Go Big or Not at All … not really, but it feels like it

For a while now, I’ve been writing about working daily toward my creative goals. Recently, I had reason to summarize the events of my life over the last year in a short email to an acquaintance. He replied:

Oh my word! You go big or not at all, don’t you??!! That’s a lot of change! How exciting.

Although I no longer believe in burning the candle at both ends, his reply made me see how steadily and mightily these baby steps have added up over time. When compressed into a short email, it’s the diamond-version of my efforts sparkling instead of the dusty coal of daily effort.

So, I decided to be brave and tell you all what I hope to achieve next. I was avoiding making any concrete goals until I put in some effort, built some muscle, and got a few projects brewing. Recently, however, I noticed myself dawdling, sitting on the precipice once again, afraid to take the leap of faith to actually finish some projects and put them out in the world for others to see.

So here goes:

I’m going to self-publish my children’s books or rather “Stories You Can Color.” You’ll see a new page on this site soon under that same title, with images and some text from each book.

I’m still working on the technicalities of how to print them, but I’m applying to sell my books at Portland’s “Crafty Wonderland” in May, and if I get in, I have a lot to learn and prepare, which scares me but motivates me too. If I don’t get in, the application process will have served to get me moving on printing them and sharing them with you.

And then … I’m going to open a shop on Etsy to sell my “Stories You Can Color” as well as other drawings and writings. That learning curve is steep, but I think at some point, I really do have to “go big” and dive in, or I’ll never take the leap.

Also, remember the essay that I let the wind carry away? To my great surprise, the solution seems to be to make it a book. So, I’m taking part in Blogging from A-to-Z in April (I’m currently #468 on the sign-up list–yowza!). Every day but Sunday, I will publish a short post about why daily creative effort matters and what magic comes from it. Each post must correspond to a letter of the alphabet, starting with A, which will be “allure: the alluring promise of tomorrow,” about not putting off your art for later, but getting to it right now.

Then, I’m going to compile it all into a book … maybe a digital book, maybe a print book, maybe self published, maybe find a publisher, I don’t know, but I’m going to make the effort and see what happens. The book version will also be illustrated … I think.

Lastly, my friend and I are going to start teaching two writing workshops: one mixes writing and meditation (we’re working on the title) and the other is Writing Your Food Memoir.

Phew, okay, that’s it for now. Making this public feels daunting. It would be easier to leave these goals noted in my journal and tucked in a drawer, and yet, I need the push to follow through.

Here goes …

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What We Do Daily Matters — A Lot

Primed by November’s effort, I continue to pluck along with daily effort. I’ve been encouraged by Elizabeth Hyde Stevens’s book Make Art Make Money: Lessons from Jim Henson on Fueling Your Creative Career which shows how Henson’s brilliant creativity started with intense daily effort. Just days after telling my husband about this, he brought his phone to the dinner table and said, “You’ve got to listen to this,” and there’s Macklemore singing about 10,000 hours.

In studying Henson’s life for tips about how to be an artist, Stevens suggests we look at our past and consider that we may have already completed some of our 10,000 hours. I used to ask my students after having them read “What It Takes to Be Great” what they already practice daily, maybe without realizing it. For example, you know if you practice the piano daily, it’s deliberate and intentional. But, what about habits? Habits of thought? Actions? Food choices? Etc.

So, I was encouraged by Stevens to think that maybe I’ve already completed a good portion of the 10,000 hours needed to become “great.” Of course, I also have “Debunking the Myth of the 10,000-Hours Rule: What It Actually Takes to Reach Genius-Level Excellence” queued up to read in case I feel I’m nowhere near the 10,000 mark.

All this is to say, when it comes to art, to creativity, to living our lives: what we do daily matters.

It matters as much as The Big Stuff. In fact, I think it matters more. Daily actions and attitudes shape us over the long haul, maybe determine how well we handle The Big Stuff.

Which leads me to an insight I wanted to share with you, something I’ve thought about for a long time, but a second part came to me recently, and it all ties to daily effort and how we craft our lives.

One day, about ten years ago, I finally got utterly sick of worrying about how I looked. I’d had decades of daily, even minute-by-minute, practice fretting about my shape, size, weight, and appearance. I thought–what if I could have all of that wasted time AND energy back? I might be both an accomplished artist and an astrophysicist by now.

Then, this week, I sent a friend from high school a picture I have of her when we were fifteen. She’s an accomplished journalist living an exciting life today, and I’m often admiring the dresses she wears to red-carpet events. At fifteen, her sense of style is evident, but not quite red-carpet. As she said, “What a style icon I was even then: a black silk tie with a sweatshirt! A wacky tropical hat! Pink hightop Reeboks!” (And giant sunglasses.)

But it’s what she wrote next that led me to the second part of my insight: “But seriously, the first thing I thought when I saw this picture was that I spent all these years of my life convinced I looked fat and hideous and awkward…and looking at it now I think I look pretty damn cute.”

Just a week prior to this, I visited with a friend from college, and she and I said the same thing about coming across old photos of ourselves, thinking how cute or fit or lovely we looked then, but remembering how dreadful we felt about ourselves most of the time.

So, we can’t get that wasted time back; however, we can let our past guide what we do next.

If all goes well, I still have at least half of my life left to live. What if my new daily, minute-by-minute, practice is of acceptance and appreciation? What if for every second of the past I spent fretting about not looking good enough, I balance with every second of my present and future accepting and appreciating exactly who I am right now?

What might I accomplish in the next decades?

Unencumbered and seeking out my strengths and talents rather than perceived weak spots, who might I become? How might I handle The Big Stuff as it comes along?

It can’t hurt to try, right? We’ll simply have to figure out what we’ll do with all of that restored time and energy.

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Perfectionism Sucks, Daily Effort Rules

In November, I re-committed to daily practice: spending some time every day writing, drawing, exercising, and meditating. Except for exercise, five minutes of effort counted, but I hoped for more most days.

I’ve been doing this since July, but I needed the re-focused effort in November and planned to treat myself at the end of the month with a celebration. As it turns out, I did not need a celebration or a reward because–even though I’ve spent two decades cursing the phrase “It’s the journey, not the destination”–the daily effort was its own reward.

About 20% of the days I skipped practicing at least one commitment, and a few days I missed all four. Four proved to be too much.*

(*The ideal for me is to write, exercise, and meditate daily. If I can fit in some time for drawing once a week, that’s perfect, but trying to do it daily was too hard and resulted in shabby drawings because I was always rushing. Also, when I say “meditation,” that might sound more impressive than the reality. Sitting up straight in a chair and managing ten calming belly breaths while I try to keep my mind still equaled success. If I can do more, that’s great, but most days, those few minutes have long-lasting effect. )

I learned that I can miss a few days of practice, have a few days of low productivity or low-quality effort, and I still accomplish more than if I didn’t TRY to work every day of the week. Perfectionism sucks. Daily effort rules.

NOT writing left me feeling unfulfilled. The rest of my life is satisfying, productive, useful, but without writing, I felt lost and frustrated. Good to know, right? It didn’t even matter if what I wrote that day was “good” or whether I completed anything.

It simply feels good to try.

Also, when you write every day, ideas don’t go cold. An idea you have on Monday turns into a paragraph or two by the following week. The compelling ideas stick with you, and you find yourself thinking about them during non-writing times.

The daily effort made me more attuned to opportunity. Instead of wondering (sometimes lamenting) what to write about, I saw prompts everywhere. I think the daily effort gave me some confidence so I didn’t shut down an idea one millisecond into thinking about it; everything gets a chance.  I started to take myself seriously as a writer, so I looked at grants and calls for submissions as if they might actually apply to me.

At some point, adding a thought now and then to bits and pieces of writing needs to come together with some goals for completion, but I think I need another month of daily effort. January might be my goal-setting month, and since this daily effort has revived my optimism and confidence, I’ve started to let myself daydream and take those imaginings seriously. So, we’ll see. Big Ideas forthcoming perhaps.

For now, here’s to another productive month! Thanks for reading!

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The Answer Is Blowin’ in the Wind

Recently, we’ve had blue skies and sun with gusts of cold wind in Portland. On one of those days, I arrived a little early to meet a friend at a Townshend’s Tea, and because the tiny shop was packed, I decided to wait outside.

I plunked down my spiral-bound notebook on the picnic table, sat on the bench, folded my hands into my pockets, and enjoyed the sun in spite of the wind. It’s mid-November, so you make the most of what you get when you live in Portland. And, between gusts, it felt almost warm.

All of a sudden, I heard a snapping sound and turned just in time to see bright white, hear more snapping, and notice specks of black. This spectacle arced over my head and spiraled down Division Street. Beautiful, I thought. And then I realized what it was …

I’ve been working on an essay, off-and-on, for at least three years, and I simply cannot find the focal point. The essay just keeps swirling and expanding, repeating and then contracting. My latest effort to complete the essay involved printing all 20 pages and 8,780 words, cutting it up into individual sentences, tossing at least half of the sentence strips, then re-grouping what was left and taping them into a new order.  This resulted in two more enthusiastic introductions, both five paragraphs long, both ending in broad territory rather than leading me to my point.

That is what snapped and fluttered over my head and down the sidewalk: my essay.

I’d had the taped version tucked into the front of my notebook, and while the notebook was heavy enough to stay on the table, the muscular wind flipped the cover open and snatched my essay. It lifted the pieces and parts into the air, let them sift to the sidewalk, then lifted them again as each page followed the other in pretty white arcs and twists.

I watched the papers swirl, the sun refracting off the white corners. I stayed seated at the picnic table, content to let the pages go. Relieved even. I had my answer: give up, let it go.

The only reason I got up and chased each page down, anchoring some with my shoe, snatching others pressed against news boxes, was the thought of littering. I couldn’t let all that recyclable paper end up in the trash or caught up in tree branches with lost balloons and plastic grocery bags.

I folded the tattered mess in half, stuck it back into my notebook, and rested my elbow on the cover to anchor it down.

And now it sits on my desk, still folded, still tattered. Do I unfold it and hope the wind put it in the right order? Do I let it go? I’m tempted to let it go: delete the file and recycle the fluttered pages, leaving nothing but a blank slate. A blank slate to try again with a fresh start? Or room for new ideas, new essays?

How do you know when it’s time to give up on something? Not in defeat, but with the realization you’ve tried and tried and enough is enough?

Some tiny thread still attaches me to this essay. I feel it extending from my chest to the folded clump on the desk.

In a way, watching the pages whisk away from me felt like publishing — or at least how I’d like publishing to feel: the story is finished and eager to go out into the world to find its audience. Once a story has a reader, it doesn’t need the writer anymore. That was the kind of relief I felt–the piece had moved on; it was on its way to where it belonged and no longer needed me.

Maybe I should have let the pages continue down the sidewalk. Maybe each page or strip of sentence would have found the reader it was meant to find, like fortune-cookie fortunes.

Maybe I should have let it go.

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Recommittment & Celebrating Consistent Effort

After my last post, I’ve continued thinking about baby steps, how–with patience and time–they add up. And, since July, I’ve tried to spend a little time every day on writing/art, exercise, and meditation.

In the past, I would have considered my efforts a failure after missing a day or two. However, now that it’s nearly November, I’m sure I’ve spent time on those three things more days than not. That means I’ve accomplished a lot more by now than if I’d quit completely after one failed day as I’ve done before.

Today, I had to fill out a health questionnaire, which is a little aggravating because there weren’t options to choose like, “Totally satisfied the way I am, thanks.” The program assumes you need to improve something.

Well, it did find me overweight, and gave me tips about exercise and eating that were not a big surprise (and annoying since I’d already said I don’t eat dairy, but it warned me against too much cheese and other milk products). Nevertheless, in the most unlikely of places, I found wisdom:

A little bit of consistent effort can go a long way toward helping you reach your goals. Set small benchmarks and celebrate success. 

Just yesterday, I re-committed to “consistent effort” by promising myself I’ll spend a few minutes a day on writing, art, exercise, and meditation.  Nothing new, but this time there’s a twist: I want to “celebrate success.” The idea first came from Susan DeFreitas’s blog post here, and then as you can see above, my “weight management” pages suggested celebrating when I reach small benchmarks.

So, here’s my first benchmark: to commit at least a few minutes each day to my four projects (writing, art, exercise, meditation), every day of the week, through the end of November.

If all four projects get attention every day with very few exceptions, I’ve succeeded. So…

How should I celebrate?

I honestly can’t think of anything. I mean … I’d fly to Hawai’i for a month, but I think “small benchmarks” warrant “reasonable celebrations,” yes? Coffee and chocolate are out because I indulge in those every day and don’t plan to stop (regardless of what my weight management tips tell me)!

Last night, I fell asleep imagining a mini writing & art exhibit in my living room for my pet turtle and husband, then take out and watching some shows. That’s my favorite idea so far.

How would you celebrate? Or, how do you celebrate? Is this commemorating of small benchmarks something you’ve already done? I’d love to hear a few stories. Also, is a celebration the same thing as a reward? Or, are they different?

I look forward to your posts, emails, and FB messages. Thanks for reading!!

Right after writing this post, I took a walk and stopped by the Bamboo Pole I wrote about recently, and once again, it’s right on the nose about “consistent effort,” eh?

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IMG_3960I was writing in my journal about all the creative goals I might pursue–or not–when I saw my writing for what it was: fear and procrastination. So, I made myself sit down and draw something, no fussing about for a sketchbook or the right pencil, just draw.

So, I drew the “luminaries” my parents gave me this week. My dad made them in a ceramics class in Pasadena in the early 1960s. On Tuesday, when they gave them to me, he remembered making them: “It was fun,” he said. The next day, he asked me about the  ceramic pieces on the table, what they were and where I’d gotten them.

The weird thing is, while I drew the luminaries, I listened to NPR, and a story about Glen Campbell aired, a story about he and his family documenting, enduring, and adapting to his Alzheimer’s disease.

When they described his sense of humor and his jokes like, “What’s Alzheimer’s?” in a tone leaving you wondering if he’s being sarcastic or has actually forgotten, it was like listening to a story about my dad.

While I drew the luminaries, I admired the uniform thickness of the walls, the sure-cut holes (done when the clay is dry but not yet fired, so it’s easy to crush the entire piece), and the warm, dark glaze neatly applied without dripping onto the white insides.

I’m not sure what to make of this moment, of me drawing pottery my dad made in his thirties while listening to a story about dementia that describes the humor and humility he uses now in his eighties to navigate his mind’s unruly transformation, but it was a sweet moment.

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Emptiness and Buzz Lightyear Shampoo

As you know from this post and this one, I live in a neighborhood with a generous scattering of poetry poles. Yesterday, I stopped to read a poem for the third or fourth time.

My friend Kim took this picture to show what a poetry pole looks like. Thanks Kim!

My friend Kim took this picture to show what a poetry pole looks like. Thanks Kim!

I walk past this particular house regularly: a huge, red, rambling home on a corner lot, every inch of yard thoughtfully landscaped without looking stiff or effortful. Reclining chairs nestle in nooks created by open-slotted fences and furry shrubs beckoning passersby, at least this particular passerby, to  lean back and enjoy a cup of coffee and a good library book. Artwork hangs—outside—tastefully and cheerfully. A metal sun sculpture looks down from one apex of the house and a moon from the other, a painting hangs near the front door under the porch roof, and found-object sculptures decorate the trees in the strip between the street and the sidewalk.

One day when I walked by, a woman pulled some minuscule offending plant from the lush strip of green between street and sidewalk.
“Is this your house?” I asked gesturing toward the front porch.
“Yes,” she said, a tad warily.
“I love all of the art you have displayed. I appreciate it every time I walk by.”
“Thank you,” she said, and returned to her work.

The thing is, I’ve been making assumptions about the homeowner, this woman. Not only does she have well-considered taste in art and landscaping, she’s wealthy to have such a huge and well-tended old house. If she still works, it’s because she does something meaningful and her unique talent is in demand, something like fundraising for Doctors Without Borders, or managing logistics for Mercy Corp.

I’m not envious. Well, okay, a little, because I also assume she rises early each morning, well rested, brews her coffee, chooses an outdoor nook and blanket or an indoor spot near books as carefully collected as her art to sip her coffee and start her purpose-filled day, knowing she can come home in the late afternoon to her solarium—the room with the tomato plant suspended outside the window drooping heavily with shiny red fruit but somehow not splattering any on the garage roof or onto the stone path below.

But yesterday, I realized something.

The poem currently displayed, the one I’ve read three or four times, is spoken by a man who has been awake and working since 5am at something meaningless and dreary. He wonders if his life adds up to anything at all. However, at 8pm, the poem shifts to present tense, and the man describes giving his son a bath with blue battle ships floating in the water and Buzz Lightyear shampoo. The man feels his life has led him to this moment of purpose, and he thanks his son for turning a day of emptiness into this one moment of ecstasy.

The poem makes me teary-eyed each time I’ve read it. It evokes that meaningless feeling so exquisitely that you don’t realize you’ve stopped breathing as you read the poem until the smell of the shampoo and the color of the toy battleships bring a flush of oxygen back into the air. And, if you’re me at least, you look down to cast your hat brim over your face in case someone’s around to see your eyes turn red and the slightest bit of water gather at the top of your cheek.

What I realized the other day when I read the poem again is that the homeowner posted this poem.

She took the time to remove the last poem, choose this one, print it, and slip it into the display case.

If you go to the trouble to build a poetry pole, you don’t just toss in any rhymed couplet that comes across your path. You choose something that matters to you.

Besides, as natural and lush as her yard looks, this woman has not placed, pruned, or nurtured anything without deliberation and intention.

The homeowner chose this poem.

Therefore, this homeowner knows emptiness.

At some point in her life, maybe at many points, maybe at this very moment, she has felt meaningless and empty. She has questioned the value of her efforts and the purpose of her days.

She too has had doubts or fears or failures, or all three.

How else could she identify with this poem? Why else choose this poem to display?

And yet, here she is, taking good care of an old yard and home, every square inch exuding warmth, beauty, and color.

When my days weigh down on me with doubt or fear or failure or all three at once, I am quick to assume all is lost. My vision for what’s still working, for what’s beautiful in spite of my disappointment, blurs.

This house with the poetry pole shows me that of course a woman can know emptiness, know it well enough to recognize the pain in a particular poem and choose to post that poem outside her house, while also being strong enough to nurture green, compose peaceful resting spots, and quietly express her warm spirit simply by the color of her house’s trim.

I guess I’m learning the same lesson again (like this post):  difficult moments don’t have to mute the beautiful ones. They can even reside together, a woman experiencing emptiness while encouraging blades of grass to stand a little taller so their shadows deepen their particular shade of green.

She nurtures the gorgeous in her life while acknowledging the rest with a poem that turns emptiness into art.

October 30th update:  I wrote a note to the poetry pole owners to ask for the title and author of this poem. They emailed me a link, so, here it is, “One Good Thing” by Edwin Romond.

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