As a creativity coach, I have an obligation to walk the talk. It’s important to me that my coaching strategies come not just from training and books, but from real-life experience and an active personal practice. If I were to champion the virtues of an early morning creative practice, for example, while I was secretly sleeping until noon and hadn’t flexed a creative muscle in years, I’m pretty sure that most of you would call me a fraud. And I’d have to agree.
In this vein, I recently came to an important decision.
I often work with clients who struggle with extreme shortages of time but are seemingly unable to edit anything out of their schedules. Looking in as an outsider, it’s not hard for me to identify items that might merit the chopping block in order to free up time for creative work. While I can make gentle suggestions, ultimately, those decisions can’t come from me; they have to come from the client’s own shifting perspective. That shift requires looking at everything with openness and a willingness to see beyond “I can’t.”
This year, like many of my clients, I found myself in the position of having too much to do — way too much to do — and being unable to see how I might do less. “But it’s all good, important, relevant stuff!” I told myself. “I’ve already gotten rid of the obvious things!” (Volunteering for the PTA, for example. Duh.)
Many of you know that in January of this year, I opened Open Studio Groton, a brick-and-mortar studio here in Massachusetts, with my dear friend and business partner Ellen Olson-Brown. Open Studio was launched as a place where people in our community could connect, create, and grow. Looking back over the year, we have an amazing collection of successes to celebrate. Connections have been made over ideas, projects, and conversations. Artwork, manuscripts, businesses, friendships — all were created in our cozy little space. Individuals connected and grew in their own ways: some developed into stronger writers through our writers’ workshops and writers’ groups, some became more flexible yogis through Buddha Nest Yoga, some enjoyed our other diverse offerings, from blacksmithing to writing a personal creed. Four talented artists had shows in our space. Personal friendships were formed; our community grew stronger.
To our surprise, our little experiment turned out to be sustainable. We hit the black in late spring, even while we were still refining our elevator speech. (“What *is* Open Studio, anyway?”) But over the months, we often scrambled to keep all of our many studio balls in the air. The marketing alone, as with any business, was a considerable undertaking. (“Crap! I need to write that press release within the hour!”) Other areas of my life were neglected this year. One of you dear readers even wrote to me to inquire about what happened to my formerly monthly newsletter — which was just one of several sacrifices (my garden, my sanity, and the folding of clean laundry were a few others) that I didn’t want to make.
Ellen and I both have other businesses to take care of (in addition to coaching I own an editorial services business — and Ellen is a children’s book author and children’s yoga instructor). Open Studio made so much sense, bringing together so many of our passions — and it still makes sense. But in the space of a week this fall, we went from planning 2013 to acknowledging that if the two of us wanted to stay sane, we needed to pull back, take stock, and reaffirm our primary commitments.
It isn’t easy to let go of something when it’s relevant to your life work, the community supports your efforts, and you’ve already launched on your planned trajectory. But the inescapable truth is that there are only 168 hours in the week. When there are too many things to fit in your box, you have to take something out. In this instance, you can’t actually get a bigger box. It’s really that simple.
And so it became clear that while the studio as a business is sustainable, the time that it requires on both of our parts is not. As I sometimes remind clients, “You can have it all, just not all at once.” My threshold for investing personal energy — and time — has to have a finer filter. Because energy, like time, is finite. I am committed to my personal writing practice. I am committed to my coaching work. I am committed to my editorial business. I am committed to my family. I am committed to myself: reading, yoga, breathing. I am committed to moving slowly enough that I can savor where I’m at. Because if I’m not savoring, what’s the point?
The studio will close on December 31 and Ellen and I will turn with renewed focus to all the other things requiring our attention. But we’ll have a few more ounces of focus at our disposal, and a few more minutes at hand. Hopefully, we’ll do a better job with everything that remains. Most importantly, we’ll celebrate the success of 2012, and affirm the value of doing a little less — and doing it well.
Oh, and by the way. Stay tuned for my next newsletter.
(Ellen Olson-Brown contributed more than a few words to this post. Thanks, E.)
Here is my situation:
I am a morning person. My energy begins to wane around lunch time, and by dinner time it has completely disappeared. In a perfect world, I would get up at the crack of dawn, write on my laptop until I could no longer ignore my hunger pangs, eat breakfast, and then head to the gym for an hour. But even as I write these words, I know it is a complete and utter impossibility.
I wish I was the sort of person who could sit down in front of a blinking cursor and write, but I need a warm up period first to get my brain in gear. My brain refuses to engage when I have toddlers climbing all over me, demanding waffles and oatmeal and YouTube train videos. And as inspiring as I find The Wiggles, they don’t exactly transport me to 1916 Appalachia when they’re blaring from the TV in the background. So even though I’d like to work on my novel first thing in the morning, motherhood has forced me to readjust my writing schedule. If I get any writing in at all, most mornings I work on my blog because it just doesn’t require the same degree of concentration as a book.
This summer, I’ve made a point of going to the gym three mornings a week, to the bright and early 8:15 am deep water aerobics class. The YMCA offers childcare during this time, and I love getting my workout in first thing and having the rest of the day to devote to other things. In a perfect world, I would like to continue taking this class three mornings a week ad infinitum. But again, the fates of motherhood are conspiring against me.
Sam’s preschool starts at 9:00 every morning. Obviously I can’t be in two places at once. But I thought I could easily take a class later on in the morning. Except, the morning exercise classes are scheduled for 9:15 and 10:10. There’s no way I can drop Sam off at his preschool at 9:00 and get to the gym in 15 minutes, even if he leapt from the moving mini-van in the preschool parking lot. I could easily make the 10:10 classes, but my morning would be shot. I’d drop Sam off, have not much more than a half an hour to write/clean/run errands, and then have another 15 minutes to kill after my class before I could pick him up. It’s hardly an ideal situation.
What would be ideal is if there were afternoon classes I could attend at the gym, except there aren’t. And it wouldn’t matter anyway, even if there were, because childcare isn’t available from noon until 5:00 pm. The earliest group classes start up again between 5:30 and 6:00 pm, so in addition to not being morning-person-friendly, it would completely ruin my dinner-cooking-and-eating schedule.
I was complaining about all of this to my husband, Tom, and he told me I was being inflexible. I could write after the boys were asleep (9:00 or 10:00 pm) and I certainly didn’t have to take a group class at the gym. I could hit the cardio machines, or better yet, the weight room.
It was at this point that my brain exploded a little bit.
I can barely construct a coherent sentence at 10:00 at night, much less write novel-worthy prose. And there is no way I’m going to use up 30 minutes of my precious allotment of me-time to drive to a gym to use cardio equipment when I have an elliptical machine in the basement. I like group exercise classes. That is why I joined a gym. If I wanted to exercise alone, I could do it without the monthly membership fee. And spending my morning lifting weights? I do lift weights. A 30-pound 2-year-old and a 45-pound 4-year-old. All day long. Over and over and over again. I’m not going to volunteer to do it some more.
This is the kind of situation I face as a mother all the time. What I want to do should be simple enough, except that it isn’t once I factor in my children’s needs. My needs (quiet writing time and a group exercise class) get put on the back burner, and instead of sympathy, I’m expected to change my wants and needs on the fly so that my wants and needs become compatible with my children’s.
You can do this for a while, but after a while you realize you’ve hit an impasse. Your wants and needs are your wants and needs for a reason, and you get to a point where you can’t be flexible about them anymore. I should be able to write and go to the gym when it best suits my biorhythms, and hopefully if I just wait it out one more year I will. When John is 3 he’ll be eligible for preschool, and I’m strongly considering enrolling him at the preschool at the Y. That way I could drop him off at his class, get a workout in, and then head home to a quiet house to write.
But in the meantime, it’s looking like I’ll be doing a lot of exercising at home.
“If you want something done, ask a busy person to do it.” Lucille Ball
I’ve always loved this quote, but only just this morning discovered that the voice behind it was:
b) a mother; and
c) a woman and mother in COMEDY!
I can practically feel the fairy-dust a-spilling! (Do be careful not to trip, won’t you? I don’t have insurance on this blog.)
But now that I think about it, it seems perfectly natural that Lucille — a mother (unarguably a synonym for “busy person” if ever there was one), striving to carve out a career following her creative passion — would be the one behind it.
I just LOVE it, LOVE it, LOVE it! Namely cos it turns that whole “Boohoo! I just don’t have any tiiiimmmeeee….” thang right where it should be: on its whingey, sad, defeatist little head.
*Disclaimer: author of this post is talking to herself as much as you.
Indeed, having limited time can be our bestest little buddy in the whole wide world when it comes to getting stuff done. Because:
1. MAKE LIKE A BOY SCOUT & BE PREPARED!
Have your to-do list/goals list ready at hand so that when the moment of free time strikes, you are not wasting a moment of it scratching your head, looking heavenward and pondering the secrets of the universe.
Note that I’ve found it works better for me just to have a generic ‘to do’ list to work on as required, rather than a strict time-based schedule. i.e. if I start doing the whole “at 9am I will work on ‘blah blah’” thang, I start pulling my hair out pretty quickly thanks to the ingenius knack of kids to turn all unpredictable on me. Seriously. I have a bald patch. I don’t like talking about it. Could we please change the subject?
2. TREAT YOUR TIME LIKE THE LAST TUBE OF TOOTHPASTE ON EARTH
I’m serious. When it comes to squeezing every last drop out of these fleeting moments of peace, you’ve gotta commit to the battle, people! For instance, in our house, we have those rare — yet treasured — but rare, occasions, when my older kids will arrive home from school while my littlest is still sleeping. It’s around this time that I squeal for joy like a little piggy on steroids. (Silently of course, what are you, crazy? I don’t want to wake the baby!)
I then, in what can only be described as “somebody’s pressed the fast-forward button on Jenny’s new show: So you think you can guarana!” I assemble a line of snacks with a bansheed cry of “I LOVE YOOOOOOUUUUU!!!!!!” as I disappear back into my lair.
Sure, it only buys me an extra 10-15 minutes at best, but in the words of Sarah Connor: “We loved a life time’s worth.”
3. SLOW COOKERS ARE YOUR SOUL-MATES.
That is all.
But enough about ME!
What about you?
*Just for the record, if there really is a Johnny Depp Batman doll — on ebay or anywhere else in this cosmos — please contact me. Not that I need it. Ehem…
Many years ago, I had the amazing privilege of meeting the now-late Colin Thiele. Author of Storm Boy amongst other classics of Australian literature, Colin was arguably one of the most productive writers Australia has ever brought forth, having written countless children’s books, poetry, and more.
The thing that impressed me about Colin — aside from his incredible humility, warm humour, and way of putting you instantly at ease — was his unbelievable productivity.
In tandem with his writing achievements, he continued to work as a teacher his entire life — it was only at night, after classroom, marking and family duties had been put to bed (typically around 10pm) that he would begin writing. Without fail.
When I asked him what his biggest tip would be for me, a fledgling aspiring writer, he looked thoughtful. “Well,” he said, sitting back in his chair and looking upward, “I had a dear old friend who wanted to be a writer many years ago and one day he rang me up and he sounded most exasperated. ‘How do you ever get anything done?’ he asked. I asked him what he meant.”
“‘Well,’ he said, ‘by the time I start, the mailman arrives, then by the time I’ve sorted through the mail it’s time for morning tea, then I finally sit down and the phone rings…’ and he went on and on. And I said ‘Listen, if you want to be a writer, then you need to write. The art of writing is simple: it’s applying the seat of one’s pants to the seat of one’s chair.”
His words came back to haunt me, several years — and children — later.
There I was, sitting in my cosy, pine-wood smelling, tranquil little studio at Canada’s Banff Centre for the Arts. I couldn’t be happier. A world renowned destination for all manner of artistic disciplines and after months of planning, finally, there I was: beginning what would be four glorious weeks of a residency, without any of the distractions of child-wrangling or house-keeping, to spend writing my new solo comedy show.
Indeed, it was quite the picture of inspiration — through my studio windows I had a stunning view of the quintessentially picturesque Canadian forest, the ground was covered in feet of fluffy snow, I even glimpsed the occasional deer trampling through…and I had complete privacy (and limitless cups of tea) with which to play.
In other words, conditions were perfect.
Yet it took me a grand forty minutes to realise — to my horror — that when finally granted that terribly elusive dream of nothing but time to spend as I please, I wasted it with all the blatant disregard of an elderly person who’s never grasped the concept of recycling.
In fact, I quickly realised that when it came to inventing methods of avoiding creating (doing what I LOVE!), I was a complete and utter genius.
Just another cup of tea.
Just another e-mail.
Just another google search.
Just another blog.
Just another, just another, just another…
I struggled through and finally emerged from the retreat with a decent backbone for my show; (the bare minimum of work I’d set for myself, deeming the enterprise an official ‘success’), yet I couldn’t help but feel some sense of disappointment.
That I wasn’t more productive. That I didn’t make more of each moment. That the grand open space for creativity that I’d so long craved for, had only served as some sort of flag to signal an abundance of time to waste at my leisure — after all, in my luxury writers studio surrounds, the whole point was that I could get round to writing ‘whenever I felt like it!’
Well, fast forward twelve months and there I was: well and truly re-entrenched into the daily grind. Kids. Housework. And yes, writing, but only when — and if — I could squeeze it in.
And yet again I was confronted by the wasteful nature of my indulgent self when it comes to creative time.
By the time the day’s duties were done, I was so exhausted, so spent, so done, that the last thing I “felt like” was actually creating.
Even though I love it.
So I didn’t.
I would read, perhaps.
I would watch crappy television, justifying it by telling myself that part of the comedian and writer’s job is to stay abreast of popular culture (even now, as I write that I cringe, hearing my mother’s voice ringing in my ears “You should have done law!”).
I would think (oh, how I would think!) about the things I wanted to do.
But actually putting pen to paper, finger to keyboard, or even voice to Dictaphone? Oh, no! No! My hands were far too preoccupied slapping my forehead, in a melodramatic rant about all the creative things I intended to do “when I finally got the time.”
Until one day, something happened which made me realise not just how lucky I am to even be able to create at all — regardless of time constraints — but how much I truly NEED to.
That thing was a car accident.
Suddenly my existence went from juggling comedy shows, procrastinating writing duties and rearing children, to managing medical jargon, tackling endless bureaucracy and recovering from a severe head-on collision.
I was lucky to be alive. I was lucky to be walking. Yet, as I began to process the overflow of trauma of what happened that day, I was slowly confronted by the dawning truth: from that moment onward, I had no excuses not to create.
In fact, I not only wanted to write about what happened and what was happening in my life, I needed to. I had to.
And so it began.
Every single day, without fail and without compromise, without excuses and without procrastination, the moment my little bubba went down for his nap, I would sit down at the computer and I would not leave. I had no expectations of what I would write. No agenda. No outcome in mind. Sometimes I would just write random thoughts, sometimes I would work on little nuggets of a screenplay, others I would sketch out the backbone of an article.
But the point is, I would write.
I kept going and going. If I finished one piece, I would start on another. I would write and write and would not stop until the little dude woke up. And given that this ‘end point’ to my writing session was so unpredictable its arrival at best, it eliminated the possibility of any clock watching on my part.
On the contrary, this flexible and unpredictable deadline made me all the more motivated — many days I would find myself hoping that he would keep sleeping just that little bit longer so I could keep it going.
And at some point during that first week of writing my way out of my hell-hole of self-pity, it dawned on me:
I am umpteen times more productive when my opportunity to do so is limited.
And I’ve also realised that no matter how much time I might think I have to write/create/perform, my time is always limited: by life.
Like my son’s waking time, the unknown date of my exit point from this earth is also unpredictable. And, as it turns out, can prove likewise to be extremely motivating.
I thrive under pressure. I produce under constraints. My limitations are in fact, my greatest allies.
Namely because they really are, in essence, the glue that is finally adhering the seat of my pants to the seat of my chair.
*This is the first post in a series on this topic. Please, calm down.
Late May and June seem to overflow with spring sports, end-of-school trips, rehearsals, recitals, and events. Like many of you, I drive from baseball practice to the dance studio and then back again, arriving at home far too late to get a decent dinner onto the table. The options are: plan carefully and cook dinner in that narrow window between work and the chauffeur routine, or get pizza (again).
It’s easy to be swallowed up by the 1,358 details and pressures of daily life. Last week I retrieved my college son during a two-day road trip to Ithaca, NY, just in time to come home and help my husband rip out an asphalt driveway. Major DIY landscaping projects loom, woven in between graduations, shopping for teacher gifts, T-ball tournaments, and driver’s ed. Normally, the added tasks and activity of this time of year would turn me into a raving bee-atch stress muffin. But this year things are a little different. I’m not a sea of tranquility — not by a longshot — but I’m not fantasizing about my escape to Mexico, either. What’s changed?
I’m running around, but my recent efforts to do less and reduce stress have actually begun to work. I’ve stopped taking on new client projects (the existing clients are more than sufficient) and I no longer need to work nights in order to stave off the panic attacks. I continue to refine my custom planner, which I still love. In the big-picture thinking about moving closer to what makes me happy, the answer seems to live in “just being.” Being, as opposed to doing.
A lot of different threads have come together for me during the past few months as my husband and I began to seriously study and practice Buddhism. Now that I’ve done more than just dip my toe in (I’m probably up to the ankle) I wonder why I didn’t embrace this practice a long time ago. I’d read many Buddhist-inspired books over the years, but I never before connected all the dots. Mediation and mindfulness speak directly to my long-time desire to live in the moment, appreciating my children — how fleeting this time is! — and embrace creativity as much as possible without all the self-flagellation when it doesn’t happen. Somehow Buddhism always seemed to me like something that other people — crunchy, poser Westerners — took to in order to check out of life. But I was wrong. It’s not about checking out, it’s about checking in. You don’t need to be Tibetan in order to practice Buddhism, and it’s already helping me become a better mother. (One of my favorite books in this category: Everyday Blessings: The Inner Work of Mindful Parenting by Myla and Jon Kabat-Zinn.)
I’m also running again, eating better, and protecting my 7+ hours of sleep a night. And I’m reading, almost every night. What am I NOT doing? Well, I’m not watching any TV, but I don’t miss it. I’m also not doing very much personal writing. But I’m trying not to obsess. Obsessing means losing out on the opportunity of RIGHT NOW. Remember our discussion of someday is today? Well, today brings whatever today brings. I’m down with that. Yes, there are many things that I’d like to make happen. I’d like to finish my novel. My nonfiction book. Heck, just my creative nonfiction essay. I’d like to ensure at least three posts to this blog every week. And I will do all of those things, in time. But I won’t do them at the expense of this beautiful moment, or my children. (It was quite affirming to look out the window just now and see a hummingbird skimming through the sprinkler in my front yard!)
Summer looms, and with it the perennial promise of slower days and a bit of relaxation. (When the weather is fair — for those of us in the Northern Hemisphere — it does seem easier to embrace the moment, doesn’t it? Of course, this is the very reason why my husband argues that we should move to a warmer part of the country ) How are YOU feeling during the end-of-year crunch? Are you able to enjoy the beauty outside? Have you developed strategies to stave off the stress? Are there certain items in the self-care category that you refuse to give up, come hell or high water (a nightly bath, journal writing, a weekly yoga class, a photo a day)? And if creativity gets put on hold for a while, do you trust in a cycle that will bring it back? Please share….
“Sometimes you will find you have a piece of equipment so vital that you will be totally lost without it — in other words, it is essential to your survival.” ~Ruby Redfort in Clarice Bean, Don’t Look Now by Lauren Child
We had about a 60-day lead time for our move to Germany at the beginning of this year. I really had no idea whether I would be able to get the items I would need in future for all the creative prowess that my daughter and I had developed while my husband was away, so just to be on the safe side, I decided to ship about 3 boxes forward of various crafting supplies. One of those boxes was a large moving box of yarn. AND I AM SO GLAD I DID. The average price of yarn in Germany runs about 6 euro for one skein (approximately $8 US). I would have had to depend on international shipping, which involves extended wait times and varying shipping rates.
We live in pretty tight quarters — one-bedroom basement with a large living/dining area — so I was a bit hesitant at first to claim some creative space. But the time apart during deployments has somehow given me the courage to say that I need a space and then requisition a corner. The craft/creativity aspect of my life is so incredibly valuable and necessary to my well-being as a person and as a mother who has to endure the long periods of time alone. Even though we are all together in Germany, my hubby still works 17 hour days 5 days a week and is on call the other two. Not to mention, we are here without a family network and we live away from the base where my husband is assigned, which hinders making new friendships.
Maybe you have been waiting to lay claim to a little space, a little creative time, and you find yourself frazzled and depleted because of it. Make this the day that you recognize that one thing you need to get back into the swing of your creative life. I truly believe we benefit from having a creative life emotionally and mentally, which ultimately permeates the other areas of our lives.