Did you know that Vincent Van Gogh sold only one painting in his lifetime, and it was to his brother? Throughout Van Gogh’s life, his brother was his main admirer, even as the world didn’t understand, at the time, what Van Gogh had produced.
If he hadn’t created in spite of the lack of recognition, what would the world have lost?
Tim Buckley’s brilliant cover rendition of Leonard Cohen’s song, Hallelujah, has moved listeners around the world. I’m sure you’ve heard it. Buckley only released one studio album, Grace, to mixed reviews and a small audience. But years after his tragic passing, his Hallelujah continues to be heard by millions. (Watch the haunting video below of Buckley in concert.)
In our fame-crazed culture, selling one picture, making one album, or appealing to one person doesn’t seem like much. Celebrities in every field set a high bar for the kind of audience you need to appear successful.
And what’s the point of creating, if you’ll never do it “like that.” How would you dare call yourself a writer, artist, poet, singer, doodler, cook, designer, builder or creative spirit of any kind if your work may never reach beyond the people you know?
I can get swayed by that kind of thinking. After all, top bloggers have hundreds of thousands of followers. Then I recalibrate and remember that YOU are reading this blog right now. And that’s what matters most to me.
Big numbers aren’t always the prize.
Wanting to go viral can rob us of the joy of creating. Why not create for one person—and that person could even be you? You can have a big impact that’s not connected to big numbers.
Happily, some of my poems have been read, acknowledged and had an impact on the one person or small group they were intended for.
For example, I wrote a poem:
For a friend when she was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. She loved the poem, and kept it close to her.
As an early Father’s day gift for a friend who had recently lost her Dad. She was moved to tears.
For my Mom to let her know how much I loved and acknowledged her. (How glad I am to have done that before a stroke took away her ability to communicate.)
For a women’s gathering, reflecting on an activity we did together; it was very appreciated.
For my husband to reflect his goodness back to him. He keeps the poem tacked to his office wall so he can read it while he works.
When one person reads my poem and is moved, I feel like my work has been rewarded.
Sometimes I write poems that will never be read by another, because a flow of words happens to please me. The effort settles me, inspires me, and allows me to step into my role as creator.
When you look at your life, are there areas in which you are hesitating to claim your role as a creator, because it feels like others have done it better, or because you see recognition distributed to only a few celebrities? What would it take for you to start creating?
As I start working on my new book, a voice inside wonders if my work will ever be published or distributed to more than a few readers. Fortunately, a wiser, more writerly voice says, “Write anyway. Imagine your audience of one and write to influence one life.”
You are a creator, and it’s time to claim your place at the table of creatives. No one but you gets to vote on this.
You can create for one. Even if that person is you.
Sometimes I open the door to my mind to write and there’s nothing there. Depending on how I’m sitting (or what I’m hoping to do), this can feel like a blessing or a curse. As I was pondering what to write this week, all I could come up with was a poem by James Broughton.
THIS IS IT
This is It
and I am It
and You are It
and so is That
and He is It
and She is It
and It is It
and That is That
O it is This
and it is Thus
and it is Them
and it is Us
and it is Now
and Here It is
and Here We are
so This is It
Staring at the empty page, I ask my brain “What can I write?” And my brain, acting like that awful boy Richard in 3rd grade who taunted me relentlessly about being smart, decides to mock me and says “Nothing.” Nothing to write. No ideas. Empty.
The power of nothing.
When I dive into nothing, I always find something, But when I insist on finding something, I may only come up with nothing,
So what now?
Ring a chime. Light a candle. Just sit. Feel the muscles of my butt in the chair. The tinnitus that rings in my ears. Allow the it to be it. Sip tea. And wait.
And the words will come, or they won’t.
And you will read and enjoy, or you won’t.
And life goes on either way.
This summer, I hope we all can enjoy more beloved It-ness.
What does it mean to work creatively, and to know that you are doing the creative work that is uniquely yours to do?
These are questions I’m asking myself as I begin writing Meeting the Muse at Midlife: Finding your creative work in the 3rd act of life (book title, TBA).
Is “creative work” defined by the work itself, the project, the artistic endeavor? Is it a spirit that one brings to the process of creating? Is it about what you produce, the results?
I’d love to know what the question means to you!
The dictionary doesn’t help much. The Oxford Dictionary, defines “creative” as:
“Relating to or involving the use of the imagination or original ideas to create something.” Google’s web dictionary adds “especially in the production of an artistic work.”
That’s a simple enough definition for something scholars have spent lifetimes exploring. (There are 2772 books with “creative’ in the title in our local county library system.)
Encountering my creative muse in mid-life
In my mid-50’s I became consumed by the urge to bring more creative expression into my life. For 25 years, I had been tethered to the notion of being productive and making something of myself. My heart was tired.
Flying back from an assignment teaching in Japan, where I had been awed by the Japanese, “wabi-sabi” way of bringing artistry into day to day life, I made a commitment to myself: I would find new ways to bring creativity into my life. I would start with arranging flowers. Beyond that, I didn’t know.
Re-entering my world in Seattle, I signed up for a class on Ikebana, the Japanese art of flower arranging, a practice I am still studying. I looked for other ways to experiment with being creative and decided to wrap all my Christmas presents Japanese-style, with fabric and beautiful design, a time-intensive process that was so different than my take-five-minutes-to-stick-on-some-wrap-and-a-bow technique. I began composing music, if only in my head.
And the muse started to show up.
Listening to the muse
The muse, (that person or force, real or imaginal that inspires artists, writers and creators) kicked into gear when she discovered I was listening to her. Seeing how hungry I was to create, she began feeding me more ideas. She invited me to explore the world of gardening, and I threw myself in, big time. I experimented with developing and performing theatrical-style stories. Story-crafting opened the door to writing, which I then whole-heartedly pursued.
My muse got more interested.
One she knew I was committed, she began offering ways I could transform my business practice–to bring more games, laughter and improv theatre, into my work. Soon I was facing a threshold: I knew my consulting practice had to embody this new creative spirit and I could no longer return to my old, productivity-obsessed, habits.
The disruptive challenge: My age
All of this happened as I was tracking towards my 60th birthday, a milestone too big to ignore. How odd it felt to be kicking my creative impulse into gear and having my work/life come alive, at a time when society said I should be readying myself to retire. Was it too late to develop my creative passions/
My heart said “NO!” and that’s part of why I am writing this book: to prove to myself and demonstrate to others how this “3rd Act” stage of life (usually age 50 + but not always defined by age) might be one of our most creative.
Who knows? It may be easier to express our creative yearnings as we age, come into ourselves more, and let go of the preoccupation with what others think of us. At least I’m going with that story!
What does it mean to you to work creatively?
For me, it’s work that feels like I’m called to it, where I experience a feeling of flow; where I can approach it with a sense of wonder, curiosity, experimentation, and artistry and where the joy of creating is as important as the need to be producing.
Now why I turn this back to you, to learn how you experience working creatively.
Is it looking for ways to do common things in original ways?
Is it feeling that you are called to work out of a sense of higher purpose, vision or contribution?
Is it working from a sense of flow?
Is it tapping into the energy and joy in your work?
Is it an artistic project or desire to be artistic?
Is it challenging yourself to routine work in an artistic way?
Is it time spent hanging out and just listening to your muse?
Is it waking up energized in the morning, knowing that you have a special project ahead of you?
Whatever it is, in your language, I’d love to know.
Since you’re going to get older, why not get a bit bolder?
I heard those words last week from Dr. Bill Thomas when he offered a live, theatrical event entitled Life’s Most Dangerous Game, designed to disrupt how we think about aging. Bill, whom I had the privilege of interviewing earlier this year, is the author of Second Windand is a force for changing the public’s perceptions of elderhood. Combining medical science, music, movement, and stories into an evening’s entertainment, he challenged us to see new possibilities in aging.
Like living a little more dangerously.
And why not? In letting go of caring so much what people think of us, we, with either age or acquired wisdom, may find new voices within ourselves to speak out about issues where we once would have remained silent. We may speak out to include people whose voices aren’t being heard in public debate. Or, we may choose to stay silent, when we decide that some of our small annoyances don’t need to be expressed.
For example, in Washington State, few politicians dare to address a very critical issue: state tax reform. You know who does? A group of vocal elders in one of Seattle’s retirement communities. They are speaking out about the issue. They are choosing the dangerous game.
One way to live more boldly is to dare to express more of yourself. Even in how you dress.
It’s interesting that so many large stores, like Nordstrom, tend to ignore the 50 plus woman, as if they’ve forgotten who controls much of the country’s purse strings. They use fashion models and mannequins that look like they’ve barely escaped puberty. I say, “No matter.” Letting older women fly under the radar of the merchandisers might be a good thing. It gives us more freedom to enjoy ourselves on our terms.
When we dress to go out, we don’t yearn for cat-calls, wolf whistles, or future reproductive partners (if we ever did). We can dress to express ourselves and have fun.
My elegant friend, Anna Martinsen, a former image consultant and personal shopper, told me that your style comes out of knowing who you are. In that, older women may have a distinct advantage.
For many of us, it’s time to be bold as we express our style. Say good-bye to trendy. Good-bye to trying to fill the holes in our socially-punctured self-esteem by buying stuff we don’t really need. And good-bye to most of the rules that have told us how to be.
And hello to becoming dangerous.
One of my friends in Seattle, Alene Moris, has been an advocate for women and social justice for many years. Last November, when her friend, Hilary Clinton, lost the presidential election, Alene was devastated. At 89, she knew that her dream of a woman president of the United States would almost certainly not be realized in her lifetime.
She grieved. And then, persisted
Age has just made her bolder. She continues to inspire people to keep working for the changes Alene herself may never see. Her work will not end with her. That’s why she’s doubly dangerous.
When you’re committed to working for something that’s out of reach in your lifetime—you’ve got real power.
Bill Thomas was right: aging may have its merits. We get older. We grow bolder. We become dangerous.
I recently had an opportunity to tour Blue Origin, Jeff Bezos’ privately-funded aerospace manufacturer and spaceflight services company. Tucked in an industrial area near Seattle, with no signage divulging its name, Blue Origin felt to me like a cross between the National Air and Space museum, a state of the world design/manufacturing plant, and Disneyland.
Inside the facility, we were invited to enter a version of the shiny projectile-shaped spacecraft described by Jules Verne in his 1865 classic, From the Earth or the Moon. Elegantly furnished with hardwood paneling and Victorian-era memorabilia, the elegant four-chaired sitting room takes you back to a period when space travel was only a fantasy. Now, if company staff members want to refuel their imaginations, they can hold a meeting in the small chamber.
A thrill for me was sitting in a mock-up of the space capsule, currently under construction, which will someday take six passengers for a ride up into space and back. As I climbed into one of capsule’s six reclining, contoured seats, shaped to protect me from the gravitational thrust of a launch and landing, I had a mini-flight experience. I heard the roar of the launch, felt the capsule shake, and watched a video simulation of what I might see out of the large window to my right on a real flight. (Watch a video simulation here.)
Don’t expect to fly economy class any time soon!
Like all visitors, I was sworn to not divulge any other amazing stuff I saw at the facility. But imagine this hypothetical scenario: What if you were the second richest man on earth and had a dream, which you could personally fund, so you were able to hire some of the world’s best and brightest engineers and manufacturing professionals and support them to have fun as they designed and built a piece of the future? Without investors, you wouldn’t need to pressure staff to be profitable from the git-go, yet your staff would inevitably make some incredible discoveries as they worked at the edge of science, engineering and manufacturing. And, chances are, some of those discoveries would be useable in as yet unimagined ways.
As I toured the company’s foyers, I saw numerous displays of aerospace memorabilia as well as bold and inspiring quotes.
This one by Antoine de Saint Exupery, author of The Little Prince, and himself an aircraft designer, really caught my eye:
“A designer knows he has achieved perfection not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.” *
That phrase applies both to engineering and to art.
The art of taking away
For ten years, I’ve been a beginning student of the Sogetsu School of Ikebana, “the Japanese art of flower arranging”—to use a poor but literal translation. Ikebana International calls Ikebana “a disciplined art form in which the arrangement is a living thing where nature and humanity are brought together. It is steeped in the philosophy of developing a closeness with nature.”
Instead of arranging flowers by filling a vase Western-style, (which I admittedly still do when my garden is in its abundance), you focus, in Ikebana, on form and movement, line and mass, and highlighting empty space, often pruning material until the essence of an arrangement is revealed.
For as long as I study, I will be training my eye to see “when there is nothing left to take away.” My amazing Japanese teacher, Nobuko Relnick, is able to see what I cannot. Even with fifty years of teaching, she continues to study and approaches her creations with a mix of humility, reverence, delight and art. For me, this is about more than flower arranging: it’s a practice for life.
Four questions for you
Last week, I shared with you that I am starting on a book project (gulp!). Thanks to those who sent encouraging words. I realize that in adding a big project to my life, I may need to simplify, and look for what is no longer essential that I can prune away.
In the spirit of paring down this post, I leave you with these questions:
What is essential to you right now?
What clear lines, patterns or forms are revealing themselves in your life?
What is happening in the invisible or unsaid (or as an artist would say “negative space”) as well as in the visible and spoken aspects of your life?
What would your need to prune to heighten the beauty and purpose of your work or life?
(*As a quote checker, I think the translation by Eric Raymond may have slightly embellished, but I’ll let it stand as it was on the wall at Blue Origin.)
Before a dream can be transformed into a project in the world, it has to be born.
We talk about “making” dreams come true, but isn’t that a bit pushy for something as tender as a dream? Many books and articles on entrepreneurship explode with archetypically male images about making things happen, straining and striving for success, competing and winning, and being the best.
Let’s add another, gentler perspective.
How about including a few more classically feminine images to describe the process of bringing an idea to life, especially as it just starts to emerge into the world? Words like midwifing and birthing come to mind. Dreams are delicate, especially the ones that we have held deep in our hearts, for many years, waiting until the time was right to bring them forward. Turning a dream into a project, whether it’s a business, book, or some other creative form, requires some tenderness.
After all, you are asking your dream to leave the warm, liminal space where it has been living in your imagination and confront the light of day. That’s risky business.
We need to honor the transition of taking an idea from its secret place in your mind into the world.
When a woman is pregnant, much anticipation and preparation precedes the birth. Selected friends and colleagues are informed; there may be a celebration. The mother prepares herself over the months as she experiences her baby in the womb; the family prepares the baby’s room.
It’s a time for joyful anticipation, not for making decisions about who the child is going to be, and whether she or he should go to Harvard, the Colorado School of Mines, inherit the farm, or become a baker. Parents may hold off picking a baby’s name until they sense the nature of their precious offspring. As the baby is born, no one is grading or evaluating it. (At least I hope not!) The baby needs time to grow, discover his or her nature and find a place in the world.
Don’t new projects need a little time to grow and find themselves, too?
Midwifing the start of a book
I’ve decided to start writing a book. Maybe you’re cringing as you read this, knowing how many people you remember who have said, “I’m going to write a book someday.” When it comes to writing, I believe that either you are writing a book (interesting to me), or you’re thinking about writing one (not as much). I want to move quickly into the former.
I’ve been thinking about the idea (without announcing it) for several years. Not every dream wants to come to life. I have lots of ideas, and I can only sink my time, spirit and resources into a few of them. With this project-idea, I asked myself:
Is my dream begging to come forward?
Do I love it?
Do I believe that it’s needed?
Is this something I feel I have to do?
It took a while to feel certain, but when I heard my “Yes,” the journey of birthing my project began.
Now, as I midwife it into action, I find myself on a journey where I want to learn and share about how we navigate the very delicate, early stage of a creative project. It’s that time on a project when you put in a lot of effort, yet have very little to show. It’s a time for trusting and holding the course until you start building momentum and see the work start to bare fruit.
How my idea started
The genesis of my big idea began five years ago when I turned 60. I became inspired, even haunted, by the question: “What does it take to re-invent your career/work/life at a time when your friends are beginning to retire?” What I came to believe is that our second half (or “third act”) of life may be our most creative period of life, if we honor our sense of calling and design our work/lives to support what we believe we are meant to do. In this day and age, I think a lot of us are want, or need, to work, paid or volunteer, long after we turn 65.
Do I know what kind of book this should be? No. Am I sure my idea has to become a book? No. Will I self-publish or seek a publisher? Who knows! I want the dream to have a little time to walk about in the world and I need to get better acquainted with my project by writing.
So here’s my plan for the very early, early stage of birthing a dream into a project:
Speak about it – with caution
It’s a big deal for me to tell you what I’m doing, but speaking it helps to make the project real for me. I see my own words flowing on to the page and I learn about them. I watch my friend’s eyes light up when I say what I am doing. Sharing helps me to take my idea out of my head and bring it into the world.
I’m NOT announcing to everybody, including the few friends I have who have a strong evaluative sense and will want to “help” by telling me whether or not it is a good idea. That’s not the feedback I need…yet.
Play with it and let it move
I want to do lots of free-writing and research and let my book-child wander about while I observe the paths that she follows. I want to know what she (the book) is asking of me. I also want to learn about my beloved, potential audiences and how they respond to what I’m creating.
Create some structure to support me
My life is full. LOTS of elements compete for my attention. I need a structure to insure that the book moves forward. Step one: spend a chunk of change on an eight-month program for writers who wish to create compelling books. There’s nothing like spending money to help me put a stake in the ground. I trust that the reinforcement of being in a community with a structured program will be very helpful.
Build daily practices that support the work
I’m still working on this one. Have any hints for me from your experience? Write every morning? Periodically dance what I am discovering? Create some touch points when I will check in with friends, thus giving myself mini-deadlines? To be discovered!
Celebrate the pregnancy as well as the birth
The book may take a long time to complete. I can’t wait that long to celebrate. Maybe I need to start by celebrating that I’m swinging out, daring to feel vulnerable, feeling uncertain, and, at the same time, ecstatic.
Thanks for letting me share the dream with you as it moves into the world. I hope I can do the same in return for you. Do let me know!