Eureka

January 19, 2014

by Deborah Atherton

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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

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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.


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Regrets

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.

Regret

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!


A Change is as Good as a Rest

September 30, 2012

In one of last season’s episodes of Downton Abbey,  the Dowager Countess Grantham (played so unforgettably by Dame Maggie Smith) said “a change is as good as a rest,” an expression I hadn’t heard in a while, but which can really apply to our creative lives.

Maybe you, like me, sometimes get mired down in a project.  This can happen at any time—you might have a wonderful idea, and then be completely flummoxed about what to do with it.  You might be halfway through your book or painting or film or graphic novel, and suddenly lose, not just inspiration, but the will to go on.  You might have finished it, and not be able to bring yourself to polish it and set it out on its journey in the world (if you’re like me, this means a virtual traffic jam of manuscripts sitting in your computer waiting to be set free.)

In this situation, I think we must sometimes take the Dowager’s words to heart, and just go do something else.  Ideally, this something else might be a cruise around the world, or at least a trip to Disney Land; but in real life, if you aren’t able to just pick up and take yourself elsewhere, it might be going to hear a band on Friday night instead of settling down in front of the TV, or taking a walk in the park if it’s not something you do every day, or even (God forbid)
tackle cleaning out the garage or hall closet.  Or, if you are feeling creative but just hating what you are doing at the moment, you might pick up your camera (if you’re a musician) or some paint brushes (if you are a writer) and try a different way of expressing yourself.

What probably isn’t going to help is sitting with your  work and ruminating endlessly over it.   Of course, we all do this, and some of it is necessary.  But if you are entering day 3 of rewriting the same sentence or playing the same phrase or tearing up a sketch for the 14th time, it may be time to turn your back, shut the door, and pretend what you are doing never existed.  Our brains are strangely subject to trickery of all kinds and if we announce loudly to ourselves, “Well I’m done with that!” they usually believe us, not noticing the little asterisk we have put for ourselves next to it  (i.e., *for today).  Especially if we attach some little reward to it, like that walk in the park or maybe a rejuvenating cup of coffee at our favorite coffee shop.  (Note: our brains are gullible, but not so gullible as to believe cleaning out the garage is a reward, although an hour of that might be enough of a threat to produce all kinds of new and energizing ideas.)

So to those of us who are stuck today I offer a guilt free pass to go take a walk, take a break, visit our local Starbucks WITHOUT the tools of our trade, and just sit and watch all the poor people slaving over their computers.  A change is as good as a rest.  Maggie Smith said so.  And who among us would challenge either Lady Grantham or Professor McGonagall?


The Creative Process and Procrastination – Can Mindfulness help?

August 1, 2012

by Leslie Zeigler

In my last blog post  I spoke about  the naysayer  inside of you/us. It is often so much easier to be upset when someone else in your life says something critical to you about your creative endeavor.

But there is another way we stop ourselves, without input from anyone else.  We say: I just  don’t have the time.

I know I have been procrastinating writing this blog post for the past  four days, maybe longer. I told myself  I just have too many other paperwork demands. And truth be told, I did have  an unusual number of forms that needed my attention.  But could I  have found the time  on Saturday or Sunday and not Monday night at  l   a.m. to write this?

Probably. So what  resistance was I facing?

In my favorite book about resistance to being creative, The War of Art: Break through the Blocks and Win Your Inner Creative Battles, Stephen Pressfield says, “We don’t tell ourselves ‘I’m never going to write my symphony,’  instead we say, ‘I”m Just going to start it tomorrow.'”

Sound familiar?  I know I certainly can  identify with that sentiment. I have been telling myself since Friday I am going to write my blog post. But I didn’t tell myself I am in the throes of a resistance.  Yet I was.

So  what now? I’d like to  continue where I left off in my last blog post–I had just begun to talk about Mindfulness as a tool for dealing with creative blocks.  I offered in that blog post the first step, which is to just become aware  when you notice your inner naysayer  is going negative (I guess that is an oxymoron).

The next steps in mindfulness are to, as  Dr. Susan Orsillo and Dr. Roemer in The Mindful Way through Anxiety, say,  “observe your internal states …with gentle curiosity and compassion through a clear wide-angle lens.” In this way. you can begin to learn how to detect and increase your  awareness of when you are stopping yourself  from doing what you love .


Decluttering Your Mind

July 9, 2012

by Deborah Atherton

There are some creative people who live and work in pristine environments,
who can maintain a space where there is a place for everything and everything is in that place.  They function beautifully in these spaces, and sometimes even thoughtfully raise a bonsai tree or two.

I am not one of those people.  

I live in a space that is full of my family furniture and four generations of books, photographs, art work and random Tibetan prayer shawls.  I have my great-grandmother’s tea table, my grandmother’s theater playbills, my mother’s seashell collection, my father’s backgammon set, and the next generation’s collection of comic books and manga, not to mention the entire family genealogical archives in my walk-in closet.

Recently, I participated in a decluttering workshop run by the wonderful lifecoach Sallie Felton, based on her new book, If I’m So Smart, Why Can’t I Get Rid of This Clutter?  I thought I was in it to get the books and files off the floor in my office/bedroom but as it turned out, Sallie, who has a genius for this stuff, addresses not just physical clutter, but emotional and mental clutter.  And in the process of going through her exercises (which I recommend highly to all of you!), I realized that the clutter that was bothering me most was not the physical clutter around me (although that may well be what is bothering my family and friends most) but the clutter inside my head and my computer: the books and stories and songs that were completed, or one intensive edit away from being completed, but not out circulating in the world where they should be.

We all have reasons for not sending stuff out: it’s not perfect yet, or we don’t have time, or it maybe got rejected once or twice and we don’t want to experience any more rejection.  But until I took this workshop, I hadn’t fully realized I had TWO FINISHED BOOKS sitting idly on my computer.

One of them was a collaboration with my sister, friend, and collaborator, Susan.  We had finished it in the last century, but two rejections, and moves, caretaking, and deaths in the family had led us to put it on the back burner.  I called her in the midst of my decluttering effort and suggested we pick it up again, and publish it, by any means necessary.  We are now in the midst of the required intensive edit, and are going to get it out the door and make it stay out there, no matter how much it pleads to come back in.

Another is my literary novel, which grew out of my “dating stories,” and captures a certain kind of New York social life in the first decade of the 21st century (you see I was moving along.) I sent that out exactly once before it ended up back in my computer. And out the door it will now go this fall, after a less-intensive edit, before another century has passed.

We talk a lot about rejection on this blog, and I thought I was at least mostly over it, and in terms sending out my short stories, maybe I am.  But apparently the novels are another story, and one I somehow shut out of my mind and pushed to the bottom of the pile.  With Sallie’s help and encouragement, I am on it.

And, you will now ask, how about those piles of books on the floor?

Well, some of them have gotten into boxes, but apparently, I am not yet ready to clear the decks and bring in the bonsai trees.  But that’s okay—there’s obviously another decluttering workshop (or maybe ten) in my future, and another thing Sallie will tell you is that you have to start where you stand, and change is always incremental.  I’ll keep you posted.


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.