The Total Artist #4: Reflections on Writing
Approaching ourselves with curiosity and kindness
I hope you have been enjoying your explorations into poetry and mystery.
How do we reflect?
As our month focused on writing draws to a close, it’s time to take stock of what has come up.
But how do we even do that?
We’ve already thought a bit about how to make our reflective cocoons. The first step is always just to notice what is coming up for you.
Our reflections become even more powerful when we find ways to turn our insights into action.
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Within the realm of creativity, I’ve found that these 4 steps are a helpful way to look at how we can incorporate our artistic discoveries into our lives more deeply.
Notice - just notice where your attention goes, and follow it
Record - in whatever way works for you, collect these thoughts/feelings/questions
Connect - what themes or connections can you spot coming up in your noticings?
Integrate - what are you interested in continuing to explore / be curious about / carry forward in your life and practice?
When it comes to the point of integration - a good rule of thumb is the smaller the better. Because it is more likely
Simplicity is good
Since everyone’s minds work differently, the reflective process will look a little bit different for everyone.
However the most important thing to note is that if it is feeling hard to find the time to reflect, it is a really good choice to simply scale back. It doesn’t have to be complicated.
The goal is to listen to your inner intuition, and those deep truths generally tend to be quite simple and distilled. (This is something I need to remind myself of on a regular basis.)
So much of the art of incorporating more creativity into our lives is figuring out how to make it small enough to be easy. Because bit by bit, those small things add up.
If you want to make this as easy as possible, you only need one or two minutes.
Ask yourself just ONE question:
What did I notice this month?
Giving ourselves a bit of space - brief as it may be - to pay attention rather than stay continuously in action mode is the most important thing.
Then when we return to action, we are coming from a place of greater insigight.
The importance of what DOESN’T work
It’s so easy to slip into the trap of becoming a bit judgmental with ourselves.
‘I made something beautiful / I made something terrible’
‘I am diligent and worthy because I did lots of work / I am lazy and ineffectual because I didn’t do much’
‘I am good / I am bad’ (because isn’t this really the thing underneath it all?)
However, judgments are not very helpful, because this is the point we stop being curious.
If you find yourself doing this, you can break the spiral by asking yourself ‘why?’
Why do I think it’s beautiful?
Why do I think it’s terrible?
Why did I feel inspired?
Why was it difficult for me to work?
Here’s how this worked for me.
This past month, I’ve had some really important family matters that needed my attention and energy.
My automatic impulse when things get a little crazy and I am not getting words down on the page - which I have seen from most writers and creatives - is to beat myself up. Cue the endless refrain of: ‘I should be writing more.’
But… is it ever really enough?
For me, this critical mental recording kicks off without me even consciously realising. (And generally has more to do with my mental state than how much I am actually writing.) I frequently need to give myself a little wakeup call to shake it off.
During Writing Month, especially because this is my primary artistic practice, I was eager to do something new and exciting. I made grand plans for the things I wanted to create - and although I made an interesting start, I didn’t really get very far.
However, in the bigger context of my life, I was putting my time and energy exactly where it needed to go.
Many of my insights about this month were not actually about the art I was making, but about the art of living.
The things that DON’T work are the most important clues about what we really need.
Tailoring your life to you
If we look at the places we find friction or struggle to create, it points us in the direction of how we can become more aligned with our true goals and needs.
One of my favourite personal artistic mantras is this:
The job of an artist is to figure out which rules don’t apply to you, without being a jerk about it.
Reflecting on this month, I realised that I need to make a change in how I am applying the Total Artist experiment in my own life.
My original impulse was to use the frame of this experiment as a structure to push me to pick up projects that I had neglected and to try new things. But this meant adding more new projects to an already full plate.
In an ideal world, this is exactly what I would like to do. However, in the context of my current reality, initiating new projects made me feel overstretched. And that is never an artistically fruitful place - creativity thrives with a bit of space.
I realised, upon reflecting, that it would actually work better for me to apply these experiments to my existing core projects to try to unlock new layers within these.
Instead of picking up a new project to explore photography, I want to investigate what happens if I start trying to express the project I think is a play through photographs instead. Or to see if there are photographic techniques I can interweave into my writing style as I take this project forward. And alongside that, to see what happens if I try to pay attention to and welcome photography into my daily life as well as my artistic practice.
So the question I need to live with is this:
NOT ‘Why am I not writing more’
But instead: ‘What happens if I look at things from a new angle, or incorporate new disciplines into something I am already making or how I am already living?’
This is the approach I’m planning to take next month and moving forward. Let’s see how it works!
Because in this season of my life, adding another thing to my to do list feels like a burden rather than an opportunity. But adding a new thinking pattern for an existing part of life feels like an exciting way to make things fresh.
The key is returning to the practice
If you have also had a difficult month (as January often can be), I hope this can serve as a reminder that this okay. A thriving creative life does not rely on perfection.
The key to consistency is simply returning to our practice.
This is true for making art, and also for living with mindful creativity.
The slip ups and mistakes are the things that make us human, and they become fuel for insights - as long as we make use of them instead of pushing them away.
Gently invite yourself to return to what makes you feel creatively alive.
I know that I will undoubtedly slip away from my goals again. Meaning, I will need to evolve new strategies that work for where I am at now. That is okay!
We can always come back to our creativity, and nothing is wasted.
My big insight / what I made
My biggest insight from this month was about how the themes of mystery and clarity move in my own life, even more so than my art.
It immediately resonated with me that I want to feel both of these aspects in creative work and in my life. And indeed, they are already there. But I had not realised how often for me it happens that these feelings are tangled up together.
For me, I needed to tease these apart a little bit. By paying closer attention to this duality and separating out the moments for clarity and the moments for mystery, I found I was able to access them both better.
This meant that they could start to intertwine in a really beautiful way, rather than feel muddled together in a way where neither truly gets to shine.
I may not have gotten as far as I wanted, but here’s a little snippet of the short story I was working on. I had a lot of fun in the part that I did get to write.
This short story originally came to me in a dream, where I met this character with a colourful name, and I woke up laughing! This is still in draft form, but here’s a taste of how I tried to capture it.
Excerpt from The Discontinuation of Dr Elizabeth Nufferflaut:
Dr. Elizabeth Nufferflaut was understandably proud.
She had spent the entire weekend in a state of digital detox. She had not checked her email. She had not checked her Twitter. She had not checked her Instagram. Or TikTok. Or Linked In. She had not gone on Facebook. She had not opened WhatsApp. She had not even snuck a quick peek on YouTube to see whether the anniversary of Wittgenstein's death might have spurred a flurry of new likes on the single video she had posted four years ago, in a burst of misguided hope that a side career as an academic-influencer would lead to unimagined riches and acclaim.
Instead, she had meditated. She had taken a warm bath with salts swirled counterclockwise in an ironic gesture to rewind time. She had read thick books by candlelight, finally achieving the reality she had always imagined awaited her as a professor of philosophy, and which she had only just achieved.
She had finally mastered her New Year's Resolution to live a life of the mind, even if it had taken until when the late Spring flowers bloom to get there.
She sat down at her desk (see: 'I shall only check email in my office at designated times') with an uncommonly zen attitude.
Which did not at all prepare her for the assault that awaited.
She clicked. Then stared, agog, at the sea of unread emails at her inbox. Notifications from every app, alongside letters from concerned correspondents worrying about how she was coping with the attention. And wait, was that a TV appearance request?
Dr. Elizabeth Nufferflaut had gone viral. And not because her Wittgenstein video had finally found its audience.
There are many challenges in having an unusual name, graduations and doctor's offices foremost among them. (She will never forget the day she was awarded her PhD by a man determined to show off his 'germanic' pronounciation,: "NÜÜÜFFairFlaOOOT!") She had smiled grimly, not able to explain in front of the watching audience that her own warm, American accent was the pronunciation where this name felt most at home.
However, in the internet age, unusual names do have their advantages.
Good luck to John Smith in finding a unique handle. But Elizabeth Nufferflaut stood a fighting chance.
She wasn't an early enough adopter to truly luck out. @ElizabethNufferflaut and @ENufferflaut were both taken by the time she got around to joining the platforms where all the action seemed to be.
But a little inversion - @NufferflautE - was hers for the taking.
Little did she realise that this was the name of a long-beloved piece of furniture ("Nufferflaute") sold by a multinational behemoth famous for its flatpack and meatballs.
And that weekend, they had announced that it was being discontinued.
The outrage was swift and universal. She had simply been caught in the crossfire.
Just why the item was named "Nufferflaute" would always be a mystery.
("But why the superfluous 'E' at the end!?", Dr Elizabeth found herself wondering repeatedly for years to come, as if that tiny tweak might have somehow saved her.)
Still blinking from the shock of this barrage, her first attempt was to figure out
[… To be continued!]
Let’s chat in the comments!
If you are happy to share what you made or what you discovered, I would LOVE to hear it!
Part of the fun in doing this sort of experiment publicly is learning from others, so it would be wonderful to continue the conversation.
So please do share:
What you made
What you noticed
Next up: let’s explore photography
That’s it for Month 1!
Starting next week, we will move on to Month 2, which is centered around investigating the creative possibilities of photography (including moving image).
I’ll see you for this at the new moon!
Access Support: If you have access needs that I’m not currently meeting, please do drop me a line! (The best email is firstname.lastname@example.org.) I’d really like to make this project available to anyone who wants to participate.