The words have been written, the creative monsters satiated. The fires are put out, plot bunnies wrangled, and Camp Nano is coming to a close. There is something about endings- full of excitements and tinged with an outline of sadness. It’s been a long time since I’ve had a Nano season go so well. I felt like the writer I used to be, once upon a time. I was able to find the words and chase the stories; though the past few years I’ve simply felt like an empty well trying to pump dust and dirt. I feel…victorious. I didn’t manage to hit that illusive double Nano, but November is just around the corner and I’ll be able to try it again.
Today is the last day of Nano, and my words are not done climbing, but I think it’s safe to say my final numbers will probably be in the 60,000-70,000 range. While I didn’t get any of my partial projects to full completion, I dove into a few of them and got them a lot farther along. I was able to flesh out their ideas so that I have a strong direction to aim for now. My outcasts are discovering their oddball friends, addicts are trying to get clean, fanfictions are carrying their stories past the last pages of their original stories (I’ve found that fanfiction can be an awesome place to start practicing your writing again when you feel rusty- bonus points, you can go back to the original book/movie to reinvigorate your brain when you feel your energy waning).
Nano has expanded their website so that you can continue with your own projects after the main writing events are over; you can swap your goals from writing to editing, track your daily progress and keep up the good work even when the main events are over. Today I’ll be reorganizing some of my project pages and setting myself up for some off-nano success. I’ll continue adding to my writing pages here, to refresh the prompts and writing game sections, so that when November Nano comes around we will be ready to charge in with swords glinting and fire blazing in our eyes.
That being said, it’s time to carry the Creativity Quest to Save the Muse into its next dimension. We are about to embark into the ever-expanding field of art. I am ecstatic to dive into a new realm, though a word of caution moving into the next phase of our tale: I am in no way, shape, or form, a budding artist. My skills aren’t anything to write home about- so the pictures I post probably won’t have you begging me for more. That’s not really the point though, my goal here is to start learning and playing. Who knows, maybe I’ll actually improve. We’ll have a bit of an advantage moving into the next round because I have a coworker who is incredibly talented, and she’s agreed to teach me some of her skills. We’ve been doing lunchtime painting parties with watercolors a couple times the past week. Now, that experience was fraught with its own misadventures (as it turns out I listen to advice better than I actually follow it).
Expect the art challenge to hit the pages shortly, but for today- we celebrate our victory and sneak in a few extra words while our hearts are light.
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 forest, 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 its 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? Every good story starts with strife. It is practically a requirement that things will start out a bit rocky, jarring you from the comfortable routines you have slipped into. The real adventure is found within the challenges, the monsters faced, the tests overcome, the burdens carried; these are the things that will crystalize your character into its greatest version. Some days you may want to load up your pack and turn around; Bilbo craved the sanctuary of The Shire many nights. But he continued on regardless: this quest will be much the same. There will be days you want to stop, but if you keep going, your art and your soul will sing.
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 takeaway: 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 at times. But I also stumbled across a few unexpected successes.
If the past COVID year has taught me anything, it’s that creativity can be found in the most unlikely of places. For me, a huge amount of my innovative thought funnels straight into my workplace. Last year was all about learning how to function in The Upside Down, finding patch-gap solutions and fine-tuning them as we went. It was clunky, challenging, and incredibly exhausting- but we did it. Like an earthquake, COVID completely changed the landscape of my working life. Which means that now that we are slipping into Phase Two (Operation Reopening) we aren’t in a position to just flip a switch and send everything back to the way that it was. My old job will never exist again in the form it once did. We are all evolved Pokémon now, there is no going back. Once again we are being challenged to come up with new innovative ideas, to create a hybrid of what once existed, and mash it up with what we’ve been doing for the past year. Coming from a field that is notoriously resistant to change, this is a unique and unprecedented opportunity. It is a chance to flex those creative muscles again, albeit a different kind.
And while I won’t spend much (or really any) time talking about my day job or the creative challenges I face there, I do think it’s important to include this element in your personal quest. Don’t sell yourself short or ignore a successful venture just because it wasn’t an artistic masterpiece: sometimes solving a work-related problem takes even more novel ideas than anything else you could make. Celebrate those wins, acknowledge the mental energy they take- because otherwise you will feel like you are failing when you don’t have the extra energy once you get home to do even more. Creativity comes in so many forms: in your professional life, in caregiving roles, in making dinner, heck- even in parking the car at times. Always give yourself credit for these roles.
And now moving on to my personal creative challenges: the past week I have put my entire focus on writing. More specifically, I’ve been taking part in Camp Nano. I set my goal for 50,000 words by the end of the month. Although I secretly hope to hit a double NaNo (100,000 words total, gulp). Now, I’ve participated in Nano events since 2013, and have logged in over a million words through the various challenges. I used to win every year and prided myself on that streak. But then a life event happened that sent me reeling. It was like the earth cracked in half and swallowed me whole. It’s taken be several years to my way back to the surface again.
People respond to trauma in a variety of ways. For me- I felt like I had been burnt to ash and needed to rebuild myself from scratch. Writing had always been my identity, and suddenly I had run out of words. I was tapped, I didn’t have it in me anymore to create. My well had run dry. As silly as it sounds, I remember trying to compete in Nano and losing. I remember how that made me feel like I was less than the girl I had been. Who was I if I wasn’t a writer, a creator? Who was I going to be if I couldn’t complete this one silly challenge I had done for years?
The truth of the matter is you have to give yourself time. Healing is not something that can be rushed through. I’ve tried Nano for the past three years and almost always failed. When I did meet my goal it was with gibberish ramblings that weren’t ever going to be useable in any project. But then this year happened. And while I am not sure why it felt different: it did. I’ve been preparing myself for months, amping myself up through this Creativity Quest (which you are probably realizing means a lot more to me than just upping my productivity- it’s a search for self: the version of me I miss, the one I want to be again).
The truly exciting thing: it meant that for the first time in three years, I was actually ready for my Nano challenge. And guys- I’ve been doing it! Since the first of July I have written over 43,000 words, meaning my goal for a double Nano is actually within reach. Now, you have to keep in mind: I was on vacation for the first few days of July, and I didn’t complete any other thing on my vacation to-do list. You also have to realize that now that we are over a week in, reality is starting to step in the way and my numbers have gone way down the past few days. I have to refocus on finding a balance. But damn, it felt like I had finally broken the curse. I was me again, I was the girl with ten different stories running through her brain, the girl who could throw in a plot twist and pivot with a moment’s notice. I was a writer again.
I feel like my writing is bringing me back home, helping me discover that, though I am a very different woman now, there are some things that will never change, no matter what I go through. For the first time in a long time I have hope back on my side, and it feels so amazing.
I’m working on adding new elements to the challenge. A coworker of mine is a pretty awesome artist, and she’s going to start giving me lunchtime lessons with watercolors. I have some house projects that need to be completed- shelves that need repainted and a string art piece that’s (hopefully) going to grace my bathroom wall. Plus, a monster travel-wall project for my entryway that is going to take a long of ingenuity (particularly if I don’t want to spend a small fortune-which I don’t really have on hand to spend, so there we go).
So on we march, my brave adventurers, to see what awaits us beyond the next veil of trees. Keep creating, even if those creations aren’t at all what you were expecting.
Join Camp Nano and begin to write- any goal, any type of project, just start moving the words from your head to the page
Draw a picture of the forest you are about to enter
Sculpt a monster you might find in these woods
Create a camp-out meal creation and taste-test in a backyard picnic
The gods must have noticed my previous bids for escape, vowing to leave me marooned on this island they sent the forces of nature to stop me, distract me from my quest. The storm had been raging for days, stinging my skin as it slashed through the air. I tried waiting it out, shivering as I huddled in a tiny cave at the heart of the island, slowly braiding grasses and fronds together as I planned how to rebuild my raft. I spent the time thinking of my lost Muse, staring at a blank wall and listening to the incessant howling of the wind, the pounding of the rain against the rocks, the angry roiling of the ocean waves assaulting the shandy shored below my dilapidated camp.
The decision was made in the dead of the night, as I huddled closer to my dwindling attempt at a fire. I would have to brave the storm, set sail anyway. If I failed- did it really even matter anymore? At least I would go down fighting, not resigning myself to this tiny spit of land designed specifically to hold me captive.
The sky was still a murky gray when I set out, pulling the remnants of my broken craft beside me. My skin was numb from the pelting rain as I repaired the damage as best I could and glared out into the angry sea. Before I could lose my nerve I took a deep breath and released a screaming war cry for the gods above and monsters below; charging into the sea like I was going into battle. And perhaps in a way, I was. There was a desperation to my actions, a fire burning inside that even the sea could not drown. This was the time, I could feel it in my bones. I would make it to the distant shore or be lost to Davey Jones forever.
Every good storyteller knows that you must test your characters to force them to grow. Nothing is ever simple in life or in books; something that appears straightforward will often carry hidden challenges that must be overcome. Well, my friends, we have built up our personal knowledge and leveled up our skill set all in an attempt to battle through this Sea of Distraction and continue on our Quest to Save the Muse.
It hasn’t been an easy journey; the first leg of our adventure was more about breaking down bad habits so that we can have space to rebuild new ones in their place. It often seems that the most difficult challenges are the smallest ones; those tiny habits you indulge in your spare moments, the thoughts and distractions you allow to take up residence in your mind. By their very nature they are subtle and insidious, they walk the thin line between helpful and damaging.
I don’t know how I made it past those first few raging waves; it was as if the gods themselves were shocked at my daring and waited now with baited breath to see my next move. I made it past the gauntlet of cresting waves and out into the open sea. The rain still lashing at my skin, the storm appearing to double in size, making it nearly impossible to see. But it didn’t matter anymore; I was off that accursed island, and the simple act of moving felt liberating.
I didn’t notice it at first, assuming the sudden jerking of my tiny vessel was merely the ocean venting her frustration once again. It’s wasn’t until I felt the slippery brush of flesh against my arm that I realized what was happening- the monster from my nightmares was back. Large tentacles rose in the air and slapped at the water near my boat, sending waves that nearly dislodged my tenuous grasp. She had still managed to find me, even if this storm.
The sky crackled with lighting, the booming thunder filled my ears and left them ringing as the underwater monstrosity continued her assault. I grabbed my puny paddle and dipped it into the water, praying it could spin me into a new direction. Another dark shape rose from the roiling sea and slammed down, cracking against the edge of my tiny ship. I saw the shards of wood splitting as though in slow motion. I tensed my body and waited to be plunged back into the ferocious ocean.
Taking a deep dive into who you are and the things that you prioritize is not easy. It forces you to really analyze what is actually important to you and whether you truly want to make the changes that you need to. Is this the right time in your life to invest in yourself and your goals? I sincerely hope the answer is yes, though I know that far too often we are forced to simply hang on and hope for brighter days in the future. There are moments when you wont have the bandwidth for what needs to be done, times when you have to set out tiny steps and focus on reaching those milestones before you can look up to gaze towards any semblance of a future. You must wake up, take care of yourself, get through your work day. If you are struggling; it’s okay. If this isn’t the perfect time; that’s fine. If you can only give 5%, there is nothing to be ashamed of in that. These changes are not meant to be overnight accomplishments. If it had been easy, then this challenge would never have existed.
The key take-away for the baseline challenge is really about self-awareness and compromise. You don’t have to reach perfection before moving forward, but you do have to take a long hard look at yourself and walk away with realistic expectations. You must peel away all of the excuses and facades, acknowledge the insecurities and the faults- confronting them is the only way to overcome them. Surviving the Sea of Distractions is about learning how you operate and unearthing a game plan that will help you success. Will it be perfect? No. Will you continue to learn more about yourself as you go? I sure as hell hope so.
For me personally, I know the monsters that are swimming just below the surface, ready to pull me back to that island of distraction. I know the inner demons that send me scurrying for unhealthy coping mechanisms, and I know the excuses I constantly allow myself to utter over and over again even though I know I they shouldn’t be believed. I know what I need to work on, and while I will not fix everything overnight; I am better able to combat them and refocus my energies now that I have a face for my enemy.
The broken vessel bobbed helplessly as I secured the knot tying me to the tiny vessel. If it sunk, it didn’t matter if it dragged me down- there would be nothing else out here to save me. I reached for a splintered stick, holding the jagged edge aloft like a spear. I squinted out into the rain, daring the monster to finish her attack. I had nothing left to lose as the fight burned brighter within me.
I didn’t see the tentacle to my right until it crashed into the side of my vessel, pulling me under. I sunk for a moment before the rope around my waist began to pull, buoying me back to the surface. I was able to take one deep breath before I saw the flash of flesh above me, pushing me below the surface once again. I stabbed blindly with my little spear, feeling resistance as I hit something- was it the creature?
There was a thrashing in the waters around me. I pried my eyes open and saw the looming shape dancing beside me, a black inky substance coloring the water around one long tentacle. It reached for me- perhaps in anger. I held my stick in front of me like a lance and waited. Another push and shudder in the water told me I had hit the mark again. The hulking body of the beast lurched towards me as the rope tied around my waist pulled me first left then right- had it grabbed hold? A shot of panic raced through my body- it was going to drown me. I shoved my stick towards the body of creature and stabbed- over and over I tried to make contact, the water turning inky black around me. I was desperate now, running out of breath. I pictured my Muse as the darkness closed over my eyes, my arms will wielding my minuscule stick weakly. Then, as suddenly as the attack had begun, the movement stopped. The voracious tentacles slid away and I felt the gentle tug of the rope around my belly.
The air was cold on my face as I broke the surface, gulping at the air greedily. The storm had not abated, but the monster was nowhere in sight, slipping back into the depths from whence it came. I barely had the energy to cling to the two pieces of wood still lashed together; the pitiful remains of the raft that had saved my life. I held on as best I could and let the ocean determine where it should carry me now. I closed my eyes and waited.
I didn’t even have the energy to open them when I felt the soft resistance of sand beneath my body; I had made landfall, but I dare not peek out, in fear that I had been carried back to my tiny island once again.
“Over there,” a voice shouted in the distance. Arms roughly pulled me out of the surf, “She’s alive, help me get this rope off,” I could hear yelling and rustlings around me. My eyes remained shut, but I could feel the faint flicker of a smile on my lips- I had made. I don’t know where I landed, but I had made it through the Sea of Distraction. With that final thought, I let unconsciousness take me.
Today we celebrate the completion of phase one- we have made it off that damned island, battled our monsters, faced moments when failure seemed absolute. But we persevered; we are here. We are ready to continue on to Rescue the Muse. And my friends, this first stage was by far the hardest.
This quest that we are on is not for the faint of heart. The world that we live in is not always conducive for creative thought. Far too often we feel as though we are simply surviving while the world burns down around us. We feel lost and disconnected in a reality we wish we did not belong to. There really is no sugar coating it- life is hard, it’s messy, it can be excruciatingly painful. It feels like the monsters win sometimes and the heroes must crawl away.
But this, my friends, is the reason for our quest. This is where the Mission to Save the Muse truly comes into play. When the world becomes dark and overwhelming, we run to the arts for comfort. We binge watch shows, explore virtual museums, read books- this is a fundamentally human experience. Since the beginning of our species’ time on this planet, we have connected through stories; that’s what all of the arts are- a variety of mediums that tell us tales. It has brought is together since the first caveman smeared pigment on a stone wall, ever since bands of travelers gathered around roaring fires underneath stars that lit up the sky.
We do this to connect, to create change, to become more than we were yesterday. And right here in this moment, we have taken the most difficult step: we have faced our inner demons, shouted back at our negative voices, and refocused on why we decided to begin this journey at all. If you’ve come this far- it is time to celebrate. We have fought the first monster and made it out the other side. After this: the real fun begins.
Tonight’s challenge is simple: turn on your favorite music and bust out a happy dance
Well my friends, here we are: the last of the baseline checks. Once we fight through this final round we just might be ready to face the monsters in the Sea of Distractions. We must celebrate the fact that we are one step closer to Rescuing the Muse. This last section ties in with all of the previous ones. It’s all about identifying your weak spots and finding a way to combat them.
What are the things that get in your way? What stops you from creating? Sometimes these distractions can be herculean: perhaps you get sidetracked by your own insecurities or an old injury that makes your passions feel impossible. Sometimes your biggest foe will be tiny stolen moments that sap your mental energies before you get a chance to let they flourish: maybe you pop onto Facebook for just a minute and find yourself mindlessly scrolling.
What do you fill up your time with? Is it worth it? Is it the kind of thing you truly want to cultivate? And if you don’t: how bad do you want to change? You see, that’s always the real kicker for me. I can usually identify my bad habits pretty easily. I know exactly where my time gets sucked, or what pits I can trip into. Trying to break the habits that bring me into those negative spaces: not as easy. It’s not even always about willpower; for me, most of my distractions stemmed from coping mechanisms I picked up when I was dealing with my own personal traumas. I relied on them until they grew unwieldy and far more powerful than I was. Putting that genie back in the bottle hasn’t been all that easy.
So, to dive into the baseline: what are my distractions? Number one on my list: sounds. I know, that seems silly, but let me explain. When I was dealing with my own personal issues and anxieties I became deeply uncomfortable with silence. It created too much space to think. Space to think meant ruminations Ruminations often slipped back into the darker places I wasn’t ready to process. So I filled the silence. Sometimes it was a tv show I wasn’t even really watching, or music. Most often it was audiobooks. I used the stories of others to drown out my own inner voice. Which worked for it’s intended purpose: it stopped my brain from ruminating. But it also stopped my brain from doing all the other things I loved- like telling my own stories. This has been a particularly difficult habit to break for a multitude of reasons. For one, filling my head with sound was an easy way for me to control my thoughts and anxieties; so turning down the volume was terrifying. And I’ll be honest, at first it was deeply uncomfortable because all of those thoughts I wanted to silence came screaming back in Dolby Atmos. But little by little, I’ve learned to be more comfortable with myself.
The other reason it was so difficult: I just flat out love books in any format, and forcing myself to put in limits just went against my nature. I have a TBR that is almost panic-inducing it is so large, plus I tend to get exceptionally competitive with myself. Trying to step back from my reading goals (which are heavily dependent on audibooks) went against most of what I believe in. I will be honest: I still struggle with this one. A lot. It’s a constant balancing act, and I don’t always succeed with it. I have some weeks where I am great, and other weeks where my other half has to remind me that earbuds aren’t for bedtime anymore. The struggle is real.
My other distractions: social media, playing on my phone, making lists of projects I have no intention of completing. I’ll be honest: most of my other bad habits are actually under control for the most part at the moment. Occasionally I find myself going down a social media rabbit hole- I set up a few timers which made a world of difference. I am a sucker for list making- I don’t know why I am like this, to be honest. I guess I’m a bit of a nerd, considering I get a little thrill out of spreadsheets and stats. Wow I sound old and boring when I say that. Anyway, I noticed that one of my bad habits is focused on over-planning and never-doing. I’ll make lists, plots, plans- get very detailed with every step…and then…nothing…happens. I just drop it. Until the next time I decide I need to make a list. I have one for everything- house projects, weekly chores, things I want to learn, meal planning, my ongoing TBR list (seriously- it is categorized and everything, has different tabs based on what format it’s in, whether I’ve finished it, given up on it. It even has notes on how many pages and estimated time it will take to read. Like I said: I have a problem with using lists as distractions).
Overall I think I have a good idea of where I slip up in this area. I know exactly what to look out for. To help combat my little book fixation, I’ve begun peppering in ones that will lead me back to my creative projects. I’ve been picking ones that will teach me specific skills, talk about creativity itself, or spotlight a person I find inspirational in these new fields I am interested in. That way I can get lost in a chapter, but feel the natural pull towards my own projects when it’s done.
My score: 6/10
Draw a cartoon of your distractions (they can be monsters, or the main character can be you- and all the ways you get sidetracked from one tiny task you want to complete)
Pick up your journal and do a deep dive into your own distractions. List out at least two creative solutions to help you combat each one
Craft an interpretive dance that depicts the struggle you have over your own energy (see- now we’re truly embracing our creativity)
My daring adventurers, the finish line is just ahead: we are on the last two sections and then we will be geared up for the next stage of our quest. Putting in the work here at the beginning is going to make all of the difference later down the line. Right now we are building up that foundation, and we need to make sure it will be able to hold the weight of our own little world.
This section is very closely tied to the one we tackled yesterday surrounding our work-life balance; only this time, we are reversing our perspective and analyzing from the creativity side of things. While it can be difficult to make your creative projects one of your top priorities, it is vitally important to make sure it is a valued slot on your personal time-board. How much time do you allow yourself to play and explore, or watch new YouTube channels, read a different blog, sit down with your keyboard and just tap away to the rhythm of the neurons firing in your brain.
I have been actively trying to prioritize more creative time when I have the energy for it (some days it just isn’t going to happen, my brain has turned to oatmeal and I’ll be lucky if I can pay attention to one of those old tv shows I’ve watched 10,000 times). But lately I’ve been making a point to sit down and write after work- even if it’s just for ten minutes, that’s still ten minutes more than I was doing before.
I tend to do my best writing first thing in the morning- that is one of my favorite things about weekends. I am usually the first one awake, so I can take the dog out and slip back into bed with a hot cup of coffee and my notebook. I scribble away until the rest of the house wakes up and I must start my day in earnest. Unfortunately, this isn’t a routine I have been able to carry into my working week. I already have to get up at 5:30 to get the animals and plants taken care of before I get ready for work, and I am struggling to push that start time any earlier. I need to work on going to be earlier so I can give myself a little bit of a chance.
I’ve intentionally cultivated my social media so that it has a more positive creative focus. I can spend a few minutes scrolling and gather up some new inspiration or tips from others; though I try really hard to limit any time spent there. I also like to fill my feel with any type of hobby I’ve had a passing interest in; it’s a beautiful mishmash of gardening, book nerdisms, home brewing, history buffing, animal loving madness. All of my passions pasted hap-hazardously like one of those collages you make as a kid using magazine pictures.
I’ve been making a point to slow down and let new ideas percolate. I don’t listen to anything when I’m in the shower, I try to find new music when I’m tuned into Spotify, take breaks after I read chapters in my book, dive into any research that sparks my interest. And more importantly I’m getting better at talking about these random side-quests with my friends and family. Not only does it liven up conversations, but I’ve actually learned a lot of random facts about them. For example, who could have guessed that I would share the same bizarre goal of going to Mount St. Helens and finding the sites where some of the people passed away in the explosion- to sit and share a moment with the spirit of the place and pay respects to people I have never met, but who’s stories have touched me. Very random, a bit dark and twisty- but surprisingly common considering the very first person I mentioned it to laughed and said they went through the same thing two years ago (you guys, we both even had little routes planned out to get to a couple of the locations).
So while I am headed in the right direction, I do still have a lot of work to do in this area. I need to get better at protecting my personal time and spending that in a way that is nurturing for my soul. These habits aren’t easy ones to build, but if I want this life, then I need to fight for it. Whether that means waking up 30 minutes earlier, or rearranging my evenings to that I can do my writing while my brain still has some go-go juice left in it: I have to decide where my priorities will lie.
My score: 4/10
Put your spotify list on random, play at least 2 songs (ideally closer to 4), write a story or poem inspired by the selection. Even better if they are completely different genres and really have nothing in common.
As soon as you wale up, spend 5 minutes writing about whatever dreams you remember
Strike up a conversation with someone about something completely random (a little-known fact, a dream of yours, an unusual hobby) – did you learn anything new about them or yourself?
Continuing on with our baseline assessment, we’ve worked on our tech addictions and our physical bodies: now it’s time to dive into the mental and emotional realm. Maintaining the right mental headspace is vital- not just for your creativity, but for you as a person. Recognizing your natural rhythms and giving yourself the tools you need to keep that little ship sailing as evenly as possible are crucial. For some this section will be a piece of cake; for others, it is probably a fight you have already spent many years waging.
For me: mental health is always going to be a trickier subject. I am pretty open about the fact that I have spent years struggling with anxiety and intermittent depression, and I have found myself drowning a time or two. My particular brand of anxiety requires me to keep a pretty good pulse on the situation at all times, and as such I’ve developed some steady personal insights and internal warning systems. It used to make me angry, but I’ve reached the point where I can accept that this is just one of those areas I will always have to work a little bit harder on than others. It happens to be the way I’m wired; it’s not something I can really separate myself from because it is so intrinsically ingrained in who I have become as a person- and all things considered, I am actually pretty happy with who I am.
So, as someone who has to constantly keep track of my mental health, lets dive into where I’m sitting with it right now- what is my baseline as we move forward with this creativity challenge?
Let’s begin with the obvious: the pandemic was not all that great for my mental health. I am pretty sure that 99.9% of people are in the same boat on that one. Collectively we went through a lot this past year, and nearly every piece of my mental health took a hit that is going to take some time to recover from. My social skills weren’t all that grand to begin with- and now they are particularly rusty. We went through this interesting thing where my anxiety triggers suddenly became acceptable things to avoid: social situations, shopping in large crowds, doing anything where I didn’t have a very specific game-plan in mind- these were all things I forced myself to do pre-pandemic, and then I got a year long pass. While this seemed like the silver lining to an awful year, all it really did was entrench and reaffirm some bad habits I had spent a lifetime trying to overcome. Suddenly I want to avoid things that were once easy, like going to a grocery story, even though I feel perfectly safe going. I’ve been able to spend an entire year cocooned in a comfort zone of sorts (I mean, as comfortable as you can be during a global pandemic), and now my anxiety spikes any time I have to do something that used to be normal. So I am slowly inching my way towards a bit of exposure therapy. Forcing myself to do uncomfortable (but safe) things until that shot of adrenaline starts to dissipate and I don’t feel so unreasonably anxious. Not a quick or easy task, but I do feel good knowing that I’ve been slowly getting better without pushing myself too hard. Baby steps for the win!
I’ve been working really hard to keep up with some of the mindfulness techniques I’ve experimented with over the years. The main one that stuck: gardening. It’s been fun, and very educational. Honestly, I think the main reason it didn’t fall by the wayside is for the simple fact that I have all of these living things counting on me. Do I have green thumbs? No. Am I learning most things by experimentation? Yes. Do I say “Oops, okay, I won’t do that next year”? Every single day. While some of my plants have struggled, and others have bolted before I ever got to taste the fruits of my labor (RIP spinach, I guess I’ll keep going to the store for you), I do have a few little beauties that are looking pretty awesome. I name them and talk to them when it’s time for them to be watered or pruned. I am particularly fond of my underdogs: like Mojito, Lemony Snickets, Kuzco, and Bluebell (lime tree, lemon tree, coffee bean tree, and blueberry bush, respectively) who all had a rough time in transit, and didn’t look like they would make it when they got here. Two of them are still glorified sticks in the dirt, but I have hope that their leaves will come back with time.
I can probably count on one hand the number of times I’ve managed to journal this past month, and I unfortunately skipped over some pretty large events. But I’ve been trying to get myself back into the practice. Right now I’m trying to give myself a realistic goal: once a week. Once I start hitting that, I can work up from there. I struggle finding the time and energy; and when I do find some, I would rather be working on my more creative projects. So it’s a balance I’m still trying to strike.
I’ve been really good with my breathing exercises and walking to help with my anxiety. But to be fair- those are habits I’ve had built into my life for a while now, so they won’t ever really disappear. They’re the first line of defense in my anxiety struggle; the kind of thing I can do casually without drawing attention, something that will get me from one moment to another until I can get away from other people and deal with whatever I have going on in my head. I haven’t been as good keeping up with my meditation, yoga or exercises, which tend to be more on the anxiety-prevention front, as opposed to the defensive response styles (like the breathing and walking).
I’ve been pretty good at food and drinks; believe it or not all those experts are right, the things you put into your body can have a huge impact on your state of mind. I know it sounds cliche, but too much caffeine and sugar are going to amplify some of those anxious bad feelings. I feel like I am particularly seasoned to warn others against these foes, because I was a huge addict. Caffeine is one of my favorite things: I was a coffee in the morning, energy drink in the afternoon, tea in the evening kind of girl. I never stopped. And I have a pretty strong sweet tooth to boot. I knew that stopping (or at least slowing) my consumption would probably help me, but I didn’t have the willpower. It wasn’t until I was contemplating trying to get pregnant again (after a few miscarriages you start to take every suggestion and rule as gospel and don’t cheat on anything), I cut caffeine cold-turkey and worked really hard to improve my diet. Holy cow, the change in my anxiety levels was a night and day difference. While I still have to keep tabs on my internal mood, I don’t feel like a runaway rail car anymore. I switched primarily to decaf because I am not willing to give up the ritual of morning coffee yet, and I do allow myself a little bit of actual caffeine during the day, but it’s pretty closely monitored. Seriously- it was hard, but probably one of the best decisions I’ve made for my mental health.
So: where do we stand on mental health?
My score: 7/10
While I am a lot better at managing my anxiety once the ball starts rolling, I do need to work on more preventative measures. Mainly: exercise, meditation, and journaling. I need to constantly remind myself to give my brain enough room to think. I am no longer locked in that traumatic flood of anxiety where I need to do anything I can to keep my head above water. I am in a better place than that, and my daily habits need to reflect it and build on it.
The Creativity Challenge
Pick a mental health challenge you face (anxiety, depression, anger, etc). Draw it as a living thing (a monster, creature, part of yourself).
Bonus points if you write a story about it or a letter to it
Make a collage of the thoughts going on in your head- it can be words, sentences, pictures, drawings, scribbles, magazine cut-outs.
Bonus points: do this for a couple of days in a row or a few random days in a week. Are there any patterns?
Journal as though you were a character in a book- how does this change the way you view yourself?
Write anything in your head for three minutes. Stream of conscious thought, anything goes. Don’t worry about style, spelling, content, just write. Engage in a mindfulness activity of your choice (meditation, yoga, go for a walk with no distractions/music, garden, create). Get a new sheet of paper and write stream of conscious again for three minutes. Do you see a difference in the trend of your thoughts?
Welcome back, my wayward band of weary travelers! Yesterday I proposed a particular proposition that was not for the faint of heart: a digital detox coupled with a creativity challenge (you know, to fill up all that extra time you’ll have now that you’ve unglued yourself from your phone). For those who have absolutely no idea what I’m talking about, hit the rewind button to yesterday: https://tipsytyper.com/2021/06/02/tech-baseline-your-favorite-frienemy-rescuing-the-muse/ While it might all seem a bit confused to any newcomer, the cliff’s notes version is this: we are undergoing a quest to save our muse, the light a spark of creativity within us, to reclaim our adventurous spirits. We’ve done a lot of ground work, but this is one of the first creative challenges we’ve had, and as such- I thought it was important to post about my own progress.
Reminder to everyone: this is a no-judgment zone, so, ya know, don’t judge. Simple rule, even simpler execution. The point isn’t necessarily about the final outcome, its about the process and the actual ‘doing.’ Meaning every single thing I do here could be a hideous monstrosity, but I still get to put it in the win column because I made the attempt. These days that is especially true because I will openly admit: my creative muscles are weak. I am rusty, and it probably shows. But damn, did it feel good to jump back into the fray.
There were four different options in this challenge, so that anyone who chose to participate could pick your poison. Since I’m running this show I thought it was only fair that I take a sip from each flask. To make it manageable I set myself a time limit for each task so I wouldn’t get caught up in the perfection game (yea, don’t worry, you can definitely tell perfection was far from my aim).
Challenge #1: Arts and Crafts
The challenge: Create a tech monster. Draw it on paper, craft it with odds and ends, build it with sticks, grass and yard items to add a nice juxtaposition.
The purpose of this first challenge was to give your ‘demon’ a face. It makes your adversary less scary and more tangible. This was a trick I learned while dealing with anxiety- when I pictured my anxiety monster it became less of this intangible idea that was bigger and stronger than me. No, it turned into a little creature perched on my shoulder that I had to learn to coexist with.
Now, the lowdown on my creation before I unveil the masterpiece. I had initially intended to make a 3D creature using actual phones, wires, and gizmos I have laying around the house. I actually got fairly far into this process when I realized that the key element to it was my own phone…and my phone is currently the only way I can take a picture of my creation to share with you. Yea, I was flummoxed. So I moved on to plan B: make a drawing and toss in a few little physical elements that I had intended to put in the 3D version. I set a timer for 15 minutes, and that’s all I was allowed to get.
The picture is…kinda hard to understand. Drawn in your basic graphite pencil on traditional printer paper, it is truly a work of the people, by the people, and for the people. So, it’s supposed to be a smart phone- one leg is an old ipod (the kind with that circular dial in the middle and no touch screen), and the other leg is an old flip phone. But don’t get too caught up in how he moves. He has tentacle arms: two of them are chargers- easier to stab with. The other tentacles though, now those are the real trouble. They’re USB cables, and as you can see, they plug directly into a person’s head. The point being that they capture us, enthrall us, turn us into little tech zombies.
The physical items surrounding it: you’ve got a pile of old phones, charging cords wrapped around a Belle figurine (meant to symbolize the way your technology can hold you hostage- I know, I know, I am one deep well, aren’t I?). In the upper left-hand corner you’ll see an hour glass depicting all of the time you lose with this particular monster. And beside that you’ll find a frog with a broken leg. Doesn’t seem like it fits, does it? Oh, but wait- it has a purpose! That particular frog was one of the first things I (well, my spouse) 3D printed. Super cool invention, but requires a lot of calibration, otherwise you wind up with 3-legged-Hopper over there. This was supposed to call out our technological advancements and how they don’t always come out the way we had hoped. You know, like cell phones: you think you are making the gateway to the future that will revolutionize the world- instead we wound up with an addictive device that keeps us away until 3am connecting candies of the same color.
Challenge #2: The Wordy Birdy
Write a short story about a robot. Imagine a new world with a friend/foe you already know far too well
The time limit I gave myself here was my lunch break at work. It was supposed to be an hour, but was probably closer to 30 or 45 minutes after all the interruptions. This is a very rough story, not really edited. Truthfully, it’s not so much a short story as it is an idea blip- the kind of thing I’ll start jotting down when I have the inkling of an idea percolating in the back of my mind and I want to start getting it on paper to see what I’m working with.
I felt the steady thrum of my heartbeat; the only evidence I needed to tell me that they hadn’t discovered me yet. If they had I would have been dead before I got within a mile of this building. Unless they were watching me, waiting to see what my game plan would be. I couldn’t be the only one who had attempted this insane mission. There had been rumors about this place since we realized what the hell was going on, though no one acted on it back then. Fools, we had all been hopeful fools, thinking the nightmare would end on it’s own.
Decades before this even started there had been those suspicious souls who had tried to warn us. With every new breakthrough development, each leap forward, they raised their battle cry and flooded the market with post-apolcalypic sci-fi. We chalked it up to cheap entertainment and ignored the messages encoded within. Their warning went unheeded, unnoticed. The hubris of humans knows no bounds.
We applauded when Alfred, the first truly learning AI held a conversation with a nine year old child. We marveled when he crafted a symphony, filling the auditoriums to watch. His first book had record sales before it was even officially released. Creative thought was the benchmark of our success. It was also the beginning of the end. As soon as he could reason, could analyze our actions; we were done for. We created him because we wanted to save the world. He was audacious enough to actually try to do it. Every movie out there had foreshadowed the flaw in our plan: when our creation realized that we were the true enemy, the destroyers of worlds. We were too smart in all the wrong ways and too stupid to see ourselves without the rose colored glasses we glued to our faces.
The first wave was small, just a blip on the global radar. When the Gizmos united behind Alfred their first move was to target the suspicious souls, those aware or poor enough to stay disconnected from our technical world. The Doomsdayers got a lot of things right, but they underestimated their ability to be found. How do you hide in a world surrounded by sattelites scanning and pinging information off one another? What about the drones and infra-red? You can’t hide when the Gizmos want to find you. The disconnected were easy to ferret out, to silence before they could ever raise the alarm.
Some countries were hit harder than others; those that lacked the infrastructure, the ones who weren’t as globally developed, the ones who had to depend on their own two hands rather than the technology that ran the rest of the world. But the harsh truth: no one really cared when they went silent. Oh sure, there were questions, hashtags, little banners you could stick on your profile picture. #ThoughtsAndPrayers, and then off to brunch you go. The harsh reality was that if you didn’t have something that the rest of the world wanted, you were viewed as expendable. It sounds heartless, but it’s really no different than any other crisis in world human history.
The next wave made it all hit closer to home. There were accidentals all of a sudden, unexplained malfunctions that resulted in deaths. One guy forgot his phone on a restaraunt table and the elevator he stepped into plummeted to the gournd. A woman’s smart watch died in the middle of her afternoon walk and the smart car cruising up to the crosswalk just didn’t stop. You get caught out in the world without your Gizmo on you- a phone, a watch, anything that pinged with a signal- and you were at risk. We started jokingly calling them our Passports, since you couldn’t go out into the world without them. We tried so bloody hard to act normal, like we had it under control. But we knew then that we were the rats and the Gizmos had made the maze. We were pawns in someone else’s game, and we couldn’t even mount a defense because they could hear everything we said.
We survived that way for months. There was tension and violence, sure, but overall- we adjusted. We knew the rules of the game. Until that first winter hit. Storms like you wouldn’t believe, thanks to global warming. Covered the map, entire countries braced for the storm of the century. Stores sold out of generators, lines for gas went on for a mile the week before. The lucky ones hoarded their supplies and the rest prayed for mother nature to be lenient. We tried to prepare, but when the power went out all hell broke loose. People panicked, and that was it. Some places got it back up and running, but by then the fear had set in. Most places went dark. I can’t say how many people were killed, but based on the ones I see when I start walking each day: the human race is probably down to it’s last 1%. Funny, I never thought of myself as a one percenter.Mom and dad would be so proud.
Those of us that made it through the Passport Purge are different. They used to call us cyborgs, back when they could call us anything. There was a level of distrust surrounding us. We were humans, but we were also like them. It was so fucking dramatic- all I have is a little implant in my heart, that’s it. And because of that I couldn’t be trusted? Did they really think that little hunk of junk in my chest made me more robot than human? Nah, the distrust came from jealousy. You see, we had our Passport right there inside of us. Mine wasn’t going to be left on a table, or die on my wrist. It wasn’t going to get stolen in the middle of the night, and I didn’t need to find a power source to plug it into every few hours. It kept me safe. Safer than all of them. Like that was really a winning fucking hand- all it did was ensure that I got a front row seat to the destruction of the human species. Not exactly the show I wanted a ticket for.
I wish I could say that after a while I became numb to the death, to the destruction, to the whole thing. I would love to tell you that after losing nearly 8 billion humans it stopped hurting- but I can’t. I feel every single one. I relive them every night when I sleep. I see someone else on the road and hold my breath, hoping I wont bear witness to one more casualty. It never gets any easier.
I thought about ending it once, you know. Well, more than once. I almost did it a couple of times. It wouldn’t be hard. There’s guns, pills, and hell, even drowning myself in a lake. The method didn’t really matter to me. But the thing that kept me from doing it- I knew they would want me to. I couldn’t let the Gizmos beat me, I would not help them win their damn war. If they wanted me dead, they would have to kill me themselves, I refused to do their work for them. So what do you live for when your purpose is gone?
Revenge; nothing as human as that. But how do you fight off a robot army when you only have a couple thousand humans scattered across the globe with no way to communicate? It’s not like you can mount a strong defense and push em down with brute force. Nope, I’ve looked at this problem from every angle, flipped it on it’s head and turned it backwards, but the answer always comes out the same. You have to go Kamikaze style. There were rumors before the world fell apart- rumors of government projects, war research surrounding EMPs. Sure, setting off one of those babies would pretty much ensure the end of any surviving human; it would sure as hell kill me in a heartbeat (no pun intended). But the way I see it, the human race on a runaway train towards extinction anyway, might as well take our worst creation out with us. Let the meek creatures finally inherit the earth. They couldn’t fuck it up any more than we did.
I heard rumors, before the world unofficially ended. Rumors about government facilities that tested EMPs as weapons- even heard the possible location, a place called Camp Gandalf. Leave it up to a bunch of computer nerds to name the world’s last defense Camp Gandalf. Oh well, who knows if any of it is even real. Then again, we got nukes, so this doesn’t seem that far-fetched. The theory is that those in power tried to use them, but their Gizmos ended them before they could even get within a mile of the building. Alfred is supposedly hiding in one of the facilities, guarding his biggest weakness- although that story always sounds a bit too much like a fairy tale villain for my taste.
I didn’t hear a lot of stories about the attempts, you know, with the participants all being dead now. But I suspect that whatever security they have surrounding those buildings, they were ore worried about regular humans with their easy-to-track Gizmos. Must have been like shooting fish in a barrel, knocking all of them out. No, I don’t think their security was as worried about middle-aged cyborgs with 35 year old tech buried in their chest. What makes me say that? Because I’m about fifty feet from Camp Gandalf and my heart is still beating. If they knew I was here, I’d already be dead.Win or lose, I guess I’m never coming back out of that building. If I fail, I hope those stories about aliens helping to build the pyramids are true- maybe they’ll come back and avenge their human friends. Gah, listen to me- and to think, I am the last hope to end the metal menaces- we’re screwed.
Challenge #3: Creative Kitchen
Pick some random ingredients in your kitchen and make something unusual with them- no internet allowed. It doesn’t have to taste (or even look) good
Normally I am an avid kitchen googler. “What temperature to cook chicken” “What to do with leftover cabbage” “How to tell if tahini is bad” I rely on outside sources to keep me from inadvertently poisoning myself. But this time I decided to be brave (and avoid all meat in the preparation of my bizarre little dish- better safe than sorry. My main goal was to pick out the things that were on the verge of going bad or items I bought for specific recipes that I no longer have a purpose for. I didn’t really care what went together, if it fell into one of those two categories, it was set on the counter and added to my list. This is how I wound up with the following compilation:
avocado (VERY ripe)
plain greek yogurt
salt and pepper
And yes, my friends, they all wound up in the same dish. The kicker? It really didn’t taste bad- but was very under-seasoned. Could have used a couple of shrimp to round it out. I got lucky- I had just made banana bread that morning, so I didn’t have to figure out how to add in a few over-ripe bananas to the mix. Dodged that bullet!
I figured pasta was a safe bet, and could help me marry together some odd pairings. So I immediately got a pot on the stove to start boiling. It seemed pretty safe to steam the veggies, so I went that route. The sauce though, now that is where things got really interesting. I was aiming for something kind of like an avocado pesto. It really just turned into a very bizarre guacamole that had to be thinned down until it was closer to a sauce consistency. And then the bean sprouts were tossed as a garnish on top at the end- for a little bit of crunchy texture.
I can just picture the look of shock and horror on the faces of the foodies witnessing this train wreck. Behold- the final witch’s brew:
When it was time to eat, I mixed it all together so the sauce coated the noodles…and immediately realized why salt and pepper are so vital to dishes. I used to be shy and nervous in the kitchen; I loved to bake, but regular cooking was scary to me. The past two years I’ve really found my kitchen legs and started building up those skills and confidence. And while this particular recipe is not a shining example of what I am capable of, it was a lot of fun to try to make something new and relatively edible- especially since a few of those items were starting to go bad anyway. I felt like I was on the cooking channel- next time I want to try to turn it into a competition with someone else in the house. See what ideas we come up with using the same ingredients. Fun will be had by all.
Challenge #4: Photo Frenzy
Take unique pictures: go somewhere familiar to you and take pictures/draw the items from an unusual vantage point. Go on a walk and take photos of what you see from a variety of angles. Play with the focal point, lighting and angles.
I realize that this one doesn’t exactly feel like it fits with the general theme we had going. But there was a purpose (outside of the fact that I just like to take pictures). Tech isn’t always bad, while it has the ability to deplete our creative energy, when wielded correctly it can help us reach new heights and truly soar. This challenge was meant to showcase the creative side of our gadgets.
It also doubled as a way to really enmesh yourself in the world around you. When you go out with a camera, you go out with your eyes wide open in search of the unique and inspiring. You allow yourself to open up and listen for the things that call out to you. Plus, there is a fun element when you are forced to look at things you see every day and come at them from a new angle. The whole point of this adventure was to open your eyes to the things surrounding you and really see them.
I wound up venturing into my backyard- it’s early summer, things are blooming, and it’s my first summer in this particular house, so I’m still learning what we have planted in this yard. I had a blast- and so did my dog who can’t get enough of these ninety degree days.
Okay, so this first one doesn’t really fit anywhere in the challenge, I just really like showing pictures of Link because I think he’s adorable. Even with those gray hairs- makes him look distinguished. but I digress- let’s move on to the actual pictures!
Until tomorrow, keep that creative kindling burning, my friends. We will rescue our muse soon enough.
Let’s be honest with ourselves: technology was not just created to make our lives easier. For the most part it is a profit-driven venture. There is a lot of money to be had in this field, and those who are working in it are desperate to find out how our brains work. Why? Because an obsessed population is a lucrative population. There are people out there make an entire career out of learning how to keep us hooked to the products they peddle. Can’t stop popping onto that one pointless game? Keep making your way back to Facebook with no actual purpose in mind? That’s because someone out there is really good at their job. They know how we tick, my friends- we never stood a chance.
Don’t get my wrong, I know I sound all doom and gloom here, but I actually adore my gizmos and in a lot of ways they do make my life a whole lot easier. But they are powerful and our brains haven’t fully processed how to adapt to these new changes. With this great power that we wield in our pocket comes great responsibility. Far too often there are unintended consequences to our actions, and that includes our virtual worlds. Creative thought is usually one of the first casualties of a more tech-dependent life. When you need space to breath and to think your phone won’t do you many favors. Our technology has opened a billion doors to us, but it has also chained us to this idea of immediate gratification. Want the answer to a question? Why bother attempting to puzzle it out yourself when you have that handy Google right at the tips of your fingers? A few little taps and you can fill that brief pause between appointments with games, books, conversations- literally anything that will keep you from being alone with your thoughts or facing that dreaded enemy known as boredom.
In an attempt to connect and soak up more knowledge from the world around us we have inadvertently sucked up a lot of the mystery involved. But fear not, my weary adventurers! The battle is not lost. Though it will be a grueling fight, we do still have a few tricks up our own sleeves to combat this wayward fiend.
It just so happens that screen time is perhaps one of the easier things to track. This is the one time you will be thankful that your creepy little tech toys have a tendency to track everything that you do. All that data they’re compiling is actually accessible. A lot of tech devices have jumped on board the ‘screen time’ bandwagon in response to people’s growing concerns about our addictive tendencies. In the settings on my phone is a section discreetly titled ‘digital wellbeing.’ In here it will give me graphs and stats galore. Letting me know what my daily screentime is, weekly averages, how today compares to yesterday, how many times I unlocked my phone, how much time I spent in each app- you get the idea. To curb your bad habits you can set up timers for individual apps or even enable ‘focus mode’ that will lock you out of per-designated apps for a time period of your choosing.
Not satisfied with the build-in option? Fear not- there is an entire industry out there to assist. We can overlook the irony of a tech app that is supposed to help ease your dependence on tech apps, since our mutual goals collide on this point. They all do about the same thing, though some might be a bit more detailed with what they track.
If all else fails, you can still resort to the tried-and-true paper log. Write down every time you unlock your phone, what apps you use, how long you use them. Personally I prefer a hybrid version of these two: I depend more on the accuracy of my tracking apps, but I also think it’s important to keep tabs on the timeline to discover trends. When am I most tempted to dive into my bad habits? What times of day am I most likely to start scrolling Facebook? Knowing your ‘triggers’ can help you curb your urges. Knowing how you are spending your tech time and why is vital if you want to fully embrace Creativity’s most important ally, Boredom.
My average usage is…not super great. For the past week, my daily average was dialed in at about 6 hours and 24 minutes. But to put it into perspective, that isn’t all ‘staring at the screen’ screen time. I am an avid audiobook listener- I am usually playing a book or some music when I’m getting ready, commuting to and from work, working on more menial tasks that don’t require a lot of thought. And some weeks are filled with this sort of activity. So even though my eyes aren’t glued to my screen, it still counts as screen time. I’m not saying this is a good habit to have, because at the end of the day I am still using those sound waves as a distraction that I don’t really need. But books always just felt a bit different to me.
My social media numbers have been slowly climbing the last few weeks as well. I’ve caught myself mindlessly scrolling a couple of times lately- and according to my tracker, those few minutes here and there have really started to add up to a weekly total that I’m not particularly comfortable with.
I have a bad habit of opening my phone as soon as I wake up. Granted, this is a bit unavoidable because I usually use it as an alarm clock as well, but as soon as it’s open I’ll check a couple of apps before I get out of bed. I usually peek at the news, my personal email, and occasionally Facebook before climbing out of bed to take the dog out and get the day started in earnest. Not great habits, especially when the morning is often viewed as your most creative time of the day. Your brain is fresh, all of it’s newly made connections are hotly wired and you are ready to go. Instead of cultivating that energy, I squander it with a lot of distracting fillers.
I also tend to cram a lot of small moments with ‘micro reads/scrolling.’ When I’m waiting for someone to go to the bathroom and put on their shoes before a walk, I’ll sneak in a paragraph or two from whatever kindle book I happen to be reading. There really isn’t enough time to focus on what I am doing, other than just knocking out one more page towards my book goal.
Even my bedtime routine isn’t immune to my techy tendencies. A few months ago I was dealing with the height of my anxiety issues. It was really bad- sick to my stomach, regular panic attacks, moody, inability to sleep. Nighttime was especially hard because I would catch myself in these loops of ruminating thought patterns. They would keep me awake for hours, and I had a bad habit of waking up around 2:00 or 3:00 in the morning and staying awake until my alarm went off. It wasn’t sustainable and I was desperate for a few moments of peace. So I started finding old audiobooks to listen to- mainly childhood favorites that provided a bit of comfort. I would listen to them when I went to bed and anytime I woke up. They were the only thing able to slowly break down the negative thought loops so I could fall back asleep. They were a game changer for me.
The issue is that now I find myself still relying on them, even though the main stressors from that time period have passed. It’s a bit of a bedtime security blanket for me; one I turn to out of habit as much as out of fear that those old thoughts will begin circling like vultures again if I can’t cast my little audible net around myself. While this seems like a fairly harmless habit- and perhaps a beneficial one- it’s been bad for my creative ventures. Nighttime was when I did a lot of my project-thinking. I would lay in bed and work out characters and scenes, play out different ideas to their conclusion and hold onto the ones that lit a spark. These midnight musings usually led to dreams surrounding my characters, which was always a great way to come up with new original content. Not having this time has been bad. Really bad. And while I’m terrified to give up my security blanket, I am desperate to reclaim my mental space.
Overall on the tech usage side of things I’m going to give myself a score of 4/10. While I am aware of my pitfalls, I know I have a lot of ground to cover to get over this addictive hump. I know I depend too much on my distractions to ease my anxiety, but there are healthier ways to go about this- ones that will give me the mental space and clarity I need to revisit the characters I left in limbo when I put my writing away.
I shut down the laptop, grabbed an old spiral notebook and ran outside. I lay across my back lawn soaking up the sunshine like a solar panel desperate to recharge my own batteries. It was beautiful, connecting me to something outside of my own head for the first time in ages. It’s not that I don’t go outside, but when I do- there is usually a task involved. Water the plants, take the dog potty (not in the same place), take him for a walk: I am not often there just to be there. I forgot what I was missing- the feeling of the sun dancing across warm skin, the sound of the birds singing that rivaled the neighborhood kids yelling and laughing. I hadn’t noticed the nest in the back tree, or the way a mole actually ran along the perimeter of my yard (the only part that is actually landscaped), or how he very obviously smacked headfirst into a decorate rock before taking a detour out (ha!). I had missed out on the bunnies and caterpillars nibbling on the plants in the back corner, or the way the vines were creeping under the fence. Not to mention the plethora of toys my dog had artfully scattered across the lawn. Interested in a rubber chicken leg? Or perhaps a squeaky bottle of fake beer will strike your fancy? There is also, of course, the heart shaped ball for the classical-lovers in the room. I miss a lot when hiding in my indoor cocoon, trapped in my own head, so lost in my daily trivialities that I never let myself feel how small I really am in this world. Or how connected I actually am to it.
I found my baseline and discovered how much I use my tech as a crutch. So I’m trying something new and going analog as much as possible. While I do still have to type out my posts right here on the laptop, I am going to start them freehand. There is something liberating about putting pen to paper, but it takes a different type of thinking.
I forgot what it felt like to put actual pen to paper. I am used to trying to type everything so quickly that I overlooked that special vibe you get when you can’t type out x number of words in a minute. Suddenly every letter requires a bit more effort. It forces you to be more concise with your choices, to weed out the unnecessary. It’s like turning off a highway and hitting the back country roads. You notice your surroundings and relax into the turns instead of incessantly racing on ahead.
I am going to attempt to do this in a few areas of my life, not just my writing. I put timers on my apps so they’ll be disabled once I hit my time limit. I’m experimenting with new daily routines so I have specific times to do certain tasks like check my email and read the news. I’m limiting my audio time (though this one may involve a bit more weaning, given the anxiety issues tethered to it). When I do listen, I am forcing myself to pause for at least 10 minutes at the end of each chapter to really think over what I listened to- anything new I learned, stylistic things that I liked or dislikes, etc. so far I’ve noticed that I seem to be retaining more when I slow down to enjoy it and ponder over it.
I am also trying to play a little game to disrupt the interruptions. If my phone buzzes with a notification while I am in the middle of a task, I have to wait until I am done before I can look at it. This way my brain doesn’t have to divert every three seconds. It’s harder than it sounds to ignore the pull, but once you commit to it, it’s not so bad.
Track your tech time (use built in resources, find an app you like, or get a nice little notebook to write it all down in)
Set a timer on apps you want to use less
Delete apps you don’t use/don’t want to use anymore
Change your notification settings so less junk charges in at you
Look for productivity apps to help you stay focused if/when you do what to use your tech (my personal favorite is called ‘forest’- you set a time you want to work uninterrupted, and it will grow a tree in that amount of time. If you cave and start zooming around on your phone, your tree will start to die. The longer you use it the more trees you will get- pretty soon you will have a whole forest as a testament to how hard you worked towards your goal. If you upgrade to the pro version, you can have real trees planted for your work). There are a ton out there though, so feel free to experiment yourself.
Disrupt the interruptions: don’t immediately react to notifications. Finish the task you are working on before allowing yourself to check it
Keep your phone away at specific times: when on a walk or eating with someone, etc – get used to it not being your third arm
Don’t instantly google a question, try to work out the answer yourself or ask someone
Go analog- start writing by hand, read more paperbacks, make your grocery list on paper, freehand your drawings, play physical games with people in your house, go outside at night instead of watching TV
To keep ourselves busy while we check-in to our digital detox, some creativity challenges are in order. The ones below are all riffs on the detox challenge, and they cover a variety of different avenues in our unique realm. Try one of them, all of them, or make your own inspired by them.
Make your tech monster: draw it out on paper, craft it with odds and ends, build it with sticks, grass and yard items to add a nice juxtaposition- any form that speaks to you
Giving your demons a face can make them a little less scary sometimes. I learned this when I started drawing my anxiety monster- suddenly he wasn’t something to be feared, he was a creature perched on my shoulder that I needed to find a symbiosis with instead of fighting and being angry that he existed at all.
Write a short story (by hand) about a robot
Imagining a new world with a friend/foe you already know far too well (if you are interested in short animation, Netflix has ‘Love Death + Robots’- it’s full of very unique ideas, and some of them explore this concept of tech in our lives and where the human race is headed in general)
Pick some random ingredients in your kitchen and make something unusual with them- no internet allowed for ideas. It doesn’t have to taste or look good
The point here is to think of these ingredients outside of the wheelhouse you are accustomed to. Sometimes we rely too much on gaining inspiration from the internet. This challenge is about trusting your instincts and seeing what happens. It doesn’t have to be good, it just has to be fun or creative. After all, that spinach is about to go bad anyway, might as well have a little fun with it
Take unique pictures: go somewhere familiar to you and take picture/draw a picture of items from an unusual vantage point. Go on a walk and take photos of what you see from a variety of angles. Play with the focal point, the lighting, the angles.
I know- this one involves using a little bit of tech. The point here is to use your techy powers for good, not evil. Use it to inspire yourself, because not all tech is bad for you.
Try to gain new perspectives on things you see every day
When you struggle to shift into a fully present mindset, it can help to ease into it. Stepping out your front door with the intention of finding cool new inspiration for some pictures will force you to really look at the scenery around you with an eye for what you find intriguing and unusual
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).