Scientists have been studying what makes creativity tick for a while, with varying outcomes that have been interpreted and re-interpreted over the years. While is is true that the way a person is ‘wired’ can play a huge role in how their moods can impact their creative endeavors (like plants, we all flourish under a variety of conditions), generally speaking stress has been called out repeatedly as being an insidious tool against divergent and unique thinking. That’s right my friends; Stress killed creativity in the drawing room with a candlestick.
The chemical soup your brain bathes in when under chronic stress impacts all areas of your life; we are constantly being told of new evidence that will prove what we all (literally) feel in our bones: stress is bad for the body- I know, shocking. The branching tendrils of this research are still only scratching at the surface of what this means for creativity, as it can be a difficult concept to measure, and there are a wide variety of competing factors in a person’s ability to think outside of the box and come up with novel ideas. But what is unequivocally clear: the stress chemicals your body secretes hijack your higher brain functioning, forcing you to revert to habitual responses. It’s been proven to impact learning, memory, attention spans, and the ability to focus: all of which are crucial when you crave to create.
This is not a unique response that only humans experience. In 2009 researchers found that chronically stressed rats also fell back into familiar routines and rote responses. It changed the actual topography of their brains: the areas associated with goal-directed behaviors shriveled while those connected to habit-forming flourished. Even when their routine actions brought them repeated failures, they continued on their known course without deviation. They could not see the possible reward for their risk.
There is also the element of mental energy that needs to be addressed; when you are worried about major life events (losing a job, caring for a sick relative, etc), most of your bran’s energy will be directed at solving that problem (this is where the nasty thought ruminations pop up) and you wont have a whole lot left to feed to your creative projects. Energy is a finite source, even for your brain. There are certain tasks that are going to be gas guzzlers and there’s not a whole lot you can do about that. While diet and nutrition can help with cleaner functioning, emotional distress can be be the proverbial sugar in the gas tank.
So how do you fix a problem that seems to be built into your very DNA? Ironically, a little bit of creativity could do the trick. I know, I know, cue the eye roll. How in the world are you supposed to break out of your creativity-killing stress by working on the creative project you don’t have the energy for? Doesn’t that go against everything I’ve been talking about this whole time? Well, yes and no. It’s true that you might not be able to dive headfirst into your master project, but there are other ways to stimulate your creative neurons and get them to start firing again. The key is to scale down. If your stressed brain continually hones in on rote habits, then give it a new one to build upon. Basic creative tasks that don’t require a lot of extra thought can be the prefect way to break out of your stress cycle. The more you do it, the more you will ease the flow of that chemical ocean you have crashing around your noodle.
Some simple tasks like doodling, knitting, sewing, gardening, cooking; all of these have been proven to help calm an anxious mind and stabilize your thought patterns. The key is not to put pressure on yourself when starting on these tasks. Don’t try to draw a masterpiece, just doodle a cartoon that makes you smile. Don’t worry about creating your grand vision, just enjoy the act of doing something other than stewing in your own negative thoughts. You don’t have to make a five course meal, just plug along with a recipe that looks yummy. And if it burns- so what? Go for a walk and snap a few pictures of plants you don’t recognize, or the woodpecker that is busily searching for bugs in your neighbor’s tree. Don’t concern yourself with how the picture turns out (heck, a good filter can fix just about anything. And if it’s a little blurry? Well that’s just an artistic commentary on how the human existence refuses to slow down to fully focus on the natural world around it- see, you can turn anything into fancy art).
As so many of us probably learned during the pandemic: it’s hard to create when you can’t turn your brain off, when you are worried about a million little things. It’s hard to feel fully human or to embrace who you want to be when you can’t get the energy to focus on the projects that bring meaning into your life. It’s okay to fee stress and to have days when you just need to throw in the towel and take a hot bath. Reduce the pressure you are putting on yourself; eventually you will start to feel authentic, like a flower whose petals are finally opening to spring. And if it takes a little extra time- it just means the outcome will be even sweeter. Slow down, take a deep breathe, and put your mental heath first: everything else will follow after.
The raging flames flickered down to the faintest of embers overnight, the telltale hints of ash drifting through the air around me as I awake with a shiver. I jolt upright, the sand caked to my cheek and in my hair. If course, I’m still here. Still on this damned island that even the gods forgot about. I dreamt about the tower again. I saw myself stepping onto the rocky field, long hair blowing in the wind. My leather boots were tied up to my shins and my traveling cloak had seen far better days. But I had made it. I carried a hand carved wooden shield strapped to my back and there was the glint of a sword sparkling at my hip. I had made finally made it. I couldn’t see the dragon, but I was ready for the fight. I was going to win this time, I knew it deep in my bones.
I shake myself back to reality, staring out at the waves crashing against my shore with a fury, as though they know what I am planning. And perhaps they do; this sea always seemed otherworldly, conscious in a way that I couldn’t explain. It often knew what I was planning even before I did, tempting me with it’s alluring waves, keeping me from plotting my grand escape.
I turned by back to the beach and faced the scraggy trees within. The island was small; no more than two miles in any direction. You could traverse the whole thing and still be back in time for second breakfast. But it didn’t matter this time; I didn’t plan on staying. I needed to build a raft if I was ever going to stand a chance of making it off this hunk of rock. I couldn’t wait for a boat to come rescue me, all sailors knew better than to enter these waters.
I close my eyes, take a deep breath and clear my mind. A plan was already forming, the details percolating in my brain overnight. I would search for a rock I could sharpen into a small ax. Then I could knock down a few of the bamboo shoots that nestled on the western edge of this little spit of land. The fronds could be woven together to form a rope that could tie my little vessel together. I might need to find a bit of food, and collect fresh water- who knew how long it would take me to cross this channel and find safe land again.
‘I can do this,’ I remind myself as I open my eyes, square my shoulders, and start moving. It is time to begin my adventure.
This, my dear adventurers, is where our story starts. Take heed, for these trails we traverse will not be for the faint of heart. Far too often the monsters that we encounter will be those which we created ourselves. This makes them far fiercer foes than the ones we often read about in story books. The giants that tried to cook Bilbo in a stew are nothing compared to the hydras you may have hidden within your own Sea of Distraction.
The connection between boredom and creativity has been proven time and again, there are a myriad of studies that dive deeply into the topic. Two mental states that at first glance seem to be polar opposites, live within the realm of a steady symbiotic relationship. Like Kylo Ren and Ray, their differences make them capable of creating a balance within the complexities of the force. But, my noble companions, we need to pull the reins a little bit here before we go too far down this rabbit hole.
Don’t worry, we will be diving into the murky underworld of Boredom very soon. You will find yourself in a place where, if we are successful, you will quite literally not know what to do with yourself. But I think there is a crucial step that is often skipped over in these creative challenges. Finding the type of boredom that is conducive to creative projects is more of an art than most realize. It’s not just about giving your toddler your cellphone so they can lock you out of it for the next three hours, or unplugging the tv and tossing the roku up into the attic. No, if that were the case then this journey we are about to embark on would be…well, really short.
The first step of our daring tale will set the stage for all that we encounter along the way. And while I have often been tempted to skip this step, I have also often failed miserably and found myself right back at the starting line. Heed my warning: this is going to be a lot like Mr. Miyagi’s lessons- you won’t realize that you are learning the muscle memory that will make all future endeavors far easier to accomplish until you are in the middle of the fight.
So what is this mysterious trick, you ask? It all boils down to mindfulness. I know, I know, it’s a little anti-climactic, but hear me out- your Muse will thank you for it.
Let’s rewind a year and flash back to the beginning of the pandemic. When the world locked down the first few weeks were marked by fear and sudden change. Most people were left reeling with children suddenly forced to stay home, some workplaces struggling to facilitate a migration to a remote style, others shutting down completely; even those who still had to go in every day had to find a new way of existing and performing in a world that had shifted overnight. Those first weeks were a blur of activity, press conferences, and social media scanning as we all tried valiantly to adjust to the kind of thing we had only ever witnessed in movies.
After the initial rush of change, we discovered new routines (ones that we would be lurking in for far longer than we could have anticipated). With these new routines came- well, a lot of the same thing day in and day out. I know I wasn’t the only one who thought that lockdown would be the perfect time to learn new skills, to create; I thought I would come out of the pandemic as a better and more well-rounded person than when I entered it. I would learn how to grow my own little garden, bake a perfect loaf of sourdough, sew a quilt, make an R2D2 garbage can, finally finish editing that one story and send it off to beta readers. I had the highest hopes for myself. And guess what happened? None of the above.
I felt awful in those moments when I didn’t accomplish the goals I had tried to set. We live in a society that prized productivity above all else, and if you aren’t working on the grind to improve yourself or your situation, then what the hell are you doing with your time? We fill the space and the silence with mindless action just to be able to say we are doing something.
Here we were with all the time in the world to attempt to accomplish those dreams we’ve carried since we were little: so why was it so damn hard to sit down and just do it? Why did I stare at an empty computer screen willing nonexistent words to sprout from my fingertips? And more importantly, why didn’t those words ever arrive, even when I gave them hours of my day? It’s simple: boredom is creatively worthless if you aren’t in the right frame of mind to cultivate it.
Stress is like kryptonite to creative thought. It hunts for empty moments in your day like a Lannister hunts a crown; when it finds a sliver of boredom, it will attack it relentlessly until you submit to it’s power. The pandemic was the perfect example for me: in the very beginning there were a few weeks when work was relatively calm, and I had every intention of focusing on some of the projects I’ve got on my creative bucket list. But anytime I had a spare moment, my thoughts would turn to my stressors. I would ruminate on the latest news reports, catch myself mentally diving into old traumas, circling back to that exhausting level of hyper-awareness that left my drained and unmotivated.
What it boiled down to: I wasn’t in the right mental state to create. My brain wasn’t able to wander freely and explore different possibilities because it was fixated on the same worn out ruminations. In other words: I was doing my best to cope in a world I didn’t understand anymore, and it was exhausting.
I want to be very clear here: if you didn’t accomplish some of your goals while navigating through a once-in-a-lifetime global pandemic, you are still doing an amazing job. Our society puts too much emphasis on productivity for it’s own sake and tends to neglect the mental health elements that make any form of forward movement possible. I don’t want this quest here to become another way for anyone to feel bad if they aren’t yet ready to fight these monsters. I tried months ago and I couldn’t do it. I wanted to pick it up in January, but I wasn’t ready. I don’t know what changed for me personally, but this spring I finally felt like I was mentally prepared to begin this journey again. If you don’t know if you are there- don’t put pressure on yourself to continue. If you have a rough week, don’t force it. Trust yourself and your body. These challenges: they’ll still be here for you when you are ready to continue.
But if right now do do feel like you are ready for the next step, you are probably wonder: why now? How do you care for your creative energy until it blooms? How do you fight the stress that desperately wants to keep your Muse hostage? How do you untangle yourself from the thoughts that leave your mind so tightly wound? I wish I had a magical solution, but as it turns out: the answer is different for everyone. In fact, it can even be different from day to day for the same person.
So to begin our quest we will gather our supplies and figure out what materials will help us traverse the Sea of Distractions. The goal: reduce our stress levels so our brains are more free to wander and explore. Throughout the week I’ll dive a little bit deeper into the impacts of stress on creativity, along with the different anxiety-fighting techniques and how they work. But for now, we’ll start with brainstorming some tried-and-true tricks to start experimenting with. These will be the little arrows you can keep in your quiver for when things get dicey and those monsters start closing in.
The one warning I will give: beware of the pitfalls of avoidance. There is a fine line between reducing your stress and distracting yourself from it. This is perhaps my biggest challenge: when my brain keeps shifting to anxiety-inducing thoughts, I tend to shove everything I can at it to keep the panic attacks at bay (in case you couldn’t tell, I have struggled with anxiety issues for many years, so my fight with this particular monster might take on a slightly more exaggerated form that it does for others). I have a bad habit of filling my head with sound when I catch myself ruminating and amping up; more specifically, I play audiobooks for hours on end sometimes. This habit isn’t necessarily a bad one if done in moderation. It can be a handy trick to stop your brain from momentarily centering on uncomfortable and unproductive thoughts. But when you start to depend on this as a coping mechanism: you are in for a bit of trouble. You see, those thoughts you are stifling- they don’t just disappear into this air. They have to be addressed at some point. The longer you try to ignore them and hide from them, the stronger they will become. They just grown and grow out of control just like James’ Giant Peach (minus the cute little friends he found inside).
Pick a few different mindfulness/stress relief activities to attempt this week. It can be something that isn’t on this list, this is meant as more of a jumping off point. Try to be aware of the difference between stress relief and stress distraction.
Exercise: just start moving, doesn’t matter how, doesn’t have to be particularly coordinated or graceful
go for a walk/jog/run
lift some weights
hit things (aka boxing: personally, one of my favorite. Though trying to find someone to hold my boxing pads is a bit challenging, considering I tend to flail like Phoebe when she’s out for a run)
Meditation: just 10 minutes a day has shown a marked change in a person’s stress levels
Journal: this one is particularly helpful if you find yourself ruminating over the same topics over and over again.
Breathing exercises: I’ve done these for years. You can find apps that will walk you through the best ways to focus. This has stopped a few of my impending anxiety attacks
I usually pair it with visualization techniques: when you inhale that cool fresh air image you are breathing in all that good energy. When you exhale that warm air imagine you are breathing out all that stress and bad energy. Sounds silly, but it can work wonders
Listening to music: bonus points for having a little dance party for yourself. It might feel silly, but there’s something magical about a favorite song and wiggling your body around
Hand massage: I personally haven’t tried this one, but I’ve heard of a few people who swear by it. Put on some lotion and gently massage all the way around- hands carry a surprising amount to tension, and taking the time to focus on in on this one task can work wonders on pulling your brain from stressful ideas
Cooking or baking: this has always helped me relax, and bonus: tasty morsels when you’re done
Now, for some of you this might be a breeze. For a person like me: it’s really at the crux of many of my life issues. I’ve struggled with anxiety most of my life, and often tasks that seem simple for others look like Mount Olympus peppered with finicky gods to me. If you find yourself in the same boat, more drastic steps might be needed. I’ve learned that my diet plays a huge role in my anxiety levels. When I switched to decaf beverages and less sugars I noticed a huge difference in my stress levels and the number of panic attacks I was having each week. While it was one of the hardest steps I had to make (I am a caffeine fiend at heart), it changed the most difficult parts of my life. Even just limiting the amount of caffeine you drink will probably help- and these days decaf really isn’t that bad (glances up at sky to make sure lighting won’t strike me).
We’ll dive a bit deeper into mindfulness as we mosey through the week, but it will be helpful to keep tabs on your mental state as we move forward. Trust me, it will make a world of difference when we move into our Bored to Brilliant challenges next week. Until then, my brave band of adventurers: what’s worked for you and your stress during the pandemic? Have you picked up any tricks that weren’t talked about (seriously, I would love to know- like I said: my anxiety monster is my daily sidekick, so I am always willing to try something new to tame the little beast).
She stands in the window of the tower, staring forlornly at a world she no longer belongs to. She remembers what it had been like, back when she could escape these four walls that held her. She remembers the way the dewy grass felt underfoot as she ran across the early morning fields. She can picture what it was like to sit beside a crackling fire sharing stories, fingers sticky with melting sugars and cheeks sore from laughter. The girl sighs, turning back into the dark and dingy room. That had been her life before; before the monsters came and stole her away in the dead of night. They whisked her off to this far away place and locked her in a fortress, destined to be forgotten by the world below.
I sit cross-legged with my eyes closed, picturing the tower from a thousand bedtime stories. I can envision the young captive,a twin image of myself, her hauntingly sad eyes starting straight through me.My Muse, trapped behind a wall of my own making, held captive by the dragons and monsters I alone created. This isn’t the first time I left her unprotected, not the only time she has been whisked away to a far-off destination. Though the walls to this particular tower seem much thicker than the ones I scaled in the past; the monsters are bolder, more aware of my usual tricks.
I failed her before, but I would not do it again. After months of searching for her, I had the faintest glimpse of the distant stone facade of the castle that had become her prison; spires slicing at an angry sky, flames swirling from the winged beast who had stolen her away. But then the monsters swirled around my, and my dull little blade was no match for their ferocious attacks. I was whisked away like a leaf in a hurricane. And somehow, I had landed right back on the island that haunted my nightmares; the place where all lost things eventually find themselves. This was where I had begun my search so long ago; trapped on this tiny speck of land amidst the roiling sea of distraction.
I close my eyes, take a deep breath, and square my shoulders. I let her down once, but this adventure is not over. No, that was only an intermission. My Muse is still in search of a hero, and I am the only one who can save her. There is a glint of steel in my gaze when I finally pry open my eyes and take a look around. I’ve escaped this place before, I will do it again. It’s time to get back to work. I exhale slowly and stand.
When we are little we are full of dreams, nothing is outside of our grasp because our hopes have not yet been tempered by the blunting force of defeat. Everything is still possible and full of promise. We explore, learn, experiment and create. We are capable of anything. But then we grow up; so slowly we don’t often notice that we are dismantling our childlike wonder piece by piece and tucking it all away in a cardboard box labelled ‘memories.’ You suddenly pride yourself on being a realist in a challenging world. You carry that chip on your shoulder like a badge of honor. You stop dreaming of becoming the president, or shooting into outer space to set foot on Mars. You don’t picture yourself as a rock star or a famous actor. Instead, you find yourself looking up degrees on business management and legal careers. You actively know what the current interest rates on mortgages are, complain about the price of milk, and file taxes that you still don’t understand. You are an adult, and you have put away childish things.
There is nothing wrong with growing up, with harboring new goals and dreams for the life you want to lead. But there is something regretful in that loss of wonder and hope. I have never felt like I fully fit in the adult world. Sure, I know how to pay my bills, and I can rock a blazer with my high heels; but that’s always felt more like an act. At 32 I still refuse to grow up. I wear silly masks with obscure book and comic references (and get giddy the few times someone recognizes them). I created an entire office full of my nerdy wonders. The one lesson that has really stuck with me through the years: time isn’t what will age you- it’s giving up the wonder, the creative spark that lights up our souls and compels others to notice us as more than just strangers on the street.
Humans were built to create, to invent, to unwind tall tales over a flickering fire. Our ancestors used their sense of ingenuity and wonder to create the first paints that would cling to cave walls for thousands of years. In a world where survival was key, they still found the time and the drive to dip their fingers into their pigmented creations and draw stories for us to find long after they had returned to the dust. It’s built into the core of who we are. We celebrate it, we idolize it; and we far too often refuse to make enough time for it in our own lives.
I love to make things; with my mind, with my hands- it doesn’t really matter. The saddest part of growing up was losing time with things that I love. I never want to stop believing in the magic of what I can do, to stop seeing the wonder in what we are capable of creating. Far too often we fill our heads with all the wrong things. We are bad at being bored, analogue beings in a digital world. We are over-stimulated and undernourished. Flitting between other people’s creations without ever making a moment for our own.
We live in a world that is constantly vying for our attention, overly connected and tuned in to every shift of the wind. We fill every single moment with a distraction, not wanting to miss out on anything important. We don’t even notice our attention span starting to ebb as we switch from reading entire magazines to glancing at snapshot headlines. We never realized that we were pushing our Muse away behind a wall of notifications, locking her in a paper mâché prison of to-do lists. We fed the beasts of distraction never realizing that they were suffocating our creativity. We didn’t notice until we ran out of words, until the mocking blank page was too painful to stare at anymore.
I recognized the change, though I couldn’t pinpoint when it happened. Looking back I still can’t tell you when my priorities shifted, when I started craving the pull of distraction. I just know that I jumped in without reservation and eventually the well of my own ideas began to run dry. There was a time I could fill notebooks full of sparking stories; tidbits and scenes that carried me away into distant lands I had to create. Now the few new concepts that come to mind are filtered through my dreams; as though my subconscious hasn’t quite given up on me yet.
Cultivating a mental and physical environment for creativity is a daunting task in the modern age. And yet the only way to rescue the Muse is to fight for her; to give her the nurturing space that will allow her to fight for herself. So, how do we save her, my friends? Like any true adventure: we must peek at the map.
The Map to the Muse:
My lovely band of wayward adventurers, we are currently marooned on the Island of the Lost (bottom left of the map: that little campfire, that is our humble little home base). The mission: to get to the upper righthand side of the map: the dragon-guarded keep imprisoning our Muse. To begin this journey we must do the unthinkable: traverse the Sea of Distractions. Do not let it’s alluring waves fool you- this trek is not for the faint of heart. To survive this first challenge we must do the single thing that strikes fear into the hearts of even the bravest traveler: learn to be bored.
Science has shown a direct link between boredom and creativity. There is a reason why most of us get our best ideas while in the shower (about 72% of people have reported this is where most people have their greatest eureka moments). There is something about the combination of a mind finally able to wander aimlessly in whichever direction it chooses, coupled with the vulnerability and intimacy of standing naked under a stream of water. Our brains are wired for stimulation; and when we can’t get it from the outside world, we create it on the inside. Boredom gives your brain a chance to fire different neurons, processing events that have taken place, making new connections between unrelated ideas, working through problems, and providing insights that can lead you down the path of inspiration.
Unfortunately for us, we live in a world of constant connection. We are on a never-ending loop of notifications, plugged into the world around us, desperate to soak it all in so we don’t miss anything. While technology is capable of making our lives so much better: connecting us to people we would never meet otherwise, giving us valuable information with the tap of a finger, or simply help us manage our day-to-day lives; it is also far too easy to get drunk with the power you carry in the palm of your hand. Much like Kylo Ren/Ben Solo, our techy sidekicks have both the light side and the dark side within them. Unfortunately for me, I seem to be slipping towards the dark more often than not.
This first hurdle we must overcome is perhaps the most challenging of our entire adventure, especially given the stressful world we are currently tied to. There is a balance to be struck between cultivating mindfulness and detoxing from the allure of distraction. There will inevitably some painful insights that will roil to the surface; these are monsters to be faced once we have leveled up a few steps. The key to remember: though we may embark on this adventure together, each of our journeys will be a little bit different. What works for Sam does not always work for Frodo. That’s why we will sample a little bit of everything; carry with you what suits you best, and leave behind what doesn’t.
For tonight, we shall gather around the fire one last time and share our daring plots and plans before the real work begins tomorrow. So tell me, my friends, what kind of monsters do you have lurking under the surface, searching for you in the Sea of Distractions? And do we dare to face them together?
A year ago I started an adventure that I fell madly in love with. I wrote about it right here on this blog. A quest to save my muse and rediscover the creativity that had been laying dormant within me for far too long. I never wanted to be the kind of adult who stopped believing in magic, who wistfully talked about her dreams in the past tense. I wanted to live a creative and fulfilling life- that’s always been the dream, the way I felt most authentically myself. So I journeyed through the pages, through the art spheres; I chronicled it right here, and I loved every moment of it.
But then there came a day when I hit submit on my last post. All of my good intentions lay bundled up on my nightstand as I kept telling myself “the next one will be a little bit late, but I’ll get it done. I don’t have the energy today, but this weekend I’ll sit down to work.” Eventually, I gave up the pretense and threw in the towel. I stopped picking up my laptop because I couldn’t handle the frustration of staring at my blinking cursor on it’s blank page when I couldn’t figure out how the hell to fill it. My little hero had lost, been swallowed up by the monsters, and my muse was still trapped in her dragon-guarded castle.
It seemed like there were a million excuses; a hundred thousand reasons why I felt exhausted and drained of the color I craved in my life. I had been feeling the drain for weeks, I knew it was coming, I knew I could only hold out for so long. That didn’t make the realization hurt any less: I had failed, Game Over, the end. My little plumber smacked head first into a Goomba and never made it to his Princess Peach up in the castle. And yet, it never really felt like the end. It felt like I still had a few lives nestled in my pocket, just waiting for me to hit ‘continue’ when I was ready. But how long would that be?
You see, I never stopped thinking about my quest, dreaming through it, plotting little adventures in the back of my mind. I imagined the day I would finally be ready to reprise my old role and jump back into the fray. I missed it. I’ve always felt like my soul was made of written words, and without them I am nothing but wisps of smoke, intangible and flighty. And as much as I don’t want to come on here and point my finger at the pandemic as being the culprit who killed my little creative adventurer- it seems important to recognize that it played a major role in my adventurer’s demise. Amidst the draining strain that comes with a global pandemic I felt my inner creativity slowly turn to stone, standing blind sentinel like a gargoyle. My well had run dry, all my mental energy was diverted to other tasks. I was an empty vessel just plodding through my not-so-routine routine.
It caught me off guard when I lost track of my inner self. As someone who had dealt with chronic anxiety for most of my life, I was already a step ahead when the pandemic hit. It seemed the whole world had been picked up and tossed into the same sea of uncertainty and fear. And while my non-anxious friends were grappling with the daily functions of it, still learning to tread water in this environment; I was able to slues through like a seal. The sea of anxiety was my territory, I had been diving and dodging through it since I was a wee little pup. I knew how to manage this; it was the first time in my life I was thankful for my unusual brain chemistry. It was almost a relief for my anxiety to have a specific known focal point for a change, and not just the vague trivialities of daily existence.
I thought I would be okay, that I I could keep up my momentum and turn the year into something beautiful. Without all of the distractions I could focus on my creative endeavors. I would dive in deeper and come out at the end of quarantine a better person with new skills and ideas. Joke’s on me: it was nothing like that. I started to feel the burnout pretty quickly. Work never slowed down. We were deemed essential and had to go in every day. There was always another problem, another roadblock that should have been solved yesterday. We were riding in a leaky rowboat in the middle of a storming ocean. We would patch one hole just to turn around and see five more, plus a giant octopus grabbing for our oars. We repeatedly told ourselves “it’ll slow down soon, once we get these problems fixed.” We’re a year out and things are just as busy and chaotic as they were in those first months.
It was exhausting, to say the least. I have never worked as many hours as I did this last year. I have never felt so unsafe going to work. But there was no choice: the job had to be done, and there was no one else to do it. So you do your best and you hope it will be enough. You spend the entire day in an exhausted daze and then lay awake at night with that gnawing sense of dread in the pit of your stomach. There was no room for creativity, even though I knew it would be the perfect outlet. I gave everything I had to my job, and there wasn’t enough left over for me at the end of the day.
To top it off, there was a major curve ball thrown at us over the summer. In the US about 43 million Americans rent their homes. When the pandemic hit eviction moratoriums were put in place that forbade landlords from evicting their tenants for nonpayment. There were loopholes, however. If there was damage being done to the property or if the owner decided they wanted to sell the property; then the tenants wouldn’t have a choice. Coupling with this was the fact that the housing market in most areas skyrocketed in the summer of 2020, and you had the perfect storm for anyone living in a home they didn’t own. In my area the demand far outstripped the available units. It wasn’t uncommon for a house to sell for $40,000 over asking price after one day on the market. And even though I had never missed or been late with any payment; the opportunity was too good for my landlords to pass up. They let us know they wouldn’t be renewing our lease and they would be listing it before our lease was even up, in the hopes that it would close as soon as we were gone. Not only did we have to try to find a new place to live, we also had to keep our house ‘show ready’ and leave anytime someone wanted to come view it- in the middle of a pandemic. Que the anxiety train.
To make matters even more complicated, I own a german shepherd. He’s a sweet boy, but that doesn’t change the fact that he’s on the restricted breeds list for most rentals. I could probably count on one hand the number of rentals we had been able to find over the years that would allow him. I felt so defeated. It didn’t matter that we had been doing everything right; we were still in this position, not knowing where we would be laying our heads when fall rolled around.
It was two months of uncertainty; of coming up with back-up plans with family members, looking at rentals and working through the process to see if we could qualify to purchase a home- and then putting in offer after offer after offer, only to be outbid over and over again. I remember the panic setting in as the clock was running down. We got lucky. We were able to find a new home and got everything moved in with one day to spare before our lease was officially up. It was a humbling experience, one that makes me feel privileged in so many ways because I’ve seen far too many of these stories end poorly.
As the year wore on, I kept waiting for things to turn around, to calm down. But it didn’t. And the anxiety itself built up like I was a human pressure cooker. I have never felt so close to a mental breakdown as I did this past year. My brain felt like a rubber band stretched too far, ready to snap at any second. But I wasn’t alone here. I wasn’t the only one struggling through the train wreck of 2020.
So what changed? Why am I suddenly here even though life is still a bit chaotic, even though my work is starting to feel like it did at the beginning of COVID? The truth is, I’m not really sure. I just know that the pieces of me that had turned to stone have been slowly stirring, gathering energy, and are breaking free from what has held them dormant for so long. I finally feel like I’m ready to cultivate the parts of my life that give me meaning again. Perhaps its spring, or the fact that I just celebrated another trip around the sun. Maybe it’s that hopeful feeling that comes with sunshine and vaccines. But I’m missing my life again; the one that isn’t charged with anxiety and fear. I feel like I’m waking up, and my body is ready for another adventure.
So here I am, ready to hit continue on my little game. Ready to search for my muse and release her from the prison she’s been kept in for far longer than I ever expected. Do I know exactly what this road will look like? No. I’m still planning and plotting; but I am done with sitting here mired in my own inaction. So my friends, I make apologies for abandoning you on our last adventure. And perhaps you will be kind enough to give me one more shot. So what do you say: do you care to continue?
So last week I started playing around with creative side quests to go with our “Rescue the Muse Challenge.” For anyone who saw the fruits of that labor, you are by now well acquainted with the fact that I am no artist. But being ‘great’ wasn’t the purpose: nope, I am posting my less-than-stellar drawings as a way of overcoming my inner critic, fighting against my desire for perfection, and as a way to just have fun in the moments I’m creating.
Last week I made the startling realization that I don’t have to be ‘good’ at a particular type of creative medium in order to feel the overwhelming strength of emotions that the arts inspire. I have always known how to ride the emotional wave of words; that has been my venue of choice for as long as I can remember. I have always been able to feel very deeply when patching syllables together. I believed that my soul was written, it was stitched together with paragraphs and epitaphs. I had no idea that creating a bad pencil-drawn sketch could translate a portion of my heart in the same way that a page of words could. I discovered that my soul is not just written; it is doodled, painted and knit together. We are more than one thing; we are more that the one thing that we are ‘good’ at.
My personal success last week inspired me to add a new layer to this little parfait. While I am going to continue on with my daily art challenges (perhaps eventually I’ll add some structure to them, but right now- they’re mainly going to be doodles and thoughts), I wanted to up the ante a little bit and see what else I can learn about myself. Stepping into the world of photography seemed like the perfect segue.
With both writing and art, perspective and a point of view are vitally important. Unfortunately, as humans, we tend to categorize the things that we see and stick a generic label on them: house, building, tree, forest, bird. It’s a time-saving technique that we evolved to help us spot and communicate danger. It has helped us make sense of the world around us without getting overwhelmed by the details. This week: I want to swim in the nitty-gritty, overwhelming world of details. I want to notice all of the things that we tend to take for granted; I want to see my usual surroundings with fresh eyes and and a crooked perspective.
When was the last time I actually saw the scene outside my front window? Not just looked at it, but truly saw it? How long since I noticed the arching branches of the tree in my yard? Or the gnarled bark that the squirrels cling so easily to? When was the last time I payed attention to the divot in the pavement in front of my driveway, or the oversized plastic owl perched on the fence of my neighbor’s garden?
It’s important to slow down and take the time to notice the little details that we have grown numb to. Every now and then you need to walk through your neighborhood as though you just moved in. Or wander around your backyard like an alien trying to sort out the flora and fauna of this new world. On occasion you should wander your own house and truly look at the details that make up your home. You need to run your fingers over the scratches on the doorframe from that time you tried to move the couch. Or eyeball the texture of your ceiling and imagine what it would be like if the world flipped upside down that was suddenly your floor.
Perhaps the easiest way to notice these things: take pictures of them in unusual way. Get up so close to your lamp that you can’t tell what it is and snap that shot. Zoom in on the bark of the tree with the intent of sketching it out later. Capture a photo of the precious nose-art your little critter left on the front window when they were waiting for you to come home (or staring suspiciously at the mailman). Peer into the distorted reflection that shines back from your coffee pot or toaster while your yummy things are warming up (bonus points if you draw these images with their sausage fingers and point pin-heads). Zoom in on the knit of your favorite quilt or the stitches that make up your winter hat.
Try to look at the world from a new angle, take pictures upside down, toy with the lighting- make creepy shadows crawl across your living room floor and capture them. Explore the world and acknowledge how it can make you feel like a larger-than-life giant or a tiny and insignificant little creature.
Take pictures of the everyday moments that seem so routine: a snapshot of your breakfast as it sits alone on the counter, steam rising from scrambled eggs. Walk downtown and note the graffiti and stickers plastered to the back of the stop signs. Throw your face masks in a pile and snap shots of them from different angles; hang them from an impromptu clothesline in your backyard and watch the wind dance with them. Take a photo of something unmistakably modern and don it in a black and white filter for contrast. Set up your figurines into odd poses and start snapping shots like you’re directing their next movie. Play with the pictures. Try to see all of the things that you never noticed, and if you feel brave: sketch them out to see what happens.
As a side note:
While these weekly challenges are directly related to our Rescuing the Muse Quest, I’ve started separating them in the posts simply because I was worried they would drag on a little too long if I kept them all bunched up together. For anyone who has been following along with the Muse storyline, please let me know how you feel about this. I love getting new suggestions on how to make all of this run smoothly, because lets face it: I still feel pretty new to the whole thing, even though I’ve been blogging on and off for years.
When I wake, I have the sense that it is morning, though I can’t see much light beyond the distant canopy of trees.Everything is covered in that twilight gloom that makes it difficult to gather much detail from your surroundings. I peer awkwardly around me as I sit by the cold embers of my fire and wait for the world to grow brighter as I nibble on a measly breakfast. I am already hungry, but I know I must be careful with my supplies.
The longer I wait, the more the heavy realization sinks in that the world won’t be getting much brighter today. I sigh and sling my pack over my shoulder as I carefully make my way farther down the dirt path. This will have to do for today. I set a decent pace as I wander along the trail, forcing my mind to stay on the task at hand. It isn’t until late morning when the hairs on the back of my neck start to stand on end and I get that needling feeling that someone is watching me. I cast my eyes into the woods surrounding me, hoping I can catch a glimpse of my hidden companion. But the trees remain still, and my stalker stays hidden in the shadows.
There is a whisper about me, though when I stop to listen I cannot make out anywords. Is it the wind? Is my mind playing tricks on me? I have only been away from the village for a short time, surely I am not already imagining things. Is that the secret of these treacherous woods that the locals would not tell me: does everyone who steps foot in here go mad?
“What makes you think the woods have anything to do with it? Surely all those people were mad before they set foot in these lands,” a voice whispered in my ear, stretching out the s’s like a snake. I nearly jumped out of my skin as I turned in a quick circle, arm outstretched to catch my foe. But nothing was there, my fingers passed through mere air. A soft chuckle met my ears as I stood frozen in place.
“Oh, my dear child, tut, tut, there is no catching what you cannot see. Surely you know that by now,” it crowed from my left. I stared intently at the spot, waiting for something, anything- a flash of movement. But there was only a shadow across the path, a dark and murky splotch of air in the empty void between myself and the distant trees.
My blood turned to ice with dawning realization. I had heard of these phantoms before, these dangerous creatures that pass through the world unseen. They were the Shadows that sang songs of despair and disdain int our ears. They reveled in self-loathing, luxuriated in anxiety and hate. They were the monsters that were impossible to fight, the ones that found a crumb of weakness within the soul and held tightly to it. They were the worst nightmares and the most hidden of fears.
The shadow cackled softly, a low growling sound, “Ah, so I see you have heard of me,” he responded, though I had never uttered a word. These creatures were dangerous for this very fact: you could not fool them because they could instinctively feel the nature of your thoughts, could read the quickening pulse of your heart. They could taste your fear, and knew your sadness. They could become as much a part of you as your big toe.
“You, my sweet adventurer are an apple ripe for the picking. So brave of you to wander willingly into my home. Tell me, young fly, what is it like to finally meet a spider? Can you feel my web ensnaring you?” Every syllable dripped with barely concealed mirth as he gloated.
How do you fight a monster that can see inside your soul? How do you combat something that knows every secret you harbor in your heart? How do you move forward when the fear they inspire leaves your muscles rigid and unmoving? “You can’t,” the shadow whispered, closer now.
They say that for a caterpillar to become a butterfly, it must wrap itself up tightly in a cocoon and come completely undone. It dissolves it’s very cells so that it can reorganize them into a new form. This transformation cannot be easy, and it certainly doesn’t sound pain free. It is not the quiet little nap we envision; but change never is. There is action roiling below the surface that many could never even fathom with a cursory glance. I often wonder if the caterpillar knows what is in store for it when it feels that urge to wrap itself up tightly in the safe confines of its cocoon. When it enters that darkness, does it know what it will being undoing? Does it know what it will become?
Every single one of us carries a shadow self: the darkness within our cocoon that we must learn to embrace and work through if we ever wish to grow into something more than what we are. It is one of the hardest battles we will ever wage, primarily because we often don’t recognize what we are fighting. These shadow voices are so deeply ingrained in who we are that we often can’t differentiate their voices from our own. To fight these shadows we must recognize them and pull them into the light. We must scrape away at the years of detritus until we are able to unearth the core of their existence. At the heart of every shadow is a seed, a core belief that we have struggled with repeatedly over the years until they grew far too complex for us to simply manage.
It is far easier to recognize the symptoms of our monster than to acknowledge what it truly is. For me, my monster tended to present itself in stuttering steps and lack of follow-through. It was found in good intentions that were never acted upon or not fully invested in. It was the big dreams that I shied away from when action was required. It was the career I feel into thirteen years ago and never left, even though the passion started to ebb. It was the promotions I applied for and got, even though I knew they were a mistake- but I thought I was supposed to want them. It was the schooling I put on pause when I was dealing with medical issue, but never returned to after they resolved. It’s the novels I never sent to publishers, the way I still hide my computer screen from my partner, even though I’ll send these words out into the ether. It’s the way I cling to a 9 to 5 job because it feels secure, even though my heart pulls me somewhere else. It’s in the way I shrug my shoulders and say “I’ll go back to school when I know what I want to do with my life,” when the truth is: I’ve known my direction for a long time, I just never feel comfortable saying it out loud. Over and over again I have battled with these inner demons without realized that they are all the same monster, just wearing different masks.
The core of my shadow is a lack of confidence in my own abilities, it is a fear of failing. I have never once taken the risk of betting on myself, even though I will go all-in for anyone else. I care too much what other people think, and I always have. I question my instincts and my dreams over and over again until I talk myself out of them. I was a girl with goals and hopes that were larger than life. And in theory I believed in them; at least, I thought I believed in them. But when it came to action, I shied away. I turned down a different road that was paved and well-lit even though I could feel the winds calling me across that other field and through the brambles. I knew I wasn’t living my authentic life, I was settling for a safe life. I convinced myself that the life I was living was good enough; and on those days when it wasn’t, I told myself that it was okay- this was only temporary, and I would figure it out. But I knew all along that those were just words with no backbone.
I don’t know where this fear came from. I’m sure a really good therapist could help me figure it out, but alas- that is another step that I have always hesitated to take (even though I strongly encourage everyone to see one because mental health is important). It’s like I’m afraid of confirming my worst fears. If don’t try, then I can keep dreaming and I don’t have to face the fact that I’m not good enough. I don’t have to worry that I quit a great job to follow a dream that died and left me…where? What is the worst that could happen? What am I afraid of?
For once let’s be honest. I am not weak. No, every time my back has been pushed to the wall, I have proven that I could fight. I am capable of pushing myself beyond the limits I thought I had. When my world cracked and swallowed me whole, I climbed back out all on my own. I kept living when every fiber inside of me demanded to know why I should even bother. I walked through my own personal hell and came out the other side carrying buckets of water for those still engulfed in the flames. I am afraid of failing, and yet every time I was forced to give it my all: I succeeded. When my world crumbled below my feet, I rebuilt beautiful things in that rubble. This fear that I have: this fear of not being good enough, of not being strong enough: it’s unfounded. It’s a lie. It’s a whisper that the shadows desperately want me to believe because it’s the only foothold they have.
To confront your shadow, you must name it. You must stare it straight in the eyes and do whatever it is warning you against. If it’s telling you not to create because you might not be any good- do it anyway. And even if it is awful: stick that work in a frame and place it on your desk with pride. Because it is not just your lopsided attempt of a hedgehog drawing: no, it’s the proverbial sword that you used to slay your monster.
The shadow will not go away overnight. It will be with you for days, weeks, perhaps years. But it will not always control you if you continue to push back against every inch of ground it tries to take. Sometimes all you will gain are tiny steps: actually, it is pretty much always tiny steps. You are going to fight the shadow with a matchstick and not a flamethrower, but my dear, you will win if you are persistent. You will shine that light on every square inch of the monster until he has no where else he can hide.
My matches? They’re small- but they’re working. I started my silly art challenge last week. I am drawing not-so-stellar pictures that I am sharing with you right here on the internet where literally anyone can find them for the rest of eternity. And as cavalier as I like I to act when doing this- it is absolutely terrifying to share a vulnerability, to give you a piece of me that feels weak and unprepared. But it makes me stronger. It erases that fear. Because what is the worst that has happened since I started sharing them? Nothing. No one has even said an unkind word. And even if they did- so what? That speaks more about them than it does about me. Who cares when I’ve found something I enjoy doing in my spare time? And hey- I can always get better. This is just a start.
My other matches? This blog, for one. I’ve started and restarted it for years, but this feels different somehow. My mentality towards my work has shifted. And it feels so damn good to be writing again, and to be so brutally honest with myself while doing so. And even if no one else reads another word I write: that’s okay. Because this is something I’ve always done for me, and this is something I will continue to do simply because I want to.
I’ve spent time refocusing on the things that I enjoy. I’ve reevaluated what I like and don’t like about my job. I’ve researched new learning opportunities and degree programs that could help me move forward with my life. I’ve begun making the financial arrangements required for a future shift. I’ve admitted my fears and my lack of direction. I’ve opened up with those close to me about the things I really want to do with my life and my fears surrounding them. And I’m finally doing something about it. My scrappy side is coming out, and she is one tough little cookie. I’m working on changing my inner dialog so that I stop telling myself I can’t do the things that I love. Perhaps these dreams won’t turn out exactly as I hoped, but that doesn’t mean they won’t lead me somewhere even better; that doesn’t mean they don’t still have a place in my story.
This week I’ll continue on that path. I’ll write awkward sentences and draw some abstract art. I’ll drink plenty of water and eat healthy foods to feed my brain. I’ll spend more time with my motivational self-help books and career guides, and I’ll consider new paths that I never truly let myself examine before. I’ll light one little matchstick after another until the shadow is a memory. That’s the only way to fight this little war.
I could feel the icy grip of tentacles closing around me, hear the whispered shouts and screams of his former victims as he pulled at me, trying to suck me into his realm, to sap the life right out of me. There was no one here to rescue me, not a soul who would know where to look. My Muse would stay locked in that tower forever, thinking I had given up on her.
No, this couldn’t be how it ended. The good guys are supposed to win, they are supposed to climb the mountain, reach the summit, be the hero of their own story. They aren’t supposed to die on an anonymous path in the middle of the woods. This is not how the story goes. I slowly reached for my pack, fighting against the fog that was clouding my brain. The shadow was too focused on his imminent success to even notice the subtle shift in my thoughts, the hardening edge of determination creeping into my mind. I reached for the tiny splinter of wood and struck the match.
Last week I made a little creative side-quest to go along with my “Rescue the Muse” challenge. It was really pretty simple: draw something every single day. It didn’t matter what the subject matter was, what items were used, how technical the piece was or even how “pretty” it came out. The whole purpose was to get out of my own head and start playing again in a medium that I don’t find myself particularly skilled in. All of this was done in an effort to overcome my fixation with perfection. I have a bad habit of dropping ideas when I don’t think I can live up to my personal standard- so bad drawings sounded like a pretty fun way to toy with my inner critic. (We will be dealing with these inner monsters a little bit more this week as we continue on our Muse-Saving Quest).
Now, I anticipated that I would have some fun with this challenge, and I knew going into it that my artistic abilities wouldn’t suddenly be morphing into anything grand or amazing. Don’t believe me? Look at Exhibit A: (virtually slaps sheet of paper onto the screen)
Hehe- I added the photo of Link to give you an idea of what I was attemtping to draw in the middle of the sketch on the left. Lucky for me, Link is an unconditional-love kind of dog, and not much of an art critic. He was just tickled to be included.
While I was anticipating that this challenge would be solely about learning to draw and playing around with circles and lines- I wasn’t prepared for the epiphanies that came with the meandering lines and overworked erasers. I’m not sharing the above sketch with you to show you the kinds of “skills” I’m working with- I’m sharing it because it is the perfect example of what art morphed into. You see, I started this random assortment of drawings by playing with things that I enjoy: my dog, Star Wars (which turned into a very sad baby yoda), the mountains, chairs (apparently I’m a big fan of sitting- honestly, I don’t really know why that one is there). As I was drawing I could feel my insecurities building, I could hear that little voice start to whisper that I wasn’t any good and should just quit. Instead of listening to it, I started drawing a little anxiety monster in the upper right-hand corner (based off of the Mental Illness Monsters created by Toby Allen- look them up, he is phenomenal).
As I finished drawing my little monster I decided to scrawl out the words bouncing around in my brain- don’t worry, it’s written by a lefty in cursive, so I don’t expect anyone to be able to read it. But it says “What does it say about me when I am far better at creating monsters than the things I love?” And below baby yoda, I wiggled out my own reply after a moment’s hesitation, “My sweet, who ever said you shouldn’t love the monsters too?” It was a strange, yet peaceful moment to acknowledge my internal monsters without trying to shove them back into the dark. It was powerful in a way I didn’t expect. I ventured away from the usual cartoons I like to draw, and wound up uncovering an inner-truth I’ve been struggling with.
And here is the real epiphany I never expected when starting on this little journey: art in any form is emotional. That’s what makes it so damn beautiful. It captures truths we didn’t know were inside of us- and even if you can’t ‘read’ it in the artwork, the artist can feel it. As a writer, I have always experienced this moment with words: my words are my lifeblood, they are my link to the world, and they tether me to the things that are important. I am accustomed to the emotions that roil below the surface when I am writing. I never expected to feel that same energy channeled into my random little sketches. Which leads me to believe that it is the act of creation itself that makes us more connected to who we are in this vast world; and not just the particular form we thought we were good at. Art and emotions are intrinsically tied together; you cannot have one without the other.
So I got brave with my pieces after that. I decided to tap into this well that I’ve struggled with. I decided to embrace the emotions that were coursing through me, and allow them to lead me to my next piece. I was able to channel these emotions that I haven’t even been able to adequately write about- instead, they came out in sweeping lines of colored pencil. And while the picture itself isn’t anything grand or spectacular: it has turned into something pivotal for me, a piece of my soul that has been liberated and can now float freely into the world.
The backstory here is pretty important to the outcome. As I have shared before on this blog, at the beginning of 2019 I experienced my first pregnancy loss while in my second trimester. What most people don’t know is that seven months later I lost my second at eight weeks. 2019 was a year of painful transformation for me; I not only had to deal with the pain of the losses themselves, but also the loss of security in a dream I always carried. I was left unmoored in the world, unsure of what a future would look like for me. It’s been a struggle- there’s no nice way to get around that. And I have found it exceedingly difficult because this was the first time in my life that my words failed me. I couldn’t adequately portray the roiling ocean I had tearing me up inside. I didn’t have the words. And that was terrifying in so many ways because my words are all I ever really depended on. Without my voice, I lose who I am as a person. I’ve had these images and feelings buried inside all of this time without the relief of releasing them into the world.
So I started tapping into that well, and I let those silly colored pencils dance across the sheet. And when I was done I found myself staring at the picture I haven’t been able to speak into existence. It is a sketch of a promise lost: two sweet little boys (I always picture them as two little boys) running around the grass together, counting stars, and existing in this beautiful place with one another- a place that I can’t go to yet. And in my head, I see them sitting together, staring at the same moon I look at from my bedroom window as I ask the question I ask them every single night, “Can you feel me when I think of you?”
It was powerful and therapeutic, and so damn good for my soul to see the picture I’ve carried inside all this time. Even in its childlike imperfection: it speaks the truth I couldn’t verbalize, the one that was too large to be ensnared in syllables. But here it was, on a piece of paper that I could hold and touch. It existed somewhere outside of me for the first time in nearly a year.
It reminded me of the importance of this work; these creative endeavors that we take on. Sometimes the tools you have in your kit aren’t adequate for the job that you need done. Sometimes you need to step outside your comfort zone and try something you aren’t very good at- because it will help you grow in so many more ways than you anticipated. Sometimes you need to put down your words in order to speak your truth.
When we are small we carry ten thousand little sparks within us: these are tiny flares of passion that have the potential to ignite if we care for them properly. We instinctively know how to fan the flames until they roar with life and crackle with promise. Yes, when we are small we are fire keepers. We don’t have words for this; it is a feeling, an action, an unnamed something- but we know it is special.
As we grow we learn the language of man and all that it entails. We stop speaking to the flames as we christen ourselves their masters. Like Pandora opening a box, we suddenly discover rigid definitions that we plaster to objects without a care. We lose the mystery of the unknown because we don’t have to make up stories to explain things to ourselves anymore. And perhaps, what is the worst ‘gift’ adulthood brings us: the idea of perfection, the concept that things are not ‘good’ simply because they exist. We create these strict rules that must be lived by, and we smother the sparks that gave us life.
I don’t know when I decided I “couldn’t” anymore. One day I was drawing tornado people, decorating cookies, skinning my knees sliding into home plate, creating math-codes that spelled out words, and dancing to the tiny boom box that was my pride and joy. And then suddenly I had these ideas in my head of what made those things ‘good’ and ‘beautiful,’ and I decided that I couldn’t live up to those standards. I decided that I couldn’t cook, or decorate, or play baseball, or do math, or paint, or draw, or dance. My chicken usually came out dry, my wiggling body inspired laughter instead of admiration, my drawings always had cartoon hands and bad proportions, and I never could knock that ball out of the park. It was easier to save myself the embarrassment of not being good enough and simply shake my head as I whispered, “Sorry, I’m no good at that. Sorry, I can’t dance. I’ll set off the smoke alarm if I try making eggs. Nope, I don’t draw, don’t sing- not gifted that way.” It was easier to turn these former passions into self-depreciating jokes; because, hey, humor’s fun and insecurities suck. And just like that- ten thousand sparks lost their light.
It’s easy to fall into the trap of perfection; to get frustrated when the ideas you have in your head don’t translate into the physical world. It’s easy to forget how to speak to the embers and give them life. It’s so damn easy to forget how to whisper to your own soul and bring it back from the brink of extinction.
So here is the challenge: stop lying to yourself and to everyone else. Stop saying you “can’t” do something when the truth is that you “won’t.” This was a hard pill for me to swallow: to accept the fact that I have spent years standing in my own way and keeping myself from things that I could love with every fiber of my being. I have spent so much effort building up walls and planting them in my own way. And why? Because I was afraid that I wasn’t good enough, that someone would giggle when I danced at the wedding. But so what if they do? If I’m having fun, why does it matter if I’m not any good at it?
Because here’s the thing: no one is naturally gifted at something, they just decided to invest in it. I am not a sculptor or an artist in any way, shape or form. But then one day I bought a little bit of fondant and decided to play around with some store-bought cake mix. I didn’t view it as art; it was just something to play with. And I liked it. So I kept playing. And then one day I was getting paid to make tasty treats for birthday parties. Not an ounce of talent in my blood- but I fed the spark and it ignited.
I can say the same thing for my cooking, and my writing, and my dancing (which is still atrocious by societal standards). But who cares how well I wiggle when I’m dancing around my living room playing keep-away with the dog, or waiting for the chicken to cook (and not burn, might I add- getting better). Who cares if I’m good at it when I’m doing it because I find it fun? The trick to lighting the fire: do something because you like it, and eventually you will start getting better at it. And even if you don’t: you are still having the time of your life, and that will always be beautiful.
My challenge to you: pick something, absolutely anything that you think you will enjoy but routinely say “I’m not good at that, I can’t do that.” Perhaps it’s dancing, or cooking, or art, or building rockets: this is your show, my friend, the sky is the limit. Pick that spark- and for one week give it life. Every single day, even if it’s just for 5 minutes: invest in that spark and see what happens.
For me: that spark is art. I used to love drawing when I was younger, but I was never very good. So this week I am challenging myself to draw something every single day. I am treating it a bit like a diary: doodles, how-to lessons, thoughts and images that pop into my head- nothing is off limits. And the goal isn’t to improve: the goal is to enjoy, to explore, to play. Now, that doesn’t mean that online tutorials are out of the question- sometimes those are the best way to dip your toes in. Remember what it’s like to do something for it’s own enjoyment; it’s pretty damn invigorating to play like you did when you were in the single-digits.
Throw perfection out the window and wiggle around the kitchen. Go outside with a bat and an oversized ball and make up your own commentary as you run around the invisible plates. Burn that spaghetti and enjoy every bite. Crochet a lumpy green scarf and wear it every winter. Create, love it, live it, breathe it in. And who knows, you might surprise yourself with what new skills you actually acquire when you were too busy having fun to realize you were learning all along. And even if you don’t: you are still learning how to speak to the flames again. So dance on, Fire Keeper- and never let go of that child-like magic.
The sun had barely crested the horizon when I pulled on my worn leather boots and slung my pack over my shoulder. I hadn’t told the innkeeper what time Iwould be leaving, I didn’t want her to be worried about seeing me off. She hadn’t wanted me to go to begin with. “Tis too dangerous out there for someone in your condition,” she had warned, “Orcs, dragons, the creatures of the forrest, the mages in the western lands; who knows what you will come across. You should just stay right here where it’s safe. I could use the extra help.” She knew her words were falling on deaf ears, that my mind was already made up. I had a Muse to rescue, and my heart would never sing again if she remained locked awayin that tower.
I tiptoed past the rows of tables, making my way to the front door. “Thought you would go without me noticing, did you?” I jumped when I heard the voice from across the darkened room. She stood in the doorway to the kitchens, arms crossed over her chest, “You forget, my child, you are not the first adventurer to lay your head under my roof. I know what that spark in your eyes means, I knew you would be leaving in the next day or two.” She reached down to the table beside her and picked up a small package wrapped in brown paper and tied together with twine. “It isn’t much, but it should keep you from starving,” she waited for me to take the bundle and gently add it to my little pack.
Her eyes seemed distant when she spoke next, “I can’t tell you how many people I’ve watched walk out that door in search of adventure. Most of them don’t ever come back,” she watched me closely for a moment before continuing,“Do me a favor, if you can. Whatever it is that you are searching for- don’t give up on it until you find it. And once you do, I want you to come back here, sit in front of this very fire, and tell me your grand tale. I could use a good story to lighten my heart.” She nodded her head once before turning back towards the kitchen, busying herself with the morning chores. She refused to look back in my direction.
The village was swathed in shadows as I made my way outside. The pre-dawn sky was filled with roiling gray clouds that drizzled lazily over the landscape. A small shiver raced down my spine, though I couldn’t tell if it was from the cold or sheer anticipation. The weather promised a storm would be soon to follow; perhaps not the best time to begin a grand adventure. But I knew if I waited another day, I would simply fade into the background of this place. It would be far too easy to ignore the voice that was calling me forward, and hide inside the inn with it’s crackling fire and lively conversations. No, it was now or never. Even if that meant I was walking straight into a hurricane; that was better than wasting away in the comfort of routine and expectation.
I took a deep breath and placed my foot on the cobbled bridge that led out of the village and towards the Forrest of Furies. There were rumors of fearsome beasts and midnight Whisps that delighted in confusing the wayward traveler. It was time I learn what truths this strange place carried. It was time start the journey.
What kind of tale would Bilbo have been able to tell if the path to the Lonely Mountain had been paved and well-traveled? It is all but a requirement that things will start out a bit rocky, and you will run into countless monsters. It is the tests that must be overcome and the burdens that must be carried that crystalize a character into their greatest version. So stand proud when you face the struggle, because by facing it you are becoming your very own hero.
This past week I made my first valiant attempt at rescuing my Muse. To be honest, I probably looked a bit more like Don Quixote rather than Geralt of Rivia as I charged into my personal battle. But the key here is: I still charged in. In spite of everything inside of me telling me to give myself a break and do it tomorrow- I tried. Did I fail? Oh, spectacularly. But I also stumbled across a few unexpected successes.
This past week I wound up working a lot more overtime than expected; I’m talking 12 hour days- grueling, to say the least. The primary reason: I’m a millennial, and according to everyone in my organization, that must mean that I am an expert in all things tech related. Why yes, you all caught me; my first language wasn’t English, it was C++, I built my own droid when I was six months old, and I can figure out what is wrong with an entire computer system just by whispering sweet nothings to the monitor. Sarcasm aside: I don’t consider myself particularly techy, but I guess it’s a relative term, since it was agreed that I’m good enough to be on the tech team (gulp- it consists of the only 3 millennial in our organization, funny, huh?). But I digress.
My point being: it required a lot of extra mental energy for me to problem-solve my way through the work day. By the time I got home, my brain felt like a shriveled little raisin. I was exhausted (and moody- sorry to every living being in my household, including the plants). To be honest, I felt completely defeated. Here I was straining all day long in the hopes that I could come home and work on the things that truly spark a passion in my soul. I wanted to write, to create, to draw, to make up my own dance moves in the kitchen while waiting for the chicken to cook. I wanted to live my best creative life, because, damn it, I promised myself I would. But real life has a way of slapping you in the face when you refuse to adjust your plans. And it can hit pretty hard.
So here’s the catch (you knew there would be one, didn’t you? I wouldn’t just drop you off in that dark defeated place and say ‘see ya, I gotta meet up with a guy to teach him how to rotate a PDF’). No, there was a stunning realization I made that changed my entire outlook on my creativity project and my work-life balance. I’ve always known that creativity isn’t just art: it isn’t only found between the pages of a book or hung up on a wall behind an ornate frame. No, true creativity is versatile, it’s found in everything that we do, it is something that truly makes us human and sparks a fire in our soul. I spent my evenings feeling awful that I didn’t have enough energy left to create. And yet, what was it that sapped every last ounce of brain juice I had left? It was a different type of creation- it was a form of creativity that I didn’t count as being ‘genuine’ because it wasn’t intentional on my part.
I spent my entire week assisting my team in building something clunky, unweildy, and kind of beautiful. I created this behemoth using a medium I don’t general dabble in. I assisted in making a system that would allow my organization to continue functioning in this new virtual world we are all trying to navigate in. I carved the “cogs” of this oversized machine as I painstakingly trained overwhelmed coworkers. I found a way to break it all up into bite-size pieces and compare to less-intimidating tasks they’ve already done. I spent hours putting out one fire after another; creating a patch solution that would get us through the morning until we could fix whatever hardware had malfunctioned. I was exhausted at the end of the day because it took every ounce of creativity to come up with those solutions. It took ingenuity and whole lot of luck- and that’s exactly what this ‘Rescue the Muse’ project is all about.
Would I prefer to learn how to paint something beautiful? Draw my very own comic book? Make the cosplay outfit of my dreams? Or finish one of a dozen stories hanging out there in limbo? Of course I would- those things have always been passions of mine. But there’s some merit to be found in creating a tool you didn’t know you needed, in finding a path that you can lead an entire organization down. Creativity does not just belong to the creative arts- it belongs to all of us in every field.
And I have to say, I think that’s a pretty damn good way to start an adventure: by realizing you had been on a path headed towards one for far longer than you thought. Truthfully, I’m still holding out hope that this coming week I’ll find more time for my ‘personal’ projects. I’m taking advantage of this long weekend and writing up a storm, researching some pretty awesome ideas, and building up the stamina I’ll need for the next week. Plus, I have some items in my fridge that really need to be used soon- items that would be perfect for an at-home version of Chopped. I can’t even begin to tell you how excited I am to make someone else eat it. With any luck, I will be sharing storied and horrible drawings, and perhaps a few terrifyingly new recipes in the coming days; but we’ll see what awaits us beneath at canopy of trees up ahead.
Until next time, my brave adventurers- keep up the good fight, and don’t stop creating, even if those creations aren’t what you expected.
I couldn’t remember what happened after I washed ashore; I heard the panicked voices of the villagers that found me before I succumbed to the darkness encroaching on the edges of my vision. I’m not sure how much time had passed before my eyes finally opened again, but judging by the stiffness in my joints, it must have been a while. The blankets they had draped over me were scratchy and thin, but a crackling fire in the hearth kept me warm. The innkeeper was a kind, rosy-cheeked woman who always prodded me to drink a second bowl of soup every night after the doctor saw to me. It took a week to convince them I was able to leave my sickbed and make my way out into the small village.
The innkeeper sent her young stable boy to accompany me, not trusting that my shaky legs would be able to carry me back to the modest establishment. As we wandered the cobbled streets, I couldn’t help but notice the dreary store windows, empty of wares, or the way that so many of the villagers jumped at the slightest noise. When I asked my young companion, he scratched at the back of his neck and kicked at a pebble before suggesting we make our way back to the inn for supper and a story.
Over a meat pie and oversized ale the young boy told the tale of his sweet village, “It was a very different place once,” he took a tentative sip from his drink. “Plenty to eat, toys in the windows, oxen to help work the fields. People traveled from all over the realm to visit our seashores, it was a happy place to grow up. But then the orcs came- driven from the mountains by the three dragons who decimated the upper lands. They plundered our realm and cut off our trade routes. Our resources dried up. Those who could leave did, and the rest of us just do what we can to get by. They’ve made their camp just to the north, in the ruins of the old farmlands. If nothing changes, then I fear the worst for my little home.” He glanced to me thoughtfully before venturing to ask, “You are on a quest, aren’t you?”
I nodded and told him of my beautiful and daring Muse, locked away from me up in the tower of an old castle. My young friend nodded his head slowly, spearing a soft chunk of carrot and popping it into his mouth. “Well, we may have to get a bit creative in the shops, but I will try to help you gather supplies for your journey.”
In these modern times there are a million different tools at your disposal to assist with your creative endeavors. Want to make a Chewbacca outfit? You can pay an exorbitant amount for the right fabric and find a pattern online to help. Want to bake the world’s best carrot cake? There’s an app for that (and a few baking contraptions that promise to do all of the work for you while you idly sit in the kitchen). You can purchase the best markers, electronic drawing pads, pre-cut fabric with step-by-step directions to make the perfect Harry Potter quilt. But what happens when the world locks down and you have to get creative with your creativity? What do you do when you can’t just pop over to the store and any online retailer has a three-week wait? That, my friends- is when you truly learn to be innovative with your ideas. You learn to repurpose what you have to make something new. You can refashion an old cardboard box into a treat-whack-a-mole for your (very) bored dog. It was a lot of fun until he realized he could try to tip it over to get to the orange snack of his dreams (carrots have always been a favorite).
Back in the ‘old world’ I was the type of person who would research the best supplies and techniques for any project. I would stock up with far too many options before dipping my toes into the work (fully aware of any possible hacks to save a little bit of time). But the beauty of Quarantine Creativity? It requires some extra ingenuity. The name of the game this month: figuring out how to use what you already have on hand.
Today’s goal: make a mental inventory of what wares your little home-shop has and how you can work those into your creativity quest. Are there any projects you’ve had sitting around for a while? Any old items you dug up during your spring cleaning that you were planning on driving to the dump? Any stories you’ve had percolating in the back of your mind? A pile of weeds in your backyard you want to weave into a basket (no judgment, I have a heap of my own little yard demons mocking me from the window). Make a list of challenges, steal some of the ones I’m attempting from the list below, google ideas, ask a friend what random hobbies that have- you might be surprised what you come up with.
Your first mission, should you choose to accept it: create your map. My original plan had been to make a daily challenge for anyone who chose to participate; and while I’ll still post the route I’m attempting to follow- I can recognize that we are all in very different positions right now, and what will work for one person won’t even be a conceivable option for another. Some might have extra time on their hands to do a deep-dive into a project, and others might only get a couple of minutes to skim the surface, some might need to integrate other family members into their plans, or need to take a pause to deal with health issues. So think of this as more of a choose-your-own-adventure story. The world is a bit topsy-turvy right now, and no one should be obligated to hold themselves to the same standards they would have in the ‘before’ time.
My personal path is geared towards overall creativity in my life; reigniting the spark that I’ve lost in my daily adulting, so my projects will probably be all over the board for a bit. While I had hoped to complete one challenge every single day, I know that isn’t going to be realistic for me. Right now I’m working a lot of overtime that requires a ton of extra problem solving. Translation: by the end of the day my brain has shrunk down like a raisin. I’m trying to be realistic about the fact that I might have to chip away at these projects instead of deep dive into them like I want to.
A few things that made my list of creative possibilities (separated out into categories because I could):
novelize a scene from my favorite movie/TV show
Pick a random line in a book and build a story off of it
Write a short story about a modern day Don Quixote
Think of a common saying (ex: an apple a day keeps the doctor away), and write a horror story about it
Write a poem about how you are feeling right now
Write a fan fiction
Turn your playlist to shuffle and write a plot based on the songs you hear
Chopped: Home Edition (Challenge Mode: Cutthroat Kitchen)
Make a tasty treat inspired by a book you’ve read
Create a ‘new’ mixed drink using what you have on hand (alcohol not required)
Make a themed meal (ex: based on a movie, a place, a person) Bonus points if there is an activity afterwards
Try to make an old favorite treat yourself from scratch (ex: Hostess cupcakes, twinkies, little Debbies, those oatmeal cookies with the cream inside)- if you are looking for some inspiration or recipes to help you: there are a ton of YouTube videos, I love the Bon Appetit Test Kitchen, but they tend to be way above my skill level
Recreate an ‘adult version’ of a kid’s meal (chicken nuggets, bagel bites, macaroni and cheese, top ramen– extra points for this last one because making genuine ramen is heckin hard)
Adventures in Art
try out a cartoon learn-to-draw video
use what I have to draw a picture of Link and Oreo (my two crazy critters)
paint coasters with nerdy/book themes (I already had this one laying around from the pre-COVID times, but never got around to it)
Bob Ross style class with the tools I have (honestly- probably some crayons and colored pencils)
Make a comic strip
string art (also something I had from the pre-Covid times and never got around to)
Cosplay using items in your house (it can be an existing character or one you created on your own- backstory is a must)
Plan my future Harry Potter escape room (originally supposed to be a part of my birthday party, but it was cancelled when the world closed- so now I have time to plot it out and make it even cooler)
Figure out how to fix something that broke during a fall down the stairs (only the object was hurt)
Redecorate/organize the writing space
Learn to knit
Make some Dobby-sized hats
patch my jeans…without a real patch
sew some masks
make paper/fabric flowers
paper airplane competition
Lush-Us Lessons: Learn something new and write about it- can be literally anything
Neil Gaiman master class on writing
world history on Khan Academy
creativity and the brain
(seriously, I cannot stress this enough: anything)
The Great Outdoors
plant something pretty
go for a walk, no headphones, just your thoughts (also works for any form of gardening)
Sidewalk chalk portraits
Name your plants
make a gnome home/fairy den
Journaling through the Tough Stuff
Oldie but goodie: What would you do if you knew you couldn’t fail? What’s stopping you from trying anyway?
What’s one thing you need to forgive yourself for?
Name three things you like most about yourself? (bonus point: list three things you like about your appearance in addition to who you are as a person)
Write a letter to your past or future self
Name five things you are grateful for
Hardest thing you ever went through and how it changed you- the good and the bad.
What are your core values?
What do you think would make you happy?
Keep creating, my friends, the muse still waits in that dragon-guarded castle, but we are well on our way to that looming mountain.