LESSONS FROM THE GYM: The SAID Principle

Challenges can be just enough to keep us moving forward
Challenges can be just enough to keep us moving forward

Accommodation can be our friend, or our enemy…

(5 minute read)

More lessons about life, and art, overheard at the gym this week.

A client was amazed at how much better they felt after only a few days of physical therapy. The therapist working with him said something that caught my interest, describing a well-known principle in the field: The SAID Syndrome.

Posited by a Hungarian physicial, Dr. Hans Selye over a hundred years ago, SAID stands for Specific Adaptation to Imposed Demands. That is, our body, given any form of stressors (biomechanical or neurological), will specifically adapt to that stress. (There are now more modern acronyms and phrasing similar in tone, but this is the one I overheard.)

That can be a good thing, a neutral thing, or a bad thing.

For example, if all we do we sit all day, month after month, year after year, our bodies will adapt to that. We may lose our ability or inclination to do any physical activity, or worse.

If we train by running laps, we may get fit and strong, but it won’t necessarily mean we prepared for lap swimming. The two activities use different muscles. We have to cross-train in both activities, in order to get better at both.

If we gently, slowly, challenge our body, all our muscles, and our mind, they will adapt to that, too.  We can challenge our body in different ways, too.

We can strive to go from simple motions to complex motions. From moving slow to moving faster. To go from using a low level of force to higher force. To walking/running a short distance to a longer distance.

We can get stronger, faster, more flexible, more resilient, more persistent.

How does this apply to making, marketing, and even selling our art?

If we get discouraged with our sales, we could slump into our sad place and believe no one wants our work. Or, if sales matter, we can experiment with shows and fairs until we find the ones where we find an audience. We can approach stores or galleries to represent us. We can use an online sales venue or sell from our website.

If our art isn’t quite up to snuff, we could keep our blinders on and do nothing about it. Or we can explore ways to get better: Use better tools, or experiment with a new media that might suit us better, or expand our skillset with classes/books/online tutorials.

If we feel like failures, if we believe our work of our heart doesn’t matter, we could walk away from the work we love. Or we can seek out a supportive community, realizing if it makes us happy, that can be “good enough”. We can ask for input about how we could do better, whether it’s our technique, our color palette, our subject matter, etc. (I overheard one local artist declaring if they never painted another vineyard, they would be totally okay with that.) (We live in wine country. Guess what most landscapes are?)

Short story: For our work to change, WE have to change. For our skills to get better, we have to do the work. For our attitude to change, we have to explore what our goals really are, what is important to us—and practice that mindset. To find our audience, we have to believe there IS one for us out there somewhere, and do whatever we can to get our work out into the world.

This effort doesn’t have to be a major shift, either. Some of us can do that, maybe. (We moved across the country to California five years ago, to reboot my partner’s career.) But usually, small incremental steps, moves, and changes will suffice. Otherwise, we could injure ourselves by trying to do too much, too soon, too fast.

One of my favorite challenges I’ve seen (which I haven’t tried yet, myself) is the 100-day daily challenge: Painters a single small work every day. Collage artists create an ATC (artist trading card) every day. Writers write a page a day. Then share it with our audience. I’ve seen these so many times, and it’s jaw-dropping how this simple exercise seems to not only improve the person’s skillset, but also set them on an entirely new journey, one they couldn’t see until they tried this.

My goals moving forward are pretty manageable so far. Keep a happy heart. Do the work. Get “bigger” in a way that’s manageable for me, and let myself be the judge of what “bigger” is. Trying the occasional new thing, whether it’s materials, subject matter, color palette, venues, etc.

Even my story, which still means so much to me, has evolved over the years. The heart of it is still there. But as I’ve faced spiritual and emotional challenges about my place in the world, my story has grown: A woman artist finding a place in the world, a place in prehistory and more modern history. Finding the medium that let me tell that story, then adding new media to the mix. (First fiber, then jewelry, then prints and sculpture, now assemblage.) Expanding my color palette from “only what we’d find in the Lascaux Cave paintings” to what those ancient artists would have used if they’d had the access. (Indigo/lapis blue! Aqua! Turquoise!) Expanding my skill set. (Refinishing antique boxes, creating museum-inspired mounts for display.) In the process, my definition of “creative work” has gotten bigger and stronger, too.

If everything is working for you, then the “challenges” can be just enough to keep us moving forward, or comfortable with staying in the same place. Maybe we can share our techniques and knowledge with others, so they can take our original journey and move onto their own. Maybe we can encourage other artists by making recommendations for a gallery that might be a good fit for them. Or we could assist them with finding their own powerful stories.

Or we simply share conversations overheard at the gym, sharing a little insight in our lives, for others who just might need to hear them, today.

How do YOU challenge yourself? Have you had a successful experience with challenges, like the “make a ‘whatsits’ every day for a 100 days”? Where are you stuck, and did this article get you thinking about an intriguing challenge, just for you? I would love to hear about it, and I bet others here would, too!

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 articles at Fine Art Views or more from me at my blog LuannUdell.wordpress.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 .

Scrambling for Clarity

But sometimes, all we need is to trust our best instincts, to sense our highest purpose on earth, instead of focusing on our greatest fears...
But sometimes, all we need is to trust our best instincts, to sense our highest purpose on earth, instead of focusing on our greatest fears…

In Our Heart, We Already Know What to Do

(8 minute read)

I have a confession to make today.

I love word puzzles. Not all of them. (Some are too hard for my aging brain.) But crossword puzzles and word scrambles are my faves.

Crossword puzzles have life lessons all on their own. I used to be unable to do a New York Times crossword puzzle at all–too hard! Lots of “tricks” and double-entendre clues involved. But I’ve gotten better over the years, as I learn that the clue “double-decker?” could mean “two-stories” or “pinochle”…

The beauty of a crossword puzzle is, when I am worried, anxious, or trying to get to sleep, my lizard brain is soothed by having “something to solve” that doesn’t really matter. (As in, I don’t lose money, self-esteem, or anything else if I can’t solve it.)

Word scrambles…Now that was another story. How do you solve an anagram?

By the way, if you Google “anagram”, Google will ask you if you mean “nag a ram”….. So now we know that Google does have a sense of humor.

Word scrambles also appear in our newspaper, like Jumble and Scram-lets. They used to be quite difficult for me to solve. I relied heavily on working them out by “logic”, trial-and-error (randomly trying out various combinations until I found one that worked).

Until I read an article a few years ago about how reading actually rewires our brains. You can read more about this phenomena, called typoglycemia, here. (I remember a similar technique in the classified ads in older magazines: “If u cn rd ths u cn b a scrtry & gt a gd jb w hi pa!”) (Please don’t ask me how old!)

I tried typoglycemia to solve anagram puzzles, and it works!

Instead of patiently doing the trial-and-error thing, now I start by quickly looking at the scrambled word, “see” the word almost instantly, and move on to the next as quickly as I can, before I’ve even finished entering the answer. It’s amazing how innate this word recognition thing is!

There are still some words this technique doesn’t work for, for me. Oddly, one of the first was “studio”. I thought originally it was because of words we tend to use less, which is true. But “studio”????

The second odd thing is, once I see “studio” in the anagram, it’s easier to recognize it in the scrambled version going forward. It’s like solving it once, made it easier for me to solve the next time.

Our brains are marvelous organs, both incredibly powerful, and frustratingly baffling. (Remember my post last week, about realizing all the things I’ve lost?)

What does this have to do with our art-making, art marketing, and art career?

Sometimes we make ourselves work way too hard to solve a problem or issue, when simpler solutions might be right in front of us.

Sometimes I struggle with all the social media necessary these days to find and connect with our audience. Then I found shortcuts: I can elect to have my blog articles automatically reposted on Facebook and Twitter. Images posted on Instagram can be automatically reposted on Facebook, too. Thus, I use my social media time more effectively, and more efficiently, which is incentive to post more regularly.

When I first started blogging, I wrote for several years before I had an audience. Part of it was that it was so new, who would go looking for what I had to say? (My first blog-hosting site was Radio Userland, which doesn’t even exist anymore, except as an archive.) Fortunately, my husband retagged these old posts, and I republish them from time to time. And WordPress has more tools and options, which can make it easier to use.

The very article I linked to above was when I learned that there is no single “right” way of making our art and getting it out into the world. I was anxious about coaching other people. It felt like telling them what to do, and much of my own experience was vastly different than the other workshop leaders I worked with.

And yet, when I simply focused on a few simple things, it worked. If you love quilting, and you are very good at it, and yet, you mistakenly believe people won’t value what you do, so you “have to” compete with mass-produced quilts, or ones made in India, for example, and therefore you work faster, with imperfect results, do you WANT to be successful selling them? I told that quilter to do the work that made them proud, and then find their audience.

To a young kid who was actually already enjoying some success with their jewelry designs, I gave them resources on improving their techniques and color choices. But, I told them, “Your biggest asset is that you are nine years old, cute as a bug, and sweet as candy. Work with your mom to keep you safe, in social media”, I told them and their mom. “But people will be enchanted by your determination and delighted you’re embracing your creative spirit at such a young age, and they will want to encourage you to keep it up, by buying your work.”

I finally realized I’d shied away from teaching because I know I don’t have all the answers, especially all the RIGHT answers. But I’ve discovered I am very good at helping people find their next step, and that is what most people need in life. An example of me “overthinking” how much knowledge I needed to teach.

Another example of quickly “seeing” is when we have a major life/art goal, and can’t figure out how to get there. Try this simple approach to get grounded, and to get started:

Name your vision. Is it representation in that wonderful gallery? Is it to build your audience for your work? Is it to sell your work for a fair price? Is it to have your work published in a book, or to get into that top show, or make x amount of money a year?

Start there.

Then walk yourself through the steps by thinking backwards from that goal.

What has to happen before that, for it to take place?

Got it? Now, ask yourself again: What has to happen before that?

Got it? Keep going…..

You wanna right a best-selling novel? Yep, it’s hard, though not impossible.

First, it has to be published.

Before that, it has to be taken on by a publisher.

Before that, it has to be edited to near-perfection.

Before it can be edited, it has to be in the hands of a publisher.

In order for you to approach a publisher, you may need an agent.

To find an agent, you need to have written that story.

Before you write it, you have to make the time to write it, enough that they can see its potential.

So what can you do in the next 24-48 hours to get it written?

You need to set aside a small amount of time, right now (or as soon as possible) to write. And you have to hold that goal in your heart daily, weekly, monthly…..

And to write your story, you need to know what you want to say in the world.

You don’t have to figure it all out ahead of time. You just have to have a starting point that gets you through that first step, and then the next step. And then the next after that.

And then keep at it, as much as you can. Because it matters to you.

That’s why I love Clint Watson’s advice about the importance of having a website, and keeping in touch with your audience. It’s not about figuring out how to be a total social media expert, or even figuring out dozens of ways to get your work out there. All you need is an online presence (and a website combines all the best aspects of online presence.) And a way to let your audience know what you’re up to, by reaching out to them from time to time, so they won’t miss your next show, your next open studio, the new gallery that now represents you, and you latest body of work, available for sale at XYZ.

And this is why I love the Keith Bond’s article on defeating the specter of procrastination. Because the more we defer our “next step” action, the harder it is to move forward.

Just like unscrambling words to find the right anagram, our brains-and our hearts-know what we need to do. But we tend to overthink our efforts. If we’re feeling lost or discouraged, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed by our attempts to “figure it all out”, so our path is straight.

Unfortunately, “straight paths” are pretty rare in every creative endeavor. We’ve all read about the people who have achieved overnight success. But that’s the rare exception, not the everyday reality.

Instead, we can quickly recognize a great opportunity, and go for it. We can realize we need to have a cohesive body of work, whether that’s in subject matter, techniques, or overall aesthetic. It should look like our work, and easily identifiable as such.

We may calm ourselves down by recognizing how making our art restores our heart and soul, which is ultimately more enriching than how much money we made this year. Not sayin’ sales aren’t important, just that sometimes that means we have to give up other things involved, things we might miss even more.

Our lives, and our art, can be just as scrambled as a Jumble puzzle.

But sometimes, all we need is to trust our best instincts, to sense our highest purpose on earth, instead of focusing on our greatest fears, or our single measure of fame and money with our work.

It can help to see the hidden word, the true word, in our holy “mess” we call our beautiful, creative life.

If you enjoyed this post, feel free to share it with someone else who might like it, too. And if someone forwarded you this post, and you liked it, you can sign up for more at my blog.

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.

 

 

 

LIFE IS LIKE A CROSSWORD PUZZLE

One of my strongest memories growing up was seeing my parents work on the crossword puzzle in the newspaper.

My dad did the writing. He would go as far as he could. When he got stuck, he’d say to my mom, “What’s a six letter word for “high hat” that goes s-blank-blank-blank-t-y?” and she’d think a moment and say, “Snooty”.

I’d always wonder why they did something that seemed so boring. Now that we’ve been married over forty years, I know that even such simple things as this, these moments shared, are a blessing in a marriage.

I don’t remember when I took up crosswords, myself. But in time, I would do the daily crosswords in our local newspaper, too. The Detroit Free Press, The Baltimore Sun, The Boston Globe, The Keene Sentinel, and now, The Press Democrat.

But I steered clear of the New York Times crossword puzzle.

They were monsters.

I could read every single clue, and maybe…maybe…have an idea for one or two. I had no idea how the mind of the puzzle-maker worked. Literal meanings behind the clue? A play on words? Or just a word I’d never heard of before?? Add in the underlying theme just added to the misery, such as the theme, “You Are Here” meant adding “ur” to a common adage to twist the meaning.

One of our most brilliant friends regularly tackled the Sunday NYT puzzle, even harder than the daily ones. I knew I would never be in his league. (Pun intended. He also knew every single baseball trivia question known to man.)

So I decided I would never be clever enough to ever finish one.

Except, one day, while browsing a thrift shop, I found a daily calendar pad of, you guessed it, a year’s worth of NYT crossword puzzles. For a dollar!

I’m guessing because they were small, I thought I could try them. (They are the “dailies”, not the monster Sunday versions.) And hey, the answers were right there, in the back! I could cheat! (Put a pin here.)

Yes, in the strictest sense of the word, peeking = cheating…..

IF we assign solving a crossword puzzle the ultimate measure of our integrity and our ability.

Let’s walk “cheating” back to the fence, and start over.

I don’t know how to play the piano.

Nobody is born knowing how to play the piano. (PLEASE do not bring up Mozart.)

If I want to learn how to play the piano, do I sit down in front of it and try to blast my way through it? (Perhaps starting with a Mozart concerto….??)

No.

I’d tinker with it. Play. Maybe pretend I can play.

I’d seek out a teacher. They would start me with simple exercises, practices, teaching my fingers the right places to go.

They might play along with me, as I master one sequence of notes. (Is that “cheating”?)

I would eventually master a song, a simple one. I would continue to challenge myself. When I make a mistake, my teacher would show me the right way to do it, and encourage me to copy their motions. (Is that “cheating”?)

Now, if I make my life ambition to perform as a concert pianist, I obviously have to learn to perfect my skills on my own, challenging myself to do better, faster, with energy, until my hands almost move on their own, without conscious thought.

But what if I just want to ease my mind by the actual practice of playing? Badly, slowly, leaving a piece of music that doesn’t speak to me. Perhaps coming around again to pick it up, after learning a few more moves…. Playing just because playing is enjoyable?

And so I continued to do those (a little simpler) daily puzzles, getting used to that crossword “culture”. Checking my initial answers to see if I’m on the right track.

If I find that the theme is just majorly too confusing, I can set it aside for another time. Or forever.

I began to recognize the patterns, the lines of thinking. For example, a clue for “bed” could be a place to sleep, or plant flowers. An “intro” could be a speech, or a word prefix. (For example, “musical ending” could be “phonic”, (from stereophonic”.)

Sports stats? Sports figures? No way. I can now recognize a clue for “RBI”, and a “home authority” can now mean “umpire”, but that’s about it. Though my time in Boston helped me solve “Bobby Orr”. And repetition helped me memorize “Ott.” Otherwise, I either fill in around that entry as much as I can, until I can’t go any further. Or I just “cheat” and look up the entry I will never otherwise know (unless I become a sports fanatic, and that’s just not ever gonna happen, okay?)

Now for the most important reason I do crosswords:

I do them so I can help my buzzy brain relax.

This had led to even more insights on life and crosswords.

Sometimes, I just “cheat”, to keep moving. I’m not doing this as an “ethical exercise”. There are no “grades” at the end. Sometimes I do imagine showing up at the pearly gates, and being asked, “So about all the crossword puzzles where you looked up the answers…..”  Ruh roh.

OTOH, if that’s how I’ll be judged, not sure I belong in that place anyway.

So if a puzzle is just too hard or complicated, I can “cheat” or ditch it. That’s not a failure, in my mind. This is supposed to be fun and challenging, not frustrating and impossible to deal with. One of the greatest pleasures in my life right now is to recognize I don’t have to go to every fight I’m invited to. If a crossword puzzle is “putting up a fight”, I can just turn the page and try the next one. (I now buy books of ’em, to take on long trips, airplane flights, and waiting rooms.)

Other insights? Sometimes I get stuck, and cannot figure out any of the remaining clues. Of course, being human, my initial reaction is, “I’ll never be good at this!” I put it down when I’m stumped, and leave it for another day.

The insight is, sometimes I come back the next day, and all of a sudden, there’s clarity. Oooohhh, I see it now! And scribble in five or six more words. My brain needed a break, that’s all.

Another insight: Sometimes, “cheating” with one word helps dozens of others fall into place around it. That one clue was a roadblock I couldn’t get over. But going around it helped me go forward.

Sometimes, I “cheat” but only allow myself to enter the word if I guessed right and my “cheating” confirms my guess. If I guessed wrong, I can’t “forget it”, of course. But I won’t let myself enter it until I solve for more clues around it.

Is it cheating if we ask someone for help?

Is it cheating if we learn by absorbing someone else’s style? Learning to anticipate what they’re asking for, rather than what we think it should be? (Isn’t that called “learning from the experts?” Or “thinking outside the box?”)

Is it cheating if we’re simply stuck, and somewhere else is the answer? Is using the internet for sports clues any worse than the way we used to use encyclopedias to find facts?

Is it cheating if the entire overall process is what is helpful for me? (Giving me a break from buzzy brain by doing a somewhat meaningless task that is relaxing, letting me disengage in a good way.) And not necessarily relying on how “someone else does it”…?

To me, I would be cheating if I did all the above, and then lied about it to you. If I said, “Oh, yeah, I do those all the time. I’m really good at it!”

But I don’t. I do it for myself, I enjoy it, and it helps me relax, while feeling like I’m “doing something useful.” (Which is what our brain needs to relax, sometimes.)

Did I pack too much meaning into a word game? Maybe.

But sometimes, I know exactly what I need to get through a boring period, a stressful place, a stuck place in my life.*

Thank heavens for the New York Times crossword puzzle!**

*I try to keep track of how much help/”cheating” I did on a puzzle, to see if I’m getting better at it. I estimate how much I did without any help. At this point, I consider 75% a passing score!

**(Thanks and a hat tip to Wil Shortz!)

 

 

HAPPINESS CAN BE EASIER

I wnt to bed last night, dreamed, and woke up today with the usual buzzy brain thing going (aka “lizard brain”.) I don’t even remember what I dreamed about. I just know it was the usual–me trying to figure out something that would seem trivial, pointless, or absurd in my waking hours. (n.b. Almost EVERYTHING I worry about at 3 a.m. is rarely worth the expended energy by breakfast time.)

And even though I tried to not check my email “one more time” before I left for the studio, I’m glad I did. Because I found this article on how we tend to sabotage our own happiness.

We have a lot of stuff on our plate these days. Some are things we can’t avoid. Some are things we’ve wanted for years, but now that it’s in process, it brings its own set of worries. Worst of all, we left a strong network of good friends behind when we moved to California five years ago, and we are just barely starting to reboot that here. (See point #2. I’ve actually had that happen here several times, starting to share something that’s hard and having people shush me because I’m “not grateful enough” and “this is not something I want to hear, just be happy!” That. Sucks.)

None of these suggestions require a strict work-out schedule, or a major time commitment. None of them require we take up meditation, or exercise more. (See point #5.)

Just being aware of better ways to frame our situation, our mental habits, our life. Understanding what we can control, and what we can’t. And accepting that we CAN change the things we CAN control.

I’m feeling better aready. And I hope it helps you feel that way, too!

Thanks and a hat-tip to Nick Wignall!

OH, and if you know someone who’s struggling with the same issue (lizard brain!) pass this (or the above link) on to them.

THE GIFT OF RISK: Stepping Outside Your Comfort Zone Has Its Own Rewards

Rewards, Insight, Setbacks, and …K…K….courage, all this can be yours!
painted medallions
Painting on glass for an out-of-my-comfort-zone book project ultimately led to this new body of work.

As I typed the title to this column, I realized I almost had an acronym! But I couldn’t think of a “k” word except “kindness”. Maybe spell “courage” with a k??? Aw, what the heck, let’s put both in there!

Last week, I shared my story about “luck”, and how we can make ourselves ‘luckier’.  I told how setting aside my expectations of being paid for everything I do opened doors I never even knew were there.

I shared the rewards of that risk, which expand even into today:

  • I had my work published and made visible before the internet made that easy.
  • I created fun projects that not only were well-paid, but upped my own skill set: Using vintage buttons to make distinctive jewelry. Painting on glass, which (I only realized after writing that article) paved the way for a new series of work. I’m painting cave art images on my handmade faux ivory medallions.
  • I wrote and illustrated the first mass-market craft book on carving soft vinyl stamps.
  • I met amazing people, who were a powerful, wonderful presence in my life for years. And I continue to do so! (It turns out our dentist here in California pulled out her stamp carving book to make her annual handmade holiday cards, saw my name on the cover, and realized I was her patient!) (Yes, I autographed her copy.)
  • I’ve bought old copies of my book (which is now out of print) to sell to students who take my stamp-carving classes.

Another big reward from taking a risk deserves its own list: Insight.

  • We cannot control everything in life. Not even close! But “nothing ventured, nothing gained” is a powerful insight. Here’s my favorite joke about that, but be forewarned, there’s a naughty word in there!
  • If you look back to my previous article, where two Mary’s had vastly different lives, then you will understand the power of ‘framing’, what we pay attention to and what we choose to let go of.
  • I found out what works and what doesn’t work, when it comes to choosing shows. I have respect for the wisdom of “never do a first-year show”….!
  • Not all rewards in life are about money.
  • It takes courage to pursue your dream, patience for it to build into something profitable, and a sense of self-worth to keep it somewhere in your life, even if it doesn’t work as your paying job.
  • There will always be people who will be uplifted by our work—professionally, emotionally, spiritually.

Now for the downside: Setbacks!

  • Not everyone is your friend. There will always be people who are deeply threatened by us, and our work. It’s taking less time for me to suss them out, thank goodness! (Thank you, The Nibble Theory!)
  • Not all shows are as well-managed as others. After all, show organizers/promoters make money on a show even if vendor sales are awful. (Of course, they can’t continue to be successful if their vendors aren’t. Still, there are always people like me who are willing to try….)
  • Hard financial times (9/11, war in the Middle East, the dot.com crash, the stock market crash of 2008, etc.) are especially hard on art and fine craft markets. Art is considered a luxury, not a need. (Debatable, of course) It can feel very personal, like ‘we are doing it wrong’. Many, many people in the industry—artists, craftspeople, show runners, galleries, etc.—suffered mightily in those years, and many never recovered. Many folks took wild chances, shifted strategies, tried desperately to hang on, where sometimes just hunkering down and waiting out the storm made more sense.

The danger of setbacks is, it’s all too easy to give them a major role in our decision-making. Once burned, twice shy, etc. Yes, it’s simply good sense not to keep sticking your hand in the fire.

Otoh (on the other hand), not all failures are useless. As good ol’ Thomas Edison said, “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”

So here’s that word again: Courage! (I almost went off on a bunch of metaphors based on Tennyson’s poetry, but I spared you. You’re welcome!)

Courage was a relatively new concept for me, as a child. Oh, I had exercised it a few times as a young adult, but always in pursuit of a dream. Going back to school, getting a teaching degree, even traveling across the country looking for work in the 1980’s recession.

But when I took up my art in my forties, I exercised courage in a sustained manner for years, viewing each setback as a valuable lesson learned, and always, always continuing to move forward. Even moving across the country in our 60’s was a monumental act of courage. Sometimes I’m still surprised we did it, though I don’t regret it for a minute. (Well. A few minutes….)

It takes courage for me to write these articles. I get paid a nominal sum, far less than when I wrote for magazines even 15 years ago. But though it doesn’t bring in a big income, it fills my need to share what I’ve learned, and expands my audience weekly. (Thank you, faithful readers!!!)

In fact, all my writing comes from sticking with it, even when it felt like nobody cared. Because…

It mattered to me.

It’s a risk. When I put my work/words out there, I want them to serve someone else as it served me. I hope it reaches someone who needs to hear that story, today. I’m delighted when people say it did. I love it when people pass it on to someone else, who may also need to hear it.

And yet, there are setbacks, too. There is always someone who thinks we’re “doing it wrong”, and they never overlook a chance to let us know that.  There are people who are offended by my titles, fercryin’outloud.  There are those who believe there is nothing worth doing for free, and those who believe my writing is toxic.

Still, I persist.

And now, here comes kindness….

My art, and my writing, have taught me to practice kindness even…or especially… to the naysayers, the contradicters, the folks who seem to be looking for a fight.

It felt impossible at first. It’s obvious my work is not for them, and that’s okay. The kind thing to do, of course, is for them to simply stop reading, or to delete it, or move on to the next studio on the tour.

But I’m learning. Like the people who call pastels “just chalk”, or the people who claim fiber is not an art medium, etc. they are where they choose to be. Yep, maybe even doing the best they can.

By responding with as much kindness as I can muster, I can let go. I am restored to the person I want to be in the world. My risk—putting my work out there to be criticized or ridiculed, is offset by the knowledge someone else is grateful I did take that risk.

And that makes it all worthwhile.

In the end, the choice is ours. We can play it safe. We can avoid risks, ditch change, never step outside our comfort zone.

It’s up to you. I can’t even pretend to think I know better than you. As I always say, if this doesn’t work for you, don’t do it!

I can only share what’s lifted my heart, write what’s helped me move forward, what restores me to my better self.

What risk have you taken that’s moved you forward? What did you learn when it didn’t work out? Remember, both are valuable, and both are worth sharing!