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?
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.
Recently I had brunch with a wonderful pianist, Benita Meshulam, and we were discussing the joys of collaborating. She has recently begun a piano duo with Allison Brewster Franzetti, also an amazing pianist. “After all these years of being lonely on stage, I have a real partner to share the experience with,” she said. “It’s so much better not to have to always perform alone. The loneliest walk is from my dressing room to the stage, and now I don’t have to do it alone.”
Part of our cultural mythology is this vision of the artist alone, writing or sculpting or drawing in solitude. The solitude seems to validate the experience , verify the genuineness of the self-communion. We imagine J.D. Salinger in cranky hermit mode up inNew Hampshire, or Van Gogh in tortured self-mutilating mode in a garret. Virginia Woolf told us that every writer needs a room of her own, and it seems so obvious that we all immediately nod in agreement.
But although Virginia Woolf had a room of her own, she also lived in a constant social whirl of friends, writers and other artists who argued with her, supported her, designed her books and furniture, and brought her their work for publication and critique. As anyone who reads her diaries knows, she was very seldom actually alone. Many artists do feel the loneliness of creating in solitude, or taking the stage by themselves, and get quite self-reproachful about their dislike of creating by themselves.
But there is actually no rule that you have to lock yourself in an empty room to create, or even create or perform or present work with others. Starbucks sometimes seems to exist largely to serve the needs of people who can’t stand to write in a room alone. Of course, actors and musicians and other performers have always known the joys of performing together—but writers? Photographers? Composers? Painters?
Well, maybe you can’t write music at Starbucks with all those world instruments jingling in your ears, but you can almost always find a less lonely situation that eases that anxiety about solitude and being in the creative process by yourself. Whether this means having a trusted other who sits and reads while you are working, or actively collaborating with other artists on a film or musical or book or mural—or duo piano performance—sometimes the presence of another human being (or non-human being—there is a reason some writers are always photographed with their dogs at their sides) is the exact missing ingredient to spur your creative process.
Sometimes all we want is an empty, quiet space to do our work, or to walk out on to a stage and face the crowd or critics by ourselves—but we don’t have to be alone with either our ideas or our audiences if it doesn’t work for us. Collaboration can be one of the most exciting and fulfilling modes for any artist to work in—although you still might want that room of your own to go home and decompress in at the end of the day!
I recall seeing the title of a book written by Nora Ephron called I Feel Bad About My Neck: And Other Thoughts on Being a Woman. Now, I am not going to blog about necks or the psychology of aging and women. But just hearing this title quite honestly turned me off, because it sounds so negative. And I am not a person who aspires to being positive in a tone that makes it sound like life is just a bowl of cherries . However, I have consistently discovered in my life that when faced with a choice of mindsets, I ALWAYS feel better and seem to get better results in whatever life endeavor I am trying to achieve, when I tell myself or try to tell myself to maintain a positive mindset. (Although this doesn’t mean that my inner critic is not trying to get heard!)
So in this post, I want to talk about the issue of aging and how to maintain hope about engaging in a creative endeavor. It is so easy to think it is just too late. But while it might be too late to become a ballerina, it might not be too late to enjoy seeing others dance.
I was especially inspired when I read that David Seidler received the Best Original Screenplay award at age 74 years old. He said, “my father always said to me I would be a late bloomer.”
He also said “I have heard I am the oldest person to win this award. I hope that that record is broken quickly and often”. I hope so too. And not just for the big fancy accolades like his but for accolades of any kind. It could be as simple as someone at 90 years of age in a nursing home taking a painting class .
So what do I mean by being mindful? In an extremely upbeat book written by Ellen Langer, entitled :”Counter Clockwise, Mindful Health and the Power of Possibility,” she describes it like this, “It is about the need to free ourselves from constricting mindsets and the limits they place on our health and well-being, and to appreciate the importance of becoming the guardians of our own health.” I’d like to suggest that this same belief can be applied to one’s relationship to their creativity.
I start very slowly, and don’t actually begin to write the book until I can’t stand not to write it. This method derives from my sense that one can start a book too soon, but almost never too late. (Stevan Polansky in GlimmerTrain)
We writers and artists almost always have a bad word to say for ourselves, and often it is on our inability to get started on a project. Sometimes, even if we have a deadline, even if our food and rent depends on it, we just cannot begin. We have an idea, yes. We may even think it is a pretty good idea. But it isn’t ready. We aren’t ready, and we aren’t sure we will ever be ready.
How do we know when to begin a project? Steven Polansky says it all when he says, “one can start a book too soon, but almost never too late.” (Of course, we haven’t heard from his editors on the subject.) But perhaps the reason most of us have drawers full of unfinished manuscripts, basements full of half-done canvases, hard drives full of video and photographs we’re not sure about and scripts without an ending, is not because we don’t have the will to finish, but because, driven by our own anxiety to begin, we started too soon.
Great ideas may seem sometimes to spring out of nowhere and demand our full attention, but the truth is, they’ve probably been stewing for some time, in some form, before they assume a final shape. Our minds take a little bit from here and a little bit from there, throw in a dash of this and that, do a rain dance to the muses for inspiration, and only then hold the concoction under our noses and insist – okay, okay, this is how it will be! Pay attention and get going! And it is in that moment when we really do have to build up some steam and prepare to chug away.
This isn’t like waiting to be hit on the head by an apple (although one can argue that Mr. Newton’s inspiration, as well, owed a lot to creative stewing.) We have to feed the process, with reading, or going to galleries, or watching films, and thinking, and sleeping, and possibly striking up a chat with the morose person sitting next to us at Starbucks who is also waiting for his or her moment. If you and nature are on close personal terms, you can go take long walks, and even try sitting under a welcoming tree.
While you are doing all this, you must make the attempt not to torture and threaten your idea into existence, but to gently lure it out, with the promise that it will have your full attention and its moment in the sun. Be kind to your idea, and be kind to yourself. And when, finally, it manifests itself in full – or at least close enough to be getting on with – don’t be afraid to jump in and move forward. Institute your creative ritual; protect your creative time; let it be as central to your life as it can be without completely disrupting the rest of your life. It’s almost never too late to start, but when it’s time, it’s time, and it’s a moment to savor before you begin some of the hardest work of your life.