Oct 132014

If you’re attempting to do creative, artistic, imaginative things, then you are facing a tough trail. When you feel down about your efforts, try to be kind and forgiving toward yourself.

Forgive yourself

  1. For projects that didn’t turn out
  2. For not starting
  3. For not finishing
  4. For decisions that led you away from the best path
  5. For withholding praise and support from yourself
  6. For telling yourself your work was good enough when it wasn’t
  7. For telling yourself your work wasn’t worthwhile when it was
  8. For treating your imaginations and dreams as silly, when they hold meaning for you
  9. For drinking too much
  10. For not being your own best friend
  11. For doing what others wanted you to do instead of making yourself happy
  12. For being confused
  13. For being frustrated
  14. For reading books and blogs about creative work rather than doing your work
  15. For wasting time
  16. For using harsh words to describe your work when you’re frustrated
  17. For spending money on courses as a way to avoid your work
  18. For telling yourself you should be amazing without breaking a sweat
  19. For thinking that writing is never hard for anyone except you
  20. For being too angry, too moody, too anxious
  21. For not taking care of yourself
  22. For resting on yesterday’s successes when you need to be working on today’s challenges
Sep 062014

Here in the U.S. kids are heading back to school after summer break. I’d like to share a few books about artistic young people to go with the back-to-school theme.

Wingman by Daniel Pinkwater tells the story of a young artistic boy who embarks on imaginative and daring adventures to escape his hostile, hateful elementary school.

Dr. Bird’s Advice For Sad Poets by Evan Roskos is the story of an enxious, depressed high-school student who sseeks solace in Walt Whitman, photography, and hugging trees.

Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell is the story of Cath going off to college to become a fiction writer, only to find that making friends, creating, and simply surviving day after day are too much. I especially love the characters in this book. I find a tremendous amount of heart in Rowell’s novels.

If you’re not into books written for a younger audience, maybe it’s a good time to revisit a favorite from years ago. Perhaps a book, album, play, or painting comes to mind that meant a lot to you when you were young. Take a little time to go back to a fond experience to renew yourself.

Jun 082014

People love to measure their physical exercise. A pedometer to tally thousands of steps per day. Counting push-ups and crunches. Devices on exercise bikes to track time, distance, and velocity. And of course, stepping on the scale to see if any pounds are coming off.

Why does measuring our workouts seem so important? One reason is that consistency is the key to success when you’re trying to get stronger. And the way to stay consistent is to measure and plan.

Doing creative work also means showing up and continuing. A fulfilling creative life requires attentive focus from you almost every day, just like physical exercise. Here are a few simple suggestions to help you track your time on your artistic work.

Set an hours-per-week goal.

You need to put in significant time per week to do fulfilling work. Whether you’re uber-busy with other obligations or have all the free time in the world, choosing an hours-per-week goal will help you progress toward finishing your projects.

Say you are a fledgling writer who wants to break through and see her first published short story. Your first goal could be to write 10 hours per week, including at least one hour per day. Your second goal could be to spend three hours per week researching the business side, so you understand the steps for getting stories published.

Keep a log

Write down how much time you spend each day on your work. It may sound tedious, but it takes just a moment if you keep the log close by. It may sound like overkill, but do it for a little while just to see where you’re at. You might think you spend ten hours a week on your poetry, but maybe it’s closer to four or five. You won’t know if you don’t measure it.

Stay accountable

Find one or two friends to share your artistic goals and ideas with, including your hours-per-week goal. There’s nothing like having someone ask, “How you doing?” to keep you honest. And you can return the favor for someone who is also on the artistic trail.

Remember to keep yourself accountable too. Write down your goals. Put reminders on your calendar to check those goals every few weeks or months. Getting support from others is necessary, but no one can get behind your work if you’re not behind it first.

There you are, a few small things to help track your creative time. Just like your physical health, your imagination will thank you down the road.

Apr 302014

Everyone I talk to about doing artistic work raises the topic of needing more time in the day. “I’m so busy–how can I squeeze in my creative pursuits?” Here are some quick tips that may help.

1. Give Up Something

Choose a specific activity that you will give up to make time for your creative work. Maybe you don’t need to watch all 162 games of your favorite baseball team. Maybe you can give up that committee you’ve been volunteering on for nineteen years. It’s not that these are bad things, but sometimes you need to say no to other activities to make room for your creative work.

What you are telling yourself: “I am doing my work. My work matters as much as everything else in my busy life.”

2. Handle Distractions

The phone ringing, the kids doing kid stuff, noise from outside, your sore left knee. The dirty dishes and the dirty laundry and the plant by the window that needs watering. And there’s always something to look at on the Web. Immersing yourself in creative work will require you to block out the world for a while.

Then there are the distractions from within. “My boss was such a pain today.” “Maybe I’m no good at this writing thing.” Whatever thoughts arise that are not contributing to your work, let them float away down the stream of consciousness.

For most people, the earlier in the day you start your creative work, the fewer the distractions. If getting started early is available to you, give it a try.

What you are telling yourself: “It’s hard to do my work with such a busy life, but I am equal to these distractions.”

3. Create Every Day

Pick a time and place where you’ll work every day. Tell the other people in your house, “I’m writing each morning before I get ready for work.” Hang up a sign to remind you and others of your plan.

If you want to create in a fulfilling way, you need to put in the time and attention. There are no shortcuts. Getting to your work every day will help you move from dabbling to creating.

You may need a transition period if all you can manage are a few minutes per day. Even a little time and space each day is a good start. If you can begin to spend a little more thought and effort on creating, then you’re heading in the right direction.

What you are telling yourself: “My artistic work demands a great deal of time and brain power. So I will show up to work every day.”

4. Plan A Project

Let’s say you show up at your chosen time and place to do some writing, You will also need a concrete idea of what you will write. You will need a form and a goal. Think in terms of describing your current project to others. “I’m writing a short story, a dark suspense thing.” “I’m writing an article about the need for improvements to the parks and playgrounds in the south half of town.” “I’m working on the second draft of my novel.”

This goes for other types of work too. A musician practices honestly when she can state her aim for that session with her instrument. An artist works with focus when he knows what he is painting.

Treat “to create” as a transitive verb, always needing an object. What specifically are you working on?

What you are telling yourself: “I know what I am working on. I’m not just creating–I’m creating something.”

Moving On

When you put tips like these to use, you are sending a message to yourself and others that your work matters. Most of us have time in our hectic lives to get our creating done. See if you can use a few of these ideas to get more momentum behind your artistic work.

Sometimes life is just too busy, and there truly is no time to give to your creating. If that is your situation, be patient, and look for opportunities to simplify other parts of your life so you can get to your creative endeavors in the future.

Nov 202013

Have you ever heard of a “memory leak?” It’s a classic problem in programming computer software.

A memory leak occurs when an application doesn’t let go of memory when it is done using it. For example, an ATM shouldn’t try to keep information about all customers that have used it in the past week. It only needs to hold the current customer’s information. Once a person logs in, makes a transaction, then logs out, the transaction is stored permanently in the bank’s systems. The ATM is done with that customer, so it should free its memory and wait for the next customer.

If the ATM isn’t programmed properly, it might not free up all its memory after each customer transaction is finished. Over time the machine has less and less memory until it starts to run slowly or crashes. The memory seems to leak away. It’s there, but the flawed programming doesn’t use it efficiently.

A person doing artistic work can have memory leaks too. A human “memory leak” is a common cause of the sluggish, stuck experience known as a “creative block.”

Often A blocked writer starts getting ideas when he frees up his brain’s memory capacity. The grocery list, the dog’s facial appointment, and the sequence of episodes in the first four seasons of his favorite TV show take up valuable brain power that could otherwise be used for creating and editing. The grocery list can be written down, so it doesn’t need to be held continually in his mind. The dog’s appointment can go on the calendar. And, well sometimes trivia about TV shows really isn’t very important, is it?

A musician waiting to go onstage holds a tremendous amount of cognitive and emotional information in her mind. “I’m nervous. I want to make a good impression. Did I forget anything? Why is the light so odd in this place?” That information is powerful. It sends messages to the body such as, “Be alert! This is a vulnerable situation.” If the fear response escalates, she may experience Shaky hands, sweaty armpits, and a dry mouth. She may feel stiff, stunned, and blocked, wondering why things are always so scary onstage.

If she can free up some brain power by letting go of the “worry” information, then her mind and body will have resources available for making music and connecting with her audience. However, if her mind holds onto those “I’m scared” feelings and thoughts long after they have served their purpose, she will not move efficiently from a defensive state to a confident one.

Here are some simple things you can try to reclaim some brain power when you feel blocked:

  1. Take long, deep breaths
  2. Write down to-do lists
  3. Watch less TV
  4. Take a few minutes to do nothing
  5. Replace a worried thought with a hopeful one
  6. Start your creative work earlier in the day
  7. Write your appointments and reminders in a calendar
  8. Take a nap
  9. Avoid trivia
  10. go for a walk or a run
  11. Make time to daydream
  12. Change your routines regularly
  13. Spend time with an animal
  14. Go to bed a little earlier
  15. Fall in love with your creative endeavors
  16. Say encouraging things to yourself every day
  17. Keep working even when you don’t feel like it
Nov 082013

I like to think of creativity exercises as short-term tools. They’re not really solutions in themselves, but they can break habits, build habits, and help the heart and mind break away from malaise.

I’m talking about creativity exercises such as: think of a color, then write down ten objects that have the color. Then write a story plot using those objects. Or, take a musical phrase and play it in all twelve keys, then play it backwards in all twelve keys. Sure you could write a story or a piece of music this way, but usually the process is much more imaginative than that.

It reminds me of my religious life from many years ago. People would really get into the rules and procedures of prayer, but it seemed rare that anyone actually achieved a prayerful life. I might not have it right, and maybe folks were experiencing something far more substantial than what I saw. But it seemed to me that prayer was usually about certain physical acts, like closing eyes, bowing heads, folding hands or linking hands with others. It was about words, lots of tedious words, despite Jesus’ teaching on that subject. And Jesus also taught that praying in public places was a waste of time, yet folks seemed so into saying verbose prayers in public almost any chance they got.

Something similar goes on with musicians and writers. One of the hardest things for me when I’m teaching music lessons is to help a student simply relax and fall into playing music. There’s always lots of discussion about buying more instruements and accessories, even though the student already has too much stuff. It seems like the idea of playing music is more appealing than the actual experience of it. I think it seems like the work that goes into learning an instrument holds some kind of dread. It might go back to how nasty and boring our assignments were in school as kids. It might have to do with something similar with parents, with religious education and services, how we’re taught as kids to dread the stuff that everyone says is so important.

By the way, if you are reading this and you have taken lessons from me, please don’t think I’m describing you specifically. Almost all the music students I’ve had over the years have struggled to find happiness in making their music.

For writers, there are exercises and books about writing. There’s worry about writing. There are all kinds of classes and activities around writing, even finishing an MFA. All useful in some ways, but I think the best attitude is to see all that as short-term. Those are little tools to help get things started, but you’re not writing until you’re writing. Just write. Go ahead. If you don’t know what to write about, then wait. Take a walk. Don’t think about it, just wait. Don’t worry, you’ll get some ideas sooner or later.

I recently ran across a mention of Brian Eno and Peter Schmidt’s “Oblique Strategies” cards. I heard about them many years ago, and it’s a very cool idea. You pick a card, and it points you to some new direction for your current work. Here are some examples:

  • A line has two sides.
  • Do nothing for as long as possible.
  • Question the heroic approach
  • Ask people to work against their better judgement.

(This text came from http://www.rtqe.net/ObliqueStrategies/Edition1-3.html)

I’ve never actually owned a set of these cards, but the idea is enough for me. Just do something different, change the monotony, or repeat the unpredictableness, or just launch out into some place. Go eat a sandwich. Go find an animal to say hello to. Think inside the box. Think outside the box. And then eat the box.

Oct 022013

So you want to become a writer?

Yeah. I think I’d like that.

What writing have you done?

Not much, just some stuff that isn’t too serious.

Are you writing anything now?

Yeah, a few pieces that I have in various stages.

What are those pieces?

I’m not sure. Just some thoughts, some ideas. Like I said, nothing serious.

But writing is serious work, even if it’s not serious content. Can you get a little more definite about what you want to work on?

Hmm, well I guess I’m not very decisive about it. I’m not sure how to get more definite or specific.

I like that word “decisive.” That’s what I’m getting at. You’ll need to decide a lot of things as a writer.

Sure. I’ll need to delete words, choose words, rewrite without getting bogged down in indecision.

Yes. You’ll also need to choose what you are working on. In other words, you need to have a very clear, practical project in mind. For example, which of these sound interesting to you: A memoir, a novel, some short stories, magazine articles, or a non-fiction book?

Hmm. Definitely not a non-fiction book. I’m not interested in a biography or historical study or anything like that.


I was thinking of something more literary. A novel or short story.

What about a memoir or some kind of personal essay?

Maybe, but I’d be tempted to spend time explaining mydself, defending myself. I think writing anything like a memoir would just bring out lots of paranoia.

Makes sense. So you’re thinking something literary?

Yeah, like writing novels.

What kind of novel?

I like sci-fi, but there’s so much out there.

Well sure, but let’s not worry about a marketing angle right now.

(Laughs) OK, but I like the idea of creating worlds that are really strange. I like sci-fi, though I’m not sure if I could pull off something that could get beyond the stupid old robots and space ships thing.

Are there other genres where you create weird worlds?

Sure, fantasy is a big thing with me too, and lots of people like that.

That sounds like more marketing. You’re not going to earn an income from this. At least not at the start. You need to do some writing, pay some dues and so on.

I’m just trying to get to something specific, like you said.

Fair enough.

Fantasy could mix with other stuff. There are lots of urban werewolf things, vampire things, stuff set in present times. I have something like that in mind, something where I take the ordinary world and make something strange and amazing happen.

How about this. Instead of a world, can you make it much, much smaller?

Hmm. sure, like a very small town. When I was a kid we lived in this little town of about two thousand people. Lots of farmers, lots of old worn-down little factory buildings. It was very quiet and pretty boring, but you could get a lot of reading done.

Could you start writing with that, something with that quiet little town?

Maybe. I don’t know where it would go. It’s not a novel.

You can’t think up an entire novel in a few minutes. You can get a starting point, like a little town. Or you could have a very basic plot idea, like the queen of England is actually from another solar system.

Sure, well I could start with the town and see where it leads. I think that makes sense. Use a little town as a seed and see what I can imagine.

Exactly. Just live in it every day. Even if it’s just for a few minutes, live in that fictional place and let your imagination grow it out.

yeah, that sounds good. I’ll try that and see how it goes.

Aug 302013

How often do you find yourself talking to yourself about yourself?

“I have no idea what I’m doing.”

“I’m so much better than he is.”

“She’s so much better than I am.”

“Why did she say that about me? I don’t think she likes me very much.”

If self-scrutiny is a frequent activity in your brain, you might find it helpful to change that habit. It’s useful once in a while to reflect on ways to do well and be better. But endless evaluating will quickly drain your enthusiasm.

You may not think specific thoughts like these, but you may have vague emotions of worry, gloom, and fear around your creative work. Visceral self-doubts are tougher to deal with, because you are not simply arguing with habits of thought. You are dealing with deeper emotional connections. Wy not spend some time thinking of ways to break the routine of endless evaluating?

Get started.

One of the toughest things for a person with an artistic inspiration is to begin work on it. If you’re a writer, a wonderful idea for a new novel can feel like a new romance or adventure, bringing waves of elation and anticipation. But that novel inspiration comes with no guarantees, and there is no automatic process that will get the book written. That novel idea might lead to many months of writing and rewriting only to realize that you have twelve and a half chapters that simply won’t turn into anything. Why risk such failure? Why do something that could be a huge waste of time and energy?

One response to the doubting is, “Well why not?” If you’re going to write, you have to just write and write. Even the most skilled novelist must throw away lots of chapters and even entire novels that just won’t fly. You have to do lots of writing–including lots of disappointing writing–before you can learn to do some good writing. You can ask lots of questions about your ability and inexperience and what the big world thinks should be in a novel. You can spend a lot of time wondering if you have the right set of qualities and talents that make up “the successful writer.” Or, you can put the questions aside and start writing to see where it will lead.

Get finished.

Any kind of creative work has a huge element of plain old “work” in it, including things that are mundane, tedious, and difficult. When life demands that you dig in and get some work done, resist the boredom and discouragement. Keep practicing that music, keep revising and editing that poem, keep working stroke after stroke on that painting. It may be boring, it may be discouraging, but the path demands that you put in many long hours of sweat and stubborn focus. During those dull, hard steps in your work, you will be tempted to doubt yourself. “Am I good? Is this worth anything? Why is it so easy for others?” Trust the path, and get the work finished. You won’t know what the finished project will look like until you actually have it done. Why not throw yourself into the work till it takes you to its completion? Why not try to find fulfillment by losing yourself in the task for long stretches?

Be kind to your artistic self. Treat yourself the way a loving parent treats a child who is learning something new. Be supportive, objective, calm, and friendly toward yourself. Take yourself for a walk when that kid is having a bad day. Maybe treat that kid to some ice cream or play a game together. A child shouldn’t have to face endless scrutiny, worrying if her parent will disapprove yet again. Your artistic self needs that same kind of encouragement and guidance. That positive energy often does not come without some intention and effort. Wy not spend some time thinking of ways to replace habits of endless evaluating with habits of kindness toward yourself ?

Aug 042013

Creativity coaching is a new kind of work, and many people aren’t sure exactly what it’s all about. Here are a few common questions answered.

What exactly is creativity coaching?

  • it’s me helping you get your work done. We’ll sort out what you want in an artistic life and how to get there.

  • It’s having someone there on your side, which is often hard to find.

  • It’s having two minds working through things rather than you sorting things out by yourself.

  • It’s helping you build up your circle of people who will support and encourage your creativity.

How does it work?

We will talk twice a month on the phone or on Skype, each call lasting forty-five to sixty minutes. In each call we will catch up on current happenings and make a plan for your creative work over the coming days.

Sometimes I will ask clients to send me daily status emails as a concrete log of daily progress. These emails serve as simple status reports, stating “I spent an hour writing this morning,” or, “Got bogged down at work–no painting today.”

Why would I want coaching?

Because deep down you love your creativity and want to live a more fulfilling life.

Who are your clients?

I work with people who are professionals, emerging artists, and hobbyists. I work with musicians, writers, and anyone involved in any kind of artistic pursuit. People at all levels of skill and career can benefit from coaching.

How did you get started in coaching?

In my late teens and early twenties, I attended Bible college and seminary to train for pastoral ministry. I eventually left religion behind, but I still have the training and desire to do caring work.

Several conferences and courses on living a fulfilling artistic life helped me grow as a musician. At one conference I heard a presentation by Eric Maisel, the person who started the area of work known as creativity coaching. I eventually took several training courses with Eric and decided that creativity coaching would be a super way for me to get back into caring work.

At various times in the past I struggled to make music and writing an important part of my life, finding zero support and often feeling rather stupid. Today my aim is to boost the energy, confidence, and resolve of others in similar situations to help them build a fulfilling artistic life.

If you have any questions about coaching or about making a new artistic trail for yourself, don’t hesitate to send me an email. I’m always glad to chat a bit about creativity.

May 162013

Here’s a great guest post from Eric Maisel offering practical tips on confidence. Thanks to Eric and to New World Library.

Read a few of my thoughts on Eric’s new book in a previous post.


By Eric Maisel

If you want to live a creative life and make your mark in some competitive art field like writing, film-making, the visual arts, or music, and if at the same time you want to live an emotionally healthy life full of love and satisfaction, you need an intimate understanding of certain key ideas and how they relate to the creative process.

One key idea is that you must act confidently whether or not you feel confident. You need to manifest confidence in every stage of the creative process if you want to get your creative work accomplished. Here’s what confidence looks like throughout the creative process.

Stage 1. Wishing

‘Wishing’ is a pre-contemplation stage where you haven’t really decided that you intend to create. You dabble at making art, you don’t find your efforts very satisfying, and you don’t feel that you go deep all that often. The confidence that you need to manifest during this stage of the process is the confidence that you are equal to the rigors of creating. If you don’t confidently accept the reality of process and the reality of difficulty you may never really get started.

Stage 2. Incubation/Contemplation

During this second stage of the process you need to be able to remain open to what wants to come rather than defensively settling on a first idea or an easy idea. The task is remaining open and not settling for something that relieves your anxiety and your discomfort. The confidence needed here is the confidence to stay open.

Stage 3. Choosing Your Next Subject

Choosing is a crucial part of the creative process. At some point you need the confidence to say, “I am ready to work on this.” You need the confidence to name a project clearly (even if that naming is “Now I go to the blank canvas without a pre-conceived idea and just start”), to commit to it, and to make sure that you aren’t leaking confidence even as you choose this project.

Stage 4. Starting Your Work

When you start a new creative work you start with certain ideas for the work, certain hopes and enthusiasms, certain doubts and fears – that is, you start with an array of thoughts and feelings, some positive and some negative. The confidence you need at that moment is the confidence that you can weather all those thoughts and feelings and the confidence to go into the unknown.

Stage 5. Working

Once you are actually working on your creative project, you enter into the long process of fits and starts, ups and downs, excellent moments and terrible moments – the gamut of human experiences that attach to real work. For this stage you need the confidence that you can deal with your own doubts and resistances and the confidence that you can handle whatever the work throws at you.

Stage 6. Completing

At some point you will be near completing the work. It is often hard to complete what we start because then we are obliged to appraise it, learn if it is good or bad, deal with the rigors of showing and selling, and so on. The confidence required during this stage is the confidence to weather the very ideas of appraisal, criticism, rejection, disappointment and everything else that we fear may be coming once we announce that the work is done.

Stage 7. Showing

A time comes when we are obliged to show our work. The confidence needed here is not only the confidence to weather the ideas of appraisal, criticism, and rejection but the confidence to weather the reality of appraisal, criticism, and rejection. Like so many other manifestations of confidence, the basic confidence here sounds like “Bring it on!” You are agreeing to let the world do its thing and announcing that you can survive any blows that the world delivers.

Stage 8. Selling

A confident seller can negotiate, think on her feet, make pitches and presentations, advocate for her work, explain why her work is wanted, and so on. You don’t have to be over-confident, exuberant, over the top – you simply need to get yourself to the place of being a calmly confident seller, someone who first makes a thing and then sells it in a business-like manner.

Stage 9: New Incubation and Contemplation

While you are showing and selling your completed works you are also incubating and contemplating new projects and starting the process all over again. The confidence required here is the confident belief that you have more good ideas in you. You want to confidently assert that you have plenty more to say and plenty more to do – even if you don’t know what that “something” is quite yet.

Stage 10: Simultaneous and Shifting States and Stages

I’ve made the creative process sound rather neat and linear and usually it is anything but. Often we are stalled on one thing, contemplating another thing, trying to sell a third thing, and so on. The confidence needed throughout the process is the quiet, confident belief that you can stay organized, successfully handle all of the thoughts and feelings going on inside of you, get your work done, and manage everything. This is a juggler’s confidence—it is you announcing, “You bet that I can keep all of these balls in the air!”

Manifest confidence throughout the creative process. Failing to manifest confidence at any stage will stall the process. It isn’t easy living the artist’s life: the work is taxing, the shadows of your personality interfere, and the art marketplace if fiercely competitive. If you learn some key ideas, for instance that you must act confidently whether or not you feel confident, you give yourself the best chance possible for a productive and rewarding life in the arts.


Eric Maisel is the author of Making Your Creative Mark and twenty other creativity titles including Mastering Creative Anxiety, Brainstorm, Creativity for Life, and Coaching the Artist Within. America’s foremost creativity coach, he is widely known as a creativity expert who coaches individuals and trains creativity coaches through workshops and keynotes nationally and internationally. He has blogs on the Huffington Post and Psychology Today and writes a column for Professional Artist Magazine. Visit him online at http://www.ericmaisel.com.

Adapted from the new book Making Your Creative Mark ©2013 by Eric Maisel. Published with permission of New World Library http://www.newworldlibrary.com