The Flight and Funk of Creativity

Last year, I departed Italy on October 31st. This year, I left for Italy on October 31st. I could get really heady about that and how it’s a day of death and renewal, but it’s likely just coincidence.

Anyway, I’m back in Italy.

My friends are getting married in Rome over Thanksgiving, and not being one to waste an entire ticket to Europe on only a few days of festivity, I contacted the woman for whom I housesat last year and she was happy to have me back for another three weeks.

Travel magic.

It’s a beautiful, rural three-storey stone home. As rustic as it gets, but with all the conveniences a modern day woman needs: hot water, WiFi, flushing toilets . . . that’s it, right?

Last time I was here, I’d been living in Los Angeles and was eager to get away from everybody. Eager to be alone, to have empty space in which to begin and create life as a writer.

This time around, I’m not coming from a bustling city; I’m coming from the better part of a year already spent in a general state of solitude.

This time, I looked to the housesit as more of a trial in ascetic living. A good trial. But a trial. A stoic house arrest.

a tuscany stone up on a verdant hill

Why go to Italy and keep myself on house arrest? Well, just because I’m here doesn’t mean I can act like a tourist. Being homeless and all, since I had to buy the ticket here it made more sense to live for free on this side versus figuring out a November housesit in the States.

So, I try to live like I would live anywhere else. But no car, no bustling town nearby, and no people. Just hiking trails in the backyard, two dogs, an insane cat, and three jumpy alpacas.

The time difference means that friends and the social media world are mostly inactive while I work. What a distraction that eliminates. And what a separateness.

The isolated location means there are no male disturbances (except for a 64-year-old Luciano. He’s been separated from his wife of forty-two years for the last five. But . . . they still live together. Thus, he finds excuses to pop over and check on helpless Meggan. Do I need help obtaining the wild boar you hunted over the weekend? Yes, yes Luciano, I do.)

This place is incredible. It’s everything you could want in a house arrest.

But the first ten days here I struggled. My productivity wasn’t at last year’s level, and I fell into a funk.

The Funk of Fruitlessness

I wanted half of my working day to be sucked up by reading books—it’s a favorite past time and this place is perfect for it. It was on my to-do list, but after eight hours at the computer editing or writing, my brain would be turned to mush.

The lack of achievement on this basic task began to chew away at the base of my brain.

I was disappointed in myself and feeling listless from my inability to explain why I was failing. I guess I’d fallen into the trap of expectations: I’d expected to read as much as last year, and I wasn’t.

(expectations: so insidious that you forget your own advice within weeks of disseminating it at-length.)

overlooking hills and mountains in italy

I finally figured out the problem. The solution was embarrassingly simple.

Say you’re a cellist. You’re invited to play at a symphony and you study the music, practice, join with the others, and—sheet music before you—you play the show of a lifetime.

You’re invited back next year, you practice and study, and show up on the day of the show without the sheet music. You’ve done this before, you know your potential. And you screw up. Over and over. Symphony ruined.

Me? I’ve been showing up each day without sheet music. I expected success without infrastructure—to simply fall into the pattern of productivity since I’d been productive in this environment before.

The crucial ingredient—my sheet music—was not available time or to-do lists, but scheduling.

I know. Stupid. Easy. Ridiculous.

 

What Gets Measured Gets Mastered

I had a goal and an expectation. I didn’t have a plan.

I want to believe that I am more complex than that, my issues more teeming with existential undertow. But all it took was scheduling out my day with a specific timing plan to get me back on track.

I’m disappointingly simple: there are things that make me work well, and things that don’t. I get lost in tasks if there’s no clock to measure and dictate progress. What gets measured gets mastered.

For you, it might be some other simple ingredient. Scheduling is my productivity hack, but maybe you need background music, timed breaks, or a specific routine.

If you’re cocky like me, you like to think you can side-step your basic needs. Do things however you want, whenever you want. You assume your creativity to flow gently, unfettered. But nay, she is a fickle creature of the mental underworld.

Measured, logical actions help lure her out and provide a safe space in which to play.

Sometimes, creativity has to be prompted and hacked with the utter lack thereof (i.e. boring logic and tactics). It’s a hard lesson to accept, but that ol’ dame creativity seems hellbent on teaching it.

 


What are your productivity hacks? Do you forget them? I’d love it if you leave a comment below.

(p.s. all these are my pics of the current digs)

Faith or Fool—What’s Fueling Your Work?

Creatives. We speak of dreams, hope, expectationsBut how does all that relate to faith?

In this year of pursuing a career of creativity, one thing I’ve learned is how to keep working when there are only scraps to feed the hope that all these efforts will actually turn any profit.

This, I suppose, could be called faith.

It’s not blindly hoping that things will turn out well. It’s days, months, even years of exertion. Investing time and effort with the relatively baseless belief that it will pay off.

What is that if not faith?

How about this: 

Maybe it’s just gambling. Maybe I’m a faithless gambler.

It’s nice and pretty to call it faith, but I also love giving myself obstacles. If I overcome them, great, that feels good. I analyzed a risk, acted, and won a reward.

And if I don’t? Well, I’m an optimistic masochist. Here’s just another painful opportunity to pull myself up by my bootstraps and figure out a solution, a new path.

Oh, maybe it’s that. Neither faith nor masochism, but zest for the road less traveled? If I continuously piecemeal my life, then I’ve guaranteed higher odds of staying entertained in puzzle-solving mode (or just staying distracted).

a saint statue on a bridge near a quaint town in italy, like faith or hope

Either way, I’m going for this writing thing. Say it’s not fruitful, say I fail . . . if nothing else, I’ll have learned to work without gratification, to work even though I can’t see what’s ahead of me.

I’ll have learned to prepare myself for futures unknown and hope that the presence of that preparedness creates somehow the thing itself.

And I’ll know that I’ll be ready when said future falls. It may fall with the splat, or it may fall gently at my feet, waiting for a ready step forward.

I suppose we’ll see.


I began here with the intent to figure out my relationship with faith, but it doesn’t seem like that has happened. I’d love to hear what you think in the comments below.

Don’t Expect Anything

I arrive to Portland airport at 5 a.m. to attempt a standby flight to Los Angeles.

This means showing up without a ticket and hoping for an open seat due to unsold tickets or passenger no-shows. (I have this lucky ability because a family member worked for Delta.)

I know there’s a chance of getting a seat before leaving home, but it’s still a gamble; passengers get rerouted and other mysteries transpire to fill the plane up last-minute and thus leave me stranded.

It can turn into a [first-world] nightmare of hours upon hours spent in that alternate universe that is an airport, and it looks like today will be one of those days.

After missing two flights, I fly to Salt Lake City, hoping it’ll be easier to catch an LA connection from there. I then miss two more flights.

A few other standbys and I sit at the gate feeling sorry for ourselves. All the flights have inexplicably filled up for the rest of the day, and it’s looking like I’ll be spending the night in Salt Lake City (which is a vague approximation of what Hell must be like).

an open stretch of sand lke salt lake city with footsteps walkinginto the distance

A woman beside me is a standby first-timer. She’s already missed two flights and is in a candy-fueled state off huff n’ puff worry.

I gently warn that the odds of making her granddaughter’s soccer game that afternoon are quickly diminishing. Her newly-airport-employed daughter had given her the standby pass without realizing how risky this game can be.

Suddenly, a pilot approaches. Los Angeles needs an extra plane, so he’s been called in to “ferry” one over on an unchartered, unstaffed flight. Since us standbys are affiliated with airline employees, he might be able to take us along.

The fretful grandmother who has for some reason attached herself to me begins to rejoice:

“I knew it! I prayed about this when I went to the bathroom just now and I knew we’d make it there!”

“Well . . . be careful,” I caution, “There are no standby guarantees until the plane starts moving.”

“No honey, you got to have faith. I know we’ll make it—I have faith!”

“I have too much experience for faith,” I grunt (inwardly high-fiving myself for my wry, disenchanted pessimism).

Out of nowhere, I hear an airy, childlike voice:

You don’t have to have faith, but you can always have hope.

Glancing to the row of seats behind me, I find a chubby blonde teenager with a knitted blanket upon her lap and serene smile upon her face. She’d been given the wrong address for her Touched by an Angel audition.

I stop my eyes before they can roll—she’s right. Damnit.

 

“Expect the worst, hope for the best.” 

Having expectations often leaves me disappointed when they’re not fulfilled (missed editing deadline, he/she didn’t call, that hyped party ended up being the WORST . . . ).

Even though these hopes and pitfalls occur wholly in my mind, they still have physical effects on mood and productivity.

But, if we don’t expect something to happen, we can’t be disappointed when it doesn’t.

an explosion representing expectations failing

While the quote technically says to expect something (i.e., “the worst”), it doesn’t mean to imagine specific scenarios, but to be emotionally prepared for things to go horribly wrong.

We wear seatbelts in cars without spending the entire ride dreading an accident—there’s a difference between emotional preparedness and emotional immersion. We hope we won’t get in an accident, but we act according to our expectation that it could happen.

If you don’t climb the ladder of false expectations, there’s nothing to fall from when reality strikes. You’re always ready, never surprised.

The expectations I put upon myself are the ones that most often lead to self-flagellation.

Why didn’t I exercise today? Why did I spend time posting that to Instagram? Why did I stuff chocolate into my face? Why this, not that?

So, I try to hope for the best without defining expectations of what, exactly, the best is. Better to trust that whatever needs to happen, will.

(Bonus: being less specific about desired outcomes is also good practice of releasing control, or “positive powerlessness.”)

For example, ultimately my “hope for the best” is to be an income-earning creative writer. I haven’t outlined how it must come to pass; instead, I try to focus on consistent general progress.

It keeps me from beating me up when to-do list items don’t get accomplished even though I was doing some other productive thing instead.

 

“Progress, not Perfection”

Sending my book proposal to agents is a HUGE step toward getting published. It’s #1 on my priority list. But, there’s a hold-up that’s out of my control. I have to wait, and it sucks, but I’m okay because it falls into the “worst” that I was already expecting.

Instead of being bummed on the halted progress, I keep the ultimate hope in mind, working on other things that will ideally feed the “writer income” goal. Blogging, extra book editing, brainstorming my next project about Stoicism . . .

two doorways cracked open, one more shadowed than the other

Expecting the worst is not being pessimistic. It’s standing confidently before all possible outcomes.

And, if you’re ready for the worst, then basically anything that’s not the worst surpasses expectations—your hope has paid off!

It’s a constant F-you to pessimism.

But, hey, I know you’re on the edge of your seat over there—what happens at the airport?!  

. . . We follow the good pilot to the empty departure gate and titter restlessly as he speaks with the redcoats, then disappears down the jetway to ready the plane.

We eat snacks out of plastic baggies, we make small talk, and finally our prince emerges to reconvene with the redcoats.

He approaches us with a look of worry. Of the nine of us, the one person who won’t be allowed is my new friend with the faith.

Her daughter is only a contracted agent for Delta, not a direct employee. It wouldn’t be legal.

Yikes.

But hey, the rest of us had a once-in-a-lifetime experience! There were no flight attendants, no announcements, serve-yourself snacks and drinks, and I got to sit in the cockpit while in flight. So . . . pretty cool.


 

I want to talk about how all this hope stuff relates to faith, and I still believe that sometimes specific goals do need to be set. But let’s get into that later.

Is there a way this has played out in your life? I’d love to hear from you in the comments below!

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Story Versus Reality

In real life, don’t confuse story with reality.

Story can be based in reality, and reality in story, but when the lines get crossed, the track leads back to you.

We’ve all spent time with people who alter minor facts and details in a way that simple bad memory doesn’t explain. These seemingly harmless embellishments slowly convert reality to fiction.

For example:

A friend told someone how his and my first conversation lasted one hour. This was true.

Later, I listened to him mention to another how that same conversation lasted an hour and a half. Still later, it became two hours. A gathering of three people grew to five. The original manuscript was 130 pages, then 180. And so on.

Though I corrected him the first time or two, I stopped upon realizing that my corrections were being taken as minor affronts to his reality. He’d come to believe what he said.

This person is an example of many. Innocuous “adjustments” made because in the excitement of retelling the story, they simply sound better.

Who doesn’t want a better story?

looking through a barbed wire fence

But, if we make life’s events into “a better story,” we lose touch with the true story. It slips out of our grasp like a fistfull of sand, held tightly and in vain.

Though we may first embellish deliberately, it often morphs into an unconscious adjustment. We begin—almost accidentally—to believe the fudged details. And we believe them honestly.

Repetition breeds belief.

A strange phenomenon. It’s evidenced large-scale in brainwashing (scientology, anyone?), but in little things, too…

One Monday, I thought, “It’s too bad I missed Amber’s show on Friday, but I really needed to catch up with Jeff.” Then, I remembered: Jeff had cancelled last-minute. I could have gone to Amber’s show, but decided to stay in. Since I’d spent more time saying that Jeff was the reason I couldn’t go, I recalled that as reality.

Or, when I tell myself I’m too tired or too unfocused to get something done. This is a story, not a reality. If a knife was to my throat, I would find a way.

Or, when we think we’re a certain type of person, like an introvert, but then something happens to make us realize we may have simply been lying to ourself all along.

(Sidebar: A positive effect of the repetition phenomenon can be seen with mantras, so this article isn’t to bash self-affirming “lies.” For example, I often tell myself “I’m having such a great time” at get-togethers as a way to quell shyness and engage.)

In the realm of Roadwritten, we speak of the creative quest.

Creation comes from sharing one’s personal brand of truth, be it through writing, painting, music, etc. If your creative output is built upon lies (however crimeless) the foundation cannot be strong. It’s too falsifiable.

That’s why it’s important to seek and to know yourself, because sometimes the lies lie uncovered. Sometimes they hide beneath a glistening, lovely veneer—a story masquerading as reality.

peeling veneer paint on a wall

How can you draw on and create from your experience if you let haze fall upon the truth of it?

If you can’t reach your truth, how can you share it? Yes, it can be painful. It can hurt to look at yourself. But you are who we want, and you are all you have to give us.

Besides, white lies are just a bad habit. Bad habits grow terribly well without water. You may be worried that if you don’t adjust minor details to make them more interesting, then what you have won’t be worthy of other people’s time . . .

 

But you are enough.

You’re already fabulously interesting because there is literally nothing else like youyour immigrant father, the way you eat three peanut butter sandwiches a day, the insane dog that governs your life, the cache of snacks you travel with, the annoying way you pulse your foot on the gas pedal.

A religious housewife in Iowa at home all day with the kids might get wide-eyed upon hearing how, this year, I’ve slept in something like 28 beds/couches in over 10 different states or countries (alone! mostly! gah!).

But I think of my life as pretty boring. It’s her inner world, her truth I want to hear about. Does she question her faith? What does she think when the baby cries for the fifth time that morning? Why does she resent her husband?

The inner experience of one person is as foreign as it gets. On a personal level, we forget that. We’re so accustomed to our own thoughts and routines that they seem normal, ho-hum.

But they’re not. So, share them—the bona fide version. The vigilant and impeccable truth.

Why?

Because it’s enough.

Be Impeccable With Your Word. Speak with integrity. Say only what you mean. Avoid using the Word to speak against yourself or to gossip about others. Use the power of your Word in the direction of truth and love. 

Miguel Ruiz, The Four Agreements

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The Muse Myth: How Doth She Judge?

It is when I return to the road that my habits and routines all fly out the window—thrown into a suitcase for later or simply left behind, abandoned.

They’re recalled, at times—as the wheels cover road or wings cross mountains—with a quick tightness in my chest. Anxiety. The sweet date, ghosted, to whom I should really send a text . . . but later.

Do I punish myself for this ability to wipe the slate clean and move forward? Or do I give myself a squeeze on the shoulder? Say, Hey, you’re doing the best you can.

Or, do I attempt a coup d’état, force myself to stick with routines in the face of benign but persistent commotion? Is that what responsible, focused people do?

Namely, it would mean sticking with my bullet journaling, exercise, morning/night meditation, and a daily writing routine.

looking down at two suitcases on the ground

Most of the great creatives claim that one must show up at a consistent time and place for the muse. If and when she decides to strike, she must know where to find you.

“I show up in my writing room at approximately 10 A.M. every morning without fail. Sometimes my muse sees fit to join me there and sometimes she doesn’t, but she always knows where I’ll be.” -Tom Robbins (author extraordinaire)

But how does this work for a nomad? 

Last friday, I began preparing to leave the place I’d called home for 40 days. Sunday, I flew to Los Angeles and caught up with friends. Tuesday, packed a rental car with the remnants of my life there, then drove 13 hours to Santa Fe (thanks for the storage space, mom and dad!). Friday, I visit friends in Atlanta. Tuesday, I go back to Italy.

I don’t have a desk. I don’t have an income. Without adapting to the requirements of a maundering lifestyle, I would have to get a “real” job, create structure, say goodbye to wanderliving.

The poeticism of the muse finding you in a predetermined place is lovely. But what if the muse is already here within us?

What if she doesn’t swoop in from the mystic land of creativity to fill minds and hearts with fleeting genius?

What if “being available” is the simple act of listening for her, as often as possible, with that woo-woo inner ear?

Essentially, being present in the moment.

on the road in santa fe, sunset and road sign

This past year of vagabonding has taught me that indeed the muse strikes erratically. It is often when I’m making a warm drink in the morning, smack in the middle of an unrelated book, or just as I close my eyes for sleep.

But sometimes, it’s none of those times.

And I’m proud to say that now, whenever it comes, I usually recognize it. A sudden clearness in my brain where a pen tip presses upon a thought, an excitement that bids me rush to the keyboard or record a stream of words on my phone (ah, technology!).

I want to believe in “showing up for the muse,” but maybe this patchwork life of pursuing creativity is just that: a constant arrival, an ever-ready embrace. Perhaps this lifestyle is my muse’s fuel.

Your job is to make sure the muse knows where you’re going to be every day from nine ’til noon. Or seven ’til three. If he does know, I assure you that sooner or later he’ll start showing up.” -Stephen King, On Writing

Then again, I haven’t really had the chance to try Mr. King’s approach. And if we’re being honest, he and Tom Robbins have had a bit more success than myself.

When I have the money+desire to settle, I’ll try it.

I’ll even try when I return to my Italian hermitage next week. There I’ll establish routine. But will three weeks be enough to know if my current style is right or wrong?

Muse, are you listening?


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Solitude Smacks

Occasionally there are days (like these) that fall upon me with all their weight, blind me with the reality that only a slight shift in perception would prove my life is not one, in fact, of freedom and whimsy, but one instead of isolation and aimlessness.

Today, I’m missing the comfort of companionship, the familiarity, perhaps, of romance.

The feeling of walking up to someone who doesn’t just see me approach, but actually sees me, who is approaching. I want to be recognized with loving eyes.

Perhaps it’s because I’ve just finished a good book (The Razor’s Edge) that I’m feeling blue. That tends to happen, like a soft breakup. Or that recently I popped in on old friends in Los Angeles. Icing the cake, my parents just paid a brief visit.

Tastes of connection littered my past week, amplifying with their contrast the smack of today’s solitude.

Before this year, I’d scoffed at the idea of feeling lonely. I couldn’t conceive of it. But it’s been over a year of nomadism, and now I can feel it…sometimes.

Community, I’ve learned, counts..

But this, I remind myself, is partly what I asked for. I wanted difficulty, I wanted struggle. I wanted to starve myself of society and become skilled at enjoying the hunger.

And truthfully, hitting the road seemed the easiest way to write my book without having to be employed or pay rent.

one person walking alone

Normally, I do well. I reflect and joke in my mind, enjoying my own company. I stay productive, I go to bed happy.

This morning I woke energized and ready to work. But somehow between preparing breakfast, cleaning the kitchen, and getting lost in a whirlpool of an hour’s worth of shopping Amazon, I lost heart. (It was probably the Amazon.)

Then, I had to work on a writing project about my childhood. I had to contact an ex about something. Tonight’s plans with a friend were canceled. Three lost connections, bam bam bam.

I spent the rest of the day listless, forcing my way through bouts of typing amidst bouts of maundering through the house.

To force myself out, I committed (to my journal) to go to an art walk downtown. Mainly to socialize myself—an effort I have to make more and more often.

I always hope at these public events that someone kind will talk to me; I seldom feel outgoing enough to reach out on my own. Striking up a conversation seems to amplify the fact that I’m alone, that I’m standing there reaching out to a stranger just to be speaking aloud with someone.

It may be my ego stopping me, but that’s where I am. It may just be who I am.

So now I’m standing on a sidewalk outside a gallery, writing this. Connecting in the best way I know how at the moment—that is, with you reading.

And in a way, I’m feeling that connection come to life.

And in a way, I’m feeling better.


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