Earlier today I tried to write a blog post. Progress was slow, painful, and frustrating. Finally, I gave up.
This is not like me to give up.
Writing is not a smooth process for me, despite the enjoyment it gives. Most days I procrastinate, but eventually push my way into writing. I begin slowly, fishing around for those slippery starting words. I jump all over my ideas as I write my draft, and have to rearrange sentences and paragraphs until I find an easy flow. This is my process, and I always get there to the finished piece.
Today I feel like my creativity is offline. My thoughts are jumpy and disconnected. Every idea is brief, lacking a depth to play in, nothing to dig into and develop. I know I am not the first nor the last writer to experience this, but knowing it doesn’t make the experience less frustrating.
What I do know from long experience as an artist–my creativity remains intact despite today’s evidence to the contrary.
Here’s what I am going to do once this short writing-disaster post is done. I am going to read. My own words aren’t cooperating, but at least I can revel in another writer’s world.
Picture me standing knee deep in turquoise ocean waves. Bare toes, all ten, digging into the sand to keep balance. Leaning my body forward, a telescope to my eye, searching the horizon line.
I want to know what is out there, what’s beyond the range of my vision.
Writing a book has turned me into an explorer, and what I’m exploring is the edge of my creativity. How far can I push this seeming edge? How far can I expand my capabilities as writer and artist?
I’d always thought a project of several years’ length was beyond me. I’d get bored and dump it.
I was wrong. My curiosity for what is next in my book remains as bright as when I began. Not only am I curious about the book, I am curious about my creativity. It keeps changing, reaching and expanding. Every time a new idea shows up, it is something beyond what I have already done.
Helen Frankenthaler, an artist whose work inspires me, talked about not wanting to do something she already knew she could do. I feel the same way.
I don’t mean wildly leaping into complete unknown. I mean standing on what I know, reaching toward what I don’t know, combining the two, known and unknown, and experimenting.
My book project is becoming an experiment. As I complete the work in Lisa Cron’s Story Genius, my vision of the book is shifting. I see something that sits between all text and all image. Not a graphic novel, and not a standard word-only book. I am marrying my capabilities as artist and writer, and challenging myself to go further than what I already know.
As yet, I have little idea where this expanding vision of my book and my capabilities is taking me. My telescope shows me only the open space at the edge that is labelled “here there be dragons.”
I am curious about dragons. I hear they can fly, and some can be ridden. I hear they guard treasure and need to be coaxed to share. I hear they are made of fire. I hear they were invented by someone like me.
I want to write a dragon of a book. A book made of fire and treasure. A book that takes flight and I need to hang on and fly with it, the ride of my life. Guessing I may need asbestos pants in order to stick my seat. I’ll find some.
In the meantime, every day I learn something new about the edges of my book and my creativity. Today it is realizing my interest in my book remains firm, and this makes me happy. Today it is discovering my creativity is capable of handling both short and long term projects, and this makes me happy too.
Today I push out the far edge, and place my new knowledge there. Step forward and stand on the new edge of my creativity, lean forward and balance. Put the telescope to my eye, and see where my vision takes me next. There is an amazing dragon of a book out there, and it’s mine.
I’m playing with Lucy Bellwood’s book 100 Demon Dialogues. I keep going back to cartoon number 83. In the cartoon, Lucy says, “I think I’ve figured it out: you’re more afraid of success than you are of failure.” Her demon, who is trying to hide in a box, says, “I’m afraid of EVERYTHING.”
I am afraid of success. When I succeed in my art or my writing, I am not sure what to do. What should happen next I can never figure out.
Here is one example. When someone offers me praise, I don’t seem to hear it. The words don’t go all the way in. I feel happy, briefly. I smile, say thank you, glad you enjoy it. Then I feel uncomfortable and need to escape.
It makes me sad to realize I am unable to wholly accept a kind comment. It makes me feel there’s something wrong with me, that I can’t celebrate something I have created when it touches and connects with someone else.
Weird thing is, this is one of the main reasons I write and draw, to create that heart-to-heart connection.
It’s easy, in my studio, to open my heart and be vulnerable as I create. My studio is a safe place, I am alone with my work, and I trust myself to go as deep as the work requires. If I don’t get there the first attempt, or second or third, I keep going until I reach the feeling I want. I’ve done this long enough, I trust what shows up and trust I am able.
Put me in the situation of accepting praise face to face, and I am in fear. Someone connects with my writing or drawing, it evokes something for them, they appreciate the experience, and they want me to know my work succeeded in touching them.
My deepest success, and yet I am afraid to open my heart to this person and feel what they are offering me. Instead I feel naked and vulnerable because someone has seen the feelings I place in my work. How ironic when someone really sees my work and connects heart to heart, I want to run the other way.
My deepest success and my deepest fear. I got this wrong. I’m not afraid of success. I’m afraid of being seen and connecting at my truest self.
I am an artist and a writer who creates heart to heart. I know no other way to create. I refuse to allow any kind of fear to stop me.
Next time someone praises my work, I need to remember who I am in my studio. Trusting, open-hearted, and reaching for connection as many times as it takes.
It’s all grey cloud and wind outside today. I saw the first leaves fall from the aspens this morning. More than fall. They were pulled, snatched by the wind, tossed to the ground before they could ripen.
I’m not ready for bare branches. I want those brilliant, glorious golds, reds, and oranges shining against the sky. Then yes, Wind, take the leaves as your toys and let the trees rest.
I am happy to be inside my warm studio today. Like the wind, I have a new toy to play with, a book of course.
Yesterday afternoon I read 100 Demon Dialogues by Lucy Bellwood. I read slowly. Not only read, but looked. These are one-page drawings. Lucy is a cartoonist.
I love this book. I love Lucy’s take on the inner critic, and how she doesn’t push it away (which is my preferred method of interacting with the demon in my pocket). Instead, through her cartoons, she and her demon have a conversation.
I know I sound surprised. That’s because I used to do that and mostly ended up either angry or depressed. The conversations were battles, and my pocket demon won. However she didn’t win the war. I continue drawing, continue writing, continue finding ways to create things I love and enjoy.
In her cartoons, Lucy doesn’t see this relationship with her inner demon as a battle. Instead, they alternately talk, argue, discuss, yell, lay down ultimatums, and hug. Yes, there are hugs and compassion, both for herself and her demon.
This is new to me. My pocket demon is a part of me I have fought with throughout my life, not only in my creativity. I have battled, ignored, silenced without listening, trampled, and left her behind as often as possible. I’ve never thought to have compassion for my pocket demon, much less hug her.
My pocket demon does not ever stop trying to get me to hear her. I know, in her own weird way, she is attempting to help me and keep me safe from what she perceives as dangers.
Maybe I am doing as the wind, tossing something away before it ripens.
Maybe I need to do as Lucy does, and listen. Listening costs me nothing and I don’t have to agree with what I hear.
I know my pocket demon mirrors my emotions, usually fear. As Julia Cameron told me throughout her book The Artist’s Way, emotions are information. I am a master at hiding things from myself, especially emotions. Maybe I should listen, hear what my pocket demon has to say, and find out what is going on in the background that I am not seeing.
Honestly, not sure I want to.
Which tells me something is coming to the surface that I need to know.
Here’s an idea. Use Lucy’s book to talk with my pocket demon. Flip through the pages, find a cartoon that connects with my heart. Oops, all of them, but let’s do this one at a time.
Choose that one cartoon, and start writing. Have a conversation with my pocket demon, and let fly. No one else needs to read this. Toss the writing afterwards, if I want to, or maybe keep it because it’s the seed for a future blog post.
I can do this.
Pocket demon, sweetie, we are about to get cozy.
Thank you, Lucy, for sharing and showing me something I needed to see.
Julia Cameron’s books are rich with ideas on working with pocket demons aka the inner critic. I frequently use Supplies: A Troubleshooting Guide For Creative Difficulties, Penguin Books, 2003. https://juliacameronlive.com/
Kim Piper Werker’s book Make It Mighty Ugly, Sasquatch Books, 2014, is another resource loaded with ideas. My copy of Kim’s book is dog eared, underlined, highlighted, and stuck full of post it notes. https://www.kimwerker.com/
When all else fails, chocolate, good music, a comfy chair, and my latest fiction read.
My Mom worked at home. Three children, a husband on shift work, and a big house to care for. I remember her sitting at the kitchen table in the late afternoon, resting before beginning dinner preparations. Especially when my brother was a toddler roaring around the house, she looked worn through, and her day was still hours away from being finished.
She’d look at me and say, “My get-up-and-go got up and went.”
That’s exactly how I feel when I wake this morning. I had an excellent sleep, yet I feel worn out. I lie here, wondering what this is.
I don’t want to get up. I don’t want to start the day, even though my days are my own. I don’t feel like writing or drawing, unusual for me.
Wrapped and warm in my blankets, I let my mind wander, and then I understand.
I am emotionally exhausted.
I’ve been riding a roller coaster of grief and love, and it has worn me out. Worn me to the point of affecting my creativity.
My current creative projects are long ones, writing a book (years), and filling a sketchbook with drawings (months). Normally I love long projects. I enjoy the feelings of where I have been and where I am going, seeing how an idea expands, shifts, and finally fulfills itself and me.
Today, long is more than I can handle.
An idea pops in. How about shotgun creativity? Get the idea, aim, fire, done. Except, generally, firing a shotgun requires dealing with the resulting mess. Clean up is necessary. I live in a rural area. I know this.
How about creativity that is like laughter? Sudden. Surprising. A joyful explosion of fun and play. Nothing afterwards but feeling good.
Yes, this is my kind of creativity. Unexpected creativity that is joy.
I get out of bed and start my day. Eventually I am here at my studio table with my Mickey Mouse pencils and stack of loose leaf paper, writing.
Interesting that my get-up-and-go is back, and I know why.
I started exactly where I was, recognized and allowed my feelings to be what they were. I let my thoughts and imagination, and then my words, run where they would, no limits, no expectations. Whatever showed up was fine with me. With all this space to play, ideas showed up—shotgun creativity, and creativity like laughter.
Yesterday I was with friends, beginning a new group art project. We are each filling a sketchbook for the Brooklyn Art Library’s Sketchbook Project 2019.
The time spent was perfect fun, relaxing, inspiring, and energizing.
Mostly I work and play alone in my studio, and I choose this. I need and love my quiet alone time, in order to see and hear the ideas coming through, in order to draw and write. I also need and love time with friends and fellow creators.
Here is what I love about creating with my friends.
The conversation and ideas and actions that flow are always unexpected. We don’t create in a straight line. Instead, our ideas are starbursts. One of us offers a comment or question, and off we go in every direction.
We are not one plus one plus one equals three, although we can be, and have been, if needed. No, we are one plus one plus one equals cookie.
Laughter is frequent, as is opening our hearts and learning the shape of our souls.
What always fascinates me is this. We begin at the exact same point, but the flow from each of us is unique in theme and look and final destination. It does not matter that we all hear the same conversation, begin with similar art materials, play together in the same room.
It is our individual histories and life experiences, our separate needs and wants and focus that shape the vision each of us sees. This is what sparks the curiosity that arises to follow a specific path in creating. This is also what creates such fertile ground when we are together.
Together we are a garden, wild and joyful with growth, weeds fully included. Watered with tea (double chai yesterday) and lattes, nourished by sandwiches and soup and goodies. Held close in the sunny heat of friendship and shared creativity.
Nothing better than one plus one plus one equals cookie.
Presence: I can’t say I feel much like writing lately. What I have been doing, instead, is wandering through my art books, inviting line and colour to fill me up. I have a new sketchbook from the Brooklyn Art Library waiting for me, and no ideas yet around what this book needs from me. The ideas will come. They always do.
While I wait, I am reading and delighting in other artists’ work. Two days ago, the book was Takashi Murakami: The Octopus Eats Its Own Leg. Yesterday it was Arthur Rackham: A Life With Illustration, and today it’s Turner Monet Twombly: LaterPaintings. The book planned for tomorrow is Jim Dine: Flowers And Plants. My taste in artists ranges wide, the common elements being colour (as much as I can get) and line.
Absence: Grief keeps ambushing me. I’m okay, then I’m not okay, then I’m okay. Insert some rude words here.
I have discovered I have no patience with feeling sad for very long. After two or three hours, I am compelled to go find something to cheer me up again. I wondered if I am simply denying how I feel, but I think not, mainly because when the moment hits me again, I feel it fully. No one told me grief was a roller coaster, or maybe this is only my version of grieving.
Absence and presence: A few days ago, I hung a small drawing by the living room entryway. I created this drawing for my Dad when I was halfway through art school. It was his seventieth birthday, and I could see the influence of his example in the subject matter I chose for my class assignments, why I was fascinated by still life and the everyday objects I used in my life. The drawing was a thank you to him, my first art teacher.
Every time I walk by the drawing, I remember him.
And now there is no more to say.
In this post:
Book Takashi Murakami: The Octopus Eats Its Own Leg edited by Michael Darling, Skira Rizzoli Publications, New York, 2017.
Book Arthur Rackham: A Life With Illustration by James Hamilton, Pavilion Books, London, 2010.
Book Turner Monet Twombly: LaterPaintings by Jeremy Lewison, Tate Publishing, London, 2012.
Book Jim Dine: Flowers And Plants by Marco Livingstone, Harry N. Abrams Inc., 1994.
After writing last week’s post, I started thinking about what I have read in the past two months. This morning I walked around the house, stacking into my arms exactly those books I have played with lately. They are sitting next to me as I write, two tall piles on my studio work table. The non-fiction pile includes:
Story Genius by Lisa Cron, The Art Of Memoir by Mary Karr, Zen In The Art Of Writing by Ray Bradbury: all on writing process.
Let The Whole Thundering World Come Home by Natalie Goldberg, Terry Pratchett The Spirit Of Fantasy by Craig Cabell, Waking Up In Paris by Sonia Choquette: all memoir and biography.
Freehand by Helen Birch, Your Life In Color by Dougall Fraser: books to feed my artist self, on drawing, and using the energies of color.
Here is the fiction pile, which threatened to tip over and crash when I attempted to alphabetize it:
The Girl In The Tower by Katherine Arden, Sword and Sorceress XII by Marion Zimmer Bradley, Brief Cases by Jim Butcher, Babylon’s Ashes by James S. A. Corey, The Third Nero by Lindsey Davis, There Are No Ghosts In The Soviet Union by Reginald Hill.
Fated by Benedict Jacka, The Outsider by Stephen King, Three Moments Of An Explosion by China Mieville, The Shepherd’s Crown by Terry Pratchett, The Martian by Andy Weir, An Incomplete Revenge by Jacqueline Winspear.
You already know I love reading, and here are more reasons why.
In how-to books, I learn directly from their content, but I also learn how a writer captures or loses my interest in something that does not contain a obvious or inherent story line. They teach me structure, and the balance between telling and showing–information, instruction, questions, personal example. Ray Bradbury’s book, in particular, shouts his passion for writing. He proves that how-to can be disguised as story and reach into my heart as completely as fiction.
In memoir and biography, I learn how the writer chooses to structure their story, what they choose to tell and to withhold, and how the writer as an individual shows through, or not, in their writing. I learn the ways of telling and obscuring the truths of a life. Again and again I see how easy it is to fool myself into thinking I’ve reached the truth of an experience, when all my words have only bounced off the surface. I learn how I can be both blind and biased in what I choose to express, and admit that to the reader. I learn how I can be honest to the bone.
I love love love reading, and I love love love learning new things. Reading and learning all in one? Probably why I also started writing. These books show me if I want to write, I have to read.
Reading fiction is no less a teacher for me than reading non-fiction. Fiction sets a pushing need in me to write, and the stories continually challenge me to go beyond what is comfortable in what I create. These books set a demand within me that my writing reach their level of story, of structure, of flow. That’s a high bar, but every time I write I work my muscles. I and my words get stronger.
Some of these books swallow me whole, leave me dazed with story when I finish the last page, leave me sitting unable to move or think beyond the words still spinning in the air around me.
That is how I want to write. That is the writer I want to be.