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Creative Process

Creative Process Fierce Encouragement (for Writing + Life) Writing Groups

Thoughts on Conformity & Cherry-Picking

February 12, 2017

“I attribute much of [my] self-discovery and resultant empowerment to Jena. To the space she has always offered me and so many of us. A space inspired but not overly scripted, a space accepting and not conforming.”

Emily Nichols Grossi wrote these words late last week, in a beautiful statement about returning to the Get Your Muse On group.

For a long time, I thought I was cheating by not bringing more scriptedness and convention to my work as a coach and a group leader. It felt easy, and therefore surely I was getting away with something, right? (Like the board chair who once told me, when I was a 20-something executive director of a nonprofit with a newborn trying to find my way, that I was “cherry-picking.” Ouch.) Starting to trust that this was actually a legitimate and sincere approach to connecting with and supporting people’s growth continues to be profoundly freeing.

Yes, some folks bring all kinds of forms and evaluative exercises to the table. I am just not one of them. For me, showing up as myself, being real, and trusting my intuition — these are my power tools. I used to be afraid of using them, as if they might cause harm to myself or others. But what I’ve found is that the more harmful thing is to deny what I’m good at. When I do, I make it about ME instead of about YOU. Ironically, this is where my ego gets all in a twist. When I’m just here doing my thing, that’s when I can get out of the way and just appreciate the gift of calling this my work in the world.

So here is what I want to say to you:

Trust the parts that come easily to you and question the ones that are always a struggle. It doesn’t have to be hard to “count.” Fuck conforming. Come be you and write from that place. The world needs your voice now more than ever. Go ahead, pick all the cherries.

* * *

Do you love writing but long for a place to practice and play with other fabulous and non-conforming humans? Come get your muse on. Madhuri Pavamani, author of the paranormal romance trilogy “The Sanctum” (St. Martin’s Press) calls the Muses “the best place on the internet.” Join us today.

Creative Process The Resistance

On Creativity and the Resistance

January 30, 2017

“My friends, appreciating beauty in our world and fighting for justice are not mutually exclusive activities.” – Erin Coughlin Hollowell

The world is scary and so much is urgent. I am fending off images that must be epigenetically encoded in my DNA– men at the door kind of thing. Looking for elusive balance between staying informed and awake and getting work done and being present to others and taking care of my body and spirit. My desk is strewn with tax documents, a beautiful photo book I received today as a gift, a guide called “26 ways to be in the struggle beyond the streets,” and unpaid bills. I have a headache despite having taken an Alleve a couple of hours ago.

This morning, the kids had dentist appointments early — we had to leave the house at 7:30am. I thought about how keeping routines can be very grounding when the world is so unstable. Same goes for beauty, laughter, and small moments of ordinary connection. It’s when we lose ourselves to fear and fatigue that we become powerless; there have been some great pieces in the past few days about this, such as this one. Ironically, even reading pieces like this keep your body on high alert, so I think part of the long-haul here may be taking time to unplug.

This is not the same as checking out. After all, if we relinquish our wellbeing, what will fuel the resistance?

Earlier today, amidst mental images from Germany around 1938 that won’t stop flooding my consciousness, I found myself reflecting on the nature of creative work during times of political, national, indeed global crisis on an unprecedented scale. We can learn from history, yes, and at the same time there, there is no roadmap for this moment.

Some artists and writers will turn their gaze in the direction of resistance, and thank God for this. And some will not; there will be poets and essayists and journalers and journalists and novelists who continue their creative work, without an explicit focus on the current state of affairs. Others still may be seriously doubting the importance of continuing at all.

We need all the voices now, and any hierarchy here will only fragment our efforts.

I turn to Pirke Avot, Ethics of Our Fathers for guidance:

Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world’s grief. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it.

I consider the voices of folks in my current writing groups. So many of us finding it difficult to concentrate at best, and questioning the purpose of our work at worst. There’s the conventional wisdom that none of this is accidental; the current administration is clearly intent on overwhelming us, hitting so many fronts at once, from cabinet appointments to sweeping travel bans to purging the State Department; I’m sure they are depending on us becoming exhausted and uncoordinated. We will prove them wrong.

Our creative work — whatever form that may take for you — is more important now than ever. Do not allow this insanity to overtake your creativity. Let your commitment to sitting down and showing up not shrink, but grow in direct proportion to the madness around us.

Creative Process Fierce Encouragement (for Writing + Life)

A Side of Breakthroughs with Extra Ketchup

January 23, 2017

I’ve been staring at a blank screen on and off for well over an hour. I tell people, just start, and keep going. But fuck me, it’s hard. I could start and delete and start and delete — this is where the “keep going” part comes in. But keeping going is not easy when nothing is flowing and you are doubting that you have anything worthwhile to say at all. Couldn’t the world use more silence? How is it contributing to write this kind of unedited dreck? I just listened to Julie Daley on Facebook Live talking about the status quo and about creativity and how creativity is so much more than what we relegate to what we call “The Arts” but really life itself. Life force.

And, there is also this balance — one I’m so aware of — between listening and speaking. Reading and writing. Taking in and adding to. I share my practice in part because it’s the behind-the-scenes stuff we too rarely get to see, of how creativity actually happens. It happens in fits and starts. Sometimes it’s insufferably stuck-feeling and you need to step away and get into some other state, some beta state let’s say, like walking or showering or reading, where your creative brain can catch a breath instead of you breathing down its back, demanding output. It doesn’t work like that. We are not machines. Creativity-on-demand doesn’t exist. Can you imagine, if we could just put in our order:

Hello, yes, I’d like three chapters of my novel today, two epiphanies, and a side of breakthroughs with extra ketchup?

I came down with a cold today, a bad one. It came on like bam, out of the blue. I worked and napped — a fairly usual Monday. And then I stared and started and deleted and thought, this whole start and keep going thing may be bunk. It doesn’t work. It’s awful and stupid and I hate it. Ever thrown a tantrum and realized it had nothing to do with anything and maybe was a sign to wave a white flag of surrender to effort and try again tomorrow?

It is ok to try again tomorrow. It is ok not to be creative all the time. It is ok to read, to listen, to absorb, to ring it all out in a hot bath or a cold sweat, and to notice the ways in which sitting still is squirmy. Where creativity is in its dormancy, where beauty is the growing mountain of Kleenex telling you to get in bed, sister, and get some sleep. We have miles and miles to go, and so much to learn. If we worry so much about saying it right or waiting until it’s perfectly crafted, we might never step foot outside our comfort zones again — which is exactly where the world needs us.

Can both be true? I think of the old “two Jews, three opinions” axiom and chuckle. Yes. Both can be true. Be gentle with your creativity, your spirit, your words — but ask a lot of them, just as you might with your own children. Love means holding each other to the highest expectations, while forgiving each other’s constant and inevitable failings. And I’m here writing, not deleting, because I love you and this life and this work and this world. And because the world needs your patience and your urgency. Your imperfect offerings. Your best effort and your unwavering commitment to growing things that feed others — literally and creatively.

Now let’s order another basket of fries. I’m buying.

Creative Process Fierce Encouragement (for Writing + Life)

Works in Progress

January 18, 2017

Photo: Les Anderson

I am a work in progress dressed in the fabric of a world unfolding. – Ani DiFranco

On days like this, when I’ve started and deleted three different blog posts, it can be easy to feel discouraged or doubtful. All or nothing thinking spills over, threatening to flood my thoughts. I take this a signal to step back and give it a rest, and turn to reading other people’s work instead. I have no idea what I will write next; what will have legs, what will stand up on its own two feet and dance a two-step around the kitchen.

It’s time to pick Pearl up from Hebrew School. Our synagogue has not received any bomb threats today, a fact that is made remarkable only by the fact that 20 JCCs on the East coast did receive bomb threats today, and this is the second time this month there’s been a spate of such calls. Aviva runs in to sign her out while I wait in the car. Parents and kids leave the building in twos and threes. I realize that every time I’ve entered the building since November, I’ve scanned the exterior for graffiti. For swastikas. It seems more like a “when” than an “if” at this point, a fact that makes me angry and frightened.

One of the failed blog posts I wrote and scrapped earlier was about parenting and time going by and kids growing up. It’s the kind of thing I would have written 10 years ago, and while it was fine and nice, it felt stale and safe. I don’t want to write safe and I don’t want to write stale.

If there is one thing I’ve learned about writing, it’s this: Not every blog post is a winner. Not every freewrite has hidden gems. Not every poem makes you weep.

I know there are writers who only share with the world the pieces that do hit a home run, whatever that means — who would never share unedited pieces or drafts or one-offs. I share so much of the latter that sometimes I wind up perverting my own practice.

Perfectionism is sneaky like that.

I want to wrap this up neatly with something inspiring, like “it gets easier.” But fuck that noise; platitudes don’t help us get stronger, and neat endings certainly don’t help me expand my ability to show up even when the writing just ain’t flowing. Nope. There’s no pretty ending here, no ribbon, no gift wrap. What I do know is this: I don’t give up nearly as easily as I used to. And if I waited for perfection, you would never read another word of mine, no exaggeration.

Real life happens every day; great writing happens sometimes, if we’re lucky — and if we take our seat, even when it doesn’t. And days like this? They are a gift in their own way, reminding me, as Ani wrote, that the writing, like life itself, is a work in progress, ever unfolding.

Now pull up a chair. At least we can order another espresso and do this thing together.

Creative Process

Walking on Water and Writing as Dowsing

January 2, 2017
Photo: Sarah Benoit Weir

Photo: Sarah Benoit Weir

When I was a kid, my friend C. from Buffalo moved to a small Boston suburb right around the time my family moved to Western Massachusetts. Like any moment of profound change, my memories from that first year are densely concentrated, like a nebula; I go to touch one and my hand moves right through its gases and vapors. But sometimes, a word will become available, something more solid to grab hold of.

“Aqueduct” is one of those words, from 1983 or ’84. C. lived on a pretty, quiet street with her mom and older brother. Her mom and my mom were pregnant with us at the same time, and there is a famous-in-our-family photo of me and C., age three or so, looking miniature in a giant armchair, each of us holding a book and looking seriously at the camera.

Our move to Massachusetts meant a somewhat rural existence overtook an urban one. It was disorienting to say the least, and I felt lonely in my new fifth grade class. On a visit to see C. and her family in the eastern part of the state, I remember just two things: Her brother had painted the walls of his room black, and I learned a new word.

Down the street from their house — I think it was a dead-end — was an aqueduct. I’d never heard of an aqueduct and had no idea what it meant. C. explained to me that there was water under the ground. You’d think that at age nine or ten, I would have known this already, and maybe I did. But there was something about naming it, and her description — vague and mysterious — that lit my imagination.

I tried to picture it, this water. Was it flowing, river-like? Was it a lake, so many feet under? We were actually *walking* on water, I thought to myself, as we crossed the field.

Deep underground places where water flows freely. No wonder the notion appealed to me; even then I was looking to tap something inside of myself. My dowsing rods were my voice and my pen: I literally sang and wrote, sometimes bringing myself to tears whose source I couldn’t name but that I knew had to do with God and my deepest self — perhaps one and the same.

– – – – –

This morning, I looked up the definition of “aqueduct,” and saw that for more than thirty years, I’ve been misunderstanding this word. From Websters:

“a conduit or artificial channel for conducting water from a distance, usually by means of gravity”

or

“a bridgelike structure that carries a water conduit or canal across a valley or over a river.”

It turns out that all those years ago, C. and I were not walking on water after all, at least not in the way I’d so vividly imagined it. Yes, there was water beneath us, but the aqueduct itself was created not by nature or mystery but by a human feat of engineering. The aqueduct was not below ground, but above it! And just like that, “aqueduct” loses some of its former cachet.

What this newly clarified definition doesn’t change though, is the quest. The way writing remains a form of listening for something inaudible; just as you’d hold a divining rod in your hands to find untapped wellsprings, a pen moving silently over paper is feeling its way to some source, something that makes it vibrate with truth. You know when you’ve touched it, for something in you has found sustenance.

And in this way, maybe the writing is in fact an aqueduct — a container, a bridge to channel and cross that which flows beneath the surface, unseen and unguided.

When we write, we find a way to guide the invisible upward, where we can drink from it and bathe in it. Your words, your memories, your underground springs — these are precious resources. May they be of use, to you and to the world.