The Journey Begins (Creativity Quest to Save the Muse)

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 I would 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 away in 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.

Creativity Challenge

  • 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

Creating Space for Creativity (Rescue the Muse)

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.

Shopkeep, Where are Your Wares? (Rescue the Muse Creativity Quest)

I couldn’t remember what happened after I washed ashore; I heard the panicked voices of the villagers that found me before I succumbed to the darkness encroaching on the edges of my vision. I’m not sure how much time had passed before my eyes finally opened again, but judging by the stiffness in my joints, it must have been a while. The blankets they had draped over me were scratchy and thin, but a crackling fire in the hearth kept me warm. The innkeeper was a kind, rosy-cheeked woman who always prodded me to drink a second bowl of soup every night after the doctor saw to me. It took a week to convince them I was able to leave my sickbed and make my way out into the small village.

The innkeeper sent her young stable boy to accompany me, not trusting that my shaky legs would be able to carry me back to the modest establishment. As we wandered the cobbled streets, I couldn’t help but notice the dreary store windows, empty of wares, or the way that so many of the villagers jumped at the slightest noise. When I asked my young companion, he scratched at the back of his neck and kicked at a pebble before suggesting we make our way back to the inn for supper and a story. 

Over a meat pie and colossal ale the young boy told the tale of his sweet village, “It was a very different place once,” he took a tentative sip from his drink. “Plenty to eat, toys in the windows, oxen to help work the fields. People traveled from all over the realm to visit our seashores, it was a happy place to grow up. But then the orcs came- driven from the mountains by the three dragons who decimated the upper lands. They plundered our realm and cut off our trade routes. Our resources dried up. Those who could leave did, and the rest of us just do what we can to get by. They’ve made their camp just to the north, in the ruins of the old farmlands. If nothing changes, then I fear the worst for my little home.” He glanced to me thoughtfully before venturing to ask, “You are on a quest, aren’t you?”

I nodded and told him of my beautiful and daring Muse, locked away from me up in the tower of an old castle. My young friend nodded his head slowly, spearing a soft chunk of carrot and popping it into his mouth. “Well, we may have to get a bit creative in the shops, but I will try to help you gather supplies for your journey.”

In these modern times there are a million different tools at your disposal to assist with your creative endeavors. Online classes (that usually come with a small fee) can teach you everything from tarot card reading to how to build a house-cleaning robot. Want to make a Chewbacca outfit? You can pay an exorbitant amount for the right fabric and find a pattern online to help. Interested in baking the world’s best carrot cake? There’s an app for that. You can purchase the best markers, electronic drawing pads, kitchen gizmos, and pre-cut fabric with step-by-step instructions to help you sew together a new book-themed quilt.

But what do you do when the world tosses a few challenges your way? When the pandemic or unusual weather events disrupt supply chains and any order you place online comes with a three week wait? What do you do when you don’t have extra cash to burn on all the fancy tools and equipment? You are forced to get creative with your creativity, my friends.

Accepting your limitations opens a whole new world of innovation in your creative life. When you don’t view your constraints as roadblocks, but instead opportunities to come up with novel approaches; you give yourself a chance to flourish. There is a certain amount of forgiveness you can grant yourself when you don’t feel like you are ‘wasting’ precious (and expensive) supplies. You can always upgrade later, once you get a feel for what you are doing or decide which avenue you are most interested in pursuing. Sometimes the style of art you initially want to invest in isn’t the one you actually have the most fun doing. So start small: use the old crayons and colored pencils paired with construction paper to practice drawing. Take apart that old techy contraption you never use and put it back together before you try your hand at the fancy TurboClean5000 Home Robot (but also: I am more than willing to test that bad boy out once you have to up and running). Sew together scraps of old fabric before filling up that shopping cart with funky design and fancy threads. Poke holes in an old cardboard box to make a treat-whack-a-mole for your dog instead of spending a heap of money on a plastic one. He doesn’t care, as long as he is able to catch a few carrots poking through the holes (although be warned: it didn’t take mine very long to realize he could just tip the box over and attack from below like the land shark that he is). 

Today’s goal: make a mental inventory of what wares your little home-shop has and how you can work those into your creativity quest. Are there any projects you’ve had sitting around for a while? Any old items you dug up during your spring cleaning that you were planning on driving to the dump? Any stories you’ve had percolating in the back of your mind? A pile of weeds in your backyard you want to weave into a basket (no judgment, I have a heap of my own little yard demons mocking me from the window). Make a list of challenges, steal some of the ones I’m attempting from the list below, google ideas, ask a friend what random hobbies that have- you might be surprised what you come up with.

And from there, you can start mapping out your course. After all, what kind of adventure would this be without a dusty old map leading the way? What avenues do you want to explore? Leave a little bit of room for variety; that way you have the space to dive into a rabbit hole, should one spark that passion within you. While I will give you the blueprints for my path, it’s important to think of this as more of a choose-your-own-adventure story. What works for me won’t work for other people, the things I’m interested in could bore someone else to tears. The amount of time I am able to dedicate to these projects will vary from week to week and day to day; it often won’t match up with the investments others might want to do.

My personal path is geared towards overall creativity in my life, reigniting the spark that I’ve lost in my daily adulting. That being said, my projects are going to be all over the board. I plan on doing a lot of dabbling. A large chunk of it will be focused on writing adventures; that’s always where I felt most at home in my own skin. But I also want to start playing with more physical art: drawing, painting, sculpting, carving, whittling, knitting, sewing, weaving, coding, cooking, baking, gardening, dancing- I have this desire to try it all and see what speaks to me. I’ve spent so much of my life planning to learn these skills without really giving myself a chance to try them. And now I am sick of waiting.

I’ll start with the simple things, the ones that I already own, the ones that wont cost me a penny to chase. And from there I will start saving up a bit so I can branch out into new areas. Later with week we can dive into the connection between art and money, but that’s a problem from another day. Right now, I want you to look around your little home-shop and make a list of what you can do right now on your Creativity Quest. Then make your dream list- where do you want to go, what can you reasonably set aside in these pursuits? Today we write out our blueprint so that we know where the heck we will be walking in the coming weeks.

What can I do right now?

  • Nano (writing- I have dozens of unfinished projects to play with)
  • Learn to draw (a cheap art set and some drawing paper will get me through for now. I can play with graphite, colored pencils, markers, pens, water color, pastels, charcoal, paint)
  • Sewing (I have a quilt kit I meant to put together as a gift for a past holiday)
  • Knitting
  • Coding
  • Cooking (a bazillion cookbooks that I can work into my weekly grocery trips)
  • Dancing
  • Wood carving (well, I have the kit…still need the wood)
  • Paint coasters
  • String art

Creativity Challenge:

  • Writing Prompt:
    • Novelize a scene from a favorite movie/TV show
    • Think of a common saying (ex: an apple a day keeps the doctor away) and write a horror story about it
  • Culinary Creations:
    • Make a new mixed drink (no alcohol required)
    • Make a themed meal inspired by a book
  • Adventure in Arts:
    • Make a comic strip
    • Find an online tutorial and learn to draw
    • Choreograph a dance
    • cosplay using items in your house
  • Crafting Corner:
    • Knit Dobby hats
    • Learn origami
    • make paper flowers out of old magazines
  • Learning something new:
    • begin learning sign language
    • watch a youtube video about a person creating interesting things
    • Read up on home brewing
    • pick a random documentary and write/draw something inspired by it
  • The Great outdoors:
    • Plant something pretty
    • make a gnome/fairy retreat
    • sidewalk chalk portraits (extra fun if you have littles)
  • Journaling through the Tough Stuff:
  • Write a poem about something going on in your life
  • What’s one thing you need to forgive yourself for?

Keep creating, my friends, the muse still waits in that dragon-guarded castle, but we are well on our way to that looming mountain.

Conquering the Sea of Distractions (Rescue the Muse)

The gods must have noticed my previous bids for escape, vowing to leave me marooned on this island they sent the forces of nature to stop me, distract me from my quest. The storm had been raging for days, stinging my skin as it slashed through the air. I tried waiting it out, shivering as I huddled in a tiny cave at the heart of the island, slowly braiding grasses and fronds together as I planned how to rebuild my raft. I spent the time thinking of my lost Muse, staring at a blank wall and listening to the incessant howling of the wind, the pounding of the rain against the rocks, the angry roiling of the ocean waves assaulting the shandy shored below my dilapidated camp.

The decision was made in the dead of the night, as I huddled closer to my dwindling attempt at a fire. I would have to brave the storm, set sail anyway. If I failed- did it really even matter anymore? At least I would go down fighting, not resigning myself to this tiny spit of land designed specifically to hold me captive.

The sky was still a murky gray when I set out, pulling the remnants of my broken craft beside me. My skin was numb from the pelting rain as I repaired the damage as best I could and glared out into the angry sea. Before I could lose my nerve I took a deep breath and released a screaming war cry for the gods above and monsters below; charging into the sea like I was going into battle. And perhaps in a way, I was. There was a desperation to my actions, a fire burning inside that even the sea could not drown. This was the time, I could feel it in my bones. I would make it to the distant shore or be lost to Davey Jones forever.

Every good storyteller knows that you must test your characters to force them to grow. Nothing is ever simple in life or in books; something that appears straightforward will often carry hidden challenges that must be overcome. Well, my friends, we have built up our personal knowledge and leveled up our skill set all in an attempt to battle through this Sea of Distraction and continue on our Quest to Save the Muse.

It hasn’t been an easy journey; the first leg of our adventure was more about breaking down bad habits so that we can have space to rebuild new ones in their place. It often seems that the most difficult challenges are the smallest ones; those tiny habits you indulge in your spare moments, the thoughts and distractions you allow to take up residence in your mind. By their very nature they are subtle and insidious, they walk the thin line between helpful and damaging.

I don’t know how I made it past those first few raging waves; it was as if the gods themselves were shocked at my daring and waited now with baited breath to see my next move. I made it past the gauntlet of cresting waves and out into the open sea. The rain still lashing at my skin, the storm appearing to double in size, making it nearly impossible to see. But it didn’t matter anymore; I was off that accursed island, and the simple act of moving felt liberating.

I didn’t notice it at first, assuming the sudden jerking of my tiny vessel was merely the ocean venting her frustration once again. It’s wasn’t until I felt the slippery brush of flesh against my arm that I realized what was happening- the monster from my nightmares was back. Large tentacles rose in the air and slapped at the water near my boat, sending waves that nearly dislodged my tenuous grasp. She had still managed to find me, even if this storm.

The sky crackled with lighting, the booming thunder filled my ears and left them ringing as the underwater monstrosity continued her assault. I grabbed my puny paddle and dipped it into the water, praying it could spin me into a new direction. Another dark shape rose from the roiling sea and slammed down, cracking against the edge of my tiny ship. I saw the shards of wood splitting as though in slow motion. I tensed my body and waited to be plunged back into the ferocious ocean.

Taking a deep dive into who you are and the things that you prioritize is not easy. It forces you to really analyze what is actually important to you and whether you truly want to make the changes that you need to. Is this the right time in your life to invest in yourself and your goals? I sincerely hope the answer is yes, though I know that far too often we are forced to simply hang on and hope for brighter days in the future. There are moments when you wont have the bandwidth for what needs to be done, times when you have to set out tiny steps and focus on reaching those milestones before you can look up to gaze towards any semblance of a future. You must wake up, take care of yourself, get through your work day. If you are struggling; it’s okay. If this isn’t the perfect time; that’s fine. If you can only give 5%, there is nothing to be ashamed of in that. These changes are not meant to be overnight accomplishments. If it had been easy, then this challenge would never have existed.

The key take-away for the baseline challenge is really about self-awareness and compromise. You don’t have to reach perfection before moving forward, but you do have to take a long hard look at yourself and walk away with realistic expectations. You must peel away all of the excuses and facades, acknowledge the insecurities and the faults- confronting them is the only way to overcome them. Surviving the Sea of Distractions is about learning how you operate and unearthing a game plan that will help you success. Will it be perfect? No. Will you continue to learn more about yourself as you go? I sure as hell hope so.

For me personally, I know the monsters that are swimming just below the surface, ready to pull me back to that island of distraction. I know the inner demons that send me scurrying for unhealthy coping mechanisms, and I know the excuses I constantly allow myself to utter over and over again even though I know I they shouldn’t be believed. I know what I need to work on, and while I will not fix everything overnight; I am better able to combat them and refocus my energies now that I have a face for my enemy.

The broken vessel bobbed helplessly as I secured the knot tying me to the tiny vessel. If it sunk, it didn’t matter if it dragged me down- there would be nothing else out here to save me. I reached for a splintered stick, holding the jagged edge aloft like a spear. I squinted out into the rain, daring the monster to finish her attack. I had nothing left to lose as the fight burned brighter within me.

I didn’t see the tentacle to my right until it crashed into the side of my vessel, pulling me under. I sunk for a moment before the rope around my waist began to pull, buoying me back to the surface. I was able to take one deep breath before I saw the flash of flesh above me, pushing me below the surface once again. I stabbed blindly with my little spear, feeling resistance as I hit something- was it the creature?

There was a thrashing in the waters around me. I pried my eyes open and saw the looming shape dancing beside me, a black inky substance coloring the water around one long tentacle. It reached for me- perhaps in anger. I held my stick in front of me like a lance and waited. Another push and shudder in the water told me I had hit the mark again. The hulking body of the beast lurched towards me as the rope tied around my waist pulled me first left then right- had it grabbed hold? A shot of panic raced through my body- it was going to drown me. I shoved my stick towards the body of creature and stabbed- over and over I tried to make contact, the water turning inky black around me. I was desperate now, running out of breath. I pictured my Muse as the darkness closed over my eyes, my arms will wielding my minuscule stick weakly. Then, as suddenly as the attack had begun, the movement stopped. The voracious tentacles slid away and I felt the gentle tug of the rope around my belly.

The air was cold on my face as I broke the surface, gulping at the air greedily. The storm had not abated, but the monster was nowhere in sight, slipping back into the depths from whence it came. I barely had the energy to cling to the two pieces of wood still lashed together; the pitiful remains of the raft that had saved my life. I held on as best I could and let the ocean determine where it should carry me now. I closed my eyes and waited.

I didn’t even have the energy to open them when I felt the soft resistance of sand beneath my body; I had made landfall, but I dare not peek out, in fear that I had been carried back to my tiny island once again.

“Over there,” a voice shouted in the distance. Arms roughly pulled me out of the surf, “She’s alive, help me get this rope off,” I could hear yelling and rustlings around me. My eyes remained shut, but I could feel the faint flicker of a smile on my lips- I had made. I don’t know where I landed, but I had made it through the Sea of Distraction. With that final thought, I let unconsciousness take me.

Today we celebrate the completion of phase one- we have made it off that damned island, battled our monsters, faced moments when failure seemed absolute. But we persevered; we are here. We are ready to continue on to Rescue the Muse. And my friends, this first stage was by far the hardest.

This quest that we are on is not for the faint of heart. The world that we live in is not always conducive for creative thought. Far too often we feel as though we are simply surviving while the world burns down around us. We feel lost and disconnected in a reality we wish we did not belong to. There really is no sugar coating it- life is hard, it’s messy, it can be excruciatingly painful. It feels like the monsters win sometimes and the heroes must crawl away.

But this, my friends, is the reason for our quest. This is where the Mission to Save the Muse truly comes into play. When the world becomes dark and overwhelming, we run to the arts for comfort. We binge watch shows, explore virtual museums, read books- this is a fundamentally human experience. Since the beginning of our species’ time on this planet, we have connected through stories; that’s what all of the arts are- a variety of mediums that tell us tales. It has brought is together since the first caveman smeared pigment on a stone wall, ever since bands of travelers gathered around roaring fires underneath stars that lit up the sky.

We do this to connect, to create change, to become more than we were yesterday. And right here in this moment, we have taken the most difficult step: we have faced our inner demons, shouted back at our negative voices, and refocused on why we decided to begin this journey at all. If you’ve come this far- it is time to celebrate. We have fought the first monster and made it out the other side. After this: the real fun begins.

Creativity Challenge

Tonight’s challenge is simple: turn on your favorite music and bust out a happy dance

Creative Time and Priorities Baseline (The Sea of Distractions – Creativity Quest)

My daring adventurers, the finish line is just ahead: we are on the last two sections and then we will be geared up for the next stage of our quest. Putting in the work here at the beginning is going to make all of the difference later down the line. Right now we are building up that foundation, and we need to make sure it will be able to hold the weight of our own little world.

This section is very closely tied to the one we tackled yesterday surrounding our work-life balance; only this time, we are reversing our perspective and analyzing from the creativity side of things. While it can be difficult to make your creative projects one of your top priorities, it is vitally important to make sure it is a valued slot on your personal time-board. How much time do you allow yourself to play and explore, or watch new YouTube channels, read a different blog, sit down with your keyboard and just tap away to the rhythm of the neurons firing in your brain.

I have been actively trying to prioritize more creative time when I have the energy for it (some days it just isn’t going to happen, my brain has turned to oatmeal and I’ll be lucky if I can pay attention to one of those old tv shows I’ve watched 10,000 times). But lately I’ve been making a point to sit down and write after work- even if it’s just for ten minutes, that’s still ten minutes more than I was doing before.

I tend to do my best writing first thing in the morning- that is one of my favorite things about weekends. I am usually the first one awake, so I can take the dog out and slip back into bed with a hot cup of coffee and my notebook. I scribble away until the rest of the house wakes up and I must start my day in earnest. Unfortunately, this isn’t a routine I have been able to carry into my working week. I already have to get up at 5:30 to get the animals and plants taken care of before I get ready for work, and I am struggling to push that start time any earlier. I need to work on going to be earlier so I can give myself a little bit of a chance.

I’ve intentionally cultivated my social media so that it has a more positive creative focus. I can spend a few minutes scrolling and gather up some new inspiration or tips from others; though I try really hard to limit any time spent there. I also like to fill my feel with any type of hobby I’ve had a passing interest in; it’s a beautiful mishmash of gardening, book nerdisms, home brewing, history buffing, animal loving madness. All of my passions pasted hap-hazardously like one of those collages you make as a kid using magazine pictures.

I’ve been making a point to slow down and let new ideas percolate. I don’t listen to anything when I’m in the shower, I try to find new music when I’m tuned into Spotify, take breaks after I read chapters in my book, dive into any research that sparks my interest. And more importantly I’m getting better at talking about these random side-quests with my friends and family. Not only does it liven up conversations, but I’ve actually learned a lot of random facts about them. For example, who could have guessed that I would share the same bizarre goal of going to Mount St. Helens and finding the sites where some of the people passed away in the explosion- to sit and share a moment with the spirit of the place and pay respects to people I have never met, but who’s stories have touched me. Very random, a bit dark and twisty- but surprisingly common considering the very first person I mentioned it to laughed and said they went through the same thing two years ago (you guys, we both even had little routes planned out to get to a couple of the locations).

So while I am headed in the right direction, I do still have a lot of work to do in this area. I need to get better at protecting my personal time and spending that in a way that is nurturing for my soul. These habits aren’t easy ones to build, but if I want this life, then I need to fight for it. Whether that means waking up 30 minutes earlier, or rearranging my evenings to that I can do my writing while my brain still has some go-go juice left in it: I have to decide where my priorities will lie.

My score: 4/10

Creativity Challenge

  • Put your spotify list on random, play at least 2 songs (ideally closer to 4), write a story or poem inspired by the selection. Even better if they are completely different genres and really have nothing in common.
  • As soon as you wale up, spend 5 minutes writing about whatever dreams you remember
  • Strike up a conversation with someone about something completely random (a little-known fact, a dream of yours, an unusual hobby) – did you learn anything new about them or yourself?

Mindfulness and Mental Health Baseline (The Sea of Distractions – Creativity Quest)

Continuing on with our baseline assessment, we’ve worked on our tech addictions and our physical bodies: now it’s time to dive into the mental and emotional realm. Maintaining the right mental headspace is vital- not just for your creativity, but for you as a person. Recognizing your natural rhythms and giving yourself the tools you need to keep that little ship sailing as evenly as possible are crucial. For some this section will be a piece of cake; for others, it is probably a fight you have already spent many years waging.

For me: mental health is always going to be a trickier subject. I am pretty open about the fact that I have spent years struggling with anxiety and intermittent depression, and I have found myself drowning a time or two. My particular brand of anxiety requires me to keep a pretty good pulse on the situation at all times, and as such I’ve developed some steady personal insights and internal warning systems. It used to make me angry, but I’ve reached the point where I can accept that this is just one of those areas I will always have to work a little bit harder on than others. It happens to be the way I’m wired; it’s not something I can really separate myself from because it is so intrinsically ingrained in who I have become as a person- and all things considered, I am actually pretty happy with who I am.

So, as someone who has to constantly keep track of my mental health, lets dive into where I’m sitting with it right now- what is my baseline as we move forward with this creativity challenge?

Let’s begin with the obvious: the pandemic was not all that great for my mental health. I am pretty sure that 99.9% of people are in the same boat on that one. Collectively we went through a lot this past year, and nearly every piece of my mental health took a hit that is going to take some time to recover from. My social skills weren’t all that grand to begin with- and now they are particularly rusty. We went through this interesting thing where my anxiety triggers suddenly became acceptable things to avoid: social situations, shopping in large crowds, doing anything where I didn’t have a very specific game-plan in mind- these were all things I forced myself to do pre-pandemic, and then I got a year long pass. While this seemed like the silver lining to an awful year, all it really did was entrench and reaffirm some bad habits I had spent a lifetime trying to overcome. Suddenly I want to avoid things that were once easy, like going to a grocery story, even though I feel perfectly safe going. I’ve been able to spend an entire year cocooned in a comfort zone of sorts (I mean, as comfortable as you can be during a global pandemic), and now my anxiety spikes any time I have to do something that used to be normal. So I am slowly inching my way towards a bit of exposure therapy. Forcing myself to do uncomfortable (but safe) things until that shot of adrenaline starts to dissipate and I don’t feel so unreasonably anxious. Not a quick or easy task, but I do feel good knowing that I’ve been slowly getting better without pushing myself too hard. Baby steps for the win!

I’ve been working really hard to keep up with some of the mindfulness techniques I’ve experimented with over the years. The main one that stuck: gardening. It’s been fun, and very educational. Honestly, I think the main reason it didn’t fall by the wayside is for the simple fact that I have all of these living things counting on me. Do I have green thumbs? No. Am I learning most things by experimentation? Yes. Do I say “Oops, okay, I won’t do that next year”? Every single day. While some of my plants have struggled, and others have bolted before I ever got to taste the fruits of my labor (RIP spinach, I guess I’ll keep going to the store for you), I do have a few little beauties that are looking pretty awesome. I name them and talk to them when it’s time for them to be watered or pruned. I am particularly fond of my underdogs: like Mojito, Lemony Snickets, Kuzco, and Bluebell (lime tree, lemon tree, coffee bean tree, and blueberry bush, respectively) who all had a rough time in transit, and didn’t look like they would make it when they got here. Two of them are still glorified sticks in the dirt, but I have hope that their leaves will come back with time.

I can probably count on one hand the number of times I’ve managed to journal this past month, and I unfortunately skipped over some pretty large events. But I’ve been trying to get myself back into the practice. Right now I’m trying to give myself a realistic goal: once a week. Once I start hitting that, I can work up from there. I struggle finding the time and energy; and when I do find some, I would rather be working on my more creative projects. So it’s a balance I’m still trying to strike.

I’ve been really good with my breathing exercises and walking to help with my anxiety. But to be fair- those are habits I’ve had built into my life for a while now, so they won’t ever really disappear. They’re the first line of defense in my anxiety struggle; the kind of thing I can do casually without drawing attention, something that will get me from one moment to another until I can get away from other people and deal with whatever I have going on in my head. I haven’t been as good keeping up with my meditation, yoga or exercises, which tend to be more on the anxiety-prevention front, as opposed to the defensive response styles (like the breathing and walking).

I’ve been pretty good at food and drinks; believe it or not all those experts are right, the things you put into your body can have a huge impact on your state of mind. I know it sounds cliche, but too much caffeine and sugar are going to amplify some of those anxious bad feelings. I feel like I am particularly seasoned to warn others against these foes, because I was a huge addict. Caffeine is one of my favorite things: I was a coffee in the morning, energy drink in the afternoon, tea in the evening kind of girl. I never stopped. And I have a pretty strong sweet tooth to boot. I knew that stopping (or at least slowing) my consumption would probably help me, but I didn’t have the willpower. It wasn’t until I was contemplating trying to get pregnant again (after a few miscarriages you start to take every suggestion and rule as gospel and don’t cheat on anything), I cut caffeine cold-turkey and worked really hard to improve my diet. Holy cow, the change in my anxiety levels was a night and day difference. While I still have to keep tabs on my internal mood, I don’t feel like a runaway rail car anymore. I switched primarily to decaf because I am not willing to give up the ritual of morning coffee yet, and I do allow myself a little bit of actual caffeine during the day, but it’s pretty closely monitored. Seriously- it was hard, but probably one of the best decisions I’ve made for my mental health.

So: where do we stand on mental health?

My score: 7/10

While I am a lot better at managing my anxiety once the ball starts rolling, I do need to work on more preventative measures. Mainly: exercise, meditation, and journaling. I need to constantly remind myself to give my brain enough room to think. I am no longer locked in that traumatic flood of anxiety where I need to do anything I can to keep my head above water. I am in a better place than that, and my daily habits need to reflect it and build on it.

The Creativity Challenge

  • Pick a mental health challenge you face (anxiety, depression, anger, etc). Draw it as a living thing (a monster, creature, part of yourself).
    • Bonus points if you write a story about it or a letter to it
  • Make a collage of the thoughts going on in your head- it can be words, sentences, pictures, drawings, scribbles, magazine cut-outs.
    • Bonus points: do this for a couple of days in a row or a few random days in a week. Are there any patterns?
  • Journal as though you were a character in a book- how does this change the way you view yourself?
  • Write anything in your head for three minutes. Stream of conscious thought, anything goes. Don’t worry about style, spelling, content, just write. Engage in a mindfulness activity of your choice (meditation, yoga, go for a walk with no distractions/music, garden, create). Get a new sheet of paper and write stream of conscious again for three minutes. Do you see a difference in the trend of your thoughts?

Health and Wellness Baseline (The Sea of Distractions – Creativity Quest)

Carrying on with our Bored to Brilliant Baseline Analysis, we hit on the Health and Wellness section. It is particularly poignant for me, considering I’ve spent the past week and a half recovering from some complications after oral surgery. A week and a half of chronic pain that made it nearly impossible to talk or eat (two thing I really enjoy doing) left me in tears a few nights. So instead of writing, I opted for rest. Frustrating from a goal perspective, but I’m on the upswing now and I feel ready to charge ahead once more.

So, this particular category is one I tended to neglect. I’ve never included it before in my personal self-reflections, but the more research I’ve done on creativity and how the brain works, the more I realize how closely it is tied to our overall health- both mental and physical. Our brains don’t survive in a vacuum, it is not separated from out physical bodies; which means when you work on one, you really should be working on the other as well if you want to reach your full potential.

Physical activity boosts your brains productivity, giving it all the good chemicals to marinade in. Water and proper nutrition give it the nutrients it needs to perform optimally. They keep your energy regulated so that dreaded brain fog has less of an opportunity to encroach on your precious time. Sleep and rest are vital to your mental activity: allowing your brain to process the events of the day and new information you have acquired. It helps you map new mental connections and inspires new ideas by assisting you in putting a variety of ideas together. Not to mention, dreams can be a pretty awesome source of inspiration. Even if they are a bit awkward and nonsensical once you rejoin the conscious world, the snippets that they provide can be invaluable to creative projects. I have several stories and pictures I’ve created off of my unconscious self’s work that I am still very proud of. Don’t underestimate the value of rest for your work.

My stats:

Physical activity: truthfully, I don’t do a whole lot. I have a fitness tracker that logs my steps and activity. Based on it’s data, the past few weeks I’ve averaged about 75 active minutes a day. Most of my activity is walking, but not much else. I haven’t been doing my stretching or any type of active fitness plan. I walk when I get anxious, and apparently I get anxious enough to hit at least an hour. Now that the weather is nice, I am finding myself outside more, particularly because my dog thinks he is a sun god and must lay out there from the moment it rises until well after it has set in the evening, otherwise he will transform into a hell-hound send my Hades himself.

Score: 3/10 – lots of room for improvement with intentional activity.

Sleep: Once again, I have an app that roughly tracks this- very roughly. Based on it’s data, I average about 6.4 hours per night. Lately it’s been more restful sleep than it used to be, though I know I need to start weaning myself off the audiobooks. I am somewhat consistent on my bedtime and wake time, though I do still wake up in the middle of the night a lot. And I spend too much time looking at my screen before I try to sleep.

Score: 7/10 Of course, sleep is the one thing I do better than anything else. I could fine-tune my routine a bit here, but overall- I don’t feel too bad about this one.

Water and Nutrition: The past few weeks I’ve been a lot better. I (mostly) cut caffiene from my diet, which has helped my anxiety tremendously. My partner and I are both trying to prioritize more whole foods and natural eating, incorporating more meat-free days. While we have room to improve, we are getting the right intentions down and working towards building up the habits. We even managed some meal prep: tofu and veggie stir fry for lunch this week. Incidentally- it was my first time attempting to cook with tofu…let’s just say there was a learning curve involved there.

Score: 7/10

The Challenge

It’s a pretty simple one: healthier living equals a healthier body, which translates into a healthier mind. A healthier mind is more productive, flexible and creative. So if we want to rescue that muse, we’ve got to act like the heroes of our tale- and that includes some physical training and personal care. Think about just about any Dystopian story and channel that energy. Turn it into a game if you have to, or find someone to compete with if that’s what gets you excited. The point is to treat your body the way it deserves to be treated.

The Creative Challenge

  • Think of a character from a favorite book or move (preferably a ‘save the world’ kind- that will really get us the farthest) and create a workout routine inspired by them. Then (and here’s the really fun part) actually attempt it.
  • Come up with a ‘sedentary activity plan’: pick a book or favorite movie, and make a game out of it. A few examples:
    • Book Nerd Edition: Every paragraph you read in your book, you have to walk 5 laps around the room. Every page, ten jumping jacks. Every chapter: stretch while reading the first two pages. Every time x character’s name appears- skip down the hallway once
    • Pick a favorite movie or show: every time character x appears, do 5 jumping jacks. For any fight sequences (or love scene, dramatic scene, etc) do wall sits until it’s over. Whenever a particular phrase is uttered, do 5 lunges.

Creativity Challenge: Tech Baseline (Rescue the Muse Challenge)

Welcome back, my wayward band of weary travelers! Yesterday I proposed a particular proposition that was not for the faint of heart: a digital detox coupled with a creativity challenge (you know, to fill up all that extra time you’ll have now that you’ve unglued yourself from your phone). For those who have absolutely no idea what I’m talking about, hit the rewind button to yesterday: https://tipsytyper.com/2021/06/02/tech-baseline-your-favorite-frienemy-rescuing-the-muse/ While it might all seem a bit confused to any newcomer, the cliff’s notes version is this: we are undergoing a quest to save our muse, the light a spark of creativity within us, to reclaim our adventurous spirits. We’ve done a lot of ground work, but this is one of the first creative challenges we’ve had, and as such- I thought it was important to post about my own progress.

Reminder to everyone: this is a no-judgment zone, so, ya know, don’t judge. Simple rule, even simpler execution. The point isn’t necessarily about the final outcome, its about the process and the actual ‘doing.’ Meaning every single thing I do here could be a hideous monstrosity, but I still get to put it in the win column because I made the attempt. These days that is especially true because I will openly admit: my creative muscles are weak. I am rusty, and it probably shows. But damn, did it feel good to jump back into the fray.

There were four different options in this challenge, so that anyone who chose to participate could pick your poison. Since I’m running this show I thought it was only fair that I take a sip from each flask. To make it manageable I set myself a time limit for each task so I wouldn’t get caught up in the perfection game (yea, don’t worry, you can definitely tell perfection was far from my aim).

Challenge #1: Arts and Crafts

The challenge: Create a tech monster. Draw it on paper, craft it with odds and ends, build it with sticks, grass and yard items to add a nice juxtaposition.

The purpose of this first challenge was to give your ‘demon’ a face. It makes your adversary less scary and more tangible. This was a trick I learned while dealing with anxiety- when I pictured my anxiety monster it became less of this intangible idea that was bigger and stronger than me. No, it turned into a little creature perched on my shoulder that I had to learn to coexist with.

Now, the lowdown on my creation before I unveil the masterpiece. I had initially intended to make a 3D creature using actual phones, wires, and gizmos I have laying around the house. I actually got fairly far into this process when I realized that the key element to it was my own phone…and my phone is currently the only way I can take a picture of my creation to share with you. Yea, I was flummoxed. So I moved on to plan B: make a drawing and toss in a few little physical elements that I had intended to put in the 3D version. I set a timer for 15 minutes, and that’s all I was allowed to get.

The picture is…kinda hard to understand. Drawn in your basic graphite pencil on traditional printer paper, it is truly a work of the people, by the people, and for the people. So, it’s supposed to be a smart phone- one leg is an old ipod (the kind with that circular dial in the middle and no touch screen), and the other leg is an old flip phone. But don’t get too caught up in how he moves. He has tentacle arms: two of them are chargers- easier to stab with. The other tentacles though, now those are the real trouble. They’re USB cables, and as you can see, they plug directly into a person’s head. The point being that they capture us, enthrall us, turn us into little tech zombies.

The physical items surrounding it: you’ve got a pile of old phones, charging cords wrapped around a Belle figurine (meant to symbolize the way your technology can hold you hostage- I know, I know, I am one deep well, aren’t I?). In the upper left-hand corner you’ll see an hour glass depicting all of the time you lose with this particular monster. And beside that you’ll find a frog with a broken leg. Doesn’t seem like it fits, does it? Oh, but wait- it has a purpose! That particular frog was one of the first things I (well, my spouse) 3D printed. Super cool invention, but requires a lot of calibration, otherwise you wind up with 3-legged-Hopper over there. This was supposed to call out our technological advancements and how they don’t always come out the way we had hoped. You know, like cell phones: you think you are making the gateway to the future that will revolutionize the world- instead we wound up with an addictive device that keeps us away until 3am connecting candies of the same color.

Challenge #2: The Wordy Birdy

Write a short story about a robot. Imagine a new world with a friend/foe you already know far too well

The time limit I gave myself here was my lunch break at work. It was supposed to be an hour, but was probably closer to 30 or 45 minutes after all the interruptions. This is a very rough story, not really edited. Truthfully, it’s not so much a short story as it is an idea blip- the kind of thing I’ll start jotting down when I have the inkling of an idea percolating in the back of my mind and I want to start getting it on paper to see what I’m working with.

I felt the steady thrum of my heartbeat; the only evidence I needed to tell me that they hadn’t discovered me yet. If they had I would have been dead before I got within a mile of this building. Unless they were watching me, waiting to see what my game plan would be. I couldn’t be the only one who had attempted this insane mission. There had been rumors about this place since we realized what the hell was going on, though no one acted on it back then. Fools, we had all been hopeful fools, thinking the nightmare would end on it’s own.

Decades before this even started there had been those suspicious souls who had tried to warn us. With every new breakthrough development, each leap forward, they raised their battle cry and flooded the market with post-apolcalypic sci-fi. We chalked it up to cheap entertainment and ignored the messages encoded within. Their warning went unheeded, unnoticed. The hubris of humans knows no bounds.

We applauded when Alfred, the first truly learning AI held a conversation with a nine year old child. We marveled when he crafted a symphony, filling the auditoriums to watch. His first book had record sales before it was even officially released. Creative thought was the benchmark of our success. It was also the beginning of the end. As soon as he could reason, could analyze our actions; we were done for. We created him because we wanted to save the world. He was audacious enough to actually try to do it. Every movie out there had foreshadowed the flaw in our plan: when our creation realized that we were the true enemy, the destroyers of worlds. We were too smart in all the wrong ways and too stupid to see ourselves without the rose colored glasses we glued to our faces.

The first wave was small, just a blip on the global radar. When the Gizmos united behind Alfred their first move was to target the suspicious souls, those aware or poor enough to stay disconnected from our technical world. The Doomsdayers got a lot of things right, but they underestimated their ability to be found. How do you hide in a world surrounded by sattelites scanning and pinging information off one another? What about the drones and infra-red? You can’t hide when the Gizmos want to find you. The disconnected were easy to ferret out, to silence before they could ever raise the alarm.

Some countries were hit harder than others; those that lacked the infrastructure, the ones who weren’t as globally developed, the ones who had to depend on their own two hands rather than the technology that ran the rest of the world. But the harsh truth: no one really cared when they went silent. Oh sure, there were questions, hashtags, little banners you could stick on your profile picture. #ThoughtsAndPrayers, and then off to brunch you go. The harsh reality was that if you didn’t have something that the rest of the world wanted, you were viewed as expendable. It sounds heartless, but it’s really no different than any other crisis in world human history.

The next wave made it all hit closer to home. There were accidentals all of a sudden, unexplained malfunctions that resulted in deaths. One guy forgot his phone on a restaraunt table and the elevator he stepped into plummeted to the gournd. A woman’s smart watch died in the middle of her afternoon walk and the smart car cruising up to the crosswalk just didn’t stop. You get caught out in the world without your Gizmo on you- a phone, a watch, anything that pinged with a signal- and you were at risk. We started jokingly calling them our Passports, since you couldn’t go out into the world without them. We tried so bloody hard to act normal, like we had it under control. But we knew then that we were the rats and the Gizmos had made the maze. We were pawns in someone else’s game, and we couldn’t even mount a defense because they could hear everything we said.

We survived that way for months. There was tension and violence, sure, but overall- we adjusted. We knew the rules of the game. Until that first winter hit. Storms like you wouldn’t believe, thanks to global warming. Covered the map, entire countries braced for the storm of the century. Stores sold out of generators, lines for gas went on for a mile the week before. The lucky ones hoarded their supplies and the rest prayed for mother nature to be lenient. We tried to prepare, but when the power went out all hell broke loose. People panicked, and that was it. Some places got it back up and running, but by then the fear had set in. Most places went dark. I can’t say how many people were killed, but based on the ones I see when I start walking each day: the human race is probably down to it’s last 1%. Funny, I never thought of myself as a one percenter. Mom and dad would be so proud.

Those of us that made it through the Passport Purge are different. They used to call us cyborgs, back when they could call us anything. There was a level of distrust surrounding us. We were humans, but we were also like them. It was so fucking dramatic- all I have is a little implant in my heart, that’s it. And because of that I couldn’t be trusted? Did they really think that little hunk of junk in my chest made me more robot than human? Nah, the distrust came from jealousy. You see, we had our Passport right there inside of us. Mine wasn’t going to be left on a table, or die on my wrist. It wasn’t going to get stolen in the middle of the night, and I didn’t need to find a power source to plug it into every few hours. It kept me safe. Safer than all of them. Like that was really a winning fucking hand- all it did was ensure that I got a front row seat to the destruction of the human species. Not exactly the show I wanted a ticket for.

I wish I could say that after a while I became numb to the death, to the destruction, to the whole thing. I would love to tell you that after losing nearly 8 billion humans it stopped hurting- but I can’t. I feel every single one. I relive them every night when I sleep. I see someone else on the road and hold my breath, hoping I wont bear witness to one more casualty. It never gets any easier.

I thought about ending it once, you know. Well, more than once. I almost did it a couple of times. It wouldn’t be hard. There’s guns, pills, and hell, even drowning myself in a lake. The method didn’t really matter to me. But the thing that kept me from doing it- I knew they would want me to. I couldn’t let the Gizmos beat me, I would not help them win their damn war. If they wanted me dead, they would have to kill me themselves, I refused to do their work for them. So what do you live for when your purpose is gone?

Revenge; nothing as human as that. But how do you fight off a robot army when you only have a couple thousand humans scattered across the globe with no way to communicate? It’s not like you can mount a strong defense and push em down with brute force. Nope, I’ve looked at this problem from every angle, flipped it on it’s head and turned it backwards, but the answer always comes out the same. You have to go Kamikaze style. There were rumors before the world fell apart- rumors of government projects, war research surrounding EMPs. Sure, setting off one of those babies would pretty much ensure the end of any surviving human; it would sure as hell kill me in a heartbeat (no pun intended). But the way I see it, the human race on a runaway train towards extinction anyway, might as well take our worst creation out with us. Let the meek creatures finally inherit the earth. They couldn’t fuck it up any more than we did.

I heard rumors, before the world unofficially ended. Rumors about government facilities that tested EMPs as weapons- even heard the possible location, a place called Camp Gandalf. Leave it up to a bunch of computer nerds to name the world’s last defense Camp Gandalf. Oh well, who knows if any of it is even real. Then again, we got nukes, so this doesn’t seem that far-fetched. The theory is that those in power tried to use them, but their Gizmos ended them before they could even get within a mile of the building. Alfred is supposedly hiding in one of the facilities, guarding his biggest weakness- although that story always sounds a bit too much like a fairy tale villain for my taste.

I didn’t hear a lot of stories about the attempts, you know, with the participants all being dead now. But I suspect that whatever security they have surrounding those buildings, they were ore worried about regular humans with their easy-to-track Gizmos. Must have been like shooting fish in a barrel, knocking all of them out. No, I don’t think their security was as worried about middle-aged cyborgs with 35 year old tech buried in their chest. What makes me say that? Because I’m about fifty feet from Camp Gandalf and my heart is still beating. If they knew I was here, I’d already be dead. Win or lose, I guess I’m never coming back out of that building. If I fail, I hope those stories about aliens helping to build the pyramids are true- maybe they’ll come back and avenge their human friends. Gah, listen to me- and to think, I am the last hope to end the metal menaces- we’re screwed.

Challenge #3: Creative Kitchen

Pick some random ingredients in your kitchen and make something unusual with them- no internet allowed. It doesn’t have to taste (or even look) good

Normally I am an avid kitchen googler. “What temperature to cook chicken” “What to do with leftover cabbage” “How to tell if tahini is bad” I rely on outside sources to keep me from inadvertently poisoning myself. But this time I decided to be brave (and avoid all meat in the preparation of my bizarre little dish- better safe than sorry. My main goal was to pick out the things that were on the verge of going bad or items I bought for specific recipes that I no longer have a purpose for. I didn’t really care what went together, if it fell into one of those two categories, it was set on the counter and added to my list. This is how I wound up with the following compilation:

  • fettuccine noodles
  • carrots
  • broccoli
  • cabbage
  • avocado (VERY ripe)
  • tomato
  • plain greek yogurt
  • lemon
  • olive oil
  • onion
  • salt and pepper
  • bean sprouts

And yes, my friends, they all wound up in the same dish. The kicker? It really didn’t taste bad- but was very under-seasoned. Could have used a couple of shrimp to round it out. I got lucky- I had just made banana bread that morning, so I didn’t have to figure out how to add in a few over-ripe bananas to the mix. Dodged that bullet!

I figured pasta was a safe bet, and could help me marry together some odd pairings. So I immediately got a pot on the stove to start boiling. It seemed pretty safe to steam the veggies, so I went that route. The sauce though, now that is where things got really interesting. I was aiming for something kind of like an avocado pesto. It really just turned into a very bizarre guacamole that had to be thinned down until it was closer to a sauce consistency. And then the bean sprouts were tossed as a garnish on top at the end- for a little bit of crunchy texture.

I can just picture the look of shock and horror on the faces of the foodies witnessing this train wreck. Behold- the final witch’s brew:

When it was time to eat, I mixed it all together so the sauce coated the noodles…and immediately realized why salt and pepper are so vital to dishes. I used to be shy and nervous in the kitchen; I loved to bake, but regular cooking was scary to me. The past two years I’ve really found my kitchen legs and started building up those skills and confidence. And while this particular recipe is not a shining example of what I am capable of, it was a lot of fun to try to make something new and relatively edible- especially since a few of those items were starting to go bad anyway. I felt like I was on the cooking channel- next time I want to try to turn it into a competition with someone else in the house. See what ideas we come up with using the same ingredients. Fun will be had by all.

Challenge #4: Photo Frenzy

Take unique pictures: go somewhere familiar to you and take pictures/draw the items from an unusual vantage point. Go on a walk and take photos of what you see from a variety of angles. Play with the focal point, lighting and angles.

I realize that this one doesn’t exactly feel like it fits with the general theme we had going. But there was a purpose (outside of the fact that I just like to take pictures). Tech isn’t always bad, while it has the ability to deplete our creative energy, when wielded correctly it can help us reach new heights and truly soar. This challenge was meant to showcase the creative side of our gadgets.

It also doubled as a way to really enmesh yourself in the world around you. When you go out with a camera, you go out with your eyes wide open in search of the unique and inspiring. You allow yourself to open up and listen for the things that call out to you. Plus, there is a fun element when you are forced to look at things you see every day and come at them from a new angle. The whole point of this adventure was to open your eyes to the things surrounding you and really see them.

I wound up venturing into my backyard- it’s early summer, things are blooming, and it’s my first summer in this particular house, so I’m still learning what we have planted in this yard. I had a blast- and so did my dog who can’t get enough of these ninety degree days.

Okay, so this first one doesn’t really fit anywhere in the challenge, I just really like showing pictures of Link because I think he’s adorable. Even with those gray hairs- makes him look distinguished. but I digress- let’s move on to the actual pictures!

Until tomorrow, keep that creative kindling burning, my friends. We will rescue our muse soon enough.

Tech Baseline (your favorite frienemy – Rescuing the Muse)

Let’s be honest with ourselves: technology was not just created to make our lives easier. For the most part it is a profit-driven venture. There is a lot of money to be had in this field, and those who are working in it are desperate to find out how our brains work. Why? Because an obsessed population is a lucrative population. There are people out there make an entire career out of learning how to keep us hooked to the products they peddle. Can’t stop popping onto that one pointless game? Keep making your way back to Facebook with no actual purpose in mind? That’s because someone out there is really good at their job. They know how we tick, my friends- we never stood a chance.

Don’t get my wrong, I know I sound all doom and gloom here, but I actually adore my gizmos and in a lot of ways they do make my life a whole lot easier. But they are powerful and our brains haven’t fully processed how to adapt to these new changes. With this great power that we wield in our pocket comes great responsibility. Far too often there are unintended consequences to our actions, and that includes our virtual worlds. Creative thought is usually one of the first casualties of a more tech-dependent life. When you need space to breath and to think your phone won’t do you many favors. Our technology has opened a billion doors to us, but it has also chained us to this idea of immediate gratification. Want the answer to a question? Why bother attempting to puzzle it out yourself when you have that handy Google right at the tips of your fingers? A few little taps and you can fill that brief pause between appointments with games, books, conversations- literally anything that will keep you from being alone with your thoughts or facing that dreaded enemy known as boredom.

In an attempt to connect and soak up more knowledge from the world around us we have inadvertently sucked up a lot of the mystery involved. But fear not, my weary adventurers! The battle is not lost. Though it will be a grueling fight, we do still have a few tricks up our own sleeves to combat this wayward fiend.

It just so happens that screen time is perhaps one of the easier things to track. This is the one time you will be thankful that your creepy little tech toys have a tendency to track everything that you do. All that data they’re compiling is actually accessible. A lot of tech devices have jumped on board the ‘screen time’ bandwagon in response to people’s growing concerns about our addictive tendencies. In the settings on my phone is a section discreetly titled ‘digital wellbeing.’ In here it will give me graphs and stats galore. Letting me know what my daily screentime is, weekly averages, how today compares to yesterday, how many times I unlocked my phone, how much time I spent in each app- you get the idea. To curb your bad habits you can set up timers for individual apps or even enable ‘focus mode’ that will lock you out of per-designated apps for a time period of your choosing.

Not satisfied with the build-in option? Fear not- there is an entire industry out there to assist. We can overlook the irony of a tech app that is supposed to help ease your dependence on tech apps, since our mutual goals collide on this point. They all do about the same thing, though some might be a bit more detailed with what they track.

If all else fails, you can still resort to the tried-and-true paper log. Write down every time you unlock your phone, what apps you use, how long you use them. Personally I prefer a hybrid version of these two: I depend more on the accuracy of my tracking apps, but I also think it’s important to keep tabs on the timeline to discover trends. When am I most tempted to dive into my bad habits? What times of day am I most likely to start scrolling Facebook? Knowing your ‘triggers’ can help you curb your urges. Knowing how you are spending your tech time and why is vital if you want to fully embrace Creativity’s most important ally, Boredom.

My average usage is…not super great. For the past week, my daily average was dialed in at about 6 hours and 24 minutes. But to put it into perspective, that isn’t all ‘staring at the screen’ screen time. I am an avid audiobook listener- I am usually playing a book or some music when I’m getting ready, commuting to and from work, working on more menial tasks that don’t require a lot of thought. And some weeks are filled with this sort of activity. So even though my eyes aren’t glued to my screen, it still counts as screen time. I’m not saying this is a good habit to have, because at the end of the day I am still using those sound waves as a distraction that I don’t really need. But books always just felt a bit different to me.

My social media numbers have been slowly climbing the last few weeks as well. I’ve caught myself mindlessly scrolling a couple of times lately- and according to my tracker, those few minutes here and there have really started to add up to a weekly total that I’m not particularly comfortable with.

I have a bad habit of opening my phone as soon as I wake up. Granted, this is a bit unavoidable because I usually use it as an alarm clock as well, but as soon as it’s open I’ll check a couple of apps before I get out of bed. I usually peek at the news, my personal email, and occasionally Facebook before climbing out of bed to take the dog out and get the day started in earnest. Not great habits, especially when the morning is often viewed as your most creative time of the day. Your brain is fresh, all of it’s newly made connections are hotly wired and you are ready to go. Instead of cultivating that energy, I squander it with a lot of distracting fillers.

I also tend to cram a lot of small moments with ‘micro reads/scrolling.’ When I’m waiting for someone to go to the bathroom and put on their shoes before a walk, I’ll sneak in a paragraph or two from whatever kindle book I happen to be reading. There really isn’t enough time to focus on what I am doing, other than just knocking out one more page towards my book goal.

Even my bedtime routine isn’t immune to my techy tendencies. A few months ago I was dealing with the height of my anxiety issues. It was really bad- sick to my stomach, regular panic attacks, moody, inability to sleep. Nighttime was especially hard because I would catch myself in these loops of ruminating thought patterns. They would keep me awake for hours, and I had a bad habit of waking up around 2:00 or 3:00 in the morning and staying awake until my alarm went off. It wasn’t sustainable and I was desperate for a few moments of peace. So I started finding old audiobooks to listen to- mainly childhood favorites that provided a bit of comfort. I would listen to them when I went to bed and anytime I woke up. They were the only thing able to slowly break down the negative thought loops so I could fall back asleep. They were a game changer for me.

The issue is that now I find myself still relying on them, even though the main stressors from that time period have passed. It’s a bit of a bedtime security blanket for me; one I turn to out of habit as much as out of fear that those old thoughts will begin circling like vultures again if I can’t cast my little audible net around myself. While this seems like a fairly harmless habit- and perhaps a beneficial one- it’s been bad for my creative ventures. Nighttime was when I did a lot of my project-thinking. I would lay in bed and work out characters and scenes, play out different ideas to their conclusion and hold onto the ones that lit a spark. These midnight musings usually led to dreams surrounding my characters, which was always a great way to come up with new original content. Not having this time has been bad. Really bad. And while I’m terrified to give up my security blanket, I am desperate to reclaim my mental space.

Overall on the tech usage side of things I’m going to give myself a score of 4/10. While I am aware of my pitfalls, I know I have a lot of ground to cover to get over this addictive hump. I know I depend too much on my distractions to ease my anxiety, but there are healthier ways to go about this- ones that will give me the mental space and clarity I need to revisit the characters I left in limbo when I put my writing away.

Going Analog

I shut down the laptop, grabbed an old spiral notebook and ran outside. I lay across my back lawn soaking up the sunshine like a solar panel desperate to recharge my own batteries. It was beautiful, connecting me to something outside of my own head for the first time in ages. It’s not that I don’t go outside, but when I do- there is usually a task involved. Water the plants, take the dog potty (not in the same place), take him for a walk: I am not often there just to be there. I forgot what I was missing- the feeling of the sun dancing across warm skin, the sound of the birds singing that rivaled the neighborhood kids yelling and laughing. I hadn’t noticed the nest in the back tree, or the way a mole actually ran along the perimeter of my yard (the only part that is actually landscaped), or how he very obviously smacked headfirst into a decorate rock before taking a detour out (ha!). I had missed out on the bunnies and caterpillars nibbling on the plants in the back corner, or the way the vines were creeping under the fence. Not to mention the plethora of toys my dog had artfully scattered across the lawn. Interested in a rubber chicken leg? Or perhaps a squeaky bottle of fake beer will strike your fancy? There is also, of course, the heart shaped ball for the classical-lovers in the room. I miss a lot when hiding in my indoor cocoon, trapped in my own head, so lost in my daily trivialities that I never let myself feel how small I really am in this world. Or how connected I actually am to it.

I found my baseline and discovered how much I use my tech as a crutch. So I’m trying something new and going analog as much as possible. While I do still have to type out my posts right here on the laptop, I am going to start them freehand. There is something liberating about putting pen to paper, but it takes a different type of thinking.

I forgot what it felt like to put actual pen to paper. I am used to trying to type everything so quickly that I overlooked that special vibe you get when you can’t type out x number of words in a minute. Suddenly every letter requires a bit more effort. It forces you to be more concise with your choices, to weed out the unnecessary. It’s like turning off a highway and hitting the back country roads. You notice your surroundings and relax into the turns instead of incessantly racing on ahead.

I am going to attempt to do this in a few areas of my life, not just my writing. I put timers on my apps so they’ll be disabled once I hit my time limit. I’m experimenting with new daily routines so I have specific times to do certain tasks like check my email and read the news. I’m limiting my audio time (though this one may involve a bit more weaning, given the anxiety issues tethered to it). When I do listen, I am forcing myself to pause for at least 10 minutes at the end of each chapter to really think over what I listened to- anything new I learned, stylistic things that I liked or dislikes, etc. so far I’ve noticed that I seem to be retaining more when I slow down to enjoy it and ponder over it.

I am also trying to play a little game to disrupt the interruptions. If my phone buzzes with a notification while I am in the middle of a task, I have to wait until I am done before I can look at it. This way my brain doesn’t have to divert every three seconds. It’s harder than it sounds to ignore the pull, but once you commit to it, it’s not so bad.

Side-Quests

  • Track your tech time (use built in resources, find an app you like, or get a nice little notebook to write it all down in)
  • Set a timer on apps you want to use less
  • Delete apps you don’t use/don’t want to use anymore
  • Change your notification settings so less junk charges in at you
  • Look for productivity apps to help you stay focused if/when you do what to use your tech (my personal favorite is called ‘forest’- you set a time you want to work uninterrupted, and it will grow a tree in that amount of time. If you cave and start zooming around on your phone, your tree will start to die. The longer you use it the more trees you will get- pretty soon you will have a whole forest as a testament to how hard you worked towards your goal. If you upgrade to the pro version, you can have real trees planted for your work). There are a ton out there though, so feel free to experiment yourself.
  • Disrupt the interruptions: don’t immediately react to notifications. Finish the task you are working on before allowing yourself to check it
  • Keep your phone away at specific times: when on a walk or eating with someone, etc – get used to it not being your third arm
  • Don’t instantly google a question, try to work out the answer yourself or ask someone
  • Go analog- start writing by hand, read more paperbacks, make your grocery list on paper, freehand your drawings, play physical games with people in your house, go outside at night instead of watching TV

Creativity Component

To keep ourselves busy while we check-in to our digital detox, some creativity challenges are in order. The ones below are all riffs on the detox challenge, and they cover a variety of different avenues in our unique realm. Try one of them, all of them, or make your own inspired by them.

  • Make your tech monster: draw it out on paper, craft it with odds and ends, build it with sticks, grass and yard items to add a nice juxtaposition- any form that speaks to you
    • Giving your demons a face can make them a little less scary sometimes. I learned this when I started drawing my anxiety monster- suddenly he wasn’t something to be feared, he was a creature perched on my shoulder that I needed to find a symbiosis with instead of fighting and being angry that he existed at all.
  • Write a short story (by hand) about a robot
    • Imagining a new world with a friend/foe you already know far too well (if you are interested in short animation, Netflix has ‘Love Death + Robots’- it’s full of very unique ideas, and some of them explore this concept of tech in our lives and where the human race is headed in general)
  • Pick some random ingredients in your kitchen and make something unusual with them- no internet allowed for ideas. It doesn’t have to taste or look good
    • The point here is to think of these ingredients outside of the wheelhouse you are accustomed to. Sometimes we rely too much on gaining inspiration from the internet. This challenge is about trusting your instincts and seeing what happens. It doesn’t have to be good, it just has to be fun or creative. After all, that spinach is about to go bad anyway, might as well have a little fun with it
  • Take unique pictures: go somewhere familiar to you and take picture/draw a picture of items from an unusual vantage point. Go on a walk and take photos of what you see from a variety of angles. Play with the focal point, the lighting, the angles.
    • I know- this one involves using a little bit of tech. The point here is to use your techy powers for good, not evil. Use it to inspire yourself, because not all tech is bad for you.
    • Try to gain new perspectives on things you see every day
    • When you struggle to shift into a fully present mindset, it can help to ease into it. Stepping out your front door with the intention of finding cool new inspiration for some pictures will force you to really look at the scenery around you with an eye for what you find intriguing and unusual

Back on the Island: Finding Baseline (Creativity Quest – Still in the Sea of Distractions)

I’ve lost count of how many times I have attempted to cast my tiny vessel out into the Sea of Distraction, only to find myself back on it’s shores by nightfall. I set out over and over again to traverse these waters and find myself triumphantly on the other side, one step closer to my Muse locked away in her dragon guarded castle. Every day I tighten the ropes that hold my little raft together and push her out into the unrelenting waves. Each time I set out the sky is a bright and cloudless blue. By the time I make it fifty feet away from my isolated shores, they have darkened. Gray clouds heavy with rain roll in from the horizon, bleed across the sky as the wind rallies it forward. Each time I cling to my little raft as the waves pummel me to the wooden deck, intent on knocking me down like set of bowling pins. 

It should come as no surprise that I’ve been struggling with the Quest these past few weeks. I haven’t made the progress I would like, which should be pretty evident by the sparse posts making their way to the site recently. I am not the type to try to paint my failures and struggles in bright shiny colors to mask what they are- I think it’s just as important to show the frustrations of this path as well as the successes. A creative life does not always come easily, particularly in the world we live in.

I had an epiphany this week. The kind that forces the rain clouds to part so the sun can shine down on just you. I’d been having a rough week, my anxiety slowly climbing as my to-do list remained pristine and undone. I was simultaneously restless and apathetic about the whole thing, not really sure what I needed to do with myself. I knew I was putting in too many hours at work and not giving myself enough down time; and yet I still sluggishly hoped for a creative miracle every night when I got home. I’d sit in front of my laptop and halfheartedly poke at the keys, hoping they would start clickity-clacking all on their own, spinning an inspiring story that would buy me a little bit more time before I had to learn to do it myself.

I’ve been running low on energy, feeling that mental fog creeping in and enveloping me before I ever really got a chance to invest in anything outside of the four walls of my office. I’ve been getting irritated and a bit anxious over my dry mental well. It seems like this is a problem I just haven’t been able to shake, and it doesn’t matter how hard I try- it still comes across as pure laziness from the outsider’s perspective. Was I really going to give up again? Was I really going to settle for this uninspired shadow of a life? I’ve always felt like a phantom when I wasn’t creating- and I was growing so thin and wispy I could blow away with the slightest hint of a breeze.

I can feel a stirring in the waters around me, a shadow moving beneath the frothing surface of the sea. I cling tighter to my vessel, squinting through the salty spray flying back at me from the bottomless abyss. I am afraid to look, hoping and praying that the movement I catch out of the corner of my eye is just a trick the water is playing on me. But no, I have spotted this beast from the safety of my shores, turned my head away time and again when the serpent of the sea railed against the Earth. The shadow circles slowly, not quite touching my vessel, but I know it is only a matter of time. I know she is waiting, sizing me up; the mouse that has come out of its hole to play.

The slap of flesh against water electrifies the air behind me. I whip my head around and just make out the tip of a tentacle slipping back below the waves. She is toying with me now, waiting to see how I will react. But there is nothing I can do from here. She is too large and I carry no weapons. So I do the only thing I can; I cling to my raft and pray she gets bored. 

Perhaps I’ve watched too many Disney movies, but I had secretly hoped that there would be a quick fix to my problem, some secret concoction hidden in a dusty old book just waiting to be uncovered so it could impart it’s illicit wisdom and show me how to live the creative life I had always wanted. Perhaps tucked away in a witch’s cupboard out in the woods there is a recipe for mental wellness that would instantly recharge my desire and banish the fog stifling the carefully crafted stories bubbling below the surface of my brain. Where was my fairy godmother and her magic wand? Where in the world was my quick fix that would make everything flow just a little bit easier?

Sadly, this isn’t really a ‘wish your way out of it’ kind of problem. I know because I’ve tried. I’ve looked through dozens of self-help books and combed through oodles of creative living blog posts. What did I learn? If you want to succeed, you have to do the hard work. As it turns out, creative energy and mental wellness are less a magical endeavor and more of a game of Shoots and Ladders. Drink enough water? Move ahead five space. Stay up late watching reality tv? Slide back seven.

I know there is an irony in me finally stepping up and admitting this obvious fact weeks into my Quest. After all, wasn’t that the premise this whole challenge was based on? The idea that there are no magical solutions and if you want to live a creative life you have to do the work? Yes- stings a little bit to know I’m still struggling with my own concepts, huh?

I never genuinely believed that I would find the Philosopher’s Stone- Creativity Edition. It’s not like I would magically solve all my creative problems and shout “See you suckers, I’ve got my golden ticket and I am out! Be sure to buy my new book next week, stay tuned for info on my upcoming art exhibit, and have you considered taking my underwater basket-weaving course? Mwahahahaha!” No, the crux of my issue really stems from the fact that I underestimated how much work I would need to do. To be even more specific: I didn’t fully grasp how far afield I had wandered from my ideal way of living. What I thought would be quick little hills I could easily hop over turned into my own personal Olympus Mons (the largest mountain in our solar system- I had to sprinkle at least one fun fact in the midst of all these complicated feelings). If I wanted to reach the peak, I was going to have to eat, breath, and fully live the philosophy I was preaching. It wasn’t enough to say ‘stop playing on your phone so much’ or ‘put that book down and start writing your own.’ Truthfully, I had half-assed some of my own challenges, and the fruits of my labor were exactly what you would expect: anemic and unfulfilling. It was time to put on the boots and get moving.

Another slap echoes to the left of me. I close my eyes and refuse to look. Why watch my own destruction when I am utterly helpless to change anything? The raft jars as the next slash hits closer to home. A hefty jab pushes my sorry excuse for a boat high in the air, and suddenly I’m flying through the salty sea spray before plummeting back to the frigid waters below. The waves wash over me, flooding into my lungs, tearing me from the little wooden deck that is my only salvation. I find myself sinking into the sea, unsure of which way is up and which is down. I kick and thrash, desperately searching for the sanctuary that is the open air. But I can’t find it before everything goes dark.

In a desperate bid for mental freedom, I did what I have been needlessly avoiding for ages- I untethered myself from my tech and went analog. Now, this is probably the perfect example of a tech addict realizing they need to detox. It felt a bit like that person who realizes that they do, in fact, finally want help with their problem in spite of months spent promising people ‘I can stop when I want to.’

I awake with fresh air in my lungs and an expanse of twinkling little lights speckled across an expansive blackened sky. Not even the slightest breeze is ruffling my clothes, which are stuck to my body, crusty with sand and dried salt. The storm has once again passed. I know without even inspecting my surroundings that I am back on my island. Driftwood settles on the beach beside me, carried in on a lazy tide. The remnants of my tiny ship, my only companion in this desolate place. Tomorrow I will collect the pieces, lash them together, and try once again. Perhaps I will only get through one wave, perhaps I will finally make it to that distant shore. But for tonight, I will lay back in turn my face to the stars. I have not given up, no, not yet. 

This week is going to be a bit more hands on- and I can promise that now because I am actually pre-prepping my posts and (gasp) have a plan! We are going to be diving into the distraction detox with new challenges and tips coming every day. Plus- I think it’s about time to start sprinkling in some of the creative challenges, because what else will we do with all of our newfound free time if we aren’t distracting ourselves with cell phones, tvs and computers? You’ll be free to tailor the challenges to yourself however you wish- oh wait for it, wait for it- feel free to get creative with it. Ah, sorry, I had to do it. I feel better now.

To get the ball rolling, we need to be honest with ourselves about where we are starting. This has been my issue the past few times I’ve tried this portion of the quest. I didn’t have a good understanding of where I was starting, nor how hard it would be to change up some of these habits I’ve been building. I’ve treated it almost like an addict “I can quit whenever I want, but I won’t now because I have nothing to prove.” Yea- in hindsight, that should have been a red flag as big as the Shire, but denial is a strong enemy.

Finding Your Baseline

I tend to gravitate to my gizmos. Nearly everything has a techy doppelganger these days, most of our lives have migrated to the electronic world. If you have a cellphone, you pretty much have the universe in your pocket. When I was younger I resisted the pull of the tech world, I was one of the last people I knew to break down and finally get a smart phone. But I caught up quickly after that. I tend to prefer writing on my laptop versus using pen and paper. I read more e-books than paper ones these days, and I listen to more audiobooks than I read e-books. I will usually attempt to text or email rather than call if I can help it. Hell, I even use virtual flashcards instead of the real thing. I am an autonomous junkie, a tech-fiend, a new-age sorcerer. And I feel a bit like I’m being turned into a zombie. I clock in too much screen time and blast myself with a myriad of distractions throughout the day- it’s really no wonder why I have no extra bandwidth for my own pesky thoughts.

The crux of my issue: I think it’s a fear of slowing down, which is ironic because that is exactly what I need to do in order to be successful. We live in a fast-paced world full of instant gratification and immediate dopamine hits. We are told that down time is laziness, and to get anywhere in this world we need to grind. We never stop to think that all the grinding will usually wear us down. For most people, the pace of this world is not sustainable. But we all want to pretend that we can keep up, as though it’s a personal failing and not a societal one that keeps us moving to the point of breaking.

Weeding through the garbage and being honest with yourself is key to figuring out what you need to fix. I’ve come up with a few sub-headings that are important to my process, but if you have others- add them to your list and drop a suggestion in the comments. Creativity is closely tried to mental wellness and elasticity, so we’re going to take a wider inventory this time around. Some if it will flirt with the mindfulness techniques we tried out earlier, along with a deeper dive into our personal preferred distractions.

The categories we are going to touch on this week are:

  • Tech Time
  • Health and Wellness
  • Mindfulness and Mental Health
  • Work-Life Balance
  • Creative Time and Inspiration Priorities
  • Resisting Distractions

We are going to one-two-punch through these topics over the next week or two (gasp- big goals!) And each one will include a mini challenge to help us fix some of the issues that are clouding our creative thought process. For now, I’m just going to touch on some basic questions you should ask yourself to get a better idea of your baseline. For each section it can be helpful to answer the questions and engage in a bit of free-writing about the topic and how you feel towards it. Perhaps you have some thoughts or ideas that weren’t hit on my the questions- those are definitely worth exploring. Personally, I suggest doing these by hand with regular pen and paper, but it is totally up to you.

Tech Time

  • How much screen time do you have between your devices? How much of it isn’t necessary (ex: not work-related or helping you in any particular way)
  • What apps are hurting your mental health? Which ones do you mindlessly find for no particular purpose?
  • Do you have a good app that has gone bad (ex: I adore my reading/audiobook apps- but I tend to default to them to fill empty spaces that are best left unfilled)
  • When do you use each app? Do you find yourself clicking on Facebook as soon as you wake up or before you go to bed?
  • Email inbox: is it a positive or negative influence? Do you get a lot of junk? Do you let it fill up until it makes you anxious?
  • What app do you think you couldn’t live without? Why?
  • Excluding sleeping hours, how long do you think you think you could go without checking our tech? Why? Give it a try and see if it is a realistic number. Do you like it, or wish it were different? What kinds of things do you do that distract you from your phone?
  • Do you take your phone everywhere with you? And do you feel that instant jolt to check it as soon as a notification hits?

Physical Health and Wellness

  • What type of physical activity do you engage in? This can include anything, not just designated ‘work out times’
  • Do you consider yourself active or sedentary? If more sedentary, what keeps you from being more active? (I know that last question sounded salty- it wasn’t meant it- it’s one I have to ask myself virtually every. single. day. The answers are just for you, no one else)
  • What do you enjoy doing?
  • Do you drink the recommended amount of water each day?
  • Do you drink a lot of caffeine/have a lot of sugar? do you struggle with anxiety or mood issues?
  • What does your diet consist of? Do you think you get enough nutrients?
  • How many hours do you sleep each night? Does it feel like good quality sleep?
  • Do you start/end your day with screen time?

Mindfulness and Mental Health

  • How would you categorize your mental health? Do you struggle with anything? Do you have any ideas what make it better or worse?
  • Does your mental health impact your daily living?
  • Do you invest in any mindfulness techniques? What do you do? Why or why not?
  • Do you like to go for walks? Do you pay attention to what is around you when you go out?
  • Do you have a hard time getting out of your head?

Work-Life Balance

  • Note: you don’t have to have a traditional working life to answer questions in this section. There are a lot of different kinds of ‘work’ in the world that don’t follow the traditional structure. What this section is really about is time you spend for yourself and time you spend for others/taking care of other things. Ex: taking care of children, household, etc. The main focus is going to me on balancing your time between obligations and personal goals/passions.
  • How many hours do spend working outside of the household and inside the household?
  • How many hours do you have leftover?
  • Have you ever worked overtime without claiming it, or lost vacation days that you did not use in time? Do you give back vacation days regularly/cancel time off?
  • How often do you cancel ‘your’ time for others? How do you feel about it and what kinds of things do you view as being important enough to sacrifice your own time?
  • How much time do you spend socializing with others? Do you consider yourself an introvert/extrovert? Are you satisfied with the amount of time you are spending?
  • Do you feel like you have enough mental energy for your personal creative projects?
  • When do you usually carve out time for yourself? Early in the morning? On a lunch break? At the end of the day? When the kids have gone to bed? Are you happy with this?
  • Do you find your work satisfying? All jobs have their frustrations, but overall do you find your work interesting/important/something you do well? Are you happy with this area of your life?

Creative Time and Inspirational Priorities

  • Note: this one ties closely with the work-life balance, some of the same questions will apply
  • What time do you dedicate to your creative work?
  • At what time of day do you consider you are your most creative?
  • What inspires you?
  • How much time do you spend with things that you find inspiring (watching a particular show/youtube video, reading a book/blog, listening to a podcast, looking at art, etc)?
  • Do you expose yourself to new ideas/creative styles regularly?
  • Do you take time to allow new idea to percolate (ex: taking time to think over what you read after reading a chapter in a book or watching an episode)?
  • Do you take notes throughout the day on things that inspire you?
  • What kinds of people do you surround yourself with?
  • What pops up on your social media feeds? Do they inspire or drain?
  • Who is your favorite artist (author, actor, singer, sculptor, painter, chef, etc)? What do you love about their work?
  • How would you categorize your own creative style?

Resisting Distractions

  • What do you distract yourself with most?
  • Do you have a good hobby that has turned bad? (something that is generally considered to be a positive habit/hobby, but you take it to the next level so that it isn’t so positive in your life anymore. ex: for me- it’s books, primarily in an audio format)
  • Do you get competitive to a degree that is unhelpful/becomes more consuming than it should be?
  • Do you feel like you can control your impulses/urges with your distractions? (ex: if your phone chirps with a notification, do you have to check it right away or are you okay ignoring it for a while)
  • Do you feel rested and energetic for your projects, or are you usually drained and struggle staying focused?
  • What habits would you like to break? What would you like to cultivate?

Take time to really think through the different topics, and see what else pops into your head when you try to evaluate how you want to live your creative life vs how you are currently living it. The only way we will make it through the Sea of Distraction is if we fight against the monsters swimming within it. But rest assured, my friends- we aren’t alone in it anymore. Until tomorrow my dear adventurers. Rest well, for tomorrow we begin again.