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.

Follow me on Twitter @DatherToo!


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.

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?

Shine and Play

February 5, 2012

by Leslie Zeigler

This is a second blog entry about Sheri Heller, a colleague of mine who is an Interfaith Reverend and psychotherapist as well as a writer,  playwright and actor.  She is the founder of the Philanthropic Theater Group Sistah Tribe.  Sistah Tribe is a collective of women and men who bring to the theater the  culturally  under-served and disenfranchised.

In my conversation with Sheri, I noticed a thread that ran through  much of what she shared with me – which is her deeply held belief that “when we connect to our creative impulses we are deeply authentic. ”  She goes on to say “creativity teaches us about ourselves.”  In her own deeply authentic voice she says,  “I always knew there was an artist in me,  but I didn’t feel entitled to give her permission and in certain ways was afraid to give her expression for fear of my own power being allowed to shine and play.”


Interview with Rev. Sheri Heller, LCSW

October 1, 2011

Sheri Heller

“Creativity is a Metaphor for the Subconscious” is only one of many  unique nuggets of wisdom expressed by Rev. Sheri Heller when I interviewed her in August.  First, a little background – Sheri Heller is a colleague of mine who is both an Interfaith Minister and a seasoned psychotherapist. I recently met her in March at a professional conference where we were both on the same panel.   After I heard her presentation,  the only word that comes to mind to describe how I felt was Inspiration.   After the conference, I spontaneously  asked her if I could interview her for this blog.  In addition to being a therapist,  she is also an actor, writer and playwright. Sheri’s love of being creative goes back to her childhood, when she said that as a kid she loved the theater.  Having been a shy and self conscious child, she  found soalce in writing and reading.  As she said, “When we connect to our creative impulses we are deeply authentic.”   As we talked further she revealed that when younger she “knew there was an artist in me but did not feel entitled to give her expression and in certain ways afraid to give her expression – fear of my own power – difficulties with my own power being allowed to shine and to play.”  She goes on to say, “Being an artist is affirming your right to be who you are.”

I wonder how many of us feel this way about letting out even to ourselves,  perhaps especially to ourselves,  our desire to be creative.

I will blog  more  about my interview with sheri in  future blog posts To learn more about her you can  go to her website:

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.

On Not Going It Alone

August 7, 2011

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!