I only am now seeing how much tension, anxiety and fight-or-flight response drive has bound my heart/mind/body/spirit for the last two or three (or more...) years. This fear response has been a natural stimulant. Like caffeine or other additive, despite its negative effects on my health and well-being, panic has kept me moving and creating art art art -- whether or not this creativity was often induced by an inferred need to prove I deserve to exist.
I can see how much worry injected my chest now, because as graduate school responsibilities diminish toward the zero mark, that crystalized static is steadily dripping away. It's wonderful to finish things I've started -- I have a few projects wrapping up right now and that's got me in a beautiful emotional place. Without this electric impulse jutting me forward, however, it's difficult to let new things begin, or to continue at a consistent rate of speed in order to keep up the good work.
This new calmer state is taking some getting used to. I do in fact have new things to begin and maintain, things that have deadlines, things that need regular attention. I want to remember how to get inspired to do great work without panic, and with low energy. How do I do that?
Dwayne Blackaller, a magical theater maker I get to work with often, would say to find the thing I love about what I'm doing right now. Cindy Shearer, my advisor and professor at California Institute of Integral Studies, would say not to force it, to let the inspiration arise. That's what I'm working on -- cultivating the love and inspiration in each moment again, in the same way I ask my students to do, without rushing, trusting the process and letting myself feel how I feel.
So this moment, here are 12 things I love right now:
Dandelions in seed look like the moon in its various phases as the particles blow off.
I heard an autoharp played for the first time in person, days ago.
All five year olds, much like adults, want more minutes to do what they want to do.
Everyone has a personal definition of what spring should feel like.
Frustration and anger are legitimate emotions that drive in a different way than fear.
Kindness is a daily practice and it's as hard and deeply opening as being & noticing.
My face now looks less disheveled than a flat sheet of paper entrenched in muddy footprints.
April sounds more alive than February.
Silent pauses between words speak louder than verbal ones.
The smell of water meeting soil blooms blossoms in my belly.
Some of my favorite people to talk to are linguistically trapped in the 90s.
Mourning doves still sound like owls to me.
I need to keep collecting these interests, these loves, these sweetnesses.
I want to build a way of art-making that isn't based in tense, competitive worth-proving.
Yesterday, I stayed up late into the night compiling an anthology for 28 young playwrights of their plays, after working feverishly on that much of the day in-between teaching and other creative tasks. Mostly I did this because I didn't know these students had written 165 pages worth of short scripts, but also I felt a need to get every page formatted as well as I possibly could. Despite my bleary eyes and delirious 2am brain, I still felt I needed to prove something to this class of 5th graders, to myself, to the written word, who knows.
The truth is, as much as I'm trying to find a way of working that is both balanced and sustainable as well as productive, old habits keep me pushing past my reservoir's limits in ways I know are ridiculous.
This past Sunday, I took my birthday off of work. That was the first day I spent away from the internet, assignments and deadlines since...maybe the winter holiday? The Sunday before, my last CIIS class meeting ended, finishing out my final MFA cohort weekend. Somehow I thought my schedule might loosen up, but it's the time of the year for everything to be due, and catching up on all the piled up work reminds me that I was trying to go to school full time on top of a full time work load for two years.
Now that my professional, teaching and creative tasks are asking for my 100 percent attention, it's a shifting of the what, but not of the how much. This is all stuff I love, so I want to do it well. So to my endurance, stamina, energy, I ask, keep up, keep up, just a little longer.
Yet I've been saying just a little longer for years now.
This is going on everywhere, it's that final stride season in academics, in the theater, in every creative person I see. Spring is the deadline marathon. I hear artists in hushed voices say, when will the projects end? Others I talk with are trying to hold on to motivation, to good attitudes and cheer, others are barely breathing past the overwhelming oppression of everything on their plates. None of us want to say anything about it, for fear of the phone silencing for future calls, but our bodies and expressions are saying it for us. Sometimes it feels taboo to say, it's hard, what we're doing.
Right now, I want to say it for you, to you (for us?). It's hard what you're doing. You're doing the impossible. I believe in you. You make me dizzy with your ambitious dedication and gorgeous craftsmanship. That's not easy.
I think that as artists, even during crunch times, it's scary to admit that what we do is hard. Maybe that's because artists in this 21st Century culture, at least in the U.S., are rarely seen as diligent workers, but as luxuriating hobbyists. So instead we say, just a little longer, we can make it. Another month, another couple weeks, another show, another class, another day, whatever it is. And we can. We show that. We do that. We prove that we are doing something valuable with our hours and effort.
Part of this go go go is the art animal in us, needing to make beauty, wanting to show our work and make the world better. Part is that addictive busy disease of this century, mixed with the burst of dopamine from getting asked to do something we really want to do, despite that something living on top of a mountain of other somethings. We share and make and do. We say yes and go further than we can. Part is creative, part is destructive.
Because some of that need to keep going, make it through, and make great stuff is a wonderful human and artistic need, I say: Yes. You can do this. You are a powerful warrior and an inspiring force. You can make wonder right now. This is important. Thank you for making your art.
Because some of that need is part of the machine we've built out of our lives and time and culture, I say: That's enough. You can stop now. You are enough. You've done enough. Give yourself some human time. Fill up that reservoir and be. Thanks for taking care of yourself.
Because each of you are your own wonderful individual selves, and each of your moments and actions may sit on different points on the continuum between these creative/destructive extremes, I say: Do what you need to do right now, for yourself, for your art, for your now and future life. Maybe today you need to continue into the deep morning, working on a mountain of to-dos or finalizing an enormous project. Maybe this moment you need to take a break, float like a jellyfish and watch lilacs grow.
Whatever you decide right now, thanks for what you're making and sharing and being. What you're doing matters. The world needs it. And you matter. The world needs you, too.
The typical question to hear when finishing a step in life is What are you going to do NOW?
Thankfully, as I'm completing my MFA, I'm transitioning to a full schedule out of an impossible one. This means I will still have plenty of hours occupied by teaching, writing/creating and preparing for a staged reading performance early next month. I'm not dropping off to depressing absolute inactivity, but will have time to accomplish my tasks ahead in a manageable way, and wondering less how am I going to get through this?
So, a lot of my life will look the same. However, there will be changes.
Here are some new (or renewed) things I'm going to do now that I'm at the finishing point in my degree requirements for my Master of Fine Arts in Creative Inquiry, Interdisciplinary Arts at California Institute of Integral Studies:
Go on more walks.
Ride my bike more than drive.
Make use of Boise public transit systems.
Treat my car as a luxury.
Do my taxes.
Clean my room.
Play with a little kitten named Elliot.
Help my partner and his neighbor garden in their backyard.
Read things that draw my attention, not necessarily for a specific project or assignment.
Spend time with my mom.
Visit my dad's grave.
Write friends letters.
Watch the sky.
Catch up on sleep.
Write a lot of thank you notes.
Plan a vacation.
Pay attention to how my skin lays over my bones.
Organize the files and papers accumulated over the last two years.
Go through items that I've let pile up over the last 32 years -- What to keep? What to go?
Eat more vegetables than peanut butter, banana and honey sandwiches.
Move items out of my mom's house, stored there in boxes since my last breakup.
Laugh at jokes.
Get back into yoga.
Make new discoveries.
Bring old projects back to life.
Begin new endeavors.
Bit by bit break out of my ascetic hermit cave.
Remember how to drink a beer and enjoy it -- or even a cup of coffee.
Let the desert sand tension that's accumulated into a rhino's tough skin dissolve.
Decide what animal I am now and what that skin looks like -- is it a feathery texture?
Dream more. Daydream. Nightdream.
Practice looking people in the eye when I talk to them, especially about difficult things.
Practice listening with my whole body, without fidgeting my eyes elsewhere on a note.
There is a time for planning. There is a time to be present. Learn the difference.
Plan a trip to New York.
Think about what I want next.
Where do I want to be? Where am I now? What's holding me back? What is my next step?
Write and continue writing every day. That's my air. But I have to breathe before and after, too.
Move my body.
Make theater that's the gymnasium for the soul, starting with my own spirit/body.
Enjoy the work.
Be well, take your time, and make something beautiful today.
I thought I'd share my plan from yesterday's Drop-In Writing Workshop.
If you weren't able to make it to The Cabin last night (or don't live in Boise) and wanted to be there, you can get a sense of what what we did. If you write on this now, or wrote something at the Drop-In and like it, feel free to share in the comments. I may do the same.
Drop-In Writing Workshop: Collecting the Dots
Collecting material from our surroundings, observations and memory, and turning that into a new piece.
Introduction: looking at three steps of the creative process
We'll be looking at Amanda Palmer's definition of the creative process: collecting dots, connecting dots to make new discoveries and sharing those discoveries, and following that process over several small steps to create something new.
From The Art of Asking
By Amanda Palmer
You may have a memory of when you first, as a child, started connecting the dots of the world. Perhaps outside on a cold spring-day school field trip, mud on your shoes, mentally straying from the given tasks at hand, as you began to find patterns and connections where you didn’t notice them before. You may remember being excited by your discoveries, and maybe you held them up proudly to other kids, saying:
did you ever notice that this looks like this?
the shapes on this leaf look like the cracks in this puddle of ice
which look like the veins on the back of my hand
which look like the hairs stuck to the back of her sweater…
Collecting the dots. Then connecting them. And then sharing the connections with those around you. This is how a creative human works. Collecting, connecting, sharing.
All artists work in different mediums, but they also differ when it comes to those three departments. Some artists love the act of collecting. We might call this experiencing, or emotionally and intellectually processing the world around us: the ingredients—the puddles of ice, the sweater—that go into the poetic metaphor. Or the wider and longer-term collection: the time it takes to fall in and out of love, so that you can describe it in song, or the time it takes a painter to gaze at a landscape before deciding to capture it on canvas. Or the nearly three years Thoreau needed to live simply on the side of a pond, watching sunrises and sunsets through the seasons, before he could give Walden to the world.
Some artists devote more time to connecting the dots they’ve already collected: think of a sculptor who hammers away for a year on a single statue, a novelist who works five years to perfect a story, or a musician who spends a decade composing a single symphony—connecting the dots to attain the perfect piece of art. Thoreau himself needed another three years after his time in the cabin to distill and connect his experiences into the most beautiful and direct writing possible.
Like most stage performers, I’ve always been the most passionate about the final phase: the sharing. There are lots of ways to share. Writers share when someone else reads or listens to their words in a book, a blog, a tweet. Painters share by hanging their work, or by sliding the sketchbook to a friend across the coffee-shop table. Stage performers also collect and connect (in the form of experiencing, writing, creating, and rehearsing), but there is a different kind of joy in that moment of human-to-human transmission: from you to the eyes and ears of an audience, whether fireside at a party or on a stage in front of thousands. I’m a sharing addict.
Notice how Amanda Palmer defines three primary aspects of the creative process: collecting dots, connecting the dots and sharing the dots. What do you make of this definition? Do you think of yourself as more of a collector, connector, sharer, or all three? What are ways we collect dots/material?
Collecting Dots - invitation to open up to the room
I’m going to ask you to follow your sensory interests and explore the room. Imagine this is a newly opened art exhibit, created by a master artist. Everything in the room is part of the exhibit. It’s perfect. Look at it, observe with all senses. Explore, notice. Collect dots in your mind/body. 10 minutes.
Collecting Writing Notes
Starting from what you just explored, write down everything you’ve observed today, in the last 24 hours. The people, places, experiences. Not so much what you did, but what you noticed, what caught your attention. Be specific. Go into details. 10 minutes.
Memory Observation - open up to the interior space
Close eyes, observe insides, let a memory surface. From today, years ago, the biggest event in your life. See yourself there, be there, hear and smell and taste the surroundings. 5 minutes.
Collecting Writing Notes
Write down what you observed, what you experienced, in this memory. Try to get it down as though you’re seeing yourself from the outside.
Everything you’ve explored, remembered and written so far? These are your dots. The material you’ve gathered. 10 minutes.
What’s come up for you so far? Any surprising observations? Anything catch you off-guard? From what you started to write, observe and remember, what interests you?
Connecting the Dots
How do these things relate? Do any of them? Try them out. Puzzle-pieces.
Spend some time with your material. Underline a few of these dots (lines) that stand out.
Lines that interest you. Jot them down on a new page.
Consider how these lines speak to each other, how they’re in conversation.
Walk around the room, make little notes, doodle little images, start bridging your ideas. 5min
Building the Thing
Return to your dots, your gathered material.
How do they relate?
If none of these observations relate easily, what could help them do so? Add that in.
When you look at this, what shape do they create? Are they a poem, a story? A memoir?
Sew this material together. Add heat. You can make it fiction, make it ridiculous.
You can rebuild a memory. Rebuild a future.
What surprises you as you work on this? What interests you? 15 minutes.
Share (can share the connected material, the original collections, or an observation)
I think that cultivating and developing what interests you as an artist is something we don’t talk about enough or spend enough time on. Try opening up this idea in your regular arts practice – finding and following your interest as it changes, seeing what you collect in your life, observations and experiences as material.
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Process notes on a work in progress (me). This mostly contains raw rough content pulled out of practice notebooks. Occasional posts also invite you into the way I work, with intermittent notes on the hows and whys on the whats I make. Less often you may also find prompts and processes I've brought to workshops, as well as surveys that help me gather material for projects. Similar earlier posts from years ago can be found on: