Katelyn Holub

blogging about music, art, and creativity


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Not Just Another Day: Freeing the Artist Within

I’ve been rushing around lately. Rushing through life. Busily filling out page after page of bar application materials—scrambling to find forgotten facts of all the places I’ve lived since age eighteen. In the midst of completing my seemingly endless to-do list, I so easily grumble and lose sight of the many blessings I have in life.

Not only do I lose sight of my present blessings, but I get swept away worrying about the future. Will I pass the bar exam? Will I find a job? Where will I live? What do I want to do with my life?

When we are consumed by complaints and fear, we separate ourselves from our true purpose and paralyze the creativity within us. Trapped by our own Resistance*.

How can we avoid getting ensnared in such limiting thoughts?

By learning to cultivate a spirit of gratefulness, we can make the most out of our life and unlock our potential for creativity and wonder.

*Photo Credit: Robert S. Donovan, Creative Commons

*Photo Credit: Robert S. Donovan, Creative Commons

Remember, this is not just another day in your life. It is the one day that is given to you. Today. So, explore the world around you! Let yourself be surprised.

Take in all of your surroundings. Life is fleeting and there may never be another moment such as this.

Brother David Steindl-Rast, a Benedictine monk, has written extensively about gratefulness and suggests we make a point of connecting with people we encounter throughout our day. “Look at the faces of people whom you meet. Each one has an incredible story behind their face. A story that you could never fully fathom . . .”

*Photo Credit: Robert S. Donovan, Creative Commons

*Photo Credit: Robert S. Donovan, Creative Commons

By allowing ourselves to truly connect with our surroundings and the people with whom we cross paths, we open our hearts to an enormous amount of blessings and leave no room for thoughts of fear and complaints.

We can learn to be grateful now for things seen and as yet unseen. We can learn to be at peace in the midst of uncertainty. In this way, we can overcome our own Resistance and free the artist within.

How do you cultivate gratitude?  Have you found yourself trapped by thoughts of fear or uncertainty?  How have you overcome those thoughts?  

 

*If you want to learn more about our inner Resistance and ways our minds sabotage our creativity, read The War of Art: Break Through the Blocks and Win Your Inner Creative Battles by Steven Pressfield

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Founding Artists

The year is 1776. It’s August, and General George Washington and his troops are in Manhattan hoping to hold off a British attack. In the midst of preparing for battle, George Washington sits down to write a letter to his land manager at Mount Vernon sharing some of his new garden design ideas. He’s requesting that groves be planted on either side of his house. Although he will be away for the next eight years leading the Revolutionary War, his thoughts will continue to drift towards nature, art, and design.

George Washington. Beloved general. First President. Gardener. And artist.

Mount Vernon, painted by Edward Savage

Mount Vernon, painted by Edward Savage

This past week I attended a lecture by design historian and writer Andrea Wulf, author of the book “Founding Gardeners: The Revolutionary Generation, Nature, and the Shaping of the American Nation.” It made me realize that gardening is an art form in itself, and revealed that our nation’s early history was forged not only by brilliant thinkers and brave people, but also dedicated artists.

It turns out Washington wasn’t the only Founding Father who viewed plants and soil as a medium of art through which beauty and truth can be portrayed.

John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison all were garden-artists.

Though different in many ways, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson bonded over a two-month garden tour trip in England in 1786 when both of them were serving as overseas diplomats. They noticed that many of the plants growing in England were American species, grown from specimens shipped to England by American botanist John Bartram in the 1750’s. As they toured ornamental farms in England, they each were captivated by the beauty of America’s native plants and began planning their gardens back home made entirely out of native American species.

For the Founding Fathers, gardens were a form of political art—showcasing the beautiful and useful all-American plants thriving without non-native plants.

Monticello, Terrace Vegetable Garden. *Photo Credit: Southern Foodways Alliance, Creative Commons

Monticello, Terrace Vegetable Garden. *Photo Credit: Southern Foodways Alliance, Creative Commons

Thomas Jefferson’s landscape design at Monticello represents the history of the American landscape—from its wilderness days to its civilized colonial times. A visitor to Monticello is lead up the hillside estate through a rugged forest, past neatly manicured pastures, beside the terrace vegetable garden, and lastly to the formal flower gardens that surround the mansion. Jefferson’s artistic eye is also on display in his design of a utilitarian vegetable garden which combines the beautiful and functional aspects of nature. Purple, white, and green vegetables are beautifully displayed in adjacent rows, while lovely cherry trees provide the gardener shade on the outer-walkways.

Montpelier Grounds. *Photo Credit: Mike, Creative Commons

Montpelier Grounds. *Photo Credit: Mike, Creative Commons

James Madison loved gardening too and argued for the protection of American forests, which he saw were in danger of complete destruction. With the rise of tobacco farming, many forests were being cut down and replaced with tobacco fields, which depleted soil nutrients in about four years. Madison knew it was agriculturally and economically unsustainable to destroy the forests in such a way and urged for change. On his estate at Montpelier, Madison set aside an old forest of oaks, tulip trees, and hickories, which he would explore for inspiration while drafting the U.S. Constitution.

It’s inspiring to learn that our nation’s founding leaders were also avid artists with an eye for garden and landscape design. Along with teaching children how to draw and paint in school, maybe we should be teaching about gardening as both a part of art and science education.  Regardless, we can all take a lesson from the founding fathers in making time for art and allowing our creativity to let loose. If they could find time to imagine and garden, we surely can too.

Did you know that America’s Founding Fathers were gardeners and artists?  Do you think gardening should be included as a part of children’s art classes in school?


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Allowing Your Mind to Wander Is More Valuable Than You Think

Last summer, I was getting ready for work one morning when a new melody popped into my head. I hummed the tune to myself so I wouldn’t forget it as I rushed about. Just before I dashed out the door, I whipped out my cell phone and made a quick recording of me singing the melody so that I could return to it later when I had more time. While I loved the new melody I thought up, I couldn’t figure out where it came from and why I thought of it at such a chance time as when I was brushing my teeth.

Have you ever noticed how some of your greatest ideas pop into your head when you are least expecting them? It may seem like our ideas are coming at random times, but when we allow our minds to wander we open our awareness to new possibilities and increase our creativity.

*Photo Credit: Zach Dischner, Creative Commons

*Photo Credit: Zach Dischner, Creative Commons

There are two basic states of mind: focused attention and mind-wandering. Research by cognitive scientists has revealed that our “default” mode is mind-wandering. We innately prefer to drift from thought to thought rather than ponder any one idea deeply.

That’s why if we are not careful, we can find ourselves losing our concentration while we are trying to focus on our work. I know all too well what it’s like to read a paragraph or two only to realize I have no clue what I just read. Sometimes I wind up reading the same sentence over a few times just because my mind has drifted on to some other place.

While having focused attention is important for a lot of tasks, it can be the enemy of creativity.

When we allow our minds to wander we free ourselves from the devil’s advocate playing in our mind, cynicism, and judgment. As Daniel Goldman puts it in his book “Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence,” allowing our mind to wander brings us “utter receptivity to whatever floats into the mind.”

*Photo Credit: William Warby, Creative Commons

*Photo Credit: William Warby, Creative Commons

Having a wandering mind with freely roaming awareness can allow us to make new connections and associations. Often the ingredients for our next great idea are already in our mind—they just need to be connected, combined, and drawn to the surface of our consciousness.

Instead of trying to force creativity or being hard on ourselves when our mind wanders (both are creativity roadblocks), what if we could allow ourselves to relax our minds and see where our open awareness takes us? We can, and this freely roaming awareness is invaluable to our creativity in many ways.

Have you noticed increased creativity when you are daydreaming or allowing your mind to wander?  


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Getting Past Creativity Roadblocks

I sat at my piano last week in the glow of the afternoon composing the second half of another ragtime tune. I felt like I was fully alive, soaring in the wind. I could see the lives of imaginary characters coming to life under the backdrop of my song, and was completely immersed in my fictional ragtime world. You see, regardless of whether I’m composing, performing, or listening to music, it sweeps me off into another world where I watch a unique story unfold.

Music makes me feel whole. At peace in the world. And last week at the piano, I experienced that unmistakably beautiful feeling again as I worked through a new section of my ragtime piece, putting an end to a season of creativity obstacles and unproductivity.

For a while it felt like my creativity was gone, like maybe I had used up my creativity allotment in life. I would sit down at the piano and try to compose, but nothing would come. I was uninspired. I started doubting myself and my abilities, slowly building up pressure and stress to the point of being frozen by fear.

*Photo Credit: Doug Geisler, Creative Commons

*Photo Credit: Doug Geisler, Creative Commons

After rediscovering my creativity during last week’s ragtime escape, I’ve been reflecting on my creativity roadblocks, trying to figure out where they originate from and how I can get past them in the future.

Why does a once-enjoyable act of creating art turn into a burden?

Most of my creativity roadblocks can be traced to my tendency to strive for perfection. While perfectionism can be helpful in small doses, too much can quash any artist’s creative endeavors. Even though I don’t compose to make money or to get famous, I still feel the desire to make all my work really good (at least to my ears), so when I don’t think I’m living up to that goal I get frustrated. The frustration just reinforces the roadblock by keeping me from even trying to be creative.

 

*Photo Credit: Kelly Rowland, Creative Commons

*Photo Credit: Kelly Rowland, Creative Commons

How can we get past our creativity roadblocks?

  • One way is to make ourselves vulnerable as artists. Sometimes we need to grow as an individual before we are ready to create again. There may be certain lessons we need to learn first to better understand our self and our world and to bring us to a state of vulnerability in which we are open to inspiration.
  • Create. Just give it a try. We can do ourselves a big favor too by not worrying about whether we’ll be able to write or paint again. Don’t beat yourself up if everything you create isn’t great or your favorite—that’s setting the stakes too high. Great artists create lots of not-so-good works amidst their really great works (they just usually don’t tell you about the not-so-good works).
  • Be patient as you learn and grow as an artist. Many authors of bestsellers admit they experience creativity roadblocks when they set out to write their next book, fearing it could be a total flop and ruin their career. Growing means change, and so as you grow in your art some of the changes will be not-so-good, but some changes will be great and worth the wait.

Have you ever experienced your own creativity roadblocks? How do you get past them?


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Live With Your Heart on Your Sleeve

I used to live more freely. With my heart on my sleeve, I was all into life. As a young girl, I was passionate that I could change the world for the better. I could make a difference. But those feelings were slowly eroded away by incidents of pain. Over time, my confidence that good could prevail wavered and I built up walls to hide my heart from the pain of this world. Is this the way life should be? Should we go from being children full of hope and passion to being cynical adults turning our eyes from the seemingly hopeless cause that is our world?

*Photo Credit: ClickFlashPhotos / Nicki Varkevisser, Creative Commons

*Photo Credit: ClickFlashPhotos / Nicki Varkevisser, Creative Commons

I think the answer is no. It’s easy to let the world jade us into thinking we don’t matter and can’t make a dent in lessening the amount of darkness out there, but we must not let our heart slip away from us.

“Remember that kid with the quivering lip

Whose heart was on his sleeve like a first aid kit

Where are you now? Where are you now?” –“Slipping Away” by Switchfoot

This week, I’ve come to realize the beauty and truth in living with your heart on your sleeve. Yes, living this way is dangerous. It makes you vulnerable to experiencing pain. But it also fuels us to respond to those who are hurting and make that positive difference in the world we think we can’t make. There’s power behind true passion and emotional feeling—enough power to change history for the better.

*Photo Credit: Jenn Durfey, Creative Commons

*Photo Credit: Jenn Durfey, Creative Commons

And how does this relate to musicians and artists? As Seth Godin recently discussed on a podcast of The Portfolio Life with Jeff Goins, “art is born out of frustration.” Great artists live their emotions (rather than block them out) and let their feelings and tensions drive their creative process. By living with and responding to our hearts on our sleeves, we artists can positively impact the world by shining light on truths for the world to experience. How do you live with hope and passion for a better world? What drives your creative process?


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When You’re Overwhelmed and Don’t Have Time for a Hobby

I’m nearing the end of my final semester of graduate school.  Only a few more weeks left until finals. I’m wrapping up my externship, staying on top of homework demands, hunting and applying for jobs, squeezing in time to start outlining for said finals, and . . . well, I’m feeling a bit overwhelmed!

Life is so busy I honestly haven’t had much time to spend on music or my songwriting hobby, and that’s making me feel even worse.  Music is what makes me happy.  It helps me escape from the craziness of life and become fully present, lost in the sound.

So what do you do when your workload is overwhelming and preventing you from spending time doing that hobby which you enjoy most (in my case, that’d be music)?

You find time for music anyway.  Some people might say you should prioritize it as important work you must get done, but I don’t like thinking about it that way.  I like the idea that at a set time, I will declare myself done working for the day.  The rest of the day is “me” time.  A line in the sand.

*Photo Credit: Keith Hall, Creative Commons

*Photo Credit: Keith Hall, Creative Commons

  • Don’t feel guilty about spending some time, even just a little bit, on your music hobby.  In the long run, spending that time playing or writing music will make you happier (which, coincidentally, will ultimately also make you more productive).  Acknowledge the fact that you can’t be a work horse constantly, and even if you tried to always work your effectiveness and level of productivity would at some point become so low that your work won’t be of any use.

 

  • Spending time absorbed in music will re-energize you.  Music is healing.  I don’t fully understand music’s healing power on the listener, performer, or composer, but I know from experience that it works.

 

  • Allow yourself to “play” with childlike wonder each day.  Whether you like to paint, write songs, or dance—allowing yourself to play and use your creativity everyday can help you see your work tasks in a different light.  Time spent engaging your imagination—playing the artist—can open your eyes to new solutions to problems or help put struggles into context, often making them smaller than we might originally envision them.

 

*Photo Credit: Kelly Rowland, Creative Commons

*Photo Credit: Kelly Rowland, Creative Commons

Here are some other helpful resources I’ve found in dealing with overwhelm in general:

Are you currently overwhelmed and neglecting a favorite hobby of yours?  How might you be able to change that?

 

 


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What Sting Taught Me About Creativity

This past weekend I enjoyed watching Sting perform songs from his latest album and first musical “The Last Ship” on PBS.  The musical, which premieres June 10, 2014, in Chicago, is about the demise of the shipbuilding business in Sting’s hometown of Newcastle, England, when he was growing up.

*Photo Credit: Ian Wood, Creative Commons

*Photo Credit: Ian Wood, Creative Commons

I’ve always been a fan of Sting, amazed at the variety of musical worlds he’s navigated.  Inspired by Sting’s latest journey into the Broadway musical genre, I’ve recognized a couple truths all creatives can apply to their crafts.

  • Harness the Power in the Familiar and Ordinary.

Sting’s musical is about everyday life in a small shipbuilding village, showcasing people’s struggles and triumphs in daily living.  The song “Sky Hooks and Tartan Paint” is about a young man’s first day at work in the shipyards, and some of the light hazing that his crew members put him through.

It’s amazing how simple, ordinary aspects of life—like a first day at work—can be powerful tools for a writer.  By exposing the everyday feelings of a character, a writer creates a kind of transparency that forges an authentic connection with people.  We can all relate to the characters and live in the music.

Inspiration is all around us, in the people we interact with, in the routine rhythms and upsets of life.  We creatives would be wise to harness the power in embodying the fullness of life through our works.

  • Seek Out New Experiences & Creative Challenges.

Although Sting is a 16-time Grammy award-winning artist, he risked his reputation in deciding to write a musical.  He admitted that writing a musical is a much more “precise and exacting medium” than he expected it would be, and that “every line, every word is scrutinized” in a way he never imagined.  But despite the challenges involved, Sting pressed on and fought to tell his story.

*Photo Credits: Wilson Loo, Creative Commons

*Photo Credits: Wilson Loo, Creative Commons

All artists can take a cue from Sting in putting aside fears of failure and seek out new challenges, for it is when we get outside our comfort-zone and actually risk ourselves that our creativity is fueled and we grow the most.  What if our efforts wind up being a big flop?  Then we can still celebrate our efforts to learn and try new things.

Sting’s new musical “The Last Ship” is about human relationships and the triumphs of a struggling shipbuilding community.  It captures everyday life and displays its blemishes and glory.  It unites people with its transparency of life.  And those are things all artists can learn from.

What do artists like Sting teach you about creativity?