April 12

Creativity as Therapy

I’m sure you’ve heard of art therapy and music therapy. In fact, art has been used in therapy for over a century. Initially, it was used as a form of “moral therapy” for psychiatric patients, it’s evolved over time to something that can be utilized in a wide variety of situations, from helping Alzheimers patients with their memory issues to physical therapies where patients are relearning how to use their arms and hands.

But on a more personal level, I’ve found that art therapy, or creativity in general, can be therapeutic for everyday life.

Obviously, I’m not a mental health professional or physician, so take my words as simply personal experience and nothing more. I’m not suggesting you explore this in lieu of seeking professional help. Nowadays, it’s best to clarify before someone gets the wrong idea.

For me, creativity has always been mainstay in my life. From writing and drawing comic books as a kid to writing and self-publishing fiction as an adult, it’s been there for me as a way to express myself. However, it’s also been a sort of companion for me. Those long summers on my uncle’s dairy farm where I was the only kid for miles, my creativity and imagination kept me company. I created all sorts of adventures for myself as I wandered the hay fields and thick Wisconsin forests. That old gnarled tree stump became a troll. The wind whispering through the leaves were sirens trying to trick me into sailing my ship into the rocks. And that old abandon car helped me escape after I robbed the Bist Bank and Trust of all their pinecones.

Boy daydreaming.Trust me, it all made sense when I was a child.

As I grew matured (which is questionable), so did my use of my creativity. The aliens and pirates moved onto the page and became stories, and along with that, so did my hopes and fears. As a teenager I found that writing was a way for me to work through my hormonal angst. I filled spiral notebooks full of poems about unrequited love, dreams of the future, and images from my dreams. I actually still have a few of those notebooks and occasionally take them out to thumb through. It’s interesting to look back and remember how I used to be and how I used to see the world.

Later, in late teens, I began to journal. That’s when I found the outlet I needed, the sympathetic ear, the judgement-free listener. Journaling kept me going through bad relationships, family drama, love and loss. Even now, I still write in my journal almost daily. Sometimes it’s just a page, sometimes it’s several. But regardless, I always walk away from the page feeling a little bit better.

Why is that? Because it’s a way to clear the clutter from the attic. Speaking for myself, it’s easy to get caught up in my own little world, to become self-absorbed and see things from only one perspective. Writing in my journal allows me to work things out, to explore my thoughts, my experiences, and to see them from another perspective. There have been many occasions where I was thinking along one track, only to realize after writing in my journal that I was wrong. And admitting I’m wrong on the page makes it a lot easier to admit it to myself.

Journaling isn’t the only creative therapy I participate in. I also cook. Every day. Most of it is survival cooking, meaning, I cook because it’s time for breakfast, or lunch, or dinner. We need sustenance. But I do like to explore the creative aspect of cooking. I like to try new recipes, or read about different ways to cook something, like a chicken, then come up with my own method.

I find that when I’m in the kitchen, watching something in the sautée pan while deciding what spices to use, the rest of the world falls away. I forget my problems and worries. I lose myself in the motion of manipulating the pan, the smells of garlic and onion, the endless possibilities. Because cooking requires thought, imagination, and attention, it’s a wonderful way for me to unwind in the evenings. Weekends, however, are my prime cooking time. A bottle of wine helps, too.

In my opinion, one of the biggest issues in the world today is mental health care. There’s just not enough of it and there’s often a stigma attached to people to seek it out. That’s why I think encouraging people to use their creativity as a form of therapy could be a partial solution. Just having a way to express ourselves can make a huge difference in how we manage our mental state.

Consider this: You have a terrible coworker or manager. They make your workdays difficult. They make you angry, anxious, frustrated, but there’s nothing you can do about it. Situations like this can take a toll on your mental and emotional state. Some people are lucky enough to have access to decent healthcare and can go see a professional to learn coping mechanisms and ways to deal with these people. Others aren’t so lucky. In fact, I’d wager that most people don’t have that kind of healthcare.

But if you have ‘one of those days’ and arrive home with your head spinning, you can decompress by doing something creative. You can write about it. A journal can be your best friend. Or maybe use fiction instead. Write a story about your nemesis getting their comeuppance. I’ve done that. Or you can immerse yourself in trying out a new recipe in the kitchen, something new and exotic. Or you can pull out some paint brushes and a canvas and lose yourself in a landscape or something abstract. If you’re feeling restless, then put on some music and dance your heart out. No one is watching, so let yourself go.

Woman dancing.
Photo by Laura Fuhrman on Unsplash

We all have issues we deal with, and some of us handle things better than others. There’s no shame in needing a release, a pressure valve for your head or your heart. Professional therapy is great, but it can also be expensive and far too many people don’t have easy access to it. Creative, however, really doesn’t cost much. A pen and a spiral notebook. A paintbrush, some paint, and something to paint on, like a piece of scrap wood or cardboard. Music and dancing are free.

No, it’s not going to be for everyone, but there’s no harm in trying something new, is there? The next time you’re having a bad day, you’re stressed out, angry, hurt, confused, try doing something creative. It’s not a perfect solution, but it might just be enough.

RB

April 2

A Photo Moment – Azeleas

I think the prettiest time of year is spring, and here in North Florida, spring means the azaleas start blooming. I’m lucky enough to have quite a few of these shrubs in my yard and it’s always nice to look out a window and see these bright, colorful flowers everywhere. In fact, azalea flowers can last for weeks. This means that a bush can remain fully colored in pink, red, or white for a month or more.

Pink azalea blooms.
Blooming in the shade of some live oaks.

Azaleas are perfect for the average gardener, and even more so for the lazy ones. They are incredibly hardy with temperature extremes, can be propagated by planting cuttings, and need very little attention other than an occasional trim (if you want them to have a specific shape or keep it from becoming tree-like).

And here’s a fun fact for you: Every part of the azalea is toxic, even the nectar in the flowers. This has, in turn, inspired people in parts of the world to purposely feed azalea nectar to honeybees because it then develops into a ‘mind-altering’ – and potentially lethal – honey. In other words, don’t try this at home.

I’ll pass on the honey. Just seeing the blooms in my yard is enough to lift my mood and bring a smile to my face.

At the moment, I have pink ones blooming in my backyard and on one side of my house, along with a hedge in my front yard that’s displaying white flowers. If you look closely, you can see that they aren’t solid colors. The outer petals are pink or white, but closer in you can see they have this speckle pattern.

Pink azalea flowers.
Pink azalea flowers.
White azalea blooms.
Soft white azalea blooms.

Luckily, the weather is warming up and the pollen is finally being washed away with the spring rains, so I’ll be able to travel further afield soon. I’m looking forward to hiking in the local parks and forests, taking photos of the beauty I find, and getting some fresh air. I think my dogs are ready for it, too.

RB

 

 

 

March 29

Shattering the Illusion

We all live in a sort of bubble where we are the main protagonist of the story and everyone else is a supporting character. On paper it sounds selfish, but in reality it’s simply what we do. We live inside our own heads, hear our own inner monologue, make decisions based on what’s best for us. It comes with being human. The illusion that we are the center and everything revolves around us.

But sometimes we can get caught up in that illusion and lose focus on the big picture. What I mean is, we get so self-absorbed that we fail to realize – or recognize – how our words and actions can affect others. In a way, we can end up being the antagonist in other people’s stories.

It’s not that we do it on purpose or with ill-will. I know that in my head, I can get wrapped up in my thoughts and forget to think of my actions and reactions. What I mean is, I don’t take into account how my actions and the way I react to things affects others, the people around me. For example, I can get wrapped up in being angry about something trivial (as we all do on occasion) and not realize that I’m allowing that anger to taint my interactions with my partner. I may snap at her when she asks an innocent and unrelated question – without realizing that I’m doing it – and that, in turn, may ruin her mood or her day.

I’ve been trying to keep this in mind with the short fiction I write. My stories revolve around a protagonist and how they deal with a situation, or several situations. I write about how it affects them and how they react to it. But what I don’t think about is the bigger picture, like how does my character’s situation affect those around him or her. My protagonist doesn’t necessarily need to see this or recognize this, but for the reader I think it’s important to show the bigger picture, the ripple effect.

It’s like throwing a rock into a still pond. The rock breaking the surface is the catalyst of the story, and the ripples are how the event affects everyone. Those closer to the point of impact are the ones directly affected because that’s where the ripples are the biggest. The further away a character is from the impact, the less they are affected, but they still see a disturbance in their world. Ripples on surface of pond.

In other words, we ourselves can be the rock that disturbs the stillness of those around us, just like our main characters can disturb the supporting players, or vice versa. Everything is cause-and-effect. Everything is connected.

With fiction writing, we can focus on the main character and get so wrapped up in them that we can lose sight of the world around them. Even if the story only has one character, their actions and reactions are going to affect the world around them. The same applies to us. We should try to keep in mind how our moods, our attitudes, our actions, can affect the people around us. It doesn’t matter if we know them or if they’re strangers, we will still have some degree of impact on their lives.

I’ve been working on that lately, mostly in my personal life, but I’ve also been trying to apply this to the way I write my stories. I don’t want to be complacent either as a human being or as a writer. I want to work towards being the best version of myself in both areas.

The key is self-awareness, as an individual and as a writer. In my life I’m trying to think ahead, to consider my words and deeds and how they can affect others. The ripple affect. This isn’t to say that I’m not selfish. We all are to some degree, but we can manage the impact we have on the world around us by being cognizant of the ripples. Self-awareness allows us to better understand our motivations, our feelings, our desires and fears. The same applies to the characters we create.

As a writer, I’m working at being more aware of how my protagonists impact the worlds around them, and how the worlds impact them. It also helps me to better understand them and their motivations. This doesn’t have to mean implications for the plot or narrative (although it can, if need be). I’m thinking in more subtle ways, to make the story and characters seem more real, more believable. Fist shattering glass pane.

Will I succeed? I sure hope so, but I think this is one of those situations where the “Under Construction” sign will never be taken down. A work in progress. Shattering the illusion piece by piece.

RB

 

 

March 5

A Poetry Moment – IV

While I adore poetry and enjoy writing verse, I don’t fancy myself a poet. However, there are moments when I feel I’ve actually written something worthwhile, or at least good enough to share.

One of my favorite short story writers is Ernest Hemingway. He’s probably more famous for his novels, but I’ve found that his short stories are more to my liking. Oftentimes, I sit quietly after finishing one of them so I can let it sink in, contemplate the theme, explore the nuance. There aren’t many writers who affect me that way.

Hemingway Writing
‘Papa’ Hemingway working on a story.

Despite his fame and fortune, Hemingway had issues. Alcoholism, a temper, and later in life, severe depression. All that, in turn, took a toll on his writing and led to the end of his career, and his life.

About twenty years ago I was on a Hemingway kick, reading just about everything he wrote and everything that had been written about him. I tend to do that with writers that I admire or who inspire me. After immersing myself in his work, I found I was inspired to write something. Here’s what I ended up with…

Ketchum, Idaho

Papa said goodbye there, 

in the hallway, near the front door.

His body prone on the floor like a discarded book,

the pages now blank.  The words

splattered against the wall with all the viscosity of gray matter.

He probably felt like a book of blank pages,

basically useless.

The words were no longer there, either

Deadened by pills,

Or drown in alcohol,

Or burned out by the electro shock.

So instead of dwelling on once was, he decided to bring

the story to a close

On a fine summer day, on the outskirts of Ketchum.

And standing in that doorway, if only in a dream, I can hear

a church bell ringing in the distance.

 

Not necessarily the happiest of poems, but it encapsulates what I imagine he was feeling when the words wouldn’t come. And in a way, this is my tribute to a writer who, despite his faults, wrote amazing, timeless stories and inspired generations of writers.

RB

January 5

Mile Marker 2021

I used to think of years as compartmentalized and isolated blocks of time. Each year stood alone, separate from the rest like rooms in a house. Each one is unique, set apart, with its own look and feel. I would set goals for myself when the new year began and, in my head, I’d see that I would have 365 days to meet them.

But over the past few years I’ve begun to think of years as mile markers, like the ones you see on the highways here in the US. Traveling down Interstate 10 (which runs through Tallahassee) you see these small green signs every few minutes that noted when you crossed another mile. Just another way to track your pace and how far you’ve gone.

Seeing years like this has been helpful. What I mean is, I no longer look at years as these independent entities. Time flows like a river – or a highway – and it’s useful to have these signposts that remind us how far we’ve come. When I looked at them as stand-alone blocks, I think I was limiting my view of life. When I was imagining years as those aforementioned rooms, it was like I was isolating my time periods. Each year was for a stage of my life, the next one was for another stage, and so on.

In a way, it was like I was sitting in one room for 365 days, then when the calendar flipped I got up and moved into another room. Now, however, I feel like I’m free to move around the house, find a room that fits my mood for the day and settle in. Plus, it’s a good way to assess my progress, both professionally and personally.

The reason I changed my view was because of frustration. This year is a perfect example. For pretty much everyone, 2020 was a shit year. A global pandemic, lock downs, isolation, loneliness, job loss, deaths, and unprecedented politics. We lost family, friends, loved ones. But one thing I kept hearing from people was that they were ready for the year to end, for 2021 to begin, and for a return to some sense of normalcy.

But the thing is, the slate isn’t erased when the calendar flips. There’s no fresh start, no sudden clearing of the air, no get out of jail free card. Everything that we’ve been dealing with in 2020 is simply rolling over into 2021. And personally, I think that’s a detrimental mindset. We get it in our minds that everything will be fine once we see the clock strike midnight on December 31st, but it doesn’t work that way. So when it doesn’t happen, when the crappiness continues, then we get depressed, anxious, annoyed. It’s like thinking that when you hit that next mile marker everything will change, the landscape, the weather, the way you feel. But it won’t. The highway continues into the distance.

I’m finding that the highway and mile marker metaphor eases my mind. I’m not setting myself up for disappointment. I’m being realistic, rational, and accepting that things don’t change just because we made another circuit around the sun. But at the same time, a new year does hold promise, much like traveling on a new, unexplored stretch of highway. There are new possibilities, new options, new challenges. And there’s hope.

Speaking of which, I hope you have a wonderful start to your new year, that your engine runs cool, that your tires maintain their tread, and that the wind is always at your back, helping to push you onward to better days.

RB

October 5

Where is my Muse?

There are times when I stare at a blank screen and wonder when the words will come. It doesn’t happen often. I’m lucky in that I can always find something to write about. But on occasion, well, my Muse seems to be on vacation.

Personally, I think she just needs to recharge every so often. The way I look at it, our brains run on electricity. All those synapses firing off billions of times every minute, all those thoughts processing, ideas forming, opinions, fears, hopes, dreams. It’s like a mini-universe unfolding.

And all that processing eats up resources. Not necessarily memory. I’m sure I have a few petabytes still available. No, I’m referring to the the actual effort spent thinking about everything. Day to day thinking coupled with creative endeavors can push the brain to the limit. And then what?

Exhaustion.

I think mental exhaustion is more crippling than physical exhaustion. And that’s what it comes down to, the brain is just out of energy. I’ve found the only real cure is a good nap. Or a good night’s sleep. Rest, recuperation, and magically my Muse saunters back into the room, adult beverage in hand, ready to get back to work. Ta-da!

I often wonder if one of the main causes of Writer’s Block is simply due to being mentally tired. I know that when I am, I have a hard time concentrating, keeping the words flowing, even getting the words to make sense. And yes, it can cause frustration and anxiety. The Muse, much like a child, gets cranky and stubborn, refuses to do anything, and pouts.

When I feel she’s getting to that point I know it’s time to take a mental break and rest. Not surprisingly, it’s resulted in my productivity going up. When I take the time to recharge I end up writing more. I used to try and push myself, thinking that any time spent away from the keyboard was just wasted time. But now I know that isn’t true. Taking a little time to recharge the batteries actually makes me a better writer, a more productive writer, and a happier writer.

With that said…time for a nap!

RB

 

August 19

Being Different

Growing up, I heard a lot of “why can’t you be more like your brothers”, “why can’t you just act normal”, and “what’s wrong with you.” I was the creative one in a family of athletes. Obviously, I was the odd one out.

For the longest time that bothered me. I didn’t want to be different. I wanted to be accepted, to be part of the crowd, to be included. The only sport I was good at was soccer, but unfortunately, when my father was transferred to Texas I discovered they really didn’t have an established program where we were going to live, so that pursuit died with a whimper.

So I continued to be pulled between two opposing forces. On one hand were the people I looked up to who told me that being different was wrong, that I needed to focus on pursuits that would land me a good job, allow me to make money. Writing and drawing were fine hobbies, but they were best kept to myself. I needed to a man. And apparently, men weren’t supposed to be creative.

I tried to kick creativity to the curb. Well, I didn’t try THAT hard, but I made an attempt to be who everyone thought I was supposed to be. There were a few people in my life who privately supported my endeavors. That kept me going. But still, I mostly kept my writing to myself, along with my sketches. A combination of embarrassment and fear, I suppose. So instead of writing in the light of day, I stayed up late at night writing by the light of a desk lamp next to my bed and kept my notebooks safely tucked between the mattress and boxspring.

It took a long time for me to finally shrug off those expectations that were put on me when I was young. It took a lot of work, introspection, and pages and pages of journal writing to sort it out, to figure out who I was, who I wanted to be. In fact, I’m still working on that. I feel I’m closer to who I want to be – a good person, empathetic, compassionate, fearless, unashamed – but there’s still a lot of work to do, quite a few rough edges that still need polishing.

However, I’m proud of the progress I’ve made. I’m not the same person I was five, ten, twenty years ago. We should never step into the same river twice…the water should always be flowing, the shoreline constantly adjusting in response to the current. In other words, we should always be adapting and evolving. We should be changing the things we don’t like about ourselves (it can be done) and building up the good qualities we want to embrace.

I like to say that the past is the reason we are who we are, but it’s not an excuse for us to be the way we are. We are in control of our lives, of our personalities, of our strengths and weaknesses.

At the moment, I’m as closer to contentment than I’ve ever been. It hasn’t always been easy, but it’s been worth it.

RB

July 27

The Right Attitude

One of the drawbacks to being creative is dealing with disappointment. It can be awful when one of your projects doesn’t turn out the way you wanted it to, or when people don’t like it, or things just fall apart. I’ve had stories that I simply couldn’t make work. I’ve had stories that never made it past the first draft. I’ve had people tell me something I’d written sucked and I should find something else to do with my time.

All real things that I’ve dealt with. And yes, it can be a blow to the ol’ self-esteem and self-confidence. I think it can be especially hard for creative people who may be immature or new to the game, who aren’t experienced enough to handle these let downs.

I used to let these things get to me. They’d get under my skin, inside my head, and fester. It was like having an infection of negativity. It was unpleasant and on several occasions almost got me to give up on creativity altogether. I figured, screw it. I’ll spend all my time playing games on my PC and reading comic books.

Eventually, however, I realized that I didn’t need to let these thing get in my head and live there rent-free. Art, like humor, is subjective. What one person likes may not appeal to another. For example, some people love Monty Python (myself included), but others find it stupid and nonsensical. No one here is right or wrong, it’s just personal taste, personal opinions. And just because one person does or doesn’t like something doesn’t mean that everyone else should hate or love it. Again, it’s up to the individuals.

To me, people who create have to have the right attitude when it comes to their art. That being, don’t worry about what other people think. Don’t worry about it if a project blows up in your face. Don’t get upset when the project doesn’t turn out as good as you hoped it would.

Why? Because it doesn’t matter.

What does matter is that you can start over. You can clean up the mess and begin again. You can show your work to someone else who may love it. Or at least like it.

The bottom line is that YOU need to be happy with what you’re doing. Are you writing a story that you’re in love with? Fantastic! Are you painting a picture or illustrating a story and it’s all coming together? Awesome! Did you write a song that you can’t stop humming and singing? Excellent!

You see, creativity is all about self-expression. I know I repeat this quite often, but it’s true. It’s about you, what you have to say or express or convey. We create not only because we have a need to, but also because it makes us happy. That’s all that really matters here. And in order to be happy we have to have a selfish attitude when it comes to our art. As long as what you’ve done works for you, then it’s a success.

And those projects that don’t work out? Well, so what? Start over. Try again. Come at it from a different angle. That’s one of the great things about creating, you can do whatever you want, as many times as you want, until you get it right. Or at least as close to right as it can be.

Don’t worry about an audience, about who may like it or who may hate it. Don’t worry about making money off it or becoming famous. It’s all about the creative process and making yourself happy.

Be sure to do something creative today. Not because you have to, but because you want to.

RB

 

July 15

Having Fun

Art can be serious business. People who create take their projects seriously. We agonize over them, we cuss at them, we deal with frustration, aggravation, annoyance. We want to produce the best objet d’art we can. It doesn’t matter if it’s the written word, paint on canvas, or audio file. We live and breathe art. It’s our life.

But this doesn’t mean art can’t also be fun. I think that we forget that when we get so caught up in getting the story just right, or when we’re feeling uninspired and blocked, or overwhelmed by having too many project going at once. It’s understandable.

But oftentimes art can be a way to relieve stress, to unburden our minds. Sure, reading a book is a great way to escape reality for a while, but I believe that writing and creating can be just as beneficial.

What I mean is, if we don’t take ourselves or our writing too seriously, we can end up having just as much fun as our readers.

When was the last time you wrote something for fun? I’m not talking about your current work-in-progress, I mean something that you don’t expect to publish or show off. When was the last time you wrote something silly, crazy, something that made you laugh?

Have you ever written a limerick? A silly poem? What about writing down something funny that happened to you or someone you know? We’ve all had funny experiences in our lives and we’ve heard stories from others, so why not write them down and turn it into a piece of creative non-fiction?

For example, a guy at a party once told me about a time years ago when he went to a “gentleman’s club” with his wife (her suggestion), but the place she chose wasn’t exactly top of the line, and the dancer they ended up watching had a wooden leg. That’s one I desperately want to turn into a piece of fiction. So many possibilities…why did the wife want to do this? To prove a point? Why did the dancer have a wooden leg? Did anyone end up with splinters? And yes, you’re welcome to steal it and write your own version.

I think it’s healthy for us to take a break every so often from the seriousness of writing and simply have fun. We can’t allow ourselves to get bogged down in the trenches. We need to stand up, stretch, take a break, do something else for a change. Not only will it help you to relax, but I think fun exercises like this help to keep our minds fresh, help to stimulate new ideas.

There’s no harm in having fun. You deserve it.

RB

July 6

The Prometheus Project Podcast, Ep 33, is available!

The topic for this episode is “Who Cares?” It’s easy to lose your motivation when you don’t have an audience or you aren’t getting the attention you think you should, but this doesn’t mean you should give up. Join me as I talk about keeping your focus and staying motivated.

The podcast is available at iTunes, GooglePlay, Spotify, and PodBean. Or if you prefer, I also have a YouTube channel.

Or you can simply listen to it here!