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What’s the Point of the Arts?

annie-spratt-253799 reducedI do believe the arts are a spiritual endeavour, one that’s not always easily put into words. But when I read about cuts to the arts in schools, or run into someone who asks what the point is of studying literature or fine arts, because, hey, no one can understand that stuff, anyways, it frustrates me for two reasons.

For starters, the arts in almost any capacity feeds humans just as the sun does. It’s obvious to me and I don’t see why people don’t get it.

Second, the moment someone complains, my throat closes up because of the frustration in that first point. It’s a weird thing I have: I get frustrated, and then the words disappear into a jumble in my head I can’t quite dislodge and unpack to calmly explain my point of view to someone.

So, without delving into scientific evidence (there’s lots out there, I just don’t have time to review a chunk of it and spit it back out to you in 800-1,200 words), I’m going to tackle the question from a individual viewpoint, which, I’m learning, is a very Romantic-period way of solving such problems.

The Arts are Expression

The arts (and that includes music, dance, drama, visual arts, and everything in between and across disciplines) by definition are about expression. Not allowing a human self-expression through the arts is no different than plastering their mouth shut with duct tape.

In essence, individuality is at the heart of the arts. Many artists hope to make a living with their work, but many use it as a hobby and outlet, writing away stories no one will ever read, or strumming on a guitar for the sheer pleasure of soothing the nerves. When we always approach the arts with, “How will you make money off of this?” we miss the true value for the individual.

The Arts are Culture

Moving past the individual, we come to our culture. There are most definitely songs and paintings out there I don’t like for one reason or another, and yes, I do sometimes wonder who was paid to produce “such a horrible piece of work.” You will also have your preferences for stories, music, and concert dance.

What I feel, though, has been forgotten is that freedom in art helps underpin our democracy. It’s no coincidence that one of the first groups of people dictators try to control is artists, everyone from painters to writers to all the specialists involved in the TV and movie industries. (The other main group they try to silence tends to be academics.)

Cultural Appropriation

There is a dark underbelly arising in the arts, though, and I’m not entirely sure what to think of it: cultural appropriation. As I understand it, it means using another culture in your own creation. Part of me revolts at the thought that someone has a right to dictate to artists what they can and can’t do. At the same time, being someone of German heritage, my back went up when a puppet on a kids’ show was wearing a Bismarck-era military helmet, faking a German accent, and pretending to be the bad guy. (Couldn’t he at least wear lederhosen and be happy while dancing a polka?)

Whatever your view on the subject, one thing is certain: if artists didn’t use their voices to produce their work, we wouldn’t be having these discussions about culture, power, colonization, and the like. It’s because of the arts that voices are being heard on these very difficult subjects.

The Arts Belong in Schools

Because of the high emphasis on self-expression, learning the arts in school helps children find outlets for their own personality. For those who have difficulty doing so in words, they may find comfort in music, drawing, and dance. For those who feel physically awkward, channeling their energy onto paper may help them share their feelings and release that tension.

But where’s the monetary value? The economic incentive? This one always gets me.

The entertainment industry is perhaps one of the largest industries in the Western world, and people still ask where the monetary value of the arts is.

Every business needs talented people whose gifts for creating are needed for marketing, communications, and even product development. Again, you don’t get that talent by not nurturing the arts.

Every scientist needs to present findings in a way that others will understand. (The most popular scientists, in my view, seem to be the ones who can in one moment speak to other specialists in their field and in the next, to laypeople, and convey the same information in a way each audience understands.)

Art and Peace

Our world is huge, and there’s no way I can humanly know all its history. But my general impression is that artists don’t start wars. They may start disagreements, and these disagreements may turn into huge arguments, but I’m not aware of them starting wars. I believe artists, through their vocation, study the human condition (with some exceptions). They see the value of human life and honour the exchange that occurs between us when we communicate our true selves. I believe artists are often more comfortable than many of us in dealing with human emotions.

Support the Arts

So it makes no sense to me that we cut back on the arts in schools and label them as useless. I know teachers only have so much time and training, and they themselves are also only human. But I don’t think we can afford to keep cutting back on the arts – humans need to express themselves, and what is school if not a place to help kids grow into an adult, one who is ready to participate in this world as a fully realized and actualized human being? And how can this goal be fulfilled without teaching the students the many different ways they can share themselves with the world around them?

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We are Creative Adults: Age is Irrelevant

cameras_reducedThis week’s post is short, because the week has been full of celebrations, and they’re going to continue into the weekend.

Our culture values youth, and I think it’s a great thing. Only a generation or two ago, youth were told to keep quiet at the table. Hitting a child for discipline was widespread and accepted, and in many cases, a child’s career was decided for them. I’m so happy to see how much we support our youth today, talk about children’s rights, and encourage children to find their true path in life. (Although I also wish some old practices, like teaching children to not run around in someone else’s house, would return.)

But if there’s one thing Western culture excels at, it’s the pendulum swing: whereas the older generations were once valued, the pendulum is now at the other side. A story has been making the rounds about Lyn Slater, a 63-year-old professor with *gasp* a sense of fashion. She blogs at Accidental Icon. In an interview from January, published at Today, she says, “I get a lot of emails from younger people saying … you’re making us feel like getting old is fun and cool, and that you can do whatever you want at whatever age.”

I shared her story on Facebook with one word: “Amen.”

I’ve still got a ways to go before I reach her age, but I look up to people like her and older who are breaking the stereotypes of aging. Our reverence for youth has, I think, made us blind to the grace, wisdom, knowledge, and fearlessness that can come with age. (I sometimes joke that I can’t wait to turn 70, because then I can start dancing down the street to a song in my head and people won’t think I’m crazy, just old.)

One skill I’ve finally developed with age is discipline. I’m not a Zen nun in Western culture by any stretch, but it was through discipline that I dedicated an hour to 90 minutes almost every night over the past two and a half years to work on a novel. That same discipline allowed me to start it again at an editor’s suggestion in November of last year and finish that first draft just this week.

My point isn’t to gloat, though. My point is this: Getting older lets us develop filters without blinders, and those filters are what help stay focused on goals. I’ve learned to trust myself enough that if something interrupts my writing routine, I start it up again as soon as possible. In my 20s I didn’t have that kind of discipline. I often regret that, of course, but part of growing up is learning to live with the errors of youth.

Whatever your age, it’s never too late to be bold, daring, and set large goals. And that means it’s never too late to start on your dream creative projects. Even if you have to take painting lessons first before you can start that mural in your bedroom, register for those lessons. You have the discipline to practice most days, the experience to know when it’s time to take a break, and the wisdom to know that, even if you don’t make it, what you’ve learned on the journey can be just as or even more thrilling than achieving your actual goal.

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Writing With Young Kids in the Home

writer-babyTrying to write with little humans traipsing around your home and causing havoc can be challenging to say the least. They drool everywhere, put everything in their mouths, drag their bums on your dirty kitchen floor and then over onto the clean living room carpet, and they make the strangest noises you’ve ever heard uttered from a human mouth. (If you have boys, that part gets a lot weirder as they enter the primary grades. I’m warning you now.)

You’re likely reading this post because you’re in this phase right now, or you know someone who is. Let me start by saying this: You can survive!

I somehow made it through that initiation ritual and can offer a few tips for you. But there’s one thing I need to get out of the way first, a reminder. It may sound harsh, but whenever I find myself in conflict between my kids and my writing (both my paid and unpaid work), reminding myself of this centres me again so I can better deal with the issue at hand.

This is my reminder: I chose to have a family, which includes marrying a man and having children with him.

So when I find myself thinking, “If only they’d stop talking!” “Can’t they see I’m busy?” “Of course the stomach flu has to go through the house while I’m on deadline!” I remember that this was all my choice. I could have lived the single life and become a sworn spinster. But I didn’t. I chose this, so I have to take responsibility for it.

That doesn’t mean I’m a doormat. This reminder just affects my way of solving problems. Balance is important in any life. Even when I was in my 20s and just a grad student, I lost my balance: I dated, studied, worked, and socialized in the same department. If one minor problem appeared, my life turned upside down. No family or husband in the picture yet.

So keep that in mind as you read these suggestions.

Be Realistic

Most toddlers have the attention span of a fruit fly and a propensity to explore without any idea of government-issued health & safety standards. Set your office somewhere where you can easily supervise your child (or restrict your child to an area you can easily supervise from your office).

Also resign yourself to the fact that you’ll be lucky if you get 10 minutes of writing time in one chunk while your child is awake.

Of course, longer periods of writing are necessary to get into deep thought, or “the zone” as some call it. But, as I said, be realistic. Don’t expect a 28-month-old to be capable of leaving you alone for two hours. Either arrange for childcare or write when your child is asleep.

Expect Interruptions

These are the normal day-to-day interruptions, like when they hit their funny bone, or when siblings get at each other. But also remember that kids get sick at the turn of a dime.

Do not leave major projects until the last minute; start them as soon as you get them. You can easily lose a few days to illness, maybe even a week or more, depending on how easily everyone in your family gets sick. Daycares also send kids home for any number of reasons, so there’ll never be a guarantee that you’ll get a full day’s worth of work in.

Don’t fight it, accept it. Generally, until your kids move out of the house, plan for interruptions.

Teach Your Children That You’re Writing

And here I really mean teach. Don’t scold, don’t shout, don’t expect a toddler to read an adult mind; instead, explain, be firm if you need to, and demonstrate. Keep it age appropriate, too. For example, there’ll be very little you can teach an 18-month-old, but a child who’s three can usually be taught to knock before entering your office.

I’ve also heard some luck with using the kitchen timer: for example, you set it for 10 minutes and your child can’t interrupt you until it goes off. You’ll need to be firm and consistent here but also know when your child really does need you.

Kids are Wired to Seek Your Attention

So accept it. They’re not trying to annoy you. They know you’re responsible for their well-being, and being humans themselves, love social time. When you’re spending time with your child, keep the focus on them, not your phone or other device.

I cut down on my television because of this guideline, which is to say, I don’t watch much anymore. I used to watch while cooking supper, just to hear adult sentences being strung together.

However, if my kids wanted me, and I was trying to pay attention to the TV, and I had the stove and oven going while I was cutting something…that was too much strain on my mental resources, and I lost my patience with my kids. So now, the TV is rarely on while I’m in the kitchen. I’ve become more patient, supper’s ready faster, and the overall change has been remarkable.

My experience was and still is this: if I give my kids some undivided attention during the day, they’ll usually leave me in peace at times, too.

Is the Television a Babysitter?

I know doctors would like us to say no. I’d like to say no. But I’d be lying if I said my kids never watched TV so I could get a half hour of work in. I didn’t have a doctor’s salary to pay for childcare, so it was inevitable.

If you do let your child watch TV without you, keep the times short. Kids should be exploring, not sitting in a chair, their eyes transfixed to a screen. But if we are to respect my first tip (Be Realistic), we have to acknowledge that most of us no longer live in extended-family situations, which means we don’t have live-in babysitters.

Balancing Phones and Children

Invariably, your phone will ring while you’re spending time with your kid. This happened in 80s as much as it does now, only now, your phone is with you all the time. As the phone rings, explain to your child that you have to talk to someone else for a moment, but you won’t be long. When you hang up, apologize for the interruption like you would to any adult. In the end, you’re treating your little human the same as any other human in your company: would you answer your phone without excusing yourself from the present conversation?

I know most toddlers and preschoolers won’t fully understand what you’re saying, but they’ll hear the patient (and possibly firm) tone in your voice. Once the call is done, put all your attention back to your child.

Have patience with this and keep it age appropriate. Remember, you’re teaching your child how today’s world works and how to behave in it.

Use Your Child’s Temperament

When my boys were old enough to play with each other (i.e., when I had a toddler and a preschooler), I found they generally played well after a meal and horribly if mealtime was not too far away. So, where possible, I scheduled my writing accordingly and left cleanup, which didn’t require any concentration, for later.

Be Creative With Where You Write

For example, an easy task, like editing a short text, could be done on paper at the kitchen table, while your kid is colouring next to you. Or teaching your older preschooler that they can do a quiet activity in your office next to you may also work. Again, keep your child’s temperament in mind: If they’re a bundle of energy, it’s probably best to go outside with them after a meal so they can burn some of that energy.  Then try working.

In the End…

View this as a balancing act, not as a competition. This is why I find it so important to remind myself that I chose to have a family. Once I’ve repossessed that responsibility, it’s easier to handle the interruptions. Also be flexible, your kids will change as they grow up, and the easiest thing you can do is change with them. After all, you’re the adult with experience.

If you’re in Waterloo Region, I’ll be part of a panel discussion on self-publishing, taking place Wednesday, May 3rd @ 7PM at the Kitchener Public Library, Country Hills branch. I’ll be contributing advice on balancing writing and family.

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Comfort Zones: Potential Danger for Artists, Writers, Performers, and Everyone in Between

Comfort zones are those nice, cozy, warm, fuzzy parts in our mind that convince us to stay put. They have a purpose: respite. But like any spa, too much of a good thing can turn into a bad thing (and, frankly, become very expensive).

I recently interviewed a sportscaster for a magazine article, and time and again she emphasized how important it was for her to get out of her comfort zone. She was a trained dancer, but when she got accepted into a well-known musical theatre program in Canada, she spent three years singing in front of others. For her, that was terrifying. But it allowed other opportunities to flow her way.

Hindsight is 20/20, as you know. In my case, my comfort zone in dance became so strong that I even stood in the same spot in the studio as often as possible: the right front corner. I even said I’d have my ashes buried there. The building, though, has since been razed and replaced with a more modern business building. I’ll have somewhere else to inter my ashes.

With writing, it was the same: I wrote about characters I knew, either by attempting a novel for a franchise or copying TV characters from my favourite shows; created plots familiar to me from same sources of inspiration as the characters; and did not expose my heart to my readers, a necessity for creative writing. In my youth, that was a fine path to follow, because I may not have been ready to show my vulnerability back then. This was before social media, of course, but one well-intentioned piece of feedback from a teacher, friend, or parent can hurt you as much as a stranger’s public criticism of your work these days, maybe even more so. I was looking for approval, not feedback, and using my personal creations for that purpose wasn’t the best idea.

Since January 2015, I’ve been working on a novel. It started as a creative challenge to myself: write 10,000 words by December. I hit that goal by mid-February and kept going. (Now, I’m at 92,000.) I’ve submitted the first three chapters to two editors, a friend, and a family member for feedback, and yes, some of the feedback hurt. But age does something to you besides give you wrinkles: it gives you strength and confidence…if you let yourself push past your comfort zone. Their input made me stop writing and go back to character and plot development. I have some major re-working to do, but the piece will hopefully come out stronger in the end. (The feedback is dead on – we’ll see if the writer can make it work.)

Of course, the usual disclaimer: we’re talking about personal goals here, not seeing how long you can wait for a car to approach before you dart across the street without getting hit.

I think it’s wrong to assume that everyone wants to achieve huge monetary success, but I think it’s right to assume that everyone has dreams that will seem big to some and small to others. For some, being able to free their voice and speak up in front of others is a huge dream. For others, it’s normal life. For some, living off $50,000 a year while also saving money is the big goal. For others, that’s reality and they can’t fathom why someone would find that hard to accomplish.

Whatever the goal, it’ll push you. But what I’m finding is that, like my interviewee, you won’t experience the freedom that comes from reaching those goals unless you cross the boundaries of your comfort zone, even just a smidgen. (Just stay out of the path of moving vehicles.)

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What’s Your Constellation of Images? How to Find Your Voice

A hodge podge of older cameras.Last time, I reflected on how writing from your past can help you develop your voice, since you’re the only one who has experienced your past. (I also gave you a few warnings about writing about people from your past.)

I just finished Word Painting: The Fine Art of Writing Descriptively (Revised Edition) by Rebecca McClanahan. She introduced me to the concept of a constellation of images, first described by American poet Stanley Kunitz. He says,

You have at the center of your being a conglomeration of feelings, emotions, memories, traumas that are uniquely yours, that nobody else on earth can duplicate. They are the clue to your identity. If you don’t track them down, lay claim to them, bring them out into the light, they’ll eventually possess you, they’ll fester, or erupt into compulsive behavior. The farther you stray from your center, the more you will be lost. That’s one of the teachings of Lao-tzu. When you’re there, at the existential core, you’ll know it. Hopkins said in one of his letters that he could taste himself, and the taste was more distinctive than the taste of ale or alum, or the smell of walnutleaf or camphor. You can tell the poets who are working at their center by the distinctiveness of their voice, their constellation of key images, their instantly recognizable beat. (Source: Columbia Journal.)

In a 2000 interview with Elizabeth Farnsworth on PBS, he explains this a little further:

I think a poem lies submerged in the depths of one’s being. It’s an amalgamation of images, often the key images out of a life. I think there are certain episodes in the life that really form a constellation, and that’s the germinal point of the poems. The poems, when they come with an incident from the immediate present, latch on to those images that are deep in one’s whole sensibility, and when that happens, everything starts firing at once.

I recently experienced this myself. A few weeks ago, I suddenly needed to watch a movie I hadn’t seen in six or seven years. I used to watch it obsessively in my 20s, and I also forked out lots of money to see it in live performances (it was a musical). But for the last six or seven years, I could’ve cared less about it. The immediate desire to watch it really surprised me, so I watched it over two nights that week.

On my 5-kilometre walk home from work, a story suddenly hit me out of the blue, completely unrelated to the novel I’m also working on. I had my smartphone with me, so I recorded my thoughts as I walked. That night, after the kids had gone to sleep, I spent 90 minutes writing down what I’d recorded and then adding to it. I had 3,000 words by the time I was done. It needs work, of course, and much refining, but something was dying to get out. I don’t recall the last time I had so much clarity in creative writing.

Although Kunitz was referring to writing and poetry, this concept can apply to any art form. Perhaps certain motifs or colours repeatedly sneak their way in to your paintings, or you feel drawn to certain moves in dance. Timothy Schmalz, a local sculptor likely best known for his sculpture Homeless Jesus, uses the Gospel as his constellation of images. Mine has always been clear to me, though I only admitted it for the first time that weekend. (Sorry, I won’t share it here.)

If yours isn’t immediately apparent to you, McClanahan has a few suggestions on how to discover it:

  • Reread previous writing and watch out for “successful images or metaphors, those passages that seem to have sprung from imagination, not fancy.” (She means organic images, not ones that are forced or contrived, along the lines of “Gee, I think I need a metaphor here.”)
  • Highlight images, descriptions, even individual words that recur throughout your work. You can even use a computer’s search function if you have digital writing files.
  • You can use online apps that create “word clouds” to help you better visualize your constellation of images.

She further advises, “Repeated patterns of any kind in our work – words, phrases, objects, colors, places, events, people, sounds – are there for a reason. We should pay attention to them.” However, she also cautions about being too objective with this process, with removing the emotion out of it.

By paying attention to the images that have snuck their way into our art, we can more easily find the sources of our originality and therefore our true voice.

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Squeezing Creativity Into Your Life: A Few Tips

Thin trail in medium-height grass.Creativity makes us human – our evolutionary ancestors wouldn’t have moved past the African jungles without curiosity and creativity. Yet many people say that they have no time for creativity.

Being creative, as I’ve mentioned before, isn’t about waiting for inspiration to hit and then spending hours on your novel (that you’ll finish “some day”) or your painting (that will sit on its easel for months to come) or your new skirt (speaking of which, I should start mine before the season’s over). Creativity is about purposefully fitting time into each day to explore other ideas.

Here are a few tips you can use to fit creativity in to your daily life:

Write Out Your Weekly Schedule

You don’t have to track your week, but write out your general schedule for each day of the week. You should see pockets of time where you can squeeze in an activity. For example, I spend 15 minutes on the bus and 25 minutes over lunch reading a book that inspires me to write. That’s already 40 minutes x 4 days/week = 2 hours and 40 minutes of reading about my craft, which brings me to the next topic.

Study Your Craft

Keep some key websites bookmarked, or visit your library for a book or two on your craft or project. The more you learn about how others do what you’re trying to do, the faster your own skill will develop, because you’re not spending time making beginner mistakes. Instead, you’re playing in the intermediate or advanced area, which is where you’re more likely to find your voice.

Keep a Short List of Your Creative Aims With You

I tuck a very thin 2.5” x 4” Moleskine booklet into my pocket all the time. It helps filter my commitments: If something doesn’t fit those goals, then I usually don’t commit to it. (I say usually, because, well, I’m not perfect, and I like to help people where I can. But I also do say no.)

Figure out What You Can Do When

My husband and I often work opposing schedules. So when he’s at work, I look after the kids. I’ve learned through trial and error and lots of frustration that I can’t sit at the computer whiling looking after my kids. Even if they’re playing peacefully on a different floor in the house, they have computer antennae that inform them the moment I sit down at the computer to write. I can nap on the living room couch while they’re playing in front of me, but I can’t work at the computer.

However, I can brainstorm, read, garden, and sew while in charge of the kids. If they’re in a really strong “let’s keep talking to Mommy” mood, then I’ll do something that leaves my mind free to talk to them. I could, for example, bake an easy recipe.

Split Your Project Into Small Tasks

This needn’t be formal: it can be in your head or on paper. However, if you have an idea of the various tasks you can do as part of your creative exploration, then when you suddenly have a spare 15 minutes, you can actively do something instead of spending time deciding what to do.

Cut out TV and Your Devices

I’m not suggesting living like a luddite. Bronson Alcott, Louisa May’s father, scorned “technology” in his day when he and a friend tried to harvest several acres of farmland by hand instead of using oxen. But be mindful of your technology use. If your tv show is in a rerun phase during the season, turn off the tube and do something creative. Likewise, if your phone is constantly ringing, turn it off if it’s feasible. Turn off your email program, turn off your notifications, or use a program like Scrivener that can take over your screen and force you to focus. If you’re not convinced, read Cal Newport’s website. He gives excellent advice (and often research and his own experiences) on how to focus.

Is This Really Possible?

Everyone’s day is different from the next person’s. My typical day includes work (6-8 hours a day), looking after the kids, cooking many (but not all) meals, getting the kids to a few lessons, and spending time with my husband. And yet I manage to squeeze in an hour or two a day of creative time, because I always have a book on me, I do write later at night on the “for fun” projects, and I’ve learned what activities I can do for me but still be available for my kids.

It takes some experimenting, so take it a step at a time. Remember, though, to be flexible: as your family grows, your children will change. You want to do your best to find creative time no matter your daily grind, but stay open-minded about when that time is.

Do you have any tips on how to find creative for yourself despite family and life obligations?

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6 Tips to Help You Get Some Creative Time With Kids in the House

A lone tree in the midst of a lake.If you’re a parent, chances are you have to watch your kids while trying to schedule in some creative time for yourself. Sure, you can get down and dirty with them, get yourself covered in paint or mud, and have loads of fun, too. However, you likely once in a while feel the need to work at your own creative pursuits. I’ve found a few ideas that work for times when I need to work on my writing with minimal interruptions. Maybe some will help you in your creative endeavours, too.

Your children’s age will depend on how much you can accomplish. In the early years, when children are very young, you may simply need to arrange for extra help or be satisfied with what you can squeeze in:

  • A tiny human often requires more attention than you have hours in a day.
  • You shouldn’t leave your eyes off a toddler, especially if you want your kitchen cupboards to stay intact.
  • Kids in the midst of toilet training are an accident waiting to happen (that you need to clean up).

My kids are in elementary school and by no means independent enough to look after themselves for an hour or two while I work away at the computer. I’ve found few ways, though, to integrate my work into their lives.

Idea #1:

I rarely write at the computer when home alone with the kids. My kids run to the computer as strongly as most working adults run away from it. I lose my patience easily when I get interrupted so frequently that the period I’m aiming for seems two miles away. My best alternative is to avoid the situation altogether.

Idea #2:

Therefore, I work with paper and pen at a table, usually brainstorming. I have enough projects on the go (paid and personal) that I always have something to brainstorm. Doing this after a meal works best, because my kids are re-energized, usually happy, and eager to play with each other.

Idea #3:

I taught my kids how to knock. (If you don’t have a separate room, teaching them to say, “Excuse me, Mom/Dad,” could play the same role.) I can then finish my thought/sentence and turn off my timer. Then I tell them to come in, and they have 100% of my attention. If my husband’s home, though, they get a very quick, “Mommy’s working. You have to ask Daddy.” Which brings me to Way #4:

Idea #4:

I set reasonable boundaries for their ages. I can set the oven timer for 20 minutes and ask my kids not to disturb me until it beeps. However, because of Rule #1, I only use this when I’m alone with the kids and facing a tight deadline. I’ve also heard that having a box with special activities reserved for such times can help, but it didn’t work for me.

Idea #5:

Ask for help. Whether it’s the grandparents, your significant other, a trusted friend, or paid child care, if you need a long stretch of creativity time, you may need to bring in the cavalry. Kids are programmed to desire their parents’ company, but having someone else in the house who loves them, or at least cares enough about them to have fun with them, may give you that extra space to work on your project.

Idea #6:

I spend scheduled time with them each day, and ensure that work is far from my mind. I don’t write between 3:00 and 4:00 so I can pick up the kids from the bus, have a snack with them, see if they have homework, etc. I also read to them many nights of the week. I limit writing on the weekends, again, depending on my workload.

Think through your own rules carefully to make sure they’re appropriate for your family’s situation, but then gently enforce them. Be understanding that kids need help when things change, especially when the kids are really young. Based on my experience, the angrier I get with the kids, the angrier they get with each other, and I have to frequently stop what I’m doing to break up their fights. Gentleness, patience, and consistency usually ensure longer periods of time for me.

One warning, though: whatever you do, don’t make your creative pursuit appear like something that’s keeping you away from your kids. Children may grow jealous of your hobby/job instead of being inspired by it. Just be gentle with your children. In my few years of parenthood, I’ve learned that patience and teaching generally beat force if I’m looking for long-term compliance.

Do you have any tips on how to carve out some creativity time for yourself with kids in the home?

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Don’t Sew and Tell

Theo Huxtable from The Cosby Show in a shirt Denise attempted for him.You know the age-old advice about not cooking or baking a dish for the first time when you have guests? It applies to sewing, too.

I found these wonderful instructions on how to make a tablet sleeve. I’d stocked up on material from my local warehouse store, including some retro Marvel Comics and DC Comics prints. I thought I’d be the coolest mom on the block if I made a Marvel Comics tablet sleeve that could be raffled off for a school fundraiser. The pattern looked easy enough: lots of straight edges, lots of pinning, lots of ironing. I’d been practicing straight edges since I’d bought my machine almost two years ago. I pinned fabric with my mom when I was kid and the only options for Halloween costumes were plastic smocks and cheap masks. I’d also learned how to iron in my teen years.

I had this made. No pin intended.

I’m glad I never took a picture of the sleeve, and I’m glad I never volunteered that day to see how little money it raised. It probably cost the school more in volunteer hours to lay it out than money they got for it. But I had to send it along, because, unlike when I cook something and make sure it’s something I’ll eat regardless of the dish’s reception, I made the sleeve with the Marvel Comics fabric. I’m a DC Comics fan. (1980s Superman, anyone?) I wasn’t going to betray my favourite drawings of a man in a cape by housing my tablet in a Marvel Comics sleeve.

I would’ve been better off making a bag for my head. Okay, maybe that’s a bit too drastic. But I did make two pillowcases for my husband in about three hours, and they turned out better than this sleeve. (But they almost didn’t fit the pillows, despite allowing an extra two inches or so.)

I swear I measured all the pieces correctly. I swear I followed the seam guides on my machine correctly. I swear I read the instructions correctly! When it was done, though, it barely fit my own iPad, and it would’ve likely been too small for a full-sized Samsung tablet. The bottom seam probably had a 10˚ angle to it, and the Velcro looked like someone had given it to a dog first to be played with.

The sleeve is likely sitting in someone’s to-do pile, with the person wondering how best to deal with the misshapen, unwanted tablet sleeve that had “homemade” written all over it.

And before you say, “Well, then the pattern must have been too hard,” that’s not it, either: I followed the exact pattern again to make two sleeves for myself, and they turned out almost perfect.

So, if you won’t listen to your parents, listen to me: Never plan a first-time project as a gift.

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Music While Creating: Does It Work for You?

Portrait of Mozart from 1777Ever since I was in high school, I’d periodically heard about the latest study that proved or disproved that listening to music helped with productivity and therefore would help you study better. Mozart was the popular composer of the day (I’m not as old as Mozart, I just mean he was the most popular suggestion to make you smarter). But overall, I find I can’t listen to music while working.

For starters, I’m a dancer. Not professionally, of course, and I stopped regular training over 15 years ago. But as I recently discussed with someone on Twitter (if you can call two exchanges a discussion), once a dancer, always a dancer. I still tap dance waiting for my kids at the bus. (I try to tap discreetly – I don’t slide down the pavement, for example.) And if you could peer through the photocopier room door, you’d see me doing a few steps while I wait for the machine to do it’s job. (Although sometimes I wouldn’t mind tapping on it like Fred Astaire does in this clip, when the photocopier doesn’t do what it’s supposed to. But I wouldn’t be as nice as he is at the beginning.) I am very proud, though, of breaking one annoying habit: walking to the beat of the music of every store I walk by in a mall.

Music speaks to my body in a very strong way. When I hear music with a good beat, my hands become my feet and I’m tapping at my desk. Give me one of my geeky favourites (bring on the 80s or The Monkees), and I’m singing with my untrained voice. Writing? What writing?

I found a legitimate study (from The Psychology of Music, published in 2011) that looked at a handful of university students. The authors reported that listening to preferred music or no music made no different. The only time listening to music appeared to make a difference was when the study participant didn’t like the music.

So, what about you? Do you like to create while listening to music? Or is silence your preferred partner?

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Stepping Out Into an Introvert’s Abyss: Purposely Meeting New People

Frontal view of a brown bear's face. Could be a grizzly bear.Last week, I did something unheard of for this introverted writer: I purposely left my house to meet new people. Don’t worry: I hadn’t suddenly turned in to an extrovert. But with spending so much time in real life, I needed an artistic pick-me-up. I was super excited to meet new artsies.

The organizer was an acquaintance of mine, and she sent out the invite on social media. She and her film partner had entered a movie competition called CineCoup ( They created a trailer for a dark movie and entered it in CineCoup’s competition. The main prize is $1 million to create the entire movie and release it in Cineplex theatres. The event was to get friends together and have us all vote for their movie. I haven’t heard yet about the results.

It was inspiring to sit around people who dream big. But we didn’t just talk about their movie. I learned about Chinese culture, including century eggs ( and other egg-preparation practices, and visiting a market in China; couch-surfing; and the possible differences between working in indie film and indie theatre. It didn’t matter which conversation I participated in, all interested me and covered new areas of life I hadn’t experienced.

This isn’t the type of stuff you learn from helping your kids with their printing exercises or by writing for work. Of course, you learn other things in those activities, but I needed to break out of my daily life for a little and learn something completely off the wall.

I could only stay about 90 minutes or so because of bus times, so I was gone by 8:30. But there was an extra pep in my step, and motivation to keep writing came back. (So did motivation to continue sewing some sleeves for my tablet and keyboard. Future post coming up about those.) After all, I wanted to broaden my horizons and my acquaintances, and that’s exactly what happened.

Even if you’re introverted, try to get out once in a while and force yourself to meet people you don’t know (so long as you feel safe doing so, of course). Art doesn’t come from a vacuum: it comes from a mixture of inspiration and perspiration. The perspiration comes out at home and/or under a mentor or teacher. But the inspiration has to come from outside of you, and meeting people who’ve had different experiences than you is one way to do that.

Hmmm…I wonder if I can conjure up a blog post on eggs?