Sunday, May 29, 2016

Unstuck in the Middle With You

Some friends I know who are recovering from addiction talk a lot about the bottom, the depth of depravity and desperation that they had to reach before they were willing to admit the problem at hand and seek help. I wonder sometimes if for many creators that an equally terrifying place is The Middle.

When I first get an idea that I'm excited about, I can't wait to make it happen. The hyper energized state is fun, and the initial productivity that comes through keeps my focus and consumes time in gluttonous bites. Momentum is effortless, and I'm driven to distraction in any activity that isn't related. It's all I can think about.

This beginning lasts until the inevitable Middle shows up. The Middle is usually heralded by a complication, an interruption, on an unanticipated obstacle. If you've ever encountered barre chords in a guitar lesson, you've met The Middle. Playing a barre chord requires greater hand strength than the open chords that were learned in early lessons. Barre chords are formed by holding down more than one string with one finger, sometimes holding all six strings with one finger. When I taught guitar lessons barre chords were often the stopping place for many students whose frustration overcame their initial interest.

Every endeavor has a Middle. It might show up in the form of a necessary license, or an unexpected sales tax, or just some difficulty that could never have been predicted. It may even just show up as a plot twist in your novel that becomes impossible to resolve. You can tell The Middle has arrived when certain feelings start popping up. Frustration, ambivalence, apathy, maybe even the creative person's most common friends, depression, self doubt, and anxiety appear when The Middle is on the scene.

Here are some possible ways through The Middle:
  1. Revisit Your Original Idea. Have you stayed with it, or are you straying? If you're straying,is there another possibility that you need to see that's trying to get through? As a songwriter there have been many times that I would start out with one idea that I thought was pretty strong or exciting, only to find that another song emerged from the original idea which was then scrapped or became another song altogether. There have also been a few hundred song ideas that met an end when The Middle arrived and I couldn't get them finished. As I checked out the original idea on these, I found that it wasn't as strong as initially perceived.
  2. Take a Break. Let it rest for a while and see what happens. Sometimes if you just give an idea or project a little bit of time and space, it will come pushing back in to be completed. Sometimes after you've been focused on something with a great amount of intensity your senses and perceptions start to narrow to a point where you can't see what you're doing objectively. Give it a rest and come back to it. If you're worried that you won't ever finish, then give yourself a re-entry date. Choose a date on the calendar and commit to coming back to the project then. 
  3. Finish One Task. If you've started a business and you suddenly find that someone else has also started a business with the exact same name as yours, maybe it's time to get that trademark paperwork finished. This step is especially appropriate in those times when you keep putting off taking action. You probably already know that putting off taking action often results in a greater problem. Balance the checkbook, finish your taxes, get them done early. If you're stalled on a creative project just choose one part of it to finish. Any progress you make will initiate a greater flow.
  4. Clean Your Space. I'm the worst about this. My studio has been a mess for years. I create clutter more quickly than anyone else I know. Clutter makes my space unbearable to work in. I've learned more about this in the past few years than ever before. Make your space easy to work in. Keep the tools out that you need for your project. Everything else needs a place to be put away. Pay your bills as they come in. Don't let paper pile beyond the point of usefulness. I know, I'm a piler. I find things more easily in piles than files, but my piles are out of control and it's affecting my ability to get things done. If you can't bear to do it yourself, hire a feng shui guide to help you out. 
  5. Just Get It Done. Finish your first draft. Go ahead and write out the whole song. Make a prototype and figure out what works and what doesn't. Sometimes The Middle is just a honing time where you actually get to see what needs more work and what doesn't. Like my guitar students learning barre chords, the ones who succeeded were the ones who didn't give up.  They practiced until they could play them. Resistance is created completely by thought. It's actually easier to create flow. Flow doesn't require thinking as much as it requires doing. Just go ahead and finish.
  6. Quiet Your Thinking. Thinking is great. It's the first step in creating anything, but sometimes we can think too much. Getting your mind into a more calm and clear state makes it possible to focus and perform more effortlessly. People who meditate often are able to bring a strong sense of grounding and confidence to their creating which makes their processes easier and more effective than people who just try to think their way through. Give your thoughts a rest and get your mind clear.
  7. Take Smaller Steps. When I was a music major in college, I practiced between five and six hours every day. One of the practice techniques that served me well was to choose the most difficult passages of a piece and break those passages up into smaller phrases. Then I'd practice each phrase repeatedly, first at a slow speed and gradually building until I was playing at the performance pace. Focus on the quality of a small segment of work and make it shine. You will start to see that this kind of attention to smaller sections creates more ease in the entire creative process.
  8. Maybe It's Not a Good Idea, Or Maybe It's Not the Right Idea. "It seemed like a good idea at the time" is a hallmark statement that I hear from every creative person that I know, as well as some family members who have registration numbers with the Department of Corrections. Sometimes in the moment an idea seems really great and exciting, but after working to bring the idea to life, you realize it's just not all that interesting, or it doesn't really line up with your values. Maybe the idea is a good one, but it's not the right time. Sometimes that idea is just a stinker and can't be helped with any intervention. With experience we learn to discern which possibilities our imagination generates are the ones that we need to pursue. Other times we just learn by trial and error, or trial and success. Either way we learn when to let go of a project that we're no longer able to energize and complete.
The Middle is going to show up in every corner of our creative lives. It can be uncomfortable. I think it's intolerable for a good reason; the discomfort moves us either toward commitment, or toward the door. If you're an author with a partially finished book, a painter with a studio full of canvasses that still don't satisfy, or a guitar student struggling to play the perfect F chord, this stage won't last forever. Take small steps and keep moving. You will gather momentum again and reach a finishing point, or you may decide to just focus on something else altogether. 

If you're feeling like you've reached The Middle in one of your creative projects, I may be able to help you get through it more quickly and effectively. Request a free initial session here to find out...

Friday, May 13, 2016


My friend George's grandfather was fond of saying that the hardest part of exercising was putting on your sneakers. I'm still working on the exercise bit, but I'm also aware that the same principle goes for any kind of work.

If I just sit down and start something it amazes me how easy it is to get into a flow state within a matter of minutes. Then minutes become hours, and those hours become satisfying in ways that otherwise don't happen. I don't care if you ever read what I wrote. I just had the best time writing it. The process was it's own reward.

I'd like to cultivate a habit of starting. I know that sometimes it's good to finish things, but you can't finish what you don't start, and if you keep at it, some of the things that you start get finished. I remember when my first CD came out. It had taken 18 months from start to finish, and most of the songs had been written years before production even started. But I had put off beginning the production for a variety of reasons and for a long time. Once it was begun it took on a life and momentum of its own. While it took a long time to finish, those hours, days and months didn't pass slowly.

Just start. Anything. See where it takes you...

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

I Work For Courageous People

When I look at the list of clients that I have worked with over the years, the most remarkable thing to see that they all have in common is that they all possess tremendous courage. Whether they are teachers, authors, artists, poets, designers, musicians, dancers, entrepreneurs, or any others of the hundreds of people I've worked with, their lives are shaped by the courage within them that won't settle for anything less than a path that they carve out for themselves. It is humbling to be in their presence.

To them it doesn't feel all that significant; it's just something they are doing. They get embarrassed if I imply at all that they are in the least bit courageous. Courage in their minds is reserved for firefighters and skydivers, extreme skiers and daredevils. What they don't realize is that their courage sets them apart from a large majority of the rest of the world. The author who writes every day despite not knowing in the least whether what he's writing will be of any insightful use to anyone, or the filmmaker who presses on through the middle of her project after the initial adrenaline has been spent three times, or the artist who knows that the very act of making art can transform the lives of the women that she teaches. Every one of my clients is a courageous person.

If there's anything more valuable than courage, I don't know what it is. Without courage an idea is just a vapor of thought, an action is guaranteed to fall short of it's greatest potential, and will stays frozen in a state of limbo. A courageous will turns idea into action, imagination into reality, thought into behavior. Courage is the conscious choice to create, no matter what resistance may show up. It's opening your will to a greater possibility than you've experienced so far. It's the bridge between the world you imagine and the world that you create. It's courage that puts pen to page, brush to canvas, fingers to strings, story on film.

Without courage the best that can be generated is mediocrity. Mediocrity is the embodiment of lesser emotions like jealousy, insecurity, and fear. Courage is expansive, constructive, life giving, and vital. Just the experience of being in a state of courage makes any related activity worth the while. My clients know this, show this and inspire this. I am deeply grateful.

Sunday, May 1, 2016

Making Your Own Way

Yesterday, My friend Jeff Finlin and I gave the pilot session of a new workshop called Making Your Own Way. In the last year my focus in coaching has largely become helping creative people to find direction, get things started and finished, and mostly to identify the real impact they are making with their work. Creative professionals frequently wonder to themselves and out loud just what the value of their work is. I know that's been a regular inner dialog for me. Some great discussions in yesterday's workshop helped to bring some clarity to the subject, and a comment in a message at church this morning also brought it home to me. Creative work matters for two huge reasons; it connects us on deeper levels and it feeds our soul.

A big part of the workshop is about the distinction that I see between a person's gift and their talents. We talk about that often we lump the two into the same definition. I don't think that quite captures the essence of your gift. I've written about gifts and talents before, so for some of you this may seem familiar. Your talents are the capabilities that you've practiced to the point of mastery. They've captured your time, energy and devotion for years of your life, and sometimes just the very practice is enough to satisfy your creative yearnings. But I'm now becoming more sure that they are about delivering something bigger into the world. That's where we need to make the distinction between talent and gift.

I define your gift as the qualitative difference that you make in the world. Your talents are the modalities through which this difference is made. Anyone who creates knows that when you get into an extended time of practice that you enter into a space within yourself that is vast; deeper and wider even than your imagination. This inner space  is where your gift emerges from and it wants to find it's way through you and into the world. In fact, on an unconscious level this is probably being invoked in you all the time.

Now, the funny thing about your gift is that it's probably so much a part of who you are so as not to be immediately obvious. When I finally landed on mine, which is emotional healing through creativity, it was not as much an aha moment as it was an "Oh yeah, that" moment. The amazing thing is that inherent gift of mine is something that I take for granted as being pretty uninteresting and normal, and yet that is the one thing in all of my work that seems to most frequently be looking for a way out. And it changes lives often with me not having any idea. Your gift is what makes your work inherently valuable.

Crippling self doubt seems to be a hallmark for many people who devote their lives to creative pursuits. Much of this self doubt is a mirror of the projections that we receive from the people around us. Here's the conversation:

What do you do?

I'm a professional musician.

Really? What's your day job?

I'm a professional musician.

But, how do you make money?

I'm a professional musician.

This kind of conversation happens with such frequency that ultimately some of the projected disbelief gets internalized into our own thinking and we ourselves begin to wonder "what the hell do I do?"

Understanding and naming your gift sounds like this:

What do you do?

I help people heal emotionally through music, coaching and deep listening.

Get the picture?

I want every artist, musician, author, dancer, actor, teacher, potter, sculptor, and anyone else who will hear me to know: Your talents are amazing and wonderful, but your gift is what you need to be telling people about. Some among them will have been waiting for you to show up.

Next insight. My friend Liz Barnez posted a link on Facebook recently to an article that put forth the idea that artists shouldn't even try to be entrepreneurs. I found some things to disagree with in that article, but one nugget started to take shape in my own thinking. There's been a good bit of thinking in recent years that artists should adopt entrepreneurial concepts and practices in order to be more successful in a business sense. I've bought into that line of thought quite a bit, until yesterday. I still think that creative people can be successful in a business sense, but it's not about entrepreneurship.

I realize that entrepreneurs base their business model primarily on solving problems, ultimately for profit. While we could look at art in that light, I now see that as misguided. Rather than solving a problem, art continues to be a way that we meet some important human needs. Needs that coincidentally have been thrown under the bus of life in recent years. Art has always and forever been a way for us to connect with each other on deeper emotional and spiritual levels. Art is soul food.

I believe that one of the primary reasons that we live in such polarized and fractious times is that we've been routinely disconnecting with each other rather than connecting. It's no coincidence that we are also seeing artistic creativity being pulled from school curricula, devalued in the marketplace, seen as worthy of only being a hobby instead of a profession, and the subject of derision in other professional circles. All this time we're not seeing the injury that this disconnection is bringing into our collective presence.

Our gifts don't solve problems. Our gifts heal and restore our relationships with each other, which ultimately prevents many problems from taking form. One of my favorite books of all time is The Space Between Us, by Ruthellen Josselson. This groundbreaking book deserves a lot more attention and praise than it ever received. Josselson developed a survey that asked people to identify the different kinds of connection that they found in their relationships and the qualities that they found in those connections. For the first time that I was ever aware of, the author gave us a language of relationship that helps us to see the multi-dimensionality of our human connections. It's a very powerful read.

Artistic creativity makes these connections between us and for us. These connections make up what we might call a collective soul. We can begin to see that humanity itself is an organism that lives and breathes as one thing. ARTISTRY OF EVERY KIND SERVES THAT! It is the stuff of community. That's all that real community is made of, connections.

This morning in her message at Unity of Fort Collins, my beloved friend and co worker Peggy Christiansen was speaking about flowers. In her talk she was telling the story of planting her flower garden and she made the comment that she felt some sense of guilt that she wasn't planting the more practical vegetable garden. Her statement sums up exactly what I think is going on. We don't see feeding the soul with the same level of importance as feeding the body. That needs to change, or we will all perish.

Creatives, you are here to make a difference in the world on the soul level. Never forget that.

Thanks to Jeff Finlin, the wonderful folks at Artspace who participated in the pilot, Peggy and my Unity community, and every one of you who has the courage to create.

If you'd like more information about Making Your Own Way, or if you'd like to host a workshop or invite me to speak for your organization, please get in touch.