Return of the Writer

November started unexpectedly. On the first of the month, a friend posted on Facebook that she was participating in National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo). She wondered if any of her friends were planning to do it too. The goal of NaNoWriMo is to write a complete draft of a novel (at least 50,000 words) in the month of November. It’s crazy. And thousands of people participate every year.

I wanted to join them. Without any forethought whatsoever, I closed my Facebook tab and signed up for a NaNoWriMo account. Suddenly, November looked very different. I was committed to writing the novel that had been bouncing around my head for over a year.

Now, remember back to my good old days of the Artist’s Way program? One of the most important tenants of that course is to set gentle, manageable goals. My lifestyle didn’t include a habit of daily writing at that point, so jumping from essentially zero words a day to writing 50,000 words in 30 days was too much. Besides, November happened to include two other creative projects that I couldn’t neglect: editing a script for a school production and preparing to direct our church’s Christmas pageant. I knew that if I tried to “win” NaNoWriMo, I would crash, burn, and ultimately lose.

I decided I could manage at least 500 words a day. And friends, that’s exactly what I did. I am pleased to say that even with a long Thanksgiving vacation and getting a jump start on Christmas shopping so we’d have things ready for our international family, I ended November with 21,616 words written on my novel.

Since November, I have continued writing at least 500 words every day (interrupted only by a brief battle with a stomach virus) and, I confess, I may or may not get to working on the novel today because I am committed to finishing this blog entry. But the point is that I successfully established a daily writing habit. One that stuck. One that I am truly excited about. I am committed to writing a novel for the first time since I was twelve. Like magic, I feel like a writer again.

I’ve been kind of stupid actually. What defines a writer is writing. That’s really it. Somehow I managed to discount the poetry challenge I did in 2010-2011. Apparently writing a poem a day for a year didn’t qualify me as a writer. And I guess writing a blog hasn’t counted either. It took spontaneously taking on NaNoWriMo for me to wake up to the fact that I never stopped being a writer. I just stopped believing I was one.

My holiday wish for you is that you find a similar wake up call. I hope you rediscover an artist identity that you’ve had with you all this time, but have perhaps forgotten or discounted. I challenge you, even during this crazy time of year, to reclaim an artistic title you have lost.

Here are the steps that worked for me:

  • Be spontaneous. Don’t overthink. It’s one of the hardest things ever, but you can get there. Open yourself up to the opportunities that arise. Seize them.
  • Set gentle, manageable goals. Don’t set out to write 2,000 words or paint a picture a day. Start small. If it’s right, the quantity will stretch naturally. I knew exactly what I needed to do to “win” my own version of NaNoWriMo. And I won. And winning feels amazing.
  • Use tools to hold you accountable to your goals. What’s great about NaNoWriMo is that they track your word count for you and send you pep talks. Now that November is over, I’ve switched to using Pacemaker to help me track my word count and to chart my progress to my ultimate goal: having a final rough draft by the time Baby #2 arrives in early spring. It also helped me tremendously to have an online writer’s support group of old and new friends who were also doing NaNoWriMo. We started a Google Doc, wrote daily reflections, and helped each other out through the month. Several of us plan to keep the support group going.
  • Focus on quantity over quality. Let go of “good” art. Just make it. I am fully aware that this novel I’m working on is very rough first draft. It was paramount that I let my 500 words a day be messy. I know that I will have to edit the heck out of them down the road. That’s healthy! For once I will actually have something substantial enough to edit. How exciting is that?

So much easier said than done, I know, but I hope this “huzzah” post can inspire you to rekindle a creative fire that has been too long neglected. Happy holidays one and all!

Floors, Walls, and Headaches

When my toddler gets frustrated, she sometimes bangs her forehead on the floor.

Erm…ouch.

She doesn’t hit it terribly hard (no bruising) and I’ve heard from other more experienced mothers that this is not an uncommon phenomenon and that she will probably grow out of it before long. Eventually she will realize that it hurts. And that she is doing it to herself.

In the meantime, I have to stand by, make sure she doesn’t do any real damage, and try not to reinforce the behavior by overreacting to it. But it hurts me to watch her inflict pain on herself, especially when she pauses, rubs her forehead and looks at me with this wounded expression as if I somehow made her do it by not letting her eat my lip balm. Again.

No one taught her to do this. My husband and I don’t habitually knock our noggins on the ground to emphasize our displeasure. And yet, she steadfastly bangs her head on the floor to punctuate a moment of upset or sometimes as a way to vent bursts of uncontrollable high energy. Really. Sometimes she giggles afterward. Crazy child.

The days roll by. These spurts of self-inflicted pain happen occasionally. I watch and shake my head, thinking, “Stop hurting yourself. Just get up and move on.”

It took saying those words out loud to realize just how applicable they are to me and my relationship to creativity…and really to countless other things in my life.

I think back to all the times I have wanted to do something–creative or otherwise–and have come up against a seemingly insurmountable barrier. Time, money, fear, being a parent–they can seem like daunting walls between me and what I want or need. It’s easy to shrug off the things I want, thinking that my ship has sailed or that only people without children get to do that or that I don’t have the time or money. I just build up all of the reasons why things won’t work out and when I get frustrated about them, I wind up banging my head up against the walls I’ve built. It’s as if that self-inflicted pain is my way of saying, “Look! I’m trying to get what I want but it’s just not working.” Even though it hurts, head banging feels slightly better than doing nothing. Or so I think.

At times like that, I rub the bruise on my forehead, and look heavenward to the ultimate Father figure in my life and scowl. “You gave me this life. You’re meant to open windows when you close doors or some nonsense like that. Where are the windows? Where are the doors? I can’t get past this wall!”

And then I imagine God shaking His head and smiling at me. “That’s not a wall,” He says. “That’s the floor. Now get up and get moving.”

Oh. Right. I knew that.

So I’m not unlike my toddler. Sometimes I get so bogged down by all the seeming barriers between me and my creativity that I don’t notice that I’ve melted to the ground and started flailing in my own grown up tantrum. But I don’t have to bang my head on the floor. I can stand up and move on. Sure, there are also walls involved. There’s no denying that there will be things in my way as I try to move forward, but I will keep looking for windows, doors, cracks, mouse holes–anything to help get me past it or to at least glimpse what’s on the other side.

TAG: Starting on May 1, I am committing to a new level of tackling the blocks in my creative life by doing Julia Cameron’s “The Artist’s Way” course. I invite you to try it with me. You can find her book here or at a local library. It would be fun to have your company in this self-guided spiritual path to artistic recovery. I’ve done the course once before and it works wonders.

Oh and speaking of barriers, you know that Artist Parent Theatre Lab I started and how no one attended my first meetup? I scheduled another meetup for next week. And someone RSVPed “yes.”

 

Upside Down

My daughter loves being upside down.

Part of our morning ritual involves her facing me while sitting on my lap and then diving backwards, head first, while I hold her hands to keep her from hitting the floor. This brings her utmost delight. She giggles with her entire body as she performs this backwards dive over and over and over again. She never wants to stop. In fact, she seems content to hang upside down indefinitely and even resists my tugs to bring her upright.

I’ve done this kind of dipping activity with lots of children over the years. There seems to be something deeply appealing about being upside down when we are very young.

As an adult, I tend to want things to be in their proper place. I feel most content with a clean kitchen, with chairs tucked in at the table, with clothes in the dressers instead of piled on the bed or floor. I like routine. I like knowing when my appointments are, when I’ll run errands, what time my daughter will (hopefully) nap and eat meals. I like knowing what to expect.

But life–and having kids–has a way of turning things upside down. Sometimes literally.

A chair topples over after being used as a make shift walker for a newly mobile toddler. Cups spill. Book pages are lovingly–okay sometimes violently–flipped from back to front and facing the wrong way. But then again, who am I to say that any of this is the “wrong” way?

Sure, I ultimately want to teach my daughter to treat objects gently, but she’s in this incredible process of discovery and taking me along for the ride. I never thought of my dining room chairs as walkers. She opened my eyes to that possibility by zooming around our hard wood floors. When she tips a cup over, sometimes it spills and she learns about cause and effect. And sometimes other cups fill me with awe and gratitude for the people who have developed lids that actually don’t leak. Talk about creative parent geniuses. And as for upside down books–I’ve sometimes peered over her shoulder as she “reads” to herself and found a detail in the illustrations that I had never noticed before when reading the book the “right” way.

We don’t always get a choice about what will turn our lives topsy turvy. Feeling helpless about changes can paralyze us, but actively choosing change can empower us to shake out of the mundane and discover new possibilities. How might we conscientiously turn even little parts of our lives upside down to get some new perspective and maybe even find some creative inspiration? A few ideas come to mind:

*Dangle upside down from the edge of your couch or your bed. Look around the rooms that you might take for granted and see them in a new way.

*Take a few everyday objects in the house, flip them over, and go about the rest of your day, just to shake up your surroundings.

*Do you always shower or put dishes away in the same order? Try reversing it. You might like it. You might hate it. It won’t hurt.

*Write a poem starting with the last line and working backwards.

*Too rainy or cold to go outside? Do it anyway. Embrace the cold, wet, muddy mess that will result.

The possibilities are endless. Why not take some time to shake things up a bit today? After all, we often flip over the ketchup bottle to so that it’s easier to get the good stuff out when we need it next. Sounds like something all artists could use. Feel like you’re scraping the bottom of your creativity barrel? Flip the barrel over. There’s probably more in there than you think.

 

Empty

My toddler loves to empty things.

If she sees any type of container–a laundry basket, a box of tissues, her diaper bag, a bucket of toys–she seems compelled to remove the contents and toss them on the ground. Children can be so unpredictable, but this emptying out compulsion is something I’ve come to count on.

I step away to make the bed (miraculous), only to turn around and find that my nightstand is bare and a scramble of pens, post-its, books (bookmarks no longer in their places, of course), tissues, and chap stick litter the floor. And there she sits, munching on a tissue, the proud monarch of mess on her throne of debris.

It drives me nuts.

But this morning, I challenged myself to hone in on one of my daughter’s activities and allow it to inspire my creativity in some way. After all, children are creativity masterminds. There were so many actions to choose from–wiggling, waving, putting anything and everything in her mouth–but a vacant tissue box on the floor jumped out at me. Why is she always emptying things? How is that useful? How on earth could something so frustrating inspire me in any way?

As is often the case with that kind of thinking, I immediately came up with a string of answers.

We empty things to make space for new material. This tiny human I am raising is constantly discovering new things. Doesn’t it make sense that she acts out that magical process by picking up and putting down objects? It’s as if she is sorting through her educational encounters. “This is a thing. Got it. Next. This is another thing. Got it. Next.” She is processing information at super hero speed and constantly desires to make room for more. She wants to experience each item–even if only for a moment–before she discards it for the next thing, so of course she touches things and tastes them. She empties things out so they can get filled up again. If only we did the same sort of thing in our artistic practices.

As adults, we tend to clutter our lives. Often creativity gets crowded out. If we clutter every vessel we have with junk–even supposedly useful junk like laundry and dishes, facts and figures–how are we supposed to find room for our creative endeavors? What’s more inviting (and perhaps intimidating) than a blank slate? A bare surface beckons to be written, painted, or danced on. But we can be pack rats when it comes to our lists and insecurities and empty spaces can be hard to find.

So let’s relearn how from our little ones. They let it all out. They cry with every fiber of their being. They exude joy. They notice and touch and taste everything. For better or for worse they are ready to soak up anything the world has to offer because they know how to be both empty and full at once. After all, emptying out containers isn’t a tidy affair. The stuff has to go somewhere and an empty vessel can mean a messy floor. Creativity itself is clutter if we let it. The longer we deny ourselves creative outlets, the more gummed up we get with projects we could have, should have, would have done and we just keep cramming creativity into every crevice until we are so overstuffed that we can’t move. And we wonder how our children have so much energy.

I am still in my pajamas. I didn’t shower yesterday. My bathroom needs to be cleaned. I’ve got a stack of procrastinated paperwork. I am overwhelmed with to dos, but I feel like I am running on empty, because I’ve given my all to so many scattered parts of my life. But I chose to follow my daughter’s example today. I opened my laptop. I acknowledged and exited out of every document and browser tab except for this one. My playground. I opened a blank blog post. I smiled at the empty space and started writing.

And it is enough.

No matter what else happens today, I will go to bed knowing that I accomplished something creative. And I will try to make room for more tomorrow.

***

TAG! YOU’RE IT! 

*What’s an action that your child does that you could allow to inspire your creativity today?

*Take just 5 minutes out of your day to sit with a blank sheet of paper or a blank document. Doodle, write, scribble, fold–do anything you want with it. The product doesn’t matter. It’s about the process of making time to do anything at all.

20160318_143352-EFFECTS

Photo-synthesis

Tag! You’re it!

Calling all photographers–from anyone with a half decent camera phone to those who never leave home without a priceless bag of lenses and other gear in tow. This tag is for you.

Artist Parent PLAYground is in its fledgling stages, but eventually I hope to be posting at least once a week and would love for every post to include a photo of a playground. I plan to walk all over my neighborhood snapping any playground shots I can get as the weather warms up, but a lot of the playground equipment around here looks similar, even at different parks. I would love some more variety–different places, different visions, different people playing–to share along with the posts that appear on this blog.

Does this sound like fun to you? If so, please consider going out to a local playground on your own, with a friend, or with your kids and go snap happy. Send your favorite photos (with or without people in them is totally cool) and how you would like them credited to ArtistParentPlayground at gmail dot com. They just might get featured on the blog!

Thank you in advance for collaborating with me. I love the power of synthesizing words and images and I hope we can create some playful work together.

Jared on Slide
My husband about to take our infant daughter for her first ride down a slide.