Pam Houston on Writing and Creative Process

Pam Houston on Writing and Creative Process

A couple of weeks ago I went to a talk and reading by much-loved author Pam Houston and then took her writing workshop the next day.

I came away inspired, with her latest memoir, Deep Creek, under my arm, and new tools to use and teach, but I was also troubled.

Houston is an engaging storyteller, a riveting writer, and a warm, vulnerable human being. I’m thoroughly enjoying Deep Creek, which tells remarkable stories of her 26-years on a high-mountain ranch in Colorado, of her often-harrowing childhood, and how she holds onto hope while loving this Earth and watching so much of it die.

Houston’s prime creative technique

In her writing workshop, Houston shared with us the method she used to write Deep Creek and all of her books. It is a technique that is adaptable to many art forms, and there is much to be learned from it about creative process.

Houston collects what she calls glimmers from her life, moments that capture her attention, details from the physical world that brought up some resonance in her.

A glimmer might be a conversation she overheard or the experience of painting the UV protector on the logs of her cabin. It might be a mother hitting her child in the supermarket or seeing 300 elk cross her land in the snow or the time her father was so drunk, he rolled the car and the police had to cut her out of the passenger seat with a chainsaw.

Or, as she shared, a glimmer might be the centerpiece at a cocktail party that she couldn’t take her eyes off and didn’t know why, until much later she realized the bottle of vodka frozen in a mound of ice and surrounded by roses was a perfect metaphor for her mother.

She writes these glimmers down on her computer, describing the scenes in vivid sensory detail and eschewing, as much as possible, any commentary on the meaning of the events. In other words, she practices the time-honored creative writing maxim “Show don’t tell.”

Making a collage of moments

Later, she begins piecing together various glimmers that she intuitively senses belong together. In the process, she avoids the logical mind or trying to figure out or explain what the glimmers mean or why they belong together. Rather she approaches the process like collage, trusting her instincts and trusting her reader to draw connections to seemingly disparate events that may be far apart in time.

If she comes to a place in the writing where she needs a particular type of glimmer, she’ll do a word search on her computer for “ice” or “mother” or “inadequacy” or whatever it is she feels might fit with what she’s working on.

She lets the glimmers play off of and illuminate one another in surprising and interesting ways.

Giving the work a shape

For a book-length work, Houston chooses a form as a way to bring structure and coherence to her intuitive creative process.

For Deep Creek, the form she chose was a 12-sided Rubik’s cube.

The book is in 12 sections divided by short “Ranch Almanac” entries that follow the seasons in order. Each section, like the side of a Rubik’s cube, is made up of multiple glimmers pieced together like a quilt.

The glimmers are not chronological, but jump from her childhood to various points in her life to tales of ranch life. The pairings have intuitive, emotional resonance and also provide welcome contrasts and variety in the narrative.

Sensory detail for empaths and dreamers

Specific sensory details of smell, sound, taste, touch, sight, when vividly described, are what bring writing alive and draw the reader into a piece. They are a vital part of the art and craft of writing. Houston stressed this point in her workshop.

I know this. I teach this. But, as someone who experiences life through my inner experience, my feelings and intuitions, as someone who has always found the imaginal world and the unseen world, the world of spirits and dreams, to be more real and vibrant than the physical world, I struggle mightily with this in my writing.

So I practice. I practice waking up to the sensory world, noticing, paying attention, and describing. And it’s hard work for me.

As artists, we need to practice to strengthen our weaknesses, especially when those weak areas are vital to our art form. We need to keep learning and growing and expanding our capacities and our palette of possibilities.

But we also want to keep the process feeling good and build on our unique strengths. In this way, we find our unique voice and will keep wanting to return to our art. And our joy in making will infuse our art.

So, when I get tired or discouraged from practicing describing the physical world, I go back to my strengths as a writer. I describe my interior landscape. I practice capturing the ineffable. I let myself muse on the philosophical. I make unusual, musical pairings of words, summon beauty and wonder with language, create a kind of word magic, spell-casting.

What troubled me

What troubled me in Pam Houston’s workshop was not her methods, which were fascinating and useful. And noteworthy too because, if you study the methods of writers as I have, you will find an astonishing variety of approaches. There is no one right way to write a story, poem, essay or book.

What bothered me was that she emphasized what hard work writing is, how painful it is. She even said, if it isn’t painful, you aren’t doing it right.

I understand that she was pointing to being willing to delve into what’s uncomfortable and vulnerable and to bring that to the page. I agree this is important.

I understand, too, the importance of revising one’s work over and over to make it the best it can be, and how hard that process of revision can be at times, though I love revising.

The missing piece

But, I make my living teaching writers and artists of all kinds how to have more ease, grace and wonder in the process of creation, to step into that inspired state known as flow, and to enjoy it!

I get so tired of how writers, in particular, love to complain about how hard and painful it is to write.

Do dancers and musicians do this too? I haven’t heard it nearly as much in those realms. More often, I hear musicians and dancers talk about our love of the art form, our love of doing it. Why should it be any different for writers?

Yes, parts of the creative process are incredibly hard. They require us to stretch, to meet our fears, our doubts, our pain and insecurity, to be vulnerable and risk, to work hard to get something right that isn’t coming out.

At times, we meet disappointments and rejections. We come up against our own maddening limitations again and again.

But that isn’t the whole process.

Remember the joy and play

I left Pam Houston’s workshop wondering why writers have this habit of complaining about how hard writing is. I think part of it is because the dominant culture values work, not play. If we make it sound like hard work—and it is that too—then we can validate it.

Writing—all creating—is a tremendous gift. It is sacred play. We are blessed to be able to do it. Let’s not forget that, why we came to it in the first place.

You don’t see young children who are given paint and paper, agonizing over their work. They are at play, in delight, creating, exploring, experimenting. To me, that is the heart of art-making, the way it is meant to be.

And although there are days we sweat and bleed and gnash our teeth over it, we can love and enjoy the process overall. We can learn how to preserve the innate wonder and joy, surprise and magic that is creating.

That is my prayer for you.

To your joyful creative life,

Maxima

How to Measure Success as an Artist

How to Measure Success as an Artist

How you measure success as an artist affects your creativity, health, happiness and more. I look at how I measure success, how the culture measures success, external and internal measures of success and how you can increase your own success as an artist.
Read more

Why We Need to Make Art Now (More Than Ever)

Why We Need to Make Art Now (More Than Ever)

When we make art, we aren’t destroying. We are uniting, rather than dividing.

When we create, we find and build connections between things, instead of separation. We knit pieces of the world together.

We hold up the beauty, magic and magnificence of the world, so that we all can awaken from the trance of not enough, of materialism and conflict, and remember what really matters.

When we make art, we forget consumption, lust for power, envy, pettiness, the feeling of not enough.

When we create, we play. We become lighter of heart. We remember joy, wonder, love. We don’t take ourselves so seriously. Or we may even lose our small selves completely in the act of creation.

We touch the numinous. We awaken our hearts, souls, spirits, our best selves. And we awaken this in others, just by being creative, and also by sharing our art.

We work out our troubles on the page, stage, canvas, clay, musical instrument. We release what is pent inside that is causing storms and dis-ease, waiting to explode if not given some healthy outlet.

Value-holders and Vision-keepers

The arts uphold values of love, connection, wisdom, wonder, beauty, truth. They validate, strengthen and remind us of our deep need for these things, our preference for these things which we too easily forget in the busyness and disconnection of our daily lives.

Your photographs and weavings, your collages and beadwork, your songs and dances help make a world of beauty, sweetness, deep heart, a world of revelation and vulnerability.

You give voice to something needing to be said, however hard it may be. And you do it artfully, so that something deep within can awaken in us.

Artists are the vision-keepers, the wayshowers, the conscience of a culture. That is why they have been oppressed, imprisoned, shut down and killed by oppressors throughout time.

Because we have tremendous power as artists.

The power to create. The power to love. To tell the truth, to care. And to be silly too, playful, irreverent.

To speak in sacred language. For, what else is symbol, color, music and metaphor but a kind of holy speech?

So make art. Make time for your art. Now. Make a little time if that is all you have. It will heal you. It will heal our world. One creative act at a time.

2019 My Year In Review

2019 My Year In Review

This is my 2019 Year in Review. I encourage you to do your own.

This is a good time of year to pause and reflect. When we take time to harvest the outgoing year, we help pave the way for a heart-centered, soul-aligned year to come.

Make note of the highlights of the year, the major events and key themes, the blessings, growth, and accomplishments, and the challenges and learning. Make note of what you need to release to be clear for the year ahead.

Two Huge Things Happened in the Same Month

Me with my Mom on my birthday

2019 was a big year for me. My mother died, the most unimaginable, wrenching anguish and lingering grief, even though, for her sake, I had wanted her to go for years.

In the same month, my book of poems, Fierce Aria,was finally accepted for publication, the culmination of a nearly 10-year journey. Fierce Aria will be available for pre-sale next week! It seems astonishing to me. I’ll send you a link then, so you can get your own copy of what I hope is a little gem of inspiration, beauty, wonder and solace.

Stabilizing Brilliant Playground

Brilliant Playground grew in beautiful ways. I had so much joy in teaching this year—the Artist’s Way, Living Your Dreams, Freedom to Write, Romancing the Muse, Riding the Dragon Poetry Workshop and Convocation of Poets. And I wrote 22 new blog posts.

For the first time in 15 years, I began to find a rhythm of offerings and coaching that feels more sustainable and sustaining. Hallelujah! I look to strengthen this new foundation, so that I can offer programs I have been dreaming for years, to create a deeper sense of community and shared exploration here in the year to come.

Welcoming New People to Patreon

Over at Patreon, where I share my hot-off-the-press creative work, my working methods, and my intimate creative journey, as well as creative tips for my patrons to try, my number of patrons grew from 29 to 49.

This is a vital for me, because like all artists I need tangible support and an audience, in order to keep creating. Patreon gives me both of these. I shared things there once a week, with occasional bonus things.

Otherwise readers have to wait years to see my new creative work or never see it, since the publication process is so slow. For those who would like to see what I am creating now and how I go about creating it, join me on Patreon. You get exclusive benefits there.

Learning a New Medium

I dove into learning about how to use Medium to share my essays and reach new readers this year, and that effort paid off. I shared 15 brand-new essays on Medium. Seven of those were curated (featured) by Medium and eight were chosen by popular publications within Medium, such as The Startup, The Ascent and The Writing Collective. I was also named a Top Writer in Art!

I plan to start including a weekly digest of my Medium posts in my Creative Sparks newsletter for Brilliant Playground, so that you can easily find the topics that interest you.

Changing the Inner Game

I did a lot of deep inner work, and that work brought me greater freedom, peace and joy. One of the most profound things I did was Hiro Boga’s course, Become Your Own Business Advisor.

I have followed and loved Hiro’s work for years, but this was life-changing for me, finally starting to shift old, entrenched patterns around work and money and helping me to form a loving, co-creative partnership with the Soul of My Work.

Her work is extraordinary and like nothing else out there. I recommend it highly.

Creatively On Fire

In addition to all the essays/posts on Brilliant Playground, Patreon and Medium, I wrote and created a great deal:

  • I wrote 52 new poems,
  • Sent poems and essays to 44 literary journals and got 9 published.
  • Shadow Cabinet, my dance-music group, created new work and performed twice.
  • I revitalized my regular practice of Contact Improvisation, which brings me so much joy and playfulness.
  • I also helped to organize the 3rd Sierra Poetry Festival, an amazing day and full month of poetry events. Now we’re working on the 4th annual Festival, and I can’t wait to tell you who the featured poets are!

Called to Rise

A review of the year would not be complete without mentioning how stressful and challenging our world was this past year—widespread divisiveness and racism, corporate greed and economic inequity, lack of integrity and morality in leadership, gun violence, climate crisis, and a massive humanitarian crisis being committed at the U.S. borders.

These situations call on each of us to rise to what is best in us, to our compassion, our responsibility to act, to share our gifts and our service to our world. It is part of my work here at Brilliant Playground to support you in finding that in ways that bring you joy and aliveness and keep you creating and living in wonder.

It is only by coming together in community that we can co-create the more beautiful world our hearts know is possible. Making art is a powerful part of how we do this. Let’s do this together in 2020!

New Avenues for Income as an Artist

New Avenues for Income as an Artist

This is part II of the series on Making a Living as an Artist, in which I share my trials and tribulations and triumphs on the road. If you missed part I, you can read it here. (That’s my desk in the photo.)

I’ve been working for the past few years to put my art first, making a concerted effort to shift the balance of how I spend my time and how I earn my living, so that more of it comes directly from my art-making.

I’ve been devoting more and more time to writing and promoting my writing, sending it out to literary journals, popular blog sites and, most recently, learning how to share my work through a site called Medium.

My year-long experiment

I took a year after my father died to cut my teaching time in half and focus on writing, studying how to have a successful blog, and sending my work out to publications and presses. The time helped me generate a great deal of new writing, get published in a bunch of literary journals (hurray!) and also on some popular blog sites, and learn.

It did not help me to grow the audience for this blog all that much, and that was a surprise. The arc of learning was so much slower than I could imagine.

The biggest surprise was that I felt busier than ever that year. It was hard to juggle all of my writing ambitions, and I could not do nearly as much with the blogging as I had hoped. But it did lead to getting my book of poems finally taken by a publisher! A huge dream come true. That book, Fierce Aria, will be available soon. I’ll keep you posted.

Financially, however, that year, which was supposed to help me grow my business, left me worse off than when I started. That was a big shock and disappointment. I had to move through shame and self-blame and fear at the start of 2019. I even looked for a part-time job, to no avail.

A new, improved patronage model for artists

I started a Patreon page on July 16, 2018, a year and a half ago, to share my creative process, my creative journey and my creative projects and get paid for it. That has been a huge gift to my life.

Patreon is a remarkable invention, a place for artists and art-lovers to connect directly, a way for artists to earn reliable income while art-lovers receive hot-off-the-press creations and insider coverage of the creative process by offering a small amount that they choose. The model is beautiful because it builds relationships and puts the power in the hands of artists and art-lovers, instead of cultural gatekeepers and corporations.

I share weekly on Patreon exclusive content about the intimate ins and outs of my creative life and process, as well as sharing my creations-in-progress, and in addition, I create extra awesome, fun, inspiring rewards for my patrons.

I absolutely love Patreon and had no idea how much I needed this place to be able to share in a vulnerable way my work and my working process, my passions, obsessions, successes and struggles.

Now, I actively work to grow my patron base in various ways, sharing posts, inviting people to join, doing a big push when something special happens. So, this has become another part of my work as an artist.

In fact, you would positively make my day if you become a patron now. I have a goal to get to 50 patrons by the end of the year, and I’m at 48. My patrons find it inspiring and rewarding. Would you check it out? Patreon.com/MaximaKahn

A platform for writers to find readers and get paid

Now I’m obsessed with learning how to earn income from writing on Medium. There are writers earning a full-time living from writing there!

So I am voraciously reading posts about that, starting to share my own work there regularly, and learning as I go. These things take time, dedication and consistency, and loads of patience.

One thing I’ve learned is I need to share posts there nearly daily if I hope for it to be a significant part of my income—My goal is to get to $1000 a month in 2020. (Last month I made $5.88) That’s a great deal of writing, editing and posting, and I don’t yet have time for that without hurting the rest of my creative life and/or my teaching business, but it is one of my goals for 2020 to build to this point.

Doing what I love

All of this is wildly time-consuming and a huge, crazy juggling act. There are lots of mistakes and wrong turns and side roads. There are lots of gambles and loads of risk.

I think that’s what being a professional artist is like. That’s why I’m sharing this with you, so you can see what it takes (even though it will look different for each person and each art form).

I still reserve hours each week to write poems, revise them and send them out to literary journals—all of which has zero dollars attached to it. That’s the nature of most poetry. But it feeds my soul, delights my heart, and I have to do it.

I have other creative projects going too, projects in writing, dance and occasionally music. If you want to follow those and read more posts like this series, join me on Patreon.

When I’m writing, learning about writing or sharing my writing, I’m doing what I love. Creating and performing, teaching, leading groups, and being in ritual space are when I’m at my best. Crafting words and making art are part of my DNA.

What I’ve found, again and again, is that when we do the things that make us feel most deeply like ourselves, our true selves, when we feel most alive—not just the things we are good at, but what we actually love to do, what lights us up—our lives feel rich and good in a deep way. And we are a blessing to others.

So, this is what I’m working at, making a living from doing what I most love to do. It’s a long road. I’ve been at it for decades. And it’s been hard, often excruciating, but it’s what I have to do.

Thank you for being with me on that road, being my companions on the journey.

To your joyful, soulful life,

Maxima

The Great Mistake That Keeps You From Your Dreams

The Great Mistake That Keeps You From Your Dreams

One of the greatest mistakes artists and dreamers make that keeps us from following our dreams is all or nothing thinking.

We tell ourselves: “I have to leave my family, quit my job, move to another part of the country” or take other radical actions in order to pursue our heart’s desire.

This stops most of us in our tracks, preventing us from taking any action toward our dreams. Which is precisely what your inner saboteur wants. Because deep down you are scared to go for what you deeply desire. We all are.

So, instead you tell yourself:

  • “I have to make a living, so I can’t pursue my dreams.”
  • “I can’t abandon my family, so I can’t have my dreams.”
  • “I can’t devote 40 hours a week or even 20 to my art, so I can’t do it all”
  • “If I can’t make a living from what I love, I can’t take time for it.”

This all or nothing thinking is profoundly unhelpful and damaging to our hearts and souls. It is damaging to others as well, as we rob not only ourselves but others of our joy and aliveness, our unique gifts and our example of courageously living a soul-centered life.

This kind of grandiose thinking blocks us from following our hearts and masks deeper fears and doubts that we would rather not face, so we create these roadblocks to what we truly desire.

Once you know this, you can begin to turn toward and embrace the fears and doubts, offer them solace, and not let them run the show.

Other lies we tell ourselves

Here are some other lies we tell ourselves as part of this kind of inflated thinking: 

“I have to be a great artist, win an Oscar or a Pulitzer or play Carnegie Hall, or else it’s a waste of time.”

“I’m too old to start now. There isn’t enough time to be great or famous at this, so why bother?”

But you cannot be great without first being good without first being a beginner and making plenty of awful attempts.

If it brings you energy, aliveness and joy, if it connects you with creativity, doesn’t that make it profoundly worthwhile?

The real reason to follow your dreams

Kurt Vonnegut said: “Practicing an art, no matter how well or badly, is a way to make your soul grow, for heaven’s sake. Sing in the shower. Dance to the radio. Tell stories. Write a poem to a friend, even a lousy poem. Do it as well as you possibly can. You will get an enormous reward. You will have created something.”

The reason to “bother” following your heart is not to become famous or rich but to live an inspired, joyful, meaningful, engaged life that nourishes your soul and delights your heart. Isn’t that reason enough?

The reason to follow your heart’s dreams to whatever extent you are able is to shine in the fullness of who you are, to do what you love, and to live your best life.

The unglamorous truth

The truth is living our dreams is not a matter of all or nothing, black or white. It is neither as grand nor as horrible as you imagine. It is a matter of clear focus and small, consistent actions over time.

You don’t have to make huge changes in order to make some time for what you love, in order to take your steps in the direction of your heart path.

You don’t have to quit your job right now to follow your dreams, although you might at some point find yourself able and ready to do that.

You don’t ever have to make a living from your art. You never even have to make a cent from it. Plenty of wonderful artists, and even many famous ones, never made a living from their work. Most artists teach, run a publishing house, a theatre company, work for a non-profit, or do some other, totally unrelated work.

Two of America’s most famous and influential poets of the twentieth century, William Carlos Williams and Wallace Stevens, were a doctor and an insurance salesman, respectively. The great American composer, Charles Ives, was also an insurance salesman. And yet they  made time for their art and made remarkable art.

Start where you are

So instead of scaring yourself with all or nothing, start small. Start carving out time for what you love. Reserve small blocks of time, then larger ones as you are able. Be willing to be a beginner, to experiment and to fail. Be willing to try things to see if they interest you.

Make friends with your dreams and inspirations and choose one action you can do every week. Choose one for this week.

Sign up for guitar lessons or take a painting class, go on a photo-taking walk, give yourself an hour to write on Saturday, or go ahead and be the only octogenarian in that gymnastics class.

Maybe it’s not the whole dream, but isn’t a piece of it better than denying your soul what it is asking of you? And who knows where that may lead?

Take it one step at a time. Through small and consistent actions we find ourselves living our dreams.

To learn other key ways we block ourselves from hearing and following our dreams, read about the 5 Tragically Common Ways We Kill Our Dreams. Knowledge is power. Once you know how you stop yourself, you can open the doors to dreaming again.

And once you open the doors to dreaming, you open the doors to passion, fulfillment and joy. So, what are you waiting for?

To your joyful life,

Maxima

Getting Unstuck

Getting Unstuck

How To Free Yourself to Create the Life (and World) Your Heart Dreams Of —

A completely FREE, interactive webinar

If…

Woman Singing

You want more from life, more fulfillment, passion, creativity, connection, joy.

You keep pushing it down, putting it off, second-guessing yourself or just ignoring it as best you can.

You don’t know how to make your dreams a reality or perhaps even what they are. You have projects or aspirations that have sat on the shelf for years.

You realize the clock is ticking and you don’t have all the time in the world…

Join me for this free online workshop. See how you can get unstuck and reclaim your natural passion, inspiration and energy to create your heart’s desires.

I will show you how to…

free unstuck man
  • Tune into your heart’s desire that is calling you to your most brilliant life. (Hint: This is a key to you being truly fulfilled.)
  • Uncover a “life sentence” that’s been keeping that dream out of reach (and has been holding you back all over your life).
  • Free yourself from that “life sentence” through a profound process that transforms your blocks into blessings to unleash your natural inspiration, brilliance and energy. (This one blows people away.)
  • Stop blaming yourself and start appreciating your unique gifts. (Isn’t it time you did?)
  • Learn to move toward your heart’s desires from enthusiasm, joy and love, instead of trying to force your way with willpower (or just giving up on them).
  • Get unstuck now.

We will tune into excitement, clarity and possibility, and you will leave with a way forward.

I’m going to teach you the tools that have transformed my life and helped me create remarkable dreams.

Because these tools are so vital to us all living as the extraordinary beings we came here to be, and because I am passionate about us all stepping up to be those amazing beings, I’m offering this workshop for FREE:

Tuesday, November 5, 2019 • 4:00 – 5:30 pm Pacific Time
Live Interactive Webinar

It’s just 90 minutes long, full of remarkable content, and it’s free.

To register, click here.

There will be a recording, but you’ll want to attend live because this will be highly interactive and you’ll have a chance to work with me directly.

Testimonial from the Workshop

With just the simplest guidance necessary, Maxima led me to an area that I had actually had a very lifelong issue. More than feeling stuck, I considered it resolved as there was nothing much left to deal with, having exhausted all approaches to the matter. The issue began at my birth and had to do with a lack of bonding with my mother, (the short version).

Throughout my life this past occurrence has haunted me and included itself in intimate relations within myself and the significant women I have had the fortune to share some time with. When exploring re-birthing it came up, discussing the details surrounding my early days after being born with my Mom and Dad, it was a stumbling point. With embarrassed feelings that could not quite be breached. In sacred shamanic sessions it showed up for deeper healing and understanding. All of these healing adventures no doubt have contributed some degree to get me where I was when participating in the intro workshop.

However, what happened during the inner work guided by Maxima took me by surprise. … Through the simple guidance I went to a place where I was a sovereign being, untouched by the stories I had come to rely on for my identity. I felt a freedom entering into a more direct interface with life just as it is, and the stories fell away.

Now, several weeks later, I still feel that an irreversible changed occurred.…
Maxima did that with her work, simple yet effective.…she accomplished something that I had not been able to do for myself over decades. I also noticed that I was not alone as it was obvious that others attending got a great deal from the encounter. —Douglas R.

On Shattered Dreams and Keeping On

On Shattered Dreams and Keeping On

I write to you often about following the dreams and desires of your heart and soul. I want you to know that I know how painful and hard
that can be. I know that what I am asking of you is no small thing.

I know about failure and loss, shattered dreams and disappointment. I also know the path is full of growth and grace.
Read more

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  • Ignite and sustain your creativity
  • Identify and realize your heart’s true dreams
  • Live a life of passion, purpose and deep play

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