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Creative Blocks

Artists don't get down to work until the pain of working is exceeded by the pain of not working.
~ Stephen DeStaebler

Blocks produce in the artist an attitude of pessimism and defeat. He loses that necessary touch of arrogance; the drive to produce new things fades; the mind is blunted.
~ Lawrence Hatterer

A creative block is the wall we erect to ward off the anxiety we suppose we'll experience if we sit down to work. A creative block is a fear about the future, a guess about the dangers dwelling in the dark computer and the locked studio. A block is a sudden, disheartening doubt about our right to create, about our ability, about our very being. And the cure? A melting surrender, a little love, a little self-love, a little optimism, and a series of baby steps toward the work.
~ Eric Maisel

David Bayles and Ted Orland wrote a small chapbook in 1993 called "Art & Fear: Observations of The Perils (and Rewards) of Artmaking." This little book is a refreshingly honest and insightful exploration of the creative process, the workplace experience, and the bridges between. In their introduction the authors write, Making art is a common and intimately human activity, filled with all the perils (and rewards) that accompany any worthwhile effort. The difficulties artmakers face are not remote and heroic, but universal and familiar... This book is about what it feels like to sit in your studio or classroom, at your wheel or keyboard, easel or camera, trying to do the work you need to do. It is about committing your future to your own hands, placing Free Will above predestination, choice above chance. It is about finding your own work.

In a section called "Art & Fear," the authors observe - Those who continue to make art are those who have learned how to continue - or more precisely, have learned how not to quit. That is a powerful statement in support of tenacity in the creative life. Quitting, they argue, is fundamentally different than stopping. Stopping happens all the time - an idea runs dry, an attempt is scrubbed at the point of diminishing returns - but quitting happens just once. It marks the last thing an artist does. The authors identify pitfalls for blocks, defeat, stalemates, that seem to fall into two specific moments - when artists convince themselves their next effort is already doomed to fail, and, when they lose sight of the destination for their work - for the place their work belongs. Losing the sense of the destination for one's work can ironically mark the moment a driving goal is achieved. Success. Success frequently and easily transmutes into depression. Continuing on means leaving some loose thread, some unresolved creative idea or issue to carry forward and explore in one's next piece.

Making art can feel dangerous and revealing. It gives substance to that sense of self - and the corresponding fear that one is not up to the task, not real, or good, that we have nothing to say. "Making art precipitates self-doubt," write Bayles and Orland. "Stirring deep waters between what you know you should be, and what you fear you might me." Doubt can be enough to stop the artist before he or she even begins, and often appears again and again throughout the cycle of making, and then releasing work to critical review in the world. The key, according to the authors, is to learn to challenge that fear every step of the creative process - from initial vision and execution, imagination, struggles with materials, through uncertainty. To continue anyway.

Uncertainty is particularly difficult, coming unannounced as it does at critical junctures in creative work. What did I start out to say? Were the materials right, the length of the piece, the way I've done this right? Tolstoy rewrote, by hand, "War & Peace" eight times and was still revising galley proofs at press. Tolerance for uncertainty is a prerequisite for working in the arts, according to the authors of "Art & Fear." Creativity is not about control, it is unpredictable. As most fiction writers discover, there is futility in overly-detailed outlines. Art happens between the artist and something - a subject, idea, or technique. The working artist learns to respond authentically challenge to challenge, each step of the way.

Which brings me back to creative blocks, those ever-so-frustrating mental tar pits. I have been dealing with an unexpected block myself for the last two years (yes, years). Bayles and Orland are accurate in identifying endpoints, or shifts in destination or goals, as creative tripping points. My unexpected and paralyzing mindset centers on a pragmatic mental narrative on the requirements of successful re-entry, i.e. succeeding again (and better) in the publishing marketplace. Experience transmuting into awareness and thus apprehension. If those of us struggling with blocks take Eric Maisel's advice, we address our fears and anxiety over works in progress by taking baby steps toward engagement. Write two pages a day. Put one brush stroke of color dead center on the white canvas - mar that empty perfection and free your fear. It has taken me awhile to find a continuing creative thread forward, as my last work, a memoir, was a very singular project and in an emotional way, a completion. In short, I've had to reinvent myself artistically these past two years. And now, working plan in hand, it is indeed frightening to begin again; to put myself back out there, new.

This next month I will explore process steps that are working for me, and what I tried that didn't. And I'll share with you the rejection experience of subsequent drafts of new work that muddied the process and left me wondering about ever succeeding in a constantly changing market. Today's artists must also confront the paradox of producing creatively from the same inner well that online social media self-promotion draws from. Can an artist both create and market simultaneously? Cycling between producing work followed by promotion, can the artist find a way through a now almost perpetual uncertainty? What does it take to begin creatively again?

Stay tuned.
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...persuasion and belief
Had ripened into faith, and faith became
A passionate intuition."

~ William Wordsworth

The last few days I spent on vacation in the Pacific tropics swimming and playing among sea turtles, watching Humpback whales breach and spout in the bay, lulled by the traveling trade winds in the palm fronds. I stood, cold and wind-whipped after hiking straight down from the edge of the 11,000 ft Haleakala Crater to the dormant cone of an ancient black and red sands caldera, all the Pacific beyond me.

The active presence of nature felt full and ripe, in stark contrast to the frozen, empty palette I left behind, the Inland Northwest in deep winter. I had time to consider the rich and diverse differences. The openness to life that warmth versus cold brings, island patterns of coexistence with an all-powerful ocean in contrast to mainland practices focused on land domination - harvest, drilling, excavation. Resources are more obviously finite on an island. There is a greater awareness of the balance among all things - fresh water and land for life and planting, wind and fishing, erosion and pollution, even the great struggle between earth and sea as volcanic cycles and ocean dance.

There is a sense on an island that everything and nothing is taken as a given. That life is rooted in biological harmony, exists in a specific niche, and a tilt in one species or eco-subsystem triggers a reverberation felt by all. In the Inland Northwest, a land of abundant resources, from farmland to timber and mining, there exists more of a sense of contemporary resource management than generations of guidance by an intuitive balance at play. We intelligently "manage" our lands, fishing, mines, and timber stands. We do not see ourselves as part of a great ancient wheel of shared survival and change that marks island cultures. This difference, I think, is partly behind the timelessness, the ease of island life...the sense that the gift of today is not to be wasted. On the mainland we toil endlessly, we produce and harvest, develop and market; we are conquerors, not inhabitants. A subtle but significant difference.

This element of harmony with all things, sharing a rock in the tide pool, colors my time in the Pacific islands. A gentle reminder that I am part of where I live, whether I am always subtly aware of that truth or not. That by thinking of myself as interconnected, even here within the hard cold of winter watching for the return of the geese north and the limning of the green on bare branches, I am as present in my today as the great sea turtle paddling the rolling wave, the Humpback breaking the surface to fly airborne into the sun. Cycles, balance, diversity, interconnection. Living.
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Guest Blog ~ "Bridging Narratives"

Today's guest post is an essay from my 23 year old daughter, a first year medical student at the University of Washington. In addition to rigorous coursework in sciences, anatomy, and clinical training, she had an opportunity to take an elective Thursday nights offered at the home of the physician teaching the class, called "Mind, Body, and Pen." This intimate class, offered to UW Medical students for more than fifteen years, has received rave reviews from other students and she thought the connection between thinking, writing, and medicine was worth exploring - if only because many of her research projects culminate in science journal publications. The first class required a spontaneous "free write" to be read aloud to the group in answer to the question - "What brings you to this class?" Her answer, I feel, is worth sharing with anyone interested in bridging between the creative and the analytical; in connecting the inner and outer worlds we experience.

And so, Kate in her own words~

Growing up with a mother who was a novelist, I spent my free time with her figuring out how to look at the world with a constant inner narrative. Every situation, every line in the grocery store, couple out at dinner, warranted speculation and storytelling. When medicine entered my worldview, specifically, time with patients in the geriatric ward, the two clicked. I had a beautiful language, with it’s own cadence, nuance, slang, at my disposal. With the constant need to narrate ever present – an influx of experiences, memories, small and large moments – I found that writing the words, situations and moments became an integral part of not only how I processed, but how I learned. During the first C-section delivery I scrubbed into (which also happened be my first time around blood, surgery and babies), my mind was bursting with the poetry of the moment. I couldn’t just explain what I had experienced; I needed to write it, to share the moments and the words that had filled my mind. This experience, with perhaps one paragraph added, became my personal statement for medical school, for it so perfectly represented everything that medicine was for me. It said things about me I never realized I believed, pointed out details I had internalized but had not processed. It was a defining moment.

I come to this class with a need to continue this narrative, to once more take it out of my head (too full already with more of this beautiful medical language) and put it to paper, or word processor as it may be. I feel I am constantly seeking a mode for how I want to process my world, humanist that I am. I am so afraid of letting my humanist side show – this inner poetic narrative I have. The effort and energy I put into being one of the medical people, one of the scientists, is what allows me to function in medicine. Language, the power of manipulating it, adding and subtracting, inventing, is what allows me to combine this foreign medical culture with my own culture – my world view of art and narration.

Medicine is the catalyst for shifting that narrative from internal to external, to see my words and feelings go from momentary acts of creative thinking into the realm of honesty. The medical world energizes me, gives me drive and keeps me moving – I am constantly filled with wonder, something I hope to never lose. I want to connect the two narratives, humanist and medical student. To find a way to ultimately integrate the passion and excitement of this journey and the connections I make - between people, ideas, everything covered by that word. Ultimately, I want to understand the nature of the drive medicine gives me; and the nature of the beauty in the good, ugly, the tired, stressed or overwhelming experience.

Thank you, Kate.
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Hand-Made Words

Tis a strange mystery, the power of words!
Life is in them, and death. A word can send
The crimson colour hurrying to the cheek.
Hurrying with many meanings; or can turn
The current cold and deadly to the heart.
Anger and fear are in them; grief and joy
Are on their sound; yet slight, impalpable:--
A word is but a breath of passing air.

~Letitia Elizabeth Landon

There is a hilarious scene with Sarah Jessica Parker as single New Yorker Carrie Bradshaw in the "Sex in the City" HBO series that involves her waking up to a goodbye Post-It note from her boyfriend stuck to her computer. "I"m sorry," the note reads. "I just can't." And with that Carrie is left with the end of a relationship: No why, what, just an end. She spends the day asking everyone she meets, Have you heard of this? Can you believe this? What she is really thinking is, Is that all a relationship means any more- a Post-It?

Recently more than a romance ended with a text. A colleague in the publishing industry found out she was being "merged"out of a job in a mass email from corporate headquarters. Another friend interviewed by email, and then Skype, for a position across the continent. These days, entire lives are conducted through short, abbreviated, directive messaging. Dating services, job recruiting, email distributions, list serves, group texts, ccs and blind copies... all short-cuts to important points of connection. Efficient, yes. But even in our personal lives? I am reminded of Meg Ryan's character, a children's bookstore owner named Kathleen Kelly, remarking in "You've Got Mail" that she hates it when people excuse something egregious with a trite "It isn't personal." She asks, "What is it then, if not personal? It's personal to me." By her definition communication between two persons is, personal.

I find myself wondering, don't our friends and loved ones deserve a hand-made approach? Chefs know slow cooking is synonymous with savory. Diplomacy is still conducted face to face; most actual dating too. Shouldn't we savor communications regarding important news? Be willing to invest the time, share, collaborate, chat? Even when it's bad news and our role is to offer support or pick up the phone and offer a spoken hug?

I don't believe modern relationships suddenly slipped lightweight on us. Rather, I think we've shifted as a contemporary culture toward an aggravating new "bubble effect" in our personal exchanges. Abbreviated messaging that expresses itself in some combination of rushed, lazy, disengaged, or terse. Conversations take time, and connection, opening to spontaneous and intimate exchange. An investment of attention, in other words. The reason we treasure handwritten thank you notes and invitations is the exact same reason so many of us now default to email templates. Time. We can do more with less invested if we email, text, vm, DM, tweet or post to Facebook. And yet that efficiency sucks the intimacy and specialness out of our entire message. Most of us still believe that significant events - news of a death, engagements, new jobs and lost jobs, babies, trouble with the law or great awards - are all things best shared in direct conversation. The visit, the telephone call, any spontaneous back and forth expression of emotional support or delight is the very stuff that makes us communal humans want to share our news in the first place.

So my thought today is, pick up the phone. Make a coffee date. Walk down the street and spend ten minutes with an old friend. Write a long note and post it, the old fashioned way. The value of almost everything lies beyond the how or why. That smile in your voice? Hand-made.
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Vale of Glamorgan, South Wales

I rose this morning early as usual, and went to my desk.
But it's spring,
and the thrush is in the woods,
somewhere in the twirled branches, and he is singing.
And so, now, I am standing by the open door.
And now I am stepping down into the grass.
I am touching a few leaves.
I am noticing the way the yellow butterflies
move together, in a twinkling cloud, over the field.
And I am thinking: maybe just looking and listening
is the real work.
Maybe the world, without us,
is the real poem.

~ from "The Book of Time," Mary Oliver (The Leaf and the Cloud)

While it is not yet spring, the promise is surely there underneath the snow. And while today is not so very different from yesterday, the possibility exists it might be. And although I am not much different than I have been, I am ever evolving.

So welcome. Welcome to the new year, to new thinking, new beginnings, new wonders to explore. Today's word is welcome.

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