A Dangerous Double Bind: Illness and Creativity

A few weeks ago, stumped on blog ideas, a few people recommended looking into women’s health and how it interacted with creativity. Studies show creative practices can have great benefits for mental and physical health. But it’s often easier said than done.

I loved the idea of exploring this but it also made me nervous. I’m young and relatively pretty healthy. Despite a history of mental illness, I don’t feel like an expert on the subject. Yet, the more I looked into this, I was surprised by the hurdles both women’s illnesses and creatively blocked people have.

Women’s pain ignored

There are harrowing stories, such as the woman whose pain wasn’t believed. If they had, the professionals would have realized she had an ovarian torsion. Sure, you may say, but isn’t that extreme? There are nationwide impacts of disregarding female pain. Men on average wait 49 minutes to receive an analgesic for acute abdominal pain. Women, on the other hand, wait about 65 minutes.

Instead of being heard, their issues are downplayed. In one survey of over 2,000 women, 45% had been told ‘The pain is all in your head.’ Compound gender with race, disability, or transgender and medical professionals are even more likely to dismiss patient symptoms. Their access to medical care becomes even more difficult and potentially life threatening.

Where does this leave women, especially those with chronic illnesses? It leaves many doubting themselves, struggling against their bodies in order to get through the day. Worse, women are hearing messages from professionals that their experience should be ignored. It’s not real. It’s not worthy of being heard.

Fatigue? What fatigue?

come-to-bed

Beyond pain, there’s the social expectation of being fine. For many women, we’re expected to do it all flawlessly. With endless articles on boosting productivity and efficiency, we don’t have time to rest or be tired.  For broken bones or a head cold, most people do get better with time. We are ‘healed’.

Yet, for many illnesses that just isn’t true. Some illnesses have flare ups or bad periods. There isn’t a cure all, just a different pace, different ways of dealing. As one friend struggling with a chronic illness put it, “You feel like you’re never doing enough. So you overcompensate and do too much which makes you more exhausted.”

How does this impact creativity?

So much of creativity is noticing and nurturing ideas. Whether you love journaling like I do, or find ideas walking in nature, creativity is about tuning in to find the ideas. Like Julia Cameron, I don’t believe that creativity is something only a few people have. Creativity is a practice. It’s a practice of listening and aligning with imagination. Sometimes it can seem utterly crazy. But that crazy has given us Picasso, Beyoncé, even Artemisia Gentileschi.

However, noticing isn’t a vacuum. You can’t notice just creative ideas. As my own creative practices deepen, I’ve become far more in tune with my own physical and emotional needs. I can’t be creative without that deeply personal listening. Sometimes it’s easy, “Hey! You’re already anxious, so let’s skip the coffee this morning.” Other times, it means facing my own anger and grief over relationships leave me feeling used.

In an ideal world, I’d skip the hard stuff. Sometimes, tuning out isn’t a bad thing. As my therapist likes to remind me, we can’t do the work all the time. Our bodies, minds, and hearts need rest. But I, like too many others, are better at tuning out than tuning in. If we don’t tune in, we also remove access to real creativity.

Perhaps some people can have that split between self and creativity, but I’ve never seen that without a huge cost. Some people resort to alcohol or drugs. Others push out work and their ‘creativity’ devolves into a rote and unauthentic process. While they are very different challenges, people with creative blocks, like those with chronic illness, have more practice in tuning out than in.

The uphill climb

old-hills

On paper, it sounds like a simple change. Just start listening! Like so many things, so much easier said than done. Tuning into yourself can be deep and perhaps painful work for women and other minorities. It requires facing failures in systems for ignoring or dismissing your experiences. More importantly, it asks you to go against years of social training that told you to ignore your body and pain. It can be hard to realize how you’ve internalized a system that doesn’t look out for you.

Having the time and energy to be creative can be a struggle as well. People assume creativity flows. There must not be that high of a cost because so many people do it without getting paid! Don’t get me wrong: I can’t stop writing. I love and need it in my life. However, writing, whether it’s a blog post or a poem, can be draining. With chronic illness, finding that time and energy isn’t as simple as cutting down on TV or going to sleep an hour earlier.

While everyone can be creative, doing the work to access it takes time. For instance, I started with just noticing how I felt physically. Did I need a glass of water? What about a good shoulder stretch? Over time, I realized my own creative cues. For instance, a restless itch wasn’t just to get up and move, but to write something. I’d had that itch for over a decade before I realized what it was!

Getting started

So what are some ways to start that tuning in process? I’m no medical professional. In regards to dealing with illness, please see a professional that will honor your experiences and help you find solutions that work for you. Instead, all I can do is offer ideas about tuning in to help your creative journey. Here are some ideas:

1. Make time to tune in

bauble musings

Whether you choose meditation or journaling, make time for it every day. It doesn’t have to be a long period of time. It can be a half hour for a morning free write or 15 minutes for a guided meditation. You don’t have to write brilliant treatises or even achieve perfect zen. In the beginning, you just need to create time and space to allow yourself to get in the practice of tuning in.

A few minutes a day will strengthen your ability and help you find more inspiration.

2. Validate your emotional and mental experience

If you’ve had experiences like many women and minorities with chronic illnesses, this one can be tough. Part of the rational for tuning out has been the idea that what’s ‘in your head’ isn’t valid. Owning those feelings and experiences can help you explore them and embrace your own imagination.

So how do you do that? Sometimes it’s as simple as recognizing a feeling and acknowledging it. As a woman, it’s been important for me to acknowledge, for instance, that I’m tired on my period. Instead of getting upset at myself for not being productive, I remember I’m losing blood.

Start with wherever you are. What are you feeling right now? Name it and allow it to be what you’re feeling.  Also, look at the people around you. Do they listen and respect your experiences? If not, it’s time to find people who will.

3. Work with what you have

Everyone has different wants, needs, and abilities. For instance, dance may not be the right medium for you if you’re struggling with muscle or bone issues. Your creative outlet doesn’t have to look like anyone else’s. Perhaps you do origami because it’s soothing and small enough to carry paper with you. Maybe you start making music on your smartphone.

Your creative practice is yours.  It doesn’t have to be beautiful or genre breaking. It just has to be fun and good for you.

Unlearning anything can be incredibly difficult. The work of tuning in again isn’t done in 30 days. It’s a habit we have to continually show up for. Yet, when we do this work, we not only get more inspiration, we also are better at taking care of ourselves in a world that has demanded we ignore our wants and needs for far too long.

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Why I Want to Receive At Least 15 More Rejections This Year

I know how crazy this sounds. There’s nothing worse than sending out your work to hear ‘no thanks’ or worse, six months of silence. It can be painful, especially for creative pieces that are close to your heart. Rote responses or even the words, “it doesn’t fit” can feel dehumanizing. After a while, you’re not quite sure what the hell it means anymore. Even if you read at least two of their previous publications, carefully picking the right works, it can still fall flat. After all, you aren’t the editor.

So why am I trying to get 15 more rejections this year? Inside rejection might be the key to getting my work out in the world.

The problem in avoiding rejection

Rejection stopped me from trying. I had some decent rationalizations. It was work and it felt like it only led to rejection. What was the point, especially when I couldn’t get accepted especially by publications that didn’t pay? So I stopped. I continued to write, but it would live in easy places, where I could self-publish or share with one or two friends. Was that a real problem? Maybe not, but it kept me limited. Worse, I kept myself having any shot at being published.

That feeling led to a deeper creative rut. I stopped writing as much poetry. Rejection and fear sowed doubt. Was my poetry any good? Would anyone really want to read it? Maybe I wasn’t as good as I thought. Rejection was killing my creativity.

Rejection can be everywhere

embarrassed cat

You don’t have to be on the creative writing hustle to face rejection. It can be as easy as sharing it with a friend and hearing “huh” as the only response. Creativity, especially if it’s not what people expect, can be hard to hear. Rejection can also feel deeply personal, especially if you’re just beginning to embrace your creativity.

But here’s the thing: your creative expression can be amazing, but not popular. Bjork and Marilyn Manson are not conventional, but they found their audiences. I will probably never listen to a full Marilyn Manson album.  It’s not because he lacks talent: I just don’t like industrial rock. That’s the difference: a lot of rejection isn’t about talent, but about different tastes.

Giving myself permission

I won’t lie: the idea of creating a goal for rejection wasn’t my idea. I can’t remember where I saw it, but once I did, it changed my perspective. For a while, I’d been submitting pieces and closing my eyes tight, hoping I wasn’t rejected, still afraid.

Making it a goal changed how I see it. Now, it’s an accepted part of my reality. Expecting it leaves me feeling more prepared for rejection.

This won’t be a total change: I’ll still get sad when it happens. I hope it will make that process less painful. In the end, I think having a rejection goal will make getting accepted more likely. I’ll be putting myself out there more. My acceptance rates might not change, but my absolute numbers will. That’s the game changer I really want.

Creating a thicker skin

skin

Remember the first time someone broke up with you? It felt like your heart was in a million pieces. You had no idea how you’d get over that feeling. Okay, maybe being a hormonal teenager makes that worse, but future breakups can be just as hard. Still, there’s a difference: you know you can get over them. Previous experience has given coping skills. Experience lets you know that, with time, you’ll feel differently.

Rejection when it comes to my art is not quite the same thing. Yet, with each rejection, it becomes a bit more normal. I know now that pieces that have been rejected can find homes. They may have to face quite a few rejections first, but that doesn’t make them bad work.

What won’t change is that rejection will always be a part of putting work out into the world.  It’s a hurdle you have to face. The only other option is hiding your work, which is its own small tragedy.

Each time I face rejection, I jump across another hurdle. Yet, I don’t think this is the only way to handle rejection. Here are a few other ways you can get yourself used to it.

1. Join a critique group

It’s not the same as rejection, but it will help you adjust to hearing weak points about your work. A good group will do this constructively. The focus should be not on taking you down, but how your art/creativity can improve. One of the best courses I took for my writing was a class that had this every week. It was uncomfortable in the beginning but worth it: my writing improved more in 3 months than it had in 3 years.

Not ready for a group? Try to find one-three people in your life who can give critical feedback. Be clear that you’re looking for ways to improve and see how it goes.

 

2. Remember even famous artists faced rejection

famous-face

Rejection doesn’t necessarily mean that your work is bad. Remember J.K. Rowling? Harry Potter was rejected 12 times before a publisher picked it up. George Orwell was told that Animal Farm wasn’t “the right point of view from which to criticize the political situation at the present time.” One editor, who’d read The Bell Jar, hoped Sylvia Plath, “will use her talent more effectively next time.” I’ve never met but I definitely don’t like this editor.

I point all these out to show how subjective gatekeepers are. Some people will love your work, but finding them can be a lot of work. All these famous artists show you aren’t alone in that struggle. Thousands of creative people are working to find outlets every day.

My favorite silver lining: Facing rejection means you’ve joined a group with some very talented people.

3. Keep up your self-care

Rejection can be emotionally draining and that’s ok. Just because it’s tough doesn’t mean you have to “tough it out”. In fact, self-care has made it easier for me to move on and face more rejection. Some self-care things I do include:

• Call a friend and vent
• Write down 3 things I’m grateful for
• Cry/let out the emotion
• Write a list of successes

If you’re like me, you could be judging yourself for needing self-care after facing rejection. Tending to yourself doesn’t mean your weak. It acknowledges that rejection is hard. Self-care keeps you strong enough to keep going. There’s nothing wrong with that.

This work is a labor of love but it’s still labor. Say thanks with a small donation to my paypal. Thanks!

My Surprising Problems Creating a Photobook

Earlier this month was my mother’s birthday (a big one, but a number she doesn’t like discussing). We were already planning a trip to visit my brother and his girlfriend in Nashville. Before we went, I had a typical panic: OH SHIT I DON’T HAVE A GIFT FOR YOU.

To find out, I called her and asked. Her answer? A photo book of us from Nashville. I agreed, not realizing what I was getting into. I mean, I take photos anyway, it shouldn’t be a problem, right?

Only as we arrived at Nashville did I realize how difficult this would be for me. I tend to take photos that are artistic. I prefer street photography. Worse, I don’t do many posed portraits. With a lot of people moving around and going to places with low light, I knew this wouldn’t be the easiest thing to do.

What I didn’t realize was how much I would run into myself as the biggest problem.

Issue #1 Subjects won’t wait for you to set up your shot

One of the reasons I love landscape or taking photos of inanimate objects  is that I can take my time. I can move slowly,  adjusting my camera to get the shot I want. It’s one way I slow down and enjoy the present.

The last thing a 9 month old border collie will do is sit still and let me take a photo of him. Initially, I got frustrated that I thought I would get this amazing shot but ultimately would have blur, or other issues that would ruin the photo.

So I took a few deep breaths and went back again. I learned that I couldn’t focus on getting just one shot. I needed  a lot of photos and hopefully get a few that were good.

Out of the dozens I took, in the end, I did get some adorable shots. Just like this one of Harvey!

Processed with VSCO with b2 preset

 

Issue #2 In manual mode, my skills weren’t good enough

One reason I recommend manual mode is to learn.  Trial and error is a slow but effective way to understand how to take better shots and adjust the camera to capture what you want.

Yet, this weekend, I opted out of manual mode. It wasn’t easy. I kept wondering, would this make the photos less mine? Was this a cop out?

However, my focus this weekend wasn’t learning or my own skills. I needed to take the best shots I could. When people are running around, or I’m struggling with bad lighting, I didn’t have time to work in manual mode. The camera might be figuring out focus, speed, and light but I was the one responsible for framing and capturing shots.

In many ways, I know I’m still new to photography. I’m sure there are people that can use manual modes in fast paced moments. Maybe one day I’ll be there, but letting go of my pride let me take better photos.

Issue #3: Sometimes the best moments aren’t picture perfect

cuddles

Some of the sweetest moments I got weren’t perfect. For instance, I was able to capture a few shots of my brother, his girlfriend, and their dog cuddling together on the couch. As you can see with low light and moving subjects, there’s a lot of blur. Perhaps even more frustrating, there’s indoor and outdoor light as well, making that blue and yellow clash.

From a photography perspective, this isn’t my best work. However, it captures a moment that’s sweet and says more about them than a perfect posed photo. I had to make a choice: focus on perfect or accept flawed photos of great moments. Knowing my mother, I knew what really mattered were those moments.

Issue #4 Accept other people’s photos

teasing

Now a photo book, especially one from Shutterfly, requires at least 20 pages. With some pages having multiple images, this meant I needed a lot of images from three days in Nashville. As the person who’s probably most interested in photography, it would have been natural to want to use only my own photos. After all, it’s supposed to be my gift to my mom, right?

If I’d done that, I wouldn’t ever be in the book. Plus, I just didn’t have enough of my own images to include. So, I made sure to use photos my mother sent me as well as photos taken by my brother’s girlfriend. Together, this gave the book the necessary number of images and also provided some variety. Now there’s evidence I was there!

In the end, while this may not be the best work I’ve ever done, I’m proud of this book. It was a meaningful gift that I could give my mother. Plus, it pushed me outside my comfort zone to take more portrait photographs than I have, well, ever in such a short time frame.

It also reminded me something important: perfection is overrated. There are going to be great pieces, pieces we love, that just aren’t technically the best. Sometimes what really matters isn’t how good of a photo it is, but what it’s able to capture. Sometimes, it will be rough around the edges. But it doesn’t make the work any less meaningful.

Has there been a creative work that pushed your limits? Let me know in a comment below!

What the American Visionary Art Museum Reveals About Creativity

The American Visionary Art Museum (AVAM) is one of my favorite museums. Just below Federal Hill in Baltimore, it’s a collection of strange delights. The museum focuses on art “produced from self taught individuals, usually without formal training, whose works arise from an innate personal vison that revels foremost in the creative act itself.” From a six-foot-tall ball made of bras to small scrapbook pages, it’s weird, wonderful, and joyful. It’s also a place that breaks down assumptions on creativity that can benefit all of us.

No training required

In case you missed the quote above, none of the artists exhibited at AVAM learned their skills via school. One artist began because he wanted to impress a girl. In the middle of her apartment, he just picked up a brush to show off and he fell in love with painting.  Another artist made her work long after her daughter left the house. She transformed her hoarding into beautiful sculptures and collages.

I love these stories because they undermine the narratives so many of us hold about creativity. The narrative we hear is that if we want to be good we have to know at a certain age, usually as children or in our 20’s. We have to learn from others certain tools, certain techniques, certain ways of doing that will allow us to be creative. Each story becomes evidence discrediting that narrative. Since AVAM runs across multiple buildings with rotating exhibits, each artist shares a story that diverges from expectation.

It inspires me to embrace being different. So I didn’t start really getting into photography until my 20s? Whatever your journey, these artists show it’s never too late to start.

Everything is material

This kaleidoscope was made from CDs
This kaleidoscope was made from CDs

One of my favorite pieces in their collection is a replica of a boat, The Lusitania, made entirely out of toothpicks. Not only is it too scale but it’s also painted. I can’t imagine how many hours it took and the boat is exquisite. Before I saw that boat, I’d never thought of toothpicks as a material for art. Cleaning my teeth? Sure. But I would never imagine a boat made from toothpicks. But Wayne Kusy did just that.

Everyone is inspired by different things. I’ve seen portraits made with coffee and Christmas ornaments made from washi tape. Just because your materials may not be found at an art store doesn’t make you any less creative. In fact, it takes even more creativity to find inspiration in unlikely places. Use what you love, not what you’re told to use.

Creativity’s powerful benefits

One of the artist’s, Gerald Hawkes, used to be a printer. However, a mugging midlife left him disabled and unable to continue his work. It left him feeling both angry and helpless. He fought these emotions by creating meticulous sculptures made from matchsticks. It combined his love of both geometry and precision for beautiful works, including gorgeous wooden busts. Hawkes life shows that creativity isn’t just an indulgence. It helped him to thrive again.

It can also be a form of resistance. For instance, one of the Angola 3 Herman Wallace, found small ways to bring beauty into his life despite being in solitary confinement for over 20 years. In his narrow cell, he would make paper flowers using a meticulous process that could take hours. Despite having no windows, he brought nature back into his life. His story shows what a resource creativity ca be, regardless of your reality.

Creativity has been key for me to reframe my own experiences. Photography has helped me see my own body as beautiful. Gratitude lists have helped me stay positive even on my worst days. Creativity doesn’t make suffering worthwhile or perhaps any easier. It can help you see beyond one issue or perhaps reframe a problem as well.

AVAM mouth

The AVAM is a great museum, one that both kids and adults enjoy. It embraces weird and types of art that don’t fit neatly into other museums. Pieces can be experiential, or just feel like a mess that came out of someone’s thrift store. But that weirdness is key.

So often, we’re worried about fitting in. Is this piece good by society standards? Am I creative in the way I see other people being creative? We’re social creatures and need to belong. However, AVAM is a place that shows there’s a place for weirdness. There’s something amazing about being outside the box. And it can have powerful effects not only for the artist but also anyone else that gets to witness it.

Is there something that has shaped/defined your views on creativity? Share in a comment below!

10 Places to Find Inspiration

Does the summer heat have you feeling stuck creatively? I know the feeling. That doesn’t mean you can’t be creative. Here are ten places that you can go to get unstuck and get inspired.

1. Go for a drive or walk

Sometimes the act of moving is enough to get the juices flowing. I don’t want to admit how many times I’ve been driving and had to start dictating a new idea into my phone.

You don’t need a car: just get out and stretch your legs. Stanford released a study in 2014 showing that walking can boost your creativity. Indoors or outdoors, it doesn’t matter. Scientists found that it was the movement that mattered. Just give yourself a few minutes to walk around the block. You might see something new or find a new approach to whatever project you’re working on.

2. Get a jolt at a coffee shop

Hate going outside in the summer? I get it. It’s my duty as a redhead to avoid the sun from May until October.

This is why I love coffee shops. They allow you to get out of the house without the sun burn. For less than five dollars, you can enjoy A/C and some fabulous people watching. Worried about eye contact? You can sit at the bar and just watch the baristas make espresso. Perhaps you could find a new rhythm to work with from conversations around you.

3. Hit the library

Alright, libraries and book stores are my weakness. I could spend hours there, curled up with a pile of books. While a lot of places out and about are loud, libraries especially are quiet sanctuaries to get away from the crowd. If you’re a writer like me this can be especially important. If you can’t hear yourself think, how can you write anything down?

Even if you aren’t into books, libraries can still be a good place for inspiration. Many have music you can borrow. Heck, some of them are just beautiful buildings. That can be inspirational on its own. After all architecture was a big inspiration for JK Rowling’s vision of Hogwarts.

If you’re really stuck, you can do what I did in college: find a sofa in a library and take a nap. A 10 minute nap can zap you awake and boost your creativity.

4. Take a nap

black and white portrait

Alright, your subconscious might not be a place, but it is a creative place. I’d never have imagined Katie Couric giving me a sex-ed talk, until I dreamed about it in high school. More than strange events, real works of art have come out of dreams. These include:

  • ‘Yesterday’ by the Beatles
  • Nolan’s movie, ‘Inception’
  • Dalí’s painting, ‘Persistence of Memory’

However, dreaming alone isn’t enough. To ensure it doesn’t slip away, have a notebook or someway of copying down your dream straight away. Paul McCartney, for instance, went straight away to the piano to start playing the tune he’d heard in his head.

5. Watch wild animals at the zoo

The combination of wild animals and people, makes zoos a special place. Personally, I love watching the kids’ reactions. I still remember one group in front of the sea otters. They were so excited watching the animals do tricks underwater. Maybe you’ll be inspired to write a story about a family experience the zoo. Or, you could take an amazing shot of a family walking together.

6. Find a window

No requirement on what it looks out on, just that it looks out onto something. Your window can be out onto a garden or a busy street. My favorite as a kid was a window in our house with a bird feeder. Not just for the birds but also because our cat, Randolph, would stare at that window for hours, frustrated that he couldn’t attack any of the birds.

Looking out a window can even become a game, like Amsterdam did on its trams. Whether it’s a tiny room in your attic or big bay windows, staying still can help you notice things that you might have passed by. This can include photos, ambient sounds, and so much more.

7. Unplug and get into nature

too stunning for words

Some people love the mountains; some people will choose the beach. Either way, spending some time outside can help your inspiration. Scientists have found that spending time in nature actually changes the way your brain works. It restores your attention and allows you to solve problems more creatively. It may even give you a more open mindset.

If you live in the USA, there are hundreds of National Parks you can go to, many with low entrance fees. You don’t have to go far to get out and find nature.

8. Find an open mic night

While as entertainment these can be a hit or miss they can inspire you with do’s or don’ts. Haven’t heard of open mic nights? Creatives of all kinds show up to perform. Performances can include music, poetry, dance, or comedy. Sometimes being around other creative people can help inspire you to do more work. It can also help you see what kind of work you want to do, and the work you’d like to skip.

Open Mics are also a great chance to meet people you might want to work with. Sure, a lot of the time we think of great creative people going alone, but it doesn’t have to be.

9. Stare at the stars

One very talented writer, Jonathan Stutzman, loves stargazing late at night. Sometimes he tries to find constellations, but it can also just be a few minutes spent looking up. I can understand why. The stars always remind me how huge our universe is. I’m awed that light thousands of years old finds its way to our little dot in the universe

That awe, it turns out, can boost creativity. Expansive thinking, or thinking about distant places or people, can be a catalyst for creative thought. It allows you the possibility of going beyond your own perspective. Especially if you feel like you’ve been stuck in a rut creatively, this can really help you at least thing about things differently.

10. Take a shower or a bath

Sounds strange but people have found that taking some time to get clean can lead to major breakthroughs. Archimedes, a famous ancient Greek mathematician, is said to have made his major discovery there. I hope it’s true, mostly because he was supposed to have run through the streets naked yelling ‘Eureka! Eureka!’

Whether you believe the legend or not, there’s some science to bathroom discoveries. Basically taking a shower or bath provides a perfect combo for creativity. Dopamine is released as you enjoy the hot water. It also provides a distraction, hopefully stopping fixations blocking you from a solution. Finally, you’re relaxed. This makes a shower great for new ideas, as long as you can hold onto them long enough to dry off and get out.

Depending on what kind of creative work you do, some of these places may not fit. Even in the same field people can have wildly different processes. Hopefully, one of these places can help you get out of a rut and find new inspiration.

Is there another place you find inspiration? Please share in a comment below!

Can Creative Works be Too Honest?

If you can’t tell, a lot of my writing both here and elsewhere is based on personal experience. Maybe I’m just part of the personal essay fad. When it comes to creativity, I don’t know any other way to write about it. I’m not a scientist, I can only share what I’ve learned and experienced.

Still, a friend and coworker, J, asked me a hard question. How do I know the line between being honest and sharing, well, too much? The question left me speechless for a bit. While I believe in the line, I’m not sure where it is.

Ground rules

Still, when I look at my work, I see that there are rules I’ve made for myself over time when it comes to my work. Here are a few of them, especially when it comes to writing.

1. Not my stuff? Not my consent that matters

When it comes to doing work that highlights other people in my life, this is fundamental. I’m not putting my life up on a stage when I do that I’m putting someone else’s. Not only will I ask for permission, I’ll also ensure they get the right to see it before it goes live. The last thing I want is for people to be blindsided. In addition, I remove any identifying markers. They may be able to recognize who I’ve written about, but no one else can pinpoint it to them.

The system isn’t perfect: parents and family are hard to make anonymous. So far though, they’ve handled it pretty well.

Why does this matter? I don’t want the people in my life to feel like I will mine everything they share. Yes, other people’s stories inspire me but they have a right to privacy. Using someone else’s story without consent would undermine not only the kind of work I want to do but also the ethical person I try to be.

2. Does the detail enhance the piece?

Pondering the line

In high school I got the same critique multiple times: less details please. An emotional kid, it would piss me off. I wanted to make a story realistic, to take someone there. It took time to get over my pride and realize that I had to focus on the right details. What are the details that help set the scene? What does the audience need to know? What can they imagine for themselves?

This is also important for revealing personal details. For instance, this issue came up when I wrote about selfie photography. I shared my history of body image issues because it impacts my photography. Selfies became a new way to make my body beautiful for myself. Body image issues provide context for why these images matter to me.

However, there’s a line in revealing that. I don’t go in depth about my eating and exercise issues. My body image can, and has been, its own essay. The focus in that piece was on photography. How did my history relate to my photography? What details would help the reader understand?

Keeping the personal details focused ensures they’re relevant. They will help the reader understand your point of view without inundating them with information. You want them to make your point, not leave the audience feeling overwhelmed.

We all know that person who tells wandering tales that are full of unhelpful oversharing. Unless you’re creating a piece purely for yourself, ask yourself this question. Does this detail help your audience? If not, cut it.

3. Claiming honesty? Claim your ugly parts too

Part of using personal experiences means you’re claiming to be honest. You’re talking about real life and asking people to trust you about your narrative.

This creates some spider-man like responsibility: you have to shine the light back on yourself, even when it doesn’t show your best parts. For instance, when writing about ghosting and friendships, I had to own my bad habits that helped create toxic friendships and let them end without resolution.

Maybe admitting to those things makes me look weak. But not being honest about myself becomes a slippery slope. If I’m not honest about my bad parts, why should you trust anything else I say? This may not make me the most popular person. But it may make you trust my story a little more. In the end, trust matters more to me than being liked.

trespass

Walking the line between honest and TMI is a tight rope, one that constantly moves on me. Sometimes I wonder: will I regret sharing so many persona details? I can’t speak for my future self. That’s part of the price I have to pay for these essays. Even now, there are days where I make my friends reassure me multiple times before I’m ready to hit the submit button.

Creating my own rules around honesty helps me balance between privacy and good writing. They ensure I stay not only ethical, but also focused on honesty that helps, not overshares.

What’s the line for between honest and TMI? Leave me a comment and let me know! 

4 lessons from 4 years of writing 30 poems in 30 days

It’s cliché, but this experience was formative in seeing myself as a ‘writer’. Since April is National Poetry Month, the challenge is to write a poem every day for 30 days. I’ve participated in this challenge on HitRecord now for four years. A lot has changed since I started this challenge four years ago, especially for my creative process. Hopefully these lessons can help you with your creative process too.

1. Edit edit edit

I won’t lie: part of what got me through writing at the beginning could have been called a self-delusion. I really thought I was a great writer, even better than other people. I thought each of my poems was amazing, becoming so excited that I immediately released every poem.

In some cases, the poems turned out well. In some cases not so much. Perhaps that delusion was a good thing, it kept me writing.

Yet, there was another side of the issue. I didn’t know how to edit poetry. Editing an essay or a short story for grammar is one thing. Poetry, with so many formatting options and styles, made editing ambiguous at best.

So I improved the hard way: by writing hundreds of poems over time. Eventually, I started editing others poetry as well, which helped me look at my own work with a more critical eye.

Today, I spend more time going over and rereading poetry before I share it online. This year, this meant whole sections of poems being moved up and down. Sometimes, it’s keeping a theme moving through the whole piece, such as a fire metaphor in this poem. Perhaps it has made me more persnickety when it comes to my own work, but it also ensures I share better quality work with a few more minutes of work.

Pro-tip: Sometimes you’ve been staring at your own work too long. Find a friend who also works in that field to give feedback. You preferably want someone who can be both honest but also constructive.

2. Set time every day

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A favorite time for me to write? Whenever I’m waiting.

Most years when I do this challenge, I often find myself writing more than a poem a day. Still, it’s easy to go through the day and realize that I missed a day or two just because life got busy. To stay on track, I find it’s easiest to have a routine.

This year, I did it right after my morning pages. It felt like a perfect time for me, I was already on my computer and warmed up from over 750 words of journaling. By getting it done early, I wouldn’t have to worry or write something before bed.

Whether you’re a night owl or a morning bird, creating a scheduled time every day is great for daily challenges. It makes it a habit that’s easier to follow through on. You can focus more on writing and less on finding time to do it.

Pro-tip: Combine your activity with something else you do daily. For instance, do you have an evening ritual after dinner? Incorporate it into that. Or, add it after your morning cup of coffee. This can be your trigger, ensuring you don’t forget.

3. Leave space for the reader

There are great poems about the meaning of life. Honestly? These poems usually drive me nuts. The reason, usually being, that they’re talking at me, telling me what I should know. I only took one philosophy course in college for a reason.

Initially as a writer, I thought about myself (honestly, I still do). What did I want? What was important for me to say? That is half of the equation but it’s only half. I wasn’t thinking about an audience.

Yet, by putting my writing online, I was also asking for an audience. Writing poetry isn’t about pandering to an audience. It’s about leaving space for a reader.

What do I mean by space? Sometimes I do this by what isn’t said. This can be outright or a play on words. For instance, la petit mort (French for the little death) is an allusion to an orgasm. The other fun of poetry is using spacing, repetition, to give across an emotion (such as desire almost but never connecting)

Each of these forces the reader to do work and participate in the piece. This creates more engagement and connection between writer and reader.

Pro-tip: Focus not on what you want to say but how you’d say it. Is your character hungry? What kind of hunger is it? Are they tired, hungry? Is their stomach making noise? Poetry is about imagery and detail. Find ways to get your point across without spelling it all out.

4. Quantity, not quality

Wishing well

Every year I seem to forget this one (recovering perfectionist over here). The challenge isn’t to write your best poetry. It’s about showing up. Just like professional baseball players, even great writers will struggle. Looking back on my poetry this year, there are some I’d rather throw away.

Still, I keep them online and even part of my poetry album for that month. Why? It helps me remember. By showing up I also created poems I adore. Working on bigger projects, I haven’t been writing as much poetry. This got me to show up and create again.

Quantity challenges, whether it’s a daily poem, or finishing your sketch book this year, aren’t about creating your best works. It’s about showing up. We can be our own biggest critics. It can make anyone throw in the towel. Sometimes you’re right to be critical, sometimes our work is crap. Yet, if you show up you create more opportunities to go above and beyond.

Pro-tip: If you struggle with a hard inner critic, set a timer and just do your creativity activity for a set period (ex. Sketch for 5 minutes). Whatever comes to your head first, no filter, just do it. This doesn’t have to be something anyone sees. It can help you start creating more and doubting less.

It’s hard to believe I’ve been doing this challenge for four years. A lot has changed in my life and writing since then. Still, I love this challenge and hope to continue doing it in some form or fashion for the next four years. Hopefully writing better and even wiser than I am now.

Have you done a daily challenge? Share your lessons/thoughts below!

Fear and Judgment: The Deadly Creative Blocks

So for about a year, I’ve had this idea of doing a photo poetry book. It’s a piece that combines both my own writing and photography. I love the idea of telling a story with visuals and words.

Now, months later, I have a rough draft. Some of the pieces I love, some need some work. I want to get it done this year. And yet, I keep avoiding the edits. I keep telling myself this will be the month I send it out to get feedback from friends/creative advisors that will tell me their honest opinion in a kind way.

So what’s the hiccup? What’s my block? I’m afraid. I’m afraid of what people will think. This book will have at least one photo where I’m obviously nude. It’s got darkness in it. The pieces aren’t all funny. Some are sweet. Some are kind, but there’s a longing to the book, a wanting inside of it. For some people I love and care about, that’s not easy to take.

This book opens me up to judgment and criticism. It opens me up to things I don’t want to face.

Defying expectations: The hard part of honest creativity

some stains can't be washed away

As a perfectionist, recovering anyways, I want to please everyone. I want to bask in an audience that loves it all. I want something that is impossible: I want to be perfect. Yet, honest creativity doesn’t provide that. It means showing up as myself.

That self can be dark and sad. It speaks to an emotional truth that won’t always make you feel good.

This natural challenge makes me want to put it away. It makes me want to hide. When people you love respond with “well it’s just so sad” and “are you okay?”, it’s easy to follow through and never show these pieces at all.

It’s hard to acknowledge a more nuanced truth: those you love may just not be your audience.

The limits of honesty

sheets test

A lot of people know the rise of Truman Capote with the true crime novel In Cold Blood. A month ago, I read about his fall: the short story called “La Côte Basque”. This piece is a thinly veiled character assassination of his friends, the high society women of New York.

Why do I bring this up? There are limits to honest creativity. There are limits to what we can be honest about. I feel the right to be honest about my life. I feel the right to be honest about my experiences. However, what is entrusted to me in secret is something that is very different.

For instance, I’m working on an essay about benevolent sexism. Some friends of mine were willing to share their stories. However, I made sure to tell their stories in a way without using any identifiers. Part of this was that their stories revealed a lot about sexism in general, but also to preserve their privacy.

Before pitching the piece to potential publishers, I made sure to let my sources read it first. I wanted them to be comfortable with it. Why? The piece is made from their stories, not mine. I wanted it to be true to their experiences as much as possible. Otherwise, the piece wouldn’t have the strength it needed. It would’ve meant I wasn’t hitting the right place.

Is the line between honest and respectful tenuous and ambiguous? Yes, always. There are relationships and pieces that aren’t as easy. There will be pieces that are true to me, but may not be to those on the other side of the story. I wish it could always be clear cut, but it’s not. It’s something I continually wrangle with.

When is a piece creatively honest?

parking lot test

As an INFJ, creative honesty is a feeling, as far as I understand it. It can be a few things, including:

  • It makes you feel vulnerable/raw: This is generally a sign that you are showing something that’s hard for you. It’s terrifying because it’s real. This is hard, but generally one of the best signs something is honest.
  • It doesn’t fit easily into a category: honesty is messy. Rarely does it follow a usual narrative. If you’re unsure if something is a comedy or tragedy, if it’s a happy or sad piece, then it’s probably honest.
  • It feels pulled from someplace deep inside you: You know these pieces. The song that hits you deep in the gut. The painting that feels almost like a primal self portrait. It feels like something that isn’t glossy or made perfect. It can even be a bit wild.

Creative honesty isn’t always this difficult. But if you’re committed to honest creativity, you will face this. It will show up, whether you like it or not. It will challenge you. It’s hard and I don’t always do it right. But in the end, it pushes me to be a better writer and hopefully give you better work.

May it do the same for you.

Do you struggle with being honest in your creativity? I’d love to hear your experiences in a comment below. 

What Writing a Novel Has Taught Me About Creativity

If you’d asked me a year ago if I’d ever write a novel, I’d probably have told you ‘Hell No!’ Sure, some people can write a novel in a month, but it never felt like my kind of project. It was too big, too overwhelming, too long term for my creativity. I felt best suited for one offs: poems, essays, short stories. I had a desired to be published, but not for a novel.

Today, I’m 20,000 plus words into a story that’s looking more and more like a novel. Not just any kind of novel: but a sci-fi/fantasy novel, world building included.

Oops.

This surprising turn of events hasn’t just gotten me writing a novel, it’s reminding what creativity is all about. Here’s a few lessons I’m learning about creativity and big projects.

1. Break it down

workin

Part of what always terrified me about writing a novel was the sheer size of it. I may be able to read 200 pages in a day, but writing that? That was a scale I hadn’t ever really thought about creatively. My creativity was in bits and spurts, small chunks of insight. I just couldn’t mentally grasp writing that much.

Writing a novel, I realized, is the same process. It just has more sections or chunks than other projects. Each section feels like chipping away at a block of stone, slowly moving toward completion. I didn’t have to change how I work. I only had to change how I saw novels. It made a scary project no longer, well, scary.

If you’ve been thinking about a big project, say creating a multiple course meal, break it down. Think of it in chunks. Find your inspiration for appetizers. Then go onto the next section. You’ll still tackle a big project, without as much fear holding you back.

2. Research is your friend

Chasing ideas

So my novel is set over 300 years in the future. Another panic that came up for me was around world building. How do I envision a world of the future so far ahead? Will people still work? How will they communicate? Will they still enjoy melted cheese on bread? God, I hope so!

It’s easy to say ‘Hey, it’s your novel! The world can be anything you want it to be!’ Yet, I also wanted this world to seem believable to people. So, realistic world building continues to be critical for me.

So, part of the process has been research. No, I haven’t been consulting psychics, but rather looking at what are the innovations/technologies today? What could their future be? Some of this has been looking at potential space travel and ideas people have for faster travel, including solar sails and electro-magnetic propulsion. I’ve also had very good scientific friends help me when certain concepts start to become complicated for me.

Instead of just pure fanciful imagination, I’ve tried to instead extrapolate a world based around these ideas. I believe it will give my novel a realism that imagination alone can’t provide. Plus, research inspires new ideas, whether it’s a plot twist or describing future building types.

Creativity has never been in a vacuum. Inspiration is everywhere, even inside scholarly articles, or physics discussions with friends.

3. Embrace Your Process

I doubt that my novel writing style is like a lot of other writers. I develop plot as I write the novel. My writing style is linear: I write from beginning to end in a linear fashion (as of now I still don’t know how my novel ends.) It’s probably a more exhausting method than say, outlining it first. Yet, it’s how I get a grip on my characters and develop the story in a natural way.

Afterwards, I go back to flesh it out more fully. For instance, I just spent a week adding background details, expanding dialogue, and tightening the novel’s timeline. It’s messy, chaotic, and probably more time consuming than it had to be. Realizing that made me feel self-conscious. Worse, it made me wonder if I was doing it wrong. If I was, how could I write a good novel?

I had to take a step back and remember: I’ve tried writing to an outline. I’ve tried being more organized. It’s just not how I write. In fact, it stymies my creative process. My process could be messy, long, and disorganized, but here I was, writing thousands of words. Wasn’t that what mattered?

Every person has a different process. Perhaps you’re an incredibly organized musician. You have a tight system for writing a beat, laying down lyrics, and stringing together a great song. Awesome! Perhaps you’re more like me, figuring out what a piece will be as you make it. Whatever is your process, own it. Comparing your process to others only fills you with doubt and undermines your ability to do great work.

4. Side projects are a good thing (sometimes)

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Some days, I just can’t look at my novel. Don’t get me wrong, I love the project, but it’s like being in a long term relationship. You love your partner, but sometimes you just need to get out of the house and catch up with a friend.

In my case, this means putting down my novel occasionally to write and do other projects. This can mean writing essays on real world topics or writing poetry. Sometimes, it means an evening spent journaling nonsense or coloring.

Do these side projects make writing a novel longer? Perhaps. Focusing solely on my novel could seem like it would go faster. Yet, these side projects give my brain time to rest, allowing the novel to flow more naturally and I believe, become a better work overall.

The only issue that seems to come up is when you have multiple large projects overlapping. Of course, I’ve also been working on a photo poetry book. While they’re at very different stages of development, having two large projects makes it harder to focus on either finishing.

In the end, it’s not just multiple projects but a variety of them that’s important.

5. Enjoy the ride

Ride it up

It’s easy to get caught up in worry. Is what I’m doing any good? Will anyone like this? Is it realistic? Oh god, what am I doing?

If you can’t tell, I’m an expert worrier.

But you know what? I had no idea how fun writing a novel could be. Yes, fun. I get to learn new things every day. The other day I was doing research on Mars’s geology and dear God, I enjoyed it. Writing a scene between my two main characters made me laugh. Reading it over, I still smile.

Writing a novel has been fun, despite the worry and work. When the doubt and worry come up, I use that to refocus myself. It doesn’t matter whether or not the work is ever published. I am the first and last reader. It helps me write for myself before pleasing anyone else.

Large creative projects are time consuming. They are hard, especially if you have full time work as well. If you aren’t enjoying the process, what’s the point? You don’t have to finish any project to say you’ve finished it. In fact, that’s often when I find my creativity dry up.

Stick to your guns. Enjoy creating it or let yourself move on to something that’s a better fit for you. It’s not so much a failure but gathering data of what doesn’t work for you. It brings you closer to your real success.

I won’t claim to know everything about writing a novel: this is my first and I’m only 20,000 words in. National Novel Writing Month, for instance, sets the word count for the project at 50,000. If there’s any take away, it’s about getting out of your own head.

A big project is just an idea. Whether you need to break it into smaller chunks or reframe it inside your process, adjust the project to how you work, not the other way around. You’ll find your creativity flowing as you tackle your big project.

Have you tackled a large creative project? Tell me about it in the comments!

When it Rains, Make Art: Creativity for the Tough Times

I won’t lie: I put off writing this piece. I put it off for over three weeks. Even now, I feel a nagging guilt because I haven’t updated my blog in…weeks. It was easy to avoid since I have some bigger projects I’m working on (I’m a Gemini: we love to bite off more than we can chew).

But creativity as a therapy matters because all of us have rough times. It’s important for me to acknowledge that I have them too. I won’t go into the details, but basically, I had my hopes dashed on multiple fronts in early February. I was upset. I needed to do something that let me release that emotion. I decided I needed to do it in my own artistic way.

We’ve all heard about art therapy. Art has been used in various ways, from helping deal with trauma to being a part of addiction therapy. Yet, we don’t need to be in a program or have traumatic or serious issues to use creativity and art as ways of dealing with issues, struggles, or pain.

Creativity might seem the most trivial then. I believe that’s when we need it the most. Here’s why:

Recognize and acknowledge what you’re going through

There’s a power in naming your experience. In one form of meditation, recognizing how you feel is a key factor in dealing with strong emotions. Creative processes, whether writing, painting, music, or dance can help you recognize and acknowledge your experience.

Especially when big issues happen, such as grief, you are expected to still go about your daily life. It can feel incredibly difficult to acknowledge those feelings or to have any witness to it. Creativity allows you to do both.

Step back from your feelings

One of the reasons I love writing is because it helps put those experiences, those feelings somewhere else. It takes the thoughts, the worries and dumps it on the page. Creativity can do the same thing with larger emotions as well. Need to dance? Leave it on the dance floor. Pissed off? Create a punk rock song to echo through your house (just not at 2 am).

Keeping your feelings inside, jumbled around, doesn’t help. They can become like stagnant water: perfect for mosquitoes and bacteria to fester. No matter who you are, you deserve more than that.

It’s backed by science

Still not sold? Here’s a few scientific studies that might change your mind

  • Creating art can reduce cortisol levels, a key indicator of stress (Walsh et al, 2007).
  • Art therapy and creative arts can stimulate cognitive functioning in older adults who struggle with dementia (Levine-Madori, 2009)
  • Reduces depression and fatigue levels in cancer patients (Bar-Sela,et al, 2007).

I know I talk a lot about journaling. But here’s another way I used creativity to deal with my struggles and went beyond my comfort zone.

How I did it:

So, when I had my own personal struggle, I decided to do something about it. For awhile, my friend Sophie and I have joked about breaking dishes and making art out of it. This time we finally decided to do it. Our process was:

  1. Go to a thrift store and buy old porcelain pieces in the same color family.
  1. Wrap them in plastic bags and put them on a surface you don’t mind getting roughed up. We used an old cardboard box top.
  1. Talk about the things that were bothering us.
  1. Smash the crap out of objects with a hammer.
  1. Repeat steps 3-4 until we had the pieces we needed
  1. Lay out the design for the mosaic of stiff poster board (you want something thicker to hold the weight of all those pieces).
  1. Hot glue gun the pieces bit by bit.
  1. Continue to talk out feelings through it all.

Afterwards, we both had our own beautiful mosaics. I can say that I felt so much better afterwards not only because I got to take my anger out in a physical manner but also put it to words with someone. It probably cost about the same as a few drinks out at a bar, but it was far cheaper on calories. Instead of avoiding my issues, I faced them head on. Afterwards, I felt like I had come a few steps closer to closure. I no longer had the same thoughts running circles in my head.

You don’t have to do a full collage to use art/creativity to work out difficult feelings. Any of the usual ways you channel your creativity can work at being therapeutic. The important part is allowing yourself to be honest. It can be dark, scary, angry. No one but you has to see it or witness it.

Acknowledge it. Let it be. Creativity isn’t always beautiful or easy: it’s channeling from wherever you are. Once you allow that, often times you’re able to let it go more easily. It can still take days, weeks, or months. But letting yourself work through it creatively, you may just find it a bit easier to move on.