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.

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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.


Post-Gig Depression

April 11, 2010

After the Finishing Stroke

Posted by Deborah Atherton

When we are completely absorbed in a creative project, we experience some of the deepest engagement, and through it, happiness, that human beings ever manage to find.  And then, suddenly, it’s over.  The show opens.  We finish editing the film. We place the last delicate stroke on the mural. We end the song on the final, perfect note. Or, as in my case last week, we add the last chapter to a novel we’ve been working on for a few years.  Most likely, we experience one glorious moment of accomplishment and completion. And then?

And then, very likely, we plunge into a very, very dark moment.  We become convinced that we will never have another idea, that our old ideas are all rotten, anyway, and, quite possibly, that critics everywhere, as well as everyone we know, will despise our completed work, if, in fact anyone ever sees or hears it.  I like to call this post-gig depression (and no, you will not find it in the DSM.)  Virginia Woolf suffered terribly in these moments – completing her books sometimes drove her to the verge of suicide.  Most of us experience it in a milder form. But oh, we do experience it.

Perhaps somewhere out there is the artist who completes his or her work with total confidence, and with the assurance that all who ultimately experience it will love it.  I myself do not know such an artist, but surely, among the many on this planet, a few live their lives out this way.  But most of us run into a period of questioning and anxiety after the initial excitement of completion.  (And this is even before all the other people with an opinion weigh in.)

I can’t give you a magical elixir that will help you through this (although some swear by Jack Daniels) but I can assure you that this, too, shall pass.  Some artists we interviewed have told us that they get through it by jumping right into the next project, and not giving themselves time or space to question (and some artists, of course, labor under constant deadlines, so don’t always have the luxury of time under a dark cloud.)  Some require a mourning period.  I myself turned to some very good friends and coaches, who spoke to me about the inner critic and the shadow self, and the necessity of acknowledging the doubting dark side of the creative impulse.  (And I’ll try to talk more about this later on, as I learn  more myself!)

I think what we face, at the moment we finish, is the resistance that has been dogging us all along, surging for one final push to retain the status quo.  And as artists, we have a responsibility to work through it and keep on.  And to remember that, not too far in the future, we’ll be having that lovely, “Is it 3 AM already? I didn’t notice”  feeling again, which is, let me remind you and myself, one of the best feelings in the world.


Finishing

June 29, 2009

Posted by Deborah Atherton

I’m guessing most creative people have a number of unfinished projects languishing in their basement, attic, or desk drawer. How many of us have half-written stories, treatments for never-written screenplays, still life paintings featuring a bowl and no fruit, unstrung guitars, unglazed pots, or scratchy renditions of songs that never got transferred from cassette to MP3 lingering somewhere in the background?

Well, dear readers, me too. It’s not that I can’t ever finish things. I’ve finished short stories that got published, opera and music theater pieces that got produced, articles, reviews, etc. etc. But. But. Sometimes it doesn’t happen; sometimes work gets lost or dropped or put aside. And sometimes – as for instance just a few days ago – it suddenly occurs to me that I am more than two-thirds of the way through my new project – in this case my novel – and a wave of – terror is too big a word for it – I suppose anxiety will have to do – a wave, or at least a current, of anxiety hits me. Finishing the novel seems too final, too scary, and not nearly as far off as it was 200 pages ago. And so my writing hours get postponed from morning to evening, and suddenly it is now or a whole day will be lost, and I force myself to sit down at the computer and promise I will let myself get up after a paragraph if I really, really can’t do it.

But if I can make myself do it – if I can force myself to push through the resistance and sit down and focus on doing the thing I love – the rewards are often great. When I finally sat down a few days ago, I didn’t get up after one paragraph. Time disappeared as soon I dove back into the story, and several hours passed quickly. A few more pages made their appearance, bringing me closer to The End. And I once more learned the lesson we all know, really, that nothing happens unless you sit down and allow it to happen. But only another creative person knows how great the distance is between standing and staring down at your desk, and actually sitting down to work. You could drive from New York to Miami, and it would seem short compared to the time it takes to get from the edge of your desk to sitting yourself firmly in that chair.

We all have to make that long-distance journey, every time we commit once more to finishing our creative work. It’s the distance between dreaming and doing, and no one can make it easy for us. But if we’re sure to pack plenty of coffee and water, and check in with friends along the way, we can usually complete our trip. And nothing feels better than arriving at the destination we set when we began.


About Procrastination and Being Creative

June 22, 2009

Posted by Leslie Zeigler

Tonight  I was talking to my older sister  Gail .  a special education teacher who lives in Charleston, South Carolina ,   about her creative projects.   I  know that she has a passion for writing children’s books,  yet has been having significant difficulty sustaining any continuity in actually getting a book written  and then hopefully published.

So I asked her why does she procrastinate ?    She replied,  ” I think it is because I secretly feel in my own mind that I am not any good and so why should I even start. ”  She added, “when you have other people , like Deborah spoke about in her Post, The People Blocks, that  laugh at you it confirms what  you feel about yourself.”  “I’m no good.  I  would rather do nothing than make a fool of myself.”

Her responses certainly upset  and frustrate me because I feel sad to think that she is holding herself  back because of negative internal messages.   So I asked her if she would be willing to let me work with her weekly, in telephone calls,   to begin to help her overcome this block.  She is receptive and I will  continue to report on this blog the process that we engage in  together  to hopefully help her complete  at least one of her  children’s book ideas.  And hopefully be able to sustain  in an ongoing way her creative interests.

Perhaps others who read this blog can either relate to a problem with procrastination even though the reason may be different than  the one my sister Gail has described.   Please feel free to leave comments and let us know  what stops you and whether you have found a way to move forward.