The Practice of Creativity

Posts Tagged ‘Eric Maisel

Over the past two weeks I’ve had the opportunity to practice being ‘a writer in public’. Often aspiring writers write behind closed doors and without many opportunities to get publicly affirmed about their writing efforts. It’s hard to claim a writing identity if one isn’t widely published. If you’re working 9-5 and writing at night (or on the weekends), there’s little time to go to readings, writers’ conferences or open mics where you can be a writer in public. However, a bit of practicing being a writer in public provides a wonderful psychological boost, lessens isolation, helps you understand the business of writing and can form part of your writing education. You can also claim a writing identity without embarrassment and thwart imposter syndrome feelings with a bit of practice. Here are some observations and tips:

Ways to Practice Being a Writer in Public: Attend Writers’ Conferences

I attended the spring North Carolina Writers’ Network Conference. It’s a one day affair that includes craft workshops, lunch with an author, faculty readings, a panel with editors and an open mic reading. I’ve attended this conference before, but this time I was with several members of my core writing community; people who I knew well.  We encouraged each other to embody being a writer in public.

Practice your pitch before you go. Whether you’re working on a memoir or a collection of short stories, you need a 2-3 sentence description that engages the listener and that rolls off your tongue. You need this pitch not only for when you are lucky enough to bump into agents and editors at a bar or in the elevator, but  in order to talk with fellow writers that you’ll meet(who may be able to support you in a variety of surprising ways). This is your way of making a good impression on people, so don’t leave it to chance. More likely than not, you’ll feel tongue-tied, anxious and inadequate if you don’t role play ahead of time. My writing friends and I practiced our pitches on the ride to the conference. For great ideas about learning how to pitch and deal with any fears or anxiety that might arise, see Eric Maisel’s Living the Writer’s Life.

Bring a short polished piece to read for open mic. Many writing conferences feature an open mic program that you can sign up for when you arrive. A writer is always working on something and should always have something to read.  The piece that you read should be short and polished, somewhere between 5-8 minutes.  My friend and writing buddy, Santa Al is working on a memoir about his twenty year career as a professional Santa and he signed up and got to read during the NCWN conference. He received wonderful feedback from audience members and successfully peaked people’s interest in his work. This year, I didn’t read and I was annoyed with myself that I didn’t take time to prepare anything. Reading in public makes it that much easier for fellow writers to walk up to you, introduce themselves and ideally tell you how much they enjoyed what you read.

Visit the book exhibit and chat up folks, and bring mints and use them, especially at the end of the day. At a good writers’ conference everyone is tired at the end of the day. If you’ve had a successful time you’ve met other writers, learned new craft techniques, and heard heated exchanges about the future of publishing. By the end of the day you’ll probably head over to the book exhibit which is where you’ll find editors of small presses (and sometimes big presses), literary journals and magazines hanging out. You want to walk up, fresh-faced, with some energy left and have a friendly chat. The last thing you want to worry about is bad breath.

My writing friend Whitney and I made our way to the book exhibit an hour before the end of the conference. We happened upon the Press 53 booth, a unique small press devoted to publishing short story and poetry collections. Press 53 is also the publisher of the works of our beloved writing teacher, Marjorie Hudson. Kevin Morgan Watson, the publisher greeted us and immediately made us feel welcome. Full of energy, he engaged us quickly. While I was trying to talk about the finer points of speculative fiction and whether he publishes it or not, I couldn’t help but wondering, Wow, is my breath kicking it? Don’t let this happen to you! Bring mints and use them.

Ways to Practice Being a Writer in Public: Writer: Support a Published Writer

I was invited by my writing teacher, Marjorie, to drive and accompany her to a speaking event. We drove to Winston-Salem, visited the offices of Press 53 and hung out with Kevin Watson (I made sure to have fresh breath this time!), and were hosted by Vijya, a local aspiring writer and gracious host.

(Kevin Watson and Marjorie Hudson)

We had dinner, got settled and were off to the event at the public library (part of the ‘Road Scholar’ program of the North Carolina Humanities Council that helps bring writers to local communities). Marjorie’s talk focused on mosaic writing in nonfiction that incorporates historical detail, memoir, and fictional interludes as her Searching for Virginia Dare does brilliantly. We came back to Vidya’s house and got to listen to Marjorie and Steve Mitchell (a new Press 53 author) talk about the writing life and the challenges of book promotion. The next day, we were up and on the road to Barnhill’s Books, a thriving small bookstore that also sells local wine and art, where Marjorie did a lunch with author event. During this trip, I felt privileged to glimpse a working writer living the writer’s life: speaking, promoting, coaching, and book signing.

Volunteer to support a writer that you know—Writers always need more support. If you have a friend or an acquaintance who has recently published a book, offer to help them promote it in some way. Be a personal assistant or driver for a day. If they are scheduled to give readings, see if you can help carry books, set up a display, sell books, and assist with small tasks that would make their life easier. You can learn a lot from watching how other writers handle being in the public eye.

When you sell books, bring a nice tablecloth—Marjorie brought along a white tablecloth to cover the ordinary table set up for me to sell her books. That simple item elevated the feel of the room.

Chat up bookstore managers and owners. They are a wealth of knowledge! They sometimes are also writers. Ask them about their work and tell them about yours.

(Marjorie doing a book signing, and above-hanging out with the manager at Barnhill’s)

Ways to Practice Being a Writer in Public: Read Your Work to an Audience

And finally, Marjorie held a reading for her students at the wonderful McIntyre’s Fine Books. Since June 2010 writers have been meeting with her in a variety of venues to generate new writing from prompts, work on revision and make their writing dreams come true. She printed up a program, brought food, and invited the writing community. It was an elegant, professional and supportive event. Few writing teachers would make the time to support students like this and her students are incredibly lucky. I read two poems. They were both poems I read before but not to a big formal audience. I enjoyed reading and hearing the compelling work of other aspiring writers.

(me, reading my work)

If you get to read your work in public, be gracious if someone compliments you on your writing. Don’t say that you’re not really a writer because you’re not published yet (or published widely), or let any negative comments about your work leak out. Shine in the moment.

So, how have you been practicing being a writer in public?

(Photo credit Jesse Akin)

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If you’ve ever explored how to develop your creativity, then you’ve probably heard of Eric Maisel. Eric Maisel is a pioneer in the field of creativity. As a coach and therapist he specializes in confronting the psychological challenges of creating. His significant body of work tackles the myriad external and internal dilemmas that creators face.

I met Eric, at a book signing, when I was a postdoctoral fellow living in the Bay area. I knew and loved his no nonsense approach to creativity from his books, so I jumped at the chance to see him in person. He announced an experimental program that he was starting—creativity coaching. His new program was a 16 week, email based training designed to teach people the principles for supporting others to create and explore issues and tensions in their own creative lives. The coaches in training would simultaneously coach volunteers online (screened by Eric), for free. Hearing about this innovative program electrified me and a year later I took him up on his offer and loved every minute of the training. My training was almost a decade ago and it sparked my coaching practice, The Creative Tickle®. His work continues to influence, inspire and surprise me.

His new book, Rethinking Depression, tackles the complex subject of depression and is for anyone that struggles with finding meaning in their life. Do you have a life-purpose vision? And do you engage in self-care? Rethinking Depression “is dedicated to helping readers create.” This book does two important things: 1) challenges the view that depression is a disease 2) provides the reader with a complete program for addressing human sadness.

Following is a short article that introduces Rethinking Depression followed by a Q & A.

Rethinking Depression
By Eric Maisel

There is something profoundly wrong with the way that we currently name and treat certain human phenomena. When we call something a “mental disease” or a “mental disorder” we imply a great deal about its origins, its treatment, its intractability, and its locus of control. The mental health industry has its reasons for calling life’s challenges “disorders” but we have few good reasons to collude with them.

In fact, the word depression has virtually replaced unhappiness in our internal vocabularies. We feel sad but we call ourselves depressed. Having unconsciously made this linguistic switch, when we look for help we naturally turn to a “depression expert.” We look to a pill, a therapist, a social worker, or a pastoral counselor — even if we’re sad because we’re having trouble paying the bills, because our career is not taking off, or because our relationship is on the skids. That is, even if our sadness is rooted in our circumstances, social forces cause us to name that sadness “depression” and to look for “help with our depression.” People have been trained to call their sadness “depression” by the many forces acting upon them, from the mental health industry to mass culture to advertising.

Chemicals have effects and they can alter a human being’s experience of life. That a chemical called an antidepressant can change your mood in no way constitutes proof that you have a mental disorder called depression. All that it proves is that chemicals can have an effect on mood. There is a fundamental difference between taking a drug because it is the appropriate treatment for a medical illness and taking a drug because it can have an effect. This core distinction is regularly obscured in the world of treating depression.

Psychotherapy, too, can help remediate sadness for the simple reason that talking about your problems can help reduce your experience of distress. Psychotherapy works, when it works, because the right kind of talk can help reduce a person’s experience of unhappiness. To put it simply, chemicals have effects and you may want those effects; talk can help and you may want that help. Antidepressants and psychotherapy can help not because they are the “treatment for the mental disorder of depression” but because chemical have effects and talk can help.

By taking the common human experience of unhappiness out of the shadows and acknowledging its existence, we begin to reduce its power. At first it is nothing but painful to say, “I am profoundly unhappy.” The words cut to the quick. They seem to come with a life sentence and allow no room for anything sweet or hopeful. But the gloom can lift. It may lift of its own accord — or it may lift because you have a strong existential program in place whereby you pay more attention to your intentions than to your mood.

What is an existential program? It is people taking as much control as possible of their thoughts, their attitudes, their moods, their behaviors, and their very orientation toward life and turning their innate freedom into a virtue and a blessing. Even if people decide to take antidepressants or engage in psychotherapy to get help with their unhappiness, they will still have to find ways of dealing with their meaning needs, the shadows of their personality, their consciousness of mortality, and the facts of existence.

Living authentically means organizing your life around your answers to three fundamental questions. The first is, “What matters to you?” The second is, “Are your thoughts aligned with what matters to you?” The third is, “Are your behaviors aligned with what matters to you?” You accept and embrace the fact that you are the final arbiter of your life’s meaning. With this approach to life, each day is a project requiring existential engineering skills as you bridge your way from one meaningful experience to the next. By accepting the realities of life and by asserting that you are the sole arbiter of the meaning in your life, you provide yourself sure footing as you actively make meaning.

If we can begin to move from the “depression is a mental disorder” model to the idea that human beings must deal more effectively with the realities of human existence, including the realities of sadness, despair, and grief, we will have taken a giant step away from “medicalizing everything” and toward lives lived with renewed passion, power and purpose.

Q & A with Eric Maisel

The first section of your book focuses on debunking depression as a “mental illness,” which is not to say that sadness and unhappiness cannot be debilitating.  Can you briefly describe the main thrust of your argument?

What I hope to demonstrate is that there is something profoundly wrong with the way we name and treat certain human phenomena. When we call something a “mental disease” or a “mental disorder” we imply a great deal about its origins, its treatment, its intractability, and its locus of control. The mental health industry has its reasons for calling life’s challenges “disorders,” but we have few good reasons to collude with them. I ask that readers who do feel depressed seek help. I hope that this book aids people in understanding what help to ask for from professionals and what help we should realize they can’t possibly offer us.

If there is no “mental disorder of depression,” why are millions of people convinced that “depression” exists?

As soon as you employ the interesting linguistic tactic of calling every unwanted aspect of life abnormal, you are on the road to pathologizing everyday life. By making every unwanted experience a piece of pathology, it becomes possible to knit together disorders that have the look but not the reality of medical illness. This is what has happened in our “medicalize everything” culture. In fact, the word depression has virtually replaced unhappiness in our internal vocabularies. We feel sad but we call ourselves depressed. Having unconsciously made this linguistic switch, when we look for help we naturally turn to a “depression expert.” We look to a pill, a therapist, a social worker, or a pastoral counselor — even if we’re sad because we’re having trouble paying the bills, because our career is not taking off, or because our relationship is on the skids. That is, even if our sadness is rooted in our circumstances, social forces cause us to name that sadness “depression” and to look for “help with our depression.” People have been trained to call their sadness “depression” by the many forces acting upon them, from the mental health industry to mass culture to advertising.

Why is recognizing the role of unhappiness in our lives an important feature of “rethinking depression”?

To acknowledge the reality of unhappiness is not to assert the centrality of unhappiness. In fact, it is just the opposite. By taking the common human experience of unhappiness out of the shadows and acknowledging its existence, we begin to reduce its power. At first it is nothing but painful to say, “I am profoundly unhappy.” The words cut to the quick. They seem to come with a life sentence and allow no room for anything sweet or hopeful. But the gloom can lift. It may lift of its own accord — or it may lift because you have a strong existential program in place whereby you pay more attention to your intentions than to your mood. One decision that an existentially aware person makes is to focus on making meaning rather than on monitoring moods.

How do you suggest people go about creating a life-purpose vision?

You might start by creating a life-purpose sentence or statement. In one great gulp you take into account the values you want to uphold, the dreams and goals you have for yourself, and the vision you have for comporting yourself in the world, and then you spend whatever time it takes turning that unwieldy, contradictory material into a coherent statement that reflects your core sentiments about your life. Your life-purpose vision is the inner template by which you measure life, and it remains that measure until you revise it. When you agree to commit to making meaning you agree to participate in a lifetime adventure. As you live you gain new information about what you intend to value and what you want your life to mean.

Eric Maisel, PhD, is a licensed psychotherapist and the author of Rethinking Depression and numerous other titles including Mastering Creative Anxiety, Brainstorm, Coaching the Artist Within, and A Writer’s San Francisco. He blogs for Psychology Today and the Huffington Post and writes for Professional Artist Magazine. Visit him online at http://www.ericmaisel.com.

The close of a decade offers a time for reflection and taking stock of what has nurtured us, especially in our creative lives. Ten years ago, I had yet to become a creativity coach. I was a few years out of graduate school and adjusting to the relentless demands of professorial life. I was secretly working on a novel while researching my academic books that I needed to write. I have made several intentional and transformative leaps this decade in claiming a life as a coach, writer, and academic. The books below have been traveling companions and witnesses to those changes. They are books that I return to often and encourage my clients and workshop participants to read. As a whole they offer a fountain of ideas, techniques and incentives for accessing and maintaining creative states. Well-written and highly engaging, they provide ladders up from the ditches of self-loathing that creative people sometimes fall into, insights on how to quell doubts about one’s ability to create(at least long enough to get the next thing done), and sport new roadmaps in how we might shape a creative life for ourselves, if we dare.

Creativity: Where the Divine and Human Meet, Matthew Fox: This is a jubilant philosophical discussion about the role of creativity in serving human evolution. Fox, a radical theologian argues for the necessity of creativity for the continued survival of the species. Fox makes a case for the spirituality of creativity, a commitment and practice that renews us and the culture as it fosters social justice, compassion and transformation.

Making Your Creative Dreams Real: A Plan for Procrastinators, Perfectionists, Busy People, and People Who Would Really Rather Sleep All Day?: SARK: How does one achieve a creative dream that feels impossible? SARK answers this question through her helping people tackle internal barriers (e.g. critics) and external realities (i.e. lack of time or money). I probably recommend this book more often than the others on this list. SARK has a gift for helping people overcome obstacles to creating. MYCR offers readers practical guidance about the stages of dream development (i.e. egg, hatched, infant or baby, toddler, child, adolescent, adult). Once you figure what stage your dream is in then you can find exercises to figure out what your dream needs in order to sustain itself. Bursting with color and confidence, this book is meant to awaken the dreamer (and doer) inside of us.

Coaching the Artist Within: Advices for Writers, Actors, Visual Artists & Musicians from America’s Foremost Creativity Coach, Eric Maisel: I’m convinced that by writing this superb book, Maisel wants to put himself and other creativity coaches out of business. He reveals useful techniques that teach us how to be aware of the habits of mind that we use not to create as well as to create. Maisel draws on vignettes from a diversity of clients to amplify the lessons presented. You learn how to be your own coach in a mindful and kind way.

The Creative Habit: Learn It and Use it For Life, A Practical Guide, Twyla Tharp: This understated but powerful book should have gotten much more notice. Twyla Tharp, world famous choreographer, doesn’t believe that creativity is a gift from the heavens bestowed only on a chosen few. Unlike many creativity books, The Creative Habit is intellectual, incisive and doesn’t coddle. There’s no mention of affirmations or positive self-talk in this book. What’s offered up are more than thirty unique exercises for jumpstarting one’s imaginative musings.

On Becoming an Artist: Reinventing Yourself through Mindful Creativity, Ellen J. Langer: I love books that blend neuroscience, mindfulness and creativity because they give us a new window for understanding how to break longstanding habits of mind. Langer presents psychological research that demonstrates how people typically undervalue their perceptions of themselves and the world around them–mindlessly. Mindless living affects our creative lives negatively. Mindlessness when creating might show up as tyrannical self criticism and evaluation, overreliance on social comparisons, and lack of interest in ambiguity. She argues for a mindful approach to creative endeavors that allows us to notice how our choices can arise from the context of our present moment(as opposed to following a mindless automatic script).

The Creating Brain: The Neuroscience of Genius, Nancy Andreasen. This book helps us understand how the brain exercises everyday creative acts (i.e. the ability to have a conversation) and what possibly contributes to off the chart creativity (e.g. the lives of Martha Graham, Thomas Edison, Toni Morrison etc). Andreasean’s writing makes neuroscience accessible for a lay audience.

The Twelve Secrets of Highly Creative Women: A Portable Mentor, Gail McMeekin: If an author puts the word secret in a title, it immediately makes me want to read it. This book doesn’t disappoint as it delivers up the life histories of women who have found ways to nurture and sustain their creativity. This book’s emphasis on finding role models, mentors and allies drives home the point that we need support to accomplish our creative dreams.

An Alchemy of Mind: The Marvel and Mystery of the Brain, Diane Ackerman: Although not a book solely about creativity, Ackerman’s chapter on creativity, “Creating Minds”, is worth several other fluffy books on the subject. She writes with a poet’s sensibility and a journalist’s precision about our amazing gray matter.

Eat Pray Love: One Woman’s Search for Everything Across Italy, India and Indonesia, Elizabeth Gilbert: I have taught this book in my undergraduate course ‘Women and Creativity’ for the past few years. I schedule the book to be read during a section of the class I call ‘creativity as life process’ which focuses on creativity as life-making. This book offers many lessons about the power of creative problem-solving, the importance of curiosity and exploration and using the self as a resource for understanding life. Gilbert produces a product—which is the memoir, but it is how she makes a life that is real magic.

The Creativity Book: A Year’s Worth of Inspiration and Guidance, Eric Maisel: This is a go-to resource when you’re out of ideas and bored with your current project. It presents a doable, one year plan for waking up your creative muses.


Michele Tracy Berger

Michele Tracy Berger

Author, Academic, Creativity Expert I'm an award winning writer.

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