Does anyone remember a time when they weren’t crazy busy? [sits on hands]
I have a vague feeling that those halcyon days once existed, along with plaid bell-bottoms and rotary phones, but most days I suspect modern life was essentially constructed with this much overwhelm baked in.
I am of the generation that can still remember when we couldn’t carry $800 computers in our pocket and this whole Internet nonsense was merely a glimmer in some engineer’s eye. (Also, we had Atari and Fun-Dip so those were good days.)
It may be entirely true that it’s never been harder to focus on creating one’s art. But you know what? Even if it is true, it doesn’t matter: art must still be made. (Maybe now more than ever? When the world desperately needs to be brought to hush for a minute or three.)
So if the overwhelm isn’t going away, we must find the ways to still make art in the middle of everything, to create in the chaos.
My experience is that just like everything else meaningful in our lives, we can make this happen when we commit to it. There are techniques we can use and habits we can develop that will help us surf the chaos or sneak in under it long enough to get the work done, the painting produced, the sonnet or story written.
This really isn’t what we want to hear.
We want to be told a nice comforting lie about how it will all calm down soon and then we can write…or, if we quit our crazy jobs, then we can finally get back to the canvas…or, the real problem is our partner and if we sorted out the division of labour in our marriage, then the space to create would just open up.
“It’s just a really busy period, that’s all. Next month will be different and then we can write.” This is the lie I have told myself time and time again.
Of course things pile up around us. Sometimes life is just one big lint trap. And sometimes true chaos prevails – sudden death in the family, an unexpected diagnosis – and taking a short break from writing is the best, most compassionate response, for us and for our loved ones.
But what if 90% of the time, we’re just telling ourselves the overwhelm lie because deep down, we’re actually really scared?
Scared that our art doesn’t matter, scared that we can’t live up to the dreams we have for it, scared that we’ll just end up failing and – worse! — in public. Could this be true?
Creating in the Middle
The only way I know to prove to myself that overwhelm doesn’t own me is to find ways to create in the middle of everything.
I believe that making real progress in writing requires both Short Time and Long Time writing sessions. The secret to Long Time is planning and scheduling, but the secret to finding Short Time is stealing it.
(If stealing your own time back feels difficult for you, please know you have my permission. I’ll even write you a note if you need it, and then you can write one for me next week. It’s just between us — no one will ever know.)
Whenever my life is most frantic, and I am completely panicked about ALL OF THE THINGS that must be done yesterday so I can get an entirely new set of THINGS* to deal with today, these are the three basic things steps I take to keep creating:
- Breathe. Nothing cuts the legs out from overwhelm like just flat-out refusing to give it power. I leave everything where and how it is and take 10-15 minutes for myself. Then I find a quiet corner, or if necessary I make one using a set of Bose headphones and my boyfriend Yo Yo Ma. And I breathe. Sometimes I do a guided meditation, sometimes I just take deep breaths and feel them enter and leave my body. The effect is the same: I remember that me and the overwhelm are not the same person; in fact, I don’t even want to be friends.
- Read the Post-It. I keep a Post-It note on my desk that says: “Overwhelm is a choice.” The Post-It is there for those days when I forget the basic fact that I’m in control of how I respond to my life. (#slowlearner) Actually I have a few Post-Its, but that’s one of them.
- Review my calendar for the upcoming week and either completely cancel a THING or find a way to get it done that also means I can fit in another Short Time writing session. (Hot tip: writing after the breathing also often happens.) My favourite for this involves laundry: hire a student to do the laundry OR take it to a Laundromat that will wash and fold for you while you go to a café to write in your stolen laundry time. If neither of these are options, just take the notebook to the washing machine and write for the full wash/rinse/spin/dry cycle.
Go ahead, cancel a THING – I dare you! If it feels good, do it again next week.
If you are determined to be your own fierce ally in your writing life, I promise that you can find ways to create in the middle of everything.
Here’s the thing: when I am writing regularly, life has less overwhelm in it, because I am connected to my creative purpose and that in itself provides the grounding wire I need.
I’m not going to pretend that I’m perfect at this (or anything else) but the question that interests me most right now is: how do we become our own best fierce allies for our art-making?
Life might in fact be less busy next month, and if that’s true then we can get even more writing done. But in the meantime, and while we wait for the modern world to just chillax already, we can practice creating in the middle of everything.
*Capitalization guide: a THING is an obligation with either neutral or negative feelings attached to it. All your “must-dos” are THINGS and “should-dos” (ugh) are definitely THINGS. Whereas other things are just… things.