Friday, 31 August 2012

Get Back on that Horse

We all understand the importance of being able to get back up and try again in all aspects of our lives, but being creative sets up a whole new set of challenges with regard to resilience. How we maintain our resilience has to do with how we think about setbacks, challenges or rejections.
The things we tell ourselves when we don’t achieve a desired outcome affects whether we’ll get back on that horse and try riding again. Talking to ourselves in encouraging ways such as ‘you did a great job at the concert last week, so you know you can perform well;’  ‘many people compliment your work and you have won awards for it’ or ‘you are capable of writing well and have done so many times before’ are more helpful self-statements than denigrating your efforts.
Built into the overall creative process is the aspect of acceptance or rejection of our creative products. Due to the arts being a subjective field, there is a greater risk of our efforts not being appreciated or accepted, especially in a monetary fashion. Most jobs have set, well-defined, objective criteria related to a task being successfully completed.  The arts are not like doing someone’s accounting, fixing a leaky pipe or filing all the latest invoices. In the creative fields success is dependent on your audience’s personal tastes and there’s no way to set a definitive guideline for what people will like. There are indeed varying standards of which one must meet at least a minimum level, but by and large, it’s what people like and there isn’t a way to determine that.
Recently I watched a video interview of one of my favourite artists, Benjamin Harjo, Jr.  He has been a very successful working artist for nearly forty years. His work is unique in that it has aspects of traditional Native American art combined with an abstract style. One of the paintings he discussed in the interview was depicted a couple of artists portrayed as gamblers surrounded by various good luck symbols. Harjo wanted to express that he felt that doing art shows was a gamble; he and other artists go in with all their work and know that it is a crapshoot as to how much, if anything, will sell. He stated that he had come to look at making a living at selling art as being more about the luck of which buyers came into the show that day than about the quality of his work. I felt this was a very important distinction in maintaining a level of resilience.  Of course, we can increase or decrease our chances of luck. While you may not be able to control whether people accept your work or not, but you can control how you will deal with the disappointment.
If when one’s work doesn’t sell well, or is not received well, it is time to make a careful examination of the level of work you’ve done. If after that, you still feel quite satisfied with the quality, then it’s maybe the throw of the dice that day. The people who were willing to part with their money that day just didn’t show up. If you never do well at a particular show, then maybe it doesn’t draw the sort of people who would ever buy your work. If the type of work that sells at a show regularly is modernistic or abstract, showing a sentimental still-life might not be the work that will ever sell well there. Looking at many aspects of what you are doing is essential in making a realistic assessment and not taking an automatic stance of ‘I’m just not good enough.’ The same line of thinking applies to all the arts; make sure you’re in the right place for what your strengths.
Also, finding out what people like about what you do or what they don’t like gives you areas to work with. It could be that you’ve got the start of something really great; it just may need some changes and tweaks to bring it to its fullest state. Remember there is always another way to do a painting, sing a song, or write that sentence. Sometimes starting from scratch is exactly what is needed to make your work the most satisfying to you as well as to others. Don’t be afraid of alterations or to take a new perspective on old work.
Here are some more suggestions:
·         One of the things that will help with resilience is to keep within easy access accolades or symbols of success. Certificates, photos, awards, trophies, announcements, etc., any of those things however small that remind you of what you are capable of and have achieved will help you to refocus your thinking about your abilities in a positive way. If you’ve not won awards yet, keep around things that give you inspiration and encouragement.

·         Be sure to maintain a good system of support. These are friends and colleagues who offer encouragement and will give you that gentle kick in the behind from time to time to get you moving when you feel like lying down. They support you and won’t let you talk bad about yourself and your work.

·         Recheck motivation. If you’re doing things solely for money, then maybe that is showing and the heart of what you wanted to say isn’t shining through. Being sure that what is motivating you is authentic and what is your true feeling.

·         Go back to your goals. This is why it’s important to have a clear idea of what your goals are. Sometimes in simply looking back over what hopes and aspirations you’ve had you can chose to interpret them with the same enthusiasm with which you originally conceived them. This can be an opportunity to recharge your batteries and remind you what you hoped to achieve in the first place. At this point you can look at what one small thing can be done to move you toward your goal.

·         Nurture a strong sense of belief in what you do, who you are and what it is you want to say. This clarity will boost your resilience and give you that extra push to get back out there and try again. Have confidence in your vision. Sometimes it’s simply a matter of how you perceive yourself. If you frequently call yourself a no-talent loser, well, you’ll more than likely behave as such. But by reminding yourself that you can be competent, capable and creative, you’re more likely to act in such a fashion. Build on this perspective of yourself; I’m not telling you to be delusional and arrogant, but instead to tender a quiet confidence in self-belief. We often have to practice reminding ourselves of our own capabilities. And remember that your work is not your self (although it may feel that way, it is just that, a feeling, not a fact), and they both have value.

·         Don’t always assume that your work is not any good. This is why it is so important to work at your art, to learn as many skills to improve it as you can; if you know you are doing your best and making a good effort at learning all you can, then you have the courage to persevere. It is scary to put your work on the line, have it judged or criticized, but it is the only way to grow and learn more about whether you’re hitting the mark with what you’re trying to say creatively. Take action. Don’t just sit and think about what could be done--get up and do it, whatever that may be.

·         Keep things in perspective; not selling any paintings or not having your book proposal accepted doesn’t mean that you won’t ever do these things. You are not the worst painter in the world; you are not the worst writer or dancer or whatever in the world. Success is built on practice and each piece of creative work, each submission, each tryout is a practice; it’s all practice!

·         Work toward a hopeful attitude. Look for new places to show, find where the next writer’s convention takes place, and look at online ways to get your work seen. Each day brings new possibilities if you are looking for them with an open mind. Tomorrow really is another opportunity. Focusing on ‘I’ll never have success,’ ‘no one wants my work,’ ‘there aren’t any opportunities out there’ narrows your focus and turns your thoughts to a defeated attitude. It’s hard to stand up with that attitude. Be careful about using these negative superlatives in thinking about what is happening.

·         Take care of yourself. If you’re not getting enough sleep, not being active, eating junk food and drinking too much caffeine or alcohol, you’re not at an optimum functioning capacity. Taking care of yourself is a way to best enhance your creative reserve to see you through difficult times. Doubt knocking on your door when you’ve had too much sugar, caffeine and not enough sleep will have a fertile place to come in and take over.
After a disappointment, it may be tempting to just give up your creative pursuits. Don’t do it. Stopping may not make you any happier; in fact, it will more than likely make you more unhappy or frustrated. If you have that creative desire, it is in you and will ask to be acted upon. To ignore this could interfere with having any sense of fulfilment.
But when those low times hit and your manuscript has been rejected again, or you’ve had yet another art show without any sales, or whatever has knocked the wind out of your creative sails, don’t pretend it doesn’t hurt. Allow yourself to admit that it does matter whether others like your work or not. To use an old phrase from the prairies, be like a dog that lost the fight and crawl under the porch to lick your wounds. Give yourself permission to feel that disappointment but only for a short while. Then get back in there and start again. The resiliency to get back up and try again is inherent in our survival instincts. Staying under the porch too long is wallowing in self pity. Coming back out after a respite is bravery and creativity is an act of bravery. We’ve all heard the adage it’s not how many times you’ve been knocked down, but how many times you get back up. Life and creativity is about getting back up. So, saddle up and ride on!

Saturday, 18 August 2012

Making Fertilizer

Sometimes we come smack up against a creative block; a wall that won't let us past and we hit it hard. And if not an actual block then we can experience a spell where whatever we create just doesn't seem to hit the mark. If you are experiencing such a time (or when it comes, as it will) know that it indeed can be a hard process to come to terms with. The fact is, just as there are the highs of creativity, there will always be lows as well.

I've come to look at creativity the same as the cycle of the seasons. We know we can do nothing about the joys of summer turning into the quieting and drab of autumn and then autumn turning into the bleak stillness of winter while we wait impatiently for spring and all its activity of growth. This is how things work and it will just make us frustrated and crazy to think that we can perform at top level all the time. It's not possible for anything -- even machines get worn out.

But each of these seasons has a purpose and a reason. Learning to be patient with our 'winters' of creativity is hard but that time can be used the same as nature does: to rest and revitalize. The lows can be used to collect new information, look to skill improvement, and rest the mind (which is an important element). Sometimes a break from your work is necessary to allow for the possibility of a new perspective, to discover a new technique, explore other directions or just play which in itself furthers creativity!

Your winter of creativity is also a time to put down fertilizer (that's what I call the shit we create in low times). Fertilizer is important to the growth of plants, so why not writers, painters, musicians, etc? Even though what we create during the low times isn't what we aspire to, it is an important part of feeding the process and the eventual outcome. Sometimes we need to make these 'mistakes' so we can gauge where we are at. Or as the painter Bob Ross liked to say, 'there are no mistakes only happy accidents.' We can build on those little accidental slips.

Often, the things we create during this time can be the seeds of something great later on. They just may need time to germinate. And when you come back from your winter's creative hibernation, you'll have gained something new that can be added to that fertilizer. This can be a very rich source to mine--dig out the gems in your pile of rubble ideas and ventures. Sometimes it just takes a fresh eye or ear to make the alterations that change something to a new level. Everything we do contributes to the next project.

So be ok with making fertilizer--you have no idea what it might grow out of it!

Tuesday, 14 August 2012

Abundant Creative Miracles

Recently I was thinking about the needs and wants of my children, grandchildren and myself and ways in which I could generate more money to take care of some of those needs and wants. So as many times before I was thinking I needed a miracle to happen, like having a book successfully published (very successfully published). But then it struck me—getting a book published and it being a hit was not a miracle. It was simply success preceded by hard work. The miracle happened long before with the idea or inspiration that lead to the book. I’ve already been given the miracle; now it’s time for me to do my part: the hard work. The gift has been given to me with ideas for books, poems, paintings, textile creations, etc. My responsibility is to then take action to bring these little miracles into the light and reality.

Looking at creativity as small and abundant miracles is part of living, thinking, and doing things creatively. When we don’t recognize their value, we miss the point of being creative. One of the ways that we bring these miracles into being is by having a good space to enhance their abundance. Then we recognize them as such and tend them once they arrive.

We speak of having space to create. That involves not just a physical space but space inside your head as well. Quite often we need to silence the cacophony of condemnation inside our own minds that keep us from creating. Thinking things like ‘I’ll never have a new idea’ or ‘my ideas are so dumb’ don’t give one very fertile source to work from. Meditation is one way to silence these unhelpful thoughts. Any focusing exercises such as guided imagery, getting a colour in your mind or deep breathing accompanied with directives on creating will set the stage for being open to ideas.

Once you’ve cleared that space brainstorm! Let any and all ideas, notions, concepts, whatever pour out without any filtering. Even the craziest or lamest idea may at some time have the potential to turn into something wonderful. Once you’ve got ideas written down, glean the one or two that you feel the most resonance with at that time and start the next step. Save the others—they may bear fruit at a later date. But take what you’ve come up with and appreciate it.

Also, it seems helpful to have a level of acceptance of your little miracles: love them as you would a child, hold them, nurture them, kiss them, and keep them in your heart. We hear a lot about not treating our work as too ‘precious’ but I think there needs to be an element of that care in what we are doing or why are we doing it? When we approach our work with a loving, caring attitude, the atmosphere that we create with our work is more productive. We set the scene for creativity with our attitude. If we are grumbling, being condemning of what we are working on, how easy is it to keep at it, to have confidence in putting down that next paint stroke or adding that next paragraph? It’s ok to like your own work or at least have a sense of care about it.

But for all this loving adoration of your miracles, you must also add in an element of objectivity. Like children, if you don’t admit and redirect (lovingly) their errors and faults, other people aren’t going to love them either. Taking criticism is not an easy thing, especially when you love what you’ve done. But if the point is to make this miracle be the best that it can be, tinkering, smithing, tampering and altering is often the very thing that works. And sometimes, we can’t see it because we are too close to what we are creating.

Sometimes we need to walk away from our projects—we can be too focused and lose that objectivity or balance. Stepping away for a wee bit and working on something else allows fresh eyes on things. It’s happened many times that I will come across something that I wrote or will uncover a painting from months before and wonder what I didn’t like it before. Or the reverse will happen and I need to look at what is not right with it. Allowing another perspective, trying on someone else’s vision can increase what you’ve started. It’s often worth a try. Again, it’s that balance between maintaining your vision and being able to convey that vision to others.

But I think that if we acknowledge the abundance of the miracle of creation whatever it is, we set the stage for doing the hard work part. The ‘doing’ part requires a certain attitude as well. Loving our work and realizing the good fortune to have had this inspiration can urge us on in the slogging through revisions, layers of paint or re-writes of that section in a song. It is a miracle and we are fortunate recipients when they are given to us. Tend those miracles well. We would not throw away a treasured gift from a loved one. Why would we treat our creations as if they were to be thrown away and not nurtured and brought to fruition?

A beautiful garden is beautiful because it has been carefully seeded, planted, then weeded, watered, tended and loved. Our creativity requires that same dedication of care—it’s often hard sweaty work but it’s worth it. So try looking at your work as creative miracles you’ve been entreasured with. See if that attitude helps make it easier to get in there and do the hard work that leads to the successful completion of your creative project.  

Friday, 3 August 2012

When, Oh, When?

Quite often I am asked ‘when is the best time for a person to be creative?’ My first thought is to answer ‘whenever the mood strikes you;’ but that isn’t always possible and it goes against the idea of having a regular time that you dedicate yourself to your creative project.
Many creativity experts recommend first thing in the morning and there is a lot of good reason for that. For one, if you get up early enough, it is a relatively quiet time; fewer things are going on not only in your household but the world in general. Working at such a quiet time can cut down on distractions.
Also, first thing in the morning you are rested and therefore more mentally alert (although for many of us that may be questionable until after a couple of cups of coffee). After six to eight hours sleep you would be more rested  than you would be at 11 p.m. after a day of work, family responsibilities, the hustle and bustle of day-to -day living – all the demands that drain your physical and mental energies. When your physical and mental energies are drained, so are your creative energies. So often I hear (and feel) ‘I’m too tired to write/paint/sew/etc.’ Therefore, finding a time when you are well rested just sets the scene for more productivity.
Another good reason to work first thing in the morning is that we are the closest to the dream state at that time, which is an incredibly creative time for our minds. Ever wake up in the morning with a really great idea? Or awake in the middle of the night with the answer to a problem you’ve been wrestling with for days? The brain is at its freest point in the dream state and it doesn’t stop working just because you have. There are countless instances of people from scientists to dancers coming up with great ideas in their dreams or shortly after waking while experiencing that in-between land of sleep and consciousness.  
In fact, the creativity coach Eric Maisel suggests that you pose a question to yourself before going to sleep that has to do with your creative projects. By giving your brain an ‘assignment’ during the night, it can play with the ideas without any filters or blocks that you would impose during your waking hours. This will take a bit of practice to be able to tap into the answers, but once you learn to be in tune with this process you will quite frequently wake with an idea or find that it is easier to come up with solutions in the morning having slept on them.
Another reason for doing your creative work first thing is that it then sets precedence for how you feel for the rest of the day. You may not get anything else worthwhile the rest of the day, but you did write for an hour that morning. Having that sense of having tended in some way to our end goal of creating will help you have an attitude of accomplishment which helps keep you coming back to the creative table and just makes you feel better all around. Also, it does make it easier to tend to the non-creative things in life if you know you’ve already indulged in that passion first thing.
For some people, early morning creating isn’t a possibility. For myself for many years there wasn’t a question of getting up any earlier. I was already rising at 5:30 because I had to get kids ready for school and then get myself to work by 7:30. And, usually because of my responsibilities I didn’t get to bed before 11 p.m. and really needed the rest. But I did do a great deal of creative work during those years albeit not the same sort of creative work I do know. I adjusted to what the demands were; we have to have that flexibility to allow ourselves to shift what we do with what our circumstances are.  I couldn’t work on things every day but found ways to carve out times for that creativity when and where I could.
Before I had a family, I preferred working on creative things late at night and not rising early. At that point in my life, it worked for me. Now, even though I could sleep till noon if I wanted, I’ve found that it does work better for me to rise early and tend to my creative things first even if I may chose to then spend the rest of the day doing creative work. That time is enhanced with having gotten a good start.  I don’t always manage to do that because sometimes the devils procrastination or distraction get me and then have to spend the rest of the day trying to fit the creativity in or find that when I do get to it, I don’t feel fully energised. So, it does work better for me to just get in there and do it right away.
Knowing how your energy level works is important. Some people are night owls and their lives are set up to accommodate that--their creativity and energy height is late at night. For others, the peak time may be mid-afternoon or earlier in the evening. If you’re not sure when your peak energy times are, try keeping a diary for about a month gauging your activities, when you feel most creative, when you are able to work on your creative ideas, and when you have the most energy. Knowing yourself you can fit your creativity schedule to fit your situation and your energy style.
But if you haven’t ever tried doing creative work first thing in the morning and there are no extenuating circumstances preventing it, give it a try and see how things go. You just might catch that creativity worm that the early bird seems to get.