants in here that you must love gardening. Your orchids are gorgeous.
JS: Thanks. Yes, I do love gardening. I love writing about it and I love drawing and painting plants and floral images, representational and abstract, and even photographing them.
BC: Some of your poems have gardening themes.
JS: Yes. I think the first one I wrote with a gardening theme was "Green Cathedral." It was something I wrote to go with a painting by the same name.
BC: Who were your main poetic influences?
JS: I'm not sure how influential they were, but when I was a teenager I loved the lyrics of Bob Dylan and the Beatles — especially the later Beatles. In college, I was reading Rimbaud and Baudelaire in French and English. I liked everything from Ovid to Wordsworth to Maya Angelou to Ferlinghetti. And when I was about 23, I met Allen Ginsberg. He heard me read some of my poems in Golden Gate Park in San Francisco, and he said that my imagery was distinct but that I should not be such a "slave to rhyme." I guess he must have been a major influence, because I immediately began writing in free verse, blank verse.
BC: No one gets rich writing poetry, but they do it anyway.
JS: True. But of all the creative forms at my disposal, I find I can say more in poetry in a handful of lines than I can say in a whole book of prose, so I have written a lot of poems.
BC: Define "a lot."
JS: Close to a thousand. But I can't say I'm pleased with all of them. I frequently weed out the stuff I don't think sounds good or like me.
BC: Weeding out — a gardening analogy?
JS: Looks that way.
BC: Do you consider yourself more of a poet than anything else?
JS: Not really. I don't think I can be labeled that easily, and I definitely do not like to be labeled. I'm just a creative person, and I express my creativity in whatever format, whatever media, feels most appropriate at the moment.
BC: Do you have a message?
JS: Well, I guess I do sometimes, but a lot of the time I'm simply writing and painting because I just like to write and paint. Period.
BC: Do you form attachments to your work, find it hard to let them go?
JS: Not really. If I like something I can sell it and just create another, probably better than the original.
BC: Do you have favorites among your own works?
JS: Absolutely. My favorite poem is "Judgment Day"; favorite short story, "The Ice House"; favorite how-to book, "Indoor Watering Techniques"; favorite illustration, a watercolor of the Palace of Fine Arts in San Francisco; favorite fine art piece, an abstract called Golden Grass — I gave that one to a boyfriend and broke up with him a month later. I regret that — giving him the painting, that is.
BC: Is there anything you don't like to write about or paint?
JS: I don't like to do portraits, other than photographic ones. I don't write about politics or sports.
BC: Who do you read?
JS: I like a lot of authors for different reasons. Mostly I read for enjoyment, but I especially like Stephen King's characters, Anne Rivers Siddons' descriptions of place, Thomas Hardy's plot lines ... and I like almost any mysteries or suspense — Agatha Christie, Barbara Michaels — almost anything in that genre.
BC: Do you try to emulate their writing styles?
JS: No, not consciously anyway.
BC: What about your art? Who do you like and who are your influences?
JS: Well, again, my tastes in all things is quite eclectic, so I like everything from the Dutch masters to Monet and Renoir to Granville Redmond and the Wachtels to Kandinsky and even Chagall. I think Kandinsky really influenced me as a teenage artist. In my illustrations, I can't think of any influences at all — maybe old etchings ...
BC: Did you go to art school?
JS: No. I studied a little in college, had several years of private instruction, and I've attended several workshops. The rest is pretty much practice. As a child I learned an enormous amount about art technique and art history from my artist-grandfather, Leo Perrino. He gave me a fantastic base of art knowledge, taking me to museums and galleries and also showing me how to mix a proper palette and get my perspective correct. Also, my parents had tons of books on art.
BC: Is that how it is with your writing?
JS: Well, in a way. I mean, I started writing as a young child. I also started drawing as a child. Art and writing are all I've ever done and both are as natural to me as breathing. I just write and draw or paint.
BC: So the creative process is not painful for you?
JS: Absolutely not. If it were, I would see a shrink or find a new line of work more suitable for me. Your true calling in life should always be pure joy.
BC: So creativity for you is easy?
JS: I won't say I haven't worked at art and writing, at learning new things, at improving my craft, and so on. And some projects took more time than others, but it has never been difficult for me because creativity does come naturally, and it gets so much easier, so much more fluid, with practice — just doing it.
BC: Exactly now long have you been "doing it"?
JS: I had my first article published in 1973, a book of poetry published a year later, my first illustration job in 1972, and my first art show in 1976. Everything since then is just better crafting born of all those years of practice.
BC: Is fame and fortune around the corner for you?
JS: I doubt it. I'm not really actively seeking it. I'm not particularly ambitions. I'm just so happy to be doing what I love to do most in the world.
BC: How are you able to create full-time?
JS: I'm not always able to do it full-time. There have been some lean years here and there, and so I just take a part-time job when that happens. But when I do work at my craft full-time, I'm able to do it because I'm versatile. I can write or do art in almost any genre for any industry in any format imaginable — everything from demand letters and custody orders to "puff pieces" for local businesses, lush watercolors to detailed pen and ink illustrations, and I work well with authors as well as publishers. If you're going to do anything full-time, you have to get out there and practice doing it and always try new things.
BC: Is that your advice for other artists and writers, to practice and try new things?
JS: I guess so. Learn everything you can about your chosen craft and then practice it every day — for the rest of your life.
BC: Does that mean you're always practicing?
JS: Of course. Every creative person is always learning and practicing. We all grow creatively that way. It's part of the creative process that is ongoing throughout the life of any writer or artist. We're always looking for something more exciting to challenge us.
BC: Is there a plan behind it all?
JS: I always have a plan of some kind. And in retrospect, I can always see that there have been some very obvious trends underlying everything I do. Gardening, for example. Also architecture. I love to draw and paint old buildings. And I like to teach art and writing.
BC: It's important to share knowledge.
JS: Yes, it really is. So many people have shared their knowledge with me over the years. I'm very grateful to them, and I feel a need to give something back to other novice artists and writers.
BC: That's how all the how-to articles and books came about?
JS: Yes, more or less. I got so many calls from people and I didn't have time to speak to all of them personally, to answer all their questions.
BC: I guess that's also how you ended up teaching?
JS: Right. It's so much easier and less time-consuming to talk to 20 or 30 people all at once. It's fun too, and I always learn something along the way.
BC: What projects are you working on right now?
JS: I'm in the final edit of a short plant book and I'm doing a couple of book covers.
BC: Do you enjoy doing the works for hire?
JS: For the most part. It really depends on the project. I especially like doing covers for CDs and books. I do editing for others, and I'm good at it, but it isn't all that rewarding — kind of drone work that pays well.
BC: What do you plan to do in the coming few years?
JS: I see more how-to books in my future. I do like writing them and I have an endless list of ones I'd like to write and many are works in progress. I also see more covers. I guess above all I'd like to do more fine art. I have tons of sketches for abstract landscapes and florals and other pieces.
BC: Will you continue to work here in your apartment?
JS: Probably. I'd like to move to a more quiet environment, maybe a small town, something a little rural. I think I'm more of a country girl at heart. And I want a garden. And trees. I really need a lot of trees.
BC: Any idea of where you might go?
JS: Oh, there are so many great places. It's hard to decide. I'll probably stay on the west coast, but maybe go north, possibly to the Pacific Northwest. I'm keeping my options open.
* * *
Beach's Sentinel, 1992
Back From Homelessness
A Venice Beach Artist and Writer Tells Her Story
by Sheryl Brenneman
At the root of a lot of homelessness is the lack of affordable medical care for people who have no resources and are not mentally or physically well enough to care for themselves. It's a very big crack in society's infrastructure through which people can easily fall. - Joelle Steele
No matter where you go these days, no matter whether it's the big city or some small town, you will find homeless people. And, if you have ever been to Venice Beach, California, you have seen them in large numbers, begging for handouts, sleeping on benches, rummaging through dumpsters. What you don't see is their stories. How did they become homeless? After reading her article on her personal experience with homelessness [Homelessness: It Can Happen To Anyone; It Did To Me, July/August 1992, Mensa Bulletin], I met with Venice Beach local writer and artist Joelle Steele, a woman who, while seriously ill, lived in her car on the streets of Los Angeles for seven weeks, from mid-September through the first week of November of 1980.
Joelle came to this crisis following a series of events that began with an illness that resulted in major surgery, extended medical treatments for that illness, and a serious automobile accident in which she suffered a brain trauma and back injury for which she was also being treated. When her living situation fell through, she moved into her car for what she thought would be one night.
"My parents were in Europe. My landlord was in Africa. My attorney wouldn't take my calls. I didn't know many people because I was new in town and wasn't well enough to socialize, and most of my free time was spent going to doctors," says Joelle.
Alone and in the big city of Los Angeles, Joelle felt lost with nowhere to go.
"I didn't know anything about homeless people or that shelters even existed. I thought I was unique, the only person living in my car," she says.
But she wasn't alone. The very first night in her car the police asked her to move on. She was parked in a residential neighborhood that she thought looked safe. The residents apparently didn't feel safe with a homeless person camped out on their street and someone called the police.
"From there, I went to an all-night coffee shop, and as I was leaving, I met a homeless man who saw my car full of stuff. He told me where to park and sleep and how to keep safe," says Joelle.
Joelle stayed in her car and found ways to eat and take care of herself. She showered at the beach in cold water early in the morning — as soon as the sun came up. She was working part-time temporary jobs, so she had a little income and went to the grocery store and bought food that didn't have to be refrigerated or cooked. While living in her car was a terrible ordeal, having to handle all her medical issues added insult to injury.
"I was so ill at the time that I couldn't think clearly. I was in all kinds of therapy, I would forget to take medication, and I missed a lot of doctor appointments because I was having blackouts and missing blocks of times. I was so scared," she says.
Living with the pain of her physical illness and injuries was unremarkable when compared with the ramifications of her brain trauma, which resulted in grand mal seizures, fugue states, amnesiac blackouts, and short-term memory loss, among many other lesser perceptual problems. Medications weren't helping her much, and at one point she found out that she was actually on one medication that was exacerbating some of her problems, making them potentially dangerous and even life-threatening.
"The blackouts were the worst. One afternoon I was sitting in a doctor's waiting room in Santa Monica and the next thing I knew it was nine hours later, pitch black out, and I was sitting in a bus going down Santa Monica Boulevard heading towards Hollywood. This kind of episode was not unusual. I would suddenly 'wake up' and be myself again, with no memory of where I'd been or what I'd done. I wouldn't even know where my car was," says Joelle.
Joelle's parents returned from Europe and she drove to their home in northern California. She asked her father for help and he refused.
"I never got along with my father. He is difficult, cold, and uncaring. I was not all that surprised that he turned me away," she says.
Her mother gave her $50 and promised to send more, deferring to Joelle's father.
"I had a neighbor one time and all she did was break her wrist, and her parents drove all the way out from rural West Virginia to L.A. to take care of her. I wanted parents like that," says Joelle.
Joelle returned to southern California where all her doctors were and where she had a new long-term temp job lined up. At this point, she had been living in her car for two weeks and did not yet have enough money to start looking for an apartment. But she started to save what little she could from the temp job.
She drifted from one place to another, trying to find a place to stay. But so many areas were dangerous at night. A gang came along one night and bounced her car while she was in it, so she had to leave that spot. Eventually, she found a place off the road in Malibu where there were some houses and lots of tree and brush coverage. She parked there every evening around sunset and left every morning at sunrise. She stayed there for the last three of her seven weeks on the street.
"This place was safer, but there is a lot of danger from human predators. And I was such easy prey! I was so obviously unwell. I had problems walking due to my back injury. I got mugged by the same person twice at knifepoint in the beach restroom where I went to shower and get ready for work," she says.
The mugger didn't get any valuables, but what she got were necessities for Joelle: her bedding, heavy sweaters, and a winter coat.
"It was October and I was so cold after that. You can't believe how horrible it is to go to bed hungry and cold until it happens to you," says Joelle. "Sometimes I just can't believe I ever lived through it all."
But she did, despite the fact that she also lost her long-term temp assignment due to her brain injury.
"I had temporal lobe damage — cognitive impairment — and seizures. The seizures were controlled by medication, but the cognitive impairment prevented me from doing things I had always been able to do before. Simple things like following a conversation, taking directions, answering a switchboard with only five incoming lines and 20 extensions. I left people on hold left and right. I got fired," she says.
Joelle had to do something and fast. She decided to get all new doctors. Her new neurologist reviewed her records and changed all of her medications, taking her off some of them completely. With the new medication regime, she became more coherent and the amnesia and blackout episodes became much shorter and occurred less frequently. They went away entirely within a year after she took a part-time job in a one-person office with a landscape contractor. Within a week of getting that job, her landlord came back from Africa and referred her to another apartment building he owned that had a vacancy. The marshal came to allow her access to remove her things that were in her former roommate's possession. The landscape contractor generously sent a truck and two laborers to move her into the new apartment.
"It was twelve years ago, but it is impossible to forget," says Joelle. "I will have to live with cognitive impairment for the rest of my life. But, I don't have seizures or fugue states and I'm no longer on medications of any kind. And I have had a lot of rehabilitative therapy for dealing with cognitive problems, so I have a lot of ways to deal with them if and when they occur. I also had back surgery in 1984, so that has also improved things a lot, but I still suffer from chronic pain."
Joelle wrote a book about her experiences, which I had the opportunity to read. But she didn't seek a publisher for it.
"Writing the book turned out to be a cathartic experience for me. Maybe some day I'll pursue getting it published, but right now I just want to move forward with my life," she says.
During her stay in her car, Joelle had an opportunity to witness a side of life that most people never see. She saw firsthand the problems facing people living in their cars and on the streets of Los Angeles.
"Some homeless people are obviously victims of their own devices — drugs, alcohol, etc. Others are suffering from a variety of physical ailments, and many are mentally ill. Some are elderly and have no place to go. Many are war veterans who are not being well-cared for by the very country they fought for," she says.
Now a volunteer working with the homeless, Joelle has formed many strong opinions about this national crisis.
"At the root of a lot of homelessness is the lack of affordable medical care for people who have no resources and are not mentally or physically well enough to care for themselves. It's a very big crack in society's infrastructure through which people can easily fall," says Joelle. "And there is no single, simple, one-size-fits-all solution. There are as many causes of homelessness as their are homeless people."
Does Joelle ever worry about becoming homeless again?
"Every minute of every day the prospect of being homeless is whirling around in the back of my mind. It happened to me once and I am painfully aware that it could happen again. The majority of people in this country are just one or two paychecks away from living on the street. No one should ever have to experience that."