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The Courage to Cross the Finish Line

Just a few days ago, I received a beautiful new Young Adult (YA) novel in the mail, a gift from one of my clients who had hired me a year ago to provide her with feedback on her work in progress (see Masterpiece Package).

I told Lucille (not her real name) that she had a strong story idea and gave her some notes as to what she needed to do in order for her idea to be realized. She had done a lot of business writing in the past, but this was her first attempt at a novel. The issues that I identified are commonly found in novels in progress.

I told her to make sure that:

• your focus is on your main character.
• your character is active and that his/her actions are driving your story.
• you provide enough detail and examples to make the world that you’ve created come alive for your reader.
• when you use dialogue, your characters have distinct voices that reflect who they are, so that we always know who’s speaking.
• your language and tone are oriented toward a contemporary YA reader.

A year later, at another client’s book launch, Lucille came up to me and thanked me for being honest about the shortcomings in her novel, and not simply telling her what she wanted to hear. She told me that she had taken my notes to heart, had been working away on her manuscript, and would be having her own book launch soon!

What a joy it was for me to hear that! Whether or not she applied all of my suggestions was less important to me than her willingness to take the feedback, to keep going, and to carry her fledgling novel across the finish line.

It takes stubbornness to cross that finish line, it takes talent and, perhaps most important of all, it takes courage. Just this morning, I received that very message in a blog by Seth Godin, brilliant best-selling author, entrepreneur, TED talker and all-round motivational god: “You can improve your skills, get better tools and do the hard work of actually getting better…But most of all, you can realize that the most urgent work is the work of dancing with your fear, because the fear is the real reason the work isn’t getting done.”

Lucille didn’t let her fear hold her back. And that makes Lucille a hero.

“You’ve wrapped. You’ve shipped. You’ve licked this sonofabitch. Kudos to you!”
Steven Pressfield

Writing When You Don’t Know What to say

Do you think you need to know what you’re going say before you sit down to write?

You don’t.

Holding that belief, often unconsciously, is a great way to keep from writing at all and an even better way to make writing an excruciating, bloodletting experience.

For my first decade as a professional writer, I tortured myself with the assumption that I had to figure out whatever I was writing in advance. I opened a vein every time I put a word on the page. Not so surprisingly, I didn’t do much writing for the fun of it during those years, because writing wasn’t fun. It was interesting, it was rewarding, it was gratifying to be able to earn my living in such a cool way – but fun? Never – or at least rarely. Only when I was able to turn in my completed script. Then I was ecstatic. I wasn’t so much into writing as I was into having written.

I was saved by deadlines, without which I would never have begun anything. I was saved by nightfall when the whole world slept and, pulling yet another all-nighter, I sat alone at my desk, looking out the window at a darkened, tree-lined street, empty of all humanity, checking my long hair for split ends while I waited for the words to come. I was saved by page after page of yellow lined paper inscribed with my messy long-hand.

Sleep-deprived, over-caffeinated, and in the innermost of the witching hour, the words could finally appear, the ideas could flow, the solutions to writing problems could materialize – not exactly effortlessly but far more freely than in the glare of daytime when, inevitably, the reflexive belief that writing required advanced planning would once again reclaim its command over mind, heart – and pen.

As seems fitting, it was writing that freed me. In the early 1990s, when I started leading journal-writing and other kinds of creative writing workshops, I would instruct my participants to write without thinking, without letting their pen leave the page and, most important of all, without any need whatsoever for their writing to be any good. It didn’t even have to make any sense.

Timed exercises were the ticket to writerly freedom. One of my favorites was giving my writers five minutes to write their autobiography, an idea inspired by Deena Metzger’s brilliant book, Writing for Your Life. A deliciously impossible task, it often provoked unexpected insights and revelations (an unexpected bonus, never a requirement).

Because it felt weird for me to sit at the front of the room doing nothing, I wrote along with them. Seeing me scrawl away in my notebook gave them permission to scrawl away in theirs, and doing the exercises gave me something to do besides stare at them like an examination proctor. When my trusty Tibetan bell announced that time was up, I stopped when they stopped.

Writing in tandem with my participants, I freed myself as a writer.

Timed writing continues to be a mainstay in my writing workshops and is part of my personal practice as well. I do it often, and in fact am doing it right now as I write this blog! Setting a timer for a short period of time is a great way to bypass that insistent message that you need to know what you’re going to write before you write it.

The familiar advice, “get out of your own way,” when applied to writerly endeavors has always struck me as more annoying than helpful. However, I’ve come to understand it as finding a way to deactivate the inner fraidy-cat who doesn’t want any of us to write a single word unless certainty is guaranteed. Timed writing is a great way to do that.

With the exception of grocery lists and the like, writing is not about certainty. At least not the kind of writing that makes your (and your reader’s!) soul sing. “Writing is the act of discovery,” says Natalie Goldberg, author of Writing Down the Bones and countless other wonderful books on writing.

“We are writers, and we never ask one another where we get our ideas. We know we don’t know,” says the renowned Stephen King, author of 56 novels at last count and winner of countless writing awards.

And the great essayist, novelist, and screenwriter, Joan Didion, winner of the National Book Award for The Year of Magical Thinking, says it beautifully: “I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means. What I want and what I fear.”

Not only do we not need to know what to say before we sit down to write, we mustn’t and we can’t. It is when we place pen on page or fingers on keyboard that we find out what we want to say. This excerpt from Wanderer, by Antonino Machado, speaks of the vicissitudes of life, but it applies equally to writing:

Wanderer, the road is your
footsteps, nothing else;
you lay down a path in
  walking.
In walking you lay down a
path

Lay down a path of words now, Dear Writer. Set your timer for five minutes and tell me the story of your life.

You Are So Creative

creativity-dieter-uchtdorf

One of the cruelest untruths that I hear all too frequently from my coaching clients is, “I am not creative.”

It’s not their fault that they think that way. They probably got that message as a child from a parent or teacher, who got it from a parent or teacher, who got it from a parent or teacher – and so the virus got spread.

It doesn’t help that creativity is universally associated with participation in the arts – painting, writing, dance, theatre, photography, music or whatever. If you don’t do any of those things, how can you call yourself creative?

And then there’s the commonly held belief that if your artistic efforts aren’t making you a rich and famous author, musician or movie star, what’s the point?

These beliefs are so pervasive as to be invisible but they are living rent-free in the minds of most if not all of us.

The thing is, they’re lies. Soul-sucking, confidence-quelling, dreck-depositing lies. Everyone is creative. Creativity is what makes us human and there are as many ways of applying it as there are people – raising a child, preparing a meal, teaching, gardening, constructing a shelter, building a business, solving a problem, making love, practicing the healing arts, devising a spiritual practice, decorating a home… These activities are not limited to the “gifted” or to the wealthy or to those drawn to the arts. They are fundamental to who we are.

As for that message that your creative pursuit has to be a popular success in order to be worth anything, I had to face that one head on, just a few minutes ago.

It followed from a decision I made yesterday — to write a novel. It’s been an unacknowledged longing in me, and it felt great to say yes to it. So this morning I got up early, looked through some notes for an unfinished screenplay that I’d abandoned but never forgotten, and began to consider how I could use it as a jumping off point for a novel.

Later on, I was doing a bit of writing for the project and felt this heavy despondent feeling come over me. What’s going on? Am I not supposed to be doing this? Thankfully I soon recognized it as one of my inner critics delivering that oh-so-uplifting message, “What’s the point?”

Wanda Whatsthepoint at my disservice! Remembering a great tip from the uncomparable SARK, I decided to give Wanda a job. Instead of using her critical eye to crush my spirit and cripple my creative efforts, Wanda could be a quality control inspector at a high-end garment factory — in Prague. Decent wage of 14,000 korunas a month, cool military-inspired uniform, and boundless opportunity to nitpick with impunity. Like magic, with Wanda happily engaged, the despond lifted from my soul and I lived to write another day.

One of the best ways to apply the creativity that we all possess is to effectively dispense with the voices that deny or denigrate it.

Do What Makes You Happy

My interest in creativity coaching began more than ten years ago when I was teaching a Creative Process course at the Vancouver Film School and became aware of creativity coaching guru Eric Maisel’s work. I thought creativity coaching would be a great credential and skill set to inform my teaching and consulting work.

But ultimately my decision to enroll in the CCA program had more to do with the heart than with career concerns. Seeing my enormously creative younger brother and other gifted friends giving up on their creative dreams in midlife sparked my passion to provide support and inspiration to people who feel they’re too old and it’s too late.

I can sometimes be one of them, and so I was and continue to be my steadiest client! While I’ve had a successful career as a writer/editor/script consultant, and it’s work that I enjoy, my first passion is singing. I sang before I talked, I won prizes in music festivals, my uberstrict music-loving Grade 5 teacher forgave my unremarkable Social Studies grade by uncharacteristically declaring, “You’re going to be a singer. You don’t need to know Social Studies.”

Ironically, I began my professional life as a Junior High Social Studies teacher before heading for the exit four years later and joining the film industry, a more interesting and rewarding career avenue. Derailed by circumstances, eroded by fear and neglect, any thought of a singing career had long since expired.

But my passion for singing refused to be denied. In my late 50s, I began taking singing lessons, I joined a gospel choir, I even worked up the courage to sing a blues song, aptly titled In My Girlish Days, at a concert that coincided with my 65th birthday. A feisty woman of my age came up to me afterwards and said, “I want to be you.”

Me too! It’s the “you” we all want to be. The “you” who pursues what brings us joy, without any concern about career or cash or recognition. The “you” who discovers that doing what we love fuels all aspects of our lives.

What creative endeavor makes you happy? If you don’t know, sit with that question for a few days and see what arises. Maybe it’s something that you left behind when you “grew up.” Whatever it is, I suggest you reclaim it and begin doing it again – in whatever way you can. Age is irrelevant. Creativity is our birthright. Happiness knows no bounds.

I’m going to go sing now!

The Power of Embracing Failure

This is the seventh in a series of blogs that I’m posting in response to a challenge posed by Winnie Kao, a blogger who launched “Your Turn Project,” which urges wayward bloggers like me to post a blog every day for a week.

The question for this final blog in the series is: “What are you taking with you from this challenge?”

The big takeaway for me is learning to accept failure. I was on time for the first two postings but I was late for every other posting thereafter, including this one. I had failed. Repeatedly.

After my first failure to post a blog, I was tempted to pack it in, particularly since the catalyst for this challenge, Seth Godin, author of Your Turn and many other bestselling books, had said to Winnie, “Every day that you don’t put up a blog post, you’ve failed.”

I’ve always seen failure as something terminal and lethal. How can you continue if you’ve failed? But after participating in the “Your Turn Project,” I discovered (not for the first time but such life lessons require continual repetition and reinforcement) that it isn’t fatal. Quite the opposite.

I screwed up, I forgave myself, I figured that it was better to post late than not at all and so I did. As Seth has said, “after you fail you will be one step closer to succeeding, you will be wiser and stronger and you almost certainly will be more respected by all of those that are afraid to try.”

He’s right and I would not have recognized that if I hadn’t stayed in the game. I may have failed to meet the terms of the challenge, but over a one-week period, I wrote over 3,000 words or seven reasonably useful blog posts that would not have existed otherwise. I feel good about that. I feel motivated to accept other challenges, to take more risks, and to continue to thwart those inner barriers that keep me from shipping as often as I’d like.

A big thank you to Winnie and to Seth.

Fear Is An Ally

This is the fifth in a series of blogs that I’m posting in response to a challenge posed by Winnie Kao, a blogger who launched “Your Turn Project,” which urges wayward bloggers like me to post a blog every day for a week.

Today’s question is: Tell us about a time when you surprised yourself.

I have always made an enemy out of fear and it has always delivered.

But let me take you back to December 29, 2012. I am scheduled to sing In My Girlish Days – on stage, with a band – at a party in the evening. I am getting ready to leave and feeling uninspired about the whole thing. Plus I have no clue what to wear. Nothing in the closet has any appeal. The lovely new Christmas outfit from dear friends looks fine but wrong. Everything feels wrong.

I call my cousin who convened the event. He’s pulling a lot of things together for the evening and is not keen to chat but I am nonetheless relieved to hear that he’s wearing jeans and a shirt. I can do that. Then I try to do some warm-ups and a run-through of the song. It sounds like crap.

The party is in town and will be going on past the last ferry to the Island where I am living at the time, which means I’ll be staying over, which means I have to pack an overnight bag. Not a difficult task, particularly given that I have over two hours to accomplish it, but because of my state I am almost incapable of doing it. It takes me the entire two hours to put together a little backpack and head to the ferry. I don’t even have time for breakfast.

My car is freezing cold and I feel afraid and alone. I feel like the worst possible failure – my whole life and everything about me is wrong and awful and pathetic. I call some friends and leave messages. Not asking for help directly and not sharing the full extent of my feelings, but letting them know that I’m about to perform and I’m terrified.

Saying it helps to dissipate some of the paralysis but I still feel awful. I tell myself not to try to change this state but just to breathe into it. A good bit of advice that I have sometimes been able to apply to difficult states but not generally to performance anxiety. It helps a bit. I make the ferry crossing, head to a café, order a turkey sandwich and a coffee, which helps to ground me, and then I drive over to the hall.

I arrive an hour early and help the emcee hang some decorative ducks over the band. Then the sound check begins with a young woman singing Feelin’ Good – a song I’ve always wanted to sing. She has an amazing voice and I feel intimidated. I look at the line-up for the evening program. I follow her. Great. I’m right before the incomparable Dan Mangan. Multiple award-winning Canadian singer-songwriter. Swell.

Finally, after waiting for three terrified hours, I’m called up on stage for a sound check. I haltingly try to communicate with the band what I want by way of an intro and plunge into the song just as some of the guests begin to arrive. To my great surprise, I don’t die. What a relief.

Before my big moment, I feel some nervousness but far less than before, and once I get on stage I feel surprisingly relaxed. A friend who isn’t liberal with compliments tells me I was fabulous. A number of people say that I was their favorite act. A choir leader and voice teacher tells me I was the most interesting performer because I was connected to my words. Another said I have “pipes and presence.” A tough-looking woman said, “I want to be like you.”

This experience was tangible evidence that the fear that precedes performing is an ally, not an enemy. How can you connect with your heart without having suffered, even if most of it is self-generated? This experience was an extraordinary gift to me. I felt the fear and I did it anyway. Hurray for me.

Ten Ways to Get Unstuck

This is the fifth in a series of blogs that I’m posting in response to a challenge posed by Winnie Kao, a blogger who launched “Your Turn Project,” which urges wayward bloggers like me to post a blog every day for a week.

Today’s question is: “What advice would you give for getting unstuck?”

As a Creativity Coach, feeling unable to move forward on a creative project is the most common reason that my clients contact me.

To get yourself out of the ditch, here are 10 things that you can try:

1. Change a habit – work different hours, walk a different route to or from work, call someone you wouldn’t normally reach out to, read a magazine or book that you wouldn’t normally read, etc.

2. Take your creative project for a walk or a drive. Gardening, cooking or doing dishes can be equally effective.

3. Set a time limit for writing a passage, learning a song, doing a sketch, etc. Freedom inhibits creativity.

4. Do absolutely nothing for 10, 15, 30 minutes. (Set a timer.) Lie down, listen to music, and close your eyes. The best ideas come when the mind is relaxed. Keep a notebook handy.

5. Go down to the ocean and watch the waves or go to the forest and watch the trees waving in the wind. If you don’t have access to Nature, go window watching or people watching.

6. Think about a creative problem before going to sleep, allowing the subconscious to take over. Keep a pad and pen by your bed.

7. Dance to loud raucous music in your living room.

8. Speak the truth (with kindness) about how stuck you are, if only to yourself. It’ll free your creativity!

9. List all of the ways to make your troublesome creative project worse instead of trying to fix it.

10. Get some pen and paper, set a timer for 10 minutes, and rant in writing about how pissed you are at this effing project that refuses to bend to your will.

If none of the above work for you, you may need more support. If that’s the case, email me and let’s see if I can help you.

Declutter Your Life

This is the fourth in a series of blogs that I’m posting in response to a challenge posed by Winnie Kao, an intrepid blogger who launched “Your Turn Project,” which urges wayward bloggers like me to post a blog every day for a week. I’m a few days late, but I’m still in the game.

Today’s question is, “Teach us about something that you do well.”

Decluttering. As a Feng Shui practitioner and enthusiast, I can unequivocally state that this is one of the quickest and simplest ways to change your life — in ways large and small. I’m a believer, I do it well, and so can you.

Here’s what you do.

1. Choose a space that you consider cluttered — a closet, storeroom, cabinet, trunk, desk drawer, tabletop, kitchen cupboard, etc.

2. Label three boxes or bags: THROW-AWAY; GIVE-AWAY; STOW-AWAY

3. Ask yourself these questions about each item:
Do I love it?
Do I need it?
Does it reflect and/or support who I am now?
Do I associate it with positive thoughts, memories and/or emotions?
Does it need to be fixed or repaired, and am I willing to do so within the week?
If it’s time to let it go, where is it going and when/how will I get it there?

4. Either keep the item or put it into the appropriate box or bag until you’ve gone through every item in the space.

5. If there are items that you’re not sure about, put them into a STOW-AWAY box with a reminder note dated six weeks from now and check it to see which things you still want to hang onto.

6. Prepare and label the GIVE-AWAYS to go to their new home — family, friends, charity, consignment, etc. Make sure to remove them from your space within a week.

7. Put the STOW-AWAYS in their proper places with love and gratitude.

8. Within the week, repair the KEEPERS that need to be fixed.

Well done! You’ve let go of the old and made room for the new. Keep an eye out for helpful people, opportunities and things to flow into your life.

 

 

I’m Starting With Myself

This is the third in a series of blogs that I’m posting in response to a challenge posed by Winnie Kao, a blogger who launched “Your Turn Project,” which urges wayward bloggers like me to post a blog every day for a week. (This one was supposed to have been posted yesterday but I was wrestling with what I wanted to say. And so, rather than drop out entirely, I’ve forgiven myself and I’m posting it late.)

Today’s question is, “Tell us about something that you think should be improved.”

Where to start? My (Canadian) government recently made a secret arms sale to Saudi Arabia, a country with a terrible record for human rights violations of its citizens. The Correctional Service of Canada has also made it clear this week that it will impose no limits on how long its own citizens can be held in solitary confinement (often for several months), despite numerous warnings about the psychological impacts of lengthy detentions in solitary, not to mention a number of suicides on the part of solitary detainees. Such appalling inhumanity astonishes me. To say there is room for improvement in my government is an understatement.

What can I do about it? I can write letters to my Member of Parliament. Done that. I can bleat about it with my friends. Do that all the time. I can vote for another party. Done that too.

None of those actions are likely to do much to improve the caliber of the political leaders who represent me. I can’t control how they behave. But the one thing that I do have control over is myself.

Which means that I need to ask myself something like following: In what ways do I exhibit the inhumanity, lack of compassion, dishonesty, lack of creativity, greed, black-and-white thinking, shortsightedness, etc. that I’m seeing in my government?

What? How could such dastardly qualities present themselves in a nice girl like moi?

But the truth is that while I tend to be kind, honest and compassionate toward others most of the time, that amiability can evaporate if I feel hurt or threatened in some way. Plus I’m not as kind, honest and compassionate toward myself as I need to be. If I’m unwilling to tell the truth about that, my efforts to improve circumstances outside myself will be compromised.

Tolstoy has said, “Everyone wants to change the world. No one wants to change themselves.”

It’s not hard to understand why. Looking within can unveil some qualities and habits that are not flattering. And negative ways of perceiving and behaving are profoundly ingrained, which means that the process of self-change is not a quick fix. It can take a lifetime.

And yet, if we’re serious about improving the things we don’t like in our world, telling ourselves the truth about how those things are reflected in us has to be our starting point. Otherwise we trap ourselves in a binary, self-righteous, us against them stance that only perpetuates the status quo.

On the other hand, if we are able to see ourselves in a less self-flattering, more nuanced, and more dimensional manner, and to drop our judgments toward those whom we hold responsible for what isn’t working, then our hearts and minds will be open and we will be better able to conceive of solutions that are creative, original, and have some chance of working.

This attitude applies as much to our own personal, professional and creative lives as much as it does to the world “out there.”

 

 

Feng Shui For Splendid Spaces

This is the second in a series of blogs that I’m posting in response to a challenge posed by Winnie Kao, a blogger who launched “Your Turn Project,” which urges wayward bloggers like me to post a blog every day for a week.

Today’s question is “Tell us about something that is important to you.

Many things are important to me and Feng Shui is one of them. Pronounced, “Fung Shway,” it is the ancient Chinese art and science of placement (over 3000 years old). Feng Shui is based on the idea that the quality of your life – of your health, prosperity and happiness – is intimately connected with the quality of your environment.

For years I’ve been in love with the idea that making particular adjustments in my living and working environment would support changes that I wanted to make in my life.

Plus I’ve always been keen to connect with that larger Reality that is not typically accessible through our five senses. Science is now affirming that consciousness and our physical reality are intertwined – and so Feng Shui, which strongly supports our awareness of that interconnection, is a powerful ally for positively affecting our day-to-day lives.

If I feel overwhelmed or scattered with too much busyness or if something painful has happened in my life or if I have to face a big challenge of some kind, here’s that I do. I immediately clean and declutter my space, I remove everything that no longer reflects my current interests and circumstances, and I bring as much order and harmony as I can to my environment.

That never fails to help me think more clearly, have a clearer sense of what my priorities are, and feel more empowered. And more in my heart, as opposed to rattling around in the abattoir of my meddlesome, confidence-crushing mind.

Understanding which areas of my home or office correspond with which areas of my life has helped with issues like career, finances, and relationships. When I was living in a high-rise apartment with an uncomfortably high rent, I enhanced its Wealth and Prosperity area and not too long thereafter, a home came to me that was half the rent and just as nice. Nicer in some ways. These kinds of “coincidences” happen to me all the time.

What I love about Feng Shui is that it compels us to reflect on what’s really important to us, on what we truly and deeply desire. In order to make the changes in our spaces and in our lives, we need to know what we want. Often it isn’t what we have assumed it to be.

That’s what excites me as a Feng Shui Practitioner cum Creativity Coach. Helping people to identify their heart’s desires and to bring them back home. Creating splendid spaces inside and out.