Creativity: How our challenging circumstances are the key to success

Lenne River near Werdohl, Germany
Power from obstacles. ©Laurel Decher, 2015.

My daughter and I watched THE KING’S SPEECH the other day. I’d seen it before, but the story captured me all over again. In the film, the Duke of York’s stutter seemed to be a physical manifestation of the desire to hide. No idea if that is accurate or not, medically speaking. It struck me as a powerful metaphor.

[Spoiler alert!] Why would swearing be unaffected by a stutter? I’m guessing it’s because when you swear, you aren’t trying to please anyone anymore. Someone or some situation has pushed you past everything that hems you in.

We are wonderfully made and yet disaster lurks in each one of us. THE KING’S SPEECH made me feel yet again that life is about facing up to our own weaknesses and challenges. Each of us have slightly different ones, but the ones that are unique and personal to us are the ones that lock up our greatest potential. We have the potential to become experts in those particular challenges.

Another example of this kind of courage brought tears to my eyes. The strange syndrome of Tourette’s syndrome makes some sufferers spout obscenities against their will, a vocal manifestation of an uncontrollable muscle tic. THE WORLD’S STRONGEST LIBRARIAN gave an amazing talk at the Hartford Public Library about his personal experience with Tourette’s.
It seems so mundane to find meaning in our current circumstances, but it makes some sense. Unlike an author, we can’t change our point-of-view character completely. Empathy can only take us so far.

So many of my husband’s relatives are struggling with serious chronic illness right now. When I worked in the health department, I worked conscientiously to help other people improve their health, to “solve” other people’s weaknesses and challenges. Does this work?

The most helpful health department project I evaluated during my time there was a project on breastfeeding. The breastfeeding project was both scientific and personal to me and to the others who worked on it. I applied my personal experience with two children as well as my epidemiology training. The project was effective at increasing rates of breastfeeding without formula supplementation because we applied our own experiences as well as our professional knowledge. Creativity takes all the skill and talent we have.

To really help other people, we need expert knowledge. Writers have to find resonant weaknesses in ourselves to draw a believable villain or a flawed hero in a novel. We need the same kind of imaginative vulnerability to apply knowledge to other challenges in our lives.

 

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An Ode to Rain Boots

Formal portrait of Sir Arthur Wellesley, the Duke of Wellington, who invented rain boots.
The inventor of rain boots. Thomas Lawrence [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Rain boots are also called Wellies after the Duke of Wellington, a brilliant army strategist. If the rest of the Duke’s strategy was as good as his rubber rain boots, no wonder he beat Napoleon at the Battle of Waterloo.

My husband got me new rain boots for my birthday. I wore them on a forest walk for the first time today. I feel so strong and invulnerable with them on. Mud, puddles, rain—I laugh at you!

When I was small, my brother and I wore yellow slickers, rain helmets and boots and nothing could touch us. On August afternoons in Vermont, we went out in the pouring rain, into the quiet, magical world. Everyone and everything else was in hiding but we were out in it.

Snow is quiet. Your breath in your ears is the noisiest part and the clouds of breath coming out make you feel like a dragon.

But the sound of rain covers the everyday sounds up. The cars sound different and all their motion is accented by swishing, splashing, rushing water. Water gurgles in the drain pipes and into the storm drains. We hear and see its power everywhere, but we are invincible in our rubber rain boots.

The tall grass is still wet in the meadows near my house. The horses stand patient in the meadows, heads level, droplets on their eyelashes. Do they wish for rain boots? They don’t run away from the rain. Do they stay drier standing still?

Rain boots make up for not being a horse. I’m not bothered by the water either. I walk through puddles and mud and am at home wherever I find myself.

Are you a fan of rain boots? What helps you explore and enjoy the world around you?

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Solve writing jitters the same way you solve speaking Jitters

Rope climbing course in Cologne's Rhine Park
Motion chases the jitters away. Rope climbing course in Cologne’s Rhine Park. ©Laurel Decher, 2015.

In Toastmasters, a community organization that helps people learn public speaking, I learned to move around during a speech. It really does make you feel less nervous. Your large muscles burn up the adrenaline and energy so you aren’t standing there, trembling, with your voice shaking.

If you think about it, doing something that frightens you while standing still makes no sense. It’s like playing freeze-tag with a saber-toothed tiger. Your body is trying to tell you to run away.

I recently noticed that the same thing seems to work on the page. When I start a new sketch or scene or revise a new section, I often move from one chair to another or one room to another or, best of all, from inside to outside on the balcony. Moving helps burn up the nervousness, the resistance, and the hesitation that shows up as soon as I try to challenge myself with something new.

A Scrawl Crawl is what happens when a group of artists and/or writers wander around and create word and picture sketches. It’s the ultimate writing or drawing prompt because it happens in three dimensions. The Society of Children’s Book Writers and Ilustrators members had a few all over Europe this last weekend.

A Scrawl Crawl lets you move from place to place while you write or sketch. This is what I do when I write at home in three different places. Maybe this keeps the editor brain busy with bookkeeping. On my own, I let my writing determine when I move. In a group, it works a little differently. Maybe knowing you will move at a certain time keeps the editor brain busy too?

I’ve been getting lots of chest pains during revision. I’m anxious about finishing it—I think I physically NEED to finish the edits and revisions. Mostly what helps is allowing myself to be immersed in the project. Moving helps me stay immersed.

Caught myself looking at Facebook and Twitter because I had the jitters from a new scene for my current work-in-progress. (Dumb bunny.) Surfing is the electronic version of wandering around the house to jumpstart your project. Except it doesn’t work. It just feels like moving away from the saber-toothed tiger.

On the other hand, a walk or an hour-long seminar that physically takes me away from a project often leads me back into it.

Fortunately, I know of at least two more Scrawl Crawls planned for this year: September 19th in Cologne and November 7th in Düsseldorf. More details soon on Twitter. 🙂

How about you? Does moving from place to place make you more or less productive?

Exploring: 9 Ideas For Reluctant Adventurers

Canal with houses on one side and bridge coming up in Leiden, The Netherlands
View from our boat tour in Leiden, The Netherlands

Sometimes we imprison ourselves in a little bubble and no one can reach us. When we’ve made up our minds about what something will be like, there’s no more room to see what it might be like.

A few weeks ago, I went for a hike with friends. One child in our group really, really didn’t want to come on a hike, but she enjoyed the castle ruin the more than anyone else in the group.

I’ve had similar experiences with children who didn’t want to go to a garage sale or thrift store and then found the treasure of their hearts.

Why are we (or our reluctant children) rewarded when we have a change of heart?

Is it because the decision to take part requires a change in perspective, an opening up, a willingness to engage? Sometimes we are ready to do this.

When I went to Germany for a year as an exchange student, I had studied German for years and had missed a previous opportunity. I was well prepared and eager and had a wonderful year in Marburg. Later on, I went to West Africa and wasn’t prepared. I had to work much harder to arrive. Most of the year was spent trying to catch up.

Sometimes we need help with the wanting. We don’t feel ready. We resist with all our strength. What cracks things open?

9 Ideas for Overcoming Reluctance

1. Make a wish. If you don’t want to do the work, go on the journey, visit the relatives, or take the hike, you can say to yourself:

“I WISH I wanted to do the work, go on the journey, etc.”

For some reason, this tricks the brain gently down the stream from wishing to “wanting.”

I’m stealing from someone’s work here, because I remember reading this [Brainpickings? The Sparring Mind?], but I don’t know where I read it. If you know, please let me know in the comments.

2. Security blanket. Give yourself an out. If you don’t like it, you can just go home. If you get tired, you can go to bed, read a book, take a nap. If you get hungry, you can have a snack. If this draft doesn’t work, you can delete it.

3. Look after the heart. What possible rewards could you promise yourself that fit with this particular adventure? How might this adventure help you do something that matters? I’m thinking of favorite activities or personal values. Can you play trumpet with Opa or rediscover your spouse? What kind of emotional “treat” can you build in?

4. Get ready. Put your open suitcase in a convenient place and drop things in as they come to you. Hang up a sketch of your plot line in the hallway and add ideas as you walk by.

Before I went to West Africa for a year, my mom helped me sew a “floor” onto my mosquito net “tent” so I could sleep securely.

Is there a symbolic object that makes you feel ready in a hurry? Phone? Water bottle? Daypack? Special pen? Book or magazine to read?

5. Get an observation tool. Something to help you see or hear can make it easier to slow down and experience the adventure. Camera? Sketchbook? Audio/video?

6. Get a new narrative. What do you tell yourself when you set out for adventure?

“It will be interesting to see what this is like.”

“We’re going exploring.”

“I’m sketching out a story, a character, a dialogue snippet.”

“I’m a pirate.”

Or ask others an interesting question: “What is your favorite memory from your childhood?”

7. Gain a new skill. Get help from others before you go.

My daughter’s school provided a “bike whisperer” to help kids lose the training wheels before a class bike trip.

Try an Italian phrasebook or a new method for drafting a story. Relax a rule for the journey or follow a rule you have previously ignored.

8. Embrace weakness. Remember basic needs for food, water, rest, exercise, reading, bathroom breaks, quiet and social time. Give yourselves credit for being on the adventure.

9. Most of all, watch for the unexpected reward. Start enjoying now. What is good about this situation?

A bee stung my daughter’s foot the day before a family trip to Leiden in The Netherlands. She couldn’t walk far with her swollen foot, so we took a boat tour of the canals that was the highlight of our trip. The Dutch apothecary also gave us a tip for a wonderful (and hidden) place for breakfast overlooking the city.

Bonus: I find the Bible useful for understanding my life and the world we live in. If this doesn’t interest you, feel free to skip this paragraph.

The day after our hike, this Bible verse showed up in my calendar:

“For it is God who is at work in you, both to will and to work for His good pleasure. Do all things without grumbling or disputing.” —Phil 2:13+14

This verse resonated with me because grumbling or disputing is inevitable when one person doesn’t want to come along. The German is closer to what I’m thinking about here:

“Gott ist’s, der in euch wirkt beides, das Wollen und das Vollbringen, nach seinem Wohlgefallen.”

In English, this means: God helps us to “want” and to do the work tied to the “want” to bring that “want” to fruition. To me this means I can call on God for help when I want to want the adventure, but can’t manage it on my own.

What works for you? How do you help yourself and other reluctant adventurers arrive? Have you ever overcome reluctance and found an unexpected reward?

Exploring: A word in favor of happy bees

Blooming sage with bee in windowbox
A blurry bee is a happy bee

In graduate school, my major professor, Dr. Sandra Melnick, gave me some good advice about moving to a new place:

“You have to find out what you can do there that you can’t do anywhere else. And then try it out.”

How do we thrive here? This advice is as true for gardening and writing as it is for exploring a new home. What thrives in this soil and this climate? What parts of my life hum along better here? What does this manuscript have that is new?

My balcony is an in-between place, an incubator. Our balcony is like a giant concrete bathtub with a red racing stripe. The balcony above protects us from the rain. There’s nothing remotely natural about it. It’s for a table and chairs, coffee and cake, Rhine wine and olives.

But little by little, the earth came to our balcony. First we hung up windowboxes, then insects came, then a few weeds, and the birds that dig up big clumps of dirt and chuck them over the side. Deep purple pansies transplanted themselves from the upstairs neighbor’s window boxes.

The other day I found a big, fat, caterpillar, a gift from one of the birds. Too heavy to take home to the kids? Uh, thanks.

Maybe this year is the year. We have a small peach tree in a pot and it’s making peaches again. Will they make it to peachdom this year or will they fall off like last year? A real peach would be a prize.

My daughter started 14 lemon trees from seed. There’s a world heritage site, Brühl palace near here, modelled after Versailles. Maybe they could use some lemon trees.

My tomato plants are full of promise. Their deep green leaves and stocky stems comfort me.

And so do the happy bees: I like the way their work absorbs them. They enjoy each flower on the sage. They stop in mid-flight and zigzag back to one they missed. They climb into each flower as if it were a cave full of treasure, which I suppose it is.

And the humming. Humming while you work is a good sign. Although they only hum between flowers. They also fly a little drunkenly. Are they really working? Or does the pollen load ruin their aerodynamics? It’s hard to look elegant when you have a lot to carry or a lot to learn.

Large black Wood Bee and sweet pea flowers in windowbox
A Wood Bee: even the bees are bigger in the North.

Last year, I had sweet peas in my window boxes and this Wood Bee visited often. It was so big and black I felt skittish around them, even when they were doing the happy bee thing. I thought they were some kind of GMO bee or Chernobyl bee, but they aren’t.

This year, we have different flowers so we have different bees. We live in a different place and culture and are learning to thrive. It gives me hope to see the blurry, buzzing bees on our balcony. Three are out there right now, exploring every flower they pass.

What can you do where you are that you can’t do anywhere else? What can you do with this novel, this project, this family, this class, these friends, this museum, this library, this forest that you can’t do with anyone or anything else?

Pitches and Promises: making our writing visible

Cologne Botanical Garden Waterfall Fountain
Cologne Botanical Garden Waterfall Fountain ©Laurel Decher

Pitches and promises that align the story, the agent, the publisher, the reader and ourselves will make our work visible. Last year, I participated in some writing contests for queries and for pitches and for the first 250 words and 5-page excerpts. Agent feedback surprised me:

“If you use a comp title I love, I will request more, BUT you are more likely to disappoint me, unless you can DELIVER at the level of that comp title. A hook, a comp title, a pitch: these are all promises.”

Alignment seems to be the key to becoming visible. When I write a short story, revision is about combing the story from front to back, looking for unity and reinforcing it when I find it. Making metaphors match word choice match internal character change match story problem. The same process happens in a longer book on a slightly different scale.

“Be yourself,” someone told me when I was writing a query the other day. “It’s the only way to get the right agent.”

The trouble is: we are all writers of fiction. There are so many characters inside us to choose from. How do we choose the one we will still be in 10 years?

It’s not possible. The “marriage” with an agent will have to grow as we do. So, we choose one of the people we are now. Paul Tournier’s THE MEANING OF PERSONS writes about the different personas we all are capable of assuming. This is not lying. How many children know their parents as their peers do? Or vice versa?

So, the process to find the agent who can connect to the publisher who can connect to our ideal readers is not that different from the process we use to create and refine and align our work with itself. I think people used to call this integrity. It might be less intimidating to think of it as alignment. We will certainly fail. We will certainly present ourselves in ways that we regret or that will be misunderstood or both. This is the risk of art.

We can choose to be visible, but we can’t choose to be partially visible. I recently visited the picture book museum in Troisdorf and admired the wonderful paintings of the illustrator, Janosch. A beautifully imagined city street with cobblestones and lampposts and windows that rang delightfully true. Our tour guide pulled another sketch out of her bag that was much more controversial and—dare I say?—ugly. It revealed a side of Janosch’s character that was off-putting and it did it clearly.

If we try to cover up the ugly parts of ourselves, we become cloudy and confuse people. An artist’s talent is about communication and a good artist—like a good teacher—shows his or her quirks because it is unavoidable. In high school, my friends and I used to say that the best teachers were all a little odd. This is because excellence doesn’t come in beige.

This is why we hide, even though it is fruitless. The things that hurt us and keep us from growing are under wraps. If we let them out into the light, we may not conquer them at once. We can recognize them when they ambush us. We can call them by name. We can ask for help. And the people we are asking will be able to hear us because we are not hiding.

If we want to get something across, we have to become visible and risk showing what everyone else probably already knows about us. We think our foibles are hidden, but every child knows what his or her parents can’t quite do. Every spouse knows their partner’s blind spots.

Spending so much time with our work can blind us to its strengths. Alignment might help us find them again. Tracing the chain of related character motivations, images, plot points and our own original inspiration might make the strengths visible to us, and to agents, publishers, and readers. It’s re-vision–a process we all know well–only a little more challenging because we have to re-see ourselves as well as the work.

So what does this philosophy have to do with finding a publisher? It’s the same problem we have when we write a novel. First we set readers’ expectations with the opening hook. Then, after an enjoyable ride, we keep our original promise.

These common questions are about finding connection points for the agent, publisher and reader:
•    Why did you write this book?
•    Why are you the best person to write this book?
•    What inside of you drew you to this topic, this story problem, this main character?
[Thanks to the amazing literary agent, Marietta Zacker, for this insight!]

The connection points must be true of our story. Imagination is a way of knowing, but it needs a corrective. The things we dream at night don’t necessarily work in the world we live in during the day.

There is no one right way to describe a story. It is like choosing the scale for a map or unraveling the threads in a Turkish carpet. There are probably many solutions that work. I’m guessing that the ones that work best have resonance and unity. But maybe the contrast of dissonance makes it richer. We’re back in vulnerability territory.

How to make something invisible

Think how much writing–and reading–you could get done if no one knew you were there. This is eerily simple: just use 4 lenses to bend the light around the thing you want to “cloak.”  Will we resort to deep sea fish later to help us find things in the “dark”?