Sunday, July 13, 2014

Returning to Summer, Zero State, and Guarding Against Creative Burn Out

As it has every year, my summer officially begins with the conclusion of the Summer 1 Semester of Creative Thinking & Problem Solving which runs for six weeks beginning in late May.  In the final weeks of the intensive schedule, I find myself in a unique state of flow, brimming with solutions, next steps and ideas for my own projects—and, even more important, on the cusp of actually having time to work on them.  It is an exhilarating place.  I will go so far as to call it sublime. 

This is because the one thing that I almost always neglect to take into account every semester is how exhausted I am when I do finally reach the end of six weeks of working full time in addition to teaching twice a week on a subject that is my passion.  In the first weeks of July, I unfortunately, do remember.  It is The Post Semester Funk.  It is not the blues, and not the Mean Reds, but is somewhere in between and filled with a lot of internal dialogue “what should I do now?” “I don’t know” “what should I do next?” “I don’t know.”  Other symptoms include moping, staring off into space, not being tired but being exhausted, misplacing objects around the house, and a sudden lack of productivity that involves opening email and FB about 10 times a day looking for a distraction.  

I have come to be very respectful of the P.S. Funk because I learned the hard way after my first semester of teaching, that it is a sign that I am on the cusp of Burn Out, one of Creativity’s greatest enemies.  The good news is that all of the creative tools that author Julia Cameron teaches, and which I share with my students, become my path out of the Bog of No Energy.  I go for walks, I return to yoga, I diligently do Morning Pages (even if most of the time is spent staring out at the morning sky), I sit on the porch and flip through summer magazines, I watch brainless TV and enjoy it.           

There is an upside to being depleted.  “Just let yourself sink to the bottom,” my yoga instructor said to me in her kind voice as I lay in a flat mess on the floor of the training room, in a posture that could only be called Ready-for-Sleep, “let yourself get back to Zero State.”  I am not very good at Zero State, especially knowing that it is a place that is far away from the energy that I had when I promised myself I would bring All My Ideas To Life! only the week before. 

Zero State is part of the path to getting out of The P.S. Funk.  In it, I am able to see clearly the truths that I need to manage for as a creative.  Creativity is a process.  More importantly, it is a slow process.  From feeling like I am super human, I “come down” from class and realize that I can’t do everything.  Or at least I can’t do everything and sustain it. 

However, at this place, this Zero Point, when there is nowhere to go but up, my energy returns.  I begin to savor it and my personal moments of creativity that are not part of any greater purpose than expression.  I take on small projects like trying a new recipe.  I go on Artist Dates to my favorite haunts.  I gradually “work” my way back through morning pages and walks, from “What is the point?” to “You know, I’ve really missed writing for my blog” to “Today I want to write a blog post.”

So here we are.  It is summer.  The days are long and perfect for creativity.  They are good for daydreaming and doing.  I have decided to write spontaneously this year, so while there will not be any set Summer Challenges, there will be musings and new inspiration. 

Michael Boodro, Editor in Chief of Elle Décor opens the summer issue with a beautiful little essay called “Summer Isn't What It Used to Be.”  He ends with a sentiment that called me back to the blog and to myself in my wonderful recovery from The P.S. Funk:
The season is never predictable, and no summer will probably ever seem as glorious as those we remember from our childhood, when it seemed as though it hardly rained and every night was full of fireflies.  But if sunny days and soft, lingering twilights seem more rare than ever, then we need to treasure them all the more when they do come along.
In creativity there are highs and lows.  Moments of exhilaration, moments of inspiration, moments of doubt, and moments of burn out and blockage.  Recognizing your own patterns of work and energy are important to nurturing yourself as a creative.  Learning your own symptoms of the beginning of what could be burn out before it sets in can help make you a smarter creative, allowing you to consciously choose to integrate the patterns and habits that allow you to rejuvenate your energy and creativity.

How do you nurture yourself and your energy after a big project?  If you have experienced burn out, what tools or tactics did you use to bring yourself back to a healthy state of creativity?  I would love to hear your own experiences or even your ways of rejuvenating yourself this summer here on The Paper Compass.            

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Thinking of You

The problem—or maybe the essence—of loving something is that it is always on your mind.  This has been one of the busiest summers that I can remember and through all the moments big and small, excellent and stressful, I have been thinking about The Paper Compass. 

I have carried with me ideas for unpublished blog posts like an ever increasing bunch of balloons.  But the time, and maybe more importantly, the routine that I usually have in the second half of the summer is different this year due to some really happy reasons and a different kind of love (the big “I do” kind!).  So rather than these ideas transforming into the promised Summer Creativity Challenge posts, many have drifted away or, if they were strong enough, have gotten “anchored” to my sketchbook and will be return to for future writing and posts. 

Letting an idea or project “be tabled” is not easy!  I look at my neglected writing (both blog and otherwise), my barely crossed off Summer Adventure list, my towering reading list and I have to remind myself that these are not the signs of someone who is “behind on her work” but rather the signs of a life being well lived.  This is an extra-ordinary year and I recognize that this is its own adventure.

That said, I have decided to lay to rest this summer’s Creativity Challenges and resume them again next year.  Time permitting, I will focus on some other posts in the next few months.

With things on the blog being a little more quiet than usual this year, I want to say thank you so much for being a reader of The Paper Compass.  I am so glad to be able to take the time to focus on something that is a very special moment in my life and bring all my creativity to that endeavor--and the beginning of the fall semester of Creative Thinking--in the next few weeks.

Is a personal creative endeavor taking a back seat? There are a few tools that you can use in the meantime:
•   Create an idea bank: An idea bank is a journal, jar or location where you write down ideas that you can’t begin work on immediately or that you want to explore later.  The advantage of an idea bank is that you always have a selection of ideas to choose from when you complete on project and are not sure about what to do next.  An idea bank is like having a whole batch of ready-bake cookies in your refrigerator!  The best part is an idea from the idea bank can sometimes be a better fit—or “come of age”—at a later time or applied to different circumstances than when first thought up.  I mark my ideas in my pocket journal with a little light bulb in the corner of the page, this reminds me to pull them into my master list when I have a moment.
•   Do a little every day:  If you are working on a bigger project, such as a novel, try and write even one paragraph a day.  If the project truly needs to be temporarily tabled, then make sure to write down any of the character or plot ideas that come to you during the hiatus.  Sometimes a little distance from a story can be where the brain does its best thinking.
•   Think big(ger): A little time away can be a great chance to check in on a long term project.  Where did you start from? Where do you want to go with it?  Is the project going the way that you imagined?  Does it feel like fun or work?  If it feels like work, what can you do to make it feel fun again?
As always, thoughts and comments are welcome—as well as any insight on what you do when you have to juggle priorities and creative endeavors. 
I'm not complaining a "wish you were here" postcard circa 1915

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Summer Creativity Challenge No.2: (The Necessity of ) Taking on an Unnecessary Project

The desk was a gift.  Found in a basement boiler room of a building scheduled to be demolished, it was cleverly disguised beneath multiple layers of paint applied with a heavy hand.  The original silhouette had been altered by the addition of a haphazard plywood shelf, which it wore like a fake mustache.  It was battle-scarred and appeared to have lived a life of many purposes beyond the school room for which it was originally intended.

Opening the drawer on the front revealed a warm stained wood interior with an inkwell, still holding the ancient residue of black ink.  Its potential hidden history and true purpose discovered, it came home with my fiancé where it was deemed to be an excellent find and a great restoration project—for when there was time.

Months passed.  The desk was stored in the basement and once again became a base on which many other things were stacked.  In moments of purging, and feeling “realistic” about the time needed to restore it, it was placed on the curb—only to be brought in again.  There was something about the desk, something about the neat lettering on the inkwell that read in three curved lines radiating out from the nib dipping area, “American Seating Co., Boston No. 59, Pat Apd For,” that wouldn’t let me relinquish it.

Then, one evening a few weeks ago, I was reviewing and integrating some content from author Todd Henry’s book The Accidental Creative into my Creative Thinking class lecture “Where Do Ideas Come From?” designed to inspire students to think differently about where they do their best thinking.   Despite having read the book and put into practice many elements of Todd’s wisdom, I realized that I was missing—and longing for—one key element, which he calls “Unnecessary Creating.”

Unnecessary Creating is actually incredibly necessary for busy creatives.  It is a way to empty or disarm the ever watchful Censor, which I wrote about in last week's challenge.  In keeping busy, the subconscious is left alone to do the magic that it does best: incubate.

My own neglect of (resistance) to Unnecessary Creating, is the same as Todd Henry addresses in his book (p.175):
At this point some of us may be thinking, “I barely have the time and energy to do what’s required of me for my job, and now you want me to take up a hobby?”  It’s tempting to resist this technique because we think it will add stress to our lives—yet another thing that we have to cram into our schedule.  But the experience of those who incorporate this practice is quite different.  They find that it actually clarifies their thoughts, makes them more efficient, and reintroduces a level of passion for their on-demand creating.  In addition, our Unnecessary Creating is often the best source of new insights for our on-demand creative work.”    
Deciding, during the actual delivery of the lecture, that nothing is more beneficial than practicing what I preach, the desk soon came out of the basement and into the hot sun of the driveway.  With a hammer, I knocked off the plywood shelf with a few satisfying whacks.  I was educated on paint removal by my fiancé and soon armed with what he called “a glorified hairdryer” and a spackling knife.  

Soon the paint on the desk was bubbling up to reveal a history of ecru, mint green and yellow lifetimes.  Beneath that, the stained wood still had a start of the school year glow to it.  A hot, sweaty, melting-paint-chips hour later, my “project” began to look more like the desk I knew it could be (although there was still far to go.)  I, too, had a new outlook—won over to the knowledge that Unnecessary Creating is very necessary in my life.

With space to spread out and windows to open, summertime invites hands-on projects.  It is also a great chance to experiment with introducing Unnecessary Creating to your weekly routine.  In Summer Creativity Challenge No.3, this week take a look in your basement, attic, yard, or house and see if you have any projects waiting for you.  Ideally, it should be something that you can sink your teeth into and work on consistently for a few weeks.  Whether is it painting a room, building a bookcase or breaking ground and planting a new garden, get started and see what happens.  Note how you feel and what other endeavors may suddenly feel more-doable.  As always, record your experiences in your sketchbook/notebook and also share here (pictures of your project welcome) on The Paper Compass.   

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Summer Creativity Challenge No.1: (The Pursuit of) Two Kinds of Happiness

"Ground Swell" Edward Hopper, oil on canvas, 1939

Summertime engages our senses.  The world is vibrant with color: the green of grass, the rainbow of fruits and vegetables at a farm stand, the blue of the ocean meeting the sky at the horizon.  The days are filled with the scent of humidity, tomatoes on the vine, the scent of ozone before a flash of lighting.  Birds sing, waves break, the beat of radios and murmur of neighbors talking on the porch comes in the open windows.  We wear less clothing to allow our skin to soak up the sun.  We open ourselves to summer.

This symphony of the senses makes summertime the ideal time to restock the source of our creative juices.  In this season of long light and slow heat, it is a perfect time to play, to explore and to inspire your creativity.

This is the fourth summer of weekly Creativity Challenges on The Paper Compass.  For the next six weeks this summer, there will again be a theme to meditate on, a small task to fulfill, or a memory to be explored.  Some challenges will take you to new places, others to past experiences, and all hopefully to a wealth of ideas to compile in your sketchbook or notebook.  Consider it your season of creative harvest, abundant with ideas to delight your mind or spark an even greater artistic endeavor. 

This summer we begin, inspired by one of the core values celebrated on Independence Day: The Pursuit of Happiness.  Creativity and happiness are an interesting pair.  As Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman write in the Newsweek article, The Creativity Crisis, “… [C]reative people, for the most part, exhibit active moods and positive affect. They’re not particularly happy—contentment is a kind of complacency creative people rarely have. But they’re engaged, motivated, and open to the world.” 

Creatives, as agents of change, big and small, are driven.  With this drive comes what author Julia Cameron in her book The Artist’s Way calls The Critic.  This negative (and untrue) voice can be a huge hurdle for creatives pursuing their happiness.  The Critic is loud and eagerly points a finger at anything less than perfect, often keeping ideas from even arriving at their first destination: the blank page or the blank canvas. 

But summertime, by any definition of perfection, is far from perfect.  Summer is wild.  It is extremes.  It is a profusion of heat, bugs, sun, vegetation, and sand.  It is the boisterous person at the party who sets off fireworks, turns up the radio, and pushes people in the pool.  And this makes it the perfect time to give yourself some space away from The Critic in order to explore more of your creative happiness.

The interesting thing about happiness is that it is both a present state and a memory.  Our “experiencing selves” and our “remembering selves” perceive happiness differently as documented by Nobel Laureate and founder of behavioral economics, Daniel Kahneman.  We don’t always experience happiness in the moment, but we often look back on an experience and our brain has categorized it as “happy.”  If something ends on a happy note, we often remember the whole experience through rose colored glasses—even if we were bored silly, disgruntled or exhausted for the majority of the time.  A five day vacation where it rained for four days and ended on one sunny day?  Excellent!  The 90 minute wait in an endlessly snaking line for a joyous ten minute ride at Disney World?  Forgotten!    

While science has proven the two kinds of happiness true, I need only to look to my own experience of being at the gym to see it in action.  I have many happy memories of time spent on the elliptical watching the Food Network (oh, the irony!) or traveling to exotic locations vicariously through the Discovery Channel.  Yet, when I am actually at the gym, in the heat of physical exertion, I promise you that happiness is the last emotion on my mind. 

Exploring the two kinds of happiness in this summer creativity challenge allows us to identify things that make us happy in the moment (like petting a cat or reading on the back porch) and most importantly for creativity, the things that make us feel happy in retrospect (like having written this blog post).  Both are important as one grounds us in time and the other helps us “do the work”; the work that makes our creativity and ideas a reality.  The promise of happiness in the future is a huge motivator, but most importantly it is important to explore our pursuit of happiness.  Being in pursuit of something means you are on a journey.  If you watch carefully and observe the process of working on a creative endeavor, you may suddenly see more moments of happiness than you believed existed.  And suddenly that blank page looks a lot more inviting.   
This week, for Summer Creativity Challenge No.1, spend some time contemplating your own pursuit of happiness.  Make a list of things that make you happy in the moment.  Or observe very carefully the things that bring you happiness.  Also, make a list of the things that you remember as being happy.  Revisit them.  What made you remember it as being a happy experience?  Often you will discover themes rather than things or places or people are at the heart of happiness.  What themes (such as travel, exploring, being outdoors, having long, intimate conversations) do you see in your memories of happiness?  Are any a source for an Artist Date or Adventure?  As always, document your thoughts in your sketchbook/notebook and share any thoughts or questions here on The Paper Compass.

Sunday, June 2, 2013

Devouring the Pie: Creativity, Routine, and a Meditation on Time

For creatives, who so often see solutions to the many challenges or opportunities presented to them, saying “yes” comes easily.  It takes you in exciting, new directions, allows you to flex new thinking skills, and—more often than not—divides your focus so that your pie is full of many little slices. 
During my freshman year at Boston University, I had a French teacher who, through no fault of his own and like many others before him, was unsuccessful in teaching me to improve my abysmal French.  However, he did make a lasting contribution to my life regarding my comprehension of time.

One day, during a tangent in the middle of a lecture, the professor turned to the board.  His tonsured head reflected the florescent lights as he drew a large circle, sliced it into lines with a piece of chalk and declared: “Time is just one big devouring of pie!”

I have written before of this epiphany. This random statement—capturing the essence of time as a limited resource (while in the middle of conjugating verbs)—has only continued to prove more and more true the older I become. 

Time is like a pie, and however you slice it, there is only so much of it in a day.

For creatives, who so often see solutions to the many challenges or opportunities presented to them, saying “yes” comes easily.  It takes you in exciting, new directions, allows you to flex new thinking skills, and—more often than not—divides your focus so that your pie is full of many little slices.  Or, if you are a focused creative, with much willpower, who is Getting Things Done, then your pie is probably divided into only a few big slices.

This has been one of my meditations as The Paper Compass lay fallow during the snowy Boston winter and tragic, strange days of early spring.  I thought about it frequently as my life had taken off in some surprising, wonderful and new directions, and taken my blogging time—and perhaps even more importantly—my routine, with it.

If time is like a pie, creativity is like water.  Unless directed it follows the path of least resistance.  Sometimes it carries you along, and other times, you are responsible for laying the duct work, building the dams, making sure that it doesn't overflow the banks, or dry up completely. 

While all was quiet on The Paper Compass, creativity was flourishing through different outlets. A proposal—and joyful answer of “yes!”—have brought the whirlwind that is wedding planning to my life.  To mark this happy occasion, I found myself pleasantly engaged again in crafting handmade gifts and keepsakes for my family (images below).  I also flexed my creative writing muscles working on a draft of my novella under the direction of a talented student editor in Emerson College’s Publishing Program. 

A handmade card asking my sister to be my MOH

A MOH Survival Kit complete with instructions

A playful customized gift tag asks my brother if he'll walk me down the aisle
A keepsake box for my mom contains a garland made up of family wedding photos

I kept returning to my meditation on time as pie though, because at the heart of creative process is routine.  While we could speak endlessly about creativity and time as the best of frienemies, it is really your routine that allows you to do the work.  There is limited space for creative endeavors within a day, because time is limited, so it all comes down to choice, priorities and “pruning”, as author Todd Henry of The Accidental Creative calls it.  While I made advances on other creative projects in my life, The Paper Compass was placed on the proverbial back burner. 

The good news is that no creative endeavor is truly endless.  In fact, creativity like all things, has its cycles.  Which is why I am pleased to say, that the heat wave that has ushered in June in the Northeast has also brought back my summer routine: the summer semester of Creative Thinking & Problem Solving is underway and my thoughts once again turn to blogging, writing, and the Summer Creative Challenges.    

The lyrics of John Lennon remind us that, “Life is what happens while you are busy making other plans.”  So while I can’t promise that this will be my most prolific blog year (it is the fourth year of The Paper Compass!), I can say that The Paper Compass is “back” and I will do my best to integrate my creative outlets and post here for sharing, thoughts and inspiration for your own creative journey.

All this talking about pie is perfect for some food for thought (pun intended!) or discussion below:
  • If your day was a pie, how would it be sliced?  What slices are the smallest? What are the largest?  Can you make any changes to prioritize small slices of the pie?
  • How much time is set aside for creative endeavors?  
  • Do you have a creative routine?  If not, what are some of the ways that you could create one?
  • How do you prioritize personal creative endeavors in your schedule?
  • And one question that has been important to me in the past several months is: How do you bring patience to your creative process?

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Nostalgia: Vintage Christmas Card Countdown, No. 10 Blue Santa Christmas Greetings

Vintage Christmas Card No. 10 Blue Santa Christmas Greetings

Christmas Greetings!

With his blue coat sparking with gold, this Victorian peddler Santa brings children toys with the help of his elf, peeking out of his sack, in this stunning turn-of-the-century Christmas postcard.

Happy Holidays & Merry Christmas!

Monday, December 24, 2012

Nostalgia: Vintage Christmas Card No. 9, That Will Hold Most Everything I Want

Vintage Christmas Card No. 9 That Will Hold Most Everything I Want

I love the little boy in his sailor suit and confident stance delighted over his Christmas stocking solution.  Maybe I identified, having felt the same way in some of my younger Christmases!

As your stockings are hopefully also "hung by the chimney with care" today, I hope that this Holiday Season holds "most everything" that you want, too.