From My Bookshelf: How to Not Always Be Working

One of my personal challenges as a creative is to not have every minute of every day filled. This has been an issue in my late that dates back to when I was in high school. I joined multiple clubs and organizations to be build my leadership skills and to qualify for scholarships. I worked a part-time job at Subway so I could earn money for personal things and save money for college. I remember one week I worked around 30 hours while being in advanced and honors college.

College was similar. Although I was blessed with a full scholarship, I still needed money for life and that required me to work. My habit of being in multiple organizations and constantly being busy continued. I have some moments were I trimmed back. But, I generally am a person who has a compact schedule.

A lot of this seems from working to secure a future and gain provision. I was in school organizations in high school because I was trying to earn scholarships so I would have a better future. I worked in college so my basic needs would be met. Fast forward a decade or so to a culture that is constantly wired by technology. 5 pm is no longer the end of the work day. The world wide web allows us to work from anywhere, anytime, and many of us have not learned how to switch on the off button.

This has caused us to sleep less, eat more unhealthy, exercise less, and we’re definitely not laughing enough. I recently realized that having my time occupied so much meant that my creativity was being drained. My mind didn’t know how to sit before a blank page and let words spill out. I was so used to grinding and marking things off of a ridiculously impossible to-do list.

What I learned from Marlee Grace’s book How to Not Always Be Working: A Toolkit for Creativity and Radical Self-Care was some strategies to stop doing that. One of the recommendation Marlee makes is to decided the place where work will occur and to not do work anywhere else. Many times I study, lesson plan and write from my blue couch. It’s comfortable. I have a blanket, and it’s next to a window. However, I typically am more productive when I am ‘working’ from a desk.

From the book, I realized my brain needs the separation of when I am working and when I am not. That can have a lot to do with location. One of my first jobs was babysitting. I loved working with infants. They were a lot of fun, and they slept often. I noticed that I put a baby in a sleeper or swaddled the baby, he or she instinctually knew it was time to sleep. Once I suggested to a parents of twins, that we not keep the babies in sleepers all day to help regulate their sleep schedule. Believe or not, it worked.

After reading this book, I have decided that the blue couch will be a space to relax and recline. No more working from my blue couch. In Chapter 3, she poses the question: What is not work? This is a good question to ask yourself because we may say we don’t work all the time. But if you’re checking your email frequently or scrolling through social media often, you my friend are working. It’s helpful to define what is work and to set some time restrictions around when you will work. And likewise, it’s helpful to name what isn’t working and to make sure you have a steady rhythm of work and recreation.

When I trained for races, I was pondered the significance that rest days were just as important as run days. And that rest days helped protect me from injury on my run days. Maybe a simple boost to your creativity is not a $500 conference or a $2,000 coach, but for you to schedule a couple hours of rest or recreation.

Chapter 6 encourages us to take a break. I’m taking that advice this summer, and I am not doing any readings, workshops or events in June or July. I want to avoid burning out and quitting altogether due to exhaustion. I want to proactive and care about myself as a vessel of creative. I want to have a regular pattern of taking breaks. Just like rest days are vital for runners, breaks are vital for humans. You can choose what and when your breaks are. I have heard many great leaders say that each year, they schedule their breaks. Take a break on purpose. Not just when you reach exhaustion.

Each chapter has testimonials from other creatives and exercises. It’s a quick read, which is another plus for those who are busy. I borrowed it from my local library, and I encourage you to doing the same. May you find your own method to not always working.

The Invitation of Rejection

beautiful pink lotus in lotus swamp at “Talay-Noi” Pattalung province ,Thaialnd

Last month, I received an email that a poem I had submitted to a literary journal was not accepted. They admired my writing but felt it wasn’t a fit for their publication “at this time.” As a creative, hearing ‘no’ is a familiar tune. Rejection can be a bear to tussle with, especially if you have any amount of childhood trauma or have experienced rejection.

When I read the email, I was initially disappointed. But then, I considered how I could revise the poem and make it better. And lo & behold, I found a typo. I saw several lines that could be moved around to improve clarity. I also saw a handful of words that could be trimmed. Rather than viewing it as rejection, I viewed it as an invitation. An invitation to look at my work more closely and with greater wonder.

What if I changed the form? What if I moved a repeating line to a different place? Could I remove personal pronouns? As I pondered these questions, the idea came to me to further explore the poems I have written about my grandfathers and see if there is new content there. What started as a downer soon became a seed for creativity. The next time you hear ‘no’ or ‘not yet,’ see what it is inviting you to. Where is it beckoning you go?

If you view it as rejection, you’ll be paralyzed. You’ll stop. You’ll quit and we can’t have that. We need your voice. Your art in this world. So dust yourself off and get back to creating. Accept the invitation.

Creative Incubator

If you follow me on social media, you’re probably familiar with my recent announcement that I’m heading into the Creative Incubator. I will not be doing readings, performances, workshops, etc. in June and July. Instead, I am focusing on creating new work for upcoming projects. I have never done this before, but I can foresee it being a part of my normal creative process. 

For six months, I have been Elgin’s first Poet Laureate. It has been an honor to represent the artistic voice of my community by writing and reading original poetry. I have participated in Memorial Day events, prayer breakfasts, opened for environmental activists, led writing workshops for elementary-aged girls and adults. Depending on the month, I have an engagement every week. 

I also have had homework and essays to grade. I teach full-time during my day job, and I commute roughly 12 hours a week to work. At night, I am an adjunct writing professor. I’m also enrolled in a full-time doctoral program. I’m heavily involved in my church, and I like to sleep and eat. Needless to say, my schedule is full.

While it is exciting to be invited places and to have a full calendar, it can also become difficult to stay true to my first love: writing. One thing I have learned as a creative is that you can’t rush the creative process. Writing, at least writing that will be memorable, takes time. When I sit down to write, I can’t guarantee that I will write an amazing poem or even a poem at all. The creative process is an odd thing and has a mind of its own. 

Having multiple engagements has allowed me to grow my poetic muscle and write poems in a shorter time. It takes me back to my time as a newspaper reporter, where I wrote articles on deadline

When I was a reporter, I wrote two types of writing: daily stories and long-term projects. Daily stories typically were covering a school board meeting, writing about a new school program or covering an emergency event, like a shooting. About 70% of the stories I wrote would fall in this category.  These stories were relatively simple to write and are the typical stories you read in your news outlet. 

On the other hand, there are a type of stories that required significant research, multiple sources were interviewed and the content was more complex. These type of stories would fall under the category of investigative reporting. Perhaps, I wanted to examine which schools had the highest teacher turnover or maybe I wanted to track the spending of the school board members. These were stories that could not be completed in one or two days. These were stories that made it the front page of the Sunday paper. And, these were the stories that earned awards, merited raises and promotions. To be a successful journalist, I had to have a balance of both types of stories. 

The same is true for me as a creative. Reading at an open mic or a governmental event are those daily stories. They are important because they allow me an opportunity to share my work with the public. However, long-term projects are what creates manuscripts for books, earns publications in literary journals and secures grants and fellowships. Quite frankly, long-term projects help me make a living as a creative. 

I knew I had to take a break when I realized I wasn’t working on the projects I said I had hoped to create in my application as Poet Laureate. I also recognized that it’s possible for me to get to the end of my two-year term and not have much to show for it beside a list of events I attended. I have to start thinking, preparing and positioning myself for the next step in my artistic career after my stint as a Poet Laureate. 

If you have made it to this point of this post, you may be thinking, ok Chasity, this is all interesting, but I am not the Poet Laureate, but how does this apply to me?

You are right. Your situation may look quite different from mine. Perhaps, you are a creative who has a team so folks can help you with administrative tasks and marketing. Maybe you have been in the creative incubator for years, and you actually want get out more. 

Here are a few takeaways from my experience that I think you can glean. 

  1. Admit that more isn’t better. 

I love being asked to attend events. It’s an honor and reaffirms my gifting as a poet. However, if every weekend of my schedule is filled, that means my laundry is not getting done; my kitchen is a mess; and I’m likely not doing any creating outside of the events. 

2. Work on long-term and short term goals simultaneously.

Creating is similar to money, in the sense that, you don’t want to just spend your money on every day purchases. You need to save for retirement and emergencies. Creatives must think short term and long term. What will you create next year? What about five years from now? These questions are not meant to induce anxiety or to say that you have to some extravagant over-the-top answer to sound impressive. Answer that question based on what matters to you. 

3. Give yourself time and space to create. 

You must learn how you create best. You must know what feeds your creativity and what starves it. And, it’s wise to be realistic. I would like to wake up each morning take a walk on the beach, sit under an umbrella and sip freshly squeezed lemonade while I write uninterrupted for 2 or 3 hours. Maybe one day I will get there or have a couple of weeks a year where this is my reality. 

In the meantime, I must identify a writing habit that works well for me. I’m from the South so warm weather and sunshine help me enter a creative habit. I’m also learning how much a clean home helps me in my creative habit. 

4. Grow as a creative

Another tell-tale sign that I needed a break is that I wasn’t growing in my craft. I wasn’t reading other poetry, taking a class or learning a new form. What will make me a poetry legend is have strong skills. Skills have to be developed. This takes time.  You can’t spend time cultivating your craft if your schedule is always full. 

5. Think about your legacy.

I marvel at poets who have written dozens of books. I am fascinated by creatives who constantly create, despite being insanely busy. What you create is the legacy you will leave the earth after you have died. What will you leave behind? What works will you contribute to the creative community? Once again, this is not about numbers and accolades. It’s about being intentional and thinking long-term about the impact you are going to make.

Truth is tomorrow isn’t promised, and we don’t know when our last day on earth will be. If you knew you had three years to live, what kinds of art would you create? What would you leave behind? 

Introducing Poetry Off the Page

One of my goals as Elgin’s Poet Laureate is making poetry accessible for folks. Combining my poems with visual art is the way I am achieving this goal. Poetry doesn’t have to be confined to books tucked in shelves, out of the sight of everyday. Now, they can placed on your bedroom wall, in your kitchen, your work work cubicle or even in your classroom.

Currently, I have done two poems in this series: “Pasadena Summer” and “Ode to Dr. King.” I’ll be releasing more throughout the year. You can order your copy here.

Writing “Ode to Dr. King”

At the MLK Prayer Breakfast with Elgin City Councilwoman Tish Powell (left) and Tish Calhamer, Community Engagement Manager for Gail Borden Public Library District (right).

I was invited to perform and write an original poem for the City of Elgin’s Annual MLK Prayer Breakfast. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is a leader who I deeply admire so I was honored to have the opportunity to write a poem as homage to him. It also was a bit intimidating because numerous poems have been written about him. I wanted to add something new and worthwhile to the literary conversation.

I began by gathering research focusing on primary sources: interview transcripts and his speeches. I viewed documentary films and read a couple of books. From these sources, I gathered words and phrases that resonated. I also selected a few words that reminded me of King and began doing erasures of dictionary pages of those words.

I had some traction doing erasures. It kept my creative process alive and kept me engaged with creating the poem. I even wrote another poem that created an analogy of justice and a drummer. However, I knew these poems were not the ones I was supposed to read at the Prayer Breakfast.

I continued researching and writing, but I kept drawing blanks. At this point, I was a couple of weeks from the breakfast, and I didn’t have a poem so I became frustrated and anxious. I started working on the poem early so that I could write a quality poem and have enough time to prepare to read the poem. I want on a desperate search for the first line. Usually if I have the first line of the poem, everything afterward flows.

Creative Process: Stuck

I remained stuck. I picked up a Bible and read through the book of Lamentations. It talks about sorrow, justice and suffering. I hoped to find a verse I could incorporate into the poem. Nothing. Now, it was the week of the breakfast, and I still did not have a poem. About midweek, the thought came to me to look through Isaiah. I gathered several lines from there.

Throughout this process, I kept having the image of Dr. King as a king (due to his last name) and his similarities to Jesus Christ. Both were considered prophets, hated by some and eventually killed unjustly. I noticed that King used several analogies in his speeches, and I was intrigued by the connection between a potential analogy between King and Christ. However, I knew it was a common comparison, and I didn’t want to write a cliche poem.

After much toil, I decided to go with an image that had lingered in my mind from the early days of my research: Dr. King being stabbed with a letter opener by a demented woman while he was signing books in Harlem. The stabbing left a cross on his chest. I couldn’t shake the symbolism.

Creative Process: Flow

Words began to flow. And a strange thing happened. The poem was coming out in rhyme. This is strange because I typically write in free verse. I hadn’t written with an end rhyme since my college days. The poem also came out more like a spoken word poem rather than a page poem. I infused lines from Isaiah, snippets from Dr. King’s speeches and interviews, as well as historical information. I consider “Ode to Dr. King” a found poem.

The end result was a moving poem that brought a room of nearly 200 people to their feet in a standing ovation. I’m proud of the end result, and I’m also excited about some art forms that have been awaken by writing this poem. You can get a copy of the poem here.