Usually when I write my morning pages, words show up for the blog post. But not today.
Luckily, I know what to do. Okay, I say to myself, start where I am. This is advice taken to heart, from both Natalie Goldberg and Julia Cameron. Wise words born of their years of creating, and generously shared with all.
Start where I am.
The last three days my creative energy has been focused on the sketchbook I’m doing (halfway through!) for the Brooklyn Art Library’s Sketchbook Project 2018. I’ve been happily playing with ideas and art materials, choosing what speaks to me, and creating it in the sketchbook.
Today I need to change gears, from image to word, and I feel stuck.
I go through fallow periods, both long and short, when the artist and writer in me rests. This used to terrify me. Panic. Maybe I’ve stopped being an artist, stopped being a writer. Maybe I’ve used up all my ideas. I’ll never draw, never write again.
I have to have patience.
Patience is not my strong suit.
To soothe myself, I pull favourite books from my studio library and read about other artists and writers. I experience their work, drawings, paintings, essays, and musings. I notice how this colour shocks the colour next to it, how this phrase stops me breathless in its beauty. I borrow other people’s creativity, while I wait for mine to rise again. Their creativity gives me joy, and shifts me from fear into appreciation and possibility.
Creativity thrives in possibility. Ideas show up, triggered by images and words that shine beauty into my heart. Sooner or later, I am creating again.
Today the fallow period lasts a whole thirty minutes. Hardly a test to my patience. Definitely not enough time to go into panicked drama queen mode, thank goodness.
Thank you, Natalie and Julia, for your advice. Thank you, every artist and writer who have lent me your creativity through the power of your images and words. Thank you for sharing. I am blessed to know you.
In this post:
When soothing my patience through a fallow period, I especially love:
I’m sitting in my dining room, on a camp chair, my laptop and papers and pens on our camp table. My iphone is tuned to Jazz24 for background music. The bedroom down the hall holds an air mattress and bedding, clock radio on an upturned box. My son’s bedroom downstairs has identical furnishings.
The dining room window is open to a warm breeze, sun, blue sky. I can hear the hummingbirds talking. They are nesting in the white lilac next to the house. Last year they were in the holly tree at the far corner of the yard. I won’t see the babies learning to fly this year. I won’t be here.
This home is pretty much empty. Everything was moved to storage this past weekend. I have a week of camping out in my house, and then on to the new house-home-studio. (Excited? Yes!!!)
I am finding it interesting how little I need to be comfortable. And interesting how the floors and walls have become a kind of furniture.
I am thinking, these past few days, about doing long work. The big projects that take time to come together and mature. This home project is a big one.
Becoming an artist and writer have been big projects. More than big. More like continual. Can’t help it. I keep discovering new things to play with.
In all the packing, junking out, giving away, I uncovered a box full of old morning pages journals. Pages written when I began this I-am-an-artist journey.
Most of these journals I fed to the woodstove. Letting go of old beliefs, angst (there was lots of that), limits I’d built around my creativity, limits I’d built around me.
I read a few pages here and there, as I fed them to the fire.
What I noticed—the Cat in these pages is no longer me. Someone else’s story. The incremental shifts really do add up to change in a good way.
As much as I love creating, it was a battle for me at first. I had to fight my way past massive fear and anxiety. Fear of making mistakes or a mess. Fear of making bad art. Whatever bad art is, I never did define it. Anxiety over wasting art supplies (read ‘money’) because I’d screwed up a drawing. Fear I was fooling myself; I wasn’t really an artist but no one had told me. All fear.
What saved me was love. When I fought past the fear, I loved creating. Loved the ideas that grew. Loved the surprises that arrived in my drawings. Loved the inspiration sharing with other artists of all disciplines. Loved what I discovered about myself through the creative process. All love.
My love of creating was bigger than my fear of screwing up and making bad art and being a fool.
Inside the front cover of a journal, ten months after graduating from art school, I wrote notes to myself:
“You have to give the drawing everything, all of it, and now.”
“There must be something rattling in the brain and trying to fall out of the pen.”
“Okay Cat, tell me what I’m keeping out of these pages?”
“Imagine what an artist I could be with a heart fully open and aware (this terrifies me).”
“Do the long work, and trust.”
I read these words here, today, and realize despite the daily fear and anxiety, there was wisdom coming through. I did the long work. I trusted. And now here I stand. Artist and Writer.
I held onto the love in my creating as a life line. Love gave me a path through the fear.
Love helped me trust there was a way through.
Sometimes, when my love even now is not big enough, I borrow love from other creators. I play recordings of Natalie Goldberg and Julia Cameron reading from their books. I randomly pull books from my studio library and leaf through other artists’ creativity. I leave books open by my easel and on my writing table. Courage and determination are contagious. Others’ images and words hold and inspire me while I walk through my fear and into creation.
During my final year of art school, I borrowed love from poet Pablo Neruda. His words fueled my graduating body of work. Imagine writing poems to a tomato, a pair of trousers, a watch. I borrowed his idea, drawing a pile of carefully folded laundry, a teacup and spoon, a pear and knife, my favourite fuchsia-coloured brocade vest.
On that same front inside cover of the journal, I’d copied some of his poetry.
“The days aren’t discarded or collected, they are bees
that burned with sweetness or maddened
the sting; the struggle continues,
the journeys go and come between honey and pain.
No, the net of the years doesn’t unweave: there is no net.
They don’t fall drop by drop from a river: there is no river.
I’m sitting in a rowboat. The boat is all wood. We, the boat and I, are floating on a deep pond. A fir and cedar forest rises beyond. The water is rimmed by a grey rock beach. The boat and I are still.
I watch a small, black and white cat step from the forest, across the beach, and into the water.
The cat swims, and then dives deep. ‘I didn’t know cats could do that,’ I say.
I can see her, as though I am under water too. The cat catches a large fish in her mouth, swims back to the surface, and returns to the beach.
She eats the fish. She looks very satisfied with herself.
I write my morning pages after breakfast. Purple ink today. It is snowing again. The thermometer says -10 degrees Celsius. The forecast says expect the same through this coming weekend. Hmmm. My eyes are beginning to get hungry for green.
I write out my dream. I hear my voice again. ‘I didn’t know cats could do that.’ I again feel my astonishment at something unexpected and new. Since when do cats not only swim, but swim underwater?
Tigers swim, I write in my pages. So do jaguars. Why not small, black and white cats?
Why not me? I am Cat. I love swimming, and my dad taught me to dive. I know how to dive cleanly and well.
If I dive deep, I will catch the words. I will catch my book.
I sit very still. My pen has stopped moving. Exactly what Natalie says not to do.
The dream is talking to me. I start writing again, to catch the words.
This second draft I am creating—I need to dive deep. The dream says I’ve only been paddling along the surface, even staying safely on the beach in some parts of the story.
If I want my book to be fully realized, and I do, I can’t stay on the surface. The book isn’t here. The words and feelings I want are down below.
The pond is deep and clear and full of flashing, silver words. I love words. There is nothing to fear. I know how to swim and dive and imagine and write. I am good at all these things.
The dream says, take a breath, and dive.
The dream says, cats can do this.
Natalie Goldberg’s first rule of writing practice is ‘Keep your hand moving.’ She also says ‘Shut up and write’. I’ve invented a new writing rule for myself, ‘Shut up and dive.’ All of Natalie’s books are my favourites. You likely already know Writing Down The Bones. So go read The True Secret of Writing: Connecting Life With Language, Atria Books, 2013. Really, the true secret of writing is in there. Natalie spills the beans. Thank you, Natalie, for showing me a way of being a writer, and spilling the beans. http://nataliegoldberg.com/
There is a book by Tim O’Brien, The Things They Carried, about soldiers in Vietnam during the war.
I only know this book through another book, Thunder and Lightning: Cracking Open the Writer’s Craft by Natalie Goldberg. On page 127 of my hardcover copy, there is an excerpt from Tim’s book. And then Natalie’s words, talking about this and the truth of a life, and saving yourself through writing. I’ve marked this passage with pencil, and folded over the top corner of the page. What Tim wrote sticks with me.
So now I am wondering, what do I carry?
This is a huge question. My answer could go any direction. I decide to frame the question. As writer and artist, what do I carry?
There is the obvious reply. Paper, pens, pencils. But I want to go underneath this question. What do I carry that no one sees, until and unless I choose to show them?
I am thinking of things that are invisible, intangible. I cannot say weightless because these things carry great weight.
The biggest thing I carry. Awareness. Looking outward into what surrounds me, my moment-to-moment environment touched through my senses. Looking inward. Feelings. Thoughts. Memories. Recording what has been received. Then being aware yet again, in a different way, as I marry outer and inner awareness, and create word and image.
Curiosity. Curiosity is forever with me, perched on one shoulder or the other. Permanently five years old and interested in everything. Her favourite questions. ‘What is that?’ ‘Why?’ ‘What can I do with it?’ Curiosity lets me experience as the child I am inside. Lets me come to my life with heart and mind open, allowing, and fascinated. Lets me experience differently.
Imagination. Inward play sparked by outward seeing and by Curiosity. Sparked by the questions Curiosity asks, especially ‘what can I do with it’. This question is a playground for my imagination.
Creativity. My ever-present need to make stuff and share it. Imagination is the playground. Creativity is the laboratory, petting zoo, and test kitchen. Experiments happen here. The ‘what can I do with it’ becomes ‘what if I try this, then this, or this’, continued ad infinitum. Think pi with its never ending, never repeating play of numbers beyond the decimal point. That is my creativity in action.
I carry something Natalie Goldberg says is her great talent. Strong determination. Twenty years ago, the Director at the Victoria College of Art looked at my student admission portfolio, then at me, and said, ‘Stubborn.’ I said to him, ‘Determined.’ He said, ‘You start in September.’
Finally, I carry love. For myself, for others, for my world, for what I create. Love is at the base of everything I am and everything I do. Without love, passion, none of this would exist.
Tim O’Brien’s characters carried things that kept them alive, more than just physically. Things that gave a small degree of joy, kept heart, spirit, and mind alive in a place of overwhelming chaos and sudden oblivion.
What do I carry?
I carry things that ensure the writer and artist in me survive. The things I carry keep away chaos and oblivion. They ensure joy lives in the whole of me.
Paper. Pens. Pencils. Awareness. Curiosity. Imagination. Creativity. Strong determination. Love. And that is enough.
In this post:
Tim O’Brien, book The Things They Carried, Houghton Mifflin, 1990.
Guess what? My internal critic is back. Yes, she’s back, rather like the Terminator but not half so interesting.
I should say, she is trying to come back. I am not letting her. There is choice involved here, and I am using it. The word to my internal critic is NO.
The thing about my internal critic is she tries to make me feel I have no power and no choice. She tells me how badly I am doing, how I don’t possess the skills or experience I need. How what I am creating is all wrong. It is ugly, or stupid, or been done before or better by others. It’s not worth anyone’s time and I’m not worth anyone’s time. I’ll embarrass myself, family, friends.
Putting it plainly, my internal critic is a bitch. No sugar-coating it. A bitch who is attempting to keep me safe by stopping me from creating and from creating publicly. She is all fear. There is no love in anything she says. Safety is not the same as love.
What I have recently discovered is that my internal critic actually serves a purpose for me. When she shows up, I know I am not standing in my authentic self as artist, writer, creativity coach, blogger. She tells me when I am not claiming and using my power as the creator I am.
She tells me when I am working and creating from my head and not my heart. My best, strongest, most expansive creations come from my heart and love. Passion. My head is brilliant at organizing, planning, structure, logic, and detail. I need and treasure what it does, but what it does must be partnered by my heart and love.
I know why my internal critic has been especially active the last two weeks. I am moving into a big creation right now, taking a major dream and making it real and public. Something this important and integral to me feels both amazing and scary. My internal critic has noticed and turned up her volume in order to protect me from getting hurt.
She is trying to stop me.
Stopping? Not going to happen.
Not creating this dream would hurt me most.
So, my internal critic, I thank you for voicing your noisy, negative concern. Believe it or not, I love you for helping me see.
Here is how it will go. The creator in me feels and knows where I am going and what dream I am making real. The creator in me feels and knows the possibilities that are here shining before me. The creator in me knows my power and how to use it.
This is what I choose. My power is love. I make my dream real.
You will know from my posts that Julia Cameron, Natalie Goldberg, and Lynda Barry are my creativity heroes. In their books, they talk about the internal critic, how it affects them, struggling with it and what they do about it, how they move past her or him (or it) to get to their creating. Their stories have taught me how to work with my internal critic, and how to get past to where the creating is. If you are curious, my ‘Resources I Use’ page, https://catfinkknowtrustchoosecreate.com/resources-i-use/ , has more information about these awesome creators and their books.
My studio window is open. It is a gorgeous day. Sun. Blue sky. Sweet warm air. My bamboo chimes are moving with the wind, sounding between the calls of robins and chickadees and songbirds I can’t identify but whose voices I love.
Perfect weather. Or maybe not. My internal writing weather, up until this moment, was all ice, frozen way below zero.
In other words, for the last two hours I have not been practising the art of creativity. I have been practising the art of procrastination, and doing it well.
As a direct result, I have renewed a studio rule for myself. First write the blog post. Then, and only then, turn on the laptop and play in the email and the internet.
I already knew this. If I turn on my laptop before I write, I am lost. My email inbox and the internet in general are a wonderful and devious distraction. Even as I play in them, I know what I am doing—putting off the writing.
Why? I love writing. Totally true. I am not a writer who prefers having written. I am a writer who prefers being in the action of writing, being in the energy and process of creating. Having written is fun and satisfying, but being in writing is where the whole of me sings. I am in love when I am writing. Joyful. Playing. It is work, yes, my work, and it fills me when I am in the midst of it. Work that is play.
So why the two hours of mucking around on my laptop and putting off the writing?
Most of what I have been doing the last four weeks has been needed and necessary, but most of it has not been writing. I am out of practice is the simplest way of saying it. When I get out of practice, my internal critic attempts a coup to stop me ever writing (or creating) again.
She is sneaky, my internal critic. This morning she got me to turn on my laptop to do some essential research. Ha ha. There should be quotation marks around the word essential.
She is a know-it-all, opinionated and bossy. She used to be able to stop me in my tracks, keep me away from the page and from the easel. Now she only manages to occasionally slow me down for a couple of hours. My love of creating is stronger than any fears she can throw in my way.
Over the years of creating, I have found ways to distract and weaken my internal critic. Here are two that work well for me.
Last week, Wednesday, I am pulling books from my studio shelves. Preparation to lead a writing workshop on Friday.
I pull down Living Color by Natalie Goldberg. I have had this book since 1997. Have read it through at least four times, and thumbed through it many times more. Inspiration, from writer to writer, from artist to artist.
I open the book and a piece of folded, loose leaf paper falls to the floor. I pick it up, open the page. In pencil, all caps, printed across the top margin, underlined, in my hand—what I learned from Natalie’s book ‘Living Color’.
Mystified. I don’t recall writing this. I did, obviously. After the first reading of Nat’s book, or the fourth. I sit down and read.
Here is Natalie’s wisdom distilled through mine, writer to writer, artist to artist:
‘Finish every piece, even when I think I just doomed it with my last marks or words. Take off from there into a different relationship with the drawing or the writing.
Nothing I ever create will hold that same intensity of joy I feel while I am creating it. The joy is inside me.
Trust and act on how I feel (my artist’s instinct).
Slow down and look.
If I really know a thing, it is there in my work whether I can see it or not.
I’m reading Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert. Just past halfway through. I love this book. A conversation about creativity and creating and living a creative life. There are parts of this book I wish I had written. I didn’t because they did not come to me. I am glad they came to Elizabeth, and glad she has shared them.
Elizabeth says let yourself live a creative life. She gives you permission, if you need it, on page 90. What she is really saying—you do not need anyone’s permission. Just create a life for yourself out of what you love.
How do you make a creative life?
You let inspiration and ideas in.
And where do ideas and inspiration come from?
Elizabeth’s ideas visit and stay if she is ready and available. Inspiration, looking for a partner who is ready to play. If she isn’t ready or available, inspiration moves on to someone else. So, not really her ideas. Rather, ideas and inspiration moving in the air around her, around all of us, all the time.
Natalie Goldberg says the same thing in a different way. Inspiration and capability as the water table below the surface of the earth. It’s always there and we tap into it through our effort and action.
Julia Cameron talks of dropping down the well when she is engaged in listening through writing. Moving below normal consciousness into the stream of ideas that live below the surface and flow through all of us. Alternatively, Julia describes inspiration and ideas as radio waves, always being broadcast on all frequencies.
This is where my ideas come from. Inspiration Radio. I can tune in any time. It is always broadcasting. 24/7, as my son describes it.
I love this. Ideas and inspiration are always available to all of us. Always flowing, always moving around and beneath us.
How do we connect with this flow?
Elizabeth’s words: ready and available.
Natalie’s words: effort and action.
Julia’s words: engaged in listening through writing.
Action. We connect through our action. I am writing and drawing, and my action is an invitation to inspiration to connect with me. I am open, ready, available, tapped in, listening. I am saying, come and play with me.
I am not waiting for inspiration to show up first, and then acting on it. I am acting first, and this opens a space for the ideas to come in.
There is something else going on as well.
When I am writing and drawing, I am fully present. I’m not in my mind, thinking over yesterday or planning tomorrow. I am right here, right now, with the words and lines and colours. With the feel of the pen and the pastel in my hand, and the sound they make as I move them across the paper. I am in my senses and my body, and in my heart too, because I am doing what I love.
I am sure that love is an equal part of this. I’d much rather spend time with someone who loves me, and I will bet that Ideas and Inspiration feel the same way.
There is another piece, before the action and the listening and the loving.
Give yourself big permission. Elizabeth says we don’t need anyone else’s permission to create. Absolutely totally true. We don’t. But most of us need to give ourselves permission.
Give ourselves big permission to play. To waste time and materials. To make ugly art and bad writing and sing out of tune. Give ourselves big permission to hear the crazy idea and the huge inspiration, and big permission to say this is mine and I know we can create this. And then do it.
Ideas and inspiration are always here for us. Learning how to connect with them, partner them, play together and create something from what looks like nothing–this is the magic. And we are all magicians. A creative life is ours for the making.
Say it out loud and with love.
I am a creator. I am a magician.
Inspiration is listening, and she knows an invitation when she hears one.
In this post, books full of inspiration and ideas (and don’t just read about creativity, do creativity—it’s actually a verb, not a noun.):