Becoming an Artist

It’s easy for me to feel frustrated at the gap between my vision of what I want to express, and a finished piece of writing. With painting, too, I have an idea, and then realize half-way through what I needed to do differently.

But on the other hand, the surprise of how a short story or painting ends up is interesting to me, and it’s how I learn.

And often, my “mistakes” teach me something I wasn’t looking for, but needed to know. They can even make the story or painting better than I originally imagined!

To me, making art is focused play, between the person and the media she’s using.

I like Willa Cather’s quote below, because creating is a process of becoming. I’d say that is true of any part of a person’s life, where he is growing. But just because it’s a kind of play doesn’t mean that it isn’t difficult work.

Every artist makes himself born. It is very much harder than the other time, and longer. - Willa Cather

So if you’re feeling frustrated that it’s taking too long to get where you want to be—be gentle with yourself. Just as you’re bringing something new and unique into the world, you are doing the same with your creative life.

It’s almost a brand-new year.

You’re here for a reason.

What do you want to bring into this world in 2016?

Diving into the Mystery Pool

When you’re making art, your mind and your subconscious play together. When you write, the narrative of your story—or the structure of your ideas—emerges with just enough surprises to keep you curious.

Hand holding lit match

It’s like walking in the dark, while your mind strikes matches and tosses them in the direction that leads you to the heart of what you have to say.

Sometimes, while you’re dancing with your curiosity, something deeper will tug at your consciousness. That’s when you know it’s time to stop dancing, and dive.

I call it “diving into the mystery pool.” It’s exciting. And challenging.

In the center of the pool, it’s so deep you can’t see the bottom.

Sometimes it’s murky and filled with shadows.

Woman underwater in white flowing dress

And just beneath the surface, you sense the fluid movement of your instinctive mind: eyes shut, yet watching, seeing, knowing.

Pay attention to what it has to tell you.

If diving to the deep places is exciting, what keeps you at the surface? What is challenging about diving into the mystery?

Perhaps the fear of being judged. Or feeling deeply. Or seeing the essence of something, when you wish it was something else.

Given all that, how do you find the courage to dive?

First, re-frame the ego’s point-of-view.

We all know to lock the inner critic—the uber editor—outside our study door when we’re just trying to get a draft written. But there’s a more insidious saboteur lurking in the corner of the room that whispers, “what will people think?”

Don’t let that question silence you. Let it inspire you.

For most of us, banishing judgment is easier said than done. On a deeper level, it’s about accepting that you are not here to be perfect, whatever that is. Mistakes are meant to lead us to a deeper knowing of ourselves, others, and life.

It helps us when we know each others’ foibles. We get to be comforted that we’re not alone, and we get to have an “ah-ha” moment—delivered by your insight.

We want your perspective. We want you to show us how you see the world. We want to follow your lit matches in the darkness, to find the treasure hidden there, that only you can lead us to.

That’s what’s so magical about art.

Second, commit to authenticity.

Being authentic is not just about being free of pretense, it’s about being vulnerable enough to feel the deep meaning of our lives, often through what we have lost.

When you’re committed to being authentic, you are willing to swim in the difficult stuff.

Your authenticity invites others to go deeper. The realness of your life means more than any idea of perfection. It’s your genuineness that moves us, because at the core, we recognize ourselves.

Even if your perspective is new to us, when you share it in a real way, we experience the universal in what you have to say: the clenched stomach; the open heart; the moment when we all peer into the abyss, and we see what only we are meant to see.

Third, the truth will set you free.

Nothing holds us in shackles more than the lies we tell ourselves.

For a while, it might feel better to skate on the surface. But when we look unflinchingly at what we are called to explore, we gain deeper respect for ourselves, grow stronger, and model the way for others.

There’s a freeing inner shift that happens when you accept the truth of a situation, rather than fight it. Maybe it’s the release of all that energy it takes to pretend.

With your emotional and mental energy flowing again, you have access to a wisdom that enriches all that you create.

Fourth, honor your spirit.

Several years ago, my dad sent me some old photos of our family at the beach. When I looked at this one, it caught my heart.

Little girl standing on beach

In the full photo, I’m standing with my brothers and my mom at the beach. I’m holding my mom’s hand, and posing.

Looking at this earlier version of myself struck me to the core.

I reconnected with the perspective of seeing life as a huge panorama of possibilities. And my love for that little girl—for my self—made me realign with the potential I came into this world with.

I need to live deeply, and create from that place. I don’t want to let that little girl down.

Who are you? What is it that you do not want to leave this world without doing? Writing? Painting? Singing and dancing?

Honor your spirit. You’re here for a reason.

Each has his past shut in him like the leaves of a book known to him by heart
and his friends can only read the title. — Virginia Woolf

Here’s to opening the leaves of your book, and getting to see life the way only you can see it!

Aligning with Your Wisdom

I’ve always loved this Joseph Campbell quote, because it puts our daily lives in a bigger context.

We must let go of the life we have planned, so as to accept the one that is waiting for us. - Joseph Campbell

Campbell isn’t telling us not to plan; he’s reminding us to listen to our deeper intuition about our purpose in life.

And he’s acknowledging the way life unfolds; just when we think we have everything “under control,” something can happen to turn our lives upside down.

As Jung said, “What is not brought to consciousness, comes to us as fate.” Our souls have a deeper agenda for growth.

No matter how much we plan, we have to respond to the unexpected. We are responsible for our lives. And being in alignment with who we are can give us more strength and resilience to do so.

When we are aligned with our values and our higher purpose, it grounds us in a context that makes sense. From there, we can decide what to do. We can change our actions, our course, our perspectives, or keep moving forward on our paths.

Take the time to listen to your intuition, whether it is a whisper or a shout. Write about it. Paint it. Sing it. Discover what you already know. You are wiser than you think.

Zeus is on the Loose

Sculpture of Zeus

The other morning I was lying in bed, the remnants of a migraine keeping me still. I waited while the faint light coming through the window shade slowly brightened the room.

I rose to a cool, gray, fall day. A light rain came and went, leaving wet dots among the yellow leaves on the back deck. The perfect day for a fire. When the flames were crackling in the fireplace, I ate a little breakfast and sat down to write.

Whenever I get a migraine, I’m reminded of how vulnerable I am—how vulnerable we all are. I’d been thinking about the difference between feeling vulnerable and being vulnerable since I woke.

The day before, I took my husband to the airport, so he could jam with his buddies in Austin. I was trying not to think about him hurtling through the air, in a metal tube with strangers at the controls. Somehow, he seemed more vulnerable without me being with him, as he stepped out of his everyday life.

When I looked over the back seat and watched him take his bass guitar and bag out of the car, I got a light, fluttery feeling in my stomach, like for a brief second, I was falling.

Kind of like the moment when a roller coaster crests the first hill, and you feel almost weightless, right before gravity snatches you.

After the feeling came and went, everything almost felt “normal” again: the floor of the car beneath my feet, my husband’s good-bye kiss, my hands on the steering wheel of my old Volvo. But as I slowly drove away, I felt disoriented, trying to focus.

Feeling vulnerable is just the awareness of our ultimate vulnerability. On some level, we carry this awareness all the time, but we push it down to live our daily lives. What would it be like to carry our awareness of our vulnerability all the time? Would it be terrifying? Exhausting? Distracting? Freeing?

While I was sitting in front of the fireplace and thinking about vulnerability, for a brief time, the space in front of my house became a stage. Predators and prey crossed the same path, missing each other by mere minutes, like some Shakespearean comedy of errors.

Fox standing on tree stump

First, a fox trotted across the yard. It went swiftly down the street, hunting something. Then it came bounding back, and off to safer spaces.

It always feels a little magical when I see a fox, because I see them so rarely. They still retain a bit of their metaphorical meaning for me. They are beautiful, smart, elusive tricksters.

Next came a woman riding a bike, holding a big dog on a leash. Luckily for the fox—and the woman holding the dog’s leash—they missed crossing paths by a couple minutes.

Tabby cat

Then, a tabby cat strolled by, very slowly, his head held high like he hadn’t a care in the world.

And finally, a neighborhood dog named Zeus came trotting by. Zeus, the god of sky and thunder, chief of the gods. Zeus the dog—like the fox—is also smart and a trickster, and a little wild. A thunderbolt, he darts through the neighborhood looking for mischief, and narrowly missing some.

If I look at that brief experience like a waking dream, what does it tell me about vulnerability?

The intersection of time and space determines which experiences and encounters we have, or do not have. We accumulate “ordinary” or routine moments. Then when something unexpected happens—like a fox crossing someone’s path—it can be dangerous (for the cat) or magical (for me).

The chance of things sometimes feels like a play, designed by an unseen playwright—tickling the tail of the fox, pushing the bike, touching the chin of the cat, and tossing in a thunderbolt. Through everything, there’s a wild, playful, dangerous life force that can change our lives in an instant.

When something unexpected breaks through our ordinary lives, it changes our perception of reality. We are reminded we are not in control. And yet, that’s where magic often happens.

It’s awareness of the temporal that communicates the meaning in our lives. It’s the sense of weightlessness, beneath the solidness, that makes us cherish the moments that crest, and then fall back into the well of existence.

We experience magic and meaning when we’re aware of our vulnerability. It transforms our consciousness from auto-pilot to awe.

The fox is always possible. And Zeus is on the loose. If we open ourselves—even just a little bit more—to the experience of being alive, how much magic and meaning will we see?

What magical, creative, unexpected part of you wants to dash through your life—and your art—at this moment?

The Day I Knew I Could Lose Everything

English Setter dog

I’m not sure of the typical age of a child, when he or she first understands the concept of loss. I remember being very, very young when our English Setter died.

No one told me anything, either because they thought I was too young to understand, or they weren’t sure how to tell me. Probably a little of both.

I remember thinking about her, and looking for her. But when I couldn’t find her, I assumed she must be in another room. I thought I kept missing her, somehow, even though I knew something wasn’t right.

I was so young that I would wonder about her, then get distracted by whatever was in front of me, and forget to ask. That went on for a couple days. When I finally remembered to ask my mom about her, she said, “She died.”

I understood, sort of, what death was, and I went to my room, laid on my bed, and cried. Then I think I got up and played. I was so young that I was only semi-conscious about what happened.

It was a few years later, when I was around kindergarten age, that I was first struck by the consciousness of loss—and having no control.

Whenever I’ve had strong insights, or made decisions that were important to me, I have clear memories of where I was at the time. As a small child, most of those moments—the ones I’ve held onto, anyway—happened when I was in the back yard, by myself.

Maple leaves

While my brothers were at school, I had mornings and early afternoons to play. One day, I remember walking out back, the sky blue, the maple tree full of green leaves.

I’ve always felt strongly connected to something bigger than myself, and when I’m aware of it, I feel “plugged in.” That’s exactly how I felt that moment, looking at the tree and the sky, in love with the world.

My mind went from thinking about how much I loved the world, to the people I loved: my parents, my brothers, my grandparents, my aunts, uncles, cousins, and friends.

And that’s when it hit me: I would lose them someday.

Then my thoughts went to everything I could lose, and everything anyone could lose: people they loved, their jobs, their money, their homes, their possessions, their health, their lives.

And that’s when I became fully conscious that things would happen in life—things that I didn’t want to happen—that I had no control of.

It scared me.

I remember standing still, trying to think of one thing—any thing—that I had control of. And what came to me was my character. How I treated other people. My honesty. Being true to my word. Trying my best to be a good person. Being true to myself.

White stone among black stones

I knew that everything else would fall away, eventually, even this shell I inhabit.

Looking at behavior and decisions, from the perspective of how they affect my character, became my guiding philosophy. It hasn’t changed to this day, although it’s expanded and deepened some.

What we take with us is who we have chosen to become.

We affect the world, profoundly, by who we are.

Each of us has something to give, and by being conscious, authentic, and taking responsibility for our lives, we can help others do the same. We can inspire them, give them courage, make them laugh, help them forgive themselves.

Creativity, whether profound or irreverent, is such a gift.

Every day on Facebook, I share posts of Vincent Van Gogh’s paintings, because of how they make me feel. He saw the movement behind things, in colors that almost make me swoon. What if he had never painted?

Recently, I re-read Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse. That book changed my life, because it was the first work of fiction that described life the way I experienced it. Woolf was highly sensitive and intuitive, and to read something created by a mind that I had such an affinity with, was an amazing gift to me. What if she had never written?

Be true to your creative gifts. Who you become—what you learn and how you grow when you create something—matters as much as the piece of art, or writing, or music you leave behind.