The process of creating is as much about the time spent not creating—and how you use that time in service to creativity—as it is about the time spent actively engaging with making art.
I am a huge walker and daydreamer. I might say that I’m a professional daydreamer. And that’s always been the case: the desire and ability to send my mind elsewhere and make new worlds. So a lot of my process still has to do with giving myself the space and time to just open to making a world in my mind long before it ends up on the page.
– poet Gabrielle Calvocoressi
But artists often forget this: Creativity needs good preparation, internal space, having idle time to dream and imagine. Setting an inviting stage for our creativity to feel welcome to come out and play. And also taking in new sources of inspiration.
All of this is part of our creative lives. It needs to be valued and included if we expect ourselves to be able to be inspired and keep creating.
If we just show up to make art stressed and distracted, having given no time or space to feed our muse, we are far less likely to be happy with the results.
Foreplay and Afterplay Are Essential to the Muse
Just as with lovemaking, foreplay and afterplay are important to a flourishing creative life. With lovemaking, foreplay and afterplay include not just what you do in bed, but how you relate to your lover throughout the whole day.
Foreplay includes how loving, playful, appreciative, romantic, sexy and sensual you are throughout your lives, as well as how thoughtful and attentive you are to the needs and feelings of your beloved. Connecting deeply with your beloved.
Afterplay includes lying in the arms of your beloved, relaxing together, staying connected, appreciating one another, and being kind and loving after you rise from bed.
Treat Your Muse Like Your Beloved
I recommend you think of your muse, your unique creative spark, as your beloved.
Ask yourself: How do you romance your creativity throughout your day? How do you nourish and inspire and excite your muse with things that light her up, feed her, regenerate her? How do you entice her and court her?
And how do you appreciate her after you finish creating for the day? Do you revel in her gifts and express your love for what you’ve been given? Do you let yourself enjoy the afterglow of having created?
If you immediately fall into judging what you have made, that is not loving afterplay. How likely will she be to give you more creative gifts?
Romance Your Muse
Find ways to romance your muse. Give her some open time and space to dream, an inviting environment in which to create, and inspiration to draw upon.
This does not have to be huge or expensive. A fifteen minute walk before going into the studio may work wonders. Or reading a few inspiring poems before you begin creating. Or taking a few minutes to meditate or listen to the wind. Bringing some colorful, playful or beautiful items into your creative space—even if that space is your kitchen table. Checking some art books out of the library.
And, encourage and appreciate your muse after you have created. Enjoy the process of creating and enjoy the after-glow of having made time for what you love. Give yourself appreciation for making the time to create at all.
“I learned this, at least, by my experiment: that if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours.
― Henry David Thoreau
Every Monday I draw a card from the Zen Tarot deck as a guide and meditation for the week. Last week I drew Postponement, a card I’m not sure I’ve ever received before.
The card pictures a woman, living in a gray world and peering through a window at a landscape full of colors, longing to be there. But she hesitates, full of “what ifs.”
The card talks about the way we put off what we desire out of fear and doubt. And reminds us we won’t be younger or braver next year.
First I thought: That’s not me. I’m not a procrastinator. I go for what I want. After all, I teach Living Your Dreams and coach others to live theirs.
But as I sat with this card throughout the week, I felt shocked at how often I postpone big decisions and put off doing things for myself, especially if it involves spending significant amounts of money and/or time. Especially if it’s about my art. Ouch.
I also saw how many incomplete creative projects are lying around my studio, from the small to the large, and how many books are half-read, stacked in piles.
What’s Behind Procrastination?
When we want to do something but we don’t do it, resistance is at work. Resistance is fear in various disguises. Procrastination, distraction, doubt, excuses.
We don’t want the discomfort it will take to do it. Or we don’t want to give up what we’d have to sacrifice to go for it. We’re afraid to make mistakes. Or we’re afraid of being judged. We’re afraid to fail.
For me, making the wrong decision terrifies me. I’m afraid of getting hurt, of losing what is precious to me. I am afraid of expending energy, money, and time only to wind up disappointed or broke. I’ve experienced it before. We all have. And these experiences leave scars that cause us to be cautious, often too cautious.
The Costs of Postponement and Incompletion
But, postponing what we love and long to do, delaying finishing what we start, sucks energy from our lives and feeds our fear and bad habits, giving them more power. Putting off decisions and dreams drains vitality and joy.
Half-completed projects or those never even begun that we carry around in our hearts and minds create a feeling of stuckness, frustration, and confusion. They rob us of living fully now, expressing our gifts and purpose here. They cost us deeper enjoyment of life.
That endless list of should do, want to do, must do, maybe I’ll do that’s in our minds creates an energetic bog that makes it difficult for creativity, vitality and abundance to flow freely in our lives. And for us to feel free, playful, joyful and fully expressed.
Benefits of Deciding and Completions
We all know the relief and surge of energy that happens when we finish a big project, make a big decision, or take decisive action toward a longed-for dream or goal.
As we clear up projects, decisions and goals, we open the doors to new blessings and ideas. We summon the support of the universe. We gather momentum for bigger dreams. And, we feel satisfaction, freedom and fulfillment.
When the Time Is Not Right
Sometimes we aren’t ready yet or the time is not right. Perhaps there is preparation we need to do.
There are natural rhythms to life that need honoring. Just like there is a natural cycle to the seasons. You cannot plant a garden in winter and have it thrive.
Also, we cannot do everything at once. Biting off more than we can chew leaves us with another incompletion or disappointment. That is why clear choices and priorities are vital on the path of dreams.
Sometimes we don’t have enough information to make a big decision yet.
Sometimes there is inner work to do. If our inner selves feel conflicted about our dreams, if our wounds are too unhealed, or our beliefs too unsupportive, we will create enormous wear and tear trying to move toward our dreams. And, it’s not likely to go well. We have to first create space within ourselves.
Sometimes we don’t have the resources yet and need to gather them, though often if we choose boldly and move in the direction of our dreams, resources of many kinds show up.
“Until one is committed there is hesitancy, the chance to draw back, always ineffectiveness. Concerning all acts of initative or creation, there is one elementary truth…that the moment one definitely commits oneself, then Providence moves. too. All sorts of things occur to help one that would otherwise never have occurred. A whole stream of events issues from the decision, raising in ones’s favor all manner of incidents and meetings and material assistance which no man would have believed would have come his way.
Whatever you think you can do or believe you can do, begin it. Action has magic, grace, and power in it.”
― W.H. Murray The Scottish Himalayan Expedition
Summer Solstice: Completions and New Beginnings
We just passed the summer solstice, one of the four sacred turning points and portals of the year, a powerful time for letting go of the old—including habits and beliefs—and calling in the new.
For this solstice, I am calling in a deeper commitment to fostering my own greatness as an artist and receiving the support, recognition and audience I need and desire.
And I’ve decided to focus on completions for a while. Taking my cherished projects, dreams, and goals and moving in a concerted way toward finishing them, one at a time.
I’m also looking at my big life dreams and what decisions I’ve been postponing. It’s time to move forward. If I need more information, I’m gathering it. If I just need to leap, I’m doing my best to leap.
Decluttering Is a Form of Completion
Piles of old stuff we no longer love or use weigh us down energetically. Decluttering frees up energy and space in our lives and welcomes the new. If you’re not sure where to start with completions, decluttering can help move energy and bring a feeling of lightness.
Decluttering my writing studio is one of my incompletions. It is hard, involving sorting through endless pieces of paper (the writer’s curse). But even when I do a little bit of it, I feel relieved. I breathe easier and have more space inside for new inspiration.
Decluttering can be hard on your own. Get a friend to come over and help you. Then, do the same for your friend. Or hire some help. My friend Megan Montero helps people declutter, no matter where you live.
How To Start Completing Things and Moving Forward Now
Make a list of incompletions in your life. What projects, goals, plans, ideas are partially done or floating around in your brain? Look around your home, office, studio, your life. What have you started or wanted to start?
Make a list of indecisions. What big dreams, longings, questions have you been harboring? For me, that’s whether to get an MFA in creative writing. I’ve been thinking about this for only about 20 years. But I am terrified because my experience in graduate school for music was so awful, and because it costs so much.
What about emotional incompletions? Are there people you are not complete with? Someone you need to say something to, or even to write a letter that you don’t mail? Someone you need to forgive or ask forgiveness from? Some grief that you are not complete with? The Grief Recovery Handbook and method is excellent for this.
Now, choose one thing at a time from your list. Small or large. Make a plan to finish it. Take steps each week until it’s done. You may wish to start small to gain momentum.
You Don’t Have to Do It All, Just What Matters Most
Not everything on your long to-do list needs to happen. Sometimes you just need to decide not to do something and cross it off your list for good, give away that pile of stuff you aren’t going to use, let go of an old idea or project you no longer desire.
Letting go of perfectionism will go a long way toward supporting you. Be willing to let things be “good enough”.
And, don’t try to do everything at once. You’ll just spin out, get distracted and quit again. Stay focused on one or two things. Get those done, then move on.
Also, let go of the idea that you will ever cross off everything on your to-do list. That’s not the goal. The idea is to free up energy and joy by taking on the things that matter most to you and/or are weighing you down.
Let Death Be Your Guide
Ask yourself what would matter if you knew you would die a year from now, what would you most want to get done? How would you most wish to live? Then, how about if you were going to die five years from now?
Creating art, sharing it with the world, being with people I love and enjoy, and living joyfully are what I most wish to spend time on. I have some specifics–finishing two books I’m working on, enrolling in that MFA program, healing my relationship with music. And I would still choose to declutter my studio because, even though it wouldn’t matter much after I was dead, it matters to my living easefully, freely and happily now.
Let death be your guide to living a rich, joyful, fulfilling life.
There is no time like the present for making our heart’s dreams a priority and doing the things we long to do. What will you complete first?
For me, the essential “trick” to creating my best work is to cultivate that inner state in which I release conscious control and open to influence. I enter the wildness and wilderness, that state in which I can let the wind of inspiration blow through me, allow the strange to happen, the wondrous to seep through the cracks. It’s all about availability and surprise. Read more
I wrote about this previously, but when I did, I made a crucial error I’d like to correct today. I’ll get to that in a moment, but first:
“A man should hear a little music, read a little poetry, and see a fine picture every day of his life, in order that worldly cares may not obliterate the sense of the beautiful which God has implanted in the human soul.”
― Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
We need to partake of beauty each day to nourish our hearts and souls, as Goethe advises, but we also need to contribute to beauty in our world, however we can, to fill space in a beautiful way, whether that’s visual or sonic space or some other form. This doesn’t have to be hard. In fact, it ought to be joyful.
Because beauty, and making a little beauty every day, is what is too lacking in our world now. It is a medicine we need.
A Dearth of Beauty
Beauty goes lacking amidst the onslaught of violence, hatred and fear in the news, the onslaught of bad news of so many kinds, and divisive opinions hurled at one another.
Beauty feels lacking when we can’t go to concerts or performances, museums or festivals, due to the pandemic. When we can’t gather together with friends in many of the ways we are love, creating small acts of beauty through kindness and sharing together, through laughter and touch.
Beauty feels lacking in the sameness and smallness of my life shrunk to the confines of my home and the same few walks through my neighborhood. Through falling into dull routines and numbing habits, too worn out by the stress of these times to do something more fulfilling and inventive with my evenings.
But I have a choice. I can bring more beauty into my own everyday life and into the lives of others.
“I don’t think of all the misery but of the beauty that still remains.” —Anne Frank
Anne Frank wrote that quote while in hiding from the Nazis, living in a tiny space unable to go out, in fear for her life and her loved ones. Yet she still found beauty in the ordinary.
So, what do I mean by beauty?
Beauty has always been deeply important to me as an artist, deeply interesting, mysterious and compelling. Yet difficult to define. We know it when we encounter it, but for each of us what we find beautiful is different. For me, it is not mere surface charm I am compelled by, but rather some kind of awesome power.
“Beauty is dark, complex, transformation—and not for the faint at heart. Beauty is the Sublime, which means you cannot stand in its presence, but must fall to your knees. It is often unattractive, what it brings in its hands for you and only you. And the question is always Do you have the strength to stand here and take it. That experience is often unpleasant, or it is a journey, a quest. But if it is true, that Beauty is a particular face of the Goddess, why would you ever run? Regardless of what Beauty asks of one, one must stay to the end.”
Beauty is here, available in each moment, in the natural world, but also in the urban world and in the human. As the remarkable film American Beauty demonstrated, beauty can be found in the elegant dance of a plastic bag caught in a draft of wind.
Finding Beauty in a Pandemic
Although many of us feel cut off from experiencing beauty during this pandemic, art in some ways has never been more abundantly available and accessible. The written word, as a form of art and beauty, had a banner year in 2020. Sales of print books were the highest in a decade. Online literary journals and blogs abound.
Just about every poetry reading in the world is now live online, almost all of them free of charge. Many museums are featuring online exhibits now. And there are concerts online too.
It’s not the same as being there in person. Some of the power is lost in the translation to the two-dimensional world of the internet. But still it is there. People reaching out to touch one another with art.
Medicine for Our Times
Yet beauty can still feel lacking.
Perhaps ever since the Industrial Revolution, beauty has been waning in our daily lives, as factories poured smoke into once-blue skies, and people left meaningful work as craftspeople and farmers for soul-less, repetitive work in those factories.
“It’s difficult to get the news from poems,” Wallace Stevens wrote in1955, “yet men die miserably every day for lack of what is found there.” People, die miserably every day because they are lacking in the special graces that poetry can bring to their lives. And that extends to all forms of art.
So, what is to be done?
I suggest you make a little beauty every day. Something small that adds to the beauty in the world.
Focus on Quantity not Quality
When I wrote about this previously, I asked the question: “What is the most beautiful thing I can make today?”
It wasn’t the right question. Because when we put pressure on ourselves to “make the most beautiful thing we can,” as Laurie Anderson suggested, we tend to freeze up and find ourselves unable to make anything at all.
Julia Cameron, who wrote the groundbreaking bookThe Artist’s Way, wisely encourages artists to make a deal: “Great Creator,I willtake care of the quantity. You take care of the quality.”
At first, this may seem crazy or counter-intuitive. What, make bad art? Just churn out mediocre stuff and not care?
But it turns out that when you give yourself permission to make bad art, when you focus more on the process of making a little art frequently, instead of trying to make a masterpiece, you are way more likely to make something wonderful. And also, to enjoy your life and creativity a great deal more.
In Art and Fear by David Bayles and Ted Orland, the authors share this story of quantity vs. quality:
“[A] ceramics teacher announced on opening day that he was dividing the class into two groups. All those on the left side of the studio, he said, would be graded solely on the quantity of work they produced, all those on the right solely on its quality. His procedure was simple: on the final day of class he would bring in his bathroom scales and weigh the work of the “quantity” group: fifty pound of pots rated an “A”, forty pounds a “B”, and so on. Those being graded on “quality”, however, needed to produce only one pot — albeit a perfect one — to get an “A”. Well, came grading time and a curious fact emerged: the works of highest quality were all produced by the group being graded for quantity. It seems that while the “quantity” group was busily churning out piles of work – and learning from their mistakes — the “quality” group had sat theorizing about perfection, and in the end had little more to show for their efforts than grandiose theories and a pile of dead clay.”
I invite you to focus on quantity, to make a little beauty every day (or most days), rather than on quality, how good you think that beauty is. Leave the judging up to Spirit.
Keep it Simple
So, can you make a little beauty every day? What would that look like, feel like? What shifts of attention and intention and habit would be required?
I think the key is not to make this monumental. Not another item on your to-do list. That would be missing the point.
Just do a little something where you can, as you can. Hold this intention in your day and be open to opportunities to make a little beauty.
Whether that’s making flower bouquets you put out in a bucket in front of your house with a free sign on them, as one person in my town started doing during the pandemic, or just making one bouquet for your own kitchen table, or even just putting one blossom on the side of your plate at dinner.
Or sketching in a sketchbook or tinkering on the piano for a few minutes. Cooking a special meal just for yourself or your family. Sending a card to a friend. Saying something kind. Putting on music and dancing in your living room. Arranging objects on your coffee table in a pleasing way. Dressing up for the heck of it. Painting an old cabinet in beautiful colors. Making a collage.
How might it change your day if you intend to make a little beauty every day? How might it shift your focus and your feelings, and add to the collective well-being, to contribute to the store of beauty in the world in this way?
The process of revision or honing, polishing and shaping a work of art is one that often stumps creative people. Where to begin? How to go about making the work stronger, better, truer to itself? Will I ruin it in the process? What to cut, keep, add, change?
Some time ago I published a post on this Creative Sparks blog called “Creating the World We Wish to Inhabit.” That post came about in a surprising way that illustrates something about the mysterious process of creation and revision to allow work of art to blossom. I’ll share that with you here.
This applies whether you are creating a dance piece, a piece of writing or visual art or music or in some other medium.
The Birth of a New Piece
I held a free Write Together! gathering in June of 2020. The purpose of the gathering was to bring people together to use writing as a tool for helping us process the grief, anger and fear arising as a result of all that’s been going on in the world, and also to use our writing to begin to envision and create a more loving world. Words are powerful, after all, and so is gathering together with intention.
I wrote along with the participants, not expecting anything in particular to come from what I was writing, but open to possibilities.
The first prompt I gave was simple, to begin with the words “Right now. . . ” and just let the writing go wherever it wanted to go for five minutes.
As I wrote, I didn’t know whether it might be the start of a new essay or a poem or nothing at all.
One of the key guidelines of freewriting, as Natalie Goldberg says, is that “You are free to write the worst junk in the world.” You agree to suspend judgment in the first draft in order to allow yourself to blow past your inner censors and possibly stumble on something wonderful and surprising. This is wonderfully helpful permission to grant yourself in any art form.
I re-read my little piece more than a month after I wrote it and found that I liked it. So I started considering what it might want to become.
A poem? No, too wordy to be edited down into that. A personal essay? Maybe, but it would need a great deal added and more structure. Then, I had it! Creative Sparks, my blog, is a perfect venue for this soulful, inspiring, short piece, which became the post I mentioned at the start of this one.
Revising for Purpose
I began to revise my piece with that in mind. Knowing that Creative Sparks blog is meant to be a combination of inspiration, invitation, useful information and soul nourishment for creative people of all kinds helps guide decisions about how I structure and revise my posts and what I choose to share here.
First, I considered what the post was fundamentally about and what the key takeaways for the reader would be, and how I might frame it to give context to the reader.
I cut out anything that didn’t serve the basic gist of the piece or that weakened any part or created confusion. I listened to the lines, reading out loud, to make sure they flowed. And I added more paragraph breaks for easier reading online.
I decided to forego the typical blog format of having subheadings (like this post does) and just to let the piece flow. That was more in keeping with its nature.
Sometimes rules of form are helpful, sometimes they impede. Part of being an artist is knowing or guessing which is true for any one particular work.
Finding the Form
One of my favorite quotes about writing—and it applies to all art—comes from Jack Kerouac’s brilliant, weird list called Belief and Technique for Modern Prose: List of Essentials, which I keep on the bulletin board in my studio. The quote is: “Something that you feel will find its own form.”
I have to remind myself of this often when I have created the beginning of something that I don’t yet know what to do with. Many of my writings fall into this category at the outset.
Like this post today. It began as brief update to my patrons on Patreon, and suddenly I found myself creating a post for them on form and revision, which then got furthered revised into this post for you.
Listen to Your Art
Let your pieces speak to you and tell you what they want to be and who your audience might be. If you listen, they will begin to guide you.
Consider the needs and desires of your intended audience. Consider the expectations you are creating at the outset of your piece and how you fulfill these and/or create surprise. You don’t want to frustrate or lose your audience.
Don’t be afraid to experiment with different forms, to move things around, remove and add, and see what feels strongest. You won’t know if you don’t try.
Consider what the essence of the piece is, what it’s really about, how it moves, the tone, feel, world it creates. Strengthen that by removing anything that does not serve that essence.
If you have to take away things you love—”Kill your darlings” is famous advice for writers—you can always save them for another possible piece. Keep some sort of file or reference of these. They may provide the perfect starting point for your next brilliant work of art.
There’s a paradox here. Which is good news, because it likely means we are close to a deep truth. One of my teachers says, “When paradox is here, Divine is near.”
The paradox is that both of the following are true:
1. Focusing on quantity over quality generally produces more and better art.
2. Productivity does not equal creativity. And vice versa.
Quantity Over Quality Produces More of Both
Julia Cameron in The Artist’s Way advises artists to make a deal, as follows: “Great Creator, I will take care of the quantity. You take care of the quality.”
It can be profoundly helpful to invite yourself to just make a bunch of art and stop judging it. Setting goals like making a small painting a day or writing 500 words a day for 30 days can be incredibly motivating and energizing.
Focusing on quantity rather than quality frees up your muse, your inner artist, to experiment, take risks, try new things, be bold, wild, silly, and most of all, not be self-conscious. It allows you to get out of your own way and discover your voice and subject matter, to loosen up enough to let your creativity flow.
But if you watch like a hawk to see if what you are making is any good while you are making it, you are likely to freeze up and be unable to create at all.
By focusing on creating more art rather than “good” art, you allow yourself to get unstuck and start making things. Pretty soon, some of that stuff will likely be good. And, it feels good to be making things!
Creativity is Mysterious
The other half of the paradox is: Productivity and creativity are not the same thing. Creating is not factory-line work. We cannot measure it by how much we make on any given day, or week or year.
Creativity is mysterious. (There’s the divine aspect again!) So much of it happens in the shadows, in the subconscious, while we are asleep or driving or working on something else. Much of it grows beneath the soil of our awareness.
One of the great revelations of my own creative life happened one winter when a friend rented a small studio with an upright piano for me, so that I could write music. (I was incredibly poor at the time and could not afford such a thing myself.)
After work each day, I would go to the studio for two hours. There was a couch, a lamp and the upright piano in the room. Some days I was so tired from work, I would sit down on the couch and fall asleep. Some days I would sit at the piano and write music. Some days I would draw pictures of my inner gremlins (those nasty buggers who criticize and condemn me and are afraid to create) in my journal. Or I would play through what I had written so far, or just noodle around on the piano or stare out the window at the black night sky.
Initially, I thought the good days in the studio were the days when I wrote the most music, and I felt really guilty about wasting my friend’s money when I fell asleep on the couch or didn’t have much to show for myself.
But over time, I came to see that I could not be sure what constituted a good day or a bad day in the studio. Sometimes when I lay down and rested, I would wake up with an incredible idea. Other times, that idea was still germinating, and it would come out days later. Or I just needed rest, so that I could be creative on another day.
Pretty soon it became clear that a good day in the studio was any day in the studio, no matter what I did. Mind you, this was before the days of cell phones. I had no way to distract myself in this studio, since it also wasn’t connected to where I lived. All I had was my journal and the piano and my music implements and that couch.
Getting Into Your Studio Is Winning the Creative Battle
If you are in your studio or wherever you create (at a café, outdoors in nature, at your kitchen table, in your car while waiting to pick up your kid), if you are in your creative space and doing anything remotely related to your creativity—including napping, doodling, reading inspiring things, tidying up your space, looking at old art of yours, researching ideas, listening to inspiring music—you are having a good day in the studio. You are being creative.
The whole battle is getting in the studio, entering your creative space and time. Once you have done that, you have won.
Could you abuse this idea and endlessly avoid actually making art? Probably. Our inner resistance in wily and will use whatever means it can to avoid the scary, challenging endeavor that is art-making.
But it’s not likely that you will be able to avoid making art, if you do the following…
7 Steps to Inspired Creativity
Make a space for creating and put your creative materials in it and whatever inspires you and/or invites you to creative play.
Remove all unnecessary distractions from it, especially the phone and anything that alerts you with notifications/intrusions.
Go into that space regularly with the intention of having creative time, what I call “studio time.”
Have a small, or large, creative project or goal. This can be anything. You just need some focus, something to funnel your creativity into.
Stay there for an allotted period of time that works for you— half an hour, an hour, two hours, four hours, regardless of what happens during that time.
Abstain from judging how you use the time and what you do or do not create. Trust the process. Trust yourself.
Keep showing up.
Keep an Open Mind and Heart
Let yourself spend your studio time leafing through art books or comic books or birding books or whatever inspires you, or playing with materials that are not part of your “main” art form—for instance, making little figurines out of Playdoh (remember, art is play!)—or writing in your journal, or whatever happens.
Let yourself also wade into making art in whatever your desired art form is. Make inroads on your goal or project with an experimental, non-judgmental mindset. Let’s just see what happens.
Do these things and you will find yourself not only making art, but enjoying it and feeling inspired!
This past year, our world has turned more virtual than ever. Every event, concert, class and workshop is happening online now, thanks to the pandemic. Suddenly, we are not limited to what’s happening in our own town or even our state or country. We have an overwhelm of options on any given day.
On top of this, our world is in crisis, great social and political upheaval and economic and ecological crises. Many of us are more tuned into the news than ever, and we may feel pulled to act in the service of many different causes.
Certainly, major changes are needed if humanity is to live in harmony with one another, with justice for all, and in harmony with all of life and therefore be able to continue as a species on planet Earth. Each of us must do our part if we care about peace on Earth, care for all Life, if we care about our planet. But any one of us cannot do all of it. Not hardly.
You can’t do it all but you can do some of it
You cannot do everything. You cannot attend every class, online concert, free poetry reading, protest. You cannot make donations and/or volunteer your time to every worthy cause. You cannot say yes to all of it.
Trying to do too much is a disease of the dominant culture of scarcity that rules our world today. It’s a huge part of how we got in this mess we are in. Trying to do too much will leave you depleted and distracted, unfocused and ineffective. It can make you sick or crazy.
With so many offerings online, and many of them free, you may be tempted to try to sample far too many. With so much information online, you may be easily drawn into reading, watching and listening to far more than you can process or use.
At the same time, you do have a part to play. You have gifts to contribute. You have blessings that are meant to be shared with others and not hoarded for yourself alone. And there are resources that could be helpful or inspiring to you, connections that could be wonderfully fulfilling.
So, how do you sort out the overwhelm of options and take care of yourself during what is already a very stressful time? How do you know what is yours to do?
How to choose what’s truly yours
Listen to your heart. Listen to your soul. Listen to your body. Take time to really listen. Don’t just jump at every shiny object, every opportunity, every cause. Ask yourself:
What is calling you deeply? What do you feel drawn to?
What excites you, delights you, fascinates you, fires you up?
What moves you, upsets you, engages you? What do you feel passionate about?
Or, as one student of mine asked, “What can I not not do?” What must you do?
For me, it’s clear: Create and try to alleviate the suffering of others. Bring joy, truth, beauty, wonder, imagination, love to the fore.
Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.
Notice the moments in your day when you feel most alive, most like yourself, most aligned. What are you doing or thinking? What kind of situations or settings are you in? What are the best moments in your day?
And conversely, notice when you feel heavy, dragging, unenlivened. What are you doing then or what have you just been doing?
The past can also provide clues.
When in your past did you feel most vividly alive, most connected to your deep self? What were the highpoint experiences of your life? Do you remember times when were you so engaged that you lost sense of your self-consciousness and of time?
You may wish to journal about these questions or explore them with a trusted friend.
What are you persistently drawn to now?
What can you not stop thinking or feeling about?
If there is nothing you feel this way about now, it may be time to do some exploring.
What did you love as a child? When did you lose yourself in play or some activity?
What have you always wanted to try but never let yourself do?
What would you do if you weren’t afraid of seeming silly or selfish?
When should gets in the way
“There is something in every one of you that waits and listens for the sound of the genuine in yourself. It is the only true guide you will ever have. And if you cannot hear it, you will all of your life spend your days on the ends of strings that somebody else pulls.”
― Howard Thurman
We can easily get tripped up by listening to the voice of our minds, which is fear-based and full of the shoulds we have inherited from others and our culture.
You will know you are listening to your mind if you are indecisive, trying to protect yourself, weighing the pros and cons, or feeling burdened, uninspired or dutiful.
The heart voice doesn’t offer arguments or justifications. It just knows. When the heart speaks, you feel excited, pulled, alive or just clear. When the soul feels stirred, you have a deep knowing that you have to go where it wants to go, though you may try to ignore it or push it away because it scares you.
One tool to access your deep knowing
One helpful tool for accessing your knowing, when you are uncertain, is to listen to the wisdom of the body.
Let’s say you are weighing two options. Try on each option, one at a time, and feel the response your body has to it. Do you lean towards it or away? Do you become more energized or feel relief, or do you feel heavy and more deadened?
Note that, if fear is present, there can be tremendous aliveness in that nervousness and a knowing that this is calling you, whereas the comfortable option may feel sleepy, not enlivening, even though safe and familiar.
It may take practice to feel your body wisdom. You can practice this by asking small questions of your body throughout the day—about what you want to eat or read or do—and noticing your felt responses. I’m not talking about your addictive responses, but the deep body knowing. Pay attention to this.
False and real urgency
See if you can distinguish between false and real urgency. With so much shouting at us for our attention, find where your real attention is drawn.
What kind of world do you wish to live in? What can you do to help create that?
What part can you play in that that is joyful and enriching for you?
What do you feel genuinely compelled by?
If you don’t know yet, explore, try things on, one at a time. Keep asking and opening to what is showing up as signs, synchronicities, hints, visions.
False urgency is other people’s sense of what’s in priority, what has to happen now. Real urgency is the tug in your heart, the joy or insistence deep within to do something now.
Sometimes you need a break
Sometimes what we most need is rest. If you aren’t getting answers to any of the questions above, what you may be needing is a long space of quiet, a time to go within, to replenish, rest and then discover who you are now.
“Let yourself be silently drawnby the stronger pull of what you truly love. It will not lead you astray.”—Jallaludin Rumi
If you are depleted—if you’ve been working hard, giving a lot, juggling many things, raising a family, providing for one—and now you feel tired, used up, unmotivated, then you likely need to take a break. Slow down, say no to nearly everything for a few weeks or more, open up space to rest and restore yourself. In this way, you will re-weave the connection to your deep self and begin after a while to hear that inner voice again, after you have had time to really rest.
In time, you’ll notice yourself picking up certain things, becoming engaged in reading or cooking, gardening or peace work, playing a musical instrument or starting a podcast.
Take it slow, don’t turn these into big projects and new shoulds right away. Follow your bliss. Give yourself time to experiment, explore and be a child again. Keep your plate more on the empty side. Rebuild trust with yourself. Restore your inner resources.
The golden art of saying no
Whether or not you feel depleted or in need of a break, almost all of us could use more space, rest, ease, peace. Almost all of us are trying to do too much, grabbing hungrily at opportunities or overburdening ourselves with responsibilities and projects.
So, practice the gentle art of saying no. Practice discernment. Even if there is something that you love, let’s say music, you still cannot attend every online concert or song-writing workshop. Even if you are called to social justice work, you cannot attend every protest or sign every petition or volunteer for every phone bank.
Choose the ones that are most alive for you, that work with your schedule, that leave you enough down time and quiet space to nurture yourself. Choose the things to listen to, read, watch that feed you, help you, uplift you, and leave space for silence too. You will be a much more effective and joyful person, if you do.
Keep listening to the voices of your heart, your soul, your body. They will lead you into a deep engagement with Life in your own right way and right timing. You’ll find yourself in a life where you feel deeply at home and where you shine. That is a true gift to our world.
At the end of every year I pause to harvest the blessings, learnings, challenges and losses of the outgoing year. I give myself space to honor and celebrate my life, to learn from the past, clean my slate, replenish, and prepare to set a new vision for the year to come.
Here are the highlights of my harvest.
Crisis leads to opportunity
2020 was a heck of a year, with the pandemic shutting down so much of our activities and economies and claiming so many lives. In the United States, the year was dominated by a volatile election coupled with horrifying racial injustice on the streets and at our border with Mexico, and a subsequent remarkable uprising of the Black Lives Matter and anti-racism movements.
So many deep losses occurred and so much stress. We were cut off from so much of what and whom we love, so much of what gives our lives rich meaning and joy. The loss to the arts, especially performing artists, and our enjoyment of them was devastating.
Continued ecological disasters and climate crisis rocked our world. 2020 tied with 2016 for the hottest year on record. Close to my home, the worst wildfires in history happened throughout the West Coast, blanketing us in choking smoke, destroying homes and businesses, charring acres of land.
I believe 2020 was a pivotal year, in which many things were being torn down or slowed to a halt, so that we can reckon with all that is unsustainable in our ways of living. Not just ecologically, but socially and politically, as well.
We are being given an invitation to change our ways fundamentally, in order for human life on planet Earth to continue. In order for more fairness, equity, justice, kindness and truth to prevail.
Huge milestones reached
For me personally, 2020 was both intensely challenging because of the global and national crises and a banner year for me. I was blessed with long-awaited and hard-won turning points in both my creative life and at Brilliant Playground.
My first book, Fierce Aria, was published! Ten years in the making, it is amazing to be able to hold my beautiful book in my hands. Even with the book coming out during a pandemic—or perhaps because people are reading more than ever (sales of print books were the highest in a decade) and poetry readings moved online—my book of poems brought a sea change to my creative life both internally and externally.
Recognition for my writing grew, even though by most standards it is still so small. For me, it was huge, opening doors for me and bolstering my confidence. The inner work I had to do to promote my book brought about major positive internal shifts. And I finally launched a gorgeous author website.
My virtual book launch party was thrilling with over 85 people attending and wonderful guest artists joining me. I gave six more readings last year plus a podcast interview and met with a book club that read my book, and I have as many events already lined to start this year. These performances have introduced me to poets all over the world and brought a much greater sense of creative community to me. Because all literary events were virtual, I was also able to attend readings and workshops with so many great writers.
More writing and publishing!
In the midst of a demanding flurry of activity to promote my book, I wrote 50 new poems, 32 blog posts, and posted more than weekly on Patreon, sharing my work-in-progress, newly published work, updates on my creative life, creative ideas to try and other rewards.
I also sent poems and essays out to 97 literary journals or awards, got 6 pieces accepted so far and am still waiting to hear from about half of those places.
Even though I discovered that earning income from writing on Medium was not going to be viable for me after all, I still had over 3000 views (and growing) for my essays there!
Brilliant Playground thrives
The other extraordinary thing about 2020 for me was what happened at Brilliant Playground, the home of my teaching work. With the onset of the pandemic, like many people, I worried what would happen to my income. But my classes filled easefully and abundantly with wonderful students, and they provided a refuge of creativity and connection, week after week.
This was the first year in 17 years of teaching that I achieved true sustainability in my work financially and energetically. There was a feeling of ease, trust and flow, partnering with the soul of my business and my spirit guides in a deep way. So beautiful.
Disappointments and challenges
Yes, there were disappointments. The biggest being zero growth in my Patreon. With income from Medium also not working out, I am still woefully lacking in adequate support for my creativity. I had too many other irons in the fire to be able to work on this area.
Sales of Fierce Aria started out amazing but were disappointing after the pre-sale period. Not getting to dance most of the year was deeply painful and sad. Music didn’t happen either much at all either. I aimed to complete a rough draft of my book on creativity, but did not, though I made some good progress.
In mid-November my husband Don broke his leg and couldn’t walk for six weeks. This presented a huge challenge and re-set. Good in some ways, hard in others. It decimated my creative life for that period. But it gave us time and energy for some longer-range visioning and other projects.
Have you named dreams, intentions or desires for the year ahead? Have you sat down to connect with soul-inspired vision?
Or does that all feel hopeless in the light of the upheaval of our times? How can we possibly plan?
When you take the time to connect with, and clearly name, your heart-centered, soul-inspired dreams, desires, visions for the year, you have a north star to guide you through waters both stormy and calm.
You have a way to stay connected to what matters most to you, what fills your life with beauty, fulfillment, connection and joy, even in the hardest times. And when everything is swirling around you, you have a safe harbor to return to.
This process isn’t about trying to nail everything down. This is about being in sacred partnership with Life, co-creating with what wants to be born through you.
My Breakthrough Dream
Every year, among naming other dreams and goals, I choose a Breakthrough Dream as a central focus for the year. This brings tremendous clarity, inspiration and movement to my life. (For more on finding your own Breakthrough Dream, read this post.)
My Breakthrough Dream last year was: “I am lovingly supporting Fierce Aria [my book of poems, published in May, 2020] so that she may flourish in the world and reach all those who need her. I allow her to win awards and acclaim and sell her first thousand copies in 2020.”
Fierce Aria is my first published book. I spent more than ten years creating it and huge amounts of sweat and tears (also dollars!) to bring it life. I want it to reach and move people and open doors for me as well.
So, it was a perfect Breakthrough Dream. And it seemed just about impossible from the start.
How it actually turned out
My dream stretched and pushed me all year. I wrestled with it! But it also gave me a powerful focus that held me and helped me through a very tough year. And it brought incredible blessings to my life.
I am sure I didn’t come close to 1000 copies sold, though I’m still waiting to hear from my publisher. (If you want to get a copy, I’d love that! You can order it here or through your bookstore.)
I only managed to get two reviews—beautiful reviews—one on Hannah Rousselot’s blog and the other in a wonderful online literary journal called Sweet. And I only began submitting to awards contests at the end of the year, so I won’t know until later this year if the book wins any.
But whole new worlds opened up in my creative life. Big shifts both internally and externally. I’ll share more in my Year in Review post, coming soon.
Dreamtending is deep soul work that is life-giving to you and to our world. It isn’t even so much about the outer results—though those can be amazing—as it is about how it changes you within.
Committed but not attached
The key with any dream or goal, intention or desire is to stay committed to it but not attached to the specific outcomes. Easier said than done!
If you do your best to hold your dreams lightly with all the love in your heart, but be open to new information, new directions showing up, you will find yourself flowing toward not only the fulfillment of many beautiful things, but also toward greater freedom, peace and wholeness within.
Give yourself space
To do this, you need first to give yourself space to get quiet and go inward, to listen to what you long for, what life is calling you towards, how your soul needs to grow.
Now is a perfect time to do this. Last night was the new moon, a time for slowing down, going inward, setting intentions and beginning new things.
Joseph Campbell said, “Follow your bliss,” because what lights you up or fascinates you or compels you within is the key to your soul’s path. Your deepest dreams will lead you to what you uniquely have to give to our world and also to your own inner growth.
Clarity is liberating and invigorating (and also scary!)
Once you’ve gone inward to hear your dreams, needs and desires, you then summon the courage to clearly name them—even if some of them seem impossible or scary. If it scares you and also excites you, that is a sign you are on the right path.
“I always try to do six impossible things before breakfast.”
—from Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll
To bring your dreams to life, you will need to name some actionable steps you can take to support them and put those steps in time. Perhaps you only know the first few steps right now, or only one. That’s fine. Start there.
One of the Fundamental Principles of Creative Dreaming that I teach in my Living Your Dreams course is “You don’t need to know how to make your dreams come true. You only need to know clearly what the Dream is. The Dream will show you the how, one step at a time.”
If you are interested in my one-of-a-kind Living Your Dreams course, The Artist’s Way is the prerequisite. Because it gives you the tools, transformation and introspective processes to be ready for Living Your Dreams. If you have questions, I’m right here.
We have come to the end of this crazy year 2020. At last. It’s time to take stock, to gather the harvest of the year.
It’s time to acknowledge, celebrate, mourn, forgive, release. The hard and awful, the joyful and blessed, the crazy, stressful, beautiful, boring, all of it. In that way, you clean the slate, let go any baggage that would weigh you down, and make space for new vision, new inspiration. By making a good ending, you pave the way for a good beginning and for a soulful, heart-aligned new year, no matter what happens.
What you do with this time of the gap matters. This is a time of going within and slowing down in the Northern Hemisphere, a time for replenishing, recharging, renewing and taking stock. This time of the turning of the seasons and the start of a new year is an important time.
I invite you to nourish yourself deeply and take time to deeply reflect on 2020 before you start making plans, inviting visions, setting intentions or goals for 2021.
Every month I give my patrons on Patreon a theme and creative suggestions to play with for the month, a way to keep their creativity nourished, inspired and expanding in new directions. (If you’d like to get those, come join me on Patreon here!) Today, I’m sharing with you here the December Creativity Theme and Suggestions—Taking Stock.
2020 feels, to me, like some awful haunted house ride with spooks and horrors leaping out at you as you reel along around twists and turns and over huge bumps and down slippery inclines, getting splashed and shocked and never able to get your bearings.
But there were blessings and gifts in it too. There were good things that happened and good things we did. And there were tremendous losses.
It is time to take stock honestly, to honor and celebrate and give thanks for what you did and the blessings that came your way, to release what was awful, disappointing, hard, and to clean the slate to make way for the new.
Gather Your Tools
I invite you this month—and it’s fine if it spills over into the start of next month too—to take stock of your creative life this past year. I invite you take stock of your whole life, but to particularly grant some generous time to your creative life, or to whatever matters most to you, brings you the deepest fulfillment, joy, meaning, grace. Things grow and blossom when we give them loving attention, so even if you think 2020 was an abysmal year creatively and you feel foggy, tired and uninspired right now (as I do!), I invite you to do this.
If you keep a journal, get that out. If you write things in a calendar or log book, get that out. Whatever records your keep, whatever helps you remember, gather those.
Make a quiet time when you have an hour or two to stretch out. Turn off your cell phone and computer. Fix a cup of tea. Get some colored pens and paper. Make a fire in the fireplace or woodstove, if you can, or light a candle. Get cozy.
Reflect, Celebrate, Release
Reflect on this past year in your life.
Make a list—or even better, some kind of beautiful, fanciful, creative chart or drawing or collage—of what you did, what you accomplished, what blessings, steps forward, gains came in your creative life.
Did you get a new guitar? Start out the year writing a lot, even if it fell away at some point? Declutter a space in which you can be creative? Did you take a class online? How did you support, nourish, further your creativity? What did you learn? What blessings came your way?
Celebrate and acknowledge anything and everything you can. Every little step. Every photo-taking walk, every poem written, every ten minutes spent noodling on the piano, every spontaneous dance in the woods. Do something to give thanks for and celebrate all of this—a little happy dance, a prayer, a love letter to yourself and/or the Universe, whatever feels right to you.
Now, on another piece of paper, write down everything you need to release about this year in terms of your creative life. (Again, this is great to do for your life as a whole, as well.)
What was a bummer? What didn’t go as planned? Were there goals, projects, dreams that went off the rails? What was difficult? Perhaps someone criticized something you made. Or you planned to write your memoir but only got to chapter one. Perhaps you were half-way through planning a wonderful concert tour when Covid hit. Get it out of you and on the page.
Now, create a simple ceremony to release it. Really let all this go—just intend to do so fully—so you can start clear in the new year. You don’t want to carry the baggage of disappointments, hurts, frustrations, grief, or self-judgment into the new year.
Maybe, you’ll want to write a song or a rant or make a collage of photographs or other images or create a short dance piece about 2020. But it’s also fine to just empty yourself right now of these things.
Rest in the Gap
And finally, let yourself rest in the gap for a while. Be empty and open. Give yourself down time. Take baths, take walks. Read inspiring literature, listen to great music. Replenish by getting away from screens and doing things that nourish your inner artist and recharge your body, mind, heart and spirit.
Invite the New
Then, start to invite yourself to dream what you would like to create in the new year.
How would you like your creative life to look, feel, be in 2021? What dreams or goals would you love to set in motion or see realized in the coming year?
But do this gently. Allow vision in without reaching or forcing it. Make notes when you get inspired by something and keep those notes where you can find them. This is not carved in stone. You’re playing, welcoming the new, opening to new expression, allowing.
If you really want to jumpstart and nourish your creativity in 2021, consider taking the Artist’s Way with me—an amazing gift to yourself and your life!
I Invite You To Share
If you are willing to share one or more things that you are celebrating in your creative life or your life in general from 2020 in the comments, please do! You can also share one or two things that were hard that you are releasing now. I’d love to hear about your year.
For example, I am celebrating that my book, Fierce Aria,was published this year!!! Whoo! That’s so huge. And I’m releasing that I did not finish a draft, nor a book proposal, for my creativity book (though I did make substantial progress on it)
There’s tons more I can celebrate and plenty more to release. I’ll probably do a year-end post about all that.