Happiness is good for creative work – it’s an open place, a place of ease and flow, curiosity. I think of myself as a happy person and I think of myself as someone who deals well with failure but I, and I think most of us, can relate to the tendency to focus on negative experiences – the way one criticism can outweigh heaps of praise. And I’m pretty sure a big success has never woken me up at four in the morning. It turns out it’s our default setting – it’s called a negativity bias.
Dr. Rick Hanson:
“Unfortunately, to help our ancestors survive, the brain evolved a negativity bias that makes it less adept at learning from positive experiences but efficient at learning from negative ones. In effect, it’s like Velcro for the bad but Teflon for the good.”
Accomplishments get blown right past but what’s not working, what isn’t done, failures, fears criticisms and negative consequences are dwelled upon – I’m a champion at this. Stress is a powerful motivator and very effective in the short term but I think for a lot of my life I convinced myself it was a good place to be, a sort of no pain no gain mentality. Chronic stress eventually becomes self perpetuating and the physical and mental consequences are real and painful.
I came across Dr. Hanson, author of Hardwiring Happiness on this episode of one of my regular listens – The Accidental Creative. I hope you’ll listen, it’s fascinating and his advice for changing your brain, teaching it to learn more efficiently from positive experiences, one thought at a time, is practical and pretty effortless.
“Passing neural states become lasting neural traits”
There are so many little positive moments and accomplishments throughout the day, little successes and moments of gratitude and connection that aren’t acknowledged – ordinary moments, ordinary happiness that we are apparently neurologically designed not to notice. Giving attention to these little positives, spending an extra moment with them can add to our bank of well being, our happiness.
I always have a notebook with me – usually more than one. They are full of lists and notes and doodles and sketches. Blank pages are terrifying and paralyzing and my notebooks are a safety net. It is essential to my forward motion to record ideas as they come to me, to sketch-out possibilities, and to doodle, sometimes with no direction or intention, just playing with lines and marks and shapes and symbols. Sometimes the notes are specific to a project I’m starting but often one thing leads to another and while I’m trying to work one idea out that effort produces all sorts of new unrelated thoughts, glimmers of ideas, all recorded and saved. My notes and sketches are made for my eyes only, spontaneous with no pressure to be fancy or tidy or to impress, just beginnings, but I chose a couple pages to share anyway.
I also find huge value in writing about what I’m going to make – it develops my ideas in ways that sketching doesn’t. I noticed on occasions when I had to write a proposal for a project, describe my ideas to somebody else, convince somebody else an idea had merit, that details and richness would come from that exercise so I’ve made it a habit to spend time describing my ideas and plans to myself in writing.
I’ve been keeping notebooks for years and I have volumes to refer to – they are a mess but that seems to work for me too – I peruse them when I need a place to start, the tiniest thing, scribbled years ago and forgotten can get my wheels turning. They have saved me again and again, I never really feel like I’m starting from zero. I’m working on some holiday ornament designs right now – they will either be licensed and produced by someone else for 2016 or I’ll release them myself as patterns this year. I’ve got a ton of saved ideas. I can’t show you my current thoughts but the castle sketch below is from a few years ago – a rough idea that eventually became an ornament set for Crate and Barrel.
The hard thing about a daily practice is that it’s daily. And days and weeks are guaranteedto be weird sometimes. But I think committing to a daily practice – even a very small one – is valuable and fruitful. My practice is to experiment – to do something each day, on paper, to meander, and wander my imagination and try stuff that is entirely separate from the busyness and work of the day.
I chose to work on paper because it’s something I miss – making marks on paper – and I chose to keep it small ( 4.5 inch squares) to keep it do-able – especially in weeks where I’m overwhelmed and / or traveling. I share it here every Saturday and that adds some pressure but I think it’s pressure I need.
Some sketchbook favorites:
Last week showing up for it was particularly hard. If I was going to bail, take a vacation from it, let myself off the hook, last week would have been the week. I’m so glad I didn’t – I took James Clear’s advice again – reduce the scope and stick to the schedule. I didn’t have my full array of tools but I had a little paint and pencils and my little squares and they came with me to Squam. I got up a little extra early each day and spent time with my experiment before class started. I’m so glad that I did.
I don’t think it matters as much what I do as it does that I do it. It matters very much that I find a small part of each day that is personal and expressive and my own. It should be a priority.
Week 16 in my yearlong sketchbook practice. Maintaing my sketchbook practice felt like a big deal this week, it felt like it might be impossible. I’m teaching at Squam Art Workshops and the days here and the prep and travel days are very full. But I found the time, little bits of time, and I’m so glad I did – this habit and commitment is bringing me good things.
There have been books that have stayed with me, books that inspire me and make me curious, books I just love looking at- over and over again. I’ve chosen a few of those to share with you.
The first is by photographer Arthur Tress, Fish Tank Sonata. Flea market treasures – knickknacks – arranged in a fish-tank and photographed. I love his others too (Teapot Opera especially).
Next is The Grosset Treasury of Fairytails illustrated by Tadasu Izawa and Shigemi Hijikata. It’s a 3-D puppet book- one of many created by this team in Japan in the 70’s. They were magic for me then and they still are today.
Shadow Theaters and Shadow Films Is a stunningly illustrated instructional book by the master shadow puppeteer Lotte Reiniger. The scenes are magical and every composition is brilliant. You can find some of her shadow films on youtube – I love the scratchy worbly soundtracks.
The last two were gifts that I loved :
Julie Taymor – Playing With Fire by Eileen Blumenthal. It’s a huge book that chronicles the the history and work of artist and directorJulie Taymor – her beginnings, her process and sketches – a window into her thinking – her imagination is giant and her thinking is rigorous. I refer to this book regularly – especially when my thinking feels lazy.
Joseph Cornell: Shadowplay Eterniday – Essays by Lynda Roscoe Hartigan and Richard Vine. I love Cornell and his dreamlike, melancholy, poetic boxes, those precious objects and little worlds. This is another giant book with images of more than seventy-five boxes and collages, as well as images of the fascinating source material, his treasures.
At any given moment I have a lot of things started. I bounce around working on something for a bit and then move to something else. It is rare for me to start something and stay with it without interruption until it is complete.
And even if something is nearly done there might be some small detail avoided in a moment when something else felt more urgent. More and more things end up in the land of almost done and lots of little details, like stitching fox paws, add up to a day or more of work that I’m not really factoring in. I’m nickel and diming myself to death in the time department.
For the last couple weeks, just to see what would happen, I’ve been picking one thing, one project or task and staying with it until it’s done. I check it off the list, clean up the mess and start the next thing. I started with low hanging fruit to get the ball rolling – little projects or orders that were just about done. The choice always feels uncomfortable, feels counter intuitive when so much needs to move forward and it’s hard to get all the other stuff out of my head and focus – but I settle down after a little while and I found lots of benefits to working this way:
* It busts right through unrealistic expectations and wishful thinking – I get a much better sense of how long things really take.
* Crossing stuff of the list feels good, finishing feels good – it puts energy back in the bank – loose ends are distracting and draining.
* It forces me to do some important things I avoid by burying myself in busyness – prioritizing, making choices and planning realistically.
* There is no ambiguity at the end of the day – progress or lack of it is very clear.
* Individual projects get more forward momentum – I’m less inclined to linger unnecessarily in choices and possibilities and I’m more inclined to work through problems efficiently since I can’t escape into another task, it creates a kind of resolve – it’s your birthday owl – today is the day, not tomorrow, not next week, today.
Week 12 in my yearlong sketchbook practice. I usually listen to music ( I have middle aged lady solo dance parties all the time) or podcasts while I work but I’ve gotten into the habit of listening to a sound machine app when I do my sketchbook work. And always the same sound – wind in the pines. I find it peacefull and soothing in general and it helps me settle into sketchbook brain more quickly – it’s become an important part ot the ritual.
I have a long, happy history with paper mache. It’s always been one of my most favorite mediums, I loved it at first sight. I love the simplicity, the economy, and the endless possibilities. I don’t think you need a lot of skill to have fun with it and it invites improvisational thinking. I love to dive in to creating something without plan – just an idea and a pile of cardboard boxes, newspaper and masking tape. All sorts of problems and happy accidents occur – both spark new ideas. I think it’s good brain exercise. I spent part of this past weekend on an big paper mache experiment that failed dramatically but I learned a ton and it sent me in a new direction, I landed on and idea that intrigues me, a new approach to a project I’ve been stalled on for months – more on that soon.
In a similar experiment a few years ago I made a classical style bust while I was spending a weekend upstate – just for fun – with whatever was on hand. I like him, he’s silly and and I decorate him every Christmas.
Here he is in progress – lots of taped together cardboard and bunched up newspaper – I had a blast.
If you’ve never tried it before I have 2 free tutorials with templates and lots of instructions – paper mache boats and teacups. The tea cups are lovely for Mother’s day and both make great parent child collaboration projects.
I took the day off yesterday, for reals, like I haven’t in a long time. I didn’t set an alarm and erased my agenda for the day. I had coffee in bed and got up around noon. It was not not exactly by choice – I was just useless.
I came back from teaching at the Sweet Paul Makerie in Philadelphia late Sunday night and I was completely out of gas. Even this morning my brain and various other important parts are just starting to work again. The weekend was fabulous and I’ll post about it after I get caught up on things – like getting last week’s sketchbook scanned, formatted and posted. This week is pretty discombobulated because of being away, and so very, very busy while I was away, but things will be back to posting at their regularly scheduled times next week.
For this week’s Big Creative Year post a couple thoughts on something I need to pay attention to: down time, rest, real rest. My inclination is to fill every space with something to do and ignore or under value the need for rest. It feels good to spend it all once in a while, to exhaust myself completely like I did this past weekend and it felt good to spend a day doing nothing yesterday. It was glorious, I had the afore mentioned lazy start and I hung out in the big chair, drank tons of licorice tea and looked at magazines for hours (I can’t recall the last time I did that).
My bigger concern is my chronic need for some downtime – I don’t really take significant breaks – relaxing will happen at some undetermined time in the future when I’m less busy. That idea doesn’t work. My new plan, my new experiment is to find a way to take one day a week completely off. To plan for it and make it mandatory. It’s alarming that at this moment I can’t even imagine what that would be like. I’ll tell you more about how I plan to make it happen in next weeks BCY post on a subject I’ve been understanding in a new way lately : margin.
Week 5 in my yearlong sketchbook practice. I really struggled to find the time this week – lots going on – but I did and was always happy in that little drawing and painting part of my day. I was often miserable thinking about doing it but not once I got started and settled in to it. I don’t always, or even usually love what I make but I do try to stick with them until I feel like I’ve gotten somewhere. This truly is an exercise and it is becoming a habit.
I like to celebrate March with a big spring clean and organize and this year I’m in desperate need of it, particularly in one area. My work fills this place but the center of it all is a wall of shelves that hold most of my supplies, fabric, antique garments, tools – everything. Over the last year or so it lost whatever organization it ever had and it’s overflowing. I spend a lot of time looking for things, the stuff that gets used the most and should be easy to access is buried, it’s a big time waster, it looks terrible and it’s kind of depressing. I’ve been spilling over with new ideas lately and I have no room for them physically or mentally.
I love this from Sarah From on why organization is so important to creative work ( find the full blog post here):
“Organization is in part about being prepared for the moment when insight strikes. It’s about creating the conditions for creativity to flourish, so that when you enter into creation mode, your physical world is set up to support you. ”
My physical world was not set up to support me, not at all – and it was making me intolerably anxious so I made it the priority this past weekend to fix it. I took everything out, got rid of a ton of stuff and put it all back in a more thoughtful way.
I can see at a glance where everything is and the things I’m using the most right now are easy to grab. I even ended up with a couple empty boxes. I made labels for everything and attached them with clothespins for flexibility. I’m happy with my brown file boxes (I get them from Uline) and I replaced a few that had gotten crumpled and sad looking. And while I was on a roll I attacked my work table too – it had become a place to park piles of things lately – not much empty space to work.
It’s all still a work in progress but it’s such a big improvement! I felt instantly so much more able to manage my tasks and ideas. I was excited to get up and look at it this morning – I gazed at it adoringly with my coffee. It was a big time investment I hadn’t planned on this weekend but it was absolutely worth it. Onward!
In terms of getting things done more efficiently simple changes have made the most difference. Part of my mission this year is to manage my time better, to be more efficient and more productive in everything I do, to get through necessary tasks more quickly and efficiently, in part to free up time for experimenting and also because creative work benefits from consistent forward motion and structure. So I’ve been trying things and some have helped. The things that have helped the most:
I work standing up. The idea came from a news blurb about the health benefits – it sounded tedious but I was curious so I gave it a try. My sewing machine has always been at standing height – it landed there accidentally. My father’s tool chest is the most stable surface here and my mother’s very heavy White Rotary machine requires a steady base. Plus they belong together.
So the machine sewing part of my day has always been standing but that’s a pretty small part usually and I have developed some bad habits for all the other work I do. I gravitate to the couch and spread out from there. The photo below is from last May, making a big flamingo order.
The last two big orders were made standing up ( I still made a big mess- that didn’t change). I was remarkably faster and more focused, I enjoyed it and I had more energy. There a couple things I can’t do standing up – like very small hand sewing – so I try to balance tasks out and I limit the standing hours to between 10 and 5 (I can go over if I feel inclined and often I do). The first few days I got tired after just a few hours but that improved quickly. I haven’t gone crazy with fancy equipment or anything – I’ve got a file box on top of my ironing board – it’s getting the job done. I’m surprised at how much standing agrees with me and I think If this was the only change I made I would still come to the end of this year having accomplished more.
I’m a list maker but over the last few years my to do lists migrated to the computer and got fancy: lots of different lists, spread sheets, multi-tiered affairs etc. Lately I went back to no frills paper and pencil list – a little notebook with a list for the day that I make the night before. There is something to writing things down, physically writing things down and it is somehow infinitely more satisfying to me to check something off with a pencil. I need to harness my obsessive compulsive tendencies for good whenever possible. One other change to the to do list – I got a nice notebook. For sketching and recording thoughts I don’t use anything fancy, I find it intimidating and don’t want to spoil it, but for the to do lists it adds something to the ritual.
I talked about this in last week’s post about how the new things I’m trying are effecting me creatively but it gets a mention here too because the structure created by scheduled blog posts, a weekly (mini) news letter ( you can check that out here) and the daily sketchbook practice have been causing me to schedule myself more thoughtfully and more importantly, more realistically. What must be shall be. My tasks have a more defined container and it’s making a huge difference.