Running Toward Creativity

Originally published on Artist Soapbox on 28 January 2019

Greetings, Soapboxers!

This morning I ran a 14-mile trail race at Little River Regional Park in Durham. Running is one of the primary ways I connect with my body and is a huge resource for me. Trail running, though, requires an entirely different set of tactics. Sure, running is the common denominator, but you use different shoes, different muscles, a different gait, and a different mindset as you’re constantly negotiating rocks and tree roots and mud. These obstacles are often cleverly hidden under a carpet of leaves and pine needles. There are switchbacks and river crossings. You might fall. You probably will fall. You will most certainly get dirty.

Which brings me here. To how I’m feeling about creativity at this point in 2019. I’m on the trail. And I’m loving it.

When I’m running I don’t compare. I run my own race. Simply showing up and finishing is a victory. If other people ran faster or slower, that’s irrelevant to me. I’m also not comparing present-moment me with any other version of me. Am I in better or worse shape than I was last year? Irrelevant. I’m here today and I’m doing this thing. This serves as a good reminder for my creativity when I notice other people putting their work out into the world. Art is not a competition. Other people’s success is not my failure. I can cheer them on — and I can cheer myself on — without comparison.

About halfway through today’s race, the crowd had thinned so much that I couldn’t see any runners in front of me or behind me. I’m not a seasoned trail runner, and at times the path was very difficult to discern. In those moments, a voice came into my head. It said, “Slow down. Take the next obvious step.” In my creative pursuits, I often feel out of my depth with no clear path forward. Then Anxious Brain shows up and wants to skip to the inevitable embarrassing disaster at the end (not inevitable, but Anxious Brain hasn’t learned that). Today though, I was in the middle of the literal woods with absolutely no idea where I was. But I didn’t panic. I wasn’t lost. There was a path. Faint as it may have been. All it took was a moment of shifting my awareness… and I was back at it. Taking the next obvious step and the step after that and on and on until the finish line. I’ll remember that when I’m feeling overwhelmed by the task in front of me. Break it down and just focus on the next step.

Those miles spent running by myself also made me think of the solitary nature of creativity. Whether it’s writing, doing research, practicing music, or learning lines, much of my creative work is done in solitude. Even though I am often by myself, I know I’m never alone. We’re fortunate to have such a supportive creative community here in the Triangle. If I need some encouragement, it’s always close at hand. Just like the person on the trail today who emanated seemingly from nowhere to play music on a plastic recorder as a way of supporting the runners. He gave me a boost when I needed one. Bonus points for being random and delightfully weird.

A few months ago, I shared my latest battle with my creative frenemy, perfectionism. At that time, my approach to writing felt like using tweezers to build a sandcastle when I thought I should be slopping around buckets of sand. At that time, that’s what I was working with and my only way forward was to accept it and keep showing up anyway.

Today, I drove home covered in actual mud with a smile on my face. This is the energy I want to carry into my creative pursuits this year. So many things are coming up that I look forward to sharing with you over the next few months. I can honestly say I have no idea how any of it will go, but I’m embracing that. I’m on the trail.

‘Til next time!

MT

Ask WHY to Create Opportunities for Compassion

Originally posted on Artist Soapbox on 28 May 2018

Greetings, Soapboxers!

Please raise your hand if someone has ever told you, “Don’t be so hard on yourself.”

Y’all. So many times. Over and over throughout my life. This phrase confounded me and angered me. I didn’t understand it. I passed it off as a cliché. An empty platitude from someone who jusssst didn’t getttt meeeee.

Last night marked the just-over-halfway point of the inaugural ASBX Creative Accountability Group, an endeavor that Tamara and I are facilitating for artists who want to move their creative work forward. This experience has been so inspiring, so humbling and, honestly, last night got real.

In that session, something new clicked for me around the way I approach my creativity and my ‘til-now unconscious choice to brandish the whip rather than the olive branch when I felt stuck or unproductive.

I asked the group to examine the roadblocks they experience through an exercise called “The 5 Whys.” This technique was originally formalized by Toyota, as a way to trace a problem through layers of abstraction to its real root cause. Typically, the root cause points to a process that is not working well. Hmmm, process you say? I wonder if artists can relate to that…

Here’s an example:

What is the pat answer you give for why you haven’t accomplished your creative goal? All together now: “I don’t have enough time.” Let’s inspect that a bit through 5 Whys, shall we? (Monocles optional).

“I don’t have enough time.”

Why?

“Because I am scheduled within an inch of my life.”

Why?

“Because people keep asking me to do things and I keep saying yes.”

Why?

“Because I have a really hard time saying no.”

Why?

“Because I’m afraid if I say no they’ll never ask me to do anything ever again.”

Why?

“Because I am insecure in my relationships.”

DUDE I KNOW RIGHT? It was so much easier when I thought I was simply managing a ridiculous calendar. Now I have to consider how I approach my relationships?  Well, shit. Let’s all crack open our chests and shine a flashlight in, shall we?

In terms of the Creative Accountability Group, this exercise has so much to offer us in terms of having compassion for ourselves and examining what is at the root of our creative resistance. Here’s another example from the group:

“I am not prioritizing writing.”

Why?

“Because I am not excited about it.”

Why?

“Because I’m afraid people will think it’s bad.”

Why?

“Because I got a bad review last time and it really hurt.”

Why (is this a problem)?

“Because now I feel like I can’t trust my own voice.”

In this example, I can see the pain at the center of the resistance. Putting our work into the world for public consumption is a vulnerable and brave act. It all but guarantees that some people will have criticisms and critiques. If that knocks the wind out of your sails for a bit, well, ok — you’re human. It’s understandable that you could feel stuck between the ego’s desire for a product and your heart’s need for the process of healing. Uncovering the resistance to the work via the 5 Whys allows us to name it, claim it, and deal with it….with compassion.

That’s when things shifted for me around the phrase “Don’t be so hard on yourself.” Now I see the value in extending compassion inward and acknowledging the hurt or pain that has us in its grip. What we need in those moments is comfort and encouragement, not chastisement. If we take the time to care for ourselves, we’ll feel the pull of creativity before too long. It’s always there. It wants to flow through us. We can help it by making space for our feelings and clearing out debris where we can.

Is this hitting home for you? Considering joining Tamara and me for our next Creative Accountability Group, beginning July 31st. This 5-week session is open to everyone! If you’ve got a project you’d like to move forward, but could use some help and an encouraging support network, drop us a line! We’d love to see you there.

Many thanks to our gracious hosts, the NC Center for Resiliency.

‘Til next time,

MT