Small Conceits

Musings. Stories. Poems.

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Day 3: The 12 Days of Discovery

The Creative and the Productive

These posts are taking forever to produce! I grumbled to myself in frustration. I’m lagging behind by several days now. My 12 Days might as well be 20.

Well, Self huffed back, that’s because you’re creating, not simply producing.

Well played, Self. Well played.

“Make it pretty”

It’s become disturbingly easy for me to confuse creativity with production. My day-to-day activities for almost two decades have been conducted in environments where creativity is under-valued — or not valued at all. Creativity, in these environments, equates to “making it pretty” (for the visual designers I’ve worked with or (for writers like myself) “making it sound good.” In each instance, the expectation is not creativity but a kind of decoration. Often we are asked to take some piece of dreck produced by someone else and fix it up so that it won’t embarrass anybody. And that, frankly, is generally the best we can do.

The situation — and the attitudes that form it — is frustrating for a number of reasons. First, it completely misses the communicative impact of what we do. “Pretty” isn’t just color or form or shape or size — it’s a delicate balance of all them, which moves people to feel and think and, ultimately, do something based on those feelings and thoughts. In fact, “pretty” isn’t even the point. Persuasion is, even if whatever it is we are “prettying up” isn’t perceived as being persuasive. Everything we design or write is persuading someone to do something:

  • believe we are credible
  • get excited about our ideas
  • want to hire us
  • be a better person

Equally irritating is that the idea that creative people are there to “make it pretty” dismisses us as educated professionals, reducing us to production adjuncts armed with crayons and thesauruses, ready to leap cheerfully to spiff up that presentation or add a bit of pizzazz to that web page headline. We’re reduced to afterthoughts, the “finishing touch” on a project, rather than an equal partner with professional knowledge having an important bearing on its outcomes. The fact of the matter is that, because we understand communication and persuasion, we can make things that work well work even better. And we can motivate people to do things they might not otherwise find appealing. And we can make things easier to use. And we can construct our message or our design so that it works smoothly with the medium that delivers it.

“Pretty” is the least of our concerns — albeit, still a concern because we value our art, take pride in our professions. What we do requires more than adding a splash of color here or a clever turn of phrase there. While what we do might, for many of us, be a labor of love, it’s still a labor.

“It needs to be creative — fast!”

However, because our work is seen as just the frosting on the cake, it’s also seen as easy to produce. As such, it’s afforded little time on the project schedule, which derails the creative process — you know, that time we waste “playing around” — and reduces it to mere execution. And, by golly, we need to execute the requested masterpieces on a tight deadline.

The problem is that creativity requires what we “creatives” are often not afforded — or even perceived as needing: the time to think, the freedom to try things, and the permission to fail. Wait, let me bullet that out for you so you can really drink those three things in:

  • time to think
  • freedom to try things
  • permission to fail

Where software design and production, for instance, assumes iterative passes and multiple forms and rounds of testing, visual design and copy-writing are expected to just flow out of the creator. Perfectly. The first time. (OK, maybe with a slight tweak or two, after getting feedback from the client or requester.) For this reason, creativity shouldn’t take much time. And if it does, the designer or writer is obviously either lacking talent/skill or is “overthinking it.”

Thinking (our first bullet) is, after all, not strictly “productive.” Goodness knows you don’t want to be caught doing too much of it, especially if it’s accompanied by — *gasp!* — research. I mean, what could a designer possibly have to think about or research? They’re creating, for pete’s sake, which means it’s just sort of…coming out of them.

Trying things (our second bullet) is ok if you are a techie or a scientist or someone with a “real” degree or occupation. But then we call it “iterating” or a “release schedule” or “experimenting,” which gives it validity and weight. Noodling around with pencils and markers, trying to get the phrasing right or stretching the limits of shape and color is a waste of time.

And, naturally, those science-y folks are allowed to fail sometimes (final bullet), as long as they cheerily chirp, “Well, back to the drawing board!” and head off to erase the second blackboard from the right or add something a little more stable to that compound they were creating or paste in that bit of code they missed on their first pass.

Because, you know, those folks have real jobs.

Production value

Production — putting words or imagery on screen or paper as a final, consumable product — has often been the only part of the process valued by most of the companies I’ve worked for. And it is, in fact, a valuable part of the process. What we finally produce is what gets delivered, approved, paid for. But it’s not the only part of the process, and even mentioning process in relationship to creative work inspires eye-rolling, smirks, or both on the part of the people who don’t see past the pretty. The problem is the disparity in our definition of production for, say, programmers versus the one we use for graphic designers. For the former, it includes (even assumes) time to think/research, try different approaches, and even fail. For creatives, however, scoping and planning the work generally starts with production and cuts out the most vital (in the richest sense of the word, meaning alive) part of the creative process: the thinking, experimenting, and failing. We force our designers to try to hit the mark by producing a single design concept. We expect our writers to delight with the first draft of their copy.

If they fail to do that, they are deemed incompetent.

 Resistance isn’t futile — but it’s difficult

As I’ve been unpacking this “if it’s not easy, you must not be good at it” attitude, I’ve realized how many parts of my life it’s touched. I often find myself firing off answers to questions quickly, often in the form of additional questions so I have a little time to think about what’s really being asked of me. I cope by churning out rough drafts so I can use the time I’m waiting for feedback to try new and different approaches to my next draft, to which I’ll add the feedback before sending it out. Behind the scenes I whiteboard and sketch and scrawl on scraps of paper before committing my writing to the computer, discarding my failures before anyone sees them and more carefully crafting iteration after iteration until I find the intersection of satisfying my professional pride and satisfying my client — wherever that’s possible.

Still, I feel the pressure of production, the expectation that perfection shouldn’t take all that long because I’m “only writing.” Because, after all, any fool can type words into a laptop.

(This rant required 4 drafts on the computer and one on paper, 3 complete reorganizations, 7 trips to, 2 trips to, 2 Advils, 6 different headlines, 5 different subheadings, two rewrites of the synopsis for sharing, and 14 hours over the course of 8 days to write. In case you wondered.)


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Day 8: 12 Days of Discovery

Marquin, the Rebel Poet

Many of us have trouble valuing what we do and the faint traces of ourselves we leave on the other lives we touch on our journeys. As I’ve sorted through the voluminous stacks and files of paper that have clogged my office for years, I’ve found various notes and cards that have filled me with humility, tinged with a kind of wonder. Why would something so small mean so much to this person? I ask myself again and again. Who is this person they see in such a light?

And, then, I found an echo of my own voice from long ago, in response to one of those notes. Because it’s so present, I’m publishing this day’s discovery out of sequence.


I was once a teacher, a graduate assistant for more than six years, responsible for helping freshmen and sophomores learn to write in the university setting. Many of my students had entered higher education as a gamble. Their grades weren’t high enough for regular admission, so many of the classes they took were essentially remedial classes. One of the classes I taught was a remedial writing course. I learned a lot about myself, about teaching, and about life in general.

Going through the files that have accumulated over time, I found a response  I wrote to an email a former student sent me several years after he graduated from college. I don’t remember many specifics about Marquin, but I do know was a self-proclaimed rebel. And I do remember that, despite his initial distrust of us all, he emerged a leader in class, asking his fellow students insightful questions and encouraging them to answer honestly. He was a big fan of Tupaq Shakur, as well, and although I never warmed to the music, Marquin’s explanations of the sources of Tupaq’s lyrics opened up a whole new understanding of some of the students who took my classes.

In his email, I remember, Marquin thanked me for inspiring him to become a teacher. He sent a poem along with his note. His email and poem have long been lost — to a faulty hard drive, if memory serves. I’m not sure how my response to him survived, but I’m glad it did. Because it reminded me that, no matter what I’ve ever given, I’ve always received so much more  in return. Marquin, like so many people who have passed briefly through my life, gave me a window into an otherwise foreign experience and made me think differently about the way things work.

Maybe, it’s like Tupac said:

I’m not saying I’m gonna change the world, but I guarantee that I will spark the brain that will change the world.

In any case, here is my answer to Marquin — email for email and poem for poem. It’s a small peek into the heart of a woman in her early 30s, struggling to understand what was being asked of her and where its edges rubbed against other ways of thinking and being in the world. And, perhaps, also finding there were some things she couldn’t know until she’d written them.



Dear Marquin,

I figured that if you had the courage to write a poem to me to tell me how you felt about school and about life and learning, I could find the courage to write one back to you to tell you how I feel about students like you.

It isn’t easy teaching rebels, you know. Teachers like me want to “help” you by diagnosing your writing problems and forcing you to fit the forms that are acceptable in an academic institution. We want to give you formulas for success, but sometimes we forget the politics that those formulas privilege. We forget about the other voices that could be heard, if only we would silence our own educations long enough to hear them.

Not long ago, I decided that the best service I could give to my students was to make them more confident in their writing. I decided to try to give them strategies that would help them help themselves, ways of making decisions for themselves so that they would not need to rely on formulas to get them through school, but on their own minds, on their abilities to make decisions about their writing and thinking. It isn’t that the formulas are unimportant; it’s just that they are of secondary importance to real thinking and learning.

It’s not that I don’t struggle with myself — frequently — over this decision. I often worry about whether or not I have done you any service at all by giving you the kinds of freedom I give you as students. I woner just how many voices I should listen to. I agonize over whether or not confidence counts as much as being able to write in the ways the university expects. Always, I return to my original stance: Thinking and learning are primary; I must teach you how to learn and to think about your own writing. And that, I think, is what I do best.

That’s why I can make some room for the rebels, Marquin. I know that you walked out of my class a little more aware of things like audience and form — and even grammar — than you were when you first crossed its threshold. And I am a little ore aware of the politics of my teaching. It isn’t easy teaching rebels. So I try to let them teach me. And you have.

Good luck in your future endeavors, Marquin. I think that the part of yourself that you hold to yourself is very important. Thank you for trusting me enough to give me a peek at it.

Rebels and Poets

for Marquin: You are not as fortunate in your teachers as we are in you.

True to their natures,
they turn up unexpected
and largely uncooperative,
overturning our well-considered plans,
capsizing our lessons and forms and figures,
leaving us awash in our frustration with them
or leaving us crawling onto some safe, solid shore
of approved knowledge — clawing for assurances
at our books and degrees and certifications,
the things that comfortably tell us who we are.

They, though, need no such confirmations;
they have created themselves
out of the images they find around them,
and they will fit no mold we make for them.
They reject our expectations,
our lectures, our notes, our diagnoses,
our aspirations for them — or
for the someone we think they should be.
They defy our categories.
They defend their boundaries.

And we should count ourselves blessed
when we encounter them.
If we can find the courage
to unclench our own fists long enough
to take the hands they sometimes offer,
we will learn the lessons they have to teach us.
If we can find the integrity
to listen to the words and rhythms we foolishly seek to tame,
with open ears and willing hearts,
we will hear the freshness of their perspectives
and learn to let go of ourselves for a moment.

We should, in fact, count ourselves teachers
only when we can find the humility to remember:
Rebels are also often our finest poets.

— DD, 2000


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Public Service Announcement:

Binge-watching Jessica Jones on Netflix until 2:00 a.m. is not conducive to establishing and defending routines.

That is all.


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Day 2: The 12 Days of Discovery

The Rituals that Feed Me

From my 12 Days journal:

The point is that I could do a lot better with a little self-care… Creating a couple of daily rituals would be a simple place to start. Nothing profound. Nothing that can’t be done alone, without adult supervision. But I need to put myself at the top of my list. Heck, I just need to place myself somewhere ON my list!

Rituals are different from routines. They are meaningful routine behaviors. Where routines keep us organized and focused, rituals keep us fed. In other words, rituals (at least for me) constitute a kind of regular self-care-in-practice.

As I’ve slowed down over the past couple of days, I’ve realized that the two kinds of rituals most lacking in my life right now are those that bring me clarity and those that bring me calm.

Rituals for clarity

Rituals can bring clarity to our lives and ground us. They can help us remove the clutter from our minds and help us focus. Morning pages, as popularized in Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way, are a ritual of that sort. First on the list of “basic tools” for awakening creativity, morning pages are “three pages of longhand writing, strictly stream-of-consciousness.” These handwritten journal entries are a brain dump, first thing in the morning, and they can be about anything or nothing at all: the dream you had last night; a dream you have for the future; a nagging fear; the thing that one person who sits next to you at the office does that nearly drives you mad. Doesn’t matter. The point is to just keep writing, even if it means repeating a phrase over and over until you get unstuck. No stopping. No composing/editing/perfecting. No inner critic. (Mine has a loud voice and stinky breath, so she’s difficult to ignore. Ignoring her takes practice.)

After reading an article in The Elephant Journal about them, I decided to give morning pages another go. I’ve been attempting them as a discipline for decades, with varying degrees of success. I decided to approach them as a ritual, rather than a discipline, and it’s made all the difference in my perception of their value. I’ve been at it for less than two weeks now, but I’ve already noticed a difference in my mental state. Because I get all that mental jabbering out onto the page before I even finish my first cup of tea, I’m not listening to it throughout the rest of my day.

On some mornings, I find I am priming my creative pump. Several of my jottings have included working out a design problem or a turn of phrase I’d been struggling with. My subconscious mind had been chewing on it all night and was ready to produce results, if only I moved a pen across the page. Oh, it’s not that my pages revealed the end result — but they moved me far enough down the path to seeing it that the solution would form more quickly and fully later in the day.

On other mornings, I’ve found myself gleaning insights into my own personality and perspectives. These little “Aha!” moments are some of my favorites, as they often articulate vague feelings or help me discover or uncover attitudes underlying what are often baffling behaviors. Bringing them into the light and giving them shape provides the impetus for change.

I’ve also found that not doing my morning pages has an effect. I skipped a day last week, and I felt out-of-sorts and cranky all morning. I made sure I picked the pages up the next morning and have been faithful ever since.

Rituals for calm

Over the years, some of my routines have tipped over into rituals because they begin to take on a spiritual aspect. Yoga, for instance, went from fitness routine to spiritual ritual as my focus shifted away from merely moving and stretching my body to focusing on how breath joined body and mind and expanded my awareness and awakeness. (I have a degree in English, which is kind of a license to make up words. Go with “awakeness,” ok? Way better than “awakitude.”)  Yoga requires me to focus on my body: balance, tightness, any strain that occurs. Breathing properly as I move helps me support the movement, keep it safe. The overall effect is one of paying attention, really listening to and being aware of my body and breath.

I’ve found that, during yoga practice, my attention becomes so acutely focused that things I’ve not noticed before come to the surface of my awareness. Some of them are physical (“Huh. Where did that little twinge come from?”), and some of them are emotional (“Wow, that asana really opens up my chest and makes my heart feel light!”). When I’m done — depending on the focus of that day’s practice — I usually feel energized, centered, and calm. I move into my day more relaxed and through it more able to let things roll off my shoulders.

I’ve been practicing yoga off-and-on for almost two decades. As with all of my routines and rituals, I’m too easily thrown off-track. I am, however, determined to work it back into my routine and grow it back into a self-care ritual.

Yoga is, for me, a kind of moving meditation. Over the past several weeks, I’ve also been working on various methods of sitting meditation, treating them as a night-time ritual, before I go to bed. I sleep better and wake up more refreshed when I meditate the night before. Because meditation comes with no space requirements, I can do it anywhere, at any time. I just need to tune into my breathing, expand my awareness, and let go.

Because it’s that simple. Even if it’s not that easy. They call these things “practices” for a reason, you know.

Feeding my center

Incorporating a few key rituals into my life has started me on the path to feeding my center, getting me grounded, opening me up to creativity and new ideas. One thing that has become clear to me: Where routines need to be somewhat flexible and adaptable to life’s unexpected upheavals and demands, rituals should be sacrosanct. That’s a heavy burden to place on an activity, but here’s the thing: The importance I place on rituals is the importance I place on my own well-being. If my rituals are not important, what I am telling myself is that I am not important. And I’ve discovered that this attitude doesn’t serve me well on any level.


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Day 1: The 12 Days of Discovery

Routines and Reclamation

I get up and let Bodhi outside, pausing in the kitchen to remove his food from the fridge to warm up a little so he doesn’t get stomach cramps when he eats it. I start boiling some water for tea as I head to the living room, trying to stay mindful of the agate chimes I’ve hung in one of the windows so that they ring prettily when I open the blinds. It’s my way of greeting the day — when I can remember to stay present.

I sit for a moment to write my three pages, a morning ritual from long ago that I’ve been trying this past week to re-establish. I’m interrupted by text messages and searching for a notebook to make lists of things I want to accomplish and am worried about forgetting. I make breakfast for myself and feed Bodhi. I fuss a little with the dishes, search for a pen to keep at the ready with my 12 Days journal, make another cup of tea, survey my first task for the week, move a couple of boxes around, find clean clothes to wear, and sit down again at the table.

I’ve written exactly one and a half pages. It’s nearly noon.

Christmas Eve was the first of my 12 Days of Discovery, and while my productivity wasn’t what I’d have liked, my reflections were eye-opening to me. I’ve long been frustrated (and foiled) by my aimless puttering and inability to focus, and the day’s discoveries helped me uncover a few insights into what I’m doing and why.

The routines that free us

When I looked up at noon and realized I’d not accomplished anything because I’d spent my time wandering aimlessly from task to task and generally puttering around the house, a tiny thrill of anxiety ran up my spine. A familiar, self-critical little voice started squeaking in the back of my brain:

You’ve wasted half a day! This is what you always do when you have time off. You sink into it and end up accomplishing nothing! Then you feel frustrated and guilty and angry with yourself. And you wonder why you feel so stuck…

Instead of spiraling deeper into the anxiety (my usual course), I took a deep breath and reminded myself that, while “accomplishing things” is a necessary part of them, the point of these 12 days is self-reflection. So, as I knuckled down and started working on one of the tasks I set for myself this week — thereby quieting my inner critic — I reflected on the dynamic that set off my anxiety.

One of my ruminations involved the differences among discipline, routines, and schedules. I’ve always resisted being too structured, believing that structure — especially in the form of routines and schedules — sucks the freedom out of my life. The truth is that having a routine might help me carve out free time in a more intentional and fulfilling way. Routines, you see, would allow me to focus activities on times of day where they are either necessary or optimal.

For instance, I know I am at my most creative first thing in the morning. Yet, as so many people do, I waste that creative time checking and responding to email — partly because it’s expected of me and partly because people tend to dive-bomb one another with morning appointments they set the night before. Not checking email means potentially missing a meeting I’m expected to attend. Checking email means missing a vital window of creativity.

I also know that I think more clearly and feel more grounded if I am physically active at different points during the day.  Re-establishing my morning routine of doing yoga would help me ease into my day more mindfully and feeling both physically and mentally refreshed. Setting aside time after lunch for a brisk walk would prevent afternoon sleepiness and increase my productivity.

Structuring my day around routines would allow me to address all the little tasks that go into taking care of myself, my dog, my home, and my professional duties. It would go a long way toward making my time less aimless and anxiety-filled and more focused and satisfying.

Routines make good fences

Establishing routines would also help me set boundaries.

Routines create a rhythm, and rhythms create a kind of security. The more regular the routine, the more easily others can learn to work with and around them. And the more productive the routine, the more defensible it becomes. Since one of my struggles is setting aside time for myself, creating and defending my routine would prevent me from allowing, in particular, work-related tasks to sprawl across my entire day. Establishing and sticking to routines would help me set the boundaries I need to reverse the “Denise-on-tap” expectations I’ve created at work, where I’ve often made myself too readily available to suit colleagues’ and clients’ needs and schedules.

Most importantly, perhaps: Defending my routine would provide opportunities to carve out the free time I need for self-care. Like many people, I put self-care near (or at) the bottom of my to-do list. In doing so, I am sending the message that I’m not important, and my health has begun to reflect that attitude.

Reclaiming my well-being with routines

Tah-dah! I’ll create routines! I’ll live a better life! I’ll be a happier, more productive Denise! It’s. Like. Magic!

Yeah…not so much. This is going to be a struggle for me. One of the things I recently learned about myself is that I am a Giver. In fact, more score indicates that I give too much and don’t leave enough time and energy for myself. (You can take the test on Adam Grant’s site.) And that means I allow people to disrupt, interrupt, and corrupt my schedule and, along with it, my attempts at self-care. I have a hard time saying no and, because I’ve historically allowed others to define what is “important” — usually allowing it to reflect their needs and their schedules — people have a hard time hearing it, too.

But even more difficult for me will be giving myself permission to be important, to take care of my own needs, to create and establish healthy, centering, productive routines. I’ll let you know how this goes.