Creativity, Bakery Bread, and Hating the Internet

Two true stories.

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First story. Guy loved to bake. He baked all sorts of things — cakes, cookies, muffins — but he particularly loved to bake bread. And he was good at it. After considerable practice he had mastered the mysteries of yeast. He had learned how much kneading is enough and how much is too much. He knew just the sound a “done” loaf of bread makes when you tap it on the bottom. He learned the ways of bread well enough to be able to experiment with ingredients — to combine things in new ways to create new recipes.

And that bread was good. Sure there was the odd doorstop in the early days, but Guy developed a reputation as someone who could produce good bread. When friends gathered for pot luck, Guy baked the bread to consistently rave reviews.

But there was one friend whose idea of a rave review was always some variation of this statement: “This is so good– it tastes just like you bought it at a bakery!” This particular “praise” always felt to Guy more like an insult. Even though he recognized that the statement was intended to mean “This bread is of a much higher quality than the processed stuff they sell at the supermarket, to Guy it always felt like, “This bread that you produced from scratch with your bare hands and brought to the party still warm from the oven is no different than the stuff I can buy from the bakery shop on the corner.”

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Second story. Gal had been playing music all her life. Piano. Guitar. One day she started playing around and before she knew it she had written a song. Then another. She started writing music all the time, and then she worked up the courage to start sharing her creations with friends and family. Everybody acted impressed and said nice things about the songs.

One person whose opinion Gal valued consistently praised Gal’s songs with the statement, “That one’s great. It reminds me of [insert name of famous song written by real composer here].” After hearing various versions of this feedback applied to song after song, Gal began to think perhaps her work wasn’t that original after all. Eventually she got busy with other projects. She hasn’t written a song in years.

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One of the fun parts of my current job is that I get to teach a workshop in Creative Thinking. We start that workshop talking about our Inner Critics — those voices we all carry around in our heads that call down our efforts at creativity. Sometimes those voices sound like the voices of real, human critics who were part of our upbringing. Sometimes those voices are less specific. Some of us are better at shushing those voices than others.

Ironically, even though I can teach others how to manage their own Inner Critics, I tend to be less successful at taming my own. I tend to second guess myself. I tend to assume that any great idea I have has already been done, a hundred times over and more successfully than anything I could produce.

And I’ve decided that when it comes to talking myself out of my own creative ideas, my biggest enemy is the internet.

It happened again this morning. I woke up with a fantastic idea for a new blog theme– maybe even a whole other blog. And then I made the fatal error. I thought to myself, “I’ll do a little search and see who else is doing something like that.”

Bad idea. Bad. Bad. Bad. BAD.

source: http://wisdomheart.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/10/inner-critic-1-300x254.jpg
source: http://wisdomheart.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/10/inner-critic-1-300×254.jpg

Of course I found dozens of blogs. Granted none were doing exactly what I was planning to do. But enough were doing related things  that I began to question the originality of my idea.

It’s easy to be overwhelmed by the information at our fingertips. It’s easy to convince ourselves that there is nothing new under the sun. That it’s all been said. That there are no new ideas.

But that’s not true. Because creativity can be as simple as putting two things together that have not been put together before. And by that standard, an idea has creative potential as soon as it is something that has never before been put together with me.

Or you. Or anyone. We all have the capacity to be creative, and what makes our creations truly new is that part of them that comes from within the creator– from within us.

Guy’s bread was nothing like bakery bread. Gal’s songs were her own. And my new blog idea? I think it has potential. I’m going to give it some more thought–maybe work up a bit of a plan. What I’m NOT going to do any more is short circuit my idea by holding it up to other people’s ideas for comparison.

 

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…in an Oldsmobile

Twenty-four years ago today my Dad died. I still miss him. I wrote this piece shortly after his funeral.

dadWhen my father bought the Oldsmobile it came with a cassette tape of assorted songs by popular artists– a demo for the stereo. Side one began with the “Oldsmobile Jingle”– a stirring orchestral sweep followed by a joyous tenor exclaiming, “There is a special feeling in an Oldsmobile…” Hokey as this sounds, it was quite rousing if you listened to it at top volume (and top speed.) At our wedding, my husband and I danced the first waltz to a little-known Neil Diamond song from the Oldsmobile tape. I’ve never come across that song anywhere else.

The Oldsmobile was a BIG car. Bigger, even than it’s predecessor, a green-grey Buick I nicknamed the “tank.” If I had to park downtown I would take Mom’s Tempo, or later my own beater that Dad and I split the cost for, fifty-fifty.

Sometimes I would meet Dad driving downtown on his way to or from a meeting. He would honk and wave from behind the wheel of that car that went on forever.

Dad bought Lotto 649 tickets religiously. He used the same number every week, because “it had to come up eventually.” The number consisted of the birthdays of each of his three daughters. He was going to buy us each a new car when he won the big one.

When my father died there was still one Lotto ticket that hadn’t been drawn, that he had bought just before going to the hospital.

That morning he had driven the Oldsmobile downtown and parked quite a distance from his meeting. Afterwards, on the long walk back, he had realized, perhaps for the first time, how weak the cancer had made him. He became frightened, gasping for breath, afraid that he wouldn’t make it to the car. A hundred mile journey in a few city blocks, but he made it, and he drove the Oldsmobile home and asked my mother to drive him to the hospital. They took the Tempo.

In the surreal haze of the first few hours of mourning, it became very important to us to find my father’s last Lotto ticket. Dresser, wallet, and nightstand eliminated, I was sent to check the glove compartment of the Oldsmobile. The ticket was there. After I found it, I sat there a while, surrounded by maroon velour and the smell of my father.

My mother refused to ride in the funeral-parlour limousine. The six of us– Mom, her three daughters and two sons-in-law– drove ourselves to church in the Oldsmobile.

The draw was after the funeral. We didn’t win. I thought I should start buying Lotto tickets with Dad’s number, but I never have.

On tea bags, time, and running away to join the circus

I forgot to buy tea bags.

I could have bought tea bags at any number of points throughout the day. I knew when I went to bed last night that I was using the last one. But I forgot. And now, bedtime is looming without my usual cup of cranberry herbal tea.

This bugs me, just a little.

On the other hand, it bugs me a lot that the lack of my favourite bedtime beverage bugs me at all.

If you’ve been reading this blog for any length of time, you know that I talk a lot about how much I value change. So much so, that the word change looms largest in my cloud of most frequently used tags. So I admit to feeling considerable irritation at being forced to face the uncomfortable fact that I am a total creature of habit.

And now this small thing– this lack of a tea bag– has me reflecting on all the other too-comfortable habits on which I rely. My far-from-adventurous diet. My homogeneous wardrobe. My evenings spent in pretty mundane activities. My holidays spent at the same family vacation spot every summer.

Do I really love change as much as I say I do? Or am I just a great pretender?

Am I a creature of habit because I’ve reached the stage in life where I know myself and what I want, or because I’ve settled into a nice, safe rut. This question is causing me a great deal more consternation than my lack of cranberry tea.

Deep down, the changes that I crave the most are big changes. Quitting-your-job-and-running-away-to-join-the-circus changes. Dramatic changes to how I live and how I make a living. Substantial changes to the way I spend my time and the people I spend it with. But they aren’t the kind of changes that just happen. They need building, step by tedious step. Perhaps I need to run out of tea bags more often to jolt myself out of my cozy patterns into taking actual steps toward the big dreams.

Sometimes I fear that it’s too late for big changes. I worry that I’ve reached the age where I should be happy just to settle in and appreciate my comfortable habits and my nightly cup of tea. But then I see other people, older than me, courageously strike out in new directions– new businesses, new relationships, new homes in new cities. And I have to believe that there’s still time for a grand adventure.

With or without cranberry tea.

imagine

 

 

The good, the bad and the… pensionable?

The Daily prompt for today wants to know: How do you feel about your job? Do you spring out of bed, looking forward to work? Or, is your job a soul-destroying monotony of pure drudgery, or somewhere in between?

Really, does anyone actually “spring out of bed?” Ok maybe I can think of one or two possibilities — like my car-pool partner of many years back who started the day in overdrive and was still in high gear for the ride home. But I don’t know anyone who isn’t at best a teensy bit ambivalent about their job.

I have a good job. It pays well and has great benefits. I have a nice office in a good location. I work with interesting people. I get to do things that matter. I get to exercise my creativity. I get to do things I enjoy, like writing and teaching. I have a boss who appreciates what I do and lets me know it.

My job sucks. I have to waste time jumping through bureaucratic hoops and doing mind-numbing administrative tasks. I have to sit through long, tedious meetings. I lost my parking spot. Some days I go home completely fed up with other people’s problems.

It’s the same job.

Do you have a “dream job?” I did. In fact I got my dream job. At least four times. With a couple of exceptions early in my career, most of my working life has been spent at jobs I really wanted. Every one of those jobs has been fantastic. And, at some point, every one of those jobs drove me crazy. Sometimes all in the same day.

That’s life, folks.  Nothing is perfect. When the point comes in any job when the balance begins to tip ever so subtly away from the fantastic and towards the crazy-making, then I know it’s time for a new adventure.

In the meantime, I don’t expect employment Nirvana. I know there will be good days and less-than-stellar days in any job. In fact, some days there with be good minutes and downright dreadful minutes. Most days, the good minutes come out ahead. Even if I don’t “spring out of bed” to get there.

 

Agley Again

 The best laid schemes o’ Mice an’ Men,
Gang aft agley,
An’ lea’e us nought but grief an’ pain,
For promis’d joy!

— “To A Mouse” by Robert Burns

I swear I am the queen of good intentions. I know how I want to live. More vegetables; fewer donuts. More healthy meals prepared from scratch; fewer drive-by processed calories. More fitness activity; less Facebook. More focused writing; less aimless surfing. More mindful budget decisions; less impulse spending.

More time to do the things I love; less time wasted on things that don’t really add value anywhere.

And yet so often I catch myself sliding into a state of being I call “Surviving the Week.”

Surviving the Week is about having a fridge full of fresh vegetables, but not having the mental energy to assemble them into a salad, so I go to the cafeteria and spend money I don’t need to spend on a lunch entrée in which gravy is the dominant element.

Surviving the Week is about adding more paper to the “miscellaneous” pile on my desk instead of filing it away when I’m done with it.

Surviving the Week is about collapsing on the couch to watch mindless TV, even though I know I would feel better about life if I went for a walk.

Surviving the Week is about trolling old Facebook photos when I really want to be writing, because I didn’t go for that walk, which probably would have unlocked an idea and given me something to write about.

Surviving the Week is about beating myself up for not doing the things I really want to be doing, because I am distracted by things that are easy to do at the end of a tiring day.

I encountered this little creature on a walk back in the fall.
I encountered this little creature on a walk back in the fall.

I don’t want to be Surviving the Week. I want to be living mindfully, creatively, healthfully. And sometimes I do. But other times, like Robbie Burns’ wee Mousie, my best-laid schemes do “gang agley,” and I find myself  slipping into survival mode.`

Often that means I have simply overloaded my circuits by taking on too much. The irony is, that the things I take on that leave me feeling tapped out are typically things I want and like to do.

Like staying up way too late to write this blog post.

Strive to thrive

Today’s Daily Prompt asks, “Do you thrive under pressure or crumble at the thought of it? Does your best stuff surface as the deadline approaches or do you need to iterate, day after day to achieve something you’re proud of? Tell us how you work best…. show us PRESSURE.”

Do I thrive under pressure? Frankly, I’m never sure how to respond to this question. Do I handle myself well under pressure? Absolutely. I have a reputation for being able to do good work quickly. I’m good at improvising solutions. In a crisis, I’m the one who copes.

The truth is, I put a lot of pressure on myself. I have high expectations. I’m apt to hand things in ahead of the deadline– sometimes just because I worked quickly and got the task done early, and sometimes because I set my own deadline, earlier than the real one, so that I could be absolutely sure I would be done on time.

I was in grade four when I first appreciated the tyranny of my own high standards. I had a big social studies project due: something along the lines of “Everything There Is to Know About Australia That Can Be Derived from Back Issues of National Geographic.” (This was, after all, pre-internet.) I had done a fair bit of work, but I had also done a fair bit of procrastinating. The project was due on Monday morning. Sunday night rolled around and I wasn’t done. I went to bed with my stomach in knots. I had never failed to hand in an assignment on time unless I was sick. I didn’t know what the teacher would say, but I could imagine no  consequence more horrifying than Miss Miller’s disapproval.

Morning came, and I got up and got dressed for school with the demeanor of one preparing for execution. By breakfast, I had worked myself into such a state of anxiety that I was feeling physically ill.

My mom was astute enough to see through the root cause of my ailment. She gently suggested that if I wasn’t feeling well I should probably stay home for the morning, and we would see if I felt better after lunch. I asked her if it would be OK if I worked on my project. She just smiled, nodded sagely, and said that would probably be OK — if I felt up to it.

By lunchtime the project was finished and, miraculously, so was my mysterious stomach ailment. I went off to school for the afternoon, vowing to myself that I would never again put myself in the situation where I was late with an assignment.

There, have, of course, been times since then when I have had to ask for extra time to complete a task. I learned that I could ask for extra time without making myself ill over it. But I still don’t like it if I can’t meet a deadline, no matter how legitimate the reason. The truth is, I think I’ve learned to cope well under pressure by taking control of the pressure — by exerting the lion’s share of the pressure on myself.

Do I thrive under pressure? I’m not sure thrive is the right word. I get a lot done under pressure. I do good work under pressure.  But thrive?

A better path
A better path

When I was on leave recovering from my hip replacement, I had a glimpse of what life would be like without the kind of pressure that has become my norm. I was in better physical shape than usual — in spite of just having had surgery– because I was exercising more  than usual every day. I was more creative — and more creatively productive– than I have been in a long time because I had time to focus, and because the daily walks fuelled my imagination. In short, I experienced something far closer to what I would call thriving than I have ever encountered under even the most exhilarating pressure.

At least now I know what I’m really striving for.

Shirtsleeves and slush

Today’s Daily Prompt asks, “What do you love most about the city / town / place that you live in?”

It’s been a long winter.

Not that I’m complaining. Winter is a big part of the city that I live in. A big part of the constantly changing cycle of seasons. I like that I live in a place that is characterized by a blend of comfortable pattern and constant change.

One of the reasons that this has been a particularly brutal winter is that it has been too much of the same thing. Too much cold. Too much wind chill. Too much snow. Winter’s OK when the bitter days are broken up with moments of warm sun on your face. This winter has hammered relentlessly at us since late November. But today it finally felt like the worst just might be over.

Today, finally, the temperature crept above the 0°C mark. Today I left my down-filled coat at home, and went out in my fleece jacket. Today I took the garbage out in my shirtsleeves.  Today I turned off the baseboard heaters and opened up the patio door for the afternoon. The patio itself is still buried in a three-foot high snowdrift, but the air coming in felt lovely.

Today felt like spring was waking up.

One of the spring things I had to do today was put more washer fluid in my car to combat the muddy splash from the melting snow. Spring is messy here. Melting snow means slushy, mucky streets with puddles waiting for a bus to come along to splash unsuspecting pedestrians. This year we have a lot of snow, so we can anticipate a lot of slush. Spring is also all the sand that was scattered to provide some traction on icy winter streets, now piled in dirty mounds on boulevards. It’s litter–paper coffee cups and cigarette butts that were hidden under the pristine whiteness of the snow–now emerging as a soggy mess. To the untrained eye, there’s nothing beautiful about March in Winnipeg.

And yet all that muck and mess is a sign of better things to come. You have to pass through the grey slush to get to green grass and flowers. March is messy, because March is change  and change is messy.

March is, admittedly, my least favourite month. I am impatient with March. I want to be through the messy part and into the new growth of April. But I know I need to wait–need to give the snow time to melt and nourish the roots of the aspen trees outside my door and transform the grass along the riverbank into a rich carpet of green. You have to live here to really appreciate what it means to know that the bitter cold of January and muck of March will give way to the lush green of June and the intense heat of July.