7 Lessons From a Week of Forced Creativity

It’s been just over a week since I kicked off my year-long creativity challenge and it’s been an interesting few days.. Projects have kicked off and completed and lessons are being learned. So here’s a quick rundown of 7 lessons I’ve learned in this first week:

  1. It’s the best part of my day.

There have definitely been a couple days when I’ve had to force myself to do something creative, just doing enough to check the box. But for the most part, my daily creative time has become something I look forward to and I even find myself daydreaming about what project I’ll work on when I get home from work.

  1. It’s the perfect way to learn something new.

Learning to knit has been on my to-do list for what seems like forever, and somehow I’ve never gotten around to figuring it out. Until now. (Thank you YouTube tutorials) With a whole year ahead of me, the possibilities for future hobbies and new skills is wide open.

  1. The shadow of social media is nearly impossible to resist.

Doing a different creative project every day was never part of the rules I established for this challenge, but documenting this process on Instagram means that I inevitably start to think about how my grid looks and if it’s getting too repetitive. Meaning that I’ve started to mix up which creative projects I do each day.

  1. Being creative is physical as well as mental.

A lot of inspirational writers will tell you that creativity is a muscle that needs to be exercised or else it atrophies. But there’s something to be said about the literal muscles involved in creating. The first day I started knitting, my hands felt so clumsy it was like I was wearing hockey gloves while trying to grip the needles. The Saturday I spent coloring one beautiful, intricate picture, I had to take frequent breaks to stretch my hands. As with running or yoga, these hobbies require a physical strength all their own.

  1. Creativity multiplies.

The rules of this challenge require me to do one creative act every day. But I’m finding that one project often turns into two, or three, or four. One night, I finished my project for the day and went to bed, only to wake up two hours later to write an email to myself detailing the new story idea that wouldn’t let me stay asleep. Once you open the doors, creativity finds a way to flow through into every aspect of your life, especially the areas that had previously been blocked (like my writing).

  1. Everyone wants to be creative.

The number one reaction I’ve gotten from friends and family since starting this challenge has been, “That’s so cool, I want to do that!” My boyfriend is posting along with me with his preferred mode of creativity (photography), other friends have started to think about how they would do a challenge of their own or how they can be more creative in their lives. Just like it multiplies in your own life, creativity likes to spread to everyone and anyone who’s willing to give it the time of day.

  1. Even when I’m not writing, I’m writing.

Writing and storytelling have always been my primary mode of creativity, my bread and butter. But as part of this challenge, I’ve focused less on it and conversely, it’s flowed a lot easier. Most days, I choose something visual or tactile as my daily project: coloring, sewing, knitting, painting. These mediums feel like a break for my brain because they’re such a contrast from my daily work and my personal writing. And maybe because the writing isn’t my top priority, the pressure isn’t there to make it good, or even to make it happen. No 1,000 word a day mandate, no outline or chapter that needs to be done. Instead, the words come when they’re ready and if they don’t, they don’t.

If you’d like to start your own creativity challenge or just follow along as I document mine, check me out on Instagram @coffeecupmuse and track your own progress at #creative365challenge.

Under Pressure: Learning to Release Creative Ambition

For me, writing is therapy. Whether it’s stream of consciousness unplugging in my journal or dreaming up a story to lose myself in, writing has always been an outlet for my anxious brain. But sometimes, I try to force my writing to be something that it’s not. Blame it on my fancy degree or ambitiousness, but either way, I occasionally imagine myself to be the next great literary genius. An ingenue creating insightful, heart-rending novels that earn rave reviews from critics and a plethora of prestigious awards. And for that to happen, I must write Great Literature. Meaningful literature with themes that are both universal and somehow revolutionary. Stories that have never been created before and characters that resonate so deeply with readers, they wonder if I’ve peered into their minds.

This is a really great way to stoke your ego, elevating your imaginary talent far above the hack jobs who are publishing less-than-world-changing work. It’s also a great way to beat yourself up because you’ll never be good enough to write that perfect story. It’s a great way to pretend that you’re writing. What it’s not, is a great way to actually write.

Whenever I start to think this way, often halfway through a first draft or round of editing, I get blocked and stop writing. Because for some reason, convincing yourself that you need to be the greatest writer on earth is not the best way to practice being the writer you actually are. It’s like believing you have to be perfect leaves no room for failing and doing the work that will help you learn to be better. Crazy, right?

And so I have to remind myself again and again that I love to write. Writing is fun. Creating is fun. This seems like a weird thing to have to remind yourself but I like to think I’m not the only creative person that has to occasionally repeat my personal mantra: No One Is Making You Do This. You Chose This. Ommmmm.

So much of being a creative person is letting go of the outcome. To be creative, you have to be in the moment. You have to deal with the words you’re writing, not the ones you wish you were. You have to focus on the clay in your hands, not the vase eventually baking in the kiln. Or else there is no story. The clay falls flat in your hands. The end result never materializes.

This is also probably the hardest lesson to learn and the one most in need of repeating. Because making art is like creating little worlds that we are the gods of. It is an incredible illusion of control. You are making the thing! You decide what it looks like, sounds like, smells like! Who is and is not a part of it. It feels like we should be in complete control. But so often we’re not. The muse doesn’t appear that day, the souffle falls flat, the talent we possess is not quite a match for our imagination. And it’s okay. It doesn’t feel like it, but it really is. We give everything we have today, and the next day, and the day after that. And little by little, the outcome appears.

Can Creativity Save My Life? A 365-Day Challenge

I came home from work exhausted for what felt like the thousandth day in a row. I wanted to go for a run or do some yoga, cook dinner, write a little bit and end my day with things I love. Instead, I collapsed on the couch, ate something forgettable and aimlessly stared at my phone until I could barely keep my eyes open, then went to bed. The next day was almost identical, as was the day after that.

And then, one morning as I blearily made coffee, a question nearly bowled me over: What if creativity could save my life?

It’s an odd question. It’s not as if I’m suffering from some sort of terminal condition that creativity might cure. My anxiety and depression is well managed and suicidal thoughts aren’t part of the occasional flares I experience.

Yet, the question felt entirely valid. Though my life might not be literally in danger, I am (like a lot of people) in danger of merely surviving each day rather than truly living. And while there are a lot of ways I could try to combat that, creativity seems like a natural fit.

To that end, starting September 1, 2017, I’m embarking on a 365-day creativity challenge. The rules are simple:

  1. Every day, I will perform some creative act: writing, painting, doodling, scribbling poetry, painting my nails, coloring, etc.
  2. It must be active, not passive. So as much as I love reading, it doesn’t count.
  3. It must not be work-related. This is purely self-driven.
  4. It does not have to be perfect and does not need to fulfill any other purpose. It’s all about the process, not the end product.
  5. I will document the journey on this blog and over on Instagram

That’s it! I’ve purposely kept the rules simple, knowing that I have a crazy-busy year ahead of me at work and this isn’t meant to be an added burden, despite calling it a challenge. If you’d like to infuse your own life with creativity, join me and share your own journey on Instagram using the hashtag #creative365challenge

A Lesson in Trust at a Paint and Sip Class

I resurfaced from my wine fog and leaned back, taking in the painting I’d just completed. It was…good. The skyline wasn’t recognizable as Atlanta and it looked totally different from the instructor’s example, but it was decent, even beautiful. At minimum, it far exceeded my expectations going into the night when I’d anxiously walked into the studio for a wine and painting night.

For years, I’d seen friends post pictures of their “I totally painted this and it doesn’t look awful!” moments at these classes. It was always something that sounded fun in theory, but that for one reason or another I’d never found the time to try it myself. Until my sweet boyfriend got me a gift certificate for Valentine’s Day. Months later, we finally signed up for a class and nervously showed up.

I had two concerns with these classes: 1) The one most people probably have: doubting whether your painting will actually be any good or even look like the thing it’s supposed to, and 2) One that’s probably unique to me: it wouldn’t feel like I’d really painted anything, just colored inside the lines.

The instructor took us through our paintings step by step, giving us directions on how to mix colors and hold the brush to get the intended effect. And at every step, I squinted at my painting, concerned that it didn’t look how it was supposed to. The water was too dark, the lines to stark, the colors not blended properly, and I wanted the sky to be blue like the real Starry Night and it was too purple and, and and…And at every step, the instructor would reassure us not to worry because everything would turn out just fine and we could take care of any mistakes in the next step.

Three hours and a half bottle of wine later, our expert guide had led us step-by-step to completed paintings. Each of them was as different as the signatures on them and they were all pretty good, actually.

The final product

So if you’re thinking about trying one of these classes yourself but have been held back by doubt, I encourage you to set the doubt aside for one night and go for it. And if that sounds too daunting, just remember: wine is encouraged.

From Apples to Peaches Part 2: Creative Dreams Come True

I always know it’s been another year when the magnolias start to bloom. The scent hits me first and I search the trees for those huge white blooms that greeted me when I first arrived in Atlanta. I remember driving into the city after two straight days in my car and two years of planning this move, and the city smelled like…flowers. Exhausted and emotionally drained, I briefly wondered if I might be having a stroke. The cities I knew smelled like hot garbage and urine, not perfume. But as I exited the highway into the shadows of the intown forest, the scent grew stronger and I spotted the magnolias dotting the trees like Christmas ornaments. They’ve since become my favorite flower; my first welcome to this city I’ve come to love.

Even to me, my first two months in Atlanta sound crazy. After two years of thinking about this move, you’d think I’d have a better plan in place. But I didn’t. I kept waiting for the practicalities to be settled, for the job applications to get a response, for the PhD programs to pan out. But in the end, nothing happened. And I determined that nothing would happen unless I did it myself. So I did. I took a ridiculous leap of faith and moved with no job, just a place to stay and enough savings to last two months. After that…well, I would cross that bridge when I came to it.

Blame it on southern hospitality or on the sheer ballsiness of my (nonexistent) plan, but the reaction I most often get when I tell this story is that what I did was brave. And maybe to those who “could never do something like that”, it is. But to me, it was pure survival. Despite all the artists and creatives that flock to New York every year looking to fulfill their dreams, I was suffocating. The struggle was oh so real and it left zero room for my creative dreams to flourish. I needed a place where I could breathe.

But for the first two months in Atlanta, things didn’t look any better than they had back in New York. The struggle was even more real with no money coming in and none of my usual support systems to lean on. I felt so ridiculously alone and so scared. And that didn’t exactly change overnight…but it kind of did. Just when my savings was about to run out, when the lease was almost up and I was about to reach that cliff of having nothing left to live on, I found a job. It was the only interview I’d gone on since I moved and with my bank account melting away, I probably would have taken it even if it wasn’t what I wanted to be doing. But miraculously, it was exactly the work and even the title I wanted, with a salary right in the middle of my range. It was essentially, a saving grace.

I tell this story not because I think everyone should drop everything and move across the country to pursue their creative dreams. After all, my life now is much more traditionally structured with a 9-5 job and daily responsibilities than it was when I lived in New York. I tell this story because it’s mine and it’s why I believe so strongly in the power of creative dreams. When you trust them, when you put energy towards them, it can change your life.

From Apples to Peaches Part 1: Leaving New York City

“So, what brought you to Atlanta?”

I plaster a benign smile on my face, preparing to answer this question for the umpteenth time. It’s an understandable one, especially for a writer who moved from the creative mecca of New York City to the much smaller pond that is Atlanta, Georgia. But to truly answer that question, I have to take it back, back to a time when I was struggling so hard, I could have been a character in a Lena Dunham show.

The sun streamed through the window of my brownstone apartment in Queens, illuminating my jet-lagged body sprawled across the couch. I was too exhausted to get up, close the curtains and go to bed, too loopy to sleep. St. Patrick’s Day festivities were beginning to rage in the streets outside and I’d just gotten home from China where I’d been visiting one of my oldest friends for a week. After seven days in a foreign country, plus fourteen hours on a plane, it seemed like the perfect time to reevaluate every single one of the life choices that led me to this moment.

I stared out the window at the rooftops stretching into the distance, thinking how much I had wanted this…and how much it kind of really sucked. I was broke, anxious, depressed, and exhausted, sporadically working full time while pursuing a master’s degree and a writing hobby that I secretly wished wasn’t just a hobby. It was less than a week from my twenty-fifth birthday and I was gripped by what I now recognize as a quarter-life-crisis.

I’d experienced something incredible and different in China and started fantasizing about a life that was different. A bolder, more creative life where I traveled the world and wrote about what I saw. I would take lovers and cut the strings that tied me down. I would be a free-spirit, Eat-Pray-Loving my way around the globe. It was exciting and scary but I believed in that moment that it was exactly what I needed. The universe, however, had other plans for me.

Now, I will one hundred percent admit that what I’m about to say sounds woo-woo in the extreme and if that’s not your cup of tea, feel free to skip over it and accept my standard proclamation that I moved to Atlanta because I was sick of New York winters, and desperately needed something different. Those things are true enough that it doesn’t fundamentally alter the story.

But the true truth is that as I sat on that couch, jet-lagged beyond all reason, my brain did a thing. It dropped me into a dreamy scene of a future that I never would have considered otherwise. What I saw in this dream was the kind of domestic life that I would have never guessed I wanted: Husband, kids, house in the suburbs, family barbecues in the backyard. But there was one thing this life had in common with the boldly bohemian one I’d been imagining moments before. For all the traditional domesticity of the scene, I was fulfilling my dream of being a full-time writer.

What struck me most about this bizarre moment wasn’t the woo-woo-ness of it all—though I struggled with what to call this strange vision. The strangest part was the deep tugging in my gut that said unmistakably that I wanted this life. And the place where this cozy scene took place was as obvious to my mind as if it had been written in neon lights: Atlanta. So, as crazy as it seems (and it seems pretty crazy even to me) I left Atlanta to chase this strange dream of a life I’d never known I wanted.

What Does A Creative Life Actually Look Like?

What exactly do I mean when I talk about living a creative life? If it isn’t quitting your job to become a professional artist or running away to discover yourself, what exactly does a creative life look like? Well, the way I look at it, if you’re willing tweak some thought patterns and ingrained beliefs, the whole world really is a stage. Meaning that your creativity can infuse any and all parts of your life.

Maybe it is music or writing or dancing or “traditional” art. But you could just as easily express your creativity through cooking, how you dress, or hell even finding the perfect way to organize your closet. If Pinterest has taught us anything, it’s that anything can be art, from color-coordinated bookshelves to birthday cakes.

My primary creative outlet is writing. It’s my bread and butter, the root of my professional creative dreams, and basically the way I make sense of the world. If I can find the story behind any given string of events, facts, or thoughts, I can understand it.

But for all my love and dedication to writing and storytelling, it can be draining. And if I tried to direct all of my creative energy into it, pretty soon there would be nothing left. Which is why you will find my home dotted with random pieces of art I’ve painted, pillows and coasters I’ve made, and other arts and crafts projects in various states of completion. It’s also why when I get the urge to cook, I usually tackle it with the same passion and improvisation usually associated with jazz music.

All of this is to say that a creative life looks however you damn well want it to. Whether you hole up in your home office typing away at the next great American novel or take pride in the unique recipes that feed your family, your creative life is exactly that: yours. And it’s not my place to shove any of it into a set of one-size-fits-all rules, nor is it even possible.

So if you come to this blog as a fellow writer, you’ll find plenty of commiseration and the occasional pearl of wisdom on the writing process. But mostly you’ll find me trying to figure out how to be a writer and generally creative person without losing my mind, neglecting my responsibilities, ignoring the people I love or forgetting to have fun. You’ll find me trying to fill my creative well in every way I know how, trying to answer the very question I’ve asked here: What exactly does my creative life look like?


On Finishing…Sort Of

“I think I finished my book”

My boyfriend looks at me like he’s trying to do complex math problems in his head. “What do you mean, you think?”

“Not the one I’m reading, the book I’m writing. I finished the first draft…I think.”

To some people, this doesn’t make much more sense than “thinking” I was done with reading a book. How can you not know for sure? Is the story done or not? But it’s not really that simple. Even Da Vinci himself said that “Art is never finished, only abandoned.” At some point, with every novel, painting, poem, sketch, song, you have to step back and say, “I’ve done everything I can.” The piece never lives up to your imagined ideal, but given your current capabilities, you’ve done the best you can and there’s nothing left to do.

That was the case with the novel I finished last night. Or rather, the draft I finished. I got to the last scene in my outline, and just sort of…stopped. It is by no means complete or good or even satisfying, the story arc sort of peters out rather than coming to a close. But to go on at this stage would be beating a dead horse instead of hitching up a new one.

All of this is to say that finishing my first draft was not nearly the confetti-raining, bells chiming, momentous occasion that I was hoping it would be. Instead, it feels a bit like stopping for the night on a cross-country road trip. Sure, you’re relieved to have that first leg of the journey over and done with but how many more days of driving lay ahead of you? How many revisions and rewrites will it take for this novel to actually be done enough for the world to see?

It’s going to take a few days for the reality to set in that this first draft is finished. That there are no more new pages to write, no deadline to hit. I’ve accomplished the first milestone towards my ultimate goal of publishing a novel, a milestone that many people never hit, and that I myself have only achieved a few times. Knowing the steps that lie ahead, knowing that I have never successfully finished the revision stage of the writing process makes me feel like I need to qualify the achievement: I finished a novel! Well, sort of. I finished the first draft, anyway. And it’s not very good, it’s a total mess really. I need to do so much editing and revising and…

But despite all the caveats, it is worth celebrating. I wrote a novel. It has a beginning, middle, and end. It has characters and story arcs and subplots. It’s a novel and it’s real, and it’s finished…for now.

This is 30

I wake up in the near dark to the sound of whimpering. Pitiful little whines and raspy barks that quickly turn into thumping tail wags when I stumble into the living room. At thirty, I am still not a morning person, but my puppy is.

When I sit down in front of his crate to open the door, he crawls into my lap, his wiggly little body nuzzling around for the perfect spot to settle while I put on his harness for the first walk of the day. My boyfriend shuffles into the room and takes the leash from me to bring the puppy outside while I make coffee. Our cat trails behind him, still not the biggest fan of the newest, hyper little addition to the family. And we are a family. No rings on our fingers or paperwork to bind us (except for a lease and puppy adoption papers) but a little family nonetheless.

Napping like a champ

I have been looking forward to my thirtieth birthday since somewhere around my twenty-eighth birthday. Not because I thought I’d suddenly have my shit together or because I was planning some big “dirty thirty” blowout party. No, I’ve been excited about this milestone because as silly as it may sound, I’m starting to finally feel like an adult.

My twenties, like a lot of other people I know, were like taking a decade-long struggle bus ride. Sure, sometimes the bus would make some cool pit stops and the view from the window was occasionally amazing, but whether things were good or bad, they were almost always hard. Personally, professionally, physically, emotionally…you name it. There was no momentum, every movement forward was accompanied by backward slides and it always seemed like I was about two days from a complete and utter collapse. Until about six months ago.

With only a few months left in my twenties, I started to get the feeling that maybe, despite many years of worrying, I could actually manage this whole life thing. Like…I could pay bills and eat real food, be good at my job and have a functional, loving relationship. Someone would even entrust me with a cat! When bad things happened (because bad things will always happen) I could rebound and find a way through it. I could act like a functioning human being in the world and not feel like a total fraud. I could even feel (gasp) capable.

That’s thirty to me. That’s the glorious aura of not-a-twenty-something that I’ve been looking forward to for more than a year. It’s that certain something I sensed from women older than me who had survived the twenties trenches and are now kicking ass. It’s an eyes-on-your-own-paper give-no-fucks sort of attitude that I never thought I could pull off because I give so many fucks about so many things. But those things are starting to narrow down to what I can actually care about without taxing my emotional or physical energy reserves. What are the Kardashians up to? No idea! Did you hear about Giraffe Watch? Is that still happening? Is it over? No idea! Ah, such luxury and freedom. I can just see myself in five years having no idea what this year’s Mannequin Challenge is or what reality star is doing what.

Y’all, thirty is going to be good.

When an Apple Meets a Peach

On January 2, 2016, I stood just inside my front door. Decked out in a brand new dress and knee high boots, I checked my freshly blown-out hair for the tenth time, all the while whining to my best friend on the phone that I did not want to go on this first date. What if we had nothing to talk about? What if he looked nothing like his profile picture? What if he was a serial killer, or worse…a Republican?!

On January 2, 2017, I woke up and rubbed my sleepy eyes as my boyfriend of exactly one year deposited our cat on my lap for morning cuddles.

For the world at large, 2016 was the Year of the Great Dumpster Fire: beloved celebrities dying, a clusterfuck of an election, global strife, and disasters both natural and manmade. For me, 2016 was the year that love caught me by surprise.

I have always been a romantic. I distinctly remember dancing around my kitchen to Boys II Men ballads when I was too young to understand what they meant. Jane Austen is one of my favorite authors and nothing makes me feel all warm and fuzzy more than a Disney Princess movie. Even when it wasn’t “cool” to be a hopeless romantic, I never stopped being a sap. I just coated it in a hard candy shell of sarcasm. But dating in the age of Tinder can make even the most dedicated romantic feel a bit cynical about her options. So when said best friend suggested I join a bunch of dating apps “for fun” I grumpily resisted. Besides, I wasn’t looking for a relationship right now. I needed to focus on my career and all that.

Despite my protests, I found myself on the phone with her, on my way to a Bumble date, voicing all my various doomsday dating concerns and making her promise that she would call me at precisely 8:30 pm with a fake emergency in case I needed an escape hatch. I’ve been less nervous for job interviews. Which is probably why I only remember that night in bits and pieces. His ridiculously bright blue eyes and endearing awkwardness as he admitted that I had no idea what to do with the wine list. The way he listened and asked questions so that the conversation never dropped. The weird mix of nervous butterflies and comfortable familiarity. My arm through his as we walked to another bar for after-dinner drinks. A first kiss full of electricity.

Still, I was skeptical. I’d dated for years in New York City. I’d gone through the cycle of promising first date, flirty texts, delicious kisses and the magician-level vanishing act. Whenever anyone asked how the date went and if I liked him, I shrugged and said it was good and yea I liked him, but I don’t know…we’ll see. He was sweet, cute, nice, but it’s not like I was in love or anything.

Now, looking back, it makes me laugh how I didn’t see it coming, and how everyone from my boss to my best friend did. How what finally got me out the door on that January evening last year were the words, “It’s just a date, it’s not like I have to marry him or anything.” I have no doubt, those words will be recounted at our inevitable wedding. If you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans.

When I first moved to Atlanta, I had the idea for a blog I called From Apples to Peaches, documenting what I imagined would be the comical and adventurous transition from being a lifelong New Yorker to living in the South. It never went far, but I’ve held onto that name/idea ever since, loving the sound of it too much to let it go. Little did I know that it would be the theme of my romance: a girl from apple country falling in love with a true Georgia boy who, true to his sweet sentimental heart, presented me with apple and peach blossoms on our one year anniversary.