Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Bittersweet: Embracing the End of a Creative Endeavor

One of the most important things that we can do as Creatives is acknowledge endings; both emotionally and analytically.  Learn from them and plan for them, like any phase of a project.  

July is hard.

It is the month that my dad passed away.  Always lurking in the heat and humidity towards the end of the month is an undercurrent of loss. 

This emotion comes on the heels of the close of the summer 1 semester of my Emerson course Creative Thinking and Problem Solving.  It is six exhilarating weeks of teaching my passion, of nurturing creativity and seeing the incredible results, connections and breakthroughs that happen in that short and vivid timeframe. 

The ending of the semester is always bittersweet.  I wrap up the class feeling more-than-ready to return to a less-hectic schedule and to my own ideas; which have been waiting impatiently for me on the proverbial “back burner.” I also know, though, that I will miss the students, their sharing and ideas and the community of the class.  When I teach, I feel lit from within.  I feel purposeful and helpful.  Every semester, I am humbled by where the students take the content of the course lessons, each other’s sharing and my encouragement.  They take risks and they work extremely hard. 

The last evening of the semester, I pack up the remnants of the final class.  I turn off the audio/visual system and lights, and to the hum of the screen automatically rolling up and projector powering down, I leave the semester tired and deeply inspired by the students. In the days that follow, I am astounded by the spaciousness of my schedule and, sometimes, my own mind.  I go for walks and think about my writing, what I want to make for dinner, or sometimes just listen to the sounds around me.  I don’t problem solve or create new class exercises, timing, material or mentally list things that need to be communicated.  There is room for other things in my mind and that space is welcome.

But it comes with a caveat.  After weeks of purpose, I suddenly find myself adrift.  There is a sense of emptiness and of loneliness in the abundance of hours.  I commiserate with poet William Wordsworth when he said, “I wandered lonely as a cloud.”   

In a previous post I have called this,“the post-semester funk.”  Another name that I have stumbled across, for what I am usually feeling post-semester, is the “Post-Show Blues.”  While class is a creative endeavor for me, the truth is that it is also a Production.  In the true sense of the theatrical version of the word.  Throughout the course, the students are my creative collaborators, my stage family.

Blogger, actor and director Kerry Hishon, writes about “The Post-Show Blues” and provides some smart suggestions for what to do in the weeks after a play has closed.  These apply to many a creative endeavor, especially ones that require great expenditures of extroverted energy.  Resonating with me is the recommendation to reconnect with family and friends.  As a natural introvert, during the intensity of the summer semester, teaching is about the only social activity I can handle.  In the last week of class, I make sure to reach out to remind friends that I am still alive and would love to see them once the final trappings of grades and comments are truly “in the bag.”  

The end of a passion driven endeavor or a project can be a strange, sometimes energizing or even difficult time for any creative.  Endings exist.  Sometimes they are welcome and sometimes they feel inevitable.  

One of the most important things that we can do as creatives is acknowledge endings; both emotionally and analytically.  Learn from them and plan for them, like any phase of a project.  

I have found the following tactics helpful when coming to the conclusion of a project or creative endeavor:   
  • Create an Ending (or Transition) Ritual: Typically this takes the form of celebration (the importance of which I can’t emphasize enough) but it is important to think beyond the cast party or dinner out with friends.  My end of class ritual takes place in the form of cleaning my office.  I refile all the course material in my Big Binder (shown in the third photo, top pocket. That is Jim Henson on the cover during the making of Time Piece. He is one of my creative heroes), re-shelve my creative thinking books, and place all the remaining class documents and ephemera from the semester in a manila envelope which is labeled and filed in a special storage bin.  This past weekend, in addition to deep cleaning my office (which is the old butler’s pantry in our apartment) I made the compulsive decision to update the paint from pale yellow to a vivid, sophisticated and saturated peacock blue from Behr called Caribe.  Even without the redecorating, a clean office never fails to help me transition and refocus.

  • Schedule Things in Advance: Let’s be honest.  When you are in the depths of a project things tend to fall by the wayside.  From unreturned email to unpolished nails, it is important to make sure to plan time to play catch up (and relax).  Unfinished tasks can take up a huge amount of mental energy.  Help free yourself up for your next endeavor by, as author Todd Henry calls it in his book Die Empty, “closing the loop.”
  • Acknowledge the Emotions: If you haven’t figured out by now, I love poetry.  There are two poems in particular that work as mantras for reminding me of the challenges and emotions that come up at the end of a project.  Margaret Atwood’s poem “You Come Back” from her book Morning in the Burned House, like Wordsworth’s lonely cloud, sum up the discombobulation of rejoining the world after a creative project is complete.  The lines run through my mind and remind me of the phase I am in: “You come back into the room/ where you’ve been living/ all along.  You say: What’s been going on/ while I was away?…”  Other times, I just walk and say, “I wandered lonely as a cloud.” (Or as Louise Rennison’s brilliant character Georgia Nicolson would say, “I wandered lonely as a clud.” Which always cheers me up when I think of it.) 
  • Create a Wish List: During the dark days of a busy project period, I like to create a wish list of all the things I wish I was doing right at that moment, but which I know have to wait.  This gives me something to look forward to as well as serves as a great tool for referencing and inspiring me to have fun when I am “wandering” like said cloud above.
  • Do a Postmortem: Ed Catmull writes of Pixar’s smart postmortem process of mixing data and insights to learn the five things that the film team felt went well and the five things they would do differently.  All throughout the Creative Thinking semester, I have my students list three things they would do again and three things that they would do differently for every project.  I use this same tool myself.  In fact, I have been known to do postmortems during the T ride home after each class.  Most importantly though, I do it for the semester and then tuck it into The Big Binder where I am delighted to find it when I begin prepping for the fall semester. (Thank you Past-Self!)
The most important thing about endings is that they are really beginnings.  Beginnings are tender and messy.  Sometimes uncertain.  Take the time to appreciate what you’ve accomplished and where you are.  Know that the creative process, like life, is a cycle.  Make the most of this phase and you’ll grow outward and upward like the rings of a nautilus shell.  That’s my vision of true creative progress.

What are some of your tactics for transitioning after a project has ended?  Please share in the comments below.  It is always good to have an arsenal of tools to draw upon.

PS. I think it is worth noting the final stanza here of William Wordsworth’s “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud” which, like the image of the daffodils in the poet’s imagination, makes me appreciate the splendor of the semester:

For oft, when on my couch I lie
In vacant or in pensive mood,
They flash upon that inward eye
Which is the bliss of solitude;
And then my heart with pleasure fills,
And dances with the daffodils.

Friday, January 30, 2015

Taking Inventory: A First Step to Successfully Reaching Your Goals

The month of January is synonymous with new beginnings, resolutions and goal setting.  While I believe that you should set goals whenever it is right for you, I appreciate the turning of the calendar and every year I am reminded that well-intentioned resolutions are nothing without a good inventory.

Flashback to a younger me at any point in January in the early 2000s:
My nails are unpolished and chipped.  My hands are marked by ink, paper cuts and a chalky dryness that defies the promises of every major brand of handcream.  I live on ladders, quote the codes of SKUs like Deep Blue, and have learned how to stack and sort every known shape of stockroom packaging as though embroiled in a real life game of Tetris.  Scheduled hours are a myth.  Being exhausted is a constant.  Unlike my usual self, I hold a grudge against every inquisitive customer and sales associate who interrupt me from my task.  It is the most disruptive time of year in Retail—it is Inventory.  
Sometimes, I believe that everything I need to know about life has an answer in having worked in retail at the start of my career.  Despite the fact that I believed I was going to graduate from college and go on (as planned) to rewarding work in the non-profit world, I was incredibly fortunate to be serendipitously rerouted into a management position with a luxury stationery company who I worked with for eight years. 

Following the retail calendar is hard habit to break.  This is why, almost a decade later, I still begin thinking about Christmas in August, go into what I call “elf mode” in the late fall, and why January evokes in me the overwhelming desire to do inventory.

Inventory, or “taking stock,” is about awareness, the foundation for both goal setting and achieving results.  It is about taking a moment to determine what you have, where you are, what you’ve achieved—and then understanding how that works to get you to where you want to go next.  I find that not only does it help me to work more successfully towards a goal (purging all sweets and unhealthy snacks from the kitchen) but also lets me take a step back and truly see what has accumulated (How many volunteer commitments do I belong to? How many social media accounts platforms do I check? How much time is that really taking up?)  Taking inventory helps you ask questions which can support goals or help you to clearly define the areas where goal setting or resolutions are most needed.

Like all good things worth doing, inventory is a process.  It is a roll-up-your-sleeves-kind of job, inviting you to dig in, suspend judgement and be curious.  It allows you to clear out the old, account for what you have, and usher in room for the new.  It can be a traditional inventory (how many of X do I have?) or a look at where you are through what has been accomplished or accumulated (reviewing your marketing efforts throughout the year).

Taking inventory allows you to see the big picture

The logical/analytic side of my brain loves that inventory, on a tangible level is about answering a very clear set of questions: 
  1. What do I have right now?
  2. (Only if you are evaluating) What did I start with?
  3. What do I want to do next and what does that require?
Most importantly, once you do inventory you need to ask:
      4.  Do I have what I need to reach my goal?

(A bonus: your subconscious mind loves all the activities of inventory which allow it to wonder and ponder and problem solve while you are working away.)

The trick that I have learned in January is to just dive in.  To do inventory.  Reserve judgment, be aware of but not engaged with judgmental or negative thoughts, and—if needed—pretend like you’ve been hired to do it.     

Like creativity, taking inventory is a process which requires curiosity, dedication and destruction. Through this grounded act, you often discover (or rediscover) purpose and clarity.

Are there areas in your life, work or environment that you want or need to take inventory?
Wondering where to begin?  Think about where you instinctively feel compelled to start.  Frustration can be a great indicator of what to jump into first.

Inventory may end with final counts and reconciliation, but for me, the end point is when open shelves are stocked with new shipment—which in Retail translates to sales—which is the means of reaching the goals of the year ahead.   

Share Your Thoughts

Inventory is about creating awareness and space for success.  
What are your January/New Year or fresh start rituals?  What do you do to set yourself up to achieve a goal?