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Do You “Risk It All” for Your Dreams?

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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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Don’t Be Afraid to Dig Deep

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Have you ever dived into the deep end of a pool, tried to touch the bottom, and then come up, feeling immensely satisfied that you were just 10 feet below the surface of the water? Once above water again, you were likely taking bigger breaths to catch up to the air you had to hold in down below. The sun then seemed a little brighter, the chlorine smelled a little stronger, and you felt a little more relaxed.

As you forced your body down to the pool’s floor, you could feel the water hugging you more the deeper you went. Maybe your ears felt the pressure, too. It’s almost cozy at the bottom, except for the trivial fact of no air. Some people practice this over and over again, going deeper and holding their breath longer. Others – like me – just did it for fun as a kid.

Yet when other areas of our life ask us to “go deeper,” we resist. Instead of reading an unread book off our own bookshelf, we go and buy another one. Instead of taking 15 minutes to prep a meal for ourselves that we can really enjoy for 30 minutes, we grab a sandwich or maybe even a protein bar so we can rush to the next task. Instead of networking through our current contacts, we’re spending loads of time cold-calling people we have no connection with.

The ultimate example for me was the first draft of my novel: at 92,000 words, I had so many balls in the air I couldn’t settle on a suitable ending that wrapped everything up. (The big hint? I was on ending #7 and still wasn’t happy.) It wasn’t until someone told me to start over that I could finally dig deeper into the main character, and the experience has been that much more satisfying.

The funny thing is, by going deeper, we become the eye of the hurricane that whirls around our lives instead of the wind that circles the eye. It feels like that often-used Hollywood shot of the protagonist standing still and staring off into the distance while the cameras circle around her.

If you have kids, you’ll also see this avoidance of depth every day: the moment screen time is turned off, the kids are bored. And oh what a horrible day it’ll be because they’re bored! The most horrible day ever! So horrible that – oh, look, there’s some Lego.

Back in September, I think, I went to my first comedy improv workshop in six years. I was rusty as hell, but the class was exactly on this topic: using what’s already there. The workshop leader had all six of us stand in a circle, and one person at a time added a sentence to the story. Of course, the story went wild fast, even though the instructor had drawn our attention early on to the bread crumbs we could already use. In another exercise, we redid the same scene over and over to try to work with its core. With improv, that can kill the energy of the scene, but it drove home the need to stop trying to find another new idea.

It’s not that new ideas are bad! We need them. But once we have an idea, and it’s a good one, we should work with it. Make the idea the eye of the hurricane, not part of the wind.

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The Role of Positive Thinking in Creativity

Index cards with "Happy Notes" written on them and tied with colourful yarn.Positive thinking pops up once in awhile in my social media feeds. It seems a new trend is criticizing its usefulness, though I’ve also read other critics who say it’s empty, even harmful. (The New Yorker has a well-rounded article on the research of positive thinking.) I find positive thinking a very beneficial tool if it’s used properly. Here’s why (and how).

I don’t believe that only positive thinking can achieve my goals. Instead, I see it as a necessary step to that end. It acts as my internal life coach, if you will. I read motivational and self-help books, because I’d rather read about solutions to my problems than read about my problems.

Happy thoughts by themselves have never helped me achieve my dreams. For example, I spent almost two decades fantasizing about the day I’d make my living as a writer, yet I did very little to get there. That’s not positive thinking; that’s self-deception. Positive thinking is about choice.

As an example, let’s say you’ve got writer’s block. You’ve been working for an hour on a story or a piece of copy, and now your ideas have dried up. What do you do?

You can decide that yes, you do indeed have writer’s block. You start cursing it, jump on to your social media and lament to your friends (or worse, within your professional circles) about how writer’s block has once again robbed you of your inspiration. You then find that within 30 minutes, you’ve worked yourself into a nice state of creative depression and stop writing for the day. Or…

You can decide that writer’s block is pointless to dwell on. Your internal editor is simply getting in your way. You then choose a method to help get your creativity going again, e.g., free writing, mind-mapping, going for a walk, or washing your floors. Then you return to your writing, even if it’s a different piece.

In this situation, positive thinking isn’t about saying, “I’m a creative writer. I’m a creative writer.” It’s about acknowledging the situation at hand and trying to solve it instead of lying in it and taking a nap. If you have a personal affirmation that helps you get through your situation, excellent! If you don’t but you still get through it, anyway, then that’s just as fine!

Positive thinking definitely leaves room for you to connect with your friends and family about life’s troubles. You need to let your feelings out; that’s how you acknowledge your problems in the first place. It’s clearly unhealthy to keep things inside, and indeed, most art comes out of some kind of pain. (Artists then choose whether their piece will emphasize the pain or the pleasure of the experience they’re depicting.)

By sharing your troubles with others, though, you’re also on your way to finding a solution. As you talk about your problems, also listen for solutions and tell yourself that you can find a way out of whatever is ailing you.

If that thought is too big to muster (it might even feel dishonest to some), then tell yourself the first step you’re going to do. It might be as easy as going to bed for the night, as Elizabeth Gilbert wrote in her hit book several years ago, or eating a piece of fruit, or calling someone up to say thanks for a favour they recently did for you.

Positive thinking is about reminding yourself that you’re human, that your feelings are justified, and – most importantly – that you’re capable of finding a solution to improve whatever you think needs fixing. It is not about empty affirmations and self-deception.

And that I firmly believe.

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Learning From Others

Tap shoes lying on the floorPerhaps one of my most loathed experiences in my youth was dance workshops, which was a shame, because the opportunities to learn from those was immense.

It actually didn’t matter if I was in a large room full of hundreds of dancers and a well-known teacher instructing us via a make-shift stage and a microphone, or if I participated in a comparatively small summer camp at another local studio. Without the comfort of my studio, my teachers, my close friends, and my preferred spot in the room (front right corner), I felt out of place and awkward, despite being a decent dancer. I don’t know how many workshops and dance camps I attended in my teen years. It had to have been at least 50, maybe more. That’s 50 different teachers I could’ve learned from.

That was probably the worst attitude to have as a developing artist. To me, art is where a certain technique is used to express our emotions, thoughts, and experiences. Learning from other teachers, even if only for an hour or two, broadens the language we use to express ourselves and can therefore only benefit our development of our art.

Whether you’re trying an art form for the first time, like a beginner recreational dance class, or you’re seasoned at what you do, always remember that you have a lot to learn from other artists in your field. Don’t believe that you have to know it all in order to do well. Believe that you have to trust yourself in order to do well. Then watch your art fly.

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Storytelling or Missionizing?

Robertson DaviesI idolized Jean Little in my pre-teens and early teens. Many of her books helped me understand other children. I do believe they made me a nicer person. One novel, Different Dragons, even helped me get over my fear of dogs (though I still greatly dislike them). I wanted to write similar stories, ones that helped others understand their friends, family, and even strangers better. I didn’t want to scare anyone, or hurt anyone, or embarrass anyone. I wanted to help. But I was still too young to look past someone’s physical appearance into their soul, and that showed in my writing.

My problem, according to Robertson Davies, was that I was focusing on the message and not the story. (He didn’t advise me personally – I simply enjoy reading his essays.) Davies felt that too many writers were trying to missionize. I was in that category. “Write about what you know,” they say. While I don’t think that always has to be true, it did apply to my stories at the time. Jean Little wrote in her first autobiography that she began writing to fill a void in fiction. In her younger years, she used to work with children who faced various  challenges. She loved reading to them, but every disabled child in the books she read magically became abled at the end:

I was looking for a book in which the child’s handicap was present only in the background. The kids I taught were no conscious of their disabilities most of the time. They minded when people stared at them, or when their brothers and sisters got bicycles, of course. But usually they were too busy living to brood. Physio and occupational therapy were like arithmetic and reading, an accepted part of their days.

[…]

Why couldn’t there be a happy ending without a miracle cure? Why wasn’t there a story with a child in it who resembled the kids I taught? Somebody should write one, I thought. It did not yet cross my mind that that somebody might be me. [Little, Jean. Little by Little: a Writer’s Education. Markham: Penguin Books. 1987. Excerpt from pages 224-225.]

She currently has over 40 publications to her name, from 1962 to now. She knew how to capture the soul of each child in her work. The books aren’t about “be nice to handicapped kids.” They describe real children’s growing pains, regardless of what daily challenges they face. The child could have cerebral palsy, be afraid of dogs, or live during the Spanish flu epidemic. I stopped reading Little when I was about 13 or so, so I’m no fully familiar with her current works. But as a child on the quieter side of the spectrum, she connected with me.

Fast forward 20 years, when I have my own children. I had started another book with my boys last night: Show Way by Jacqueline Woodson, illustrated by Hudson Talbott:

Soonie’s family makes SHOW WAYS – quilts with secret meanings that are maps to freedom. Her family tells stories of bravery that inspire courage. Each generation passes on to the next the belief that there is a road to a better place. [Book summary.]

Beautifully written, it let me read a book to my young boys about American black history over two nights. My youngest is a bit too young – he doesn’t understand that sort of thing yet. But my older son was quite enthralled, despite claiming at the beginning of each night that he didn’t want to read it. The theme described how mothers pass down hope, generation to generation, through quilting. The background was slavery and then the civil rights movement in the US. For older children, they may have recognized some of the photos pulled out of history. For young children, they blended in to the background as my kids listened to my words.

My third example of an excellent children’s writer (because this is a genre prone to missionizing) is Marc Brown and his Arthur series. I get more excited when Arthur comes on in the morning than my kids. And my anticipation increases when I realize it’s an episode I haven’t seen yet. (They’re currently in season 18, so I have lots of episodes to watch out for.) Arthur, Francine, the Brain, George, Muffy, D.W., Binky…all the characters could just as well be my kids’ friends at school. They’ve tackled cancer, Alzheimer’s (with Joan Rivers’ help – awesome episode), bullying, trying to write a story that’s true to you…The last thing I think about is being missionized to. The first thing I see is an excellent story.

I’ve spent a lot of time debating how to tackle topics that are important to me, the kinds that I think people should read about. It’s easy to rant in an op-ed piece for the local paper. Not so easy is writing excellent fiction on a difficult topic that invites the reader in instead of shutting the reader out. You can’t missionize, you have to tell the story.

There is nothing more satisfying than understanding a challenge you’ve carried with you for so long and finally knowing the direction you have to go in to fix it.

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The Mistake I Made When I was Young

Neil Gaiman bibliography
Neil Gaiman bibliography (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I made one crucial error when I was young: I believed writers only wrote when they were inspired. At the peak of my inspiration, I started new stories, sometimes writing 1,000 words in one go. If I wasn’t inspired, I didn’t write, plain and simple.

I rarely finished a story. The belief that you only work when you’re inspired stuck to me throughout high school and university. I had inspiration to start new projects, but I didn’t have the discipline to see most of them through. (I’ll cover those exceptions in a later post – there were four.)

It took several years of administration positions to learn the discipline needed to write regularly. Had anyone told me at the start of each position that I’d be answering at least 40 emails a day, entering 100 software purchases a week (including email conversations with customers), or processing 400 contracts a quarter, I would have treated those jobs like I treated each of my writing ideas: wait for inspiration to hit and then type like a cheetah running after its prey.

But I never saw those jobs that way. Instead, I saw them as a list of daily tasks I had to complete, and I ensured I did. I only realized later how much work I’d actually done when I was collecting data for my performance reviews.

Neil Gaiman’s Advice to Aspiring Writers on Brain Pickings reminded me how important it is to simply write each day. Writing when you’re inspired is an awesome feeling. True writers, though, write on schedule, regardless of how inspired they feel on a given day. I had the same advice from Jean Little back in 1989 when she wrote back to me, and I’m certain almost all professional writers, famous or unknown, would say the same thing.

It’s like eating. You have to eat, otherwise you’ll die. Some days, you may spend an hour cooking a wonderful meal for yourself and loving every mouthful. Other days, you throw a frozen meal in the oven so you can do other things. Whether you spend lots of time on food prep or almost nothing, you still eat.

I’ve written about believing that every little bit helps. Even if you only take five minutes to write down a few more descriptors for your character or a few more ideas for your magazine article, do something every day. After three months, tally up what you’ve written. Your results might surprise you.

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New Mentorship Program in Ontario

Any art or craft you practice seriously can benefit from a mentorship.
Cooks in a luxury hotel in Austria in the 1950s.

Mentorships in many industries are common. They’re an excellent way to build your skills and learn from a highly experienced professional. Some mentorships are informal: mentees simply find someone who’s willing to volunteer their time to help out. Others are formalized via an arts mentorship program like this new one that has just emerged in Ontario: The Canadian Senior Artists’ Resource Network / Le Centre de ressources pour les artistes aînés du Canada has received private funding for a new mentorship program beginning January 2014.

I benefited immensely from Theatre Ontario’s mentorship program Professional Theatre Training Program (PTTP). It’s geared towards emerging arts administrators. I had taken college courses on arts administration, but there were still many things the books didn’t teach. I applied to focus on accounting and fundraising skills, my two weakest areas at the time.

Working alongside someone more experienced filled in those gaps. My bookkeeping entries became easier. I also had a few small but successful grant applications, which meant more money for the arts organization I was working for.

The other night at my PWAC meeting we were discussing grant applications. Applying to a mentorship program is similar, especially if money is involved.

One member, a grant writer, explained that a solid grant application is like a winning pitch on Dragon’s Den (or Shark Tank, for those in the US). It has a strong track record, concrete details, and a confident plan. When I applied for the Theatre Ontario program, that’s how I attacked my application. I got it.

If you’re in Ontario and are seriously practicing your art, consider applying to The Canadian Senior Artists’ Resource Network’s mentorship program. The mentors are being paid for their time with you, which is not always the case with mentorships. You can apply as a mentor or a mentee. Applications for both roles are due in October. It’s only available in Ontario right now but should expand nationally in year three.

If you’ve applied and/or participated in a mentorship program before, feel free to share your experiences in the comments section. I just ask that you leave the names of the mentors/mentees involved out. It’s important to me that we respect people’s privacy.

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1 of 2 Questions Any Creative Person Should Ask Themselves

Question mark: 1 of 2 Questions Any Creative Person Should Ask Themselves
(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

There are two questions that you need to memorize and train so they become reflexes. I’ll cover the first one today:

Can It Get Any Better?

We often use the reverse question, “Can it get any worse?” in a bizarre attempt to make us feel better by focusing on how bad it could actually be. Unless you’re writing a modern version of Job, that’s the wrong question to ask. Switch your mindset and ask, “Can it get any better?”

Ask yourself this question when you’re feeling down about your creative project. Maybe the painting you were hoping would win accolades from your family actually solicited a “that’s ugly” comment from one of your kids. Perhaps the first document you wrote and submitted for approval to a client came back with a ton of red marks. Or maybe you’re being your own worst critic.

Asking if something can get better can suddenly open the floodgates of your imagination simply because the answer will always be yes. You’re already frustrated, maybe embarrassed, maybe even depressed, so why waste your mental effort on what could be worse? Inspire yourself. Let your imagination focus on what could be better.

Second question coming up next week!

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Practicing Your Creativity

Practicing creativity in basket weaving in eastern Europe
Any craft takes practice. Here are members of an older generation long gone doing their craft.

Ever practiced your creativity? If you’re like me, probably never. So when I read Daphne Gray-Grant’s three blog posts on deliberate practice, I was intrigued. I thought you had to be born a good writer. Kind of a laughable belief when I think about it. I don’t know of anyone who came out of the birth canal or c-section incision with a completed novella in hand.

When I was young, I used to get into a writing fury, punch out a short story in a week at most, and then let it sit forever. I thought that was practicing. But that’s the scribe’s equivalent to a novice pianist learning to play by randomly hitting the piano keys each week instead of practicing scales or studying master composers. Can you imagine attempting to knit a sweater by randomly moving yarn and needles together?

So why should writing be any different?

Author Malcolm Gladwell says in his book Outliers that anyone wishing to become an expert at something needs about 10,000 hours of practice. He talks about The Beatles, Wayne Gretzky, and Steve Jobs, to name a few. While he does believe that success is part situation, he also believes that the mastery needed to achieve success rides on practice.

But I have a job to do, a family to look after, and friends I’d like to hang out with. I don’t have 5 to ten hours a day to practice so I can accumulate my 10,000 hours in three to six years, and I refuse to be the Loner Writer.

However, I do have 10 minutes in a day, and that’s what Gray-Grant proposes. So I started practicing. Not every day, but frequently. My ideal time is in the morning as a sort of warm-up to my day’s deadlines.

Not practicing 10,000 hours doesn’t mean you’re bad at your art. On the contrary! It means that you can accomplish mastery in your chosen art form: mastery isn’t genetic, it’s learned. Moreover, chances are pretty good that whatever your creative passion is, you likely did quite a bit in your youth already. A little practice goes a long way and it’ll help you grow your creativity even further.