Happy Valentine's Day! I don't know if it's the memory of grade-school valentine exchanges or the connection with chocolate, but this has always been one of my favorite holidays.
This year I'm celebrating by kicking off a new, occasional (meaning whenever I feel like it) feature on creative couples. For the first installment, I'm profiling two all-around wonderful folks, George and Mallory Waldman. I first met the couple when George and I worked together at the Detroit Free Press—he as a photographer and I as a reporter. I always admired his honest, direct, and often surprising images.
Back then, Mallory was tirelessly working for a nonprofit organization that provided services for the elderly and people with HIV/AIDS, which didn't leave her much time or energy for other creative work. Now that she and George have retired and moved to Maine, she has flourished as a fiber artist.
Here's how Mallory describes her creations: "I play with color in fabrics which I've cut into one-inch-wide strips and woven together. It's almost like painting in a way, because the colors change when woven next to one another. It's fascinating, huge fun, and quite exciting."
George claims he doesn't do much photography any more. Mallory begs to differ. While he may not be practicing photojournalism, "I see such creativity in his photographs of the area around us," she says. "He can suddenly make you see what you really didn't do more than glance at before. He sharpens your sight."
In addition, George is carving wood and learning to draw and play piano, "working in different dimensions, rather than the two," he says. "It's all a challenge. Piano is really the tough one."
It surprised me when George added, "I'm beginning to think of myself as a creative person." Funny, I always thought he was.
He went on to explain that while he hasn't considered himself creative in an artistic sense, he's a creative problem solver. "I am, in my work, trying to find the essence of a situation and a person untainted by my own subjective impulses, and following that through to a final, beautiful and honest image that is useful and used and helpful in people understanding and appreciating each other."
In the beginning
I wondered if the couple's creative natures played any part in their attraction to each other when they met on a blind date 52 years ago.
"We were so young and didn't know each other well (and I didn't know myself), so the creative part of George was not what drew me to him," says Mallory. "I did think he was one of the nicest and most interesting guys I'd ever met." (She still thinks so, by the way.)
George agrees that he was "young and unformed" back then, and says this about Mallory: "At 22, she didn't seem to play games, which might suggest she wasn't very creative, but it made her very attractive to me. She was sincere, the kind of person who would do what she promised to do."
Perhaps it was that sincerity and mutual respect that helped them develop a partnership in which they could hone their own talents while encouraging each other's. That's a key to creative coupledom, say Katie and Gay Hendricks, husband-and-wife coauthors of Conscious Loving Ever After. "When people get in deeper communication with their own individual creative essence, their relationships blossom as a direct result," they write.
Or as George puts it, "Be true to oneself, or why would anyone else be interested in you?"
Space, Skills, Support
For George and Mallory, support goes beyond encouragement; they also help each other find space and time for creative pursuits. George might move a new loom into Mallory's studio, then do the laundry and fix dinner while she sets it up. Mallory will handle other logistics to give George a chance to "dream or wander or putz around with something."
They share their skills, too. George set up a Facebook page for technophobe Mallory, where she can display photos of her creations (photos taken by George, naturally).
"I see the play of light in her work, the texture, shapes and colors more deeply than others might," says George. "Photographic elements."
Once, another artist whose work George had photographed observed that the result was "about the photographs more than the art." With his photos of Mallory's weavings, he aims for images that capture both: the artful weaving itself, but also photographic elements such as the play of light on the warp of the loom.
That mix of literal representation and artistic expression "can be a good thing," George maintains. "A kind of collaboration. Right?"
Helpful as it as to have a supportive partner when things are going smoothly, it's even more appreciated during creative slumps and rough patches, the Waldmans have found.
"During a labor dispute with the Detroit newspapers, I had to struggle to make a living in depressing and often unfulfilling, problem-solving creative ways," George recalls. "Mallory was rock solid in support and understanding, never wavering a moment while she had her own problems to solve in funding and administering a program meeting the needs of HIV positive/AIDS people. Just earning a living is a creative challenge for most of us."
Giving George extra encouragement at that stressful time seemed like a no-brainer to Mallory. "One wants one's lover to be happy, fulfilled and eager to go on," she says.
Conscious Loving authors the Hendrickses see that sort of succor as essential in a creative partnership. In addition to asking oneself "What is my unique genius?", you can ask the same of your mate, Katie noted in an interview in the August 2017 issue of Mindful magazine. " 'What do you want to do in the world, and how can I support you and how can you support me?' That support is an expression of the genius of your relationship."
Recently, Mallory posed that very question to her spouse. "I asked George what would he really want to do if there were no constraints at all. Just dream and then tell me, and let's make it happen."
Passing It On
Though they don't collaborate on artistic work, George and Mallory did co-produce two exceptional creations: son Aaron and daughter Terrill. Not surprisingly, the parents applied their usual imagination and energy to nurturing their children's curiosity and creativity.
"We always had an art drawer for the kids, and George took them on an assignment once in a while so they could see him work," Mallory says. "We also supported their artistic impulses with classes and our general attitude that art was great."
Books were plentiful in the Waldman household, and George and Mallory encouraged creative thinking with daily questions: "What do you think of this? Do you like mustard on your eggs? What's the worst thing that could happen here?" (Mixed in with the occasional "Could you mow the damn lawn?")
Aaron and Terrill grew up to lead their own creative lives. Terrill and husband Charlie Jenkins, also a glassblower, create colorful and imaginative pieces in their studio, Tandem Glass. Aaron is "a very creative accountant in a good way and intent on the craft of it," says George.
Now grandparents, George and Mallory spend two days a week with their grandchildren and enjoy seeing their talents bloom.
"We're hoping to foster in them a freedom of thinking, problem-solving ability, and acceptance and understanding of life and its challenges," says George.
Come to think of it, those are exactly the qualities George and Mallory continue to cultivate in themselves in this phase of their creative couplehood.
"Life has several beginnings," says Mallory. "At 74, we feel this stage is another new beginning."
One of my favorite January rituals is choosing a calendar to hang in our kitchen. More than a place to keep track of events and appointments, the right calendar can be a thing of beauty to admire every day.
For the past three years, I've been delighted to find photographer Gail Howarth's calendars for sale at Artsplace in Fremont. I've been a fan of Gail's photographs since I saw a collaborative exhibit of work by Gail and painter Renae Wallace at Artsplace a few years ago.
This year, Gail is donating profits from calendar sales to Mel Trotter Ministries, a Grand Rapids nonprofit organization that works with homeless people. Gail is also undertaking a photography and writing project with the organization. I've invited her here today to tell us about her work and this new project.
One thing that has always appealed to me about your photographs is the way you create extraordinary images from everyday objects and scenes—an old chair in a barn, a pile of driftwood, a rusty bicycle in a patch of weeds, a weathered fence post. What is your process for finding subjects for your photographs, and what do you look for in a potential subject?
I feel as though my subjects find me. It is true that I carry my camera most of the time and that I often have a goal in mind when I go out for the day. However, what is on my camera at journey's end is seldom what I planned. I photograph a broad range of things, as you mentioned. I am attracted to things old and broken, beautiful landscapes, and interesting people. Often, I travel the same roads or walk the same paths and see nothing of interest. Then with a shift of light, I see the location or an object as though for the first time. This fascinates me and keeps in a state of wonder and awe. A potential subject is anything that tells a story. My hope is that my photography not only be beautiful but also conjures memories or inspires the viewer to create a tale about the image.
What are some of the most unusual or surprising places you've found good subjects?
I love old abandoned places. This is not unusual these days, as there is an entire genre of photography related to "abandoned places". However, it is where I am most surprised and intrigued. First, my storyteller's mind is intrigued by the possibilities of why a thing or place was left behind. Second, I am surprised by what is left behind. A girl's saddle shoe, the curtains, an apron over a bed frame, a lifetime of someone's greeting cards scattered upon the floor, a woman's purse, and so on and so on. Some images are heartbreaking, yet oddly beautiful.
I was surprised to read, in the text on the back of your 2017 calendar, that you started out with little or no confidence in your skills as a photographer. What helped you grow and develop confidence in your abilities?
I have always had an eye for composition, but I thought my photography was ordinary. Honestly, it was my friend's comments on Facebook that made me believe I might have something more than snapshots.
Then Renae Wallace, a painter from Fremont, Michigan, began asking me if she could paint some of my images. Of course, I was shocked, honored, and so pleased. That eventually turned into our exhibit at NCCA - Artsplace: Of Time, Transition and Reflection. Words cannot even begin to describe how wonderful that experience was. Renae is a gem. A dream came true when Lindsay Isenhart said yes to the project. Everyone at Artsplace was incredibly supportive. Faune Benson Schuitema even helped me pick all the materials to frame and mat my work. The community came out in earnest to support both Renae and me. It was then that I knew I was on my way and felt like a real artist.
How have your techniques and approaches to photography changed over time?
My technique improved once I learned more about all the settings on my camera. Instead of just taking a shot and hoping for the best, I learned how to set the camera for the best capture. Additionally, I started shooting in RAW versus JPEG and picked up a couple of higher-quality glass lenses. I learned Lightroom and Google NIK for editing. I do have Photoshop, but have not yet learned it. Perhaps this year.
My approach is different, as I take more time with setup and take fewer images versus taking too many images and then sorting through for the best one. That was very time-consuming. I also ask for opportunities to photograph things that interest me. In the past, I would miss many opportunities because I was too shy to ask.
This year, you're donating profits from your calendar sales to Mel Trotter Ministries. How did you come to be involved with the organization?
I worked as a practice management software trainer for Patterson Dental. When Mel Trotter Ministries Dental Clinic purchased the software, I became their trainer. Over the years, I would occasionally be called upon for follow-up training. I felt at home with this group and felt strongly that their mission was important. I was moved by their conviction to help and I would think, if I ever left my job I would want to be part of this.
In early 2016 I began to feel more and more unsettled in the career I had loved. As the year progressed, I found myself thinking more about photography and writing and less and less about my job. One day when I was training the dental staff at Mel Trotter, I mentioned to Janice Keesman, Director of Clinics, how I was feeling. I told her I was considering leaving my job to pursue my passion. I mentioned that if they ever needed help, I would still like to be considered. That resulted in many discussions, and finally a job offer. I work in the clinic three days a week and spend the rest of my time cultivating my life as an artist.
In addition to donating calendar profits, you're working on a photography and writing project for Mel Trotter Ministries. Tell us a little about that project—what you're doing and what you hope to accomplish with this work.
This is truly a labor of love. The project is so important to me that I do it on my own time. Mel Trotter Ministries is an organization that serves the homeless. It provides overnight shelter, meals, residential programs, job training, counseling, the dental clinic, chiropractic care, vision, legal services, and so much more.
The project was born soon after I began working in the dental clinic. Patients often said the same phrases to describe what was happening in their lives. They went like this: No one hears me. No one sees me. I am invisible. I thought perhaps I could help. With my camera and writing skills, I could give them a voice, a face, and increase public awareness of homelessness.
Mel Trotter Ministries publishes my pieces on their website. I will be including the blog posts on my own site soon.
Additionally, I would like to create an exhibit for ArtPrize and/or other venues to increase awareness.
How has your work with Mel Trotter ministries affected you personally? As an artist?
One cannot work at Mel Trotter and not be changed. First, it has deepened my personal relationship with God. It may sound quite absurd, but I did not expect this. I think the usual things you might think: I am more grateful, considerate and have deeper compassion.
But, I would also say, I feel a bit more of a burden of responsibility in caring for those less fortunate. I find it difficult to leave the building between 4:30 and 5:15 pm. That sounds terrible, but I have a tender heart and my mind has a hard time wrapping my head around the extent of the issue of homelessness. That is the time when the homeless women check in for the evening. They wait in line and security goes through their sparse belongings before allowing them entry where they will receive a meal and bed for the night. I often see the same women day after day. There is no age limit. Some are very young and some very old. Some appear to be frightened, angry, resigned, and yet others quite joyful. And I wonder, where are their families, why does no one care enough to open their doors to these people, and what does the future hold for them?
As an artist, I would say it has been a call to action. I am one person. What can I do? I can and will use my words and camera to do whatever I can to help.
The photos of yours that I've seen in galleries and on your calendars have focused mainly on places, objects and wildlife/nature, and not as much on people. Your new work with Mel Trotter Ministries is all about people. Is this a new direction for your work overall, or just for this particular project?
I like photographing people, but not in a studio setting. Lighting with flashes, reflectors, and the use of backdrops is a mystery to me. The project at Mel Trotter is an extension of something I started in November of 2016. I began asking people to think about for what they were most grateful while I photographed them. I used the light that was available and processed the images in black and white. The result is a very raw image. Some people cried while others beamed radiantly. The first person I photographed for the gratitude project taught me that what I was asking was not a minor request. I was asking people to become vulnerable and to bare a part of their soul. I am grateful to those who participated. To be allowed a look into someone's soul is an honor and needs to be treated respectfully. This is what I hope to bring to the Mel Trotter Project.
What directions do you want to go with your photography in the coming year?
I would like to pair writing with my photography more often. I will definitely be reviving my neglected blog. The folks at Mel Trotter have asked me to also photograph and write about the volunteer of the month and have begun asking me to photograph events. I am hoping that Renae Wallace and I can begin another collaborative project soon and am open to collaborative projects with other artists, but there is nothing in the works. Perhaps this is the year that I will finally learn Photoshop.
Anything else you'd like to add?
My work is available at NCCA - Artsplace in Fremont and at MB Woodworks & Company and Market 41 in Newaygo. Online I can be found at:
I am also starting a small gallery by appointment at my home in Holton.
In this first month of the year, it's exciting to envision good times ahead, to imagine accomplishments and successes piling up like drifts of fresh snow. This year, I'm also looking forward to goof-ups, flops, bungles, epic fails. To dumping garbage, if you will, on all that pristine snow.
Seriously? Seriously! It’s my intention to embrace failure, to view it as a teacher, not an indication of my worth.
This is not an easy mind-shift to make. I've spent most of my life aiming for success (however I chose to define it) and avoiding screw-ups. I've taken risks, but they've been calculated risks that I had reason to believe would turn out all right. For the most part, they did, or at least I convinced myself they did.
So why am I so intent on failing now? It's because there are things I want to try without worrying how they'll turn out. I'm not talking about major undertakings like kayaking across Lake Michigan, just small endeavors that previously have intimidated me.
For example, I have always wanted to draw, but my drawing ability plateaued around age seven. In college, I signed up for an introductory drawing class with a young, hip professor named Larry. For the first few weeks I looked forward to every session. Larry put on a Crosby, Stills & Nash album, demonstrated a technique, gave us an assignment, and cruised around the room offering suggestions. To this day, when I hear "Marrakesh Express," I'm back in that classroom, immersed in the scratch of pencil on paper, the magic of images taking shape beneath my hand.
Drawing was a joy, and I thought I was making great progress. Then one day, mid-way through the term, Larry made a comment to a mutual friend, and the friend (who was not known for his tact) repeated it to me.
"Larry says no one in your class has any talent."
That did it. I finished the class, but my enthusiasm for drawing died. I packed up my pencils and never gave them another thought . . . until recently, when I realized I still have a desire to draw.
It's a modest desire. I don't care about creating realistic likenesses, I just think it would be great fun to draw whimsical, cartoonish figures, faces, flowers, creatures, and objects. I envy friends who embellish their journals and notepads with fanciful doodles that seem to flow from their pens as easily as words.
So I bought a sketchbook and a book called How to Draw Almost Everything, which promised step-by-step instructions in the kind of drawing I want to do. I filled a page with with cartoon-y faces, first copying from the book, then making up my own. It was fun, and the results—while still at seven-year-old level—pleased me. With practice, maybe I could progress to advanced seven-year-old level!
Emboldened, I added bodies. Not too bad. Then I tried animals—squirrels, to be precise. The first one came out kind of cute, but the more squirrels I drew, the more bizarre they looked. Hunched backs, distorted bellies, fierce faces. All of a sudden my seven-year-old talent had regressed to kindergarten level. And not even cute kindergarten level—more like extremely disturbed kindergarten level. I tried clouds, trees, suns, stars, ballerinas, mermaids. All disastrous.
I remembered Larry's comment: no talent.
I laid the sketchbook aside and didn't open it for a few days. But then two things happened. First, I came across a couple of quotes I had copied from The Artist's Way when I re-read parts of the book during a creative slump:
Give yourself permission to be a beginner. By being willing to be a bad artist, you have a chance to be an artist, and perhaps, over time, a very good one.
It is impossible to get better and look good at the same time.
A few days after encountering those quotes, I was cleaning out some old files and found the first articles I wrote for the science writing class that led to the internship that led to my thirty-year career as a science writer.
My first attempt, a story on the health hazards of photocopy machine toners, dated August 30, 1980, was covered with red marks from the professor. And with good reason. My lede was leaden, my verbs flabby and passive, and story so full of qualifiers, readers would be hard pressed to draw any conclusions from it. In short, a failed attempt.
Yet if you had asked me—before I unearthed that old story—how I learned to write about science, I would've said it came naturally to me. Clearly, that's not true. I was once a beginner, and only by messing up and trying again did I get better at the thing I ended up doing best.
So I'm giving myself permission to be a beginner at drawing and all the other things I want to try or improve at: writing flash nonfiction, trying more challenging photography techniques, mastering yoga poses that don't come easily. And that means allowing myself to fail and try again.
What do you want to fail at this year?
I've made this point before, but it bears repeating: No matter how alluring your destination, the stops along the way are often just as memorable.
That held true on our recent travels. In between our longer stays in Stillwater, Albuquerque and Memphis (yes, we covered a lot of ground!), we found fascinating diversions in such places as Elk City, Oklahoma; Tucumcari, New Mexico; and Fort Smith, Arkansas. More about those discoveries another day; today we're visiting a couple of places that are even farther off the beaten path.
We happened upon the first while trying to find our way to Salinas Pueblo Missions National Monument, southeast of Albuquerque. Even with a GPS, it's a confusing undertaking, because the monument comprises three separate sites: Quarai, Abó, and Gran Quivira.
It helps to get your bearings at the visitor center in Mountainair. After driving so long we were sure we must have missed a turn somewhere, we finally arrived at Mountainair. I figured we'd buzz through the visitor center, pick up maps and move on. But a glance around town convinced me to linger a bit longer.
Though the business district is only a few blocks long, Mountainair is clearly a haven for creative souls. Mosaics and murals decorate walls and fences; sculptures stand in parking lots and protrude from building fronts.
I was particularly taken with one mosaic installation, Reptile Rendezvous, in front of the national monument's visitor center. Created by artists Samantha Baumgartner, Rebecca Anthony and Tomás Wolff, the piece features a larger-than-life snake stretched across the top of a curvy, concrete bench, with smaller ceramic lizards scattered about.
Sunflowers show up in a number of murals around town, a nod to Mountainair's annual Sunflower Festival. With a juried art show, live music (this year by groups including the Folk City Hipsters and Nervous Nation) and a sunflower hat contest, it sounds like a can't-miss event.
Unfortunately, we did miss it, by a couple of weeks. But we weren't too late for lunch, and we were ready for a refreshment break by the time we finished looking around town. We found just our kind of place: Alpine Alley Coffee Shop. The friendly folks, outstanding food and artsy, eclectic décor reminded us of our hometown hangout, Hit the Road Joe Coffee Café.
The next day, we found another treasure along New Mexico's Turquoise Trail. You may already have read my account of visiting Leroy Gonzales in Golden, but there was more up ahead in Madrid. Though a bit more touristy than Mountainair, Madrid still has a funky, handcrafted feel.
I especially loved the colorfully decorated mailboxes that lined the road.
Ray especially loved Maggie's, the movie set diner where scenes from the 2007 comedy "Wild Hogs" were shot. The building is a gift shop now (Wild Hogs t-shirts anyone?), and the haughty woman selling souvenirs the day we visited was no Marisa Tomei. Still, it was a kick to see the place—and the Wild Hogs Adopt-a-Highway sign on the way out of town.
One of the most memorable highway highlights wasn't a sight at all, but a sound. Just west of Tierjas, New Mexico, we detoured off I-40 to travel over the Singing Road. On this short stretch of old Route 66, rumble strips are configured to play "America the Beautiful," but only if you drive over them at exactly the speed limit, 45 miles per hour.
Having traveled through quite a few amber waves of grain, admiring purple mountain majesties and fruited plains, we felt like singing along. But before we knew it, the rumble strips had run out, the road was back to humming its usual monotone and we were off to see what other surprises the highway had in store.
I had barely stepped out of the truck when . . . "GOOD MORNING!"
The voice filled me with warmth on that damp morning when I'd stopped for a better look at an unusual roadside assemblage along New Mexico's Turquoise Trail, between Albuquerque and Santa Fe.
"Come on in! Take all the pictures you want." The man with the welcoming voice emerged from behind a rustic fence of planks and crooked tree limbs, decorated with railroad spikes, old tires, metal barrels, cast-off toys and colorful bottles and jars.
From there, he hustled me over to the "gold mine," a mirror-backed tunnel that Leroy winkingly told me extends all the way to the Ortiz Mountains in the distance. Then a stop at the cantina, another trompe l'oeil façade of corrugated metal and cow skulls.
When he invited me to step inside a small structure behind the cantina, I didn't hesitate, even before he assured me, "Don't worry, it's perfectly safe." Inside, the walls were covered with tacked-up notes that previous visitors had left in the spiral-bound guestbook Leroy keeps on a table out front. I read a few, then he showed me a plastic storage tub filled with more notes and letters and a collection of photos visitors have taken of him and his surroundings.
"Stay as long as you want," Leroy said as he headed off to tend to his creations. "Just let me know when you're leaving."
By the time we said goodbye—me with a bunch of photos in my camera, Leroy with a few bucks I left in the tip jar, along with my promise to send him some pictures—I was in high spirits.
In just a short visit, this man whose main mission in life seems to be welcoming people into his world, had cast a colorful light on my day. I hope I carried some of that color and sparkle away with me.
I've been a fan of Colleen M. Story and her blog, Writing and Wellness, since I came across her posts on Twitter a year or so ago.
When I learned that Colleen has a new book coming out, I jumped at the chance to read an advance copy. What writer could resist a book titled Overwhelmed Writer Rescue, with this tagline: "Stop drowning in your to-do list and start living a more joyful creative life!"?
Though the book has "Writer" in the title, the advice in it applies to creative folks of all kinds, and even those who don't consider themselves creative.
In concert with the book's launch, Colleen has agreed to answer a few questions. Read on for a taste of what you'll find in the book.
What led you to write Overwhelmed Writer Rescue, and how do you hope readers will benefit from it?
I started my motivational blog, Writing and Wellness, in the spring of 2014. After about two years of interviewing authors and interacting with readers, I began to realize there was a kind of epidemic going on in the writing world. Authors and other creative artists were drowning. There’s just so much we have to do these days.
As I heard the struggles authors were having, I recognized them. I had gone through the same things and found my way through, and I wanted to help. I was working on my next novel last fall (2016), but my muse knocked hard on my mental door, demanding I put my research and experience together in a way that authors and other artists could easily access.
My hope is that Overwhelmed Writer Rescue will help authors and other artists to create a better balance in their lives. Readers will learn more about their unique personalities and what they need to thrive as artists, and above all, how to better care for their creative selves.
Would you recommend this book for non-artists who have artists in their lives? If so, what might they gain by reading it?
In the interest of gaining early feedback and in making the book as high quality as I could, I asked several beta readers to read it. Some of them were not artists, and I was really happy to hear that they still got a lot out of it. The comment I received most often was, “This book would benefit anyone, not just artists.” People told me about changes they made in their lives after reading, and expressed how those changes helped them feel more productive.
I think in our society today, most of us are feeling rushed and overwhelmed. There many reasons for that, and I go into those in the book, but it’s not a healthy way to live. The sad thing is, we were taught nothing about time management in school, and certainly most of us have little information on how we’re supposed to deal with the influx of technology in our lives.
As for readers who have loved ones who are artists, the book may give them some insight into the creative struggle, and help them better understand how they can offer support, as well as how they can protect their own sanity in the mix!
I've recently come to realize that the patterns and disciplines that served me well when I was working full time as a writer don't feel quite right for the phase of creative life that I'm in now. Is it a good idea to re-examine our habits and attitudes from time to time and tweak our routines accordingly?
This is a great question, and something I talk about specifically in the book, especially in the chapters on “time personality” and “flexibility and persistence.” There are certain skills that once we master them, can work to help us reschedule our creative routines depending on the time of year and what’s going on in our lives.
We all experience, for example, yearly fluctuations in our creative output. I tend to really burrow under and write during the winter months. Living in the northwest, going outside during those months is often really uncomfortable, so it’s easy to keep my focus on a book. When the weather starts to warm up, however, that becomes a lot harder. I want to be out and shaking things up. These are the times when I’m more likely to enjoy teaching workshops or launching a book or going to conferences. The important thing is to figure out where your cycles are, and learn to honor them.
One thing we can count on is that things will never stay the same. Jobs come and go, family members need our help, and sometimes, our health needs our attention. How do we fit our creative work in when our lives are shifting around us? The more we know about our own creative selves, the better we become at fitting our creative time in no matter what. We are creative beings, so the work continues, regardless. It’s knowledge of the self that helps us weather the ups and downs with more ease.
Writers are often encouraged to reach out to other writers and offer support by joining writers' groups, exchanging and reviewing work, etc. These activities certainly can be beneficial, yet they can cut into writing time. Do you have any tips for maintaining connections with other writers without sabotaging your own writing?
Again, it comes down to balance, and to knowing yourself. How much interaction do you need? Creativity is a highly individual thing. (It’s why I have several quizzes throughout the book to help the reader get to know herself or himself.)
Personally, I’m extremely introverted, which means I require a lot of time alone to refuel. But I really enjoy interacting with people, too, particularly with other artists. I just have to be careful I don’t do too much of it, or I get worn out and my writing suffers.
Others may crave more interaction and may benefit by getting more frequent feedback. I think in this case, it’s more important to go by what your inner artist needs than to try to meet some sort of time or activity quota.
You may be optimally motivated by attending a writer’s group meeting just once a month, for example. That may be enough to keep you going strong on your novel. But if you find yourself sagging after a couple weeks and you’re not writing, maybe you need to join a second group so you’re getting feedback on a regular basis.
How is your writing going? How much are you getting done? Are you improving? These are the questions you should ask yourself when determining how much interaction/feedback you need. Keep to your writing schedule, but keep in contact with your motivation and energy.
Can you share a bit about your own personal path to a more productive, less overwhelmed creative life?
I’ve been a full-time writer for 20 years now, and honestly, it seems it’s taken me that long to really figure out how to balance my life. I’ve always worked really hard and for a lot of hours to fit in both my freelance writing and my fiction writing, but in my 30s, I suffered a serious back injury and had to write for two months on the floor.
That experience woke me up to what I was doing. Prior to that, I saw my body and my health as invincible, and ignored the little signs telling me that I was pushing it too hard. After that happened, I realized I was going to have to change things if I wanted to continue to enjoy a healthy life, and continue to do what I loved.
At about the same time, I got really frustrated with my lack of progress in fiction. I had penned several novels, but had yet to get a publishing contract. So I made some changes. I focused on working smarter rather than harder, and started to adopt some of the productivity techniques that I talk about in the book. I cut back on my extra-curricular activities, rearranged my schedule, recommitted to regular exercise and rest, and worked to gain a better outlook on my long-term goals.
The results were well worth it. I’ve published two novels and I’m working on a third, I’m loving the work I’m doing with Writing and Wellness, and my freelance business is still going strong. But there is rarely a day that goes by that I don’t exercise, and do 30 minutes of yoga, and eat healthy foods. I take a two-week vacation every year no matter what, and use that time to reconnect to my creative self and find out what’s next. I teach music lessons and play in the local symphony, and get out in nature as often as I can.
I think the most important thing I’ve learned is that physical and mental health have to come first. Without those two things, we can’t live up to the great potential each of us has. It’s not hard. It’s just a matter of learning the skills we need to create a healthy, productive and creative routine.
Personally, I think it’s fun, this creating one’s own life. We have more control than we think. We just have to grasp it.
Boost productivity, improve time management, and restore your sanity while gaining insight into your unique creative nature and what it needs to thrive. Find practical, personalized solutions to help you escape self-doubt and nurture the genius within in Overwhelmed Writer Rescue, available today at Amazon and all major book retailers. Enjoy your FREE chapter here!
Colleen M. Story has worked in the creative writing industry for over twenty years. Her latest release, Overwhelmed Writer Rescue, helps writers and other creative artists escape the tyranny of the to-do list and nurture the genius within. Her novels include Loreena’s Gift, a Foreword Reviews’ INDIES Book of the Year Awards winner. She has authored thousands of articles for publications like Healthline and Women’s Health and ghostwritten books on back pain, nutrition, and cancer. She is the founder of Writing and Wellness, and works as a motivational speaker and workshop leader. Find more information on her author website, or follow her on Twitter.
As a kid, summer was one long stretch of opportunity. More time to play—yay!—but even better, more chances to make stuff. Popsicle stick baskets at Girl Scout day camp, Plaster of Paris plaques at vacation Bible school, clay doodads and woven plastic lanyards at my school's summer recreation program. Plus an imaginative assortment of creations my neighborhood playmates and I dreamed up, like costumes for our backyard circuses and hula hoop shows.
Back then, none of us needed tips on how to boost our creativity. It just came naturally in those early years, before we felt the need to justify time spent on such pleasant pursuits. Before we learned to fear criticism and failure.
I still see summer as an ideal time to pursue creative projects, and I guess I'm not the only one. The cover of the latest issue of Writer's Digest, billed as "The Creativity Issue," hooks readers with such headlines as "Train to Be Creative on Demand: 7 Ways," "Turn Your Inner Critic Into Your Greatest Ally," and "3 Artist's Techniques Every Writer Should Try."
Inspired by the magazine—and those summer breezes wafting through my open windows—I went on my own quest for ways to kick start creativity. Here are seven suggestions that appealed to me. (Sources are at the end of this post.)
Be a hunter-gatherer
Collect ideas, images, random thoughts, quotations—anything that catches your attention—and stash them where you can peruse them at your leisure. That place might be a pocket notebook, a file folder (physical or virtual), a drawer filled with paper scraps, a box on your desk or a bulletin board in your studio. Resist the urge to organize your collection. Random associations that emerge from the jumble just might trigger original ideas.
Speaking of random associations, you don't have to wait for them to appear, you can prod the process. On a blank sheet of paper, write down whatever words come to mind. The words can represent ideas, categories, topics or objects, or they may just be interesting in their own right. Randomly draw arrows between pairs (or groups) of words. Use the results to inspire a poem, a story, a collage or a painting.
I know—you got in trouble for doing this in school, but now doodling is in vogue. Witness the recent book, The Doodle Revolution: Unlock the Power to Think Differently, which posits that doodling is no mindless waste of time; it's a focusing technique that helped Einstein, Edison, Henry Ford, Marie Curie and other brainiacs innovate and problem-solve. Last year I got hooked on Zentangle and found it relaxed and cleared my mind, making room for new ideas. And by the way, daydreaming is also allowed—it's a pathway to insights, a 2012 study suggests, because it helps us tap into memory, even in the face of distractions.
If you're a writer, try your hand at painting. If you're a musician, write a story. Push beyond your comfort zone, and you'll exercise new creative muscles. In the process, you're bound to encounter other creative types and benefit from cross-fertilization. (For more on crossover creativity, see this blog post from last summer.)
Establish a routine, then break it
A regular warm-up routine—say, sharpening pencils, doing a few stretches, reading something inspiring—can be a wake-up call to your muse. But be sure your routine fits your rhythms. Maybe you're at your creative best first thing in the morning; maybe you don't get fired up until after midnight. Find your personal golden hours and make the best of them. That said, don't be afraid to shake things up from time to time. While routine can get you in the zone, monotony can turn you into a drone.
For years, my morning routine has been some combination of meditation, yoga, reading over breakfast, then buckling down on whatever writing project I have in the works. But lately I've been altering the pattern—sometimes taking my camera out on the back porch for an hour or so before breakfast, sometimes doing my yoga just before lunch, sometimes writing in the evening. It's amazing how refreshing those small changes have been!
Decisions, decisions—every creative project seems to require a slew of them. Should I start my novel at the beginning of the heroine's ordeal or midway through? Should I add one more image to this collage or take one away? The urge to make a choice and move on is powerful, but sometimes it's best to sit with the uncertainty as long as you can. As one of my writing mentors advised, "Don't be afraid to get in there and make a mess." Eventually, clarity will come.
Your creations may not be all sunbeams and rainbows—how boring that would be! But whatever you're creating, I hope the process brings you satisfaction and a sense of joy. For me—and I'm guessing I'm not alone—joy is the juice that keeps the muse amused.
What are you creating this summer? What are your favorite ways of summoning your muse?
"A Few Short Rules on Being Creative," by Thierry Dufay, HuffPost, August 14, 2014.
"18 Habits of Highly Creative People," by Carolyn Gregoire, HuffPost, November 15, 2015.
"How to Be More Creative," A.J. Jacobs, Real Simple.
"9 Ways to Become More Creative in the Next 10 Minutes," by Larry Kim, Inc.com, August 11, 2014.
"7 UP: These 7 simple exercises will build core strength in your creative muscles," by Gabriela Pereria, Writer's Digest, September 2017.
"The Benefits of Daydreaming: A new study indicates that daydreamers are better at remembering information in the face of distraction," by Joseph Stromberg, Smithsonian.com, April 3, 2012.
"30 Tips to Rejuvenate Your Creativity," by Joel Falconer, Lifehack.
All but the first two images on this page are free-use, stock images.
I've been to reunions. I've been to festivals. I've even, in my day, been to a fair number of hippie love-ins, be-ins and other gatherings of the tribes. But nothing quite compares to Creekfest, an annual event hosted by our friends Paul and Valerie.
Now in its 25th year, Creekfest is a reunion of "kin," who may or may not be related in a strict genetic sense, but who all share genes for enjoyment of good music, good food and good times.
Held on Paul and Valerie's wooded property on Coolbough Creek, the event goes on for a full weekend, with many of the 150-200 or so attendees camping on the premises.
Things get rolling Friday evening, when local chef Tracy Murrell offers Thai specialties. Music and merriment typically follow.
Saturday is activity-packed, with a kids' craft and painting party, tie-dye for anyone who wants to get colorful, and a rubber ducky race on the creek. This year, Ray and I arrived just in time for the tail-end of the pre-dinner talent show, an impressive display of musicality by youngsters and not-so-youngsters.
Part of the fun is just taking in the setting. The "cabin," its additions and outbuildings have been constructed over the years with the help of friends. And everywhere you look are Paul and Valerie's creative touches, from Paul's metal sculptures to Valerie's moss gardens, to various intriguing objets d'art placed here and there. You could wander around for days and still not see everything.
After Saturday's talent show came a potluck to top all potlucks. I swear the spread was half a block long. Well, maybe not quite, but it just kept on going. All the dishes got rave reviews, especially one beet salad with goat cheese and walnuts. (Did you make that, Erin? We all want the recipe!)
Still more music followed, and went on until the early morning hours, long after we'd gone home to bed. We would've stayed longer, but Ray had another festive event to attend the next day—a car show in New Hudson—and he wanted to be up by 4 a.m., about the time things wound down at Creekfest.
Once the weekend was over, I asked Valerie (who twenty years ago declared herself Creekfest Queen) for her thoughts about this year and all the years leading up to it.
"For one reason or another, each Creekfest is the best ever," she says. "Sometimes I've had to stretch a bit to say that, but each year has its best-ever moments, this year included."
Every year also has its share of "oh, s**t" moments, this year included. Like when Valerie lost her birthday kazoo at the ducky race and dropped her iPad into the creek. But by last Tuesday, when I touched base with her, The Queen was chipper as ever and recalling the best-ever moments as well.
"The music, the kids, our kinship and love, the camaraderie. Even the dogs keep things fun and lively."
Another highlight: Creekfest's first-ever silent auction, which helped defray expenses—higher this year due to some necessary repairs and replacements. "We were ravaged by rodents last year," says Valerie. "They took down our inverter for the solar, the generator that pumps our water, the golf cart. They got into the wiring and trashed things."
All things considered, though, this year was the best ever. And next year? Better still.
Do you have an annual event with its share of best-ever moments? What makes you look forward to it?
More scenes from Creekfest . . .
Sunshine smiled on the Enchanted Forest, AKA Camp Newaygo, for at least part of last Saturday, but Sunday's downpours had fairy-folk scrambling to take shelter under toadstools. No worries, though. Quick-thinking Camp Newaygo staffers whisked gnome homes and pixie palaces out of the wet woods and into drier hiding places, where twinkly lights made fairy-house hunting just as enchanting.
The occasion was the two-day Enchanted Forest walk, a fundraiser for the independent not-for-profit camp located on 104 acres along a chain of lakes in the Manistee National Forest region of mid-western Michigan.
Last year's Enchanted Forest event was a great success, and this year's appeal to artists and craftspeople to create and donate fairy houses again yielded a fanciful assortment of tiny abodes—forty-seven in all.
It's always fun to see what imaginative people use to craft these dwellings: tree stumps, gourds, clay, copper wire, twigs, feathers, tin cans. One of this year's creations was made from a cowgirl's boot. Another had a hornet's nest worked into the design.
Ray and I got a close look at many of them when we helped hide the homes in the woods and along the Wetland Trail early Saturday morning. Then, as visitors began arriving and heading out with trail maps, we made the rounds again to watch them discover the little houses.
We had fun watching visitors' reactions to our own creations, too, both the fairy house and the story that went along with it.
"We were so excited to see families outside and enjoying the houses that were hidden on the trails," said Christa Smalligan, the camp's Events and Facilities Director. "Camp Newaygo is a great place for families to enjoy activities together. I heard many kids found some fairies in the woods."
If you missed out on the enchantment—or if you'd like a chance to relive it--here's a look at more of the fairy houses and the weekend's fun. And if you'd like a fairy house for your very own, all the houses pictured here--and more--are available for purchase on ebay through May 8. Proceeds help fund the camp's youth and family programs as well as renovations to facilities such as the Foster Arts and Crafts Lodge.
In January, Ray and I spent a delightful hour or so viewing the latest work of photographer Tim Motley at an exhibit and reception at Artsplace in Fremont. Tim, who has made a living as a commercial photographer for thirty-seven years, recently changed direction to concentrate on fine art abstract photography.
As I listened to Tim discussing his inspirations and techniques with gallery visitors, it occurred to me that HeartWood readers might also be interested in what he had to say. Though I had already peppered him with questions the night of the reception, he graciously agreed to answer still more questions for this Q&A.
I'm always fascinated when someone who's been successful following one path decides to take a chance and turn a different direction. You mentioned that your shift from commercial photography to fine art photography was something you'd been thinking about for a while. What made you decide it was the right time to make the move?
It was one of those things where you're kind of gently pushed. I started out in fashion in back in the eighties, moved into high-end weddings, and then when the economy went down, my weddings went from fifty a year to four. Because of the economy and so many other photographers out there, I decided to go into fine art world. I had done some fine art work back in the nineties, but it really didn't go anywhere. This body of abstract work that I'm doing now, I'm very motivated to get it out there, get into galleries and museums. I look at this as my legacy.
Was your previous fine art work similar in any way to the work you're doing now?
It was very different. Quite a bit of it was travel photography—a lot of images from Italy. The rest of it was just fine-art things that I'd shot off and on through the years, like Tibetan monks. I have photographed events all my life, and after a while, with the events, I started getting little fine art pieces. And in the nineties, I was in an artist's co-op. We had a gallery in South Haven and we all sold our artwork. That kind of dried up when my weddings took over.
Where did the initial idea for this new work come from?
About three years ago, I was photographing a dance rehearsal. I was starting to get really bored with it, because the dancers would get up and move around, and then they'd sit down and talk about it. You could be there for four hours without much happening. So I started shooting abstracts of the dancers in the dance studio under fluorescent lighting and getting some interesting results. That's where it really took off. I thought, if I take the concept to my own studio where I can the control lighting and background, I bet I could get some remarkable results.
How much experimentation did it take before you arrived at a process that would produce the results you're after?
Actually, I'm still in the experimenting stage. But probably about a year into it, I started feeling confident and knowing I had something here to really treasure. After that, with each shoot, I continue to learn something. It just evolves. There's really no hard-and-fast rules that I use in this, with the exception that generally I use one light and one person, and they have to move. Those are the only requirements.
I've been doing this for about three years, and as I go along my techniques shift and change a little day by day. One of the really neat things about this is, I felt like I had learned everything there was to learn as a photographer, and now all of a sudden this abstract world has opened up a whole new world for me. I'm learning much more about photography.
For photography enthusiasts, can you say a little about the techniques you use in this work?
We set up one light, and I have the model standing on the floor under the light. We put some music on. The music is very important; we try to put on music that they love to move to, dance or yoga or whatever, and then we start to shoot, using low shutter speeds. Usually the shoots last an hour only, because after that the model is exhausted and so am I. It's a real short time, but it's filled and compacted with energy like crazy.
Every model that comes in brings something different to the shoot. Some are professional models, some are dancers, and I've had a number of actresses come in. Each person brings a little something different each time, be it through their personality or through their talent. That contributes to the difference in each shoot.
How many images do you typically take to produce one of these pieces?
In one session, we will shoot anywhere from 500 to 800 images. There's a whole lot of shooting going on. Usually out of that 500 or 800, I can come up with five or six really good pieces. Then I'll narrow that down to maybe one. The rest of it is just exploration.
You mentioned that your wife, Patty Caterino, does the printing and any post-processing that's involved. Can you say a little about that process?
Oh, absolutely. Being that I shoot everything digital, there's a lot of latitude with any of the images. Basically all we do with the images is what you would do in a traditional darkroom. The lights are darkened, maybe a little contrast and saturation, but that's it. All of the abstract work is actually done in the camera. After we shoot, quite often I'll spend a few days evaluating the images, and then I'll pull maybe 20 or 30. My wife will sit down with me, and then she and I will go over them. Her knowledge in the computer is far beyond anything I could ever do. She starts making little adjustments, and she'll see things in her mind's eye, and from that all of a sudden other things start coming out of the picture.
In fact, the one picture that was like the main picture of the whole Artsplace show showed a blue body walking out of frame. That was a picture that I just breezed right over. My wife found it and said, "Oh, let me take a look at this," and she made a couple of minor adjustments and all of a sudden the picture took on a whole new life.
I'm basically a photographer. I work the camera, but I don't work the printer. I don't have experience in that field. My wife and I really make a very good team. We've been together since 1995, and we have a good cohesion, where with what I shoot, she makes my images so much more beautiful.
She's an artist in her own way. Anything she has an interest in, she can pick up some books, read them for about two weeks and then master whatever she wants to do. She's done everything from welding to glass mosaic work. She used to do a lot of oil painting on my photographs, where she'd take a black-and-white image and hand-color it. She has a phenomenal touch. She's very, very artistic. The things that we do together let her use that talent.
What do you feel you're expressing in this new work?
These abstracts kind of parallel my life. In the old days, when I was out there photographing events, my life was wide open to everyone, and people knew what was going on in my life. Now I'm much more reclusive, and my work is shifting with my personal life as well. Part of the idea behind the abstracts is, the body will have no clothing, no jewelry, simply because I don't want to depict this society. I would like those images to be as timeless as they can be.
My personal feelings are, the more I see of society, the less I want to be a part of it. So the abstracts kind of play along with that, and are something different that no one else does. And this work speaks to me. It really does.
And it stimulates me. I had reached the point a while back where the work just did nothing for me. All I did was make pretty pictures, but I couldn't feel anything coming from it. When I do these abstracts now, there's a feeling I get, a sense of accomplishment, definitely a sense of mystery. Sometimes I don't even understand what I'm getting, but I love what I'm doing. So I just continue down that path and see where it takes me.
Every piece that you see of my work is a part of me. I feel that connected to it. I think for the first time in my life, I truly do feel like an artist, and I wouldn't trade that feeling for anything in the world.
Where do you find inspiration?
In the early days when I was shooting a lot of fashion, some of the fashion photographers like Helmut Newton and Richard Avedon inspired me. Nowadays my references that I use for studying are Picasso, Matisse, de Kooning. I really do see life in an abstract way now, and this is all I really see photographically, too. I study art all the time. If I'm not shooting or working on pictures, I'm studying other artists' work just trying to be inspired by it, analyze it, see how it can come into my work.
How did you first get started in photography?
Back in the 1970s, I got a camera and started photographing my sons. One day I was shooting one of my sons in the living room, and I did something different with the lighting, and it was the most different picture I'd ever made. That really inspired me. I was bitten by the bug then, and I took off with photography. I started reading everything could get my hands on about photography. I was a magazine junkie. I bought every magazine I could get on photography and devoured it.
I dabbled in it until about 1985, when I met a guy at a camera shop who had a little studio in a warehouse in Grand Rapids. He said, "I'll tell you what, you come in and help me with my rent, and I'll teach you how to use studio lighting." I was with him for two months; then he took on a couple of other photographers because he wanted to lower the rent even further, and the place was too small for all of us. So in the same building, I built my own studio. I had close to 2,000 square feet that I only paid $200/month for. I was there for fifteen years in that building, shooting fashion and weddings and portraits. Then my wife and I met in '95 and the place we live now came up for sale in '97.
Where we live now is in a little area called Tallmadge Township, about fifteen miles outside the city of Grand Rapids. We actually own an old town hall, and that's what my studio is in. In back of the town hall is our house. One benefit of shooting the abstracts in the studio is that it keeps me home more often.
What suggestions do you have for anyone who's starting out in photography or who's been dabbling in photography for a while but wants to get better at it?
The one thing I could suggest is, you have to have a very strong drive. You have to be dedicated to it and you have to be focused on it. To go the route that I've gone, you have to work at it 24 hours a day. Once I got into photography and started professionally, it was like there was nothing else that went on in this world to me except my photography.
Are there other directions you'd like to take this work in the future?
One of the ideas we're kicking around now is tying my abstracts in with cancer patients. One of the models who's been in probably three or four times to do these abstract nudes is a breast cancer survivor. She's 57 years old, and she's got scarring, and it's obvious what she's been through, and we made some very beautiful artwork of her. Further down the road, if we can find a patron to bankroll this kind of project, I'd like to make beautiful abstracts—nudes or portraits—with cancer survivors and have them displayed in a hospital.
Is there anything else you'd like to add?
The show at Artsplace led to a contact in Ludington, and I'll be putting on a show at the Ludington Area Center for the Arts in 2018.
Written from the heart,
from the heart of the woods
Read the introduction to HeartWood here.
Nan Sanders Pokerwinski, a former journalist, writes memoir and personal essays, makes collages and likes to play outside. She lives in West Michigan with her husband, Ray.