Finding Your Lost Creativity: The Artist’s Way

I used to be creative. That’s what I tell myself and other people when they ask why I don’t make music anymore. Or write. Or draw.

Creativity seem to come naturally for you, they say. But I tend to focus on my creative hobbies when my mental state exceeds a certain threshold level of anxiety.

That threshold needs greater than or equal to the level of discomfort felt while partaking in said hobby and not immediately being good at it. I used to play music in a band, until college took over my life and the work of writing melodies became a task I could barely handle because I was stretched so thin.

When my cat disappeared a couple of months ago, I went out and bought jewelry making supplies. For days, when I wasn’t obsessively refreshing the found pet ads, I was head down, furrowed brow, twisting copper wire into braided hoop earrings and delicate Starfleet insignia shapes.

That place of flow and creativity was a distraction from my otherwise overwhelming pain. I didn’t feel anxiety about whether it was good enough.

With emotional distress comes a flurry of piano keys, fluid sketches emerging from drawing skills long-neglected.

But when the overpowering overwhelm of everyday life dies down, that creative place looms distant and forbidding. I hear its echoes in the fragments of song recorded on my phone, see its shadows in the longhand scrawls of verse in the notebooks gathering dust on the bookshelves.

It never sticks. Why doesn’t it stick?

When the overwhelm dies down, I turn to focusing on my career: learning things that deep down don’t fill me with joy; doing things that feel good to check off my to-do list but feel extraneous; performing tasks that don’t scratch my itch for for purposeful living.

I’ve started taking small steps toward once again embracing creativity for creativity’s sake. Because it’s healthy, right? It’s like an apple a day for your soul.

A creative act each day keeps the mental breakdown away. Or that’s what I’m hoping for, since I’ve been dealing with mood swings and crying episodes from feeling a lack of purpose.

The Artist’s Way Saves the Day

Taking advice from the book The Artist’s Way, I’m working on writing three stream-of-consciousness pages in the morning. Sometimes I write two. Sometimes I skip a day for lack of brain functioning. But I’m getting better at it, and it seems to clarify my day’s purpose and guide me toward what I want to and should be working on.

“Art allow us to live freely, even within our restlessness…”

— Julia Cameron, Walking in this World

I picked up a copy of Walking in this World, a sequel of the Artist’s Way, on my weekly trip to the library. Skimming it has felt like a cup of (mock) chicken soup for the soul.

Julia Cameron encourages actively seeking sources of inspiration to use in your creative journey, and her books are full of exercises to help guide your purpose. Her cornerstones of artistic activity include the Morning Pages, and weekly Artist Dates and Walks.

“As artists, it serves us to consciously find windows to the world of wonder — we must locate places that open the trapdoor in our imagination and allow the breath of greater worlds to enter our too-claustrophobic lives.”

— Julia Cameron, Walking in this World

The Artists Date is an expedition to a place that interests and inspires you. It can be a thrift store, a pet store, a park you’ve been wanting to visit, or even just a trip to the art supply store to geek out over pencils.

I feel like I’ve been doing these for years with my weekly solo trips to the library or thrift store. But I feel the need to branch out and find other inspiring locales, like a tea shop, or the Japanese gardens I’ve been wanting to explore, or the Buddhist temples I’ve been longing to visit. There was something otherworldly about the first and last temple I visited, with its powerful wafting incense and soul-vibrating chants, that I want to experience again.

The weekly walks are meditative and allow you synthesize and clarify your thoughts. Especially now that it’s fall and the world smells like damp soil and crisp rain, and every day feels like it’s been borne out of a Tor Lundvall painting, I find these more inspirational than ever.

Art by Tor Lundvall

Moving Forward

I hope to be able to fill this blog with doodles, writings, and other expressions of creativity as I learn to prioritize it above the day-to-day grind. Now I’m interested to know what your creative passions are, and how you manage to you manage to keep your creativity alive in spite of a demanding 9-5 work schedule. Please leave me a note in the comments!

Training Away Dog-Dog Reactivity: Penny’s Story

Dear Reader,

Meet Penny.

Penny sitting under the Christmas tree

Penny is an eight-year-old mini schnauzer. She was adopted from the Thurston County Animal Shelter after having been found in a grocery store parking lot.

When I met her, I was surprised by her calm demeanor in spite of the chaotic shelter environment around her. While all the other dogs were yowling and yelping in their pens, Penny was cool and collected, smiling and looking around with a curious glint in her rag doll eyes. Not a peep…not even a whisper of what would come next.

I don’t know how long it took me to realize that Penny had pulled the wool over my eyes completely. She wasn’t that calm, collected dog I’d fallen in love with at the shelter.

Penny was a highly reactive dog, capable of waking everyone within a mile with her high-pitched, murderous shriek.

I noticed it when we tried taking her on walks and were literally glared at by passersby, who assumed those yelps and shrieks could only come from a dog who was being shocked, kicked, or otherwise abused.

Her main trigger was other dogs.

If she so much as heard the jingle-jangle of a dog tag, she’d lose all control of herself and begin her panicked, shrieking yelps.

If she glimpsed another dog, she’d charge at it full-force while commencing with her ‘War Cries of Schnau.’

We tried many things. I tried becoming the alpha. I tried relying on her Gentle Leader to discourage her reactivity. (We still use a Gentle Leader, but not to enforce calmness.)

Over time, we gave up walking her during the day because we always seemed to run into another dog-human duo on our outings, and I didn’t want to reinforce her absolutely insane behavior.

How Counter Conditioning Saved Our Walks

After trying various training approaches, Penny showed me that she responded most favorably to positive reinforcement training. Specifically, clicker training.

She learned tricks like targeting my pointer finger and learning to lay on a tiny doormat, all by listening for the quick pop of the handheld clicker that taught her when she was doing the correct behavior.

But her over-the-top reactivity kept us from making any strides with using positive reinforcement in her interaction with other dogs.

That is, until I heard about this one trick that I like to call Treat Party.

We’ve had groundbreaking success with this method, and it’s made it possible to finally take Penny out into the world without worrying about running into other dogs.

Here’s how it works:

Make sure you have plenty of training treats on you. I like to use Zuke’s Mini Training Treats; they’re tiny and you can use a plenty without overfilling your pup’s belly. I pack a couple handfuls in my training pouch before we head out the door.

Now — walk your dog.

If you spot another dog, keep your distance. But as soon as your dog spots the other dog, drop some treats on the ground in front of your dog.

You see, you’re trying to keep your dog calm and under its threshold — that dreaded level of reactivity that makes it impossible to get your dog to focus or do anything other than flip out.

So every time your pup spots another dog, keep your distance but drop treats every time she sneaks a peek. Here’s how Patricia McConnell explains this method:

Easiest by far for a novice owner, because it requires linking the appearance of another dog with food. Dog looks at other dog, food falls from the sky (or falls on the ground, or a toy is presented. I use this sometimes to get dogs started, especially if they are super reactive.
Dog-Dog Reactivity – Treatment Summary by Patricia McConnell

If you keep reinforcing this positive connection, something amazing will start to happen. Instead of going from zero to a hundred in terms of reactivity, your dog will start taking a second to pause when it sees another dog.

And instead of lunging and going completely berserk, she’ll instead turn her head and look right into your eyes wondering where her Treat Party is.

Penny’s Progress Report

Penny’s had huge success with this method of counter conditioning. We’ve been doing this now for about 3 months, and we’ve only had a couple slip-ups where she’s shrieked her Schnauzer shriek.

We’re back to walking her in the daylight, and don’t have to avoid entire blocks for fear of passing a fenced-in dog and setting her off. We still keep our distance, but she’s becoming more reliable at ignoring other dogs in favor of a treat or two.

I almost went into panic mode a few weeks ago when we ended up in a small town on a holiday weekend, and took Penny and her brother out on the town with us. On top of there being heavy foot traffic, there were at least 2-3 dogs on each block that we walked.

I was shocked and impressed when Penny made it through without a single terrible reaction. She lunged non-aggressively a couple of times, but there was no vocalization and she quickly snapped herself out of it and went on walking without even a backward glance at the passing dog.

Now I’d love to hear from you. How is your dog-reactive dog progressing in his/her training regimen? What methods are you using to train away this behavior?

The Complexity of Simplicity

Have you ever picked up a book at random and been surprised when it feels like it was written just for you? And not just for you. For you at this precise moment in your life.

You can flip to any page and find a passage that speaks to your soul.

That’s how I feel about The Selected Poems of Wendell Berry.

I found myself at the library ten minutes before closing time on Sunday and the flashing lights signaling for patrons to pack up and check out got my adrenaline going.

I usually give myself more time, and I needed a book like a drug to take the edge off my anxiety. So I went around grabbing stacks of paper and pushing them into my tattered reusable grocery bag.

And that’s how Wendell Berry, a name I’d heard before but never experienced, made his way onto the teetering stack of books on my nightstand.

His poems touch on subjects that have been weighing heavily on me lately…
The transitory nature of life and the world. The mechanization of work and how it distances us from feeling human. Contentment and simplicity.

He paints beautiful scenes and landscapes colored by his experience working as a farmer.

This summary from the back of the book is beautiful and accurate: “…Berry’s play of sound and syntax moves in our minds like something just remembered, and remains with us like an afterimage on the eye.”

Full disclosure: I’m not usually one to skim through or read books of poetry, but there’s so much depth and beauty between these pages that I feel like it needs to be shared.

Nothing is simple,
not even simplification.
Thus, throwing away
the mail, I exchange
the complexity of duty
for the simplicity of guilt.
— Throwing Away the Mail, Wendell Berry

You can find the book on Amazon. Or, even better, request it from your local library.