Book Review: Big Magic – Creativity Explored


Big Magic is one of those books that every creative should read. Full of insight, ideas, encouragement—it’s worth keeping a copy on the writer’s desk next to the dictionary, style guide, and Strunk & White.

Gilbert’s take on a few topics was so fresh and true that I teared up. She put words around an elusive struggle of the creative process, and I found it comforting to have it articulated so beautifully. But don’t get me wrong: it’s not mamby-pamby, self-help slop. She has mined the travails of her own creative life and brought out some gems to share. Some are wrapped in kindness, others are tough love with a swift butt-kick thrown in for good measure. I didn’t resonate with everything, but the bits that got me, got me good.

I especially appreciated her thoughts about burdening one’s creativity with the job of earning a living. She’s big on not quitting your job. All in all, Big Magic is a keeper, and it’s probably a book I will give as a gift to aspiring creatives.

On a final note, I listened to the excellent audio version narrated by the author, but I would recommend instead buying a physical copy to allow for thumbing through in moments of creative confusion or artistic desperation.

View all of my Goodreads reviews.

Creativity Pep Talk: Dream Big

Dream Big

Sometimes circumstances limit us. Sometimes it’s our piddly thinking. We set a big goal one day and talk ourselves down the next, not daring to believe we can pull it off. We trust our lack more than we trust our dream.

I dare you to dream big. Imagine the biggest, bestest dream you can, a dream that energises you and gives your life meaning and direction, a dream that will one day leave a legacy. Transcribe it all in your journal. Having a record is important, so don’t skip this step. As you write in your journal, consider some of the points below.

The Procurement & Care of a Big Dream

Making Meaning

Ask yourself, “What is life expecting of me?” The mind might shy away, deny, downplay, or rationalise, but deep in our souls we know what our Big Dream is. In the movie Chariots of Fire, runner Eric Liddell said he could “feel God’s pleasure” when he ran. Racing in the Olympics became his Big Dream.

When do you sense transcendent pleasure? What gives you joy? Both hint at your Big Dream. Never forget: those two words, pleasure and joy, hint at fun. Don’t forget to have fun! It’s go-go juice for the dream.

Scare Yourself

‘Big’ means challenging. A Big Dream is one that is bigger than you—way bigger. It’s something that necessarily requires growth, determination, resilience and heaps of courage. You know the adage:

If your dreams don’t scare you, they’re not big enough.

You have to be willing to go through the discomfort of learning and the pain of growing and even face the possibility that you may never fully realise your Big Dream. After all, if you know you can do it, it’s not a Big Dream; it’s an exercise or a task, like playing scales on the piano, and where’s the challenge in that?

Don’t Be Stingy

Give yourself unreservedly to your Big Dream. Learn everything you can. Befriend like-dreaming people and find excellent mentors. Don’t hold back time or money or energy. Being stingy with your Big Dream is cheating yourself. Brown bag your lunch. Buy cheap shampoo. Pinch all the pennies you want, but don’t short-change your dream.

Avoid Comparison

Remember that it’s your Big Dream, so don’t compare your progress to other people’s. Not only is comparison pointless, it will make you miserable.

Comparison is the thief of joy.

When Temptation Knocks…

When the temptation to downsize your dream inevitably comes to torment you, be prepared. Meet it head on with your journal. Remind yourself what you want and why. Revisit the transcendence. If you run out of steam or lose your joy over your Big Dream, stop and reflect. Are you comparing yourself to someone? Or have you ‘gone grim’ and forsaken fun? Either way, take a break and schedule time to play and experience beauty. Resolve to focus less on results and more on process. This allows you to relish the now.

Do It. Just. Do. It.

And finally, just do it. Don’t waste time wondering if you can or should. Don’t worry if you’re good enough. Stop sweating over other people’s progress. Just do it. Here’s a great pep talk from my friend’s talented daughter when she was three.

Isn’t she clever?

Wherever you are in the course of following your Big Dream, I encourage you to keep going no matter what. “Shoot for the moon. Even if you miss it, you’ll land among the stars.”

 

 

Photography by Jeremy Thomas on Unsplash, CC 2.0. Modified by the author.

 

Three Important Insights from The Artist’s Way

I spent three months earlier this year working through Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way: A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity. First published 25 years ago with umpteen reprints, several spinoffs, and numerous nips, tucks, and facelifts, the perennial title continues to unstick stuck creatives.

It’s a 12-week course designed to “discover and recover your creative self” by exposing and dispelling the myths (I’m not talented enough), the limiting beliefs (Doing art is not serious enough for adults), and the crippling mindsets (perfectionism and work addiction). With these saboteurs routed, the blocked writer or floundering artist can build self-confidence and new attitudes that support a flourishing creative practice.

The Artist’s Way sat on my TBR list for years because I couldn’t quite commit to the Cameron’s mystical language and spiritual terms that meant other things, important things, to me. The past several years has seen cracks form in many of those previously rigid mental constructs. Suffice it to say I discovered the usefulness of expansion joints, which I’ve judiciously applied.

Twelve Weeks—Count ‘em: 12

While I completed the course, my writing productivity nosedived. My blogging screeched to a crawl. The rewrite of my novel with my ASA mentor drifted into slow-mo. My reading schedule crashed and burned. I wrote my Morning Pages (Cameron’s “primary tool for creative recovery”) and edited articles for work, and that was it.

However, to be fair, during the same three months, Big Stuff of Life happened. I found a new house and that very day had emergency surgery followed by two weeks of bed rest, renovated the old house, put it on the market, sold it, packed up essentials and siphoned off 15 years of detritus, moved to a new city, downsized my beloved career, and took up the day-to-day care of an elderly relative, all of which equated to a ‘significant score’ (336) on the Holmes and Rahe Stress Scale.

Little wonder I did so little creative writing for three months (and then some), and yet, crazy as it is, I still feel lousy about my low writing output.

I don’t know which derailed my productivity, The Artist’s Way course or the Big Stuff of Life, but despite everything that was going on, the course led me to several important insights. Before I share them, I have to point out something that continues to amaze me: The a-Ha moments came prior to Cameron covering them in the book. The grappling and reflecting in my Morning Pages after each chapter became a springboard to some cool personal insights, which, like magic, she covered in the next chapter. It’s hard to convey how meaningful this made the experience and how much more I valued the insights I gained.

And speaking of insights, here are three of many:

Blocking Beliefs

Journalling in the Morning Pages led me to the realisation that I held some mixed up core beliefs that were a source of creative conflict for me. Somehow in my psyche I had conflated creativity with selfishness. I don’t know exactly how or when it happened, but I had picked up the notion that expressing my creativity, whether writing fantasy for children or creating funny short stories or even hoping to be a published author, was a self-indulgent waste of time, unrealistic and just plain silly.

I worried I was cheating God, or, as Cameron puts it: “We tend to think, or at least fear, that creative dreams are egotistical, something that God wouldn’t approve of for us… …many of us unconsciously harbour the fearful belief that God would find our creations decadent or frivolous or worse…”

For me, it was both liberating and healing to begin to accept that creative dreams and yearnings start with God; they don’t steer us from God. Talk about a-HA moments! Mental shackles fell away when I read aloud the affirmation: “Through the use of my creativity, I serve God.”

Playfulness is Essential

Another discovery from my journalling was just how stodgy I’d become. Gah! What a great, greasy bore I’d curled into! I was so hung up on ‘mastering the craft,’ that I’d forgotten to steer the ship toward adventure. Where in the world had all this rigidity come from? When did the grimness set in?

Cameron’s mantras were, again, healing: “Think mystery, not mastery,” because “mystery is at the heart of creativity.” And: “Go for progress not perfection.” Oh what sweet relief.

Weekly Artist’s Dates are her prescription. An artist date is a block of time set aside to nourish the inner artist—a play-date with your creative self. I confess this was the hardest part of the course for me to carry out, and I failed most weeks. Writing three pages daily in my journal came easily compared to setting aside time for fun. Cameron warns: “Commit yourself to a weekly Artist’s Date, and then watch your killjoy side try to wriggle out of it.”

It’s nice to know I’m not the only killjoy on planet Art. “For most blocked creatives, fun is something they avoid almost assiduously as their creativity. Why? Fun leads to creativity. It leads to rebellion. It leads to feeling our own power and that is scary.”

That word ‘rebellion’ (emphasis mine) stared and continues to stare at me, goading me to just.cut.loose.

It’s slow progress but it’s happening! It has been good for me to be playful. I rediscovered my love of bike riding, sunshine, and bright colours. My wardrobe is morphing from safe, muted corporate tones and shapes to a vivid palette and flowing forms, and by jingo, it feels fabulous to ditch the dingy straitjacket.

Most Importantly: Tune In

The hardest hitting insight was how important attention is to the creative life. As a grown up, I’ve turned into a master tasker—frantically ticking off to-do lists, so task-focused that I regularly miss the wonder glinting and winking around me.

I keep going back to this sentence in particular:

“The quality of life is in proportion, always, to the capacity for delight. The capacity for delight is the gift of paying attention.”

The capacity for delight…the phrase rings so true.

I now consciously practise tuning in, paying attention, and delighting in my environment, whether it’s soaking in the thrumming yellows of the hibiscuses and roses in my garden or drinking in the peachy-lavender hues of the sunset shimmering off the Maroochy River.

The poet William Meredith observed: “The worst that can be said of a man is that he did not pay attention.” Since early June I have shared my home with such a man, the grumpy old man dear elderly relative I mentioned earlier. At times, as I watch him absently treading time, his determined misery torments me. His sullenness is a portent to me to pay attention, to exercise curiosity, never to  abandon engaging with Wonder.

Thank God for the gift of creativity.

Creative Recovery?

My writing productivity has yet to fully bounce back, but I’m gradually accepting that. After all, I’m in the midst of a drawn-out period of major upheaval in my life, and I’m still coming to terms with some of the losses (my treasured school counselling career, proximity to the State Library of Queensland, and immediate access my beloved writing friends) and some of the additions (twice weekly long commutes to work and the new role of carer). And anyway—there’s a difference between recovering productivity and recovering creativity.

The words will flow freely again. My writing productivity will soon stagger back to its feet and flip the bird/two-fingered salute to the Big Stuff of Life before steering decisively in the direction of adventure. With the help of The Artist’s Way, I have recalibrated, and I know now: I’ve got this.

Photo Credits:

 

Photo 1 by Dawid Zawiła on Unsplash

 

Photo 2 by Bogdan Dada on Unsplash

 

Photo 3 by Alex Iby on Unsplash

 

Creativity Prescription

Feeling saggy and flat in the creativity department? Is your muse off counting stars while you’re contemplating dust motes and peeling paint?

Don’t just sit there!  Motivation is within reach. Invest time in your interests!

The Creative Doldrums

It happens to us all at some point in a creative life. Whether rejection wears us down or a nasty review rains on our parade, sometimes the creative gig is a tough act. One of the biggest joy-robbers and energy-sappers is comparison, which I blogged about here. To hang in there for the long haul, we creative types have to look after our souls.

I know this well – probably because I keep having to relearn the lesson. I still catch myself comparing. I frequently run my tank dry, neglecting to nurture my spirit and feed my passions. I continue pushing myself to build a platform and develop my craft and conjure new ideas – all while working on existing projects (and holding down another demanding career and looking after a family).

The last thing I want to do is lose the joy of creativity.

Joys of The Zone

Solitude and quiet – they are the conditions creative people crave. We yearn for isolation, jealously carving out precious slabs of  distraction-free time in hopes of sidestepping any piddling thing that bars us from The Zone.

Ah, The Zone. A true creative sighs at the thought of those hours of deep concentration and prolific productivity, where time vanishes and ideas surge. The Zone is where we cast off the wet blanket of self and blissfully commune with our art. This sublime state in the zone is called flow.

Psychologists claim that flow is the key to fulfilment and happiness. Mihaly Csikszentmihaly, the researcher behind the concept of flow, holds that creativity gives meaning to life. He explains, “When we are involved in [creativity], we feel that we are living more fully than during the rest of life.”

Perils of The Zone

The pull of the Zone is strong, so strong that it wouldn’t take much to become a Flow junkie: a malnourished, greasy-haired, bug-eyed and hunched recluse (with an astonishing body of work).

Balance, as always, is the key. Writers, illustrators, creatives of all types need to make sure we stretch – physically, mentally, and spiritually. Otherwise, we get stale and our art goes stagnant.

Just as important as creating and producing is feeding. The artistic soul needs nourishment and a varied diet. Make time for pursuits beyond your art and pursue them passionately. Discover new interests, tackle fresh challenges, and take some risks. It will make your creativity thrive.

Stoking the Creative Fire

Sometimes our ‘other interests’ come with restrictions. For instance, I know someone who is a scuba diving enthusiast, but it’s not the kind of activity she can do on a whim. It’s expensive, and it requires a lot of planning. Although scuba is her conduit to flow, she has to wait for her annual opportunity.

For others, travel kindles the creative flame. For me, a theatre ticket does the trick. Or choral music. Or a simple romp with my dogs.

Here’s a list of inexpensive, easy recharging activities to indulge in. They’re guaranteed to refresh the body, mind and spirit of creative people.

  • Attend a yoga class
  • taste wines at a vineyard
  • finger paint
  • go for a walk (read more here. Seriously, click the link to read one of my most under-appreciated posts)
  • even better, walk in the rain, savouring sounds and smells
  • visit (or volunteer) at an animal shelter
  • sort through old photos
  • help a child turn a big box into a fort
  • bake homemade focaccia (with or without olives)
  • research the name of your suburb or town
  • draw a rough family tree with the help of your oldest relative
  • visit an apothecary shop and ask for a love potion (just to see what happens)
  • whittle a block of soap into a dragon shape
  • visit (with an open mind) a variety of local places of worship
  • try on a formal outfit at a vintage clothing store
  • learn some useful phrases from a native speaker of another language
  • study the structure of bridges (or a structure you are unfamiliar with)
  • interview someone you admire (not related to your art)
  • join a music group (ukuleles and harmonicas can be bought cheaply)
  • play ping-pong. Or musical chairs.
  • search a cemetery for quirky headstones
  • shop at an ethnic grocery store and, with the owner’s assistance, buy a snack typical to that ethnicity.

Check your ulterior motives at the door: this isn’t the time to fossick for a story or a subject. Instead, attack the activity like a kid – for plain old fun.

Inspiration is bound to follow, but only if you let your enthusiasm take the lead.

Over to You

Do any of the activities in my list sound like fun? What do you do to avoid burnout and stoke your creative flame? Share your ideas and tips in the comments!

Image Credits: Graphics made by ME on Canva

Back to the Writing Desk

Screen Shot 2016-01-23 at 1.58.51 pm

A new year is well underway, and I’m back at the writing desk. Truth be told, I never really left it—I just upgraded, relocated, and decorated.

Upgrade

C0A22A92-9C1B-419F-8AD4-B8197B713DBE

Wee! Standing is fun! Well, not really…

Thanks to Santa Claus, I can join the ranks of the noble writers, like Dickens, Kierkegaard, and Hemingway, who stood while they wrote.  I’m now the proud owner of a Varidesk. It’s a table top surface that I can raise and lower, depending on the posture I want to work in. I try to cycle between standing and sitting in half-hour shifts.

Getting used to the new postures has been slow but steady. It’s not easy giving up a hard-core sitting habit. The body has to adjust, but already I’ve found I do miss not having this flexibility at work. After making some adjustments to get my screen height just right (very important if you don’t want to end up at the physio), I’m settled in.

As most of us know, sitting for long periods can be harmful to good health. Researchers have linked a sedentary lifestyle to obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, cancer and a shortened lifespan. If office workers sit for an average of five hours and forty minutes a day, just imagine how long a hardworking writer sits! And while suffering for one’s art is admirable, dying for it is probably going too far.

Relocate

62CE5C63-EC92-4F05-815E-27194F892304

Bye-bye old friend…

My second-hand corner desk in my home office is falling apart, so I’m afraid it won’t support my Varidesk, which weighs in at almost 24 kilos or 52 pounds). I’ve temporarily shifted to the kitchen where I’ve commandeered the old breakfast table to use as a desk surface. I thought I would hate this locale, what with the hubbub and traffic and constant visual reminders of household chores, but it’s worked out fine. I’ll move back to my little scriptorium once I find the gumption to dismantle my old desk.

Even Huckleberry the canine muse is happy with this arrangement.  The move from under one desk to the other hasn’t bothered him in the least. The kitchen floor is nice and cool on these sweltering summer days.

Decorate

Surrounding myself with a jungle of greenery inspires me. My old desk had plenty of space for my plants, which was my favourite feature. Well, I am happy to report my new desk accommodates my need for green. My daughters gave me a couple lovely vases to display blossoms from my garden. At the moment, my dahlias are going off! Every morning I snip a couple buds to freshen my test tube bud vases.

IMG_0863

Hello, Gorgeous!

And how about this rose! I swear its beauty makes me swoon. It’s an Avon, which has a spicy perfume. All this beauty to inspire my writing and yours. Enjoy Ali’s Desk-Cam and some floral inspiration. While you’re here, check the drop-down menu above for updates on my latest book. There’s something new there… (Wink, wink!)

Happy writing, reading, gardening—whatever makes you happiest.

IMG_0865

The Creative Power of Restrictions

sondheim_quote

There’s nothing quite as daunting as a blank page. Gasp! That void could be filled with anything. Or everything. Or nothing. The emptiness stymies. It taunts. It goads.

According to Stephen Sondheim, restrictions can unleash creativity. It seems counter-intuitive. Absolute freedom seems as if it should loosen us up, but what gets us going are boundaries to bounce against.

Powerful Restrictions

  • Name a theme.
  • Set a word limit.
  • Pick a genre.
  • Add a deadline.
  • Break a rule consistently.
  • Enter a competition.
  • Play word games (five-word sentences; narrative through dialogue only; no adjectives; no words beginning with A; create palindromes; play with a literary device).

All of these restrictions make it easier to get started and keep going.

Poetry and flash fiction are excellent writing practice for this reason. Both challenge the writer on with their super-tight restrictions (especially if the poetry you’re writing has a form rather than free verse.)

Restrictions give you a point.

Over to You

What’s your favourite creativity-sparking restriction? Please share in the content.