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Exploring Creativity by Exposing Yourself More

Actor/dancer Trevor Copp is looking up at a bright light

Engage With Your Art Form

Theatre guru Trevor Copp has a bowl of theatre tickets, roughly 1,200 of them. The bowl makes its stage appearance when Copp judges the Ontario Drama Festival (formerly the Sears Drama Festival): it contains one way of exploring creativity, and he has a reason for placing this bowl under the limelight at this moment.

The bowls contains the tickets of all the theatre shows he himself has seen. Copp tells the students, “There’s three things that we need to become great creators. We need to study the work, we need to do the work, and here’s the third one that is completely inadequately done: we need to see the work. […]”

He then adds, “These tickets did more for me than my master’s degree did, more than all this other stuff I did. This is actually the work right here. This seeing pieces over and over again.”

Copp founded Burlington’s Tottering Biped Theatre in 2009, a professional company emphasizing original, issue-driven, and highly physical work. He has been a professional actor, dancer, director, choreographer, educator, theatre devisor, and arts advocate for over 15 years, and his work ranges from classical to contemporary, performing in over 30 cities nationally and internationally and at numerous professional theatre festivals. His TED Talk, “Ballroom Dancing that Breaks Gender Roles,” has received almost 620,000 views on the TED website at time of writing.

Develop Creativity by Experiencing Creativity

Copp has built a meaningful, sustainable life out of his love for the arts, and he’s learned a few things. Being creative doesn’t mean just producing: you also have to join the conversation.

“You can get a degree in theatre without seeing a play. It’s just this thing that’s baffling to me,” says Copp.

I’m going to say it now, and you’ll hear it from me again, and Copp will say further down in this blog post: being creative isn’t some random talent that some are born with and others aren’t. We all have it, but you have to engage with it, and one way of doing that is by taking in others’ creative endeavours.

So, if you think that young artists are exposed to thousands of hours of creativity that you as a working adult just don’t have time to engage in, think again.

“The thing that I absolutely rail about,” says Copp, “is the lack of student artists attending art. The lack of young actors seeing acting, the young dancers seeing dance.”

Afraid of the Negative?

Seeing other works not only feeds your ideas, but by helping you discern what you do and don’t like, you’re learning more about yourself. The reason I returned to part-time grad studies this year was to be forced to read things I normally wouldn’t read.

(That includes Günter Grass’s Tin Drum, but having to force my way through that monstrosity of a book is teaching me about craft, storytelling, character creation…all of it…not to mention persistence.)

As you see various artistic works, some will speak to you, some will not, just like Grass’s writing absolutely does not speak to me. That’s okay, and that’s part of the conversation you need to engage in. I believe that society in general is losing the art of meaningful conversation, which includes respectfully explaining why you don’t like something. This isn’t your grandmother’s meatloaf we’re talking about here, this is art, in the broad sense of the word.

Neil Gaiman on Arthur

If you have kids, you probably watched Marc Brown’s Arthur at some point in time. Did you see the Arthur episode with Neil Gaiman? Sue Ellen, the cat, is at a book signing. Neil Gaiman asks her if she’s a writer, but because she writes and draws, she doesn’t know where she fits in. He tells her about graphic novels, something he’s also done, so she reads one and becomes inspired to work on one herself. As she begins exploring creativity, she creates a story.

Her friends don’t understand her work, though, and she becomes discouraged. Gaiman consoles her, saying that her friends are clearly interested in her story, even if they don’t understand it or even like it. She takes his advice to heart and continues creating.

In other words, her work has begun a conversation, but it could only happen because she engaged in conversation first, both literally (by talking to Gaiman) and figuratively (by reading a graphic novel, something she’d never heard of before).

(If you want an easy book to read about developing your own voice, read Arthur Writes a Story, by Marc Brown.)

But You Don’t Have to Publish

Sue Ellen likely hopes to publish someday, but you don’t have to. Ever. You can create your own art (painting, dancing, composing, drawing, whatever) in your own private space, where no eyes will ever cast their gaze upon it.

And that’s totally fine!

But in order to help you develop your sense of who you are and how your voice sounds, you need to expose yourself to others’ art and let it touch you.

Vulnerability and Art

Of the works that speak to you, some will really hit you, sometimes in surprising ways. In my experience, that “hit” is to my most vulnerable spot, the spot I need to open up in my writing so that it’s Lori the Author writing and not Lori the Copywriter.

“We’re in a culture that doesn’t sit you down and make you look at your vulnerability and make you ask questions about it,” says Copp.

Opening up your vulnerability in your art doesn’t mean you have to let out your deep secrets. This isn’t Catholic confession we’re talking about here: you’re exploring creativity. Therefore, it’s about opening up the parts of you that are scared to come out. This will likely never be one massive explosion of exposed vulnerability: it’ll be a trickle.

And again, that’s okay!

Encourage that trickle by returning to your art and seeing if you can notice where you’ve closed up and need to open yourself. I notice it in my work where I suddenly have my protagonist move into a scene that doesn’t naturally flow with the story.

“We have this incredible facility for healing,” says Copp, “and that facility, I think, really comes about for the people who are creating and continue connecting themselves to their [artistic] work. If you’re just technical and talented, and you ride on that, you won’t go through that journey.”

Exploring Creativity Isn’t a Crap Shoot

As I keep emphasizing, creativity isn’t some random talent you’re either born with or aren’t, and Copp sees things the same way. In fact, he feels that people born with a strong talent in a skill often misconstrued as creativity can actually fall into a trap that hinders their creativity.

“I think that our cultural assumptions, that someone who is born with an artistic talent is creative, is faulty,” he says. “That they were born with grace and flexibility and balance, all those things, none of that makes them creative.”

Again, just because some people are born with certain aptitudes does not make them creative. You have to explore creativity, not just replicate it.

“The fact that you can land a quadruple [pirouette], good for you. That doesn’t make you a creative person,” Copp emphasizes (like I do).

“I think highly talented artists have this danger where the talent skips the part where their work is in dialogue with their actual life, with their emotional, spiritual, intellectual life. It can skip all that because they’re too talented.”

Two men in ballroom dancing positions, with a tuxedo jacket on a mannequin behind them.
Jeff Fox (l) and Trevor Copp (r) in First Dance, produced by Tottering Biped Theatre

Copp’s own biography is a case in point: he went into theatre first for personal development. Born with an identical twin, Copp grew up so close with someone that he didn’t always need to express himself; he and his twin just knew what the other was thinking. Once he hit adolescence, though, he realized that the rest of the world didn’t communicate the way he and his twin brother did, and he had to learn to bring himself outside of himself.

In other words, studying acting was never about an inborn skill he had.

“I pride myself on being an untalented performer. In school, I was never the lead, never got the awards, I never got any of that. I was just a person who was like, ‘I think this is how I want to grow up.’”

Creativity = Art + Life

For Copp, his real life and his onstage life had to match. For example, Copp used to find it difficult to express anger in real life, and that transferred to the stage: he couldn’t act angry, either.

“I don’t know how to do something onstage and not do it in my life,” he says. “I associate creativity with forcing yourself to lock those two together: ‘What’s happening in my life, what’s happening onstage, how do I make sure that the two are in correspondence?’”

So, if you’re holding back on exploring your creativity because you believe you don’t have the talent, then erase that belief from your head right now. Instead, replace it with joining the conversation.

That might mean going to a local church that offers noon-hour concerts, or attending more art or live theatre shows, or joining a book club. You’ll learn more by this extensive exposure than you ever could if you’d been born with the artistic skills you’re trying to cultivate in your own life.

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Flamenco at 50: “It’s too easy when we age to give up. I don’t agree with that.”

Starting Dance Past 50

When I turned 40, I suddenly cared about aging. Always active in my younger years through dance, and proudly displaying a photo of me doing the splits still at age 37, turning 40 suddenly made me realize my body was changing. So when I spoke with Bonnie Masina, who started dancing flamenco at age 50, I was all ears.

Flamenco is a passionate, emotional dance form for both men and women and has its own style of musical accompaniment. I’ve seen flamenco dances on and off over the years, thought right now the music for the flamenco routine from Riverdance is playing in my mind.

One thing I’ve noticed is the age range of female flamenco dancers. (I feel like I see more pictures of female dancers because of the beauty of their dresses.) Coming from your standard North American background, seeing an older female dancer is rare.

The Body Changes As You Age

But starting flamenco at age 50 is not something I hear of too often. Granted, Masina did compete in ballroom and Latin dance in her youth, but she says she stopped when she was 20 because of kids and, well, life. Getting back into dance after a 30-year hiatus can’t be easy.

But that’s not as remarkable as the rest of Masina’s story. She worked for decades in IT, eventually reaching IT Manager and working extensive hours, which she describes as 24/7. From all those hours glued to a computer, she’d developed rotator cuff injuries in her shoulders and spinal problems resulted in pain in several of her fingers. Over time, she’d lost the ability to raise her arms past her shoulders and to articulate those three fingers: they started functioning as one because years of bad posture had begun pinching things. (I’m fighting the beginnings of that kind of job-related injury.) In addition, a broken toe had broken through the bottom of her foot and healed that way.

These may sound like minor inconveniences. After all, we’re used to hearing about catastrophic accidents to get our attention. However, this is how aging works: bit by bit, the story of your life grows into your body. But instead of the sexy scar across the adventure-movie star’s face, it’s little aches and pains that start to change how you move. I’m over 10 years younger than Masina, and I’ve already noticed it, too.

Flamenco at Fifty

Masina’s hectic work schedule inspired her to seek out its complete opposite: dance. She sought out something Latin but didn’t want a partner. So flamenco it was. She registered with Carmen Romero’s School of Flamenco Dance Arts in Toronto. Masina learned quickly the need to leave work at work and focus on her dancing.

“If you let the outside world in, you’ll mess up,” she says.

Masina didn’t let her injuries get in the way. When Romero tried to push Masina’s arms up, Romero said, “Oh my gosh, you’re stuck!” Masina recalls. “I wanted to be unstuck and I knew dance and repetitively doing it and trying to do things better would help. I can now pull my arms all the way beside my ears.”

Masina even found a way to deal with her improperly healed foot: orthotics with a hole for her bone and, with Romero’s help, special flamenco shoes with a lower heel.

But unlike those products-for-the-aging commercials that make it seem like aging is a picnic, Masina explains it took her a while to dance properly. “But I was determined I was not going to not dance because of one stupid bone in my foot,” she says.

Over time, Masina sought chiropractic treatment and therapy for her fingers, and with Romero, who’s also a brain-injury therapist, regained almost complete use of those three fingers.  She also learned how to balance better so she wouldn’t aggravate her foot.

Age Doesn’t Matter With Flamenco

Bonnie Masina in a lavish, purple flamenco dress, seated on a couch.
Bonnie Masina poses in a flamenco dress.

Flamenco has become a sort of second life for Masina, and she’s adamant that you can start at any age and at any ability level.

“I don’t think it matters what your age is, dance can help you, even if it’s just having fun,” she says. She’s even taught flamenco at a senior’s home. “You can dance in a chair. You don’t have to be all over the dance floor to enjoy dance.”

Picking up dance can be done at any age and at any ability. When my chiropractor told me the pain I’d been experiencing for months in a joint in my toe was osteoarthritic pain, I thought I’d never be able to dance again. Mind you, I don’t dance every year, but the thought of never is a bit much. However, after talking with Masina, I might revisit that.

[grey_box]The Little KW Flamenco Fest takes place this weekend, running July 31-August 2 at various locations. The program includes workshops (disclosure: some are held at my sister’s studio), and they’re open to all.[/grey_box]

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Getting Back on Top of Your Goals

It’s Not too Late

The first quarter of 2018 is almost over. So, I’m going to ask that ominous question, the one that sounds like the monster that’s been hiding in your closet all these years, whose presence you keep denying to yourself.

How are your New Years’ goals coming along?

Ouch. Did that hurt? Did you feel an arrow fly into your stomach? Or maybe into your head as you suddenly remembered you even had New Years’ goals?

I’m certain you’re not alone, and I’ve got news for you: it’s not too late to start the pursuit again.

Review the Last 3 Months

This might be painful, but quarterly reviews clarify for you what’s going on. What’s really going on. They break the safety bubble you live in, because you’re faced with the good, the bad, the ugly, and the very ugly when you review your progress of the past three months. But keep this in mind: In my experience, the more honest I am with myself and my progress, the easier pursuing my goals becomes. Why? Because I fear less.

When you review your last few months, ask yourself these questions:

Am I where I want to be?

If so, what did I do that got me there? (And continue doing it.)

If not, what did I do that didn’t work? (And find a new way of doing it.)

Get Support to Reach Your Goals

If you’re on track with your goals, you probably don’t want to mess with things. But if you’re off track, then it may be time to get help.

Here’s what happened to me last year: For the first time during my annual review, I calculated how much the time I’d spent on marketing efforts, multiplied it by the hourly rate of what I’d earned for the year, and used the total as a measure of how much money I’d “spent” on marketing last year. I then reviewed how much new business I’d won over the year. The final figures weren’t pretty. In fact, they were pretty devastating. So, I contacted a marketing consultant to do an audit on my efforts and set me on the right path.

But that’s what I’m talking about. Even if you’re trying to lose weight, haven’t reached your word goal, or still have the same number of customers as last year, get help! Either join a group, see your doctor, find a good therapist or coach…Whatever your means allow, now’s the time to get a little assistance.

Do You Need to Re-Align?

The beauty with checking in on your goals every quarter like this is that it gives you a chance to re-align them with where you are now. Remember, you created your New Years’ goals in a certain frame of mind, at a certain time in your life, under a certain set of circumstances. If your situation has changed, you may need to adjust how you achieve your goals.

That’s okay!

What if you planned to write 1,000 words a week but the serious diagnosis of a loved one rammed you off course? It doesn’t mean you can’t write at all.

What if you wanted to quit smoking but in the meantime lost your job, leaving you with more stress than your non-smoking self can handle? That  doesn’t mean you can’t regain your footing. You adjust. (And, of course, get help so you can make it through.) Remember, every little bit helps, so don’t discount small, regular steps towards your goals. Not everything has to be achieved by leaps and bounds.

Don’t be Afraid

Looking at progress is a powerful motivator to help you move forward. It’ll help you figure out what’s gone wrong and hopefully inspire you to plan your next steps to get back on track.

They say every journey begins with a step. Take that next step now to get back on the path you dreamed for yourself this year.

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Mixing Work and Kids = Inspiring Your Creativity

I don’t know about you, but I sometimes have a hard time balancing work and kids. Next week, we celebrate Family Day in Ontario, and I realized I’ve book the day full of work duties! But the upcoming holiday has also reminded me that your family can feed your creativity and reinvigorate your brain for work.

If you’re more on the cerebral side of the spectrum, like I am, you may find communicating with kids a little hard, because you have difficulty breaking down your thought process to their level. Heck, you may even find what they do boring, because it doesn’t challenge you intellectually. I’ve been there, I’m still there, and I’m still trying to work on it.

(Granted, as hard as I try to find interest in my kids’ hobbies, I can’t develop any amount of enthusiasm for watching YouTubers play video games.)

Over the years, though, I’ve pushed myself to spend creative time with my kids, not just chore and parenting-related time, and not only does this push my brain in different directions, but it brings me closer to my children, and I find they even listen better.

See if any of these ideas work for you.

Creative Activities for Parents and Kids

Mad Libs: You buy these as pads, usually somewhere in a bookstore. They’re short texts with blanks, and you have to fill them in. The blanks are usually described as a noun, verb, adjective, or something similar. Not only will they help your kids recognize some parts of speech, you’ll likely both find yourselves in stitches as you read back the zany story you’ve both created.

Lego: This I find hard, because I’m stuck with some old inhibitions (I can’t create anything out of Lego except basic houses), and because I need to concentrate on the very foreign world the kids have created. But nothing makes my kids happier than showing off their Lego creations, and the brain drain I experience when playing with them improves my concentration.

Sewing: If you own a sewing machine,  just letting the kids (carefully!) run some fabric through it can be fun. I used to let my older son control the foot pedal when he was four or five. But certainly use your parenting judgment here. A sewing machine does have a needle, and kids’ hands are very small.

Sports: You don’t necessarily have to play a game that already exists. My husband loves making up games with our kids, and they have a blast at it. They’ve even created their own boardgames that the two play together in the evening. I’ll admit, this is less suitable for me, because I like consistency, but then again, maybe it could force me to use my brain differently.

TV: Yes, I’m going to go out on a limb and suggest you watch TV with your kids. Not only does this help you, the parent, see what they’re actually watching, but it will, again, force your brain to focus on something different. If watching YouTubers playing video games is all your kids watch, then try a movie on the weekend, with some popcorn.

Painting: Yup, show your children that they’ve probably already bested you in the arena of art. And if you are talented in art, show them one or two tips that’ll make them better. (Of course, if your kids are old enough, maybe actually painting a room might be more engaging for all of you.)

Colouring: Those adult colouring books are more than suitable for kids over the age of five. My older kid (in the junior grades) will occasionally sit in the same room with me as we both colour for ten or fifteen minutes in separate books.

Writing: My youngest loves this. He’s in the primary grades, so he still finds spelling and printing arduous. He absolutely loves to dictate a story to me as I type it out in Scrivener. I set the timer for 10 or 15 minutes (my forearms can’t handle anything longer), and he’ll easily produce 300-600 words.

Dancing: Kids don’t care how you move. If your kids is active, turn on the tunes and get dancin’!

So, those are just a few ideas of how to build in some creativity time that will help you in your profession but also connect you with your children. Do you do any of these activities already? Or other ones?

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Time to Focus

You’ll find that one of the hardest things to accept with leading a more creative life is that you will need to focus. Despite what many self-help gurus say, you can’t have it all. (I’m not against self-help gurus, but you do need to read what they say with a grain of salt sometimes.)

I’ve been working my way through David Allen’s Getting Things Done, and it’s given me the full picture of everything I’m trying to accomplish in life. It’s quite daunting, actually. The first exercise he has you do (and I’ve blogged about this before) is to write down absolutely everything that “has your attention.” I like how he uses that phrasing, because it gets you out of the mindset of a formal to-do list and into the mindset of brainstorming all the things you’ve got swimming around in your head.

What this all means for me, then, is that I’m changing the purpose of my blog. I’ll be starting grad studies soon to further my education in German, so the time I spend writing here each week will shift over to preparing for my studies. (If you’re here because you’re looking for a copywriter, I’m still taking on clients.) As such, I’ll use the blog for announcements, book reviews as they come along, and special interviews and important topics, but I’ll no longer be blogging weekly, at least not for now. If there’s one thing that reading David Allen’s book has made clear to me, it’s that I need time to focus.

Enjoy the few days left of summer!

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Guilt Getting in the Way of Your Creativity? These Suggestions Might Help

Guilt is never a nice feeling. At its worst, it reminds us we’ve hurt someone (which is what I think its original purpose was for), and many live with that feeling for the rest of their lives.

But, like many negative emotions, guilt can also interfere with other aspects of your life. Like worry, it can hijack your mind and keep you from creating, because your mind is occupied by all the other things you should be doing.

To be clear, I’m not going to rant about how important it is to feed your creativity to the point where it looks like I’m asking you to ignore your responsibilities. What I’m talking about here is the guilt that comes after those basic – and hugely important – duties have been completed.

But a Parent’s Duty Never Ends

I know. Even when I’m in my office, with both doors closed, my ears are open, listening to my kids. As much as I dream of spending a week away at a writers’ residency, I think the silence would be too distracting.

But let’s look at the context: Do you feel guilty about spending time on your creative work because you could be chopping up vegetables for tomorrow? Or because you forgot to dust the baseboards again? Oh – a few doors have fingerprints that have been driving you crazy, right?

I’m not teasing you here – those are things going on my head, too. (Garage door from the laundry room and office door from the kitchen – fingerprints galore!) But my point is you’re not feeling guilty because your kids are hungry and you insist on continuing your art.

Look at the Full Context

You need to step back first and examine the big picture (the trees vs. forest thinking I was talking about last week). Let’s look at an after-work situation. You finish at 5:00, want dinner on the table by 6:00, and feel guilty for not having a full, standard supper ready for your family. When it comes time to work on your own personal project, you’re chewing yourself up at having made tacos with last night’s leftover ground beef instead of finding some ingenious way of turning cooked ground beef into steak, baking huge potatoes, and julienning carrots for the wok.

The thing is, you’re almost never in the door until 5:30. What options do you have? Well, you can

  1. Continue berating yourself for not living up to your high standards, but we’ve seen this hasn’t been working for you.
  2. Move supper to 6:30.
  3. Put supper in a slow cooker in the morning.
  4. Prepare the meat in the morning so you can throw it in the oven the moment you get home.
  5. If your kids are old enough and are home before you are, start getting them to help.
  6. Lower your expectation.

Your feelings of guilt that you can’t have a full meat-potatoes-vegetables meal on the table every evening will only sap your creative energy. They’re not worth it.

Use Your Creativity and a Little Self-Compassion to Solve Your Problem

Years ago, I dated a guy whose mom always made us meat, potatoes, and a vegetable for supper when we came to visit. He wondered why she didn’t try pasta on occasion, or other dishes. Her response was that, as students, we likely ate pasta all the time, and she thought this would be a nice change (she was right). But I think part of it, too, was that she knew exactly when to start, how long each step would take her, and she could quickly switch up meats and vegetables as needed. It was easiest for her and let her focus her energy on other things.

A word about lowering your expectations: Keep in mind your overall goals and the least amount of work needed to accomplish them. For example, I want my kids to have healthy, home-cooked meals. For me, this means one substantial protein, at least one vegetable (usually two), and a grain. Possible options include

  • tacos (minus the high-sodium spice mix that comes in the package)
  • pasta and a good meat sauce
  • oven-baked chicken, roasted vegetables, and quinoa
  • turkey and carrot casserole, with brown rice, tomato sauce, and cheese

And if things are so harried sometimes that all I have time to cook is frozen, breaded meat, frozen peas, and toast, then that’s okay. (But not all the time – a few times a months is my limit.)

You deserve time to be creative. I would even say that you need it. If you’re finding yourself feeling guilty while you’re creating, examine the source of that guilt and what can be done to get rid of it. Guilt does have its purpose, but killing your own personal creativity is not one of them.

 

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Do You “Risk It All” for Your Dreams?

alex-wong-17997-reduced
Photo by Alex wong on Unsplash

I’ve been reading self-help books on and off for years, and I wonder how they can promise that you can “have it all.” However, I also find these inspiring, and they often get me to think about my life in much different terms, and I think I’ve finally figured out how to balance my dreams with my life.

I’m reading The Power of Intention by Wayne Dyer right now. I came across this advice:

That silent inner knowing will never leave you alone. You may try to ignore it and pretend it doesn’t exist, but in honest, alone moments of contemplative communion with yourself, you sense the emptiness waiting for you to fill it with your music. It wants you to take the risks involved, and to ignore your ego and the egos of others who tell you that an easier, safer, or more secure path is best for you. (page 152)

I love the book, but I find advice like this potentially misleading: he’s suggesting you don’t listen to your inner doubts and just take the plunge towards your dreams. For me, that would involve stopping all work and just focusing on writing fiction, which doesn’t bring in any money until you’ve developed somewhat of a following.

Tell that career decision to the bank that wants to take back your house.

Stay Safe

On the other hand, though, is the “stay safe” advice he talks of. There are varying degrees of this, at least in my experience. Here’s one side of the spectrum: An older relative of mine was once worried about the whole-grain, no-sugar diet my parents were raising me and my sister on (in the 80s and 90s, before it became trendy). The relative thought I’d have a hard time finding a husband by being on that diet. I eat sugar now, but I still prefer whole-grain baking and cooking to regular, and yet I somehow managed to find a husband AND have children with him. The relative meant well, but this is one version of the “safe” advice that Wayne Dyer is speaking of.

Here’s the other side: “You have a family to look after. Why on earth would you quit your job to become an artist?”

To which the person might respond, “Because I just know in my heart that it’s what I was meant to do.”

That last statement may be true – many of us push off what we’ve always felt to be our calling because others told us we’d never make a living with it, whatever it is.

But where are you in your life? Do you have a mortgage or rent to pay? Kids to get through university? A weekly grocery bill to feed others besides just you?

Yes, right? So, what to do?

Think of the Possibilities

Don’t be afraid of blue skies dreaming. Dream, write it down, dream some more. Many of these self-help authors are good at putting you into the right frame of mind for that. You let your mind go free with all the things you dream of, all the things you want to do and to have, and start envisioning this new version of your life.

Now, this is where I would halt the process: Before you go any further, you need to look at your life as it is now and start setting things up to work towards your dream.

You want to become a master painter? Find an appropriate painting class, sign yourself up, and squeeze in 10 minutes a day to practice.

Want to work your way up in your company? Talk to managers and ask them how they got to where they are. Then start emulating what they do. (But make it your own; as the saying goes, “Just be yourself; everyone else is taken.”)

Want to change your career? Find more responsibilities in your current job that are applicable to that career change.

I don’t want to make it sound like these ideas are easy. You may have to shift your schedule around, or risk standing out from the crowd at work…and I wonder if these are the risks Wayne Dyer is really talking about but not explaining? There are legitimate concerns surrounding any major life-changing decision, but there are also fears that hold us back, like a thick woollen blanket wrapped around you: it’s warm and cozy but immobilizing.

The trick is to differentiate the two categories.

What About Bob? Baby Steps…

I don’t know your situation, of course, but I do believe that if you want to change something for the better, you will find a way to make it happen. For me, it was deciding to forego TV after the kids were in bed and spending that time on my novel.

Would I like to spend part of each writing fiction, at a time when my brain is more functional? Yes. But I chose to have a family and a mortgage. To just drop all my streams of income to “follow my dreams” would be hugely irresponsible.

But that doesn’t make following my dreams impossible.

Don’t feel guilty or frustrated if you aren’t living your dream life. Whatever life you are living, so long as it’s generally helpful to you and others, can probably teach you something that will benefit the life you are dreaming of. But figure out what those baby steps are that can get you moving in the right direction: the real risk, in the end, may be just prying open the door.

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Hertha Mueller: A Writer You Should Get to Know

I came across German-Romanian writer Hertha Müller* (“Mueller” in English) about two months ago. I’m embarrassed to say, I had no idea who she was, despite having two degrees in German Studies. In my defence, though, I stopped studying in 2005, and it wasn’t until 2009 that she won the Nobel Prize for Literature.

She’s in her 60s now, and I believe lives in Sweden. Let me introduce you to her and what the idea of freedom for the arts means.

Who was the Guy and his Wife being Shot?

Mueller was born in the 1950s in one of the last leftover German villages in Romania. (The majority of ethnic Germans had been deported after WWII to either Germany or the labour camps in Russia.) I remember once at Christmas being at my grandmother’s – she and my grandfather were also Germans from Romania but (thank God) never returned after the war – and she had her eyes absolutely glued to the television. (My grandfather had been dead a few years by then.)

A man and his wife had been captured and were being executed. The news was full of lots of death, so I didn’t get why this execution was so important. (I also didn’t get what was so important about a graffitied, cement wall in Berlin and why its destruction was so celebrated.)

All I recall was that she said his name was Nicolae Ceaușescu and she was glad he was gone.

I eventually learned he was a dictator, but that was it. Only recently, with reading Mueller, have I begun to understand what that fully means.

Germans in Romania

I’m reading a book whose title can be literally translated as My Fatherland is an Apple Core: Conversations with Hertha Mueller. (The title refers to a poem or song that I’m not particularly familiar with.)

It’s unfortunate the book isn’t available in English, because she describes in exacting, vivid detail what it’s like to be a writer in a brutal dictatorship that’s trying to silence you and your friends.

As you can likely imagine, being an ethnic German in Eastern Europe during and after World War II wasn’t an enviable position to be in, regardless of which side you supported. After all was said and done, only a handful of Germans remained in these areas. I forget the exact figures, but the German populations decreased by the millions, partly due to deportation to those Russian labour camps, where many died.

Mueller’s mother was schlepped off to one of these camps but returned. (Whether she was lucky was debatable.) Mueller was eventually born and grew up in one of the few remaining German towns in Romania. It might be likened to Mennonite or Amish colonies, where everyone speaks their form of German and continues on with life as they know it, often sans electricity and telephone (though not by choice in this case).

Sneaky and Sly Like a Fox

Hertha Mueller had a fox fur on the floor between her bed and wardrobe, something she and her mother had purchased together from a neighbouring town. She says in the book:

The village tailor was supposed to make a fur collar and cuffs for a coat from it. It was a whole, flat fox with snout and paws and shiny claws. It was far too beautiful to cut up. I kept it for many years as a carpet. One day, I was mopping the floor, and the tail slid to the side. It had been cut off. I convinced myself at that time that it had torn off on its own. I didn’t believe myself that it was an exact, very straight cut, not a tear. (Page 86 of my ebook version via OnLeihe.)

She put the tail back where it belonged. A few weeks later, the first hind leg had been cut off. Later, the second one. Thereafter, one of the front legs. She describes that the cut-off limb was always placed on the fox’s stomach. This took place over months, but during those months, she always entered her apartment and immediately checked if a part of the fox had been severed.

The secret police (the “Securitate”) had a key. They wouldn’t break in, ever, they would just quietly enter. She said they wanted you to know they could come in whenever they wanted to.

Eggs and Onions and Hair

In another episode of intimidation (there were very, very many), she was on her way to get her hair cut. A police officer asked her for her ID and then whisked her off into a hidden room, where she was questioned, accused of blatantly false crimes, and forced to eat eight hard-boiled eggs and an onion. At one point, the agent picked a hair off her clothing, and she said, “Put that hair back, it belongs to me” (page 97 on my Onleihe e-book version). She said he actually put the hair back.

But it Didn’t Stop There

Even after she was allowed to leave in 1987 for Germany, the intimidations and games continued: they stamped her passport with February 29, 1987. That drove the German authorities nuts, she says, because it wasn’t a leap year.

The threats continued. The interviewer also mentions a situation where a Romanian operative was stopped at the German border, allegedly with instructions to kill several who were speaking out against Ceaușescu. Mueller’s address was on his list.

The dictatorship – from what she can gather – even blackmailed a very good friend of hers who had been diagnosed with cancer and was in its last stage. The friend was required to travel to Germany to visit Mueller. It didn’t take long for Mueller to figure out why her friend had come: the passport has visas for many different countries, a kind of passport that was not given out in Romania. Once she called her friend on it, her friend spoke openly and said Mueller would find her name on the death list if she didn’t stop speaking out against Ceaușescu.

We Need Our Openness

I’ve gained a whole new appreciation for our press, publishing industry, and the breadth of opinions out there. It’s not perfect. But it’s not what Hertha Müller had to contend with just to get her voice out there. I know we don’t all agree on how much freedom the press should have, what fake news really is, and how much censorship is too much.

(I recall reading that Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree had been banned by school boards in the past because the tree talked. I draw the line for my kids at Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, the current cartoons: my kids don’t need to learn a list of names to call people they don’t like.)

But we need to continue having open discussions about all of this, so long as our discussions show respect for the other side. I know there are thousands, likely even millions of artists out there in countries whose work is censored for something as simple as saying they don’t like the government.

It can be frustrating reading comments from people who disagree with you, especially when those comments are rude (and I, too, wish they would be more respectful). I don’t know if this helps, but as I read through this book, it certainly helps me realize that we at least have that right to say something.

*I didn’t add a photo here: the topic is serious, and I’m not an artist who can create something fitting. In addition, I didn’t want to use a photo of Hertha Müller, because, honestly, I feel guilty about using her picture to help promote my blog.

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You Get Inspired By Someone/thing and Want It: Consider Reconsidering

eric-didier-245518-reducedI’ve read over the years how the brain doesn’t fully mature until age 21 or 22. I also read a Quora response from someone (I’ve lost the reference, unfortunately) who said that he had reached his dream (house, car, wife, kids, dog) by age 39 and only then realized he was living the immature dreams of a teenager.

As teenagers, we try on different identities, experiment with things we shouldn’t be experimenting with, and, of course, swear to God that we know everything while ignoring the advice of usually well-meaning adults.

Many of us exit this phase with some level of maturity. But one trait mysteriously remains: we still believe that copying others means we’ll have the same effect on people as those others.

Huh?

For a writer, that’s a pretty clumsy sentence. Let me explain what I mean.

We look at a celebrity’s hairstyle, love it, and then want it for ourselves, even though we don’t have her face, cranium shape, or body type. We also don’t have a hairstylist backstage all day to fix it for us or two hours each morning to do it.

Many women love elegant shoes, which usually involves a high heel. They find a pair of these elegant shoes, put them on, and then forget to dress to match. Or worse, they don’t know how to walk to match and unfortunately look rather clumsy.

There’s also the stereotype of the middle-aged man who’s suddenly worried about his hairline and pot belly and makes weird attempts at turning back the biological clock.

What Do You Bring to the Table?

I think we’re going about this all the wrong way. Copying others and trying out different identities is what we did as teens. (Or, if you were like me, what you shied away from as a teen, too scared to take the risk of connecting with your deeper self, which, by the way, wasn’t the angsty, wish-you’d-get-kissed-by-a-vampire self.)

Several years ago, I came across this saying: Be yourself; everyone else is already taken. When I heard it, I lost an invisible skin I didn’t know I had, the one I grew in my teen years but couldn’t shed after they passed, the one that quietly urged me to try and be like others, even well into adulthood. I consciously fought this skin, but it hung on like a hangnail: you pick at it, and it hurts a little, but true to its name, it hangs on.

Shedding that skin didn’t cause my personality to flip around. I didn’t turn into a party animal or suddenly take up smoking, but rather, I became much more comfortable with myself. In other words, I finally began to understand the context that made up Lori. This moment of  enlightenment came with an added bonus: I began to see other people in their contexts. (Well, as best as I could: what I know about even those closest to me is only a fraction of what makes up the whole person.)

Context: It’s Not Me, But It’s So You

Coming back to my initial thought, I think when we copy others, we’re missing part of the context that makes each of us an individual. Many writers know this, for example: there are, really, no new stories. What makes stories appear new, though, is the context the writer brings to it.

A skilled writer infuses the milestones of an age-old story with their own thoughts, feelings, and experiences. A story about a family torn apart by the matriarch’s death, in which the protagonist searches for the meaning of her own life, finds love, and then comes to a realization she didn’t expect, will be one story in the hands of the daughter of Chinese immigrants and a much different one in the hands of a woman who had spent 20 years in prison.

Now Ask the Right Questions

So what does this mean for the haircut we want or the house we so desire? Don’t ask yourself how you can look like that or how you can earn like crazy to have a house like that. Instead, look at the feeling your object of inspiration has awoken in you. Is the celebrity haircut new and fresh, and you’ve had the same one for five years? In the hands of the right stylist, the request “I’m tired of my old haircut, and I’d like something new that brightens my face more” will have the same effect as the celebrity haircut has on that celebrity.

Just the same way, a talented interior designer can probably give your home the same feel as a mansion for a fraction of what it would cost to move to a new, much larger home. (It’ll still cost you something, but it should be much less.)

Do be inspired by the things and people around you! But if you’re looking to have that same effect on others, you won’t achieve it by being like the objects of your inspiration; I believe you’ll achieve it by using the context that makes up you in a way that achieves that same feeling. It’s how celebrities get the attention they do, how writers create new stories from old, and how that charming little home down the street looks just as perfect as the mansions on the other side of the tracks.

It all comes down to you.

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Sore Shoulders, Motivation, and Writing

ocean_mountainsPhysiotherapy consists of usually gentle but difficult exercises to help heal a physical injury. Weightlifting consists of generally harsh but usually easy exercises to help build muscle.

And they should be combined carefully.

The Pain of Writing

I’ve been undergoing physiotherapy for the past two months because of pain in my right shoulder that travelled invisibly through my arm and showed up in my hand: it hurt to lift my arm even to the mouse from the armrest, and eventually a sharp pain that felt like an earwig pinching my bone appeared in my finger. Overuse of my right arm at the computer was likely part of the problem.

Weighty Issues

In early February, I’d also picked up weightlifting again, something I’d sworn off of last year. I’d reflected some more on my love/hate relationship with it and am now certain my approach was guaranteeing my failure. I switched routines, the time of day I did it at, and even the days of the week, and voila! I love it again.

A Little Too Motivated

Now let’s put the two together:

My physiotherapist never asked me to stop weightlifting, and in fact encouraged me to continue, so long as I was finding it helpful, doing it properly, and wasn’t injuring myself. (I was also seeing a chiropractor for some of the symptoms, and he said the same.)

I was pain-free for weeks.

However, physiotherapy doesn’t speak to the ego: there’s nothing sexy about being on all fours in some tilted, awkward position to strengthen my shoulder. Weightlifting, though, does, and my ego became very motivated last week.

In short, I upped weights before my right arm and shoulder were ready, and the sensations in my hand returned the following day, though they were less severe.

I picked up more than I could lift.

Too Many Projects?

In my 20s, I had a similar problem with my life: I’d take on one project, and even if it wasn’t going so well, I’d add another, and then another, and then another. Somewhere in there, I broke. Why? Because I didn’t force myself to take a break, re-organize, and re-evaluate my situation.

Maybe this has happened to you in your creative endeavours: inspiration hits you for a project (a new song, story, dance, what have you),  you start, you get a little bored, your inspiration weakens, and then a new project comes along and the cycle starts all over again.

After awhile, you’re stuck in a quagmire of half-created creations, all begging for your attention, and all weakening you as you try and bulldoze your way through it all.

Slowing Down

Starting yesterday, I lowered my weights and committed myself to heating and icing my shoulder at least once a day, ideally twice. Starting today, I’ve promised myself to faithfully do the prescribed exercises each morning, even if it means waking up 15 minutes earlier. I’ll ice my shoulder afterwards whenever feasible. I also massage a cream into the area. I’d like to think it’s helping.

After a week or so, I’ll add some more exercises to my routine as my therapist recommended. Once those become easy, I’ll try increasing the weights again, but only then and not before.

There’s nothing wrong with putting on the brakes when it comes to your projects. You haven’t failed. If you’re worried about forgetting them, sit down for an hour or more (whatever’s appropriate) for each project, and write down what you still need to accomplish. Set those lists aside, and return to them when you’re able to.

What’s Really Important to You?

Ask yourself, “Which of my projects is the most important right now?” Then focus your attention on completing it. Yes, increasing my weights makes me feel good, but exactly how good will I feel if I have to stop completely for serious physio because I took it too far? My goal is to increase my muscle mass and my strength. Slowing down right now supports that. Increasing the weights doesn’t.

Setting the other projects momentarily aside is like lowering your weights. Focussing on one project and accomplishing something towards it most days is like doing regular exercises to strengthen the injured body part. Once that body part is strong, your entire body can handle the entire load.

Completing one project at a time may even help calm your nerves: you’ll be juggling fewer to-do items. Moreover, whatever you learn from that project can be transferred to the next one. If there’s any overlap, that next project may even be easier than if you’d tried to complete it concurrently with the first one.

Having a million things on the go at once is sometimes necessary, but if you’re finding yourself stressed, maybe you’ve pushed yourself a bit to far. Slow down, back off, regroup, take some time to plan, take a well-deserved break, and then start again.

Starting again may sound scary, but in my experience, it’s been anything but and always beneficial.