What We Lost
NO POWER: Lessons From the Fires
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.
Sometimes, it’s about NOT doing….
(6 minute read)
In last week’s post, I shared my thoughts on how “waiting”, though it can feel like “doing”, can end up with us “doing nothing.” Many readers shared their own stories about moving forward. Others shared theirs about the realization they were indeed, just “waiting”. They were inspired to be more proactive with their art, and their art marketing.
But the first commenter broke my heart, with their story of dealing with loss, and grief for the last few years. Having gone through that myself the last two years, I know what it feels like to feel like our heart has no room, no desire for art-making.
It’s true our present culture can put a timer on grieving. People may expect us to “get over it” within six months. (There are ways to protect ourselves from that.) Others do “go long” with their grieving, and struggle to find a way forward. (There are ways to deal with that, too.)
What I wanted to tell that person is, it’s okay to be stuck.*
Yes, it’s important to work consistently and with intention to a) make our creative work, and b) get it out into the world.
But sometimes we just can’t. And that’s okay.
The first time I ever heard this concept—the idea that sometimes life just gets too hard to “soldier on”, that it’s okay to step back and breathe—was in Julia Cameron’s book, The Artist’s Way. She described our creative efforts as paddling that boat swiftly down the river. But there may be times when we just can’t paddle.
And then, she writes, it’s okay to simply lay back in our little boat, and drift.
The current will still carry us downstream. Just not as fast.
“slow down when things get hard…”
Life has a way of getting in the way of our goals and dreams, our hopes and aspirations. It may be a good thing: Our first child, perhaps, (or the fourth!!!), or a new home. Maybe our spouse got a great job opportunity….on the other side of the country, far from friends, family, and supporters of our work.
More often, it’s that dreaded phone call in the middle of the night, the one none of us wants to get, ever. Or the call that a loved one is definitely nearing the end of their journey, perhaps expected, but just as difficult.
Maybe it happens to us. I know several potters who had to leave their beloved medium, and find another way to express themselves that doesn’t involve repetitive stress injuries. We may experience illness or debilitation. Or, even harder, we may take on the caretaking for a loved one, for years, in what feels like a grinding, thankless, sleepless exercise that will never end. Until it does, and then it feels even worse, focusing only on what we did wrong, and what we could have done better.
For those of you here, in these hard places, I’m here to tell you: It’s okay.
It’s okay to step back if life is overwhelming. It’s okay to put down the oars, to lay back in your little boat, and let the current carry you for awhile.
It’s okay to walk away from a creative career that doesn’t feed your soul anymore….until you hear the call of this one, or another one, again.
It’s okay to put down our creative work, when it becomes just another burden we’ve been asked to carry….until we’re ready to take it up again.
This is when it’s okay to wait.
This happened to me, in 2018 and well into 2019. Things just got hard. Yeah, it could have been worse, but that’s not much comfort when the suffering and sadness never seems to end.
The trick is knowing when it’s time to pick up your paddle again.
And who you can ask for help, to get you moving again.
One tip is to still go to your creative-making space from time to time. Check in: Is there a little sketch you can do? A small surface you can clear? No? That’s okay.
But still check in from time to time. At some point, you’ll see something that you want to finish. Or start. Some little task that will help you remember what it felt like to simply want to make something new. (Remember the generous commenter who shared how they carved out a tiny bit of time during their days of full-time care of their parent? Brilliant!)
Another, bigger trick is to find your creative supporters, friends or family who know who you are—an artist!—and who hold that memory for you, until you’re ready to pick up the pencil/brush/clay tool/needle again. (I hope some of the stories people shared will help!)
The artist support group workshop I took from Deborah Kruger lo-these-many-years-ago, stressed this, too. You can, and should, keep going to the meet-ups, even if you haven’t made anything in months, or years. Their job isn’t to nag you, or tell you you’re doing it wrong. Their job is to listen, to be a witness to what you’re going through. And down the road, to gently remind you it’s time to get back in the saddle.
There’s a reason for the saddle simile. If/when we fall from a horse, we’re told we need to get back on, and ride. Otherwise, the fear and anxiety can grow until we tell ourselves we don’t even want to ride anymore.
Getting back in the saddle can remind us why we ride in the first place: For the joy of being outside, in tune with a complex animal that enjoys the work as much as we do, for the simple pleasure of riding, in sync with our companion, along a wide river, under the trees, on a crisp autumn morning.
And so it is with our art.
When we’re ready, it will be there, waiting for us. All the reasons we’ve said, “I can’t….” will be waved gently away. “It’s time” our work will whisper to us, gently, and urgently. “Come on back! The road is waiting! The river is still flowing!”
Wherever you are on your path, or on the river, know that sometimes the way gets hard. Remember, even when it feels like we are getting nowhere, we are still moving forward quietly, gently. Life goes on as we work through our grief, process our new situation, and find ways around our setbacks.
Because our creative work is just to big, too beautiful to set aside. It is powerful stuff, as we will remember when we take it up again. It will always be waiting for us.
Ironically, these setbacks that are real, the ones we survive, will help us understand better the ones we manufacture for ourselves: “I’m not good enough.” “I don’t know how to do that.” “Nobody wants my work.” It’s easier to see these for the silly (though crippling) stories they are. Shoo!
Going through the real hard stuff, helps us move forward through the imaginary stuff we put on ourselves. We know better, and when we know better, we can choose to do better.
Are you waiting, now? What helps you keep hope in your heart? Are you ready to get back to your art? What will your first step be? If you’re comfortable, share this part of your journey. Someone else may need to hear it today!
If you liked this article, share it with someone who needs it.
If someone sent you this article, and you found it helpful, let them know!
* That person said they were already starting up their creative work again, exploring new media, new venues, etc. Patricia, you are doing it right!
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….??)
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!)