Sleepwalk with me

My on- and off-again friend, depression, has silently, slowly been holding me back, like an older sibling with her palm on my forehead as I swing my fists, unable to strike my oppressor. This is not my friend depression’s usual approach with me; usually, she comes in slowly, getting ever louder as she pushes my pressure points and sore spots. Unlike for many, my depression is usually a screaming, crying pain, rather than an inert whimper. Ever the shapeshifter, depression arrived this year and made writing and painting excruciatingly painful – but in creation’s pain, it became so much more important, worthwhile, and fulfilling when I was able to eke out a piece of work.

A friend (a real friend, not my jerk depression) recently shared an essay I read years ago, that resonated differently for me this time. In “The Cost of Daydreaming,” Vivian Gornick writes:

Ever since I could remember, I had feared being found wanting. If I did the work I wanted to do, it was certain not to measure up; if I pursued the people I wanted to know, I was bound to be rejected; if I made myself as attractive as I could, I would still be ordinary looking.

Around such damages to the ego a shrinking psyche had formed: I applied myself to my work, but only grudgingly; I’d make one move toward people I liked, but never two; I wore makeup but dressed badly. To do any or all of these things well would have been to engage heedlessly with life — love it more than I loved my fears — and this I could not do. What I could do, apparently, was daydream the years away: to go on yearning for “things” to be different so that I would be different.

When I was growing up, I tackled my “fear of being found wanting” with achievement. I worked tirelessly to be praised and to have a piece of paper or a stroke of ink proving that I was not wanting. When I graduated from college, a switch flipped in me. My ceaseless endeavors towards having the best and most education gave me a bad taste in my mouth. I wanted to be free. I wanted to accept myself and let go.

It was only after I’d given myself space and accepted myself that I started to feel my psyche shrinking, as Gornick said. It took years of ebbing and flowing, but here I am, half myself in everything I do, sleepwalking, latching onto big goals and outcomes that are always just around the bend, out of my reach. No ink nor paper to show for all of my half-work and bleary-eyed daydreaming, but also no satisfaction.

Creating is an uphill battle for me lately. I get excited about a project, prep for it, and drag myself through molasses to get started. Every brush or keystroke makes me feel more myself and more satisfied with my life, but each is harder than the last. For me, art is about revealing myself; laying myself bare: here are the colors I love; here is my weakness; here is my strength; here is the nose I got in the neighborhood of correct; here are the people I care about; here’s what I was too self-conscious to paint right the first time, but got right the second time; here is how I spend the last slants of late fall light after coming home from work. Since starting to paint for clients in 2011, I’ve had to unlearn my instinct to poke fun at what I do to alleviate some of the pressure of hoping people like what I have to share. I have had to stand next to my writing and my paintings and say, “Here I am. This is me.”

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The only piece of art I’ve finished in four months is this painting of Miranda July for Sandy, a person who has always supported me and artistically inspired me. I’m proud of this piece because I think I got Miranda July’s spirit right, but also because it was a trial through the thick of my creative mental blocks lately. In the end, I had to fight the final boss of my depression: putting all of myself into something and accepting I might fail with no one to blame but myself. I knew that if I were to stop, it would be an even greater failure. I would be going back on my word (and my Venmo) with someone who believes in me.

Gornick’s essay talks about the vacancies left when you stop daydreaming and start holding yourself accountable for the moments in life that you hold onto or let pass away. Knowing what activities help me grasp these moments has been half the battle: it has taken years to peel back the layers of myself and find that all along, the things that make me happy are the activities I loved as a little girl. Now that I can see the emptiness of achievements and the wholeness of art, I have a map of where I’m going and what I’m fighting for, but the guiding force is the people who see me, who have always seen me, as capable of failure, but as more than enough.

If I shine

I have always been good at friends (braggy, I know). I don’t mean to say that I’ve always had a ton of friends, or felt extremely close to the people around me; I mean that the people I choose to share myself with are special. I don’t suffer fools, and I make a special effort to connect with people who are creative and dedicated to their own happiness in an authentic way. I have had my share of bad feelings about being locked out of groups of people (even lately! I’m almost 30!) but usually, upon reflection, it’s the people who (like me!) want to cultivate a totally welcoming, collaborative lifestyle that make me tick.

Most of this skill I’ve developed is selfish. Ann Friedman and Aminatou Sow coined the term Shine Theory™ to talk about women reflecting success onto each other – if I shine, you shine. I find this to be an incredibly helpful attitude when approaching my friendships. I like to be around people who bring out my best qualities, and I like being around people who I’m happy to pour my positive attitude into. I also take particular joy in someone telling me, “You have the best friends.” I do – and they’re yours for the sharing.

I write about friendship today because I’ve been in a creative rut. After a month of super intense painting in December, I took a month off and found my writing practice fall off too. The only creative pursuit I could really engage with was making pom poms – something I’m doing with my wedding planning energy for decor. Wedding planning has been a fun way to channel the tepid stream of my creative energies into something real – but let’s be real: my wedding is more than a year away, it’s one day of my life, and I have things to write and paint somewhere inside of me in the meantime. Since December, I’ve painted two things and written one post. How’s a girl to blow away the cobwebs?

Sometimes, I have to dig into my friendships to find the positive energy I can’t find within myself. Last month, a long distance bestie came to visit and reinvigorated my appetite for fun. Spinning around the dance floor at the White Horse, blurry-eyed and fancy-free, I remembered that I have a sense of adventure. Walking through Pease Park, I remembered I had a sense of reflection. He had given me back two of the key ingredients of my creative self.

Another good friend has asked me to support her – and to have her support me – in maintaining creative goals. We’re two writers – check her out at www.rosetruesdale.com – her in a state of transition in Berlin, me in a state of (reluctantly and enthusiastically) settling down in North Loop, Austin. My goal was small: to write once a week every week of March. When my alarm goes off, I think to myself, is today the day? Most days the answer is no. Today is the day to sleep my head off. But having some accountability meant that today, feeling rested, I cracked my knuckles over my 9-year-old laptop and here I am.

Sometimes, digging deep isn’t enough. I’ve learned to not get too freaked out by the ebb and flow of my creative tides, but I know that I feel better when I’m putting myself out there. That’s where you come in. What are some ways you motivate yourself to keep going? What are small goals and projects that bring you joy? Who are your creative engines – your motivators, who you know or don’t? If you shine, I shine – let’s hear it.

Side A

I’ve been on a tear. I’ve been tearing through creative pursuits, work projects, new albums, favorite recipes, and self-help innovations. I’m riding the wave with the ducks I have in a row for the first time of my twenties (and it’s about damn time): a balanced brain, a happy relationship, a decorated home, a great job, at least $100 in my bank account right now maybe (unclear). The thing about waves is that they crash, and for me this happens when I’m required to sit still. The other night, after exhausting all the creative work I could do, I cried because I was bored, because I was hungry, because it was Sunday, because life is expensive, 🎶 because because BECAUSE – because of the wonderful things I’d done 🎶and had left me listless.

There’s no one self-care experiment I’m trying right now, so here’s a post as mixed up and energetic as I am. Lately I’ve been up to some:

Listening

I got the idea early (can’t sleep past 5 am club!) yesterday morning to create a playlist of songs about loving yourself. Obviously it’s mostly Lizzo and Beyonce, but also some Santigold, Amber Coffman, and Avey Tare. I’m opening up this playlist to everyone! Please share with me your power songs.

Reading

I lose the term “reading” loosely here – perhaps scrolling would be more apt and honest. Out of the thousands of memes, I plucked an amazing thread on free/cheap self-help that I found really helpful and I want to keep as a lifeline during harder times.

Experiencing

We all know I love #bossbabesATX, especially their fantastic meets where you can mingle and share projects. Lately they’ve been crowdsourcing answers to discussion questions and posting some of the answers on their blog. I found the conversation about self-care right up my alley, and laughed out loud at some of these cute and honest answers.

Striving

I find myself working through health and fitness goals and being so discouraged by my setbacks, which spawn new and harder setbacks. After some soul-searching, I’ve found a coach who can help me through some of these tougher hurdles (the frequency and consistency of my exercise; drinking; mindless eating). She’s something of a life coach, a dietician, a motivational speaker, and a personal trainer (easy on this aspect). So far, one of the greatest things is telling her some small victory for me and having it be celebrated and claimed, like a mountain climbed. I’ve learned that asking for a little extra help can do wonders. I’m sure some of her wisdom will spur future posts.

Showing up for myself

In an effort to harness some of my creative energy for good, I created an Instagram just for my paintings. This puts all of my (admittedly poorly documented) work in a single place I can point to when people ask what I create. The results have been astounding to me. People have been loving my work and dreaming up custom painting orders. I do my paintings for little profit – I spend a good deal on monthly supply orders and charge about $35-$60 a painting – but I decided that some of my extra cash would be used to help my neighbors in Houston, through the Houston Food Bank. Painting orders are open now – just shoot me an email at martin.emmamarie at gmail dot com!

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That’s my self-care mixtape for right now. It didn’t require too much rewinding or hitting record at the exact time a song came on the radio. It wasn’t given to me by a high school boy in the 1990s. There are no Promise Ring songs about it. Nevertheless, I’ll hope you’ll submit your own tips for me to explore and songs for me to sing along to in the shower. Don’t leave out Hüsker Dü.

Toilet Cat & Friends

I miss a lot of things when my roommate’s away: the smells of her amazing cooking,someone to ask me about my day,and the feeling of certainty that if someone broke into the house, she would murder them before they got to me. But when the cat’s away, the mice (Emma the human and Florence the actual cat) will play. What this means for me is taking over the entire living room to paint. I take over the whole rug and I block the TV. I sing along to that new Sylvan Esso song. I ask Florence what she thinks of a dab of gold on the canvas.

I started painting in earnest in 2011, first to make my friends and family laugh, then to help pay my rent. I’d love to say that painting had some really glamorous self-care function for me: that it acted as a dramatic form of self-expression or that it was a form of meditation. But like with all my self-care activities, painting is a little goofy.

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1. I get to make people smile

My second best-seller of all time is Toilet Cat. Toilet Cat came about when a former roommate of mine became obsessed by the idea of teaching Florence to use the toilet. I found the idea repugnant because I imagined having to use the ladies room, only to find my cat taking her sweet time on the throne. This idea spawned Toilet Cat-a cat enjoying a good read atop the toilet. I love to make people laugh, to give them something to smile about when they enter their bathroom. The same goes for my painting of Oprah – on sale now! There’s something wonderful about the Queen of Daytime peering down at you while you relieve yourself.

2. I get to surprise myself

I rarely know what I’m doing, in life and in painting. I ask for guidance from my patrons – color schemes, personalities, accessories – but usually I am left to my own devices. This opens up something inside of me. After years of doing this, I have found that bright colors excite me, but I’m always surprised by where I decide to put them or combine them (for better or for worse). I’m always surprised by what I do in my spare painting time: googly eyes, metallics, peaches, and emojis come to mind. I love me, I’d do anything for me.

3. I get a feeling of supreme satisfaction

Some of my favorite paintings are those that not only surprise me, but surprise you. When you hang a painting in a place of honor, I get a jolt of self-confidence that doesn’t always exist in the archives world or in my daily life.

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Below, you’ll find the development of a recent painting, from start to finish. It’s been my replacement roommate for a little bit, and while it doesn’t cook or clean or tell jokes, having a little daily task has made a world of difference to my brainwaves. Some days I filled in the bones of these fine cats, other days I only dabbed on a bit of shocking blue. Progress is progress.

Painting not only provides great self-care; it also has posed a huge self-care obstacle. Isn’t that fun? Because the subjects of my painting, my cartoony folk art style, and my sometimes self-deprecating attitude about being a self-taught painter, I often encounter folks that like to make little jokes and little digs about what I do. They always make me feel rotten. After a lot of reflection about why this is, I realized that I open the door to piss poor attitudes because I sometimes have one myself. Painting has taught me to speak nicely of myself, to be bold, and to be proudly passionate of painting big shiny eyes and brightly colored tails.

The Oblique Strategies

When I look back at my year in painting 2016, I feel mostly uninspired. I painted some great things – things that made me laugh, things that surprised me, things that pleased my patrons  – but not very many. I worked when I was asked to and made a few things just to pass the time, but I wasn’t driven.

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Brian Eno says of creative work, “The point about working is not to produce great stuff all the time, but to remain ready for when you can.” There were months at a stretch that I didn’t paint, and I felt stilted when I finally did. I hadn’t kept up the practice, and in not doing so, I lost momentum.

In 2017, I am committed to painting, to filling canvasses with vibrant colors and things that make people smile or think. I want to have my paintbrush at the ready for when I can create something great. Creative expression is a huge part of my self-care. If I am well enough to put paintbrush to canvas, it’s indicative that I am fed, watered, walked, and ready for new challenges. But sometimes, painting can help me get my head together enough and energize me enough to fulfill those other more basic needs.

I thought about ways to keep me creating without consistent commissions. I’ve tried to do series in the past and mostly got bored or lost momentum, but right now seems like the perfect moment. Recently I was reintroduced to the Oblique Strategies – a brilliant set of instructions created by Eno and Peter Schmidt. These instructions, on notecards or as I use them, on an app, are dealt at random to disrupt the creative process and to get you moving in a new direction. Some examples: “Listen in darkness, or in a very large room, very quietly” or “Shut the door and listen from the outside.” The cards are geared toward the ear of a musician, but they get me thinking as a painter. I love the concept but have never had a project that could use it.

I’ve decided to use the Oblique Strategies as a set of painting prompts. My first prompt was, “Look at a very small object, look at its centre.” We have a lot of candles in my house, too many candles. Help! My family is starving. I decided to look at a match, really look at it, and instead of painting its full head, to focus on its center. I’m happy with the result as a “first pancake” – the bright colors, the engulfing flames.

The lesson here? Keep creating until you’re ready to make something great – and use the tools that other creative people have made to keep you from being derivative.

I will be selling my Oblique Strategy paintings, which have the prompt written on the back, for $10 plus shipping in my etsy shop, if any particular one strikes your fancy.