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
Okay my friends, we’ve beat around the bush, skirted the issue, but now it’s time to finally dive in. I want to talk about your room. But don’t worry, this isn’t like those times your mom would yell at you about having too many cups on your nightstand, or your in laws would make passive aggressive comments about the location of the antique they gifted you last week or the length of the grass. Oddly specific examples, right? Any resemblance these have to real life situations are 100% intention, I’m looking at you family.
Cultivating a creative space can be incredibly hard, but it is vitally important to nurturing your ideas until they are ready to flourish. This can make the difference between forcing yourself to sit down and practice your craft, or enticing you to willingly go flirt with your muse. If you ask 50 different artists what is the most important element to their creative space, you’ll get 51 different answers. Some are firm supporters in the idea that you must completely empty your surroundings, keeping it devoid of any stimulation that could distract you from your projects. Others vehemently expound on the virtues of immersing yourself in chaos, filling the void with all things that spark your passion and curiosity.
I don’t have any magic beans that will grow the perfect atmosphere for your adventures. I can’t pluck out the secret ingredient that will ferment into a fine wine of inspiration. I’ve spent years searching for the right answer, the perfect space, the design to end all designs. I haven’t found it yet, and in truth; I don’t think I ever will. Though that may sound depressing and a bit defeatist, it’s actually the opposite. When you stop searching for the ‘perfect’ anything; you grant yourself permission to be free and messy. What you do with that newfound freedom is completely up to you.
Cultivating a creative space is a lot like buying a new pair of jeans. Sure, you can commit to one option blindly. Or you can step into the dressing room and do a couple of lunges first to see if they feel right. What looks adorable on your Pinterest board could drive you batty in the real world. Trust me, I would know; my office has gone through about 50,000 incarnations to reach where it’s at. And it’s really nothing to write home about.
Some people thrive in zen plant spaces, others need splashes of paint and neon shapes that glow in the dark, still others won’t feel the same without a wall of their favorite books staring at them. For me: I need all of the above.
I am a bit of a nomad when I’m working. I will wander from my office to the bedroom, bedroom to the back yard, back yard to the living room, living room to the kitchen table. I used to berate myself for this: after all of the time I spent working on my office and making it truly feel like mine, why wasn’t I spending my time actually working in there?
The answer was rather simple: what I need changes and evolves as I’m working. I am primarily a writer who likes to dabble in other crafts and artistic endeavors. Some scenes require the calm simplicity of my kitchen counters, the wild weirdness of my office, the comfort of the bedroom, the enveloping arms of nature that I get outside. Sometimes I need complete silence that is only found in my garage, and others I need the camaraderie I feel when I plop down on the futon in my spouse’s space.
A huge unsung aspect of creativity is evolution. We are constantly challenging ourselves to explore our boundaries and skills, to assess what we can do differently, to play with falsely confident brush strokes in the hopes that it will provoke beauty. If our space isn’t evolving with us, then perhaps we need to reevaluate where we stand in our work. One of the first signs that I’m in a creative rut: I stop playing with my surroundings. I sit in the same chair day after day without variation.
But just because that’s the way I work, doesn’t mean that’s what is right for everyone else. What works for me could drive another human to the brink of insanity. Others feel like their most creative selves when they stick to a routine: I will write in this place at this time on these days without fail. A multitude of famous authors work this way. But alas, I am not one of them.
The key aspect of creating your space: you need to live in it, breathe in it, make it truly your own. Toy around with what you enjoy, what inspires you, what makes you feel like taking action. After all of the personal deep-dives we’ve done in our Creativity Challenge, you probably have at least an inkling of what your creative side craves. Find a way to balance all of your Muse’s needs with your own. Don’t be afraid of experimentation.
While you are more than welcome to explore all avenues of your creative venture, it seemed important to note a few tips that have worked for me.
Keep your space clean. I know it sounds silly, and maybe you will bristle at the suggestion because you’d rather tango with chaos- that’s all fine. But I do strongly suggest a more organized chaos. I can’t work when it’s messy. I mean, that’s not entirely true- I can’t work when it’s a certain level of messy. I don’t have to vacuum and pick up every sock or straighten each book before I work. But I can’t have piles looking at me, lurking in corners. If I’m working in the kitchen I have to either make sure the sink isn’t overflowing with dishes, or I have to turn my back and force myself to refocus on my work (the second option will usually result in some miffed house-mates, so proceed with caution). If I’m in my room there can’t be a pile of clothes waiting to be folded. When I’m in the backyard oversized weeds can’t be taunting me from behind the daisies. And if I’m in my office, I always hope and pray that the Littles didn’t just finish playing hide-and-seek in there (they gravitate towards my nerdy stuff like moths to a flame, which means anytime the nieces and nephews are around you can pretty much guarantee that my fluffy star wars army has gone to battle, the casualties are littered across three rooms, and Yoda is hidden somewhere wearing a cowboy hat and a pink ‘birthday girl’ sash). Like I said, experiment with the chaos, but rein it in a little.
This dovetails into organization. You don’t need to have your space color-coded and catalogued, but your artistic self will sing praises in your honor if s/he can find that indigo paint and those tiny brushes right when they need it. Knowing where the clean notebooks are, or what happened to your pencil sharpener will save you a lot of time and frustration in the long run. Nothing ruins my creative flow quite like these pesky little details that interrupt my vibe. My spaces tend to get messier as a project progresses; I move things and leave them in different areas assuming I’ll be back soon to continue. You don’t have to keep your space spotless, but I suggest you clean out those drawers and re-stack the construction paper before you start any big projects. Organization up front will save you a world of trouble on the back end.
Be versatile. You don’t have to have a lot of space in order to make versatile work areas. Having different rooms that speak to different pieces of you can be amazing; but isn’t all that realistic if you are living in a studio or sharing space with others. Even little things, like facing a different direction, can be helpful. Have your nature-stuff near the window, your bright art pieces along the back wall, a nerdy carpet partially draped under your bed, a little blanket fort and lamp you can pop up when you need plain walls and isolation (I would recommend a small fan as well, it gets a little stuffy under there).
Make it your own. Don’t be afraid to pair weird things together. Throw all of those fancy interior design books out the window (unless, you know, you like them). Be unapologetic in your exploration of what sparks your passions. Stick a vintage typewriter next to a baby Yoda doll. Pair your plant with a charcoal sketch of a demon. Put your travel pillow next to your poster of The Fat Lady from Harry Potter (you laugh, but I actually have one of those on the back of my closet door in my office. She was meant for an escape room birthday party I was planning that never came to fruition. Thanks COVID). Be wild and spontaneous. Show the world that you are as unexpected as the big plot twist in Project Hail Mary (awesome book that I just finished, incidentally). Embrace your weird, your beautiful, your crazy, your tame, your goofy, your inspiring self.
And if you are able: carry this passion into different rooms and spaces in your life. Dress up your cubicle, decorate the car, deck out your whole house in the things that bring you joy and excitement. Color your surroundings with odds and ends that make you wonder, concepts that spark your curiosity. Fill your browser history with oddball questions, stack your bookshelf with unusual finds, slip odd ensambles into your closet. Fill your life with the things that make you want to explore and wonder and create. I promise, you will be happier for it.
Below I am including an assortment of my creative spaces from several places I have been lucky enough to call home. One of them was far more conducive to…shall we call it unusual decorating styles. I could have included some of my more nature-themed spaces, but truthfully- I have always had so much for fun creating these nerdy areas where I felt like I could really dive into the things that make me who I am. And though it isn’t a decorative choice, I’ve also included pictures of my meme worthy Bulbasaur. It was an online purchase that went horribly wrong in all the best ways (he was supposed to be a Halloween guy with a jack-o-lantern on his back: obviously what I got was not as advertised). He has, however, turned into one of my favorite games. My partner and I hide him around the house for the other to find. After six months we have definitely been forced to get a little more creative with our options. I feel like it fits because it’s one more little element I’ve added to my life to encourage play and- well, just plain fun.
I’ve been here too long, too comfortable in the daily grind of building up my escape plan to actually take the next step towards getting off this forsaken island. The gods are laughing at me now, sure I will waste away here, surrounded by my thousands of excuses. The raft is ready, unless I plan on building a cruise liner on this place: it is time to go.
Last night I decided: now or never. Stay here and be content with this solitary life, or step out into the ocean tomorrow and embark on this daring adventure to rescue the muse. I couldn’t bring myself to sleep, troubled by the changes the next day would bring. I had been comfortable here; but isn’t that the trick of this little island? There is a familiarity in it’s quaint regularity. Same routine day in and day out, nothing to cause one moment to be distinct from another. It was a never-ending slog of day to day activity that never really got you anywhere except older. The fire burnt down to embers as I tossed and turned through the night, wondering if I still had the courage needed for the road ahead. After all, this wasn’t my first attempt. No, far from it. I was too familiar with the path I was attempting to walk.
The sun began to creep over the horizon, brushing the sky with vibrant oranges that faded into pink. I sit, blearily eyeing my surroundings. The fire had burnt down to embers in the night. I douse the coals, though there is little left on this island for the flames to dance with. I used up too many of the resources to build the puny little boat I expect to set sail on. I’ve been toiling away for weeks now, lashing together every bit of driftwood I could find with long ropes of braided sea grass. The vessel is small and shoddy, but she floats; and as a castaway in this dangerous sea, I could hardly expect more. Everyday as I toiled away I would imagine my daring Muse finding a way of rescuing herself and coming back to me. But alas, I mist be the hero of this story.
I take a deep breath, look out at my island one last time, and step onto my tiny craft. Pushing out into the roiling waters that have surrounded me for ages, stealing my motivation and locking me in this solitary place. It is time to do the unthinkable, my friends; traverse the Sea of Distractions. Few make it across these waters; many find themselves flung back on the shores they tried to leave. But not us: for we know the secrets to these waters, we know where they get their strength. And we know how to fight.
You were probably wondering if you would see me here again, of it I had slipped away, lost to this challenge, never to escape my tiny island, forever trapped by the unforgiving sea of distractions. Sometimes the hero takes a bit longer than you could imagine to get themselves pulled together enough to embark on their adventure. After all, if Gandalf had not been there to push Bilbo out of the Shire, he probably would have been content spending the rest of his life practicing smoke rings on his front porch. It can be far trickier when you must act as your own Gandalf.
I did get lost in it a bit; as someone who struggles with anxiety, the act of focusing on mindfulness can be a bit more complex than one would hope. This is perhaps why I have spent the past year regularly keeping self-help books in my weekly book rotations.
I won’t say that I regret the time I spent: I learned some new valuable tricks that will help me moving forward. I have some arrows in my quiver that I did not possess a year ago. I found some new hobbies (like the little garden I have slowly blooming) that are helping me disentangle myself from the daily stress that usually keep me locked in my less-than-helpful mental cycles.
I can’t say that I didn’t slip back a few times. Between some work developments and an attempted burglary (Oh don’t worry- I’ll hit more on that later. I would never keep you hanging on something as intriguing as an attempted burglary), I found myself slipping back into some old stressful habits. For me personally, the mindfulness monsters will never be completely slayed. They may be captured or tamed, but I will never be completely done fighting them. But that doesn’t mean I need to stay on this island forever trying to slice the heads off this hydra. No, the beast has shrunk and I can continue on my trek.
So what is next for the grand adventurers now that we are finally attempting to escape this prison we have created? Now that we are attempting to break free of the old habits that left us stranded on this spit of land to begin with? It’s time to begin our battle with the distractions that keep us from moving forward towards our goals.
A Digital Detox in the Sea of Distraction:
It is no secret that one of the largest enemies in the fight for creative control is the technology we wield like modern-day wizards. Our devices can be the perfect little weapons for mass distraction, siphoning our mental energy into clickable games, social media, the constant bombardment of alerts and notifications. Now, I want to be clear: I don’t think our techy sidekicks are evil; far from it, much like Kylo Ren, they have the light and dark sides coursing through their veins. What makes all the difference is how you decide to channel that energy. And I will be the first to admit: it is far easier to channel that energy towards distraction instead of creation.
Now, I tend to be a bit leery of studies that lump all screen time together; as someone who works at a desk when I’m not moonlighting as an overly-caffeinated creator, I will automatically clock in nearly eight hours of ‘screen time’ just from work alone. And not all screen time is created equal, in my opinion. I do most of my writing on a laptop because I have an easier time keeping up with the flow of the mental story I’m working through than when I am putting pen to paper. That being said, I know that I have a lot of room for improvement.
The brain is pretty astounding in its ability to adapt to new experiences. This skill is known as neuroplasticity, and it is the reason we can readjust so easily to a changing world. In 2008 a study conducted at Dundee University in Scotland found that adults who grew up in households with black-and-white TVs were more likely to dream in black and white. Younger participants who grew up with screens full of technicolor almost always dreamed in color. This is a small change, but it just shows you how susceptible the brain is to the evolving technology in the world around us.
It used to be an insult when someone compared your attention span to a goldfish: and yet, new studies are indicating that in the future this could be more of a compliment. According to a study done by Microsoft, the average human’s attention span was calculated to be about 12 seconds back in 2000. Today it is more in the range of 8 seconds. To give you a frame of reference: a goldfish clocks in at 9 seconds. We are going the way of the guppy. While many things could contribute to these numbers, it is true that there has been a steady decline since the invention of the smartphone, and anecdotally many people would agree that they noticed a difference when they started relying on their gizmos more (at least I have).
The term ‘popcorn brain’ has even appeared in recent years to describe the effects of too much screen time and over-connectivity. Popcorn brain describes the way we can become so hooked to the electronic multitasking that we are often expected to do, that we begin to crave the fast-paced way we can bounce between topics. The fallout from this: the slower-paced ‘real world’ can’t hold our interest in the same way that it once did. Ever find yourself reaching for your phone when you are waiting for someone to come out of the bathroom, or standing in line: the slow-paced life just isn’t catching your interest anymore. Pop, pop- so goes your adrenaline-craving brain.
So how do you fight your favorite frenemy when tech is the way of the world? I’m not saying to completely disconnect: that’s not feasible, and in many ways it’s not necessarily ideal. There are so many positive things that can come from our techy world, so many avenues of inspiration available to walk our Muse down. No, the trick is to attempt to be a bit more responsible with our tech lives; to use our powers for good, not evil.
Step one in the Digital Detox is very simple: lift your eyes from that screen and take stock. How much time do you spend on distractions? Can you allow yourself to just sit somewhere for five minutes without pulling out your phone and idly scrolling? Is there a particular app that you feel you may have an unhealthy attachment to? Or perhaps one that makes you feel better about the world around you?
Try not to laugh at this next suggestion: you can even download an app to help you keep up a tally of your usage. You might be surprised at how many times you unlock your screen, how many minutes you spend scrolling through pictures you aren’t really looking at or glancing at headlines when you never read the articles. Often times there are patterns in your day that you might miss without the visual pie charts staring you in the eyes.
What did I learn about my own habits? My favorite kinds of distractions come in an audio format. Most of my filler time is spent with an audiobook playing while I click away at one of those easy games that don’t require much thought, just a lot of thumb taps or puzzles. I also like to fill all of the little nooks and crannies of my day with tiny little check-ups that add up to a whole lot of time. I have a tendency to check my phone for something simple: like the time, without actually registering what I’m reading, so I have to check it again 12 seconds later. My attention span doesn’t seem to be much better than Dori’s as she’s helping to find Nemo.
I also noticed the way my distracting tendencies skyrocket when I am feeling a particular amount of stress. All of my numbers jump, and I dive head first into the closest Kindle book or puzzle game to keep my brain from racing through my usual symptoms of anxiety. Unfortunately for me, distracting myself from what is really important usually tends to increase my anxiety, which in turn makes me want to create more distractions so I don’t have to focus on the anxiety- and you see how this snowball is suddenly large enough to take out an entire city block.
So what do I want? What am I hoping to regain with a digital detox? It’s really quite simple: my sanity. I want to rediscover my focus so that I can actually finish one of the ten thousand articles I have tabbed on my computer. I want to be able to put the phone down and sit on a bench watching the world around me. I want to be content in my own head, comfortable with my own thoughts. I want to feel like I am in control of my life again. I want to feel like my brain has the space it needs to think clearly and rediscover the creative energy that used to drive everything I did. I want there to be balance in the force again.
Once we have a good baseline, it will be easier to find the right way to battle these waves and navigate the treacherous creatures below the surface. It is important to be honest with yourself about your habits; both good and bad, and attempt to root out the cause. Having insight and awareness will make at the difference when trying to reach the distant shore.
I have tried a plethora of mindfulness techniques on and off for years. It wasn’t until I was an adult that I realized the anxious thoughts continually pelting my brain weren’t what others would consider ‘normal.’ And from the moment I was aware that my anxiety was impacting my daily living; I’ve tried cajoling it and taming it, befriending it and understanding it. It’s the shadow that follows me throughout the day.
I’ve desperately tried to figure out why my brain is wired the way that it is, and why that could be a good thing. There have been interesting studies and countless books that attempt to dive into the role that mental illness might play in society. I specifically remember a study of chimps that struck a chord. In every chimp troop there were a small number of anxious and/or depressed chimps that typically kept themselves to the outskirts of their social world. As an anxious little introvert myself, I felt a kinship with this little band of misfits. As part of the experiment, the misfits were removed from the group. And do you know what happened? Within six months the remainder of the pack had died. When they looked into the cause, it was actually relatively simple: the anxious creatures would regularly sleep on the edges of the group. Being natural bundles of nerves, they were overly sensitive and vigilant when monitoring the world around them. Little things had the ability to disturb them so they would call out- waking up the rest of the band so that they could escape to safety. Without the anxious within their numbers, the warning system of the pack was disabled. Now, there are interesting studies that have also been done on human leaders who have exhibited symptoms of non-traditional neural systems, but that’s not really the point I’m trying to make (not today at least, trust me- this will be coming back up in the future).
The point I am trying to make in a roundabout way: there is a place for the neurodiverse among us. However, knowing that the brain functions you have lived with (and fairly regularly suffered through) have a place- that doesn’t make it any easier to deal with them on a regular basis. Great, I am a human warning bell for the rest of society. Now can I please just be able to answer a phone without that jangling jolt of panic? Sometimes you need a break, a coping mechanism to dial down and ‘tune’ your anxiety/stress to a more manageable level.
There are a lot of different ways to go about this: as I’ve mentioned before, food and diet are an amazing place to start. Physical movement and exercise and really complete your stress cycle so you can wind down. Little creative projects that don’t require excessive thought are good too. But today I want to focus on a classic: the tried and true art of meditation. Something so simple it feels damn near impossible at times.
Personally, I prefer to indulge in a few short meditations throughout the day- I don’t have the patience to attempt meditation for longer than a couple of minutes. That is my sweet spot: anything more than that and the struggle to control my thoughts starts to outweigh the potential reward. Perhaps someday I’ll graduate to a higher class of meditators, but for now- I celebrate every small win.
Which Side of the Road do you Walk on?
To start off, it’s important to note that there are a lot of different ways to meditate, each of them stemming from a slightly different history and with a variety of end results in mind. But the two major camps that science has focused on are ‘focused attention’ and ‘open-monitoring meditation.’ Focused attention is when you focus on one specific thing (usually this is your breathing), while Open-Monitoring is when you pay attention to all the things going on around you without reacting to them. According to scientists, open-monitoring has more of a noticeable impact on creativity than the focused type.
The primary elements of most meditation practices involve focused attention, relaxed breathing, a quiet setting, a comfortable position and an open attitude. These, however, are not requirements- though they will make the first few attempts a bit easier to manage as you start out with your own practice. Keep in mind, there is really no right or wrong way to meditate; focusing too much on perfection will just increase your stress, which is the exact opposite of what you want to accomplish. The ultimate goal is to hone in your attention and quite the cacophony of thoughts that poke and prod at you every day.
The changes that take place in your brain during and after meditation can actually be visibly seem when using fMRI scans. Your brain’s overall processing speed drops from a sprint to a springtime mosey. The frontal lobe, which is responsible for reasoning, planning, emotions, and self-conscious awareness slows way down. The Parietal lobe, which processes sensory information about the world around you, follow suite and drifts towards sleep. The thalamus, which generally acts as a gatekeeper for your senses, switches it’s focus toward so it’s pointed inward, which reduces the incoming stimulation you receive. And, if that all wasn’t enough to give you the comforting glow of mental stillness, the reticular formation, which receives incoming stimuli and puts the brain on alert, soothes itself and dials back it’s arousal. Ah yes, sweet relief- that last one is the reason why I come to the party. Fun fact: the reason why exercise is right up there with meditation in terms of mental health benefits is because to actually has the exact same impact on the brain as meditation. Funny how stillness and motion are cut from the same cloth. So take comfort, my zoomy friends who don’t like to sit still: you can reach these same goals while bouncing and running around.
What It Means
Now, that’s all fine and dandy, I can throw biology lingo out all day, and that isn’t going to help anyone decide if they really want to give meditation a try. But the health impacts (and the benefits for your brain and creative projects) are not easily ignored. So what can you expect to get out of the deal, should you choose to accept this particular adventure?
When you boil it down, meditation is really all about focus and training yourself to be aware of when your mind starts to wander. This little exercise routine for the brain trains that beautiful noodle of yours to more easily focus in other areas of your life. This is a huge deal for humans, considering our attention span has reportedly shrunk from 12 seconds in 2000 down to 8. That’s right, we are clocking in right behind the guppy (fish inch us out with 9 whole seconds). The research shows that those who meditate are able to weed out and ignore potential distractions far more easily than those who didn’t . This increases productivity and reduces the stress and frustration that come with constant interruptions.
For people like me, there is also the proven fact that anxiety and stress are reduced as well. The science behind this one is actually pretty interesting. You see, your brain is a bit like a highway, creating it’s own neural pathways. When a roadblock appears for whatever reason, perhaps through injury or illness, your brain will reroute those neural links to get around the problem area. And much like our roads, some of them are traveled more than others. Think of those most well-used pathways as highways where your neurons can fly through without a moment’s hesitation. But not all of these pathways are ones that you really want to maintain and build up. Some of our neural connections are wired more for stress; in particular, the medial prefrontal cortex, nicknamed the ‘Me center.’ This area is responsible for processing information relating to ourselves and our experiences. It takes outside stimuli (like a scary event) and sets off a chain reaction that leaves you with some pretty strong negative feelings. Meditation, however, helps loosen up these pathways; dropping your 5 lane stress highway down to a more manageable 2 lane country road. This allows us enough internal distance to view our experiences in a more rational manner, which is kind of the kryptonite of irrational anxiety thought patterns. The more you loosen these pathways, the less they become the default road to travel, so to speak.
Studies have also shown a marked increase in empathy and compassion with people who meditate versus people who don’t. This is good for creative projects in which it’s important to be able to see the world from a multitude of perspectives. Not only that, but empathy and compassion just help build better people and societies in general. I mean, one glance at the news will tell you what we are deeply missing in our world- and it’s not just cow bells.
Just in case you thought it couldn’t get any better, can I perhaps offer up some improved memory? That’s right, studies have shown that people who meditate are able to recall information much faster than those who dont. And if that wasn’t enough, it’s also linked to larger amounts of gray matter in the hippocampus and frontal areas of the brain. What this translates to is more positive emotions, improved emotional stability and increased focus in daily living. And the cherry on top of this bright little sundae? Studies are showing that meditation also seems to slow down the impacts of aging on our brains.
Okay, so now you know what amazing benefits you’ve been depriving yourself of while avoiding a healthy dose of mindful meditation. So now what? Is this where I stop to give you step by step instructions on how to reap all the beautiful benefits I’ve been touting? Alas, it is not. Truthfully, I was originally planning on writing out a few basic steps to start off a meditation practice. but that was before I realized what a wide variety of options and styles exist in the world. Why would I paint you into the box I started with when you can easily branch out and explore this wonderful new world of possibilities all on your own? I’ve dabbled a few of the basics- my personal favorite is still a walking meditation that involves a lot of focused breathing techniques. But then I have a post-yoga cool down in child’s pose that never fails to get me into the perfect headspace for mindful relaxation (and occasionally a short little nap on the yoga mat). Just a few online searches or downloading a free app or two can open you to a whole new world of meditative possibilities, and I find that far more exciting than a boring old list at the bottom of a blog.
The bottom line: what could it hurt to try? Give it two minutes twice a day for a week and see where you wind up. After all, you have nothing to lose and everything to gain. Happy hunting for creative mindfulness, my friends. The journey is only just beginning. So go ahead, go find your om way and embrace it fully.
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?
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.