Crafting a life that feels right – A lesson by Danielle LaPorte

How do you want to feel? This is the question that the wise, lyrical, soulful Danielle LaPorte asks us in her wonderful book, The Fire Starter Sessions.

Why is understanding how you want to feel so important? Danielle says:

Knowing how you actually want to feel is the most potent form of clarity that you can have. Generating those feelings is the most creative thing you can do with your life.

Yet, how many of us set goals based on how we want to “feel?” Aren’t feelings and emotions better left upon the shelf, as Savage Garden said all those years ago? Shouldn’t our goals be set “rationally?” Danielle explains:

We have the procedures of achievement upside down. We set our sights on the babe, the boat, the bucks. We get them. Sometimes. They make us happy. Sometimes. We set a goal, we reach it, we feel great. Unless, of course, we feel empty or flustered or anxious that what we’re doing isn’t working to fill the hole in our soul.

Let me say it another way: Typically, we come up with our to-do lists, our bucket lists, and our strategic plans – all the stuff we want to have, get, and experience outside of ourselves. All of those aspirations are being driven by an innate desire to feel a certain way. What if, first we got clear on how actually want to feel within ourselves, and then designed our to-do lists?

Getting clear about how you want to feel may unearth some surprises – you may find a big dissonance between the goals you’ve been gunning for and the way you want to feel. Danielle says:

Maybe you want to feel “energized” or “joyful.” For years, you’ve been thinking you want a three-thousand-square-foot house in the city and to be promoted to VP. You should want a bigger house and a bigger job, right? Bigger is growth, right?

But maybe those things aren’t energizing or joy-inducing at all. You could be mortgage poor and working sixty hours a week. Perhaps energizing and joyful would come from a stylin’ little condo, and you could use your extra money to see one European city a year and help your nephew through school.

Instead of going after the “the babe, the boat, the bucks,” Danielle advises us:

First, get clear on how you want to feel.
Then, do stuff that makes you feel that way.

As inspiring as this is, identifying how we want to feel – and then living like that – is anxiety producing. What if the way you’ve been living your life is at odds with the way you want to feel? What if you realize that your goals and the striving and the workaholism is not you, but a remnant from another time when you absorbed these messages? Do you listen to these messages which continue to run through your veins, or do you listen to your heart, which tugs and pulls and cajoles you in a different direction? Maybe you want to replace the striving with some play, some soul-itude, some creativity. Maybe a life in which there is time for strolls, for hearing the birds sing, for basking in the sun with the dog who’s calling you a friend. Some time to sit on the bench with a book, barefoot, feeling the wetnesss of the ground, feeling the solidity of the earth. What do you do then, when you feel it is time to make some changes to the way you live your life?

Danielle’s advice:

Be done with feeling guilty for wanting to feel the way you want to feel. Follow your desired emotion. Don’t analyze it too deeply. Just let it roll and rumble a bit. It may be there to humble you, to expand you, heal, surprise, or reinvent you. Anywhere it leads, it’s there for a divine reason.

So, how do YOU want to feel?

If you find this post helpful to someone you feel is trying to find their way,  struggling to get off a road that is not their own, or trying hard to break free from the rat race, do share this post with them. Sharing=Loving!

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Baby steps to creative recovery

I know I’m going on and on about Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way, but SHE IS AWESOME. Her wisdom on creativity and creative recovery has helped me feel and be more creative than I have in decades.

One of the thing that Julia talks about is the artistic tendency to be dramatic as they think about their creative life. A budding writer might think she needs to give up her job to write full time. A fledgling painter imagines he needs to move to Paris for creative inspiration. Julia says:

Blocked creatives like to think they are looking to change their whole life in one fell swoop. This form of grandiosity is its own undoing. By setting the jumps too high and making the price tags too great, the recovering artist sets defeat in motion. Who can concentrate on a first drawing class when he is obsessing about having to divorce his wife and leave town? Who can turn toe out in modern jazz form when she is busy reading the ads for a new apartment since she will have to break up with her lover to concentrate on her art?

Creative people are dramatic, and we use negative drama to scare ourselves out of our creativity with this notion of wholesale and often destructive change. Fantasizing about pursuing our art full-time, we fail to pursue it part-time–or at all.

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Rather than take a scary baby step toward our dreams, we rush to the edge of the cliff and then stand there, quaking, saying, “I can’t leap. I can’t. I can’t. . . .”

No one is asking you to leap. That’s just drama, and for the purposes of a creative recovery, drama belongs on the page or on the canvas or in the clay or in the acting class or in the act of creativity, however small.

Julia’s advice?

Take on small action daily instead of indulging in the big questions. When we allow ourselves to wallow in the big questions, we fail to find our small answers. What we are talking about here is a concept of change grounded in respect–respect for where we are as well as where we wish to go. We are looking not to grand strokes of change–although they may come–but instead to the act of creatively husbanding all that is in the present: this job, this house, this relationship.

If you want to paint, you need to gather the tools and head over the park to paint the sunflowers you love so much. If you want to write, you need to pick up the pen which feels right and a journal that calls to you, and string one word after another.

sunflowerThis blog was on my mind forever. I thought about what I wanted to write about. I thought about what my voice should be. I thought about what my niche should be, and did I really know enough about anything to have a niche? I obsessed over themes. Somewhere in the middle, I read a lot of books about writing. But  I wasn’t writing. Until I was. One post at a time. Trying to find my voice, even as I tried to share it. Becoming comfortable sharing my less than perfect self with the world. Learning to follow my curiosities, wherever they took me, and believing that maybe one day they would lead me to my niche.

I don’t need to know how this ends, I don’t need to know where this takes me. I don’t need to find and fit all the pieces in the jigsaw – I just need to fit the next piece. All I need to do is write: one word at a time.

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Writing advice from the wise and witty Brenda Ueland

I love, love, love Brenda Ueland’s “If You Want to Write A Book about Art, If You Want to WriteIndependence and Spirit,” a MUST read for those looking to rediscover their lost creativity. Here are some of my favorite learnings  from the book.

Our innate creativity is often destroyed by the time we reach adulthood.

It (our creativity) is very tender and sensitive, and it is usually drummed out of people early in life by criticism (so-called “helpful criticism” is often the worst kind), by teasing, jeering, rules, prissy teachers, critics, and all those unloving people who forget that the letter killeth and the spirit giveth life. Sometimes I think of life as a process where everybody is discouraging and taking everybody else a peg or two.

Brenda urges us to keep this spark alive, because:

..it is life itself. It is the Spirit. In fact it is the only important thing about us. The rest of us is legs and stomach, materialistic cravings and fears.

So, how do we keep it alive?

By using it, by letting it out, by giving some time to it. But if we are women we think it is more important to wipe noses and carry doilies than to write or to play the piano. And men spend their lives adding and subtracting and dictating letters when they secretly long to write sonnets and play the violin and burst into tears at the sunset.

But what urges us to write, to paint, to create?

One of the intrinsic rewards for writing the sonnet was that then the nobleman knew and understood his own feelings better, and he knew more about what love was, what part of his feelings were bogus (literary) and what real, and what a beautiful thing the English or the Italian language was…

And one of the most important intrinsic rewards is the stretched understanding, the illumination…you will never know what your  husband looks like unless you try to draw him, and you will never understand him unless you try and write his story.

So, how can we release the poet hidden in us, or bring to the surface the tune that is caught in our throat? Brenda talks about the right way to work:

I learned from them that inspiration does not come like a bolt, nor is it a kinetic, energetic striving, but it comes into us slowly, and quietly, and all the time, though we must regularly and every day give it a little chance to start flowing, prime it with a little solitude and idleness. I learned that you should feel when writing, not like Lord Byron on a mountaintop, but like a child stringing beads in kindergarten–happy, absorbed, and quietly putting one bead after another.

In our creative endeavors, Brenda urges us to:

Be careless, reckless! Be a lion! Be a pirate! When You Write

And yet, fear often keeps us from being a lion.

It is because of the critics, the doubters (in the outer world and within ourselves) that we have such hesitance when we write…

As I write this I many times have had the chilling feeling come around my heart because of the thought: “What if it may not be true? People will say I am crazy. Where is my logic? I haven’t a Ph.D. in philosophy or psychology.”

She shares how she moved past this fear herself:

A few years ago I would not have dared say anything in this book without looking up long, corroborating passages in big books: “William James says,” etc., etc.

I believe now in speaking from myself, as I want you to do when you write. Don’t keep marshaling thoughts like “I must prove it.”

You don’t have to prove it by citing specific examples, by comparing and all. If it is true to you, it is true. Another truth may take place later. What comes truly from me is true, whether anybody believes it or not. It is my truth.

If there are so many difficulties involved in reclaiming our creativity and then moving past our fears to express ourselves, the question arises: why do we do it?

Because there is nothing that makes people so generous, joyful, lively, bold, and compassionate, so indifferent to fighting and the accumulation of objects and money. Because the best way to know the Truth or Beauty is to try to express it. And what is the purpose of existence Here or Yonder but to discover truth and beauty and express it, i.e., share it with others.

“If you want to write” will inspire you, will support you, will nurture you as you look inside yourself and try to find the fanciful little girl who lived in you, who thought that a orange tree would grow out from her mouth if she swallowed some seeds. Or maybe the little boy who thought that once he dropped the letter in the post box it traveled through winding tunnels and it would fly out the other end, just where his grandma lived. That little boy or little girl still lives somewhere deep inside of us: they’re calling out for us to find them.

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About to Criticize? Praise Instead….

“Our Inner Artist is a Child” — A Lesson by Julia Cameron

I’m reading  the wise Julia Cameron’s “The Artist’s Way,” a treatise on creativity and creative recovery. A key reason why our inner artist needs nurturing is because it has been wounded, often by people we trust: our parents, teachers, editors, and mentors.

In the passage below, Julia talks about how blanket criticism wounds artists, instead of helping them grow.

I will say again that much true criticism liberates the artist it is aimed at. We are childlike, not childish, Ah-hah! is often the accompanying inner sound when  a well-placed, accurate critical arrow makes it mark. The artist thinks, “Yes! I can see that! That’s right! I can change that!”

The criticism that damages an artist is the criticism–well-intentioned or ill–that contains no saving kernel of truth yet has a certain damning plausibility or an unassailable blanket judgment that cannot be rationally refuted.

Do you remember when someone you trusted wounded your creative confidence?

I remember my sixth grade needlework teacher, Mrs. Jain, inspecting my hand-embroidery on a wrap-around skirt. I was creating a woman in a resplendant, flowing gown with a sunhat. Instead of embroidering the outline of the hat, I had decided to fill it in, like I might have colored the hat with crayons if it was on paper. I’d embroidered rough strokes of two colors, red and green, in a patchwork style, filling the hat. When I thought it up, it had looked different in my mind, but it looked interesting and colorful. Mrs. Jain didn’t agree. She thought it was “ugly.”

Her words stayed with me as I went back to take my seat. In fact, they affected me so deeply, I started the project from scratch, measuring and cutting the cloth for the skirt, sewing it up, stenciling in the beautiful woman, and then embroidering her hat, this time with neat little chain stitches on the outline of the hat with sparkles in the center. Mrs. Jain liked it when she saw my new work. It was pretty. It was safe. I learned that safe was good and that I was probably not that creative anyway.

Yet budding artists need praise and encouragement, Julia says, not blanket judgments or harsh criticism. But, parents, teachers, and mentors can fail to provide this praise and encouragement. Julia recounts how many academics in film schools (where she also taught) seemed more interested in picking apart a student’s work than building it up.

Student work, when scrutinized, was seldom appreciated. Far from it. Whatever its genuine accomplishments, it was viewed solely in terms of its shortfalls. Time and again I saw promising work met with a volley of  should-have-dones, could-have-dones, and might have dones, instead of being worked with as it was.

Luckily, not all teachers are like that. Around this time last year, I was lucky to be in a creative writing class, where my teacher, Ramesh Menon (or “Menon Sir” as we called him, out of respect, and not because we “had” to) encouraged us to write, instead of beating us down. He told us that we needed to live, and experience, and write everyday, if just a little bit. That it would probably take years to learn the craft but that was ok. That we should show up to write anyway, and that our life would be better for it.

Would I be writing today if he had told me I had no originality, my writing was trite, I didn’t have a voice, and couldn’t I write anything original instead of quoting people all the time? Probably not.creative writing

How did you overcome your creative confidence killers?

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Growing Up, Broken: Akhil Sharma’s “Family Life”

This essay contains spoilers. I heard Akhil speak at the Jaipur Literature Festival this year, the source of all quotes attributed to him.

What does it family lifemean to grow up in a home struck by tragedy, the effects of which linger long after the tragedy itself? This is the theme of Akhil Sharma’s “Family Life,” a bleak and poignant fictionalized memoir.

Soon after Ajay’s family (Akhil is fictionalized as Ajay), moves from India to the United States in the 1970s, tragedy strikes when Birju, Ajay’s elder brother, is brain-damaged in a swimming accident. How does the family cope, and not cope, is what this book is about. While his father starts drinking to drown his sorrow, his mother continues to keep the faith that Birju would get better, and looks for God-men and miracle workers to cure her son. In the middle is Ajay, a little boy who’s world is broken, and who’s parents don’t have the emotional wherewithal to parent him.

Akhil spoke about what it was like to write this book at the Jaipur Literature Festival earlier this year. “I shattered my youth against this book,” he said, “I was 30 when I started writing and 42 when I finished. I may not have written it if I knew it would take so long.”

In this decade that Akhil took to write this book, he showed up to write for five hours every day. Whether or not he wrote, he sat at his desk in a little cubby with a computer, a stopwatch, and his thoughts.

In a remarkable feat of empathy, he wrote the book from the perspective of his father, his mother, his elder brother Birju, and himself, as he sought to piece together his shattered childhood. Ultimately, he wrote “Family Life” in his own voice as a young boy growing up.

Some of the most touching parts of the book deal with Ajay’s attempts as a child to make sense of the tragedy, his sense of survivor’s guilt, and his reality of taking up adult responsibilities much before his time.

In a moving passage, Ajay describes how he felt crossing the swimming pool where Birju had hurt himself irreparably:

I wondered what had happened to the pool’s unlucky water after the accident. Had it been drained? Probably it had not. All summer long, people must have swum in the pool and sat on its sides, splashing their feet in the water, and not known that my brother had lain for three minutes on its concrete bottom one August afternoon.

Just a nine or ten-year old, Ajay does not know that this tragedy will influence his life for decades to come. When his parents move Birju back home from the nursing home, Ajay is crushed under the weight of helping his parents take care of Birju, who needs to be bathed, clothed, and fed.

How much of the physical horrors resulting from the accident and its aftermath should he share with the readers was a question Akhil grappled with. He chose to narrate only some of the horrors: readers would not be able to bear the full extent of the blows. He narrates the horrors in such a matter-of-fact way, the reader can choose to speed through; stopping will mean feeling and those feelings are devastating.

In addition to the physical horrors, Ajay and his family also suffer deep emotional wounds. Ajay’s survivor’s guilt is poignantly captured in this passage:

Brother-life,” I said, using a phrase because it was melodramatic and because by saying something melodramatic, I could make myself sound ridiculous, like a child, and so not to be blamed for my good luck of being OK, “my English teacher wanted us to write a paragraph on what we did during the summer. I didn’t have a pencil. What kind of a fool am I?”

As I spoke I had the feeling that I was being watched. I had the sense that some man was looking at me and this man knew I was not very good and yet I had received so much of the family’s luck.

In their codependent household, happiness remains out of reach, and for Ajay, separating from his family, especially from his mother, to find happiness seems like a betrayal.

Not only was I luckier than my brother, but I was also more fortunate than my mother. I wanted to shriek. While a part of me was glad I wasn’t like my brother, no part of me wished to be more fortunate than my mother. To be luckier than her was to be different from her, it was to have a life that would take me away from her. To be luckier than her was to be different from her, it was to be apart from her, it was to have a life that would take me away from her.

When he got into Princeton and thought about starting “his own” life, Akhil did not want to be ok, because he knew his parents wouldn’t be ok. His happiness was inter-twined with his family’s happiness and being happy was always tinged with guilt.

In a poignant scene, Ajay talks about his first girlfriend, and how he just wants to keep talking with her, confiding in her, and unburdening to her. It is painfully clear then that Ajay has not spoken since the accident.

Does this pain, an amalgam of the tragedy, the neglect, the parentification, ever go away? “(If you’ve had) difficulties with family, it doesn’t get over. It goes on and on and on,” says Akhil.

As painful as it was for Akhil to process and write, this book, he says, is a love letter to his family.  It is about piecing together his broken heart, and being able to see the broken hearts of his family. It is about expanding the two-dimensional view of his experience as a child, and seeing it in three dimensions.

As a teenager, Akhil had wondered, how he could write “to earn a good lifestyle” as he pored over the biographies and the works of Hemingway. The interviewer asked him if he had made the money that you wanted, found the happiness he desired. “Money, yes,” Akhil answered ” (Am I) happy, I don’t know. I have a satisfying life, I’m not sure a happy life.”

Having examined the pieces of his shattered childhood, Akhil says “Whatever happened, happened. What do you do today to be happy? How can I be of service to others?”

Writing this book has been his act of service. Akhil helps his readers to embrace their own pain and find comfort in the book. As little Ajay describes his experience reading:

Vanishing into a book, I felt held.

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