What Did You Do on Your Summer Vacation?

July 30, 2013

Everybody needs a vacation. For some, vacations give us an opportunity to take a deeper dive into our creative interests. We can go to a writer’s conference, or an arts colony, or go to a city where we can visit ten art museums in ten days, or find someplace off season on the beach where we can write or paint or take photographs undisturbed. Or perhaps we seize the opportunity for a class to learn an approach or a form we’ve never mastered. There are hundreds of places that cater to people on vacation who want to learn water colors, or listen to jazz, or take up jewelry making.

What many of us never do is take an actual vacation. The kind where you do no work of any kind whatsoever, but actually go to the beach IN season and drink frozen margaritas. Or go to Disney World without having in the back of your mind what a good setting it would make for a horror movie. Or go kayaking, or mountain climbing, or to a spa for a different kind of seaweed wrap every day. There’s little enough time in our lives for our creative projects, we tell ourselves—why waste perfectly good time off on unproductive activities?

That was how I felt for many years. You couldn’t sell me on a vacation. Time off was for writing, or possibly going places that would help my writing. Writing WAS my vacation.

Sunset at the ocean

But funny thing about that: I never found myself getting so much done on these writing vacations. Some people do, I know. They go off to writers colonies and actually write. They hole themselves up in a studio shack on a lonely beach and come back with piles of photographs or paintings. Me, I mostly get anxious. I tell myself I only have a week, it’s already Tuesday, and what have I accomplished? And then suddenly it’s Saturday, and I’m scribbling desperately—and I come out of the whole thing with a sense of having achieved very little. (This by the way, bears absolutely no relationship to how much I have written, whether it be five or fifty pages—it’s not enough.)

Last year, I took an actual vacation. I went with my sister to visit my brother and my cousins at the beach. (You may consider this cheating, as I did work a little bit with my sister on a novel we are writing together, but this was not the purpose of the trip.) We stayed at a pleasant hotel actually on the beach, and yes, it was off season, but warm enough to sit in the sun and put your toes in the water, if you were so inclined. We sat and looked at the ocean. We took rides and looked at scenery. We caught a spectacular sunset. We ate in seaside restaurants. We ate lobsters. We all talked a lot to each other, remembering family stories, looking at old photographs and catching up.

I did not measure my vacation in pages written, or stories plotted, or research done. I just had a nice time with people I don’t see often enough. And when I came home, I did have a little burst of creative energy, stemming from our seaside trip, but even if I hadn’t, it would have been rewarding and the best possible use of my time. Because sometimes, even though we can never really leave our creative side at home, a vacation should just be a vacation.

Photo Credit: Susan A. Hanson


The Importance of Negative Thinking

May 2, 2011

The necessity of the negative

by Deborah Atherton

We’re Americans of the 21st century, and we have lived with the exhortation to think positively since birth. If we can only succeed in getting rid of all that negative thinking which slows us down and keeps us from our birthright of success, wealth, and acclaim, we are told we will be happier and healthier people. Strangers on the street feel justified in ordering us to smile if our faces seem a little too gloomy or reflective. 

Keeping up all that positivity is hard work, and often ends up, I think, being a little counter-productive. Commanding ourselves to be positive is a bit like commanding ourselves not to think about elephants in pink skirts.  Part of the job of any person engaged in creative effort is to open ourselves to the dark, the negative, the sad, and the gloomy.  As Robert Woolfolk points out in his brilliant essay, The Power of Negative Thinking: Truth, Melancholia, and the Tragic Sense of Life, “I would submit negative thinking is not only valuable, but indispensable, and suggest that we give much too little attention to acknowledging, confronting, accepting, and perhaps even embracing suffering and loss.”  Or as William Goldman so succinctly stated in The Princess Bride: “Life is pain, highness. Anyone who tells you differently is selling something.”

In this blog we do often offer ideas about reframing our ideas about our work so that we can keep doing it, and we very happily use any ideas positive psychology, of which we have a high opinion, can throw our way.  But the power of our creative and intuitive ideas and impulses often comes from a place inside us where the inherent tragedy of life is acknowledged and the pain of endings is ever-present.  And however witty and bright or even purely comedic our work, it has depth only as it on some level acknowledges those realities. 

We take on so many expectations of ourselves from the culture that surrounds us, no matter how hard we are trying to pay attention to the creative work and projects that matter to us—however few people manage to make a living or get major recognition in the arts or other creative professions or avocations, we all on some level expect that if we just approach it right, if we utter the right mantras, we will be one of the select.  But although success, wealth, and acclaim are lovely things to have, that’s not why we really undertook writing poetry, or sculpting, or film making, or designing buildings; we do it to answer our own deepest call to action, which is grounded in the part of ourselves that acknowledges the darkness as well as the light.

The Necessity of Sloth

March 12, 2010

When you just can't move. . .

Posted by Deborah Atherton

We have been talking on the blog for the last month about Other People’s Opinions of how we should conduct ourselves as artists.  This week the subject is how Other People (and we ourselves) feel about seeing us lying on the couch on a fine Saturday afternoon staring out into space, or perhaps watching reruns of television that was mindless the first time around.  Creative types like to think we are known for our brilliance, but we may be known just as well (certainly in our immediate circles) for our capacity for doing absolutely nothing.

We probably had good intentions when we rose on that Saturday and looked out our windows at the sun smiling down on us.  We no doubt had a full slate of worthy activities, from doing the laundry to finishing a chapter of the novel/breaking out the box of watercolors/editing our videos—I’m sure you have your own artistic to-do list. But instead of engaging in any of these worthy and either necessary other fulfilling activities, we somehow find ourselves lying on the couch, paralyzed into inaction.  It may not be the couch for you – it might be computer solitaire or not getting out of bed for a day or sitting on a chair in the back yard. But you probably know the condition well. You would like to move. You fully intend to move. But you cannot move.  Except, of course, to get a sandwich or to order pizza.

What’s going on?  Well, your significant other probably has his or her own theories, but this is mine:   the part of your mind, or your unconscious, or whatever is that is driving your creative efforts, needs some time off.  It would be lovely if this part of your mind sent the equivalent of a Tweet a few days ahead, to say @artist, clear the decks, expect no movement on Saturday, but alas, your inner artist is unlikely to be this helpful.  It just seizes control and leaves you in the grip of whatever vintage series basic cable is offering that day (and I hope for your sake it is not any iteration of The Brady Bunch.)  This may run into a second or even a third day, while pizza boxes pile up around you and family members and friends start gathering in corners and muttering about interventions. But they may not be nearly as irritated with you as you are with yourself; you had Great Things Planned, and instead you get an overdose of pepperoni.

One morning, however, most likely you will cast off your slothful behavior, and emerge, full of energy and ideas, and ready to tackle the project you were originally planning. (And of course if this goes on for months instead of days, you may be dealing with something more serious than sloth, in which case yield to the well-meaning interventions of your loved ones.)  The period of frozen interaction may in itself lead to Great Things, if not quite on the schedule you had hoped for.  Sometimes your creative side just needs some time off—a little sloth never hurt anyone, and as long as you pay for your own pizza and clean up after yourself, it’s okay to give yourself the time you need to regather your creative energies.

Why Morning Pages Aren’t for Everyone

February 20, 2010

Posted by Deborah Atherton

Many books for writers, the best known of which may be Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way, advocate that you wake up every morning and write. Attack your resistance before it takes hold.  Retrieve the residue of your dreams, and manage a feeling of virtue all day. Write anything, they say – it doesn’t have to be immediately meaningful. Just write.

All well and good, if you are a morning person. But some of us get out of bed with reluctance every day, and do not really become even mildly functional until as late as 4 PM. Some of us are averse by nature to “just writing,” and do not like to set pen to paper, or finger to keyboard, without a larger purpose.  And some of us lead such intensely busy lives that that half hour or hour just isn’t available every morning – be it a demanding boss, hungry children, or a troop of chimpanzees we are studying, we just cannot commit that time.

As Leslie mentioned last week in her post, this advice has generated a lot of guilt in a lot of writers and artists. Leslie and I are both strong believers in rituals for artists, but we also believe that you have to create your own.  There are lots of books that tell you to do other things first thing on rising, with advice ranging from getting on your exercycle to drinking a glass of hot water with lemon – and while I am sure these are all fine things to do, you don’t HAVE to.  Really. Lots of people go to the gym after work, not when they wake up, and they seem to be as healthy as anyone else, if not healthier than most. And you can do this with writing, too.  Write after work. Write before you go to bed.  Write while eating your tuna sandwich at lunch. Write while on hold with the cable company.  (I have done all these things, and can speak to their efficacy.) Or better, do make an appointment with yourself to write regularly. Maybe it will be every Sunday morning, while the rest of the household sleeps. Maybe it will be Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays from 5 to 6 after everyone else has left the office.

But don’t let anyone tell you that waking up at 6 AM and writing is essential to YOUR life as an artist, whatever kind of artist you may be.  Some do – most don’t.  Quite possibly all you want to do in the morning is drink your coffee and read the newspaper or a blog.

Enjoy your coffee.