5 Ways to Shake Off Desperation

Writer Vsevolod Mikhailovich Garshin, by  Ilya Repin, 1884, oil on canvas, 89 x 69 cm, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City. This artwork is in the public domain.

Writer Vsevolod Mikhailovich Garshin, by Ilya Repin, 1884, oil on canvas, 89 x 69 cm, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City. This artwork is in the public domain.

On Monday morning, I opened my office door and something felt off. I had just returned from two days at a writing conference and I felt a fresh sense of desperation about my writing career. Doubt nibbled at my fingertips. Thoughts of creative and financial disaster swirled in my mind.

Then, it hit me: desperation can be contagious. As I thought back to the writing conference, I recalled the fun I had running into old friends, the talent of the students in my writing classes, and the enthusiasm of the agents I pitched. I also flashed on the hundreds of writers I’d been surrounded by, many of them desperate to be published. I feared I had “caught” some desperation at the conference.

So, I began the week shaking off desperation that wasn’t mine. I have enough of my own, at moments, and I don’t need anyone else’s. Have you ever had an experience like this? It doesn’t only happen with desperation, I’ve noticed. It sometimes happens with happiness, joy, doubt and grief and other emotions too.

These are my five tips for getting back your groove when you’ve absorbed something that isn’t yours after a writing conference or other similar gathering:

  1. Shake it off. Literally. Take your hands and shake them as if you were shaking them dry. Breathe in peace. Breathe out desperation.
  2. Send emails and snail mail notes to people you met who inspired you.
  3. Review your notes from the conference and throw out the ones that aren’t helpful.
  4. Thank the organizers who hired you.
  5. Get back to your own work.

After I did all these things, the desperation lifted like fog when the sun comes out. Then, a few days later, I received thank you notes from people I’d met at the conference and all I could remember was what I’d learned at the conference that helped me as a writer and a workshop leader. And I got back to work.

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The Power of a Morning Ritual

Four Stroke Man, Copyright © 2015 Chas Martin. Used with permission of the artist.

Four Stroke Man, copyright © 2015 Chas Martin. Used by permission of the artist.

Painter Chas Martin begins each day the same way: he picks up a paint brush—not the same one as the day before—and dips it in one or more colors. In four strokes, he paints the same basic character. Every morning. Every day. Before he starts his “real” painting.

Each day’s “four stroke man”  is unique, he said. “A different attitude, different touch, different texture, or level of confidence. Some days it’s free, wet and loose. Some days it’s very intentional and controlled. I may wet the paper first. Add or lift pigment. Some days, I do nothing but watch the colors and paper interact,” he said.

Why? Because this morning ritual centers him for the day. When he gets stuck on a painting and it’s not going the way he wanted, “I look up and see my four stroke man,” he said and then Chas knows what to do. It might be to change colors or loosen up. “It’s like a little helper urging me on.”

Do you have a morning ritual or something you do that helps you find the support and focus for the day? I’ve been meditating every morning for the past several months but now, after Chas’ story,  I want something more. Something I can look at, that reminds me that making art requires perseverance and helps me decide what new direction to go when I’m stuck.

Chas is not a routine-loving artist which is why he never uses the same brush, the same paper or the same colors from the day before. Without this morning ritual? “Nothing seems to make sense,” he said.

Do you have a morning ritual that’s working for you? If so, I’d love to hear about it.

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What if you knew how “good” you were?

The Good Book by Federico Zandomeneghi, 1897. This artwork is in the public domain.

The Good Book by Federico Zandomeneghi, 1897. This artwork is in the public domain.

A couple of weeks ago, in yoga class, my teacher told me it was time for me to move up to the next level. I was thrilled! Her comment made me feel like “I’m good at yoga.”

In the weeks that followed, I noticed that because I felt I was “good” at yoga, I made more effort in class, going deeper in the poses and holding them longer. And I started doing more yoga at home and during breaks at work.

My being recognized as “good” made me want to do more yoga. And the more I did it, the better I became. But it was more than just feeling more stretched, my attitude changed. I was more devoted to my practice. I felt less bored and more focused. My feeling “good” helped me stick to the practice even when it felt uncomfortable.

This made me think about writing. By now, I know I can write. Or do I? Like most artists, I circle through periods of doubt and wonder at times “Am I good?”

Is there a way to translate “I’m good at yoga” to “I’m good at writing” in a way that would help me go deeper in my writing practice and stay there longer?

If you already knew you were “good” how would that change your art practice? I’d like to hear.

 

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Find a “Container” for Your Next Project

You container could be a bowl, a box, a jar -- anything that can sit in the middle of your life and and hold your next big idea as it grows into being.

Your container could be a bowl, a box, a jar — anything that sits in the middle of your life and and can hold your next big idea as it grows into being.

The ceramic bowl sits in the middle of a table in my office as a “holder” of ideas for my next creative project.

Where’s your container for your next project and why might you need one?

I discovered I needed a container when after months of marketing my memoir I felt ready to launch my next creative project but I wasn’t sure what it would be. I didn’t like this “not knowing” space, that limbo-land of transition from one project to another.

As the stress of limbo built up inside me, a colleague suggested I find a “womb” for my next project. Well, even though I live in Portland, Oregon, a womb felt way too woo-woo for me but I liked the idea of a container.

So, I found this handmade bowl. And placed it in the middle of my desk. Then, I cut up strips of paper to invite my ideas. Having an actual place to hold this gestation process has calmed me down. It sits in the middle of my office and even when I’m working on other things, it’s still inviting my ideas all day and all night long. The bowl lets me know it will hold what isn’t fully born yet until it’s big enough for me to see what it is.

Do you need a place to hold that next project in all its fragileness and possibility? It could be a bowl or a wooden box or a glass jar but find something that you can place on a real table — in the middle of your life — and live with. Tell me what you discover. What begins to grow inside of it? I’d like to hear.

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“My Secret Father” in Psychology Today hits newsstands June 30

My two-minute memoir appears in the August issue of Psychology Today on newsstands on Tuesday, June 30.

My two-minute memoir appears in the August issue of Psychology Today on newsstands on Tuesday, June 30.

This Tuesday, June 30, the August issue of Psychology Today hits newsstands with my two-minute memoir “The Proof” excerpted from Blended: Writers on the Stepfamily Experience, edited by Samantha Waltz.

A couple of years ago, when Samantha asked me to contribute to her anthology, I’d said “no” because I didn’t feel like writing about growing up with two fathers, one of whom was secret from most everyone I knew.  But when I finished the manuscript for The Inheritance: A Mother-Daughter Memoir, I realized I had an essay in there.

Publishing this essay in a national magazine was something I wanted and I’d submitted this essay (and others) several times to nothing but rejections. Then, this offer from Psychology Today showed up at my doorstep through no direct action by me, beyond getting the essay published in a book. (The publicity person at Seal Press — the anthology publisher — had sent the magazine a copy of the book.)

My “luck” seems to be another case of being at the right place at the right time with an essay that was just what the magazine was looking for.

Now I’m asking myself: what can I remember from this experience for all the future rejections that I’m sure to receive? This is my answer which I hope will help you too: You have to keep getting your work out in the world because you have NO IDEA which time it will stick or how it will arrive in your audience’s lap. As artists and writers, we need constant reminders of this. We need support from a network of people cheering us on to keep sending work out because you just never know.

Is there something you can send into the world today? Another query? Another essay? A painting? A poem? If so, send it on. Somewhere, someone may be looking for just what you’re offering. But if you don’t offer it, that someone won’t be able to find it.

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Five Ways to Engage Visitors with Your Website

"Create an Engaging Website" is a FREE article from the June/July issue of Professional Artist.

“Create an Engaging Website” is a FREE article from the June/July issue of Professional Artist.

The magazine Professional Artist has chosen my article “Your Website: A Virtual Place to Call Home” from the current issue for the spotlight this week which means you can read it for FREE. Even though I’m Editor, I’m not the one who decides which articles are chosen for the spotlight.

If you’ve been thinking about how to make your website more engaging, read the article here. I encourage artists to create a website that is the home of all their Internet activity — “the hub” — as one of my interviewees said. It should be as inviting as your home or studio would be if you were expecting guests.

You’ll find several examples and more ideas for artist websites. Let me know what was most useful and what changes you’re planning.

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How are you “graduating” this month?

The Fourteenth of July 1914, by Roger de La Fresnaye. France, 1914, Cubism, oil on canvas, Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, Texas. This artwork is in the public domain.

The Fourteenth of July 1914, by Roger de La Fresnaye. France, 1914, Cubism, oil on canvas, Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, Texas. This artwork is in the public domain.

Now that it’s graduation season, I’m thinking about how important a graduation ceremony is for saying good-bye to the old you and welcoming the next chapter of your life and art.

A graduate dresses in a special robe and hat, walks across the stage with family and friends, cheering and clapping. Her name is read for all to hear and we take photographs and raise glasses. She cries for what she will miss from the closing chapter and feels the fear and excitement of a new beginning.

The last formal graduation ceremony I participated in was when I graduated from high school. I never attended my graduation from college because I had already moved home by then and my college was so big that it didn’t seem my attendance would make a difference.

I’m thinking now about how to bring more ceremony – even if it’s just a pause as I transition from one chapter to the next – into my own life.

Years ago, my elderly Uncle moved from his hand-built house in rural Oregon into a condo in town, so he could walk more and drive less and be closer to the hospital. He wasn’t sick but he was in his 80s and it seemed the right time to downsize. On the last day of moving, four strong men lifted his table saw out of the house and loaded it into the moving truck. Before he let them close the doors of the truck, he stopped.

“I want to take a moment of silence,” he said as he and the men circled the table saw, a saw he wasn’t taking with him to the condo, a saw he would never, ever use again, a saw that had helped him build the house he was leaving.

My Uncle stood with his hands on the saw and tears in his eyes saying a silent good-bye before the van doors shut and he moved onto his new life, in town.

This wasn’t a formal graduation, but it was saying good-bye to the past before he moved onto this future.

What are you shedding this season? Who’s screaming your name from the stands? Who’s standing in silent witness? How do you allow time for the daily graduations, from who you were to who you are becoming? I’d like to hear.

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Develop your talent without hesitation

“Franz Marc and Maria in the studio” by August Macke, 1912. This artwork is in the public domain.

“Franz Marc and Maria in the studio” by August Macke, 1912. This artwork is in the public domain.

I ran into a poet friend this week when I was in the middle of major doubt about a writing project and when I shared this with her, she quoted a former teacher: “You serve your community by developing your talents.”

I was smacked out of the doubt and back to the activity of creating. In the days that followed, I’ve thought about what it means to “develop your talent.” To me, it means spending time writing trusting that wherever I’m going will lead somewhere that reveals a mystery.

Will it be good? Will it be right? Who knows? All I can do, is keep typing, listening, observing, being quiet, sinking into the work, not running away or hoping I was getting somewhere else faster.

What would it look like to you if you were to “develop your talent” without hesitation or doubt? What would patience for yourself and your art look like? I’d like to hear.

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Six dos and don’ts I learned this week to foster calm

Landscape with palm tree and blooming flowerbed, Oleksandr Bogomazov,  c.1905, Place of Creation: Kiev, Ukraine. This artwork is in the public domain.

Landscape with palm tree and blooming flowerbed, Oleksandr Bogomazov, c.1905, Place of Creation: Kiev, Ukraine. This artwork is in the public domain.

This week, with a major change on the horizon and a few too many projects on my plate, I felt anxiety’s flames licking at my feet. My mind ran wild with worries, what ifs and worst-case scenarios. So, I started keeping track of what worked to calm me. This is what I discovered:

Vacuuming – It’s hard to believe but that repetitive, physical and focused work of sucking up dirt, dog hair, and dust bunnies calmed me down. And my house looked so much better afterward.

Cleaning green beans – The repetition of: pick up, cut off edge, put down, cut off other edge, pick up next one, was a soothing balm. Nothing to do but cut off the next bean.

Doing anything physical – Dancing, walking and yoga brought serenity.

Working in baby steps – Focusing on the next baby task of work and doing it, helped the most. To do this, I broke down my tasks into baby steps. For example, one big task was to write a magazine article, but the first step of that was just to print out the interviews I had done. Done! Second step was to find a highlighter, read the interviews and highlight the parts I wanted to put in my article. Done! Next step was to outline the beginning of the article. Done! (Notice how I never, ever worked on the whole article, just the baby steps.)

What didn’t work:

Writing – Although, I’m a writer and often use a journal, I discovered that writing about my worries did not help me feel calm. Writing became another form of thinking. And thinking led quickly to worries which only fueled anxiety’s flame.

Sitting there and doing nothing was the worst thing I could do even though I seemed convinced that taking a break would help.

So, this week, I committed to a daily morning meditation practice and to engaging with the work at hand by breaking it down into baby steps interspersed with vacuuming and yoga. What works for you when you need to find and keep your calm center? I’d like to hear.

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Give yourself the first hour of your day

The Artist by Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, 1910, oil on canvas, 101 x 76 cm, Brücke-Museum, Berlin, Germany. This image is in the public domain, from WikiArt.

The Artist by Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, 1910, oil on canvas, 101 x 76 cm, Brücke-Museum, Berlin, Germany. This image is in the public domain, from WikiArt.

Today, I recommitted to writing for the first hour of my day BEFORE checking email. I’ve made this commitment before but I’d gotten so out of whack in past months that I turned into someone who checked email while I was just out of bed. It was as though I was expecting a limited time offer of a million dollars and I wanted to be the first person to email back.

I felt ashamed that even I had succumbed to FOMO. I didn’t think that would ever happen to me.

It didn’t matter that I never missed anything, except eventually my calm center and next to come, my sanity.

Today, resisting email first thing, was hard. Jumping out of bed and double-tapping the gmail app had become a habit. Hard to break.

This morning, I only had time to write for 15 minutes at home so when I arrived at my office I still owed my writing another 45 minutes.

I wanted to check email.

I lit a candle instead.

My fingers itched to turn on my computer.

I sat next to the candle instead.

That felt a little better.

Every moment I didn’t succumb, I felt a little freer.

Interspersed with these moments of freedom, I needed to check my email to hear from a literary agent, to get an answer to a question I had asked someone yesterday. But the more I resisted, the more my craving for email subsided until the craving stopped. Not giving in, made it diminish, which I never imagined it would. In the moment, it felt like giving into the craving would solve some problem or put an end to something that needed closure. It’s the opposite. Resisting puts an end to it.

I also noticed that the urgency I had felt about an answer to a question faded too. There was no burning building, no life or death, no ambulance. It could all wait.

This is the way back to my writer self and toward my own hand sailing across the page. I had time to watch a black, speckled bird on the treetop outside my window, I wandered over to my writing drawer and sifted through some abandoned projects and found two short essays, I still like. The writer me was back.

Are you spending the first part of your day on what matters most? Are you making it creative and enjoyable? Or are you sounding like a drill sergeant? How do you resist the siren call of email? I’d like to know.

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