Tag: Creativity

22May

[De]Constructing Art

There are the destroyers—

the rejection letter

the pregnant pause

the allegiance to duty

the comparative streak

the checking of stats

the boxing-in of style

the commercialization

the resignation

the self-doubt, self-deprecation, self-imposed silence

the slow drift away from joy

And there are the restorers—

the swell of intuition

the note of kinship

the devotion to whimsy

the confident voice

the savoring of time

the releasing of status quo

the authenticity

the intention

the self-care, self-celebration, self-administered grace

the alchemy of water and light into color

19Mar

Calling It Art

A blogger’s job description, as I see it, is to curate life. We each set up a space reflecting our own personality and artistic or professional interests, and then we cull from our lives what we consider worthy of display. We frame moments and arrange lines of thinking just so, highlighting unique shades of relevance in the world around us and hoping to strike particular chords—humor, empathy, outrage, optimism. We notice and present and then stand in the wings surreptitiously analyzing visitors’ facial expressions (or traffic stats) for clues as to how our art is being interpreted.

I imagine that the vast majority of us blog for the same reason that every artist creates art: we are fundamentally drawn to it. Curating our own little life exhibit relaxes us or engages us or keeps us intentional or gives us community, and we glow a bit brighter as we put up each new post. Or perhaps it’s all in my imagining, this great pure-hearted blogosphere conjured from the same daydreamscape as true love in seventh grade. It wouldn’t be the first time.

I tend to romanticize things I know little about, and I prefer it that way. I don’t want to know that Reese Witherspoon and Ryan Phillippe got divorced or that The White Stripes disbanded or that Van Gogh shot himself in a haze of despair less than a year after completing The Starry Night. I want to believe in the longevity of beauty, no matter what common sense says to the contrary, and the same goes for blogging. I don’t want to notice the joy and originality slipping out of career bloggers’ writing or to read the disclaimers at the bottom of sponsored posts. I don’t want to think that the glow I feel in showing up here could be doused at any time in the soapy residue of burst illusions.

I suppose I’m most afraid of what happens when art turns into obligation. I’m feeling hints of it here today, at my kitchen table, worlds away from any true constraint to the craft. We’ve had an intense year so far with few exhibit-worthy moments, but I’m driven to write anyway, to create something relevant and aesthetic and new, so I turn up the pressure on myself to notice beauty! notice a positive insight! notice something, dammit!

I sit at my kitchen table sweeping my eyes over the calcium stains on our sink, the uneven row of spices on our mantle, and the alphabet magnets wedged like unfortunate mechanics under the fridge, trying to prod my surroundings into resonating with me even as I know that this is how it happens, how a curator turns into a busker. There is only the thinnest of lines between taking inspiration from everyday life and trying to force meaning where there is none, and I am most likely to trip over that line when writing turns into a burden.

Keeping art art—that’s the challenge, isn’t it? When all our Western Civilization instincts are demanding that we justify output with results? When our work ethic isn’t accustomed to waiting around for a flighty muse? Every day that I sit down to write, I find myself face to face with a web of conflicting motivations interspersed with the usual doubts. Should I write even if I have nothing pressing to say? On the other hand, should I let a lack of immediate inspiration keep me from writing? Should my guide be a schedule or my own fickle mind? Does everything I publish have to be profound? What would make this time and effort worth it (whatever it is)?

It’s no wonder the original joy of creating tends to slink out the door while I’m busy untangling. This isn’t the first time I write about my internal struggles with writing, and I’m positive it won’t be the last. I am well endowed in doubts and guilts and worries (and lions and tigers and bears! oh my!), and working through them again and again is a crucial part of the process for me. It allows me to create the glowing displays, the beauty. However, sometimes an honest exhibit of my life also entails showing you behind the scenes, framing the unpolished shadow side of what ends up on your screen. Sometimes curating life means opening the doors to an unfinished mess and calling it art.

~~~

What helps you to keep art art in your life? 

30Jan

Why I Swore Off Social Networking… and Came Right Back Again

Last week, the words wouldn’t come. I tried, planting myself in my computer chair and waging blinking contests with the cursor while time ticked away. I tucked a notepad and pen into my gym bag. I took inspiring books along on errands, just in case the orbits of opportunity and creativity finally decided to align while I was out.

They didn’t.

It wasn’t that daily life wasn’t providing enough material. On the contrary, my brain was wound so tightly with big decisions, big goals, big feelings, and the big events in loved ones’ lives that I felt like the first scattered trembles of a supernova. Writing is usually how I ward off eminent explosion, but the words wouldn’t come… and to be honest, my break from blogging felt a lot less like spelunking my way to clear-mindedness and a lot more like somersaulting through space.

~~~

One of the Big Thoughts I’ve been working through this month has to do with online community. I’ve always hated reading Facebook statuses like “I’m sick of Facebook” or tweets proclaiming “So long, Twitterverse.” Besides the obvious irony of swearing off social media ON SOCIAL MEDIA, those kinds of statuses make me feel personally rebuffed, as if those friends had grown disgusted with the idea of staying in touch.

You can understand then why I cringed so violently a couple of weeks ago when I caught myself telling Dan, “I’m thinking of quitting social networks.” I could not have felt more hypocritical in that moment, but I had just spent twenty minutes reading up on the newest controversy everyone was talking about, and the end result was the same gritty black aura of criticism and outrage that so often descends on me when I click the Facebook logo. Wait, he said WHAT? How can she possibly think that? Oh no you didn’t just go there. Why would they think anyone wants to know THAT? What the hell…? I can’t believe…! Don’t get me started… etc. etc. forever and ever amen.

The truth was, I no longer liked myself on Facebook. I hated my immediate impulse to form judgments about my friends based on a parade of links, likes, and one-sentence status updates, and it stung to realize how much time I could lose in a day chasing down controversy. Beyond that, I realized how much of my self-worth I was hanging on that same haphazard system—tallying up likes, strategizing the best times of day to post links, and even brainstorming blog topics based on how much buzz they might be able to generate. I was basing my online interactions around seeking and withholding approval, and it was poisoning my creativity at its relational heart.

So I told Dan I was considering giving it all up—deleting my accounts, turning off blog comments, disabling social media plug-ins, and just creating in happy isolation. No more crowding my mind with others’ opinions. No more reliance on instant validation. If I were no longer networking, I would be free to publish my writing and then just walk away; the idea sounded glorious and not at all like previous friends’ decisions to swear off social media. After all, I wasn’t going to post about it.

~~~

Last week, I quietly stayed offline, alone with my Big Thoughts and the space to write about them without agenda… but the words wouldn’t come. What I’d thought would feel like freedom ended up feeling more like alienation, and it wasn’t validation I was missing; it was interconnectedness. It was Hey, I saw you’re having a hard week; can we bring over dinner? and Don’t worry; my babies went through that stage too, and I promise you’ll survive, and Wow, I never would have thought of things like that. I didn’t miss the controversy, but I keenly felt the lack of others’ worlds, your worlds, broadening and inspiring my own. Say what they will about how friendships conducted online are pale shadows of those lived face-to-face, social media protestors can’t explain away the very real and lasting value it has brought to my life.

In my disillusionment over the negative aspects of social networking, I had lost sight of the positive, and my week of distance sent me sailing straight into this: Encouragement matters, whether it is offered across a coffee table or across a series of IP addresses. If “encouragement” is too churchy a word (is it?), swap it out with “positive connectedness” or “affirming relationships” or simply “friendship.” The point is that what we have here counts, and while stats and retweets need to take on a much less important role in my life, that doesn’t mean the people behind them need to as well.

Author Emily Wieranga’s blogging resolutions ring especially relevant on this side of the to-leave-or-not-to-leave debate, where I know so clearly what I don’t want but so little of what I do:

“never write just for the sake of writing…
never not write out of fear of not having anything to say…
never comment on another person’s blog simply in the hopes of having them read mine…
continue to keep the comments section open, as a way to spark conversation”
(You can read the rest over on her blog.)

I suspect I’m signing myself up for a year-long, if not life-long struggle to find the balance between caring about the people in my community and not letting their opinions—even the validating ones—define me. I want to find that slim ribbon of perspective that lets me value your thoughts and learn from them and even catch ablaze on them without being consumed in the process. On the other end of it, I need to root my purpose for writing in something far deeper and more fundamental to my identity than what kind of reaction it will generate while still being sensitive to all of you who read it. Basically, my mindset needs to work on its fine motor skills.

~~~

Back in the early days of blogging (I started eleven years ago, which now seems positively prehistoric), I don’t remember any debate over authenticity vs. boundaries, apart from Dooce losing her job and advising the rest of us to “BE YE NOT SO STUPID.” In fact, I don’t remember any drama at all over post content; my blogging friends and I wrote 1) to flex our creative muscles, and 2) to be a community. We would get together at coffee shops and read our favorite entries out loud, then go back to our dorm rooms and blog about it. Some of us sported Blogger t-shirts. It was pretty awesome.

Today, blogging has the potential to be so much more—income, book-fodder, recognition—and it’s easy to absorb the idea that those outcomes are the reason we’re here. The pressure is on to come up with exceptionally written, SEO-friendly posts in our signature styles for our chosen niches with enough punch to go viral and enough relatability to attract loyal followers (ideally those in the publishing industry). Blog traffic isn’t just a perk, it’s the point, and though all our efforts are focused on readership, we miss out on community.

That’s both why I decided to quit social networking and why I came right back again. Here, as in my face-to-face world, relationships mean nothing without authenticity, and authenticity has no strength apart from relationships. Blogging simply doesn’t work for me without both factors. As appealing and praiseworthy as the life of a technological hermit may seem at times, it isn’t the route I’m meant to go, and now that I’m acknowledging that, now, finally, the words are coming back.

~~~

How do you feel about social networking? Do you think it’s necessary for a successful creative life? 

9Jan

Pea Soup

(#nofilter #really)

In some moments, merging back into everyday life after a vacation feels like cliff-diving into the Baltic Sea after a six-course dinner. Other moments, it feels like getting lost in a pea soup fog. Sometimes it’s more like venturing into the Himalayas on foot while other times I might as well be sleepwalking in a corn maze.

Maybe it’s just me, but when the energizing whirl of holidayness putters out—at approximately 2:30 a.m. on New Year’s when one of the grownups suggests another party game and the rest look desperately at their five-year-olds who have turned into tireless vampire Energizer bunnies and refuse to provide an easy excuse for their parents to head home to bed—I suddenly find that the previous year has left me about 3,000 hours short on sleep and go into a week-long coma. Once I wake up, my annual Simplify! Simplify! craze kicks in, and if there are not at least five full recycling or give-away bags when I’m done with a room, it isn’t done. I organize and dust and IKEA the hell out my workspace so that I can take on 2013 with no holds barred…

…and then I sit down at that freshly de-cluttered workspace and realize I have no idea what I’m doing there. The new year is just too big, its goals too daunting, its tempo too unfamiliar. I don’t know how I can possibly catch up from those few weeks away from my daily routine, much less make inroads into the here and now, and the Type A fun of tying the old year into the new with summaries and resolutions seems like a luxury reserved for people who don’t lose perspective two minutes into vacation.

Unfortunately, my perspective is 97% tied to how often I write (the other 3% is caffeine), and I have never in my life managed to keep up a steady flow of words when in vacation mode. There are so many other things to see and do, loved ones to spend time with, and comas to enjoy. Without really meaning to, I’ve neglected to tap into my own thought life for over two weeks now, so things have gotten pretty discombobulated up in here. Words have been coming to me by the pageful in dreams, but they always white out the instant my alarm clock vibrates to life, and I don’t quite know how to be myself without them.

Is it okay to be admitting this? I have visions of this blog as something beautiful and significant (as does every blogger, presumably) with each paragraph carrying its own weight in purpose, but this sentiment tends to cripple more than inspire. It’s why I’ve been circling this page for days, swooping in occasionally to peck at a stray sentence but never alighting on anything meaningful enough to settle into. It’s also why I’ve treated my husband to a Disparately-Eyebrowed Stare Of Incredulity every time he’s suggested I slip out for half an hour to blog. You don’t just create something brilliant and insightful from pea soup fog in half an hour, see, and sitting down to write when I’m short on words and time and a sense of self all at once is a fairly certain recipe for despair.

This is my best idea on how to reclaim my non-comatose writerly self though—digging back in for authenticity and legible sentences even if though they’re not going to win me a spot on HuffPo, even if though they’re not the deep and heavy and beautiful things I wanted to articulate, even if though I’m too busy for this and January feels like an ice-shocked Scandinavian sea and I’m more tempted than you know to adopt hibernation as a viable lifestyle. I’m here despite all that, and I’m declaring that, as imperfect a first-post-of-the-year as this may be, it totally counts as taking on 2013.

~~~

Does your back-to-work routine also include flailing and spluttering and ruing the day of your birth? How are you getting along with the new year?

30Nov

Depth Perception

If you follow me on Instagram, you’ll know that I’ve spent much of the week doing this:

Depth perception 1

(and almost equal amounts of this):

Depth perception 2

Here’s where I disqualify myself from Pinterest forever by admitting that doing crafts with my children ranks somewhere between taking the car to the shop and cleaning shower grout on my list of preferred leisure activities. (At least where the grout is concerned, I’m not left having to explain the permanence of glitter to our landlord.) Scrap paper fills my soul with foreboding, tacky glue with ill-will toward men. When you’re the designated mop wielder and laundry whisperer of the family, few things are more fearsome to behold than a paintbrush in the hands of a happy child.

…Which is why I’ve shocked myself by enjoying every messy, giggle-splattered moment of this week. (Okay, not every moment, but you get the gist.)

Operation Mommy’s Dreaming Of A White Wine Christmas is in full swing, leading us to stock the freezer with yuletide goodies here in November. The whole point is for me to be able to spend the holidays roasting in front of an open fire rather than chipping royal icing off the walls, but I’ve been surprised to discover that this isn’t something I just want to get over with. (The dishes, yesOMGhelp; the Christmas craftery, not at all.)  It has been so very… well, fun hanging out for uninterrupted afternoons with my girls, hearing their thoughts on poop (a word invented for the express entertainment of five-year-olds) and boys (she’sonlyinsecondgradeOMGhelp). Even the mess has been fun—the kind of sloppy, delightfully imperfect creativity I hadn’t indulged in decades.

I’m realizing that I owe a large part of my perspective this week to what was happening at this same time last year. I was working outside the home then—teaching English in the mornings and evenings, translating in the afternoons, scrambling to plan lessons and run errands in my time-margins, and having very, very little of myself left for the girls. I was only here to tuck them into bed three evenings a week, and I missed them so heavily that it felt like my heart would collapse in on itself. I didn’t have time to take care of their basic mommy needs, much less to help them paint the kitchen in sugar.

While I might not have turned into the patron saint of carpe diem as a result, the experience did serve as the perfect backdrop for gratefulness. It added the contrast, the depth missing from my perception of our little family circle. Each night after putting the girls to bed this week, I’ve been knocked off my bearings once again by what I can only describe as a wave of wow. An I get to tuck them in wow. An I have time to be an intentional mom again wow. A just… wow wow. And to think it was brought on by something as terror-inducing as craft time…   

Wow.

12Nov

Tidal

I don’t know anyone who needs sleep the way I do, except maybe for our girls. Other parents are always shocked that Natalie and Sophie voluntarily drape themselves across their pillows at 8 or 8:30 in the evening, their small bodies purring from the liturgy of storytime and cannibal kisses. There they dream, one burrowed under the comforter like a dormouse, the other sprawled as carefree as a ragdoll, for eleven hours straight… and sometimes even then, they wake up with snarled voices betraying their need for an afternoon nap. The other parents’ faces take on the same free-fall expression we would get when friends found out our newborn was sleeping through the night and I would guiltily shuffle my postpartum exhaustion out of sight.

I see so much of my own internal composition in my daughters, and I would sleep for eleven hours a stretch too if not for these night-owl eyes turning bright and round under the influence of moonlight. My mind swivels at the end of a day in search of some small skittering amusement to pounce on, or I mellow into the luxury of time alone with Dan. No matter how tired I am or how pointless my diversion, I’m never quite ready to consign my day to the past tense, so my bed becomes a tide, pushing, pulling, rising, and eventually floating my feet out from under me.

In the morning, there is no tide—only the deep, watery warmth of sleep and my nocturnal feathers bristling against the alarm. Some days, I have just enough resolve to drag myself up and out into the faint pink of pre-dawn, knowing that every day started in quiet, with pen and lined paper and a sleep-dredged mist obscuring my usual doubt, is a day centered over who I want to be. Other days, I calculate the last possible minute I can snooze before lurching to get the girls ready for school. Once every so often, I sleep without agenda or alarm and wake at noon, discombobulated and regretful over the missed morning.

It sometimes strikes me as a great cosmic injustice that each day must start with waking up and end with going to sleep, though I realize that between the universe and myself, I am likely the one with her wires crossed. I am the one with the free-fall expression when friends describe rising at 6 on instinct alone or tucking themselves contentedly under the covers when the day’s chores are done. From my occasional dalliances with early-to-bed, I know that the mathematics of sleep don’t apply to me the way they do to others, that repressing my night owl does not turn me into a sun goddess any more than waking with the sky curbs my evening wanderlust. This is just the nature of my relationship with sleep—fiercely resistant, deeply dependent, tidal.

~~~

What is your relationship with sleep like?

25Oct

Walleyed

Here’s the truth, if you care to know it—I am paralyzed by my own mind more often than not when it comes to this blog.

I might be spilling over with observations and realizations and hopes and stories, but when I make a move to sit down and transcribe them for you, I hit a wall so hard it leaves bruises. This is what I hear:

Are you kidding? YOU? You’re nobody! Why would you presume to have anything worth saying?

Or…

Seriously. You’ve already written 15000 variations on that theme; come back when you have something original.

Or…

If you can’t manage to post consistently, you might as well just give up. Leave the writing to the professionals.

Or, if I’m considering a gutsier topic (i.e. – anything in the category of religion, politics, cultural comparison, or Glee)…

Oh, yeah, this is gonna be good. I’m sure everyone’s just dying to hear your opinions on Controversial Hot Topic #3. Oh, and I’m equally sure you’ll handle the resulting criticism with confidence and stoic grace.

NOT.

See? Instant paralysis, which is a real bitch when you consider that my sanity hinges on writing. I can’t not write. I’ve tried, even for months at a time, but I keep coming back to the truth somewhere deep in my foundations that says giving up writing will mean killing off a part of myself, and I’m unwilling to put my loved ones through that. Soul-death vs. paralysis, rock vs. hard place. How does one summon the fortitude to plow through her own mental barriers? Why does creativity have to be both lifeblood and obstacle?

Feeling out the barriers like this, surveying their shapes, letting them know they’re not as invisible as they’d like to think… I want to believe that it helps because I want to be writing here again, often, even if what I have to say is nothing original or deep or safe. I’m trying to take steps toward self-care these days—eating well, easing my legs into a healthy rhythm, sitting a few minutes in the sun after lunch—and the best mental self-care I can imagine is to get past this bruising cynicism and start creating again.

So I’m going to try, and I use the word “try” with fear and trembling; it’s both promising the improbable and admitting to a staggering amount of weakness. Regardless, I’m going to try writing regularly here again, even if it means tunneling through the barriers Tom Sawyer-style with a spoon. In the meantime, would you mind leaving me a comment or shooting me an email about your own experience with self-paralysis? I could use a little community right now as I try to get this lifeblood coursing again.

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