Making It Through Creative Limbo

January is here and I am baffled. Where is the excitement I usually feel?

I like to spend January getting excited about what’s next. I had planned on returning to my novel. Thanks to NaNoWriMo, I had developed a strong daily writing habit. My re-write of Rapunzel was going to rocket forward.

Then my husband hit a patch of ice on his mountain bike and broke his hip.

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Two of the handful of drawings I’ve done in the last month.

As he lay in the ER, Kurt tried to figure out how he could make his meetings the next day. It didn’t occur to him that he would still be in the hospital the next day.

While I was quicker than Kurt was to realize that our world had changed, I didn’t realize exactly how I would be affected. I would have to be his nurse, as well as take sole responsiblity for all the tasks we normally shared, so I expected to be busy. I expected to be tired.

I did not expect to be completely unplugged from my creative self.

Early on, I was so overwhelmed and exhausted that I had to choose. On any given day, I could only do a little. Groceries took precedence. Doctor appointments came first. Cooking and laundry? Essential to the point of being inescapable.

Writing had to wait.

After a few weeks, however, I expected to get back to normal. Kurt was home and we had developed a new routine. Surely I could get back to my writing?

But I couldn’t. I usually write daily. I also knit, quilt, or draw on a regular basis. Since Kurt’s accident, I’ve gone days without creating, and I don’t seem to care.

My lack of enthusiasm frightens me. I feel like I’ve lost a piece of my brain. I signed up for some weekly online inspirational sessions to help me focus on my dreams, hoping this would help me find my way back to my creative self.

It turns out, I can’t do that, either. Attempts to dig deep and look at the big picture are fruitless and frustrating.

Whether I like it or not, I am in creative limbo right now.

Just as Kurt is sleeping much more than usual, I apparently also need to be still. As the days go by, however, I wonder when the my enthusiasm will be back. Like Kurt, I am anxious to return to my normal activities, and like Kurt, I must be patient.

The temptation is to force things, to makes something happen, but sometimes you can’t push it. Sometimes, you have to accept where you are at and go with the flow. We cannot always be making. We have to stop and breathe and let ourselves rest now and then.

Creativity is supposed to go in cycles. My hope is that this flat, gray, unproductive time is just part of the cycle, and that soon I will move on to a new phase.

In the meantime, I must wait.

To Create Art, We Must Show Up

 

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I love starting a new project. It’s one of the reasons I’m such a NaNoWriMo fan. I get to write a whole new book in November, meet new characters, discover new worlds. Starting a new quilt is always a buzz, and I sew like crazy, inspired by the unfamiliar colors and fabrics.

New projects are exciting, but they can be challenging, too. The newborn idea is dazzling in its beauty and potential and we adore it. We dress it up in cute sleepers that say “Momma’s Favorite” and “Future Best Seller” and we coo. We walk around with a huge happy grin on our faces, so proud of our baby, anxious to get back to her when we are forced to do something else.

Then we start to work and things change, fast. The baby grows into a toddler, and what looked perfect is suddenly smearing mashed peas all over the walls and pouring milk on the cat. What happened to our sweet little baby?

Hoping to get the little monster back on track, we work even harder. To our dismay, things change even more. Suddenly, a willful teenager is there, with her own taste in music, his idea of what’s cool, and it may bear little resemblance to what we dreamt of when we held that little baby in our arms.

Now what?

Nothing we create is art at first. It’s simply a collection of notions that may never be understood. Returning every day thickens the atmosphere. — Walter Mosley

Now we take a deep breath. And we keep working. Because we are not done yet. Teens with braces and zits can blossom overnight into attractive adults. That kid who wouldn’t clean his room becomes a naturalist intent on saving the environment. We have no way of knowing how this is going to turn out.

Which is why we have to keep the faith. Keep working. Keep showing up.

Love that project through all its stages, from cute baby to adulthood.

Maybe we will get a work of art, maybe we won’t.

The kid doesn’t have a chance if we don’t give her the attention she deserves.

No Talent or Patience? You Can Still Make Great Art

Not long ago, I asked a friend if she was interested in writing a book. I was gearing up for NaNoWriMo and hoping she might join in the fun. She loves to read, she’s articulate and smart, and I was pretty sure she would be interested in writing.

I asked her if she had ever done any creative writing. She said once, long ago, but she was very bad at it.

She gave up because she didn’t have any talent.

Her misunderstanding made me sad.

As a beginner, she couldn’t expect to write a brilliant story right away. If she wanted to be a good writer, she needed more practice. What looks like talent from the outside is really lots of skill built through experience. Just like a new runner does not start by running a marathon in their first week, novel writers train up, writing lots and lots of pages before they write a book worth reading.

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People often say “I’m not talented enough to do that” when they see a beautiful painting, hear a musical performance, or read a great story. We must remember that what is masterfully done is the result of hours and hours of practice. The artist must develop their skill set before they can expect to get the results that are so admired. They must make lots of art, good, bad, and mediocre, before they can achieve great.

Which brings us to the other comment often made when someone admires a really complex or large piece of creative work: “I don’t have the patience to do that.”

I thought a lot about patience as I was putting beads on Tiny’s Elizabeth I costume. It took me hours to do, but believe me, I am not a patient woman. I don’t want things now, I want them yesterday. Much of the time I was stitching beads onto fabric, I was looking forward to being done. It was certainly not patience that got helped me finish that project. It was determination.

Skill and determination, not talent and patience.

However, there is one place where having some patience is handy: while you are learning your craft. Practice takes time.

You are going to write bad stories, hit the wrong notes, and draw crooked houses while you are learning how to write, play, and draw. Lots and lots and lots of mistakes will be made. There will be successes, too, but it may be a long time before you are able to perform at the level you dream of. This is when patience comes in handy.

If you’re not all that patient, my advice is: use it. Your impatience can drive you to work harder. The more you practice, the quicker you will get better.

So no more excuses. Get to work.

NaNoWriMo: Waste of Time? Or Valuable Practice?

This is a re-post of a blog I wrote in 2010. November is coming and this seemed like a good time to revisit the value of NaNoWriMo and practice.

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Any labor honestly rendered is sacred. — Kurt Fristrup

I’ve been reading a lot of blog posts and comments about NaNoWriMo and I’ve found some of them disheartening. Many people seem to think that, if they are going to spend enough time writing to generate 50,000 words, they better have something of value when they are done. If they don’t start with an outline, well-developed characters, and a scintillating plot, then they believe that their time will be wasted. They’re afraid of writing material they will have to cut later. They’d rather be writing something worthy, something solid, something that they can publish. Otherwise, they ask, why bother?

I understand their concern. But I don’t agree that NaNo’s approach to writing is a waste of time.

Insisting that every bit of writing we do must be something we can publish at a future date is unrealistic. Think of professional musicians. If they only played when it was finally time to give a performance, they would stink. They spend thousands of hours learning their instrument and practicing their technique without producing something tangible in the process. They play the same pieces repeatedly without any audience but themselves, and make a myriad of mistakes along the way. They wouldn’t dream of exposing others to their flawed practice performances and they can’t hope to perform flawlessly without some practice first.

As a writer, I am no different. I need a lot of practice before I will have something worthy of publishing and I can count on throwing away a lot of writing before I reach that point.

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Evidence of my practice

In her CD lecture The Creative Fire, Clarissa Pincola Estes talks about the myth of Persephone and how the young girl symbolizes the creative spark in us all. In Estes’ interpretation, Persephone’s whole job in life is to wander, explore, and play. Sometimes, she makes things, but the product is not what she is interested in. She lives for the process, the fun of discovery.

The word wander resonates for me, because I do a lot of wandering when I am writing. With nonfiction, I have to get all the ideas in my head on paper, then see how best to fit them together to suit my purpose. With fiction, I need to discover who my characters really are, rather than who I expect them to be, and find out what happens to them. In both cases, I write a lot of words that don’t make the final cut. But I could never get to my final product without having wandered down a lot of dead ends along the way.

The great thing NaNoWriMo has taught me is how to let it rip in the first draft. Not only is it fun — I get to do whatever I want, follow any idea, no matter how quirky, and see where it leads — but the results are fertile. Sure, big chunks of what I write may be discarded. But amongst the muck I will find lots of seeds, and those will sprout and grow into an amazing story if I just collect and nurture them.

NaNoWriMo is not about the product, even though we are all counting every word and racing to have 50,000 of them written by November 30th. It’s about wandering in the dark, looking under rocks and in caves, digging out the gems and bringing them back into the light to share with others. We’ll probably find some rusty cans and old tires along the way, but if we’re not willing to wander, how can we hope to bring home the truly precious things we dream of?

Embracing The Function of Beauty

Why is beauty never considered a function? — Ronald Rael

I came across this thought-provoking quote in the middle of a video about green technology. While the video shows the building blocks made from 3-D printers, it asks bigger questions. The most important one confronts artists and artisans alike: is it functional or is it “just” beautiful?

This particular question resonates with me because I grew up in a house full of art and craft. Dad took photos that he developed himself. Mom made pottery and took art classes. My sister drew and painted and I learned to sew and knit. Where the line between art and craft actually is has always been fuzzy in my mind and this idea of functionality versus beauty is tied to it.

Take my mom Jane Dunsmore, for example. She mostly made functional pottery to be sold at craft fairs. Treating her creative pursuit as a business meant she needed to make money. Common sense says that people are more likely to buy pottery they can use. Pottery that is “merely” pretty or decorative isn’t going to sell.

Fortunately, Mom has been able to break away from this mold. Today she makes sculpture and tiles, a far cry from the more prosaic and practical bowls, mugs, and plates she made in the past*.

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“Singer of Myths” by Jane Dunsmore; photo by Donald Dunsmore

I asked her how she was able to escape from the functional trap and two things came up: a change in mind-set and a change in materials. She needed both to make the change.

The mindset change came from a combination of things. When she retired from teaching, she returned to her pottery studio without the pressure to make money. Also, she was bored after years of showing students how to make round things on a wheel. She gave herself permission to make the things she wanted to and she started experimenting with free-standing forms.

Initially, she was frustrated. The shapes she was interested in didn’t work well in clay — they cracked, something every functional potter considers a fatal flaw.

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“Hello, World” by Jane Dunsmore; photo by Donald Dunsmore

Then she discovered paper clay (which is clay that contains anywhere from 5 to 25% paper pulp). Suddenly, she was able to make the shapes she’d always wanted to with little to no cracking. Paper clay opened the door to sculpture for her.

Occasionally, a piece still cracks, but now she sees it as part of the work instead of a flaw. Sometimes she fills the cracks with other materials, sometimes she leaves them alone. Letting go of perfectionism, as well as the expectation that everything she makes must sell, has freed her to make the work she wants to make. Her ceramics still have a function, but now it is usually beauty first.

It is difficult
to get the news from poems
yet men die miserable each day
for lack
of what is found there.

— William Carlos Williams

Beauty is a function: for many people it is what makes something a work of art**. It’s also a key component of every craft there is. We knit and sew and embroider in order to make functional things in our lives beautiful as well.

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“Anne’s Velvet Roses” by Jane Dunsmore; photo by Donald Dunsmore. This sculpture is approximately 20 inches tall.

While I love her bowls and mugs, Mom’s heart is much more obvious in her newer work. I’m glad she’s found her way past the artificial boundaries set in her path to work that treats beauty as a function.

*She still makes bowls and mugs from time to time, but how they look is much more important to her than how they work. 
**Art historians, critics, and teachers have a much more complex definition of art but they are a pretty small part of the population. 

It’s OK to Spread Yourself Thin Creatively

This morning, I came across a note to myself that says: “Maybe I should give up quilting.”

This was a scary thought for me. I’ve been quilting for over two decades. I have a studio full of fabric, thread, batts, and unfinished quilts.

It’s not uncommon for me to think I need to cut back on my creative pursuits. I’m interested in so many fiber arts: soft sculpture, knitting, spinning, crochet, embroidery, and of course quilting. I’d like to learn how to make lace by hand, too. Then there’s drawing and painting, art journaling and book binding. And of course, I write whenever I can.

As a result, I’m constantly telling myself I would be do better work if I stopped spreading myself so thin and just focused on one thing. Wouldn’t I get more writing done if I stopped making quilts, spinning wool, and knitting sweaters for dinosaurs?

Whenever I consider cutting back so I can focus, resistance swells in me. I don’t want to cut back. I like variety. I like doing different things throughout the day or week. And I get different things from my various interests. The satisfaction I get from writing is very different from the more tactile activity of sewing.

Fortunately, I never acted on the idea of getting all the quilting supplies out of the house.

Recently, I’ve had bouts of insomnia that have left me drained. I always want to be making things, but when I hit a certain level of fatigue, I make more mistakes than stuff. When I go through a period like this, dragging around too tired to move, I need something that is repetitive and automatic, no serious thinking involved.

This is why I love to quilt.

Some stages of making a quilt take tons of thought and energy. Planning the project and choosing the fabrics are high-energy tasks for me. But once all the decisions are made and it’s time to just sew fabric together? That’s the sweet spot in the project when I’m tired. The mindless stuff that is boring when I’m feeling good is restful and restorative when I’m feeling bad.

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My current project: The Scrap-o-lator Quilt Pattern by Dianne Springer

Danny Gregory said it best in his book The Creative License: Giving Yourself Permission to Be the Artist You Truly Are. He tells us to dabble in the things we’re interested in, instead of expecting to become experts or professionals. We’re free to spend as much — or more importantly, as little — time as we want on our passions.

If I had gotten rid of my quilting stuff, I would be looking for something to do, to help me rest when I can’t sleep. I’m so glad my sewing machine and fabric scraps are willing to wait around until it’s the right time for me to work with them.

What about you? Are you interested in more things than you can learn in one lifetime? What do you make when you are super tired?

DIY Coloring Book Inspirations

I use lots of different sources for the doodles in my homemade coloring books. Here are some examples of the many things you can use to make your own designs.

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1) Use your own photos. I drew my dog Cora by looking at an old photo fo her, then decorated the wall with hearts. Feel free to trace the image if you aren’t ready to draw it freehand.

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The doodle I made of Cora, and the photo I used for inspiration.

 

2) Draw jewelry.  Sometimes I draw a ring or earring I’m wearing. Other times, I go for something more elaborate, like this brooch from the Middle Ages that I saw in an art book.

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A brooch from the Middle Ages and my doodle based on it.

3) Copy patterns from fabric. I often copy designs from fabrics around me: look at carpets, curtains, table cloths, and napkins to find ideas. If the design is too complicated, simplify it.

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The left hand pattern is based on a table cloth; the right hand is based on a place mat.

4) Draw simple symbols. Your doodles can also come from your head. Draw hearts, stars, flowers, a smiling sun. Simple designs can be made more elaborate and colored in many different ways.

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Repeat or decorate a simple shape for fun coloring.

5) Get close. When there aren’t any obvious patterns nearby, I start looking at the texture of things, like the fabric of my shirt or running shoes, or the stitching on a jacket or jeans. These form patterns that can be drawn large and colored.

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The stitches on the hem of my t-shirt (top) gave me a pattern to draw in my coloring book (bottom).

6) Draw architectural details. Something as simple as a doorknob or electrical outlet can be turned into a doodle for your coloring book. More complex details from old buildings are fun to draw and color, too. One of my favorite sources for architectural ornaments is the book The Grammar of Ornament by Owen Jones.

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Get this book in the large format if you can find it. It’s worth it!

The world is full of patterns you can play with. Traditional quilt blocks, tile floors (whether in your bathroom or the state capitol), brick walls and walkways, and fencing can all inspire doodles for you to color. Keep your eyes open and be brave. It doesn’t matter if your drawing doesn’t look like what you saw. You’ll still have something interesting to color when you’re done.

What cool patterns have you found to doodle?