You know that feeling when you’re all bright-eyed about some project you’ve been working on, but somebody’s careless comment suddenly makes you feel not so confident? Well, maybe that’s just me. But I was having a rough time navigating various rejections (and, let’s be honest, perceived rejections) a few weeks back, and it got me thinking about self care for the minor day to day heartbreaks that sometimes come along with the creative life. It occurred to me that someone else out there may deal with this from time to time, so I wrote this piece, Ten Cures for a Creative Person’s Vulnerability Hangover, which, to my delight and honor, was published in The Daily Positive, and I thought I would share it with you, too… just in case you ever have a need for such tips.
On the Artistic Freedom of Impermanence
This way of looking at art and life has been so much in the forefront for me lately. Each moment dies into the next. Each moment of beauty is completely unique and irrevocably fleeting. More and more I am trying to savor the impressions of beauty, love, connectedness as each moment’s inherent perfection dissolves into the different perfection of the next moment.
I am learning about the sweetness of appreciating and releasing the exquisite combination of notes, the heartbreakingly vibrant vision, the brief consonance of hearts as they cross paths on their separate journeys, the delicacy of any created thing in the face of time.
For beautiful, and for inspirational, I recommend the video below. In this “talk” which is mostly music, but also some very insightful words about music and the moment, violinist, songwriter and improvisation artist Kishi Bashi says that this philosophy helps him feel freer to take artistic risks, knowing every creation and every experience is temporary. Since everything is always passing, and we’re not tied to any one expression forever, one might as well follow one’s heart.
Yes? Why not, say I.
I am not someone who believes that my life was better before smartphones existed. I love my hand held digital devices. They make me feel like I’m on Star Trek. And for people like me who are not gifted with natural social ease, email and texting have opened far more possibilities for communication than they’ve closed. (That, of course, could be a whole other post.) I like the electronic word and I’m not ashamed to admit it!
But … There can be such a thing as too much. My job involves planting my face in front of a massive Mac screen for 8 (or – usually – more) hours each day. Then I go home and, for fun, put up websites. It gets to where I can feel my eyeballs vibrating from the continual barrage of photons. And even though the vast majority are “friendly fire,” when the range is point blank, the impact is significant.
And I think I feel the onslaught more acutely when I’m in a relatively more energetically open state. Earlier this summer I was lucky enough to attend a couple of camps that had an opening effect on me, even as they showed me where and how I could perhaps exercise a little healthy discrimination in terms of what I’m inviting in.
In the weeks following those camp experiences, I find that some things I’ve typically thought of as relaxing and pleasurable – don’t feel that way just now. For example, I’m having a hard time making myself sit down and watch a tv show – even one I ordinarily enjoy – even in a format with no commercials. Even if I actually WANT to catch up on a story I’m curious about.
What do I want to do instead?
Well, I’ve become more aware lately of activities that have what I perceive as a soothing effect on my spirit. The sensation is like Throat Coat tea for the soul. Or, as in this description I just encountered in The Arabian Nights: “coolth of my eyes,” suggesting, as the footnote to this curious phrase says,
Arabic “Kurrat al-ayn”; coolness of eyes as opposed to a hot eye (‘sakhin’), I.e. one red with tears. The term is true and picturesque so I translate it literally. All coolness is pleasant to dwellers in burning lands …
— translator Sir Richard Francis Burton
I read that and thought, Dang. That describes it perfectly.
I’m sure all of these things are pretty much “duh” in terms of what to do to energetically recover from digital overstimulation. But they have been refuge for my heart, medicine for my mind, and balm to my spirit.
Interacting with paper instead of a screen: reading books, writing letters, drawing pictures in my sketch pad with an old fashioned pencil.
Specifically – going to places where I can hear the wind, but not the sound of traffic.
3. Acoustic music
Lately I’ve found my way back to instrumental folk and classical music – and it’s like I’ve been wandering through neighborhoods I’ve never seen before, right in the middle of towns I thought I knew.
(especially water that’s outside, and especially especially, water that I can be in without any clothes on)
Since I already mentioned drawing, here I’ll note how satisfying it has felt to create art in public places – like this mural I was invited to help with, which is on the wall of the studio my housemate is turning our garage into.
I did the yellow. 🙂
And you know, it was past my bedtime when they invited me to this painting party, on an evening I had set aside for self care through physical, mental, and emotional rest. But as soon as I had a brush in my hand I knew on a visceral level that this WAS a type of rest that I was also deficient in: rest for my spirit.
Rest from interacting with human arguments and demands. Rest from mechanized processes. Rest from filtering all that which is poisonous and trying to make it clean. In a way, painting felt just like floating in a pool of liquid light.
Ok, I still needed sleep. But even before I went to bed that night, I felt like I’d already had a pretty sweet dream.
This from In God’s Care: Daily Meditations on Spirituality in Recovery, March 13:
“Inspirations never go in for long engagements; they demand immediate action.”
— Brendan Francis
God speaks to us in many ways at many times. If we are spiritually alert, we will know it when it happens. A stray thought occurs; we overhear a bit of conversation; a passage in something we are reading suddenly stands out — and we know we have connected. … The trouble is that we might acknowledge this contact only briefly, and then it slips away. The time to act passes.
And this from Netflix, description of the cartoon Uncle Grandpa pilot episode:
When a kid is sad because his favorite shirt will not fit over his big belly, Uncle Grandpa shows him that fashions pass, but a big belly is always cool.
I’ve never seen this show, I just came across this line and it stuck with me. Then today I was at the Transforming Gender Symposium at CU with Sam and we heard Amos Mac’s keynote talk — he’s a photographer and the co-editor of the trans male culture and lifestyle magazine Original Plumbing. He showed a lot of his work and talked about art and cultural activism and it was just damn inspiring. It made me want to write stuff.
Then I went outside and saw this brick in the wall that said Integrity. And it made me want to freakin’ do the things, already.
So this is the thing that came to me: 30 days of belly pictures.
Self Love is the theme of this year, and I’ve been working with the body aspect for a while, and I just decided, why the hell not, I am going to spend the next 30 days taking pictures that celebrate my belly. It’s spring and the skin cells want to be out in the air. So let ’em out! At least for a few minutes each day.
I’m practicing acting on my inspirations.
Right Brain Friday
This semester, I’m finally availing myself of my tuition benefit and taking a class at the community college where I teach. I’m taking Drawing 101. I’m taking this class because I want to write a graphic-novel-style memoir (what I would call “panel-form,” because you know how I feel about the term “graphic novel” being used to describe all kinds of things that aren’t fiction), and although I have a lot of ideas and even a sort of beginning of an outline, I was not feeling like my drawing skills were up to snuff. So even though I have a million other things going on (like reapplying for my job, which ends after this year, and teaching my own five classes), I decided to plunge in and become a student again. And man, is it messing with my brain — in the best possible way!
I am actually learning how to draw. But taking this class is giving me so many other benefits that I would never have dreamed of. One of the biggest is that it’s putting me back in beginner’s mind. I really entered this class knowing nothing about actual drawing techniques; I had blundered my way through a few cartoons that came out reasonably ok after hours of frustrated sketching, erasing, and redoing. Occasionally I would intuit my way to a particular shape or curved line that suggested what I wanted to convey, but I knew I was never going to get through a major project in this way (at least not in anything less than twenty years, by which time graphic novels and their nonfiction genre counterparts will probably be obsolete and everyone will be on to a new way of making literature that I will also not know how to do). The point is, even though I had produced the odd successful drawing in the recent past, when I showed up on the first day of this class my ego thudded up against the truth that I know nothing about how this is done.
For the first two sessions, I felt almost paralyzed! The anxiety I felt about doing something that I had no idea how to do, and then having to submit the results to critique by the whole class, just stopped me from getting going at all. The first time I had to actually draw something — in this case, a sculpture of a head — I worked for a couple of hours (the studio part of the class is actually a six-hour Friday night session, from 3:15 to 9:15 pm) and then got what I called “stuck.” It wasn’t that I didn’t have the energy to keep going, as I explained to the instructor (who had said he wanted us to gradually build up our stamina for longer and longer drawing sessions); it was that I felt that I had reached the end of my ability to make it any better.
So I took a break. I wandered around the room, went up to my office and had a snack, then went back down to the basement, where the art department is. I picked up my eraser and erased a bunch of stuff and started doing it over. And when I put the new lines on the paper, they looked a little bit more like the thing I was trying to recreate. Not exactly like it, but more like it. And when, half an hour or so later, the instructor called it a night, I could have kept on going for at least another hour, erasing and redrawing and erasing and redrawing and erasing and … you know.
What did this feel like? It felt like Wow!!! I could practically feel the neurons in the right side of my brain waking up and stretching, and waving to each other across the gaps of disuse. It felt like sparklers in the middle of a deep, warm, humid, Midwestern summer night. Something clicked together with something else and the result was a release of energy. I felt like going for a run; I felt like solving a problem; I felt like laughing out loud. Yeah!!!
The recommended textbook for this class is Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain by Betty Edwards. In this book, the author makes the argument that the unrelenting stripping away of all arts programs from American public schools is not just a loss for those who are interested in, or who have “natural talent” for, those subjects; nor is it simply a setback to the general humanities approach to a well-rounded education. The lack of arts instruction, she asserts, constitutes a truly tragic deficiency for ALL students, because nothing remains in the curriculum (besides what insistent individual teachers sneak in, against the will of test-score-driven policymakers and administrators) to develop and train the right brain, which is the source of creative thinking. And it is creative thinking, right brain thinking, that is utterly fundamental to the putting of science, technology, and mathematics to use to actually explore the world, solve stubborn problems, and innovate new designs for the future. I can’t put it strongly enough: I am all for STEM; STEM is awesome; science and math are both fun and vitally important. BUT IN THE REAL WORLD, SCIENCE, MATH, AND ENGINEERING ARE CREATIVE FIELDS.
Art is not a luxury. Art is what makes science GO.
(steps down from soapbox)
Anyway. Today I attended a five-hour professional development session on using the web-based digital movie program wevideo in the composition classroom. In the workshop, I recorded a poem I had written; I selected photos (some I had taken and some stock images) that expressed the essence of the poem; I combined the text and the images with sound and visual effects. (Even though I still think of it as a draft, I’ll let you see it: here.) As soon as the workshop was done, I raced across campus and downstairs for drawing class. I knew that today we’d be doing something new again, something that scared me: adding imagined elements into a real scene.
Now, when I had heard what the topic would be at the end of last week’s class, it was as though every imaginative idea was erased from my brain. My mind became as a blank whiteboard. All week long I thought about today’s class with trepidation, like, “What the H. am I going to draw from my imagination?????” Even though I had signed up for this class because there were so many ideas in my imagination that I wanted to learn to bring out onto the page, when actually asked to consider this possibility, I became as the proverbial deer, you know where. By this morning I had come up with something cute-ish, something I could do if I couldn’t think of anything better, but it wasn’t anything that came close to expressing my real passion, the passion that brought me to the class in the first place.
But after the five hours of video editing (in that class, I worked feverishly through the lunch break to capture as many of my ideas as I could, and again could have kept going long after the ending time — hence my comment above about it being an unfinished draft), when I went and stood in front of the easel, I actually saw something in the cavernous empty room that I was drawing — something that came from my heart. And when, a few hours (not enough) later, the instructor called us all in, and I pleaded for five more minutes, I had produced the first thing that I actually liked so far this semester (this is week five). And after the critique session, after we were all kicked out of the art room, I came up to my office and kept working on the drawing, filling in just a few more details from my memory, and a few others from my imagination.
And then I turned to my computer and wrote a blog post for the first time in months. Because if on the first day, those long-hibernating neurons felt like sparklers when they woke up, today it feels like the freaking Fourth of July in the right hemisphere of my brain. I guess the more I use it, the more there is to use. And I feel like a million bucks. And I can’t describe it any better than that.