Life Happens: Keeping Your Creative Spark in a World of Distraction

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Last time, I talked about the dangers of distraction, and how being constantly busy and distracted can actually alter our brain function. It is good to be aware of the distractions in our lives, and the ways we can unintentionally sabotage our ability to work deeply.

But what can we do about inevitable distractions that life hands us? Like it or not, most of us can’t opt out of our families, jobs, and other commitments (although we can think about limiting those other commitments, learning to say No in order to protect our time to create). Retreats and residencies are an option for a few, but they are temporary time-outs. Unless, like May Sarton, we embrace a life of solitude, and have the wherewithal to make it so, we live in the messy reality of the present, where our schedules are often dictated by external necessity, and plans can be upset in an instant.

Often this is one of the biggest challenges to our plans: life happens. We set a schedule, decide what we want to do – and something comes up. Illness in the family, a child’s emergency, unexpected visits from out-of-town friends, a last-minute work project…. This topic is on my mind a lot since my schedule is often unpredictable due to caretaking my elderly mother: How to keep moving forward when my mind, and my attention, are often pulled in a very different direction from my creativity? When I’m at her place, my schedule is based on hers, and my attention is frequently diverted by the tv, which is quite loud owing to her hearing loss. So, I have to modify my schedule, and be flexible. My 15 minute rule comes in handy here – if you have 15 minutes, you can do something. It’s not ideal, but life rarely hands us the ideal conditions to create. If we tell ourselves, “I can only write with my lucky pen/ if I have at least an hour/am listening to this particular piece of music (or whatever),” you will miss many opportunities to do the work.

There are times, of course, when we need to go deep, and we need time and space and attention to do that. But in those moments in between, we have opportunity. There are times when we have to “experience the distraction and do it anyway.” We have to create, not just in spite of distraction, but to find a way to use it. Some people like listening to music while working because they feel that the sound takes over the top layer of their attention, letting them go deeper. Other people feel they must have absolute silence or they can’t focus.

I’m not here to tell you which is better – we’re all different – but learning to write despite the inevitable distractions (or around them) is a necessary skill if you’re going to get the work done. We can’t be too precious about it, if it becomes just another excuse not to do the work. If it becomes about making excuses, avoiding the work because of resistance, that doesn’t serve us. It can be tough, but keeping the writing going, even in the margins, keeps us engaged in the work, and in our creative lives. Keeping that connection alive, in any way you can, is crucial. If not, it’s easy to spiral into doubt and negativity (Will I ever write again? Maybe I should just give up. It’s not that good anyway…). Living a creative life is not easy, but it’s up to us to persevere, to keep going in whatever way we can. It’s a practice of self-care: we’re better, happier people for indulging in our creative pursuits. So make a commitment to yourself: what is the minimum you can do no matter what?

Are You Damaging Your Ability to Be Creative?

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The fact that many people in this culture are insanely busy and distracted is not news to anyone. According to this article I recently read, the constant attachment to smartphones and our need to feel productive by doing something at all times leads to a lowered ability for focused, deep-thinking work. It also means less time simply spent daydreaming and ruminating, activities which are central to our ability to be creative in all aspects of our lives.

Think about it: how comfortable are you these days with just sitting there, letting thoughts flow? How likely are you to check your phone at any moment you aren’t occupied with something else? How often do you do a routine activity such as the dishes, or walking, without also listening to music, a podcast, or the tv? Even when you sit down to write, or do other creative work, do you get antsy if you don’t immediately plunge in? If you run out of ideas and have to sit for a few minutes, do you allow yourself that time, or do you jump up and do something (go get a snack, check Facebook, decide the rug is filthy and needs vacuuming NOW)?

I know this happens because I do all these things myself (well, not the vacuuming… although when I hit a blank space on the page or in my mind, even that can seem more appealing). We’ve become wired to think multi-tasking is the best way to spend our time and assure our productivity. We’re addicted to smartphones and social media. If you’re like me, you use SelfControl or another app to block sites you normally turn to every time the muse lags for more than three seconds.

The problem is, our distracted minds are becoming so commonplace that it’s actually rewiring our brains. That’s scary. So if we want to do our best creative work, what can we do?

Meditate – this one makes the top of the list because, duh. The best way to train your monkey mind to be still is to sit and breathe, focusing on the breath, for a specific length of time. Or chant, if that’s your thing. You can start small – try 5 minutes – and build up from there. Just be aware of the experience, without judgment. Your mind wandered? Oh well, just bring it back to the breath. Off it goes again, like a toddler that’s just learned to walk – bring it back again, gently. There are many traditions and teachings to choose from. I use the Insight Meditation Timer, which not only has a general timer so you can choose exactly how long you want to meditate, but has thousands of guided meditations, from teachers across the spectrum of practices.

Yoga – sometimes called “meditation in motion,” this is a practice of becoming full aware of your body and mind while moving into different poses. Tai Chi has a similar meditative, slowing-down quality that helps reconnect your mind, body and spirit to each other.

Walk – a simple walk, without headphones (or your phone) can allow your mind to wander. Running or swimming laps can also do this for some people. There’s no agenda except for the number of laps (or the time/distance you’ve set for yourself) so you can just be in the moment.

Use the Pomodoro Method – In the Pomodoro Method, you set a timer for 25 minutes, then take a break for 5, then repeat, as long as it takes to do whatever task you’ve set for yourself. If you think of something else to do while the timer is running, you make a note of it to do later (on your break or during another “pomodoro”) and keep doing the task at hand.

Use website blockers – SelfControl is my favorite because you plug in the sites you want to block, and the amount of time you want to block them for, and once it’s set you can’t stop it until the time you’ve set is up, even if you reboot your computer. There are other options for PCs and Macs, so you may need to experiment with the one that is right for you.

Practice doing one thing at a time – when doing dishes, just do dishes. When driving, just drive. And so on. This is very simple but can be really hard. Once our brains are used to constant input, the lack can be disorienting. If you’re not used to being alone with your thoughts, boredom and restlessness can set in quickly. Resist!

Play – Do something that allows you to get into a flow state, like coloring, painting, shooting baskets, or some other absorbing activity. There doesn’t have to be a point to it – that is the point. Journaling can fall into this category if you’re just freewriting, not taking your hand from the page.

Do nothing – That’s right. Nothing. Sit in a chair on the porch and stare at your yard. Take a bath. Sit on a park bench and watch the world go by. Sit in a cafe with a cup of tea. Sitting by a body of water – ocean, lake, stream – can be a powerful way of reconnecting with yourself through doing nothing. As with meditation, you may have to work your way up to allowing yourself this “nothing” time. If you have a houseful of people, you may need to get out of the house to allow this to happen. Do what you have to do.

But, you say, I already can barely squeeze my creative time in as it is! How do I have time for one more thing, even nothing? Take 10 minutes, when you can. Get into the habit of these practices, and watch your time, energy, and creativity open up.

Your Summer Plan

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Many people count Memorial Day the official start of summer; others follow the meteorological calendar (or Summer Solstice) or start of the school summer vacation. It depends on your lifestyle. For me it never really feels like summer until after the MFA residency ends, which this year is July 1.

However you count it, this time of year signals a change of routine for many people. For some, it means more free time, for vacation or flex schedules. For others, it’s busier because kids are around more, or other things take precedence. At any change of season, it can be helpful to be proactive in figuring out what your creative schedule will be. It’s fine to have a change of routine (in fact, it can help us get out of a rut). However, if we don’t have a plan to manage the transition, it can also be easy to let creative work slide.

If you take a vacation from writing, or whatever creative pursuit, that doesn’t have to mean disaster. It can be good to take a break, explore new places or new pursuits, get new perspective on our life and art. On the other hand, if we let it go completely, it may be difficult to get back into it later (inertia is always a challenge to overcome, and like any muscle that gets flabby with underuse, our creative muscles can also turn to mush if left unworked too long).

The key is to make a conscious choice, and stick with it. Take a look at your life right now, and take stock. Do you have more time to write, or less? Has your schedule changed in some way? For me, it’s easier to get up early since the sun rises so much earlier. Getting up to write and work out early is not the chore it is during the darker months. I’m not teaching as much, so I have more time for coaching and writing. The weather is (usually) nice so I can spend more time outside (although that takes me away from my desk, I often get ideas from taking long walks).

In addition to an ever-growing pile of fiction, I’m reading Lisa Cron’s Story Genius and Donald Maas’ The Emotional Craft of Fiction. With their techniques in mind, I’m reworking a story that has been languishing for a while. I don’t think I’ll get through a complete rewrite by Labor Day, but the idea is to build momentum that will take me through the next seasonal change.

What are your summer goals? Between, say, now and Labor Day? Are there specific books you want to read? A project you’d like to plan? A rough draft, or final draft to complete? A class you’d like to take? A conference or retreat to attend (or a self-designed retreat you’d like to plan and execute)? Do you need to take a look at your current schedule and see when you will do your creative work?

Compassion, Kindness, Gratitude, and Love

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I recently did a meditation on these four “pillars of existence” courtesy of the meditation master Davidji.

This meditation focuses on developing these four attitudes toward the self, and it occurred to me to take it deeper, into our own creativity. How often do we judge ourselves around our creativity? Usually it’s in terms of “not good enough”: I didn’t spend enough time, the writing wasn’t good enough, I’m not creative enough… we spend so much time and energy beating ourselves up around not being “enough” that we end up not wanting to do anything at all. We construct a cage of ice around our creative heart, and then wonder why it’s so cold and unpleasant whenever we go near.

Of course, it’s important to develop discipline, to do the work: I write about this a lot. But in order to do the work – to want to do it at all – it helps to take a softer approach.

Compassion: we’re doing the best we can in this moment. If you don’t feel that way, ask yourself, gently, why not? Then wait for the answer, and try not to judge it. Only when we look at our actions and thoughts with compassion and openness can we see what is really happening, and only then can we change.

Kindness: how would you respond to a friend who came to you with the same words as your own internal dialogue? You wouldn’t berate them, and call them lazy, talentless, boring, or stupid (I hope!). You would encourage them to look beyond the moment, to keep working, to keep the faith. Talk to yourself this way, and see if it softens your heart around your own creative work.

Gratitude: it’s easy to forget to be grateful for what we do have: whatever time and space we do have to write; the skills we’ve developed over many years of putting words on the page; gratitude for teachers and others who have encouraged us, and so on. When you’re feeling discouraged, take a few moments to list some things you feel grateful for.

Love: loving ourselves, our words, our efforts, can be very hard. It can feel self-indulgent, prideful, egotistical. Loving our work can be equally hard. Too often, immediately when we think of loving ourselves, or our work, the “buts” creep in: …but I’m not that good. …but I waste so much time… but the work isn’t that great, no one will want it… Sometimes not loving our creative selves is a way to let us off the hook. We make excuses as to why we, or our work, are unloveable, and then we believe them because it’s easier to stay in the cocoon than to grow wings and fly. Whether we like to admit it or not, the not-loving place is the comfort zone. Take a deep breath, and when the “buts” come up, think of their opposite, and make a conscious effort to believe that. It takes time, and practice, and in the end it brings that crack of light so crucial to taking the next step, and the next…

Take a few moments to think about your self-care around your creativity. Do you practice compassion, kindness, gratitude, and love? If not, think about doing so, and how your work, and your relationship to it, might transform as a result.

Resilience: Recharging or Enduring?

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I recently came across this article in Harvard Business Review online: “Resilience is About How You Recharge, Not How You Endure.

I’ve been thinking a lot about resilience lately, and how it’s a skill many of us understand very little about. What does it mean? How do we do it? There are times in all of our lives when we’re overwhelmed by external events (or internal ones, like depression and illness). We can get discouraged, feel like a failure, and wonder how we’ll ever get back to what we intended to do. This has certainly been me the last few months: my life has been crammed with teaching and other work, as well as elder care. I’ve had little time and even less energy for anything resembling creative pursuits, as the long hiatus from this blog will attest.

We might think of resilience as the ability to “bounce back” from every hardship: failure, depleted energy, disappointment, and so on. The article talks specifically about our tendency to think that the more we’re “on” the more productive we are, when actually the opposite is true. We run ourselves into physical and mental exhaustion, and then just keep going, thinking that resilience means pushing past whatever is challenging us.

Creatively, this can mean pushing on with a project we secretly know isn’t working, because quitting seems like failure. Or it might mean pushing ourselves to do our creative work when we’re already exhausted from every other facet of our lives, and then not producing good work, and then berating ourselves for not producing good work. It might mean viewing the rejection process like a gauntlet, to be endured until it turns us off submitting altogether.

But resilience isn’t just about pushing through no matter what. Yes, there are times when we need to keep going, because our resistance is telling us that something deeper, better, is waiting just the other side of this block. Sometimes it can signal a breakthrough, and we’ll be glad we persisted.

However, resilience is also about stepping back, recharging, and then coming back to the work with renewed energy and spirit. It’s not pushing until we hate the project, our writing, and everything to do with our creative life and wonder why we should even bother.

Resilience means taking a strategic time out. It means allowing ourselves down time, for our minds and bodies. It may seem impossible, when we’re already squeezing in writing between all the other commitments we have: to work, families, friends, etc.

It means coming back to the work after a long hiatus. Beginning again, and again. Not letting ourselves get discouraged when we haven’t done as much as we’d hoped. Re-committing to our work, befriending our creative selves and the work itself. Coming to it with a gentle heart, like an old friend instead of an enemy to be conquered.

It means being honest with ourselves about our time, our energy, and how we spend them. Being satisfied with making an honest effort, and not making excuses. Acknowledging when something isn’t working and making steps to do something that will work. For example, setting aside a project that has become unworkable, and taking your writing time to do something else: freewriting, journaling, poetry if you’re a prose writer, trying various writing exercises, etc. If you are consistently not making it to your desk at the scheduled time, ask yourself what would work. Try a new schedule, and commit to sticking with it for a week or two, and see how it feels. I’m a big proponent of morning writing, but I’m a self-acknowledged night owl. There are times when I work on a different schedule, or take time off to give myself a break.

Resilience also means learning to take criticism in stride, to use rejections as a means of better learning the marketplace, or to improve our craft. To see it as proof that we’re still in the game.

As you can see, resilience means many things. It’s also something we have to keep developing. Like a muscle, it gets stronger with more use. The key is to believe we can develop it: it’s a skill, not something the lucky few are born with.

What area do you need to build resilience in? Sticking to a writing schedule? Persisting in the face of rejection? Starting a new project? Let us know in the comments!

Friday Favorites: TED Secrets for Writers

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I’ve been reading Carmine Gallo’s book, Talk Like TED: The 9 Public Speaking Secrets of the World’s Top Minds. Since I teach, learning how to be a better presenter of material is always a good idea (even if I’m not giving a TED-caliber talk every week). Many of the ideas are applicable across creative disciplines as well. The “secrets” Gallo mentions, and how they apply to writers, are:

Unleash the Master Within – Or, be passionate about what you write. With mastery of your material comes confidence that allows your passion to shine through. Nothing takes the place of having a real passion for the story you’re telling. And if you don’t have a passion for writing itself, for communicating your ideas through the written word, you will give up easily.

Master the Art of Storytelling – Stories are compelling to the human brain. Whether you write fiction or nonfiction, using stories to make your point allows audiences to respond to what you’re telling them. Stories are how we communicate our experiences as human beings, to other humans.

Have a Conversation – Be natural. In writing, this is called “voice.” What is your voice? Imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, but don’t try to write in another writer’s voice. Readers pick up on such inauthenticity and reject it.

Teach Me Something New – We love to learn something we didn’t know before. In writing, it might be some new information on a historical period, or how something works, or about the human capacity for love, or redemption… the possibilities are endless, and in reading we often unconsciously look for new knowledge or insight. We’re gripped by wanting to find out more.

Deliver Jaw-Dropping Moments – The surprise, the unexpected twist, the ramping up of stakes… these are what keep readers turning the pages. Readers love to find out what what happened next, or how the “heroes” can possibly get out of this big mess. Deliver moments that grab (and keep) their attention.

Lighten Up – Use humor, or at least find ways to moderate the tension. Even thrillers, where the idea is to ramp up the tension throughout, work in “breather” moments, which allow the next tense moments to have a bigger impact.

Stick to the 18-Minute Rule – Or, the paradox of constraint. Sometimes this is the constraint of form (such as a particular poetic form: a sestina, villanelle, sonnet,,,). Sometimes this is in length. We’ve all read books that we later think could have used major pruning by an editor, where the author wandered over a hundred pages with nothing of major import happening. Sometimes, this means that we can get more done in, say, a focused 18-minute writing session than in 6 hours of noodling around, spending most of that time on Facebook. Embrace the constraints and work within them, to produce better, more creative work. (I believe procrastination gets a bad rap: sometimes procrastination is our brain’s way of creating a constraint, thus pushing us to come up with things we might never have thought of without the time pressure.)

Paint a Mental Picture with Multisensory Experiences – This is a no-brainer for writers. Use all your senses to create your story. We tend to hone in on the visual, but we can create richer experiences on the page through judicious use of the other senses as well. This also goes for variety in general: vary your sentence length, your vocabulary, your syntax to keep the reader engaged.

Stay in Your Lane – A.k.a. Write What you know. Or at least, what you’ve learned well enough to convince us of your authenticity. What do you need to know to create a vivid, believable world on the page? Or a character that resonates with us? To me, this goes hand in hand with passion. You don’t need to be all things to all people, and you shouldn’t try to write to trends that don’t evoke any meaning for you. Be you, and write what you care about, from your own unique perspective.

If you’re a visual artist, photographer, or work in another creative form, how might these insights apply to you?

Rise and Shine!

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Happy Chinese New Year! Specifically, the Year of the Fire Rooster, very appropriate for this blog. (For a fun picture book about Chinese New Year, check out my friend Andrea Wang’s The Nian Monster).

I haven’t been posting as much lately because life outside my blog has been a little crazy – in addition to the MFA residency, I’ve been focusing on the new semester starting, and I’m teaching two courses: Intercultural Communication and Grant Writing. I love my students – they are smart, engaged, and really want to learn – so it’s pleasurable work, but it has left less time for other things.

Also, I received some sad news: Bev Down, the President of the Creativity Coaching Association, passed away recently. She was also my mentor coach through the certification process. It’s a huge loss to the coaching community, and I’ll miss her wisdom and guidance. She brought a combination of warmth and a spiritual focus with a laser-like ability to see through to the real issue at hand. Like the best masters, she made it seem effortless. I hope my coaching skills develop to that level someday!

We’ve reached the end of January. How are you progressing on your goals? Do you have goals that focus on creating new work? Or goals that focus more on revising and completing current projects? Do you go back and forth? Both take different types of energy, and it can be good to trade off so that you don’t get burned out on one project.

One of the most important things about accomplishing goals, of course, is tracking your progress. This in itself can be motivating. Tracking your progress effectively, however, is crucial. For some goals, a simple X marking that you did it that day is sufficient. For long-term and larger goals, however, you need something more sophisticated. It can be helpful to set goals for each week, and then each day, and do a check-in at the end of the week to see how you did. This isn’t meant to punish you if you don’t meet your goals; it’s meant to make you more focused on reaching them, and help you identify blocks that may be preventing you, both internal and external. If you start to set realistic, concrete goals and achieve them consistently, that will give you a sense of accomplishment and motivate you to continue. And if you’re lagging, it gives you a place to figure out what’s really going on. Is it truly a time issue? Or are you stuck because there’s a difficult scene you need to write, and you can’t seem to force yourself to tackle it?

For even greater accountability, you can share your tracking journal with a coach or friend – someone you can trust to encourage you and also help you figure out those “stuck” issues.

Whatever you do, don’t just state a goal that you’ll achieve long term, and then not set smaller goals and track your progress along the way. Large, vague goals lead to endless procrastination and likely failure. Prime yourself for success from the start, and you’ll go a long way toward achieving them!

Goal-Setting for the New Year Part II:

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Today we’ll continue talking about the process of effective goal-setting, as we focus on our goals for the New Year.

If you’ve come up with your list of 3-4 things you’d like to work on, and refined it until you know what accomplishing that goal really means and the steps it will take to do it, then you are ready for the next step.

Here I want to note, however, that ONE goal is perfectly fine. In fact, some research suggests that we do better focusing on one thing at a time, versus multiple things. Research also says that it takes about 66 days to make something a habit. So, if you’d like to do one thing at a time – make a goal for 66 days – that is an excellent way to build habits toward a larger goal.

It can help to write it as a SMART goal:
Specific – specific goals motivate you better than vague ones
Measurable – how will you know you’ve achieved it?
Attainable – is it a stretch, but still possible? (Too easy and you’ll be bored. Too hard and you’ll be discouraged.)
Realistic – are you able and willing to work toward this goal at this time?
Timely – set a timeframe within which you plan to reach your goal

Whatever you do, I suggest that you get a notebook (if you haven’t already) so that you physically write down your goals, and keep track of your progress. How you do this is up to you, but the physical act of writing down your intentions for each day is a great way to focus and keep you motivated. And yes, I suggest doing this by hand. There is a vital connection between your brain and your hand moving a pen on paper, that cannot be replicated on a computer. It slows you down, and activates a different part of your brain.

Habit-tracking apps are also good to track your progress. I use Habitbull, but there are many out there. Try one or two to see which suits you best. These are great for “not breaking the chain” as you generally check off or otherwise indicate whether or not you’ve achieved your goal that day. I like Habitbull because it’s very flexible. You can create any type of goal, and put down how often you’d like to do it, and it reminds you if you haven’t checked in that day. If you prefer to use a big wall calendar and check off the days with a big red X, that’s fine too! Whatever you do, make sure you can see your progress. Or lack thereof – sometimes seeing 10 blanks in a row is as strong as motivator as seeing 10 X’s.

Get a buddy: try pairing up with someone (or several someones) for mutual support. You don’t all have to have the same goal. You can check in (I recommend weekly) to stay motivated. Support and accountability are key to creating habits that lead to accomplishing your goals.

So, what are your goals for the New Year? Do you have a plan? I have some things that are short-term habits (take vitamins daily) and some longer-term (revise one of my novels and send it out). I like to put down next steps, e.g. “work on my novel 30 minutes per day.” It might not seem like much, but the idea is to be realistic about the time I have. If I have more, I can write longer. My steps will change as I go through the process.

So, if anyone cares to share their list, let us know in the comments!

Your True North – Goal-Setting for the New Year

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Many people, myself included, are setting some sort of goals or intentions for this year. As we look at all the things we want to change in our lives, it’s easy, in the rush of enthusiasm and optimism of the New Year, to overdo our ambitions. Or to think that we should.

That word, should, is a telling one. When I set goals for myself (or help other people with theirs), I first write down everything I’d like to do differently this year. I usually put them under larger umbrella categories, like “Health” or “Creativity.” I just get it all down on the page, and don’t worry about actually doing them.

Then, I have to go through and get specific: what does achieving that goal really mean? What would I commit to, if I set that intention? Does “finish my novel” mean writing 3 pages per day? 15 minutes per day? If you’d like to try this, make the list, then go through it and identify anything vague, and make it specific. Again, you aren’t committing to anything yet. Do this for everything you listed.

Now, survey your list. As you were writing the specifics it would take to achieve a particular goal, you were probably aware of the energy around each one. Some got you excited: Yes! I can’t wait to do this!. Some, however, may have left you feeling deflated, or anxious, or numb. These are your “shoulds.” Think about these carefully: where do these come from? Are you not excited because they constantly crop up on these lists, and you’ve always failed at following through? Is there a dream you’ve had for a long time, but now no longer feel excited about? Are there things you think would please someone else, but you don’t, in your heart of hearts, want to do?

Cross them off your list. Yes, now. Be brutal if you need to – some may go down screaming. But also remind yourself: they can return. They are not banished forever. If, six months from now, you decide they are worthy of your time and energy, you can put them back on. Maybe by then some of the things you have on your current list will be ingrained habits, and no longer need a lot of time or energy to do (I kept “Meditation” on my list for over a year, marking it down as “done” every day, before I felt satisfied it was an ingrained daily habit).

Get your list down to no more than 3 or 4 things, preferably not all of equal weight. Daily Flossing can go with Finish Your Novel. But if you have Finish Your Novel, Finish your PhD dissertation, and Climb Mount Everest, you may be overreaching a bit (or not, this is your list, after all). I encourage you to think of tiny changes though, to start. If those three are your Big Goals, start small: write 15 minutes a day on your novel, 15 minutes on your dissertation, and exercise for 30 minutes. You get the idea.

The point is, you have to be excited about them, or at least really want to do them. If you’re already, on Day 1, feeling a big heavy weight dragging you down and leading you to check Facebook for the 334th time that day rather than what you said you’d do, you’re in trouble.

Also, having just a few priorities in mind means you won’t get overwhelmed. Don’t try to do everything at once. It’s a sure recipe for failure, and giving up. We only have a finite amount of time, energy, and willpower each day. Decide what you will do, and commit to that, no matter what.

There will be two posts this week, since next week is the MFA residency, and I’ll be… busy. Next time: how to set SMART goals and stay focused.

“Brutal” Truths About Creativity?

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Several people have forwarded me this article: 11 Brutal Truths About Creativity That No One Wants to Talk About, wondering what I think. See? They say. Creativity is hard! As though I’m some creativity magical-thinking Pollyanna. Yes, it is hard. It requires effort and attention. The best things in life do.

I winced a little at the word “brutal” in the title. Creativity, it seems to me, is not best served boot-camp style. But the tone of the article is positive overall, and I agreed with its points. All of us are born creative. Some use our creativity more than others. Some give up at the first hint of “failure” i.e. when the world responds with a yawn or a criticism.

And that is what is brutal about creativity, in my mind: that often, we’re just doing it for ourselves, because even what we truly hope will resonate with people doesn’t always. We can work hard, but when we put our work out into the world, we cannot predict its welcome. Even if we’re not looking for fame or fortune, exactly, we’re looking for validation, or connection. And many of us are looking to make some sort of living from our creative gifts. And yet, the outcome is unpredictable: we experience failure (it doesn’t work) or rejection (no one likes it, or no one cares).

Which is why I often liken creativity to meditative practice. You have to show up, and do the work, no matter how you feel, or how it seems to be going. We focus on process, more than product, even as we may harbor hopes that this will be our breakthrough. One of the “truths” in the article is “it doesn’t get easier.” This can be dismaying to those of us who think if only we work hard enough, we’ll find the magic formula to make brilliant work on a regular basis. But those creatives I’ve spoken with who are “successful” in the sense of being published, or showing their work in galleries, and so on, say the same thing. “I always thought it would get easier, but every time I start a new project, it’s like starting from scratch.” To me, that’s uplifting news. I get to experience “beginner’s mind” all over again. I never arrive, but I’m always on the journey.

As we close out this year, make a commitment to your practice. Embrace the process. Be vulnerable. Feel the fear and do it anyway. Recognize that you have just as much to say about the world as anyone else, and just as much creativity to express it. Get support, set your goals, and allow your creativity to flow.