PROBLEM-SOLVING FOR CREATIVES #2: What’s the Hard Part?

Fortunately, having enough artifacts will NOT be a problem!
Fortunately, having enough artifacts will NOT be a problem!

What’s the Hard Part?

(5 minute read)

I had a problem this week. I didn’t know what to write about for my next column.

Last week, I wrote about how I got through the roadblocks that held me back from a project I dreamed of years ago. When I wrote it, I was at the end of a major first part: Building the wood box shrines that will showcase my handmade artifacts.

Here’s what I wasn’t prepared for: I didn’t know how to solve the next step. And I felt like a loser once again. Overwhelmed, no energy, self-doubt up the wazoo.

In fact, I felt even more pressure on myself! After all, I’d just joyously announced I had plenty of shrines constructed, and now I was ready for the next step. Except now I could see there would be even more trial-and-error aspects ahead. It felt like I’d climbed one mountain, only to see that I was only on the first peak. I still hadn’t actually reached the top. (I looked this up, and yes, a mountain can have several peaks, points that are individually higher than the surrounding/adjacent areas. But only one is the actual summit, the highest peak. Huh.)

So I hit my first peak and was a little dismayed to realize there were more ahead.

Today’s blog post by Seth Godin clarified my dilemma neatly:

“What’s the hard part?”

The title alone helped me move forward. Because getting through the first ‘hard part’ taught me something important:

Trying to solve things in our heads is doing it the hard way.

 What we really need first is a foundation to build on.

My husband is a writer/journalist/programmer. Quite a mix, I know! He taught himself coding back in the 1980’s, and though he says he’s not “the best”, he’s mastered it enough to achieve his current career goals.

He’s been working on a project for a year now, and last week, he had a major breakthrough, too, like I had six months ago with my own project.

Today, I asked him what brought about the breakthrough.

He didn’t understand at first, so I asked, “Did you have an inspiration, like a dream (like Elias Howe, sewing machine guy) or while thinking about something else (like Archimedes taking a bath)?

He said, “I had to build the foundation first. Everything I want to do, depends on creating that first.”

Aha! Like a building. The foundation not only holds everything up, but it determines the size, shape, and function of the structure. A skyscraper office building requires a totally different foundation than a house.

He finished the foundation. And then he realized he was ready to start making the functions that depend on that foundation. (He also hit a wall, just like I did with my shrines!) (Yes, we’re both recovering nicely, and moving forward again.)

A foundation means we have a vision of where we want to go, and we have concrete (sorry!) ideas of how to get there, even if we don’t have everything else figured out yet.

Even those famous inventers had a deep understanding of what the problem was, before they could experiment with solutions. They had to know what was missing before they could fill in the blank spaces.

Archimedes’ “Eureka” moment didn’t come out of nowhere. He understood the problem was identifying pure gold from gold-and-silver. His bathtub gave him an insight. In fact, a list of dream-inspired insights show us that all of the inventors/writers/creatives were already working on the problem/mystery they wanted to solve. I love how Wikipedia even has a section on “activation synthesis hypothesis” in the dream-inspired insights article. It acknowledges that our conscious brain plays a huge part in these insights, even when we’re asleep. Even if the dream seems metaphorical, our conscious mind will actively seek and identify that “metaphor”.

In my case, a shrine series started with how to find enough boxes, how to pair up those boxes efficiently, how to distress, paint, and antique those boxes. And the hardest part, how to connect them together in an efficient, strong, aesthetically-pleasing way.

And once I’d made “enough” shrines to get started on actually putting artifacts in them, I stalled a bit. But now I have air beneath my wings again.

What’s the hard part?

The biggest one is setting aside our fears and our self-doubt. Whether our projects involve coming up with a new series, a new process, a new technique, a new approach to our art, even exploring social media marketing, trying to do it in our heads may only take us so far.

At some point, we have to simply try.

And if it matters to us, we have to keep trying.

 Hold in your heart my favorite quote by Thomas Edison:

“I have not failed 10,000 times. I have not failed once. I have succeeded in proving that those 10,000 ways will not work. When I have eliminated the ways that will not work, I will find the way that will work.”

Fortunately, getting adept at using social media marketing is not nearly as difficult! It can sound daunting, and it can take time to get there. There are plenty of great resources available to us, including FASO’s own AMP (Art Marketing Playbook) series of recorded Zoom workshops hosted by FASO’s Chief Marketing Officer, Dave Geada. (I did not realize you can try this program free for a month. Nothing stopping you now, right?)

But in order to get results, you simply have to try. When it comes to social media marketing, you have to actually take pics of your creative work (so much easier now!), upload those images, get comfortable talking/sharing/connecting online, and then get better.

Our first foundation is creating those accounts, and getting started. We have to stop worrying about how hard it seems, set aside our worries of being copied, what to share and say, worrying about how to get 10,000 followers, etc.

We have to get over counting the “likes” and focus on simply getting our art out into the world.

It’s not about having an audience. It’s about having a voice.

 Seth’s blog talks about “the team”, which through me for a moment. Until I figured that out, too! Stay tuned for next week’s article in this series: What is our team, and what is our team effort?

Your comments are always welcome, often insightful, and sometimes inspirational, too! Shares, the same. You can find more of my articles at Fine Art Views, and/or visit/subscribe to them at my blog at LuannUdell.wordpress.com.

DREAMERS AND MUSIC-MAKERS

My original shrines made a great display of my work! And now the dream continues….

Sometimes I surprise myself.

When I wrote “Art for Money, Money for Art”, I was solidly grounded in my story, my artwork. But the world sure wasn’t. Ever since I’d started my professional art career, it seemed like every day, the news was full of something dire. It began with 9/11 and marched through invading more and more Mid-Eastern countries. Galleries struggled, sales wavered, and then finally, the Recession of 2008 put a dagger in my hopes of becoming a “rich and successful” artist.

And yet, my principles remained strong. I knew I was making my work for all the right reasons, even as some people mocked me for being a “Pollyanna” about my slumping sales.

When the Recession hit a few years later, I did get a little desperate. For the first time, I submitted jewelry work to a mail-order catalog. I learned a lot, a few items were accepted and published, and I made enough sales to heal my drained bank account.

But I also learned that making something strictly for money, something that was a ‘sure seller’, something I had to make hundreds of, was not for me.

Okay, I’ll admit, if I had to actually pay my own rent and put food on the table, I would do it differently. As my wonderful partner has said, “I get paid pretty well to do the work I love. It’s not your fault the work you love doesn’t pay too well.” Thank you, sweetie!

It’s just that making something to please someone else, making the exact same thing in multiples, over and over, and the betting on a sample that might bring in some money but probably not, became pretty stressful. It drained me. I was relieved to return to my happy place in my art-making.

Segue to the pandemic, where sales dropped for everyone….

One day in my studio, as I was composing yet another beautiful necklace, it hit me. I love making jewelry with my artifacts. It’s my best-selling category, too.

But I realized my studio is already full of jewelry. I don’t really need to make more, except that making makes me happy. (I’m sure autocorrect is going crazy right now…)

And I realized there was a big project I’ve been holding in my heart for almost a decade or more. I could feel it calling to me: My shrine series, from 2013.

What held me back?

  • Some technical issues I couldn’t figure out.
  • A lack of materials.
  • Worrying about whether it would sell.

I decided to simply start with what I had, and see what happened.

What happened was a small miracle.

  • Yes, I hit those technical issues pretty quickly. And guess what? After some trial-and-error attempts, I eventually figured out a good way to manage them. They were so good, I actually went back and took some earlier pieces apart and redid them.
  • I started work in a series of colors, making multiple versions that were still unique.
  • I found sources for almost everything I needed: Tiny brackets, even tinier screws, new candidates for smaller boxes and drawers, and work-arounds for every issue that cropped up.

I now have almost completed fifty shrines in my studio. (“Completed” is a relative term. Next come artifacts, and then mounting them in the box shrines.) I have so many, I’m now panicking about an upcoming open studio in June. Because my shrines have commandeered every inch of space in my studio.

Thanks and a hat tip to Natalia Gorwalski, who generously gave me these little tool/parts drawers, now painted and waxed and ready for stacking!

What kept me awake in the middle of the night?

Wondering if they would ever even sell.

I know this worry for what it is: My brain trying desperately to find a “solution” to an overabundance of shrines.

So today’s article “Fresh Drive” by Sara Genn, landed at just the right time for me. (Sara continues the journey of her father, Robert Genn, with their blog, The Painter’s Keys. Any creative can benefit from their shared insights and wisdom.)

I am again restored me to my highest, best, artist self.

Genn discusses “intrinsic vs extrinsic drive”. Extrinsic drive are the external rewards we seek from whatever we do, based on “if/then”. “If I stick to my diet, I can lose weight.” “If I work overtime, I can get make more money.” “If I create a chart, I can get my kids to do their chores.” Extrinsic drive is good for establishing new habits, getting things done, attaining our goals, etc. I would add, ‘seeking fame and fortune’ to those extrinsic goals, which is also a common goal for artists.)

But it turns out that extrinsic drive can be toxic to creative work. “Artists, it seems, are inspired by everything but an extrinsic reward.”

Aha!

“Intrinsic motivation is dependent upon three main factors; autonomy, or auteurship; mastery, or the pursuit of excellence in a given skill; and purpose, the soul-driven intention behind a quest or endeavour. Finding out one’s purpose is a lifelong exercise — and should be mutable and ever-evolving.”

My drive to make these shrines is a way to use this pandemic to work on something that has no endgame right now. I want to see them in the world. Every new one I put together is so satisfying!

I was delighted to see my “Pollyana” outlook reinforced by Daniel H. Pink, one of my favorite authors:

“Daniel Pink, an expert on human motivation, has made a case for imploring businesspeople to understand what artists innately already practice: in the near-carrotless world of fine art, where the journey is often the only reward, the ideas are inherently better. Without a known destination or straight path to victory, artists dwell in the periphery of problems and solutions, forced to look around and take time to contemplate options and routes to discovery. The secret to meaningful conceptual thinking is to circumvent the obvious and embrace the mysteries. This is how we surprise ourselves and push beyond the “first thought.” While the first thought may be the most expedient, it will not advance the artform. You must commit, over and over again, to putting yourself in the arena of better ideas, so that a process of discovery can take hold.”

Once again, I feel validated.

I started with a “first thought”. Then I quickly ran into every obstacle that’s held me back for years.

But this time, Instead of setting everything aside until I had a ‘perfect’ solution, I simply started.

As problems arose along the way, I figured a way through them, one at a time. I changed my mind about a lot of things, and learned a lot along the way. And as I got better, so did my strategies for solving problems.

I still wake up in the wee hours, wondering how I’m going to handle this or manage that. I still look at my studio and wonder, “Where will I even put all these??” “Will these ever sell??” “Should I start looking for a gallery to send an exhibition proposal to???” “Are these as wonderful as I think they are, or am I just kidding myself?????”

Go back to sleep, lizard brain. I got this! My newest mantra for my lizard brain is, “I’ll figure that out when I get there….” And so far, it works!

So for all the artists I’ve heard from over the years, especially this past year, who worry about sales, who struggle to keep making their work, who want to know how to recreate a successful time in their art career, who wonder if it’s even worth it if they can’t sell it, etc., here is my free advice:

Do what you have to do, to survive these troublesome times.

But never surrender the work of your heart, your art, your dream project.

 Find a way to dive in, today, now! Make a little room in your day for it.

Set aside your self-doubt, your worry, your self-judgment for now. Do what brings you joy. (Says Luann, scrubbing turquoise paint off her hands and face for the tenth time this month.)

We are not wishful thinkers. We are the music-makers, and we are the dreamers of dreams.

Know that our artwork can inspire others on so many levels, in ways we can’t even imagine.

Follow your creative heart and never let it go.

Your comments are always welcome, often insightful, and sometimes inspirational, too! Shares, the same. You can find more of my articles at Fine Art Views, and/or visit/subscribe to my blog.

Small shrines, big shrines, and everything in between….

Musings and Muddling 2: What The Hell Is Water?

Thank you, Terry E. for the beautiful inspiration for my owl story

Musings and Muddling…Why Our Creative Work Matters

I’m in a swirl of new work and new ideas. And I’m also in a whirl of indecision, frustration, and unsolvable problems.

Every time I get stuck, I experience self-doubt. Feelings of not-doing-it-right. Afraid the world will finally see how how unworthy of the title “artist” I truly am.

I’ve been here before. And so have you. (We ALL have ‘creative work’ in us, according to my ever-inclusive definition: Any work that is a force for good, that makes the world a better place. That would be the “traditional” arts, including music, dance, drama, etc. But to me, it also means healing, teaching, restoring, repairing, repurposing, inventing, gardening, cooking, nurturing, etc.)

This morning I was searching my Pinterest page. I’m looking for a way to turn a flat object (okay, it’s my owl face artifacts) into a pendant. My usual methods won’t work, for a variety of reasons. The brooch/pendant converter doesn’t work, and using a glue-on bail would interfere with the look of the owl. Hence (my favorite part of “The House Bunny” movie is Anna Faris’s passionate use of this one word) my search on Pinterest, looking for ideas.

As I searched, I found one of my old blog posts from four years ago, How to Make Water.

And as I was finishing this up, a friend sent me this astonishing insight into the real nature of creativity, in a snippet of an interview with Elizabeth Gilbert. (Thank you, Gail M.!)

Basking in the astonishing wonder of synchronicity, aka “little daily miracles….)

So no solution yet, but this was exactly what I needed to read, and hear today.

Enjoy!

As always, if you enjoyed this article and know someone who might like it, too, please pass it on! And if you liked this newsletter and received it from someone else, you can sign up for more at my webiste, LuannUdell.com.

THE ECSTASY AND THE AGONY: Your Creative Cycle at Work

Not all parts of the creative process are fun…
Not all parts of the creative process are fun…

Not all parts of the creative process are fun…

 (5 minute read)

For the past week or so, my partner has been working feverishly on a new project.

He’s in high-tech, and the work he does is highly creative. Now, I can almost see some of you cringe. “He’s a nerd! NOT an artist!” I’ve heard that from people before. Sometimes I try to set them straight.

He is an extremely talented writer, who started off as an English major, tried his hand at fiction, but soon slid into non-fiction. He was awarded a prestigious Hopwood Award at the University of Michigan, a year or so after we met. His work was so good, it didn’t fit into any of their categories—so they created a new one, just for him. (He bought his first computer with the prize money.)

Yes, a computer. Because after he graduated, he worked in a department for the university. When the data management guy quit, Jon took over—and eventually taught himself coding. His superpower is using an open-source (“available for anyone to use or adapt”) information system, usually developed by others, and finding ways to create unique applications that meet the unique needs of each client he works with (“integration”). He has a skill for taking a product, and seeing the potential, usually outside of the original maker’s scope. He makes important work faster and easier for others.

If you don’t think developing new software to assist people in their creative work, that it isn’t creative in itself, please remember who the owner/developer of this blog is, and what he does, okay? (Hint: FASO? Clint Watson?)

He’s working on a new project. Typical of him, he dove into it headfirst, staying up late, getting up early, spending hours and hours in his workspace, on fire with this new idea and process he wants to bring into the world.

Then he finished it, exulting in all the issues, roadblocks, and problems he solved in the process.

Then, he crashed. He’s been in a deep depression ever since.

Okay, that’s the backstory. Where’s the creative lesson here?

This can be a normal part of the creative cycle process.

There are many different creative cycles.

 I took a workshop years ago with a creativity coach, Lyedie Geer. You can read more about her work at thelongingsproject.com. Here is the recommendation I wrote for her the next day:

“Last night I attended an amazing presentation by Integral Coach, Lyedie Geer. The focus was time management for creative people. I attended with much prejudice, assuming we were going to learn about day planners and Google calendar. I was prepared to be bored stiff and take away a nice idea or two. Well, Lyedie blew my socks off. Her presentation gave me a deeper understanding of my creative process, and how to use that understanding to focus even more on my creative and professional goals. Her information is the kind I would attend to many, many times, as I would ‘hear’ something different every time. The content is powerful, and Lyedie’s presentation style is earnest and heartfelt. Our entire audience of creative professionals (web designers, commercial photographers, graphic artists, etc.) stood up and applauded when she finished.”

 Welp, then we moved, and I can’t find my notes. But until I do, here is the U-theory graph that brought such amazement into my life.

There are other graphs and arcs and diagrams, of course, and many of them are good. But here’s the most important take-away:

You creative process cycle may be as unique as YOU.

The graph I learned was complex. The gist of it is, we start with the spark of a new idea, we go through experimental phases to explore it, figure out how to do it, how to perfect it.

And then, somewhere along the line we run into obstacles and setbacks. We get discouraged. We’re baffled, stymied, and frantic.

Many people walk away at this point. They believe they are too stupid to figure it out. They don’t see how it will make money, so why do it? They believe it’s just too hard, and so not possible. Or they postpone it until “the kids are grown” or “I retire”, when they believe they’ll finally have the time to devote to their creative work.

But perseverance pays off, we rise again, and we might just end up bringing something new into our work, our lives, and the lives of others.

And the cycle repeats.

In Jon’s case, he goes through this with determination and focus. I don’t think I’ve ever seen him stuck for long, because he keeps at it until he figures it out.

HIS funk arrives at the end, after he’s accomplished his goals.

He’s exhausted. It’s not clear it will be received well. It’s not certain it will catch.

That’s because it’s happened before: Major breakthroughs that get chucked (by others), don’t gather the approval of management. Don’t make it to the finish line. (Years ago, the entire company he worked for shut down forever, two days before he could launch his biggest project.) So maybe there’s that dread for him at the end of all his efforts.  (When it does make it through, people/clients love what he’s accomplished.)

Or maybe he’s depleted from lack of sleep, exhausted by a 100% effort. Kinda like how awful it is after you cross that marathon line, when your body lets you know how much pain it’s really in…..

But here’s the thing: This is his cycle. My heart aches for him, that he goes through so much emotional pain and physical exhaustion at the end. But this is how he creates.

I know, when another glimmer of a great idea appears, he will go after it with all his heart.

So when things get hard, when it feels like no one wants our work, when it feels like we aren’t “enough”, take some time to think…  Maybe you are at the hard part of your creative cycle.

Do what it takes to help you stay the course. Don’t accept “failure” as a measure of your success. It’s simply the hard part.

And the hard part can land anywhere. It doesn’t mean it isn’t worth doing.

What is your creative cycle?

As always, if you enjoyed this article, please feel free to share it. And if someone sent you this article and you liked it, you can sign up for more at Fine Art Views or my blog at LuannUdell.wordpress.com .

WHAT WE LOST: Lessons Learned from the Fires, My Aging Brain, and My Notebooks

Lessons Learned from the Fires, My Aging Brain, and My Notebooks
Lessons Learned from the Fires, My Aging Brain, and My Notebooks

What We Lost

Lessons Learned from the Fires, My Aging Brain, and My Notebooks

(8 minute read) 

I had a great idea for this week’s column. “Had”, not have. Because….where do I start??

Six months ago, I tried to clear my computer of old emails, because Google said I was “out of storage space.” My husband said it’s mostly photos that take up most of the space, so at first I only deleted emails with images already stored on my computer.

But the numbers didn’t go down much, so I began to delete more and more. At one point, my actions were moving so slowly, I thought I was doing it wrong, so I would hit “delete” several times before I’d see messages disappear. Which resulted in me accidentally deleting EVERY SINGLE EMAIL before 2018.

I didn’t think it would matter, until I realized a) that meant every single article I’ve sent to various magazines and online venues by email was also deleted; b) important conversations I wanted to refer back to were deleted; c) orders to companies for critical goods and services I only use every few years, were deleted.

Every week, there’s something I think of, and go, “Oh, I’ll search my email for that!” And then realize it’s gone, gone, gone.

Six weeks ago, I also got clarity on how to move forward with a project I’ve long carried in my heart. I needed to create my own “mounts” for displaying artifacts. I actually took an online class on mount-making for museum mounts just before we moved to California. I still have the book, I’m sure I saw it around that time, and went to look for it last week.

I can’t find it anywhere. I looked at home. Nope. I thought maybe I took it to the studio, but can’t find it there, either. I searched all my storage space at home. Nada. So I looked for it online, but it’s out of print. And Bookfinder.com, which usually comes to the rescue, only showed the folks that sell out-of-print books for thousands of dollars. I thought, “Oooh, I could search my emails for the rich conversations I had with my online teacher!” Then remembered….Oh, poo.

About that great idea for this column. I wrote it down, as is my habit, in my notebook, where I write down everything I need to remember: chores, appointments, commitments, insights, and yes, ideas for columns. I typically get 2-4 months of entries in each one, so that’s how much time is represented in each one.

Last Friday, I lost that notebook. I’ve searched high and low for it, even home, studio, storage. I’ve looked under furniture, car seats, inside backpacks packed for the fire evacuation, etc. I even called places I visited that day, asking if anyone has seen it or turned it in.

I feel like my brain is breaking!

And my biggest fear: This is a metaphor for the biggest fear for many of us, as we age, the loss of our memory. Scary stuff!

But is that the best metaphor?

Are we living computers, with memory that prevails for ages until injuries or conditions take them away? Is everything we “remember” even true? Are all our judgments and decisions that important over time?

Even as I wrote that, I looked once more on Bookfinder.com for the book, and found a copy that was affordable.

I visited a great hardware store that sold the brass rods I need to make those mounts, bringing samples and images of what I needed them for. A customer service rep assured me that making my own L hooks would be time-consuming, and there was an easier way to make those mounts with glue.

Yes, I miss the emails, still. But the articles aren’t actually “gone”, because they are somewhere in my documents file, even though it’s increasingly hard to find them. I will always regret some of the wonderful email conversations I’ve enjoyed over the years, but the healing, wisdom, and care I received from those are still with me.

And of course our most recent experience with our California wildfires helps put this all into perspective…..

The Kinkade fire was similar to the Tubbs fire in 2017 that destroyed 5% of the homes in Santa Rosa, except it wasn’t. Winds were less sustained, fire crews had more support, and they learned from the Tubbs fire. Almost 3,000 homes (over 5,000 buildings) burned in the Tubbs fire. Only 150 homes were lost in the Kinkade fire. There was more information available, because the lessons learned from 2017. Still not perfect, but a lot better. And most important? 22 people died in the Tubbs fire. The Kinkade fire? Zero.

This time, we had more time to think about what to take and what to leave behind, should we have to evacuate. I found it harder to leave my studio than our home!

These losses, real and imagined, concrete and anticipated, all sit in my heart today. Here are the gifts I’ve found there:

It’s hard for us to think about our unsold work, especially if it tends to outnumber our SOLD work. But at least it will go somewhere. It might sell after we pass, it may be gifted, it may be found in antique galleries and thrift shops, or heck, a yard sale! But that’s still better than having it all destroyed, for all time.

I’m frustrated at all the information I lost in that notebook. But I can find some of the more vital information (for taxes, etc.) I usually have a separate notebook for my more emotional/spiritual/blorting writing, and I still have all those! In fact, as I came across them while searching for my last journal, I’ve been pulling them out of storage and rereading them. My favorite so far is the year I recorded every funny thing my kids said. So many things I did not remember, until I read them again! So many setbacks and recoveries. So many problematic people for me to complain about, and so much insight gained on some, from good people.

The self-doubt I thought was new? Turns out I’ve had it since I took up my art! Yes, I was fearless in practice. But I still had to write my way to that place of power, over and over and over.

It was poignant to reread all my “biggest visions” and dreams I had for my art, that seem pretty small compared to the ones I’ve made in the last few months. Maybe I’ll surprise myself again, with even bigger ones!

It was empowering to read of the “dream galleries” I yearned to be accepted by, and so I get to contemplate the ones that worked out, and the ones that didn’t –and why.

We tend to think our lives, and our art career, as constantly moving forward, building and growing, or, if we’ve lost hope, stalled and pointless, when in reality there are peaks and valleys, profits and loss, insights and changes-of-heart, every step of the way.

Some of the things that felt like enormous roadblocks at the time, I usually referred to as “that incident”, or initials (if a person), and I can’t even remember who or what those were! They felt monumental at the time (and were!) And that stuff still happens, and will continue to happen. Hopefully, I will continue to move past them, and maybe even forget these, too.

And in the last year, several dear friends from my artistic path have popped up on my radar. No need to have those email conversations from decades ago! We now have new ones to savor and cherish.

That great idea I had for a column? It will either pop again, or it will be lost forever. No matter. Losing it inspired me to write this one instead.

I have a lot of unsold work in my studio. No matter! If it’s still around after I die, somebody will enjoy it, somehow. (I tell my kids how to manage my art and supplies when I’m gone: Give everybody a big bag to fill and charge them $250. They’ll make a mint!)

Even trying to jot down every idea, inspiration, question, isn’t proof against forgetting something, even something important.

Every day we will overlook an opportunity to get better, do better, find better, help better.

 And every day, we will find a new one.

As you make the work of your art, know that we can never be completely in control of our hopes, our thoughts, our intentions, our efforts.

We can only do our best. Because we are only human. Imperfect, inefficient, bad memories, displaced anger, trying to see our path in a firestorm of life events. 

It’s our greatest flaw, and our greatest super power.  Especially because we are artists, makers, creatives, constantly striving to use our work to have our say in the world, to tell our story, in ways that are good for the world. 

Embrace it! Go to the studio today, and make something that brings you joy.

And hold on to your dreams. Even one small step today will bring you closer to their fruition. You won’t know until you try.

If you enjoyed this today, please share it with someone you think would enjoy it, too!

If someone sent you this, and you’d like more of the same, subscribe to Fine Art Views for more insights from different artists.  And if you want to read more of my writing, subscribe to my blog at at LuannUdell.wordpress/com.

WAITING

This post is by Luann Udell, regular contributing author for FineArtViews. She’s blogged since 2002 about the business side–and the spiritual inside–of art. She says, “I share my experiences so you won’t have to make ALL the same mistakes I did….”  For ten years, Luann also wrote a column (“Craft Matters”) for The Crafts Report magazine (a monthly business resource for the crafts professional) where she explored the funnier side of her life in craft. She’s a double-juried member of the prestigious League of New Hampshire Craftsmen (fiber & art jewelry). Her work has appeared in books, magazines, and newspapers across the country and she is a published writer.

(7 minute read)

Sometimes I have tons of ideas for articles. Sometimes, not so much.

I keep a supply of ideas, rough drafts, etc. so when I’m not inspired, I’ll have something to talk about. Today is one of those days.

So here from the “drafts” section is a one-liner that leapt out at me. Awhile back, I found a quote from “A Serpent’s Tooth”, a book by Craig Johnson (whose series inspired the “Longmire” TV show.)

Sometimes we spend our lives thinking we’re doing something, when in reality all we’re doing is waiting.

Underneath this, I’d typed “What are you waiting for?”

I have no idea why that quote hooked me. I’ve come back to it from time to time, and thought, “Why did I write that down?” Then on to other things.

But today, it stopped me in my tracks. It resonated differently this time.

What are we waiting for???

I’ve been trying to assist a loved one in their goal to “really get started” with their life: “I want a real career, but I’m such a loser, I’ll never figure it out!” “I fail at everything, and I’m behind in life!” “I don’t know what I want, and I never will!” “You don’t understand!!!”

When someone we care about is caught in these never-ending loops, there’s very little we can do. Except listen, try not to give advice (especially when nothing we say is considered valuable in the first place), and to simply be present. It’s not easy. It’s hard. Heavy. And harsh.

But today, when I came across that quote, I realize I’m the one in the never-ending loop.

What am I waiting for?? I ask myself….

I am amazed at the clarity that surfaces.

I am surrounded by the detritus from my fourth studio move in five years. Some stuff has been sold off, some has been donated, and some is simply destined for the scrap heap.

But as a mixed media artist (and a highly-evolved hunter-gatherer!), I have learned to see the beauty in everything. A pebble, a bird feather, a weathered stick, a button, all have potential in my eyes.

So, too, those really ugly pearls I bought on impulse that I cannot bring myself to use. The bags of milk paint I was sure would be perfect for painting old wood boxes. The damaged frames piled up in my studio, dinged and danged from too many venues, too much packing and unpacking, not enough bubble wrap.  “Maybe I can fix them and sand them and repaint them,” I think to myself.

but then I caught myself:

Is that the highest, best use of my time? Probably not.

When I had to clear all that stuff out to make room for said family member’s arrival, I realized it was time to get brutal. Er….but not too brutal.

That’s where the idea to host an artists garage sale came from, a few weeks ago. The first time I organized one, it sucked up so much time and energy, I didn’t have time to organize my own stuff and get it priced and ready to sell. On the other hand, it was hugely successful! People begged me to do it again next year. Unfortunately, I moved to California instead.

This time will be different. A lot of people in our two buildings are already onboard, as well as the building managers. I can set up a table inside my own studio. I can use my Square to take payments. I will have people helping with posters, publicity, and table-wrangling.

OK…..What else am I waiting for?

I struggled with a few great galleries that’s accepted me as a guest artist. But 2018 through the first half of 2019 was filled with many deaths in the family, many trips for last visits, funerals, support. I could barely take care of myself, let alone my art biz. I dropped the ball on restocking, attending receptions, staying in touch. And I realized my sales in New Hampshire galleries had dropped off to practically nothing. (Some had dropped my work, some had only older work, etc.)

Out of the blue, one gallery asked me to restock. When I did, they followed up with, “Um…these new designs you sent….do you have more??!” Yes, I did, and sent them on.

That inspired me. So a month ago, I reached out to all my League of NH Craftsmen galleries, hoping one or two would pick me up again.

To my surprise and delight, six of them wanted me back in! This past month has been spent creating new work and new designs, creating a cohesive collection for each one, tagging, labeling, creating an inventory sheet. Now working on packing and shipping.

That inspired me to reach out to a local gallery, where my inventory had really languished under my neglect. The last time I visited, I found they’d increased the number of jewelry artists, and my display was woefully inadequate. I swallowed my pride, and asked them if they still wanted my work.

They did! Turns out all the members loved my work (okay, most of them do.) The larger works were great attention-getters, but slow sellers. I took them back. Tomorrow, I’ll be setting up a new display with new work (and higher prices!)

What else am I waiting for?

I’ve been feeling cut off from my friendship network. Was I waiting for people to reach out to me? Yes, I was. And this week, one new local friend did reach out, a small artist support group I started took an important “next step up” (which was powerful), and another friend started a neighborhood women’s gathering. I was going to go. “I’m too busy! I don’t have time! I hate gatherings with people I don’t know!”

But I went, and had a wonderful time. I think everybody did. Afterwards, we all responded to the group text information with words like, “This was exactly what I didn’t know I needed today!”

Sometimes, when we are feeling overwhelmed by life and its myriad complications, in trying to create balance with making our artwork and marketing it, it’s easy to get caught up in “fixing it”. If only I had…..! If only I knew someone….! If only I knew how to…! If only I knew what I really wanted!!!!

We end up waiting. For what?

Do we wait til we’re sure we’ll succeed, before beginning that big new work?

Do we wait til we’re sure we’re “good enough” before we explore gallery representation? (I find the people who are really good who hesitate the longest!)

Are we waiting for a “sign from the universe” before we take on a new challenge? Do we wait until we find the perfect solution to our problem? Have a straight 8-10 hours to start that new work? Do we believe we have to clean our entire studio before we can get back to work after a hiatus, rather than just clear off that one surface we need to start it?

I remember a friend’s wise words one morning a few years ago, when I texted to say I was totally confused about what to do about the stuff on “plate”. She replied, “I sit with uncertainty everyday until Clarity makes her presence known.” If that sends a shiver down your spine like it did mine, you might like to read more about Sheri Gaynor’s life work here.

Today, I sat. I poked around, hoping for a little clarifty.

And there it was, in my own notes, just waiting to be found.

Sometimes we wait for clarity. Sometimes we go looking for clarity. Sometimes it’s right where we left it, just under our noses.

Have you experienced this? Been unable to “fix” an issue that seemed to complicated, too random, with no solution… And then seen clarity what was needed, and what you had to do? How did that work out for you?

Please share! I’d love to hear your story, and I’m sure others will, too.

As always, if you like this article, please share with someone you think would enjoy it.

And if someone shared this with you, and you’d like to read more, you can subscribe to the Fine Art Views newsletter (with many other authors contributing!), or sign up at my blog at LuannUdell.wordpress.com.

 

 

 

I WRITE FOR MYSELF and Maybe for You

I’ve always known my writing is not for everyone. Some folks expect more concrete “do this” and less “we’re all in this together, and that will make us better”. That’s okay, I get that.

Sometimes that’s what I’m looking for, too. Like today. Why do none of my LED bulbs work in my old booth lighting fixtures??”  (The results: It’s complicated.)

The thing is, when people criticize my writing because that’s what they’re looking for, it’s really a moot point. There are other writers who will give them that.

Me? I share when I’m stuck or overwhelmed, or when I’m feeling “less-than”, and how I got through that, as close to “in the moment” as I can.

But here’s the deal with the “just the facts’, ma’am” approach:

I’m a woman, born in the ’50’s, who never saw an artist growing up. (There was one potter in the county I grew up in, but I only heard of her after I graduated high school, and never saw their work.) I was raised to blend in, to go along, not to talk back, and to be nice.

There were school budget constraints that created a total lack of actual art education.

My college art history textbooks featured no women artists. One author even stated publicly he did not believe women could be considered “real artists”, and of course, that meant no women artists were featured in his book until 1987.

1987.

1987, people!!!!! Nineteen effin’ eighty-seven.

Janson’s History of Art has become so problematic as Janson’s own personal canon of “real art” is, that efforts to be more representative still can’t restore its usefulness in art history education.

You know where all the women are in art history? Nudes, as subjects. For the shock value, and publicity.

I’ve seen and read examples of many, many women supporting their male partner’s art career, often at the expense of their own. The Wife, anyone?

I cannot recall one instance of a man doing the same for his wife. (Some wives-of-artists even have a secondary career of advice-giving of how to be a successful artist. Without admitting that it can be hard for us wives to have our own “wife”.)

(Full disclosure here: I could not afford to have a studio nor have an art career, nor even to be a writer, were it not for the fact that my partner’s work pays 100x more than my meager income. And he helps with computer issues all the time. But he does not do my marketing, my correspondence, my social media, sales, shop upkeep, etc.)

Even in workshops on technique, and writing about marketing, most folks refer to famous male artists. It took the Netflix “comedy” special Nanette to share the real reason Van Gogh is famous, and to frame his situation for modern art-lovers. (Van Gogh’s work was hampered by his mental health issues, not inspired by it, and his work is visible today not because he was “good at marketing”, but because “…he had a brother who loved him.”

Although making your place in the art world can be harder if you are a woman, there are several things I also am, that make it a little easier for me. I’m white. (Not a person of color.) I’m middle class. (Not born into poverty, and I was able to attend college.) (No, my family didn’t “buy” my way in, either.) I identify as a woman. (Not LGBTQ.) I was raised Christian. (Not Muslim, Jewish, or any other religion that some consider “less than”.) (And though I now identify myself as agnostic.)

All of these identities are in my favor, NOT because they make me “better than”, but because some believe these traits make us “less than.” (It does not.) These folks have far more difficulty navigating the waters of our culture, throughout our history, and to this day, unfortunately.

Then of course, there is our choice of media we use to tell our story. I cannot tell you how many times people have told me I’m not a “real artist” because of my choice of media. I work in fiber (“That’s craft!”) and polymer (“That’s just fake clay, and clay is just a craft, too!”)

There are those who tell me I’m an awful writer, because I tell a story rather than simply “get to the point and tell me what to do!” (At one point, after someone complained my articles were too damn long, I put things like “5 minute read” in the bylines. In case, you know, five minutes was too much of a drain on their time.)

So when I write, I write for myself first. I write to reassure myself–and other artists who feel the same way–that our work IS needed in the world. It DOES serve a “purpose”–it’s our voice, our chance to have our say.  Yes, making money from making our art is wonderful, empowering. But even if we don’t, we still have to find the time and energy to make it, if only for ourselves.

.And so when I write, I write for myself. To inspire myself. To remind myself, that though there are some who still would not consider me a “real artist”, the only person who can stop me from making my art (barring a drunk driver) is myself.

And the one single factor that keeps most of us from creating is…..

Doubt.

Such a little word, and so much damage comes from it! I came across this quote recently, but I can’t trace it to the original author.

Doubt kills more dreams than failure ever will.

This is why I share my writing with you.

Doubt kept me from trying harder. From making good decisions about my life work until my early 40’s. Doubt kept me from calling myself an artist, until I hit the wall, hard. Until the day I knew I had to do the work of my art, or I would destroy everything around me with bitterness. Doubt made me frightened, weak, and full of excuses why I wouldn’t take my work seriously.

Once I learned to pat doubt on its head, shush it lovingly, and move it back to its corner, failure was nothing. Failure I could deal with. Because if you give it your best shot, if you try and do your best, and fail? Well, at least you tried.

And then we learn to try again. And again. And again, until we either find a way through, or realize we will build a different path over, under, and around that obstacle in our way.

So when I share my beginnings, when I share my setbacks, when I share how I healed my toxic self-image, it’s because I want you to have what I have:

Hope.

Hope, and courage, inspiration, and strength, and my own definition of success.

I want this for every single artist I meet.

And though we may never meet in person, I want this for YOU.

Hope is the thing with feathers

Emily Dickinson1830 – 1886

Hope is the thing with feathers  
That perches in the soul,  
And sings the tune without the words,  
And never stops at all,  
   
And sweetest in the gale is heard;          
And sore must be the storm  
That could abash the little bird  
That kept so many warm.  
   
I’ve heard it in the chillest land,  
And on the strangest sea;         
Yet, never, in extremity,  
It asked a crumb of me.

 

 

 

GRATITUDE

Take a tiny moment to say ‘thank you’, and count your blessings!

I’m an artist. And as an artist, my first responsibility is to make my art. It’s what restores me to my better self, makes me whole and centered. I make it for myself, first.

I know this first-hand, and many good friends remind me of this constantly. For example, the one who sent me a card with this quote:

People like you must create.

If you don’t create, Luann, you will become a menace to society.

(the note also says, “With apologies to Maria Semple, author of “Where’d You Go, Bernadette”. See last paragraph in Part 3.”) (Thanks and a hat tip to Amy Helen Johnson!) (Yes, I bought the book.)

Our second responsibility is to put it out in the world. We mostly interpret this as selling our art, and making a living with our art. Some fortunate, hardworking few can do this. But walking away from the work of our heart, simply because we can’t sell it, is  hurtful. (See “first responsibility”, above.)

There are lots of ways to get our work out into the world. If you make art, you can make it, share it, give it away, sell it, exhibit it, teach it, collaborate with it, write about it, donate it, etc. etc. The same with writing. The internet makes this almost effortless.

Yes, selling is wonderful–unless you get caught up in the selling, to the exclusion of everything else. Vincent Van Gogh’s work was only sold to his brother. (Do you have 3 minutes? Watch this heartbreakingly powerful snippet of a video about this.) (I dare you not to tear up.) And ironically, the most commercially successful artist of our time seems to have lost everything of value in a life dedicated to fame and fortune.

Somerwhere in the middle is where I’d like to end up.

So I recently stepped up my game in regard to selling. This came after realizing I was struggling to sell a $24 pair of earrings to a casual visitor in my studio. Realizing that one gallery hadn’t sold one single piece of my work in a year. Reflecting that most of my out-of-state galleries were struggling to sell my work.  A local gallery that reached out to represent me, finally said they love love love my work (another line that’s fun, but not my “heart” work) just wasn’t selling, and they needed to set me free.

I felt like a failure. (Hey! 2017 was a weird year!)

Then I realized, why should I focus on making $24 earrings??? Why should I base my definition of success on income alone? Why was I falling for the same emotional/spiritual/inaccurate measuring stick I constantly counsel and warn artists against????

So…I upped my game.

I cleared my studio of the fun-but-inexpensive work, focused on the work of my heart.

I realized that just because I’m now writing weekly for an art marketing newsletter doesn’t mean I’m off the hook with my blog.

I reevaluated, recentered, and refocused on my biggest vision for my art. And I cleaned house on my Etsy site, and focused on the work I have on hand, my best work, and moved forward.

I decided to make the work that makes me happy, and not the work I think I can sell.

What happened?

Another gallery in the same town as the one that cut me loose, took on my work two weeks. And they’ve already made a sale.

The gallery in Santa Rosa has been selling steadily, and it just keeps getting better and better.

A gallery that hadn’t sold any of my work in a year, sold a MAJOR PIECE. And another big (for me) piece the same day.

And I’ve had five sales in my Etsy shop this month. (A lot for me!)

But that’s not all. Every single sale has resulted in a message from the buyer, telling me how much they love love love what I do, how it speaks to them, and how even more amazing it is in person.

Wow. Just…..wow.

Today I got home to a beautiful email from a delighted buyer. I always respond, with gratitude and joy.

But because I’m human, because I’m afraid to be too happy, afraid to be too hopeful, I tend to respond well outside. But inside, I hold back. Thinking, “Well, that’s great, but…..” “Don’t get a swelled head, because…..” “Don’t get your hopes up because…..”

But this time, I read that email. And something told me….

Be in this moment.

Embrace this moment. Stop and celebrate it.

This moment is the blessing, the extra gift, that comes for making my work and getting it out into the world.

Take note of this moment.

I remembered, decades ago, a wise woman I crossed paths with, who shared a powerful insight with me.

When we really want something, she said, there is a centering, empowering way to ask.

Stand up, head bowed, humbly. Think of what your heart desires. Breathe in, breathe out. Then stand tall. Expand.

Raise your head, open your arms, and hands. Look to the heavens above.

And simply ask, with all your heart, what it is you desire.

The very first time I did this, I was in an antique store. I’d been looking for years for a wonderful book that was long out of print. (This was years before I finally discovered Bookfinder.com, the absolute best tool for finding any book in the world.)

I thought, what the heck? I did the mantra.

And when I was done, I look up. I saw a bookcase in the booth across the room. I walked to it.

And I found the book.*

So today, before I could diminish my joy, before I could “be logical” about my delight in this sale, and this email note from my buyer, I decided to take a moment to celebrate.

I did my little ceremony.

But instead of asking for anything, I simply said….

“Thank you.”

In these days of “Be careful what you wish for”, in these days of “Yeah, but….”, in these days of, as Anne Lamott succinctly put it, “…compar(ing) our insides to other people’s outsides”, in these days of internet fame and viral prodigies, in these days of FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out), in these days of wondering, “Will I ever be a successful artist?”, without ever stopping to think of what “success” means to YOU….

Take a minute to give thanks.

To count your blessings.

To feel the full joy of having a voice in the world.

And the unexpected delight of having someone else hearing your song.

Now…go to your studio and make stuff.

 

*David and the Phoenix (Illustrated) by Edward Ormondroyd, if you want to know, and it’s been reprinted since then.

(OH,  and you can see my Etsy shop here.)

 

WHO IS A REAL ARTIST?

My column for Fine Art Views, on all the ways to make room for your art:

Who Is A Real Artist?

STAMP OUT FOMO!!!

Fear Of Missing Out results in so very many, so very bad decisions.

Shrine Red Deer Clan 1
THIS….is what matters. Shrine Series: Clan of the Red Deer. The bottom antler is real. The boxes are restored antique boxes. Everything else is polymer clay.

 

Today’s little Venn diagram from Indexed (by Jessica Hagy) sums up this week’s brain buzz (mine) pretty well:

FOMO. Aka, Fear Of Missing Out.

Whenever I see an artist who’s more successful than I am, whenever I see a booth that’s busier than mine at a fair, when another artist is mobbed at a gallery I’m in, I freak out inside.

Whenever I see someone whose work is so amazing and powerful, I writhe with envy.

Whenever I see someone who seems to have nabbed every lovely opportunity/venue/award/kudos/publicity spot under the sun, I die inside a little.

Because I’m sure I’m missing out. 

I’m sure that person has it figured out. I’m sure they’re more savvy in their marketing, more practiced in their technique. I’m really sure they’re ‘on trend’, riding that glorious 15 foot wave with the perfect curl, hair blowing in the wind, dolphins cavorting in their wake squealing, “You GO, grrl!” (Or “Way to go, dude!”)

I mope in my studio, trying to figure out what will sell. Trying to figure out what I’m doing wrong. Trying to figure out how I’ll pay my business debts.

Will I ever write another book? Will I ever be a successful artist again? (Relatively speaking….) Will I ever be that cool, sophisticated artist who “explores the interstices of form and chaos, reveling in the capricious nature of conforming and rebellion. As momentary derivatives become clarified through emergent and academic practice, the viewer is left with a clue to the possibilities of our culture.” (Okay, I totally stole that last line from Arty Bollocks, the online artist statement generator.)

Jessica Hagy’s illustration brings a touch of clarity to the buzz. “What you’ve heard” vs. “What matters” is simply “PR trumping journalism”.

It’s the lizard brain reacting, instead of the work that is in your heart resonating.

It’s not who comes by. It’s who comes back.

It’s not about how many people will like my work. It’s about introducing my work to a new audience, even if that’s a handful of people.

It’s not how much money I make at any given show. It’s about being at least successful enough to keep moving forward. And being brave enough to try.

I love, love, love making whimisical jewelry from vintage buttons and old radio resistors. And I love making freshwater pearl jewelry. But only I can tell my story, the one that reveals how the Lascaux cave became a metaphor for my entire body of work.

And so I soothe my fevered brain today. Yes, it’s been awhile since I’ve set up for a show, especially ones that are limited in space. Yes, I worry about my prices with a new audience. Yes, I have no idea where half my booth stuff is, and whether my car is big enough to pack what I need.

But this isn’t about creating a smaller booth orthe best display, it’s not about  looking professional (arrrrrgh!!), it’s not about doing it perfectly.

It’s about getting my art out into the world again, in a new place, in unfamiliar territory…one small step at a time.

OH, almost forgot: I’ll be at the San Francisco Center for the Book’s Holiday Craft Fair this Saturday, Nov. 21, from 10-5. It’s on Rhode Island Street. That’s all I know.

OH, forgot again: Thank you, Jessica Hagy!!!!

Luann Udell resistor jewelry
I love using old resistors to make kicky jewelry, too.
IMGA0777 (773x1024)
My vintage button earrings, with antique trade bead ‘flowers’.

 

 

 

STORMY WEATHER, SUMMER VERSION: Lessons From a Bunny

Reflections from Stormy Weather, a story I wrote 8 years ago, and still can’t read without crying.

I work well under pressure…even if I have to create it myself (damn it!)

I’ve had all these visions in my head for a wonderful new body of work for months. And now that I’m on fire with making them visible in the world, I’m running out of time.

To be fair, the delay wasn’t all my fault. I really was stuck. Couldn’t move forward. Too many technical obstacles.

Simply put, I want to create displays–permanent display cases–showcasing my artifacts and animals, including jewelry. I imagine them sitting on table tops or wall hung, each one a shrine. Collectors can use them as I make them. Or they can add their own favorite objets de mémoire et le désir, as many customers have done. (You send pictures, people! I LOVE that.)

Soon I was overwhelmed with questions:
Where do I get the boxes? Okay, make that affordable boxes?
What kind of boxes will work? How do I refinish or restore them to keep/create that old, worn well-used look?
What about the mounts? Despite taking a terrific online mount-making class, I still can’t solder brass. What about using the steel stands I already have? Wait–I need more! But they’re getting to expensive to have custom-made!!

Here comes my friend and mentor, Gary Spykman, to the rescue! (Gary’s new venture is here.)

I’ve been a guest in his workshop the last four months, and he’s helped me find the answers to all these questions. I’ve learned to size up a good box candidate, determine what it needs to get the right “look”, where to find the necessary products and tools, how to order the parts for steel stands and hammer them together myself. I’ve learned a lot, and look forward to…well, soldering brass pretty soon.

I never thought the damn polymer would stymie me.

I tried to put together a magnificent new animal sculpture. I had a vision, and I knew all the techniques. Surely that would be the “easy” part, right?

Nah.

It all came apart late last night. (Literally and figuratively.)

Yes, the pic is fuzzy.  I don't want you to see how badly broken the antlers are.
Yes, the pic is fuzzy. I don’t want you to see how badly broken the antlers are.

And again, to be fair, I’m working outside my comfort zone, trying new sculpture techniques, experimenting. Always scary territory for an artist, and one that probably shouldn’t be undertaken two weeks before the damn thing is due at the exhibit.

This morning I took as long as I could to check my email and surf my tribal forms (e.g., the forum at BeadCollector.net and Facebook.) But finally, I had to admit it was time to start over with new antlers. (Oops!)

As I mixed up more clay, I saw a funny scrap of raw clay on my worktable.

It looked like….a rabbit.

Tell me I'm not crazy--do you see the bunny??
Tell me I’m not crazy–do you see the bunny??

So I made a rabbit bead.

My first bunny bead, ready to "fire".
My first bunny bead, ready to “fire”.

Rabbits and I go way back. I’ve written many times about the life lessons my beloved Bunster has taught me.

And I’ve noticed that, in the world, so many, many times, the things people write about/rant about/resent/judge are the very things they carry so painfully in their own hearts. Myself included. This astonishing article about Debbie Miller and her advice about taking creative risks and daring to be our true selves–which she never took herself until recently–resonated with me today. Beautiful,powerful words–if only we could really hear them!!!

It’s like writing about these things helps US be brave. And hopefully, helps readers, too.

And maybe I’m being too harsh. Maybe we can’t hear these words until the ground is ready to receive them.

So what am I writing about today?

I’m writing about not being afraid.

But I’m actually writing about being very very afraid.

Afraid my work will be judged (again!) by unhappy, vindicative people.
Afraid my work is just a bad, sad echo of people who are much further on the cutting edge of polymer than I will ever be.
Afraid I am not worthy of making the stuff I make.

And yet I have to make it.

And so the rabbit.

Lee’s words come back to me like a prayer:

“Quit reading about the fear!” he exclaimed. “Be ordinary! You are creative—make your art!” He bent over to stroke Bunster, and his voice became gentle again. “Be like your bunny. She’s fearful—but she has a place in this world…”

I have a place in this world….

My art, my writing, my buzzing brain, my restless dreams, my searching, searching, searching for what I bring to this world…and what will be forgotten as soon as I’m gone, my best intentions and my worst fears, my generous and gracious soul and all my many, many, many shortcomings…

All have a place in this world.

Sometimes it’s okay to be ordinary….

If it gets you to an extraordinary place in your heart, eventually.

CLEANING MY DESK

Here’s a link to the column I wrote for the art marketing blog at Fine Art Views:

Cleaning My Desk

I hope it helps you with your next studio housekeeping chore!

THE END OF THE YEAR: Still Standing

It’s been awhile since I’ve written here. Thank you to all of you who wrote, because of the silence, to ask if anything was wrong.

There were some scary things going on this holiday season. It’s been impossible to share them, for many reasons. The main reason is, to do so would violate the privacy of someone I love more than my life. It’s not really my story; I was a bystander who got caught in the backlash of the tornado.

After the worst of the storm had passed, and things looked more like normal (and I am very, very grateful for normal), I wondered why I wasn’t bouncing back as quickly as I usually do. I felt violated, stripped of my reason-to-be, and off-balance about the role art plays in my life.

Two things have put me back on the path.

One is a children’s book I’ve been reading this week. It’s the finale to Susan Cooper’s marvelous series THE DARK IS RISING, about the battle between good and evil in the world. called “Silver on the Tree”. I found “Silver on the Tree” at a thrift shop last week, snatched it up and read it.

Near the end, the heroes venture through a beautiful kingdom, a land of makers and craftspeople, singers and story-tellers, in search of a magic sword to help them in their quest. The king of that land, the maker of the Crystal Sword, sits alone in his castle, immobilized these many long years and silent.

And right there, on page 161, is this amazing passage:

(The enemies of the Light,) they showed the maker of the sword his own uncertainty and fear. Fear of having done the wrong thing–fear that having done this one great thing, he would never again be able to accomplish anything of great worth. Fear of age, of insufficiency, of unmet promise. All such endless Fears, that are the doom of people given the gift of making, and lie always somewhere in their minds. And gradually he was put into despair…..Despair holds him prisoner, despair, the most terrible creation of all.”

I saw myself.

To be open to the world, to be open to your creativity, also means we are exceptionally vulnerable to the dark forces of the world.

When we are open to the chaos of possibility, we are also vulnerable to the chaos of evil.

Even as we delight in the small fierce flame of creation, in ourselves and in others, we are in danger of someone carelessly, deliberately, cruelly, snuffing it out for the sheer enjoyment of tormenting us.

It’s frightening to realize the world has such people in it. They’re surprisingly hard to see, too. In fact, they may be the most charming person you’ve ever met.

Your only clue may be how awful you feel about yourself after dealing with them. How inadequate you feel, how selfish you see yourself, how useless your talents are to the world.

And because you yourself have let in that despair, only you can see it, and only you can tell it to leave.

There’s no logic to it, except this:
You can accept there is evil in the world, and give in to it.
Or you can say there is also good in the world–and embrace it.

I have to choose the latter.

I have to believe in what I do, and in who I am.

The other thing that’s a miracle today, is a little piece of paper I found while cleaning piles and piles of my crap for a party we’re having tonight.

It’s typical of my little notes to myself: Written on a torn sheet of paper, some little thought–the title of a book, an idea, an insight–in an futile attempt to shed some of the mind-slurry that is my brain into something that might help me organize. Or at least remember!

In the middle of a list of books is a quote:

Writing is a meditation for you.”

I have no idea where it came from, or who said it. It sounds like something my friend Quinn MacDonald would say. Heck, maybe I said it! But surely I would have remembered….??

What matters is this: It’s true.

I need to write to process what happens to me. My lack of writing has delayed my healing.

I’ve been writing, privately, the last few days, after this long drought. And slowly, my heart is making sense of the last two months’ events. And some peace is restored in my soul.

So I find myself at the end of the year. It’s been a hard, hard winter already, and many more dark, cold nights ahead.

But now I know this for sure:

When winter comes, can spring be far behind?

And I am so very grateful for these two tiny, wonderful miracles in my life today–a torn piece of paper, and a well-worn old book.

And I’m grateful for my marriage, my children, my family, and friends, and dogs who sleep on your feet at night, and cats who try to sleep on your head.

LESSONS FROM HOSPICE #2: Being Right

I had an unsettling experience recently during a hospice assignment. An employee of a facility where I was meeting a client challenged my right to be there and essentially sent me packing.

I was humiliated and ashamed. And, I’ll admit it, indignant and angry.

What floors me today is that I acted on the first feelings.

After sobbing my heart out, I left a message for my volunteer supervisor (who is amazing, btw) to tell her what had happened. I thought I had ‘ruined’ hospice for our client and proven myself to be an utter failure as a hospice volunteer.

When my supervisor called back, she did what she always does. (Did I mention she was amazing?) She assured me I had done nothing wrong, and she would investigate.

Within 24 hours, I was totally vindicated. It turns out the employee was a per diem worker who was totally unfamiliar with hospice and its goals. And I had done the right thing by apologizing and leaving, and letting more appropriate people handle the situation.

In my morning pages, today, I noted that my last entry had been an impulse to go visit my hospice client. I acted on that impulse, thinking I was choosing the ‘best action’ for me that day. I wrote how badly that had ended, but that I had also been vindicated.

I looked up ‘vindicated’. It comes from an ancient Latin word, and has come to mean :…shown or proven to be right, reasonable, justified. To be avenged.”

But I was startled to learn that the original Latin meaning came from a word meaning ‘claim’. And originally meant “to free someone from servitude by claiming him as free.”

I’m astonished. Because I realize what actually happened was not just that someone had accused me of bad judgment….

But I had chained myself to their bad opinion of me.

I allowed myself to be held captive to someone else’s judgment. Worse–someone else’s bad judgment.

In my heart, I knew I’d done nothing unprofessional or hurtful. But given this young person’s world view–she didn’t have as much information about the situation as I did, she was inexperienced, and she had no hospice training–I can see why she thought–and spoke–the way she did.

On the other hand, she was chained to her pride–her belief that she had all the facts and that despite her inexperience, she knew best. And I allowed my world view to be overshadowed by hers.

In the end, we can only ask ourselves, “What is best for this client? Are his needs being served?” So, I did the right thing, and left. Reported to the appropriate people and let them navigate the inside politics and processes of the facility.

The client will get what he needs–extra care during these difficult times. Hopefully, the employee will get what she needs–knowledge about hospice.

And perhaps, at my ripe old age(no, I’m not telling today, because yesterday someone said I looked 20 years younger), maybe I will get what I need….as a hospice volunteer, as an artist, as a wife and mother, as a writer, as an ordinary human being walking the earth today, in this moment.

I pray for what I need today:

The ability to let go of the need to be right. The ability to not buckle to someone else’s unkind opinion of me. To not chain my feelings of self-worth to the judgment of others.

To know my own worth, and the value of my own actions and thoughts, unless they are truly working from a place of love and kindness.

To trust my heart.

To lose my need to feel vindicated, and to realize I am already free.

KICKBOXING AND ART–What Do They Have in Common?

Who knew exercise could be so educational!?

(This article was originally published on Wednesday, January 07, 2004)

What do kickboxing and pursuing a career in art have in common?

My kickboxing instructor had a handout for us recently. Entitled : “Cycle of Performance/Formula for Success”, it was a brief description of the learning process for, in this case, martial arts. It had four little phrases on it:

INCEPTION: Unconsciously incompetent

DECEPTION: Consciously incompetent

TRANSFORMATION: Consciously competent

IDENTITY: Unconsciously competent

We talked about it during class. It provided “aha!” moments for many of us. Turns out this little handout explains more than how to learn martial arts; It’s an insightful road map into any life endeavor we pursue. It goes something like this:

Inception, the first stage, is that wonderful, giddy stage of learning a new skill, the excitement of potential. I remember the first time I sat down to a wheel with a lump of clay. I was fearless! I plopped down the clay, centered it, made a cylinder and pulled out my first pot. It was great! It was easy! I thought so, anyway. ” I must be a natural!” I remember thinking.

I was “unconsciously incompetent“. I was gloriously unaware of what I didn’t know yet, and how hard it would be to recreate my initial success. I was so thrilled with with my “innate” abilities that I smashed that first pot down, confident I could throw another just as easily the next time.

You know what comes next. The next class, I sat down confidently to throw my next ball of clay.

And nothing happened. I mean, nothing right happened. I couldn’t center the clay for the life of me. I kept trying until I had a sloppy plop of drooly clay. I threw it aside and tried another ball. Same thing. Slightly daunted, but still game, I tried to raise a cylinder from the wobbly mass. What a disaster! I went home discouraged.

My next class was just as discouraging and I turned to slab work, making a few simple tiles and such. But I was overwhelmed with failure. I had entered the dreaded second Deception stage, “consciously incompetent“. I recognized how much I didn’t know, and how much I still had to learn. The ration looked something like 1:1,000,000, if you what I mean.

If you’ve ever taught, you know how difficult it is to even observe this stage in others, let alone go through it yourself. Frustration bubbles to the surface, masking everything else. You are totally aware of how bad you really are at this. No matter how many times you practice, you don’t seem to get any better. You can’t seem to do anything right. Pots plop, your kicks flick harmlessly, the souffle falls, the watercolors don’t blend right. It seems like everyone else is “getting it” except you.

Most people quit at this stage. They become convinced they are never going to get it, they aren’t cut out for this, they just aren’t good at that. They get angry–at their instructor, at the other people in the class who seem to be doing just fine, but most of all at themselves. (That’s me, anyway.) They may complain, or clam up. They quit trying, or even quit coming to class, convinced that this just isn’t for them. I believe most people who are afraid of making change in their life have let this stage totally defeat them, incorporating it into their very image of themselves. “I’m just not good at math.” “I’m just not very graceful.” “I’ll never be able to (insert your dream activity here.)”

But if you persevere, you will come to the next stage, well-named Transformation: consciously competent. This is what happens after thousands of hours of practice and drills. It may take a long time, but you will get there. You eventually begin to find yourself able to perform that skill. You can do it, but you have to think about it. You begin to see what needs improving and what needs strengthening. You may begin experimenting with minor changes, trying what works best for you and what doesn’t. You become more willing to plug away at it, perhaps even enjoying the process of learning for its own sake. (Think of the perpetual graduate student….)

Finally, as anyone who has ever mastered a skill, knows, eventually you reach the fourth stage, Identity: Unconsciously competent. The skill or knowledge has become a part of you.

You don’t even think about what you’re doing anymore, it’s just….YOU. You are a pianist, or a painter, or a doctor, or a black belt.

You may not even remember NOT knowing that skill. Do you really remember how hard it was to learn to ride a bike? Or does it feel like you’ve always known? Do you really remember looking at a page in a book, and having no idea what those mysterious squiggles meant? Surely we thought at one point, “I’ll never be able to ride a bike!” (I believe getting past this stage is what makes a good teacher: Someone who remembers ‘not knowing.’)

I’ve been thinking about this little handout a lot for the last few weeks, especially that deadly little second stage. It occurs to me that as adults, we’ve mostly forgotten the process of learning, and how truly awful it can feel. In fact, it’s so awful, most people probably quit when they hit that stage, feeling they are really “meant” to learn how to paint, how to knit, how to learn a new language, or whatever.

I’ve been thinking a lot about what people need to see them through that second stage, and safely into that third stage…because this is what life changes and pursuing your dreams is all about.

Sometimes, of course, we are forced to make changes. That becomes our determination. But what about when we choose to make those changes? It’s so important to either have a wonderful support system (a terrific teacher, encouraging friends or family, a great book that serves as a guide), or a tremendous sense of purpose, drive and determination. Or both.

How many of us have started out to change something in our lives, to pursue a new interest or tread a new path, hit that second stage and bagged out? What if we simply made a conscious decision to believe in our selves one more day, one more hour, maybe another five minutes–what could we achieve? How far could we really go?

When I started back in martial arts last spring (after sustaining a devastating injury by one of my previous instructors seven years ago) all I hoped for was to gain back some strength and stamina. I could barely do one push-up anymore. But I’m determined to stick with it, and now I can do thirty. (well….on a good day.)

When I started back with a dream of pursing art seven years ago, I was determined to stick with it, even if I didn’t turn out to be a particularly good artist. “Good” didn’t matter anymore. I knew that being an artist was so important to me, I simply had to try. And keep trying. When I look back at what I accomplished in seven years, I am amazed.

Type out this little handout, and post it somewhere where you can see it every day. The next time you feel discouraged about achieving your goals, look and see where you are in the process. Realize it isn’t something about YOU, but about the process. And stick with it, if just for a little bit longer. You may surprise yourself…..!

BE CAREFUL WHAT YOU WISH FOR–You Might Get It!

When it seems like nothing you wish for comes true, ask yourself, “Am I dreaming big enough to last a lifetime?”

(This post was originally published December 11, 2002.)

“Be careful what you wish for….” This has to be my least-favorite proverb in the world. It’s like those folktales about fools wasting silly wishes (“The Sausage“) and bargains with the devil (“The Monkey’s Paw.”) People get their wishes granted, but live to regret it.

Making wishes is dangerous business, these stories seem to warn us. You can wish for the most wonderful thing in the world and the powers that be will twist it against you. Fairies’ gold turned to dry leaves in the morning light.

It takes the very joy out of wishing, doesn’t it? And what a depressing view of the universe! “The universe likes nothing better than to give with one hand and take away with the other.” Yow!

Taken another way, though, this proverb is actually excellent advice. Instead of a dour caution, see it as an challenge to dig deep into your heart, to what you really want.

When we regret a wish we’ve been granted, it’s often because we unconsciously limited the dream before it left our heart. We down-sized it to increase our chances of getting something. We don’t allow ourselves to dream big. We’re afraid to ask for too much.

Because we don’t really believe our wishes can come true.

You can see this limiting process at work when people take their first tentative steps in their work. I did it. You’ve probably done it, too. You ask for so little. Then when you get it, it’s just not enough. Or it’s just all wrong.

Years ago, I reclaimed my artistic self. (I know, I know, it sounds like I picked up my dry cleaning….)

I didn’t ask for much. I attended a seminar for women artists. I told a roomful of strangers my dream was to make wonderful little toys—tiny dolls, knitted sheep—that you could hold in your hand and marvel at. I wanted to make things that made people happy.

It’s a nice thought. But in reality, I couldn’t imagine affecting people in a more profound way than to appeal to their sense of playfulness.

I didn’t think I had anything deeper or more substantial in me.

So I wished for a way to sell lots of my little toys. Of course, each one took a minimum of two hours to make. And I wanted to make sure they would sell, so I kept the price really low.

After doing some very small local craft shows, I got my heart’s desire. A local store requested four dozen sheep, and of course, they wanted them yesterday.

I spent the next two weeks doing nothing but knitting sheep.

At first it was fun. Each sheep was so cute! But after five in a row, the joy faltered. It was… Hmmmm… Let’s just say that knitting little sheep—lots of little sheep—gets boring fast.

After twelve, I never wanted to see another skein of cream-colored yarn again. At #24, all I could think of was, “Twenty-four down, twenty-four to go.” By #42, I was sick unto death of little knitted sheep.

And I still had to sew them up, and tie little tiny bells on each one.

I managed to squeak out all 48. And swore I’d never make another.

I kept one or two of my stash, because they are so darned cute. And also as a reminder of a lesson learned.

Because in addition to all that knitting, I messed up on figuring my wholesale price. I’d simply cut my retail price in half. So I got $5 per sheep. Ouch. I probably made less than $2 an hour, after my cost for materials.

I didn’t see this granted wish as a disappointment. Okay, I’ll be honest. At first I did.

But then I saw it as a blessing. Thank heavens I hadn’t gotten more orders!

So here’s what I learned from this experience:

I learned production work was not for me. I learned how to establish a decent wholesale price. And at least I had $240 in my pocket, enough money to finance my next endeavors. (Hint: I did NOT buy yarn to make more sheep.)

As time went by, this process occurred over and over.

More ideas and more opportunities crossed my path. Each time I’d think, “Maybe this is the thing that will take off!” They always did—just enough to buy more supplies and make my hobby pay for itself—but not in the way I’d hoped. I followed them til they either petered out or til they grew into something that took me too far away from my heart’s desire. Then I’d let go, and move on.

Along the way I learned a lot about making and selling things. I learned how to sell wholesale to retail stores. I learned about signage and display. I learned how to price my work, how to create a distinctive and original product, how to locate wholesale sources for supplies. I took my profits and reinvested them in my business.

I learned the pros and cons of building a strictly local audience. I learned the potential–and the limits–of advertising. I learned how to promote myself and my work.

I taught classes when I could, but soon learned a little teaching goes a long way for me. I’d rather make more and teach a little. (But I also found I could teach through this blog.)

Finally, I learned what I really wanted, what was truly in my heart.

If you had asked me way back then what I wanted, I would have said, “I want to make something that makes people happy.” I wasn’t digging very deep into what makes me tick.

It turns out there was a story there, a story about how my dreams were echoed in the prehistoric artwork from a cave in France. I thought about why this story was important to me, and how I was going to share that story with the world.

I found a focus and a drive I’d never experienced before. Everything I’d learned about business was now centered on getting my story and my art out into the world.

When I ran into what seemed like insurmountable difficulties, I solved them through perseverance, research and experimentation.

And I loved the entire process. Even the parts that drove me crazy. I was learning so much about myself, my art and my business.

Everything began to fall into place. Opportunities lay everywhere, more than I could take on. Doors opened, people appeared in my life, solutions beckoned.

I still experience failure, but it doesn’t stop me now. It’s a call to evaluate what I really want and whether I’m still on task to achieve it.

I see the presence of something in my life that treasures my creativity, that supports me achieving my dream.

If my true wish had been to sell lots of knitted sheep, there are business models to support that. I could have hired knitters, located a sales rep, done gift shows. But my real wish was to make something totally of myself, so fulfilling and intriguing that I would not tire of the production process; and to make something with such value and power, people would pay a lot to own one.

I had a wish big enough to last me a lifetime. That was the right wish to be granted!

Most small business experts say it can take five years to get a new business off the ground. Even the IRS recognizes that. There’s a lot of learning and failing, growth and change in five years of business….

So look at what you’re doing now. Think about your biggest, deepest wish.

Will you outgrow your current dream? Will you still love it five years from now? If my first wish had been granted five years earlier, I would have outgrown it within six months.

Are you digging deep? Get past the “nice” things to say (“I want to make people happy”) and find your true story. There’s power there.

When it seems like nothing you wish for comes true, ask yourself, “Am I dreaming big enough to last a lifetime?”

WE ARE ALL MADE OF STARS

Do you realize how amazing you are?

Why are we so willing to believe the worst about ourselves?

I had a conversation with a friend recently. She tends to believe she presents herself worse than she does. She accentuates her perceived weaknesses and berates herself for being “stuck”.

When I commented on her strengths and her perceived weaknesses (more on that), she smiled. “Yeah”, she said, “A friend once told me what my real problem is. My friend said, ‘Your problem is, you don’t realize how amazing you are.”

I agree with her friend.

I told her about a presentation I made last year, to an auditorium full of people. I’d goofed pretty badly–thought I was doing a presentation on one topic, only to realize the night before I was committed to a different one.

I was still more than adequately prepared. I’ve taught this workshop before, and have plenty of material on hand. But throughout the presentation, I kept apologizing. “I’m handing out a resource list–I’m so sorry, it would have been longer….” “Blah blah blah, sorry!, blah blah.”

When I read the evaluations later, everyone raved about me.

Except for one astute soul who commented, “The presentation was excellent, good information. Just one negative. She apologized too much. I found it distracting.”

Oy.

It’s time to quit apologizing for ourselves.

It’s so easy to see this in other people. So hard to see it in ourselves: Not trusting our instincts. Focusing on our weaknesses and flaws. Taking our strengths for granted.

Taking ourselves for granted.

So in the interest of full disclosure, here’s the back story behind my blog:

I merrily make my art/write my column/prepare a seminar. Things are humming along. Life is good!

Then I hit roadblocks. An envious peer. A missed deadline. A new injury (usually acquired doing something absolutely stupid.) A rejection from a show. Oh, and a very low checking account balance.

Some people thrive in adversity. Yay for them! (And we all can do that sometimes.) But often we are struck in vulnerable places. The roadblock looks similar to a struggle in our past. And there are some people in this world, in a kind of pain themselves, who know exactly where to aim their blows.

If I’m in my powerful place, I shrug these off as annoying but manageable, tiny little bumps in my path. I will not be deterred from my journey.

But if I’m in a fragile period, I get knocked off-center. “Why do I bother making this work? Nobody likes it!” “How can I make her like me and stop being so mean?” “I’m so disorganized!”

Soon I feel like there’s no place for me in the world. No gifts I can offer. No way I can contribute. I’m just a whirling bundle of fret and anxiety and unkindness and ineptitude. (I thought I was making that last word up, but spell check says no, I’m good to go. Until I spelled “spellcheck” wrong….)

I eventually sit down to write. I dump it all out onto paper. I whine, I cry, I resent, I blame.

And then something wonderful happens.

I realize how amazing I am.

Not in the swelled-head, I’m-okay-you’re-not, aren’t-I-grand kinda way.

Just…amazing…in the ordinary way. A person, here in this world, in this time, trying to love and be loved. Trying to be kind. Trying to shine. Trying to do the work I was put here to do. Trying to do the best I can. (Another friend, years ago, said to me, “I like to believe people are doing the best they can.” It brought tears to my eyes.) (Although it’s hard to remember that when someone cuts me off in traffic.)

For a few wonderful, incredible minutes, maybe a few hours, maybe even an entire day, I see how powerful I am, how brightly I shine. Just enough for me to get back in the saddle and try again. (OH! A riding metaphor!)

At some point, this struggle, this journey, turns into a blog article, or a keynote speech, or a new wall hanging. If it’s funny, it goes to my column at The Crafts Report.

I write about the struggle. I write about how I end up in the hard place, and how I find my way back from there.

And how I still end up there again.

And find my way back home, to my own heart–again.

I write about how our weaknesses are not something to be cried over, but something to be celebrated. Because our weaknesses are the true source of our strength, if we let this awareness happen.

If we are the victim of cruelty, we can still choose to be kind.

If we are gripped by sadness, we can simply embrace that, for now. Or we can choose to act as if we are happy. Or we can help someone else who is sad.

If we grieve, it is because we loved. Or because we wanted to love, or to be loved.

These things are not imperfections. Or rather, they are imperfections. They are what make us beautiful, just as as stress, flaw, disease and even death make something beautiful in wood.

If we don’t think we are amazing, it is simply because we are afraid of what that might mean. We think we don’t know what that looks like. We don’t know what might change or what we might lose, or that we are setting ourselves up for even bigger failure. We are afraid we will have to work harder, and we are afraid we won’t be able to.

We are afraid we are not enough.

And yet, in each of us, is the potential to simply be ourselves. To be present. To respect our gifts, and USE them.

What inspires me, what makes me cry, is that this very place that’s so hard for us–“I am not enough”–comes from a very powerful, very beautiful place–“I want to be somebody</em, somebody worthy of love, respect, kindness, joy, achievement. I want to be seen and cherished. I want to do good work. I want to be remembered after I'm gone."

Don't you think it's amazing that we all want these things?

Isn't it astonishing that this desire drives everything we do, every choice we make, whether we act on this consciously ("I'm going to hold the door open for that person behind me.") to unconsciously ("Huh! That person cut in front of me! He acted as if I were totally not worth his kindness!" or choice words to that effect….)? (I am praying you did not get lost in the punctuation of that last sentence.)

And that's why, when people say I'M amazing, or do such beautiful work, or write something good, I do a little foot shuffle and blush, and say, "Aw, tweren't nuthin'…"

Because I DON'T have this all figured out, or rather, it doesn't STAY worked out. I'll have to do the same thing tomorrow, and next month, and probably for the rest of my life–fall down, cry, take hope and get back up.

I know I just have to do this. And I don't have to do it perfectly, either.

Because when I look at my work, at my art, at the artifacts, the fiber work, the little bears and otters, the grumpy fish, the horses….oh, the horses!

When I remember my story I tell about myself and this work, what it's done for me spiritually, and what others say it does for them….

When I remember how far I've come from that lonely, sad place, where I was so sure there was no place in this world, I actually tried to leave it….

When I look at the wonderful guy who is my life partner, and our children, our friends and family, even the stranger on the street who chooses to be kind… When I realize all the opportunities there are in life to BE that partner, that child, that friend, that stranger…

I realize we truly are all made of stars.

I am. And so are you.

p.s. Thank you, Moby, for the title of this post.

WHAT MERYL STREEP AND I HAVE IN COMMON

Originally published on December 2, 2002

What Meryl Streep and I Have In Common

(Hint: It’s not blond hair.)

I was going to write about a discussion with a friend about his dirty house. But when I picked up the Sunday magazine that comes with our local paper, I came across some amazing statements by Meryl Streep that caused me to bump the dump story.

In the talk with my friend, he told me how immobilized with anxiety and self-doubt he felt each day. I’m a natural born people fixer-upper (much to the annoyance of my friends), so I jumped right in with suggestions that have worked for me.

He kept saying, “You don’t understand, you don’t understand” until finally, in frustration, I told him my deepest, darkest secret….

I wake up every morning with a sense of dread about how hopelessly inadequate I am to achieve my goals, and I go to bed every night ever mindful of….how does the Lord’s Prayer go? “We have done those things which we ought not to have done, and left undone the things we ought to have done.” Well, that sums up the beginning and end of my day quite well.

My friend was astounded. He said, “But you’re always so upbeat and you’re always busy with your artwork and always doing stuff….” He paused and said, “And I know you’re telling the truth, because you know the old saying, ‘You can’t bullshit a bullshitter?’ I’m in the pits, and I can tell you’ve been there, too. So how did you turn it around?”

It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life, spiritually. I simply stopped listening to the little voices that told me how how futile it all was.

Note that I said I didn’t stop hearing the voices. I said I stopped listening to them.

It came about through a long, slow process. It wasn’t any one thing.

It was a series of books, a smattering of important people, teachers, who showed up in my life at just the right time. It was the birth of my oldest child. It was a workshop I took. It was trying to spiritually accommodate the violent murder of an elderly neighbor 20 years ago. It was a physical injury that tied up my body for almost a year. It was a brush with cancer (a very light brush, but frightening at the time.)

We often dream that when we figure everything out, when we realize our perfect vision for ourselves, everything else will fall into place, too. When we get the right job, when we meet the right life partner, when we get our dream home, when we find the perfect little black dress, (when we reach the perfect size for that little black dress!) the perfect lipstick, whatever, that we will finally silence those little voices that always tell us what is wrong.

Please note I’m not talking about the little voice telling you about real danger. I’m talking about that little voice that tells you you will never be good enough, fortunate enough, strong enough, talented enough, blah blah blah. The inner critic. When we still hear that little voice, we may panic. Dang! It’s still there! Where did I go wrong??

One of my most precious insights, almost miraculous in my eyes, is that it is possible to act in a powerful way even if your little voice says you have no power. You hear that familiar little rant in the morning–“You didn’t fill that order, you didn’t win that award, you didn’t get into that show and you never will!”

Then I get up and do it anyway.

Everything I have accomplished in the last five years–and it’s a lot!–I’ve done in spite of that little voice. I don’t pretend to say that I have deeper resources than other people, and I would never even pretend to say that all mental health can be achieved by just saying no to those voices. I am saying it is an act of will to act in spite of my voices, and I feel blessed to have found that out. I now realize there is no place I can get to where I will not hear them. But now I don’t let them stop me from getting where I want to go. They can whine all they want, I’m going there anyway.

So what do Meryl Streep and I have in common? In an interview with Ken Burns that appeared in USA WEEKEND today, KB asks Meryl if she will always act. And she answers

“Oh, I always think I’m going to give up. You get the cold feet. You think, ‘Why would anyone want to see me again in a movie? And I don’t know how to act anyway, so why am I doing this? I don’t have to do this.’ It is something I confront at the beginning of everything. I have to start out with nothing each time.”

KB: And reinvent the wheel.

MS: “And reinvent the wheel. It’s very hard. It’s very, very hard….”

There you have it. The article notes that Streep has been nominated for 12 Academy Awards, tying Katherine Hepburn’s record. She’s actually won two Oscars. Her work ethic is legendary.

And every time she takes on a new challenge, she hears the same little voices I do!

I wonder what she says to her little voices…..?

TRAINING CATS TO DRINK WATER

To achieve new heights, we have to acquire new habits and tell ourselves a different story.

Stay with me, there’s a point to this drinking water thing.

We’ve always had cats. If you have cats, you know what happens.

Cats train you to do some really funny things. They get us to act in ludicrous ways, irrational ways. And we end up believing in the idiocy, too. We even believe it’s natural. “Cats are like that–they’re finicky!” we say.

It starts out very innocently. Maybe the cat starts playing with water coming out of the kitchen tap. Soon, every time you turn on the tap, the cat is there to play some more, and maybe take a few sips.

After a while, you begin to notice that the water level in his official water dish, stays the same. “Oh, no!”, you think. “The cat isn’t getting enough water!” So you turn on the tap. He jumps up and gratefully starts drinking.

Before you can say, Holy Catfish! you have a cat who will only drink out of the faucet.

Eventually, you even have to adjust the flow of water to just the right speed–not too fast, or he’ll be frightened. Not to slow, or he’ll walk away in impatience.

It will seem very normal to you, too. You will simply accept the process as what you have to do to get him to drink.

Until you see someone else doing this in their house, with their cat. And then you see how ridiculous the situation is.

For us, it was when we visited a friend with a cat. He had half a dozen caps from cans of shaving cream arranged around his bathroom floor, each cap filled with water. He told us (in total seriousness) he had to do this so his cat would drink water.

I burst out laughing. Because, you know, I know, and Pete knows….

No cat dies of thirst because his water is in the wrong-sized container.

No cat starves to death because his food is not the right brand.

Your teenager isn’t going to starve because you don’t make his sandwich the right way, with the right bread.

“Finicky” goes out the window when you’re hungry enough, when you’re thirsty enough.

“Finicky” goes out the window when you want something badly enough.

I was thinking about this today. Oh, all right, I admit, because I now have a cat who will only drink water who has trained me to think she will only drink out of the bathtub faucet.

As I watched her drink this morning, it suddenly occurred to me…

I wondered what have I trained myself to do….
What story have I told myself….What story do I ‘know’…
That’s getting in the way of getting what I really want in my life?

I’ve been fearful of “not doing it right” with an upcoming workshop I’m teaching–to the extent that I wanted to cancel it. I want to do it badly. But I think I can’t do it unless I do it perfectly.

I have a project dear to my heart, something I’ve been dreaming about for six years. I have a million reasons ‘why it won’t work’. Today I wrote in my journal all the excuses I’ve made up for why I shouldn’t do it: ‘I know’ there’s no way to exhibit it. ‘I know’ there’s no one who would buy it. ‘I know’ I shouldn’t start it til I have the whole concept figured out perfectly.

Well, duh, who cares??!!

I want to do it.

And the only thing holding me back is the story I’ve been telling myself, and all the ridiculous reasons I’ve made up about why it won’t work.

So giggle a little at the thought of Tomcat Toes drinking daintily out of a lovely assortment of plastic cups. Smile at the thought of chubby Chai shlurping heartily from the bathtub faucet. Let’s tease my sister not wanting her son to go to California years ago because he would never make himself a sandwich and so he would go hungry….

But the next time you have a project, an idea, a glimmering of something that makes your heart beat a little faster….

Listen hard for the imaginary can’t/shouldn’t/no-way thinking that could have you drinking out of a shaving cream cap within a few weeks.

Won’t that look silly?

Now go to your studio. Write that song. Start that video. Get out your brushes.

Me? I’m gonna go dust off my sewing machine.

And yes, I will share my big project when it firms up a little more. Just keep those cups of water outta my sight for awhile, okay?

THE FIFTH STAGE OF COMPETENCE

Are you ready to start all over again?

I’m really hooked on the Four Stages of Competence and I’ve written about them a lot.

Years ago, I received this remarkable little set of learning stages as a handout in a martial arts class:

Stage 1: Unconscious Incompetence

It’s so easy! The joyous stage of the beginner, when you simply jump in and start a new endeavour. You feel full of promise and potential–“Hey! I have a real a knack for this!” You may have some natural talent, or you just may not realize how bad you really are. Beginner’s luck falls into this category, too.

Stage 2: Conscious Incompetence

It gets hard. It begins to dawn on you how hard this stuff really is, and how much there is to learn. You become painfully aware of how inadequate your performance really is. ***Most people quit at this stage of learning. “I can’t do this!” or “I’m no good at this!”***

Stage 3 Conscious Competence

You keep working at it. You have acquired skill, but you have to think about it, and practice it, until you get to that most amazing place…

Stage 4 Unconscious Competence

You master your craft. Your techniques have become automatic. Your body simply knows what to do, and works in sync with your mind to achieve even greater heights. You know now that learning this skill is a life-long pursuit, and your studies have really just begun.

This handout changed my life. I still pursue my art and the martial arts, knowing that only perseverance, practice and passion will get me to that glorious final stage–and beyond.

It was a big “aha!” moment when I learned most people quit at the second stage–me included. Knowing that, I now try to stick with something I really want to learn.

And when we watch someone who’s mastered their craft, we say they “make it look easy”–whether it’s a practiced potter raising the clay; an artist talking passionately about their work; or a black belt throwing a spinning back kick to the head. They make it look effortless.

Because, at that stage of their mastery, it is. They don’t have to think about it–they just do it.

What we don’t see is the 10,000 hours of practice (a theory proposed by psychologist Eric Andersson, who studied “expertise”) and the dedication they gave to perfect that skill.

So where did I come up with the Fifth Stage of Competence?

Recently I’ve had a chance to watch some extremely talented people, people who are experts at what they do, try to learn something new.

They brought skills that would translate well to their new venture: Analytical minds, perseverance, physical skill and fitness. In many ways, they were able to master the new venture more quickly, with less time and effort than it had taken me.

But they still struggled. Because there were still key elements that were foreign to them, things they had to learn simply by putting in the time. Things they had to master by simply doing them, over and over and over again.

What struck me was how quickly they got stuck–and quit.

Now, I know we can’t all spend 10,000 on any old thing that crosses our path.

And I know we have to have some attraction to the thing, something that helps us get through those oh-so-difficult stages of incompetency (especially that nasty second stage.)

Even so, the Fifth Stage is…..

Being able–being willing–to be a beginner again.

Being very good at starting over.

P.S. Now imagine my embarrassment when my daughter tried to teach me swing dancing last month, and two minutes into it I protested, “I’m just no good at this!”