A new year has begun and I’m on the hunt for inspiration, pursuing anything that feeds my mind, body, and spirit, and keeps my creativity and productivity high. As such, I bring you the first of Present Perfect’s Winter Sessions, featuring ten things that are reenergizing me and fueling my creative fire.
By the end of 2017, I found myself running out of gas physically, spiritually, and creatively. My entire family, including me, went down like dominos with the stomach flu and we were forced to downshift our frenetic pace. I gave myself permission to take a few weeks off from blogging to recharge and fuel up.
But there are few things more hopeful and inspiring than a fresh start, which is exactly what a new year offers us. Twelve months goes by in a blink, but on January 1st that time lay spread out before us like a feast! Twelve months to achieve our personal goals or business objectives. Twelve months to check a dream off our bucket list. Twelve months to finally tackle that long list of to-dos that keep getting moved down the priority list. A new year presents like the gift of Time itself and Time is a precious gift to be savored!
So, without further delay, here are ten things inspiring me right now:
“On Writing” by Stephen King
Until recently, I’ve only admired Stephen King from the bench. I have nothing against him personally, nor do I object to or dislike his work, per se. But I’ve been cursed with a vivid imagination and scaredy-cat nerves, so I can’t read his books without having nightmares.
That being said I admire his success and have heard fans and critics alike praise his writing skills, so when my brother and sister-in-law gifted me a copy of King’s book, “On Writing”, I was immediately intrigued. As I’ll mention in more detail later, I’ve also just recently ventured into the world of fiction writing – an arena I’m less experienced in – and am eager for tips and tools that can guide me down this new path.
I am not surprised to learn that King is a very entertaining storyteller. (King himself would say 60 books written and 350 million books sold is not sufficient proof of this, but clearly he’s got talent.) What I am surprised to learn, however, is that he’s also an engaging, exceptional teacher. “On Writing” offers practical advice, shares dozens of helpful anecdotes from his own writing process, and he dispenses it all with a brotherly, we’re-in-this thing-together spirit. I’m learning a ton and highly recommend the book to any one of any age who loves to write and wants to improve his or her material.
“Dirty John” Podcast
Ever since I published my top 10 podcasts last summer, my friends and followers recommend new, interesting podcasts to me on a semi-regular basis (which I love. Keep ’em coming!) “Dirty John”, a podcast from the L.A. Times is among those.
“Dirty John” follows a dark and twisted relationship between John Meehan and Debra Newell, an attractive, independently wealthy divorcee in her late 50’s with a thriving interior design business in Newport Beach. Against the will of Debra’s adult children, John and Debra met online, fell in love, and got married in a matter of months. Determined to find proof for their suspicions about John, Debra’s kids and nephew launch a thorough investigation into John’s past and are shocked by what they learn.
The first of six 45-55 minute episodes opens with a droll, unemotional description of a dead body and its 13 stab wounds. Who was killed? You’ll have to wait until episode six to find out. I was hooked immediately. By noon on the day I started listening, I was hitting play on the final episode, desperate to learn how the tale ends.
*Honorable Mention: Although I could only find it in video form, Jia Jiang’s TED Talk on 100 Days of Rejection is both amusing and inspiring. In an effort to conquer his childhood fear of rejection, Jiang spends 100 consecutive days intentionally creating opportunities to face rejection. (A few highlights? Requesting a burger refill at a hamburger joint. Asking a stranger to loan him $100. Volunteering to be a greeter at a Starbucks coffee shop.) It’s funny, it’s poignant, and it’s only 16 minutes long. I showed it to my whole family the other night and they loved it.
As a lifelong alpine skier, there aren’t many challenges remaining for me on a mountain. That’s not to say I don’t love to ski. Make no mistake; I love to ski. Love. But short of shelling out thousands of dollars to heli-skiing some avalanche-prone peak in a faraway corner of the world, the sport doesn’t hold many challenges for me.
My kids are beginning skiers and I love watching them experience the thrill of making fresh tracks on a mountain or catch air on a small jump and feel like they’re flying, just as I did when I was a kid. I consider infrequent opportunities to ski a craggy, rock-ridden shoot or steep face heavily pock-marked with knee-deep moguls an unexpected, warmly welcomed gift, rather than a given. But spending the day on the bunny slopes all day just so that I can watch my kids ski has it’s own rewards.
Still, I’ve wondered if there might be a way for me to ski with the kids while also tackling some new and exciting challenge. I briefly considered learning to snowboard, but my two previous attempts to learn were neither successful nor rewarding. (And I’m probably better off trying it when my kids decide they want to try it, which they will.) Snowboarding was not the answer.
The answer might be telemark skiing.
I’ve always admired the zen-like ease of telemark skiers when I’ve watched them descend a mountain from the chairlift or glide gracefully past me on a slope. But the idea of doing single-leg lunges all day, which is what it looks like telemark skiers are doing, always put me off. This past Christmas, however, after skiing the same four runs with my kids for two days (the Sierra’s, as you may know, have very little snow) at a small mountain near Mammoth, I became desperate enough for a solution to try it. I’m so glad I did.
Here’s how it’s supposed to look:
Here’s how it looks when I do it. (It’s okay. You can laugh.)
I was looking for a challenge and I found one. Telemark skiing is not easy. Lessons weren’t an option, so I took to the mountain with nothing but some basic instructions dispensed on a few YouTube videos and a mental picture of how I should look while doing it. I took my first run cautiously and decided I was comfortable enough to tackle a longer, more advanced run with my twelve year old son. Two thirds of the way down the mountain, I stumbled and fell. It was a mild fall and I wasn’t hurt in the slightest, but one of my skies came off and for the next 25 minutes, I couldn’t get the damn thing back on. When I finally did, it didn’t stay on. Eventually, I made it to the bottom of the hill and reunited with my son. But this time, I was drenched in sweat with quivering legs and a foul disposition. After 20+ years unchallenged on a mountain, I felt like a ten year old kid again, trying to keep up with my fifteen year old brother and his badass friends. It was awesome.
I ski rarely – once or twice a year – and it will be difficult for me to pass up the chance to ski alpine on a fresh-powder day. But I’m excited to rotate a new sport in and see where it takes me. After all, learning something new at 41 is always going to be good for my body and soul, even if it’s rough on my ego.
Writing, Writing, Writing
As I mentioned earlier, I am trying my hand at fiction for the first time since my Creative Writing class in high school (and even then, I wasn’t always writing fiction.) Actually, I’m writing a play.
I’ve never written a play. I haven’t even been in a play since sixth grade. I’ve taken a handful of acting classes in which I discovered I’m pretty decent at improv and have a good ear for identifying and mimicking accents. But, for whatever reason, I can’t deliver a line to save my life. I can hear the way the line should sound in my head, but what ends up coming out of my mouth is just awful.
I cannot tell you what the play is about because I don’t know yet. I could be general and say it’s about “relationships”, but that’s annoying because aren’t most good stories about relationships in some form or another? I can only tell you that it began with a dream; an idea I thought would make a fun, fictional story. But when I sat down to write it, I found myself bogged down with unanswered questions about specific details of the character’s lives. Was it realistic for a 20-something year old to live in Chelsea? (No, it turns out, unless he or she has an ample trust fund or a bundle of Amazon stock options, in which case, they wouldn’t be living in New York City anyway.) Was there really a coffee shop on the corner of X and Y streets? Were there any white guys born in Brooklyn in the 80’s and, if so, were they working class kids or did they have to come from upper-middle class families?
Then I realized: If my characters are just speaking, if we’re learning about them through dialogue and our own powers of observation, we don’t need to know all that other stuff. Whether or not an actual coffee shop exists on the corner of X and Y streets in Manhattan doesn’t matter; all that matters is that two main characters meet there for the first time and, later, fall in love. I don’t have to describe what they’re wearing or how they look or what the outside of the coffee shop looked or the kind of music playing when these two people meet. I can simply show it. And – thank god – I don’t have to be able to deliver a line to write one!
Casting off the pressure to get down in the weeds, research mundane details, and waste hours and hours of time making sure what I wrote was accurate off, liberated me to dive into the story and the people who bring it to life.
I have no idea where this is going. I don’t expect it to go anywhere but my hard drive, actually! But the process is so damn fun. It’s the most fun thing I’ve done since starting this blog. I can’t wait to get at it and I’m bummed on the days that I can’t. It’s that much fun. More to come on this, I’m sure.
I began oil painting in 2008 after my daughter was born, but quickly gave it up again in 2011 when my youngest child was born. My pace of completing seven or eight paintings a year slowed to two in a good year, one in a bad year.
But I love to paint, so when my dad asked me if I’d paint something for his new home – a rustic widower-bachelor pad in Flagstaff, Arizona – I said yes right away.
We agreed that I’d paint an abstract landscape inspired by his new surroundings and, since he has the space, a large, 48″ x 72″ canvas (the largest I’ve painted on to date). I faced an unforeseen challenge right away when I realized my easel isn’t designed to hold such a large canvas, but since it’s not crucial for the canvas to be oriented the right way for the underpainting and initial layers, I began painting it anyway. Painting something sideways has actually turned out to be an interesting experiment and I’m pleased with how the piece is coming together so far.
Here’s a time-lapsed video of the painting process so far:
At the risk of sounding pretentious, painting is really good for my mind and spirit. It taps into a part of my brain that goes unused and by doing so, painting allows every other part of my brain to go completely quiet. If you can imagine how it feels for your foot to fall asleep, you can imagine how it would feel if your entire body fell asleep and your foot was the only part of you still awake. That’s the closest analogy I can give you to how it feels inside my head when I paint. I’m hopeful the final piece will be pleasing to my dad (and to me, too), but the process of creating it is where most of my pleasure comes from.
Our schedule over the holidays called for a few formal evenings out and as many or more lazy evenings at home. In response, my style choices expanded my usual range, rising slightly higher than usual on the high end and sinking fairly low on the low end.
I doubt you care much about my slubby, horizontal-day uniform, but I have to say, I’m quite enamored with two new dresses I bought and wore several times at the end of the year.
One such dress is by Ulla Johnson, a designer I greatly admire, but often feel I can’t wear thanks to her bohemian tendencies. (As you know, I love boho-style, but have accepted that I can only wear it in moderation.) This gorgeous, festive dress is made with soft, supple velvet in the unfortunately named but nonetheless beautiful shade, puce (which is a dark, reddish brown with hints of purple). It’s substantial, yet it doesn’t look heavy, and glamorous and sophisticated. I can’t wait to wear it again.
(Note: My girlfriend, Annie’s, dress by Self Portrait is also made in emerald velvet and equally crush-worthy. If only she still lived in my hood ad I could borrow it whenever I wanted….)
The second of the two dresses is the more practical of the two, but still luxurious and refined. This lighter than air silk dress is by Smythe, a company better known for their well-cut blazers and jackets than for their dresses. I was first drawn to it for the color – a cheerful shade of crimson that deftly balances on a tightrope strung between a blue-based Christmas red and yellow-based Candy Apple – because I have almost nothing red in my closet. But I also love it for the neckline, which can be worn off-the-shoulder or casually draped, Flashdance style, and the long hemline, which raises the sophistication level a notch. I’m certain I’ll have many occasions throughout the year to wear this sexy, ladylike dress.
Note: Unfortunately, this dress is sold out, however, it looks like it may be back in stock or can be special ordered at Forward by Elyse Walker.
Two weeks out of school is not a long enough time to form a routine, the way families can in the summer. It’s just short enough for the kids to become antsy and, as a result, somewhat demanding on a mother to provide them with some sort of entertainment.
Since my daughter had to work on her 4th grade mission report (she decided to make a quilt, which was a brand new experience for both of us), leaving the house for hours on end wasn’t an option. To keep the boys busy and create an atmosphere of creativity, I declared one day of the break “Creative Day”. (Maybe next time, we will spend some of Creative Day brainstorming a more creative name.)
The rules for Creative Day are this: All parties are permitted to do anything they want, as long as they are creating something. Baking, painting, building, making movies, writing stories, practicing knock-knock jokes, and more were all acceptable Creative Day endeavors.
In the beginning, the boys were too stumped to know what to do first. But once they started, new ideas kept coming, each one with fresh enthusiasm and anticipation. By the end of the day, all three of my kids were playing together without any help from me. In fact, they insisted I leave them alone and not interfere. The final coup de grace was a 30 minute magic show that was surprisingly good. All three kids remarked that Creative Day should be a weekly occurrence.
The house was a mess. There was paint all over the island, tiny paper trimmings everywhere, loose threads, scraps of fabric, pins, and lone playing cards in every room, on every surface, but the kids didn’t complain (much) about helping me clean it up, which was a reward in an of itself. We haven’t had Creative Day since, and there’s no chance of it becoming a weekly occurrence, but I learned a valuable lesson: That my kids actually want me to shut down the devices, turn off the t.v., and force them to engage in free play and all the creativity, decision-making, teamwork, and purposelessness free play requires.
I’ve heard it said that, after resolutions to lose weight and get healthy, getting organized is the second most common resolution Americans make in the New Year. My cupboards, drawers, closet, and garage are in desperate need of organization (and cutthroat, unemotional purging), but the task is so great, it’s overwhelming.
The far more achievable goal was to give my house and furniture a more detailed cleaning and take on those projects too time-consuming for my weekly cleaning lady.
Cleaning is boring, so I will be brief. (I doubt even Stephen King can make cleaning sound interesting.) I cleaned all the smears of dirt off my walls and doorway casings (all about three feet off the ground, thanks to my children), two sofas, four upholstered stools, and six upholstered chairs. Like I said. Boring.
But the reason this dull item makes the list is because of Stephen King. In “On Writing”, King gives a fairly strong directive to growing writers to read and write every day. I would gladly spend eight hours a day doing both! But as a busy mother of three kids, I can’t do that. The next best thing is to “read” while I work. Audio books, podcasts, and TED Talks make fantastic reading, and make tedious, mindless chores like cleaning upholstery almost fun. I’m stimulating my brain, feeding my creativity, and expanding my education all while checking pesky to-dos off my list.
Stranger Things, like cleaning, is a boring topic if you haven’t watched the show, so I’ll leave you with one thought: If you haven’t watched it, watch it. It’s clever, imaginative, a little scary (and not nearly as scary as I feared), and highly, highly entertaining. My twelve year old has been begging me to let him watch it for months, but I was worried it would be too scary for him. I finally caved and I’m glad I did. If nothing else, the show has been a good bonding experience for my son and me.
It’s worth noting, in light of what I wrote about writing prose versus writing a play, the show is fiercely dedicated to accurately portraying midwestern life in the 80’s. If you’re a child of the 80’s, you’ll recognize subtle details like the original design of a Three Muscateers bar, Nancy’s can of Tab soda, and the 30 foot long cord on Joyce Byers’ rotary phone. It’s a side benefit of watching, but amusing nonetheless.
You may recall that last spring during lent, I gave up drinking for forty days. Although I’m glad I did it, my husband and I agreed that the timing (spring) and the length of the commitment were a little long. Why not give it up at a time when we’d really like to give it up? When we feel the need to hit the reset button and give our livers a rest? “Why not give it up in January?”, we thought.
Well, January has arrived and, as promised, my husband and I are as dry as the dessert in a drought during summer. Bone dry. Cotton ball dry. And honestly? I don’t love it.
That’s not to say I’m dying for a drink. The first week was a little rough, especially coming off of a fairly cocktail and wine heavy holiday season, but I was prepared for that and it passed. I even thought social drinking would tempt me most, but in fact, that’s been the easiest sacrifice by far. What I miss is my evening ritual glass of wine.
When I was working, I participated in a daily ritual without even knowing it. Packing up my things, leaving the office, walking to my car, and driving home from work was not just a routine, it was a ritual and it transitioned me from my work like to my home life smoothly. The boundary lines between my two lives was very clear. Work ended when I left and my family time began when I walked through the front door.
Now that I’m home with the kids and not working in an office, that boundary line is very blurry. When is my work finished for the day? And what work exactly am I even talking about? My work blogging? My work writing? My work as a mother? As a wife? You get the idea. It never really ends.
However, most days there is a moment when I’ve done all I can or want to do for the day. I reach a point when I want to clock out and just relax with my family, even if that means I’m still helping with homework or doing dishes or reading to the kids before bed. But without a ritual, a chance of location or scenery, some external cue that I’ve crossed the invisible boundary between my “have tos” and my “want tos”, it can be difficult to unwind and turn off the hamster wheel in my mind. Pouring and drinking a glass of red wine at that time, whether it’s 5 p.m. or 9 p.m., can be that ritual; a practice performed with the express purpose of signaling to my brain, “you can stop now. The day’s work is done. Sit down, relax, enjoy your family. Enjoy the final hours of today in peace.”
In truth, I really like that ritual and I look forward to having it back. I also know that it’s good to find other rituals, too: A warm cup of tea, a hot bath, a short, evening walk, or even playing a board game with my kids on the rare nights that’s even possible. Most importantly, I need to find as many ways as necessary to give myself permission to be stop working and just be with my family, with or without a glass of wine.
Finally, A Word About Blogging
I love blogging. Present Perfect is my fourth child. But she is a needy one, too, and she requires lots and lots and lots of time. About 50% of the time I spend with her is life-giving. I love coming up with content ideas, promoting the blog, and collaborating with people and businesses. I even love the steep hike up the technical learning curve. The other 50% of the time, the work is tedious and, ironically, a creativity killer since it keeps me away from the activities that keep my thinking fresh and my energy high. I’ve spent more afternoons than I’m proud to admit shushing my children to “be quiet” because I’m frantically trying to meet my self-imposed deadline of posting every Thursday. I’d like for this to change.
I love this child and I want her to keep growing. I am committed to her and I’m committed to you. If a week or two go by between posts, you’ll know it’s because I am drinking from a firehose of creativity-juice, pulling new looks together, dreaming up useful content for you, painting, reading, possibly cleaning, and writing, writing, writing, all for the greater benefit of my soul, my family, and my fourth child.
Stay tuned for more Winter Sessions!
Thanks for reading,
2 thoughts on “Winter Sessions I: Finding Creative Inspiration in the New Year”
Hi Tracy! Hope you are well. I always enjoy your posts and always feel inspired after reading them.
If you ever need help getting over the hump with your organizing/purging let me know. No pressure of course, just putting it out there!
Thank you, Amy! I will definitely keep you in mind!! It started after our remodel. I eventually became impatient to get unpacked and resorted to a “ put it there for now and I’ll reorganize later” approach. 😊