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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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Applying to University? Here are My 9 Regrets About My Studies

alte-nationalgalerie-berlin-1In Ontario, young people are supposed to know what to do with their lives by the time they’re 17 so they can start applying to post-secondary education. For me, it was 18 (we had grade 13 back then), and the best I could do was apply for Psychology: it was a flexible degree. In all honesty, though, I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life, and I suspect the same is true for many teens today.

Here’s my advice to high school students applying to university*: Use it as a time to explore and not as a time to plan your life. If you don’t mind reading a lament from an “old” person who graduated from university almost twenty years ago, read my list of 9 regrets, and please do your best not to repeat my mistakes.

I regret

  • Avoiding science courses because they were “too much work.” (What? You want me to take a lab with its own exam? Please.) Those courses would have better prepared me for the world of pseudo-factual health information so pervasive nowadays. But I didn’t know that in 1996.
  • Not learning Latin. I know: who cares about a dead language? Well, all the living languages tied to it, including German and English (the two I speak) and French and Spanish (two I learned to a certain degree) and Romanian (one I wish I could at least read). And Latin is all over monuments in Europe (where I would spend three years over the next eight or so). Given my love of languages, a few Latin courses would have been really helpful.
  • Thinking philosophy was also pointless. Actually, it would have helped me create stronger arguments, especially ones based on logic when double-blind studies aren’t available (which happens more often than we’d like to think).
  • Viewing challenges as excuses to be proud of my laziness and not as opportunities to contribute to the world sooner because I had grown that much faster.
  • Believing that university work had to take up my entire life. Had I been more disciplined with my time management, I’m certain I would have accomplished more, because I would have focused more and burned out less. This includes spending time with friends, setting aside time for myself, and taking breaks throughout the day.
  • Looking for studying shortcuts. The only shortcut is focused attention to defined tasks that you can complete in a way that suits how you take in information. E.g., if you’re a tactile learner, turn your reading into something tactile as soon as possible; don’t just stare at your book.
  • Skipping classes if the prof seemed to teach out of the textbook. I was missing an automatic opportunity to review the material in a different way. But hey, at least I felt smart believing I didn’t need to go to class.
  • Fearing marks, when in fact they were a by-product of my effort. Does the professor mark too hard? Rise to the challenge and learn what her game is; don’t blame her for being a tough prof.
  • Blaming the professor for my lack of interest. Professors are not entertainers, they’re researchers. If you have a prof who drones on like a bad 1950s sci-fi robot, take notes during class, review your notes while the prof’s droning, or imagine how you could make that information more interesting. You’ll have to deal with people of all sorts in the real world; learn how to do that now.

University completely changed my life; I just wish I’d opened the doors wider. Good luck with your applications, and I hope you get into the program you want! Just remember to keep exploring as much as your program allows you to: this opportunity may never come again.

(*I think it’s appropriate to add a disclaimer here: I work part-time as an admin assistant at a university. The impetus for this post isn’t that, though. Not directly, anyway. When I have my lunch in the building café, I sometimes hear students complain about their studies, and it’s frustrating to see myself 15+ years ago sitting right next to me, knowing what I know now.)

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The Power of Focus in Your Art

oqx70jjbslomi5ackhxm_urbex-ppc-030Last month, an editor whose blog I’d been following for over a year offered me a free consultation, because the 20 pages I’d sent to her for feedback (paid service) showed her enough problems she wanted to give me a shout. Long story short, she said to restart a novel I’d been working on for the past two years. Ouch.

But I took her advice. The original one had grown to 92,000 words, I was on ending #7, and I had more plates in the plot’s air than a 20-year circus veteran. Even worse, I didn’t know how to make them stop spinning without breaking them. My gut feeling said to restart, but I ignored it: who wants to restart 92,000 words? I needed a kick in the ass to make it happen, and that freelance editor was it. She also helped me decide what to focus on, and something that had been right in front of my nose finally made it inside my brain. Let me explain.

Over the past three months, I’ve spent a lot of time at our local roadhouse theatre (disclaimer: also my client). I sat a few rows away from American folk and rock legend David Crosby, kids’ entertainment powerhouse The Wiggles, Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield, National Geographic photojournalist Brian Skerry, and West End and Broadway superstar Colm Wilkinson. The main similarity was that each artist, The Wiggles included, had distilled their artistic lives into a two-hour show:

  • Crosby condensed his 50+ years in the music business and included songs from a newly released album.
  • The Wiggles song catalogue, 25 years old and growing, apparently has over 1,000 melodies in it, yet the group only performed a handful plus some from a new release.
  • Chris Hadfield had stories, songs, and photographs to share with us about Canada and space exploration. He even included some family history. That’s about a hundred years of stories reduced to two hours.
  • Brian Skerry just finished 19 years at National Geographic. He filtered that down to two hours.
  • Colm Wilkinson has been performing on stage since the 70s, almost as long as Crosby. He picked his favourite songs and sang for two hours.

In only two hours, they had invited me into their lives and shared something significant with me (and the other 1,000-2,000 in the theatre) that remained in my soul. Two hours. Clearly I was wasting time and words in my novel of 92,000 words.

So that begged the question: what is the true focus of my novel? I won’t answer that here, but I was giving each topic I’d raised in it equal time; I didn’t see where I could connect and layer them. My goal now is to publish a novel under 60,000 words.

This is also a question you should ask yourself about your art. I think we keep adding material because we’re either afraid of running out of something to say or too scared to dive into it more. (Feb/17 update: This blog post talks more about digging deeper.)

Some time in the early fall, I returned to my old improv group for a workshop. The topic was working with what you already have and not constantly searching for new stuff. Despite the workshop leader’s best intentions, I couldn’t home in on that skill anymore, and I wonder if I even had it to begin with.

I believe that part of what makes an artist successful is the ability to reduce an idea to its core and then explore it from there. For most artists, that will mean digging into some personal stuff, even if the piece of art isn’t about something personal. But it’s that kind of focus that will, I believe, let you connect with your audience, because you’ll give a voice to the depths of their own emotions.

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Writing From Your Past

Man wearing a hoodie and sunglasses, sitting amongst daisies.A frequent source of inspiration is our past. You may feel inspired when you think about your high school prom, your first kiss, or the first memory you hold about your life. Taking inspiration from your own history helps create your unique voice because, let’s face it, no one else has experienced your life the way you have.

Whether you dig through old journals, your family’s history, your own memories, or even talk to older people who knew you well as a child, you have a treasure trove of ideas waiting to take hold of your imagination.

Writing About People From Your Past

A common question about writing about your life is, “How should I write about others I know?” Here’s my take on it: In most cases, respect people’s privacy above all else and leave them alone. Put yourself in your family’s/friends’/managers’ shoes: Everyone’s trying to make a place for themselves in the world. If you describe people from your social circles in an unfavourable light (“unfavourable light” defined by your acquaintances, not by you), you could really hurt them.

Of course, we’ll all come across times when we’d like to write about someone. Just make sure you have their permission first. Also stay true to your word and to your relationship: if they let something slip that they would rather not have known to the public, respect their wish.

Then Why Write From Your Past?

Use your life experiences to inspire your writing, whether it’s fiction or non-fiction. For example, I dated many guys before I met my husband. Each one kissed differently. Should I really write a detailed description of the guy whose kissing felt like skullcrushing? Or the one I dumped 24 hours after he frenched me? No. But the thoughts and feelings of an awkward kiss can be transposed into other scenarios and stories, both fiction and non-fiction.

If you take the emotions your own memories give you and put them into new situations, new scenarios, then you are completely free to create whatever you want. You don’t have to worry about how accurately (or inaccurately) you remembered something. Which means, you don’t have to worry about embarrassing anyone, including yourself.

What to Do With Your Memories

Sometimes, an element of your past simply writes itself into a piece you’re already working on. Other times, though, the emotion of it is so strong that you know you want to write about the event but can’t pull away from the details. So what do you do? Try this exercise, which I first learned about through Mark Levy. It’s called freewriting.

  1. Set a timer for ten minutes or more.
  2. Get your memory in your mind.
  3. Write everything that comes to mind as fast as possible. The page should mirror your thoughts.
  4. Write continuously. Don’t stop.
  5. When your timer dings, read what you’ve written and underline the parts that “have energy,” as Levy describes them.
  6. Then pick one, start a new line with it, and repeat the entire process.

Levy suggests doing a five-to-eight-hour marathon in this fashion. I haven’t tried it yet, but I have done 90 minutes. (I would’ve gone longer but the constant typing tired out my forearms.) He says that a day-long session will really tire out your internal editor and let your own voice show itself for a change. The exercise really digs deep into your mind and spirit, if you give yourself the time to do it.

I suggest this as a way to feed off of your past because it lets your mind wander. You’ll hear questions and their answers. You’ll see yourself writing things like “this is dumb” or “no one will ever read this shit.” Keep going, anyways. If, after your session, you are too embarrassed about what’s on the screen, delete the document. It’s that easy.

Your New Story

Don’t hold your story back by limiting it to its source of inspiration. Instead, let it grow and develop into something new, with its own life. Real-life stories have their time and place, but so does respect for others’ privacy. If you do retell something from your past, be sure your decision to include others you know is a conscious one, not a careless one.

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Showing Your Kids What Work Is

Kids at a tableThe hardest thing about writing as a job is that it looks the same as Facebooking, emailing, surfing, and reading. To a child, at least. Of course, it would help if I didn’t get caught turning “I’ll get you another bedtime water” into 15 minutes at the computer socializing.

Guilt aside, though, it’s much harder to show children what you’re doing as a writer, especially when they can’t read proficiently yet. More difficult is when the subject matter means nothing to them. I imagine that visual artists inspire awe in their children, because a child doesn’t need an interpreter to make out the art: they’re more than happy to interpret it themselves.

When I received my copy of just dance! magazine in the mail with my article on The Next Step in it, I could finally show my older son what I actually do. The two-page spread of the cast, a collection of smiling faces, appealed to him right away. He quietly scanned everything. I showed him the next part of the article, which had more text but still had graphics, and I could tell it clicked.

“This is what Mommy does. You see? I wrote all of that.”

Of course, I only got an “oh” as a response, but that meant he was throughly engrossed, even if for a moment. (The article didn’t have any pictures of trains.)

I’ll need to find ways of showing him more often what I do – it’s a lesson I think he’ll need to hear again and again, simply because the act of writing is so abstract to him. His world is full of single sentences that take five to ten minutes to write and beginner readers that still push his endurance. Now, if I can just teach him to cook, then I can write even more…

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Getting to Your Next Step: Advice on Dancing, Auditions & Life from the Cast of The Next Step

the_next_step_castThe September 2013 issue for Just Dance! Magazine included my article on The Next Step, a reality-style show about an elite group of competitive dancers that airs on the Family Channel in Canada. Some of the cast members may be familiar to you:

  • Jordan Clark (Giselle) won season four of So You Think You Can Dance Canada.
  • Tamina Pollack-Paris (Tiffany) made it to the Top 16 on season one of So You Think You Can Dance Canada.
  • Lamar Johnson (West) can be seen daily on TVO’s Pop It! teaching young viewers dance moves.

The article is in a Q&A format because so many of the answers I got were exactly what I think I would have wanted to hear as a young dancer over 20 years ago.  For example, it’s okay to enjoy some chocolate when you’re having a really tough day. It’s also okay to take your time to decide what you want to do with your adult life. (One cast member who had been studying dance for awhile didn’t decide until the end of high school that she wanted to dance professionally.)

The cast of The Next Step is filming season two right now, so I was very thankful that almost everyone was able to get back to me. The Family Channel publicist was also hugely helpful in coordinating everything. (I don’t want to give out her name here: she’s already busy enough herself.)

Of the 13 cast members, 11 had enough time to respond to these questions:

  • What do you love about working on a television show? What do you find challenging?
  • What’s it like working together?
  • What might readers be surprised to learn about you?
  • What gets you through a really tough day?
  • What did you learn at your dance studio that’s important to you as a working dancer?
  • Any general advice you’d like to pass on?

This article highlights some of the advice the cast of The Next Step had for young dancers. If you’d like a copy for your young dancer at home or your studio, you can easily order one online for $4 or get a year’s subscription (six issues) for $20, whether you’re in Canada, the US, or abroad.


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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!