Breathing Through A Creative Slump

My friend and I are teaching a half-day retreat for writers and artists in October called Opening The Creative Mind. We first taught it as a 90-minute workshop at a creative writing conference last spring. However, it truly began a few years ago when I was taking  yoga classes to bend and breathe my way through a rather confusing and challenging time in my life. I noticed something lovely happened to me in Robin’s classes that did not happen in any others.

This is blind contour drawing, something we’re adding to our meditation retreat. Photo and article from The New York Times Magazine linked here.

Whether I attended her sweat-inducing vinyasa class or her more soothing hatha class, I’d walk home filled with writing and art ideas. But even more remarkable: I felt great about those ideas. They all seemed viable and interesting and full of rewarding potential. Even better than all of that: I felt fully capable of pursuing those ideas, of crafting essays and composing illustrations.

I’d get home and wonder, “Why do I ever think I can’t do this? Hm. Weird,” and I’d settle into work as an Artist Who Believes in Her Craft.

But then, by the next day, the more practiced and habitual critical thoughts would return and I’d wonder how I’d been so sure of my ideas yesterday.

So, one day after class, I asked Robin, “Would you want to collaborate with me and teach a writing and meditation workshop?” She said “Sure!” and it’s been an easy and inspiring collaboration ever since.

As artists, Robin and I both know the subtle and layered resistance artists face. Robin is both an actor and a director, and I am both a writer and illustrator. We talked at length about our own struggles to believe in ourselves and our craft. We’ve also both been teachers for a long while; Robin teaches yoga and meditation and I taught English at the college level for 15 years. We’ve seen the struggles play out in our students and have ushered them through anxiety, doubt, creative blocks, resistance and fear.

We created a workshop we both wanted to take and felt eager to offer to others dealing with a creative slump. Our first students gave us great feedback about the workshop, and the most rewarding part for me was seeing them look as light, open, and happy as I always felt walking home from Robin’s yoga class.

So, we decided to continue the collaboration but make it a longer format so we can keep the gentle yoga, meditation, and writing, but add some drawing and discussion.

If you’re in the Portland area and want to attend the retreat, more information and a link to register are here:

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Wah. Wah. All Better Now.

I found out yesterday that I did not get into the Crafty Wonderland show. At first, I was really sad, and I felt ashamed to have to share this news with you. But then, a couple of things happened, and as of yesterday afternoon, I was back to feeling pretty darn great. This is a big change for me.

First, as soon as I read the email, I let myself feel sad for a few minutes. This might seem ridiculous, but it’s a radical change from how I used to deal with rejection. In the past, I’d pretend it didn’t bother me at all. I’d convince myself I didn’t care. But in reality, I’d carry a little piece of disappointment around with me for weeks, maybe months, and that heavy bit of sadness made me doubt myself and avoid sticking my neck out again for a long time.

A few minutes of raw sadness turns out to be a lot easier. I’m not sure why I feared that emotion so much in the past, but after a good ten-minute sulk, I felt fine. (I should add that my guy gave me a lot of love, as did two friends via email/text. That helped, too.)

Second, I stopped myself from falling into an old, unhelpful habit. As soon as I processed the rejection email, I noticed that my thoughts slid right into the conclusion that my work must not be very good.

Rejection = the work sucks. Right? Don’t a lot of us think this, maybe without even realizing it? In the past, this equation seemed perfectly accurate, and I would abandon an idea right there and then.

This time, I stopped myself and made myself separate assessing the quality of my work from the result of applying to this one craft show. Happily, I quickly decided I still love my books and cards and am eager to keep working on them.

Wow. That’s new. I like it.

I’ll admit that it will be a little hard for me to see other coloring books at the show, but I’ll survive. In fact, it will be interesting to see what others are doing.

Hm. I hardly recognize myself!

All of you following this blog and sharing supportive and insightful comments have played no small part in this new, more resilient and positive me. As always: thank you! It’s really great to know you’re out there!

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A Photo Shoot, Good Neighbors, and A Wishing Tree

IMG_0750It’s done: I applied to Crafty Wonderland. Included in my whirlwind of effort is a new website! You can visit Carrot Condo ( to see pictures of my Storybooks You Can Color and Cards You Can Color. I will continue to add to it as more books, cards, and calendars get completed.

My husband helped me take photos of the storybooks and cards on our wedding anniversary. Maybe this is pitiful, but I found it quite romantic huddled in our dining room on a rainy day trying to get all the pictures taken while our kiddo napped. I thought our set-up looked quite professional:

The kiddo’s highchair served as my coloring area, and the halogen lights have been tucked in the crumbling garage for nearly a decade–but they still worked.

I’ll know on September 22nd if I got in or not. Crossing fingers until then.

In the meantime, I’ve continued buying and reading Street Roots like I said I would and have two quotations to share with you.

The first I read a few weeks ago before the current refugee crisis became wide-spread news. I’ve always felt horrified by any refugee experience–having to leave your home with nowhere else to go and facing even more dangers and challenges in an attempt to find a safe place. I’m finding hope and courage in the stories of people who have made the journey and re-settled and have gotten on with living their lives.

Apala Barclay, a cartoonist and illustrator, said his plight in Liberia actually gave him the skills and muscle he needed to make it in a new country: “One minute my family had things, the next minute we were at the bottom. It prepared me to come to this country and work from nothing to where I am today.” (August 7-13 Street Roots)

Then, I read about a woman who talks casually and cheerfully about what I think must be one of the hardest roles in the world: being a single mother. She raised three children and attended college at the same time. The dean even told her she should quit school because she’d never make it. She credits the community she lived in “…I had been living in a housing project, and the women in the housing project, we made friends and helped each other. … there was a subculture that helped people (like me) get by.” (August 7-13 Street Roots)

I’m starting to see just how vital community, friends, family, and neighbors are in the world and in my life.

I stepped outside the other day to take a walk with the kiddo, still kind of reeling from the news about refugees, of losing all basic security and comfort, when two things happened.

First, my next-door neighbor came out and asked if we’d like a train set for our kiddo. And then, voila, there she is giving us an entire set of wooden track and trains in perfect condition from her own childhood. It’s just begging to be played with, and we can’t wait to begin.

Second, after tucking the train set away in the house, we started our walk, but half-a-block later, I ran into another neighbor who grows a front yard full of lush, gorgeous plants, like dahlia flowers the size of dinner plates. I asked her for advice about growing tomatoes (because mine have struggled while everyone else’s thrive in this weirdly hot Portland summer). She said, “Just a minute” and left.

When she came back, she gave us a large bag full of perfectly shaped brightly colored tomatoes.

I told her I’d just been feeling scared about life but now realized having awesome neighbors provides a great sense of security. She smiled like she totally got what I was feeling and gave me a fist bump.

It’s not just that two nice people gave us nice things–it’s that they thought of us at all, that they wanted to share something, and that these moments strengthen invisible tethers between us–that “web of mutuality” Dr. Martin Luther King talked about–it’s there, not always easy to see, but incredibly resilient and lasting.

For more evidence of this, check out my friend Deb Johnson Nies’s wishing tree on Facebook. Lightning struck a tree in her front yard, so she made a sign inviting people to write and hang wishes on the part of the tree that remained. Everything that has happened since is quite magical.

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A Swift Kick In The Pants

Monday morning, right when I woke up, I checked my email. I never do this. It’s too jarring, especially if there’s stressful news. But, for some reason, I did it Monday morning and immediately had a stomach ache.

As you know, I want to sell my Storybooks You Can Color at Portland’s Crafty Wonderland sale. I applied last year and ended up glad I did not get in because I was not ready. I planned to apply for this year’s winter sale, and assumed applications would be due in October.

Wrong. Here’s what I read right when I woke up:

Apply Now for the
2015 Super Colossal Holiday

Don’t wait too long!
Applications are due September 8th!”

Crafty Wonderland banner

I was not even out of bed when I texted my husband the news: ” I don’t know if I can do it?!?!?”

My guy calmed me down and rallied my resolve. We charted out dates when my books should be back from the printer (although, I’m already a day late delivering them); and how much time we’ll have to take photos for the website (not much); and how we’ll make them as good as possible (smart phone and … lots of re-dos? I was a good photographer when it involved film and a dark room.).

By Monday afternoon, my stomach ache had gone away, and I’d accomplished more in a few hours than maybe ever in my lifetime before this. I even baked four loaves of zucchini bread because my toddler would NOT take a nap, and it’s not like I can do the delicate work of scanning and layout with him requesting “Up? Up?” to be on my lap every other minute. (Although that’s exactly what I did today because there was simply no other way.)

This all felt a lot safer in my daydreams, but the sudden due date provided the kick in the pants I didn’t even know I needed.

So, hang onto your hats everyone. If all goes well, I will be telling you soon about a launch party, a website, the results of the Crafty Wonderland application, and the date of my Etsy shop opening.

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I Got What I Wanted, And I Don’t Like It

Right after my last post about clearing the clutter of my mind so I can carry bright, calm, open spaces within me wherever I go, the IKEA catalog arrived on our doorstep. Unbidden but so alluring.

I thought about putting it straight into the recycling bin, but I couldn’t. (Plus, it turns out they have numerous pages depicting methods for storing, sorting, and carrying your recyclables–even a fabric garbage can with straps to wear like a backpack to “keep recyclables secure–all the way to the recycling station.” That’s just what I need to do–buy more stuff to contain the stuff I’m trying to reduce in the first place.)

Looking through the catalog feels like a cool breeze on a sticky-hot day. The tiny kitchens so light and open. The bedroom-diningroom-kitchenettes so cozy and not at all stifling to be cooped up in one room for everything but taking a shower. All spaces have natural light emanating from somewhere.

The catalog creators understand me. They write soothing things like, “There!… All back in its proper home. …Notice the reassuring sense of order and efficiency?” Yes! Reassuring. Order. Efficiency! Ah, cool breeze.

Plus, there are interracial couples depicted in tidy scenes of domesticity, and same-sex couples, and blended families all equally at ease in their neutral-toned lounge wear. This depicts my ideal world of inclusion and diversity, but of course, just as there are no cords, there are no people with blemishes, un-trim bodies, stained teeth, or asymmetrical anything.

But, speaking of cords–I found one! Right there on page 153 in a slate gray bedroom, a white mushroom-shaped lamp has a cord that trails off the bedside table and plugs into an outlet. An outlet and a cord! And, guess what? I don’t like it!!!  My eye goes right to the cord, the only wobbly, un-contained, non-streamlined object in the whole scene. It’s like a mosquito bite on otherwise baby-smooth skin. I can’t help but look at the cord and then the whole scene looses its serenity.

There’s probably a lesson here for me about acceptance, or something. Maybe there’s a clan of rogue IKEA photographers tucking discreet moments of real life into each catalog for people like me to seek for a sense of reality. But I’m too distracted to think further about this. I keep imagining two “Strandmon wing chairs” for our living room; they’re the perfect shade of green. I could drape a soft blanket over the arm, sip dark coffee from a white cup, and gaze out the crystal-clear window.

Alas, budget and prudence require that we keep the third-generation sofa that we’ve used for 15 years already. Plus, the kiddo likes pulling off the balls of pilled upholstery and handing them to me. What would he do with new, spotless, green, wing-backed chairs?


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Embracing Clutter And Keeping My Chair

We sat in the near-dark of the living room Saturday night talking about what we need to do, wish to do, and dread doing regarding the maintenance of our house. Although there’s nothing particularly awful or imminent, it all feels hard, expensive, and overwhelming.

“Sometimes, I daydream of cleaning it all out, of simplifying, of making it all clear so life’s not so complicated,” I said to my husband, grasping at words to convey how I felt about house repairs, confusing health insurance policies, piles of papers to file, and so on.

“Having only one bowl and one spoon?” he said.

“Yes! Exactly!” That’s exactly what I meant. A totally unrealistic and probably unsatisfying daydream of boiling our exterior lives down to the minimum essentials and thereby achieving a constant calm inner life. But one glance at our shoe rack by the front door, and already I wondered, “Just one pair of shoes? Or one for each occasion, like: running shoes, dressy shoes, everyday shoes …”

Sunday morning, my husband read last week’s Modern Love essay aloud to me. At the end of it, Ada Calhoun writes:

…I found myself daydreaming about the one-bedroom apartment [she would have instead of the complicated family home she actually has] looking out onto Powderhorn Park. After waking up alone, I would brew some coffee, switch on one of my many ceiling fans, grab a robe from my largest cedar closet and head for my breakfast nook.

This is what I daydream too, a life free of clutter and complexity. Bright morning light, coffee, simple one-bedroom studios, no clutter, no confusion or doubt, just me–existing.

I used to think this was not only possible, but that a lot of people lived this way, and I only needed to try harder. I blame it on the catalogs.

When we first moved into our house, catalogs arrived in our mail every other day, mostly from Crate & Barrel and Pottery Barn, and they enchanted me with their depictions of bright, light, tidy spaces.

I studied these magazines, tearing out pages for our “house notebook” of everything from bathroom towel racks to a dining room wall decorated with giant white plates. (Trust me when I tell you that this is truly an ill-fitted idea to our little, low-ceiling home and tiny dining room.)

Soon, these magazines left me frustrated, dissatisfied, and grouchy. And then I had my epiphany:


One day, there it was–or actually–there it was NOT. I suddenly noticed what was missing in those catalog images. Not only were early mornings never depicted as dark and dog hair was always missing from the couch, the lamps and computers, stereos and TVs had no cords!

Desktop computers perched cheekily on rustic farm tables as if they’d turn on and accomplish work without cords from keyboard to monitor, from monitor to tower, from tower to wall. Lamps hovered nearby, angled to suggest the light they would emanate if they had a cord and it were plugged into a socket (which also don’t exist in catalog pictures). The space looked uncluttered only because each device lacked its three-to-seven cords necessary for functioning.

This broke the spell, and I finally saw the images for what they were, skillfully shot photographs of completely fabricated scenes. I couldn’t see it initially because the creators of these catalogs understood me and the clean-line, dust-free ease with with I wanted to exist in the world.

While I do still believe I can calm my inner mood by ordering my exterior surroundings (a tidy desk fills me with optimism and capability), I think instead I should work on de-cluttering my head and heart.

I mean, if you could create one of those imaginary spaces and put me in it, I might revel for a day, but then, there’d be some dirty laundry, a plant to water, a counter to wipe, and where are all the books? (Most definitely not wrapped in light-to-dark slate-colored butcher paper and shelved by size.)

Besides, ultimately, I’d still be me, alone with myself and my head still cluttered and doubtful.

Maybe that’s it–if I can achieve a calm, serene mind and heart, it won’t matter what kind of space I’m in. I’ll carry light, open, cord-free, clutter-free space within me.

NOTE: This is crazy timing. I first drafted this post on Sunday, July 26, but by Wednesday night, I’d read the hilarious essay at The Toast, “How To Get Rid Of Clutter And Live Abundantly” by Mallory Ortberg. Her sarcastic poke at the ever-growing “genre” of “mindful living” is hilarious and a great antidote. Here’s my favorite part:

Have you ever owned anything? This is why you cannot forgive any of your former lovers. Things like ‘having chairs’ is preventing you from living your best life, …


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From Tender to Thick-Skinned

During the A-to-Z Challenge, I wrote about Backlash, and I think that’s what I’m experiencing now. I mustered the confidence to write and draw my first Storybooks You Can Color, I asked some people for help, I told all of you about it, and then … I took it to the printer.

Looking at the proof and then picking up a box of books a few days later felt  … well … unsettling.

Photo of the proof taken at the print shop.

A customer at the shop asked to see one of the books, so I handed it over, pretending to be confident. He said he has a 3-year old grandchild. What he did NOT say is: the grandchild would love such a book, that the book looks fun to color, or “What a unique and grand idea!”

Instead, he asked, “How much are you selling them for?” I wasn’t sure, so I said the first number that came to mind. “Hm,” he said, and tossed the book back into the box. Then, he suggested a lower price, “to sell more volume.”


Well, days later, I think I have a few things figured out:

I have to embrace the “business-y” side of creativity, even if only a little. I mean, I do have to decide a price, but the price can’t come from my floundering faith in my book. If I based the price on how I felt, some days the book would cost nothing; other days, it would go to only the highest, most audacious bidder.

Also, while I don’t expect every person to love these books, the casual dismissal of the other customer made my stomach ache for a few hours. I realize now that I can’t hide myself and the books away from anyone but those of you who are supportive. I guess I’d wanted to store these books on a secret shelf only those who would love them could find.


One of my favorite pages in the book. My photo makes the paper look two-toned, but it’s all bright white paper.

And lastly, I’m learning, learning, learning. (Insert eye roll here.) At first, the proof looked great to me. But when I picked up the box of 60 books, while they looked the same as the proof, they didn’t look as good to me any longer. I’d had a few days to contemplate, and I’d noticed some things I’d do differently next time.

I have to convince myself that just because I see a way to do a little better on the next book, this current book isn’t a failure. Not at all. In fact, it’s remarkably better than the very first version I tried to do all on my own without critique and help from others.

For being the VERY FIRST ONE, this is a good book. It really is. I like the color cover, I love the inside paper (smooth and thick and can handle pens but folds nicely), and I still love the quirky story and drawings. However, for the next book (or any re-prints of this one), I have a few ideas for improvement.

I guess it’s as simple as that.

Thank you LoriAlexSolveig, and Rose for your comments on last week’s post. I was so consumed by my confused feelings about this first book that I never replied. I read your comments numerous times, and they helped me cheer up and look more confidently at what I’m doing. THANK YOU for being out there, reading my blog, and taking the time to comment. And thank you for your great blogs as well; you’ve all inspired me this week .

PS: I drafted this post on Wednesday, and by Thursday morning, I was ready to share the book with two friends and get feedback. Writing to you all gave me perspective and got me grounded again. It wasn’t easy to hear critiques, but I got some good ideas (and some compliments!). Creative work really does grow when shared with others, but it’s so much easier to leave it tucked in a journal, hard-drive, or closet!

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