Tag Archives: creativity


Indispensable Writing Books: The Artist’s Way

My friend Gregory Lynn from Tales From the Mad Monk has an ongoing series highlighting his favorite books on writing. He and I came up with the idea several weeks ago, and I’m finally sitting down and sharing mine. This is the first of several posts about my favorite books on writing.


The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron may not sound like a writing book, but this single woo-woo piece of spiritual self-help has been the most important book in my writing career. Why? Because before I read it, I hadn’t written a creative word in almost a decade.

The first time I went through it was with an online group of digital designers. I wanted to be a graphic artist at the time. By the time I’d sorted through all my feelings and heartaches and rejections, I realized that I really wanted to be a writer. I’ve since facilitated 3 different groups through this book.

It’s not a quick and easy read that will instantly give you the button to push to make yourself rich and successful. It’s a difficult book. It requires work and thought. It requires you to dredge up really painful parts of your past, and sometimes that kind of work will make you sick. It will force you to quit sabotaging yourself, quit making excuses, and start doing things that you’re afraid of. In my case, I was afraid of putting myself out there as a writer. It took me many months to sort this out.

If you feel like you are blocked, or that you’re just not doing what you want to be doing, I highly recommend picking up this book. I also recommend trying to find people local to you who would commit to starting a group in person to go through it. Three of my groups were online. You can get away with a lot of cheating online. In-person groups will see through your excuses and, pardon my swearing, call you on your shit. My Artist’s Way tribe doesn’t let me get away with half-ass work anymore, because they know what I’m capable of and what I want to do. Sometimes, that’s even harder than just being a blocked creative.

the artists way by julia cameronSo if you’re still in the beginning phases and you’re still nervous about writing that first story, or you feel like you’ve plateaued in a writing career, pick up a copy of The Artist’s Way. Convince a friend to go through it with you. Say it’s a dumb experiment and it’s just for fun. Then see what breaks loose.

Happy writing!


Things I Do When No One Is Looking

writing mantras

I woke up this morning in the mood to do something with paper and paste. I collage. I don’t consider myself a collage artist or anything like that. In fact, I tend to think of my collages as a bad habit, something to keep hidden away. I make collages the way I might read a trashy romance novel: in private when no one is looking.

I started by making a couple of inchies. These are each 2-inch squares of cardstock that I decorate. Why? I don’t know. I hang them up like miniature artwork all around my desk. The three I made today represent two of my favorite mantras. Trust the Process. Nothing is closing. The third is a comment I received (twice!) in a conversation I had about a book idea. I had never read a more encouraging string of six words than that. I’m taking it.

Then I started looking through my collage book. There is only one page that has a date on it, and it was from late 2007. I’ve been working on this book for over 7 years, in private, when no one is looking. I don’t work on it that often. I usually get the paste-eating craving a few times a year. Then I drag out all my magazine clippings and ink pads and paints and Yes paste. I make a page or two, then clean it all up and put it away (under the bed. This is how secretive this little hobby of mine is).

Today, I looked through it all, and I realized something kind of awesome. This book of mine is becoming a body of work. Some of the pages are terrible, and I still grimace when I look at them. But some of the pages are still fun to look at many years later. Some of the pages mean something different than they did when I was making them. Some of the pages make me laugh. So today, I’m going to share some of them.

My earliest pages were only one page, usually with one image and a statement of some sort. As you go further in the book, there are more two-page spreads that seem to be drawing a comparison/contrast with two things. I really like these. To be absolutely honest, I never come to the page thinking, “I’m going to make a statement with this.” I sit down with my paper scraps, grab whatever catches my fancy, glue stuff down, ink stuff up, and then giggle or scoff at it later. I have drawings in crayon, oil pastels, colored pencils, and broken ink pens. I have no idea why I do this. I think I’ve only ever showed this book to one person before today.

And now I’m posting it publicly on the internet. But I’m still hiding my supplies under the bed.


In Darkness

image by Leeca at sxc.hu

image by Leeca at sxc.hu

This is a story of a time when a land fell into darkness. Once full of wealth and structure, the empire was conquered, ravaged, then deserted. Sickness came and devoured the people, one by one, one thousand by one thousand.

In those days, there were no kings, no chiefs, no lords. There were small groups of people scattered across the countryside, huddling together for survival. There were no conquerors. There were no leaders of men. Fear led them. Death held them in its tyrannical fist. Despair ruled their villages.

In those days, the secret to survival was whispered to the sleepy children and recited in hushed voices across crackling fires. The secret was wrapped in the words of other times and other people, in stories and myths. There were once people, the stories said, who were strong and golden, people not wasted away by disease and grief. The people in the stories were proud and fearless. The lands in the stories were paradise. The gods in the stories were just and mighty and made all things new.

As the words flowed out into the chilly night air, something magical happened in the minds of the listeners. Across the dark grey of a winter’s expanse, they looked out and saw the promised land: a bright sun shining over glowing green hills. The harsh call of the carcass-eating crows was heard as the soft trill of a lark singing in a dense forest. Warmth spread across the listener’s skin to fill the voids of their hungry stomachs, and for that one moment in time, all was well. Instead of the despair crushing a man’s shoulders, he felt hope lifting his chin. Instead of the weakness of hunger, he felt power coursing through his arms and legs. Then he would look down at himself, through the eyes of the story, and see a hero, golden and strong.

In those days, the story was worth more than bread.


Winter Wrap Up and the WIP 500

The last year ended up being a very eventful one for me. There are two things I consider the best things I did: I started weekly date nights with my husband, and I facilitated an Artists Way group. One kept me closer to my family – we never scheduled over our date, and even if we just watched a movie, we had that time together. And the other provided me one of the best, most encouraging group of friends I’ve ever had.

Thanks to those two things, I am quite happy with how 2011 turned out. I even did a few truly terrifying things, like running Screenwriting and Flash Fiction workshops and playing the piano for people. Not only that, but I have been writing.

I have always enjoyed writing. It’s taken me a while to better understand it. I’ve always kept journals, scribbled out bad poems, written weird songs, and made up all sorts of nonsense about the characters that occupy my head. And in 2011, thanks to a challenge from a friend to write a screenplay in 30 days, I got back to writing every day. I wrote the screenplay. Then a novel. Then a few flash fiction stories. Then some regular short stories. And I started submitting my work. I let people read my stuff. And now I’m working on a novel that I am rather fond of.

Which leads me to the WIP500. I joined a group of writers from across the internets who are taking part in a challenge to write 500 words each and every day this year. My goal is to write every day, and to let the days average to 500 words (because some days of the week are far more difficult than others). Yesterday I wrote a short 144-word story. Today I will write more on my novel. I may not make it all 366 days, but I’m looking forward to seeing what happens in 2012.

Do you have creative goals for your year? I’d love to hear about them. Leave me a comment and let me know what you’ll be working on in 2012. 🙂


Abraham Lincoln, the Artist

My 5-yr old daughter wanted to read a story to me last night. She opened her Bible, put it in her lap, and read me this:

“Abraham Lincoln was a very good artist. He went to college, and then went back home to his family. But no one in his family like his drawings. So he decided to make a new friend. But his friend was blind! Abraham Lincoln drew the eyes on his friend, but the robot still didn’t work. The robot was a statue.

“So Abraham Lincoln got a piece of paper and made batteries. Then he used another piece of paper to make a robot. But it was blind, too, until Abraham Lincoln drew its eyes. Then, the robot ran away. But Abraham Lincoln caught up to it because he was super fast. He had Dragon Speed, like Emma.”

Here, Emma looked amazed. She said, “Hey! My name is in this story! They must have known about me and my Dragon Speed. I think we have met before. We must have met online.”

Sometimes it seems that kids get their creativity from their parents, but I wonder how much creativity adults can get from their kids. I hope you enjoyed Emma’s story as much as I did. 🙂


Embracing the Mystery

I read two books this week, seemingly unrelated, that both touched on something I’ve wondered about. I’ve always considered myself a logical person. If I were a character in Star Trek, I would be Spock. But there has always been this dichotomy in me as well. I am creative. I have always loved music and art and literature and poetry. I see colors when I hear certain music, my moods change significantly depending on what I hear and see, and I am sometimes brought to tears by the image of a field full of flowers. In this way, I am nothing like Spock.

I have never been able to explain this strange split in myself. I have always considered it a struggle between my logical and my emotional selves. I felt that one must always outweigh the other, and for my part I always respected logic above all else.

Then I read Musicophilia by Oliver Sacks. If you are at all interested in or fascinated by the brain, I highly recommend his books. Musicophilia was a series of case studies on people with different injuries, disabilities, or heightened abilities that affected their ability to hear, understand, or sense music. It was fascinating how many different senses come together to bring music to life – not just rhythm and melody, but timbre and tone and harmony and feeling. Some people feel it. Some don’t. But the thing that most resonated with me is that music comes from a separate part of the brain from literacy, speech, and logic. Being intelligent in one area has no effect on your enjoyment or abilities in music. I can be logical and still feel music at the depths of my soul. There is nothing strange about this.

Then I started reading Walking on Water by Madeleine L’Engel. A friend gave me this book several months ago, but I did not even crack it open until last night. The timing was perfect. I have been thinking quite a lot about my faith and my art lately, and Madeleine L’Engel has eloquently given voice to my own thoughts on the subject. What I most enjoyed, I think, is her emphasis on the seeming illogic of art. If I think about it, if I try to turn it into something with a particular purpose, then I am trying to control God. If I allow Him to work through me, even if I don’t understand it, then there is Truth. And it is not always a logical truth, not something that can be put into words but that is felt and sensed through a completely different part of ourselves. What makes me love the art of Van Gogh? Or be completely moved by the work of Shostakovich and Dvorak and Rachmaninoff? It is not the logical part of myself. It must be something else.

What I have always felt is that I cannot be both logical and emotional. It ought to be one or the other. But what I am realizing now is not just that the two sides can be balanced, but that they can coexist. Reacting emotionally to fine art does not mean that my logic has been defeated. Nor does my ability to fix grammar mean that I’ve utterly destroyed my creative self. They live together, different parts of the same brain, different strengths that are not in any sort of competition with each other. Sure, I must put aside my logical self to let the power of creativity flow through me–it’s like turning a valve to access a different self. But that act does not change or weaken that logical self. In fact, there is evidence to show that using that creativity, especially in music and writing, strengthens several areas of your brain all at once. How’s that for coexisting?

What kind of art really moves you? Do you have a favorite composer, or artist, or writer who seems to create some resonance with you? I’d love to find some new art to explore, so please share in the comments!


On Competition

For a long time, a film-making friend of mine had an online bio that read, “In 2 years, I will be an absolute failure.” At that time, he was nearing 30. Many of the filmmakers he admired had been in their 20s when they first met with success. He constantly compared himself to Orson Welles, who made Citizen Kane when he was 25 years old. As you can imagine, this friend was also constantly (and clinically) depressed.

The creative life is difficult to navigate. There are always stories of those striking gold in their youth. And there are also the stories of creatives who died penniless, never seeing their work admired by anyone.

I’ve come to realize 2 things over the last week. First, we need competition. And second, creativity is not a competitive sport.

They sound contradictory, but let me explain.

Last week, my son entered his art into a local fair. He was excited but nervous. We had told him that the art would be judged, and perhaps he might win a ribbon. He only wanted to put in his very best art in that case.

When we went to the fair to see if he had won, we noticed that every single piece of art had a ribbon. They had awarded prizes to all of them. The boy was still excited that he had won a ribbon, but the prize lost value in his eyes because everyone won. What did it matter that he put in his best possible work when others put in scribbles and still won?

I think competition is good. It makes us work harder and strive for excellence. Whatever our craft, that desire to be recognized for quality work is in all of us. In that way, I don’t necessarily think competition is bad.

On the other hand, creativity is not a competitive sport. There are no bench-warmers in the creative world. You’re either making art in some form, or you’re not.

There is no limit to the number of creative people in the world. There’s no one out there saying, “We’re sorry, the quota for creatives is filled. You can’t write that novel/paint that painting/take that photograph/sing that song.” The beginning of all art happens inside. Just because someone out there, with an entirely different background and set of circumstances from you, is successful at one form of creativity, it does not exclude you from expressing yourself also.

Yes, there are highly successful artists out there. Some are household names. Don’t compare yourself to them. Compare yourself to you. Are you getting better at your craft? Are you doing quality work? Are you challenging yourself?

Here’s an idea: Is there an online or local contest you’ve seen lately? Submit your work. If you don’t have a piece ready, get out there and create, so you’ll be prepared for the next one. Let me know what you plan to do, so I can cheer you on!


Finding My Voice

I sometimes fear that I have nothing unique to offer. How many people have been down this road before me, and how many of them are a thousand times more qualified than I am to write about this life? One of my greatest fears is being lost in the crowd. But another of my greatest fears is sticking out from the crowd. I can’t seem to decide from day-to-day which I would prefer.

Still, there is something nagging at me all the time.

“Write,” it says.

“About what?” I say.

“About anything,” it says, “just continue to write.”

So here I am. Writing for the sake of writing. Being creative for the sake of creativity. Hoping to burst in on some other dimension of living that will finally answer all my questions and make my life blindingly vivid. I know, somehow, that creativity is the key to piecing it all together. Of course, there is no left-brained answer to explain how or why. If I really want to find out, only my imagination can take me there. So I’m going.

When I get there, I may find that I am a clone, along with a million others, living the exact same life. It is more likely that I will discover, as I already know, that no one on earth has lived the precise combination of lives I have. Somewhere in here is a unique voice, a way of telling a story that no one else has heard before. I must find it, and let it out, even if it requires spewing out all the garbage piled on top of it first.