When last I checked in with you, Dear Readers, it was to share that I was off in writing land, deep into THE BOOK despite all reason and in flagrant disregard for common wisdom. (See I’m Not Dead, I’m Writing )
You were so kind and encouraging in your responses to that post, and have been so patient with my distance this year, that I thought it was time for a bit of a reward. At least, I hope it will feel like a reward!
I thought I’d share with you a DRAFT of the Preface of THE BOOK, in which I attempt to accomplish three things:
demonstrate how different this book is from the piles and piles of already existing “creativity books”
introduce who the hell I think I am, and
lay out the terrain the book will cover in it’s four-part structure.
Please know that I say DRAFT with all the implied caveats and disclaimers you can possibly imagine. I can promise that it will change, I hope and imagine that it will improve, etc etc etc.
The real final official title of THE BOOK is still emerging by the way - but the working title for now is "The Creator You Are and the Life You Create” and there will be a subtitle something like Following Your Creative Constellation to an Authentic, Beautiful, Meaningful and Satisfying Life.” (The repetition of “Life” in the title and subtitle are annoying, still grappling with options…. suggestions?)
OK, disclaimers be damned - here’s your peek - please enjoy!
Before We Begin: I feel compelled to get something out of the way, right up front, because I really don’t want you to be disappointed by what you’re about to encounter. I need you to know that this is not a book designed to help you ‘get more creative.’
In these pages, you will not find any advice about ways to spark, unlock, unleash, boost, jumpstart, supercharge, or unblock your creativity. In fact, I don’t have any interest in improving you in any way, I don’t think you need my help or anyone else’s to rectify some mythical deficiency in your creativity levels, and I hope you never waste another drop of your precious life energies trying to have more innovative ideas per day.
Instead, in this book, we’re going to take a giant step back from all the exciting-sounding buzz focused on tactics, schedules, and triggers that are meant to help you “get more creative.” We’re going to zoom out to explore a bigger, more fundamental set of questions about what it means to be engaged in creation and to live as a creator.
After two decades as a creativity coach and artist (and a consultant and a facilitator and a curriculum designer and a freelance writer/editor and a mother and an often-confused-by-myself human) I’ve come to understand that the challenges most of us actually face as creators emerge from territory that extends far beyond what we usually talk about when we diagnose ourselves as creatively “blocked” or creatively deficient. In fact, the narrow lens of blockage and deficiency can prevent us from seeing and being able to work with the dynamics that matter most in our quest for accomplishments that feel meaningful and lives that feel like our own: satisfying, authentic, and beautiful.
When I set out as a freshly minted creativity coach in the early two thousands, I already knew from painful experience that “creating a work” problems can be intimately linked to “creating a life” problems. I had spent nearly all of the 1990’s in graduate school, ostensibly preparing for a career in academia. Despite some slight misgivings (Wasn’t everyone miserable in graduate school? Didn’t everyone experience crippling waves of anxiety walking through the doors of their department? Wasn’t everyone secretly bored out of their minds? Didn’t everyone have panic attacks in the University bookstore, overwhelmed by the pressure to produce books for micro-audiences of scholars carefully trained to tear their arguments and evidence apart?) I’d made it more than halfway through a Ph.D. program, cleared several years of pre-dissertation hurdles and even earned a prestigious fellowship.
And then, I stopped being able to write. I designed elaborate schedules I didn’t keep; I swore earnest oaths and immediately broke them. I made outlines and drafted plans, I did more research, I changed my topic, I read book after wonderful book about writing and writers…the only thing I could not seem to make myself do was create an actual dissertation.
It didn’t take a Ph.D. to figure out that only a very slim part of my “writing problems” were actually about writing. Yes, I had big resistance to putting my butt in a chair and laying sentences endlessly on top of other sentences until a dissertation emerged, but I also had enormous discomfort with academia and monumental ambivalence about becoming a Professor. Clearly, my acts of not-writing were connected directly to my deeper goal of not-advancing toward a life I was too scared to admit I didn’t want. (And, yes, the number of negatives in that last sentence are a pretty accurate reflection of my mental state at the time.)
And there was another layer, too. As I navigated those years of self-loathing and endless, violent inner battles over my not-writing habits, I also gradually began to connect the dots between my ‘inability’ to write and the fact that I’d cut myself off from the many other creative pursuits I’d enjoyed in my “well-rounded” younger life. In elementary and high school, I had played the cello and sung in the choir, but I dropped music when I got to college. In high school and college, I regularly acted in plays and loved it, but I dropped theater when I got to graduate school. All my life, I’d written poems and little plays and personal little essays about life and fiddled around with collage and paper cutting…but I left all that fun stuff behind, too, when I stepped into the graduate school world. I thought that’s what being a serious academic and a “real adult” meant. “Well-roundedness” was for kids. It was time to Get Real. Get Focused. Get Professional. Grow up and Get Serious. And, for me, this meant it was time to utterly lose my connection to my own inner life. The farther I pushed creativity into the margins of my life (where I thought good, productive adults were supposed to put it), the more miserable I became.
It was this insight - that perhaps creativity was meant to be at the center rather than the margins of my life - that helped unravel the final knots still binding me to acaedmia. For the first time, I saw that my “creative blockage” as a scholarly writer was not the result of any deficiency in my creativity or my discipline or even my ambivalence about what it would mean to succeed. My “creativity problem” stemmed from the fact that my creative self simply did not - could not - recognize scholarly writing as “creative.” My inner template for what creativity felt like was not a match for the experience of scholarly writing.
Of course, this was confusing in a couple different ways. First, wasn’t all writing inherently creative? And second, how come many of my peers seemed to experience their academic projects as creatively juicy work? If they found scholarship and scholarly writing to be a vehicle for the authentic expression of their deepest interests, why didn’t I?
I distinctly remember when I became aware for the first time that my friend Sarah had started to casually and earnestly toss around the phrase “my work” when speaking about her dissertation (as in, “I really think my work is going to add something important to the conversation…” and “I’m looking forward to sharing my work at the conference, it’ll be a great chance to start putting it out there.”) Like a newlywed eager for any chance to say the words “my husband” or “my wife,” Sarah’s new phrase “my work” expressed a relationship that was important, meaningful and deeply her own. My friend had come to belong to her work, and it to her. (Last I heard, by the way, Sarah had become a department head at the London School of Economics, so the relationship appears to have been a lasting and fruitful one. Bless her heart.)
A few days later, still hopeful that I could maybe force my way forward, I tested Sarah’s language out for myself. I casually tossed a “my work” into conversation with my advisor, just to see if I could pull it off. I couldn’t. In my mouth, the phrase was ashes, a lead balloon, a lie. My inner ear was not fooled for a second. My soul knew the truth, and the truth was that half the time, I couldn’t pick my own writing out of a line up; the voice and words and ideas had become so far removed from anything that felt alive to me that my papers might as well have been written by an artificial intelligence. My heart, as they say, was not in it.
I was screwed. I’d invested all those years, stubbornly trying to force myself to keep going past one more hurdle, one more test, only to have to admit that this was not, in fact, my work. I was apparently some other kind of creator, and I was going to have to leave the safe confines of the academy to figure out just what “my work” was supposed to be. Well, shit.
Luckily, as these things so often go, it turned out that the seeds of “my work” were already present in those awful years, though not at all in the places where I expected to find them. Some of those seeds were in the books I read while I was trying to diagnose and cure my “writing problem;” others were in the collages, shrines and assemblages I started playing around with to heal my depression and please my soul. There were also seeds of “my work” in my growing curiosity about the complex dynamics that lead us into experiences of stuckness and patterns of not-creating; my experience of how often “creating problems” are attached to “life-direction problems;” my realization that a life without creativity at the center is a joyless life; and my insight that creative satisfaction, pride and passion are not one-size-fits-all - they show up differently for each of us.
As these fascinations coalesced around entwined practices of art-making and creativity coaching and I began to work with friends and clients around their “creativity issues,” I found my personal experience of the interconnections between creating and purpose and authentic ways of living echoed repeatedly. The people in my world – both those who identified as ‘creatives’ and those who didn’t - were not sitting around feeling “unsparked” or “uninspired.” Instead, we were busy as hell but simultaneously feeling confused about what we really wanted and unsure which way to go next. We were consumed with inexplicable levels of guilt when we entertained the idea of pursuing the activities that felt most pleasurable to us. We worried that maybe we were commitment-phobic or flaky or lacking because we hadn’t yet “found our passion.” Many of us were haunted by simultaneous feelings of ‘too muchness,’ and ‘not enoughness” - the sense that everyone else seemed to have figured out their life puzzle but ours had too many pieces.
My friends and clients were not “blocked,” they were actively grappling with questions like:
“How am I supposed to be using myself? What am I supposed to be contributing to this troubled world?”
“I’m interested in so many different things, why can’t I just settle on one?”
“How do I choose between my desires to heal the world, my desires to express myself, and my desires to earn a living?”
“How do I figure out the difference between what I should do, what I can do, and what I actually want to do?”
“Is it too late to do the thing I most want to do?”
“How do I organize myself to put my time and energies into things that really matter to me?”
“What if I don’t want creativity to be ‘on the side.’ What if I want it to be at the center of my life?”
“Why do I feel so guilty when I even think about doing what I love the most?”
“What the hell should I do next? Will people think I’m nuts if I totally shift direction again?”
“Why doesn’t what I’m doing ever feel like enough? Why am I so restless all the time?”
“Is it normal to feel this afraid?”
If I were going to be able to offer any kind of useful guidance to people with these kinds of questions – the ones that fall at the juicy intersection where creativity, life purpose, and life-direction meet – it seemed clear to me that all the advice and “life hacks” in the world aimed at “getting more creative” weren’t going to be worth diddly squat.
My desire to help people who were grappling with both the challenges of creating and the bewildering responsibility of creating a life led me over time to an awareness of four interlocking dimensions of the creating self:
Over the years, I developed a set of original tools and exercises to help my clients and students find their own answers to each of these four dimensions of their creative selves, and I’ve gathered all of it together in this book to share it with you, too.
To connect our creativity to our purpose(s), we don’t need to have or be more of anything, but we do need to know ourselves better as creators. We need to be able to ground ourselves in a sense of creative identity, a deeper awareness of exactly what kind of creators we are. We need to have a way to talk not in terms of whether or not we are creative, but HOW we are creative. Of all the different ways of expressing creativity, we need a way to claim our preferences and explore the patterns that connect our inner needs and our contributions to the world. So, I developed the Creative Constellation framework that you’ll explore in Part One.
The Creating Process
Regardless how multi-faceted our creativity may be, all kinds of creators need a mental map of the terrain involved in the creating process, so that we don’t assume we’re doing something wrong when we feel like we’re going in circles, or when we run into headwinds of fear that feel strong enough to blow us right off our feet, or when we find our expansive, hopeful creative energies alternating with times of retraction and doubt. So, I developed the creative process model I call “The Round World” that you’ll work with in Part Two. I’ll guide you through a process of mapping your creative constellation onto the Round World model to reveal your Zones of Creative Power – those spaces within the creating process where you bring the greatest strength.
Over time, I’ve come to understand that creation is not just about what creators DO, or how they do it, it is also about how they ARE. My obsession with reading the personal accounts of writers, artists, improvisors, entrepreneurs, musicians, actors, designers, teachers, healers, and leaders, and my experiences with real live creators of many stripes, has taught me that people who regularly engage in practices of creating share ways of thinking, ways of being, and ways of relating to the world that extend far beyond any discrete, visible “acts of creation.” I think of this collection of beliefs and ways of being as the ethos of creativity, and this set of perceptual biases as creator consciousness.
The biggest barrier many of us face when we attempt to live as creators is not that we haven’t found the right daily routines or located our “one true passion,” it’s that our spirits are held captive by the more dominant patterns of being that our culture offers up, particularly the ethos of productivity and (for women particularly) the ethos of service. No matter how much lip-service we might pay to the joys and pleasures of creativity, we will never allow ourselves to live as creators until we learn to shake loose from these other modes of consciousness. In Part Three, you’ll find the tools I’ve developed to help you recognize which ethos you are operating within, affirm your own values and beliefs about creating, and find your way back to creator consciousness whenever life pulls you away.
And then there is that pesky matter of decision making and creative direction that has so plagued me and so many of the people who I’ve sought to support. I mean, how the hell do people figure out what to do with their lives – especially people with rich and interesting combinations of creativities? How do we find a sense of direction when we constantly perceive multiple possibilities? Are we supposed to have a plan? Are we all just winging it? Is there any guidance we can trust? Aren’t there any guarantees?
After years of playing around in the field of these kinds of questions about direction and decision-making, it finally occurred to me that these are the exact questions that creators face every day as they press forward into uncertainty and the unknown. Every insight we glean about our creative identities, creative process, and creator consciousness contains a facet of the answers we are seeking for how we can take on the awesome responsibility of creating our lives with an audacious sense of freedom and even a measure of grace. And so Part Four is all about ways of approaching your own life as a creative endeavor. We’ll practice bringing all your new insights about your creating patterns and strengths and your embodied understanding of the ethos of creating to the meta-project of sensing and shaping your own emerging future.
By the time you get to the end of the book:
you’ll be able to name and claim your creative preferences and patterns and identify the kind(s) of creator you are using my Creative Constellation framework
you’ll have a visual map of the cyclical process of creating – what I call the Round World - and you’ll have discovered your Zones of Creative Power within that cycle.
you’ll be able to spot the differences between living as a producer, a servant or a creator, and you’ll have practiced what it feels like to shift from these other ways of being into creator consciousness so you can find your way back again and again.
you’ll be clearer about the contributions that only someone with your combination of gifts can make, and you’ll have a sense of the directions your creativities are calling you toward right now.
you’ll have a felt sense of what a beautiful life would look like and feel like for YOU
you’ll learn strategies for telling your life-story that celebrate (rather than denigrating as “unsuccessful”) the experiments, re-starts, dead-ends and unexpected directions that a creator’s life naturally takes.
Oh, and you’ll also have flexible set of tools you can use to keep up with your inner needs as you evolve and grow.
Of course, if you’d rather “get more creative,” I understand. No hard feelings. But if this expanded, wholistic way of exploring who you are as a creator and how you can follow your creative constellation toward a life big enough for who you really are – by all means turn the page. Let’s dive in!
Thus endeth the Preface. Whaddya think???? I do hope this sounds like a book you’d like to read - I know I can’t wait to…but that means I gotta keep writing. In the meantime, while we all continue to wait patiently (SO. MUCH. PATIENCE.) for it to come into full existence, I wish you a wonderful summer filled with fun and engaging creative projects and/or opportunities to watch your meandering imagination as it wafts into the drifty dreamy spaces of warm evenings and wanders through solitary walks on the shore.
Ahhhhh, wouldn’t that be nice?