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First tomatoes from the garden in our new house (2015).

I love working in timed bursts. Working with a timer focuses me and keeps me going. I also love knowing I have a finite amount of time until I'm finished (even if the whole project isn't finished). I think working in timed bursts is a really effective way to get things done even if, or maybe especially if, (like me) you're highly distractible and unfocused.

I first started using a timer to do creative work when I read about it in Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg. She recommends different amounts of time (or alternately writing for a certain number of pages) depending on circumstances, and this has worked amazingly well for me ever since I started doing it way back in the late 80s.

At some point, though, I heard about The Pomodoro Technique, and I was pulled in by the promise of productivity and focus. It was so simple, too. Get a timer. Pick a task. Work for 25 minutes then take a break. Every four sessions, take a longer break. I was going to do all the things!

Turns out it didn't quite work that way for me. For some tasks (okay, a lot of tasks), 25 minutes was too long for me. I couldn't hold my focus for that long. I couldn't maintain momentum for that long. Most of the time I couldn't even do one Pomodoro let alone get to that longer break after four of them.

I still liked the idea of it, though, so I experimented. I tried out different intervals. I even tried out some longer ones (every once in a while I can do a 30 minute writing sprint if I've warmed up with some shorter sprints). I tried really short ones (even two minutes--you can do a lot in two minutes!). I found that my best interval is 10 minutes with a 3-5 minute break in between (and a longer break after a few sessions).

How can you use a timer to get more stuff done? Experiment!

Things to try or to keep in mind:

  • Have a specific task in mind before you start (even if you're doing writing sprints, having at least a vague idea of what you're working on helps you focus).
  • Make sure you have everything set up (including your timer) before you start.
  • Try a variety of time intervals (including changing the length of breaks).
  • Try working with music, in silence, with ambient sounds (there are apps for that!), and in various locations to see if any of them make it easier to work.
  • Unless you absolutely hate working in a particular length of time you try, give each interval a few tries before deciding if it works for you or not.
  • Do not skip breaks! (The one exception is if you're really on a roll with a creative project and you just want to keep writing, painting, sculpting, whatever because you're in a good spot and know where you're going next. Give yourself permission to follow the Muse.)
  • Have a plan for what you'll do for your breaks. Try playing with your dog or cat, checking in on the other people in your house if you don't live alone, refilling your water bottle, checking social media (but only if you're sure you can stop after the allotted break time), anything that lets you relax a little and reset.
  • When it's your longer break, get up and do something. Get yourself a reward (cup of tea or coffee, take a dance or stretch break, do something that gets you up and away from your work spot.

That's it. Get a timer (if you have a smartphone or tablet you already have one) and see what you can do!

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Sometimes it's hard to get our creativity in gear. We get busy or stuck or overwhelmed, and we want to do creative things, but we just can't get to it. Right now, I think that's happening to most of us quite a lot. There's a lot for our creativity to stumble on right now.

At the same time, doing creative work is so good for our hearts! It can be soothing, energizing, revitalizing. It can give us structure when everything feels chaotic. So being creative right now is important work (see my post "Yes, Now Is Art Time" for more on that).

Knowing our creative work is important in so many ways isn't always enough to get us going, though. If you need a bit of a nudge to get some creative work, try one of these:

  • Pick something you like to do (or something new you'd like to try) and find a challenge for it (there are so many 30 day challenges out there!). The light pressure of a challenge and the support of a community can help things get moving.
  • Arrange an exchange with artist friends--mail art, an art journal you pass back and forth, a story exchange for feedback.
  • Take a class--choose something in an area you already love to work in or try out something you're interested in.
  • Teach a class--you can deepen your own practices and help others get their own creative vibes flowing
  • Do timed practices--set a timer for 5 or 10 minutes and dive in (if you're really feeling stuck, see what you can do with 2 minutes--I bet you'll be surprised!)

If you're still not sure what you want to be working on, check out my post "Dipping Into Creative Work" for more ideas of ways to give your creativity some time and attention.

I hope things in your corner of the world are going as well as they can, and I hope your creativity and these ideas for how to keep engaging with it help make things just a little brighter. Have a good weekend, everyone!

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The past few weeks, I've been all about cutting and tearing paper and gluing it down. Here's one piece in progress (above). And here's one I finished about two weeks ago:

Both of these came from mini classes with Jennifer Chamberlin of The Maker Beehive. She does really fun collage pieces, very vintage looking, and very relaxing. Her classes are great for beginners but still fun for people who've been doing collage and mixed media for a while.

I have one more piece from her classes I'm planning to make--pumpkins! Because it's September, and that means fall and Halloween and pumpkins! The cutting and tearing and gluing is what my Muse is all about right now.

What about you? What's appealing to your Muse?

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What it is:

At its heart, writing practice (also called freewriting), is writing for a length of time without stopping or censoring yourself. It’s most famously taught by Natalie Goldberg (and Julia Cameron in her morning pages practice), but it’s used in writing classes, programs, and workshops everywhere. It’s a way to strengthen your writing skills, but it’s also a way to clear your mind, dig deep into yourself and find out what you think about things, and a way to stir your creativity.

How you do it:

You pick a goal for your writing session--an amount of time, number of pages, or number of words--and you keep writing until you hit that goal. Don’t stop--keep the pen moving across the page or your hands moving on the keyboard. If you get stuck, write “I don’t know what to write” over and over until the words get moving again (you can also rewrite your prompt if you’re using one or rewrite your last phrase or sentence--anything that keeps the words coming).

Where to write:

Your preference. A good old fashioned notebook or notepad is great and gives a different experience than writing on a computer. If you’re looking for something new to try check out 750Words.com or Penzu.com. You get one free journal with a basic Penzu account, and I really like it for ease of searching if you want to go back to any entries. Google Docs is also a really nice option, but you do have to remember to organize it into a folder or things get really hard to find later.

Physically, find someplace comfortable where you won’t be interrupted during your writing session. If you can, try out different locations. Write inside your home, out in the yard, in a coffee shop, in a park, at the beach.

When to write:

Pick a time that works for you. It might be different every day. It doesn’t have to be first thing in the morning a la morning pages unless that really works for you. When you can, though, decide ahead of time when you will do your writing each day--write it down or put it in your calendar if you like--so that you have a solid plan for writing instead of just a wish for writing.

Ways to use writing practice:

Writing practice is complete as it is. It’s a way to play and practice with words and language. It’s a way to capture your thoughts, capture descriptions of the world around you, visit moments from your past. If you want a little more, you can use lines from an entry as a prompt for more writing practice. You can use your writing practice session to explore characters or settings or other aspects of fiction stories you’re working on.

And of course, if you have other ideas about what you want to write or any of this, go with what is right for you! You know you best--take your own advice.

If you'd like to do some writing in community, I'm hosting a free 30 day writing practice group in September. Come write with us! MuseCraft September 2020 Writing Practice.

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In my last post, I talked about how giving attention to our creative work and making time for art is really important right now.

It's also really hard right now. These are stressful, anxious times, and those feelings can make being creative feel really hard. And yet if we aren't getting to our creative work, that also makes us feel anxious, restless, not quite right. So what do you do when you want to do creative work but you can't seem to make it happen?

Find a way to just dip your toes into creativity. Find things that are easy, don't take too much time, are soothing if possible, fun if possible, engaging without needing laser focus. What you do isn't the important part; the important part is touching base with your creative life to keep connected.

My favorite thing to do when I want to do my art but can't settle into it is creative busy work. It's stuff that needs to get done for your creative work, but it doesn't usually require quite as much time, energy, or brain power. Things like organizing, prepping, tidying, planning, things that let you get your hands on your creative work but in a lighter and easier way than fully immersing yourself.

Some creative busy work projects:

  • Wind skeins of yarn into balls for your next knitting or crocheting project (or skeins of floss for embroidery)
  • Gather paints and sorting or organizing them for easier use on your next project
  • Clip words and pictures out of magazines for your next collage, junk journal, or art journal project
  • Put down layers of paint in your art journal for backgrounds
  • Pull gel prints for future use as backgrounds or in collages, etc.
  • Practice brush lettering or other hand lettering
  • Doodle
  • Make a color swatch (so many fun ideas for color swatches at Daisy Yellow--check out the link!) with your favorite markers, paints, colored pencils, etc.
  • Add to or organize inspirational Pinterest boards
  • Page through magazines about your art or ones that inspire you in some way

One last suggestion--keep a list of creative busy work. Put it in the front of your journal or planner or somewhere you can look at it easily. Sometimes when you're restless and want to do something, trying to remember the ideas you had about what to do gets hard. Make it easier for yourself! Easy is good.

I hope this has helped a little if you've been feeling stuck or unfocused lately. And if you have other things you like to do to help ease yourself out of a creative slump, I'd love to hear about them! Drop a note in the comments, or find me on social media.

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2

My mini book from Seth Apter's class

I was just getting back to blogging in the spring. And then on top of the pandemic, George Floyd was murdered right in public by a police officer, and the crumbling world caved in. I couldn’t bring myself to write about anything that wasn’t Black Lives Matter or mask wearing. Nothing else seemed important. I spent a lot of time (still do, just not exclusively) on social media sharing things to try to help, to try to spread the word about what was happening and maybe ways to make changes.

Talking, sharing, protesting, writing letters--it's important work we have to keep doing. But I was sinking in on myself more and more every day, and I didn't know what to do. And then a class popped up-- Seth Apter’s Mini Book Madness. It was so inexpensive, and the books were delightful, and it was easily accessible. I signed up. I started my book in class and spent days finishing it. I was so in love I bought supplies to make more books (which hasn’t happened yet, but I have my stuff, and it will). I felt a little more like me. I felt a little calmer, a little more focused, a little less constantly enraged.

Right now doing our art, making things, creating may seem pointless. Worse, it may feel selfish.

Right now, our art is necessary.

Stopping and later recovering from this pandemic is a long-haul thing. Continuing the fight against police violence and racial injustice and inequity is a long-haul thing. That means that we have to figure out how to do all the work on these things at the same time as we are having lives. And that means taking care of ourselves and doing the things that buoy us up and help us keep going, that help us keep hope and help us bring light to ourselves and others.

There have been articles and posts about this already. I’m not saying anything new. But I feel like my blog is something that people read in quieter times, so maybe the words will sink in a little easier. Or the ideas might sink in from repetition. In any case, I just wanted to say it out loud.

Living our lives, making our art, doing our creative work--it’s important. We have to have a full and thriving world to move back into once we fix these crises. We can’t build that world or keep it going if we burn ourselves out. 

Next time I’ll talk about some small ways to get back to your art if it’s a struggle. For now, just remember that you can do it for just 5 minutes, you can do it badly, you can just spend time sorting supplies. It doesn’t have to be complicated. Now, go make something!

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4

A few of the things feeding my Muse right now. Index card art, mixed media painted backgrounds, creating a little shelf garden.

In the early days of MuseCraft, I used to write a blog series called "On My Table." It was pictures, combined with a bit of writing, of projects I was working on that week, and it was really fun to do (although trying to do a new project every week got a little hectic).

I've been missing those sharing posts lately, telling about the things that are inspiring me, what's stirring my Muse. And I know when I share the things I'm making on Facebook and Instagram, people seem to really enjoy it, and we end up having really good conversations. So I decided to bring back sharing posts, but they're not going to be just things I'm making. I thought it might be fun to share all the things that perk up my Muse's interest (Muse Appeal, get it? I know--I'm too funny)--books I'm reading, songs I'm loving, food I'm eating, all of that.

This week's Muse Appeal is a list. And just so you know, I love lists! There will probably be lots of lists.

A few of the things delighting my Muse this week:

  • Daisy Yellow's Index Card a Day (ICAD)--it's almost finished for this year! I've been making collages on my cards every day using gel printed papers I made during a 30 day gel printing challenge I did last September, so I'm getting to make some art and also use things I already had.
  • Making backgrounds for mixed media pieces using techniques I learned last week in Seth Apter's class "One Layer Away." These are so much fun--I know there will be a lot more in my future. Pretty sure my art journal is going to get a lot of these backgrounds.
  • Looking up tutorials and info on plants and decorations for my new container garden I set up just outside my back door so I can see it from my perch on the sofa.
  • Continuing work on the little embroideries from #The100DayProject. When I'm finished, they're going to become a mobile for my studio! (You can see all 100 days of this on my Instagram--the link is over there on the right.)

Those are the big things capturing my attention right now. (That and a studio remodel, but I'm stalled on that right now, so more on that another time.) What about you? What's appealing to your Muse right now? Leave a comment or pop over to my Facebook page and let me know. I love hearing what everyone's enthused about!

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Is that really you?! (My cat Jack used to do the best surprised face.)

This morning I started reading Brene Brown's Braving the Wilderness. And I was crying right from the first story. And I was reading while on the treadmill doing intervals, so in retrospect this might not have been my best choice. But I found in her stories of not belonging and wanting to belong a parallel map to my own life. 

I have always felt like I don't quite fit in. I come from a family that loves to make fun of each other. They think they are doing a friendly teasing thing, but as the kid who always heard how weird I was and how unlike the rest of the family, it really sank in that I didn't quite fit. I spent high school and college and even a bit beyond trying to be "normal" and fit in. Which meant that I passed up chances to do things with the "weird" kids who might really have been my people. But I could never shake my love of horror movies and all things spooky and reading horror and fantasy and sci fi, so I was never quite normal enough. 

And now? Not normal enough for most (still don't like romance movies or rom coms or things like that, so I still frequently feel on the outside of conversations at parties, etc.). Not weird enough for the "out there" crowd. But now I also think I'm not actually the only in-betweener. Before,I was so busy trying to fit in someplace that I forgot to look around for the people who are like me. Now I see that I’m not in some isolated wilderness.

So what does this have to do with creativity? So much. It comes down to "be yourself," I guess. But also more. Know yourself. Figure out who you are and what you like, and then learn to spot it when you see it. Also learn to pare away anything that isn't "it." Like what you like. Follow the trends if you love them and they set something ringing inside you. Ignore them if they don't light you up. 

It doesn't matter if what you're doing looks or sounds like things others are doing. Yours will always have that component of you-ness to it, especially as you do it more. So don't worry about trying to find your personal thing. Do the things you are drawn to, and your personal thing will emerge.

But the important part, and kind of the hard part, is figuring out if something is for you. Ask yourself these questions:

  • Did someone suggest this, encourage me to try this, push this at me?
  • Did I feel a spark of excitement when I first saw this/heard of this? Do I still feel it when I look at this? 
  • Do I want to do this but feel like I should be doing or trying something else?

That last one is a big giveaway. If you feel like you should be doing something else even though you really like the thing you're looking at, do the thing you like. Then do it some more. And then some more. Keep doing what you like; keep asking yourself what you like and if you still like it (because likes do change). Follow you and what you love. 

*Note: You know this stuff (well, maybe not the part about me feeling like an outsider). We all know this stuff. We just need to remember and look to ourselves for the deepest guidance.

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1

I feel a little awkward and uncertain about putting this out there. I don’t know if this is mine to write. But this is what I’ve been thinking about and working on for myself the past few days, and I feel like it’s important, so I’m sharing.

Antiracism work must be folded into our everyday lives. It must become part of normal. We go about our days, work, cook, clean, do our art challenges, fitness challenges, read some antiracism and justice and equity articles or books or social media, share, donate on payday. Make this normal. Make it what you do. Make it sustainable for the long haul. 

Things you can do to start making it part of daily life:

  • Join book clubs that read and talk about antiracism and equity
  • Join online groups that talk about antiracism and equity and actions
  • Follow BIPOC social media accounts that do the same
  • Regularly shop from Black-owned businesses
  • Follow BIPOC artists and creatives
  • Read BIPOC authors

There are others out there writing about this, about things we can do to do more and keep things going. Find them, read them, do the things. Keep the change happening!

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1

These are not normal times. You don’t have to act like they are. You do not have to try to do everything the way you always do it right now. And you definitely don’t have to strive to do even more--start a business, learn a language, start lifting weights (you don’t have to do those things in more normal times, either, if you aren’t really into them). Right now, you do not have to push yourself. Now is not the time for extreme productivity. It’s a time for caring for yourself and your family and friends and the world around us. It is a time for listening to your body, seeing how you feel, going with the flow of what you need.

This is also not a great time to do nothing. Great swathes of unfilled time can really amp up anxiety and depression, and no one needs that any time, especially now. I know my first two weeks of being unemployed during all of this I was awash in all the hard feelings. So I made some changes to help myself. I’ve talked about them with a few friends, and everyone seemed to find it helpful, so I thought I’d write about it.

What did I do? I gave myself some structure. I’m not talking about rigid schedules and pages of to-do lists. For me, that’s just more stress, and if I miss one of my tasks I end up feeling worse. What’s working for me is a looser sort of schedule.

I figured out things I wanted to do with my time, and then I broke my day into blocks that work for me. You might need to experiment to figure out what works for you. For example, in the below schedule I started out with having a scheduled activity at the end of my 2 - 4 p.m. block, and that was not working at all, so I changed things up.

Here’s what my weekday schedule looks like right now (my blocks are very loose--sometimes I don’t start on Block 2 until 10:30, etc., and I recommend doing something different on the weekends):

  • Get up around 8 a.m.
  • Block 1 8-10: Clean up, get dressed, feed cats, make coffee. During this time I have breakfast, check email, goof off online, read articles.
  • Block 2 10-12: I do something hands-on*. So far I’ve reorganized my linens and moved them to a new location, cleared some old clothes out of the closet, emptied a bookcase that’s getting moved. Sometimes I vacuum or clean out the fridge. And lately I’m working on learning to sew. I find something that has me away from computers and phones and actually, actively doing something or making something is really good for my brain. I recommend trying it out. 
  • Block 3 12 - 1: I take a break before doing a quick Spanish lesson at 12:30. 
  • Block 4 2-4 (ish): Right now I use this time to work on my license renewal classes for my teaching license. When I finish those around the end of May I plan to work on the MasterClass classes I signed up for.
  • Block 5 4-6: I take a break, then do something hands-on again (this is when I exercise and sometimes do some painting in my art journal). 
  • Evening: I make dinner around 6, visit with friends online, then spend my evenings working on art projects, playing online, and watching TV.

I worked out these blocks based on what I noticed about how I perceive time. I tend to think about it as morning, late morning, noon, afternoon, late afternoon, evening. I don’t know why, but it did make it easy for me to block my time out. Some things to think about if you want to try this:

  • Figure out the things you both want and need to do in a day
  • Don’t fill every minute with “productive” things; schedule in plenty of downtime and relaxation
  • Let yourself skip the schedule if you’re having a really hard day
  • Check in with yourself and see how you feel and change the schedule if you feel like it’s not working
  • Do something every day that makes you laugh or at least smile

*Why something hands-on? Because our bodies need to do things. Our brains feel better when we give them different sorts of tasks to work on throughout the day. The sense of accomplishment from clearing a shelf, cleaning out the fridge, painting a page is a mood booster. 

I hope this gives you some ideas of how to make your days a little smoother. If you’re struggling (really, even if you’re not feeling that) give yourself a break. Give yourself some love. Take care of yourself out there!

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