Monday, March 14, 2011

Embrace negative feelings? Yeah, right... Part 2

My last post introduced some common negative thoughts that can stymie writers, creative artists, and anyone undergoing an arduous healing journey. Here I revisit them to show why we should embrace them.

This is too hard.
Yes, hallelujah! This is why great thinkers are so drawn to creative endeavor. Like life, it challenges us in almost every way possible: our ability to juggle detail while tracking the large picture in our minds; the ability to research fact at the same time we are willing to surrender to imagination; the ability to construct surface tension while adding emotional, philosophical and psychological underpinnings; the willingness to invite inspiration and then thank it and let it go when the time comes so that the work can evolve on its own path. And doing all of this while employing both natural and learned aspects of craft that from the beginning of time have kept the listener/viewer/reader tipped forward in her chair in breathless delight. Creative endeavor taps everything we are. The artist creates something that before didn't exist—and couldn't exist, without her perspective. If it were easy, it wouldn't be half as seductive.

I thought I'd be farther along by now. That yearning for more, that need to reach ever higher, is what makes it possible to embark on such a trying ordeal without the guarantee of any reward. Yearn away!

I'm not as good as I first thought I was. Your accomplishments will never be great enough and your work will never be good enough—this is the nature of the creative process that one best stop fighting, and learn to accept. Be glad for the irritation of your self-criticism, for it's that left-brained, self-critical element that allows us to improve.

The economy will not support what I'm trying to do. Creative endeavor is front-loaded to the extreme, even in better market conditions. The world has not conspired against you, all artists are in the same boat. Our fear reminds us how important it is to keep trying. If we give up, the arts will continue to atrophy, and society will suffer a great loss. Let the unfavorable odds incite us to try harder.

My uncle gave up on his novel because "the back of his bedroom door was plastered with rejection slips," according to my aunt. His DOOR! What would one door hold—ten, twelve pages? Some of us could plaster the exterior of our houses!

When dissatisfaction and disappointment rear their ugly heads, thank them for visiting you, because they're a necessary part of the creative life. Listen for what information they have for you—"you must now learn to confidently wield point of view," for instance—and then dismiss them, go for a long walk, and get a good night's sleep.

Then get back to work.

Embrace negative feelings? Yeah right... Part 1

You stumble, as humans are bound to do. But this time it isn't a skinned knee, it's a wound to your creative soul, and it hurts enough to make you want to go back to bed with a bag of cookies and someone else's novel. Your inner critic takes control, pummeling you with its negativity:

This is too hard.

I thought I'd be farther along by now.

I'm not as good at this as I first thought.

The economy will not support what I'm trying to do.

Do any of these emotions sound familiar to you? As someone whose personal growth began while ensconced in an emotionally abusive relationship, then tried to heal from her husband's suicide while powering up a creative writing career, I've adopted a few strategies for engaging with negative emotions.

1. Allow yourself these feelings. I'm done with people telling me that what I feel is wrong or unimportant—and that includes myself. Denying my feelings only separates me from my personal truth. Remaining optimistic isn't about hypnotizing yourself into always thinking good thoughts, it's about being able to regain your equilibrium once bad thoughts try to knock you down.

2. Change the script. As with all feedback, creative perception can help us transform discouraging words into something that's helpful to hear.
This is too hard = I need rest or some additional skills to face this challenge.

I thought I'd be farther along by now = I must reinvigorate those things I can affect—my attitude and effort—and stop focusing on what I can't control.

I'm not as good as I first thought I was = I need to take stock of the ways in which I've made progress.

The economy will not support what I'm trying to do
= All of us are struggling within the same conditions, and together our struggle can change the world.

3. Thank negative emotions for the information they bring. When I was a choreographer, the start of each new dance felt like a love affair. But the initial euphoria of creative expression was soon supplanted by the doubt that I could ever master the skills needed to complete the task. Two-thirds of the way through, quite predictably, I tired of it. I failed to believe in it. Convinced myself it was drivel.

I've interviewed many artists who feel the same way, during the difficult yet critical transition from initial inspiration to full creative birth. A comparison to miscarriage is apt, since most miscarriages occur after hormones alone can no longer support the pregnancy and before the sustaining connection to the mother is yet established. We need not allow emotional shifts to end our work. We can expect them, thank the negative emotions for the information they bring, and send them on their way.

4. Embrace negative emotions for all they're worth. Abraham Lincoln said, "The best way to destroy an enemy is to make him a friend." As creative individuals, our negative emotions can seem like enemies—but they're crucial. Befriend them. If you've never lived conflict, and experienced heartbreak, how can you write, or sing, or paint of it? This is the material that drives creative effort. Thank God for our trials and our missteps!

Embracing negative emotions can nurture sustained artistic endeavor. More on that in my next post.

Are you good enough to be a writer?

As a freelance editor, most of my clients, on some level, want an answer to this question. But I'm not even sure the question is valid.

You either are a writer, or you're not. Because you either write, or you don't. Those who write, over time, will get better at it.

Most people who write are drawn to the lifestyle as much as the activity. The stereotypes are fun—camping out at a coffeehouse with a laptop, tucking yourself away in a secluded cabin, or working from home in your pajamas. I've done all of these. Call it method acting— these behaviors strengthen my writing persona, inside and out.

But at a deeper level, writers don't want corporate structure ruling their days. They're entrepreneurs, willing to gamble that they have something to offer that the world will want to buy. For me this transcends want; it's what my soul needs to thrive. Writers need the freedom to explore ideas that seem meaningful to them, and to follow unexpected tangents to their inevitable conclusions in a way that would drive a corporate manager insane.

Some of us choose this life even while hating to give up a steady paycheck and health insurance and the inherent benchmarks a corporate ladder provides. On a ladder everyone knows if they're good enough—just check out the rung and you'll see where you stand. At some point we want writing to be a meritocracy, where those who have put in their time and learned their craft will suddenly be discovered and rewarded with bestseller status and mounds of cash.

The harsh truth: if you eschew corporate America and embrace the writing life, you lose its ladder as well. Until a publishing company starts telling you what to do ("Simon & Schuster owns me," author Judith Viorst once told me), you are both your boss and your employee.

To succeed, both must be equally developed. My boss (left brain) is always coming up with some new plan that my inner writer (right brain) would be happy to derail.

Boss: "Kathryn, this week you're going to get up at 5 a.m. every day to write, when you'll get no e-mail to derail you."

Employee: "Thanks! I love to write!"

Boss, Monday morning at 5:15 a.m.: "Hey, what are you doing writing that e-mail? Get back to your writing."

Employee: "You can't make me."

Boss, patiently trying to re-motivate: "But you love to write. I set aside this time just for you."

Employee: "But I keep forgetting to to e-mail Ellen about something. Anyway, writing e-mail counts. There's a long precedent: letters of authors can get published."

To keep your inner employee on track you must do your own performance reviews. Instead of hoping your critique group or freelance editor will tell you you're a good writer, listen to your own writing to decide whether you've communicated effectively. If you've accomplished what you set out to do (not what others hoped you would do), you can give yourself a good review.

If you haven't, you can revise--and give yourself a good review.

If you're struggling in an aspect of craft and need more education, sign up for a course or buy a how-to book to improve—and give yourself a good review.

If one day your energy is low and applying more words to the page overwhelms, let your boss give you the afternoon to research, instead, and the next day you'll be up and writing with new ideas to apply. Then give yourself a good review.

The writers who are in it for the long haul benefit from recognizing their work as a calling, or vocation. I feel that way, although according to author and theologian Frederick Buechner, I'm only halfway there. Buechner defines a vocation as "where your deep gladness and the world's deep hunger meet." Hmm. I've got that "deep gladness" in spades. But does the world have a deep hunger for what I have to offer? Time will tell. Until then, I must urge myself on. (Blogged today! Good performance review—because it's only in getting my work out there that I can discover whether the world hungers it.)

Is being a good writer really as easy as being your own cheerleader? As long as you're writing, and moving ever closer to effective communication through the stories or articles you choose to write, I believe this is true. And we'd better develop this trait now, because we'll need it, commercial success or no. If we allow money to define success, how will we weather market fluctuations? If we hand away our performance reviews to others, how will we withstand the critics who'll be happy to tell us that our freshman efforts were pap?

There's really only one way to be a bad writer, and that's to stop.

But then, by definition, you aren't a writer at all.

Monday, March 7, 2011

How do you stay motivated?

A writing friend e-mailed me this weekend, desperate for words of encouragement. She hit me on a good day—I'd just hit the skids the week before.

Discouragement is an integral part of the creative life in any economy, let alone one in which the likelihood is diminishing that our talents and passions will be able to support us. I'll talk about why we should embrace discouragement in my next post. But today, let's bolster ourselves up.

The inspiration I'd like to share comes from dance, the art form that gave birth to my creative spirit. When I need encouragement, I visit the words of modern dance visionary Martha Graham (1894-1991). I'll let Martha tell you why in this series of pulled quotes:
There is a vitality, a life force, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and there is only one of you in all time, this expression is unique, and if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium; and be lost. The world will not have it. It is not your business to determine how good it is, not how it compares with other expression. It is your business to keep it yours clearly and directly, to keep the channel open. You do not even have to believe in yourself or your work. You have to keep open and aware directly to the urges that motivate you. Keep the channel open. No artist is pleased. There is no satisfaction whatever at any time. There is only a queer, divine dissatisfaction, a blessed unrest that keeps us marching and makes us more alive than the others.

Great dancers are not great because of their technique, they are great because of their passion.

I believe that we learn by practice. Whether it means to learn to dance by practicing or to learn to live by practicing living, the principles are the same. In each it is the performance of a dedicated precise set of acts, physical or intellectual, from which comes shape of achievement, a sense of one's being, a satisfaction of spirit. One becomes in some area an athlete of God. Practice means to perform, over and over again in the face of all obstacles, some act of vision, of faith, of desire. Practice is a means of inviting the perfection desired.

People have asked me why I chose to be a dancer. I did not choose, I was chosen to be a dancer, and with that, you live all your life. When any young student asks me, "Do you think I should be a dancer?" I always say, "If you have to ask, then the answer is no." Only if there is one way to make life vivid for yourself and for others should you embark upon such a career...

I have spent all my life with dance and being a dancer. It's permitting life to use you in a very intense way. Sometimes it is not pleasant. Sometimes it is fearful. But nevertheless it is inevitable.

Many of these quotes are from Martha's autobiography, Blood Memory, published in the year of her death. What powerful words from an amazing woman. Could I hear an amen?

Martha was the daughter of Puritan-bred Presbyterians who were none too thrilled to have a daughter at the cutting edge of American modern dance. Martha was both admired and reviled for her work. Her success was never guaranteed—there wasn't even yet an audience for the type of work she did. She created her genre, seeking out top-notch collaborators.

Martha continued to perform until she was 76 years old. But even Martha, whose words have re-energized me time and again, fell prey to discouragement. When she stopped dancing, she wrote:
I had lost my will to live. I stayed home alone, ate very little, and drank too much and brooded. My face was ruined, and people say I looked odd, which I agreed with. Finally my system just gave in. I was in the hospital for a long time, much of it in a coma.
Yet her spirit proved indomitable. She rallied. She continued choreographing until the age of 96 from a chair; by then arthritis had crippled her hands to the point that she wore gloves to hide the disfigurement.

I never met Martha Graham, although I saw her ushered onto the stage to take a bow at the end of her company's performances. I too loved modern dance. My maiden name is even Graham.

But these aren't the reasons my connection to her feels so personal. Her own words tell us why: she was inside my head, knowing what I needed to hear. All artists, famous or not, share a vulnerability that allows them to do what they do. Deep inside, Martha Graham and Kathryn Graham Williams Craft aren't so very different (okay, she was wiser not to take all of her husbands' names).

If she could resurrect after drinking herself into a coma, I can forgive myself the occasional lapse of confidence. I draw strength from her story time and again, hoping to by-pass the coma by listening deeply to words that even she struggled to live up to.

From what sources do you draw your encouragement?