Bad/Mad/Sad Brain and “Aha!” Moments

Luann Udell shares how making the work we love, is a working meditation.
Luann Udell shares how making the work we love, is a working meditation.

Bad/Mad/Sad Brain and “Aha!” Moments

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.

Our brains are amazing! But we have to make sure we don’t overthink it….

After a full month of packing, one day of intense moving, and another month of unpacking, sorting, arranging, and making an empty room my newest creative space, my brain backfired Sunday.

I got to the studio nice and early. But my heart just wasn’t in it. I wandered around restlessly, moving a few things, put them back, and finally went home. I called my husband before I left, asking him if he wanted to blow off work and go for a drive. “YES!!!” he said. (He’s been working nonstop for months on a creative project, too.)

I thought that would take care of my ennui. Nope. Today is one of those days my editors, past and present, hate: I just couldn’t figure out what to write about.

And so here I am, typing furiously, to share the “aha!” moment I had today. (Technically, it’s still Monday on the West Coast….)

I got to my studio late. Yet again, I just wasn’t feeling it. I did sort a few things out, labeled some drawers, etc. (I organized my sticks. Yes, I have a picture.)

Yes, I sorted sticks today. DON’T JUDGE!!! 

But I just couldn’t get any energy to really set out my framed work, my jewelry, etc. (Most of the shrines are at a two-month long show at a gallery for another few weeks, which was a blessing during the packing and moving part!)

I couldn’t figure out why I was so unmotivated, after weeks of incredible energy and focus. And suddenly, it hit me.

I can’t figure out how to hang my work!

Bear with me here. I have quality picture hangers, I have just as much wall space as the old studio, and I’m pretty flexible about where they should go.

But the first time I hung one, I couldn’t hammer the nail-and-hanger into the wall!

At least that section of the wall is a sort of painted-over old paneling, the kind that has a lot of give, and probably isn’t real wood. I banged, and the wall bounced, and I got nowhere.

Okay, I thought, I brought in all those expensive stick-on hooks, the kind you can pull out the sticky strip later, and reuse. I was a little nervous about using them, because they have a tendency to not work well in cold or damp weather. But I gave it a long time to “set” and hung the first framed work. It look great!

It didn’t look so great an hour later, when it popped off the wall and shattered the frame. Dang!!! (That’s not what I actually said, but I’m trying to keep it clean here.)

The worst thing is, I couldn’t figure out what to do next.

Try another version of the same brand? Look to see if any of the walls are “normal” and “hammer-able”?  Check in with another artist there, to see if they had the same kind of walls? Check in with the building manager to see if he had any ideas??

Consciously, I thought I was “solving the problem”. But today, after two days of not coming up with a solution, I realized I felt “stuck”. And I couldn’t get myself to move forward.  It didn’t help that the next thing on my to-do list were taxes.

Oddly, that morning, at the gym, on my way out I said something to one of the employees. She was feeling a little off, she said. Me, too, I said. Maybe because it’s Monday?

But then I realized, Mondays don’t mean anything to me. They aren’t the day I “have to” go back to work I don’t care for. Monday is just another day where I decide what I need to work on. And it was sunny, after the “atmospheric river” that’s been hounding us for months. And it was actually almost warm. Why were we so down??

I shared with her a story I’d just read in a book I’m rereading, Unseen City by Nathanael Johnson. It’s a delightful book about how Johnson, wanting to share the wonders of nature with his three-year-old in Berkeley, CA, ended up learning—and learning to love—the species of animals and plants most people find offensive. He shares delightful stories about crows, pigeons, ants, snails, turkey vultures, and….

Gingko trees.

One day, as he walked along a street, he entered a mental state of high dudgeon. The world was an awful place. He felt angry, resentful. Then, a block later, he realized how good his life is, and felt normal again. He didn’t think anything of it until the next time he walked down that same street—and felt the same anger.

These bizarre mood swings continued for days, in the very same block, until he finally paid close attention to what was happening when they appeared.

He realized he was smelling a very foul odor, little whiffs. It actually triggered his inner feelings of disgust and anger, but unconsciously. When he looked for the culprit, he realized it was the fruit of a gingko tree, one of the oldest species still in existence today. The female gingko produces a fruit/nut that smells God-awful. (Words like dog poo, rot, and vomit are usually used. Oy!!)

A bad smell gave him hopelessness, despair, and anger.

So, two moments illustrating that what clouds our judgment, creates uneasiness and resentment, feelings of “less-than”, even anger, that had nothing to do with current circumstances.

Our brains are marvelous creations, capable of amazing feats. Our brains are also very ancient. Our brain is hard-wired to keep us safe from danger, like eating spoiled food or anything “disgusting”.  (For me, that’s broccoli!) As I mentioned in a comment in my last article, “keeping us safe” is also why we tend to ruminate over hurtful things people have said about us, or our work, while we forget all the wonderful things people have said. People who say hurtful things can be “dangerous”, and so their words “stick”.

And when we’re “stuck”, it keeps trying to work to find a solution, perhaps keeping us unsettled, unfocused, and vaguely uncomfortable.

When we are being “played” by our unconscious thoughts, we make up a story why we feel that way, just as Johnson thought life was unfair, unfulfilling, etc. before he realized he was being “triggered” by a bad smell. I made up a story about how I was too dumb to hang a picture right, that I felt stupid having to ask others how they managed. I was angry at my cat, my dog, and my husband, and I felt like I had nothing to say this week. (I do, bear with me.)

The solution? It’s another reason artists can usually deal well with adversity and obstacles, and persevere.

Making art, making the work we love, is a working meditation.

Doing work we find worthy, fulfilling, productive, actually brings us joy. It allows us to get into a deep, working mental space—literally, a working meditation–sometimes called “the Zone”. Time passes quickly.  We are immersed in our process. We are restored to our better selves.

So the more we “make”, the better we feel.

That’s when I realized that, though I would love my space to be “perfect” before I actually get back to work, it might be time to actually do some work.

So tomorrow, I think I’ll make something. Maybe finish that new bear I had to set aside two months ago. Maybe a new necklace. Heck, maybe I’ll take my sewing machine out for a spin!

I’ll try not to use my feelings-of-the-day to judge my life, or my art.

Fortunately, it’s not gingko fruit season. Yet!

Have you ever realized your downer mood was actually brought on by hidden thoughts or unrealistic goals? Or a gingko tree? (I don’t mean good goals, I mean like when I thought I could get my new space set up in three days!) What brought you back to your happy place? Lemme know!

THE FOUR QUESTIONS #7: What Is Your Next Step?

Trite, but true: Every journey begins with a single step.

(7 minute read) 

Okay, you big dreamers, procrastinators (moi!), those who are stuck (oops…me, too!), and people who need it all figured out before they do anything, listen up! Question #2 can be even more important that Question #1!

Question #1, What is your greatest vision for (insert-your-heart’s-desire-here), is a great exercise for going big. Especially for those artists -who have been noticeably absent in art history, art galleries, and art museums, who don’t see evidence they, too, can be successful artists: Women, minorities, other cultures and ethnicities, etc. (Well. Women do show up a lot in art, but usually as subjects, and thus without clothes.)

But for us to “get big”, it’s not enough to just have a dream.

We have to do the work to make it happen. Or at least possible.

That means figuring out a path, no matter how vague, or improbable, to head in the general direction of our goals.

This can still be hard to wrap our heads around. “How the heck do I know what I should do next??”

Consider the following strategies, and hopefully, one will resonate with you.

1)    Eliminate the all-or-nothing approach.

There’s nothing more daunting than an ultimatum. 

The person who dreamed of accepting an award for a movie? They had stopped their film-making. They couldn’t figure out a way to support themselves with it, so they took a well-paying full-time job for a national service corporation.

But they were so exhausted by their day/desk job, they didn’t have the time or energy to create films. Since they simply couldn’t quit their job, obviously they had to give up their dream. Right?

The problem with this approach is, life rarely gives us the perfect opportunity, and all the breaks we think we need to move forward.

Sure, we all hear about people who took the big leap and landed it. They left their job, struggled for a couple years, and now they’re making six-figure incomes doing what they love.

The problem with this thinking is, in our hearts we recognize how rare this is. The older we get, the more responsibilities we take on: Family, aging parents, mortgages, preparing for retirement, health issues, etc. The reasons why we shouldn’t move forward can feel overwhelming.

A small solution to this problem is to carve out a place in your life (if you haven’t already done so) to acquire the skills, the experience, and the joy that comes from making your creative work.

This wonderful little article on how to move forward when we don’t even know what we want shows the importance of making room for doing what you love. It restores us to ourselves, so we can dream bigger.

The film-maker realized making a small, intimate, low-tech, very personal film around a major issue in their life could fit the bill. No expectations of greatness, fame, money, etc. Just something they’d dreamed of doing for awhile. And the scale made it highly doable.

2)    Start small: One action step in the next 24 hours.

What is one thing you can do TODAY to move you forward? 

One small step gets you off your…er…chair…and into active mode. I cannot emphasize how important, how empowering, even a tiny action can be.

First, you have to get out of bed. Not kidding!

I’ve been in a funk the last few months. Family issues, health issues, money issues. It’s consoling to let my art-making slack off (“I don’t feel like it!”) and feel sorry for myself.

I thought the issue was unsolvable. If a huge part of my work’s attraction is seeing it in person, even touching/holding it, (just ask my editor!) then how do I use the internet to market it?? If only a tiny number of my potential local audience ever even sees my work, let alone comes to my studio to experience it, how will I ever grow an audience large enough to support it?

After journaling about this, I realized that representation by a very few, but “good-fit” art galleries and museum stores could help me achieve this.

And instead of slogging through the hundreds or even thousands of potential galleries I could research, I could simply ask my community—those familiar with my work, and me—if they knew of such places.

I reached out on my blog, and Facebook, with my criteria: Would my work fit with the gallery’s aesthetic (and therefore, their audience?) Are the venues close enough that collectors could visit my studio here in Northern California? Is the gallery’s clientele willing to pay my prices? (I know with the right demographic, my prices are actually extremely reasonable for what I do.) Are the galleries close enough I can actually approach them in person with samples? Etc., etc.

Yes, a few people responded with well-intentioned but wild guesses. But a savvy few are responding appropriately.

Now I can use the internet, to research these galleries! Then decide which ones to visit in person.

The beauty of this small step is, even if none of these galleries work out, I’ve found that if the gallery owners/managers like the work (even though it doesn’t work for their customers), many are willing to suggest more appropriate venues—which will save me hours of research and legwork.

If your goal is so big, or so far beyond your imagining you can’t even begin to imagine how to get there, then Strategy 3 might prove helpful: 

3)    Work backwards from your goal.

You can’t win the lottery unless…..

One of my favorite all-time jokes is a minister whose church is in need. Every single day, he prays earnestly, “Oh Lord, please help me win the lottery!” This goes on for months. Until one day, the clouds roll, the lightning flickers, the thunder rolls, and a great voice speaks: “Do me a favor. BUY A DAMN LOTTERY TICKET!!!!”

Years ago, I attended a conference called Craft in the Digital Age. One of the speakers shared a linguistically unique way another culture expresses intention can have wonderful insights our own:

The first panelist was Lynn Martin Graton, Traditional Arts Coordinator for the NH State Council on the Arts… She spoke about living in Japan for some years, and her difficulty learning a language so different than the more familiar Romance languages.  She spoke about having to learn totally new concepts dictating how ideas were expressed, different expectations of the culture.  One example was how the English statement “I need to finish warping this loom today” would be expressed as “If the loom is not warped today, then nothing else can happen” in Japanese.  Part of learning such an unfamiliar language is to actively embrace the different cultural traits that spawned it….

For an expanded take on how this can work, read A Review of the Re-Do of the To-Do List.

Again, the way we tend to frame this feels like an ultimatum: “I have to do this!” Reframing it (“For the cloth to be woven, the loom must be warped”) makes it possible to happen.

To put this into practice, think what your ideal outcome is. Perhaps it’s “win an award at a prestigious art show.”

What would have to happen before you win? “Create an astonishing new work of art.”

What has to happen before that? “Start working on a new body of work, then pick the best one in that series.”

Before that? “I need more canvases!”

Or maybe your steps go (in reverse order), “Be accepted into that show”, after “Apply for the show”, and beginning with “Get the prospectus for the show”.

Why do such simple little “first steps” help so much?

In a series of goal-achieving blog articles I wrote awhile back, I talked about “micro-steps”: Why does something as simple as putting on your work-out shoes increases your chances of actually going to the gym?

People: It’s science! Studies showed that even that tiny step of putting on our sneakers can increase the likelihood we’ll follow through with our intentions.

It’s back to that old saw: How do you eat an elephant?

One bite at a time.

For the person who is asking the questions, when you and the speaker get to this question, your job is to keep asking, “What has to happen before this step?” (“For the cloth to be woven, the loom must be warped.”)

And for the person who thinks they had to clean their entire studio to get weaving again, remind them: You only have to clear off the loom.

I don’t have to clean my studio (today.) I just have to clear a little space.

Stay tuned for next week’s next question! It’s a doozy! Bring your hankies!

Rethink on the Reboot

Sometimes a “major change” is simply many tiny changes in outlook.

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I have to admit, simply HOLDING something I’ve created is often enough to reconnect me.

For everyone who wrote me asking why I’m walking away from my art and writing, let me reassure you, I’m not!!!!!

am at what my dear hubby calls “an inflection point”. I’d never heard of that before, except as a math term. But one dictionary describes it as

  1. 1.
    MATHEMATICS
    a point of a curve at which a change in the direction of curvature occurs.
  2. 2.
    US
    (in business) a time of significant change in a situation; a turning point.

That’s what it feels like. A “change” is coming, but I don’t know what it is.

What I do know is, my story hasn’t changed.  I’m not done telling that story! And so my art itself, and my propensity for writing about my art (and what I’ve learned from making it), will not change.

I got lost in trying to pinpoint what was going to change. Stuck in trying to figure that out, because sitting with that has been hard.

Because when we choose not to move forward until we’re sure what that looks like, we lock ourselves into the present while fearing the future. (Perfectionism, thy name is “Luann”….!!)

I had fallen so low in my self-esteem in this flux state that I broke my own rule about giving away my work.

I don’t give my work away to people who expect it to be free, or those who demand I give it to them.

Such a simple rule, and I broke it. To the tune of agreeing to do free work worth thousands of dollars. And to be grateful to the person who said I should do it.

No worries, I walked it back! I’m only out $200, and I consider that a lesson I will never have to learn again. I hope!

I was in the middle of a health crisis (not life-threatening, but life-style threatening), a state of physical and emotional exhaustion, a state of living with uncertainty so long, I couldn’t see the gifts I already have: A home, a family, a loving partner, my health in general, the beauty of the California landscape and seascape, my studio, etc. I’ve been focusing on how close we are to losing many of these gifts, obsessed with security, and my struggle to control our future. (Ha!! Good luck with that, human!)

So I made a few more bad decisions.

But I also made some very, very good decisions.

Like reaching out to family, good friends, old friends, new friends, readers, supporters.

I reached out, and found people who listened, deeply.

I overcame my main worry, that I only reach out when I need help, others will  judge me on my own selfishness (“She only calls when she’s stuck!”)–and found they were genuinely happy to help. Not only that, I found everyone was going through similar stuff, themselves. And they welcomed my help/feedback/support! (“Reciprocity” is a word that’s been resonating with me lately, and I was delighted to engage in it.)

They walked me back from the next bad decisions I’d made. And although I’ve been in a deep funk about who I am, they’ve been holding the memory of who I am, when I’m at my best.

And even better, they shared how much they love and respect me even when I’m at my worst. 

Which gets me to where I am today: Tiny steps forward, and for the first time in months (many months!), holding a tiny bit of hope.

How I got there in a few hours yesterday is what I want to share with you today.

There’s an online class offered by Yale University, and anyone can take it if you can cough up $40. (And if you can’t, there are grants available!)

It’s called The Science of Well-Being, a class based on brain science and scientific evidence, developed and taught by Laurie Santos. It’s been in the news since the course wen’t online in March. It’s quickly become Yale’s most popular course.

The short story is, we don’t really know what we want. We don’t really know what will make us happy. And if we don’t understand what really will, or won’t, make us happy, then our pursuits in life won’t result in happiness.

The first video talked about “A ‘Good’ Job”. When you ask people what they want from a job, it’s often things like “a big salary” and “opportunities to advance”, and “prestige”, etc.

But it turns out those can be misleading goals that don’t necessarily make us happy in the long run. Yes, a livable income is important. But not at the expense of other goals that will actually improve how we feel about life. Like work that appeals to our strengths and values, work that challenges us in a good way, work that provides us opportunities to be “in the zone” or what is now called a “flow” state.

So how do we do that? How do we identify those unique strengths, our important values? How do we learn to nurture them those strengths and values? Because doing so will nurture us, will increase our sense of well-being and happiness.

This isn’t the old 90’s thing about “follow your bliss and the money will follow.” It’s more evidence-based, and doable. This class shows what works, and how to do it right.

After a few hours of work yesterday, I read something that gave me a glimmer of hope that I, too, can figure this out.

One evaluation survey showed that after taking the course, and implementing the (very simple) exercises, almost every student showed an average 30% increase in their sense of happiness.  That’s nice.

But what blew my socks off was this statistic:

On average, every single student also reported a 70% DECREASE in depression.

Think about that.

We all know there’s no such thing as “happy all the time”, or a life filled with constant joy. I think we all shy away from anything that promises that. After all, I’m following my passion in life, and I still struggle with insecurity, a sense of not-doing-it-right, not being able to even pay for my studio rent with my art, and not being able to pay for much of anything from my writing. (A friend was gob-smacked when I told her how little I am paid for my one paid writing gig. And that’s just “the new normal” for free-lance writers.)

So “being happier” was something I’m always a little suspicious of.

And I already know some of the more obvious, popluar goals, like “make more money”, won’t fix everything–especially if I sacrifice integrity and what makes my work powerful. I know fame and celebrity can be a shadow goal, and potentially a self-destructive pursuit.

But the promise I could be less unhappy? Significantly less unhappy?? Bring it on!

That tiny ray of hope, the realization that things really could be better, inside, with a shift in perspective, was enough to raise my spirits.

And the way that happens–aligning key character traits and values with my life mission–is already giving me a wee bit of clarity of what that “inflection point” might be.

As always, I’ll keep you posted on my progress.

And in the meantime, I hope you check out the course, especially if you are also struggling with what would really make you happy!