The red dress, a baby elephant, a secret love letter, and some nothings

Origami. A voice that popped up in my head a few months back. I tore some paper out from a register and tried my hand at attempting to create something (what exactly, I now forget) out of nothing. But the paper was rectangular, thick, and lined – not right for origami. I forgot all about it till I chanced upon a set of colored origami sheets on Amazon as I explored stationary and craft supplies to fill the hole in me that only creating something seems to fill.

They arrived soon, perfect little squares in all colors of the rainbow.

I went on youtube and my first attempt was a red dress. It caught my eye, and I fancied wearing it, and so I made it with my little square of red paper. It was beautiful. Emboldened by my success, I moved on to create a little pink heart that held within it a secret compartment for scribbling messages of love.

Creating something is a wonderful feeling. In those moments that I was folding paper, I was in the present; my attention focused on understanding and executing the instructions of the folds just right. I happily showed off my creations to the husband who remarked that whatever else I did, or did not do, I was always up to doing something, which I took as a compliment.

A few days later I thought of making something else. As I combed through the list of youtube videos, I came across one on making the sun. The sun has always had a special place in my heart. Yellow cheers me like no other color. The warmth of the sun as I lie on the grass in the park near my house bakes me till I feel like I’m happy and content, fresh out of the oven, sleepy but happy to be alive in this world. And so I set out to fold, one at a time. It was a complicated origami, or maybe I lost attention, or maybe both, but I was stuck, and after many minutes of folding I had to give up and call it a day.

My showing off the red dress and the little heart to my family on whatsapp meant my sister knew my latest fancy. She sent me a video on how to fold a lotus, a thing of beauty that grows even with muck around. I tried creating a lotus, one fold at a time. I didn’t have the level of mastery required, and so once again, I gave up.

Try something else, I thought to myself, and found myself trying to fold a blue square  into a baby elephant at one o’clock at night. I followed through till the end, and this time, I had something. I asked my husband in the morning what it was, and he surprised me by calling it an elephant. That’s probably the reason I married him – he surprises me in wonderful ways.

They are all my creative babies: my perfect red dress, my shy pink heart, my sun that was not to be, my lotus that couldn’t grow that day, and crumpled little baby elephant. I love them all.

I learned something from all of them, about success, failure, love, striving, and play. I learned that I should play, and pay attention. I learned that all my attempts will not be successful (and that’s ok). I learned that I love my baby elephant even (or maybe, especially?) because it is confused sometimes for a rhinoceros, and sometimes, simply for a ball of crumpled paper. I learned that if I pay attention and focus, I can create beautiful things. And my corollary, if I choose not to gainfully use my creative energies, I can create worries and fears by watering them till they grow beyond my power of control. I learn that the whole day passed, but it is this midnight hour when I am alone, and building, and creating that my heart starts to unwind and starts to sing, ever so softly.

red dress

pink heart

sunlotus

blue elephant

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Dancing with Creativity

brainSome artists and creatives fear losing their pain, believing that their pain fuels their creativity. Others on the path to rediscovering their creativity approach creativity as a suspicious object, with caution and with fear, afraid that their creativity will suck them into a whirlpool of unexamined packets of pain.

Both camps implicitly believe in the relationship between pain and creation.

I belong to the second camp. I hold my creativity at arm’s length. I want to bring it closer but I fear losing control. The left brain is a safe haven. Life is a maze that I have often navigated using instructions from the rational part of me. Living like this is safe and contained but it doesn’t always light up my soul. My right brain is moody and not in my control. It is playful and impulsive like a child. Whereas my left brain is black and white and grey, my right brain is Technicolor. To be honest, being creative and living creatively scares me a little bit. And so I wet my feet in the word of feelings and intuition before running to the safety of facts and logic.

But what if creativity doesn’t deserve the bad rep it has acquired? What if we are creative despite our pain, and not because of it?  What if we can be happy, healthy, and functional – and creative? This is what the wonderful Elizabeth Gilbert proposes in her ode to creative living called Big Magic.

I believe that our creativity grows like sidewalk weeds out of the cracks between our pathologies—not from the pathologies themselves. But so many people think it’s the other way round. For this reason, you will often meet artists who deliberately cling to their suffering, their addictions, their fears, their demons. They worry that it they ever let go of all that anguish, their very identities would vanish. Think of Rilke, who famously said, “If my devils are to leave me, I’m afraid my angels will take flight as well.”

Rilke was a glorious poet, and that line is elegantly rendered, but it’s also severely emotionally warped. Unfortunately, I’ve heard that line quoted countless times by creative people who were offering up an excuse as to why they don’t quit drinking, or why they won’t go see a therapist, or why they won’t consider treatment for their depression or anxiety, or why they won’t address their sexual misconduct or intimacy problems, or why they basically refuse to seek personal healing and growth in any manner whatsoever—because they don’t want to lose their suffering, which they have somehow conflated and confused with their creativity.

People have a strange trust in their devils, indeed.

It is easy to get this intellectually, but hard to let go of the mythology of the wounded artist. But we should at least try, as we pick up the pen or the paintbrush for a date with creativity, maybe at a café that plays some wonderful jazz with a dark hot chocolate, no sugar, before we put on our work clothes and game face for a day of creative problem-solving at work.

I may feel a little afraid of my creativity, but I know it heals me. It doesn’t pay the bills but it thaws my frozen heart as I axe some of the ice to pick a wisp of a memory from the years past to capture on the page, or just examine for a few moments before letting it go.

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How does it feel when you get an idea for a book?

butterfliesAs writers–aspiring writers, we chide ourselves–we often wonder where writers we admire get their ideas from. We look at the book we hold in front of us, look at the colors and the typography, look at the photograph of the author at the back, run our fingers on the thick paper of a color the author chose with care, and wonder: where did the author start? where did the idea come from? what does getting an idea feel like? how will I know when I get an idea for a book?

Sometimes ideas feel BIG, they make their way into us in a way that we can’t help but notice, shaking us to the core. Elizabeth Gilbert describes how she feels when she chances upon such as idea (or, as she would say it, how it feels like when the idea finds HER) in her beautiful book on creativity, Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear.

When he told me this story–especially the part about the jungle swallowing up the machines–chills ran up my arms. The hairs on the back of my neck stood up for an instant, and I felt a little sick, a little dizzy. I felt like I was falling in love, or had just heard alarming news, or was looking over a precipice at something beautiful and mesmerizing, but dangerous.

I’d experienced these symptoms before, so I knew immediately what was going on. Such an intense emotional and physiological reaction doesn’t strike me often, but it happens enough (and is consistent enough with symptoms reported by people all over the world, all throughout history) that I believe I can confidently call it by its name: inspiration.

While the birth of a book can sometimes start with Big Ideas finding us, it is just as likely to start with something smaller, a little feeling, a little curiosity that makes us go Hmmm – something that we’re more likely to miss. Those of us who have trained ourselves to listen to the little voice inside us know that we may be on to something (or we may not, but that’s fine, too!).

Here’s how Gretchen Rubin describes getting the idea for her wonderful, life improving book Better Than Before: Mastering the Habits of our Everyday Lives.

As a writer, my great interest is human nature, and in particular, the subject of happiness. A few years ago, I noticed a pattern: when people told me about a “before and after” change they’d made that boosted their happiness, they often pointed to the formation of a crucial habit. And when they were unhappy about a change they’d failed to make, that too often related to a habit.

Then one day, when I was having lunch with an old friend, she said something that turned my casual interest in habits into a full-time preoccupation.

After we’d looked at our menus, she remarked, “I want to get myself in the habit of exercise, but I can’t, and it really bothers me.” Then in a brief observation that would absorb me for a long time to come, she added, “The weird thing is that in high school, I was on the track team, and I never missed track practice, but I can’t go running now. Why?”

“Why?” I echoed, as I mentally flipped through my index cards of happiness research to find some relevant insight or useful observation. Nothing.

Our conversation shifted to other topics, but as the days passed, I couldn’t get this exchange out of my mind. Same person, same activity, different habit. Why? Why had she been able to exercise faithfully in the past, but not now? How might she start again? Her question buzzed in my head with the special energy that tells me I’ve stumbled onto something important.

Finally, I connected that conversation with what I’d noticed about people’s accounts of their before-and-after transformations, and it struck me: To understand how people are able to change, I must understand habits. I felt the sense of joyous anticipation and relief that I feel every time I get the idea for my next book. It was obvious! Habits.

Elizabeth Gilbert describes how The Signature of All Things grew into a living and breathing book when she followed a little curiosity she felt, a little voice that urged her to garden.

…I discovered that I did not want to merely cultivate these plants; I also wanted to know stuff about them. Specifically, I wanted to know where they had come from.

Those heirloom irises that ornamented my yard, for instance– what was their origin? I did exactly one minute of research on the Internet and learned that my irises were not indigenous to New Jersey; they had in fact originated in Syria.

That was kind of cool to discover.

Then I did some research. The lilacs that grew around my property were apparently descendents of similar bushes that had once bloomed in Turkey. My tulips also originated in Turkey–though there’d been a lot of interfering Dutchmen, it turned out, between these original wild Turkisk tulips and my domesticated, fancy varieties. My dogwood was local. My forsythia wasn’t, though; that came from Japan. My wisteria was also rather far from home; an English sea captain had brought the stuff over to Europe from China, and then the British settlers had brought it to the New World–and rather recently, actually.

I started running background checks on every single plant in my garden. I took notes on what I was learning. My curiosity grew. What intrigued me, was not the garden itself, but the botanical history behind it–a wild and little-known tale of trade and adventure and global intrigue.

That could be a book, right?

Maybe?

I kept following the trail of curiosity. I elected to trust in my fascination. I elected to believe that I was interested in all this botanical  trivia for a good reason. Accordingly, portents and coincidences began to appear before me, all related to this newfound interest in botanical history…

The little voice and the BIG voice are both speaking with us – we just need to listen.

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Letting go of perfectionism and wrecking my journal

I don’t remember when I colored outside the lines. The lines were always severe, defined, binding. I colored safely within. The leaves of the coloring book were always limited; how could I “waste” them coloring with abandon?

I drew a vase brimming over with flowers one day in Art class in first grade. As the teacher took rounds of the class, she stopped to appreciate my drawing. That was it. Her approval meant I drew a dozen safe vases with flowers brimming over till the flowers didn’t have their exuberance and their wildness and abandon. They were staid replicas of the image that had come up from somewhere inside.

Safe is what I drew. Safe is what I did. My Camlin pastels preserved safely after their coloring was done, instead of being broken in half and rolled across the art sheet to create textures and messes.

I had flights of fancy sometimes when I was free. I remember taking my mother’s old pair of iron scissors, cutting through my white frock with soft pastel frills of pin, lemon, and blue, and sewed it up to create an off shoulder dress for my Barbie doll. But most of the times, I followed the directions to the T. Three quarters water, a quarter milk, a tea-spoon of sugar, half a spoon of tea leaves, and two cloves, was how I made tea for my mother when she was tired, or sick from her asthma from the humid Bombay air and her burdens.

There comes a time when following recipes and directions  does not cut it anymore. For me, the big 30 has been a marker of sorts, coming with the realization that this is it, this is my life. Maybe it’s ok not to follow directions. Maybe it’s ok to make mistakes. Maybe it’s ok to be free. Maybe it’s ok to fail. Maybe it’s ok to be. Maybe it’s ok to be me.

Perfectionism is a relational trait. It is an outcome, a badge of a time where I needed to be perfect. A remnant I would like to let go off, so I can color outside the lines. But how do I let go of something so deep-rooted?

Reading to understand why we are the way we are helps intellectually, but it is being present that heals us. Being in nature, walking on the wet earth barefoot. Looking at  mountains with the windows of the car rolled down, watching them turn from stony to sandy to red to purple, watching the snow sprinkled on top of the mountains like one might scatter powered sugar on a muffin. Feeling the cold wind and watching the blue skies and seeing the shapes the clouds make; a heart, I saw a heart!

mighty mountains

I look to renew my soul, little by little everyday, by coloring in my coloring book for “advanced colorists” (read adults), by writing in calligraphy the names of my favorite books as a child (The Wizard of Oz!), and most recently by following directions of writer Keri Smith who orders her readers in her wonderful book Wreck This Journal to destroy the journal to unclog the flow of creativity in us.

If I am afraid to destroy, I cannot create. I write one line, then delete it. I try to write a perfect line, instead of writing shitty first drafts as the wise Anne Lamott advises us. I pick up this journal and give myself permission to destroy it in the myriad ways Keri has cooked up.

After a tiring day at work where I have been productive, left-brained, and efficient, I want to breathe free, be creative. Put a pen in your mouth and write on this page, Keri commands, and I do, a 30-year-old lying on the bed, wrecking the journal at 11 at night. I smile. Infuse this journal with a scent of your own choosing. I hop over to the kitchen to slice a lemon and squeeze it on the page.

In the course of a few days, I have torn a page out of the journal and let it go, made a paper plane, squirted water from my mouth on to the journal, sewn some pages together, and written backwards from right to left, only to be reminded of my grandfather who wrote in Urdu, a luminous script that flowed delicately from right to left. Close the journal and write or scribble something on the edges. I write the words a close friend said to me recently: Khul Jao. That’s hindi for Open Up. Slowly but surely I am unfurling. Slowly but surely the ice is melting.

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Writing and becoming

Yesterday morning was fresh and promising. It had rained earlier, so when I went to the park for my morning walk, the trees were clean from their fresh shower, shining their true colors more clearly: the dark greens looked deeper, the light greens looked cleaner, and the yellows popped, an absolute delight. The people on their morning walks seemed happier; the showers had broken the harsh heat of Delhi summers. I walked and as I did, I felt myself relaxing. Stray thoughts and worries began to leave me, seeping into the wet earth.

There is magic in walking. Being close to nature fills up my creative well with images; the silence is a relief from the constant input from people and my cellphone and yes, even books; the walking motion is rhythmic and comforting. I feel alive, creative, abuzz with ideas, yet relaxed.

IMG_20150601_091308

I sit on a bench, the one made of clay and stone, red and white, cool to the touch. I prefer it to the green iron benches; the clay makes me feel one with the earth. I scribble in my little notebook, the one with faux yellow pages and artistic coffee stains, ideas about topics I can write about or sudden insights from thought particles that fuse together as I walk. Sometimes I scribble questions to which I don’t know the answers.

I am lost in my thoughts scribbling in my little notebook on this beautiful morning, and I look up, still half smiling only to catch the eye of an old gentleman, who smiles kindly at me. If you don’t mind, he asks, out of curiosity, what do you write?

He has seen me on other days on this bench with my little notebook and my pencil. I am a writer, I say, and then, because that’s what recovering creatives do, I soften my stance, I write, I say, so just jotting down ideas for my writing. He understands. Nothing like writing in this beautiful park; I used to do that a long time ago.

You are a writer, so start acting like one, is what Jeff Goins says. I have started acting like one. I carry a little notebook for when inspiration strikes, underline passages in books and  copy them down for the future. And yet sometimes, I am scared. “I’m a writer” sounds scary, irreversible, terrifying.

And yet if I look around my bookshelf, I see the signs. If You Want to Write, Wild Minds, The Artists’ Way, What It Is, On Writing Well. Writing calls to me and I have been preparing for many years, reading, absorbing. Whenever my sister and I meet, we have gifts for each other, a blue star studded journal, or a quill pen, or a notebook with silhouettes of women, their loose clothes flying in the breeze. With our gifts, we mean to prod each other, write.

As a little girl, letters and words were a thing of beauty. Letters, their shape, their cursive form, the way they connected, flowing into each other. Each script had its own magic, its own mystery. My father could read Urdu, a language his father wrote in, and though I couldn’t make out what the letters meant, the script was beautiful. It ran delicately from right to left,  breaking the rules, beautifully. Hindi read beautifully too, all the letters hung to a line on top, free below. English, I practiced in my cursive writing book, and the other practice book, more staid and solid. My best friend had given me a single sheet of paper with all the letters in the English alphabet printed out in calligraphy. I practiced drawing the letters at home with a Parker flat-nibbed pen and black ink, writing beautiful quotes on plain paper in calligraphy, and found myself a little bit repaired with every harmonious line that I drew on paper. Today, I type away on the computer instead of drawing with my flat-nibbed pen, but I continue to be repaired, as I was back then, my voice growing stronger, my light glowing brighter, and my feet becoming surer-footed. As I write, I am becoming.

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Why? – The seed from which insights grow

Writers just starting out on their writing journey are fascinated by why an author chose to write about a particular topic. When we hold a published book in all its hardback glory, and pore over the Acknowledgements, and the table of contents, and then the writing itself, it’s hard to imagine that this book was a mere wisp floating around the world when it flew over an author who netted it, and brought it close to herself and examined it with a magnifying glass, and held it in her head and her heart, till it grew into the book we hold today, in all its hardback glory.

As I read (I LOVE her) Gretchen Rubin’s wonderful book on habits, Better Then Before: Mastering the Habits of our Everyday Lives, I was enthralled by her depiction of how she came to explore this topic for her new book.

As a writer, my great interest is human nature, and in particular, the subject of happiness. A few years ago, I noticed a pattern: when people told me about a “before and after” change they’d made that boosted their happiness, they often pointed to the formation of a crucial habit. And when they were unhappy about a change they’d failed to make, that too often related to a habit.

Then one day, when I was having lunch with an old friend, she said something that turned my casual interest in habits into a full-time preoccupation.

After we’d looked at our menus, she remarked, “I want to get myself in the habit of exercise, but I can’t, and it really bothers me.” Then in a brief observation that would absorb me for a long time to come, she added, “The weird thing is that in high school, I was on the track team, and I never missed track practice, but I can’t go running now. Why?”

“Why?” I echoed, as I mentally flipped through my index cards of happiness research to find some relevant insight or useful observation. Nothing.

Our conversation shifted to other topics, but as the days passed, I couldn’t get this exchange out of my mind. Same person, same activity, different habit. Why? Why had she been able to exercise faithfully in the past, but not now? How might she start again? Her question buzzed in my head with the special energy that tells me I’ve stumbled onto something important.

Finally, I connected that conversation with what I’d noticed about people’s accounts of their before-and-after transformations, and it struck me: To understand how people are able to change, I must understand habits. I felt the sense of joyous anticipation and relief that I feel every time I get the idea for my next book. It was obvious! Habits.

A chance conversation led to this wonderful book that contains practical advice that can help people like you and me live better.  A wisp from the conversation, an unanswered question, that absorbed Gretchen for years. A question she held close to her head, and to her heart. Why is often  the seedbed from which ideas grow.

Better than Before

Here’s my signed copy that my sister got signed for me in California and sent through my friend all the way to Delhi! Yay!

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Oil pastel therapy and imaginary planets, far far away

I bought a little box of oil pastels for the new art class I’m taking on weekends. The class was yesterday, and all of us drew a vase the instructor had arranged stylistically on a table in front of us, with a few kitchen utensils thrown in for an interesting composition.

We drew, first with a pencil, and then colored in with the oil pastels: the moss green and deep green and pale yellow of the leaves in the vase; the grey for the steel utensils that glistened in the background; the blue for the cloth that made the makeshift backdrop of this arrangement.

I am a novice when it comes to drawing and sketching. My main motivation to join this class was to nurture the butchered creative in me; to learn to be more in the moment; and to pay heed to the solid world around me, not just the world of thoughts and feelings and ideas that I am used to living in.

When I started the class a month or so back, my attention was at the lowest its ever been, fleeting, darting from here to there. It was difficult for me to hold my attention long enough to sketch what I saw in front of me: to make sure the opening of the vase was wider than the base, to make sure the curves I drew mirrored the curves of the vase, to see where the sunlight fell and which parts needed shading in and which didn’t.

Art is therapeutic. Across the last few weeks, I can sense my attention becoming deeper, and less runaway. Holding a crayon and the repeated motion of filling in the colors is soothing; it fills in wounds in a way that thinking and analyzing does not. As I fill in the colors on the page, I fill my wounds. I am learning to be ok with being less than perfect, which I am obviously so in comparison to my more advanced peers in this class. I am learning to create something from nothing, and becoming more comfortable with the process being messy. I am learning also to be more risk-taking: the instructor remarked yesterday as she did the rounds of the class, looking at our work, that we seemed afraid of colors. Don’t be afraid, she said, don’t subdue the vibrancy of the oil pastels, the drama. Let it out. So, I did. I filled in the blue till it was deep and dark and not a drop of white peaked from the paper below. Why should I be afraid to let the boldness of the deep blue stand out? Why should I be afraid to have it be noticed? Why, really, should I be afraid of showing the vibrancy of all that is me, not just the softness of the blue sky on a sunny day, but also the darkness and deepness of the stormy nights.

Today, I sat curled up reading Gretchen Rubin’s Better Than Before in the bedroom. When I ventured outside, I saw that my husband had caught hold of my oil pastels and was busy composing his own creation. Don’t look, he said, give me fifteen. Fifteen minutes later I went to see his painting. Unsurprisingly for someone who loves all things space, he’d drawn a picture of the night sky with a planet and some galaxies.

abhinav drawing

This is Saturn, right? I said noticing the ring around the planet. The ring is from Saturn and the red spot is from Jupiter, he replied. A combination planet! So this is…Supiter…said both of us together. Other than Supiter, the Andromeda is there too, or at least a galaxy he drew, which he now thinks is the Andromeda. There are also a bunch of other galaxies and some shooting stars.

The black of the night sky is jet black, unafraid. The colors are what he imagines them to be. The subject, an imaginary planet. I realize that my husband’s creativity flows, without being clogged by too many rules.

At one point of time, Supiter would have stressed me out. It’s not a real planet, I would think. It doesn’t exist. You can’t just combine planets. But now I love it. It exists because I see it on the paper in front of me. It is real because it came from my husband’s imagination, as he closed his eyes to imagine it, or maybe realized post facto that he’d combined the features of two planets.

As I walk the creative path, I can find myself unfurling, little by little. Learning that creativity means more play and less judgment. Learning that I don’t need to know what I will write in my blog post but trusting that when I start to write, the words will flow, or sputter, depending on the day. Learning that the tap is really more open than I give myself credit for. And learning, most importantly, that in creating lies the deepest healing.

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