The Day Gig

June 4, 2012

by Deborah Atherton

Most of us have them.  They may not be full time; we might be able to do them from home. But relatively few of us are able to support ourselves purely on our creative projects.  Some of us teach the art we practice, but although it’s wonderful to share what we’ve learned with others, we all know that this is not the same thing as doing your own work.

I am truly inspired by fellow writers and other artists who accept the lower income and lack of health insurance that often comes with pursuing your art full time.  I wish we lived in a country where health insurance and housing was affordable for everyone, and more of us could work at what we love 40 or 60 hours a week without penalty.

But given that we don’t quite live in that world, how do we handle our day gigs?People striving to make time for creativity take widely different approaches.  I work for a nonprofit whose work I believe in that offers me an opportunity to do some writing and research. Some people prefer to work jobs that have absolutely nothing to do with their art.  I know a writer who is a locksmith and another who is an iron worker. The actor or filmmaker who is currently a waiter or barista has become an American cultural icon. We are postal workers and lawyers and bankers and taxi drivers.  We teach grade school and work in giant box stores.

But whatever our day gig, balancing it with our creative life is a perpetual challenge.  People often ask me the following question: “How do have the energy to work on so many different projects?  I’m exhausted when I come home at night!”

Well, me too. Honestly, 50% of the time I come home from work, eat dinner, and flop in front of the TV.  I know far more about criminal investigative techniques (as least as presented by CBS) than any honest person ought to.

Most of my creative work I do, not at night after work, but in what I think of as little pockets of time I extract from the rest of my life.  I have developed the habit of keeping a notebook or netbook by the bed so I write for a little while last thing at night and first thing in the morning. Lunch time is sometimes social, but at least a few times a week I find a place and moment to myself to do some work.  Weekends offer many little pockets of time, although perhaps not the luxurious stretches you might hope for—after all, there’s the rest of your life: laundry and grocery shopping and going to the drug store and hanging out with your family and friends and picking up the dry cleaning.

The biggest trick (and one that often eludes me) is keeping yourself open to creative ideas and opportunities while you are functioning in the rest of your life.  Keeping the notebook or sketchbook or camera (or handy double duty i-Phone) at hand for random inspiration.  And never letting go of the idea that your creative life is at least as real and important as the one that supplies health insurance and groceries and maybe even helps save the world.  There’s more than one way to save the world, and, at least in my eyes, staying on course with your creative goals and projects is one of them.

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Obama and Creativity – What is the Link?

April 24, 2012

A few months ago, one night while watching TV, I watched a story on President Obama sitting down every night and answering ten letters that he had received from the public.  I became curious , and found a more detailed New York Times article (by Ashley Parker in the April 19, 2009 issue). The article described the tens of thousands of letters, e-mails, messages and faxes that arrive at the White House every day.  Each weekday afternoon, a few hundred  end up in the office of Mr. Kelleher, the Director of the White House Office of Correspondence . He then chooses ten letters, which he slips into a purple folder and puts in in the daily briefing book that is delivered to President Obama at the White House Residence.

The real question is: what did it mean to me?  It was really quite simple. If he can take the time to do this task , why is it so hard for me and other people to find the time to be creative?  He found the time to do something he clearly felt passionate about.

This daily action has become a source of  Inspiration for me.  Brian Tracy in his book, Eat  That Frog 21  GREAT Ways To  Stop  Procrcrastinating  And  Get  More  Done  in Less Time   says  “There is never enough time to do everything  you have to do.”  He adds,  “you can get control of your tasks  and activities only to the degree you stop doing some things and start spending more time on the few activities that can really make a difference in your life.”

So is writing that poem, novel, screenplay and/or signing up for that photography, pottery, dance, writing class a priority? If the President can make time for ten letters a day to people he never met, can you devote the same amount of time to launching (or sustaining) your own creative projects?


Why Don’t We Do the Work We Love?

September 21, 2011

Posted by Deborah Atherton

Recently, Leslie and I were having lunch with a good friend and colleague who has just begun to write seriously.  She posed the question:  Why is it that we don’t do the thing we in theory want to do the most? (For all three of us right now, it is finishing a book.)  Why is it that our weekends and evenings fill up with chores, errands, TV, email, etc., etc., and suddenly it is 11 PM Sunday night and nothing has been written? 

The classic answer for this, of course, is resistance (something explored really brilliantly in Stephen Pressfield’s The War of Art), but, as Leslie said a few blog posts ago, let’s for a moment resist calling it resistance.  Maybe this isn’t always our inner critic at work, blocking all change and creative effort in our life; maybe this is something else.  Because we all enjoy working on our books; when we set the time aside, it is almost always good time, not frustrating or self-critical time.  

As we discussed the problem, we realized all three of us tended to do the same thing: we feel that we have to block out a day (or an afternoon, or a week!) to work on our projects, and that we can never find a separate block of time long enough (or quiet enough) to really stretch out and enjoy working on it.  And so we postpone, and postpone, waiting for a time when we accumulate enough vacation days, or can take a break from clients and obligations for long enough, to REALLY get some work done.  But what happens, of course, is that that time never comes, and our projects pull further and further away from us, until they seem to have left us entirely.

Last year, when I was facing just such a dilemma, trying to finish a novel and thinking I would have to go away somewhere to make any progress, my friend, the amazing coach Cindy at Less Drama Queens made a suggestion: can you find one hour a week to work on it?   At the time, I was highly doubtful that I could get much done in an hour a week – I had a whole book to rewrite!  But I had already allotted my vacation time, and I didn’t really have much choice.  So, somewhat reluctantly,  I tried it.

And it worked.  Every Saturday morning, instead of rushing off to the dry cleaners, or picking up a few groceries, or (let’s be honest) catching up on Top Chef on the DVR, I worked on my novel. Interestingly, the hour often expanded into two, and sometimes even three, time I would have sworn I didn’t have. But there it was. And because I was obligated only to that hour, I honored it. Everybody, except maybe Hilary Rodham Clinton when the Mideast is exploding, has an hour.  We just don’t think we can do anything with it: it’s only an hour.

But that hour a week worked for me: it took more than six months, but I did finish editing the book.  It is a lesson that it is hard for me to remember; I still think longingly of all the work I could do if I just had about a month to go sit somewhere quiet and write.  Someday, I’m sure, I’ll get that month (although whether I am able to actually sit down and write for that stretch of time is another issue!)  In the meantime, I try to remind myself: just one hour a week, and eventually you can finish anything.


Let’s Resist Always Calling it Resistance

May 21, 2011

We live in a culture that thrives on quick sound bites and formulaic   responses to complicated matters.

For example , I am reminded of a  New York Times bestseller called  He’s Just Not That Into You. I actually never read the book but from what I have heard about it, it sure sounds like a one trick pony to me.   The basic assumption  was that if a man does not return a phone call after a date it is because he is just not that into you.  What if he just lost his job?  What if he is commitment phobic and responds this way to all women? It is not hard to find other books with  a tendency to oversimplify also on the best sellers list.

In that vein, I feel it is often common for people to assume that if someone says the often used comment  “I just don’t have enough time”  in referring to their creative endeavor,  that it is a sure indication of resistance.     What if it is not so black and white?

What if someone just suffered the loss of a parent and is paralyzed by their understandable grief?  Or perhaps a woman is yearning to set aside time to work on her passion of writing yet has just given birth to twins. 

Sometimes it may be about the lack of energy and consequent lack of   ability to focus that may be one way to explain the behavior.  IF someone is weighted down by  a difficult emotion or a new life transition, it can feel like wanting  to get up from the couch with a body that just won’t move.

Sometimes life happens and our behavior  just cannot  be easily labeled.


Why Are We All So Tired?

April 7, 2011

by Deborah Atherton

Why are we all so tired? 

Lately almost everyone I know has been telling me that they are very, very tired.  Many of us, of course, have very good reason to be tired; we work all day, and then we try to write or play music or paint or blog or do photography at night and on weekends. This is the fabric of our lives; we are used to spending our days overwhelmed by the sheer volume of things we are trying to do.   And everyone is just getting over some bug or another, and dragging themselves slowly into spring.

But I feel what I’m hearing lately in people’s voices is something more than that. Although we’ve all been living for at least a decade now with a different sense of how unpredictable and frightening the world can be, the last few months may have threatened our precarious sense of balance in a new way.  Earthquakes, tsunamis, nuclear disasters—we’re indirectly experiencing so many events completely out of our control that even the new and scarier world we’ve gotten a bit used to has been turned on its head.  Many of us can’t bear to watch the news for more than a few minutes at a time, and when we do, we watch with a kind of fascinated horror, and perhaps it makes the things we are trying to do—find the right chord for a song, finish a portrait, rewrite a scene—seem kind of unimportant.  Just getting up in the morning and paying attention to what is going on around the world is exhausting right now—how can we push ourselves to take one more step?

I’m not sure I have the answer to that, except that there are all kinds of ways to bear witness to the world and the other human beings in it, and exercising your own creative spirit might be one of them.  If it can only be five minutes of thinking about your project, or five minutes of sketching or writing or looking through a new lens, that is five minutes of sanity and calm that will move you closer to your larger goal.  Once I heard a Zen teacher talking about how, if you can not find half an hour for meditation, you can surely find fifteen or ten or five—or two—and I believe the same holds true for creative endeavors.  It may seem like a useless effort, it may seem like a tease, but really—is it going to make you any MORE tired to dedicate five minutes to shaping something new?

Maybe not – maybe it will even have the opposite effect, and encourage you to try ten minutes tomorrow.  Or maybe it will just have to be five minutes every day until the news is a little bit more bearable again and we can dream a little bigger.

 


Coping with the Disappointment

October 4, 2010

by Leslie Zeigler

In this blog there have been posts about the inevitable part of being creative that involves rejection and disappointment.  Whether it is receiving  another rejection in your attempt to find an agent  for your novel,  or being turned down for the 66th time on your most recent audition to become an actor, or being told that your photograph is not going to be accepted at a particular gallery, the question is how do you deal with the feelings?   Do you fantasize about crawling under the covers and not coming out for months?  It’s only natural that you might feel that way.  Perhaps you feel an urge to turn to drinking a bit too much or overeating–or maybe your drug of choice is retail therapy.  At any rate,  what are some helpful ways to think to help you get thru those difficult moments when you feel like giving up even though you know that you won’t? 

In reading Pema Chodron’s book Taking the Leap  I began to think that her ideas could be very helpful to anyone involved in the creative process.   Pema Chodron is an American Buddhist, who writes often about how to deal with life.  I am not a Buddhist and you don’t need to be one in order to benefit from her heart-centered wisdom.  Her concept of  “shenpa”   is potentially useful in the context of  expanding your options in coping with your disappointment.  She describes it as “the itch and it’s also the urge to scratch.”  She gives examples of how it is natural to be drawn to an unhealthy habit, such as reaching for a cigarette or some other such habit.   She describes SHENPA   as preverbal but it breeds thoughts and emotions very quickly. She suggests becoming aware of this feeling .  Basically her advice is to become aware of this feeling without acting on it.  It is very similar  to what I learned as a therapist, which is to encourage people to become aware of what their feelings  are and learn to sit with them and tolerate them rather than turning to a negative habit.

This advice might sound simplistic, yet we live in a culture where doing and being productive and turning to action is so prevalent that the notion of not doing can seem weird and actually hard to implement.

So the next time you come home from your  acting audition, or receive your letter of rejection for your screenplay or find out that you were not accepted for a particular painting class,  just as the Beatles say,

Let yourself  Be.


Rejection

September 10, 2010
by Deborah Atherton

September is here, and it’s that time of year for many of us – time to send out proposals, time to submit our work to editors or galleries or agents or producers.  I’ve been sending out my work for many years, and no matter how many positive responses I’ve received, it’s the negative ones that stick with me.  The power of positive thinking seems to shrivel when confronted with my deep distaste for handing my work over to someone else to accept or reject.

Why does one rejection send us into a spiral of misery? One of my favorite positive psychologists, Tal Ben-Shahar, has something to say about that:  “When we fail to attain a desired outcome, we often extrapolate from that experience the belief that we have no control over our lives or over certain parts of it. That thinking leads to despair.”

Despair describes the feeling I get on opening an envelope with yet another rejection slip pretty perfectly.  But how can we combat it, that feeling that no one will ever be interested in the work that takes up all the waking minutes we might otherwise be more profitably spending on, say, actually making a profit?

Habit. It just has to be a habit.  We have to know that despite the ten rejections we got this month, we are going to send out ten more poems, or sets of slides, or CDs, next month.  Our creative work sometimes has to wait on inspiration; our submission of it can not.  If we send out a piece this month, and wait for the response, we most likely won’t be sending out a piece next month.  (For one thing, NOBODY will get back to you in just a month.)

It takes 30 days for a habit to take root within us; and, honestly, if you’ve had years of haphazard submissions and rejections, it is probably going to take longer than that.  Writers’ Relief, the selective writers submission service, tells us that for writers (and these are all writers who are copyedited and can spell), 1 in 99 submissions is accepted.  (I don’t have statistics on other art forms, but observation tells me this is pretty close to what composers, visual artists, and others face.)

So that’s the story, folks.  Maybe you can assign one otherwise depressing Monday night a month to gritting your teeth and shipping out your work.  Maybe, if you’ve got a strong stomach, you can do it more often than that. But if it doesn’t become a habit, it won’t get done at all.

And just think how wonderful you’ll feel the day following your 99th rejection when you get that email or note or phone call saying: you’re in!

And now that you’ve made a habit, you won’t let that stop you either (unless of course this is your magnum opus, and its acceptance means your life work is done) on the next appointed Monday, when you will send your work out again.