Stage Fright, Perfection, Flow, Teaching, and Art

Chairs for audience or students.Stage fright has been part of my life for as long as I can remember.

It’s very selective.

I’m fine in front of a crowd of thousands, especially in halls where the lights are on me and I can’t see the faces of anyone past the first row or two… and even they are too dark to see clearly.

Put me in front of an audience of 20 or 30 people, where I can see every face and every micro-reaction to what I’m saying…?


Total panic.

I have to steel myself to even think about that kind of public speaking.

That’s why, when I teach, I have a firm rule:  I need access to the classroom, in solitude, for at least 30 minutes before the students arrive.  (Otherwise, I’m likely to blurt all kinds of things… usually extreme and unexpected. It can be confusing if you’re not ready for the panalopy of creative ideas that rush through my mind. The words can tumble out, sometimes a little scrambled, like high schoolers rushing to class before the “late” bell rings.)

During my personal pre-class time, I give myself a “pep talk,” and use breathing techniques that would make Dr. Lamaze proud, to relax myself enough to teach.  With the right mindset – or at least mental distance from “not good enough” self-talk – I can teach a great class with lots of student involvement.

(Without exception, every class I’ve taught that fell flat… it’s because I wasn’t given that 30 minutes to prepare.)

Creating art can be a similar issue for me and many other people.  We may not have that visible audience, but when the initial spark of inspiration fades, the voice of the inner critic can be worse than any heckler in the classroom.

(You know that student.  She’s the one who sighs loudly and repeatedly. And, at the end of the class –  when it’s too late to do anything about it  -she tells you how deeply you’ve disappointed her, and how you really shouldn’t be teaching.  Or making art.  Or both.)

Regardless of where the message comes from, we’re often striving for impossible perfection… as artists and as teachers.  The slightest shortfall or flaw seems magnified on a big screen and in HD, and every metaphorical pore and blemish is the size of the Grand Canyon.

In fact, we’re often our very worst critics.  We hold ourselves up to impossible standards, and we’re usually using the wrong measuring stick.

Last night, I was disgruntled.  I’ve been working on a series of small (5″ x 7″) oil paintings, based on memory and photos I’ve taken.

Unfortunately, the results are – so far – uninspired. (I’ll get back to that in a minute.)

Pandorica-inspired ink drawing
Click to download the ATC file. (Original is 5″ x 8″.)

So, I took out my pen and paper, and started doodling one of my Pandorica-inspired pieces. (The Pandorica is a Dr. Who story element.)

I was so caught up in it, I let it run to the edge of the page.  And then, I felt so disappointed, because that meant the piece would require an additional, larger support, just to be matted.

This morning, my husband pointed out that it’s a perfectly good work of art, as it is, and there are worse things than needing something in back of the work so it mats well.

He also reminded me that art is about the inspiration.

That gets me back to my paintings… the ones that aren’t turning out.

I said that they aren’t inspired, and I mean exactly that: I’m working on them, production-style.  By definition, that’s an industrial approach. (Yes, I am reading Seth Godin’s The Icarus Deception.  It’s brilliant, inspiring, and terrifying, all at the same time.)

So, I went back to my Pandorica doodles.  I’m waiting for this evening’s sunset, hoping the colors will be inspiring enough to spark (and complete) some or all of the six little paintings currently on my easel.

I want to take them with me to M.I.T. next week, when we’re hearing Seth Godin speak and participating in whatever’s going on at that event.  I’d like to hand out art, at random, as a random acts of kindness gesture.  In other words, just for fun.

But… I feel a little stuck.  And, I’ve been trying to work with a deadline more than inspiration.  Bad idea.

It’s compounded by my fear of disapproval, or – worse – no reaction at all.  Boredom.  Kind of a “What, you think you’re an artist…?” reaction, as they drop the art in the trash.  (Have I mentioned how well I can awfulize when I’m in this mode…? *chuckle and sigh*)

Okay. I’m not sure if this is more stage fright or the visual equivalent of writer’s block.

Either way, it’s putting the emphasis on the finished work and others’ opinions – even their potential opinions, if it’s work I haven’t shown anyone – instead of where it belongs, on the inspiration, and the creative expression that results.

But, what I’m describing in angst-laden terms is how we, as artists, make ourselves tiny and insignificant.  And, it’s why we often stall and lose precious time in which we might be making art.

It’s a toxic, all-or-nothing approach.  It’s so far from being in flow – in the creative process where we’re in touch with the sublime – we couldn’t find it with a road map, a compass, and a laser-tuned GPS.

The teaching…?  I’ve become more selective. I decided not to be part of events where profits are more important than the quality of the courses offered to students. (One of my favorite events is still Dragon Con, though you may not think of that as an arts event, per se.)

The art…? That’s another matter.  Recovering my willingness to be creative, out loud… that’s why I changed this website back into the blog it was in the first place, back in 1995 or 1996, when I began it.

And, it’s why I’m staring down virtual stage fright, posting last night’s Pandorica piece here, as a graphic and as an ATC you can download (and print at 300 dpi).

Click on the illustration, above and on the left, to print your own copy. Or just click on this link.

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Journals as Story Bibles

When I’m not working on art, I’m usually researching and writing books… mostly fiction, but some true-life stories, as well.

Journaling your story bible - a tip for fiction writersSo, I was excited when I saw someone talk about journaling as a way to plot a book.

(This concept was sparked by an article – now gone – called RJ’s Guide on Creating a Story Bible. You can read a similar piece at Jane Friedman’s site, “The Story Bible: What It Is…“)

What’s a story bible? Well, it’s a notebook (or some other system) where you keep your ideas for your book:

  • Locations
  • Characters
  • Background information, like history (real or imagined)
  • Plot ideas
  • Plot twists
  • Sequel ideas, if you might make this into a book series

There’s something rich and juicy about using pen-and-paper as much as possible, when writing.

Often, by using a journal as a story bible – mixing writing & graphics – my books seem to write themselves.

Oh, I’m still writing my books in Scrivener.  For me, that’s the easiest way to create Kindle books and printed manuscripts. (I also use voice recognition software, so I don’t have to type anything, if I don’t want to. That’s a time-saver and avoids carpal tunnel issues.)

But the idea of using a journal – written and visual (art journaling) – plan a short story or novel… I really like this.

Let me know if you try it, and any tips you have for fellow artsy writers. Leave a comment – or question – below.

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Our Charlie Brown Christmas Tree – 2012

This year, we chose some real, alternative Christmas tree options.

We had two trees in our living room. (I’ve always preferred to have more than one tree for the holiday season.)

One “tree” was actually a bunch of small branches, arranged in a large glass jar, so they looked like a small Christmas tree. I’d picked up those branches at a nearby Christmas tree lot, where they had a stack of extra, odd-shaped branches in a pile to go to the trash.

We decorated that arrangement with all the normal Christmas-y things, including a lot of small, sparkly, multicolored ball-type ornaments. The size suited the small scale of the tree design.

To visitors, it looked like a normal, small (2 – 3 foot tall) Christmas tree.  We liked re-purposing discarded branches to create it.  It felt very “green,” on several levels.

Our “Charlie Brown” Tree

Our other tree involved some serendipity.

Aisling's 'Charlie Brown' Christmas tree 2012.I was out for a walk, and noticed a wonderful, large branch by the side of the road.  It was about four feet tall, and I think it had been pruned from someone’s pine tree.

I brought it home and found a really large, gold, globe-type ornament to hang on it.

(It drooped, naturally.  It’s the way the branch had curved on the original tree… it’s not sagging or anything.)

The effect was almost exactly like the little tree in the Charlie Brown Christmas Special.

I propped it against the wall, in a shallow bowl of water.  It lost absolutely no needles during the holidays, and it’s still pretty soft & flexible, now.

This afternoon, I’m taking this little tree and our jar of branches to the nearby woods, so the branches return to nature.

These were among my favorite Christmas trees ever, and no trees were killed (or money spent) to enjoy them in our home.

I think this is the beginning of a tradition in our home, and it just sort of happened this year, because I wanted a couple of small trees that fit the size of our apartment.

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Start with Why – Simon Sinek

Swing set, emptyYes, this site is resuming its original purpose, as an online diary.  After all, that’s where this all started, back around 1995 before the word “blog” was even in use.


Last night, I watched the Simon Sinek interview on Fresh Take (BYU-TV).  It was probably the fifth time I’d seen it.

On previous viewings, I just couldn’t seem to find a single, illuminated, happy childhood memory.  I could look at times when I was generally happy.  I could recall incidents in which I started out happy, but they ended Very Badly. (Like the time I went out with my little notebook, deciding to be a poet.  And, lost in thought, a few blocks from home, I was attacked by a dog. Seriously.)

But… a single, early, happy memory…?  Nope. I kept coming up with nothing.  It was kind of depressing.

After that, I watched Simon Sinek’s TED talk.  That added even more clarity to the process.

That’s when I took out a lined, yellow pad of paper.  It’s what I like to journal on, when I just need to write and vent, and write some more.

I started writing down every happy childhood memory I could think of.  And, along the way, I remembered my grandfather showing me how striking one tuning fork could make another one hum.  It was a moment of awe, mystery, and delight.

I remember sitting at the back row of the movie theatre with my mother, watching Fantasia for the third or fifth or eighth time, and getting caught up in the fantasy and magic of it. (Mum was sketching ideas for her upcoming Fantasyland board game design.)

I uncovered several more, happy memories, and I found myself writing:

“Wonderful, magical things are everywhere, if you just look for them… and believe.”

Then I wrote:

“Magic and delight as a path, not a destination.”

Wow.  That was absolutely illuminating.

I thought about magic — Disney magic, that is — and how it influenced my childhood and my adult life.  I thought about faith: the belief and trust in things unseen.  I thought about optimism and happiness, and how important that is.

And, I realized that I was pretty far off-course.

Mr. Sinek talks about one “why”… one thing that connects everything that gives your life meaning… everything you do, and love.  Mine is about creativity, personal magic & delight, and miracles and beauty.

When I look at what I enjoy most, and what I want to share with others, it all comes down to that.  Everything else is just noise.  It takes me off my path.

I made a list of the things that can restore that happy, wonder-full vision of life… visual cues, music, books and movies, and even fragrances, that remind me of childlike delight and fantasy.

Along the way, I found myself getting a little sniffly. It’s like I found something that’s been lost (and badly missed), for years.

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