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.


Coping with the Disappointment

October 4, 2010

by Leslie Zeigler

In this blog there have been posts about the inevitable part of being creative that involves rejection and disappointment.  Whether it is receiving  another rejection in your attempt to find an agent  for your novel,  or being turned down for the 66th time on your most recent audition to become an actor, or being told that your photograph is not going to be accepted at a particular gallery, the question is how do you deal with the feelings?   Do you fantasize about crawling under the covers and not coming out for months?  It’s only natural that you might feel that way.  Perhaps you feel an urge to turn to drinking a bit too much or overeating–or maybe your drug of choice is retail therapy.  At any rate,  what are some helpful ways to think to help you get thru those difficult moments when you feel like giving up even though you know that you won’t? 

In reading Pema Chodron’s book Taking the Leap  I began to think that her ideas could be very helpful to anyone involved in the creative process.   Pema Chodron is an American Buddhist, who writes often about how to deal with life.  I am not a Buddhist and you don’t need to be one in order to benefit from her heart-centered wisdom.  Her concept of  “shenpa”   is potentially useful in the context of  expanding your options in coping with your disappointment.  She describes it as “the itch and it’s also the urge to scratch.”  She gives examples of how it is natural to be drawn to an unhealthy habit, such as reaching for a cigarette or some other such habit.   She describes SHENPA   as preverbal but it breeds thoughts and emotions very quickly. She suggests becoming aware of this feeling .  Basically her advice is to become aware of this feeling without acting on it.  It is very similar  to what I learned as a therapist, which is to encourage people to become aware of what their feelings  are and learn to sit with them and tolerate them rather than turning to a negative habit.

This advice might sound simplistic, yet we live in a culture where doing and being productive and turning to action is so prevalent that the notion of not doing can seem weird and actually hard to implement.

So the next time you come home from your  acting audition, or receive your letter of rejection for your screenplay or find out that you were not accepted for a particular painting class,  just as the Beatles say,

Let yourself  Be.


September 10, 2010
by Deborah Atherton

September is here, and it’s that time of year for many of us – time to send out proposals, time to submit our work to editors or galleries or agents or producers.  I’ve been sending out my work for many years, and no matter how many positive responses I’ve received, it’s the negative ones that stick with me.  The power of positive thinking seems to shrivel when confronted with my deep distaste for handing my work over to someone else to accept or reject.

Why does one rejection send us into a spiral of misery? One of my favorite positive psychologists, Tal Ben-Shahar, has something to say about that:  “When we fail to attain a desired outcome, we often extrapolate from that experience the belief that we have no control over our lives or over certain parts of it. That thinking leads to despair.”

Despair describes the feeling I get on opening an envelope with yet another rejection slip pretty perfectly.  But how can we combat it, that feeling that no one will ever be interested in the work that takes up all the waking minutes we might otherwise be more profitably spending on, say, actually making a profit?

Habit. It just has to be a habit.  We have to know that despite the ten rejections we got this month, we are going to send out ten more poems, or sets of slides, or CDs, next month.  Our creative work sometimes has to wait on inspiration; our submission of it can not.  If we send out a piece this month, and wait for the response, we most likely won’t be sending out a piece next month.  (For one thing, NOBODY will get back to you in just a month.)

It takes 30 days for a habit to take root within us; and, honestly, if you’ve had years of haphazard submissions and rejections, it is probably going to take longer than that.  Writers’ Relief, the selective writers submission service, tells us that for writers (and these are all writers who are copyedited and can spell), 1 in 99 submissions is accepted.  (I don’t have statistics on other art forms, but observation tells me this is pretty close to what composers, visual artists, and others face.)

So that’s the story, folks.  Maybe you can assign one otherwise depressing Monday night a month to gritting your teeth and shipping out your work.  Maybe, if you’ve got a strong stomach, you can do it more often than that. But if it doesn’t become a habit, it won’t get done at all.

And just think how wonderful you’ll feel the day following your 99th rejection when you get that email or note or phone call saying: you’re in!

And now that you’ve made a habit, you won’t let that stop you either (unless of course this is your magnum opus, and its acceptance means your life work is done) on the next appointed Monday, when you will send your work out again.

Being in process of Overcoming Procrastination

August 1, 2009

Posted by Leslie Zeigler

In this blog I have been writing about the issue of procrastination and the creative process and, more specifically, about Deborah and me helping my sister Gail in overcoming her blocks to moving forward on getting a children’s book written and published.   As stated in my earlier posts, Gail is PRIMARILY  stopped by her own internal negative messages.  In light of that, I am trying to help her to take positive actions on her own behalf in spite of her usual style of being stopped by them.  

 I am not working with  her as a therapist, but as a coach, so the focus is on helping her to engage in new behavior.  My hope is that if she can perform the actions needed to further her creative goals, the inner negative voices might slowly quiet down,  and her confidence in herself  will increase.  So her assignment for this week was to commit to sending out  the children’s book idea she wants to currently market to one publisher.  She was willing to agree to that. 

Deborah is also helping her,  as we described in earlier posts.  Gail is responding in a very positive way to the support, encouragement and suggestions given to her by us both.  Her process and hopefully progress will continue to be posted here.

Who are We Writing For?

July 23, 2009
99 out of 100

99 out of 100

Posted by Deborah Atherton

All creative writers, no matter what their genre or area of interest, get a little caught up in the issue of how salable our ideas are. It’s a very tricky and emotional topic, and writers vary widely in their viewpoints. There are writers on one end of the spectrum who say, “I won’t write it unless someone will pay me for it!” And the writers who take the opposite position will tell you, “Money doesn’t influence me at all. I write for myself.”

Although both sides believe deeply in their position, I suspect that even the most successful commercial writer has limits to the tampering he or she will allow editors for the sake of sales. And however pure the intent of the artist who writes not for the audience, but for him or herself, I sincerely doubt that artist would turn down a check for the finished product.

Gail wrote a lovely children’s board book in response to a perceived market need. She went about it really intelligently, researching the market, finding the right prospective publishers, and soliciting one with a very satisfactory query letter. However, probably in the meantime, the publisher had put out a book on the same subject. This was Gail’s first professional submission, and even though she’d done absolutely everything right, it didn’t work out, and she naturally became discouraged.

The very difficult truth is that 99 out of 100 submissions to editors or agents are rejected, which may mean that you have to submit your work repeatedly before it is accepted. That’s a lot of “no thank yous” for our psyches to accept. It’s really really hard to have something you’ve worked on and know is good turned down for purely market reasons.

But because Gail is a good and committed writer, she may decide (with a little coaching!) not only to submit her book to more publishers, but to think about writing a new one – maybe one that comes first from her own passionate interests and ideas.