Turn Your Self-Doubt Into Generative Questions

Turn Your Self-Doubt Into Generative Questions

I have wrestled with self-doubt most of my life. I don’t remember a time when it wasn’t there. Of course, there are plenty of moments when it’s not there. But so often, there is that nagging feeling that I am not enough.

Self-doubt is a painful companion. It slows us down and holds us back. Self-doubt makes life unnecessarily hard. And it is the number one killer of creativity I see in people.

Yes, it helps me strive for greatness, not be too easily satisfied with my creative work or my teaching. But it also stops me from being a strong, clear advocate for myself, getting the recognition or support I deserve.

Most of all, it’s exhausting, causing me to expend tremendous effort and still not be satisfied. And it leaves me feeling unloved by myself, and therefore vulnerable to criticism and seeking approval from others. Sound familiar?

But how can we change something that has been with us for so long?

Rhiannon’s teaching

Each month on the new moon I draw a card from the Goddess Oracle deck and read about the gifts of that goddess. This past month I drew Rhiannon. Her teaching in this deck is about self-doubt.

The invitation has been to turn my doubts into helpful questions. It seemed nearly impossible, at first. My doubts run so deep, are so persistent.

How can I turn the doubts into questions? That was the first question. And not just into any questions but into generative questions, questions that lead to positive places, that generate new growth.

Generating change

Generative questions generate new positive perspectives, shifts, transformation, new possibilities. You don’t need to be able to answer them right away. But in the asking of them, things begin to open up.

Let’s say you are at an impasse in a relationship. Instead of giving up on the relationship or one person being resigned to something they don’t like, you can ask a generative question: “How can we resolve this in a way that meets both of our needs?” “What new solutions have we not thought of yet?” or “What would have this be a truly wonderful relationship for both of us?”

If you are in a work situation you don’t enjoy, but feel you cannot quit your job at this time, you can ask, “How can I make this job as enjoyable as possible for now?” Sometimes all that is needed is a shift in attitude or perspective.

Generative questions open up the stuck places and create flow. So, how do we turn our self-doubt into generative questions?

Dealing with artistic self-doubt

The doubt that wracks me most is the feeling I am not good enough as an artist. How do I turn such a doubt into a generative question? That was my first generative question. And it wasn’t easy to answer.

I had to just wade in and try.

Here are some generative questions I tried on:

  • How can I let myself be enough as I am now and encourage myself to grow as an artist?
  • How can I reassure and support myself better in my creative work? How can I appreciate my gifts and nurture them?
  • What is missing that I truly need in my creative life now?
  • What would it look like to be my own best friend? (This question has really stayed with me.)
  • How can I not just be trying to “pump myself up” by telling myself encouraging things that I don’t believe, which I know doesn’t work, but actually believe in and tend myself as artist and person? What would that look like?

Just asking these questions is already a big shift from listening to the self-doubt, especially if I keep asking and looking where the questions lead me. Already a new way of relating to myself opens up, a softening happens and curiosity replaces criticism.

Playing with answers

I played with answers to some of my questions and doubts in my journal, trying things on in a spirit of exploration.

1. Doubt: How can I believe in my poems when I keep reading better poems by others?

Response & Generative Question: Everyone starts somewhere. There will always be those ahead of you and those behind you on the path. I am learning new skills right now, so it’s awkward. Can I honor my place on the journey and enjoy the journey?

2. Doubt: I am afraid I am not embodied enough in my writing and therefore my writing isn’t compelling.

Generative Questions: What practices can help me be more embodied while still honoring my unique gifts as a writer? What support, teaching do I need to grow as a writer now?

3. Generative Question: What do I need now in my creative life, and how do I honor those needs better?

Response: I need more play, adventure, wildness, creative input and community, more spaciousness and listening, more renewal, encouragement, mentorship, more patrons, more support. (This was illuminating. I saw what was missing that was making it hard for me to create things I am proud of.)

Healing the deepest doubt

Delving into my doubts, I felt broken-hearted. I felt the small, scared, confused and deeply hurt child self within. She feels badgered and wounded by my own lack of self-love and approval, by never feeling like she’s enough.

I so often feel inadequate in just about everything I do. I feel I am not enough, not good enough. How can I possibly heal and transform that?

I turn back to a tool I teach—finding the deeper truth.

But first, I remember that you have to feel it to heal it. It’s important to not just bypass the feelings, but honor them, feel them and let them soften.

So, I sat with the little girl inside myself, feeling her pain and loneliness, holding her in love and spaciousness, just being with her, hearing her, not trying to change her feelings or persuade her of anything.

As I did, I could feel her sadness, but also a space opening up.  A softening. And I could see her as she truly is.

The ultimate question

Then, I began to ask the ultimate generative question I know. I asked it about the self-doubt that says I am not enough as I am:

How is that a lie? What is the deeper truth about this lie I keep telling myself?

To access the deeper truth, you have to step outside of the wounded self. This can be hard for some people. It helps to physically shake this off and change your body position or move to a new spot. Then, breathe into your lower belly and tune into your deeper knowing, your wise, eternal Self that is unharmed and can never be harmed.

If you can’t access that in the moment, tune into your capable, loving, adult self within or a loving, wise space of pure consciousness, a witnessing self.

rose

From my wise and loving Self, I saw the little child within as a wild rose—beautiful and good and perfect as she is.

My soul also showed me an image of myself as a seed that needs tending and protection from harm if it is to grow into a strong, healthy plant. Just like the plants in my garden.

The deeper truth was:  You are that rose. You are that seed that needs care and tending, love and protection. You are that child who needs love and care.

Take it on as a practice

Sometimes a deeper truth is so startling, clear and strong, it will completely dissolve the old lie in one sitting. I’ve had this happen and seen it in my students.

More often, we need to practice touching that deeper knowing again and again and living from that truth, because we have spent so many years practicing the lies about ourselves, the limiting beliefs and behaviors.

Some ways to practice your deeper truth are:

  • Write it down in clear, concise, powerful language on a card and post it where you will see it. Read it and repeat it to yourself, connecting as best you can to the original feeling you had when you realized it. It is the feeling, not the words, that have real power.
  • If an image came to you as part of the deeper truth, such as the image I saw of the wild rose and the seed, you can draw or find a picture and place it on you altar or in some other special place as a reminder.
  • Play with embodying the feeling of the truth. Dance or move around your house from the place of this deeper knowing. What does it feel like? How do you stand and move when you know this to be true? How does it change how you relate to others, your work, your creativity?
  • Keep touching the deeper truth, connecting with it. If the wounded self and the false stories come up again, hold the wounded self in love but don’t believe her stories. Comfort her from your wise, loving, adult self. And inquire again. See if a new deeper truth comes that has new resonance for you.

To your whole Self,

Maxima

Your Life Is Your Art

Your Life Is Your Art

Last week my Artist’s Way class had their graduation celebration. I want to share with you something that came out of that which feels vital for us all.

The celebration, on Zoom, was beautiful, moving and joyful, with deep reflection and sharing of art work that the students had made. We did virtual studio tours, taking one another through our creative spaces via our computers and cell phones. We played silly games and wore fun hats. There was laughter and communing, deep feeling and honoring of the unique creativity in each of us.

But I also saw some students comparing what they had to show unfavorably against the others, feeling less than or that maybe they should be farther along. They were neglecting a vital truth.

As one students said, her life is her art.

That’s the heart of it. The heart of what I teach and seek to live.

The art work that students shared was beautiful, striking, imaginative, wonderful. And we so need art in our world. Art exists for the sheer joy of making and the need to express deep and subtle truths, feelings, intuitions, experiences. It builds bridges and brings beauty, truth, wonder, surprise, growthful confrontation, vision and transformation into our world.

Yet, beyond that is the making of an artful, soulful life.

All of what the students shared, as they walked us through their homes, showed us the herbal potions they make, the garden they were creating, the stones they lovingly collect and arrange, or the way they decorate their homes, all of what they shared in their honest words, in their courage and vulnerability and care for others, all of it is art. All of it is creative living.

And it is this, to make our lives a work of art, to live artfully, to have our life be our art and our art be our lives, that I seek to bring to others.

This is the way I seek to open for you, to encourage you to walk. And for you to know that what you do from your delight, curiosity, fascinations, passions, deep need, your wild imagination, is a gift to all beings.

Regardless of whether you share your creations with many others or keep them to yourself. Regardless of whether you are a maestro or a beginner or intermediate level. Regardless of whether what you do is art in the traditional sense or something else, like river-rafting or being a grandmother.

By following your path of heart you light the world.

And you don’t have to turn those pursuits into careers or hard work or big, serious projects in order to validate them. You may feel called to do that out of a longing in your soul, and that’s wonderful. But if you don’t feel that, you don’t have to.

You can have hobbies. You can do something you enjoy for a little while and then move onto something else. Or you can do it occasionally and not make a serious pursuit of it. You can experiment and discover. You can play.

If you are following your joy and what’s true for you, then your gifts will open up, you will find your unique path, and bring great blessing to our world. Just by being who you truly are and taking care of that unique self.

So, let yourself play. Let yourself follow what you love. Be curious. Try new things. Be a beginner, make messes, fall down, switch horses mid-stream. Follow your delight, your joy, your heart, your curiosity, your longing. It will take you where you need to go.

Let your life be your art. Make of your life a work of art.


In case you missed it:

Make a Little Beauty Every Day

Make a Little Beauty Every Day

The world may end. You’re right. But that’s not a reason to be scared. None of us know what will happen. Don’t spend time worrying about it. Make the most beautiful thing you can. Try to do that every day. That’s it. You know? What are you working for, posterity? We don’t know if there is any posterity.

—Laurie Anderson, as quoted in Austin Kleon’s Keep Going

What is the most beautiful thing I can make today?

When I read Laurie Anderson’s quote I am electrified, stopped in my tracks. What have I been doing with my day?

Obsessed with checking things off the to do list or frittering time in meaningless tasks and distractions. Yes, some of these things matter or have to be done. Some don’t. But what have I been doing?

So, I ask myself this question: What is the most beautiful thing I can make today?

Because what could be more worthwhile of my time and energy? In what better way could I give, contribute, serve, even if no one sees or hears or experiences the beauty I make?

Facing the fear and unknowning

But the question is terrifying, daunting, calling me not just to make something beautiful but demanding I don’t settle for the dull habit, routine, the needful tasks, nor the easiest way out through the creative mines, because even in my studio time I have my safe and well-worn paths.

I am afraid to even think the question: What is the most beautiful thing I can make today?

I have no idea of the answer.

Play  music on my violin perhaps? I know that when I do that soulfully, it approaches the numinous and, at the same time, gives voice to something profoundly human.

Try to write a poem that matters? Lately, I’m not happy with much of what I write.

Or have I already made the most beautiful thing, already made a visual poem, by arranging cut flowers from my garden in two little vases—two colors of azaleas, magenta and baby pink and white balls of candy tufts.

Am I therefore off the hook, done with the project of beauty for today? That doesn’t feel right.

A generative question keeps opening possibilities

What is the most beautiful thing I can make today?

What if I didn’t rush to answer that, at least not yet, but instead kept asking throughout the day, so that I was never done with the project of beauty, adding to the needful store of the world?

What if my conversations with others were held to this same measure? My actions, such as making dinner, even of the simplest materials? It is one of the elements of my life mission statement “to be an artist with all my life.”

How might beauty be the guide of my days?

And when I say beauty I mean to define it in an expansive way, the way that old warehouses and rusting metal can be beautiful, the way that a painful, hard truth can be beautiful, the way that grief scoring us inside can be beautiful, the way that dissonance in music can be beautiful.

Maybe the most beautiful thing I can make today, given my day, is a loving gesture or word, a soulful moment of connection. Maybe it’s a moment of self-kindness. Maybe it’s in the way I set the dinner table.

A better question for artists

The time management guru Alan Lakein suggests the question “What is the best use of my time right now?”

That’s helpful if efficiency, productivity, but also being on target with what matters most are your aim. It’s a good question. Particularly helpful for procrastinators, when we’re habitually distracted, frittering time, or simply keep choosing the easier, but less important or less meaningful tasks. I use it from time to time.

But how about asking: What is the most beautiful thing I can make today?

Do I dare ask and ask again? Do I dare meet the answers face to face? Do I dare confront my own sense of inadequacy and step over it, so I can actually try? And be willing to fail.

Wouldn’t the best use of my time be to try and fail in the service of beauty?

As an artist I feel an aching, resounding yes.

Aching, because it causes the clench of sadness and love in my chest, the grief and praise of being alive, and of always falling short of my visions as an artist—how could I not?

It’s the nature of being an artist. The yearning and reaching toward the hidden god, deus absconditus, the ache of longing for communion with the One, the glimpses of the One in the making and receiving of art.

What is the most beautiful thing I can make today? Is it this writing? The little flowers I arranged in the vases?

Do I dare to keep trying with each pen stroke, spoken word, act? Do I dare to pick up my neglected violin and face the demons that swirl around it? Do I dare to shed another layer of the mask that separates me from others? Might I dance on the deck at dusk for the joy of it?

So many ways to make beauty in a single day.

It is so alluring to just repeat the easy, safe, habitual—even in my writing. To follow the known paths. How might I challenge myself to stretch further, to make something really beautiful?

And yet how might I do this so lovingly that I don’t stifle my flow but encourage it?

Entering the Flow

Flow is the state in which we lose ourselves in our work. Time stops, self-consciousness stops. We are fully present in the work.

It’s a state most of us long for, certainly as artists. An inspired state of Oneness and aliveness.

One of the characteristics needed for the state of Flow, which the psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi studied extensively in his pioneering work with artists, athletes and others, is having a challenge that stretches us, but which we feel capable of meeting.

So, we want to cultivate that sense of reaching to create beauty without setting the bar so high for ourselves that we become deflated, discouraged.

The lineaments of beauty

Beauty is a fearsome, wondrous god—form like a burning bush too bright to look on, too hot to draw too near. I want to kneel and bow my head before it, humbled, embarrassed. And yet I hunger for it, need it all around me to live—beauty in my home, my garden, in words, art, music, how I dress.

I need the soft lineaments of beauty to make my days feel worth living, hopeful, whole. The utilitarian and mechanical don’t do it for me. Nor simply living to live.

Every moment of beauty—bird, cloud, music, poem, curve of line, pleasing shape or arrangement of objects, flowers, flow of a dress, tears on a face, wisdom spoken, heart-wrenching honesty and vulnerability, bravery, kindness—lights my days.

So I will do my best to add my share each day, no doubt falling short in my own estimation often, but nonetheless living the best possible life by asking:

What is the most beautiful thing I can make today?

And then making it and asking again.

Will you join me? Will you add to the world’s store of beauty with your own?

Will you add to your own life by living it with beauty, in service to beauty, by making beauty today, and then again tomorrow and the next day?

Will you dare to ask the question and answer it and follow it?

Let’s do our best. What is the most beautiful thing you can make today?

To the beauty that you are,

Maxima

How to Make Time for Your Art and Find Your Creative Flow

How to Make Time for Your Art and Find Your Creative Flow

. . .even when you’re busy or it feels really hard

Last month I offered my patrons on Patreon the challenge to spend ten minutes a day making art. I took on the challenge too.

Just ten minutes, but every day. I gave them a blank calendar for the month to track the challenge and told them to keep those Xs going without breaking the chain.

Many artists have used this daily commitment to foster their creativity to good effect. Both Austin Kleon, author of the wonderful guide Steal Like an Artist, and Stephen Pressfield, author of the ground-breaking book The War of Art, champion this approach.

Benefits of the challenge

Taking on the challenge of creating every day for ten minutes can be very helpful for getting out of a rut and also learning to make time for your art.

Just ten minutes a day can restore your creative flow, your inspiration, and pretty soon you find yourself spending longer on the days when you can.

You’ll discover the time you do have, and how to break away from your distracting addictions to the internet or whatever it is you do instead of doing what you love.

Keeping the challenge to ten minutes helps reduce your resistance to creating (though you’ll still have to battle it) and helps ensure you don’t break the chain, no matter how busy your day is.

You will be surprised to see all that can get done in a very short amount of time. Stories get written. You learn to play the guitar. You fill up a sketchbook with drawings.

Best of all, you are making art every day.

Getting through the slog

But initially, the going can be tough. Here’s how I felt in the middle of the month-long challenge:

“So far the results have been awful. I have no inspiration. I’m dried up from a combination of overwork during the last few months and overstress at world events. I call this phase ‘grinding the gears.’

“Right now, I don’t like anything I write. Nonetheless, I keep writing, because by oiling the gears, I invite the muse to return. I show up reliably and she is likely to start showing up too.

“I know it works because I’ve been through this phase many times before, and it’s only through persisting in writing that I break through suddenly one day to a voice that excites me.

“Meanwhile, I experiment with different approaches to those ten minutes. Many days I spend much more than ten minutes.

“And, I also keep an eye out for what new sources of inspiration I need to feed my muse now to entice her out of hiding.”

Variations on a theme

Similarly, last month I suggested to one of my students, who has struggled to make time for her art, that she spend an hour a day in her studio for a month.

She had expressed that she keeps letting other things in her life take precedence and was feeling frustrated by this. So, I invited her to make a strong commitment to herself and her art for one month and see what happens.

I advised her to do this in the morning before everything else starts to get in the way. I told her she could use the time any way she wanted as long as she was in the studio. She could doodle. She could flip through art books for inspiration. She could stare out the window. She should let this be free playtime.

Here is what she discovered.

Sometimes she would spend an hour in the studio early in the day. Sometimes she wouldn’t get to it until the end of the day, when she would sit in bed with her sketchbook. Both felt good.

She worked both on a big painting, a much larger canvas than anything she is used to, and on small projects.

She also discovered that, after five days she needs a weekend off to replenish. This is her rhythm, and it’s right for her. It helps her return to the studio with new energy, refreshed.

So, she needed to let go of holding fast to the idea of having 30 uninterrupted days crossed off on her calendar.

She also discovered that sometimes after, say, 40 minutes, she felt done, but she would force herself to do a full hour, and those last 20 minutes were just painful. In other words, that wasn’t helping her be in a good relationship with her muse, her creativity. It turned out she needed to let go of holding so tightly to the full hour every day too.

So, she discovered a better intention was to gift herself an hour a day of creative time five days a week.

And, if she was faithful to the intention, not letting other busyness eat up all her time, then she didn’t need to be a tyrant with herself about it. She could allow a little flexibility, surprise, variation into the mix, and ultimately that benefitted her creativity.

But she also acknowledged it’s a delicate balance to maintain.

Finding your own rhythm

Each of us has to find what works for us. What truly works to support our best creative flow and our best life.

What makes this so tricky is that many of us are masters at lying to ourselves about this, fooling ourselves, letting our resistance get the better of us. And then suddenly, weeks go by and we haven’t made any art, and our lives stop feeling joyful and meaningful.

The challenge is finding and maintaining your own creative flow. When you give yourself permission to vary your routines or spend less time than you planned in the studio, you have to be careful that you aren’t sliding back into making no time for your art.

Or, when you tell yourself that you can’t create unless you have at least two hours uninterrupted, but then rarely give yourself those two hours, that is just sabotage.

So, you have to find a middle way, like the Buddha taught, between asceticism and indulgence, between structure and flexibility. You have to find your own way, through experimentation and self-honesty.

Half-way through this past month I skipped one day but played music instead of writing on that day, so I counted it. That weekend I skipped Friday completely, too fried from the onslaught of the world crisis to do anything. It seemed like a kindness to myself. But then I skipped that Sunday too and that didn’t feel good.

The next week I was back in the saddle, writing daily at least ten minutes, recommitted to the challenge, and finally inspiration was beginning to flow. By the weekend, I needed both days off, or at least, I thought I did.

The balance between structure and spontaneity

Most of us have both an inner taskmaster and an inner rebel. They go hand-in-hand.

Neither one in its extreme form is our friend, though both have gifts that can be channeled in service to our art.

One gives us the commitment and structure to show up devotedly for our art. The other grants variety and zest that helps keep things new and not turning into dull routine, feeling like a should or have to instead of a get to or want to.

Life is hard in many ways. Making art should bring joy and pleasure, as well as meaning, to our lives. So, we want to preserve the pleasure and not turn our art-making into drudgery.

Artists need structure and commitment to get past resistance to creating, but once past it, we also need self-kindness and an understanding of what truly fosters our best creative flow and our best lives. And we need a little wildness to keep things fresh and alive.

I find it’s less important to create every single day than it is to find a consistent pattern and stick to it devotedly.

If it works best for you to create five days a week for an hour, then make that your religious practice. If it’s one day a week all day or every day for at least ten minutes, stick to that. You have to find what works to maintain your best inspired flow, and what’s possible, given the real constraints of your life.

If you don’t yet know, experiment. I highly recommend trying the 10-minutes-a-day challenge for a month.

Taking on small challenges, conducting month-long or short-term experiments, inspires and motivates you to create and helps you gather information about your creative rhythms and what truly works for you.

Then, take what you’ve learned from the experiment and use it to foster an ongoing, joyful, inspired creative life. A life that is uniquely yours.

To your best life,

Maxima

P.S. Every month I give my patrons a creative idea, challenge and/or theme to play with, along with many other rewards. I’d love to have you join us. Click here to find out more:  https://www.patreon.com/maximakahn

Self-Care and Soul-Care During COVID-19

Self-Care and Soul-Care During COVID-19

In these extraordinary and challenging times, the arts offer much-needed solace, connection, upliftment and inspiration.

Fortunately, many artists and arts organizations are making all sorts of offerings available for free online right now. So, just because you can’t go out doesn’t mean you cannot stay inspired and connected to the gifts that only art can give.

But I also want to address some practical things you can do to keep your spirits up and navigate this unprecedented time well.

In this post, I have collected a bunch of resources to help you stay well, sane and inspired. Read on!

A Simple Four-Step Plan for Balance and Well-Being

I called one of my neighbors, who lives alone and is retired, this past weekend to check on how she is doing during the Shelter In Place order.

She told me she has made a three-step daily plan for herself that is so simple and wise I had to share it with you. Thank you, Julie!

As we talked, I added a fourth step. So, here are the four things I recommend you do each day during this time.

1. Meditate.

This is a great opportunity to cultivate your spiritual practices. We need practices like meditation, prayer, chanting and gratitude to counterbalance the fear, grief and stress and the negative effects of the news and social media.

These vital practices restore peace and balance and help us function at our best in trying times. They also help your immune system stay strong, since stress is the number one contributing factor in disease.

2. Get outside and get some exercise.

To feel well in body, mind, heart and soul, you need fresh air and sunlight. Even it’s raining, there is a lot of sunlight in the sky. The vitamin D we get from the sun is vital to our health, our good mood, and to disease-prevention.

You also need to move your body. So, even if the weather is foul, bundle up and get outside every day and get your body moving. Get some good exercise.

3. Do a project.

If you aren’t working right now from home, give yourself some project to work on every day, some focal point to your day, something that will feel good to do or have done.

Maybe it’s time to finally declutter your home. My neighbor cleaned out her fridge one day and is moving on to the kitchen cabinets.

I recommend creative projects or any fun, playful activities too. Get out the guitar and sing. Make a painting or a collage. Plant your garden. Finally mend the clothes you’ve had piled up for years. Make a beaded necklace. Write that novel or memoir.

Give yourself some project to do or make progress on each day.

4. Call a friend.

Especially if you live alone but even if you don’t, call a friend. Reach out by phone and talk to another human being every single day.

We all need this especially much right now—even if we have family at home with us. Just because you cannot spend time in person with others does not mean you have to be isolated.

Humans need connection to be healthy and well. Get over your awkwardness and reach out. You and your friends will both be grateful that you did.

Sources of Inspiration and Virtual “Artist Dates”

You can’t go to an actual museum or theater, but you can still engage in live art.

This list offers livestream concerts in a crazy range of musical genres and artists that are happening for free right now. https://www.npr.org/2020/03/17/816504058/a-list-of-live-virtual-concerts-to-watch-during-the-coronavirus-shutdown

You can tour great museums and galleries online. It’s not the same as seeing the real art, but it’s something that can nourish you during this time. https://www.theguardian.com/travel/2020/mar/23/10-of-the-worlds-best-virtual-museum-and-art-gallery-tours

Listen to live online readings by writers with interviews afterward—an amazing lineup! https://www.writingxwriters.org/readings-by-writers

As one  of the volunteers helping to produce the Sierra Poetry Festival, I want to let you know we are scrambling to figure out how we can bring as much of the Festival as possible, including some of the pop-up events throughout April, to you through virtual events. Check this site for updates: https://www.sierrapoetryfestival.org/

Self-Care for the Blues

With so much isolation, and in some places, winter weather still happening, you may find it hard to stay out of gloom, malaise or depression. Here are some things that can really make a difference.

I wrote this article earlier this winter. In it, I offer 7 excellent strategies for dealing with Seasonal Affective Disorder aka winter blues. But no matter the outer weather, most of these seven things are excellent tools to use at any time when you are feeling down.

https://medium.com/@maximakahn/if-you-get-sad-when-winter-comes-this-could-help-9eb9a9af865a

I hope you’ve found something here to help you navigate this time. I’m sending you love and prayers for your well-being.

Embracing Failure as a Necessary Step in Art

Embracing Failure as a Necessary Step in Art

Dancing near the edge

For over a month now I have been working on a poem called “Tango Near the Edge,” and in the end, it might not be any good.

I am writing it in response to a very complex prompt I found in a book of difficult writing prompts called Challenges for the Delusional. (Who can resist a title like that?)

To follow the prompt, I have to meet a series of difficult and bizarre creative hurdles all within one poem.

One of the hurdles is to use dance terminology in a poem that touches on death.

So, to make this poem I looked up terms used in tango. The terminology for tango is very rich and full of double entendres I hope to play on in my poem, which features a lover near the end of a troubling relationship.

I continue to be interested in this poem because it poses such a difficult creative challenge that it forces me to abandon most, if not all, of my usual strategies, to get out of ruts, and learn something new.

In fact, I have also chosen to impose a fixed form on the poem, in addition to the list of other challenges I have to meet. The form I have chosen is a poem of 24 lines made up of lines of six words each. I learned this form from Brenda Hillman, who in turn learned it from another poet.

This form forces a kind of economy and care on me that is helpful to corral my tendency to ramble. And something about the form has captured my imagination. I’ve used it for several poems already.

After all this time tinkering with the poem, rewriting lines, researching more tango terms and trying to weave them into the poem in a way that adds richness and doesn’t stop the reader because they don’t understand the meanings, I still don’t know if I have a poem that is good.

I have done so many revisions and still, probably the whole thing is too contrived to be successful as a piece of art.

In other words, I may have spent a good deal of my precious creative time on a dead end.

Be willing to go down dead ends

As artists, we have to be willing to go down dead ends for our art. Because in this way we grow, we stretch beyond our habits and safe zones. Art is not about playing safe and small.

Making art is a radical act that calls on all of who we are. Our art, our creativity, asks us to rise to the best we have to give, to who we are becoming, and to keep learning and honing our art.

To get there we often have to go back to being a beginner, over and over. We have to be willing to fall, to fail, to not look good or competent. Only in this way do we learn new skills, add new colors to our palette, discover voices within waiting to be sung.

“Preconceptions about what is and is not possible are as dangerous in the crafts as they are in other areas of human behavior. Meanwhile it is fun to play, and most discoveries are made by accident. Or an inspiration. But it is really an organic principle trying to find a soft spot to sprout in.

It takes a long time to learn that nothing is wasted. It takes a long time, and a lot of suffering usually, to understand that there is more to life and to poetry than our conscious purposes.”

– M.C. Richards, Centering

Be willing to be a beginner again

Years ago I attended a three-week-long residential workshop in Contact Improvisation, the dance form I have been engaging in for over thirty years.

In the workshop we had to break down core skills and try on exercises that felt awkward and hard. Even though at the time I was a fairly skilled Contact Improviser, I found myself suddenly unable to dance well at all. It was painful and embarrassing.

It wasn’t until I returned from the workshop and had some weeks to integrate the learning into my body that suddenly my dancing blossomed to a whole new level.

But I had to be willing to go through the awkwardness of new learning, to step out of my comfort zone, to go down what felt like dead ends and appear terrible as a dancer, in order to emerge from the chrysalis in a new form.

Embrace the awkwardness

Martin Keogh, a wonderful teacher of Contact Improvisation, once said in a workshop, “Embrace the awkward moments. Don’t try to rush through them in the dance.”

I encourage you not only to embrace the awkwardness and be a beginner again and again, but also to embrace challenge in your art, embrace your “failures,” your ruined canvasses, your awful poems, your embarrassing performances, your dead ends.

You never know where these might lead.

Know that you are doing this in service to your art. And celebrate yourself for being brave, for trying something new, and for making art at all.

If you’d like to read my poem “Tango Near the Edge” and see how I’ve met the challenges, join me on Patreon. I’ll share it this week with my patrons. (That’s where I share a lot of juicy insider stuff.)

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

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