What would have to change for that question to lead to a better answer?
Last year, Seth Godin asked us a remarkably similar question: Who would miss you when you’re gone? That question had a much stronger feel of finality for me, than the “if” in the new prompt. Last year’s question felt and still feels like it’s talking about after you die (you can read my response here). Perhaps it’s a year’s worth of shifting perspective, but the new question brought to mind not death, but distance.
In a sense, I’ve already been “gone”–from the place I grew up, from my family, from most of my friends–for almost five years now. And as to whether they miss me, I know they do because they’ve told me so. And I believe them because of how much I miss them. Because leaving, as healthy and liberating as it’s been for me, tore a small hole in my heart. And while that small hole was filled, at least for a little while, by a new love, I realize now, that love was just a bandage that hid it from view and that the hole had continued to grow a little each day. And when the bandage was torn off? That small hole grew to a gaping wound. And because distance begets distance it was too hard to reach across the miles, or even across the flagstones.
While being absent from their lives has been hard, it wasn’t the hardest part. Because it wasn’t just them I abandoned, or my new friends in my new town. This past year I also abandoned myself–my work, my joy, my art, my life. And I realize now, that before I can change anything about who might be missing whom, I have to start by getting myself back.
So in the coming year, I will start with myself. With my art. With digging in and reaching out. With rebuilding, reconnecting, reassessing who I am, how I am, what I am, with who I am, and where I am and want to be in this world. In fact I’ve already started. Because the thing about that distance, is that while it may be too hard for me to reach across on my own, it’s not too far for two arms to span when reaching from our separate sides toward each other.
December snuck up on me this year, leaving me spinning. What happened to November, to October, to June? I have lost time. Eight months at least. But here it is Quest-ing time again–a chance to begin again (in a golden land of opportunity and adventure).
But unlike that promise of a better life on some off-world colony, in this journey we won’t be given a handy potion to help us sleep through the trip. We’re going to have to get our hands dirty–to dig, to climb, to build and row our own lifeboats, to sleep where there is no shelter despite the falling snow.
Last year’s Quest was full of optimism and plans, and big, bold ideas for 2015, but the year hasn’t quite worked out that way. Life got in the way. Health got in the way. Money (or more precisely, lack thereof) got in the way. My own head got in the way. Then along came Quest 2016 and it seemed the perfect way to get back on track. Back to the big ideas I’d abandoned this year. And I have to say, being re-immersed in the embrace of this amazing group is invigorating. And I knew the answer to Prompt 1 as soon as I read it (at least the general idea of it).
What do I most need to tell myself in 2016? That I don’t have to put all this pressure on myself to know what exactly I am trying to build or where exactly I am trying to get to. That it’s okay to gather supplies, hone skills, let ideas percolate before I fly into action. Because I have been paralyzing myself trying to force the unformed to match my will, instead of allowing it to grow organically and reveal its true shape. And I know from experience that my best work has arisen at its own insistence and not at mine, and that somewhere at the center of the Venn diagram that maps the things that matter most to me there is alchemy afoot. Alchemy that has its own agenda. My job will be to give it what it needs. To feed this glorious, becoming beast instead of trying to cage it. #TellYourself
You wake up to discover a knock at your door. A wealthy uncle you barely knew has passed and left you a fortune. It’s more than enough to live out your days in glorious splendor, but there is a condition. To be eligible to collect, you must commit your full-time working energies to the pursuit of an answer to a single question of your choosing for the next 12 months.
You are welcome to continue that pursuit after the year ends, for years or decades if it warrants, but you must remain fully focused on seeking the answer until the last minute of the 365th day. A minute shorter, the entire inheritance goes to your annoying and equally long lost cousin, Philly.
What is your question?
Because this prompt was posted sometime in the wee hours Eastern Daylight Time and I am a bit of an insomniac, I read it last night before I went to bed, so when I woke up, I was ready to dive in. Especially since I had already written a question on a similar topic (but without the money trope) for another group I belong to. That question asked:
What might happen if I approached art as a practice and let my true work arise instead of trying to force or control it?
Because my best work has always been a direct response to events in the lives of the people I care about, I figured responding to events in the world shouldn’t be any harder.
So I wrote some more, made lists of what matters to me and what types of expression appeal to me, and churned it all around until I came up with several versions of a related question that mentioned things like “finding the art within me,” and “inspiring a more beautiful and connected life and world,” and “unique, meaningful, and impactful art,” and then I had to go to work so I left it with the intention to come home, polish it up, and post it and that would be that so bring on Prompt 3!
Except that’s not what happened. Because it wasn’t right. It was missing the most important ingredient: the people I care about.
That’s the funny thing about dropping out of your life for a year–when you finally decide to crawl out of the hole you’ve been hibernating in, it might not still be there. Or it might, but seeing it with fresh eyes, you may find that it wasn’t really what you thought.
So I can sit here typing, telling you about my grand dreams and how this is the year I will finally get my act together and write that book, or publish that poetry collection, or make those quilts, but it wouldn’t be honest. Because the truth is, at this point, there are very few things I know are true, but one of them is:
If I had only one year left to live I wouldn’t spend it sitting alone in my room writing or sewing or worrying about how to change the world. I would spend every moment I could being with the people I love (ideally somewhere exotic and breathtakingly beautiful)..
So, where does that leave my question?
How can I reshape my life to better connect with the people who are most important to me?
Because without them, at least for me, the “work” doesn’t mean much.
It’s one of my favorite fantasies to believe that I can stay safe inside my little bubble, creating only what I want to create, when I want to create it, and that people will love all of it and and pay me great wads of money just to have a part of it in their lives, but that’s not how the world works. No artist can live in a vacuum without devolving into self-referential, repetitive work, running out of ideas, or just plain going mad. And the truth is, the act of creation, for many of us, doesn’t have a lot of meaning if it’s just about self gratification. For me, specifically, I want my creations to make a difference in people’s lives–to inspire them, to give them hope, to help them find what they need to then make a difference in the lives of others.
There is a quote by Rumi, that elegantly sums this up:
But that is only the what, not the who. Which brings us to today’s question.
The innovators who thrive advance their big, new ideas in part because they love their ideas to make a difference in other people’s lives. Do some research on the people who might benefit from your challenge. Look at the online conversations, on our private forum, or – better – have real-time conversations with customers or potential audience members.
Make notes on what feels broken or not-quite-right or downright frustrating in their worlds.
How does he feel when he’s not feeling so great? What one irritation keeps tripping her up?
Then make notes on this: What does she want – a different feeling, a problem solved, one step toward a yearning – that your project might surprisingly give her?
Go back to your burning question: How will your question invite them in?
Look back at your project brief. Did you define a problem in a way that speaks to their perceived wants?
Don’t over-think it for now. We’re taking notes and keeping momentum.
I have to admit, I balk at the word audience. It reeks to me of performance, as though I am putting on my beliefs like a costume that I can remove at any time and revert to who I really am. For me, and for probably all of us undertaking this challenge (and many more beyond), the whole point of this exercise, of the work that I do, is to fully embrace and share my true self whether it nets me customers or not. I want to focus not on giving people what I think they want, but on helping them find what they truly need. But semantics aside, Jeffrey is right. Art for art’s sake is not enough. It needs to be shared, and it’s important to know who will be best served and to share it with them.
While I do think that there are people who could be well served by my first question, and it’s associated project Hands in Motion, Mind at Rest–people who want to find ways to work their way through distractions, to make space for the big important work to flourish–I believe it is the book, 3T, that has the most to give:
To women who feel like the heroic stories of our past have stolen our deepest symbols and stripped us of our power and agency, and long to rediscover and reclaim them
To students and teachers of Medieval, Celtic, Catholic, and most particularly, their intersection in Arthurian literature, legend, and mythology, especially those with feminist-leanings
To anyone looking for ways to create new stories to replace those that don’t fit anymore
To survivors of bad relationships or trauma, those dealing with grief and loss, those who may struggle with “invisible” health problems, or others, especially women, who feel powerless and want to take their power back (perhaps even preppers)
To people of all genders who believe that climate change is real but that the paths we have half-heartedly travelled in our attempts to solve a problem that threatens us all are just not working
Seeing it written it all feels a bit broad, but I believe there is a great deal of overlap, and that these rough notes will begin to coalesce as I work on the book. As for the small sample set of people I’ve talked to about the book–they all said they were excited about the unique combination of history, symbolism, feminism, climate change, and memoir the work will include. What they want is a new path to healing, re-empowerment, and social/environmental change. And that is exactly what I am hoping to build.
Six weeks since my last post and in many ways I am still struggling to pick up the threads of my Quest that suddenly unravelled at the end of March. Sure, I have had moments of clarity, epiphany, and even a few bursts of creative energy, but on the whole I have continued to slog through my days for, now, more than three months. That’s more than long enough.
Enter #DareToExcel, the latest brainchild of wonder-tracker Jeffrey Davis, the man who brought us #Quest2015. His timing could not be more perfect. And so here we are at the start of a new month-long challenge and the point of transition from the first to the second half of the year–both beginning in the month I, myself, began–49 years ago next week.
Forty-nine years… I have to admit, that’s hard to wrap my mind around. I don’t feel 49, and I sure don’t feel almost 50. I barely feel older than 29. It’s funny how life sneaks up on us.
Back when I did turn 29, I totally freaked out. For some reason it’s the year before the big birthdays that get me, as though I suddenly realize that I only have one year left to accomplish everything I wanted to do before reaching whatever looming age is approaching. And usually I do check off the top thing(s) on my list. At 29 I completely changed careers and learned to belly dance. At 39, I bought my first house. And now, with 49 one week away, I find my mind turning toward the big dreams I’ve longed to accomplish before I turn 50, which in turn leads me back to the power of questions.
#DareToExcel Challenge – 1:
What burning question of possibility will influence what and how you create during the next 30 to 90 days?
Choose and write down or illustrate the burning question of possibility you commit to. Don’t be afraid of illustrating it with a little personal flourish. The best innovators and design thinkers make their work “their own.” So own this question.
Write it on a card. Print it out on a poster of your own making. Make it attractive to your creative mind of action so that every day this month you will Rise to Excel and live this question.
Of course I never seem to be able to answer with just one question, and this prompt is no exception. Two questions bolted into my head in rapid succession–one focused on the big picture, and another on a specific project.
What if I (we) stop planning, analyzing, over-thinking, worrying, and controlling (or at least trying to control) and instead just focus on making?
This is a theme that has come up for me repeatedly throughout both Quest 2015 and my life. I am a thinker, a dreamer, a planner, sometimes even an obsessor, often to the detriment of actually getting things done. For the next 30 to 90 days, I plan to switch that up. To start with the making, and save the thinking for once I have actual work to think about. Consider it a NaNoWriMo approach to the rest of my creative life–maybe even my entire life. Starting today, I will spend my limited time and energy on word counts and stitch counts and completed action counts. At the end of the challenge, I’ll tally everything I did and decide whether I have enough to start building with or I need to keep my head down and my hands busy a little (or a lot) longer.
Which brings us to the second question:
What if the story is wrong?
A couple of weeks ago I posted the following to the Quest group during our weekly howl-out:
About an hour ago while I was washing dishes, a book idea came to me. I think this might just be the one.
The book (code named 3T) centers around a medieval tale, one that I have been deeply drawn to since the first time I encountered it and whose main character has shown up stories I’ve written, and who I have met the embodiment of, over and over again in my life. In some ways, that story has helped define who I am and how I relate to other people and to the world.
But what if that story is wrong? Because I am beginning to believe that it is. And the transformation of that wrong story into the right story will be the work of the book.
So here here they are, the first a dare, and the second, the existential question that has already started to break everything open. The how, and the what.
And just in case you were wondering, yes, it even includes the apocalypse.
In times of change it can be easy to blame whatever life event caused that change for knocking us off path–which is exactly what I’ve been doing since the end of March. If only things had stayed the same, I tell myself, I wouldn’t have needed to put everything on hold. Imagine how much farther along I’d be by now. But of course, that’s just an excuse. Because the truth is, I was already floundering. Had been for months. Sure, I talked a good game, especially here on this blog, but some deep part of me knew that something was wrong.
The beautiful thing about a life coming completely undone, is that it forces us to look at every part of everything we do–not to figure out where everything went sideways, but to figure out which projects, people, passions are worth carrying forward into the new life that begins when each old one ends.
Some epiphanies come like a bolt of lightning out of the blue. Others take a village. My clarity arrived through the words and work of others–specifically fellow Questers Marisa Goudy, Brenna Layne, and a Northern Indian man named Jadav “Molai” Payeng. Through them I’ve realized that it’s not what I’ve been doing that’s off, it’s how.
Of course there have been signs–let’s call them breadcrumbs–along the way. Small reminders that where I was wasn’t where I was supposed to be. That I was off course and needed to find my way home. And lately, those reminders have been getting larger. And louder.
Marisa’s post was the one that finally broke through, completing the arrow begun by the other two–pointing me back in the right direction.
When every day you spend as an entrepreneur is measured against some dream of growing beyond yourself when all you really want to do is be who you are, you’re poisoning yourself. — Marisa Goudy
In my case it wasn’t just poisoning myself, it was crippling my work. I had been trying to force my passions into an entrepreneurial mold for years now–years filled with fits and starts, with derailments and roadblocks, with soul searching and second guessing, all because that mold didn’t fit.
The goal of the entrepreneur is to sell out for a lot of money, or to build a long-term profit machine that is steady, stable, and not particularly risky to run. — Seth Godin
Risks make the artist. And I found myself so focused on how to streamline and monetize that is sucked the joy out of the most important part of being an artist–making wild, courageous, meaningful art.
Which pointed me back to Brenna’s post which is outwardly about ambition, but inwardly speaks to why we bother doing anything as insane as creating art in the first place.
But I am ambitious. I want to make a living as a novelist. This is a ridiculously ambitious goal, but it doesn’t stop there. I don’t want to hit the NYT Bestseller List so much as I want to make a difference. I want to write stories that crack people open, that make them laugh-cry, that offer up the moments of transcendence that the best stories have given me. Books saved my life. I want to pay it forward. — Brenna Layne
The point of creation, at least for me, was never about earning a sizable income and gaining notoriety. It was about exactly what Brenna describes–the moments of transcendence that can crack people open in the best and most life-changing ways, the way others have done for me.
Creating work like that doesn’t happen up against a deadline or when driven by revenue goals. It bubbles up from the deep well inside, sometimes after decades of allowing it to rest while it builds effervescence, and sometimes after a lifetime of tiny, daily steps which may have begun with a small glimmer of an idea that built itself into a life’s work.
Which led me back, once again, this time to an article about Majuli islander, Jadav Payeng, who 30 years ago started planting seeds along a barren stretch of beach. Through his dedicated work, it has since grown into a jungle.
Reading the article, watching the film I find myself wondering, like the filmmaker, “what 10 Payengs, or 100, or 1000 Payengs could do.” And more importantly, how can I awaken my own inner Payeng.
One tiny positive act a day, repeated with dedication and persistence, can change everything–be it words or art or trees.
And so from this unexpected clean slate, I will refocus my attention on recognizing and cultivating the one small thing I have to give, with the reminders of those times in the past when I have felt most fully awake, alive, and radiant with purpose to guide me.
Crack open the shell you have
built for yourself.
Follow the path the birds
Not the sodden track
of mildewed bread.
It’s the trail of seeds
scattered by beaks.
Their tiny green sprouts will
show you the way.
Have you ever gone on a trip only to return and feel like you may never catch up? That’s where I am right now, having just returned from a week in California to attend the fifth annual FOGcon spec fiction writers’ conference. The event itself only took up three of those days, but since I had to get on a plane anyway, I decided to pad my trip with a little extra time to see family and friends. Which was great, but a bit of a whirlwind. And the con? It turned out to be one of those experiences that has incited me to question everything. To review, rethink, re-imagine. And not just the specific projects, but my whole direction, my mission, what I want to achieve and how I go about achieving it.
In addition to that game changer (which I hope to post about soon, either here or on my apocalypse blog), my work schedule is about to change dramatically–evolving from something approximating 1.5 days per week plus intermittent freelance work, to 5 days per week, likely starting at the end of the month. After so many years drifting around employment, it’s going to be a serious adjustment. Then again, I have hopes that a more rigorous schedule might help me better manage my personal work time as well. But either way, a girl’s gotta pay her rent. And between now and then, I will be working hard to get my space, tasks, and time streamlined and organized, and revisiting my post about which things I need to #stop. Otherwise, I could be looking at a pretty rough transition.
Among the things that need catching up on: Quest posts.
#LiveTheQuest question 9: What indicators of growth can you celebrate? #celebrations
Look back on your second month as well as at your reflections with prompt 5, #growth. What small indicators can you identify and celebrate that you have changed something positively in Month 2 or that you are moving the direction you need? For instance, are you acting differently? Are you thinking differently? Are you speaking about yourself as a business artist and your best work differently?
Probably the most important growth indicator has been giving up the Big Picture for Lent. I have always struggled with the project equivalent of my eyes being too big for my stomach. I load my plate with everything it can hold and then some, all the while envisioning the even more extravagant feasts I will create in my future. But the truth is, I can’t even decide which delicacy to put in my mouth first, so I try a bite here and another one there, until I’m too full and queasy to think about cooking ever again.
Having taken a step back from that vicious cycle, I’ve noticed a couple of important things. It isn’t just about how much I load onto my plate, it’s what. It’s easy to be lured by sweets, but they don’t work for the long (or in my case even the short) haul. To help counteract that, in part inspired by a recent post by Saundra Goldman, I have started focusing again on questions, the most important of which has become:
What do you most want to build?
Will this help you build it?
These two questions work for pretty much everything, from what I eat and how much I sleep, to which books, projects, and other activities deserve my time. Some items have easy answers. Too much sugar, bad television, and/or excess social media not only won’t help me build anything, they will pretty much unbuild everything.
But other things aren’t so clear. And that’s because the answer to the first question hasn’t been so clear. And now that FOGcon has basically thrown a big fat Tower card onto the table, it’s even less so… except that, maybe, it’s not. Because there is nothing quite like having preconceived notions blown apart to reveal in stark relief, the inviolable things that remain standing. The foundation, of course… the west wall upon which I scribble incantations in invisible ink that only reveals itself when illuminated by a setting equinox sun… the outline of a once hidden box where years ago I buried my heart to keep it safe from harm…
Fire reveals the shape of things. What remains after we sift through the ash becomes the bones of a new beginning. Tonight the sifting begins. Soon after, I will draft a stronger plan on the foundation of the old. Which leads us to the next Quest prompt:
#LiveTheQuest question 10: How will you “publish” your project? #publish
Look back on your #burningquestion and #oneproject. How are you or could you get this project “out” into the hands and hearts of the people who ache for it? How will you publish it?
Inspiration from existing works of literature, poetry, and art
And dreaming my way through our world’s uncertain future
Because my path lies not in walking a straight or winding road, but in building a home at the place my roads converge.
A few posts later, I decided this project would take the form of a quilt. And I may still make that quilt. But re-reading what I wrote about my questions and projects in light of #publishing, I realized that even before this quest started I had begun creating a work that incorporates all of these things, as well as a companion burning question about prepping for the best instead of the worst. This is already out there in front of the world–online, on Facebook, on Pinterest, and on my business cards. It’s my Apocalypse Garden–my home at the place where the roads converge. My own little Pantano Realty building (for those of you familiar with my hometown).
As for what impact my FOGcon experience may have on my little garden, that remains to be seen–perhaps a new tagline, a new posting schedule, improved content and social media plans–but the structure appears to be sound.
What one small project can you define to start creating into your burning question?
The thing is, that burning question (or rather the spiral of questions) that lead to what is essentially: “What if I existing art could help inspire the art to come, and what if together they could heal our communities, our world, and ourselves?” lead to another important question thread still burning:
What if I just make art and write as inspiration and daily practice move me instead of focusing on how to turn it into a business? What if I follow the path of fun and joy? Read the books I want to read, make the art I want to make, take the classes I want to take? Isn’t it possible, maybe even probable, that the rest will arise from there and my path will become clear?
And then to yet another, as I considered how my Apocalypse Garden project fits in with my path as a Poet | Artist | Optimist:
What if instead of preparing for the worst, I prepared for the best?
And sure, I could easily come up with a project that would fit each one, but what if I combined all three questions into one:
What if focusing on mining and making art instead of building a business gave me the freedom to find my own voice–the one that could eventually support my best work and my best life? And what might that look like?
Experimentation and play. Taking classes. Reading. Going to movies and galleries. Exposing myself to a broader range of thoughts and ideas. Going on Artist Dates, to conferences and lectures. Collaborating with other artists. Getting out of town with a sketchbook and camera. Whatever it takes to keep creativity awake and alive and whatever it takes to set aside daily time and space for creation. To actually create–a little bit every day, and a more than a little bit on some of those days. Which sounds exciting, but it’s not a small project. And then I realized that some of my greatest struggles for direction come from feeling like I have to choose–between writing and quilting and photography, between living life and preparing for the apocalypse, between poetry, novels, memoir, and my deep love of speculative fiction. Which brought me not just to an answer to my small project question, but to my biggest burning question of all:
What if instead of having to choose, I could combine the things I love?
And so, my small project will be to create an object of art that incorporates:
Inspiration from existing works of literature, poetry, and art
And dreaming my way through our world’s uncertain future
Because I am beginning to believe that my path lies not in walking a straight or winding road, but in building a home at the place my roads converge.