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How to Do Creativity

I was in the studio for fourteen days in January, and I think it changed my life. I haven’t known quite what to share about my album-making experience, but the short version is that it was extremely fun. The details are harder to explain; it feels as though those two weeks cracked open a deep well of insight and awe and “oh, DUH” feelings within me.

The well of DUH has to do with creativity: what it is, how it works, and what it’s good for. I felt truly creative in the studio for the first time, and I think all five of us (the band who worked on the record) managed to get pretty dang creatively engaged, together. In other words, the spirit was with us in that little basement studio; and when I listen back to what we made, I can hear her.

Which reminds me, again, why it’s a good and important endeavor to invest my every last ounce of grit and gumption into the creative process, for the remaining moments of my little life.

Because when you manage to DO creativity, it’s a kind of healing magic. And when you SHARE it, the magic works on every witness. Any shmuck can hear and feel it, via microphone or printed page, even over long distances of space and time. It gives you the grinning goosebumps, and fills your heart with comfort, and brings you something holy in this weird and wicked world.

That’s why I read “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn” ten times as a girl. That’s why I spin Ray Charles when I’m happy and Billie Holiday when I’m sad. It’s why I can stare at a Chagall for hours without getting bored. I’m not looking at paint, I’m looking at the creative spirit, and it fills me up with wonder.

SO, WHAT IS CREATIVITY?

Creativity is a process by which our tiny, confused, self-obsessed shit-talking mean little minds become conduits for unicorns and rainbows and Jesus and Beyonce.

It’s what’s happening when we fall in love and become raw-hearted and open, when we get stoned or otherwise silly and yuk it up at the hilarity of the human endeavor, when we lose ourselves and become one with the music we’re making or the dance we’re doing or the face we’re kissing.

HOW DOES CREATIVITY HAPPEN?

You can’t really force it to happen, because it is a profoundly unserious process, highly allergic to plans and strategies of all kinds. Seriousness and planning are the territory of the ego, and it’s a scientific fact that your ego is the least creative bone in your body.

Creativity happens when we are present and playful.

To be present means to be connected to what’s happening NOW, in the actual world you’re in, and unconcerned with what’s happening in the past, the future, or the imaginary alternate universe in your head.

That means you aren’t, for the moment, tripping on any of the following:

  1. Whether the thing you’re doing is stupid, brilliant, wonderful, terrible, or better or worse than some other thing somebody did or might do.
  2. What you might think about the thing you’re doing later on.
  3. What your mother/father/sister/friend/pope/idol/enemy might think about the thing you’re doing.

To be playful means that you’re invested in the PLAY: that is, the actual moment-to-moment ACT of making the thing you’re making. As opposed to the usual, which is being invested in your ego: your identity as the maker of that thing, how your identity will fare once the thing is made.

Playful and present are really two words for the same way of being. Other words include unserious, lighthearted, curious, twitterpated, soulful, feeling the spirit, in the groove, in the pocket, in the zone, open to surprise.

In other words, we must become like little children to enter the kingdom of heaven.


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(Yes, that’s the only bible verse I’ve ever quoted in my life)

HOW DO WE DO IT?

Although you can’t do it on purpose, there are lots of ways to encourage it to occur. I tend to think in terms of spirits and angels, because they are an elegant metaphor for how creativity feels; which is as though you were walking along minding your business, and suddenly a magic being from another world swooped down and whispered in your ear.

So, to DO creativity, you have to make yourself available to the angels. Here are a few tricks.

1)  Practice.

Practice is not just for getting better at your instrument. If you ask me, it’s for making your self-consciousness about playing/drawing/dancing slowly recede into the background, so that you can become engaged by the actual activity.

When we’re new at something, we are at least 90% self-conscious and only about 10% engaged. As you practice, the ratio gets better. You get less self-conscious, more engaged, and thus more present and playful (and thus more available to angels).

2)  Surround yourself with angel bait.

Your angel bait depends entirely on the preferences of the angels you are courting. Mine prefer: clean spaces; bright colors; images of animals and children; small trinkets from faraway places; beautiful instruments; good books and records; feathers, bones, candles, and yarn. My writing studio (The Watermelon) is chock-full of this stuff, and while making this album, I finally had the presence of mind to import some angel bait into the recording studio.

My theory about why angel bait works is that creativity is the realm of the unconscious, and so if you want to be creative, you’ll need to speak the language of the unconscious (the language of symbols, myths, and dreams), not regular everyday language. 

For example, hanging up a sign that says “BE CREATIVE AT 10AM” probably won’t work, because it’s written in the wrong language. You’ll be better off hanging up a picture of a seahorse, or a poem that you like. 

Know your audience! If your audience is an angel, don’t be talking deadlines and spreadsheets.


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(Studio alter: prayer candles, kazoo, motter, Japanese anime figurines) 

3)  No more bullies

In addition to deadlines and spreadsheets, angels seem to have an aversion to bullies and egomaniacs. That has at least two connotations for creativity:

  1. If YOU have a tendency towards bullying or egoizing*, now it the time to start taming it. If you’re bullying yourself or anybody else, or if you’re acting with the intention of stroking your own or anybody else’s ego (even subtly and covertly), the angel will know and she will not deign to inspire you with a ten-foot-pole.
  2. If you have a bully or an egomaniac in your life, ESPECIALLY if they are in your creative space, or collaborating with you on your creative work, you’d better get them out of there PRONTO.

Take a moment to look deep inside your soul, and answer honestly: do you have an ego-crazed bully hanging around? Will you miss them more than you’re missing the angels they’re scaring off?

This was another major and recent revelation for me. It forced me to be very choosy about who was involved in the making of this album, especially considering the close quarters and emotional demands of the studio. The people I hired to play on and produce this record are incredibly thoughtful, sweet, emotionally perceptive goofballs. And also wickedly, outlandishly talented (turns out the two are not mutually exclusive).  


(These people are not assholes)

4)  Take care of your body, house, and heart

AS A GENERAL RULE, to be open-hearted, you have to be well-slept, well-fed, recently showered, and somewhat emotionally intact. 

I know this may come as a shock to those who have been operating the Van Gogh/Bukowski model of creativity. I try to follow some combination of Flaubert’s dictum: “Be regular and orderly in your life, so that you may be violent and original in your work”, and Edna St. Vincent Millay’s:

Oh, think not I am faithful to a vow!
Faithless am I save to love’s self alone.
Were you not lovely I would leave you now.
After the feet of beauty fly my own.

I find that the angels visit when I’ve slept and eaten, put my house in order, and followed beauty with ardent and steadfast commitment. Neglect of one’s body, abject poverty, and the tortured drama of dysfunctional relationships are all highly overrated methods of courting inspiration.  

In terms of album-making, this means that I rented a house near the studio, did my best to provide comfy beds and good coffee, food, and liquor, paid the band the absolute maximum I could afford, and kept regular hours most days.

WHEN IS A BAD TIME TO BE CREATIVE?

Here’s my last and final knock-down drag-out take-home heart-expanding ass-kicker of a thought:

As far as I can tell, there is no time when creativity is a bad idea. When I am creative, I am smarter, faster, more in tune, sexier, funnier, more perceptive, more compassionate, and a better contributor to those around me.

I used to think that writing was creative, and sometimes performing, but the rest of my life was not. Now I’ve realized that recording is part of the creative process, if I’m willing to open myself to the angels of the studio.

And cooking is part of the creative process, if I’m willing to open myself to the angels of the kitchen.

And doing dishes, and reading, and talking, and walking the dogs, and sitting quietly, and making love, and dreaming, and driving, and waiting in line at the post office, if (and only if) I open my heart to those particular angels. And getting dressed in the morning could be, too, and parenting, and maybe even paying bills (although that is some ninja-level creative magic that I’ve yet to unleash).

When we are creative, we are present and playful. Is there anything worth doing that isn’t improved by those qualities?

And that means, my friends, is that it’s time to put out your angel bait, kick out your bullies, and get your house in order. Because all the world’s a stage, and a canvas, and a guitar. 

And I feel an angel coming on.

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- *As far as I know, ”Egoizing” is a word coined by Ursula K. Le Guin in her book The Dispossessed, a fucking excellent book that you should read.

- My new record will be released in summer 2016.

- This post was inspired by at least two books: Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert, and Finite & Infinite Games by James P. Carse. 



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Art Is Freedom

A Secular Sunday Sermon

The thing is, art is freedom. It’s freedom from the status quo: from the ridiculous, arbitrary trends and expectations of whatever cultural morass we happen to be sunk in at the moment (our family, our school, our 2000 facebook friends). Art is communion with the divine – the divine spirit of yourself in deepest you-ness, the spirit of laughter and beauty, the spirit who arises in you when you hear or see or feel anything, purely and undistractedly, who looks up for a moment to say (as Anne Lamott would put it), WOW. 

We need art, and all other forms of spiritual communion (dance, sex, chocolate lava cake, and swimming in cold water - to name a few), so that we don’t spiral miserably into the pit of our own minds. Art is a sacred lunch break. It’s an invitation to come out from the hole, and look upon ourselves with compassion, and most importantly a sense of humor. Left to our own devices, we will put on our hard hats, descend into the coal pit of our daily worries, and never return. We will pack our spirits away in tupperware and forget them, so that we might pay the bills, and clean the house, and lose a few pounds. We will toil in that pit until we’re dead, just to make ourselves presentable. 

Art is freedom, so our job as artists is to make ourselves free. That’s it, that’s the whole job description. There are no other bullet points. 

So I seek freedom from the coal pit of my mind, from the dumb demands of the cultural morass, and from the highly contagious madness of the so-called free market. I seek it for my own amusement, and because it is my calling, and so that I can share it with you. 

I only have this privilege because of the alms you give me. All this crowdfunding nonsense – Kickstarter and Patreon and the big red tip bucket – is just that: I’m coming to you with an open hand, looking for alms. I am seeking charity to continue my silly, ephemeral, monkish work, so that we all might be a little freer. And by god and the spirit and chocolate lava cake, I sure do thank you. 

Happy Sunday, my friends.


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Emotional Affairs Are Not a Real Problem

(Here Are Five Real Problems)

I’ve been coming across a lot of articles about emotional affairs, and they give me the heeby-jeebies. I find the “emotional affair” to be a vague and unhelpful concept, whose primary function seems to be introducing an extra helping of paranoia and guilt into our relationships.

Articles like this one (and this one) remind me of articles on fad diets: they start by convincing you that there’s a problem (“Are you having an emotional affair?”), and then they offer you a solution that is vague, unscientific, and likely to create more problems (“You need to work on your marriage!’”).

So, no. I don’t think emotional affairs are a real problem. If they seem like a problem, I’d wager that you probably have bigger problems – and probably not the problems you’d expect.

What’s It To Me

Let me start by offering some fun facts about my life. I’m married, and have been with my husband for nine years. We’ve gone through periods of monogamy and periods of non-monogamy (the explicit and consensual kind). I’ve had previous long-term relationships too, mostly monogamous.

I’ve been cheated on, and I’ve cheated. Both were revealed, and both hurt like hell. I don’t take infidelity lightly, and I don’t recommend it.

That said, it should be mentioned that I am something of a libertine. I love sex, I fall in love easily and often, and I find both experiences to be major sources of inspiration. I am a professional writer (of songs as well as prose), and I make inspiration a pretty high priority. 

None of this is news to my husband.

Real Problem #1: You can’t ask Vogue whether you’re cheating, you have to ask your partner.

I know, nobody wants to hear this. It’s a lot more comfortable to read articles about relationships than it is to actually have one. But in case you do want to have an adult human relationship, you’ll need to rip the band-aid off and have an uncomfortable conversation. (Helpful tip: you’ll need to do this again later, so you might as well start practicing.)

You need to have this conversation with your partner because there is no universal definition of cheating. Nothing is cheating unless you and your partner agree that it’s cheating.

For example: if I have sex with a man who is not my husband, it’s not cheating, unless I keep it a secret from my husband. Those are the agreements we’ve made, so that’s what cheating is to us.

On the other hand, I’ve heard of relationships in which emailing with a person of the opposite sex was considered cheating. I wouldn’t agree to that definition of cheating (and don’t recommend it), but presumably they did, so that was cheating for them.

It’s important to make these agreements with your partner not only because you don’t want to accidentally betray their trust (or vice versa), but also because you need to be sure that you can consent to playing by each other’s rules. If you can’t come to a mutually satisfying agreement, you should break up.

For example: if I want to be sexually monogamous, but still want to be able to cuddle with my friends, I need to be explicit about that with my partner (ideally before it becomes an issue). Ditto if I have a definition of monogamy that excludes opposite-sex emails. 

And if I want “emotional monogamy”; I need to define those terms with my partner. What do I do if I find myself attracted to someone else? Can we meet in groups? Can we meet alone? Can we hug? Can we text? 

If you consider emotional affairs to be a form of infidelity, their parameters need to be defined and agreed upon by both partners (just like physical infidelity). If you can’t define it and ask for it explicitly, you shouldn’t expect it from your partner.

I realize that most people don’t carry around a bulleted list of their needs and desires. That’s why it’s important to have this conversation early and often. Talk about it when you first start dating, again when you feel jealous, and again when you find yourself attracted to someone other than your partner (yep, that was a when, not an if). Negotiate the terms, and when you get new information, re-negotiate them. That’s your best shot at avoiding betrayal.

But before you get too comfy, take note…


Real Problem #2: You can’t avoid betrayal.

Here’s the stone-cold fact: if you’re in a committed relationship, no matter how compatible and loving and communicative, you are going to hurt each other. You may be able to avoid sexual infidelity (if you’re one of the lucky 25-50%), but there are many kinds of betrayal, and you can’t avoid them all.

You’ll expect something that your partner can’t or won’t provide, you’ll disagree about something that feels like a fundamental value, you’ll leave the milk out (which your partner, apparently, interprets as proof of your black and callous heart). In the best case scenario, you’ll get along famously, until one of you dies, leaving the other cold and alone in the big, scary world.

This is one of those grown-up truths that rom coms don’t like to acknowledge: like condoms, and cellulite, betrayal is part of being an adult person. There’s no escaping it. We are all, at bottom, alone. So let’s all put on our big-kid pants, take a deep breath, and move on to the next problem.


Real Problem #3: You are separate, autonomous people.

Here’s my biggest beef of all with the “emotional affair” narrative. It seems to me that as two grown-ass people, with two distinct sets of feelings and desires, it’s very likely that you will both be happier if you allow each other to seek some intimacy, inspiration, and satisfaction outside of the relationship.

I can almost feel you rolling your eyes, saying, “sure, the nonmonogamist thinks we should be intimate with other people!”, and I’ll admit it, I am probably biased. But bear with me for one more minute.

I have a studio in our backyard. It’s about 8x10’, it’s painted pink, and I call it “The Watermelon”. It’s where I do all of my writing, most of my reading, and a large percentage of my thinking and feeling. If you asked me to name the #1 source of joy in my life – the thing that makes me feel connected and whole and at peace- I wouldn’t choose my husband. I also wouldn’t choose any of my lovers, or friends, or family members. I would choose my watermelon.

Is that a betrayal?

Clearly not. My watermelon makes me happy, and without it I would be a more miserable person and a worse partner. Also, my husband built it for me, so I’m pretty sure he’s OK with it (not just OK, actually, but delighted to support my happiness and well-being. More on that later).

But that’s an easy one, because The Watermelon is not a person.

So how about this: I have several close male friends who are musicians. We spend hours upon hours together talking about music in great detail, listening to records, and going to live shows. These sorts of activities aren’t generally much fun for my husband, and he doesn’t have the kind of musical background that makes them so much fun for me. So, I’m getting something from these male friends, to whom I may sometimes be attracted, that I don’t get from my husband.

Is that a betrayal?

For us, it’s not, because those are the terms we’ve agreed upon. I’m grateful that we’ve come to these terms, because, again, these friendships make me happy, and without them I would be a more miserable person and a worse partner.

But for many couples, I think this is just the sort of relationship that might constitute an “emotional affair”, to one or more of the couple-ees. If you’re part of a couple like that, and you’re down with it, I commend you.

But if you aren’t sure about it, the question is not “are you having an emotional affair?”. That is a stupid, beside-the-point, crazy-making question. Here are some better questions:

  • Are you sacrificing something that makes you really happy in order to be partnered?
  • Are you willing to keep making that sacrifice?
  • Is your partner asking you to make that sacrifice? If so, are they willing to reconsider?

Again, these are not things that Vogue can tell you. They are things that you’ll need to ask yourself, and your partner.

Real Problem #4: Love is not about control.

I think a lot of us could benefit from a more realistic and compassionate view of our partners, and of what we can (and should try to) provide for each other.

In my book, love means looking at a person, understanding who they are, and being willing to support them in becoming the fullest, happiest, and most inspired version of themselves, even if it hurts your feelings.

It’s up to you to decide how much hurt is too much, and whether to renegotiate, or end the partnership. There’s no magic formula. Being partnered means continually trying to balance your own needs with those of your partner. You can’t take too much, and you can’t give too much away.

For my husband and I, getting some of our needs met outside the relationship takes some of the pressure off, so that we can spend less time making demands of each other, and more time enjoying each other’s company.

But in case that sounds scary, let us return to that even scarier fact: you are going to hurt each other. The question is not whether you will be hurt, but how. Wouldn’t we all be better off if we agreed to hurt each other by admitting to our needs, even the scary ones, and negotiating a way to get them met? It’s that, or the usual methods of hurting each other: lying, controlling, martyring ourselves, and resenting each other, slowly and over many years, until we are both hollow shells of our former glory.

Imagine turning to your partner and saying some version of this: “Darling, I love you, and I know you love playing tennis. Because I hate tennis, I hereby grant you permission to have a wonderful time playing tennis with other people.”

For you, “tennis” might be talking about music; or learning to dance; or flirting; or reading historical fiction; or climbing mountains; or yes, having sex. And “hate” might be “don’t have time for”, or “prefer doubles”. And “with other people” might be “by yourself”, or “on the internet”.

Although “tennis” is an excellent euphemism for sex, I’m not advocating for any particular activity, tennis or otherwise. I’m advocating that we acknowledge who we are, and acknowledge who our partners are, and approach our relationships with clarity, candor, and compassion.

Real Problem #5: Your misery will not protect you (so you might as well cut it out)

As you may suspect, there is an inherent danger in these kinds of relationships. There is a danger that I’ll fall in love with one of my music-geekout-partners (not to mention one of my sex partners), and leave my husband for them. Or that I’ll be so happy out here in The Watermelon that I decide never to go back in the house. And, like in any relationship: no matter how careful we are about having scary conversations and making conscious agreements, we might still break them.

But the alternative, if you ask me, is much more dangerous. In so many partnerships, we see two people agreeing - implicitly - to live as a more-miserable versions of themselves, by abnegating needs and desires that they imagine might make their partner uncomfortable. 

And the worst part? The people who make that sacrifice are still not protected from betrayal. Plenty of miserable marriages also end in infidelity. So let’s stop building our relationships on mutual misery, under the false pretense that our misery will protect us.

I don’t know your story, but here’s mine: my husband and I did not become partners to control each other, or to protect each other, or ourselves. We became partners to be accomplices in each other’s pursuit of joy.

It takes courage to find out what that pursuit requires, and to confront it. And as far as I can tell, it takes a continual re-assessment, and a summoning of more courage, over and over, forever.

This kind of partnership is dangerous, and scary, and sometimes hurts. But the alternative is all of those things, too.

And a lot less fun.

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This post is inspired by the work of Dan Savage, Esther Perel, and Chris Ryan. Special thanks to my awesome husband. Above photo by Bobby Bonsey.



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