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!


The Holiday Juggling Act

December 14, 2012

by Deborah Atherton

Juggler by Helico via Flckr Creative Commons License

Work life balance is hard enough, but there’s something about jingling bells and the smell of roasted chestnuts in the chill December breeze that is enough to send many of us over the edge.  Creative people tend to have a lot of balls in the air at any given moment anyway; sometimes it is hard enough to be trying to figure out what comes next in your delicately balanced plot or your apparently-never-to-be-finished painting without adding the stress of buying presents for 1,432 people.


Words of wisdom on this subject abound.  They usually involve Making Lists and Deciding What is Really Important and Letting Go of Making the Annual Fruitcake (which nobody eats anyway.)  But all that is in itself exhausting, and we’re human beings and our minds don’t actually work that way anyway.  We decide to go to parties because we think we might have fun and heard there were going to be peppermint martinis or because the host came to our party last year or because we said yes in a weak moment and can’t back out, not because it is Really Important.  We already know what is Really Important, and tend to avoid it at all costs.

What must self-help books and articles do is try to help us work around our own minds, to help get us to do what we know we ought to do.  Or may even want to do, but find ourselves continually distracted from doing.  The distraction level rises exponentially during the holiday season, and so do the “oughts” and “shoulds.” And most of us, even or especially those with hours set aside every day or week for creative efforts, can’t totally maintain our focus, at least not without arousing the disapproval of others.   We don’t want to be Grinches or Scrooges, do we?

Scrooge Being Warned by Marley

Scrooge Being Warned by Marley

Well, maybe we do, at least once in a while.  Those articles are at least partly right: we can’t be everything to everyone, even for a month.  It’s hard enough to be something for ourselves.  And whatever that something is: the book from NaNoWriMo that needs three more chapters, the blog that gets left untouched, the film that can’t quite get edited—we’re better off if we find just an hour or two, somewhere within the onset of social obligations and consumer madness, to spend some time with it.

So say no once in a while (maybe not to the party with peppermint martinis), take a breath, and stare at your unfinished work for a bit, at least long enough to remember what the problems were when you last picked it up.  Maybe the $29 you would save at the Cybermadness sale isn’t worth the afternoon you might spend thinking through your project—or at least reminding yourself that you have one.

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.

Obama and Creativity – What is the Link?

April 24, 2012

A few months ago, one night while watching TV, I watched a story on President Obama sitting down every night and answering ten letters that he had received from the public.  I became curious , and found a more detailed New York Times article (by Ashley Parker in the April 19, 2009 issue). The article described the tens of thousands of letters, e-mails, messages and faxes that arrive at the White House every day.  Each weekday afternoon, a few hundred  end up in the office of Mr. Kelleher, the Director of the White House Office of Correspondence . He then chooses ten letters, which he slips into a purple folder and puts in in the daily briefing book that is delivered to President Obama at the White House Residence.

The real question is: what did it mean to me?  It was really quite simple. If he can take the time to do this task , why is it so hard for me and other people to find the time to be creative?  He found the time to do something he clearly felt passionate about.

This daily action has become a source of  Inspiration for me.  Brian Tracy in his book, Eat  That Frog 21  GREAT Ways To  Stop  Procrcrastinating  And  Get  More  Done  in Less Time   says  “There is never enough time to do everything  you have to do.”  He adds,  “you can get control of your tasks  and activities only to the degree you stop doing some things and start spending more time on the few activities that can really make a difference in your life.”

So is writing that poem, novel, screenplay and/or signing up for that photography, pottery, dance, writing class a priority? If the President can make time for ten letters a day to people he never met, can you devote the same amount of time to launching (or sustaining) your own creative projects?

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!

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.