Filling the Creative Well

After finishing the final round of edits on my manuscript a few months ago, I embarked on a measured approach to querying which resulted in an initial positive flurry of full manuscript requests (YAY!). The only downside is the subsequent and necessary waiting  (BOO!). No problem, I thought. I know this is the approach I want to take. I would simply move ahead with other projects.

That plan worked for a little while. Then I met those deadlines and found myself staring at the blank page. Even worse, I found myself facing that page with what felt like an even blanker mind.

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Photo on Visualhunt.com

Uh oh.

I fell back on old habits, habits that had worked in the past. I showed up. Every day. Butt in chair. Fingers on keyboard. But all I seemed to accomplish were a slew of open tabs on my browser and an overly detailed plan for a PTA role I’m stepping into (my creative loss will be our school newsletter’s gain, I suppose?). When the kids’ most recent school break started and I realized I wasn’t yearning for the page like I usually do, I knew I had a problem. A big one.

The last round of edits had taken a toll. The struggle to write a query letter (my writing nemesis) seemed to drain whatever was left. My creative flow had slowed to a paltry trickle. It was a relief to finally realize during a moment of quiet that my problem wasn’t in my head. My creative well was empty. I had expended all my banked creative juices on the manuscript without remembering to refill as I went along. I let myself run out of creative gas. No amount of sitting and staring at the page would refill that tank.

And so I am taking action.

Julia Cameron in The Artist’s Way offers the concept of a weekly Artist’s Date (see her explain it here). I loved this idea when I read The Artist’s Way and have vaguely incorporated it into my regular writing routine over the years, but certainly not consistently, and definitely not in the last six months of head down, obsessive finishing work on my manuscript. So while once a week is a great target, and one I hope to incorporate into my routine moving forward, I feel I need a more extraordinary jump start out of this arid creative wasteland I currently find myself in.

Next week, when the kids go back to school to finish the last three weeks of the current school year (year round school is such a blessing to work from home parents), I am planning a series of daily field trips, or Artist Dates. Art museums, cemeteries, gardens, and people watching, are all on my list of things to do. I may take in a movie by myself or sit at a bar or coffee shop alone. I will get out of my chair. I will take my hands off the keyboard. I will watch, taste, smell, and listen to the world instead.

I will not pressure myself to write. I will not set goals for productivity. I will not judge myself by my creative output, or lack thereof.

I will simply go, notebook and pen in hand, eyes wide open, and mouth shut tight, and be a witness to the world around me. Perhaps a portrait in a gallery will inspire a character, a walk through a new-to-me landscape offer a question, a snippet of conversation spark a conflict.

Or perhaps it won’t.

I am admittedly nervous and excited. There is a safety in my office. It offers comfort and protection and routine. But I think that safety might be part of the problem. It is a room of my own, but I need to throw open the door and invite the world back in.

After giving and giving to my manuscript and giving and giving to my children on this school break, I am open and ready to receive again and see what surprises the muse, the wind, the world have to offer. I am confident they are there for the taking. And my writer’s soul will take them and ruminate on them and save them for the next blank page.

Feel free to join me on my journey. I will be posting photos from my excursions on Instagram at @monicacoxwrites.

What are your favorite ways to refill your creative well?

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Listening for the Muse’s Whisper

I recently finished the novel that has taken me two years to write (two years, two houses, two states, endless revisions). It’s done. Or as done as I can make it right now. I sent it out to a few interested agents and am waiting. Ugh. The waiting. Waiting for the feedback. Waiting for the rejections. Waiting to send it out to the next group. Waiting for the one yes.

The finishing was entirely anti-climatic. There was no celebration. There was no champagne. There was simply real life crowding out the fictional one and fast. And the real life mess I found (and continue to find) myself surrounded by has completely thrown me out of my creative routine.

In the weeks since real life’s descent, my fictional lives took a back seat. More accurately, they took a separate car and their GPS and mine apparently did not match up – I haven’t seen their car for days. I have spun out in several different directions about what to do next, how to accomplish my creative writing goals, how to get my freelance writing off the ground. All roads feel like dead ends, my brain unable to take any single route to its destination.

For a little while, I couldn’t write anything. The whiplash of switching from full-on, months-long revision mode in my fictional world to real life problems with no easy solutions for me to conjure up out of the ether left me dazed, confused, empty. I admit, I was scared. I have never had my mind feel so empty, so quiet. It was disconcerting and disorienting.

But I kept reading: books, articles, interviews with authors. I went to lunch with fellow WFWA writers. I added books and blogs to my growing to read piles. I wrote a new blog post. I kept putting in an effort, even when it felt wasted.

I walked. I listened to music and to podcasts. I watched a movie or two. I gave up some days and ran errands.

I kept showing up – butt in the chair, hands on the keyboard. Determined. Aware. Ready or not.

This week, while perusing a spreadsheet of upcoming deadlines for possible contests to enter, a line of dialogue popped into my head.

“Open the door.”

Boom.

I quickly opened a doc and typed it. A response followed like a gift. Lines poured out. Not many, but enough. A short scene appeared on the page. What was happening? Who were these people? Who were they to each other? Why was she so scared? Why was he so angry? Is that actually fear? Is that really anger? It’s not a novel. It’s not the next big story. But it’s a story. A short piece that may be strong enough to stand on its own two feet or, at the very least, get me back on my own.

It was a whisper. A drip. A start.

Real life, writer’s block, busyness, it’s all going to happen, to me, to you, to Stephen King and Ann Patchett and probably happened to Shakespeare, too. There is so much noise in our lives ready to drown out the muse. But if we keep showing up, keep putting in the effort, keep feeling, exploring, seeing, trying, we may be able to still ourselves long enough that a single whisper will make it’s way through the cacophony and the emptiness won’t be empty anymore. The whisper will grow into a sentence, a paragraph, a page, a chapter… The words will start to fill the page again.

I am learning to live in the quiet, to seek out the peace, to listen to the whispers.

“Hope” is the thing with feathers –
That perches in the soul –
And sings the tune without the words –
And never stops – at all –
 -Emily Dickinson
The muse doesn’t leave. It’s waiting. Are you listening?

The End 2.0

I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free. – Michelangelo

Today. For the second time in my life, I reached “The End” on a book I’ve written.

This time, however, I didn’t actually type the words. It felt different this time. I know it’s not the end. Not really. It’s just the beginning. Right now I’m skimming the surface of a story that’s hidden in the dark and weedy depths.

For the last year, I have been chiseling and hammering at this giant rock of a story. But, after a year, I find that instead of seeing my angel in the marble like Michelangelo, I realize I’ve only managed to get the rock free of the mountain. Now, I need to haul this giant piece of rock home and dig in to start the real carving.

Like last time, I am being public about my process, my accomplishments, my struggles. Unlike last time, self-doubt is winning. I posted to Facebook in an effort to fake it till I make it. If I post I’m excited, maybe I will be? But instead of bringing the excitement and giddiness I felt last time, I cried.

I cried because I know enough to know it’s nothing right yet. It’s lacking flow, possibly plot and maybe even some fundamental main character development. It’s based in historical events and I need to make sure it’s RIGHT. Like really, really right. Like accurate, truthiness right. The more I cried the more it also became borderline boring, trite and simply bad.

Then I stopped. I stopped because my husband hugged me. I stopped because my sister-in-law happened to text around the same time and when I sad I was wallowing in self-pity she told me to stop. I stopped because the story doesn’t get better if I simply wish it to.

So I’m picking up the rock. It’s heavy. Heavy with responsibility. Heavy with doubt. I am secretly wondering if I haven’t picked up Sisyphus’ rock by mistake.

But it is heavy with something else. It is heavy with hope. Hope that this is the story, this is the one that works, that resonates, that says something. Hope that I am learning, slowly, but surely, how to do this better. Hope that I can use the tools at hand to set my angel free.

It’s time to find out.

 

The Maybe of Muses

On July 28th, I went to the NC Museum of Art. The kids were back at school. We were 21 days post move. I needed to recenter. To come back to my creative self. The months of March through July were so tumultuous and busy and mind numbing that I was afraid I would need an ice pick to chip my way back to my creative core.

Art, the visual, is one of the fastest ways for me to touch that core. Music can be fleeting, at least for me. Each song brings its own emotions but when the last chord sounds, it’s gone, dissolved into the air again, it can be hard for me to pull it back.

But art? Art for me hints at a story. It shows me just enough and nothing more. It leaves me with questions and, on a good day, avenues for answers, the possibilities spinning, weaving, endlessly simple, inextricably complicated. Someone saw something – a bowl of fruit, a blackened barn door, a look between lovers – and captured it in paint, on film, in stone. The subject is nothing without what the artist brings to it. And when it is combined correctly? Pure magic.

I wandered the over air conditioned museum, happy I brought a sweater so I wouldn’t be distracted by my physical feelings. I happened into a temporary exhibit of photography. I was floored. I was immediately sucked into the fifteen to twenty photos on display. I love photography, although admittedly couldn’t name any famous photographers beyond the big A’s: Ansel Adams and Annie Liebowitz. But this photographer intrigued me. Or rather his work did. I moved slowly, staring down each one. Going back. Taking a closer look, then a wider. I think I made the security guard nervous. I was in front of the same two photographs for so long I think he suspected I was planning to make off with one. And if I had a malicious mind and could have figured out how to get away with it, I might have.

The months passed and I can still call to mind his images. There were the famous Woodstock photos and the chilling images of a waxen Martin Luther King laid out in his coffin at his funeral that would certainly stick. But there were also the images of twisted and blackened books with only a few words still visible through the carnage from his “Burned” series. There was the back of a blackened barn from his “Just Add Water” series, the barn’s doors thrown open wide in the front, our perspective making it impossible to see what could be hiding inside, discarded bottles littered the weeds around it, dents and scratches marred the exterior walls, and there is the black. The barn painted in some haphazard fashion of what looks like buckets thrown at it, black drips streaking like tears, blank spaces cloudy like smoke. These images left me wondering, thinking, considering. They left me melancholy, yet full. They sparked. The creative core in me had warmed.

But this was all months ago, remember. A long time. Spark ignited, I was back at the keyboard, working on my own projects, the blackened barn now just an image in my phone.

Then, today, during lunch, I grabbed the Sunday News & Observer I didn’t have time to read yesterday from the counter. There, on the front page of the arts section was a beautiful feature on a North Carolina photographer. He’s embarking on a fascinating portrait series celebrating African American culture. His thought process and care with each subject were fascinating. I found myself curious when they mentioned his bio, his credentials. They seemed so familiar. Could it be? The same man? The one who caught my eye months ago at the art museum?

It is. A quick Google search confirmed it. So why? Why is Burk Uzzle suddenly popping back into my life? Coincidence? Maybe. Sure. Probably. Perhaps it is no more than that. But what if it’s not? What else is it?

I have been scrolling through his web page and staring at images (the black barn is in the Just Add Water gallery on his page). I have subscribed for updates on the documentary currently filming on his life and work (watch the trailer here). I have written this post all without really knowing or understanding why. I just feel I need to. I just know that his work is flat out beauty to me. Beauty in the honesty of it. The heart of it. The ugly truth of it.

Maybe it’s his camera’s insistence on shining a light on things often forgotten or hidden or silenced. Maybe it’s his sense of humor (just check out some of the titles of his work). Maybe it’s simply good photography and I appreciate his art.

Maybe.

Or maybe it’s a muse. Maybe it’s someone trying to tell me something. Show me something.

Maybe it’s all those things. Maybe none.

 

But whatever it is. I feel it. In that creative core. Something has been planted. What it grows into, only time will tell. When it has blossomed, though? That will be the story I tell. Then it will be my turn.

And so the cycle continues.

Creative Re-Entry

Back in March, my second novel took a turn. Or, more accurately, I set it free to make room for what was a better story. I was digging in on research and finding my way through this new, much more daunting idea, getting to know my new protagonist and trying to fill in her life a little. Then, we were suddenly discussing moving. Upending our lives and starting over. My mind was filled with debate. Once we made our decision to indeed follow this course of action, my hands were filled with tasks to complete it. Staging, repairs, finding movers, it all became my job. Research on new neighborhoods, the end of the school year and trips to see possible new homes of our own took up my time. Packing and moving and living in limbo at my parents for three weeks while parenting our boys through this transition demanded every iota of my attention. The idea languished. The research stalled. The words stopped. My computer has seen many a map search as we learn our new town and plenty of online shopping as we fill our new home, but very few full sentences were typed from left to right across a blank page.

But the boys are in school now. The house is mostly put together. And for the first time in months, I felt the lack of writing in my bones. Kind of like when I get sick. When I’m really sick – laying in bed with the door shut and the covers pulled up and the medicine nearby and the hubby taking on all one hundred percent of the life tasks – I don’t notice the mess. The toys on the floor. The clutter accumulating on the counters. The laundry exploding from the hampers, the pantry’s empty shelves. But one morning, after moving from bed to couch and cruising HGTV, I will suddenly look around from my sick bed haze and finally notice the mess. That’s how I know I’m feeling better. When I start to see all that has fallen by the wayside in my absence and it starts to bug me.

Now, with the book (or at least the idea for the book), I’m starting to see all that hasn’t been done, all that needs to be tidied and filled in. Similar to being sick, however, when I start to see the mess, it doesn’t always mean I’m well enough to do something about it yet.

I don’t know if it’s simply being out of the routine, out of practice or out of excuses, but I’m a little scared to start writing again. Okay, a lot scared. I recognized this week that I need a plan. A plan to squash the doubt and ease myself back into a creative life.  Julia Cameron outlines the importance of the artist date in The Artist’s Way. Doing things for your creative soul can inspire, offer new perspectives and open up new pathways of thinking. This seemed like an easy place to start. So I spent an afternoon this week brainstorming locations – museums, coffee shops, historical spots – in our new town for me to explore. And for now, I will commit to visiting one a week. These field trips may have nothing to do with the topic of the new book or writing, but they will force me to dedicate time to nurturing the part of me that needs strengthening. The part that has been left forgotten and dusty for the last few months. The creative part.

Although I was tired and cranky and really didn’t feel like it, I took myself out on an artist date anyway. My first date was to the NC Museum of Art. Art has always been an easy way for me to unblock. What better exercise than to sit in front of a painting and then write about it? Write about the scene, the people, the emotion. The visual is already there, you just need to capture your imagination’s interpretation. Today, I didn’t write. I let my self simply look. I let my mind settle and my eyes wander. I found myself entranced by a Burk Uzzle photograph, The Black Barn. It was just a barn filling up the frame. But I felt my writer’s eye start to wake. I noticed the beer bottles discarded in the grass by a corner. Did teens find this abandoned barn? Did they sludge through the fallow field burdened down with coolers or six packs to spend an evening drinking and bellowing the laughter of youth? I noticed the impossibility of the paint job on the barn. Did someone try to spray paint it? Why? How was it both cloudy and dripping streaks of black at the same time, as if clouds of paint were raining on its rough hewn wooden canvas?

I wandered through Egyptian artifacts and European still lifes. There were the Monets that always manage to settle my soul a moment with their hazy light and thick layers of paint. There was the Andrew Wyeth that felt so real I nearly expected the curtains to move in the breeze if I stared at it long enough. And there was the Rodin sculpture garden with his impossible ability to capture weightless movement in the heaviest of mediums.

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And I wasn’t breathlessly inspired. I didn’t rush home to write. In fact, I stopped by the grocery store, the most mundane of all tasks, on the way home.

But I did feel something open. A small crack that let the air rush back in to my writer’s soul. And I found myself here. At the keyboard. Wanting to share, to tell you about it, to write about it.

For me, frustration was the first indication that I was neglecting myself. I stewed on that frustration for awhile. Probably too long. But this week, today, I was ready. Ready to turn that frustration into some kind of action. And although it was a small step, it was a step. A step towards re-entry into writing. Re-entry to the novel to be. Re-entry to the creative life. My creative life.

What places inspire you? Will you honor yourself to take an artist’s date this week?

Stretching

I have been diligently working away on my second novel for the last two months. I was feeling good about it until the characters in my real life started demanding some emotional and mental time effectively drowning out the fictional voices. It happens. I wasn’t too worried at first. It was more important to focus on the real people issues first.

I began to feel a little panic as the quiet continued, though. These people I’d been building didn’t seem to have much to say anymore. I thought perhaps once the “real” things died down they would open up again. Or maybe I was simply stuck in the dreaded middle where all rough drafts languish and I needed to just listen harder, push through, keep going. Whatever it was, I was feeling nervous. Something wasn’t right. And I knew it.

I went back to some craft books. I brainstormed. I did some exercises. Still no breakthrough. Then I considered that maybe it was really a story about characters B and C, not A and B like I started out with. Perhaps that’s why everyone was so quiet. I spent some time thinking about B and C and plotting out a story that still encompassed most of the existing material, just mixed up a bit. It was better. Truly. But I still felt it was a bit forced. I thought I just needed some time to sit with it. So I sat.

Something still wasn’t right.

Then, in a bolt of lightning moment, I saw Character D. She was waiting patiently with her hands in her lap. She was only supposed to be a tangential character to Character C  when I started with A and B, but when I looked at her, I realized there was something in her eyes. She needed me to ask her a question. She, apparently, had lots to say. Lots to say about her own story before A and B were even alive. Before she had ever met C.  This was turning the book on its head. If I went with D, well, this is something completely different than the existing 30,000 words I have been working on since January 1. This would mean starting over.

After I banged my head against my desk in frustration…

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…I took a deep breath and went back to some earlier research I had done for what was supposed to be this little bit of backstory. As I did so, I felt character D’s voice coming through. She is an extremely strong woman who has so much more to say and share than the poor woman I was forcing onto center stage in those original 30,000 words.

As I dug deeper, I allowed character A to exit stage left. I felt her relief. She smiled and nearly ran out – I think she’s halfway to a margarita and beach towel by now. As I waved goodbye, I ushered in this new person, invited her to sit and now she’s smiling at me, waiting to answer my questions and tell me her story.

I’m irritated that there is all this work that seems wasted, though I know it’s not. There are at least two short stories in those 30,000 words I could tease out.

Mostly, though, I’m scared. I’m scared that this story will be a much harder one to tell. It’s more real and requires a knowledge of a period of time and events I’m not as familiar with. It represents big ideas and complicated cultural and political issues. It’s not at all like the previous book.

I’m still not sure what happens in this book exactly – she hasn’t told me everything. I just know that she holds the story. One I haven’t heard before. One that speaks more honestly to my core. One I’d rather be writing about. And if I’d rather be writing it, I can guarantee you’d rather be reading it.

No one said it would be easy, right?

I may stretch my skills to the limit to tell this story. And I may fail. But I think if I don’t try, I’ll always regret it. And character D? She may never forgive me.

So yet again on this writer’s journey, I find myself taking a leap of faith. Only this time, I feel like I have a partner in crime. She’s just as invested as I am. Together, we have a story to tell. I hope I can do it justice.

Forcing Creativity

Writing a book is not a unique pursuit. There are many of us writers out there going about day jobs, pounding away on keyboards at night, at dawn or at the kid’s baseball practice. The difference between those that succeed in actually becoming a published writer and those that do not – I have been told and cling to as if these words might keep me afloat in a flood – is simply writing. It’s that easy. One verb: write.

I have an E.L. Doctrow quote pinned over my desk that says:

Planning to write is not writing. Outlining a book is not writing. Researching is not writing. Talking to people about what you are doing, none of that is writing. Writing is writing.

E.L. Doctrow

Or, as the old Yoda adage goes:

Do or do not. There is no try.

Yoda

And yet, for some reason, writers still find this hard. I, for one, now picture myself doing nothing but this job of writing and yet each morning I sit down at my computer and think “Oh, God. Not this again. I suck at this. I should go scrub the shower instead. Or get a “real job.” Or maybe take a nap.”

Instead, I try to start typing. Sometimes it works (yesterday I knocked out 1,300 words in two hours – hooray!). Sometimes it doesn’t (the day I wrote one sentence in two hours- ouch). But even when it isn’t working, I’m working. I’m there, committed, waiting for the muse, the inspiration, the tiny train of thought that will show me where we’re going.

Can you force creativity? Can you demand that inspiration join you on the page? How much of a creative pursuit is in our own control versus the elusive muse? And what happens if she doesn’t show up?

Creating, whether it’s writing or painting or photography or building, takes practice, time and a whole helluva lot of behind the scenes work that you probably don’t want to know about. It takes commitment and stamina. It is not for the feint of heart. It is a soul-wrenching, doubt-whispering, self-flagellating process that leaves the creator empty and beaten until they take a step away. It’s in the step back, when we take a look at that painting or re-read that essay or reconsider a photograph’s lighting, that we realize somewhere in all that work there was magic, muse, inspiration. We then become Michaelangelo and must work to free the sculpture from the morass.

This month, I am working on creating the morass. I have committed to writing 20,000 in the current work in progress for the Women’s Fiction Writer’s Association Write-A-Thin. I am no stranger to gimmicks to get me working. Back in 2010, I did NaNoWriMo. I am not the only one. More than 325,000 writers and growing participate in NaNoWriMo each year. Because sometimes you need someone to hold you accountable. Because sometimes you need a kick in the pants. Because most of us don’t have a Yoda whispering in our ears. But mostly because inspiration, magic, muses, whatever you call them, they don’t show up unless you invite them.

I sit at the keyboard again today and wonder will today be the day the words run out (no)? Will I cry (possibly)? Will it work today (maybe)? Will it be worth it (damn straight)? Thankfully, every morning when I drag my feet to the desk and grunt as I open the work in progress, I have a husband who reminds me “it’s not supposed to be easy.” And he’s right. Through all of the struggle, I still love it. I still love seeing that perfect phrase emerge in a string of keystrokes on my screen. I still love when my characters surprise me. I still love when I finally find the answer to what my protagonist does for a living and it fits so absolutely perfectly no matter how small a role it may play in the book. I still love realizing that two hours passed and I had no idea. I still love the potential, the promise, the process. Even when I hate it. Maybe especially when I hate it.

The point? We can’t all wait for inspiration to strike. It’s simply unfeasible. Yes. It happens. And when it does, it’s wonderful and fantastic and pure magic. But more often than not, we have to remember to invite inspiration. And the only way to do that is to start the work and see what happens.

This month, I’m inviting my muse to join me daily as I work towards my 20,000 word goal.

To all of you out there who are struggling with your own creative pursuits, perhaps you need a gimmick, a challenge, a Yoda to keep you accountable. Whatever it is, find it. Promise it. Pin it to your wall. Do it.

Writing is writing.

Do or do not.

I am right here with you.

 

Growing Pains

As a tween (although I don’t think we called it that back in the 80s) and teen, I would often suffer from a painful ache in my legs that my parents would chalk up to growing pains. The discomfort was real. The pain acute. I’d lay in my bed at night or the couch during the day and imagine my bones stretching, straining against the ligaments, muscles and skin holding them in, trying to make me taller while the rest of my body reluctantly made room.

I’m in a similar period of discomfort. This time it’s not in my limbs or my hormones or imagined slights in the lunch room like it was in those days. Now it’s related to my writing.

A second project has creeped up on me. An idea that when I first started following it down the rabbit hole was new, invigorating and burst with excitement like champagne bubbles fizzing to the surface. Now, it feels dark and cramped and stinks of damp earth.

Writing has always been easy for me. Essays and term papers, feature articles, press releases. It all came quickly from my fingers. There wasn’t a lot of discomfort once I understood the rules. Scribbling in journals and filling pages with words has always been a source of comfort for me, not discomfort. Writing the first novel was hard. It wasn’t easy. It felt challenging, but not uncomfortable. Putting it out into the world and allowing others eyes on it made me feel vulnerable and displayed, but not inherently uncomfortable.

But the more distance I have to it, the more my discomfort grows. There is the rejection and, even worse, radio silence, from agent queries. There is the distance to the story that makes me wonder if I rushed it and need to rewrite whole sections. There are the second thoughts about process and talent and choices I’ve made to create this writing life.

All distinctly uncomfortable feelings. All making the act of sitting down to focus on this new idea inherently uncomfortable, too. And so I have hesitated. I have buried myself in research and other tasks. I have avoided pen to paper because it suddenly doesn’t feel right, natural, easy, comfortable.

Just when I was beginning to feel the dark walls of serious doubt close in, I finished reading Daring Greatly by Brene Brown. She talked about how feeling uncomfortable is what leads to growth. It’s where the discomfort is that the growth happens, like my stretching adolescent legs.

Here, where I sit, at my desk, at this keyboard, this is where the growth happens. The discomfort is simply the recognition that I could be doing better. That I need to do better. That better is possible. That better is not only possible, but possible through me. That doing and learning and continuing will lead to growth. It won’t always feel good, and probably shouldn’t, but it will lead to newness and innovation and better writing on the other side.

So I am letting the discomfort stay. I am getting used to the lump it causes in my throat when I sit at the keyboard. I am taking the research more seriously again instead of simply as an excuse. I am looking back at the notes I took during this new idea’s germination and letting that excitement settle back in.

But the discomfort will need to stay. It is pushing me in new and different directions. It is forcing me to grow as a person and as a writer.

And recognizing that discomfort, acknowledging its purpose, I have to say, is actually pretty comforting.

 

 

 

Gifts that Keep Giving

I manage a small creativity circle – a group on Facebook where other creatives get together and share thoughts, ideas, work, questions, whatever. Each month we have a theme to provide some loose guidance and then we see where we end up. For me, it’s provided an opportunity for new thought. When I’m out running errands or cooking or contemplating what’s next with my writing, it gives me a jumping off point, a new perspective, a sense of presence when my thoughts scatter.

This month, the theme is gifts. I posted a question yesterday about what gift would you give your creative self this holiday season. I was surprised, although I probably shouldn’t have been, that many of the answers were chore related. Folks wanted someone to do their laundry, cook and clean so that they would have time to focus on their creativity.

I am so very guilty of this, too. I allow the mundane chores to impede on my creative time. Often. It’s tempting to straighten the kitchen or fold the laundry or run the errands because at the end these are tasks that are completed, that you can see, that are crossed off a list. There is an immense sense of satisfaction and ease when they are completed. They feel socially acceptable.

When I had a work outside the home job, however, if the dishes weren’t done after breakfast and waited in the sink until I got home from my commute in the evening, nobody suffered. I didn’t think about them while I was away at work. I didn’t worry what those dishes in the sink said about me – other than I was a busy working woman who didn’t have time to finish the dishes before hopping the train to the city.

So why are creative tasks less worthy to wait than for the “day job?” Why do we put off our creative tasks? Is the clean house or the folded laundry worth so much more to us? Can’t they wait a bit longer? Won’t they still be there after?

I think we devalue our creative time. As much as we crave it and need it, we feel selfish about it. Or at least I do. I feel selfish that what feeds my soul and brings me the most joy is this solitary pursuit in front of a keyboard or a notebook. I have to remind myself that being selfish isn’t always a negative. I should be selfish about finding time to nurture myself and my creativity. For one thing, it’s the “job” I’ve given myself right now and for another, it makes me happy. It makes me productive. It makes me better at the rest of it. It is what makes me me.

Doing the dishes, while satisfying to complete, will simply need to be done again after the next meal. Taking a few minutes to sketch, journal, paint, photograph or read will nurture me in a way that no chore list can.

What is holding us back? Chances are its an individual answer, but I don’t think it’s really the dishes. The dishes are the distraction or, more likely, an excuse. (More on that in the next few days).

 

 

So I want to challenge my circle friends, and the rest of us, to think outside the to-do list and really contemplate what you would give to your creative self to nurture that piece of you. Would it be a trip to an exotic location to paint strange flowers? A day in the city to photograph architecture? A morning in the art museum to stand in front of your favorite work and find something new in it? A walk through a garden to awaken your senses of touch and smell? A beautiful journal for scribbling out those random bits of epiphany that come in between your daily moments? Season tickets to the local symphony? Signing up for dance classes or singing lessons? A few hours spent in the airport pick-up area people watching?

Use your imagination. You might not be able to spend the money or take the time for some of these gifts. That’s okay. It’s important to know what those big dreams are so we can recognize the smaller opportunities to feed our creativity on a more daily basis. Can’t get to the Galapagos Islands? No worries – maybe see what your local botanical garden or zoo have to offer. Can’t afford season tickets to the symphony? Check your nearby college’s concert and recital schedules. No time to commit to dance lessons? You probably have five minutes for a living room dance party.

And don’t worry. The dishes will wait.

Of Dreams Deferred

Dreams.

Not sleep filled mash-ups of our daily events, subconscious desires, greatest fears and endless staircases causing us to get lost on our way to an exam we forgot to study for anyway, but those deep seeded desires that buoy us on our dark days, fill us with hope, flight, anxiety and illusions of fulfillment.

Dreams.

As children we have them. We live in them. We see no reason why we can’t be firefighting astronauts who invent ice cream sandwiches that don’t melt and then become president. We are taught there are boundaries to our homes. Boundaries to our playgrounds. Boundaries to our conduct. But we have yet to learn that there are boundaries to our dreams.

Somewhere, during our schooling and our day-to-day experiences with adults, we find a different reality. Someone says, “you can’t do that!” Or asks “Why would you want to do that?” Or indicates that we’re simply doing it “wrong” that there are better, righter ways to do that picture, dance, math problem, outfit selection, game. We are subjected to tests and regulations that are meant to homogenize the educational output of schools, not celebrate the diversity and uniqueness of its students.

Some escape. Or slip through the cracks. Or simply endure until they are on their own and can choose freely.

Others are simply so used to living up to a standard expectation that they forget to exceed it. I was one of those.

I dreamt of becoming a writer. I found the spot on the library or book store shelf where my book would reside. And yet, somehow, I knew that writing a book wasn’t an occupation. At least not a realistic one for me. It was compartmentalized as a dream. I was a practical thinker. An oldest child full of responsibility and rule following. I figured out the school formula. The way to write an essay that pleased a teacher then relearned the next year how to please the next one. I checked the required courses off my list and moved from high school to degree to job. Then, I moved from job to job to promotion to promotion to job to motherhood. A dream is something I’d be allowed to get to after success. Success as determined by the standard.

And so I worked. Always working. Always searching for happiness, fulfillment, gratification. And oftentimes I found it. I found it in jobs, in relationships, in moves, in travel and in challenges.

And yet…

When I suddenly found myself pushed off my path, a termination rather than my personal propulsion to the next step in my career, I woke up a bit. I stopped. I considered. I thought. I started to imagine, then to visualize before finally dreaming again. What was my dream? What could I accomplish? Not because it was next, but because I chose it? What should have been next was another PR job. I “should” have engaged in a furious networking with contacts to seek out new job opportunities. And some came anyway, nudges from former colleagues or neighbors or friends who knew of something or offered to put in a word. As much as I love PR, as much as I believe I am good at it, it isn’t a dream. I don’t dream of big media hits or starting my own firm or launching the next big thing.

I dream of words. Lots of words. Words that make sentences that make paragraphs printed on pages that fill the space between two hard covers bound with glue and reside on the shelf in a library or book store and then a night stand or suitcase or bus stop or vacation as those words are read and ingested by others, by readers.

This past weekend’s episode of Mad Men made me pause: I have been Don.

In the episode, Don is tasked with writing a speech about what the future holds for the agency. The man who can paint a picture of emotional depth about a slide projector is suddenly unable to conjure up any sort of potential plan for the future of his business. He soon realizes he has little capacity to imagine his own future as well. He’s lived his life in the present in order to outrun his past. He’s apparently forgotten there is a future. A next. And that he can control that. For him, the catalyst was divorce, the selling of his apartment (ironically, he was able to dream up a future for potential residents to his realtor, just not himself), the systematic dismantling of that piece of his life. He’s now faced with choices, making the remainder of this final season so captivating to audiences. Will he simply continue on the same path: womanizing, marrying, drinking, doing enough work to solidify his place in the ad world? Or will he dream? Will he act? With purpose? When asked in the episode if he’d wanted to be in advertising as a youth by one of his daughter’s flirtatious friends, he said, no he’d just wanted to be in New York. Since being there, he’d ticked off all the boxes: the wife, the family, the suburban home, the mistresses, the career, the new wife, the city penthouse. What will he do next now that the boxes are emptying?

While my life has never been dismantled to this extent nor been fraught with the drama or debauchery of Don’s, I have had many moments in life where someone asked what I wanted, what was next and I felt paralyzed with a lack of answers. It can be difficult to dream. We forget how to in the midst of the mundane, the drudgery of maintaining what we already have. I watch my children and listen to their far fetched dreams of where they will live or what their lives will be like or even just what they will do tomorrow. It’s brilliant and glossy and surreal and I bite my tongue to never tell them no. Because why not? Who am I to say they won’t be the first or best or only? Who am I to say their dreams should be bigger or smaller or perhaps a different shade of green? Who am I?

A dreamer.

I have often doubted my dream in the last year as I have committed to pursuing it. Luckily, I have family and friends who dream with me and keep me moving, seeking, reaching. I talk to my boys about it. I try to show them by example that dreams are fragile, to be protected, cradled in the nests of our hands, fed and nurtured and loved until they are ready to fly on their own.They get excited about my word count. They ask how many pages I’m up to, what my book is about or if it will be like the particular book they are reading at the moment.  Their excitement rubs off and I feel myself trying harder, if not always completely believing. But I’ve tasted it now. I run towards it. Eyes wide, hands open and follow where it leads. There is a lightness to my spirit now that I have let the dreams back in, a giddiness, an excitement. There, too, is a heaviness to the guilt, sometimes, of pursuing it at the expense of a vacation or summer camps or new furniture that a regular salary could have provided, but those are not dreams. Those are temporal and temporary.

Langston Hughes asked what happens to a dream deferred. His images are stark and graphic and entirely too true. But a dream deferred is preferable to a dream ignored. It’s never too late. Imagine a future. Take a step. Make a mistake. Find your spot on your own metaphorical book shelf. Dust off the dream you put down for later and see if later is now. Dream small. Dream big. Either way, the answer is simple.

Dream.