Stunning Books of 2021: My Top Ten Favorites

Stunning Books of 2021: My Top Ten Favorites

Last year wasn’t all bad. I read a lot of books, some of them quite wonderful, all of them good. 42 books to be exact, including a mix of poetry, books on the craft of writing, novels, memoir, and other non-fiction. And that doesn’t even count the spiritual books and books of poetry that my husband and I read out loud to each other. I also indulged in a rare pleasure—re-reading a few old favorites.

Here, then, are my ten favorite books that I read last year. These books, by and large, were not published in 2021, though quite a few are recent. In some cases, I’m coming late to the party.

These are the ones that brought me the most delight, pleasure in the power of language, grace of new knowledge, and/or enlarged me in some potent way. I hope you might find some gems for yourself among these.

Braiding Sweetgrass, Robin Wall Kimmerer

What an astonishing gift of a book! Kimmerer braids indigenous wisdom with botanical science with the teachings of plants themselves to create a magical book of stories. Captivating and gorgeous, this book takes a clear look at our current ecological predicament but offers so much hope, if we would just listen and follow the wisdom all around us.

These next three books of poetry each enlarged my understanding of the experiences of others in powerful, compelling language.

Citizen, Claudia Rankine

Not poetry in a familiar sense, though it’s subtitle is “An American Lyric” and Rankine in a formidable poet, this book won so many prestigious awards, and deservedly so. Hard to categorize, this is a collage of prose poems, short anecdotes, essay-like commentary, art by visual artists, and documentary that paints a vivid, alarming portrait of what it is like on a daily basis to be in a Black body in America. Necessary reading for many of us and a deeply affecting ride.

Don’t Call Us Dead, Danez Smith

Smith is Black, gay, and HIV positive. He takes us intimately into his world with stunning originality and vulnerability, painting an amazing portrait of his experience, contracting and living with HIV, among other things. Full of pain and love, this is a beautiful collection by a poet that has been garnering a lot of attention in recent years.

Wound from the Mouth of a Wound, torrin a. greathouse

I loved this extraordinary collection of poems. Another book I wish were required reading. greathouse is a master of language whose poems arrive like shock waves. A trans-gender person, who also lives with disabilities and physical pain, greathouse writes deeply moving poems in astonishing language that opened wells of understanding in me. 

Nothing To See Here, Kevin Wilson

What a fun, crazy ride this novel is! Extremely weird, but delightful, Wilson tells a preposterous but somehow utterly believable story with great characters who are dealing with very relatable (as well as some highly unusual) problems. Spontaneous combustion anyone? If you’re looking for a good read, look no further.

A Slow Green Sleep, Jonathan Weinert

Full confession: This book is written by a friend of mine, but that is not why it made the cut. As I read this book of poems, I thought “Yes, Yes, Yes, he’s done it!” This is the kind of book I wish I could write. The language is precise, exciting, honest, and imaginative as Weinert takes on the exceedingly troubling ecologicial crisis we are living with, and reckons with his own feelings and culpability.

Story, Robert McKee

This tome is a classic on the art of writing screenplays but is about story form in general—applicable to novels, short fiction, memoir, plays. McKee, who is revered in Hollywood for his gift as a teacher, spells out a clear, compelling, step-by-step process for crafting powerful stories, and a way to understand why a story isn’t working. And it’s not formulaic. He gives many variations, using examples from well-known films. It took me all year to get through this, but it was worth it.

The Goldfinch, Donna Tartt

This was definitely the most amazing novel I read in 2021. Tartt’s characters and story are so vividly and grippingly portrayed, you feel like you are absolutely there. Heart-rending and also full of resilience and love. I didn’t love where it went near the end. But this was a remarkable tour-de-force of a novel.

On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, Ocean Vuong

This novel is really a memoir in disguise, and it’s a beauty. Written by a Vietnamese-American poet, this is a searing, stunning, moving story of his youth, his early love, and his challenges growing up poor and gay in an immigrant family. It’s an arresting read.

Keep Going, Austin Kleon

I love all of Austin Kleon’s delightful, wise, little books on creativity, and this one is no exception. The book’s subtitle is “10 Ways to Stay Creative in Good Times and Bad” and hence it’s really timely. Kleon is so good at getting to the essence of things with punchy aphorisms, fascinating quotes and examples from the lives of many artists, and his wonderful signature drawings. He gives you abundant permission to make art and many great suggestions about how.

And, as a bonus, one more:

Shambhala: The Sacred Path of the Warrior, Chogyam Trungpa

I have read this book more times than I can count. I like to read a couple of pages in the morning before meditation. Although he was a Tibetan Buddhist teacher, Chogyam Trungpa describes, in this book, a clear, secular path to living a more awakened life and helping to create an enlightened society. Loaded with highly-accessible wisdom and practical tools.

If any of these books call to you, I encourage you to order them through your local independent bookstore or your library. If you order online, please consider using either Bookshop.org, which benefits independent bookstores, Powell’s Books, which has a vast collection of new and used books and is a great independent bookstore, or Better World Books, which fosters literacy.

7  Steps to Inspire Your Creativity Again and Again

7 Steps to Inspire Your Creativity Again and Again

How do you foster inspired creativity? And how do you know when you’ve had a good creative day?

Is it when you have finished a wonderful painting, written 1000 words, or worked out the ending to your dance piece?

Or is it when you spent four hours in your studio, puttering around, seemingly accomplishing nothing?

“It’s always a mistake to equate productivity with creativity. They are not the same. In fact, they’re frequently at odds with each other: You’re often most creative when you’re the least productive.”

Austin Kleon, Keep Going

The Paradox of Creativity

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.

And then it bursts into bloom. Thomas Edison was famous for napping in his office and coming up with his best ideas while doing so. It took James Joyce seven years to write his masterpiece Ulysses, and he began work on it eight years after he penned the initial idea for it.

Are There Any Bad Days in the Studio?

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.

person making pottery on a wheel
by Swapnil Dwivedi on Unsplash

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

  1. Make a space for creating and put your creative materials in it and whatever inspires you and/or invites you to creative play.
  2. Remove all unnecessary distractions from it, especially the phone and anything that alerts you with notifications/intrusions.
  3. Go into that space regularly with the intention of having creative time, what I call “studio time.”
  4. Have a creative project or goal. This can be anything. You just need some focus, something to funnel your creativity into.
  5. 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.
  6. Abstain from judging how you use the time and what you do or do not create. Trust the process. Trust yourself.
  7. 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!

Be curious and open. Explore and enjoy!

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.

How to Get Started Creating Again

How to Get Started Creating Again

How do you get back to creating after you have been away, whether due to illness, vacation, busyness or distraction?

Whether it has been a few days, weeks or years, the process is essentially the same. Knowing this process is a key skill for artists who want to live fulfilling creative lives.

At the end of May I went to Mexico on a spiritual retreat. It was soul-nourishing, wonderful and rich.

Coming home, I feel deeply reconnected to my Essence, in a place of deeper quiet, trust and ease. I feel mysterious transformations and gifts moving in me on a subterranean level. I feel truly blessed.

Almost immediately I came down with a bad cold, which turned into a fever, then a nasty cough. I’ve been astonishingly tired and had to move at a snail’s pace for the past week.

What with the busy time leading up to retreat, the week away and then being sick, it has been a while since I have been in my studio writing.

Now, when I attempt to begin again, nothing comes.

Do I panic over this? Not at all.

I know this is a totally normal phase, and I know how to move through it.

What You Should Know 

You will have resistance. Know that you need to move through the resistance, rather than buy into it. In this way, you’ll be able to get back to doing what you love.

You may be terrible at first. I call it “Grinding the Gears,” because that’s what it feels like when I’m trying to begin creating again. If you stick with it and are gentle with yourself, this will pass pretty soon, and those gears will be greased and moving smoothly again.

Rekindle a Creative Habit

creative friends making a pact

photo by rawpixel on unsplash

The first thing is to rekindle your regular creative time. Get back in your habits again, if you had them, or start some new ones.

Set aside some days and times that you will make your art. You may need to put those times in your calendar, or perhaps you decide that every weekday evening you’ll take ½ hour to play your guitar, or on Sunday you are going to play with paints. Smaller, regular bursts of time will help you get your groove back, even if it’s been years.

Make a commitment to yourself and keep it, even if in the moment you don’t feel like it. Remember, you have to move through resistance.

It can help enormously to have some companionship, either by taking a class, making a date to make art with a friend, or forming a group to share works-in-progress.

Start Small and Easy

When we return to our art after being away, we face resistance to creating. This is normal. Starting small and easy lowers your resistance, making the way more inviting and fun.

Begin in some easy way to get reconnected to your art, your creativity, your love of making things. Remember why you want to do it in the first place, what it can give you, others, our world.

person reading

photo by Lilly Rum on Unsplash

For me, that happens by reading. I read some poems by other poets. I read about the art and craft of poetry or writing. I may read a bit about the lives of artists or about the creative process.

This is reading for inspiration, not pleasure. I’m not sinking into the couch with a novel for hours. I’m trolling for inspiration, while I’m in my studio at my appointed time.

Then I read some of my own work. I may do some revising.

I’ll give myself a prompt and do a little freewriting.

I may keep the studio time shorter than usual at first.

I want the process to be as inviting, easeful and inspiring as possible.

When I’ve been away from my violin for a long time, I usually begin with a 10-minute session, perhaps 20 minutes. I will play some scales or scale patterns and then improvise for a few minutes. And then I put the violin away before I get discouraged or burnt out. I want to stop while I still feel hungry for more and still feel good about playing.

What are some small, easy, inviting ways for you to begin again? What is the least threatening, most enjoyable way back?

Permission is the Key that Unlocks the Door

As always, the most important aspect of getting started again is my attitude.

And the most important attitude is permission. Giving myself permission to play, experiment, make messes, and most of all, make “bad” art.

I know that often when I start again after being away there is a period I call “grinding the gears.” My words come slowly and awkwardly. The writing is often terrible.

I accept this time and don’t fret over it. I know it’s a necessary stage in the cycle of returning to my creativity. And it passes.

If I let myself be awful for a while, pretty soon the words and imagination start flowing again. I find what I am excited about now, what I want to say, how I want to say it. I find the joy of creating.

Breaks Can Produce Growth

I may discover the time away was a great blessing, allowing me to refresh my connection to my creativity, to learn things while away from it, and to come back with new gifts.

Back when I was playing my violin for hours a day, I was surprised to discover that a break of a few weeks or even a few months could lead to a strange quantum leap in my abilities. As if I had figured something out while away from it.

Longer breaks don’t usually produce this kind of growth. Instead, there will be a loss of ability that I have to make peace with and gently make my way back, rebuilding skills and facility over time.

performer with painted face holding herself tenderly

photo by svetlana pochatun on unsplash

However, at the same time I may have new life experiences and other kinds of growth that do feed my art in new ways. I want to be open to these, curious about who I am now and how I want to make art now, and not just fall into old ruts.

Be Kind and Encouraging to Yourself

Gentleness is very important. You want to think of yourself as a child that you are encouraging to be creative. How you treat yourself will have a big impact on your creativity and your art.

So, be the best parent you can be to your inner artist—incredibly loving and encouraging but firm too.

Now it’s time to get to it! Make a time, make some art! Let it be easy and fun.

Share with me in the comments below what you got from reading this and any questions you have. Let’s keep filling our world with beauty, truth, imagination, wonder, play.

Create an Ode

Create an Ode

Get your imagination sizzling with this creativity prompt to create an ode.

In this post I walk you through Ellen Bass’ lovely poem Ode to the First Peach. I show you what makes the poem sing and how to create your own ode in any art form you choose.

This prompt is not just for writers. Although I will talk about principles of good writing here, I will also share ideas of how to translate these principles to other art forms.

Whether in writing, painting, dance, sculpture, photography or some other medium, I invite you to craft an ode.

First, let’s look at what an ode is and how we might make one that really shines.

Read Ellen Bass’ Ode to the First Peach here.

The Marriage of Content and Form

Notice how the poem is juicy with language in the way a peach is overabundant in its sweetness and deliciousness. This poem positively spurts with rich, vibrant language. The language matches the subject.

If Ellen Bass were describing a prison cell, the language would need to be colder and harder. Reading this poem provides a rich pleasure like eating a ripe peach.

What Is an Ode?

An ode is an homage, a poem of praise to a specific person, place or thing. Like a letter of appreciation to that thing.

Typically, the ode addresses the thing being praised directly, speaking not just about it but to it. Such as starting with, “O beautiful ____”. Ellen Bass’ poem does not address the peach directly, but it’s still very much an ode.

Let’s look closer at her ode and see what we can discover to inspire and inform our own creations.

By doing this, we will learn how to approach a work of art to glean both information and inspiration. We will gather information about what is strong and effective. We’ll also harvest inspiration to create our own beautiful and true work.

Choose Verbs That Tremble With Aliveness

I start by looking at the verbs, because exciting verbs are so vital to vivid, effective language.

One of the first things you can do to improve a piece of writing is to go back and look at your verbs. See where you might change the verbs to more specific, accurate, alive ones—not speak but whisper, not run but gallop, not laugh but chortle.

Of course, like all things, this can be overdone, and you need to consider the style and tone of the piece when choosing your verbs. However, a well chosen verb can do a great deal of good work for a piece of writing.

Here are all of the verbs in Ellen Bass’ ode:

feasted, plugs, severed, shines, silvered, darken, turn, imagine, be, reflected, becomes, shoots, ravished, were, fallen, dreamed, curried, remaking.

Notice how she only uses the word “to be” twice. Most of the verbs she chooses shiver with life.

If you aren’t a writer: What is the equivalent of a verb in your medium? What propels the action, brings movement and energy? Is it a fast run of notes in music? Is it bright colors in painting? Or perhaps a specific verb like “shiver” instead of “was cold” is equivalent to a subtle blending of colors instead of using a primary hue. You decide and then examine your use of that element.

Use Adjectives (and Adverbs) With Care

Next let’s look at the adjectives.

Adjectives need to be used with care. Too many adjectives begin to cancel each other out. And they can make the writing feel overburdened, cumbersome.

Yet a well-chosen adjective can bring something radiantly to life for the reader.

Notice how sparingly Ellen Bass uses adjectives in this poem, which nonetheless achieves a lushness. Most of the nouns in the poem stand alone without an adjective to define them. They don’t need an adjective because the nouns themselves are so well-chosen and vibrant. We’ll look at them in a moment.

Here are the adjectives in this poem:

one, clear, next, golden, heavier, sudden, dense, first, lustrous, silent, swollen, clefted, flaming.

Look how wonderful and apt the adjectives are for their subject, the peach. And at the same time how vivid they are as words, not just “round” or “orange,” but “clefted” and “lustrous.” The adjectives not only have specificity but also feel good in the mouth to say. And we feel them in our bodies.

If you aren’t a writer: An adjective is something that modifies or describes a noun. If the noun is the subject matter of your piece, what might be the equivalent of an adjective? In a dance piece, it might be a gesture of the hand or a bend of the head that modifies the larger movement and gives it a particular flavor. In music, it might be an ornament, a trill, a bend of a note or distortion.

Be Specific With Your Nouns

Now let’s consider the nouns.

Here they are:

insect, stub, resin, scar, hollow, stem, juice, fur, caul, minute, hairs, palm, flesh, weight, newborn, marriage, citron, blush, planet, hall, mirrors, swan, fairy, sky, dawn, beginning, world, pith, stars, coins, pockets, night, chaos, scent, morning, sugar, bruise, hunger, life, remnant, ripeness.

What an extraordinary collection of nouns!

Some of them are concrete descriptions of aspects of a peach, such as stem, scar, juice, scent.

But many of them are imaginative metaphors to help us appreciate the peach in a new light. Metaphors can work magic in a poem.

If you aren’t a writer: The nouns are the nuts and bolts of your piece, its subject matter or foundational elements—a key phrase in a dance piece, perhaps, or a musical theme.

You might think of the nouns as the building blocks of the piece, the verbs as what connects and gives momentum to those building blocks, and the adjectives as flourishes or ornaments that add nuance.

In whatever medium you are working in, make sure your “nouns” are strong and apt, as vivid and right as they can be for the piece.

And what about using metaphor, likening one thing to another to help us experience your subject in a richer or new way?

Create Your Own Ode

Now that we have gathered this information about what makes this poem come alive, let’s use it for inspiration to create our own ode.

1. Choose a subject for your ode, something you wish to praise. It could be something you love, but it could also be something difficult, which you will use your ode to learn to appreciate. For instance, I recently wrote an ode to frustration.

2. Start by free-associating a list of lively verbs, nouns and adjectives, or phrases combining them, to describe the subject of your ode. Include startling, original metaphors.

You might also make notes of memories of your subject, details of the specific pleasures it has brought to you.

3. Now choose the best of these to begin making a first draft of an ode. Or start by just allowing yourself to play freely with the subject and see what arises.

Let yourself experiment. Be wild, inventive, playful. Odes often are. Or be melodramatic, over-the-top in your exaltation of this thing. Discover the voice that is suited to your subject.

Don’t try to be perfect in the first draft. That kills creativity. Just get some ideas on paper or in your medium-of-choice.

If you aren’t a writer: Even if you are working in a non-verbal medium, such as dance or painting, you can still begin by writing out images, associations and metaphors to more fully delve into your subject. You can also begin by deciding key elements of your piece—musical or dance phrases, color palette and so on.

Refine and Revise

Then, go back, refine, revise, hone.

If you are writing, look at every verb. Can any be strengthened?

Look at every adjective. Can any be removed and the line will be as strong or stronger? Can any adjectives be replaced by using a more vital, specific noun instead?

Look at your nouns. Are they the most dynamic and apt ones to meet your subject? Have you used metaphor to bring your subject more vividly to life and to bring delight and surprise to the reader?

If you are making an ode with dance, how could you use non-representational movement to create an ode to a peach, for instance? Instead of showing someone eating a peach, how could you suggest the ecstasy, sweetness, surprise of biting into a ripe peach? How could you metaphorically depict the juice running down your face or the slow ripening to colors of sunset?

If you are writing music, how could the notes reflect the burnished quality of a peach, the lushness?

If you are painting, what in the painting, in the background perhaps or the colors or textures, leads us to experience the subject in a new and deeper way? What is it you most wish to communicate about this subject to the viewer? Perhaps the painting is non-representational but takes us to a place of feeling the subject.

Let yourself have fun with making an ode.

Perhaps you would like to give yourself the project of making a series of odes on different subjects. Odes engage our senses, our gratitude, our imagination.

To get more ideas about wild and wonderful odes, check out Pablo Neruda’s odes. Here’s my favorite of those: Ode to My Socks

What are you inspired to make an ode about now? Begin making some notes.

Seeking Your Heart’s Guidance

Seeking Your Heart’s Guidance

A simple but powerful exercise to help you hear your heart’s guidance. 

Your heart is here to guide you to your best life. Not the easiest, but the best. The fullest expression of you. The richest, most beautiful, rewarding life.

Your heart has answers your mind could never devise. Astonishing in their wisdom, rightness and simplicity.

But how do you hear the voice of your heart? How do you access that guidance?

Here is a process to cultivate connection to the wisdom of heart.

1) Set the scene

Find a place and time where you will not be disturbed. Turn off your phone (really) and close your computer. Have a notebook and pen or pencil. Light a candle or sit somewhere beautiful in nature.

2) Open the flow

This step is preparation, to get your controlling mind out of the way, to open inside. You aren’t yet seeking any guidance. You are clearing the channels to receive guidance.

Grant yourself full permission to write anything at all without judging, doubting, or expecting anything of it. Write for two full pages without pausing to think or edit, starting from the words “In this moment…”.

Write whatever comes, whatever you think, feel, notice around you or in you. Just keep the pen moving the whole time, without pausing, even if you think it is nonsense.

3) Make a request

writing heart's guidanceNow, write a short paragraph to your heart, asking for its guidance and promising to listen.

You may ask about a specific challenge or situation, or you might just ask, “Oh my heart, what do I need to know, be, or do now?” or something general like “How can I live a more joyful life?”

Make a promise to set aside doubt, second-guessing, or your mind trying to figure things out and control the process.

4) Write your heart’s guidance

Drawing on the feeling of freewriting that you did in step 2, simply relax and let the pen flow, writing whatever answers seem to come from your heart.

Keep your promise to yourself not to judge, doubt, second-guess, analyze or edit the answers while you write. That will stop the flow. You can use your wisdom later to discern what feels right or to interpret it.

If your heart tells you anything you feel you cannot do or do not understand, ask follow-up questions. Express your feelings and concerns. Dialogue with your heart about them.

5) Take action

If it feels true and right—even if it also feels scary, hard or silly—follow your heart’s guidance, taking action on what you were told. Keep the faith with your heart by not ignoring its precious wisdom.

What steps will you take? What changes will you make? How will you act in accordance with the guidance you received?

Keeping the Channel Open

magical heart path

by JR Korpa on Unsplash

If you ask for guidance, receive it and then ignore it, you close down your connection to this most valuable inner resource. And your life will feel out of balance.

If, on the other hand, you learn to discern what your own heart voice sounds like, what it feels like when it is speaking to you, you will strengthen your access to this guide within.

Learn how your own heart speaks to you—which may be in images, sensations, impressions or emotions, more than words. Learn to trust and follow the guidance. See what happens as you do.

As you refine your ability to hear your true heart guidance, as you cultivate your deep trust in it, your willingness to follow it into the challenging, scary and wondrous places it is leading you, you will begin to create a life of extraordinary richness and beauty for yourself and for our world.

We want our souls to be fed in the heart’s great pool. Sit with your pen and wait. Sit. Listen. There, it is whispering. There, formless but real. Like wind.

If you enjoyed this post, you might also enjoy: Cultivating Intuition and A Return to Heart and also What I Know.

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We Need the Voices of All the Artists

We Need the Voices of All the Artists

“We need the voices of all the poets,” Robert Duncan wrote. This has long been a credo of mine.

Yet, I have to remind myself of it. Especially when I’m feeling “not good enough” as a poet.

At times like those, I can start to feel “What’s the use? Who needs my poems anyway?” There are so many poets writing today and too few readers. It can feel overwhelming and hopeless.

When we are feeling this way, we have lost sight of a vital truth, a truth we may not have been told when we were young, but one that is essential to living ongoing, joyful, creative lives:

by Elena Ray on Unsplash

Your Artistic Voice Is Unique

You have something to say. Your voice, perspective and experience are unique. There has never been another you in all of time. You have unique gifts that the world needs. You have something of value to share. Or you wouldn’t be here.

You wouldn’t have an urge to write or paint or dance, if someone didn’t need what you are creating. Or if we didn’t need the self you will become through the act of creating. Because creating transforms us in powerful ways.

You Still Have to Work to Refine Your Art

Just because you are unique and needed here doesn’t mean you can be lazy about your art.

Man drawing

by Allef Vinicius on Unsplash

You owe it to your art and your audience to hone your work to its finest expression. To play hard at it. To not be self-satisfied with half-measures and sloppiness. To wrestle with your art. To stretch and challenge yourself. To study and learn.

Devote yourself to the deep study of your craft, the work of other artists, the history of your art form. Work with teachers, mentors and peers to refine your technique and expression.

I believe in working devotedly at your chosen art form, if you wish to share your work with others beyond a few friends and family.

If you wish to develop as an artist, then you are choosing to serve not only yourself and your own ambitions, but a larger purpose, to serve your people, to serve Life, to serve the Divine.

You are agreeing to step beyond mere “self-expression” and your own desires into a greater realm of service, surrender, mystery.

Welcome. You have chosen a great path, or rather it has chosen you.

That path will challenge you and ask much of you. Some days it will bring you to your knees in despair, doubt or disappointment. It will also grace you with support, synchronicities and blessings.

Creative Hobbies Are Also Wonderful

Don’t get me wrong: The act of creation is meant to be divine play, not joyless, nose-to-the-grindstone work.

Allowing ourselves to have creative hobbies, for which we have no ambition, but simply allow ourselves to play, to create for the joy of creating, is an enormously healthy, wonderful gift to ourselves and our world.

Creative play makes us happier, sweeter, more alive people. It brings more fun and grace to our lives. It makes us more adaptable, responsive and imaginative. These are all great goods. Worthy in and of themselves.

So let yourself make messes, experiment and just play with art too. Let yourself dabble in art forms you don’t wish to master.

Go Forth and Create!

Whatever road you choose, to simply play and have fun (as I do with collage) or to devote yourself to an art form in service to a higher calling (as I do with poetry and writing), bless you.

We need the voices of all the artists.

To your abundant creativity,

Maxima

Dreaming Your Year: A Recipe for Soulful Living

Dreaming Your Year: A Recipe for Soulful Living

At the start of each year, I speak about tuning into the dreaming of the year ahead, dreaming your year from heart and soul.

Why?

So that you can co-create an inspired, soulful, enriching trip around the sun. Not just blown about by the winds of habit and happenstance. But guided by deep vision, inspiration and heart.

It’s Never Too Late

I want you to know it’s not too late to do this. I often take all of January to complete this dreaming step-by-step.

A friend recently said to me, “But then you lose a whole month of the year!” That’s the old paradigm, in which time is scarce, and we have to rush and push to our goals. Where nothing is ever enough and we’re always behind. That’s not how I want to live.

Dreaming your year is a priceless process of listening to your own heart and to the heartsong of the world. Like anything worthwhile, that doesn’t want to be rushed.

Also, you can do it anytime. You could do it in July for the year ahead that starts from there.

But…

How Do You Dream Your Year?

Tuning into the dreaming of the year: What does that look like, feel like?

Start by dropping the shoulds, have-tos, anxieties, dropping the constant craving demands of the small self, to open a vast space within.

Seeds

by Steve Richey

Open to the fertile void, the womb of creation from which all life comes. The dark soil of earth which harbors already the seeds of new life waiting to push forth into the light and grow and blossom and bear fruit.

Get quiet and allow yourself to rest in the gap between the end of the old and the start of the new. Drop into that spacious dark in which the soul can fly free.

Listen patiently for the still small voice within. Not rushing to answers. Not trying to figure it out with the mind. Not trying to fill the void or control the process.

Listening, waiting, opening, feeling, resting, trusting, quiet, receptive.

Ask for vision. Put forth a prayer, an invitation for your heart and soul to speak, for Life itself to speak to you and call you forth. Express your willingness to be of service to something larger and wilder than your small self.

Ask for vision, open to receive.

Then, attend to any sensations, images, words, emotions, impressions that come. Take notes. You may also wish to dance or draw this vision.

Some Fertile Questions

  • What are the seeds of this coming year that are already planted in me?
    What is Life dreaming that desires to be born through me?
  • How do I most wish to feel?
  • What do I desire to embody? How do I want to show up in my life?
  • What is calling to my heart and soul? What needs or yearnings are calling to be filled?
  • What would bring me the most delight, joy? What would inspire me most?
  • What practices, passions, activities, adventures are calling to me?

Listen to the Deeper Currents

by Nicholas Han

Tune into the deeper currents moving you. Listen to these more than to your fears, doubts, your sense of lack.

You’ll find your life begins to flow in beautiful, extraordinary ways. Support and miracles will appear. Not that there won’t also be challenges. These are part of the path of our heart.

This dreaming through you is the Tao, the way of life. When we align ourselves with the Tao, we feel a sense of flow. When we resist or ignore the Tao, we struggle, hit obstacles, often get sick or depressed.

Let yourself dream without rushing to any concern about the how of those dreams. (That will kill a dream that is trying to be born.) Simply let yourself envision the what, however it wants to come to you now, even if you have no idea how it could possibly come about.

Zooming In and Focusing

♥ Is there a word or theme of the year that beckons to you?

Rather than choosing from what your mind wants or thinks sounds good, be patient and let your word or theme arrive in its own time from your soul. This might take days or weeks.

Write your word or theme on an index card and post it where you will see it.

♥ Is there a Breakthrough Dream you want to name for this coming year?

A Breakthrough Dream is something that, if you focus on, complete or realize it this year, would make the biggest positive difference in your life. It is the one that most calls to you now, even if it also brings fear or doubt. (Fear and doubt are often a good sign. Just set these aside for now, if they arise, so that you can freely dream.)

Write your Breakthrough Dream on an index card too.

Put It Into Existence

Once you’ve allowed the vision of the year to come to you, it’s time to do some gentle mapping of the how, to put it into existence in time.

Name some steps you will take to support your dreams. Put some milestones in your year and/or schedule things in your calendar that are important to you.

Divide big dreams and desires into small steps and put them in time. Be willing to try things, to risk.

Be sure your dreams and desires are aligned with what matters most to you, what you most care about, what brings you joy. Because the “small stuff” fades. Life is not an endless self-improvement project, but a treasure to be lived fully and beautifully.


To read more of my posts about creating your year from inspired, heart-centered vision, check out: https://brilliantplayground.com/harvesting-and-dreaming/ 

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Do Exactly (and Only) What You Want

Do Exactly (and Only) What You Want

In this post, I give you radical permission to do what you want! How will that help you reach your big life dreams? Read on!

I share with you about the Inner Taskmaster and the Inner Rebel and how they both sabotage your dreams. I start the conversation about two different kinds of willpower and which one will help you.

And best of all, I give you a radical, delicious assignment that will help you live guided by heart, so that you can create a gorgeous, joyful, soulful, fulfilling life.

This is the third in a series of posts on Enthusiasm vs. Willpower as we walk our heart path toward our dreams. To read the second post called The Shining Bridge to Reach Your Dreams, click here. To read the first post called Enthusiasm vs. Willpower: Surprising New Discoveries, click here.

Ok, let’s dive in!

Two Kinds of Will

There are two kinds of will, and they are very different. They come from different places within us and have vastly different effects on us and our lives.

The first kind of will is the taskmaster or drill sergeant.

Most of us have an internalized drill sergeant or taskmaster. This part of you is not your friend or ally. Many people think they need the taskmaster to get things done, stay healthy, exercise, eat right, write their book, accomplish anything meaningful. This is the first place they turn to within when trying to get themselves to do something. And it’s a mistake.

Many people rely on this inner taskmaster, and at the same time fight against it, their whole lives, falling on and off the wagon of whatever program they have set for themselves. And feeling terrible about it.

“If only I could be more disciplined,” they believe. And so, they renew their efforts yet again, and fail again, lowering their opinion of themselves once more, as well as their hope for the future.

They continue this cycle, despite the fact that it is not working, because it is all they know to do.

When I work with people on unleashing their creativity and living their heart’s dreams, I often have to begin by helping them send the inner taskmaster on a one-way ticket to the Bahamas.

The Taskmaster and the Rebel

The taskmaster always conjures our inner rebel. No one likes to be pushed around. When pushed, we push back.

Young man dancing in the street

photo by Andre Hunter

So, the rebel comes to our defense when the taskmaster is ordering us around.

The rebel does not want to do anything the taskmaster says and will sabotage its efforts, making us do the opposite, wake up later than we intended, stay up too late watching movies, get on the internet when we intended to be painting. . .

If you understand that the rebel always accompanies the taskmaster, you will understand and have more compassion for your own cycles of hard work and conscientious effort toward your dreams and goals and then goofing off, letting every distraction and passing pleasure come in the way of those dreams and goals.

What If You Only Do What You Want?

I often give my students the radical assignment to do only what they feel like doing for three weeks (or much longer!)—no shoulds or have to’s, no self-betterment programs, routines or healthy habits, unless they truly want to do it. (Note: This does not include if you have a job you need to go to or kids to take care of, but does include anything and everything else that you put upon yourself as a must or should.)

Try it!

This practice helps put our hearts, our love and joy, our curiosity, passion and self-kindness back in the driver’s seat. And it can lead us back to doing our creative play from genuine love, desire and enthusiasm.

Be patient with this assignment. If you have been ordering yourself around with your taskmaster for years, it may takes months of letting yourself lie on the couch and read trashy novels before an honest desire to do something else can be felt and followed. The time spent will be well worth the result.

If you are patient enough to let yourself do only what you really want, you will be surprised and amazed at how clearly your own loves, passions, desires, interests and gifts begin to show themselves. And how easy it is to do them.

How I Healed Myself

woman basking in sunflowers

by Jake Young

I did this practice of only doing what I wanted (outside of work hours) for months after I dropped out of graduate school in music.

I was at sea in my life, having lost my clear direction and my ability to create music with love and joy. I had no idea what to do next. I was afraid if I did not keep driving myself with that fierce inner taskmaster who had gotten me to accomplish so much for so long, all I would do is lie around eating bon-bons.

Strangely, that is not what happened.

I did lie on the couch a lot, reading. And I went to a lot of art movies.

But, I was reading poetry and novels, translating poems for fun, reading the dictionary to learn new words and the etymology of words, writing in my journal, writing poems, seeing amazing films, going for long walks, going to literary events.

And still, I thought I was doing nothing, until a friend pointed out how consistently I was focused on writing, story-telling, words, art. That is what I was choosing to do. I couldn’t even see it. I thought I was just lazing around.

If You Have a Strong Inner Taskmaster 

So, the first kind of willpower is the taskmaster. And it is an unhealthy and unsustainable kind of willpower that will have us cycling between striving and exhaustion, between accomplishment and disappointing ourselves. And all the time we will be being mean to ourselves.

If you are familiar with this kind of willpower, I urge you to try the experiment to do only what you truly want to do for a month.

See what it shows you about your real inclinations, desires, passions, pleasures. See what you learn about being with yourself in a wholly new way, a loving and compassionate and open-minded way. See what you learn about your own cycles of energy and how to ride those waves instead of fighting them.

If, on the other hand, you have a stronger inner rebel than taskmaster, then you may already indulge in your passing whims and surface-level desires but rarely touch something deeper or stick with anything. You flit around and change course constantly. You find it hard to stay with any program, project or routine.

If that sounds like you, you particularly need the second kind of will, which I’ll share in my next post.

We all need this second kind of will to reach our dreams. Stay tuned!

To your true heart’s desires,

Maxima

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