Tag: Creativity


Coma vs. Decapitation

I’m tired of writing about transition. I’m tired of writing about the work-life shuffle. I’m tired of writing about lack of inspiration, and I’m beyond tired of writing about me… which leads to mornings like today’s when I stare at my computer screen and censor my intuition comatose.

I’ve blogged on and off since 2002 (and before that, many of my journal entries found their way into friends’ inboxes) because of a need, every bit as basic as hunger, to experience my world and community through words. Writing for me is half instinct and half response, and there is a custom flavor of satisfaction reserved for distilling my thoughts into language. You’ve savored some form of it too, yes?

However, I have no love for the spotlight, and I wish that authenticity would let me focus on someone else. I would happily post on topics of others’ choosing if I could face the splintery aftermath of forcing wooden words through heart channels. If it were in any way possible, I would cheerfully disassociate from my own cerebrum and find someone more interesting [diverse/confident/fashionable/fill in the ______] to be.

But you already know this, of course… and remembering that you’ve already read a thousand variations on this theme leads to afternoons like this when I give up on censoring and simply close my computer screen altogether.


Sluggish with Shoulds

Today is one of those days in which good intentions flop belly-side up just as I’m congratulating myself on their vitality.

It’s one of those days in which prodding myself out of bed just as the sun melts upwards is no guarantee of productivity.

It’s one of those days in which I punish my brain by assigning it menial tasks… and then make messes of those as well. (The subsequent words I lob at myself aren’t pretty.)

It’s one of those days in which ants crawl around the inside of my skin and I think “If only…” without being able to finish that sentence.

It’s one of those days in which the minute hand slips through my fingers as I watch from miles under water.

It’s… well, you know, one of those days, and iced coffee and happy children and good news and TGIF vibes aren’t enough to reset the defensive sluggishness in my mind, not with the big bad shoulds still glaring through every window.

I’m the one who spoiled the view with shoulds, I know. In an effort to feel more productive and thus more fulfilled, to stop tiptoeing around the monster of inadequacy every night, and to finally make something of those dreams eternally cramped by time, I’ve been loading myself up with motivational strategies:
Cut out the unimportant and make every moment count.
Apply the 80-20 principle to every facet of your life.
Limit input, expand output.
Give yourself impossible deadlines to sharpen your focus.
Figure out what you want and only do what is absolutely necessary for achieving it.

And the result is that I’m frozen.

Attempting to regiment my creativity seems to  have drained its life force, and so I find myself sitting next to a half-empty coffee mug at 7 am, completely free of distractions and focusing with all my will on output, output, output, and… nada. Or I plant myself in my studio corner while the girls are playing quietly across the house, and I’m desperate to squeeze every drop out of the opportunity, but still… nothing. I would hit myself upside the head if I thought it would do any good. (I sometimes do it regardless.)

The energy just isn’t there—not when I’m feeling the pressure to perform on cue. The fun has fled, the magic’s evaporated, and I’m dredging the bottom of a concrete tank for words rather than plucking them from the air. But isn’t this a necessary part of life for serious writers? The need to type on a timeline under the weight of deadlines and conjure up magic anyway? I’ve watched Elizabeth Gilbert’s TED talk about a bajillion times, and I love what she would say to her genius as she worked on Eat, Pray, Love:

“Listen you, Thing, you and I both know that if this book isn’t brilliant, that is not entirely my fault, right? ‘Cause you can see that I am putting everything I have into this, you know, I don’t have any more than this, so if you want it to be better, then you’ve got to show up and do your part of the deal, OK? But if you don’t do that, you know, the hell with it. I’m going to keep writing anyway because that’s my job, and I would please like the record to reflect today that I showed up for my part of the job.”

Only I want to know what happened after that, on days when her muse remained AWOL and other responsibilities clouded her mindwaves and the sentences already on her paper looked all wrong and no more would come. Is the stubbornness to keep showing up all it takes? Does my creative center just need awhile to get used to the shoulds and ticking timers staring it down?

Or are these expectations I’m putting on myself unnecessary and counterproductive? Am I sabotaging my instincts by trying to conform them to others’ techniques? Am I wasting this precious commodity of time by staring at an unfinished document trying to threaten a balking imagination into moving forward?

Or is this just one of those days and nothing more?



Sophie is wailing, “But I wanna sleep with the verminnnnnnnnn!” and I am saying, “Sorry honey, but you got to sleep with the vermin last night, and you girls have really got to stop fighting over it, especially considering the vermin is mine” when it occurs to me that this is not something a normal family would discuss at bedtime. Or ever.

The pestilence in question is a plush pastel snugglebug that a high school friend gave me to commemorate our mutual loathing of Kafka. His novella The Metamorphosis was part of the curriculum in our AP English class, and the opening line was sufficient in itself to scar me for life: “As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a monstrous vermin.” If your muscles aren’t violently twitching themselves out of your own skin right now, I’m not sure we can stay friends.

However, even with the squeam factor and the bedtime squabbles, I hold my vermin dear, and this is why: in that same AP English class, I received my first D.

It was only a couple of weeks in. I had been coasting along on the natural rapport I’d always shared with academia (not counting math, of course), cranking out essays that met my teacher’s checklist of requirements. And then, wham—my first D, branded onto my analysis of Knowles’s A Separate Peace in red ink. My teacher, understanding me far better than I knew, called me over after class to explain. I could do far better, she urged. I had been churning out the bare minimum I needed to maintain my GPA, but my writing had carried the dead weight of a chore. “This will be easy to remedy,” she assured me with a smile.

That was the day I began to see the English language as a flea market of unsung treasures. I sat down to write my next assignment with new eyes, turning other people’s words over in my palm until I found a new fit for them. Living books reached out for living responses, and checklists became nothing more than display cases. I still have my papers from that class, tucked into a manila folder for posterity and the occasional re-reading, and my essays after that D reflect the joy of writing which later inspired my switch to an English degree program (after two false starts) and breathed this blog into life and continues to tug me like a tango partner to the page.

The final exam in that AP English class twelve years ago was an analysis of Kafka’s use of distortion in The Metamorphosis. Even if the topic hadn’t sent my delicate sensibilities into convulsions, each of the book’s characters was deeply unlikable, and I let my loathing for it all carry my essay past the cut and the dry. It received an A+, but that’s not what compels me to steal my plush vermin back from the girls’ room when they’re not looking.

No, I forego the inspiration boards and idea forums and artistic e-courses and instead use this adorably revolting toy to remind myself that a heart-blank page is easier than I think to remedy.

We all love the Vermin


Clean-Up on Aisle Five

“if it doesn’t come bursting out of you
in spite of everything,
don’t do it.
unless it comes unasked out of your
heart and your mind and your mouth
and your gut,
don’t do it.”

One of my English students, a kindly middle-aged man who shares equal enthusiasm for Coltrane and capocollo, just introduced me to Charles Bukowski’s poem “so you want to be a writer?” He wanted to make sure the grammar was right, and I stumbled over my tongue a few times before answering yes. What I really wanted to answer was Grammar has nothing to do with it.

I well know the feeling of rushing to find a scrap of paper with which to mop up a sudden spill of words. That experience of diving head-first into creativity is why I created this blog. It’s why I started a book, why I spend dreary mornings curled over my keyboard for warmth, and also why I haven’t written lately. There has been no word spill on aisle five in a while. I keep sitting down at my desk to wring creativity from my brain drop by drop, but the results evaporate before I can compile them into something meaningful.

It sucks.

A few lines down in his poem, Bukowski continues,
“if it’s hard work just thinking about doing it,
don’t do it.
if you’re trying to write like somebody
forget about it”

…and I wonder if that’s the problem, if trying to sound like somebody else has been plugging my word-leaks before they have a chance to become glorious waterworks. Each time I’ve sat down to write over the last several days, I’ve had to contend with the taskmaster’s voice prodding me to whip out new content (and make it snappy!), the inferiority complex reminding me that I don’t have half the natural talent of my favorite authors, and the drone of despair convincing me that even if I had their ability, I still wouldn’t have anything to say…  and if emerging from that clamor unscathed isn’t hard work, I don’t know what is.

While I could certainly power through the noise and post something (first-edition grocery list, anyone? or perhaps a treatise on toothpaste flavors?), it would have all the authenticity of a vegan cheeseburger, and I wouldn’t end the day feeling any more artistic accomplishment than I do on days when I eke out three sentences and give up.

What I wanted to say to my English student is that the poem has nothing to do with grammar and everything to do with unplugged leaks, a torrential mess best sopped up with a blank page. However, Bukowski already said it best, so I let the student discover its meaning for himself while I cling to the last stanza like a life preserver, trusting that the sea will follow.

“when it is truly time,
and if you have been chosen,
it will do it by
itself and it will keep on doing it
until you die or it dies in you.

there is no other way.

and there never was.”


Art-Benefit Analysis

Time management. ::sigh:: Those two industrial gray words turn life from a free-flowing art form into a commercial enterprise, hours scrutinized under cost-benefit analysis, minutes tallied in the ledger. I can deal, however reluctantly, with allocating time toward work, housewifery, and relationships, but my real problem is in subjecting creativity to a schedule. See, my muse rarely shows up on time. Her whimsy abides by no rules and responds to neither threats nor incentives. There is simply no reasoning with hormonal fairies.

And yet I try. I carve time out of the rocks and burrow inside with a stash of blank pages and coffee, hoping that my dedication to the cause will coax her better nature into action. Sometimes it works, but lately it hasn’t… and when my accountants find me a few hours later with only thirty new words and twice as many deleted, they react like infected monkeys. They shriek and rage and wave the deficit column in my face, and I can’t really defend myself. Who spends precious hours staring down a half-written document while other projects pile up?

I do apparently. Now that I have a job, time management is a necessary part of my modus operandi, and I’m doing my best to find a free-flowing art form within its confines. Something in me insists that this isn’t a futile search. We humans were designed both to work and to live, and there has to be a balance somewhere in this tangle of time constraints. Unfortunately, my accountants have hidden the balance sheet until further notice; I’ll likely find it next month shuffled in among the unpaid bills and Orlagh’s latest bar tab.

So do tell, those of you who find time for what you love to do among all the things you have to do: How?? Do you have any methods or tricks for keeping all your plates spinning? Do you feel guilty when art grinds efficiency to a halt? Do you ever have to let other parts of your life go? And most importantly, does your muse come to work on a schedule? Because if so, we’re trading.


(Un)Excused Absence

Saturday is when I should have clued in.

November had stashed away one last jewel of an afternoon, and it glittered emerald and gold in an unexpected flood of sunlight. Some friends of ours were taking advantage of the gorgeous weather to harvest their olives—another regional tradition that I’ve wanted to participate in since we moved to Italy—and they invited us to join them. I couldn’t imagine a lovelier way to spend the afternoon… soaking up the beauty of our friends’ country home, teaching the girls how to climb trees, rolling smooth olives between my fingers, and connecting with nature and laughter again after a stressful week.

However, I could not go. Literally. I had been dragging myself out of bed before dawn for days and scraping out my brain until late at night for any bit of creative residue. My Saturday word quota was filled, but I was beyond exhausted. Over a late lunch, my mind ran frenzied laps around the manymany other things I needed to get done until it simply stopped. Total shutdown. I couldn’t think. I couldn’t respond to simple questions. I couldn’t hold my head up.

While the girls skipped out the door with their dad to enjoy the last perfect fall afternoon, I burrowed under piles of covers where I spent the next few hours shivering uncontrollably and dozing off only to snap back in a panic over everything I needed to do. That’s when I should have clued in that NaNoWriMo was costing us too dearly.

It didn’t sink in though until yesterday when I read this:

“Sometimes I think I can do this and do that and then do this after I do that. But the truth is, motherhood permeates everything. It trumps all. It’s the calling that interrupts this and cancels that and makes this look like it never mattered anyway.”

Her words thudded into my chest and jolted my eyes back into focus. I hadn’t actually played with my girls since, oh… Day 3. The priority of writing a book in thirty days had edged them out, labeled them as threats to my agenda, marginalized their need for a happy, attentive mother. I had told myself we could survive anything for a month, but that simply wasn’t true. The crusty dishes could survive. The unsorted laundry could survive. But we, with our beating hearts and fragile skins, were not surviving my absence from life, no matter how excused.

I parked myself on the girls’ rug yesterday evening to play Legos with them and practically had to glue myself in place. I wanted to be there, to be a mother again, but my mind was lost in a maze of Christmas lists, insurance policies, and an ever-looming storyline while a disembodied voice over the loudspeakers reminded me that I was still 3,000 words behind. I told it to shut up. It boomed an accusation of laziness. I asked it what could be more important than my family. It answered, “NOT FAILING.”

Wrong answer.

I wish it hadn’t taken me so long to understand that that voice over the loudspeakers, the voice of achievement no matter the cost, didn’t have any more control over me than I gave it… but I would rather clue in late than not at all. Before going to bed, I reset the alarm to give myself an extra hour of dearly-needed sleep, and I woke up smiling for the first morning this month. Throughout today, I’ve worked on extra-bookular activities and spent time with my family without guilt. I worked on the novel too, but I let myself feel proud for adding 500 words rather than despondent over not completing 2,000.

I’m not quitting NaNoWriMo, and I’m certainly not giving up on my strapping kindergartener of a book. However, one month is too long to devote myself to literary abandon. I have a worthier calling that interrupts plots and cancels characters and makes an impressive 50,000-word goal look like it never mattered anyway. My new goal for November is to make sure my girls know that I know this… and if I manage to write a large chunk of book in the process, well, that will just be olive oil on my bruschetta.


The Quibbler

They bicker constantly, these voices in my head. There’s the dour one that I used to call realism but really deserves a much less respectable name—Ursula, for instance—who likes to point out in increasingly shrill tones that I am absolutely not cut out to be a writer and should give up before I make a fool of myself. She takes full responsibility for making sure I know how just how lousy I am each time I sit at my desk. If I stay seated, she peers over my shoulder telling me at intervals how this phrase is far too convoluted and that one appears to be written by a three-year-old and that if I were actually any good at writing, it wouldn’t take me so long. If I get up, she pats me on the back with her sharp nails and says, “Yes, very good; you’re much better at being a house cleaner. Well, the potential is there at any rate. You can find the grout cleaner under the sink.”

Then there’s the voice of creative intuition, Seraphina, who tells Ursula to kindly remove her ugly backside from the premises. Seraphina plays my veins like wind chimes and reminds me that what makes me feel truly alive is what I should be doing, external validation be damned. She texts Orlagh to get her vacationing butt back home. Come to think of it, she has kind of a thing about butts, but I really don’t mind when she’s telling me how nice mine looks planted in my desk chair. She tells me not to give up, never to give up, that the grout can wait for the next tenants.

Mrs. Fuzziwuggins occasionally pipes up to tell me I’m a special and unique snowflake, but the other two just tell her to shut up.

If I’m not careful, ­­­ Severa Slushpool slips into the back room chanting  “Guilt, Guilt, Guilt, Guilt,” until I am convinced of my unworthiness to exist. Ursula shrugs and says, “She has a point; you’ve produced nothing of value today, and at least one of your children is currently pantsless.” Mrs. Fuzziwuggins sticks her pudgy fingers in my ears while telling the others off for crushing my delicate spirits. Seraphina argues that I’m stronger than that. “Guilt, Guilt,” chants Severa in the voice of a pipe organ.

“Just a reminder,” whispers Graziella, the in-house massage therapist from my spiritual spa, “You are under no obligation to feel guilt anymore.”

“That would be accurate,” snaps Ursula, “if you were spending your time in worthier pursuits. Scrubbing down the balcony, for instance.”

“There is no more worthy pursuit than the one that inspires your passion and whole-hearted creative effort,” contends Seraphina.

Mrs. Fizziwuggins quickly adds, “But no need to strain yourself, dear; we wouldn’t want to stifle your fragile specialness.”

“SHUT UP!” shouts everyone else.

“Guilt,” cuts in Severa Slushpool. “Guilt, Guilt, Guilt, Guilt, Guilt.”

“Hey guys!” bursts Orlagh, out of breath and smelling faintly of coconut rum. “What did I miss?”


Discussion questions:

1) What do the voices in your head quibble about? You do have to deal with quibbling voices, right?

::cue the crickets::

2) For the sake of making me feel less crazy, pretend you have to deal with quibbling voices too. Would you:

a) volunteer for an experimental surgery to plant earplugs into your temporal lobe?
b) decide that whichever voice you agree with at any given moment is the correct one?
c) kill them off one by one like in that John Cusack movie?
d) take up drinking coconut rum?

3) Am I crazy?

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