Audiences and Alien Abduction

February 2, 2014






When we’re in the midst of creating something, thinking too much about audiences can be limiting and obstructive—especially as our minds tend to go toward the negative, and internally it’s seldom, “Everyone will love this!” and much more likely, “Everyone will think this is the worst ever.”

But once our work is out in the world, we have more opportunities to connect.  Someone will come up after a show or a reading, or ask a question during a panel, or send us an email about our work.  (I’m not talking about reviewers, here, but just regular audience members.) These responses can be wonderful, enlightening, depressing or just perplexing.  Once someone came up to me after a performance of my science fiction opera with Anthony Davis, Under the Double Moon, completely convinced that I had shared her experience of being abducted by aliens.  (For the record, I’ve had the good fortune to have never been abducted by aliens, or anyone else.) People have also told me the stories of their ill-fated love affairs, failed patent applications, and rejected manuscripts.  They also often compare something I’ve written to something I’ve never heard of, convinced that my work was somehow derived from it.


Even if, like me, you aren’t famous at all, it’s always a little bit of a crush after a public appearance of any kind, but I try and listen to everyone who comes up to me, because every comment, no matter how seemingly out-of-the-blue, is a response to my work. I am happy people have been touched, or interested, or even aggravated, by what I created.

The greatest enjoyment for me is in creating the work, not presenting it.  This is true whether I’m working on something alone and the ideas are actually flowing, or sitting down with my long-time collaborators to bring something to life together.  And if it is a performance work, the rehearsals are always a happier and more involving experience than the actual performance itself, which goes by too quickly, and during which you are always listening for the audience’s response. But there is nonetheless something completely gratifying about hearing an audience laugh (when they are supposed to) or to see someone look like they are about to cry when the hero dies. You’ve hit the mark; they got it. 

And then it doesn’t matter if afterwards they ask you about your personal experiences on Alpha Centauri; they wouldn’t be asking if you hadn’t touched them.

Follow me on Twitter @DatherToo.

Applause Photo courtesy of Princess Theater—Raising the Curtain via Creative Commons License. Some rights reserved. 

UFO Photo Courtesy of  Dommeruk Creator:Dominic Harris via Creative Commons License. Some rights reserved.


January 19, 2014

by Deborah Atherton


A few days ago, as I was ending my day by playing a little game of Scrabble online, I was suddenly hit by an idea of how to fix a novel I have been totally unable to finish and send off.  “Go back to the short story!” a little voice in my head yelled (I had adapted the novel from a short story I had written a few years before.) 


I don’t know why these little voices always feel the need to yell—a soft whisper in my ear would have done just as well.  But the sensation is, as so many other people have often described it, startling.  Not exactly like jumping into your bathtub and having a revelation as did Archimedes, or having an apple fall off a tree and hit you on the head, a la Sir Isaac Newton, but not so unlike it either.  I did manage to finish my turn before I opened the short story and re-read it.  And yup, there were the scenes that would make all the difference in the novel—already written! But somehow I had forgotten about them for two years as I was mulling and procrastinating.  At this point, I don’t know if I made a conscious decision NOT to include them at some point, or had just entirely forgotten about them. 


So was I doing the right thing not sending the novel out when I was uneasy about it (although I couldn’t exactly say why?) And how do you tell if you are just holding yourself back or if there is a real problem that has a solution you just haven’t found yet?


I suppose one indication might be whether you are at a complete standstill with every project you’ve undertaken, or just stuck on one.  Because however absorbed we are in the Big Work of the moment, there are almost always other things to be done—most of us have more than one idea at a time, and have a few things on the back burner even we are most involved in finishing something major.  If you are at a complete creative standstill (and we’ve all been there) it is probably not because your little (loud) internal voice has not yet chosen to speak.  Something else is up; you are stopping yourself for some reason.  In the last month, I’ve had a few little breakthroughs—but I’ve also had the time, and given myself the space, to get there.


But this one surprised me; it came out of nowhere, when I was completely occupied with what to do with my “Q”—the last thing I was thinking of was how to fix the novel.  Sometimes it does pay to wait for your brain to make the connections it needs to make, and notify you.  Since almost all creative people are born procrastinators, this may be a dangerous conclusion to come to; but once in a while, putting it off does turn out to be right thing to do.  

Photo used by permission of Leo Reynolds. Some rights reserved by artist.

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Parades and Memories

November 29, 2013

by Deborah Atherton


Today is Black Friday in America, and as you can see, I am not out shopping. The truth is, I can hardly stand shopping any more, except for a few places where I know it will be quiet—and I am not sure there are any quiet places left to shop on Black Friday, which has become so frenzied in recent years it is on the verge of overtaking Thanksgiving as a national holiday. 

In past years I have posted about not getting too frantic or depressed over the holidays, and not letting the memories of the past—or the ideal American holiday as presented by Hallmark—take over our minds and creative energy too entirely. (And for our readers who live in somewhat less holiday-and-sales-consumed countries, you have probably seen pictures of how crazy and sometimes violent our stores get today—and they aren’t kidding.)  But this year, maybe because the holiday responsibilities were taken over by other, generous relatives, I am in a more relaxed frame of mind. I really enjoyed little jaunt through Manhattan to Thanksgiving dinner, seeing the streets completely abandoned, and thinking about how compelling the holiday is for us—how everyone finds or invents a place to go and be, with family or friends, and how this one day a year extraordinary efforts are made to see that no one is alone and hungry.  The television is filled with images of volunteers at homeless shelters and soup kitchens.  And then today, we jump back into our consumer culture with abandon, except for those of us, of course, who seize it as an actual day off, and if not too exhausted from Thanksgiving festivities, retreat into our attics or basements or studios or closets.

One thing the holidays give us is a unique window to the future and the past—our memories of holidays tend to be sharp, as they are each different, and tend to stick in our minds as markers of a certain time of our lives.  We have our memories as children—many of us have our first memories from holidays—and then from each year of our adolescence and adulthood.  Perhaps we have our own children, and then begin to mark the years through their quick attainment of adulthood. And we might remember what year Macy’s added a new balloon to the Thanksgiving Day Parade, or a movie came out that we enjoyed or hated, or the day we finally made it to Rockefeller Center to see the tree.  These can be gateway memories, that provide us with guides to our own lives and the procession of our creative ideas—our internal time machines, a handy tool for any writer or artist. 

What hit me most strongly yesterday, though, as I was watching the Thanksgiving Parade on TV, was how quaint it was all going to seem in 100 years.  As the announcers were extolling the virtues of the sponsors of each balloon or float, I realized that although some of the characters would survive (I would put money on Mickey Mouse still being a household name in the next century, although I am unlikely to be here to collect) the products would not. In some ways the parade I was watching was very different than the one my father and grandmother saw earlier in the 20th century. And one of my esteemed relatives brought this up during the football game later in the day—“most of these products weren’t around to be advertised fifty years ago.”

 So we are fortunate that our memories give us a time machine to a past that seems immediate and not quaint, that is in color and not in black and white, and that those memories are often sharpened and deepened by the holidays.  If we have a moment to pause and reflect (before or after shopping and eating) they might offer us a little creative energy to fly—or at least float in a dignified manner—all the way into the New Year.   

Photo of the Mickey Mouse Balloon from Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, 1934. Courtesy of Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.

Follow me on Twitter @DatherToo.

Not Good Enough?

November 10, 2013

by Deborah Atherton



Most people I know in the midst of a creative (or in fact almost any kind of) project pause at some moment, whether they have just started or are almost done, to tell themselves, “It’s not good enough.” Sometimes they keep this to themselves, and sometimes they immediately post it on Facebook. (I’ve noticed a lot of posts this month especially, since we’re in the midst of NaNoWriMo.)

Of course, sometimes it’s true—you’ve tried your hardest, and it really isn’t good enough. You started too soon or too late, or with an incomplete vision, and the essential idea, the thing that inspired you, has somehow been lost. But more often, it’s not about your novel or sketch or film or song or poem at all; it’s about the impossible and elusive standard we set ourselves—the standard we can never, ever meet, but one that somehow that guy we once encountered in college or at a party or on Twitter has not only met and surpassed—and has subsequently been rewarded with a bestseller or an Oscar nomination or at least an invitation to a much cooler party.

We won’t go too much into the many evils of social comparison—how we make ourselves unhappy by comparing our lives to those of our friends, neighbors, and colleagues—we all do it, and we all suffer for it. But the question is, how do we know, when we take that moment to examine and ask ourselves—is it good enough—whether we are using our own actual best judgment, or asking ourselves from the depths of our fear of never ever making something good enough—or even as good as what we’ve done before?

Our best bet, I think, is to take ourselves out of the moment, and examine what exactly sparked it. Was it really the way we captured the light, or worded a phrase—or was it that review of our acquaintance’s work that just popped up in our newsfeed or, even more shattering, a casual comment from a passing friend or relative? Are we actually having a dialog with our work or with our own sense—or someone else’s sense—of exactly where we ought to be in our lives right now?

Because really, the only voice in the room should be yours—unless of course your work is talking to you, and we always want to listen to what our work has to say. If your work is begging to be re-booted and re-vamped, then go to it. But if it’s really that everyone else seems to be getting deals and awards and reviews—kick them all out. Because how can they know? Only you had the idea, and only you can see it through.

Photo courtesy of daverugby33 at Flickr via Creative Commons license

Before You Toss It in the Trash

September 25, 2013

As creative people, maybe the hardest choices we ever have to make revolve around “when to hold ‘em and when to fold ‘em.” And we aren’t always going to make the right choice. Sometime the impulse to just smash or burn or shred or delete whatever we are working on overwhelms us and into the trash it goes. And with that gesture, the greatest idea we ever had or ever will have might go right up in flames or down the chute.  We’ll never know.


Of course, once in a while someone else saves us from our insanity, as Stephen King’s wife Tabitha famously did when she fished “Carrie” out of the wastebasket. But mostly, we have to count on ourselves in these moments of frustration. 

I’ve lost a number of things to disorganization and dislocation through the years—the file I know I saved in My Documents only to find it just isn’t there; the copy of the manuscript that isn’t in the box that I stuck it in circa 1993. But I’ve probably lost more to misjudgment.  “Well this is awful, I won’t ever want to look at it again,” I tell myself in a cleaning frenzy, only to wake up three years later and think—that wasn’t such a bad idea, if I just turned it around and started in a different place—but it’s gone, and not to be simply recreated.

What to do?  We certainly can’t save everything (well maybe those of us who work exclusively on computers can take a stab at it—but although we might be able to save it, finding it and being able to read it in new software ten years later is another issue.) But perhaps we can learn to distrust our rage and frenzies a little.  If something is making us that angry, there might be something to it—perhaps it is our own frustration in not getting the Big Idea out right that is enraging us, not the badness of the Big Idea.  If we don’t have someone as helpful and talented in her own right as Tabitha King around to save us from ourselves, we may want to just take a moment and walk away before we throw the whole thing away.  And it might help to remind ourselves that just because we can’t work through it today doesn’t mean we might not be able to do it tomorrow—or next year, or in three years, or in 2033.

What Did You Do on Your Summer Vacation?

July 30, 2013

Everybody needs a vacation. For some, vacations give us an opportunity to take a deeper dive into our creative interests. We can go to a writer’s conference, or an arts colony, or go to a city where we can visit ten art museums in ten days, or find someplace off season on the beach where we can write or paint or take photographs undisturbed. Or perhaps we seize the opportunity for a class to learn an approach or a form we’ve never mastered. There are hundreds of places that cater to people on vacation who want to learn water colors, or listen to jazz, or take up jewelry making.

What many of us never do is take an actual vacation. The kind where you do no work of any kind whatsoever, but actually go to the beach IN season and drink frozen margaritas. Or go to Disney World without having in the back of your mind what a good setting it would make for a horror movie. Or go kayaking, or mountain climbing, or to a spa for a different kind of seaweed wrap every day. There’s little enough time in our lives for our creative projects, we tell ourselves—why waste perfectly good time off on unproductive activities?

That was how I felt for many years. You couldn’t sell me on a vacation. Time off was for writing, or possibly going places that would help my writing. Writing WAS my vacation.

Sunset at the ocean

But funny thing about that: I never found myself getting so much done on these writing vacations. Some people do, I know. They go off to writers colonies and actually write. They hole themselves up in a studio shack on a lonely beach and come back with piles of photographs or paintings. Me, I mostly get anxious. I tell myself I only have a week, it’s already Tuesday, and what have I accomplished? And then suddenly it’s Saturday, and I’m scribbling desperately—and I come out of the whole thing with a sense of having achieved very little. (This by the way, bears absolutely no relationship to how much I have written, whether it be five or fifty pages—it’s not enough.)

Last year, I took an actual vacation. I went with my sister to visit my brother and my cousins at the beach. (You may consider this cheating, as I did work a little bit with my sister on a novel we are writing together, but this was not the purpose of the trip.) We stayed at a pleasant hotel actually on the beach, and yes, it was off season, but warm enough to sit in the sun and put your toes in the water, if you were so inclined. We sat and looked at the ocean. We took rides and looked at scenery. We caught a spectacular sunset. We ate in seaside restaurants. We ate lobsters. We all talked a lot to each other, remembering family stories, looking at old photographs and catching up.

I did not measure my vacation in pages written, or stories plotted, or research done. I just had a nice time with people I don’t see often enough. And when I came home, I did have a little burst of creative energy, stemming from our seaside trip, but even if I hadn’t, it would have been rewarding and the best possible use of my time. Because sometimes, even though we can never really leave our creative side at home, a vacation should just be a vacation.

Photo Credit: Susan A. Hanson

More about Creativity and Hypnosis – The Red Dress

April 19, 2013

by Leslie Zeigler

This is the second installment of my interview with my good friend Ruth Washton, who is both a psychotherapist and someone who practices hypnosis as well.

Ruth told me that there are many ways to induce a trance state, through the use language and metaphor, imagery, muscle relaxation. She likes to use a combination of mindful breathing and suggestions for release of muscle tension. She added that she instructs her clients in the method of deep abdominal breathing and asks them to absorb themselves in the feeling of their body breathing. Breathing evenly and deeply, the thinking mind becomes still as you focus your attention on your body breathing.
red dress
This fosters a very receptive state for internal reflection, exploration, and insight. So How is hypnosis used to facilitate creativity? In a mild trance state, a door opens into the subconscious mind, imagination supercedes the thinking, logical mind, the latter receding into the background. From this place, one can project dreams and aspirations in the form of a future self.

Ruth offered a fascinating example. A client of hers performed as a singer in a choral group, and sometimes as a soloist. Her great love in music was jazz and she had performed as a jazz vocalist in the past. The years went by, she married, had a family, and began a career. But she longed to be singing jazz.

Ruth said, “I facilitated a mild trance state and suggested to her that she imagine herself in a jazz club, on stage, and performing, backed by a group of jazz musicians. I asked her to see herself in great detail, to notice the expression of her body, her face and her voice. When she came out of the trance, she said she had pictured everything quite clearly and in detail, particularly a red dress that she was wearing. The following week,she called her piano teacher who put her in touch with a jazz pianist who invited her to sing with his group. She went shopping and found the red dress.”

This is the second installment of a series of interviews with Ruth Washton and her thoughts about creativity and hypnosis.

Using Hypnosis to Unlock the Box of Creativity

March 11, 2013

by Leslie Zeigler

To explore additional ways of helping people with creative blocks, I interviewed my good friend,Ruth Washton, who uses hypnosis to help people open a door to their creative process. Ruth told me that she defines creativity broadly, to include creative expression both as an art form as well as in creating one’s own life. In a mild trance state, Ruth says, one can become in touch with oneself as the ultimate source of creativity.

Ruth Washton

Ruth Washton

Leslie: What is hypnosis?
Ruth: Hypnosis is a state of relaxed attention. A trance state is experienced when one stops following one’s thoughts and instead becomes absorbed in one’s own internal world. Think about being absorbed in a great novel, no longer paying attention to the outside world, perhaps not even hearing someone enter the room or ask you a question. The title of your blog, Leslie, is a wonderful image that can be explored hypnotically. Imagine unlocking the box of creativity: ask yourself what does this box look like? What is it made of? What does the lock look like? What does the key look like? Imagine putting the key into the lock. Will you lift the lid just a bit and peek inside? what do you see?

This is the first installment of several posts about Creativity and Hypnosis.

The Saturday Collapse

February 22, 2013

By Deborah Atherton

Saturday Collapse

Whether we work at full-time jobs, as I do, or run our own businesses, as Leslie does, we are likely to be running at full-steam Monday through Friday attempting to pay our bills, all the while telling ourselves how much work we will get done on our creative projects on the weekend. We look forward to it; we plan for it; we schedule it.

And then Saturday comes. And before us lie all the weekend chores we don’t have time for during the work week, from laundry and grocery shopping to dry cleaning and buying a new electric drill at Home Depot. Plus all the bill-paying and newspaper/blog reading that couldn’t get done Monday through Friday. And the trip to the gym you are really overdue for. Not to mention the frantic emails from work or clients that mean you don’t really have the day of at all.

And you don’t want to do any of it. Not the writing or painting or photography. Not the laundry or dry cleaning or big box shopping.

What you really want to do is collapse in front of the TV and watch an NCIS or Downton Abbey or Big Bang Marathon or read the library book that is due back Tuesday. What you really want to do is just tear open a bag of chips or make yourself a cup of tea and cookies and not think about anything productive at all.

If you have reached that moment when nothing else seems possible, and your TV or your book or the movie you downloaded exercise irresistible temptation, give in.

Just do it. Watch six hours of the teams we all wish we belonged to, be they the detectives at NCIS or the aristocrats around the dining table or the geeky comic book devotees at a California university. Read the latest from Charlaine Harris or the Jack Reacher thriller or a brain-eating Zombie fantasia. Go through all the Oscar nominees and scornfully dismiss them one by one.

Sometimes your brain needs a break. Even more often, your body needs a break. Being Americans, we have all read self-help books on how to manage and schedule and prioritize our time, on how to organize our lives, on what is urgent and important, or urgent and not important, or barely worth thinking about—and once in a while, we have to throw it all out the door.

Take the day off. Indulge. Let yourself.


Here’s betting that by 10 o’clock Sunday morning (or maybe 11 o’clock Sunday night), you’ll be ready for something a bit different, and that those task lists and chores will seem a little less overwhelming—or at least look like something you can postpone for another week. And that having spent a day actually off, you might want to spend at least a few hours of one writing or painting or heading off to film the polar bears enjoying the weather no one else is enjoying.

It’s your time. It’s your life. Every minute of it isn’t going to be spend fiercely engaged with the struggle to create. Some of it is going to be spent munching snacks and watching TV. And it is my belief that ultimately your creative projects will benefit by the downtime.

Thanks to Eric Ember for permission to use his photos.


January 11, 2013

By Deborah Atherton

As the year begins, most of us over 29 (and perhaps, even a few younger) seize the moment to reproach ourselves not just with what we haven’t accomplished in the previous year, but in all the years that came before.


The novels we haven’t written (or read!), the film projects that never got off the ground, the paints drying out in the basement, the guitars sitting dusty and untouched—they all rise up in an angry mob and march on our poor undefended minds.

These are the moments that bring on New Year’s Resolutions. Or perhaps you already made yours, and, a week in, have already fallen short of this year’s expectations.

The question I am trying to ask myself right now is—why, exactly, are some projects languishing in dusty corners right now? Is it procrastination, a lack of genuine interest on my part, a shortage of energy and/or time, or a failure of nerve? Or just an overabundance of projects?

These are really difficult questions, and honestly, I’m still pondering the answers. I’m probably not going to have the answer to all of them before Valentine’s Day, or maybe July 4th. But I am going to try and take a look at each one and figure out what it is actually possible to do in a year, in the full knowledge that, for instance, what I really usually feel like doing on Saturday after a week at my job is absolutely nothing. Which doesn’t mean that if I assign 45 minutes or an hour to doing something creative that engages me, I won’t do it—in fact, I know, if it is a commitment I made in my schedule and my heart, I will.

What I’d like, I think, to feel at the end of 2013 is no regrets. That I did what I could reasonably do, and that even if the new novel is, for example, still only 2/3 done, instead of 1/3 as it is now, that it was a good effort, and the most I could do given my own circumstances. And that I was dealing with the scary parts—submitting, getting rejected or accepted—in an effective way, and not putting off what I did not enjoy doing.

So this year, instead of a list of everything I’m going to finish by the end of next year, I am going to aim for feeling no regrets about my creative work when I uncork the champagne next December 31st—no regrets, and more fun with my work. I invite you to join me!