Our awful imaginations
Or: The terrible responses our imaginations work up about our art and what we can do about them
A couple months ago, my brother asked for some input regarding some pieces of writing that he was holding off publishing, in part because of the terrible responses he imagined hearing when certain people might see what he wrote. We had an email thread conversation about that and he then said one of my replies should be a blog article.
Because he's my big brother who has a lot of wisdom and one of the first people I knew to have a blog, and because I bet a lot of people (myself included) delay sharing their work for the same reasons, the text of that email makes up the majority this post -- a little revised for clarity and context -- one that I hope will get me back on a more consistent posting schedule, too. If you've been avoiding writing/sharing/making/doing something for similar reasons, I hope there's something here you might find useful here as well.
Yes, our imaginations can work up some pretty awful responses to the writing (art, anything...) we put out in the world. Often these imagined reactions are not based in reality. The fact that those projected statements and voices are not based in reality can be what makes those fears (or monkey mind thoughts, or the editor, the censor) most powerful. They come from that part of our brain that just wants to keep us safe, keep us in status quo, keep us from going out of our comfort zone because that's what it's evolved to do to keep us alive. All it wants is to get us to stop writing (and/or stop doing whatever scary thing it is that might be what we really want to do with our life).
There's an exercise Beth Pickens (a creativity consultant who lives in the Bay Area) gives her clients sometimes: work out all the possible worst-case scenarios to their very end. With that in mind, what might happen if these people do object to the writing and artwork you release? What's the worst thing they can say? What would happen if they said that? And what would happen after that, and after that, and after that? (Invariably, Pickens says this train of thought goes on until every client ultimately says, "and then I'll go broke and die," or something like that.)
So...what happens if you work out that fear until it reaches the very bottom of the barrel, and see just how dramatic your imagination can go -- and then decide what you'll do anyway?
And/or then go the other way -- what happens if you don't publish? If you don't make the thing you've always wanted to make, or go where you've always wanted to travel, or book the scary gig, or ______ (fill in the blank with what fits your circumstance)? How will you feel if you continue to keep the book (proverbial or literal) in the drawer? How will you feel if you do publish? Where do you feel that in your body? Often our bodies know what we need to do, but we train ourselves to tune that out. Instead, what if we listen to what our bodies have to say?
Or as Oliver Burkeman quotes James Hollis in Four Thousand Weeks, what happens if we ask ourselves, "Does this choice diminish me, or enlarge me?" (I'm asking myself that about a lot of decisions right now.)
Often that fear (of writing, publishing, sharing, doing anything that moves us toward the life we want) is the resistance Stephen Pressfield talks about in The War of Art -- resistance being the sign that the thing you're afraid of IS the thing you need to be doing. Resistance is going to try to find any way possible to stop you from doing the thing that takes you out of the comfort zone -- so you can use it as a compass that will show you the direction you(r larger, higher, wiser self) want(s) to go.
Or as I recently heard someone paraphrase Iyanla Vanzant, "If there's not something in your life that pushes you to the point where the pee is running down your leg, then you ain't living big enough."
And so then, if you decide to go ahead and publish (or do whatever it is you want to do with your art/life/work), which I hope you do, what is the least you need to do next in order to feel good about that decision and move forward? (In the case of publishing something that someone might not like, such as a piece of writing that could affect someone else because it includes something they said or did, do you give them a heads up? do you let them read a bit of it? do you draw a boundary around how they can respond if you decide to share it with them early, or how much you'll let their reactions affect you? or do you let all of that go and hope for the best?)
In other words, what is the smallest next step on the way to your big goal? Not what are the five next things you can do -- but what is ONE tiny thing you can do right now?
Can you do that little thing? Right now?
Please do. Your art, audience and I thank you for doing that.
On Valentine's Day, my partner spouse best friend favorite musician Thomas Paul and I released a collaborative digital album called Drown To Resurface, featuring poems from my chapbook of the same name layered over his impressionistic instrumental guitar sketches.
We both have future plans for these pieces.
I want to publish the chapbook physically.
He plans to develop and embellish the instrumentals into a separate album.
We hope to get the published book to hold a disc of those developed instrumentals in a pocket. To print a download code for this digital combined version on the back, too. I want the book serve as much as liner notes for the recordings as a collection of poems.
For now, it feels satisfying to share something that is finished on one level, knowing there will be other elements of further completion down the road.
I've been working on the chapbook version of Drown to Resurface: water poems for a while. Most of the poems are about 10 years old. I didn't set out to write a book with them, but once they filtered into one, I went about my usual process of jamming in too many verses, whittling down and down and down, finally through massive cuts seeing what the thing was and then writing a few more poems to round out that thing.
The album is a project Thomas and I have talked about doing for several years, too. I've been a fan of poetry-music albums since I was introduced to Dottie Grossman's work. I since messed around with previous text/music collaborations that halted early or found quick endings when theater projects closed. Like Grossman's albums with Michael Vlatkovich, in 2016 I began talks with Thomas about bringing words to his instrumentals and smashing them together like John Cage and Merce Cunningham did with music and dance. We played with early, live renditions of this venture a few times along the way. We knew this text/tune combo wasn't/isn't something new. We weren't looking to reinvent wheels. But it sounded fun. The most fun part, I thought, was slapping the sounds and sentences together without pre-thinking or trying to arrange them formally into songs or compositions, but letting both parts sway and spar in whatever ways they connected/collided.
Last fall, once I decided the book of poems was as done as I wanted it to be,Thomas and I scheduled time with our friend Cory Strop in his home studio. I recorded all the poems one December day in two takes each, just in case. Then through the rest of December, January and a little of February, Thomas went in for his recordings, likewise with a take or two each. After combining the two layers, he and Cory gave them a touch of finesse -- because though I love Cage and Cunningham's pure collision, I also love Laurie Anderson and figured that if she made an album with her partner/spouse (etc.) Lou Reed, they probably would have given it a little polish. Even so, each element of each piece was conceived and recorded separately.
After choosing which take, we pretty much let the recordings stand as they were. I requested that one word in one poem be replaced with the same word from the other take because it sounded like too much vocal fry up front. Thomas did one new recording of one section, but that was all. For people who tend to re-re-re-revise in painstaking ways (painstaking for us and people who make art with us), it felt liberating and a little scary -- at least for me -- to let go of control and let them land as they fell. Not including the years of occasional talking and musing about the collaboration, the years of writing/rewriting the poems or the years between when his first song ideas came to life and when they got stuck in a drawer before unearthing them again, the album took a few months, tops.
For a cover image, I remembered working with a photographer who impressed me with her water shots during a site-specific, interdisciplinary, collaborative project in graduate school. I asked Shannon O'Neill-Creighton if we could use one, with hopes of asking her again if we can commission another photo for the book/disc rendition. She said yes to the first. We'll see what happens with the next request once we get our act together for parts two and three.
For now, you get the digital version. I'll send word when ambitions, time and money align for the grander scheme. And hey, if you pay to download the album now, it'll help us on our way to the larger plan.
It's nice to let something go out into the world without futzing with it and trying to perfect it for (more) years (than we already have). It's a relief to not spend a decade trying to get the gatekeepers to say it's good enough for a lauded release backed by a publishing house/theater company/literary journal. We made something. Then we shared it. Like when we were kids.
Independent musicians have known for a long time that their industry is impossible. The line to the welcoming door is too too long. They found another door. They made their own door. Same with filmmakers.
I played around with small bits of self-production as a younger playwright. Then I was convinced that if I wanted the plays to get produced more than once, I had to go the standard way. A colleague assured me early on that self-publishing literary work is a no go, as well. I listened. I still squirm a bit when I think of going those independent routes, but now I'm more curious. When it makes the difference between having the plays/books/albums/films get made at all or having them live in a cabinet forever, dying in new play development hell (though I do love new play development, I do!) or in submission purgatory suffocating with 999 other plays/poems/stories/essays per opportunity, letting those babies go off and make their little mark, even with the tiniest of audiences, seems more worthwhile than it once did.
I can learn a lot from indie musicians.
Enjoy the album. Consider paying to download it. Proceeds will go toward future dreams.
For all of you who have already downloaded and paid more than the listed price -- or whatever you could -- THANK YOU.
And thank you, Thomas, for making something with me. I'm lucky to share a life with you.
When I reflect on wins, losses, missed opportunities and new connections this past year, I notice that losses and missed opportunities I could name almost outnumbered the wins, which I don't remember happening before. Though surprising, this feels affirming. That word choice might sound odd, but this was something I felt in my skin, so seeing the numbers in black and white validated the low-grade hum playing between of my ears.
Though markedly less cataclysmic for a privileged person like me than 2020 and 2021, I felt creative difficulties tripping me up in 2022. This was a slower year for writing progress and projects, I got nos where I thought I had yeses in the bank, timelines pushed back, collaborations stymied, I didn't quite make my submission goals and I spent long term residency in the limbo waiting room familiar to most writers and playwrights. I seemed to have better luck getting play productions and readings during the upheaving 2020-2021 pandemic years. Yet within that, as the redwoods I communed with this summer forever experience (reading The Overstory by Richard Powers has been knocking me through the gut this winter -- anyone else?), I feel a steady growth setting the stage for something larger.
I worked a lot of this year on letting go -- both in physical ways, starting Marie Kondo's famous tidying process, in emotional and neurological ways through EMDR and in calendar ways, carving out more space in my schedule. I said no to online summer classes and took on only two fall semester classes at Boise State University, instead of the maximum three for adjuncts I've maintained for years. I got better at stopping work after 6, checking email just once a day (at least my personal email, if not the university one), didn't work on Sundays at all besides my daily writing/movement/meditation practice (unless I had a reading or similar event) and tried to focus my Saturdays on arts work, rather than teaching and related administrative tasks. I'm getting more familiar with the sound of "no" coming out of my mouth, even if I try to retract my boundaries right afterward (or spend an afternoon breathing through anxiety attacks when I don't). Overall, I'm beginning to break lifelong habits caused by maladaptive beliefs.
This moment, I feel monumental change simmering in me, which could be years or decades in the making. Having less major news to broadcast feels right. I've made a lot of tiny steps toward big projects in multiple disciplines. Thoughtful groundwork is being laid, rather than panicky DOING and addictive FORWARD MOVING all the time. That feels meaningful, even if that makes for a humbler list of bullet-point successes.
At the same time, awesome stuff did happen last year. I'm not discounting any of those events, some of which were life-changing. I'm grateful and have no complaints -- but a "this year was better than ever" post seems untrue. Some years are great, some are the opposite and some feel suspended in alien liquid like Wolverine in the Augmentation Room's water tank after the Weapon X team drafted adamantium into his bones--.
Before I get more carried away with X-Men analagies, here are some highlights from 2022.
I did make some progress on my 2022/2023 goals, but I noticed the objectives I wrote down for the last few years depended more on other people (and organizations) than on me. As Andrew Simonet encourages, it's important to plan goals that I have (relative) control over, more than ones that rely on outside parties. Some of those earlier intentions (related to silent meditation retreats, international travel and financial stability) may still be on the back burner, but I'm adjusting my focus as I look ahead.
3 Big Goals for the Next Two Years:
This year, I want to keep letting go of what I don't need and to step into, reclaim, live inside and even enjoy my own power (read: get out of my own way). It's time to unbind my inner goddess, connect with my artist child, listen to my madwoman in the attic, learn from my witch in the woods and altogether let my wild woman run free. And if/when I scare myself in the process, breathe, ingest some compassion and cut myself some slack.
Thanks everyone for reading, inspiring me with your own year-end/beginning reflections and for doing what you can to support the artists you love (including yourselves).
Guiding words for my 2023:
(or Self Care)
Who do you think they are?
These beings appeared to me last week in my Exploding Your Creativity workshop.
They introduced themselves in a scene I wrote using my non-dominant hand.
(We were practicing a Use Your Creative Limits exercise I love.)
Then space kid and canine made their inky way onto construction paper.
Now I'm a little obsessed with them.
What I want to know is, who do you think they are?
What's their story? Their background?
Where do they come from? Where are they?
What are they doing? What do they want?
I have a few ideas, but I want to hear yours.
Share in the comments if you like, or wherever I post on social media.
I think something larger may happen with them but I don't know what yet...
Whatever my recent Cabin workshops Refilling Your Creative Well and Exploding Your Creativity (in progress) have been doing for participants, they've been doing a lot to shake up my creative perspective, open up new mental windows and shine light on doorways to unlock in spirit, heart, body, soul. I haven't been doing as much of the homework that I assign as the artists who signed up, but I've enjoyed taking part in our quick bursts of different kinds of making within the two-hour weekly sessions.
Below are a few first-starts I made in our Week One and Two sessions of Exploding Your Creative Well and a couple of the collages from the Refilling Your Creative Well workshops (in February/March and August/September/October 2022) that serve as compasses for the direction I want my life to be pointing at this moment.
Looking at these assembled in a row, I can see some of my tendencies and habits that could invite me to break out of those boxes (which will be the focus of Exploding Your Well, Week 4). There are words I'd like to cut, phrases I could revise and images I'd develop if I wanted to refine them further, but that's not the point. They're not meant to be finished products -- or products at all. Throwing together colorful messes helps me get out of my head and notice what I'm noticing, which helps when I'm gathering material for big new projects as I am now.
Whether or not you identify as an artist, may you find time, energy and materials this late fall and winter to scramble up text, images and colors (and then some). May that help you look at your world in different ways and surprise yourself.
Medal Ceremony Speech
In February, for the first Refilling Your Creative Well workshop at The Cabin, we created medals for ourselves, wrote the ceremony speeches and presented ourselves with our awards, as inspired by Andrew Simonet. Below is my medal and speech.
This medal is for Heidi, for enduring the little things.
For sustaining at her everyday job when she wasn't always sure she wanted to be there on campus, rules changing moment to moment, frozen bike rides, students absent more often than present, in two worlds at once: Zoom and in person, coworkers going maskless, policing students on safety, getting Covid and working from home while sick, exhausted, depleted.
For learning a new class, a new system, a new platform and modality every semester since spring 2020.
For showing up. To the email inbox. Oh that dreadful box of doom. What will today bring? A mini-heart attack with every open. And the eye twitches! Good gawd. After six months of online classes, she didn't think either eye would stay still again.
This medal is for Heidi getting students to laugh, cry, spend time with each other, offering every flexibility possible. And whenever she could, she gave herself time. To write. To be. And one Sunday every few months to do nothing at all but be human. She learned not to work or take meetings on Sundays. Learned from her panic attacks, from days she felt as much aversion going into the classroom as she did on her worst years in high school. She stopped checking email after 6pm. Started checking once a day, even -- at least the personal email.
So this medal is for Heidi. For learning to love herself a little more. Learning that she needs travel, creative well being and a supportive community to sustain her. And declaring that she's gonna make smaller steps to get to those bigger goals, dammit, because
a little something is possible
of forward movement can be made
toward giant impossible dreams.
So this medal is for Heidi. For going after joy.
This is Walter.
My partner/husband/love and I found Walter the Walnut bear in our recent trip to Oakland.
Walter wanted to join us on our return home through the Redwood Forest.
Here (above) is Walter enjoying the Sue-Meg Park campground.
Here (above) is Walter on the shorelines of Crescent City.
And in the Redwoods National and State Parks.
I/we look forward to future travels with Walter!
Experiencing new/favorite destinations through his eyes helps me look more closely.
Bye for now!
I found the reminders below from summer 2016, written before the world changed and changed and changed again. Are these still my commitments as a writer? What is different, new? What can I lean into more? What can I reexamine?
(This is self-inquiry -- you can answer in the comments but the questions are really for me.)
What are your commitments? (This you can definitely answer.)
In my writing,
I'm committed to aiming for big global topics and intimate, human connection.
To cultivating empathy and discovering how to open up my own vulnerable truth in order to allow that from others. My audience, my collaborators.
I'm committed to creating in a way that speaks to the silent and opens up a platform to allow the disenfranchised to speak. That offers opportunity for the empowered to listen.
I'm committed to using my points of privilege and my experience as ways to advocate for others, for the outsiders, minorities, for targeted groups.
I'm committed to listening more/deeper to the stories I intend to represent or leave space for others to represent.
I'm committed to reaching higher every time,
paying specific attention to the needs of each project.
In my process, I'm committed to write every day, whatever that means.
I'm committed to spending good time on one thing at a time, one pursuit, one project. When my focus isn't split, I feel better, the work goes better.
I'm committed to taking my time.
I'm committed to making the change I want to see in the world through what I write and how.
I'm committed to self care, to kindness.
To moving/loving my body. To taking walks and baths. And naps.
To waiting. Not-doing. Un-doing. Wandering. Meditation.
I'm committed to being a playwright first but continuing my exploration of
poetry, fiction, nonfiction, memoir, screenwriting, writing for radio, even television.
I'm committed to free falling.
I am a person who can go deeply into a thing.
I don't scan the surface, though I have a broad range of interests and abilities.
I know where I want to focus, where I intend my attention with intention.
I'm committed to being committed to my art. To going big. Turning pro.
To learning and teaching and doing.
To speaking truth and each time trying to get truer, more specific, more scary.
I'm committed to learning how to say the hard thing well, to working with difficult material and making each story more global, more intimate.
I'm committed to getting really exact and personal in my work
so that I can speak what happened to me
and what I deal with in my brain,
so I can reckon with it by sharing,
and so that others may be more willing to open, share and be human together.
I've written and made art for survival.
And look here now I've survived I'm surviving.
How do I take that privilege and turn it into change?
What do I do in my art to respond, to quake, to bellow?
How do I stay strong, vigilant, healthy, mentally and physically--
and be a lookout, a safe keeper, be kind with big heart
and help care for the oppressed and the silenced?
Been in the midst of a big rabbit hole project this year I never anticipated with this cycle of centuries. What is a century? Most basically, a list.
This collection of lists is becoming a novella of a book, a shadow box, a podcast. Learn more about the process through the MFA at CIIS Artifact Podcast where this month they devoted an episode to my process completing this series and trying to represent that visually with a shadow box.
This weekend on Sunday (May 1) at MING Studios in Boise, I'll be reading from this series for the first time. If you're in Boise and want to hear, I will begin at 7pm through MING Studio's 7o'clock series. Sometimes they lock the doors right at 7, so get there on time :) It's $7 if you're not a member (and if you're an artist, you can be a member for $13 a year!). A lot of the stuff will be raw and vulnerable, freshly typed, so friendly faces please, for this work-in-progress reading. Thank you!
Maybe I'll see you there. If not, you can check out some of my process below and the podcast to learn more.
like a snow leopard
Alone time: scale rocks, run impossible sprints.
Write with all my senses, limbs.
With my own pace, clock, rhythm. Trust that.
Spend weeks, months, years lying in wait, envisioning my next feast from my cave.
Then it's time to act, to launch rocket in belly.
The taste of my craving. Locking sight on her there.
Embrace, attach, drag my target up cliff face to a spot safe from vultures, jackals.
Dream my next fierce outcome.
In silence, listen to the orchestra around us in this mountain land.
Tiptoe, keep clean, everything arranged as I like. Or I get ruffled.
Always watching, preparing the next big leap.
Waiting with whole-bodied attention.
Inside I growl and bellow -- and sometimes outside. Mostly I seem calm.
Hiding in splendor home, creating bizarre fantasies about all of you.
Examining differences between the world and me, measuring the limits.
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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: