Saturday, June 28, 2008

Gone to Australia - Back in three weeks

Whose tune are you dancing to? Clarissa Pinkola Estes tells the story of a poor girl who has painstakingly handcrafted a pair of red shoes which give her much pleasure. The shoes are representative of the hand crafted life, of living by one's own values. But sure enough, along comes the test, in the form of a golden carriage and a rich old woman who says she will look after her from now on. Those precious red shoes are thrown in the fire and now she has to do what she is told by the old woman - she is dancing to the old woman's tune. 

Her heart longs for those red shoes made by her own hands, however, and she is attracted to anything that reminds her of them, so when an up-to-no-good shoemaker shows her his red shoes, she fools the old lady into buying them. Even though they are red they are not her shoes. Now she is dancing to the shoemaker's tune and this is a mad dance that leads her to the executioner's door and only stops when he chops off her feet - a dramatic ending but right symbolically for dancing to another's tune is exhausting and can lead to the death of the spirit.

This week has been a stressful week - builders in the house, trying to get ready to go away and a partner down with a nasty flu. When trying to deal with all this the main thing on my mind was - I have to write a whole load of blogs to post for while I'm away. Why? Because They - yes the mysterious They - had said you must blog at least two or three times a week!

Ah - the beauty of stories. All week long the Red Shoes has been popping into my mind - finally I got the connection - I was trying to dance to someone else's tune - instead of handcrafting my blog the way it suited me - I need to dance my blog not let my blog dance me.

So, thank you, all you lovely readers for enjoying the posts. They will resume shortly. In the meantime I have negotiated the technology so now you can email subscribe and have new posts sent straight to your email box.

p.s. so as not to leave the story on a grim note - according to Clarissa Pinkola Estes, this is a fragment of a much longer story and in the lost passages, after an incubation period, her feet would have grown back and she would have found some shoes that were just right for her. 

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

What fairytale characters have to teach us

I've always loved the Jungian idea that all the characters in a story are aspects of one psyche. It makes fairytales so much more interesting and valuable. It is too easy to identify with Snow White and despise the wicked step-mother. Looked at in Jungian terms, however, I am not only the innocent child, but also the jealous, scheming Queen and the ineffective, gullible King - not to mention the hunter, the dwarfs etc. Accepting this allows me to connect with those  resisted aspects and find out what part they are playing in my life. 

Our world abounds in stories. We love stories - in books and movies, on TV soaps and before that around the kitchen table or the fireplace. Without necessarily being conscious of it, we live our lives as if it were a story. To discover one's story, and the array of characters within it, is a fascinating journey and can lead to great inner treasure - knowing what role you are playing, gaining an insight into your strengths and vulnerabilities, shedding light on ones shadow aspects - can lead to living a more authentic life in a more powerful way.

One way to discover one's story is to choose a favourite fairytale, one that has always resonated for you. List the characters - which can include animals or important objects - for example, in my own exploration of the Princess and the Pea, I included the pea and the mattresses. Next take each 'character' and write a short piece as if you were them - a monologue - as if they had turned to the audience and were speaking directly about what is important to them and why they did what they did and how they felt about it. This doesn't have to be a written exercise - it can also be acted, danced, sculpted etc. 

This exercise can be done with any story or film that has caught your imagination. I even did it with an episode of Star Trek Voyager that particularly haunted me - with amazing results. I'll summarize my own discoveries from the Princess and the Pea in the next post.

Friday, June 20, 2008

The meaning and uses of failure

etching 117mm x 92mm
It is so easy to get stopped in one's tracks by failure. Yet as JK Rowling and many other successful and talented people have pointed out, failure has its own particular benefits and being willing to risk and engage with failure is vital to any creative endeavour.

I was both moved to tears and inspired by JK Rowling in her wonderful Harvard commencement address in which she explained that failing on an epic scale had stripped away the inessential leaving her to put all her energy into the one thing she was good at. (Thanks to Christine Kane for alerting me to this goodie)

Many wise teachers have understood the importance of not being afraid to fail. Among them, Randy Pausch, when he was virtual reality tutor at Carnegie Mellon, gave his students the First Penguin Award for the most spectacular failure - an award the other students knew was an honour for daring to think outside the box.

In a Recipe for Dreaming, Bryce Courteney writes, "you will learn more from a brilliantly executed failure than from a success planned within the dreary safety of what you already know."

Twyla Tharp in her book The Creative Habit writes a whole chapter on failure. Like Rowling she says failure "cleanses. It helps you to put aside who you aren't and reminds you who you are."

In a useful exercise Tharp breaks down failure into five categories - it's worth reading the whole chapter, but here is a precis:

1. Failure of skill > take the time and make the effort to develop the skills you need.
2. Failure of concept > start again
3. Failure of judgement > be wary of telling yourself - it's just fine - when you know in your gut it isn't.
4. Failure of nerve > let go of the fear of looking foolish.
5. Failure through repetition > don't try and repeat past successes - allow yourself to move on.

My own epiphany with failure came when I realised the importance of scaffolding. After a house has been built, the scaffolding is removed, you don't see it -  and yet it was an essential part of the process. Likewise, ecologists trying to restore, say a wild prairie, are running into difficulties because certain species have disappeared completely and yet they were essential to arriving at the final ecosystem. From the individual species point of view, this is failing - looking at the bigger picture, they were part of the scaffolding that led to the wild prairie. Failure is scaffolding. 

This partly explains why comparison with other artists can be deadly. When I look at someone else's creative success what I don't see are the failures it took to get there. Now, when I try new things out in the studio, or in my writing, I avoid thinking - this is the final thing, this has got to work or, this is going to be the great success. I approach it like this - so, I've got a hunch to do it this way and it seems maybe a little odd or at least unexpected, but I'm going to trust myself and try it out because even if it doesn't work, who knows where it will lead? 

If I look at my favorite pages in the picture book I'm working on, they are all a third or fourth try and I wouldn't have got there if I hadn't had those 'failures' to build upon along the way. I've also tried picture books before and 'failed'. There are at least half a dozen starts in boxes and sketchbooks that didn't work out. Yet now I see that many of the ideas contained in those 'failures' are essential to this project which is coming together in a way I'm really happy about.

Failure is scaffolding, it means you are building something, trying things out, learning what works for you and what doesn't. The important thing is not the 'failure', it's using the lesson contained within to take the next step.


Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Filling the void - a cure

Sometimes, I wander around with the vague feeling that something is missing. I feel compelled to check the post, I stare around the local bookshop, waiting for that mysterious something to announce its presence - expecting of course that when I find it, the void will be filled.

But even a cheque from gallery sales arriving in the mail or the discovery of a wonderful book does not alter the disturbing feeling of absence. Thanks to a post by Susie Monday I have found the cure. It is to be more of myself.

This solution felt right, but I was unsure where this more was going to come from. I already felt like most of my life was spent being myself, making art in the studio or writing my children's book by the fire.

Clarissa Pinkola Estes explains that nurturing your psychic life involves paying attention to your dreams. My dream in brief was this. I had walked into the sea declaring my independence only to find a large fish had taken my right arm and was pulling it into it's belly. With great difficulty I managed to extricate myself. Then, still in the sea, I came across a woman with a shovel looking for potatoes. I took the shovel and found a huge stash of them.

The beauty of Active Imagination is that the characters, creatures and things in a dream speak for themselves, they tell you what they mean and what they want - which is just as well for there is no way my mind could unravel this one.

Aware that creatures in dreams are often wise and helpful beings - no matter how they first appear - and that resistance in a dream is often a reflection of the ego resisting change - I asked the fish what would have happened if it had succeeded in pulling me in.

The answer was an image of a firelit cavern with a sheet of paper waiting for me. The fish told me it was starving. I would have to earn my freedom by feeding it with a drawing. I would be freed if I promised to continue to feed it with drawings done with care and lots of detail in them.

The potatoes on the other hand told me they were all the ideas, impulses and unlived potential that was clogging up my system. What they wanted was a special box with pieces of card in it, so each one of them could be written up. In this way they would be acknowledged and honoured and the heart would have a chance to choose from among them. They didn't all need to be acted upon - just brought out into the light - given a place in the conscious life.

So there in part was my answer to the more I needed to be. There was another part to this answer involving a crazy lady archetype - but more of that in another post!

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Taming your Perfectionist - the process of Active Imagination

I suppose there must be some people who do not have a perfectionist in their family of archetypes, but I haven't met one yet. The perfectionist comes in many guises: the critic, the judge, the censor, the dictator, the tyrant, the slave-driver, the bully. Each person's perfectionist will have its own flavour. My own is the hard task master.

Taming your perfectionist means getting to know it. It means having a conversation with it. It means finding out what its values are, what it cares about and where it comes from.

The best way to do this, that I know of, is to use a Jungian technique called active imagination. Active imagination means to have a dialogue with an aspect of yourself. You can do this as a conversation in your mind, but I prefer to write it down. 

First of all, I write down an open ended question, such as - Will you tell me your story? Or - What is important to you? Or - What expectations do you have of me?

Then I wait for the answer which I hear with my inner hearing and sometimes there are images or kinetic sensations in my body as the archetype adopts a different body language from my own.

All I have to do is listen and write down what I hear. I don't have to wait long, believe me, your archetypes are only too eager to connect with you and have their say.

When doing active imagination it is best to maintain an attitude of inquiry, (a bit like Data from Star Trek who was curious about everything but in a very neutral way), to trust what you hear and allow it to flow - after all you are finding out some very vital information about yourself. 

You may want to ask some clarifying questions or point out the effect the perfectionist has on your life - which may not be what that archetype intended. For example, when my hard task master gets going, it will set impossibly high standards and set exhausting work schedules with the intention of creating success - what actually results of course is exhaustion and despair.

Having a conversation with an archetype is useful for these reasons:

1. It lessens the power that archetype has to ambush you. Before I got to know my hard task master, I could be operating under its power without being aware of it, now I recognise it sooner, am able to say, oh it's you again, and choose a more balanced approach.

2. Think of yourself as an iceberg, with all you know about yourself as the tip, the 1/8 that is above the water. By doing active imagination you get to know more of the 7/8 below the water, the unknown, hidden you. Being in dialogue with an archetypal aspect makes it possible to negotiate change, transformation, for both of you to find a new attitude to the issue at hand.

3. The more you know yourself, the richer and deeper will be your work and the more authentic will be your way of going about your life. As Tolstoy said:
If you want to work on your art, work on your life.
One tremendous bonus of bringing a shadow* aspect into the light is the enormous amount of energy that comes with it, not to mention a greater sense of inner ease and inner strength.

* Shadow does not mean horrible or frightening, it simply means an aspect of yourself you don't know yet.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

When the inspiration is stuck - it's time to move your body

Some days everything flows and other days I feel like there are invisible brick walls in my head. After innumerable false starts, I give up and go for a walk. What a relief to finally feel a sense of unimpeded movement. Whilst the walls of the studio felt like they were closing in on me, now I am outside with a wide horizon, distant hills and the sound of birds busy about their day; a grey heron stalks fish in the estuary, a kingfisher dives into the deep channel and emerges with his catch, a tui sings from the bottle brush tree. 

After a brisk walk in the crisp air - feeling the welcome sunshine on my skin (because this is New Zealand and it's a chilly winter this year) and having my attention absorbed by the natural world around me - things inside are becoming unstuck. Characters deliver up lines of dialogue and a new and dynamic scene unfolds itself. On the picture book front I feel renewed energy and belief in my current page - so what if embroidery thread broccoli is taking days to do - it will be worth it.  Taking a walk outside helps me to settle into my natural rhythms, it shakes out the grumps, gives me a wider perspective and so, feeling refreshed and at peace with myself, I am once more ready to do the work that calls me.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008


Anyone who has painted the heart knows
that first they had to
discard their spectacles,
their mirror,
throw away their fine point pencil
and carbon paper

and for a long while

a poem by Miroslav Holub

Monday, June 2, 2008

Frenetic Haste vs Procrastination

A bath in time saves nine - etching

Back at work in my studio, I am aware of an urge to hurry.  'Come on,' cries a voice in my head. 'This is taking too long. Nothing's happening!' Ironically, this exhortation to work quickly, slows me down almost to a stop. The sense of restless impatience makes it impossible to sink into the work, to feel where it wants to go. 

Sometimes, I fall into the opposite trap - procrastination, when I know what to do next, but cannot galvanize myself to do it and instead go into slow motion, staring at the work for long periods of time or else distracting myself with unimportant chores.

Working with active imagination techniques it becomes clear the root cause of both problems is the same - wanting the work to be good, more than good, wanting it to be wonderful, amazing, to be successful and admired.

Now, you might say, who doesn't? Isn't it good to be ambitious, to want to be the best you can be? Aren't these the goals we set our children?

True, but as Caroline Myss says, in order to create anything we have to keep our spirit in present time. Only in present time can I be with the work as it is now, can I feel the next step as the work evolves. 

The frenetic haste or procrastination is caused by my leaping ahead to a fantasy about how the work will be received - the desire for glory or the fear of ridicule. The trick is to find my way back into that delicious state of absorption where I am not aware of any separation between the work I am creating and myself.

One physical way back into present time is to use the breath, as my yoga teacher constantly reminds me, breathe into the back of your heart, or as my dear craniosacral therapist partner says, breathe into your belly. 

I also know that the only way to sustain this creation is to let go of my ego's need for praise and it's fear of criticism and to allow my artist soul to get on with doing the work for the work's sake. 'To let it be,' as Clarissa Pinkola Este's says, ' just what it is.'