Returning to Our Creativity

“Dive on in, in everything dive in, and don’t be afraid of drowning because you can breathe water.”

How hard is it to return to your creativity after a long absence? It can be as hard as getting yourself back in the gym after a long period of being sedentary, or returning to eating healthy after weeks of sinful eating.

I learned the challenges of returning to creativity during my cross-country U.S. road trip interviewing creatives.

taken Labor Day 2010, a day of both labor and an inspirational encounter

Being creative can be so enjoyable, it seems we’d never want to drift from it. Why compare it to dieting? I like pleasurable things. I’m more likely to be seduced by a Suzy-Q than tofu.

But singer/songwriter Rochelle Smith offered some insights on the subject when I interviewed her at her radio station in Boise, Idaho. (A short video interview with her is below.) Rochelle knows that we may get a burst of pleasure from a sugary sweet, but the creative high is more like the satisfaction of a rigorous workout. Both require significant investment of labor combined with regular application of that labor.

Rochelle is a talented and skilled musician, someone who writes haunting songs made more haunting with her ethereal voice. She has a large network of creative friends, and consistently encourages them to stay true to their creativity.

But Rochelle abandoned her creativity for about five years. She had became highly self-critical. “I thought, who am I to think I could create something someone else would want to listen to?”

Rochelle eventually found her way back to her music, when a friend told her she had a “duty” to share her gift. But she works diligently to make sure her professional life doesn’t push aside her own creativity. At her radio station she is not only a DJ but supervises recording sessions with big-name musicians as they pass through town. Yet she’s careful not to let let that exciting work  occupy all of her creative energy, saving enough to, say, write an original song for a production of “The Vagina Monologues.”

She doesn’t share her musical life with her coworkers, despite the seemingly obvious promotional advantage of a musician working at a radio station. I visited her at the station on an early Labor Day morning, when the place was almost completely silent and empty. Prerecorded voices went from digital soundboards to listeners’ radios, a station manned by ghosts. I thought coming in to the station would be an inconvenience for her, but she liked being able to talk about her music without worrying about curious coworkers, wondering who the guy with the camera was.

As Rochelle shared her story of drifting away from an art-committed life and then returning to it, I was reminded once again of how years earlier I had drifted away from that path. Like Rochelle, I was finding ways to be creative in my job (i.e., the road trip videos), but my personal artistic pursuits had for years been shelved (literally, in the form of an unsubmitted novel stuck in the back of a laundry room cabinet).

a creative salon near Rochelle's radio station

By the time I met Rochelle I had driven through more than thirty states and had conducted nearly forty interviews. My own need to return to an art-committed path had become pretty clear. So I took a risk. After our interview, while packing up my camera and microphone, I shared with this woman I had never met before this morning my own desire to return to creativity.

Rochelle was effusively supportive, sharing many words of encouragement. She then handed me a copy of her self-produced CD, and said, simply, “You should listen to this.”

A few days later the six-week trip was finally complete, and I was flying back home to Washington, D.C. My MP3 player had died weeks earlier in South Carolina, but I was desperate for music, and remembered Rochelle’s CD. Sitting in the back of a crowded plane, exhausted beyond any exhaustion I had ever felt, I slipped her CD into my MacBook and soon a woman’s speaking voice filled my headphones.

It was a dear friend of Rochelle’s, Vicki Stagi. Rochelle had recorded some conversations with Vicki shortly before Vicki died of cancer. Vicki shares a dream in which she dives into water and is assimilated, breathing like a mermaid, although she says she didn’t imagine herself a literal mermaid because “they’re so prissy.” Vicki’s message, which forms the theme of a moving Rochelle Smith tribute song, “Blue Water,” is the quote I opened this post with: “Dive on in, in everything dive in, and don’t be afraid of drowning because you can breathe water.”

I did dive in, Rochelle, and so far I’m breathing just fine. Thank you, to you and to Vicki, for the inspiration.

About Patrick Ross

I'm the author of Committed: A Memoir of the Artist's Road.

48 Responses to “Returning to Our Creativity”

  1. It’s so hard to not be critical when you’re creative. I think for most of my writing life (which started when I was eleven and I’m not twenty) I’ve hated my skills, always tore myself up. Any time I never finished a novel idea or a friend said, “this is good, but”, I told myself to just give up and call it quits. I had no talent, why bother?

    I finally took the dive and ignored that critical side of me. So far, I’ve written more in the past three weeks on a single novel idea than I have to date: a good thirty-three thousand words. To some that’s nothing; to me, it helped me realize that, like Vicki said, I can breathe the water. I can dive in head-on.

    This is a great way to remind others of this. You’ve had some wonderful experiences.

    • Keep it up Elisa. There are a lot of generous creative folks out there who will be cheerleaders for you. Find them and trust them.

      You may not be the writer you want to be yet, but the only way to get better is to keep writing. I love reading reflections on their own self-doubts by successful writers I admire. It reminds me that working despite those doubts is part of a writer’s life.

      Kate

      • Kate,

        Thanks so much for the support. I’ve found a lot of support in blogs like these and have been very touched by the generosity of the online community (the creative one at least).

        It’s always inspiring to see that someone else has gone through this and is willing to care.

    • Elisa Michelle,

      Thank you so much for sharing. We all suffer from the inner critic, but be proud that you have written 33,000 words already! That’s remarkable. Also remember, as Kate suggests, that every word you write helps you grow as a writer. I’m very happy for you!

  2. Patrick,

    Thank you for the introduction to Rochelle. I was thinking yesterday that I need more tough and wild creative women around my life. She certainly qualifies. She won me over with her comment that mermaids are “prissy” and the story of teaching girls to play hard with their guitars.

    The challenge of committing to a creatively-centred life is a central part of my life right now. Like, Rochelle, I was highly self-critical for years, having internalized my reaction to a English teacher’s critique. I realize now that she saw potential in my work and was trying to help me develop, but my creative self was far too tender to see that at the time.

    Now that I am trying to not only create regularly but also to sell my work, I am also battling the voices of my parents. All of my theatrical work as a child was greeted by “That was fabulous, but you can’t make a living in theatre,” and the comments on my poetry were, “You write really well, but I wish you wouldn’t write about such depressing subjects.” I still find myself fighting that “but.”

    I find inspiration in my children. The fact that I have four kids and need to make money to feed them is pressure that I would rather not have. However, the pain I have suffered through denying my creativity inspires me to keep at it. I want to them to see me using my gifts. The world can be harsh for budding creatives. I want my kids to have me as a role model not a barrier.

    Thanks for sharing your story and Rochelle’s story. Walking this path back to creativity is easier for me when we share our stories.

    Kate

  3. Kate,

    What an inspiring comment. I note that you have quotes of criticism of your theatrical work and poetry. Here’s betting you carry those around, but many of the compliments you’ve received for your creativity washed off of you and were forgotten or stored away in a place where they lack the power of the criticisms.

    Kudos for pursuing a living with your creativity — as a father of two I’m living that challenge right now as well! — and how right you are to let them see your gifts.

    My 15-year-old aspiring-artist daughter accompanied me from VA to GA, meeting several of the creatives. I wanted them to inspire her, and they did, but I realized at the end of that leg that I had provided inspiration for her as well. It was a very moving experience for both of us.

  4. Another great post, Patrick. It always helps me, both in writing and life in general, to read about others who have taken a leap of faith or found the courage to believe in themselves. This piece brings to mind one of my favorite quotes: “To live a creative life, we must lose our fear of being wrong,” Joseph Chilton Pierce. Easier said than done, but so true.

  5. Patrick, thank you for this post. I was so moved when I reached the end of what you’d written I had tears in my eyes. The video of Rochelle and all the blog comments so far have also been powerful.

    I’m bookmarking this post so I can play Rochelle’s video again when I next need this reminder. My book, plus everything I’ve done for 10+ years to keep my book alive, got started from a desperate need to deal with my own critical voices. Nearly every writer I’ve helped since then would also relate intimately to what Rochelle said about giving up for X number of years (or, for some, never truly getting started in the first place) under the influence of that internal struggle.

    Like Kate, I was struck by what Rochelle said about girls being gentle with their guitars. I can see where I’ve done this myself with my writing career—acted timidly when it was time to push ahead and play power chords.

    I vividly remember one of my female writing students telling me she felt “invisible.” And yet she was one of the dearest people I’ve met, AND she has a message that requires her to write a book in order to share that message with the world. I’m going to send her to watch this video.

    P.S. I’m so pleased to hear that your daughter was inspired by what you’ve done with your road trip and the videos.

    • Milli,

      What a wonderful comment, thank you for that!

      I’m struck by your mention of the “invisible” (not) student being female. A major theme for Rochelle, not fully captured in a 5-minute video, was her passion for female creatives, and how they could be more prone to self-criticism and lack of confidence. She has been a real champion to female creatives in Boise, and has played lead or backup in some all-female bands.

      As for my daughter, she was just admitted to a 3-week pre-college program at a major art school for this July; she’s a rising HS junior and will get a taste of the college art life, the fun and the work!

      • Patrick, I’m so excited for your daughter! What a wonderful, fun (and probably a little scary) opportunity. She will be so enriched by that environment. It’s heartwarming to know she has such a supportive father, and one who can model creativity for her.

      • Fabulous!!! I wish I had someone to guide and inspire me like she did. No creatives in my world as a child. She’s one lucky girl to have a dad like you! 🙂

  6. Great article, and I hope you don’t mind–I shared on my WordPress blog. I wish I’d read this 20 years ago–when I gave up for several years. Thank you for sharing.

    • Hi Linda, I’m so happy you found it of value. I couldn’t have written it 20 years ago, I needed to learn the lessons myself!🙂 Thank you for sharing on your blog.

  7. I love the ending part of the video when Rochelle says to tell your story … don’t worry about how it comes out … don’t be afraid of exposing yourself, somebody’s probably already been through it … it will actually help you get past it.

    These words are so encouraging! I am learning not to be afraid to speak out in public and during this huge transition for me that is music to my ears.

    Thank you for sharing this touching story Patrick.

  8. Vicki’s quote is priceless. Thanks for sharing your journey with us. That’s priceless too.

  9. I’m also a musician who is doing the dance with my “day job”, my musical craft, relationships, and the other things that attract my attention as a creative person. At times, it’s a fun process and at other times, fear tries to get the upper hand.

    And I can relate to the “critical voices” mentioned here by Kate and others. For me, the trick is most often to remember that the real critique is coming from inside and not from the external words where I’d like to — more comfortably — tack my judgments. “If I can put them outside of myself, maybe I’ll be safer” is a lie I tell myself.

    The cool thing is that there are lots of ways to play with my creative juices. Kate and I both share a connection with InterPlay, for example. These can lead to practices that I can incorporate into my routine and can help keep the artist spark thriving. Keeping these practices going is sometimes a challenge for me as I continue to have the “day job” and other demands on my time.

    So, for today, I’ll play with that challenge and will even count this dialogue as part of my practice of keeping creativity alive in me.

    Playful blessings,
    Stan

  10. Hello, Stan, so glad you could stop by! I like the point you make about knowing where the critiques are coming from and putting that in perspective.

    You know, before getting to know you, Kate and of course Anita Bondi via Twitter, I wasn’t familiar with InterPlay, but what I’ve learned about it is very exciting. Readers, here’s a link to what Stan is talking about: http://interplay.org/index.cfm/go/about:home/

  11. In a couple of weeks, it is 7 years of the passing of my friend Vicki. I cannot tell you the comfort of all your words. Knowing that her dreams and strength somehow live on forever, helps some peace to the pain I felt when holding her hand as she left this place.

    Thank you for helping me feel like the things I do…are worth it.

    • Rochelle, I don’t know what to say. I’m glad I could play a role in keeping Vicki’s dreams alive, but I could do it because you preserved her dreams and shared them with the world (and me) through your music. Thank you again for sharing a bit of yourself and Vicki with me on my road trip.

    • Kate Arms-Roberts Reply March 7, 2011 at 2:53 pm

      Rochelle,

      I have been enjoying your music all day after reading this blog. Is there somewhere we can buy your music?

      Kate

      • I kind of print them as I go these days, feel free to email me through the link on my name underlined above, through Reverbnation. Thank you so much for this support!

  12. Patrick: Another great post. You’re onto an interesting pattern of creatives who get “off-track” and eventually find their way back. I wonder if that perspective and experience of getting off track helps some creatives feel rejuvenated and more deeply appreciative of their creative life had they not gotten off-track.

    I loved the surprise of the CD’s content, by the way.

    See you in the woods,
    Jeffrey

  13. Patrick: Another great post. You’re onto an interesting pattern of creatives who get “off-track” and eventually find their way back. I wonder if that perspective and experience of getting off track helps some creatives feel rejuvenated and more deeply appreciative of their creative life had they not gotten off-track.

    I loved the surprise of the CD’s content, by the way.

    See you in the woods,
    Jeffrey

    • I thing we all move in and out of our purpose and passion at times. The road may change directions and take twits and turns but if we listen to our inner GPS will lead us back to what is naturally ours, our Creative Spirit! Thanks for your insights Patrick, Teresa Making Art of Life

    • Thanks, Jeffrey. The return is is a recurring theme of many of my interviews, you’re right. As Amy Buchheit is commenting on this post, I profiled her recently (another road trip artist) and she had drifted from creativity in high school and was away for years, due to a belief that people couldn’t actually “work” creatively.

  14. I was moved to read the last part of this post. The gift of her CD, the story read by Vicki, the lyrics of the song and how they affected you. How fabulous that Rochelle shared in such a way to make a concrete difference in your life. Even if it wasn’t “the” turning point, it was something that re-enforced the path that you are now on. I, for one am grateful. I have a really great blogging and Twitter-buddy. Go Patrick! Thanks Rochelle!

  15. I can certainly relate to this- while I do LOVE being creative- I’ve noticed that the longer I stay away for whatever reason be it family or work- it can be harder to slide back in and keep on going. Thanks for this great post- I am LOVING your blog- glad to have discovered it.

  16. Very touching post, and so many positive comments. Thank you for sharing.

    I’m off to check out Rochelle Smith’s music now!

  17. Hello all of you beautiful, creative people. This is Vicki’s little sister. I just wanted to let you all know how truely blessed I am to know that Vicki’s words have made an impact – She was a wise woman, a brilliantly talented musician and my best friend.

    Stained glass is always more captivating than clear…stay beautiful, colorful and light-filled.

    Again, thank you for sharing.

    Regards,
    Amanda Collins

    • Hello Amanda,

      Thank you so much for visiting, I’m glad you found your way here. It says a lot about your sister that her words have spread so far, from Rochelle to me to the commenters here to who knows where after that.

      And thank you for your stained-glass analogy, that really spoke to me.

      Patrick

  18. Article writing is also a excitement, if you be familiar with after
    that you can write otherwise it is complex to write.

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

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