Progress

“Do you still play?” asked Steve Einhorn, my former ukulele teacher. He was in town with his wife Kate Power, and we were catching up a bit before their concert began.

“Oh yes,” I said. “I love my uke. But I don’t think I’ve made any progress since you last heard me. I just strum some easy chords while I sing, that sort of thing.”

“If you’re still playing, you’ve made progress,” he said firmly. The words startled me and nestled deep, like true + timely words can do.

Redheaded woman playing the ukulele, sitting against a tree

In some ways, my progress assessment was spot on. Just as I did a few years ago, I struggle with the B minor chord, lose track of complex strumming patterns, and can’t pluck a melody line with any kind of speed. All I really do, still, is play easy chords while I sing.

But you know what? Back when I first picked up the ukelele, my hands used to tremble just knowing someone, anyone, was listening to me play. I practiced even the simplest songs many times in private, starting over whenever I lost my place. I was so busy thinking about my fingers that I couldn’t put much emotion into my voice.

A lot has changed in four years. Now I play my handful of chords with confidence and sing with deep feeling. I’ll cheerfully try out a new song on the spot in front of whoever’s around—so long as the chords are B-minor-free. If I mess up, I keep right on singing, not losing my smile. That bone-deep ease is absolutely a form of progress, the kind of gentle growth that’s hard to see in yourself– unless someone jars you into noticing.

When we grow a little every day, it’s hard to see change. Steve likes to tell his students that even one minute of practice a day will help you get better. He’s a wise man. Also a sneaky one– as he points out, after one minute, most ukulele players are having so much fun they keep right on going.

Showing up matters. It’s also really just the foundation for artistic growth. I work diligently on my writing, taking risks and struggling mightily and building craft and taking classes– always pushing at the ever-moving edge of what I know how to do. My writing practice is mindful and rigorous, though certainly fun as well. I’m always learning and lovingly pushing myself. And there are other areas of my life where I have this kind of joyful striving, where showing up is just the beginning.

But I rarely think about whether I’m getting better at the ukulele. I just pick it up and sing… you know, for fun. And in the act of simply showing up, apparently I still get a bit better: a sweet bonus on top of the joy I take in my music.

So, do you still play? (Or write, or sing, or paint?) Whether you are striving to improve or simply showing up or anywhere in between, I have some good news. The odds are good that you are making progress.

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Space

As a writer, and as a creative person generally, I’ve found that having enough space is vital. Around us, the default is to fill things up to the tippy-top and overflowing.

Treetops surrounding clear sky

So I treasure…

Open space on my desk. Oh so tempting to set more things upon it, but ideally I keep it clutter-free. Papers and items that don’t belong crowd my thoughts when I try to write. I want to think about blog posts like this one or my space fairy adventures when I sit down to write– not my always-long list of mundane tasks.

Free and clear space on my calendar. This is different from needing time specifically to write (which of course I do). Even when I’m honoring my writing time fully, if I feel frantic and busy overall, if too many chores are falling behind and chaos reigns in my home, then I am too tired and stressed to bring my full self to the page. There is an ebb and flow to this rhythm, and of course I go through busy times like anyone. But I need to circle myself back to a calendar that lets me breathe.

Notebook upon notebook with plenty of empty pages. Often I don’t even fill them up quite all the way, because writing on the last few pages makes me feel claustrophobic, like my ideas might not have enough room to wiggle their toes. I tear off the last few sheets from my steno pads and let my three-year-old color on them.

Space for things to not always work. Grace for things to unfold differently. I need to be okay having boatloads of ideas that won’t ever be written, to ardently give myself over to projects that might turn out meh, to experiment and take risks without knowing the outcome. Without this space, my ideas wither before they have a chance. Seedlings are fragile things.

Space to play. To create bad art purely for fun. To have adventures. To goof off. To soak up life.

Tolerance for blocks and moments of not-yet-knowing. If I feel stumped on something I’m writing, and I stop to think, part of my brain becomes eager to fill that thinking space. With some answer, any answer, because no answer feels like the walls have vanished and, containerless, I’m perhaps not quite safe. My brain wants to dash off and think about something else, anything else, that I could be doing instead… housework, Facebook, a different project, an elaborate review of writing exercises and brainstorming techniques. Sometimes those writing exercises are just the thing. But most of my short pauses are just tiny bubbles that float away if I let them be.

These are my aspirations. I’m not perfect at giving myself space, and I don’t need to be. (Let’s make space for that too.) I just need to remember, to return to the practice, to make having space be the place I come home to.

Do you need space to create? What might it look like to grant yourself more space?

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The Meaning in the Mess

Every large writing project I’ve written has gone through at least one messy chrysalis phase. Rewriting has commenced, entropy’s doing its gleeful dance, and everything I wrote has been changed up so much that it’s dissolving into utter chaos. When I’m in that primordial soup, I can’t see how the overflowing ugly masses of goop will ever turn into something cohesive again. All I know is: big ugly mess.

Monarch hanging upside-down from a twig

Image by Christina, Creative Commons License.

Years ago, this jumbly phase of utter project chaos always defeated me: when I’d torn text into bits+ deleted huge swathes + wrote + rewrote + arranged + rearranged until finally “AGGGGH! I just can’t!” Once, this was generally when I gave up and put the whole project forever aside. Surely if my work looked this bad now, well, then it was truly bad. Stuff that was actually good started out pretty good and only got better when you edited. Right? This piece had started out okay and was getting worse + worse. So the piece was hopeless, and probably my writing aspirations were hopeless, too. I tossed it away and gave into the chaos.

As a busy mom, I look around me every day after I drop my kids off at school, and I see chaos of another kind: the chores that aren’t yet done, the household projects still on the long list, that form I forgot to fill out for my oldest kid. Parenting moments with my kids when I fell short of my ideals flit through my mind too. Do I make the most of my time with them? Do I show up the way I want to show up for them? As a writer, I think bigger-picture about my creative dreams and wonder, am I showing up for them? Is this messy draft what I have to show for myself?

It all weighs on me sometimes, feels like too much and tempts me to rearrange my time completely just to focus on making things less chaotic. I try to steward my time + energy wisely, with thoughtfulness. But I could toss away my day and completely reprioritize my plans based on this overwhemlingly intense flash of panicky unwillingness to tolerate the mess I see, instead. The pull of letting messes dictate my time is alluring. Can I tolerate this mess and spend my time on other things?

But it’s not really about tolerating the mess itself, whether I’m talking about the mess in my kitchen sink or the mess in my current manuscript.

It’s actually about tolerating my reaction to the mess, my judgments about the mess, my petty freak-outs about the mess, and my ardent yearning to instantly control the mess. I desperately want to do whatever it takes to stop having to look at the mess. Which can mean I dive into fixing things that don’t need fixing just to attain neatness and order again. Or, worse, I can choose to avoid the mess altogether: hello, procrastination.

It took years and lot of reading about other writers’ creative processes to understand that messy phases in written work are normal. Non-linear progress and outright anti-progress during rewriting are normal. Loathing my project sometimes is normal too, and so is questioning my self-worth when I’m in the weeds.

For many of us, these dramatic ups and downs can be part of the process. For those of us who experience this, I think the key thing is to accept that messses abound and keep going anyway. First drafts are allowed to be shitty (thanks, Anne Lamott) and the process of making them less shitty can look like wading through an awful lot of… well, shit. The crap you see on the way tells you nothing about the beauty of what might appear on the other side.

Once I accepted the anxiety and drama that rewriting through chaos brings me, I found that (of course) my intense overwhelm reaction actually lessened immediately. It’s mindfulness, acceptance, being present in a loving way but still moving foward in action. I could see my stressed-out feelings happen and think fondly to myself, “Here I am, overwhelmed by the messy part of rewriting again. Okay. Keep going. This phase doesn’t last forever.”

And it has become okay. When I finally stopped making myself wrong for my range of reactions to messiness– while still not letting myself off the hook about continuing forward– it became easier to just accept my feelings and move on. Then, after awhile, a kind of joy came into rewriting for me, a pleasure I never thought was possible. It can outright be fun + freeing to playfully mess around in art like a stompy-booted kid in a puddle, and it’s so rewarding to finally sense something better arising out of hard work. Order comes around again as the cycle moves on. But it takes longer for the magical transformation to happen if I try to rush through the part where I’m stewing in the mess.

As for the chaos of ordinary life, I still have yet to find pleasure in doing the dishes and reorganizing the cluttery disaster that the front porch devolves into every day. But that’s okay. I clean and organize anyway, more than I enjoy and less than I feel I “should.” My house is clean enough, though not perfect. I can tolerate what mess there is, and I can tolerate my dislike of that mess, too.

The mess is not the meaning. It’s just there. My reaction to the mess need not be the driver of my decisions. It’s just a set of thoughts, feelings and judgments. I still get to choose.

When that chrysalis full of post-caterpillar ooze is a steeping stewy alchemical mess, the blueprint for gold is right there in the mess itself, guiding the evolving process cell by cell when it looks like nothing is happening. Shifting towards color and flight and breaking out of the cold container to head into clear skies.

Soak in the chaos and keep going and trust that shape will return anew. Somewhere inside your mess might be a glorious new thing you can find only by stumbling around in the dark a whole lot, trying to find the right words.

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The Allure of Self-Interruption

I once read an article about how many times per minute or hour a small child attempts to get attention from their caregiver. I remember being appalled at the high number, which I think amounted to several times per minute on average when the child is awake. I tried to find the actual statistic for this post, but failed. Some of my helpful parent friends on Facebook agreed that my unscientific estimate of a gajillion times per hour was accurate or perhaps even too low.

"Focus feels good" written on a chalkboard

Aside from all the interruptions from our children, the home itself is full of mental interruption for some of us. As Emma’s brilliant comic about the mental load borne largely by women shows, the very act of moving through physical space can set off a cascade of associations: tasks to do on the spot or remember for later.

Walking through the house lights up my brain with all the implied tasks embedded in the objects around me. It’s immensely distracting, a mental stream that washes away all memory of whatever else I might have been focused on. In an ideal world these things might all be tracked in a productivity system, and I love productivity systems, but I also think they are bad at managing the web of household tasks women often carry in their minds.

Parenting and household work aren’t the only interruption culprits, either, though they’re the categories that are top of mind for me. Social media updates and calendar reminders and texts ping at us from our phones. And of course workplaces are full of interruptions, too.

Obviously, the external interruptions that come with being a parent, an employee, or just a person moving through a high-tech world, can be exhausting and derailing. However, most of us can carve out a least a little uninterrupted time when we truly feel it’s important. We find time while the kids are sleeping, during lunch time at work, tag team with a spouse or friend, or get a sitter. We turn off the notifications on our phone and shut the door. It’s not easy, but it can usually be done– if not always as often as we’d wish. External interruptions can be paused.

Sadly, though, the challenge of the interrupted life isn’t limited to carving out space for interruption-free time. The greatest challenge is that we habituate our internal rhythms to interruption. Rapid serial focus shifts become the norm. Without external interruptions, we find our attention wanders, so we switch tasks. Basically, we start interrupting ourselves to fill the interruption gap. It feels familiar. It feels safe.

It’s as though our attention span has gotten out of shape because we spend so much time unable to use it. We’ve become not only used to interruption, but comfortable with it. Which can make the lack of interruption feel uncomfortable— and often unconsciously, we return to what is comfortable: switching rapidly between tasks. In other words, self-interruption.

To write, or do anything else creative, I need to push past the self-interruption chatter to really dive deep into my work or play. As an introvert, flow time fills me up and allows my creativity to fully emerge. It means I get my work done. That just doesn’t happen if I’m messing around on Facebook or turning the laundry every time I feel slightly unsure of what’s next in my work. I have to push through that temptation to distract myself and gently return to what I want to be doing. (Some days I’m good at this… other days, not so much.)

If I truly need a break, real breaks can be rejuvenating– but constantly hopping around from one thing to another looking for shiny brain-candy doesn’t satiate me, help me overcome a stuck creative spot, or do anything but suck away precious time + energy.

And so each time I sit down in a quiet place with a chunk of more than 5-10 minutes to work, I set down a fresh mug of coffee. I tidy up my desk– because clutter is a huge source of distraction for me. I light a candle. And I consciously switch gears, inviting an inner state of focus and flow.

The transition can feel rocky, as the chatter in my monkey mind sounds even louder when surrounded by stillness instead of chaos. Worries and doubts come flooding into the space I’ve opened up in my mind. I strive to let them flow by, or jot them down on a notepad if I think of something I want to come back to later. I try to return my focus, again and again, to the page before me and the keyboard beneath my fingertips. It’s almost a form of mindfulness meditation.

I’m not always successful, because self-interruption is a deep and alluring habit. However, I’m getting better. And I consider the effort worthwhile because seriously good stuff comes out of that more focused, deep-level concentration.

Then my workday ends or naptime’s over. The kiddos come home and though there are certainly lots of deeply focused loving moments to share, I also resume my wild juggling dance of managed chaos, rapid task-switching and exuberant and irritating interruptions coming at me thick and fast. The multi-tasking mode has a beauty of its own and it’s tremendously efficient at certain kinds of things. I spend a lot of my life in that mode, and I wouldn’t change it.

But I don’t want to start thinking of it as my only norm. Because when it’s time to turn off the pings and arrows of the interrupting world, I want to make sure I still remember that focus feels good. And focus gets my creative work done. The last thing I want to do, when I finally have time away from interruption, is interrupt myself.

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Feeding My Creativity with Hobbies I’m Bad At

I am a creator, and my core creative work– writing and coaching– matters to me tremendously. I want each coaching session I show up for, each piece of writing that wings its way into the world, to be as amazing as I know how to make it. And I aspire to always grow + improve, to always hone my craft, so that what I am capable of creating becomes more + more powerful.

That said, I also adore having creative hobbies that I am terrible at. Being a haphazard experimental beginner over + over again, immersed in neck-deep newness and floundering around trying to make something. Picking up an instrument I haven’t touched for months and playing badly on it for fun. Being an artistic dilettante who jumps impulsively from one hobby to the next.

I’m not actually inherently terrible at these pursuits. I’m not saying I have hidden genius-level aptitude, but I could certainly achieve respectable levels of skill at any of them if I truly put in the work. I’ve picked up the beginning or early intermediate level skills of so very many creative pursuits… calligraphy, painting, pottery, bellydance, bookbinding, drumming, knitting and all the ones I’m leaving off the list because the full list would make this blog post way too long.

I used to think less of myself for my fickle artistic ways, but over time I just decided to enjoy it: I flit from hobby to hobby like a happy little bee gathering nectar and turning it into creative honey. I began to see that having these creative hobbies I can take so lightly is a boon to the forms of creative work I know I cannot ever leave.

So here’s what I love about having hobbies I’m bad at– and why I think having no-pressure hobbies makes me better at my core creative work:

I relax. Noodling around with something that doesn’t ever, ever have to be good is peaceful + freeing. And that sense of creating without pressure on my level of craft, or any focus on results, carries over into my writing. I remember that I can experiment and that it’s okay sometimes to just mess around in a process-oriented way, like my toddler does. This sense of freedom + experiment allows for greater creativity when I sit down to write.

Everything looks new again. Every time I learn a new craft, I gain an entire new lens with which to view the world, an entire new set of data through which I can evolve new interconnections + insights. I get lots of new ideas. And since I have made a hobby of enjoying new hobbies and letting some of the older ones ebb + flow or drop off my plate, I can add new ones as often as I like. (Though I do sometimes make myself some rules about using up my art supplies before buying a new genre’s version!)

I reconnect to wonder. Being a beginner at something again reminds me of the fresh joy of discovery, a sense of play, and a sense of simple childlike accomplishment: “Look, I made a thing!” I pull that sense of wonder + accomplishment into the rest of my work.

I practice looking foolish. When I learn new skills in group environments, I unfailingly feel clumsy. As I fumble around, I feel the spectator effect, as if everyone is far more aware of + interested in my errors than is actually the case. Being used to experiencing this awkward stage again + again makes me more tolerant of risk-taking in other endeavors. And for me, being used to overcoming my fear of looking ridiculous makes it easier for me to do all the risky things that can help me level up in my core creative work: submit the manuscript, try out the new skill, write something in a new genre, and so on.

I get to follow the fun. Sometimes when I write, I get quite focused on writing through resistance + finishing my projects. This kind of persistence is important, but it’s also important to remember how to simply seek out pleasure and write the good stuff that makes my heart glow. Picking up, playing with and dropping creative hobbies on a whim all help me to remember just what it feels like to deeply trust my creative urges.

I fill myself up with extra energy. When I get fired up about some fascinating new endeavor, that inspiration and high level of creative energy carries over into everything else I do. So becoming obsessed with mangling some new ukulele strumming techniques can carry over into how I feel when my butt hits the chair and I’m getting words onto the screen– I can have more days where that feels like a sexy joyful communion and fewer days when I’m typing through molasses because sometimes that’s what a writer needs to do.

Sometimes something more awaits. I’m always exuberantly excited by new hobbies when I begin them, yet most of them pass in + out of my life over time. Some, like my ukulele, become something else… a magical transformative ongoing creative habit that remains purely process-oriented. I’ll never be a performer and I don’t want to be. I just love playing and singing– it completes something for me. (And actually, playing a song on the uke is my favorite way of kicking writer’s block to the curb.) I’m not sure I would’ve picked up my uke in the first place if I weren’t so used to trying on new creative hobbies for fun.

What do you love being bad at, or perhaps just okay at?

Does having a no-pressure creative outlet help you with your other creative work? I’d love to hear from others who dip their toes into new hobbies to feed their core creative work. Maybe you’d like to join me when I finally decide which beginner’s class I should take this spring: precious metal clay fabrication, beading or mosaic-making.

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Lovingkindess Blessing

May we all be at peace.
May our hearts be open.
May we know our own selves.
May we receive the gift of healing.
May we radiate healing into the world.

-My adaptation of a Buddhist blessing

Image by Shawn Carpenter, Creative Commons License.

Image by Shawn Carpenter, Creative Commons License.

 

 

 

 

 

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