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Art is Exploration: Sasha Ivanochko’s Double Bill at The Citadel

Last time, I talked about how art isn’t only about those Hollywood-movie moments of inspiration, that ideas can take time to develop. But why? What makes it so difficult to develop an idea? Montreal-based choreographer Sasha Ivanochko’s work can provide us with the answer.

Exploring Complex Ideas

It’s the exploration process. Art is exploration. Creativity, whether in art, at your job, or in your kid’s notebook doodles, is exploration. For Ivanochko, that meant spending several years developing two pieces, Mirror Staging the Seeing Place and Modern Woman in Search of Soul, showing at The Citadel in Toronto from June 6-9, 2018.

“These works are just what I’m thinking about,” she said in our phone interview.

So, what is she thinking about? Women and the stereotypes surrounding their bodies. It’s a complex, centuries-old theme that can’t be pulled apart and thrown onto a stage in a matter or hours or over a weekend. Mirror Staging took a solid two years to complete, Ivanochko told me, and she developed Modern Woman on and off over four years.

Experimenting With Exploration

Exploration #1: Mirror Staging the Seeing Place

In Mirror Staging the Seeing Place, independent dance artist Kristy Kennedy dances most of the performance facing a wall of mirrors in the dance studio. The audience, able to see themselves, of course, too, sees Kennedy’s body captured and reflected by the mirror.

Ivancohko described it as a dancer dancing, that there’s nothing theatrical about this piece. “It’s a dancer performing dance moves and also movement that a person would recognize as kind of typical behaviour of certain people,” she said.

Dancer in an angry position against a mirror. From Sasha Ivanochko's
From “Mirror Staging the Seeing Place.” Photo by Tyler Pengelly.

Exploration #2: Modern Woman in Search of Soul

The second piece performed that evening, by award-winning Toronto Dance Theatre member Alana Elmer, is Modern Woman in Search of Soul, “the angry sister” to Mirror Staging.

“It’s text-driven, and the dancer verbally solicits and kind of directs the audience to describe what the dancer is doing,” Ivanochko explained. This performance is the piece’s world première and will be live-streamed by renowned choreographer, filmmaker, and creative technologist Jacob Niedzwiecki.

As you can probably tell, these are both experimental pieces and Ivanochko is quick to point out that she’s working “with an outstanding team.” But notice that she doesn’t shy away from grand ideas like these. Even when she was turned down for funding for one of the pieces, she didn’t stop. Her application to the Quebec Arts Council was refused. “The feedback from one of the jury members at that point was that the topic was cliché. Which is appalling when you consider what’s going on now,” she said.

#metoo, Women, and Stereotypes

Both shows could not be shown at a better time. Although the #metoo movement carries sadness in it, it also carries triumph: women are speaking up about a subject that has long been pushed back to hushed corners of our society. Artists like Sasha Ivanochko are now bringing these topics to the fore.

But if you’re expecting the pieces to be loud statements about the ordeals of women, Ivanochko emphasizes they aren’t: “The dancers are really deeply embodying these ideas. So, it doesn’t come across as superficial. And, generally, with Mirror Staging, because it has been performed twice now for audiences, and we’ve done studio showings for Modern Woman, people are generally quite moved by the dancers as they allow these stereotypes to pass through their bodies.”

Pass through their bodies. I like that: it’s a way of describing that these stereotypes exist but it also acknowledges they don’t have to be permanent.

“These works aren’t for women, they aren’t for men,” she emphasizes. They are an exploration of her thoughts on the subject of stereotypes and women.

Exploring Takes Time and Patience

Which brings us back to where we started: exploration and Ivanochko’s thoughts.

Maybe you explore your personal life through writing in your journal. Or perhaps you explore different ideas in your graphic designs. Maybe your topic of exploration is relationships, and that’s why you love acting when time allows for it.

But at some point in time, you plateau, you feel as though your creativity has hit an impasse and fear won’t develop any further. That’s where I’d encourage you to explore even more.

If you’re struggling to find your creative voice, remember that professionals take years to develop theirs. Do not use that observation to knock you down, á la “I’ll never get this right.” (Was it Grover who’d smash his head into the piano in frustration?) Use it as encouragement: “I need to be patient with myself. I have a full-time job and family responsibilities, but I can do this. It’ll just take some time.”

When Ivanochko started out, she found she had too many things to say, and an early mentor told her she needed to focus. But with time, she learned to have patience and trust her instinct.

Mirror Staging and Modern Woman are the result of that trust. She ignored the feedback from one grant committee juror and continued to explore these ideas, simply because she felt compelled to.

If you’re stuck in front of your medium of choice, whether it be a piece of paper, a computer screen, a music or dance studio in your basement or elsewhere, and you’re stuck in a rut of ideas, give yourself time to explore. What do you think about the topic at the centre of your creation?

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Inspiration Isn’t a Eureka Moment: Laurence Lemieux’s “Looking for Elvis”

One myth I want to take down with this interview is the romanticized image of inspiration. Yes, we all get eureka moments: I have plenty of them. However, in my case, they’re never actually good ideas. Instead, those moments of inspiration are actually doors to the real idea, but I get too caught up in those moments to make use of the gateway they are it. (Which hurts when you realize you need to delete half your novel because it’s full of eureka moments.)

Laurence Lemieux also puts to bed the myth that inspiration comes in a flash of lightning. She’s the artistic director of Citadel+Compagnie and the choreographer of Looking for Elvis, which plays at The Citadel: Ross Centre for Dance in Toronto from May 2-5 and May 9-12, 2018, alongside renowned Canadian choreographer James Kudelka’s work The Man in Black.

The idea for Looking for Elvis began back in 2012, when Lemieux travelled to Graceland as part of a road trip to Nashville with her daughter to celebrate a milestone birthday.

“It was not at all what I thought it would be,” Lemieux says about Graceland, Elvis’s home in Memphis. She was expecting a mansion. “And you get there and it’s a little home.” (I agree with her: I had the same experience when I visited in my teens.)

But visiting Graceland opened up her artist’s mind: “I could imagine living in that home, because even though it was the 70s, it was really cozy. And I was like, ‘Wow! Who is this guy?’ I wanted to know more about Elvis.”

It’s not that Lemieux didn’t know who he was—she has always been a fan but “not like a crazy fan,” she says. But who was the man behind the performer?

She believes all performers experience what Elvis must have experienced, though admittedly usually to a smaller extent.

“You do a great show, people clap, you take a bow, you feel like a million bucks, you take your make-up off, you go home, and, you know, you eat a sandwich. The glamour is really sometimes in the moment on stage and then your life is actually not that,” she says.

Even though the question was planted with this visit, Lemieux says she didn’t have the idea at that time to choreograph a show that would answer it. She did listen to more of his music, but not even then did she have the moment of inspiration. It took a commission from another local dance company before she realized she might be on to something. Later, when Kudelka was remounting The Man in Black, Lemieux felt the two pieces would complement each other nicely for a show.

Lemieux never saw Elvis in a negative light. He wasn’t “fat” or “tacky” in her mind. Instead, she believes Elvis had a talent, and everyone wanted to make money off him: “They want money, so they want him to perform. So the damage that does to the person himself, that’s what I wanted to look at,” Lemieux says. It’s a cycle that keeps repeating: Michael Jackson, Prince, and many more.

Cast of Citadel + Compagnie's "Looking for Elvis"
“Look for Elvis.” Photo by John Lauener

To Lemieux, if Elvis were an office worker, he would have probably been sent home for a few weeks to rest and recuperate. I’d have to agree with her on that: a sick employee could actually cost a company money, whereas sending them home for awhile and having their short-term disability insurance cover the bill would save money. With performers, it’s the opposite: A performer can really be “here today, gone tomorrow,” and if the performer doesn’t perform, then the entourage doesn’t get paid.

Each choreographer has their own way of working. Some know exactly what they want and direct the dancers accordingly, whereas others have ideas in their mind and work with the dancers to embody those ideas on stage. Lemieux’s style more closely matches the latter group. She directs the movement but has her dancers find their own personal journey through it. “But I tell them emotionally where it should be sitting,” she says. “I tell them who they are in that moment and what they should be thinking. So, I give them a lot of feedback on their character more than the actual steps. Sometimes I think I direct them more like I would an actor.”

Kudelka has been the resident choreographer at Citadel+Compagnie for ten years now. Former Artistic Director of the National Ballet of Canada, the New York Times has called him “ballet’s most original choreographer.” The Man in Black, though, is not what comes to mind when you think of ballet. A homage to Johnny Cash, the work’s backbone is four dancers in cowboy boots. In contrast to Looking for Elvis, which Lemieux describes as more emotional, The Man in Black is Kudelka’s response to the music as a score. (Kudelka was not available for an interview, so I couldn’t ask him how the idea for this piece came about.)

James Kudelka's "The Man in Black." Citadel + Compagnie
“The Man in Black.” Photo by John Lauener

The beauty of creativity is exploration: Lemieux describes one sequence in The Man in Black where Kudelka explores what cowboys would do if they had to dance. (Picturing Clint Eastwood trying to line dance makes me smile.) In Looking for Elvis, Lemieux choreographed a sequence where one dancer embodies Las Vegas Elvis, with all the bling, and she puts a microscope on what happens once he begins to falter: some of his friends turn their back on him, ignore him.

Inspiration doesn’t always come with a flash of lightning or a crescendo in orchestral music. It sometimes comes to us slowly, seeping via little windows into our minds until something pushes us to create a whole out of the pieces. If you find yourself frustrated with your own creative endeavours, see if you’re waiting for that eureka moment. Because if you are, you’ll be waiting for a long time. The world around you is already speaking to you, and those ideas are already in your head, waiting to be expressed. Lemieux works her ideas out on her dancers, and just like her, you can work your ideas out in your art form. That’s where you’ll find your creativity. And your inspiration.

Looking for Elvis and The Man in Black will be showing at The Citadel: Ross Centre for Dance in Toronto from May 2-5 and May 9-12, 2018. Tickets are available here. 

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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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Have a Vice? Maybe a Little “Flip” is All You Need

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Photo from unsplash

Each of us has a vice, most of us have several, some have many. These vices vary in their strength from annoying habits to full-blown addictions. I have no experience with full-blown addictions, so I’m not even going to venture there. However, like many others, I have some minor, unhealthy food addictions. And, like most of those many others, those addictions surround anything chocolate.

You Know What I’m Talking About

This will likely sound familiar to you: You’ve had a really rough week, it’s Friday night, and you drop into your couch, turn on the TV, and declare, “Lord, it’s been a shitty week. I deserve some chocolate.”

Then you drag yourself off the couch, get something to drink (could be water, could be tea, could be something stronger), and dump a horde of chocolate in whatever form suits your fancy onto your plate or into your bowl. As you’re watching your show, you’re delighting in the fact that you’ve “earned” this forbidden feast of fanciful sweetness that tickles your taste buds into serotonal submission.

And, when it’s all over, you realize you’ve just ingested 25% of your daily caloric intake right before bed. And after you’d ingested your entire caloric intake for the day. (I did that back in February. I started with a tiny handful of cashews and within minutes had added four Lindor chocolates. Oops.)

Deserving a Vice

About a month ago, something dawned on me about this bizarre ritual. Why do we tell ourselves we deserve something bad when we’re particularly stressed and could, to be honest, really use something good?

Think about that for a moment: You’ve had a difficult week, you can hardly move, maybe you’re even livid at someone or some event, your cortisol is up, your heart is pounding, you can feel that shroud of exhaustion all around your body…and you’re rewarding yourself with something that doesn’t help any of that, and at worst, exacerbates it all.

(For me, it’s the blood sugar ups and downs I get from too much sugar – which displays itself in a range of issues.)

So, that sentence up above actually says, “Lord, it’s been a shitty week. I deserve to eat something harmful.”

It’s Insanity!

Does that make any sense? It didn’t to me, so I’m trying something different. I don’t only find beautiful, decadent chocolate desserts inspiring and enticing; I feel the same about a bowl of muesli and fresh fruit.

Fresh fruit, especially berries, does more for my tongue than most desserts, and the bright colours against a backdrop of beiges and creams (the muesli and your choice of milk or substitute) is my favourite colour combination. I like how the calming, neutral colours support the distinctive, vibrant ones. The image reminds me of people who are at peace with themselves and therefore have a clear, distinct, unwavering voice.

What else makes me feel good? A good workout, an hour at my novel during “awake” hours (i.e., when my brain isn’t trying to shut down), a beautiful salad, and a smoothie with a scoop of protein powder in it. (Okay, depends on the taste of the protein powder. Some are just brutal.)

So, why on earth would I not say, “Lord, it’s been a shitty week. I deserve something healthy”?

Flipping the Vice

I’ve tried this new way of thinking for a few weeks now, which isn’t enough to write a book on, but it’s enough to plant the idea on your mind, too.

Here’s what seems to be happening: Not only am I turning around this idea of “deserving,” i.e., that I deserve something good for me as opposed to deserving something harmful, but I’m also removing the special status sweets have for me. I actually rarely touch chocolate now. However, I do eat a small dessert once or twice each day after a meal or a healthy snack, when it does less harm to my blood sugar. I also use an herbal supplement* my naturopath prescribed me to help with cravings.

The result? My sweet tooth is just a part of my everyday life. I do have to exercise a little self-discipline, but generally speaking, changing how I view my chocolate vice as made a huge difference.

What About Eating Out?

I’ve also done the same for ordering at a restaurant. Previously, my main criterion was to look for something I wouldn’t normally eat at home. That makes sense, given the senselessness of paying for food you can easily cook yourself.

However, because fries are included on the list of things I don’t usually eat at home, I almost always went for something with fries. Recently, new legislation came into effect that requires chain restaurants to display the caloric value of all the meals on their menus. When I saw the value for my usual order at one chain restaurant, I learned I was ingesting my entire day’s worth of calories in just one meal! I’ll do that for a beautiful, hand-crafted dessert but certainly not for chicken and fries.

If you’re struggling with a minor vice, consider turning your thinking around on it. Raise what’s good for you to the status of “special” and reduce what’s bad for you to “normal” by incorporating a healthy dose of it into your day. Sometimes, we only need to change how we feel about something to change how we deal with it.

*I won’t say what the supplement is. All medicines, whether herbal, over-the-counter, or prescribed, only work in the right circumstances, and at their worst can be very, very harmful. I don’t want to encourage anyone to take anything medicinal without a professional’s help.

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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.

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A Different Way to Listen

sfbridgeI’m going to introduce you to a man you have probably never heard of. His name is Joseph Schaeffer. He’s a mediator and educator. If you’ve been around long enough, you may remember an incidence in British Columbia in the 1990s, where several Sikh veterans weren’t allowed to enter a Legion: all men entering a Legion are required to remove their hats, but a baptized Sikh cannot. Pritam Singh Jauhal was a WWII veteran, and he filed a complaint.

Schaeffer was called in to mediate. You can read this interesting account of the mediation process here.

Almost 20 years later, I got to meet him as part of a three-day workshop that was being offered in town, and the way he viewed conflict blew my mind. Given the atmosphere these days, I think it bears repeating.

Typical communication models show a sender and a recipient: one person sends a message and the other person receives it. According to Schaffer, the objective of this kind of model is “to understand each other.” This model focuses on opinions, generalizations, conclusions, assumptions, values, and beliefs (which he says are usually stated as facts). The desired outcome of these models is “agreement.”

In contrast, Schaeffer taught us “creative communication.” I don’t believe he chose that term because it sounded trendy; I believe it really reflects what he teaches: that we meet to create meaning. In his model, the objective is “to become familiar with each other.” The focus is on “Living Meaning,” and the outcome is “agreements to ‘act as if’ for a while…”

Do you see at least some of the differences? It’ll probably become clearer if I explain Living Meaning. He uses this term to describe how we create meaning as we go through life.

This is the example he gave us: book. Everyone can recognize what a book is. But what does a book mean to you? To one person, a book might mean a form a punishment, something that was used as a tool in spanking. To another person, it might mean cozy evenings on Mommy’s lap while she read. These are the Living Meanings of the word “book.”

So how do we learn someone else’s “Living Meaning”? By deep listening, according to Schaeffer. This is the tough part, because it involves keeping your own mouth shut and also turning off the invisible conversation partner in your mind. Schaeffer had us sit in partners to practice this: one talked for several minutes while the other listened. The listener, though, had to be mindful of that inner voice and simply listen.

We did often ask how questions fit into this model, e.g., if you wanted to ask a question for clarification or to show your interest, where did that fit in? I don’t know if we ever got an answer to that. However, when I am able to turn off that inner voice and just listen to the person opposite me, something deeper transpires. It wouldn’t fit Schaeffer’s model for me to say that I understand the person better, but I definitely feel a deeper connection in that moment.

In the end, Schaeffer believed that we can never say that we “know” someone, because we will never have access to all their life experiences. But by focused, deep listening, and by aiming to “find places of meaning we both feel good about,” I do find that I have a much easier time getting along with people. The only difficulty is trying to remember to put this into practice: it’s not easy, but it does work for me when I do use it.

So, that’s Joseph Schaeffer and creative communication. The next time you’re faced with someone whose opinions differ from yours, consider just listening. Of course, if you feel unsafe, then leave the situation quickly. But if you’re talking to someone or listening to a presentation and you disagree with them, don’t bud in with your arguments; give them 100% of your attention and learn what they’re trying to share with you. You may not change your mind, but you’ll likely come away with a stronger connection to them, and I think humanity could use a few of those right now.

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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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Inspiration isn’t What I Thought It Was

What inspiration means to meThe inspired writer, the inspired dancer, the inspired artist. The only time I’ve witnessed any kind of artist being inspired is in Hollywood scenes. You know what I’m talking about, so I don’t need to describe them. But, as I’ve mentioned before, inspiration has led me astray. I actually thought I needed to be inspired in order to write.

But now I understand what inspiration is. To me, at least. It is a high. It is an “Oh! Wow! That’s an awesome idea!” It is a rush of energy that makes cars on German autobahns seem like turtles. It gives me the energy to dance my ass off to great 80s music (albeit, I’m cleaning the house at that time, but it’s still inspiration). When I used to teach, it gave me loads of ideas for exercises so I could break away from the text. And when I’d write, it gave me entire short stories (they were simplistic, but I could write 5,000 words in one or two sittings).

What I didn’t understand was that it was actually a way for my brain to turn off the internal editor, commune with this high energy (you can decide where it comes from), and get a ton of ideas out so you can sift through them for the right idea to work with.

Kind of like getting a ton of job applications and having to choose the top three to five applicants for more serious consideration. Maybe ask your ideas questions.

“Tell me about the time when you solved a problem no one else could fix,” you could ask.

“Well, I was created as a traveling step so dancers could traverse the stage in a more creative way than plain running.”

“I see. And by what means did you measure your success?”

“Lots of dancers used me, and I eventually got a name. I’m a jazz run.”

You could put your top three to five ideas to a test.

“So, confused and guilt-ridden Mom, please complete this craft with your child.”

“Um, okay, but I’m not really sure what you want me to do. This child is three, so she’s much too young for Elmer’s glue, but she may have inherent abilities that I don’t know about yet. Has she been tested for anything that might affect her ability to hold the glue bottle? I wouldn’t want to ask her to do more than she’s capable of, but then, I suppose raising the bar a bit would help her develop her fine motor skills more quickly. I was wonder-”

“That’s okay, thank you.”

Moments of inspiration push past our own inhibitions to get those ideas out. When you find yourself in an inspirational high, and your kids aren’t complaining that supper still isn’t on the table, maybe let it take hold of you for a few moments. Write/record/draw/dance everything that’s coming through. Let yourself get excited. Once the moment passes, sift through your ideas. You may find something useful. If you don’t, then dig a little: your moment of inspiration was probably meant to put you on a path to deeper truths about your art.