Revise, Revisit, Redo

Celestial events are on my mind lately, influenced at least in part by this week’s solar eclipse. We didn’t see it here but some of my friends and relatives back east had a spectacular view. Even people who don’t normally follow these kinds of things seemed to be talking about it.

Some gardeners believe eclipses, moon phases and other activities in the heavens can impact our plants and gardens. The Farmer’s Almanac even provides information to help gardeners follow celestial rhythms. But gardeners aren’t the only ones who take their cues from gazing skyward. Many of the writers I know do too, particularly when it comes to the planet Mercury.

Mercury, in case you didn’t know, is the closest planet to the sun and the fastest one in our solar system. It rules communication of all kinds, as well as publishing and everything related to that industry. It rules other things too (technology, including computers, and travel being two of the biggies). Three times a year Mercury appears to move retrograde or go backwards for about three weeks at a time. When that happens, lifestyle stories sometimes pop up in the news or on social media feeds warning that Mercury is about to play havoc with communication, travel plans or our computers. And it’s true, if you follow the patterns, that there are more Mercury-related glitches during a retrograde period. But writers love it when Mercury is retrograde because it’s the perfect time to revisit manuscripts and refresh them. In fact, it’s the perfect time to do anything that starts with the prefix ‘re.’ And Mercury is retrograde right now.

Ironically, until the solar eclipse, I’d been too busy to notice. We have five yards of fish compost in our driveway waiting to be spread on the garden beds we’re revamping. I have a manuscript sitting on my desk needing to be reassessed and revised. There’s recycling that needs to be dropped at the depot. An orchid that needs to be repotted. All of these things are calling to me because in a few days we’re heading to the mainland to revisit family and friends and I’d like them done – or well underway in the case of the manuscript – before we go. The eclipse made me take a step back and look to the heavens. That’s when I realized I’m caught up in a number of Mercury retrograde activities. Does that mean I’m in the celestial flow? I hope so.  I’ll report back in a few weeks. When Mercury goes direct.  

What Would You Do . . .

                                          

. . . if you were guaranteed a positive reaction to your effort or decision?  Follow me down the rabbit hole (after all, it is nearly Easter).

I was talking to a friend recently about our mutual realization that we probably worry a bit too much about what others think. We didn’t go deep into the why of it; we were intent on enjoying our lunch. Instead, we briefly shared how this trait shows up in our respective lives. Curiously, we didn’t touch on how (or if) it impacts our creativity, though we both pursue creative work.

A few days later, I told a different friend, this one a talented visual artist, that I wanted to create a mosaic with our house numbers . . . something I could put on a large rock for the end of our driveway. I’ve had the idea in mind for over a year. We live on a cul de sac and the house numbers are not sequential or in any way logical. The numbers we have on our house are often overlooked by delivery folks. We need something with more presence at the street. I could get a rock engraved, but I wanted something different. Something with a little more color and interest.  Something personal.

I’m not a visual artist. I’ve made a couple of mosaics in my life, with guidance, and I had so much fun doing them! And while I’m happy with the mosaics I made, I’m under no illusion that they demonstrate any great artistic or design skill. Still, I love that I was able to create something visual like that myself. Why not do something similar on a rock?  I wondered. Especially since I already have a decent-sized rock waiting to be used.

I started thinking about the shape of the rock in question . . . I considered colors . . . I began to cast around for design ideas.

That’s when it hit me: the end of our driveway. Our driveway.  And instead of feeling filled with anticipation and joy, I felt a tiny jolt of horror.

The rock, or, more specifically, the mosaic, would be on full display for everyone to see. Not everyone would like it. Some people might even point out its flaws, for flaws it would certainly have.

I’d stepped right back into worrying what other people would think.  

Mr. Petrol Head can relate. After twenty+ years of sporadically working to restore a 1959 Sunbeam Alpine, his restoration is nearly complete. So much so that he’s finally taking it to a couple of British car shows this summer. Everyone who comes loves cars, so he’s sure to get a lot of positive feedback. But he’s likely to get some ‘constructive’ feedback too. “It’s not 100%,” he admits. “And someone is bound to notice.”

Regardless, he’s taking a risk and putting himself out there. Instead of asking himself what he would do if he was guaranteed only a positive reaction to his efforts, he’s asking himself the only question that counts: what is he so excited to do that it doesn’t really matter what kind of reaction he gets?

I admire his attitude. The question is, can I embrace it? Only time, or more specifically the rock, will tell.

Small Things

                                                             

I met a writer friend for coffee last week. She had a pacing issue with her manuscript and wanted to talk. She’d lifted out a key scene to use as a prologue and she didn’t know how to deal with the narrative gap she’d created. I hadn’t read her novel (and she wasn’t asking me to), but she felt somewhat overwhelmed with, as she described it, her conundrum. I listened, I asked a few questions and after a few minutes, I made one small suggestion. And by small, I mean small. Yet that seemingly small suggestion prompted an idea in her mind that led to the workings of a solution.

Small things can have big consequences, life-changing ones. Just ask someone who missed a plane on 9-11. . . or someone whose loved one didn’t.

We don’t always know the consequences of the decisions we make either. I’ll never forget the two women I overheard one morning in a coffee shop dissecting the previous night’s date. Apparently, she had a terrific time; the guy in question was intelligent, charming and attractive. But as she told her friend, “I just can’t get over the size of his nostrils.”  Small things, nostrils, though apparently not so in this case.

Small things can spin our lives in directions we don’t expect (I wonder what would have happened if that woman had gone on a second date?) and small things can take our art in new directions too.

It’s the big markers we usually think about when it comes to our art – getting a book published or going on an author tour; selling a painting or having a show. Those things are important milestones and definitely worth celebrating. Even finishing a book or a painting or sculpture is a big deal. No question.

Yet it’s the small, seemingly insignificant steps that get us to those big finish lines. Motivational author Julia Cameron believes that work begets work and that “large changes occur in tiny increments.”

All the more reason to celebrate the small things. And perhaps even embrace them. Especially when it comes to nostrils.

Honoring Creators

                                               

Today is International Artist Day, a time to celebrate all kinds of art: paintings, sculpture, mosaics, photography, textile art and more. Launched in 2004, IAD is designed to honor the contributions all artists make to society. These days, though, one of the common themes I’m hearing from artists is ‘how can we (or even should we) create when world events are so dark?’

Artists work hard to produce their work, though when judged against something like, say, a peace treaty between nations, a painting or a sculpture inevitably comes up short. Maybe that’s why so many creative types are questioning themselves lately.

Novelist Theodore Dreiser once said that “art is the stored honey of the human soul.” I love that quote almost as much as the one by Thomas Merton: “Art enables us to find ourselves and lose ourselves at the same time.”

 So, yes, the news is grim but the arts – and artists themselves – have a place and a role to fill.

Since the beginning of time, artists have communicated ideas and even kept records of important events. Through many different mediums, they record history, the good and the bad, and they help us make sense of it. Artists show us the truth, or at least the truth as they understand it. They tell us stories, they pass on traditions, and they forge connections with others. Artists add beauty to our lives which raises us all up. Some even say that artists offer the world messages of hope, and I think a message of hope, in a world filled with bad news, is a message we can all get behind.

So today, on International Artist Day, I hope you reach out to an artist to lift them up. Maybe tell them that your world is just a little bit better with them in it.  

Giving Thanks

                                                 

Thanksgiving, which we’ll be celebrating in just a few days, is one of my favorite holidays. I love the focus on food, friends and family, and the generosity of nature. There’s a joyful simplicity around Thanksgiving. And this year, as I gratefully pick the last of our tomatoes and dahlias, I’m giving thanks for everyone who has been a teacher in my life.

It is back-to-school time after all, and every morning now I hear the laughter of children heading down the trail to the nearby elementary school. Teachers are gearing up with lesson plans and activities; some are reaching out to authors to see if they’re available for talks and workshops (I am!).

I’m taking a few workshops myself this fall – some single ‘just-for-fun’ one-off classes and another in a more professional vein that will run once a week until December. My first session of the latter was yesterday. It was quite a change to sit back and let someone else lead. As I looked through the binder of information the instructor had assembled for each of the participants, I was struck all over again about how much goes into the process of teaching, whether that’s in a structured academic environment or in a more creative studio space. It takes time, energy, and effort to instruct others well.

Last spring, I took a one-day security course at VIU ElderCollege in Parksville. It was fantastic and incredibly worthwhile. Sadly, Vancouver Island University announced this week that it will end its affiliation with ElderCollege on December 31st after 30 years. The university cited financial difficulties as the reason. The decision is a real blow to the many islanders who have benefited from ElderCollege over the last three decades.  But the 3,000-member organization isn’t closing the doors just yet. Board members are determined to continue providing ElderCollege courses. They aren’t sure how, but they’re determined not to let the organization fade away.

Let’s hope they’re successful, because learning is something we can all be thankful for.  

All In Good Time

                                                  

I’ve written here before about being a turtle instead of a hare when it comes to producing art. Go here if you missed that blog post.  https://lauralangston.com/get-your-turtle-on/

The idea that we don’t always get instant results came to mind again recently. On this date in 1501, Michelangelo started carving the statue David . . . and he finished it three years later. The ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, considered one of the greatest masterpieces of all time, took Michelangelo four years to paint (and speaking of churches, La Sagrada Familia Basilica in Barcelona – one of Gaudi’s most famous works – has been under construction since 1882 and it’s still not finished).

 In my small corner of the world, I’m revising a novel I’ve been fiddling with for probably three years now. Some books come together quickly, but others don’t. I’m more accepting of that than I used to be. Maybe because I’ve been at this writing gig for decades. Maybe it’s life experience. More likely it’s a combination of both.

And as always, the garden (and nature generally) reminds me on a fairly regular basis that some things take time. For instance, I’m harvesting tomatoes right now. We have a glut of them and they’re especially sweet this year, especially fresh off the vine. But they’re also wonderful in other ways too.  I turned some into confit last week . . . it took about five hours in a very slow oven. While that was cooking, I filled the dehydrator with tomato slices. The process of getting them to sweet, dried rounds took a couple of days.  

All things in good time. Or, maybe that should read: time makes all things good.

Wild Magic

                                                          

Pure creativity is something better than necessity – it’s a gift – it’s the frosting. Our creativity is a wild and unexpected bonus from the universe.’  Elizabeth Gilbert

A few weeks ago, my neighbour emailed me a picture of the clematis blooming in her back garden. It normally produces purple flowers. But this year, and for no discernable reason, the vine is awash with pink and white striped blooms too.  It is, as Elizabeth Gilbert would say, a wild and unexpected bonus from the universe.

Around the same time my neighbour emailed me that picture, a writer friend emailed and said the ending she had in mind for her work in progress had taken a left turn. “The character took over and did something I never saw coming,” she said. “And the ending is so perfect it’s almost like magic.”

That’s pure creativity. Unpredictable, a little wild, and magical. It doesn’t matter whether we’re creating in the studio or at the keyboard, whether we’re in the garden or in the kitchen, there’s a kind of alchemy that happens if we listen to what we’re creating and let it have a say in what it wants to be. A touch of wild and wonderful magic that’s both humbling and awe-inspiring. And one that can bloom with beautiful results, just like my neighbour’s clematis.

Freedom to Rise

                                               

About three years ago we moved to a community with a high percentage of retirees. And even those people who haven’t retired talk excitedly about the day they’ll finish working and punching a clock.

The upside of an artistic life is having the freedom to set our own schedules. We are our own bosses. But distractions abound, those we create and those created by others, and those distractions can make it hard to maintain a creative routine. It’s taken me a few years of living here (and getting sidetracked more than I care to admit) to finally recognize that I do best with some structure in my life. That realization led me to think more carefully about structure – the role it plays in life and art, why we need it, and how we ignore it at our peril.

Structure is, by definition, something arranged in a specific pattern of organization. Its role is to contain or hold something so it’s not all over the place. Structure can act as a framework, or it can be an arrangement of parts, acting as a support or even protection.

A structure can be a skyscraper or a shed, our bodies, or a sentence. A rose needs the structure of a cane for support. Bread dough rises higher when it’s contained by the structure of a bowl or basket. Novels depend on structure to tell a story. A visual artist depends on the structure of the canvas to hold her medium. And many psychologists tell us that humans, particularly children, need structure and routine. While acknowledging that holidays and regular breaks are important for our health, they say a significant lack of structure on an ongoing basis can lead us to feel uncertain and unbalanced, even out of control.

That’s certainly been true for me.

Before we moved, my weekdays were fairly structured. I wrote every day, with the occasional Friday afternoon off. In gardening season, I’d write three or four days a week so I could get the garden in. I’d book weekday errands or appointments for my lunch hour so I could get back to my desk afterwards. While I wasn’t the most prolific writer, I was consistent and productive.

Moving to a small town 45 minutes from a hub city changed everything. I now needed several hours, sometimes half a day, if I had to drive in for weekday appointments. And though I made a few new friends who were creative types themselves and understood my need to protect my time, not everyone was accepting. Organized activities where I could network and meet new people frequently took place on weekdays. So, because I wanted to make connections, I made allowances. I found myself accommodating others and making appointments during prime writing time. My calendar began to fill with commitments. My routine was torpedoed. I began to feel unsettled. Uneasy. And I was disappointed, mostly in myself. Why, I wondered, couldn’t I juggle as well as I once did? I’d fit my writing around the schedules, activities, and demands of the kid for years and I loved having that flexibility. Why wasn’t it working for me now?

Because, I realized, the kids had something of a schedule – the school year – and I followed it. Now I was surrounded by people who had no structure to their days at all and were loving it.  I was trying to follow suit because I wanted to connect and make new friends but my writing was suffering. I was suffering.

The truth is I crave and need structure. It’s how I’m wired. Just as a bowl provides the support for bread dough to develop and rise, having structure in my own life gives my creativity the support it needs to expand, grow, and flourish. Structure helps me stay focused. It gives my life balance and that, in turn, makes me calm and happy.

So, while the people around me might love the fact that they’re no longer punching a clock, I’m going back to punching one. But it will be a clock of my own making. One that blocks off three (four if I’m lucky) writing days a week, and leaves the other two days free for family, friends and fun. And the occasional run into the city for a pesky appointment.  

Wish me luck.

Lean Into Discomfort

      

I’ve been practicing yoga for decades. But despite my long-time practice, there’s one asana I love to avoid: phalakasana or plank pose. In the studio or in any kind of structured class, I almost always opt for a modified plank. In my solitary practice, I skip plank altogether. I just don’t like it. And I never thought to question why. Until my yoga class last Thursday night.

The instructor flowed into plank pose early in our 90-minute practice, and I flowed into the pose right along with her. The reason I followed along, quite honestly, is mildly embarrassing: my body was on my mat but my mind was elsewhere, and by the time my mind caught up with my body I was probably 30 seconds into my plank asana. My arms were quivering, my abs were trembling, and my brain was protesting. I was uncomfortable. That’s when I realized I wasn’t trying to avoid plank. I was trying to avoid discomfort. And that had been my primary goal around plank asana for years.

Humans are hardwired to avoid discomfort. And two US researchers say it does us no favours. Kaitlin Woolley (Cornell University) and Ayelet Fishbach (University of Chicago) conducted a study of 2100 people engaged in personal growth activities – anything from taking improv classes or music lessons to learning about COVID-19, gun violence or opposing political viewpoints.   

The participants were split into two groups. Some participants were told that their goal was to feel uncomfortable and (depending on the activity) awkward, nervous, anxious, or even upset. They were told to push on and accept that discomfort as a sign that the activity was working. Other participants weren’t told to embrace discomfort; instead, they simply focused on learning something or noticing if the exercise was working and how they were developing their skills.

Ultimately, the researchers found that the participants who aimed to be more uncomfortable were more engaged in their activities, felt more motivated to keep doing them, and believed they’d made more progress toward their goals compared to those who weren’t accepting their vulnerability.  

Discomfort, according to Harvard-trained psychologist Susan David, is our price of admission for a meaningful life. It’s almost always there whenever we try something new, whether that’s a new job, a new art form, or a new language. Whether it’s having a difficult conversation with a friend or challenging some of our long-held beliefs. Embracing discomfort requires emotional courage.

In the big picture of life, the fact that I went out of my way to avoid doing a plank is a small thing. But the fact that I avoided the plank to avoid discomfort isn’t so small. Discomfort is a wise teacher. Tolerating and embracing it helps us grow. And honestly, if I’d leaned into and accepted my discomfort long ago, I almost certainly would have grown through my discomfort and be doing a reasonable (and reasonably pain-free) phalakasana by now.

Then I could have turned my attention elsewhere. Discomfort, thy name is sirshasana.  

Myth Busting

Last Saturday, I attended a Zoom workshop given by author Becca Syme. Her topic: ‘Eleven Productivity Myths and Why You Should Stop Believing Them Right Now.’ Syme holds a master’s degree in transformational leadership and has coached over 6,000 individual authors and creatives during the last fifteen years. She’s also the author of a cozy mystery series and a series of books for writers.

Before discussing the myths, Syme walked us through a few quick exercises to demonstrate that we’re all wired differently and have different needs. She also spoke about the importance of questioning what we’ve absorbed as truth. Look for the assumptions under the following and decide whether they fit you.

Myth #1: If I can do it, anyone can. Not so. “Excellence is individualized, so the fact that someone else can or can’t do it has no relevance to us,” Syme says. Believing that myth could lead us to minimize our talents or hold ourselves responsible for outcomes that are out of reach. Syme illustrated the point with a story about two groups of people who were taught to speed read. Neither group had speed-reading training at the start. The first group started out reading 90 words a minute; by the end of the speed-reading course, they were reading 150 words a minute. The second group started out reading 350 words a minute; by the end of the course, they were reading 3,000 words a minute. Her point: innate potential combined with intentional development equals outcomes.

Myth #2: Having a daily routine will make me more productive. The underlying belief here, according to Syme, is that consistency is righteous (not so) or that systems are magic, which is also untrue. In my case, a daily routine does increase my productivity. For other creative types, the opposite is true.

Myth #3: In order to write faster, everyone should outline. This implies that every writer knows their plot in advance. Not true (for this writer, at least).

Myth #4: I can start my day with Facebook (insert your favourite social platform or online time waster here) and be quick about it. We tell ourselves we’re in charge of our decisions, but that’s less true than you might think, says Syme. Our decisions fall into three categories: non-habitual, like meeting a friend for lunch (free will); habitual like getting dressed or eating breakfast (less free will) and decisions like breathing/waking up tired/surfing the net when bored which Syme says is an automatic decision for many (virtually no free will). She also reminded us that Twitter/Pinterest/The Guardian always takes longer than we think. “As soon as we visit any of those platforms, someone is making money off our eyeballs,” Syme says. “We need to spend our eyeball money on our own stuff first.”

Myth #5: Planning makes me productive. This myth suggests that if we plan something, we will execute it. That’s not true for many of us, Syme says. A quick survey of the writers Zooming in on this session proved her right. The planners – and I was one – were in the definite minority. Syme says we also need to be mindful of overplanning (guilty!) because that can lead to frustration, disappointment, and a drop in productivity if we don’t achieve our plans.

Myth #6: You can’t edit a blank page. This phrase, made famous by author Nora Roberts, is so widely touted that even people living with writers believe it! Mr. Petrol Head said it last week as I struggled with an article draft. The underlying belief is that thinking is a waste of time, but for writers and many creative types, thinking is working, and we need clear head space in which to do it. Besides that, Syme says, some people can edit in their heads.

Myth #7: If it works for INSERT NAME OF PERSON YOU’RE TRYING TO EMULATE HERE, then it will work for me. This suggests someone else knows better or that their system is magic. It also tells us, at a subliminal level, that if we don’t write/create like someone else, then we’re doing it wrong.

Myth #8: This should be easy. Here we absorb the idea that there’s something wrong with us or we’re not doing it correctly if it doesn’t come easily. Believing this undermines self-confidence and the ability to take creative risks, and that, in turn, can torpedo productivity. The truth is, some things are hard even when you’re doing them right. 

Myth #9: If I write (or create anything) to fit the market, then I will write faster, sell better and have greater success. This is based on the incorrect assumption that the only books that sell well are those that are written to market. For many writers (and other creative types too), working intentionally to meet market demands can ruin our storytelling capability and lower productivity.

Myth #10: Everyone should use voice dictation software to produce more quickly. The premise here is a societal one particularly prevalent in North America: speed is all-important. Not true. As well, there’s a steep learning curve for voice dictation software, and some writers find it slows them down more than speeds them up.

Myth #11: Writers write. She saved the best for last because virtually every writer I know takes this to heart. This suggests that if we’re not producing words constantly, then we’re not as much of a writer as someone who does. Syme says over half of all working writers don’t write every day. They write much more sporadically than we would think and for a host of reasons: second jobs, family demands, health issues or simply because of their own natural rhythms.

It was a great workshop and I’m still processing what I learned. One key takeaway? The ancient Greeks were right when they said ‘know thyself’ and ‘certainty brings ruin.’ In other words, know what works for you and question anyone who tries to tell you otherwise.