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…?  Panic. 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, if you’re not ready for the panalopy of creative ideas that rush through my mind 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, in kind of 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 quit, years ago. Yes, that’s letting small-minded people win, but that’s okay with me.  It’s a battle I never wanted to fight.  I’m happy to leave those political games to others who savor them.

The art…? That’s another matter.  Recovering my willingness to be creative, out loud… thats 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.

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 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 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.

John Cleese on Creativity – Video

In this video, John Cleese — who, as part of Monty Python, is one of the 20th century’s most innovative, creative people — speaks for about 35 minutes about creativity.

This is a somewhat older video, but Cleese makes some very good points.  Sure, he’s a little silly, excessively political and downright pompous at times.   However, I like it when he says things like:

Creativity is not a talent. It is not a talent. It is a way of operating.

…It’s not an ability that you either have or you do not have… it’s an ability to play.”

Thanks to Robert Genn‘s Painters Keys for suggesting this.

Note: If that video is missing, here’s one other locations for it:  (It’s not a clickable link. If it were, the video would auto-embed at this site.) Or, check “John Cleese on Creativity video” at any search engine; that should point you to other copies of it.

OR… if you don’t have 36 minutes for that video, some of the highlights are in the edited version at the foot of this page.

In his related post, Genn said…

“To be creative we need five conditions,” Cleese says. “Space, Time, Time, Confidence and Humour.” Yep, “Time” comes twice.

That’s something I like in this video: Cleese stresses the importance of time… not just productive time, but time that’s necessary to get that open space in your mind.  To someone else, it might look like you’re doing nothing, or nothing of importance.  However, it’s one of the most essential parts of being creative, and allows you to cast off the limiting and distracting thoughts that stand between you and that necessary, open space.


Here’s a shorter, edited version of that same video:

Matthew Diffee and Mother Sea Turtles

Are you a mother sea turtle?  If you’re a creative person, maybe you should be.  That’s the advice of Matthew Diffee, and I think he’s right.

Matthew Diffee Interview

Human Demo: New Yorker Cartoonist Matthew Diffee Shows How To Be Creative – Forbes

… Among Diffee’s pieces of advice for aspiring creative people is this aphorism: “Be like a mother sea turtle.” By that he means lay a hundred conceptual eggs in the sand, then swim off and don’t fret over what becomes of them. Most of them will never hatch; most of the hatchlings will get eaten by predators. That’s not your problem. Your task is just to keep laying eggs. …

In a way, when he says, “Your task is just to keep laying eggs,” I’m reminded of the Cult of Done Manifesto, where Bre Pettis says, “There is no editing stage,” and “Once you are done you can throw it away.”

As artists, I think we can be held back by fear of failure.  In our heads, we’ve already become critics, even before picking up the pen, pencil, or glue stick.

It’s important to just go for it, and allow serendipity to play a part in the dance we call creativity.

a lot of people have been summarizing Matthew Diffee’s SXSW 2012 talk.  (It must have been tremendous.  If anything could make me think about braving the crowds — and heat — of Austin for SXSW, the comments about Diffee’s talk might be it.)

And finally, here’s one summary that I like a lot. Click on the link and scroll down to the section that starts “Best sesh.”  I think the summary at the very end of the article is the important part.

SXSW Day 3: It’s all about Bob (Marley) and creativity – Vancouver Sun (blog) via

SXSW Day 3: It’s all about Bob (Marley) and creativity. Matthew Diffee, a cartoonist whose work appears in the New Yorker, defined his YEP! approach to idea generation at “How to be an idea factory” session at SXSW.

… Caffeine kicks starts the “Process”, so he sits down with an empty sheet of paper and doesn’t stop the free flow of ideas until the paper is full and the pot of coffee is empty.

How he does it: He simply starts with a word or phrases and then applies the following: Add things to one of the ideas…

And, speaking of Bre Pettis, if you’ve never made an art shrine in a book, here’s his video showing one way to start the project:

About 10 years ago, I taught a class like that at Artfest.  I have no idea how Pettis took only 20 minutes to cut the pages; some of my students spent the entire day cutting.  (Yes, that was the last time I tried to teach that as a one-day class.)  Usually, the cutting took me about an hour and a half, with breaks to keep my hand from cramping as I held the cutting blade.

During those breaks, I’d work on elements that would go inside the art shrine.  I’ve always liked tooled metal, similar to the journals Tracy Moore created, so I found ways to include some sheet metal (doesn’t have to be very thick) in some of my altered books and art shrines.  To stamp the words into the metal, I like a good, heavy tooling set like this one.  (Some of the lightweight sets sold at arts & crafts stores… they just aren’t sturdy enough to hold up for very long.)

And then, I’d go back to cutting more pages in the book.  It was tedious, but the finished altered books made it worthwhile.

Today, I’d probably do a lot of the cutting with a Dremel tool or something.  Yes, it could accidentally gouge some of the back cover, but if you use Pettis’ idea of putting a felt liner there, nobody will know if the Dremel got a little out of control.

I’d also consider using a wood burning tool here & there, along the inside edges of the opening.  That could look cool and antique-ish, and cover any raw or weird areas, as well.

Tea staining could work, but it won’t be as good at disguising “oops” areas where the blade may have been sloppy.  And, in a single-day workshop, the tea won’t dry quickly enough to move to the next step — sealing the edges — unless you use something like an embossing tool (heater) to dry the pages.

After whatever edge treatment I chose (if any), I’d cover the edges with clear, matte finish acrylic gel medium, so the pages would hold together, but it wouldn’t look too obviously glued. (For some projects, I might mix in some small, dried leaves or glitter, depending on the effect I wanted to create.)

This next video starts with some altered book ideas, but he’s using a board book and cutting out part of each page.  Then, he wanders into some interesting mixed media techniques that might work well with the first (shrine-style) altered book, above.

I hope those give you some creative ideas!

With thanks to David Locicero for telling me
about Matthew Diffee’s interview.

Why Art?

Art class, photo by erdogan ergun, TurkeyWhy art? Really, why would anyone take the time to create art, unless  he or she is a full-time artist?

The answers are clear to anyone who’s independently created art of any kind.

Even if it’s a scribble or a graphic note in the margin of your class notes, if you’ve ever expressed yourself visually, you’ve created art.

Note that I said independently created art.  That’s important.

If it was a class assignment, or something you had to do, the art process may have been vacant.

For many artists, the art process is where the value is. If the process is drudgery, it’s only mimicking art.

Artist Harley Brown said it well. “Within a second of starting a picture, I’m on top of a mountain which has finally become my reality. So, when I tell people to do a drawing a day, it is not only to learn to observe or perfect skills, it is putting ourselves closer to what we really are and for what we live.”

Art Gallery, photo by brendan gogartyWhat makes art important in our lives is how art makes us feel.

Whether you’re creating the art or admiring it in a gallery or on your drawing pad, art should evoke an emotional reaction. If it doesn’t, the art isn’t necessarily bad, it’s just not resonating with who you are, inside.

For most artists, particularly when you’re starting out, the focus must be on the process. Your results will improve with practice. The joy is in the creative moments and the discoveries you’ll make — good and bad — as you work on art.

Your art, whether it’s drawing or painting or singing or fine-tuning a recipe, is a process that makes you feel more authentic… more alive.

In The Book of Awakening, Howard Thurman is quoted, “Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”

Separate the technical aspects of art from the joy of creating. Sometimes, the learning process can be as exciting (or boring) as singing scales or reciting multiplication tables. However, the process of putting the pencil to the paper, or paint on the canvas, is where the magic is.

Little girl playing, by Armin HanischAim for something original. That won’t come from copying others, or measuring your work against theirs. The finished product may be a disappointment, but the more important question is: How did you feel when the work came alive? Did you forget about time and tidiness? Did you feel in flow, following a joyful current?

Musician Jeff Beck said, “As long as there’s something original going on, that’s all that really matters.”

He’s right.

Art can be about the finished work. However, it’s more important to focus on the energy that is grounded in and emanates from the creative process.

If you feel that spark of vitality, even for a few seconds as you’re creating art, you’ve seen a glimmer of what drives us to be artists… and what keeps us fully alive in every moment.

We create art for how it feels, not necessarily for the merits of the finished work.

Photo credits
Art class – erdogan ergun, Turkey
Art gallery – brendan gogarty, Australia
Girl in field – Armin Hanisch, Germany

When I grow up, I want to be Keith LoBue

Keith LoBue‘s work is amazing.

I was trying to find him online (couldn’t recall his name) for about two weeks.  I asked at AJ2 (Yahoo Group) and had a reply in about 30 seconds.  (Thank you, Pamela!)

If you haven’t looked at Keith’s work lately, go see it now.  (Imperative.)  You’ll need a tissue nearby, because you’re likely to salivate all over your keyboard and monitor.  His work is that kind of gorgeous!

When I get distracted and need focus, artists like Keith LoBue are a form of grounding for me.  I feel an innate connection with what he’s doing, between his attraction to found objects and his innate sense of visual balance and intrigue.

I want to make more time for art shrines that include found items.  Well, I want to make more time for art shrines, period.

I also need to make more time to drink in the artwork of others… past artists and contemporary ones, particularly people whose materials and/or techniques are just a little different from mine.

It’s about the energy, and how well I can identify with it.

Frivolous links, which I’ll probably add  to my daily Tweets over the next few weeks:

Way Out Junk – Truly cheesy music, especially from the 1950s and 60s.  Seriously, who can resist “Der Wienerschnitzel Presents – Up-Up and Away in My Beautiful Balloon”?

If you’re looking for similar holiday music, don’t miss Hi-Fi Holiday.  It’ll remind you of b&w TV, and Perry Como music specials.

Music You (Possibly) Won’t Hear Anyplace Else – Even older music, often in the public domain… if you have a use for that sort of thing.

Speaking of old stuff: Testing reveals that I’m not actually “older than dirt.”  I’ll sleep better tonight with that weight off my mind! *chortle*

On that note, I’m closing this, to look at Keith LoBue’s art again, and get inspired.

Writing and the Creative Process

If you’re an artist, writing can be an important part of the process.  The following points are from a post I made in a forum back in 2009.

Making a list — as soon as the idea hits you (do NOT take time to evaluate it) — is really important.

You may have a list of ten items that made you think, “Ooooh, I can do this!”

However, in the cold light of reality, you might be tempted to cross most of them off the list when you take a second look at the challenges.

Even worse, if you didn’t write them down, you might think, “Okay.  Bad idea. Forget that.”  And… you will forget it!

Instead, keep the list.  Write down everything, even totally crazy, impractical ideas!

What will happen is this:  You’ll see one or two items on the list that will work.  You’ll run with those to completion.

(The “to completion” part is key. I mean, we all tend to start something and stay with it only as long as it’s fun.  Then, maybe two days before completion, it starts moving into the “No Fun” category, and we’re back at some forum, buying things — income plans, business idea books, etc. — that sound easier and more fun.)

So, first, finish what you start.  (The exception is if it fails early and you can see how to use that information to shore up another great idea that you will see to completion.)

Then, go back to your list and re-evaluate the items you thought were impractical ideas.  With your new insights, and a little enthusiasm — after seeing the proof copy of your book, or even a few sales — you might see a different, more practical way to use the “impractical” ideas.

It’s like… the weird vase you got as a wedding gift might be truly hideous on your dining table, but it’d make a great planter on your patio, especially when the vase becomes partially covered with moss! *LOL*

Make that list.  That’s step one.

Take one great (or at least good) idea and run with it.  Don’t slow down to edit or anything until it’s completed.  You can go back and tweak it later, before you upload it at CS (

A note about editing:  I’ve worked as an editor.  The greatest tragedy is to see a first draft of a book that was raw and full of creative energy, and then… the “polished” draft that the author sends is technically better, but it’s lost its energy.  Nothing will sell that book.

(If this doesn’t make sense to you, think of all the rock bands you loved when they were new and fresh and raw.  Their later work is more technically perfect, but it’s lost the energy.  It sounds derivative.)

The first version of your book might have earned criticism for grammar or whatever, but it had a spark that’d ignite enthusiasm in most readers.  It would sell, and might even go viral.

So, don’t edit as you go along.  You’re choking the vital energy out of your work.  It needs that spark to reach the finish line.

Edit when you have a completed book, not before… not unless it sputters and fails, early in the process, and you really do need to take it in a new direction.

But really, 80% of the time, the book will reach the finish line and need just minor edits.  You may not be able to see that, clearly, when it’s in progress.

Monet’s paintings didn’t look like photographs.  His fifth-grade art teacher would probably have taken his pencil away and told him he didn’t get the number of windows right in his cathedral paintings.

Copland’s music, “Appalachian Spring” doesn’t have any birds in it.  Not really.  Like Monet’s work, it’s his impression of something worth sharing with others.

Hold your books to a creative standard, not to some level of supposed perfection that you inherited from some English teacher, or a voice in your head that insists you need to try harder.

It’s the energy that makes a book great, far more than technical perfection.

You get your spark of energy from the initial idea.  That’s what’s preserved on the list you’re keeping, so be sure to write all the ideas down.

Keep that spark alive by not choking it with editing, or by showing your ideas — or your unpublished book — to others (or telling them about it) so they can provide fertilizer for self-doubts.

Be uniquely you.  Use every tool you can to maintain that unique voice, and keep the creative spark alive.

Thoughts on “How to Be Creative”

Aisling's BlogThis may be one of the most important things I’ve read about creativity in a long time: How to Be Creative. It’s a 2004 journal entry at I printed it out. (I had to cut & paste it to a Word document because I lost words off the right margin when I printed it from the website.)

It affirms independent thinking, and it’s giving me things to think about, in terms of what I sell. I’m often ambivalent about selling my better paintings, as if I’m depriving myself and my kids of some of my more important art. But, I also need to earn a living; that article addresses this issue.

What’s really interesting is how this fits with what I woke up thinking about: The quality of the art that I work on.

See, for a bunch of years, I worked on art specifically to share the how-to info with others. I wanted people to find their inner creative voices. I wanted to show them that they could create art similar to what I was doing… so I focused on accessible art that could be taught, and broken down into by-the-numbers directions, more or less.

Well… okay, I teach process rather than step-by-step products. But, as the audience changed, more people wanted step-by-step instructions… which have never been my strong suit. In the early days–which wasn’t that long ago–I could show people the basics of new techniques and materials. I’d provide the tools & supplies they’d need. And then, it was about creating a safe and creative space… a place to experiment rather than a “classroom” setting.

My goal was to provide people with the knowledge & confidence in their abilities to explore art, on their own, after they returned home from a class or event.

As paper arts have become enormously popular and the edges have blurred between scrapbooking and what used to be extreme paper arts… well, it’s like the goal has been achieved, and the banner is being carried forward by others. I no longer need to feel responsible for being a teacher, online or in real life.

Oh, the articles will stay at my websites. I just don’t need to grow those sites as aggressively as I did a few years ago. In fact, I may re-integrate some of the articles–from the smaller sites–back into I’m not sure yet.

But, letting go of the need to be a teacher–online and in real life–I’m also aware that I don’t have to be so accessible. Approval and popularity are essential to teachers. For artists who don’t rely on teaching for income, it’s about the art, period. I don’t recall any stories about how charming and personable DaVinci was… or Monet or even Picasso. If an artist is a popular personality, that’s great, but it’s not essential to the art.

As I write this, I’m watching Richie Havens in the movie, Woodstock. I remember seeing him often in Cambridge Common when I’d go there after school. He’d sit on a park bench, play his guitar and sing. If anyone listened, great. If they didn’t, that was okay, too. He was committed to the music, period. I’d listen to him for awhile, and then wander off to see who else was around the Common or Harvard Square. It was an amazing time, and I was lucky to be at the right place at the right time. But, his commitment to the music made an impression on me… one that I’m reviewing right now.

I’ve been listening to podcasts by JoeVitale recently. It’s funny; I didn’t expect to like him. But, he’s been talking about aligning what you do, and understanding how you explain–to yourself–the results that you get in life. It’s about the evidence that you provide to yourself, that reinforce your actual beliefs… not just what you say that you believe, or what you want to believe. That evidence can get in the way of goals that you set, and… well, Dr. Vitale explains it far better than I can in a few sentences.

So, I’m looking at what I do. I’m examining the messages that I send to myself and others, and the context that I’ve created for what I experience in life. I’m working on affirming myself as a unique and talented artist. And, that means creating art that is uniquely mine. Much of it can’t be copied by others; that’s no longer a criteria for art that I create. (Well, not unless it’s for a magazine article or something.)

Reading How to Be Creative is helping me to accept greater authenticity in my life, and let go of the need to be popular. This is a very good thing.