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.


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.


November 7, 2010

Most of us do it, and then get angry at ourselves afterwards. Nobody
procrastinates a trip to the corner ice cream store for a hot fudge sundae; almost everybody procrastinates beginning their income taxes.  We postpone beginning something we won’t enjoy doing. But what’s interesting is that we also postpone the creative work we feel we ought to be doing – work we really, really want to do, and maybe aren’t getting paid for until we finish – and instead end up watching yet another rerun of Iron Chef America.

Last month, I was lucky enough to wander into a New Yorker web chat with writer James Surowiecki, in which he discussed his recent article Later, in which he reviewed  the book The Thief of Time and discussed procrastination, and all the theories about why we do it.  These range rather widely from the old fallback lack of will power to the new theory that we are forever negotiating among our own multiple (and uncooperative) selves.  I am really charmed by the idea that inside me are many little egos screaming for satisfaction – perhaps one entirely dedicated to Iron Chef America and trying to figure out what Cat Cora puts in her bread pudding.

And lurking behind all of this, some experts suggest, is a fear that we aren’t good enough, that our work isn’t good enough, and that nothing will ever be as perfect as the project we first envisioned, in that golden moment right before we started to procrastinate.

To achieve success in our battle against procrastination, one solution reported by Mr. Surowiecki is to negotiate amongst all these clashing internal agendas and make bargains for success – i.e., if I finish this blog post, then I get to watch an hour of TV – which seems to land us rather squarely in the role of parenting our own inner eight-year-olds.  Because our will power is limited, we have to be clever in finding ways to bolster it. Imposing deadlines is a trick many experts suggest that most of us have already put into practice (and many of us have spent a lot of time circumventing, as well.)

Near the end of the chat Mr. Surowiecki brought up the idea that “how people think (construe) a problem has a powerful effect on how they act . . . framing effects can be very influential, and to the degree that you can think of a task as close rather than distant, you’re more likely to actually get it done.” We are all a little delusional about time, whether we are calculating how long it takes to get from here to there or how long it will take to finish a painting, or a film, or a novel. So maybe we can pull back a bit from the idea of that perfect, complete, shining final product, and know that if we begin today, we can watch the twenty episode marathon on TV over Thanksgiving weekend without guilt.


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).

Being Creative Requires a Quiet Mind

October 17, 2009

Posted by Leslie Zeigler

A Quiet Creative Space

A Quiet Creative Space

If your mind is too cluttered with stressful thoughts, you may have difficulty in gaining access to  that more intuitive and authentic part of yourself that allows your creativity to just flow spontaneously.  (As with all things there are exceptions and that applies here as well -so I am speaking only in a general sense.)

I want to recommend some tools to draw upon at those times when you  are   having difficulty getting started or  getting  back on track.  So much time can be wasted.  Someone recently recommended a wonderful tape to me that I have found invaluable:  a two CD audio book by Andrew Weil, M.D.  called BREATHING, The Master Key to Self Healing– available on Amazon.  The first CD explains how and why breathing helps, and the second,  in a very easy to understand manner, walks you through some breathing exercises.  He uses an unusally soothing voice, which is an additional plus.

A second tool I can recommend can be found free on the Web: STEPS TO ELICIT THE RELAXATION RESPONSE.   This is an excellent stress reduction technique detailed by Dr. Herbert Benson who specializes in mind/body medicine.  He has done research on this and it really works! 

Hopefully you can try and use either one of these tools when you hit that moment when you start to feel paralyzed and frustrated, yet also eager to return to your creative passion.

Think Big Start Small

September 9, 2009

Posted by Leslie Zeigler

Over the Labor Day weekend,  while reading the Oprah Magazine, I came across a brief article written by Oprah herself, entitled  HERE WE GO.

In it, she talks about the concept “small is the new big. ” She goes on to describe Jay-Z  as a  person who has seen first hand  how starting small can lead to some REALLY BIG THINGS.  

This article and this concept, in particular, led me to connect  to the idea of creative blocks.  It is so common for people to find themselves daydreaming about wanting to be on the Oprah Show  to introduce their new novel, dance, song, or other creative pursuit but they usually soon remind themselves to STOP.  Their internal message might be , “why dream, this will never happen”  or ” I am being silly.”

The specific self-limiting thought is not the point.  The point is that to DREAM BIG  can be scary.  So rather than stopping,  people need a non-threatening way to begin a creative pursuit or to sustain one.

People will give many reasons why they are not working on their creative dream.   A very common one is  ” I don”t have the time.”  Other blog posts here have already mentioned messages people give for not getting started.  In my last post I suggested just starting with  One Small Step as a way of quieting an internal message of fear.  I am repeating that recommendation here, not to be redundant,  but because it is so true. It might seem so obvious as to not need to be mentioned.  Yet it needs to be repeated.  Getting started can be  as simple as spending five minutes during your morning shower thinking,  just thinking,  about some creative idea you might want to pursue. For those of you already engaged in a creative project who are having difficulty returning to it, it can be the same thing. You can just start brainstorming with yourself while doing your grocery shopping. YOU GET TO DECIDE  what the idea will be, the when and where it  will be worked on, the time spent  and the daily, weekly or monthly frequency, but the main point is:

JUST make sure that you take that first or 50th step.  It is doubtful you will regret it.

Going It Alone

August 29, 2009

Posted by Deborah Atherton

Artist Alone

Artist Alone

One of the biggest mistakes we make as creative people is trying to go it alone, without external support or input.  The view of the artist alone in his or her garret or basement, writing, painting, playing a few chords on the guitar, is a very compelling one for most of us, with deep roots in our culture’s vision of the arts.  We feel that is how real artists operate, and that the loneliness of the artist with a vision is what makes the artist authentic.

But it is really hard to do accomplish anything all alone, which is what those lengthy and tedious Oscar award speeches are all about.  It is true that much art is best created in solitude – novel writing or oil painting are not generally  group efforts – but once the work is completed, or often, quite a bit earlier, when the idea is just being formed or the first version is being attempted – most artists want some input and support.

And then, once it is done and ready for public exposure, we want and need quite a bit of support.  There are a lot of people needed to get a picture hung in a gallery, a song recorded, a book published.  This includes not just the obvious people – agents, managers, booking agents, publishers, editors, gallery owners – but the people who help you stay in touch with your dream and accountable for putting it forward.  The person in your life who says – Have you sent out those emails yet? Have you submitted your slides or your manuscript? Did you sign up for that conference?

The person who does this in your life might be a teacher, a mentor, a significant other, a colleague, someone in your workshop, or your coach – but most of us human beings need someone to check in with and keep us headed toward our goal.  When our client Gail, the writer who we’ve been following in this blog,  received a little support and found informed people to check in with about her work, she was able to begin her second book and enroll in a writing workshop in her area of specialization.

Going it alone is a difficult path, and often not a fruitful one.  Almost all of us can benefit from getting a little help along the way.  Finding someone who can ask you (kindly) if you’ve taken the next step will help you a long way on your creative journey.