Good news: you’re an artist, not a sociopath

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.

marya-poetry-slam-dada
T o pander or not to pander? That is the question.

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.

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Making art can solve your problems and change your life

No matter what problem you have, odds are Samantha Bennett will tell you, “Make some art about it.”

Sam is an actor, the author of Get It Done: From Procrastination to Creative Genius in 15 Minutes a Day, and the CEO of The Organized Artist Company, which offers workshops and coaching to artists and entrepreneurs who want to get their shit together.

People like me.

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.

Bad Art Good Results
My bad art yielded good results

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.

WWSD?

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.

My Mind by Roxana Ramos
“My Mind” by Roxana Ramos

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.

Sisam whirlpool
Sisam’s whirlpool

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.

GET STARTED AND KEEP MOVING ON YOUR WRITING!

The Art of Doing without Doing

“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.

You might also try my tips on procrastination, How to Get Moving and Get Things Done, which is my own kinder, gentler way to entering flow.

#whollycreative #whatsyourstory

The dark side of awesome …

IMG_3297
Free to be me!

Self-help is such a huge industry that it’s become the M.O. for many of us who want to be the best selves we can be. But in some ways I think it’s become insidious in its negation of who we are.

For instance, perhaps I could watch less TV. Then again, I enjoy stories. The shows provide an escape, and I also learn and am inspired by what others see as mindless drivel.

Take The Almighty Johnsons, a kiwi show about four brothers who are Norse gods. The gods’ attributes contribute both power and weakness to their characters. For instance Ull, the god of hunting, while good at games and finding things, can easily cross the line into stalker territory. Bragi, the god of poetry is a natural at PR, but he is also a bit of douche, using his powers to get women in bed. These gods can’t deny their powers, nor the fact that there is a dark side to them.

The_Almighty_Johnsons_season_2If I were among the pantheon, I would be the goddess of the escape. When I was young, I had a knack for breaking in (and out) of places, though seldom causing any real mischief. I wanted to move between spaces, explore different worlds, and I couldn’t see any reason why I should be locked out or in. I slid out of my bedroom window at night, and I wandered into people’s homes, into schools, into hotels after hours. This may have developed because, unless I was in trouble, I was virtually invisible in my family. I could leave for long, unaccounted for hours and return without having to explain myself.

To checkout of the void of a lonely childhood, I read books that transported me to other worlds. I remember fondly Désirée, a very long historical romance novel about Napolean and his lover, where an entire week went by and I existed in a different place in time even when my face wasn’t in its pages.

When I was locked up  – first briefly in juvenile detention and then for about a year in a behavior modification program – for running away from home as an adolescent, I escaped by constructing elaborate fantasies and daydreaming my way into other realms that were more appealing than the church pews I was forced to sit in the entire day to be reprogrammed. I never made an actual break for it because though I’m dreamy, I’m also practical, and I knew I’d be better off in the long run there than on the streets.

After being locked up, I learned to immerse myself in academics, using scholarship and achievement as a socially acceptable form of checking out of the real world. In my early adulthood my problems, like my abusive marriage to an older man, went away as I immersed myself in literature and philosophy. When I abandoned my marriage, I escaped my troubles with drugs and alcohol and men, none of whom I kept around for long. As I got older, I gave up the escapes that were the most destructive. I made a commitment to better self-care. I also committed to a few other things: To my daughter (which kept me in the same geographic place for 18 years), to my writing, to my cats, and to Truth. Not necessarily in that order.

The expression of escape changed. Fundamentally, however, I am still a free spirit. Especially when it comes to ideas.

I have a friend Paul, who regularly calls me because he has “figured something out.” I’ll answer the phone and he’ll deliver some truth he has arrived at such as “It’s all love…love is not the exception” or “If we’re suffering, we’re in ego.” Generally there’s a long story that accompanies the realization. I made the mistake once of saying, after he delivered his punchline (the realization), “Well, Paul, that’s an absolute, and absolutes usually aren’t true.” There was a long moment of silence for the dead idea.

In the interest of our friendship, I have had to learn listen to Paul’s stories and not to respond with the exceptions that do, in fact, unravel his theories. Some people like the solidity of Desireeabsolutes; it makes them feel safe. As the goddess of escapism, I’m also the queen of exceptions because exceptions allow the mind to wriggle free of the confines of a governing concept.

“I can see how you would be difficult for people,” our mutual friend John said (I tend to collect friends named after the apostles, evidently). “You’re hard to pin down.”

In fact, one of my favorite things about teaching English was that I teach thinking – that is how to think, and what people have thought, rather than a specific point-of-view. For me, my superpower is that I think fluidly, I am often unattached to ideas, and I can see things from multiple perspectives.

Sure this comes with its challenges, for instance, I can be indecisive. But when it comes to my relationship with Truth, it actually is helpful. I’m not talking about truth with a lowercase “t” as in “Did you take the garbage out? Tell the truth.” I mean the Truth about the nature of being, about why we are here, where we go when we die, and what it all means (if anything).

I’m very comfortable with a multiplicity of views. And I’m very comfortable knowing that these are questions that point at the infinite (God-type stuff) and that my intellect and language is finite and so my thoughts and words can only generally point in the direction of what I am discussing. And when this infinite shifts and takes on new form, I’m comfortable going “and there it is again over there contradicting what I just said.” It’s part of the mystery of life. And I can know it and revere it without being able to explain it.

Of course, part of the nature of being in flow like this is that I tend to not attach myself to things like money or people for very long. It has its challenges, for sure. And when I get on a self-improvement jag, I can sometimes start yanking at the roots of this thing, forgetting that in doing so, I’m going to eradicate what makes me me. I named after the wind, after all, and destined to slide between cracks into spaces that want to be explored. And like wind, I may settle down, but never for long.

It seems to me that my job is to know my power, to explore new opportunities to use it, and to do my best to use it responsibly – with the understanding that sometimes my power is more powerful than my will to control it.

The dark side of awesome is still awesome. What’s your superpower? What’s its dark side? How can you help save the world?

Get my guide Get Moving and Get Things Done (there’s no better way to be awesome and it’s totally free).

F*cked up and tacky? Make these your super-powers.

Recently I had a conversation with a woman who used to work for the International Visitors Council of Los Angeles. Her job was to show dignitaries from foreign countries around L.A. to give them an appreciation of the city.

“What are the must sees?” I asked, since I knew I still had a lot to learn about the vast and complex city that I’d made my hometown only five years ago.

Watts Towers
Watts Towers

She named Watts Towers and Gamble House as two very different but distinctively L.A. experiences. Because I was familiar with neither, she briefly explained the towers in Watts that had been built by an Italian immigrant out of steel and broken dishware and the craftsman house built without nails or screws by the corporate tycoons. She also suggested a drive along Sunset Boulevard from downtown to the Pacific Ocean to see how the neighborhoods change. She began to talk about the character of the city as one that was represented by its diversity and startling contrasts.

“Of course these sorts of things could never happen in San Francisco,” she said. “People there have taste.”

What struck me about this was not that she was dissing L.A. but that what seemed like a drawback actually worked in the city’s favor as a distinguishing attribute – part of its character.

I thought about how that applies to artists, too. We often try to overcome what we perceive as our weaknesses rather than embracing them as parts of our character that contribute who we are and what we have to express. Maybe we could gain by seeing the value in our “flaws.” I think these could be our superpowers!

#whatsyourstory

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All work and no play?

Dammit, if writing ain’t serious business.

Of all the arts, I think writing is the easiest to think of as work, rather than play. I mean, musicians play their instruments, and in the theater, actors play at being someone else, and they get together with a director and techies and launch a play. Painters and sculptors and other visual artists play with their media, with the colors, the textures, and viscosities; their work is often gestural, reflective of the physical play between the artists’ bodies and their creations.

Playing with a pen
This kitten reminds us, we too can play with a pen!

But I hardly ever hear writers say they’re going to play with a piece, and when they do what they really mean is they’ve got work to do on it. They seldom mean, “I’m going to have fun with it.”

And that’s a shame, I think, because those of us who are writers obviously appreciate what words can do. So why don’t we delight more in pushing them onto and around the page?

What would happen if we started calling our writing play? What if our legacy weren’t a body of work, but a body of play? Would that undermine its importance? Or would we re-energize our “work” by re-conceptualizing it as an opportunity for fun, adventure, and discovery, or whatever play means to us?