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

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.

Rewards, Insight, Setbacks, and …K…K….courage, all this can be yours!

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!

IT’S ALL ABOUT THE MONEY Except When It’s Not

If money is the ONLY measure of your success, don’t read any further, please!

In my latest article for Fine Art Views, I shared how taking a risk (what seemed to me a very small risk), brought me many benefits (tangible and intangible) for years.

My intention was to share how even small steps outside our comfort zone can have big results. I wanted to share that what most people see is “luck” ignores what underlies “luck”: Preparation, persistence, and recognizing opportunity. If you don’t recognize the opportunity when it appears, you won’t reap the potential rewards.

What started out as a very small thing (submitting an image of my work for the gallery section of a craft book) resulted in an opportunity to write and publish a book.

Most people applauded that concept. But to my surprise, some people focused only on the money.

Exactly how much work did I do for “free”, and how much did I get paid? (In today’s dollars, it would seem modest, but not ridiculously so.)

Am I telling people to work for free for the “exposure”?? (NO.) I did not “donate” to the gallery sections of the book I was in, like charity auctions so many artists are asked to do. I just submitted a photograph for each.

Exactly what did I gain from that decsion? It’s alllll in the article.

Paid projects. Paid to write a book. Foundation for teaching classes. New product lines down the road, even fifteen years later. A reputation for unique work, and for being a reliable writer.

After my work appeared in several books, people started calling me “famous”. (I’m not, of course, but many, many more people were made aware of my work. And many more people recognized my name.)

During open studios, I always have the two dozen or so books I’m in available to new visitors. It always impresses them. (“Hey, working with half a dozen editors across two dozen books? She must be doing something right!”)

I got paid for each project I created. And as I said in the article, they all turned into new lines of work for me. They also became the basis of classes I offer (and I charge for the classes I offer.) So the project books, and my books, offer validation of my skills.

I received a good advance on the book, enough to make it worth my while.

Did I get rich? No. (Although my advance from that book was more than 10x than I’ve made selling my ebooks.)
Did my reputation benefit? Yes, both as an artist and a writer.
Did I get more opportunities to write for pay? Yes.
Did I enjoy it? Very much!
Did other opportunities follow? Yes! My resume was awesome!

Again, if it’s all about the money, and money is THE ONLY CRITERION for whether this risk was “successful” or not….

I have no idea.

My income has gone up and down over the years, as I constantly sorted out what was working and what wasn’t. So any additional income that was still within my skills and interests range was very welcome. One year, making products for a mail order catalog account kept me afloat during a recession.

If I would do it again? In a heartbeat! I listed the benefits in the article. I believe the most important one is how these “risks” broadened my horizons, and widened my world.

Should everybody do this? Of course not! The stamp carver who produced the little booklet on stamp carving would have loved the money. They just didn’t want to commit to a year-long schedule, the amount of writing, etc. They’d written their booklet, and they were done. She gave me her blessing. (Thank you, Julie Hagan Bloch!) My schedule was more flexible, and I love to write!

Do I work for free all the time? Nope. A couple years ago someone reached out to me to write an article for their online publication. They refused to pay me, though they sort of promised I would get paid when their site went viral. (Uh huh…) They used the usual “but you’ll get such great exposure!” But they also kept increasing their demands on what was expected, so I knew it wouldn’t end well. (I started the article but soon walked away. There are warning signs for projects that won’t work to our advantage.)

Do I get paid for everything I do? Nope. There are times where I do stuff for free. I have my own criteria for assessing that. But I never do it when someone demands I do it for the “exposure”, when I sense those warning signs, or when there is absolutely nothing in for me at all, AND I don’t want to do it, period. Give a presentation or talk to art students? Sure! Donate to a charity auction? Only if I get my wholesale price from the sale. And so on.

We all have our unique boundaries, our individual take on where we draw the line between work-for-hire, work-for-free, and the gray areas in-between.

If we insist on being paid for everything, every time, and that is our ONLY criterion for success, we may overlook opportunities that will work in our favor. That is YOUR choice.

But it’s not mine.

This has been one of the most controversial posts I’ve ever written, which surprises me. I have been asked to defend the premise of this story over and over. I have had my integrity, my life experience, and my veracity challenged. (Usually people complained vigorously about how long my articles are.) (So I’m gonna wrap this up!)

Now….Did you know I don’t get paid to blog? :^D

Yes, I do get paid to write for Fine Art Views weekly. (I have permission to replublish those articles here.) But it’s not nearly what I used to get for ONE article when I wrote for magazines.

So, if I ONLY did things I love when I’m paid for them, you wouldn’t be reading this today. :^)

IF my writing has meant something to you…

If you ever felt like what I wrote has inspired you, enlightened you, educated you, shored you up when you felt the world does not want the work of your heart…

If you love the fact that I’ve openly shared for almost 16 years, what I’ve learned by being an artist, writer, martial artist, dog owner, wall climber, hospice volunteer, teacher, mother, etc….and shared it with you, not only because I have to write…

Because I hope someone, anyone, will find joy, learn, heal, be brave, be heard….at no cost to you….

How would you feel if I’d never started a blog?

Er…You can send me a check in any amount anytime. It will most be appreciated!

What Is The Story Only You Can Tell? Make It A Good One!

What Is The Story Only You Can Tell? Make It A Good One!

By Luann Udell

Image 3100480

4/27/2019 by Luann Udell

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.

We can’t control everything in life, but we can choose how we face it.

Years ago, one of my favorite writers, Martha Beck, wrote an article thathas stuck with me for decades.

Beck’s insights and advice come from her years as a therapist, observing how people get stuck and how to help them get unstuck. In this article, she describes two of her clients, two women named Mary.

Mary One has a sad life storyA parent dying young, obstacles, setbacks, health issues, etc. Just reading the list makes you wonder how anyone could survive what she has been through.

Mary Two has a wonderful life story. She inherited wealth, and was able to attend top-notch colleges. She is highly educated, and her career issatisfying. She is very close to her grandmother, who showers her with love and kindness. She loves to travel and has been all over the world. One cannot help but envy her good fortune.

The kicker?

The two clients are actually the same person.

This article was a game-changer for me. The lessons are obvious.

We have all had sadness, and joy in our lives. We have all experienced cruelty, and kindness. We all have victories, and setbacks. We’ve all had people who love us, and people who are toxic. We all wish we had more money, even though we know in our hearts that if a billion dollars is “not enough” for the wealthiest people in the world, how will we ever have enough?

The lesson for me was simple: We get to create our own story.

For years, my saddest story was that I couldn’t get into art school. My school, one of two in the entire county, in an agricultural area, didn’t have much money to spend on art programs. This meant my portfolio was pretty pathetic. And so, when I did go to college, I majored in art history instead, the traditional “shadow artist”, hovering on the outskirts of my passion and filled with envy for those who thrived with their art.

And yet….

I actually was accepted into not one, not two, but three colleges thatoffered art programs. Instead, I chose the one that was the most prestigious, where my best friend, my high school boyfriend, and my secret crush had been accepted. It was the only school that rejected my portfolio. I took a few art classes, but they were like bananas offered to amonkey in a cage, a prize I could never reach.

So “not being good enough” wasn’t really a thing, though it took me years to see that. It was just a “sad story” I held onto for a long time.

Although that boyfriend turned out to be fairly toxic, and much of my love life was pretty pathetic, it was in this same city that I met my husband, my life partner, and a pretty great one. We’ve been together over 40 years.

So with the power of hindsight/reframing, going to that college was actually a lucky fortunate choice. (Next week, I’ll share another storyabout “luck”!) Taking all those art history classes, starting with theLascaux Cave (the oldest human art in the world in the 1970’s) was apowerful, inspirational resource when I finally owned the power of my choices, and became the artist I was always meant to be.

And if I had actually been accepted into that college’s art program, I am certain I would not be making the work I make today. I don’t think my tender heart would have survived the toxic critiques many students had to endure (I hear schools do it differently now, but I take that with a grain of salt, as this intriguing memoir reveals.

In short, there may be one set of facts, circumstances, etc…

But there are a slew of stories I can tell myself because of them.

When I’m feeling “less than”, I feel embarrassed that I actually hate drawing. I resent that my medium of choice took years to gain respect in the art world. I know that some people still would not consider me a “real artist”. I remember every cruel or thoughtless remarks from ignorant, pompous, or deeply-troubled people.

But when I choose to see my power, I know I make art for myself, first. Making my art has made me a better person. I know that I use thatpower, the power of my choices, to not only make work that‘s so personal, my collectors can easily recognize my style and aesthetics, I’ve used that power to reach out and connect with others, always with the hope that doing so may elevate the hearts of others, as well.

Try this exercise today: Jot down all the hardships and crappy things thathave crossed your path this week, everything that made you suffer and seethe. (I didn’t say “in your lifetime” because that could take weeks! But sure, put in anything that‘s still hounding you.) List the deadlines you’re stressing over, the to-do list that never seems to end, the lack of respect for your style/subject/medium, the dearth of sales. Make note of how you feel when you’re done.

Now write down all the blessings and gifts that happened in the same time period: The car that let you merge safely into traffic, the person who stopped to let you cross the street, the new opportunity to show your work that‘s got you fired up about your new series. Consider the thank-you notes you got from the grateful customer who bought your work because they loved it. Think of all the things you did accomplish, and all the steps forward you’ve taken with your art, your personal growth, your relationships.

How do you feel now?

I always-always-feel better.

This is why I write. It helps me sort out the distractions from the real deal, the true life mission I carry in my heart from the road bumps. I get clarity on what I can change, and what I can’t change. I can feel my anger melt as I frame the difficult stuff differently.

All the naysayers, the critics, the trolls, the digs, the snark we encounter daily, suddenly feel more like annoyances than anything. I feel free to simply do what I love to do. I give myself permission to live my life theway I want.

A recent example: A dear friend and supporter shared with excitement the realization that their work is “on trend”. My lizard brain immediately buckled. The same trend was in force when I started making this particular aspect of my art, and I struggled mightily to overcome it. For afew moments, I was envious that this person, who has had my back for years, might surf that wave farther than I ever will.

And then I had to laugh. My work has never been “on trend”, and I’m glad! The courage it took to simply make the work of my heart has created my own wave I can ride as far as I desire.

I know now that the world is big enough for both us. If they aresuccessful with their work, if they get a “bigger piece of the pie”, thatdoesn’t mean my slice is smaller. There is an infinite amount of “pie” in the world, enough for both of us. Actually, it’s big enough for all of us.

I will simply not let that first story be the story I tell. I choose the second storythe one filled with mutual respect, joy, and kindness.

What is the story YOU can choose to tell, today?

If you like this post, feel free to spread the love! Share it with a friend, and let them know they can subscribe here.

A HANDY GUIDE TO NIBBLERS: The Fifteen-Minute Read that Can Change Your Life.

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.

If my curve is large, why bend it to a smaller circle?

Henry David Thoreau

The Nibble Theory and the Kernel of Power will rock your world.

Years ago, I came across a remarkable book that changed my life for the better.

For the life of me, I can’t remember how I found out about it. But I give thanks every single day of my life that I did.

You’ve heard me mention it, and maybe some of you have already found your own copy. If not, head over to this amazing search tool and find an affordable copy. (Although even a brand new copy won’t set you back much, either.)

THE NIBBLE THEORY by Kaleel Jamison really is a 15-minute read. It even has pictures/cartoons, which beautifully illustrate the concepts she presents.

But although the concepts are simple, they are not easy, as Jamison herself says in the first page.

When I first started out with my artwork, combining different media wrapped around a powerful personal story, I was fearless. I had a late start in my art life, and I wasn’t going to let anything or anybody stand in my way. I slipped and slided over every bump in the road, moving forward with passion and joy. (Side note: How come it’s glide/glided and not slide/slided??)

Just like any other exciting new venture in life, the honeymoon period eventually comes to an end. That’s where the real work comes in.

And it’s also when the Nibblers showed up.

I’ve talked on end about Nibblers, the people who deem us “too much”: Too much free time, too much courage, too much to say, too much talent. They “nibble us down” by making us feel like “not enough”: Not enough skill, not enough credibility (“Pastels are just chalk!), not enough of anything.

My biggest insight came from a couple who were part of our inner social circle back in New Hampshire, wonderful, intelligent, supportive, loving folks. I told Ruth about the book, and a few years later, shared with her my frustration about the Attack of the Nibblers. (There was quite a swarm of them that year!)

She told her husband, a lawyer, that he should be gentle that night when we came over for dinner. “Luann’s had a lot of ‘nibbles’ lately”, she said.

That’s when Ted replied with the words that created another sea change in my life”:

“You tell Luann that lawyers do this to each other all the time!” he told her. “It’s called professional jealousy. It means she’s doing good work.” You can read more about professional jealousy in this series, Mean People Suck on my blog, or searching for “professional jealousy” for similar articles there.

This insight helped me get over the nay-sayers, the back-biters, the foot-trippers, the people who say I smell funny (WE ALL SMELL FUNNY), the folks with back-handed “compliments” that are actually swats, etc.

The major premise of the first half of The Nibble Theory is that we all start out as small people with a lot of personal growth ahead of us. That ‘personal growth’ is symbolized by a small circle. As we go through life, we have many opportunities to grow personally, emotionally, spiritually.  Sometimes we overlook these opportunities, but we will all encounter them on our journey. And we can’t judge someone else’s journey, because….well, because it’s their journey, not ours..

But along the way, we’re going to run into not only small circles who will be jealous of our journey, we may run into bigger circles who may be threatened by ours. They will “nibble us down to size” so we aren’t as scary or enviable.

This book helps us understand our own power is about our own personal growth. And it helps us “frame” the attacks of others who feel threatened, who feel “less than”, so we don’t take on their toxicity personally.

I’ve read this book many, many times over the years. From time to time (like now!) I even buy up additional copies, and give them away to friends and family who may benefit from reading the book.

But here’s an interesting twist in my own story:

I completely did not spend much time on the second half, devoted to “the kernel of power”.

And this is exactly what I need to be working on right now.

Oddly, in our little WAG group (Women Artists’ Group, my first artist support group here in California), we had a little exercise in January: We all picked a word to be “our word” for 2019.

And I picked “power”.

I had no idea why. I don’t want to be a superhero, I don’t want to boss people around (though my dear hubby might beg to differ), and I don’t want to be “in charge”. I was actually offered a chance to serve on a local art event group’s steering committee, and turned it down. (I prefer “ad hoc” participation, I told them.)

And yet, for some reason, the word “power” resonated.

Eventually, I found an article about a different kind of “power”, the kind that comes from being grounded (sounds vaguely electrical??) and getting clear about the path we are on, bringing our energy and efforts to focus on doing the best work we can, and using it as a force for good in the world.

And now I’m reading and rereading that last section of the THE NIBBLE THEORY more carefully.

The beauty of it is, it includes an exercise which strongly echoes my series where I talk about the structure of a powerful artist support group, THE FOUR QUESTIONS.

 Aha! The right kind of power! Now I know my mission for the rest of 2019.

Jamison knew first-hand the importance of finding our power. She was a first-generation Lebanese woman, born in the ‘30’s in West Virginia. She founded her own consulting company, and became a pioneer on issues of gender, race, affirmative action, and differences. She died way too soon, but her work lives on. And it has even more relevance for our contentious, fractured world today.

What the heck does this have to do with art?!

You already know that.

As artists, we, too, live in a time where, even with all the opportunities and ways to get our art out in the world, it can still be hard. Hard to discover what is unique about our work, and our story. Hard to figure out how to make our work stand out from the crowd. Hard to value our work and ourselves at a time where Nibblers seem to outnumber mosquitoes in the world.

And yet, every single one of us got here today from different times, different places, different circumstances, different education, different support systems, and with different media, different processes, different goals, different audiences, and different expectations. Her goal was not to be famous, or to make a lot of money. She simply wanted to make the world a better place, and put her special skills to work to achieve that.

What do we all have in common?

We all want to make the work that means something to us, something that is a product of our story. Our story is who we are in the world, and who we want to be.

And we want people to see us. Not just our work, but us. Who we are, what we do, how we do it, and why we do it.  (We want people to buy it, too, of course. And they will, if it resonates with them enough, and they can afford it.) (And if they have room for it!)

I believe we also all want people to value our work, to appreciate it.

We want our work to be “in the world”, and to mean something to others.

And like the Netflix special, “Nanette”, we can focus on Van Gogh’s work selling for $21 million dollars.

Or we can focus on the fact that Van Gogh’s work exists today because he had a brother who loved him.

As an eternal student of life, I strive to keep learning, to keep growing as a human being, to do the work of my heart, and to help others do the same. I want to have few regrets when I leave this world.

OH, and I also want to have the most beads, rocks, shells, and pets.

What is your inner truth? What does your work say, that you want the world to know? Not sure? Go buy the darn book!

P.S. As I republished this article on my blog, I realized the best example of what I espouse here. Kaleel Jamison died way too soon, but her work, her foundation, and powerful book are still with us today. Her words still bring solace, healing, and empowerment to people who need it to do their good work, and bring it into the world. She did it right!

Holding Onto “Facts” That Hold You Back

(Originally published on my old Radio Userland blog on Friday, November 29, 2002. You can read the original post here.)

Years ago, when I was getting my master’s degree in education, I met a young woman in one of my math methods course.  We paired up for several projects.  I found her bright and funny and easy to work with.

One day we were doing some measurements for a hands-on project, and she stumbled on an easy mental calculation: multiplying something by 9.

I said something jokingly about her multiplication tables needing work.  “Oh, I never learned my 9’s facts,” she explained.  “I was absent that day.”

I thought she was joking.  Surely someone as smart as she was, and as someone who was taking master’s level math methods coursework, knew that elementary school does not denote one day out of the entire fourth-grade curriculum to teach the nines multiplication table.

But she wasn’t kidding.  She told me an elaborate story about being sick the day the nines table was taught, and so more than 15 years later, she was still unable to multiply by nine.

I think of that young woman often.

Coincidentally, in that same math teaching course, we were learning how to teach kids their math facts–addition, subtraction, multiplication and division.  There are many easy facts.  Let’s take the multiplication tables.  Everyone knows what the ones facts are–1×1=1, 2×1=2, etc.  Next come the twos, and it turns out they’re pretty easy, too.   Most kids learn them quickly.   Next are the fives and the tens.  They’re easily mastered, too.  Also the “doubles”–3×3=9, 4×4=16, and so on.

Now if you were to map out a chart of all the multiplication facts, and mark off all the “easy” ones, including their reversals (2×3 and 3×2, for example) you’d find almost half of the facts accounted for.  And what are the strategies for learning those remaining facts?

The answer, it turns out, is not so much fun.  You have to memorize them.  Of course, there are some good tricks, like the nines tables.  (6×9, one less than 6 is 5, 5+? = 9?  4.  So 6×9=54.  Cute, huh?)

But the straight skinny is, ya gotta memorize them.  The math facts are one of the few academic skills that are ultimately only learned by memorization, and best reinforced by drill and practice.  (Acquisition of vocabulary, especially in learning foreign languages, also benefits greatly by this approach, by the way.)

So here we have two statements, or stories, about facts.  One is measurable, observable, concrete.  To learn the math facts, you gotta work at them.  You gotta memorize them.  You gotta be able to knock out the answers within a second or two of hearing the numbers.  But once you learn them, you never really forget them.  You might get rusty, or you might get stuck on one or two.  But the foundation, the habit, is still there.

The other story is harder to quantify.  Everyone will believe it, few will really examine it.  It goes like this:

“I have a special story about why I can’t do something.  It’s an odd story, but it makes me feel better about not being able to do that thing.  So I hold onto it fiercely….even when a calm, adult eye would see that it doesn’t even make sense anymore.”

What do you gain by holding onto a story like that?

Well…you don’t have to try anymore.  You can have a clear conscience about why you can’t do that thing.  Others might think you’re silly, but it’s possible no one would ever say that to your face.

In fact, probably other people, who have their own  “I can’t” story, nod their head in sympathetic agreement, relieved that someone else has such a story, too.  You may even get sympathy, or admiration.  “Wow, that’s quite a story!  How awful for you! No wonder you can’t do that!”

 

It also is a way to make sure you don’t have to do the real work of learning those new facts, those new ways of doing something.  It’s too hard,  it’s too time-consuming, it’s too late, it’s not possible, and so on.

But what do you lose with a story like that?  A lot.

You lose a lot of missed chances, missed opportunities, a whole world of missed possibilities.

I’m telling this story because I used to tell myself a story like that, too.

It was all about how I couldn’t do the things I really wanted to do–make art.  It was about how I couldn’t be what I really wanted to be–an artist.  It was about how I would never be able to sell my work, or find anyone who would want to buy it.

The biggest one? “There are no women in my art history books. My professors said there were no women in the Lascaux caves. So women can’t really be artists, right?” *

Surprisingly, once I realized my “stories” I told about myself were just that–stories–I found I could change the story to one I like better.  A huge paradigm shift occurred, and I began to see that all the things that “couldn’t happen”, could.

I now hear that same old story from people who ask me how I accomplished so much in the last five years.  When I tell them, they first tell me how lucky I am.  (I am, but not for the reasons they think!)

I soon hear their story.  They think it’s specific to them, a special story, an unusual story.   When I point out that I had the same story, they are quick to correct me that their story is different.

When I point out the inconsistencies of what they’re telling me, they tell me I don’t understand their story fully.

When I suggest ways they could tell another story, they are horrified.  They’ve put so much energy into holding onto this old story.  There’s just too much at stake.  It’s always a really, really good story why they simply cannot do the very thing they just told me is their true heart’s desire.

So my first question for you today is:  What is your story? The sad one, the one you were told, or learned to tell yourself, that keeps you stuck here?

What is the story you tell about yourself that is holding you back from doing the things you really want to do?

Fortunately, you can tell youself a different story. Tune in this Saturday for my Fine Art Views column about the power of affirmations.

20180503_144655
* No women in the Lascaux caves? Ha! Check out the link below!

Were the First Artists Mostly Women?

 

 

 

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?

HOW TO MAKE WATER

Artists urge us to see the invisible, unnoticed beauty, and the important stuff of life.

I didn’t intend to write today.

I opened my journal, intending to try a new journaling technique I just read about. In flipping to the next blank page, I came across a note I’d written a few weeks ago. All it said was David Foster Wallace: This is Water

That’s it. Curious, and always open to an opportunity to procrastinate, I Googled it.

It’s about everything I’ve ever written about.

Of course, my lizard brain went, “Dang! Nothin’ left for me to write.” The angels of my better nature said, “Shut up and write. And then share it.”

Foster tells the story of two young fish passing by an old fish. The old fish says, “Mornin’, boys, how’s the water?” The younger fish continue on, til one turns to the other and says, “What the hell is water??”

Foster talks about a basic fact of life: We are the center of our own universe. After all, he notes, everything that happens everywhere is filtered through our eyes, our experience. He describes a typical experience: Grocery shopping after work. He outlines every single nuance of frustration and exasperation involved, from getting caught in traffic, shopping crowded aisles filled with slow people and whining kids, and ending up in the longest line at checkout. Who are these annoying, terrible people, and why are they ruining my day??!!

This isn’t bad, or evil, he reassures us. It’s natural. It’s ordinary. It’s human. It’s our default setting.

And yet….

We have something unique in us. We get to consciously choose what has meaning, and what doesn’t.

We all worship something, something not necessarily god-like. This, too, can bite us back. If we worship money and things, we will never feel like we have enough. If we worship our bodies and sexual appeal, we will always feel ugly. If we worship power and control, we will always feel afraid. If we worship our intellect, we will always feel stupid.

Real freedom, he says, comes from conscious choice. It involves attention. Awareness. Self-discipline. Effort. Caring for, and sacrificing for others.

That awareness comes from seeing what is real and essential, hidden in plain sight.

“This is water.”

I instantly realized, this is what artists are for.

When I say to you, “Yes, making money from art is nice. But that’s not the whole reason we do it.”

When I say, “When we have a creative gift, it’s our responsibility to bring it forth.”

When I say, “We can’t judge the work we do. We just need to get it out there in the world.”

When I was told, “The world needs your art”, I felt ‘the call’.

When I say, “Art is more than just what it does for you. It’s what it does for others.”

All of this, and more….What I’m really saying is this:

Art and creative work helps us see water.

This is why we must make the work that is unique to us–not what’s trendy and fashionable.

This is why measuring ourselves with fame and wealth is a sure way to kill our creative spirit.

This is why trying to control our legacy creates a disconnect with our rich inner life.

Bringing our creative work into the world involves the same conscious decisions: Attention. Awareness. Self-discipline. Effort. Caring for others. Sacrificing for others. (I’m still wrapping my head around that last one, I can almost get it, but can’t articulate it. Another article??)

First art heals us. When we share it with the world, then it can heal others.

Sadly, Wallace suffered from severe depression, and committed suicide in 2008. Sometimes the angry, frightened voices in our head cannot be silenced. But he left us with beautiful words, and powerful ideas.  He got them out into the world so that you and I can flourish.

He helped us see water.