I love a good ritual! A few years back I invented a ritual to celebrate the new year and honor the things I wanted for myself and my life.
It started as an urge to give others what they most wanted. Just before Christmas 2015, I had been brainstorming gift ideas for a couple of close friends. I wanted something that would be meaningful but wouldn’t be expensive. I had squirreled away some giant mugs with spiritual quotes that seemed like a good start, but I didn’t just want to stuff them with candy (so impersonal!) or give an empty mug (symbolically awful!).
I thought, “Wouldn’t it be great if I could give the people I love what their hearts most desire?”
The rest came to me pretty quickly. I conceived of a variation on a floral arrangement in the mug: “The Manifestation Tree.” It would be an attractively arranged bunch of branches from which paper leaves were hung by ribbons. On the leaves, goals, desires, or dreams could be written down with the intention of the growing them into existence.
It was everything: affordable, meaningful, symbolic, and practical.
I gathered fallen branches in a eucalyptus grove. Then I went to the craft store for the rest of the supplies: florist’s foam, decorative moss, silver spray paint, ribbon, craft paper, permanent markers. I selected silver spray paint and shimmery craft paper to create a magical feel, and then I chose ribbon colors specific to my friends’ personalities. My Buddhist friend would get a purple-ribboned tree in a black mug with an image of Buddha; and my yogini friend would get a aqua-blue ribboned tree in a blue mug with the lord Ganesha, remover of obstacles.
My friends appreciated their gifts, keeping them up for the season and then saving the mug when the branches had served their purpose.
I was so in love with my invention that I made an identical blue tree for myself, and it still stands. My manifestation tree sits on my kitchen table year round, a sort of altar in the my home’s nerve center of growth: the place where I nourish, heal, and warm myself.
I’ve watched as each of the intentions I wrote down manifested one by one. The leaves were a visual reminder of what I wanted in my life, and I believe moved me toward what I wanted. As I identified new goals, I wrote them down and added them to the tree.
The tree is rather full now, and I’ve seen most of what I intended come to fruition. This year, I may begin removing the leaves that have manifested to make room for new ones to grow. It seems fitting that these leaves be sent up in fire or stored in a special place.
Lots of people let fear of the unknown or of abject humilation thwart them. I’m not one of these people. My willingness to leap, assuming that I’ll land, if not on my feet then some place better than where I currently stand, is one of my superpowers.
So it was pretty much a total Marya move when I quit the best writing gig I’d ever had. For two years, I’d been writing a weekly column for Voice Media Group, the nation’s biggest alt-weekly franchise, the one that publishes Village Voice, L.A. Weekly and New Times. My liquor-drenched tales of South Florida nightlife were a hit among the readers of New Times Broward-Palm Beach.
As a home-turf writer, my job was to add local color and levity between the hard hitting news and the raunchy sex ads of Back Pages. It sounds like an easier job than it was. No one wants to hear about any ol’ average night-on-the-town. They want to read epic bar adventures they couldn’t or wouldn’t have themselves. In me, readers wanted a modern-day female Hunter S. Thompson.
Since I own no shotguns and avoid LSD, I doubled down on the whiskey and smart-talk. I quickly ran into another problem: a real epic is hard to achieve when one has no self-destructive urge and wants to keep her day job. (I’ve been working as an English professor for nearly 20 years). Plus, a night of drinking that’s worth remembering usually can’t be remembered.
My editor made it clear: I better get to writing snappy copy or I’d be out of a job. What does a writer do when there’s nothing to write about? She creates something to write about.
On my beat among the bar flies, lounge lizards and club kids, I was a provocateur. I’d prod randomly selected patrons with barbed quips and ludicrous and loaded questions, trying to get them to say something worth quoting. Or I’d instigate a story — like the time I asked a cowboy to prove himself and then wrote about being lassoed in the parking lot. And at the computer, I was a sort of Dr. Frankenstein, stitching together unrelated pieces — quotes and anecdotes — as a coherent whole. Then I’d use a cocktail of sarcasm and description to bring the thing to life.
About half way into this two-year gig, I wondered what the hell I was doing. This wasn’t art. This wasn’t why I studied writing. I began to resent my editor and the confines of the column: I had to sound younger than I was to appeal to a target demographic and I couldn’t fold my real-life challenges (such as being a non-custodial parent or coping with the recent death of my father) into the narrative. I felt like a phony. And when I kept at it for another year, I started to think of myself as a sell-out.
When I quit, it was with the intention of keeping my motivations pure and writing something more valuable and less disposable than a column in a free weekly rag. But once I no longer had a clear audience or rhetorical situation, my writing foundered. I wasn’t sure what I was writing or who would want to read it. Without an editor waiting for my copy, my sense of urgency diminished.
As a columnist, I had been writing and publishing 1500 words a week, which is about the number of words a person needs to write if they want to write a book in one year. But after I quit New Times, did I write a book a year?
I didn’t even finish one book in 8 years. I moved to California. I wrote and published a few essays. I wrote and performed a couple of stories on stage. I solved the drinking problem that was encouraged by a job that picked up my bar tab. Mostly in the post-New Times days, I experimented with new forms and ideas and expressed a lot that wasn’t published or performed.
And then recently, as I’ve set out independently as a blogger and writing coach with a forthcoming book, I started to kick myself for having been so foolish as to give up my power — my platform! Even if I had the time and energy to start all over again, what were the odds I’d make it far as I had before when I was younger and boozier? Why hadn’t I realized how good I’d had it?
And then, because writing is how I process things, I started writing this blog post. Honestly, I couldn’t figure out what I had to say about my experience. Was I trying to say something about the importance of structure (one of the subjects of my Practical Magic for Writers workshop)? Was I offering a cautionary tale? A lesson about appreciating opportunities? Lowering expectations? Letting go of the glory days?
I felt like I’d screwed up somehow, but I wasn’t sure how I could have done things differently. Should I have recognized the power of a “personal brand” and a “platform” sooner?
I mulled it over for several days. Then one night as I soaked in a hot tub of salty water, it hit me: things were good at New Times just like they are when a kid lives with her parents.
At the magazine, I had other people’s expertise and resources aiding me in my success. My editor taught me a lot about storytelling and about voice. I learned how to compensate for boring plots with punchy dialogue and colorful character sketches. I learned how to marry poetic description and sarcasm.
I didn’t have to worry about finding or narrowing a topic or finding the right “home” for a piece. Neither did I concern myself with a suitable structure or finding an interested audience. All of these were provided for me, and I took it for granted much the way a kid takes a roof over her head and three squares a day for granted.
All I had to do was submit my copy and then a team edited, illustrated, laid out, and printed the thing and got the whole magazine into newsstands and online. And I got paid every week like clockwork.
But I also paid a price: I had to keep meeting someone else’s expectations. I couldn’t really express myself or experiment, which is to say, I had been right (oh, how I love being right!): I hadn’t been a real artist — I was just fleshing out someone else’s vision (this part I didn’t love at all).
Maybe it was the epsom salt at work, too, but the realization helped me relax into a self-acceptance. I realized that I had just experienced some growing pains…some of the same challenges a kid faces when she goes out on her own. With fewer resources and less experience, I would be likely to have a hard go of it for a while. Which is exactly what happened.
I hadn’t screwed up; I’d grown up.
Today, I also realize something else: Maybe it’s not called a “leap-of-faith” because we believe that we are going to land on our feet but because we know that being airborne will allow us to expand — to grow, to take a new shape and discover new space. We take a leap because we have faith in the value of experience. And, if we survive, it gives us something worth writing about.
Need help with your writing? Get my free newsletter or hit me up at firstname.lastname@example.org. I love questions. Really, I do.
Validation is a tricky thing. We all need it…. Ok, most of us need it. If you don’t, there’s a good chance you’re a sociopath. And if you need too much of it, you’re needy and exhausting and we all wish you’d work on your self-esteem.
It’s hard to strike a balance. Or to even know where the line is, exactly. This is especially true for artists. What’s “good”? What’s not? How do we know? If we are on the cutting edge, we don’t even have anything to measure our own work against. Sometimes it’s nice to just hear that all our hard work is appreciated and maybe even…gasp!…valued!
You wouldn’t think an offer to have work purchased (Hello, money!) would be an insecurity trigger. But my artist buddy called me the other day, questioning himself and his work because he’d received offers to buy the rag he’d used to wipe his paintbrushes. The problem was, people hadn’t shown much interest in the paintings that he’d labored over, sometimes for days at a time. The attention “The Paint Diaper” had gotten seemed to say “Why bother trying to create anything meaningful? — Just sling some color around.”
My friend was demoralized. I told him I understood.
Some nights on the poetry slam circuit, I would get so disgusted by what I deemed the unsophisticated tastes of stupid audiences.
The average poetry slam audience liked pieces that rhymed. They liked poems with word play – regardless of whether they actually made any sense. They liked poems that were full of bravado and rebellion – they didn’t notice the logical or factual problems. Worst of all, they loved poems that sounded like hundreds of other poems. The predictable and familiar almost always won out over the inventive and challenging.
The truly creative, the challenging and artfully rendered pieces sailed over most people’s heads like a fine bone china plate, shattering into bits of polite but bored applause at the end. It was enough to make me want to scream or quit. Sometimes, like my friend, I wondered why I bothered at all. The only answer some days was that I couldn’t stop — that I was compelled to keep writing the same way he is compelled to paint.
But the day my buddy called me to tell me about “The Paint Diaper” situation, I had a new perspective. I had seen a picture of the rag when he’d posted it on Facebook. I’d enlarged the photo to get a better look.
The little swabs of color caught in the waffle weave of the cotton rag were random, yet they made sense. The effect – the unity of chaos and simplicity – was reassuring and lovely. But most of all, it was easy to like. It didn’t ask much from the viewer other than to be perceived as color and pattern.
And I suddenly understood that my high expectations of my audience lacked compassion for the fact that life is often complicated and difficult, and people often just want art that distracts or pleases them, not another demand or challenge.
I understood my friend when he said his “real work” felt diminished; I reassured him that his art has value whether people appreciate it or not.
If our art is about an expression of ourselves, then had he not done it? And hadn’t I? We had both honored that urge that compelled us to create. And if it wasn’t appreciated the way we had intended, did that matter? I mean, so what if it was the unintentional result of the process that delighted people?
And so what if my own “real work” was less appreciated than my commercial work or the poems I’d composed intentionally pandering to audiences so I’d get high scores? Hadn’t my efforts both to express myself and to be appreciated allowed me to understand my friend better and to connect over a shared experience?
And isn’t that what art is about after all: expression and connection?
The entire creative process is fraught with questions and dilemmas that philosophy and spiritual traditions (religions) have grappled with, found answers and solutions for…and then codified. But creativity, to me, is real faith. It’s a living breathing thing in which we explore and celebrate and struggle with what it means to be human.
In these final days of summer, let’s take time to honor the season’s fiery energy before it’s gone. That fire manifests itself in lots of activity, frequently recreational activities, because the days are longer and we feel more alive, and because the season’s heat is balanced by the cooling qualities of play and leisure, which restore and rejuvenate us.
They don’t call it recreation, for nothing.
In agriculture, the summer is the period of growth and maturation, catalyzed by all that abundant sunlight. Fall is the season of harvest — that time where we reap the benefits of the seeds we planted in spring. We see the farmer’s calendar reflected in the school year, which is why we have the summer off to play, and in fall and spring we work.
Often the fun we’ve had during the summer is perceived as less productive (and therefore less valuable) than other times of year when we are hard at work. This true only if we are measuring our productivity in terms of external achievements rather than internal growth.
Because I teach a full course load of college classes and run my own creative coaching business, I certainly need my goof-off time just for sanity’s sake. Summertime is when I get it. Sometimes I’m down on myself for what feels like an indulgence; I often overlook how much I’m actually getting done while I’m “doing nothing.”
This summer was no exception. By summer’s end, I groaned at how little I’d done in the way of crossing things off my “To Do” list. I was pretty close to giving myself a hard time about my lack of discipline. But then I thought about how much got done (intentional use of the passive voice, folks!) while I was doing nothing.
While I was off playing and having a great time, I underwent important, transformational growth. For instance, I met a wonderful someone with whom I deeply connected and thereby received not only a summer playmate, but a growth accelerator. The romance sparked my imagination and ignited my heart, but it also aroused fear and touched old wounds. As the fiery energy of summer kindled desire and affection, it helped me burn through some of the debris of the past.
Moving into the fall, I have an opportunity to create stories and essays from my summer experiences, harvesting the wisdom from my my growth. Like that old Christian hymn says, I will be “bringing in the sheaves” (sheaves are bundles of grain) that matured during the sunny season. And I will rejoice the planting, growing, and harvesting as I write.
Writing is how I thresh and winnow, separating the wheat from the chaff (or rice from the chaff, for those of us who are gluten-free). To continue the metaphor, ultimately, this process is how I make my dough, make a living, sustain myself. It’s how I became a “real writer.”
Remember that essay your teacher made you write on what you did during your summer vacation? Why not write one now?
Now that we just celebrated the solstice, summer is officially in session. Woohoo! Who doesn’t love the fun, high-energy playfulness of summer? You’d think that energy might be great for your creative projects, and you’d be right — that is, if you weren’t so busy doing so many other things.
The challenge of summer is that while energy is high and life feels vibrant, the energy can make us scattered and the disruption of our schedules that come in the form of school breaks, holiday weekends, and recreational travel can actually undermine our projects. We get so swamped with all the fun, that frequently our writing is left unattended and our projects drown.
Glug, glug, glug…
But the thing is, you need that fun! You need to be restored and rejuvenated, to play and let go. So the answer isn’t to just buckle down and ignore the beckoning of the beach, or the lure of the lake, or the seduction of … well, whatever siren is singing to you. Go ahead, get wet and enjoy the float and splash!
But before you do, put a life jacket on your creativity.
No PFD in Marina Del Rey!
I’m wearing the red hat (and no PFD)!
This PFD (personal flotation device) comes in the form a schedule. Wait….Don’t run away. I swear you’re going to love this idea. Because you’re going to schedule all the FUN STUFF first to give you a clear picture of how much fun you’re going to be having!
I like to have my summer at a glance, and so instead of monthly calendar, I grabbed a giant piece of butcher block paper and drew out June, July and August. Then I wrote in my concert plans, camping trips, sailing excursions, creativity conferences, and community festivals. I added in poetry slams, literary readings, concerts, and picnics. Oh, good gracious, I started to really look forward to this amazing summer!
Then I also had a clear view of how much time I had left to get to my writing and to accomplish my creative goals. It was suddenly clear how I had to buckle down during the time that had not been allotted to play and really focus on what I wanted to get completed.
The great thing about summer is that its energy — fire element — is actually conducive to this sort of focus; that is, if we aren’t too distracted by the need to balance that fierce fiery energy with the cooling, playful qualities of water element.
The BIG PICTURE SCHEDULE makes it easier for me to see how much fun I’ve already got planned and to say “no” when I get invitations that are going to keep me from my goals.
For those of you who have been following this blog and attending my webinars, you’ll recognize this scheduling as an Earth element approach, which grounds and contains both the Water and the Fire. Because we’ve just come out of spring — the season governed by Air element — we’ve carried its inspiration with us. Now it’s just our job to tend to those spring creative seedlings and make sure they get the attention they need.
by Marya Summers In the summer of 2003, poets from around the world converged in Chicago for the National Poetry Slam. One densely packed nightclub was electric with anticipation for the group poem showcase, a highlight of the annual event. You could have supplied power to a small town with the energy my own body […]
You’re a smart and practical person. You see the problem: You’re not writing enough. Or not publishing enough.
The solution is simple, right? Write more. Publish more. It’s not rocket surgery. It’s self-evident: like the solution to being 20 pounds overweight. Lose 20 pounds. Duh.
At first, the need for a solution is a constant-yet-quiet thought in the back of your mind. Then it gets louder and more urgent, and that makes you feel a little panicky. Eventually you’re checking out — watching TV, eating, distracting yourself with other things — to try to keep that panicky feeling at bay. Eventually, you creatively shut down in generalized anxiety and creative desperation. Until one day, you’ve had enough. You’re like, “This has gotta stop! Today is the day I take action!”
And then you’re off. Like gang busters. Hitting it daily: the writing, that is, as if you are power-lifting at the gym. Except you’re at the writer’s bench, pressing words. Showing up. Showing off. Yeah, you’re a rock star. You’re a little high on your awesomeness. It’s like a crash diet, except you’re getting leaner and meaner on the page. Some days you’re feeling like a writing super model.
Then some time goes by and you notice you’re back in a slump. You’ve put all that weight back on in the form of unexpended words. You’re a literary slob … again. And you’re disgusted with yourself. Again. And you enter the serious funk of “WTF is wrong with me?!?!”
The problem is, the problem isn’t actually what you think.
Not writing and not publishing aren’t the problems. These are symptoms. But they sure look like problems, because we can point to them and go, “This is why I’m miserable.” It’s not as easy to identify the sources of our problems because they lurk in the subconscious as writing goblins while we blame ourselves for the symptoms.
The emotional and psychological challenges that we face when they write are much like those people face when they diet. Issues of self-esteem, of acceptance and belonging, of motivation, of safety: these need to be addressed to get lasting results. Otherwise like dieters who never change their relationship to food, you’ll keep yo-yo-ing in your writing habits.
Sound familiar? Join me for a FREE webinar on how to get rid of those writing goblins that you’ve got going on in your life. If you can’t watch the webinar live, sign-up and you’ll be sent a link to replay to watch whenever it suits you. Attending live lets me help vanquish your goblins. You can also email me for help..
Recently, I posted the replay of a webinar on dream writing on Facebook. I’d offered the hour-long workshop for free to drum-up business and help folks “discover” me and experience my teaching style. If that workshop resonated, I hoped I could sell them with my soft-sell pitch at the end of the presentation in which I touched on the ongoing benefits of an 8-week workshop that I had coming up. I had about 30 people sign-up for the dream writing workshop. Two of those converted into paying customers.
Later on I had people remember that I’d offered the workshop and ask for the link. So I posted it, noting that it was a free workshop with nothing to buy. A friend commented on the post:
What a refreshing change! It’s distressing to me how many people I know through yoga that try to sell me things on Facebook. How about some non-commercial interaction? Seriously it’s like a foreign concept to some.
I totally understand what he means.
So many of my friends are in business for themselves, and so many of us have been coached to stop devaluing our work, to stop giving it away for free. At one time, we were afraid of “selling out” or afraid of asking for money. We’ve learned to value what we do. We’ve learned to be more comfortable “making the ask.” As a result, some people have over-corrected, and, in the worst cases, interacting with them feels like trying to dodge a door-to-door solicitor — one who sees every interaction as an open door.
The other thing I’ve experienced is signing on for people’s workshops where they’ve made a promise to present something of value — usually promised in the title — and then having to sit through a lengthy pitch for a tidbit of information at the end. It’s the equivalent of the time-share “free vacation” experience.
Even worse: Some people pitch or up-sell during something I’ve paid to attend. I don’t mind being made aware of a product or service, but if I’ve paid to attend an event, I’m paying for a service, not to be sold to or cajoled out of more of my money. I resent it when this happens and I tend to shut down or form an automatic “no” because my trust has been violated. I don’t do business with someone I don’t trust.
I take my own reactions into consideration when I interact with others as Marya-the-creative-entrepreneur. For instance, at a yoga festival recently, after a warm conversation with a woman I just met, I offered her my business card so she could keep in touch. But as I extended the card, I suddenly felt as if I had cheapened our personal exchange with a business card.
“This is what I do,” I told her. “But I’m also a person. And I’d love to hear from you, you know…just as a person.”
The thing is, too, that I meant this. My relationships with people are more than my business interactions with them. People can feel it when you genuinely care about them and when you interact with them in a personal way that values them as fellow humans. That doesn’t mean you give yourself or your services away. But it does mean that you consider how things feel and that you “Do unto others…” as the saying goes.
Here’s the replay of the DREAM WRITING WORKSHOP if you’re interested. And please, let me know what you write if you take the dream writing workshop and what you think about this post or the dream writing process.
Today, disorder is the rule; the queen gets let out of the castle — to play in the mud or roll in the hay. Let her even run around in circles clucking and flapping imaginary wings like the village idiot, if she wants. The dirty peasants can sit on the throne for a while.
What would a practical joke look like if it were a poem?
How could reversal — of roles, of words, of rhythms, or images — create a topsy-turvy view of the world that offers something unexpected and fun to your reader?
Or you might use the energy of today to introduce some levity into a very serious scene, poem or article you are writing.
It’s not all frivolousness, mind you — there’s depth to be had in play. Shakespeare’s fool was no joke. In the reversals, we find the truth of things. The neglected, often unconsidered, view that is necessary for deep wisdom. And laughter is potent medicine for societal and personal ills.
It’s opposition like this — of seriousness and levity, of dark and light, etc. — where we find power, our mojo, as writers. And the correspondence of our holidays, of the mood of the day, helps heighten that power. Learning to work with these energies is something I do in my Wholly Creative writing workshops. (Enjoy a free MP3 download of my intro to Mojo-a-go-go Writers Workshop: Dancing with Elements. Click Here for Mojo ).
Every day on Facebook Millie posts a picture, a snapshot of her life. Sometimes it’s her feet in the clouds. Sometimes it is the slinking colors of sunset across a desert sky. Or a flower that opened, fresh and amazed like a baby’s eyes, taking in Everything for the first time.
Because a thousand words are often not enough, she writes a poetic reflection to accompany the pic
ture. A meditation on the moment in the photo, which entered her heart through the senses. Her writing is a spiritual practice. Her body, her body of work, dances however it’s moved. The dance enters her. She becomes the dance; the dance moves through her and moves on, and a new one enters. Sometimes the dance is stillness.
Millie comes each month with her yoga mat to the park, and we write together beneath the eucalyptus trees. Their scent inspires the ritual of pen moving on paper, our minds moving collectively with the pulse in Everything.
Together with a tribe that contracts and expands like Everything does, we honor the Everything that yearns to be experienced, that throbs in us begging to dance with us, to be written, to be loved and let go.
I’d love to write and dance with you, too.
If you can’t join me on the first Saturday of the month at Recreation Park South in Long Beach like Millie does, you can always join me in my online workshops to write and express what yearns to be expressed through you. You’ll get new writing, better habits, deeper creativity and a whole new groove in your creative life.