Local author, artist and psychotherapist Lauren Crux.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)
City Life

Remember to have fun: Lauren Crux and the life lessons of her new book, ‘Difficult Beauty’

Author, artist and psychotherapist Lauren Crux’s latest work is a collection of what she calls “rambles” — short impressions, crafted like poems and meant to be exchanged in the mail, like postcards. She’ll discuss “Difficult Beauty: Rambles, Rants and Intimate Conversations” next week at Bookshop Santa Cruz.

At the age of 48, Lauren Crux suspended her career as a psychotherapist to attend art school — an interdisciplinary master of fine arts program at UC Irvine. She was in the middle of the program, feeling the squeeze as all grad students do, when a professor told her, “You’re not having any fun.”

Well, that was certainly an understatement. “I was under such stress,” she said, looking back at her MFA experience. “I wanted to quit every other day. It was a bad environment.”

But that reminder, that friendly admonition, stuck with her. She had forgotten that making art is supposed to be fun.

Now, at 76, Crux has released a new book called “Difficult Beauty: Rambles, Rants and Intimate Conversations,” which she will discuss Wednesday, Aug. 23, at Bookshop Santa Cruz. And the book is nothing if not a product of an artist mindful of finding the fun in the act of creation.

“Difficult Beauty” has a distinctive form that Crux calls “rambles.” They are short impressions and thoughts, crafted like poems, but uniquely shaped. “My friends just call it a book of poetry,” she said, “but I don’t.”

The cover of Lauren Crux's book "Difficult Beauty"

Lauren Crux

Excerpt from “Difficult Beauty”

To be a writer one must like sentences.

I hadn’t thought of this before, although now it seems so obvious. I’ve always loved words and I am particularly fond of the fragment. But sentences — of course. They help pull it all together, don’t they?

I have a sentence I’ve been waiting to use sometime somewhere. A writer once proposed that any story will be more interesting if at the end you add, And then everything burst into flames. I keep coming across this in my notebook and laugh every time I read it, although I understand well the shadowy undertone.

I am in the high desert of Oregon, writing a story about Alaska. Some day I’ll write about this place, where at 8:30 last night a long streak of light flamed blistering gold across the far edge of the playa.

And then everything burst into flames.

(Reprinted with permission.)

The rambles were not originally intended to be part of a book. They were, in fact, pieces of writing meant to exchange in the mail, like postcards, printed on a 4-by-6-inch card, with an accompanying photo. She mailed them one by one to friends, until another writer friend suggested she collect them all in a book.

Taken as a whole, the short pieces and photos — more than 60 of them — represent several years of Crux’s life, from 2014 to shortly before the pandemic shutdown. A short afterword was added on to acknowledge the pandemic in 2020, but other than that, the book presents a picture of life pre-COVID.

In Crux’s case, that meant facing the crisis of her partner’s cancer diagnosis and treatment, a subject that is very much part of the pieces in “Difficult Beauty.” But it also brought about honest assessments of growing old, illness and death, and, paradoxically, tasting life’s everyday sweetness.

“Every one has been mailed to a real person,” she said, “about two-thirds of them to people I know, and the rest to artists that I admire. I sent them off as a thank-you. You know, ‘I just love your work,’ which means a lot to artists. And I told them, ‘I want to mail you this piece of artwork. There’s no ask, just a gift.’”

The rambles are small bits of prose that mix efforts at recasting the everyday parts of life into something universal and flashes of wisdom that ring with the truth of poetry: “Hold fire in one hand,” she writes. “Hold ice in the other. The heart will understand.”

Lauren Crux is a longtime Santa Cruzan who has been in the area, on and off, for more than 50 years. She was, in fact, enrolled in UC Santa Cruz in 1966, the second year of the university. She’s well known in the community as a teacher, a therapist, writer, photographer and even performance artist, performing monologues in theatrical settings. She has written and performed five full-staged monologues, and her poetry, prose and photography have been published in many journals and anthologies.

She is a native of Canada, and likes to tease out the Canadian parts of her personality. She moved with her family at the age of 8 from her home in Vancouver, British Columbia, to the deserts of Southern California. From there, after high school, it was off to Goddard College in Vermont. Feeling distinctly like a fish out of water in wintry Vermont, she happened to pick up a newsmagazine in which was a feature story about a new University of California campus built largely on the model of the kind of private liberal arts school she was attending at the time. She jumped at the opportunity to get to Santa Cruz, and, more than five decades later, it’s still her home.

The “Difficult Beauty” book was one of two artistic projects that have occupied her time in recent years. The other is a photography project zeroed in on tissue boxes, a mundane but necessary accoutrement of her profession as a counselor attending to people struggling with grief or trauma. “No two are alike,” she said of the way individual tissues are pulled from the box.

“Difficult Beauty” was Crux’s stab at having fun again, her UC Irvine professor’s warning still ringing in her ear. It came about after she noticed the fun draining away from her performance art. She got accepted into the prestigious Djerassi Residents Art program in San Mateo County. There, she met the accomplished Camille Dungy, who convinced her to turn her epistolary project into a book.

“The last week we were there, she just said to me, ‘You should just make these a book.’ And I was like, ‘Nah, I’m just having a good time.’ Then she said, ‘Oh, for God’s sake, you’ve got 15, you’ll probably write a lot more. Just make it a book. Go, go.’ So, I didn’t want to make it into a book. But I came home, and wrote them for four more years.”

Lauren Crux will read from “Difficult Beauty” on Wednesday, Aug. 23, at Bookshop Santa Cruz. The event begins at 7 p.m.