Parades and Memories

November 29, 2013

by Deborah Atherton


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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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.


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!

Finding Your Inner Voice

November 26, 2012
by Leslie Zeigler
In this fast-track world we all now live in with iPads, Droids, Twitter, Facebook and Linked In,  we all may fear that if we dare to not have our devices within six inches we will be out of the loop.  I know that I have an ambivalent relationship to my own attachment to my now dinosaur Blackberry. Yet this is the new reality we all live in, and in order to survive, succeed and stay in touch, it would be really hard to turn off and tune out for very long. However, I sometimes think that tuning out is just what the metaphorical cultural doctor would prescribe if there were one.   My recommendation would be that during moments of high stress  (or even  medium or low stress) we turn off our devices to allow time to be creative and engage with our imaginations.
Five Minute Break
It could really be as simple as a five-minute break for reflection while walking to your car or subway (or possibly longer if you have the time.) In order to enhance your ability to do this, try to access your inner voice, which requires giving it some space to emerge. I find that those rare, and sometimes not so rare, moments when we can quiet all those various inner messages that try to demand our attention (almost as if our inner life were like a TV with many channels) are truly magic.   We are all familiar with our ever-present inner critic, who will try to tell us we don’t know enough, or that we aren’t really going to create something worthy of sharing. Perhaps we also hear our daily to-do list streaming through our minds, vying for our attention,  or maybe it is a message you keep hearing related to something your mother told you when you were just four years old.
 Finding Inner Calm
It can be a real challenge to find inner calm, to push the mute button on all these messages, and just relax and let go and let your intuition kick in.  You will not know where it is coming from, or how, but creative ideas and thoughts may just start to flow and it will be magic.  And for extra inspiration just remember the words of Steve  Jobs “don’t let  the noise of other’s opinions drown  out your own inner voice.”


September 4, 2012


Is there a relationship between absentmindness and creativity?

Photo by Marcin Wichery licensed by CC-2.0

On a recent Friday night, my mind lit out for home and freedom quite a bit before my body managed to make it out of the office.  My thoughts were revolving around a conversation about history and ghosts at the end of the work day with one of my esteemed collaborators.  I made it all the way to the bus stop before I realized I had left my wallet and Blackberry behind.  Back to the office I trudged, in the pouring rain.  By the time I managed to finally squeeze on to a packed bus, it was past 7. I was immediately distracted by the landscape of the buildings and people surrounded by raindrops, many of them scurrying into Mme. Tussaud’s (a very appropriate place for ghosts and history).

Of course, I left my umbrella on the bus.

If I hadn’t been distracted, I would have walked in my front door at least an hour and a half earlier and a great deal dryer.

Hudson Skyline by Joiseyshoaa via Flckr CC license

I don’t know about you, but this isn’t all that unusual for me. In the middle of necessary daily activities, my mind is often somewhere else, very likely turning what I’m seeing or doing into a scene or story of some kind.  I construct elaborate back stories for strangers (the woman opening a chocolate bar next to me on the bus; the sales clerk at Rite Aid; the barista at Starbucks).  I sink my Manhattan landscape into the Hudson River and envision what the rest of the city would look like.  I have a glimpse of an underground tunnel and instantly the city is connected not just by subways but secret passageways.  I am struck by lyrics to a song that hasn’t yet been written while prowling the sales racks at Macy’s.

In consequence, I usually live in a mild state of distraction. This doesn’t happen when I am sitting down one on one with another human being, or when I am actually working on something that interests me, but when I am in a group activity that doesn’t completely catch my interest, or doing the things we usually do by habit—commuting, shopping, cooking.

Half my creative thinking is done in these intervals of absentmindedness.  (The other half seems to be done when I’m falling asleep or waking up, but that’s another post for another time.)  Although I am not paying attention to the external world, I am completely absorbed in my internal one, and the thoughts and images that come to me while I am barely avoiding walking into open manholes stay with me when I finally make it home and sit down to write.

This state of absentmindedness may be why creative people often say, when interviewed—I do my writing or painting or filmmaking or composing because I couldn’t do anything else.  It can be a bit of a challenge operating in the workaday world when much of your mind is in another place entirely.  But all of us have to operate in both worlds to some extent, and, after all, one feeds the other. The people in your life who value you will learn to put up with your moments of abstraction, and if you are lucky, the people you manage not to run into on the street will pull you out of the path of any oncoming buses.  Our minds, after all, are only absent from this particular moment and place—they are completely present somewhere else, exploring and building worlds and stories and images and melodies.

It might make you late to dinner once in a while, but in the long run, being absent minded is often just part of  being creative.  And, if there is somewhere you really, really need to be, you will just have to join the real world for a little while, knowing that the other world is always there, awaiting your return.

Copyright 2012 Deborah Atherton.  All rights reserved.

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 .

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.

The Holiday Addiction

December 14, 2011

Posted by Deborah Atherton

We would probably all be reasonably happy and productive during the holidays (after all, who doesn’t like a nice turkey?) if it weren’t for our memories of the past and the way they create expectations of how things will be—or should be—in the present.   And of course, our memories are selective—we don’t remember the family disagreements, or how our parents couldn’t put our new bicycles together right, or how Uncle Phil always had a little too much too drink—we remember the wonderful presents our grandparents gave us, and decorating our homes, and baking cookies, and the way our mothers always made the stuffing just right. 

Intellectually, we probably understand that the present can’t compete with the Hallmark version of the past our memories present us with, and yet every year we rush into the holiday season full of plans and expectations.   We may accept too many invitations, or not be invited enough; we may find ourselves exhausted in the middle of cooking a big holiday dinner; we may attempt to gather the entire family together and be defeated by distance, expense, and competing schedules. And in the midst of all this—of parties, families, and events—we feel frustrated at our inability to get back to our projects.  Our novels, our paintings, our films, our photograph and videos call to us—but we are too busy trying to squeeze in one more must-do activity to listen. We are almost like addicts, seeking to recreate the holiday high we had as five-year-olds, and, like addicts of all stripes, we are usually doomed to disappointment.

As humans, we are always going to have memories and expectations, and as creative people, we depend on them for our work, but we do have a tool that allows us to not lose ourselves in them to the point of misery. We can practice mindfulness; we can focus on the present moment, and understand that this moment we are experiencing is unique and deserving of our full attention.

In The Mindful Way Through Anxiety, Susan Orsillo PhD, and Lizabeth Roemer, PhD, define mindfulness as: “a specific way of paying attention to things. It involves purposefully expanding your attention to take in both what you are experiencing inside –your thought, feelings, and physical sensations — and what is happening around you. But the kind of attention you bring to noticing is an essential aspect of this practice. Mindfulness involves bringing a gentle and honest curiosity to your experiences. It involves looking at familiar thought, people, and situations with a fresh perspective, as if you had never encountered them before.”

At a time when every bite of food is subject to comparison, we can allow ourselves to simply savor the eggnog we are sipping and not worry about whether it tastes as good as our Aunt Sharon’s or is up to Iron Chef quality. We can understand that as hard as we try to get the whole family together, there is going to be someone who can’t or won’t make it and that although the gathering may not be complete, it can still happen (and hey, they invented Skype for just this reason!) We can occasionally close our eyes, take a few deep breaths, and let everything fall away but the chair we are sitting on and the air we are breathing, and let go of all the memories, and all the expectations, and know that life, in this minute, is as important as it gets.
And most of all, we can be a little kind to ourselves.  So many of the people with creative projects I have talked to in the last few weeks have been upset about their inability to get anything done since Thanksgiving, and worried that the rest of the year will slip away with nothing accomplished.  But time only slips away when we aren’t fully experiencing it, if it is filled with anxiety, or frustration, or a nagging dissatisfaction with things as they are. Fifteen minutes of just being in the moment—of just listening to what is going on around you, or really tasting the food in front of you, or taking a short walk and smelling December in the air—will bring you back to the present moment, and may even help you get to your computer or studio or camera to do a little work.

And you know, it’s possible that the work, when we all do get back to it—even if it isn’t until after New Year—will have benefited from the break.  The fog will have cleared, the excitement and disappointment will have lifted, and we will all be ready to work again.

Thanks to Eric Ember, the Intuitive Edge Photographer in Residence,  for the holiday photos!

How We Survived Our Zombie Apocalypse

October 25, 2011

by Deborah Atherton

Occasionally, Leslie and I go away to shore hotels (off-season) to work on our creativity book. This weekend, we chose Asbury Park, New Jersey, one of our favorites, because of a great hotel rate.  To our shock, when we arrived, we were told that we were still in time to get makeup for the Friday night Zombie Events. Seeking quiet, we had unwittingly landed in the greatest Zombie convocation in the world, the culmination of which was a Zombie parade, set to break the world record for most people gathered for a Zombie walk.

Our first impulse was to flee on the next bus back to Manhattan; but the trouble with those great rates is, you have to pre-pay, and running into Zombies is probably not grounds for getting your money back.  Judge Judy would dismiss us instantly. Instead, in the spirit of the Intuitive Edge, we decided to explore, and ask questions.  We first went to question the guy on the Boardwalk who does the Zombie makeup.

“Why do people dress up as Zombies?” we asked. He shrugged. “It’s the new fashion,”” he said. “For a while people loved vampires—True Blood and all that. And then werewolves.  But now people like Zombies. It’s just fun.”

“Are you a Zombie?” Leslie asked.  “No, not me,” he said, “I just do the makeup.”  “But who does want to be a Zombie?” “There is no demographic,” he said. “Old, young, skinny, fat. It’s just fun.”

We proceeded to the information booth.  “Are there qualifications to be a Zombie?” Leslie asked. “No,” they told us. “All you have to do is pour a little blood over your face and join the crowd. And,” they continued, “Don’t forget, we are going for a world record!”

We remained puzzled, and began to walk back over to our hotel.  We ran into a number of Zombies, all of whom were extremely polite, considering they were undead, and a few square dancers, who had also chosen this weekend to convene en masse this weekend. Apparently the whole world had chosen this week to come to Asbury Park.  But as we walked back, we saw a huge, beautiful, inspiring bonfire on the beach, with sparks flying to the heavens, apparently surrounded by Zombies, square dancers, and their happy children.  We decided to stay.

It ended up being a very productive weekend—we wrote and strategized and tried to practice what we preach, creating a schedule of goals, and times, and accountabilities for the book and blog.   And as time went on, and a parade of Zombie nurses, prisoners, chefs, fairy princesses, and even a mermaid sailed by, we realized that Zombies are all about creativity.  Zombie creators spend time and energy creating costumes, makeup, and back story for their characters, and then join together to share their work—and of course eat brains.

It turned out to be the best place and time in the world to work on our creativity book after all.

The festival reports over 12,500 people attended.  Just a nice quiet October weekend on the Jersey Shore.

Asbury Park, New Jersey

October 22, 2011


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.

Why Are We All So Tired?

April 7, 2011

by Deborah Atherton

Why are we all so tired? 

Lately almost everyone I know has been telling me that they are very, very tired.  Many of us, of course, have very good reason to be tired; we work all day, and then we try to write or play music or paint or blog or do photography at night and on weekends. This is the fabric of our lives; we are used to spending our days overwhelmed by the sheer volume of things we are trying to do.   And everyone is just getting over some bug or another, and dragging themselves slowly into spring.

But I feel what I’m hearing lately in people’s voices is something more than that. Although we’ve all been living for at least a decade now with a different sense of how unpredictable and frightening the world can be, the last few months may have threatened our precarious sense of balance in a new way.  Earthquakes, tsunamis, nuclear disasters—we’re indirectly experiencing so many events completely out of our control that even the new and scarier world we’ve gotten a bit used to has been turned on its head.  Many of us can’t bear to watch the news for more than a few minutes at a time, and when we do, we watch with a kind of fascinated horror, and perhaps it makes the things we are trying to do—find the right chord for a song, finish a portrait, rewrite a scene—seem kind of unimportant.  Just getting up in the morning and paying attention to what is going on around the world is exhausting right now—how can we push ourselves to take one more step?

I’m not sure I have the answer to that, except that there are all kinds of ways to bear witness to the world and the other human beings in it, and exercising your own creative spirit might be one of them.  If it can only be five minutes of thinking about your project, or five minutes of sketching or writing or looking through a new lens, that is five minutes of sanity and calm that will move you closer to your larger goal.  Once I heard a Zen teacher talking about how, if you can not find half an hour for meditation, you can surely find fifteen or ten or five—or two—and I believe the same holds true for creative endeavors.  It may seem like a useless effort, it may seem like a tease, but really—is it going to make you any MORE tired to dedicate five minutes to shaping something new?

Maybe not – maybe it will even have the opposite effect, and encourage you to try ten minutes tomorrow.  Or maybe it will just have to be five minutes every day until the news is a little bit more bearable again and we can dream a little bigger.