Monday, December 31, 2007

Boycott new year's resolutions!

Have you ever noticed that whenever you make a new year's resolution, you hardly ever keep it? I don't think I even know anyone who has made a resolution and kept it. And if I did, I probably disowned them as a friend—because who wants a friend who is that perfect. Sheesh.

Have you ever stopped to wonder why no one keeps their new year's resolutions?

Maybe it's because new year's resolutions are usually really big things that are nearly impossible to achieve anyway. They're usually things like: I'm going to quit smoking (super hard); I'm going to lose 50 pounds (probably as hard as quitting smoking); I'm going to exercise every day (ugh!); I'm going to get a new job, go back to school, move, stop listening to my family, eat healthy, and so on. All very difficult changes to make.

At least they are difficult to make in a new-year's-resolution format of change, which is as if you are turning an on switch and you magically stop smoking and lose the weight and exercise every day and love it. We just love setting impossible goals for ourselves, don't we? What the heck is wrong with us?

Change just doesn't happen that way, at least not in my experience. Not lasting change, anyway. Take losing weight. I've tried the approach of looking at losing 35 pounds. When I didn't lose 10 pounds in my first week of diet and exercise, I gave up. It was only when I went to Weight Watchers and understood that losing one to two pounds per week was excellent progress that I was able to lose all 35 pounds. I've gained some of that weight back over the years, but I have maintained healthy eating habits and an exercise routine, and those are positive, long-term changes.

The only resolution I'm making this year is to break down my big goals into smaller steps. I'm rewriting a manuscript. My goal is to get it done now—right now, this instant. Pretty impossible without being able to manipulate the time-space continuum. So, what I am doing is working on it every day. That is my real resolution—rewrite that manuscript every day. And then, I pay myself every time I work on it. I put a dollar in a jar on my desk. When I have enough money in the jar, I'll treat myself to something I want.

If you want to make a change or achieve a certain goal, try breaking it down into small, achievable pieces, and reward yourself for completing those small pieces.

Join me in my boycott of new year's resolutions. Resolutions shmesolutions!

And have a happy, healthy and creative 2008.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Eleanor Roosevelt wants to know: Have you scared yourself lately?

One of my favorite quotes is from that great woman Eleanor Roosevelt:

"Do one thing every day that scares you."

I often repeat her words to myself when I am feeling less than confident about something I have to do. For instance, I'm a shy person by nature and large social gatherings aren't always my cup of tea. I never think I'm good at small talk or carrying a conversation—certainly not as good as some of my friends and family. So, whenever I am faced with entering a large social gathering and feeling nervous, I tell myself, "Do one thing every day that scares you."

Why? Because one way of understanding fear is as a challenge, and by facing challenges we grow. Maybe we handle the challenge beautifully and learn that we have skills, strengths and gifts of which we were not aware. Or maybe we don't handle it so well and make mistakes, but if we take time to reflect on those mistakes, we can learn from them and do better the next time we are faced with the same or similar challenge.

Your Creative Kick in the Butt is to take Eleanor Roosevelt's advice and do one thing every day that scares you. It can be something small like taking on a task you've been avoiding because you're not so confident about it, or embracing that presentation you have to do for work or school instead of resisting it. Or it could be something big, like changing your job or trying something brand new that you've been afraid to try. But it doesn't always have to be something big. Sometimes big growth comes in small risks.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

"If you're not prepared to be wrong, you'll never come up with anything original."--Sir Ken Robinson on Creativity

I found this video on another blog. Sir Ken Robinson, a creativity expert and the author of "Out of Our Minds: Learning to be Creative," gives a very funny and insightful assessment of public education and how it impedes creativity. Along with the title of this post, he also says in this speech, "We don't grow into creativity, we grow out of it." He has some interesting points about public education and how it shapes us that made me think about my own education and how it shaped me. It's definitely worth the 15 minutes to watch. It will make you laugh, too.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Giving power away and taking it back

I had an interesting experience recently that has had me thinking about power—to whom do I give power over me and why.

I gave a talk recently in which I mentioned that I am considering a fiction book project about World War II spies in the Office of Strategic Services (OSS). It’s just an idea I am considering, due to a recent interest in World War II history, the Holocaust and personal accounts. It’s a heavy topic and I don’t know if I’ll pursue anything to do with it. But it’s an idea that has stuck with me for a while now, and I have learned to pay attention to ideas that stick with me.

After this talk, a gentleman approached me and asked why I was pursuing the topic of OSS spies. I explained to him that the idea came to me after seeing an exhibit about Virginia Hall, one of the most famous OSS spies, at the International Spy Museum in Washington, D.C. a couple of years ago. He proceeded to tell me about Edgar Rice Burroughs, the author of “Tarzan of the Apes” and other fantastical books, and how Burroughs had tried many unsuccessful ventures before writing “Tarzan.” After the success of “Tarzan” and some of his subsequent books, the gentleman explained, Burroughs wanted to write something serious about the real world. I don’t know what this was, but the gentleman told me it failed miserably, and so Burroughs learned that he was better off sticking with writing about the worlds in his own mind. He closed by saying I should take a lesson from this.

I was taken aback by this exchange. I’m sure this man did not intend to be insulting, but he was, in fact, telling me I shouldn’t bother to try writing about something like the OSS. This really stuck in my craw. Who was he, a total stranger who knew nothing about me, to say that I can’t handle such a topic? And was the underlying message that I was silly and stupid, or just silly to think I could take on such a subject? I was speechless and just let the man walk away.

This conversation was the only blip in a perfect day of talking with people who loved books and cared about writers. I left the event feeling quite wonderful, except for this one conversation. It kept coming back to me, making me feel angry and a little bad about myself—for not saying something back. Worse yet, I started to doubt my own abilities. How horrible is that, to doubt your abilities and lose your confidence based on the comments of a total stranger?

The more I’ve thought about this, I’ve come to realize that I gave this stranger power over me. I let him erode my confidence. I let him make me doubt my abilities. I gave his opinion, his words, value. That is my doing, not his. And in truth, he probably meant to be helpful, not hurtful.

It’s so easy to let other people’s words and opinions shape how we feel about ourselves. But I believe that only I can shape how I feel about myself. Only I can make me feel bad about myself. Only I can lose my self confidence. Only I can doubt my abilities. To quote Eleanor Roosevelt: “No one can make you feel inferior without your permission.”

And so, I have decided not to give that stranger that power. I am still reading books about the OSS and look forward to seeing what comes of it. Maybe something great will come of it, and maybe not. But I would rather be open to the possibility than defeat myself before I even begin.

Your Creative Kick in the Butt: Think about who has power over how you feel about yourself. Then do the hard part and think about why you have given them that power. Because you have given it to them.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

What's your secret life?

How do you react to this question: What’s your dream for yourself?

Do you feel:

A. Embarrassed, because this is way too personal a question.
B. Angry, because it’s none of my business.
C. Sad, because no one has ever asked before.
D. Happy, because you’ve been dying for someone to ask and now you get to talk about it.
E. Confused and a little embarrassed, because what’s the point?
F. Calm, because you know the answer and know what to do about it.

It’s important that you know the answer to this question. Let me repeat that: It’s important that you know the answer to this question. And take heart—very few people know the answer and know what to do about it.

If you have an inkling, great. If the answer is staring you in the face, great. If you have no idea, no problem. No matter where you are in the process, try this exercise from The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron:

Write down five secret lives you’d love to live. It can be anything—possible or completely impossible.

Here’s mine. In my secret lives, I am:

A ballerina.
A world-class orchestra conductor.
A bestselling author (you can help with this one, you know :).
The drum major for a professional drum and bugle corps.
A dog trainer, a la Dog Whisperer Cesar Milan.

Now, the only thing I am pursuing on this list is the bestselling author life, because that is actually my dream for myself. But the others represent other parts of myself—the part that grew up taking dance and just loved ballet so much; the part that played the clarinet in band for years; the part that was the drum major for the high school marching band; and the part that loves dogs and would love to be with them all day long.

I’m not going to attempt all of these things. But I can connect with those parts of myself that crave these things by maybe going to the ballet or the symphony this year, or spending more time with my dogs, or listening to a CD of John Philip Sousa. All of those activities reconnect me to the deepest parts of myself in tangible, meaningful ways. And that, in turn, makes my life fuller and my writing better.

If you know your dream, this exercise will help feed your creativity and motivation on the path toward making that dream come true. If you don’t know your dream or you're unsure of it, this exercise will help you discover it.

Here’s your Creative Kick in the Butt: After you write down your five secret lives, write a page about at least one of them. Explore why it’s on your list. And don’t worry if you can write or not—this is just for you. Babble on and see what bubbles up. You might be surprised by what you learn.

Thursday, September 6, 2007

Who wants a kick in the butt?

Well, that sounds nasty, doesn’t it? Who would want a kick in the butt, let alone actively seek it?

People who know they need one, that’s who.

As a fiction writer, I definitely need one from time to time. I’m actually pretty disciplined. I keep a stable writing routine—after work Monday, Tuesday and Thursday, and in the morning on Saturday and Sunday. (Wednesday night is for knitting class, and Friday is just a plain old day off from it). I write in the same place and steadily work on one book at a time.

I pride myself on keeping this routine—and still, even I need a kick in the butt sometimes.

I know what it’s like to work full time and maintain all the activities necessary to function day-to-day. All of that takes enough energy. And then to dig deep and find the drive to do something creative—are you kidding me? Even when it’s your dream to paint, act, dance, whatever—even though nothing makes you feel more wonderful than doing that thing, whatever it is—it can be damn hard to make yourself get off you butt and do it.

It ain’t easy, but nothing worth doing ever is. And I know I’m not the only one who struggles with this. After a year of doing readings and talks to promote my first novel, The Secret Thief, I’ve met and talked with a lot of people who want to write or do some other creative activity and are struggling to find the time, the discipline, the inspiration to do it.

To all of you out there, I offer you a creative kick in the butt—lessons I’ve learned the hard way, advice, tips, books, quotes and a creative challenge now and then to get you going and keep you going on your path to your creative fulfillment. I’m a fiction writer, so my point of reference is the writing process, but everything I offer here applies to any creative activity. Painters, singers, actors, sculptors, dancers, musicians—whatever your creative identity—you are all welcome here.

Questions, additions, compliments, complaints, frustrations, successes—leave a comment. Let’s talk to each other and help each other stay on the path to our dreams.