Last week I sloughed off my normal life and immersed myself in an intensive workshop at BATS Improv.
We spent three and a half days playing games, sharing true stories, making stories up, and learning to do all of it as effortlessly as possible.
(As always, I was there wearing my student hat, and also madly taking notes wearing my teacher hat, collecting ideas for my next playshop!)
On Sunday, during a discussion about how to handle potentially sticky interactions with audience members, the teachers, Rebecca and William, shared a story that happened years ago, when the two of them were performing in an improv show called This Is Your Life, in which they brought a volunteer up from the audience to (you guessed it) interview about her life.
Rebecca found out that the volunteer interviewee was a mother of two, and after the woman had shared quite a bit about her daughter, Rebecca asked her about her son. There was a pause, and tears welled up in the woman’s eyes.
“My son died six months ago,” she croaked out.
The audience let out a sympathetic gasp, followed by a very loud silence. Womp. The energy in the theater dropped with a thud.
For an improviser onstage, this is rather a nightmare scenario. In the pressure of the spotlight, one might be tempted to somehow brush it all under a rug, move on, maybe (egad) even make a joke out of it. Thankfully, Rebecca did nothing of the sort.
Instead, she reached for a box of tissues sitting on the table nearby, pulled a tissue out for herself, then handed one to the woman. “I’m so sorry,” she said. “Do you want to talk about him?”
“No, I don’t,” said the woman. Then she proceeded to talk about nothing but her son for the next twenty minutes. (Isn’t that so often how it happens?)
A horribly uncomfortable moment was transformed into a beautiful one, and it didn’t stop there. The volunteer interviewee came back to every BATS show that week, and even after moving to another state with her husband, she still attends BATS shows whenever she’s in San Francisco.
What Rebecca and William only learned later, though, was that this uncomfortable moment onstage gave the woman her life back.
It turns out that she was an artist, but had been unable to paint since the death of her son. Rebecca’s question during that improv show was the catalyst that finally allowed this woman to start processing her grief, and enabled her to get back to painting.
Art gave this woman her art back.
Starting Again After a Loss
It’s serendipitous that I heard Rebecca’s story last week, because I recently received two emails in the span of four days, each addressing the issue of how loss and grief affect our ability to create. With the permission of the sendees, today’s Question Time post today is inspired by their notes.
Dear Ms. Dinwiddie,
I have read your website with great enjoyment. I hope it is alright to ask a question and I do understand if you are unable or unwilling to answer.
You have mentioned that you have had large blocks of time, in years, when you haven’t been able to create. May I please ask what you did that enabled you to go back to creating?
I have read your blog from May 3, 2013, “How to Get Out of a Creative Rut” and I think what I’m after is what happened before that to enable you to start again. Self-permission? Self-acceptance? What happened to allow you to let go and start again?
I have been a bit lost and unable to sustain any creative idea since my remaining parent passed away four years ago. I am 54 years old.
Thanks so much for your time and an excellent website.
My biggest challenge is picking myself up and starting over again. I facilitate journal groups for women, but after my father died three years ago I felt the wind fall from the sails. I am 71 years young, but it is clear as I rise from this self-imposed fog of grief and loss that I am finally ready to move on.
But how (one step at a time?) and to where? Ah, that’s bigger question.
The key word here may be sustain. I find that my creative energy goes in spurts and stops, has a difficult time digging in to focus.
Dear Linda and Susan,
First, let me say how sorry I am for your losses. It is not at all surprising that you’ve felt lost and unable to focus. Grief does that.
My own lengthy periods of creative paralysis were not initiated by grieving a death, so I can’t speak to your loss from an equivalent experience of my own. What I do know about grief, though, is that each of us has our own process and timeline. Processing a loss cannot be rushed.
That said, Rebecca’s story lends strength to the theory that telling your story, letting it out, is key to clearing the blockage that grief can put on our lives. I’m a big believer in the power of sounding boards, whether in the form of a therapist, a trusted friend, or a theater audience! I hope you each have a set of empathetic ears you can turn to — this may be the biggest healer of all.
Self-Awareness & Self-Compassion
Meanwhile, since both of you have expressed a desire and a sense of readiness to get back to creating, it sounds like you’ve moved past the frozen numbness of the early stages of grief. Noticing the desire is an important step! In fact, it’s the first half of my Golden Formula — self-awareness + self-compassion = the key to everything good — hooray for self-awareness!
The second half of the Golden Formula, the self-compassion piece, is equally important here. You have the awareness that you want to start creating again, and the feelings that go along with wanting something and not having it yet: perhaps frustration, sadness, longing. If you’re like me, you might even feel some anger and disgust at yourself for not getting on with it already.
This is where you get to practice mindful self-compassion: notice all those feelings, even the bad ones, and remind yourself that feelings like these do not mean there’s something wrong with you; they mean you’re human.
Our tendency is so often to react to bad feelings with more of the same: “I’m so frustrated with myself. And now I’m disgusted with myself for being frustrated with myself! BAD MELISSA! BAD! What the hooey is wrong with you?? You’ll never amount to anything!”
You’ve probably already experienced how unhelpful and counter-productive this is, so why not try the opposite tactic?
Dr. Kristin Neff, author of Self-Compassion: Stop Beating Yourself Up and Leave Insecurity Behind, offers this mantra for anytime you notice yourself feeling badly about anything:
This is a moment of suffering.
Suffering is part of life.
May I be kind to myself in this moment.
May I give myself the compassion I need.
With this approach, the ranty monologue above can transform into a kind of dialogue:
“I’m so frustrated with myself.”
“Oh, sweetheart, I know you’re frustrated. This is a moment of suffering, dear one.”
“But I’m just disgusted with myself!”
“Yes, my beloved, I feel how painful that is. I’m going to wrap you in my arms and hold you. You deserve nothing but kindness and love.”
With each day that passes, I become more and more convinced that self-awareness and self-compassion truly are the key to everything.
Meanwhile, let’s talk about sustaining focus.
I hear you both that you want to be able to sustain your creative ideas and focus for longer than you currently feel able. Again, the Golden Formula comes in handy here.
You can use your self-awareness to ask: What are you feeling when you find it hard to focus? Where do you feel it — your gut? Your heart? Your head? Your toes? What impedes your focus? What helps it?
Then, whatever your answers are, how can you be kind and compassionate to yourself? It may be that short periods of focus are simply part of your healing process, so can you allow yourself to heal, while noticing what helps you sustain your focus for longer?
Permission & Acceptance
Linda asks what happened that enabled me to start again after being so blocked up, and yes, self-permission and self-acceptance were a big part of it. After all, nothing is possible if we don’t give ourselves permission. And unless we allow our creative efforts to be what they are — even if we don’t like what we create — our tender creative spirits will stay locked up in an attempt to keep us safe.
Now I’ll ask you whether you’ve been denying yourself permission.
It’s not at all unusual for a survivor to deny herself the good life within her grasp. “How can I possibly allow myself to be joyful,” the thinking goes, “when others are suffering, or gone?”
This impulse comes from a good-hearted place, but it’s misguided and unhelpful. Piling your suffering on top of the already existing suffering doesn’t cancel it out; it only creates more suffering. The way to counteract the pain of suffering is to shine your light as brightly as you can, to show yourself and others the goodness that’s possible.
As I’ve written elsewhere, in my years on the planet I have come to the following conclusion:
Creating more suffering in the world by stifling my own joy does not make the world a better place. (Click to tweet this.)
Even though you may not be saving starving children on the other side of the planet, pursuing happiness in a way that doesn’t hurt anyone else is making one tiny part of the world better. (That part being YOU!)
And making one tiny part of the world better creates ripples that affect a much bigger part of the world.
Giving yourself permission to let go and start again could even inspire others to do the same — we just never know how what we do will touch people.
We Are All Always Starting Again
As for how, and to where, this is the question every one of us asks, whether we’re mourning or not. In some way, we are all starting again, whether it’s taking tentative steps toward creating after a long hiatus, or pulling out the 300th new canvas in as many days, or editing that screenplay you now realize isn’t done after all.
Until we learn to fly, one step at a time is all we can ever take. It never seems like it will get us anywhere, but surprisingly, it’s the only thing that ever does.
I think it is the fate of virtually all creatives to be always dissatisfied, whether with the size or intensity of our efforts or the resulting product, but it is this “queer divine dissatisfaction,” as Martha Graham put it so eloquently, “a blessed unrest that keeps us marching and makes us more alive than the others.”
You are alive. Keep marching, step by tiny step, and the path will reveal itself.
I’m cheering you on.
PS — Pssst! Know someone who might benefit from seeing this today? Pass it on!