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.


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.

Habits Good and Bad

October 8, 2009

Posted by Deborah Atherton

Not what it used to be?

Not what it used to be?

Leslie and I have both blogged about the importance of establishing rituals and habits to keep working on your creative projects – but what happens when that OTHER kind of habit becomes part of your day to day: the habit of not ever having enough time to paint, write, pick up the camera, invent a new recipe or compose a song? We have all been there – even those of us who make our living as writers or artists – the days speed by us, filled with appointments, business, family concerns, or let’s face it, an umissable Law and Order marathon. Suddenly, it’s a week, or a month, or more. Deadlines may be looming, but somehow, somehow, we just can’t get to it.

It’s easy to edit creativity right out of your life. You don’t miss it at first. But as time slips by, this little feeling begins to creep over you. You’re not quite sure what it is for a while. Your friends start seeming a little less witty and warm. The New York Times appears to be a tad less authoritative. Lenny on Law and Order doesn’t deliver his final words quite as acerbically as he once did. Facebook isn’t half as much fun as it used to be. You feel – oh just a little tired of yourself and the people around you. You begin to think you might need a vacation, or a new job, or possibly a change of significant other.

Before you take up any of these final solutions, check in with yourself. When was the last time you took an hour – just an hour – to focus on your creative work? Labor Day? Memorial Day? Valentine’s Day? Are you beginning to lose your guitar callouses? Have all your paint tubes dried up and shriveled? Are you more than one update behind on your writing software?

Perhaps the most unfair thing about possessing a creative spark is that it demands to be used. If your soul lights up when you sit down at a keyboard or leap out onto a dance floor, it’s going to keep asking you to do those things, and you’re going to end up feeling a little bereft if you don’t. You’re not going to like yourself, and you’re not going to like other people. Life will be a little duller than it ought to be. Nothing will taste as good as it used to. It’s not fair, but it’s the way things are. You can shut your talents up in a box, you can spend your life answering emails from your boss at 1 AM, but you can’t make yourself happy doing it.

On the other hand, you have one little thing you can do that is almost guaranteed to put the savor back into your life. Take an hour. Just an hour. Sit down with your work. Pick up where you left off – or maybe start something completely new.

Not all at once, but slowly, and whether or not the work is the best work you’ve ever done, life will slip back into glorious Technicolor. Everyone around you will gradually become much more amusing – and, more importantly, so will you.


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.