I’m so tired of all the glorification of suffering that seems to go hand-in-hand with writing. The idea that one must suffer for her art has been ingrained in us. It doesn’t help that some of our literary icons have told us its true.
“Writing is hard work and bad for the health.” E.B. White
“Easy reading is damn hard writing.” Nathaniel Hawthorne
“Perhaps it’s good to suffer. Can an artist do anything if he is happy?” Aldous Huxley
Even if you’re not familiar with these quotes, it’s likely the notions that writing = hard and that suffering = better writing are some of your core beliefs because they’ve been repeated so often.
The truth is, as writers, we all hit creative blocks or need solutions to a craft problem. And, yes, writing takes effort. But we don’t have to suffer.
I did it, anyway, because I didn’t know better. After 10 years as a journalist, columnist and poet, I just couldn’t handle the suffering my writing life caused me. My writing depleted me. My failures, whether perceived or real, demoralized me.
Even though I’d made deep sacrifices for my art, I just couldn’t do it anymore. I quit my column. I stopped performing. I stopped publishing. I knew I either had to quit forever or I had to find a new way of doing things.
In a commitment to this new life, I moved across the country to California, and I began cultivating a yoga practice that changed everything.
The teachings of yoga philosophy helped me with my relationship with writing. (I published a paper on this in a book on innovations in teaching writing. Read it here.) Soon, I saw that my yoga practice was a magical tool, too. And as I continued my quest for a relationship with my writing that felt supported, purposeful, and nourishing, I recognized the principles that I now teach in Practical Magic for Writers workshops.
Imagine a writing life…
that allows you to feel connected, rather than isolated.
that fills you with purpose, inspiration and joy.
that nourishes you, instead of depleting you.
that contributes to the well-being of you and others.
that helps you realize your best and highest self.
Yesterday, while I was spooning down a trifecta of Tutti Frutti frozen yogurt — honey, cherry almond, and vanilla custard — I was secretly fantasizing about killing someone. I’d been dishing to my pal J about the latest novel I’m reading and loving. It’s a Y.A. fantasy that my adult daughter wrote.
J was like, “Oh wow, your daughter wrote a novel? What’s it about?”
I’d barely gotten three sentences out when he started laughing. “Another vampire novel?”
Maybe I’d been inspired by one of the characters in the novel, but I almost leapt across the table and tore his throat out with my teeth.
I suppose taking pity on the guy was the right move, considering a) children at nearby tables would have been forever scarred by a fro-yo blood-bath and b) the near-victim knows nothing about the creative process– neither the challenges nor the sacrifices (nor that he was almost one of them).
Other than kicking my powers of creative visualization into high gear and giving me an opportunity to exercise my impulse control, my friend also offered me an opportunity to reflect on some important truths about the creative life:
People are going to mock and criticize because they are cowards themselves. It makes them feel superior and gives them a sense of safety. But it’s actually keeping them from taking risks and keeping them stuck, which is their problem. Not yours or mine. We know our creative baby (or grandbaby) may be fugly but we’re gonna love it anyway. Because it’s ours, and it’s a gift we appreciate because it teaches us about ourselves and the world. Like, how about all that badass discipline it takes to finish something as huge as a novel? How about the vision? The courage to move forward when you don’t know where something is going? These are things to celebrate. Creative risks are moments to celebrate precisely because of the cowardly critics. So maybe on a day when I’m feeling particularly charitable I will remember to thank the person or people laughing at our art for making us all the more heroic in our creative actions.
It has all been done before. Yup. Lots of vampire novels have been written. And that’s because people like to read them. Duh. Fantasy fiction fans are hungry like a blood-starved vampire for another good book to sink their fangs into. So let’s not worry too much if our poem sounds a lot like a Rumi poem or if our novel isn’t novel enough. If we are one among many, that sounds a lot like an audience to me. Carry on.
An entirely valid approach to creativity is imitation. It’s not only the highest form of flattery, it’s also highly instructive. We learn a lot by imitating those we admire. In fact, I’ve watched a painter friend reproduce Van Gogh’s technique, learning from the master though separated by centuries. I’ve got musician friends who swear by learning cover songs for similar reasons: they learn technique and structure as they play songs others have written. I’ll also add that lots of times accomplished musicians pay homage to those they admire by adding a cover to their set list. I saw Panic at the Disco cover Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” this summer and I was blown away. It was done with passion and precision, and no one was laughing that it had been done before.
Want more insights into the creative process and inspiration to keep you going? Come see me over at Wholly Creative.
Much of my personal and creative life began to fall in place when I started to practice yoga and study yoga philosophy. It was on the yoga mat and in the classic texts that I found the best instructions for healthy thinking and practical spirituality. These enhanced my writing life. (You can read my paper presented at the MLA conference and published in the book Beyond the Frontier here: ” Writing West to East and Back Again: A Yogic Approach to Life-Writing.”)
In the introduction to the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, a classic Hindu text on physical yoga practices, Swami Muktibodhananda explains that yoga is the union of mind and body (to be clear, they aren’t separate…they just get out of synch or in dysfunctional relationship). This idea from that introduction has become central to my well-being:
Often we observe that when we try to practice self-control and discipline, we create more mental problems in our mind and personality…Therefore before you practice self-discipline and self-control, you must prepare yourself…If harmony is not created in the personality, then self-control and self-discipline will create more conflict rather than peace of mind.
You want to know what this “conflict” looks like?
Imagine your ego self holding a whip demanding that you to get to work and your feeling self complying grudgingly, refusing defiantly or in some way failing miserably. The task could be working on a creative project or going to the gym or doing the dishes. Big or small, it doesn’t matter. The point is that there’s a split in the personality between the self that thinks you should do something and the self that doesn’t want to it. It’s a sort of schizophrenia, almost.
A self divided against itself cannot stand. Or put another way: you are not being able to stand yourself.
I lived like this for years. I got a lot written, published and performed, but I was miserable because I was living in conflict with myself. Basically I’d tell myself I was a loser if I didn’t do the thing I knew I should do. There was some value (moral, financial, ethical, etc) inherent in the action that I felt I “should” do, but instead of focusing on the value, I focused on the action itself. When I lose focus of the “why” of things, I quickly see a hostile relationship between Marya the goal-setter and Marya the goal-fulfiller.
These days, when I recognize a “should” and an aversion to it, I know to look deeper. Why do I think I should do it? What is at the root of the aversion? This sort of reflection really helps me unify my “selves.” When I am connected with my desire — with why I “should” do something –I am able to get to my work in a way that makes me feel good and fills my work with purpose.
What “shoulds” do you wrestle with? Take some time to write about these, about what value these have (financial, moral, ethical, social, etc.). Sometimes we inherit “shoulds” from our families or society without examining them; if they have no value to you, personally, let these go the same way you might discard an ugly chair that used to belong to Aunt Agatha.
I think you’ll find that once you connect with why you want to do something, the aversion will soften or even disappear and you’ll be able to show up for the work you should do because you want to do it.
She was attractive and affluent woman who lived in the Caribbean. Diamonds gleamed on her ring finger. Her blond hair was sunny, her style was carefree, but her expression was grim. (But I’ll call her “Sunny” here anyway.)
“I feel like I lost my mojo,” Sunny said on the mic at the creativity conference we were both attending. “I don’t even know what I want to do anymore.”
Sunny identified as a writer, a life coach, and public speaker. She had degrees in nursing and writing.
“The themes ‘faith’ and ‘boundaries’ keep coming up for me,” she told the leader of the conference, “but I don’t know what to do with them.”
The conference leader asked her what sort of work would make her feel better.
Sunny replied, “I just want people to come in and spend time with me and leave feeling happy and good.”
“That sounds like a show,” the leader responded.
And that’s when Sunny became, well, sunny. Her face lit up.
“Would you like to do a show about faith and boundaries?” the leader asked, with a smile that indicted she and everyone else in the room already knew the answer just looking at the change in Sunny.
“I don’t even know what that would look like,” Sunny stammered, but her inner light sparkled. She was clearly excited about the possibility of this new prospect. It was clear she’d found her mojo.
That’s when I started thinking about mojo. “Lost my mojo” was how Sunny described an emotional state of powerlessness and depression that created a downward spiral. Disconnection from her potential and from the possibilities manifested as shut down. She found her power by reconnecting, not in action but in feelings. She didn’t know what she wanted exactly, but she knew what feeling state she wanted to create for others and she’d been paying attention to the words that kept presenting themselves as she’d talked. Together, the words and the feelings had power; therein lay the mojo – the magic.
Dialogue, like the one Sunny had with conference leader, creates a sort of stream. Its movement of language and emotion carries us through our blocks and helps us identify solutions that will make us feel better and identify solutions. If you are feeling a little lost, try writing down what you are feeling and what you feel like you need. Pay attention to the themes that emerge or the words that repeat themselves. You can highlight or underline key words or start a new page and write them down as a mind map to guide you to the solution.
I jogged in place in three-and-a-half feet of cool water, warming my muscles, while I watched the sun stream its golden light into a blue sky and fill the white clouds with iridescence. Foghat pounded from a big, plastic boom box, and I kept pace with the steady, driving beat of “Slow Ride” while the pool filled with bodies.
For the next hour, on the command of the water aerobics instructor, all thirty of us swooshed right and left with the kickboard in our arms or waved our arms overhead and bounced up and down in a series of jumping jacks or whatever it was we were told to do while 100.3 The Sound offered a continuing stream of classic rock.
But my attention was on the sky. Several women also turned away from the instructor and gazed toward the swollen, setting sun as we exercised.
“Beautiful,” said the woman next to me, acknowledging our shared experience.
While we kicked, lunged, jumped, and swooshed, the sky’s blue turned to striated pastels. The clouds became pink and then bruised slowly, first on their bottoms; then the purple seeped up, overtook the pinks, and swallowed the rosy glow in their scalloped tops. Quickly then, purple became ash.
“Such dramatic change,” I thought, my mind turning toward how I often resist and resent change, even when it comes in the span of years rather than a few minutes.
That me – earthbound and limited – seemed foolish and small now to this me, immersed in the pool and expanding awareness. I was more than in the moment.
Time stretched – and I with it – as the music pulled me into a non-specific nostalgia for a past era, the water and movement anchored me in the present, and the trajectory of the sun and its myriad sky effects, still working on the Western horizon, pulled me into the future. I was in five decades at once. Maybe more.
On my back, I held on to the lane line, scissor-kicking and gazing up into the now blue-black expanse of the sky where time seemed to reach out in all directions. I felt myself move with it, transcending mere presence. Weightless and timeless, I felt myself expanding toward omnipresence.
“This must be what it’s like to be God,” I thought, not with self-importance but with awe.
This side of heaven and still time-bound, class ended at 8. The bodies began to emerge from the pool. While people wrapped themselves in towels, I did a handstand. I turned a few somersaults. I stroked the surface of the radiant blue water, which had become more beautiful now that it twinkled in the pool lights, wanting to stay.
“It’s time,” I thought, making my way toward the steps. My fingers were water-logged. My bladder was full.
Back on the pool deck, I felt a different pull. Gravity.
As I picked up my towel and made my way toward the exit, everything felt twice as heavy as it had before I’d gotten in the pool. And I wasn’t ready to be burdened again – not physically with the weight of the world, nor mentally by the conventions of linear time and thinking.
“Nope,” I thought. “Not yet.”
Tossing my towel toward the bleachers, I took several large and eager steps and plunged back in.
I feel pregnant: abundant, full of life, physically crowded, moody, hopeful, expectant, and a little exhausted. I’m incubating ideas for my writing, my teaching, and my coaching business. All this from my bedroom…my bed, actually, since the 120 square feet is not enough to include a separate workspace. Some women get bed rest when they have difficult pregnancies. Not me, I’ve got bed work…and my baby is the work itself.
I’ve got notepads, pens, a lap top, books, and a coffee cup on a queen-sized pillow top. I’m propped against pillows with a cat curled up beside me as I write. My former office – my 200 square foot living room — is occupied by former baby, now my adult daughter, who has moved across the country and is living, working, sleeping on my couch. I’m thrilled as always by her arrival and take pleasure in her company, even though the apartment is a tiny place meant for one person with a day job, not two people, two cats, and a small business.
I know this is why literal pregnancies have limits — conception and growth are followed by delivery. We can only contain so much.
I know this is why I must sit down and write, too. The ideas, the words, and the emotions want to come. They are ready. They crowd me. If I do not make room for them, anxiety comes like labor pains.
The fullness is not always comfortable, but I remember not to complain. I learn to make space. This is what abundance looks like. My craft, my calling, my daughter and animals. My life full of warmth, tenderness, and purpose in this tiny, sunlit haven on the coast of Southern California.
All this is full. All that is full. From fullness, fullness comes. When fullness is taken from fullness, fullness remains. So say the Upanishads.
The nature of life: fullness — what flows in, how we expand and accommodate, what flows out and into the world.
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Early in the year, I signed up for Sam’s 6-week Get It Done online workshop because I’d stalled out in my vision for Wholly Creative. I had an idea of what I wanted to do — teach people how to integrate mind, body, and spirit in their creative lives — but I didn’t know how to clarify my vision and implement a plan. Over the months, I’ve heard Sam tell those of us that get creatively stuck or are dealing with a problem to “Make some art about it.”
She says it so often, it finally sunk in.
Only, this time it was personal: a friend with whom I’d had a close but difficult relationship re-appeared after a long (and peaceful) absence. My ambivalence about his return manifested as intrusive thoughts. Whether working or playing, I kept thinking about him, and I was losing both focus and peace of mind.
I took out some paper and a pen, and rather than write, I start to draw. When I was done half-an-hour or so later, I had grade-school art to show for my efforts, but I felt like I’d gone through top-notch psychotherapy. My divided feelings had become a firm resolve to maintain my distance from this dear, but toxic, friend. My feelings of hurt turned to empathy as I analyzed my drawing. I could see his pain and fear disguised as toughness and cool detachment, and I could see the power in my transparency and vulnerability. He was walled in; I was levitating.
Something in me was healed, and I didn’t even need any artistic skill to do it.
Skill, in fact, may have gotten in the way. If I’d tried to write about the problem, chances are my ego would’ve stepped in and start editing and offering opinions before the words made it to the page. But in a medium where I’ve got zero talent? My ego didn’t even think to speak up. It was out to lunch while it thought I was goofing around with kid stuff.
I wondered what it was like for Sam’s other clients who followed her advice.
Roxana Ramos, a client of Sam who lives in Peru and works in the visual arts — including paper and bookbinding — made some art with India ink markers and paper after she and her boyfriend had an big argument. Unlike my metaphoric rendering, Ramos expressed her feelings abstractly.
“Once my feelings had form, I was able to analyze them,” Ramos said.
She understood from the colorful loopy doodles that she’d had an imbalance that contributed to the argument: “I was too analytical, concentrated on my practical side, so when it was time to feel, I got overwhelmed and exploded.”
For her, another up side to this therapy is that it also contributes to her oeuvre and provides a source of income. (This blog’s featured image at the top is Ramos’s “Us”).
The simple creative practice has helped Ramos overcome overwhelm, the problem that brought her to Sam in the first place. Artists, especially those who are in full-time jobs while pursuing their art “on the side,” often face overwhelm. Other times, the problem stems from too many options. Whatever the cause, overwhelm shuts artists down.
MK Piatkowski, a Canadian singer, dancer, playwright and director, also conquered overwhelm. She quit her full-time job and set out on her own thanks to Sam’s advice to “make some art about it.”
“The practice reminded me that I needed to be an artist again,” Piatkowski explained. “So I’d work and then think, ‘Ok, dance break!’ or “Ok, now let’s do some writing.’”
Piatkowski also used the art of writing to remove a “grief block” that was keeping her from moving forward after the death of a friend, and she incorporated the work into her one-woman cabaret show-in-the-making. She also makes art to clarify her vision for One Big Umbrella, her business that serves theater professionals and creative entrepreneurs.
And it’s not just artists. Even cowgirls get the blues and can benefit from art-making.
Jane Sisam, a veterinary scientist in New Zealand working “to improve animal health and productivity through on-farm workshops, teaching and demonstrations” was having trouble naming her business. Her indecision, she said, “was just like being in a whirlpool, just going round and round, and not getting anywhere.” Sisam wrote and drew pictures about the problem, and finally settled on the name The Pink Cow Company, which satisfied her desire for a right-brained name that would help her business stand out and a feminine name that would represent the “ladies”– both the cattlewomen and the cows – that she works with.
Sam’s explanation for her directive is that art explains our feelings to us. “The other part, I think,” she says, “is explained by the immortal words of my friend Bill Baren [a coach who teaches The Art & Science of Conscious Success]: ‘Feelings just want to be felt.’ And once they know they’ve been felt, that energy can be released and resolved.”
For some, that resolution creates a domino effect. Unblocking in one area leads to movement in other areas. Says Piatowski,“I didn’t move forward in the business until I started writing the play.”
I know that for many years I underestimated the power of my emotions, trying to bulldoze through blocks with sheer will power rather than addressing their causes, which was both exhausting and unreliable. I’ve developed a deep respect for what I once saw as frivolous. Integrating mind, body, and spirit, also means integrating work and play, business and art.
Watch my free webinar Practical Magic for Writers to learn other approaches to move through resistance and enhance creativity or click on the button to get my guide to overcoming procrastination, How to Get Started and Keep Moving.
I’ve never thought of myself as a tree hugger. I mean, I love nature. I enjoy sailing, hiking, sunbathing, kayaking, and bike riding. I’ve even done some protesting of GMOs.
But I know people deeply committed to eco-preservation. These people chain themselves to trees or to each other and block destruction of the environment, like the Everglades, enduring heat, injury, and dehydration, until the authorities eventually haul them away to jail. I deeply admire these people. Still, I don’t see myself as a tree hugger. I mean, I admire martial artists. That doesn’t make me a ninja.
Still, I surprised myself the other day when I did everything short of hugging a tree to make myself feel better. Here’s what was going on:
For no real reason other than it was a Tuesday, my chest was tight and there was lump in my throat. One way I deal with anxiety is to dial up my productivity. Sometimes it helps.
On the Tuesday in question, I applied for a DBA for Wholly Creative, learned online software to help my business, organized my workspace, brainstormed with my assistant about other opportunities, and met a friend for lunch. I felt powerful, full of momentum. After lunch, I crashed for a half hour and took a nap. But by the afternoon, the tension was still there in my chest and throat.
So I tried the opposite approach: do less.
I walked to to the beach. I wrote for a little while. I watched the children throwing buckets of water at each other, the waves rolling in, couples sitting on blankets in the soft sand together, the golden light of the setting sun bathing the whole scene in such magical light that even the garbage seemed enchanted. But the breeze, waves, and sunset didn’t do much for the constriction I still felt, like an unseen hand was reaching down my throat and squeezing my heart.
I packed up my things as the breeze blew colder, and as I walked toward home, I was drawn to the coral tree that stood in the grassy area along the beach. It’s complex root structure fascinated me. Its branches rolled like cursive into the punctuation of bumps and nubs.
I slowly approached the tree, more curious than committed to an action, still with this discomfort, this dull aching in my chest and throat. I thought about doing a couple lion’s breaths, sticking out my tongue with a forceful exhale, which sometimes helped a little.
Instead I began talking to the tree. “Hi there. You’re an interesting tree. Do you mind if I sit here?” I climbed onto the horizontal portion of the trunk and settled in. “I used to have another tree friend back in Florida.”
And then I began to tell this tree about another tree, a Green Buttonwood, that used to grow along the sea wall in Lake Worth. I used to sit on its similarly sideways trunk and listen to the waves slop against the seawall while I wrote. The days I spent there with the tree, I unburdened so much in the pages of my notebook. During our time together, I went through several boyfriends, my father died, I went back to graduate school, my daughter moved in with me and I became a full-time mom. I experienced and learned so much with that tree, that I developed a relationship with it. I started to call it my tree.
Then the fences went up. Hurricanes and time had damaged the sea wall, and a restoration project was underway. I couldn’t get to my tree without climbing under the fence. I wrote the city a letter expressing my concern about the tree. I was told by the city’s arborist that there were others who inquired, too, and that the city was looking into what could be done to preserve the tree.
One night as I walked in the moonlight to the park, I let out a howl. The tree had been uprooted. Its trunk and limbs, sawed into pieces, were in a pile.
“Murderers!” I shrieked and ran toward the fence. I lifted the chain link and crawled under it. Surveying the damage, I let out a roar, as much furious at my helplessness as at the person or people who had done this. And then began to sob. I rested my hand on a large limb, as I looked at the severed pieces lying casually on the grass.
“I’m so sorry. I’m so so sorry.” I cried in the darkness as the leaves limply hung from their drying branches. “I tried. I didn’t know what else to do.”
That night I walked home with a bundle of smaller branches in one arm, dragging one large leafy branch behind me. Weeks later when they had dried enough to burn, I lit a funeral pyre and said goodbye. I saved one two inch piece of a large branch from the fire. It moved with me to California. I keep it on my altar.
I told this story to my new tree friend as we sat together looking out at the ocean. And then I settled in to write a poem about a girl in a tree. “Her heart relaxes in this hammock of arteries and veins.”
“Practice the art of doing without doing”: it’s on a Post-it stuck to a binder for what I call my “Phoenix Feather” project. “Phoenix Feather” feels good in the mouth; it’s fun to say. I had a childlike wonder as I used crayons to draw a picture of a red and purple feather. Then I slid my artwork into the front the binder to impart that energy to my work there. I’ve learned that feeling good about my project helps me approach it in a way that lets work happen easily rather than as part of a struggle. I’ve been making much progress on this project because it feels fun, wonder-filled, and inviting.
Another Post-it on the binder reminds me “I can of my own self do nothing. John 5:30.” And a third, a paraphrase of the Gayatri mantra, a highly revered Hindu prayer, invokes the source of all inspiration and creativity: “You who are the source of all power, whose rays illuminate the world, illuminate also my heart so that it, too, can do your work.” I’m eclectic when it comes to spiritual inspiration! There’s wisdom and guidance from so many sources.
I love that invocation in the Gayatri. When I’m connected to Source, letting divine energy move through me, my work is effortless. It becomes doing without doing. In my search for more on the topic, I found this post by Lindsey Lewis on Daily Cup of Yoga: 5 Ways to Master the Art of Doing without Doing.