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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.

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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.

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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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Picture a house with broken kitchen cabinets and mouse droppings, cobwebs hanging from the dining room ceiling. Narrow footpaths between stacks of magazines and catalogs. You don’t see food wrappers or pet waste, but the once-beige carpet is stained and splotched, having passed its five-year expiration date four times by now. The aging, almost elderly, couple living here can’t put up a Christmas tree anymore. Guests, when they can’t be turned away, have nowhere to sit in the three-bedroom, three-level house with a separate sub-basement and garage.

This house isn’t from the reality TV show Hoarders. It belongs to my relatives.

I’m working on my PhD in English and American Literature, and as part of this activity I’ve found myself thinking a great deal about Time and The Body, particularly about memory and emotional attachments as embodied by things. I’ve also found myself staring with horrified fascination at the people on Hoarders, thinking there but for the grace…

We moved so many times when I was growing up—abrupt emergency moves, where many of my familiar treasures were lost or left behind—that I’ve become perhaps hyperaware of the paradoxical action a memento can have. It may serve as a root to a nourishing past or as an anchor that impedes your progress into the future. Sometimes both.

Looking at things through the lens of Time, I see the recent yard sale my family had as a sort of temporal recalibration: sure these footie pajamas remind you of a sweet then and you might have a place for this art print in the future, but do you have use or love for this item right now?

Circumstances that ripped from me objects I valued—such as a stint of homelessness when I was twelve—made me prone to processing my feelings and thoughts in writing and painting. They also made me appreciate the simplicity of a clean room, a clean slate, an empty apartment and all the possibilities it could contain. Though twelve-year-old me mourned the loss of my truly extraordinary dress-up box, I came to love being unencumbered too. It helped that I started embodying my attachments with notebooks. They’re much easier to curate than, say, a garage full of my grandparents’ furniture.

But the impulse to gather and keep is still there. As I study, I want to hoard up into my memory every interesting notion and promising line of inquiry I encounter. My physical space may be relatively clutter-free, but part of my labor now is distinguishing the point at which, for me, a rich and fertile collection of ideas becomes a dangerously top-heavy load. It causes me a twinge—sadness—to confront the truth that there are more paths I’d like to follow than there is time for me follow them.

The odor of death is what we want the hoard to disguise.

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