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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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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Would your words change if your draw the letters by hand, instead of type them?

I remember reading Natalie Goldberg’s Wild Minds a few years ago and remember her advice to writers on the importance of writing by hand. While I can’t find her exact words, the essence (if memory serves me right), was that the voice that comes out when we write one word after the next, drawing the curves, stringing the letters, crossing the Ts and dotting the Is (or not) is different from the voice that comes out when we’re going tap-tap-tap on the keyboard. This same idea came up again in Lynda Barry’s beautiful book on writing “What It Is – Do You Wish You Could Write?” which combines Lynda’s advice on writing, her drawings,  collages, and some of her life story in one of the most unique books of writing and living that I have come across. Why write by hand?  Here’s what Lynda says:

There is a state of mind which is not accessible by thinking. It seems to require a participation with something. Something physical we move. Like a pen. Like a pencil. Something which is in motion. Ordinary motion like writing the alphabet. The ordinary everyday motion of a person with a pen writing the alphabet. on writing

  What does writing by hand accomplish that writing on the computer does not? Lynda says:

I have found that writing by hand slowly is faster than a computer-way. I know it’s not easy the way tapping a computer is easy. Tapping a computer is easy. Tapping a finger is not as complicated as making an original line in the shape of an S. Different parts of the brain are used when we make an S by hand and more of the body than a finger tap and images seem to come from this kind of being in motion. S

So, I was thinking, may we can try, you and I, to write by hand this week, even if just once or twice? And see the voice, the writing, the movement,  the red ink spill on paper? You don’t have to share them, maybe those words are for your eyes only. How does your voice change when you write by hand versus write on paper? Would love to hear about your experience. Enjoyed this post? Sign up to receive posts on creativity, writing, generosity, and living better.

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Thinking of becoming a writer? Some advice from the wonderful Gretchen Rubin

fork in the roadAs I’ve said before, I am a Gretchen Rubin SUPER FAN. I love Gretchen’s insights into human nature, which help her readers understand themselves better, and as a result, live better. This nugget comes from the Goodreads Q&A that Gretchen did some time ago (and needless to say, I was super excited that Gretchen answered my question!)

Question: When you quit law for writing, did you have any reservations or fears? How did you make it easy for yourself to take the big leap?

Here’s what she answered:

It took me a long time to make the switch from law to writing, but it was made easier because I had an idea for a book that I desperately wanted to write (and was already writing, in fact), my sister was a professional writer, so I had that model; and everyone in my family was very supportive of me taking a big risk. At one point, I thought, “I’d rather fail as a writer than succeed as a lawyer,” so I knew I had to give writing a shot.

Often, when we’re contemplating big life or career changes, we feel a sense of anxiety. This anxiety definitely serves a purpose – it makes us carefully examine our options so that we can choose one best suited for us – but sometimes it can cause us to abandon our dreams, without even trying. This is why I love Gretchen’s decision-making framing: “I’d rather fail as a writer than succeed as a lawyer.” Framing the decision this way helped Gretchen – and can help many of us – from preventing fear of change from clipping our wings, even before they sprout.

Is there something YOU’D rather fail at, than succeeding at what you’re currently doing? Would love to hear from you. Is there anyone you know who is contemplating a big career shift? Do share Gretchen’s advice with them!

P.S. Gretchen’s book “Better than Before” came out just a couple of weeks back. My sister who lives in the US is couriering me a SIGNED copy all the way to India. CANNOT WAIT. Till then, busy watching the videos of Gretchen Rubin on the book tour (such as this one at Google.)

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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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