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.


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 over here. Whether you have kids or simply want to take care of the kid within, transitions can be booster 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.

Mary Anne Mohanraj doesn’t need a shout-out on my blog, but I have to give it. To me, Mary Anne is the epitome of the working creative writer. Engagement is her way of life.

I first met her at the orientation for new graduate students at the U of U lo, these many (almost 15) years ago. For me, getting through our doctoral program required an unsustainable level of focus (hence an extended leave of absence between coursework and exams). I felt a bit of envy and also the hope of new possibilities when I saw that she had a different way of doing our program, one that included weekend jaunts to California, time to make music and crafts, and a generally easier (but no less determined) vibe all around. I kept her in mind as I returned to prepare for my exams, making sure I made room in my week and my mind to take pleasure in the process.

We swapped stories in Fiction workshops and ideas over coffee & the occasional lemon bar at Cucina’s. The giant ficus she couldn’t take to Chicago still flourishes in my house. And I will always be grateful to her for lending me a stack of Harry Potter novels when I really, really needed to remember what I loved about Story.

She’s had an impact on my life, in other words, and I’m grateful for it.

Now this creative force for good has cancer and, like the writer she is, she’s writing about it here. I love that she’s turning her light on this experience–brave! brave! brave!–and sharing her insights with the world.

I encourage you to check it out.

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…to draw a heart. By the way, at about heart #3 my inner slacker started pointing out that I would probably run out of ideas by heart #5, and that would be pushing it. I’m glad the rest of my inner committee decided to vote down the slacker, because this is maybe my favorite heart of all, and it came in at #14 in the proceedings, inspired by my younger son:

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That’s not what my son looks like (most of the time, anyway). He just happens to like monsters. A lot. And here are some more–posted not as examples of fine art (NOT the point of an ART DARE), but in case a little variety inspires you to try one, five, fifteeen of your own… As ever, if you want to share your ART DARE with me, you can reach out via the Comments here or @jenngibbs on Twitter. Dare to have some fun with art!

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For the past several weeks, I’ve been keeping a promise to myself to make more room in my life for art of all kinds. Last weekend, I was blown away by the Tanner Dance Program‘s showcase, In A-Chord, with performances by dance groups ranging from itsy bitsy ballerinas to the dramatic ensemble work of The Tipping Point teen company. As a bonus, the music—mostly live, much of it original composition by members of Salt Lake Alternative Percussion (SLAP)—added to the dynamism of the show.

I’ve also been sketching, though after all the structured effort it took me to get through the last two years (studying for doctoral comps) and a wicked bout of carpal tunnel syndrome, I haven’t had any interest in pulling out my long-neglected paints and taking on any capital-p Projects. Instead, I’ve been having fun just sketching and scrawling with cheapie markers on whatever paper happens to be on hand. Sometimes all I can think to do is decorate the letters I use when writing the date in my journal.

Guess my delight in finding (during a Sunday bookstore browse) Jenny Doh’s Creative Lettering: Techniques and Tips from Top Artists. The diverse styles of the artists got me thinking about how I could experiment further with my own letter-doodles, and that got me thinking about how fun it is to make art-stuff just because. Because you want to see some color. Because you like seeing one line lead to another. Because your hands need to show you they sometimes know better than your brain. Because art for its own sake is part of a life worth living.

So, thanks to Tanner Dance and Jenny Doh, Invisible Sun is launching a series of ART DARES. I invite you to try them out and/or invent your own and share them through the Comments on this blog or via Twitter with #ARTDARE (and, pretty please, @jenngibbs so I’m sure to see it).

What’s an ART DARE? It’s an invitation to take however much time you wish to play around with art. The dare is to listen to & follow your inspiration without worrying about whether or how what you create measures up. For some of us this is a very, very hard thing to do. So, I double-dog dare you to try.

Part of the joy of recently completing my doctoral exams (and I passed! yea!) is having more time for fun service projects, like team-teaching a Third Grade class with my lovely husband, poet Dave Hawkins. On Tuesday, we got the kids to write haiku poems focusing on an image or mood they associated with a winter holiday. Dave did a great job introducing the writing project, and we each took on helping a different half of the class as they drafted their poems.


On Thursday, we returned to the class to help the kids turn their poems into teddy bear ornaments. It took me a short time (and several versions) to develop the design, then about two hours to hand-copy and cut enough bears and bows for the whole class. Dave helped me prep the kits, including stringing the yarn through the bears’ heads. It was well worth the effort: the kids had a great time with the activity and, at the end, were eager to stand up and read their poems to the class.

To save time by reducing the need for clean-up, we used glue dots and sticker-backed embellishments (gem stickers) for the eyes. To improve the longevity of the projects, I sprung for acid-free papers. It helped that I found the acid-free brown cardstock on clearance, but in any case, I know I’ll use the extra. That said, this project can easily be done less expensively with construction paper or even repurposed chipboard (i.e., a cereal box).


Materials & such to create 1 kit:

Black permanent marker


Light-colored, patterned paper

Gem stickers

Glitter paper (or any contrasting paper)

Glue dots (very helpful for classroom)

Hole punch

Plastic/paper bag, small




  1. Trace the outline of a bear onto cardstock. (Feel free to copy/adapt mine if you’d like.)
  2. With the black marker, outline the bear’s body and draw features such as the face, ears, and paws.
  3. Cut out the bear, including cuts under the bear’s front paws.
  4. Punch a hole at the top of the bear’s head and thread it with a loop of yarn. Set aside.
  5. To create the placard for the poem, cut a rectangle of decorative paper (large enough to hold a haiku, small enough to fit when tucked under the bear’s arms). Make enough so that kids can have a new one if they mess up. Set aside.
  6. Cut a bow out of glitter paper. (Hint: Make sure the center of the bow is a little larger than the size of your glue dots.) Set aside.
  7. Assemble the kits: one bear, one placard, one bow. Add sticker sheets if you have them. My gem stickers were on such small sheets, I couldn’t cut them up and I couldn’t afford a whole sheet per kit.

Xmas Bear Ornament


Materials and such:


Crayons/markers for coloring

Marker for writing (fine-tipped, dark-colored ink)

Scrap paper

Stickers (optional)


  1. Show a completed version of the project, pointing out that the bow can be on the bear’s head or at the bear’s neck, or anywhere else the kids want to put it or nowhere at all. It’s their bear.
  2. Get the kids to practice writing their poems with their markers on scrap paper as you pass out the kits. Assure the nervous ones that legibility, not perfection, is the aim. When the kids are ready, direct them to write their poems on the decorative paper.
  3. As the kids complete their poems, have them decorate their bears using crayons, markers, and stickers. I walked around delivering gem stickers for the bears’ eyes while Dave walked around doling out glue dots for the bows and to hold the placards in place once the bears were all done. Watch out for kids who want more than their share of stickers to put on their earlobes, unless you have plenty, in which case, who cares?
  4. Hold a rapid-fire holiday haiku reading party!

There’s a lot to hate about reality TV. Even if you avoid the shows that feature alliances and gossip, the declarations “Go big or go home” and “Failure is not an option” seem as central to the genre as the premise that these are real people doing real things. Setting aside the role of constructed events, failure is an option. Saying otherwise doesn’t guarantee success. And spouting clichés during breakaway spots doesn’t infuse a ritual challenge with drama—it just makes you sound like somewhere behind the scenes, a producer is saying, “You sound too wishy-washy. Can you say, ‘I’ll crush these losers’? No? How about ‘go big or go home’?”

Despite my dislike for reality TV in general, a couple of years ago, I got hooked on Food Network’s Chopped. At first, I was just looking to watch something relaxing that wouldn’t require a channel change each time a young kid walked through the livingroom. Then I noticed similarities between my life as a grad student and the chefs on the show.

In case you haven’t seen it, here’s the premise. Each episode begins with four chefs and “chops” one chef per course—appetizer, entrée, dessert—to get a winner. Every round is strictly timed and starts with the contestants opening a picnic basket of mismatched ingredients. Then they cook a dish that includes these Mystery Ingredients and whatever they need from a well-stocked pantry. The Mystery items can lead to some amazing innovations (gummy worms melted down and acidified with balsamic vinegar for a vinaigrette) and some horrible-sounding failures.

Like comprehensive exams, the challenges require the chefs to come prepared to improvise. From what I’ve gathered from watching more episodes of this show than I should admit, those who emerge as Chopped Champions generally arrive having internalized such a range of recipes, techniques, and ingredients (some very esoteric) that they can swiftly unite the random ingredients in pleasing arrangements. Some of the chefs say they prepare by practicing various recipes beforehand; others have traveled extensively or apprenticed themselves to many different master chefs. Whatever they do, they often need to treat at least one Mystery Ingredient as a substitute for a standard ingredient in a familiar recipe.

Another feature of the show that seems relevant as I prep for my qualifying exams is the critique the panel of judges deliver after tasting each chef’s food. The judges often disagree about the merits of the dishes, but they rally around three criteria which are more or less consistently understood:

Taste. It’s arbitrary and conventional, so you should try to understand your judges’ palettes. In one episode, a Chopped chef zealously stuck to her health-conscious cooking style. Had she watched the show before, she would likely have understood that the judges tend toward the “full fat, full flavor” principle. They axed her in round one. Making sure I’m aware of and able to account for my committee member’s perspectives while authoritatively representing my own might be challenging at points, but that’s part of the job, I think.

Creativity. The Chopped judges like being surprised as long as the thread of innovation isn’t pulled to snapping. If a chef calls a squid ink and corn chip dessert French Toast, then the judges will expect it to resemble traditional French Toast*. But if they serve just plain old French Toast, then they get a shrug. This may be more relevant to my field (Literature) than others, but the advice I’ve received from a committee member to “be interesting” as I demonstrate how I’ve engaged with these texts seems relevant here—but, I caution myself, this exam is not the occasion on which I want “interesting” to edge into “incomprehensibly eccentric.”

Presentation. Although no one ever seems to win Chopped because they led the pack in visually engaging plates, this element is sometimes used as a tie-breaker. It’s also used to weed out chefs who simply can’t get their food composed and delivered on time. There’s a lot of latitude given for the chef who manages to get all the required ingredients on the plate in perhaps a less-than-stellar way versus the chef with the pretty plate that lacks Mystery Basket ingredients. From this, I’m thinking—hoping—that even if I don’t answer every exam question as gracefully as I’d like, I’ll still pass to the next round as long as I show I understand my field of inquiry.

I notice other affinities between my position as a Humanities grad student and the chefs. One is that the majority of them appear to have chosen their field out of a genuine love for the alchemy of their work and the good things it makes possible. I keep returning my own love because–to pull another phrase from the Reality TV lexicon–that’s what matters at the end of the day.

Though I want that $10k too.

*Incidentally, far too many chefs on Chopped appear to think French Toast is an acceptable dessert item. It’s not. Even when you call it pain perdu.

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