I can't believe I'm already halfway through my reading goal for the year! 30 felt like a very ambitious number based on the average amount of books I've read over the past several years. Once college started, I limited myself to books that I felt were directly functional/helpful in my life in some way...books that I "should" read. But the more I limited myself to what I "should" read, the more I struggled to read as much as I felt I should. But there was a big shift over the past couple of years for me, and now I'm reading more than ever.
This issue with "should" wasn't just present in my reading. It was everywhere. My housework. My practicing. My writing. My studio management. My eating. My exercise. I felt that every spare moment should be spent doing what "should" be done. However I was doing it had to be the "right" or "good" or "efficient" way. I was exhausted all of the time, and I was becoming more and more resentful of everything that needed to get done, while also resenting anyone who was getting in the way of getting things done (including myself). Meanwhile, I watched my partner Andy letting himself have fun while also being extremely prolific. It became more and more obvious that my approach was neither effective nor necessary.
Julia Cameron says you have to satisfy the inner child so you can get work done. Similarly, Jung said, "What you resist, persists." Brené Brown's research found that Wholehearted people prioritized playtime in their lives. Thanks to writers like these and the help of my wonderful therapist and coach, I've been working through the fears that had me dragging along under the whip of responsibility while resisting my playful, childish side.
When I'm resisting fun (which means I'm not really working, either), it often takes the form of mindlessly alternating between social media apps. My well of joy is running dry, and my inner child is refusing to let me work until I go play and refill it with something that's legitimately satisfying playtime...not just another game of Candy Crush. Once I stop resisting that need, I not only have a great time, but I can get work done afterwards with much better energy. I still have to deal with things that should get done, but I'm no longer too exhausted to deal with them.
One of the best parts of more playtime? There's a new sparkle in my creations. When my notes, words, and rhythms emerge from a place of "Why not? It's fun and I like it!" instead of "I should do it this way because...," the work feels more like me and I enjoy it more.
I've been using this approach more in lessons, too. When students find their own sense of fun and joy in self-guided projects that seem like a diversion from the path or approach I'm envisioning, the student almost always comes back to things they "should" be doing on their own later because the "shoulds" help them achieve the things that brings them joy. They still have "shoulds" to do in their assignments that they don't really consider fun, but when they have some joy and self-directed goals mixed in, they actually do more of the "shoulds."
I would previously have labeled this "fun-first" approach "procrastinating," but I realize now that it's completely necessary. It's not just a backdoor approach to productivity. It makes me a more complete, less anxious, healthier, more joyful human being.
What are your experiences with playtime and productivity?
I'm a huge fan of The Artist's Way by Julia Cameron. I've been using her tools since grad school, and I can't say enough about how much they've helped me. One of those tools is Morning Pages, which is about 30 minutes of putting stream-of-consciousness thought on paper first thing in the morning. No editing. No judgement. Just writing down whatever's on your mind. Morning Pages are for you and you alone.
I was surprised by how helpful Morning Pages were when I first started using them. There was less mental chatter and clutter. I was better able to focus on the important things in my day. I could better separate the Censor from helpful thoughts. I was less stressed. I got more done. I got past hurdles that had been present for a long time, many of which hadn't been obvious to me until I started doing the Pages.
This past year, as I read researcher Brené Brown's book Daring Greatly, I constantly ran into data that strongly supported what I had been doing with Cameron's tools.
Though Brown has a different name for The Censor ("Shame Gremlins"), she confirms that those voices are paralyzing to our artistic work, and their weapon of choice is shame. Shame doesn't want us to connect with our truth, and it doesn't want us to connect with people. This is toxic to great art, which is all about connecting with people. Shame tells us that we're alone, that we deserve to be alone, and that no one wants to hear what we have to say. When The Censor creeps in, it tells us we need to either hide, run away, or put up our defenses...anything besides just being present and vulnerable.
I think a quick summary of shame vs. guilt is necessary here for those of you who haven't read Brown's research and may feel that shaming is good for us. Research says otherwise. Guilt is good for us. Shame is not. Our bodies and minds process shame differently than guilt. When we've done something that wasn't so great, the Censor/Shame Gremlins tell us we're inherently bad and unworthy of human connection. In contrast, the more rational Voice of Guilt tells us we did something bad, but that we're still worthy of connection. The difference is immense. Shame makes us want to hide or deny what we did so we don't lose the human connection we all need. Guilt allows us to take responsibility, apologize, and change behavior because we believe human connection will still be there when we do, and will likely be even stronger as a result.
So here's why all of that's important to me as a performer and a teacher: an artist can't move forward with the parts of their work that have shame wrapped around them. Here are some examples of shame experiences I've witnessed:
- I'm ashamed of being loud. Being loud is obnoxious and not ladylike. Being loud means I'm a failure as a woman. (This student resists singing loudly.)
- I'm ashamed of being soft. Being soft is weak. Being soft means I'm a failure as a man. (This student resists singing softly and uses excess tension to make a "strong" sound.)
- I'm ashamed of my body, or a particular part of my body. Being on stage draws attention to it. Moving it draws attention to it. Thinking about it draws attention to it. (This student can't feel that part of their body. They either move it too much or too little.)
- I'm ashamed of having an opinion. My opinion isn't important enough to share with other people. It's selfish to say what I think and feel. (This student holds back their sound by any means necessary: shallow breaths, frozen body, constricted throat, etc.)
- I'm ashamed of a particular idea being heard. That idea will make my friends and family turn their backs on me, and I don't want to be alone. (This student holds back their sound and avoids singing material with themes they fear will jeopardize their important relationships.)
- I'm ashamed of being wrong. I feel like no one will like me unless I have the right answer. (This student puts undue pressure on themselves to avoid mistakes. They rarely try new things unless they're sure they'll be good at it. When they're given feedback, the student will either deny the problem, run away to a situation where they think they won't have to deal with feedback, or try to hurt anyone who gives them feedback.)
- I'm ashamed of being successful as a musician. My loved ones deserted me around the time I started experiencing more success in music. (This student self-sabotages so they won't risk being so good that their so-called loved ones desert them again.)
While I use many physical tools to help people with technical elements like volume, tone, movement, tension, balance, and alignment, I have found that shame is a wall that I can rarely break through with vocal exercises. In fact, as soon as an exercise I've created begins to deal with an area that has shame surrounding it, the student's body will often go into the fight-or-flight-or-hide mode. It's a tightrope act to guide a student through those moments. I take cues from the body and voice to determine whether the student is ready to experience a release from whatever is holding them back. Sometimes they are. Sometimes they're not. When they're not, the technical issue will often get worse or the student will shut down, in which case I know it's time to change focus. Once a student has started addressing the shame around that area/issue, gentle exercises will lead to a much-needed release in the body and sound rather than shutting down or armoring.
Breaking through shame requires breaking our silence, and that's ultimately up to the student. As Brown says, "Shame thrives in secrecy." Twelve step programs have often said, "You're only as sick as your secrets." Research is proving this to be true. In fact, it's showing that keeping it hidden can actually be more damaging than the trauma that initially triggered it. Thankfully, the data also shows that people who break their silence about trauma and shame experience improved physical health, decreased doctor's visits, and significant decreases in stress hormones (Brown, Daring Greatly, p. 82).
So what do Morning Pages have to do with all of this? Well, writing can be a great way for students to work through their thoughts and feelings outside of lessons.
Psychologist James Pennebaker and his colleagues have done research on the phenomenon of writing in relation to healing from trauma and shame:
Connecting with others is exactly what we do as artists, and when our shame gets in the way of connection, our artistry is muffled. Morning Pages (or whatever you prefer to call them) are a way to begin to break the silence of our shame and release a fuller experience in our artistry, and they are a great way to do that privately. I also highly recommend reading Cameron and Brown's books for working through shame issues. The books contain many other very helpful tools, as well.
Finally, I believe it's important to say that while I think Morning Pages and books like these are a great place to start, I believe that finding a good, trusted therapist is extremely important if you're going to make good art. If you're thinking, "I don't need a therapist. I not crazy," please know that just like trauma and shame, therapy isn't just for people who've been through extreme experiences. We all need an unbiased guide who has a bird's eye view on our journey, who can support us when we're terrified of feeling our emotions, and with whom we can celebrate when we emerge on the other side.
Have you experienced beneficial effects in your life and art from Morning Pages / Journaling / Writing? I'd love to hear about them in the comments.
I recently posted that I’m working through The Artist’s Way with a group of artists from various mediums. For those who aren’t familiar with it, the book helps people remove blocks to their creativity. Blocks can prevent someone from doing creative work or they can prevent an already prolific artist from making art that connects to their most genuine self. I use the tools in the book to get help with both kinds.
Author Julia Cameron summarizes the concept:
“In order to work freely on a project, an artist must be at least functionally free of resentment (anger) and resistance (fear). What do we mean by that? We mean that any buried barriers must be aired before the work can proceed. The same holds true for any buried payoffs to not working. Blocks are seldom mysterious. They are, instead, recognizable artistic defenses against what is perceived (rightly or wrongly) as a hostile environment.”
My goals for this reading
- Compose more.
- Play more, as in the childhood idea of play.
My favorite things to do
- Morning Pages, which are the three pages of stream-of-consciousness brain drivel you dump into a journal every morning. I’ve been doing these things for almost 10 years now, and they’re more consistent than most things in my life. They help me translate my worries, anger, jealousy, and frustration into do-able, manageable actions. When I don't do them, it's hard to hear through the jabber to the more important and enjoyable things I could be doing that day.
- Reading the week's chapter and doing the assigned tasks every week. The tasks in particular are super helpful, plus I have a genuine love for anything that involves reading and writing. I also love organization, goal-setting, and time-management stuff, so those things always get a big jolt of action when I work through the tasks. I’m also fascinated by the “why” of behavior, and the tasks help me answer that question about myself. I’ll never tire of self-analyzation. Thankfully, there’s plenty of “so now what?” exercises to help me develop a new behavior once I get to the bottom of an old one.
Things that are challenging
- The weekly Artist Date, which is playtime with your inner child. I don’t think I went on a single one the first time I did the book. I didn’t do much better the second and third reading, either. Historically, I haven't been very good at playtime. As a kid, I dreaded recess, PE, role play, etc. I get a little better at incorporating more Artist Dates each time, but they’re still a struggle. You’d think the thing that’s supposed to be the most fun would be the easiest to include, but, for various reasons, it hasn't been.
My biggest revelations so far
- I’ve made a lot of progress since my first reading of the book in grad school almost 10 years ago. Tasks that were really difficult before are much easier now. I’ve incorporated a lot of activities into my life to the point that I'm finding I've already done some tasks before knowing they were assigned for the week. Also, Cameron’s regular encouragement is now more like a pleasant reminder than a life-changing revelation.
- There’s almost always an irrational, imperfect something-or-other in someone else’s art that seems to attract me to it. This is freeing me to not only be illogical sometimes, but to not freak out when something’s not perfect.
- I can like or want stuff without always having to analyze or critique or defend it. Sometimes I don’t like a piece of art despite it having all of the “right” elements. This reminds me that people will have a gut reaction to my art no matter how “right” or “good” it is. Some will like it. Some won’t. It’s not always about perfection. Sometimes it's about imperfection.
- I can and should be willing to be childlike and make mistakes and look silly at any age. It is the only way I can get better at things that I’m not very good at. This is one of the roots of my issues with play and fun.
- I want to write a lot more. As soon that thought peeked through, there were a bajillion memories that flooded in and made me realize, “Of course I want to write!” But it hadn’t really occurred to me that it was something I needed to unblock until this time through the book. I'm not ready to say, "I want to be a writer," but I know I want the process to be a bigger part of my life.
Concrete things I’ve done since starting the book
- I’m writing a lot more.
- I identified wasteful spending of time and money and cut back on both.
- I’ve spent some of that previously mis-spent money on inexpensive luxuries that are good for my body and my soul.
- I’m taking care of my body more.
- I’ve unearthed projects that went dormant.
- I’ve thought of new projects.
- Most importantly, I’ve taken steps to get those old and new projects moving. Calls have been made. Emails sent. Practice time increased. Compositions are emerging. Gigs scheduled.
- Singing or playing or composing involves more smiling and dancing and laughing lately.
- Mistakes are less embarrassing and paralyzing.
- My partner and I have learned new ways to separate the wheat from the chaff in terms of our time and resources, both together and apart. We’re getting more done, spending more time together, and having more fun.
As I re-read all of that, it seems like a ridiculous amount of good stuff that can come out of one book in such a short time, but it’s all true. This is why I’m doing it for the 4th time.
Have you read The Artist’s Way? What did you think? Leave some thoughts in the comments.
I tell people often that The Artist’s Way might be the most important book in my life so far. I'm currently reading it for the fourth time. Author Julia Cameron’s words, tools, and exercises have helped me deal with things that can block my creative life....things like perfectionism, fear, anger, jealousy, and shame. They have helped me develop healthier self-care, relationships, confidence, and time management. This stuff has been a part of my life for almost ten years now, and its power invites me back every couple of years to seek a new level of authenticity and artistic output.
In the past, this process has been very private for me, but this time around, I decided I wanted to try sharing it with a group. Cameron actually gives guidelines for something like this, which she calls “Sacred Circle” or the “Creative Cluster.” In January, I put out an open invite to join me on Thursday nights for a Creative Cluster at our house to discuss thoughts while working through the book. Twelve people responded.
That first Thursday after my last music lesson, I brewed a pot of coffee, opened a bottle of wine, put on the kettle for tea, lit some candles at the dining room table, and put some music on the stereo. I continue to do those same things every week. Those little rituals help me center after a long day of focusing on my students. The artists start trickling in one by one, sometimes with a treat or a favorite beer to share, and always with a week of experiences in their hearts to bring to our table. We check in a bit over a drink of choice, then settle into seats around the dining room or living room. We talk about the chapter, the tasks, the basic tools, our work, our triumphs, our struggles, and a mish mash of other interesting stuff.
Our first few weeks were a bit awkward in terms of conversation. Since we weren't really there for small talk, we were all learning to navigate different conversational styles in the midst of diving into nitty-gritty ideas and issues. It took us a few weeks to adjust to each other. Also, people struggled with Cameron's word usage (the word "God" in particular carries a lot of baggage), and it was easy to veer off into theology rather than talking about our own work with the tools and the tasks that week. Once we got through that group block, we were able to talk more and more about our actual work. We each respond to the chapters differently, and one week's tasks will be extremely exciting for one person while they may be neutral or even scary for another. Needless to say, conversation is always interesting.
I think I can safely say that everyone is seeing small, important changes with the use of the tools and tasks, and hearing about their changes always makes me want to try new things. Serendipitous situations are happening that are helping people take new steps with their art, and those steps give me hope. Having a weekly meeting is forces me to reflect and acknowledge those changes I'm making each week...changes that may have gone unnoticed otherwise. I see that everyone has weeks where they don’t get as much done as they’d have liked, and yet progress is still happening. Hearing about someone else’s failure can dissipate the paralyzing shame surrounding my own. Hearing about someone else’s success can fan a dwindling flame of enthusiasm. If I do nothing that week but come to the meeting, that in itself is an action that usually leads to something else.
As of last night, we're 2/3 of the way through the book. Hard to believe we only have one month to go. Each artist who sits at the table each week is shaping me, challenging me, and encouraging me just by sharing their own process. It is indeed sacred time. I'm already thinking about the next books I'd like to work through with others.
Have you been part of an artist group of some kind? I’d love to hear about it in the comments.