You know this: to master a craft, you need to make time for it—about 10,000 hours, if you believe Malcolm Gladwell. For creatives, this generally means pulling time from making a living and/or making a life, resulting in a gross imbalance in the tricky triumvirate. Let’s call this forcing the bloom.

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Similar to how gardeners manipulate a bulb’s environment to trick it into flowering sooner than it naturally would, we humans love finding ways to fast-track progress so that we can achieve something before all we care about is seeing the grandkids one last time. This necessary imbalance is captured in cultural archetypes such as—

  • Starving Artist
  • Crazy Artist
  • Artist Subsisting on Top Ramen
  • Frazzled and Awkwardly Intense Artist
  • Starving, Crazy, Frazzled-and-Awkwardly Intense Artist Subsisting on Top Ramen

And so on.

But how long should you try to force your bloom?

Most of the artists I know who have stayed at it long enough to earn recognizable names have had resources to lessen the divide between making art, making a living, and making a life. They worked hard and made sacrifices, yes, but they also had the luck to get financial and emotional support. Or they’ve been happy enough to keep eating actual or metaphysical Top Ramen indefinitely.

We Americans love the idea of persistence—which is indeed a powerful talisman against the vicissitudes of the world. Yet it can kill you, body and soul, to keep banging your head against a wall. It’s good to have a dream, but you also need an income stream. And there’s no shame in being like most folks, who cannot live by accomplishment alone. Sooner or later, you might want off the pogo stick to try life weighted across multiple points of contact with the earth.

I say, good for you. And also, beware.

It’s no joke, trying to transition from the sprint-like intensity of forcing the bloom to a more natural cadence. For a lot of us, easier ain’t easy. It takes a whole different range of skills. Yet if we’re playing a long game, it’s necessary.

Years ago, a former creative writing student of mine invited me to coffee. Beth (let’s call her) was luminescent, with all the grace of a ballerina trained since toddlerhood, which is precisely what she was. Now a Junior, she’d broken up with the university’s rigorous Dance program so she could afford exotic delights like hanging out with former teachers for no good reason and sampling the occasional pastry.

Contentment, however, was elusive. “I keep feeling like I’m supposed to be practicing,” she said.

I murmured words along the lines of what I’m writing in this post, even though at the time I myself was staggering through my first steps outside a creative crucible. A new mom, I was finding my baby demanded rhythms of care that were so foreign to how I operated, it took everything I had to function. There was nothing left over for art or study. Guess it was good I’d taken a leave of absence from my doctoral program to make a living. I spent much of my time with my son in a dual state: puttering along at his excruciatingly dull pace jolted by fleeting bursts of joy while simultaneously seething in terror that I’d die before attaining the state of creative transcendence I burned for. Work was the same: occasionally interesting, desperately needed, but always haunted by the sensation that I was supposed to be doing something else.

(This was, by the way, when I started thinking of making art, making a living, and making a life as the tricky triumvirate.)

After what I’m sure is more than 10,000 hours of practice, I’ve mastered how to be  mom, breadwinner, and creative. One of my biggest secrets is a hearty capacity for lowering my standards. A story published in The Gettysburg Review? Imma gonna celebrate that as if the whole collection’s in print. My teenager thanks me for insisting on family dinners? Who needs a clean floor?

You get the idea.

I still recognize the value of forcing a bloom from time to time, but if I could go back, I’d advise myself to view things a little more holistically, to rotate through projects and priorities. It’s nice to have a flower in winter and all, but it’s even nicer to have a whole life you want to inhabit.

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Ponder: your body as a clock.

Human bodies are splendid, intricate clocks with symphonies of hormones and neurotransmitters instead of gears, and a suprachiasmatic nucleus (SCN) in our heads that syncs them all up to the natural cycle of day and night.

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Ideally, they work so magnificently that we don’t have to think about them. We’re either lucky enough to have bodies that take all kinds of crazy without complaint, or we follow the old wisdom: sleeping, eating, moving at intervals and durations regular enough for our inner processes to co-operate with one another. Our dopamine rises as the sun climbs the sky, our stomachs produce digestive juices in anticipation of the breakfast they have been trained to expect, wavelets of melatonin lull us into slumber at night—if we’re smart enough not to resist them with late night television and Facebook.

But we Americans are greedy. So we do resist, not just the gentle promptings of our natural cycles, but the constraints these promptings represent. Resist isn’t really a violent enough word for what we do. We say we hack life in an attempt to eke more out of our finite time and energy. In many cases, this means we’re hacking our bodies. Writers and athletes with day jobs are often advised to “simply get up an hour earlier” to fit in a session before other responsibilities press in. This works great for some people, but for others, it means cutting sleep short in a way that erodes the body’s ability to support labor of any kind.

Chasing the buzz of achieving our ambitions, whatever they are, can make us prone to finding more and better ways to circumvent our bodies’ default settings. In another post, I’ll explore this in more depth—and, to be clear, I’m not against it. But we can break our body clocks without knowing it, making it harder to do the things we thought we wanted to do in the first place.

I think here of a guy I knew in college who, having got clean of coke and assorted other drugs, crushed No Doze to stay up all night talking with a group of companions who were, to my mind, increasingly dull as the hours wore themselves out. When I saw him leaning over the tabletop to snort a line, I realized it was time I listened to my own exhaustion. (Before I feel too superior about my own life choices, let’s note that a cup of joe steams delectably by my keyboard as I type. Living in Utah, I have cause to remember that my preferred stimulant is someone else’s off-label use of No Doze.)

The danger of ignoring our body clocks is not always evident. Eventually, the resilience to abuse burns away. Bodies present complex arrangements of symptoms we may never recognize as having roots in our temporalities: aches, poor digestion, skin conditions, extra pounds, cravings, chronic irritation or malaise… I’m not saying all these conditions always relate to a smashed body clock. But if you’re a relatively neurotypical person with health issues, including garden-variety anxiety, OCD, or depression, then it’s worth taking a look at your chronotype—your body’s built-in preferences for the timing and duration of physical processes.

Anyone attempting to balance the tricky triumvirate–making art, making a living, and making a life–will benefit from reducing the heavy toll health issues take on the capacity to be productive and enjoy a good quality of life.

For a practical guide to chronotypes and the importance of understanding your body as a clock, check out The Power of When by Michael Brues. In addition to the book, he has a free web quiz you can take to get to learn your chronotype as defined by his categories: Bear, Wolf, Dolphin, and Lion. Regardless of how you feel about such labels, the insights are consistent with what others working in the field of chronobiology are saying about the interrelationship of body, time, and well-being.

P.S. According to his quiz, I’m a Bear, and though not every observation he offers fits me exactly, I have found working some of his recommendations into my lifestyle has helped me improve my ability to work with, not against, my body clock. Especially helpful: more light, not more coffee, first thing in the morning helps me feel alert and ready for the day.

TOOTHBRUSH

Back when Dave was my boyfriend, we drove a million miles in his Jeep Wrangler to visit his family in Virginia. After rattling and jouncing us like a mechanical bull for ten hours, that Jeep died a sudden and complete death two miles from our destination. First thing the next day, his dad took him to a car place which is how I was stranded with his mother and umpteen thousand teenaged siblings.

It would have been fine, really, like I’d told Dave when he left, except I discovered why I couldn’t find my toothbrush the night before: I hadn’t packed one. More than a temporary hygiene challenge: lacking dental insurance, I lived in terror of plaque. So it was an economic and mental health issue too.

A store was just a couple miles off and, carless for several of my adult years, I still considered walking to be viable transportation. But when I told Dave’s mom, Teresita, what I planned to do, she was all no, no—there aren’t sidewalks, the road is busy, it’s not a good walk. I’ll drive you.

I thanked her and, somehow under the impression we’d be leaving any minute, grabbed money and shoes from the guest room and reported to the living room with near-military hustle. Good to go, I perched on the couch and waited for my host.

And waited.

You should know that at this time in my life, simmering beneath every single interaction, every single thing I thought and did, was a consuming urgency intensified by grad school. For reasons outside of my control, I was a late bloomer with the sense that I’d die without doing whatever I was supposed to do in this life unless I rode hell for leather whenever possible. I couldn’t control how fast or slow ideas happened, but I could, by God, minimize or eliminate all other elements of life so I could sit in front of my computer pondering the blinking cursor until a story or essay emerged. I was like a house with a fire inside its walls, one that looked fairly ordinary on the outside but exhaled smoke from its outlets.

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So I was on that couch pretending to be patient because, hey, I barely knew these folks. But inside, I was writhing because how could I do anything productive when I was told we’d be leaving “soon”?

Yet whenever Teresita drifted by, car keys jingling, a different teen would appear from God knows where and—

Teen: Hey, Momi, you going out?

Teresita: Yes!

Teen: Can you take me to ___________ (location many miles in the opposite direction from the store)?

Teresita: Of course!

(Teen disappears and I discover later it’s to take a shower. Being a teen, it’s a long shower followed by, no doubt, much with the blow dryer and outfit selection.)

At no point does Teresita say to the assorted youth, “We’re leaving in an hour, go get ready or stay home.” Which is the sort of thing my parents would have said. Instead, each new addition to the errand-running party was daisy-chained until “soon” was a dwindling speck on the horizon.

Three hours after my initial request, we finally climb into Tere’s minivan and travel from place to place in a giant clump. I got that toothbrush, yes, and also learned which of my future sisters-in-law liked sparkle nail polish, that my future brother-in-law did yoga, why Pop-Eye’s chicken was a big deal, and that no one but me thought it weird to spend prime work hours driving in circles around Dale City, Virginia.

As an adult and parent, I now recognize that Dave’s mom may have had reasons for wanting all of us under her watchful eye. But at the time I was bewildered. As an adult, even though a guest, wasn’t I supposed to get some say in how I spent my time? How did signing up for a quick run for a toothbrush translate into being trapped in the back seat of a minivan for hours of overwhelming human contact?

TIME CLASH

When I was a kid, my family of origin occasionally went to the mall with a clock at its center. Memory tells me this clock looked like a giant Cogsworth from Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, but kind of sinister and sans song-and-dance skills. Parent-people would declare a specific time at which each of us would report back to the clock. Then as if playing Kick the Can, we’d scatter, each taking a different wing.

As a loose federation of introverts, my family considered shopping, like everything else,  a solo act. Possibly a duet. Never an ensemble.

Even now, our gatherings tend to be bordered by Newtonian time. That way you can say, “Fascinated as I am by your theory of aliens being demons, it’s eight.” This means the whole thing is out of your hands: even if you wanted to hear another crackpot idea, by objective measure, it’s time to leave. Thus, the introvert may enjoy social gatherings secure that they will end.

(To this day I do not know how to choose a box of cereal if someone is talking at me—a real problem when stopping for groceries with a chatty kid.)

Stupidly assuming that my limited experience was a reliable teacher for how the world ought to be, I was stymied by the Jacinto-Hawkins method of toothbrush shopping. Decades later, I now can perceive something of the intricate webs of beliefs, values, and assumptions that inform a group’s time culture. The clash between my experience with Teresita and my assumptions about how time should be shaped and managed—even my assumption that time is something that ought to be shaped and managed—is an example of a culture clash garnished by a temporality twist. A time clash.

TIME & CULTURE

As I’ve mentioned in this blog before, temporality is the state of being in and relating to time. It’s your time personality. And like other aspects of our identities, our temporalities are a confluence of factors, one of which is culture.

In this example, the dominant temporality in Dave’s family is what social psychologist Robert Levine calls “event time.” As Levine points out, cultures that place a higher value on the collective than the individual are more likely to run on event time than cultures that don’t. In Dave’s family, relationships, familia, get top billing in the list of shared values.

While my clan appreciates family, independence and autonomy usually outrank it. And these values aren’t just appealing to the introverts among us: they’re helpful for art-making. If you’re constantly on call for family whenever you aren’t doing paid work, how on earth can you get your projects done?

Not surprisingly, I have a lot of clock-loving German and Swiss ancestors perched in my family tree.

It’s also been pointed out that cultures in areas that are relatively unstable, whether politically, geologically, or otherwise, tend to rely on event time. Makes sense: you’ll just drive yourself nuts expecting a bus to run according to a printed timetable when monsoons flood the roads. That’s important to remember. Even here in the U.S., many people live in conditions that make time-related behaviors such as punctuality more difficult to achieve. Students and coworkers without reliable housing and food security may have to work around the schedule of a benefactor to get a shower or a meal. Parents of infants and children with special needs often need to show up late or cancel.

I think again of Teresita wrangling all those teenagers with a whole new appreciation. Seriously, I find the curveballs thrown by just two kids schedule-busting enough. If I had a whole pack of them, I might abandon the clock altogether. Especially since I have come to question the socio-political implications of marching to the minutes; i.e., Do I really want my kids to be so clock-ruled they’re unable to ride the flow of organic connection?

No, I want them to learn how to float on the twin pontoons of event time and clock time. I want them to recognize the context and lean one way or the other as needed. To be productive and connected—the temporal secret, Levine says, to The Good Life.

Footnote

Of course, a family is a multifarious, dynamic entity. My own has changed a great deal in its structure and operation since I was in grad school and even more since the time I internalized the temporality described above. For example, my mother has been known to shop with her daughter-in-law once a year, at Christmastime, when the malls blare good will music at tinseled trees and felt-dressed elves with nary a Cogsworth in sight.

The restaurant isn’t busy, yet it takes forever before a young woman sashays over with menus. It bugs. I waited tables for years. Certain tempos are expected. And while my guy and I are here for a break from the week’s push and shove, I have budgeted one hour fifteen minutes for the pleasure, and waiting isn’t how I want to spend it.

Seated (at last), Dave looks around. Nods. “I like this place.” I’m reserving judgment. We choose the same dish, though he’ll ask for maximum spiciness. He updates me on a work thing. Asks how my temporalities project is coming along. It’s been several minutes and the server–the same person who showed us to the table–appears oblivious to our closed menus and my increasingly pointed looks whenever she saunters by.

But I am here to talk with Dave, so I tell him I’m not sure yet what, precisely, I’m looking for. All I know is that I need the contact with other, living minds to find my real questions about what I’ve come to see as a crucial diversity issue that’s all too often overlooked. Our ways of being in and thinking about time—our temporalities—thrum under the surface of our interactions. Often rumble. Sometimes erupt.

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“Working on the questions still,” I say. “For instance, some people get this one right away, others don’t: ‘When you think of a year, does a particular image come to mind?’” (For as long as I can remember, I see a year as a tilted plate: June and July at top, December and January at bottom. Different colors along the rim.)

Dave mulls before saying his image of time is oceanic. “When I think about time I feel like Pip, floating alone in the neverending blue.”

This being a date, I don’t suggest this is why he forgets to put his events on our family calendar. The thought crosses my mind that this may be why he also doesn’t care that the server still hasn’t taken our order. Meanwhile, my inner clock is getting noisier by the minute. I left my desk thirty minutes ago. At what point should I propose we leave and grab a quick sandwich somewhere else?

I drag my mind back to our conversation. As I said, some people don’t have a ready image for a year. Case in point: I ask and get a reference to Moby Dick and a shoreless ocean for all of time. I try again, asking Dave about his early years in Brownsville, Texas. Did different times of year affect how they dressed, what they ate, what they did?

The server appears at our table. We ask for iced tea and noodles. She vanishes.

I repeat my question. “Not at all,” Dave says, explaining that the weather was fairly steady. There were holidays like the Day of the Dead, but no big changes. Now, living in Utah, he feels there’s summer and not-summer, with blurs of transition between. Profoundly different from the template in my head, where each season is as sharply delineated as a kindergarten teacher’s flashcards: Flower. Sun. Orange maple leaf. Snowflake.

As we talk, an understanding forms. Dave prefers time as a sublime, indivisible force, not a resource to be harvested. And while I have my moments in which I wallow in wide-open, unbounded, nonproductive hours (usually with a trashy novel), the only way I know to execute my job for money and be able to pursue independent scholarship/art-making and be a wife-mom-human is to parcel and protect my time. To me, my work log, planner, Pomodoro timer, and written goals are Queequeg’s coffin. Something to cling to so I don’t drown in eternal possibility. But Dave—I realize his irritating and persistent disregard for time management has deep, philosophical root. And this root may be necessary to the kind of person he is. We might both lose something invaluable were he to lean closer to Ben Franklin than, say, Rumi, who tells us that “Lovers are patient and know the moon needs time to become full” and “This moment is all there is.”

Is this why he’s more patient than I am? Why he’s here, now, enjoying the ambiance and, lucky me, dilating with the conversation while I’m calculating how late into the night I’ll have to work to balance this ever-expanding lunchtime?

Forty-seven minutes since I left my desk. Twenty-eight remaining until I meant to be back at it. Where is our iced tea?

At one restaurant I worked in, a manager tested us with a stopwatch on how fast we responded to each round in a service. Draconian, yes, but the discipline helped me earn more money—money I badly needed in those precarious times. Has anyone told our server to deliver drinks promptly so diners don’t stare at the wood grain of the table, contemplating their dwindling life force amid the swells of time?

Eventually she appears, not with drinks, but with our food. Mine has an ingredient I can’t eat which wasn’t mentioned on the menu. My plate drifts back to the kitchen no faster than it arrived. I encourage Dave to go ahead and eat. At this point–fifty minutes in, twenty-five remaining–I’m more amused than annoyed. Clearly, the universe is not interested in my urgencies.

I surrender. So I’ll be working until 10 tonight. Whatever.

“This is good,” Dave says, plunging his fork into his meal. “I like this place.”

Our server never brings the tea, but I see she’s sitting down to a plate of noodles at a back table. As Dave makes happy noises over his food, I wonder about the resources and challenges the server has brought to our encounter. Does she have a screaming hangover? Did she pull an all-nighter for a major test? What is her notion of a year, a month, a day? How does she suppose time is or should be shaped–its rhythms and pace experienced? No doubt we have vastly different notions of how the instants are passing, should pass, on this day, in this place.

Watching Dave savor his meal, gratitude opens in me. How lucky to be here with one I love thinking about one of my favorite topics. How lucky he isn’t like me. I mean, I know there’s a cost for having a clock in my head. This noisy, noisy clock that ticks and clangs to warn me that time is always running out. My stark, perpetual terror that my strength will fail before a ship arrives to pull me from these waves.

I flag down another server and ask for tea. Wait with something almost like patience.

A million years ago, when I was learning to drive, my boyfriend (a roadway veteran compared to me) said, “The most important thing to remember is that anyone driving slower than you is an idiot. Anyone driving faster is a maniac.”

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His joke aside, the more I investigate how beliefs, thoughts, and values about time shape people’s behavior, I see he was onto a bit of wisdom that applies to much more than roadway shenanigans. Like King Henry I defining an ell by the length of his arm or ancient Greeks measuring goods with their fingers, we use the self as the reference point for assessing people’s relationships to and in time–their temporalities.

This tendency is natural. After all, who doesn’t view the universe through the lens of the self? It isn’t necessarily a problem. The problem is that when we fail to consider the subjective and often arbitrary qualities of our standards, we risk degrading the quality of our relationships and the fabric of our communities.

For example, take timing and pace—two elements of temporality. At nine on Saturday morning, Lori runs the vacuum as she cleans the apartment she shares with Kim. If she repeatedly bumps into Kim’s door, then so what? After all, why is she the only one (again!) to do the weekly housekeeping?

Meanwhile, Kim, who waits tables until the small hours, holds a pillow over her ears. She’d happily do her share of the cleaning at a decent hour like noon, but by then, Lori will have done everything and huffed off to the gym. Lori thinks Kim is lazy, careless—an idiot. Kim thinks Lori is pushy, inconsiderate—a maniac. They part ways when their lease is up and don’t keep in touch, forgetting the friendship that brought them together in the first place.

Temporalities clash at work too. Lori’s coworker Al putters along at the copier, taking his sweet time when she needs to get in, make ten copies, and hustle off to a meeting. He’s either oblivious to her need or wondering why her lack of planning should inconvenience him. Lori’s in a hurry because her boss has dropped yet another last-minute assignment on her, apparently without any thought for how it may impact Lori’s other responsibilities.

At the restaurant, Kim is mediating between diners who wanted their lunch yesterday and a chef who takes the Slow Food Movement to a whole new dimension. It doesn’t seem to matter that the menu clearly states the restaurant’s philosophy or is called La vie Française. People still expect exquisitely crafted food to appear in about the time it takes for a box of fries to show up in a drive-through window, and they take it out on Lori when it doesn’t.

We may brush off these relatively superficial clashes the way we fume over a driver who cuts us off in traffic then forget about it. Yet relying only on our own sense of appropriate pace and timing can degrade our relationships on even deeper levels.

Consider another all-too-common scenario: let’s say Al is arriving at his parents’ house for a holiday gathering. Nearly two decades ago, he identified a close family friend as having molested him. As he waits on the doorstep with a bowl of mashed potatoes in his hands, he’s feeling anxious: his parents, though initially sympathetic about his victimization and supportive of his healing, now seem callous toward his continued struggles as a survivor. Inevitably, his dad will snark about how Al ought to be further along in his career, his mom will whine about wanting grandchildren before she’s too old to play with them, and Al will explode with the fury of a thousand suns. Everyone will be miserable.

(On the other side of the door, Mom and Dad exchange hopeful looks. Will this finally be the peaceful holiday meal they’ve been praying for? Will Al have finally moved on enough not to snap over every innocent comment?)

Who gets to decide on the right pace and timing for anything? Al’s parents might be forgiven for wanting their son to release himself from the grip of the past. Let’s even say they themselves experienced childhood abuse and have perhaps a better excuse than most to consider themselves experts in getting on with life. But their conviction that Al is dragging things out isn’t helping anyone in this family unit have the joyful reunion they crave. In fact, Al leaves these visits feeling lacerated all over again by what he perceives is the same lack of care that made him vulnerable to his abuser in the first place. For him, the injury is still very much in the present.

As I write this, countless people have just faced off with relatives across countless holiday dinner tables. You may have been at one of the (doubtless) many where the conversation soured when someone brought up a highly charged topic—the legacy of slavery, immigration reform, what happens after death, who should pay for what infrastructure and social services… How many of these conflicts had, at or near their core, unexamined assumptions over the acceptable speed and timing of social change?

For me, time is at the center of the tricky triumvirate of making art, making a living, and making a life. If you’ve noticed that I haven’t posted in a while, that’s because  I’ve had my nose in some books and been out talking to people about time (when I haven’t been working for a living and doing the family thing). I’m building on my doctoral work, exploring how individual and collective time cultures shape and are shaped by our ideas, our bodies, and our social commitments.

What I’m observing is that too many people are caught up in a sort of road rage, amped up on a self-righteousness that seems to justify any amount of ugliness toward others—and that this toxic attitude seems to derive from asserting oneself as a faultless pace-setter. Anyone who yearns to spring ahead is a maniac, anyone who falls behind an idiot.

I think we can do better.

Fresh on the heels of listening to the recording of “You’re Already Good Enough: How Embracing Imperfection and Cultivating Confidence Frees You to Influence and Lead,” I’m putting together an expressive arts project for homeless youth. As I work, I’m thinking, “That’s what these kids need to hear: ‘You’re already good enough!’” Then I pause. While I suspect this is, in fact true, is there anyone who can’t benefit from a bit of reassurance?

I know I need it. Lots. Most of the time, I have some in stock. I just reach into my mental pantry and grab a jar of Hey, I got this. Or a whiff of the idea does the trick. I glimpse evidence that some part of my life is OK and get the needed boost. This is why I love having a clean kitchen and a stocked fridge. It reminds me that whatever chaos is going on, I’ve got decent prospects for survival.

[photo of B Morton]

Dr. Beatrice Morton, mother of three grown children, earned her doctorate at the University of Utah in 1968, when she was in her Fifties.

As a creative writing teacher, a lot of what I do is help people manage fear. Putting your ideas out there for the world to see (or ignore) can be terrifying. I coach my students to reduce the unknown by reading and research. To outwit their inner critics by breaking projects into bite-sized chunks. To nurture their momentum by celebrating small victories like hitting a word count or completing a session. I remind them as often as necessary that if they do these things consistently over time, their work inevitably improves. As a writer, this mental practice runs alongside and through my writing practice. I rely on it daily, whether I’m working on a short story, a grant proposal, or (ahem) a blog post.

Yet there are times when I’m too freaked out by the enormity of the gap between me and a goal to apply my own advice, like when I started studying for my doctoral qualifying exams. The written component I was fine with. I’m a writer. I have a decent idea of how to make written things happen. The three-hour oral component that I had to pass first was another story. Have you ever seen that Food Network show, Chopped? In my department, oral exams consist of committee members taking turns giving you questions, each of which is like a basket of mystery ingredients that may not go together. Your job is to whip up a cohesive, tasty answer that includes the basket items while your judges look on and, well, judge. I don’t know anyone who doesn’t feel at least some passing discomfort at the prospect of undergoing this rite of passage, but I couldn’t have been more nervous if you’d told me I’d be giving birth to twin Buicks.

My husband, a lovely and encouraging partner, tried to convince me I was already good enough to pass my oral exams. He meant that I already had whatever skills and knowledge the occasion required. I told him (strenuously) that I wasn’t good enough. In a sense, I was right: I was still preparing when we had this exchange. I wasn’t merely nervous: I really wasn’t ready. But in the sense meant by the panelists in the “You’re Already Good Enough” event, I was: the need to build my oral exam skills and master some content wasn’t a reflection of my worth past, present, or future. It was just a stretch along a path I could choose to keep climbing if I wanted to reach a particular destination.

This time in my academic life required me to truly, deeply understand, accept and embrace the distinction. I was good enough—regardless of the outcome of the test. I don’t mean this acceptance was perfect or complete. On a good day, I was maybe 84% sure my worth as a human had little to do with that exam, with the remainder varying between suspecting that it did and ignoring the question altogether. But it was sufficient to let me see how even my mental outlook could be just one more subject in which I could, with knowledge and effort, improve.

This took extra, ongoing labor, which included adapting some exercises from a sports psychology book to my academic goals, then doing them almost daily. This was not my idea of fun. My idea of fun is watching Chopped with my nine-year-old, who makes hilarious and astute observations. But I thought of this like doing reps at the gym so I can run farther without hurting myself. While I wasn’t transformed from a neurotic basket case into a serene professional academic, I was settled enough to do my job: read, review, remember (repeat daily for numerous weeks). On the fateful day, I performed with at least enough poise and wit to convince my committee to let me through to the next challenge.

Would I love to have had an effortless self-assurance in facing those exams? You betcha. But my confidence for that particular challenge had to be cooked from scratch. The goal was important enough to me to invest that effort and not to worry that the cool kids in my department didn’t have to go to such lengths. It was worth accepting the radical notion that imperfect me was perfectly good enough to take the next step I needed toward my academic dream.

Making art while making a living & a life is, I’ve found, trickier at some times than others. Whatever parts of me need to come together to make writing a good story possible require an ever-changing blend of opposing forces: generosity, fury, patience, diligence, sloth–you name it. Becoming an artist, for me, is as much a matter of mastering myself as it is understanding craft and delving into my material.

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Sometimes you do need to give creativity a big, clear space to roam. This is Centennial Valley, MT.

I’ve been working on a new group of short stories for a collection that I’ll submit as my dissertation at the University of Utah. One of the new stories, “The Whiskeyjack,” recently won first place in the Utah Arts & Museums Original Writing Competition’s Short Story category. (Thank you, Jon Billman, for selecting my entry!) While that story was a long time coming from the initial idea to the execution, it was mainly built during the one-hour personal writing sessions I engage in before my day job.

Trial and much, much error has shown me that one hour of the cream of the day–for me, the very top layer of coffee-enhanced optimism and quiet alertness I experience before I have to talk to people–usually trumps multiple hours at any other time of the day when it comes to creative (imaginative, expressive) writing. I get more done and the quality of the work seems better.

Yet I have to be honest with you: limiting personal writing time to only one hour a day ever would be like attempting yoga in a phone booth (remember those?). I also take the occasional weekend day when instead of haranguing my kids to clean their rooms or battling the beast-mountain of laundry that perpetually hulks on a table downstairs, I put on headphones and slog away while my lovely husband takes the kids to a movie or something.

And then once in beautiful while, I get away for a couple of days and see what happens when I make a story my whole business for good long string of hours. A couple of years ago, my friend Heidi (amazing poet!) and I took off to the desert for two days. We holed up in a bed and breakfast, wrote and hiked, and otherwise were away from our kids and jobs and everything else.

One of the poems Heidi worked on during our retreat has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize! You can watch her talk about form and her book, Self Portrait as Betty Page here.

Last summer, instead of writing a blog post, I was part of an artist’s colony. With 15 other writers and visual artists, I spent nine days (!) in Centennial Valley, Montana, where cell service and Internet is just rumor and bear spray is something people actually carry. I worked on “The Whiskeyjack” there, and two other stories I know will be in the collection, plus something that may or may not become an essay. By the end of my stay I was really, really ready to go home–see my guys, drink my preferred brand of coffee, NOT THINK ABOUT MY WRITING ALL DAY–but having all that time uninterrupted by ordinary responsibilities was essential for allowing me to sense the shape and weight and possibilities of the work. To see where I needed to get braver, go deeper.

Since returning, I’ve been galloping along with the mostly happy busy-ness of making a living and making a life. Making art is back in its one-hour square on my schedule, with a notable exception: after learning about the prize, I found myself facing the half-built lump of a new story and thinking, I’ll never write another good story again, will I?

Never mind that the point of writing, for me, isn’t to win prizes or even to publish. That’s a desired outcome, but it’s not why I do it. Never mind that I have seen the power of brute force in accomplishing goals: ass in chair for x hours = more & better writing. I found I just couldn’t stomach the thought of bellying up to the computer first thing in the morning. What was happening to me?

My calendar held the clue. Work had heated up. I had two business trips and several high stakes deadlines packed into about three weeks. Maybe the prize had nothing to do with my reluctance to write. Maybe the pendulum was swinging and my inner sea needed to roll in the direction of making a living for a little while.

So I took a break from stories. I drank my coffee while watching TV and planning my work projects instead of facing off with another story. I told myself I’d take a month off from morning writing, but after about thirteen days, I found myself itching to get back to this (stupid, truculent) story I’ve been working on (struggling with). So here I am again, coffee beside me, file open, the scene I wrote yesterday looking not too bad.

Not too bad at all.

Welcome to summer, everyone! We’re in transition from the school year into the not-school-year. Whether you have kids or simply want to take care of the kid within, transitions can be jet-pack rocket boots for creativity. Make the most of the season by fostering a (more) creative home:

  • Secret 1 – Set aside regular Art Time. Make this time about practicing whatever art form interests you (change it up each time, if you want). The point is to simply play without worrying about how whatever you’re doing turns out. Think of wild horses galloping across the Great Plains. If you want your creativity to flourish, you can’t keep it yoked to a plough every minute of every day. Let it have some pointless fun.
  • Secret 2 – During Art Time, don’t worry about coloring in the lines. If the point is to boost creativity, then separate out this wild-horse-galloping time from trying to Get It Right time. I’m all for laboring to achieve a better performance (a sharper essay, a richer portrait, a more satisfying musical composition), but that kind of work is like putting the horse through dressage which, again, is NOT the point here.
  • Secret 3 – Make a mess. It may drive you crazy to see paint smeared on the table or find crumbs of air-dry clay in your socks. I know my naturally tidy husband has had to learn to tolerate these things when the kids and I are jamming in the dining room. But making a mess–and refraining from grousing to yourself or others about it–sends the message it’s OK to focus on play during Art Time. Of course, take care of any safety issues that might arise, and make sure everyone shares in the clean-up at the end of the session.
  • Secret 4 – Make room. Our home is more of a maker space than a display case. If you want to encourage creation, make space in your home not only for the acts of creation (we paint at the dining room table) but also for the products themselves. I’ve long given up on the notion of having a certain console to display fancy pottery produced by professional artisans. Instead, it houses Play-Doh dinosaurs and duct-tape constructions I can’t identify without guidance. And I love it.
  • Secret 5 – Stock the supplies you need (but don’t go nuts). Some folks will spend a ton on shoes or restaurants or their cars or whatever, but balk at laying out $5 for markers. Don’t be like that. If you genuinely don’t have $5 for markers (I’ve been there), you can do a whole lot with a ballpoint pen from the bank and paper grocery sacks. On the other hand, I’ve also known people who buy more scrapbook paper / paint / stickers / fabric / what-have-you than needed because the act of acquiring the objects is so fun. (I’ve been there, too.) This can easily lead to overstuffed closets and the feeling that you’re not Producing Enough (to justify all that expense), which can limit your creative freedom in another way.

These are, of course, only a few possible ideas. If you have a secret for fostering creativity in your home, please share!

One of the (many) perks of having finished my doctoral exams is that I have time to teach creative writing classes for the University of Utah’s Lifelong Learning program again. First up is Creative Nonfiction I, a six-week adventure starting Tuesday, May 19.

For me, the students are the best part of these courses. So many interests and backgrounds, levels of experience and reasons for writing, yet all choosing to spend their free time doing something just to connect with their inner and outer worlds–it feeds my own enthusiasm for writing.

Want to meet a few of my former students?

Here’s the retired gentleman who wanted to capture the hilarious memories of his childhood in a family of immigrant miners. (His rowdy version of Ogden will forever live in my memory.)

Here’s an engineer and an office manager looking to explore their worlds from a different angle. And the veteran who took us all to the desert in in his funny, poignant stories.

The college grad wanting to build her portfolio before applying to an M.F.A. program. And the poet who needed a break from her usual form.

Here’s the guy who just wanted to try something new and liked how the class fit his schedule. And the woman opening a new page in her life who wanted to reflect on where she’s been and where she wants to go.

Each one brings something to the experience. Through the workshop process, cross-pollination happens. And writing blooms.

Do you know what’s happening to public colleges and universities in the U.S.? Are you noticing this thing where funding is being cut to programs many humans need to be humans and not simply human-like wafers to be chewed by the economic machine? To be more than wage-slaves too exhausted to question whether a bigger flatscreen really is a fair exchange for their souls?

Nicole Walker is noticing. And she’s writing about it here in a series of open letters to the governor of her state. In one of them, she describes a former student who needed her state’s university system to become the Contributing Member of Society she is now. I can relate. Without the State University of New York and federal financial aid, I don’t know where I’d be, but I’m pretty sure I’d be such a miserable pain in the ass, I’d be making everyone around me miserable too.

Because when you have intelligence and talent–and I think people do, generally, have these qualities–and it goes undeveloped, it turns rank, toxic, dangerous. But when, as a society, we stay committed to making sure even poor kids like I was get the guidance and support needed to develop raw appetite for artistic expression into career-and-life-building skills, we all benefit.

Please make sure your political representatives understand that state colleges and universities need to be protected and respected as intellectual and creative incubators, not stripped down to serve only as vocational training programs run by business, for business.

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