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.

Advertisements

The Creativity Blockers

April 6, 2012

You know them. You probably live and work among them. 

If you say to one of them, “My photograph just won an award!” Or, “My poem just got published!” Or, “My film just got accepted into a festival!” they may manage a “How nice.” More likely, their eyes will glaze overand they will start telling you about what THEY did last weekend.

Did You Get Much Money for That?

Or they may say to you, (and this is my personal favorite), “Did you get much money for that?” Please notice the “much” here, because no matter what sum, from 0 to 1,000,000, that you received for your hard work, it is clear that it isn’t much at all, in the creativity blocker’s scale of things. Sometimes they offer comments like, “I don’t know why you work so hard on that (painting, blog, musical).” “How many years have you been doing that?” Or better yet, “Do people still do that?”

Are You Famous?

And of course, we’ve all heard this at parties or events: “Should I have heard of you?” “Are you famous?” Once upon a time, I thought it was all innocence and ignorance.  Maybe they really did think that people no longer wrote books, or painted pictures, or (in my case) wrote operas.  Somehow these things were generated from a Great Computer in the Sky, and descended full blown upon us.

But now I realize that it’s not that, or it’s more than that.  Many people aren’t comfortable around poets, or playwrights, or musicians, because even in this age of YouTube and America’s Got Talent, creative efforts are not perceived as something regular people do. And if you are successful at it: if you make a living, or part of a living, at it, you’re even odder.  Somehow, you’re cheating. You’re taking a step away from the way most people live their lives; you’re going into a back room, or out on the street, or even to the bar around the corner with your band, and creating something brand new in the world.  And if there’s one thing people aren’t really comfortable with, it’s change. (There does seem to be a gadget exception to this rule; everyone loves their new cars and smart phones.  I do wonder, however, how much they’d have to say to the person who designed them?)

No Point. No Time. No Good

It’s discouraging.  We’d all like a little acknowledgement for our efforts.  We’d like the people around us to be thrilled with our success, and sympathetic to the disappointments that line the road to any successful creative effort.  We try hard to get them interested in what we’re doing, and sometimes their disinterest seems like a global rejection.  We’re not just hearing “no” from the people who could open doors for us, we’re hearing it from our friends and colleagues and sometimes even our families. “No point.” “No time.” “No good.”

So what do we do?

We find other people to talk to.  We’re lucky, in 2012, that the world is open to us through the Internet. But we can also seek out other people in our communities, even in our workplaces, whose eyes actually spark with interest instead of dulling with dread when we start talking about what we love to do.

And we don’t try and interest people who we terrify with our love of what we do.  The more you succeed, the more you keep going, the less happy they will be.  The jabs and disinterest might turn to something more hostile.  Ever notice how fast people turn on performers who don’t meet their expectations?  (Just try a half hour of any celebrity reality TV show.)  Deep down, they may not feel really normal people are out there acting and singing and making movies and games.

Getting By With a Little Help From Your Friends

We get pretty good at insulating ourselves within circles of friends and fellow creative people as we get older, and find ways to hold some of this at bay. But for those striving to create something in a hostile culture or community or family situation, this can a life-long problem.  And the best solution is finding the people who will support you, even if they are 8,000 miles away and can only IM you at midnight.  Creative people do their best when they can ignore (or go around) the blockers, keep working on their projects,  and get a little help from their friends.

Many thanks to Eric Ember, the Intuitive Edge Photographer in Residence, for his portrait of  Sam suspiciously eyeing Murray, the Intuitive Edge Creative Cat in Residence. And thanks also to Claudia Carlson for the idea.


Creativity and Late Bloomers – Learning How to Become Mindful

July 3, 2011

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.


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.


Chicken Soup

January 9, 2011

Posted by Deborah Atherton

We talk a lot about creative blocks, the internal forces that keep us from realizing our ideas and visions. But sometimes life offers external blocks that keep us from doing what we want to do most.  Sometimes we confuse one with the other.

Several writers and artists have recently mentioned to me that a bad bout of flu had kept them from doing anything but watch mindless TV for over a week.  We are very intent sometimes on our schedules, our daily practice, the amount of words we get on a page or number of hours we have practiced on our instrument, and it’s hard to accept that external forces may prevent us from reaching our goals.

But life has a way of handing us obstacles on a fairly regular basis, and they may vary in severity from the loss of a job or a serious illness to a bad cold or visiting relatives.  And I think sometimes we are so used to trying to catch ourselves in slacking off (and let’s face it, we creative types do have an enormous gift for slacking off) that when real things happen, even when they come with temperatures of 103 or slings or severe lack of paychecks, we dismiss the reality of the obstacle, whatever its severity, and just start reproaching ourselves for not accomplishing things.

Sometimes it’s okay not to make your five hundred words a day or not to sit down at your easel or drafting table (especially if the smell of paint is making you sick.) Once in a while, yes, there will be a deadline that can’t be missed, a curtain that is going up or a book that is coming out and you will have to make a heroic effort, whatever the obstacles, and just resolve to pay for it later. But you don’t have to be heroic every day of your life (or no more heroic than every person is when they commit to pursuing their creative dreams.) Heroism is exhausting, and depleting, and not required from us all on a regular basis.

So pick up an undemanding book or the remote control, and get through your personal flu season (or whatever the obstacle may be) as comfortably as you can.  You’ll be back on the front lines soon enough, and one of these days, some heroism may well be required. But in the meantime, maybe just acknowledge that some days the blocks aren’t of your making, and the best thing you can do for yourself is go and find a nice bowl of chicken soup.

Much gratitude to Claudia Carlson for her thoughts on this issue. Check out her blog The Elephant House to follow an artist/poet/fiction writer/book designer on her adventures in and out of New York City!


Creativity and Depression – Is there a link? One Man’s Viewpoint

July 19, 2010

In a recent discussion with my coaching client Gail’s husband about creativity  some interesting ideas began to emerge.  (Both Gail and her husband have given me permission to blog about this.)   Our discussion began when  I  was curious about what his definition of creativity was.  He said in a very certain tone of  voice without any hesitation, “It’s PLAYFULNESS. ”    I had no idea at the beginning of our conversation that we would soon be talking about creative blocks , depression and why he has difficulty beginning to commit to his deeply treasured buried dream of writing a memoir.   Soon after he shared that with me he let me in on  his style of communicating that he called “birdwalking”.  He said he knows that  he jumps around like a sparrow.  He added, “to me there is creativity in that.”    I asked him to tell me more about this memoir he wants to write about but has not actually ever started.  He  replied, “I’d like to write something that would crystallize the lessons of my own life in a way that could last.”

I then asked, “So what gets in the way?” He shared that it is partly his perfectionism and partly his pattern of getting easily distracted.  He then reflected and added that the single most difficult obstacle was  his life-long struggle with chronic depression that began in adolescence.  He does not think people are creative when they are depressed. He gave Van Gogh as an example – he did not paint when he was depressed, but when he was in recovery,  even while in an insane asylum. He does,  however, feel there may be a  link for those who suffer from manic depression, because some people claim they do their best work while in the manic phase.

I did want to probe further what stopped him. “Well, it becomes hard work to actually start to write a memoir.  So you lose the playfulness.”

For the time being  our conversation is on pause.  I am very interested in trying to understand the relationship between the desire to be playful and the necessity of engaging in a discplined ritual if one wants to actually commit to writing (or any creative endeavor).


Picking Up the Pieces

January 24, 2010

When I was young, going back to school after an extended period of absence was always painfully difficult.  You were behind in your classes – fractions, what are they?  Resuming relationships with teachers and peers was tricky.  And the confinement of the classroom was never as comfortable as the freedom of home.

Picking up your creative work – or any work – after a long period away is just as hard.  If you were in the middle of something, it’s hard to remember how you got there and where you meant to go next.  If you were just about to start something new, any ideas you had about it have probably lost their freshness and zing.  It’s hard to sit down at the desk, the computer, the easel, your musical instrument – it’s hard to fit yourself back into the tools of your trade.  Nothing feels quite right.  It’s as if while you were away, you turned into someone else – someone who doesn’t know how to do what you were quite comfortable doing a few weeks or months before.

The funny thing is, it’s probably true.  You’re not exactly who you were before whatever it was (and it can be so many things, from health, to an intense work situation, to being a caregiver for others, and on, and on).  The experience has probably changed you, and you may not be able to pick up exactly where you left off.  Your project, your dream, may not take the exact shape you had planned for it before the interruption.  The trick, I’m finding, as I try and fit myself back into my own creative projects, is to take some time and not expect anything to look the same three months later.  I’m different, and so my work has become different, too.  Maybe it’s an accelerated version of what happens when you pick up a story you wrote ten years ago – or look at a photograph you took twenty years ago.  It was a substantially different person who wrote that story, who peered through that lens.  You, always you, but not quite the same you.  Maybe you write a little differently now.  Maybe you want to pick a new key, or another palette.  Instead of tensing yourself up and pushing through to finish, it might be a moment to relax a little and allow some experimentation.  Your work waited this long, it can wait a little longer, and reap whatever benefit can come from the unanticipated interruption, and being forced to look at things in a new way.