A few weeks ago my husband and I had dinner with friends who asked about the creativity coach training I’m taking with author and creativity coach Eric Maisel. What is creativity coaching, exactly? (Essentially life coaching for creative people, with an emphasis on specific creative projects.) How does it work? (We look at the current state of the client’s creative life, discuss goals, make strategies for dealing with obstacles, encourage them to reach for their dreams, provide accountability.) Then they asked, What do the people who are being coached want? The first answer that popped out of my mouth was permission, and it felt true. Permission is not the only thing, of course, but it’s certainly something that has come up repeatedly in my own life, as well as in the context of my training and practice coaching.
Here’s the thing: While our culture at large values the output of creativity, at least if it’s “any good,” it doesn’t seem to value the creative process and the many hours and years of practice that it takes to hone our craft. If we are to succeed (whatever that means to us), we need to put in the time with our craft. We need to purchase the tools that help us refine it. We need space and support. We need to allow ourselves to be beginners. And to make messes. Screw up. Fail. And start over. That’s how we begin to get good at what we do. That’s how we become strong and resilient, and how we develop a deep-seated belief in ourselves. That’s how we thrive.
It’s often hard for people who write or paint (or take photographs, compose, quilt, etc.) to give themselves permission to take time away from family for a retreat or class, or to spend money from the family budget to purchase professional-quality tools, because their art isn’t bringing in an income. It’s not professional work. Or at least it isn’t yet.
But as anyone who writes or makes art knows, this work is a calling. It wakes you in the middle of the night with ideas, it interrupts you in the middle of a meeting, it’s what you daydream about. You find yourself drawn to other writers or artists. It’s the air you breathe, one of your life purposes. If you deny this part of yourself, if you don’t give it time or oxygen, you will die a little. I know this because it has happened to me. When I am writing, taking writing classes, talking with other writers, reading writing books—when I am a working writer—I feel alive. I bounce out of bed in the morning ready to get started. There is a new energy in my body and mind. I am doing what I am meant to do. When I deny it, when I let everything else take precedence, I begin to fade and become less myself. I get a little blue. I find the days a bit harder. And it’s difficult to begin again.
What’s the Remedy?
First, decide. Pat Schneider—founder of the Amherst Writers & Artists method of leading writing workshops and the author of Writing Alone & With Others—said, “A writer is someone who writes.” To this I will add, “An artist is someone who paints/draws.” “A singer is someone who sings.” What this means is that you get to decide. Are you a writer? Then claim it.
Second, touch your work every day. Eric Maisel suggests that we commit to some kind of daily practice, preferably first thing in the morning. You get to decide what the practice is and for how long, but make a commitment to yourself to do it. He suggests first thing in the morning so that your creativity gets its due. If we save it until later, we may never get to it.
Third, have a named project. Maisel says that this means when you sit down to do your work, you are saying, “I’m going to work on x.” This helps to focus the mind. It doesn’t mean you can’t also work on other things, but that you know for sure you will work on x.
Finally, give yourself permission. Write yourself a permission slip, if you like. Below is an excerpt of what I wrote in my journal recently. (It reflects my life as an empty nester with flexible working hours, so yours may look different!)
I give myself permission to:
structure my time as I see fit
make a mess
not have the writing go anywhere
try and fail (but not fail to try)
spend money and time on the things that advance my craft
follow where my intuition leads me
change my mind
put my work first
send out my work, or publish it myself, or leave it in my notebooks
create or experiment with new forms and think outside the box
color inside the lines, too, if I want
What would your permission slip say? I invite you to write one for yourself and find out. Perhaps it would give you permission to simply be in the moment or to play. Perhaps it would give you permission to rest or pare down your expectations—or ramp them up! Ultimately, you are the author of your own life. You get to decide.
David Allen Sullivan
You do not have to choose the bruised peach or misshapen pepper others pass over. You don't have to bury your grandmother's keys underneath her camellia bush as the will states. You don't need to write a poem about your grandfather coughing up his lung into that plastic tube—the machine's wheezing almost masking the kvetching sisters in their Brooklyn kitchen. You can let the crows amaze your son without your translation of their cries. You can lie so long under this summer shower your imprint will be left when you rise. You can be stupid and simple as a heifer. Cook plum and apple turnovers in the nude. Revel in the flight of birds without dreaming of flight. Remember the taste of raw dough in your mouth as you edged a pie. Feel the skin on things vibrate. Attune yourself. Close your eyes. Hum. Each beat of the world's pulse demands only that you feel it. No thoughts. Just the single syllable: Yes ... See the homeless woman following the tunings of a dead composer? She closes her eyes and sways with the subways. Follow her down, inside, where the singing resides.
You can find this poem at The Writer's Almanac online by clicking here. The image above is from this blog post on Teaching With Orff.