HALT! Your Craft Goes There

Looking Inward to Stave Off Artistic Blues

If you know me personally or read my recent post, The Case for Christmas, you know I’m a diehard holiday fan. But even we tinsel-crazed, holly-loving, Santa-praisers can fall prey to craft-itis—a psychiatric condition characterized by sadness, loneliness, self pity, foggy thinking, insomnia, heartache and/or frustration. (Not exactly a cup of Christma-Chanu-Kwanza-dan tea…)

Others ask, “What’s wrong?” You say, “Nothing.”

But something is. Craft-itis symptoms rarely feel “right,” even if we rationalize or expect them. I’ve been spending time with loved ones, we think. I should feel GREAT! Instead we feel hollow, misunderstood, guilty for feeling anything but joyful and exhausted by our attempts to hide it.

As important as it is to take breaks from our craft—in my case, writing—such respite can bring a basel level of turmoil. Left untreated, our symptoms can deepen and proliferate, making us feel more suited to a psych ward than holiday gatherings.

So what can we do??? Fortunately, a lot.

I like to use the acronym H.A.L.T., which stands for Hungry, Angry, Lonely, Tired. It’s conventionally used as an addiction management and self-care technique. The idea is this: Hunger, anger, loneliness and exhaustion often go ignored. If we continue to ignore them, we’re bound for trouble. When you feel you’ve hit a wall of sorts but don’t know why, you simply pause (halt) and look inward. Ask yourself whether you’ve been eating and sleeping enough, if you’re resisting anger or feel alone.

We can take H.A.L.T. a step further by applying it directly to our craft:

Are you HUNGRY for creativity? ANGRY that you haven’t been expressing it? LONELY for companionship only the page (or canvas, piano, etc.) can bring? TIRED of socializing and wearing a happy face when inside you’re aching?

You’ve HALTed, so now what?

Awareness is much of the battle. (As soon as I realize that I’m not crazy or selfish, I often feel loads better…) If you’re truly hungry, eat. Balanced meals and snacks at regular time intervals helps ensure positive blood sugar balance, energy and moods. Staying well hydrated is also important. If anger is your issue, address it. Mad at your spouse? Talk it out. Angry at the world? Try exercise, meditation or therapy. If you long for companionship, seek community. Join Twitter conversations, such as #MyWANA or #amwriting. Share lunch, coffee or quality phone chats with friends. If exhaustion has you down, do something restful, such as napping, reading poetry or listening to soothing music. Aim for earlier bedtimes if you can.

If your symptoms stem solely from craft-itis, try the following:

  • Drop everything and get creative. Longing to write? Write. Feel like singing? Sing. Whatever it is, make it your top priority and do it. If your schedule doesn’t allow for creative time pronto, make a plan for the near future.
  • Schedule creative time into your every day. Even ten to twenty minutes per day can make a tremendous difference.
  • Go to bed and/or wake up a half hour early. Dedicate the time to thinking about, doodling about or partaking in your craft.
  • Talk to others about your craft. Even if your loved ones aren’t creative types, they probably want to support you and learn about your work. “Hey, haven’t I told you what I’ve been working on?” is a great way to start. (Not everyone knows how to broach artistic subjects, but trust me—most are interested.)
  • Read a great book or watch a great movie. Captivating stories are what led many of us to our creative paths. Reap the benefits we hope our work with provide to others: a medicinal escape. (For more on this topic, read Jessica O’Neal’s insightful guest post on Myndi Schafer’s blog: The Power of A Good Story.)
  • Focus on others. This may sound contrary, seeing as I just alluded to the fact that tending to our creativity or isn’t selfish. But once you know what the root problem is, fixating on it in a woe-is-me way is. Make a plan to fuel your creativity, be thankful that you have something to ache for (many people wish they had such passion…) then get over yourself. Doing something thoughtful for others can help us do so.
  • If your symptoms are severe or you simply want professional support, see a trusted therapist. Occasional “emotional” checkups are at least as important as physical exams, IMHO. 😉

What about you?  Are you prone to craft-itis? Have you nipped it in the bud? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Aaron Johnson on Painting and Passionate Pursuits

When we were kids, it seemed I couldn’t make enough noise around my brother. I chased him and his friends around, singing, giggling and squealing, and lost the “see how long we can be quiet” game within seconds every time. What can I say? He was my cool big brother and I was…excitable. Today, though he remains one of the coolest people I know, his artwork leaves me speechless.

Aaron’s latest show, Freedom From Want, is a “bold reflection on the decaying excesses of our insatiable culture,” according to a press release. The glimmering pieces feature gruesome, sadistic, venom-spewing monsters and address heavy issues, from the cruelty of war to the “absurd intersection of religion and government.”

Every wall of Stux Gallery features his psychedelically colorful paintings of grand size and grander meaning. As you step toward each one, tens, if not hundreds, of stories reveal themselves. His paintings aren’t mere images or decor, though they are beautiful to look at, but poignant experiences.

Aaron took time out of his busy, bohemian life to share some insight. (Thanks, Bro!)

You use a highly unusual technique to create your works. How would you describe the process to a layperson?
I invented my process through kind of a mad-scientist approach toward painting. These days the process involves painting in reverse on clear plastic sheeting, building up layers of paint onto the plastic, and finally peeling all that paint off the plastic and mounting it on a polyester net.

I’ve always been inspired by your decision to switch gears from pre-med to art. What was the process of making that decision like?
It was a really natural transition. I had been painting and drawing as a hobby all through college, then after I graduated I went to live in Honduras for a year, postponing medical school because I wasn’t feeling excited about it. In Honduras I was volunteering with a social work group, and I had plenty of free time so I painted a lot, so much that it became my primary interest. After Honduras I decided to move to NYC to try to make it as an artist.

What inspired you to create “Freedom From Want?”
This body of work began with a painting that was my reinterpretation of a Norman Rockwell painting titled “Freedom From Want,” his famous Thanksgiving painting. I am interested in representing the changing notion of America as we’ve shifted from the American Dream of Rockwell’s visions to the current American Nightmare of today’s reality. That point of view is variously explored through other paintings in this exhibition, reflections on the concoction of war, consumerism, corruption, collapse, greed, brutality, and religious violence that is our contemporary world.

For the foodies among us, I have to ask: What’s with all the vittles in your work?
I mainly use food as a direct metaphor for consumerism, greed, desires. I paint monsters ravenously gorging themselves as a reflection of our ultra-consumerist culture.

Which painting in the exhibition is your favorite?
It’s hard to say, depending on the day, a different painting may resonate with me the most. I’d say “Tea Party Nightmare” may be the most important piece to me because it specifies the political critique that is more open ended in the other pieces.

What aspect of your career are you most proud of?
I’m really grateful that I do what I love to do for a living, and I’m fortunate to be exhibiting so that many people see my work. Along with that privilege I also feel a serious responsibility to work really hard, and to make work that communicates and engages a social consciousness.

What’s a typical day like for you?
I tend to roll out of bed, eat breakfast, and get to work in the studio right away. I spend a lot of hours painting and listening to NPR.

What would surprise people most about you or artistry in general?
About me: I’m a really mild-mannered guy, not a crazy monster like the paintings may suggest. About Art: it’s a lot of really hard work.

Any advice for up-and-coming artists?
Pursue the work that you love to do. To learn more, visit Aaron Johnson’s homepage.

What do you love about art–whether visual, literary or otherwise? What inspires you to create it? Any thoughts or questions for Aaron?

Stories: Where the Truth Comes Out

Last week I visited my brother, an uber-talented artist, in New York. A tremendous highlight was a decadent curry dinner, made by Mom and shared with a group of fellow artists – painters, writers, a poet, a sculptor, a weaver… Although we varied by medium, we had much in common — including the fact that we express ourselves through art.

“The only way you can write the truth is to assume that what you set down will never be read. Not by any other person, and not even by yourself at some later date. Otherwise you begin excusing yourself. You must see the writing as emerging like a long scroll of ink from the index finger of your right hand; you must see your left hand erasing it.” ― Margaret Atwood, The Blind Assassin

I think Atwood’s right. If we judge what we write too much, it loses any hope for authenticity — whether we write nonfiction or fiction.

I imagine that many of us discover truths about life, our experiences and our emotions through our writing. (In other words write first, understand yourself later. ;))

This song is a prime example. I wrote it, not realizing until the last line that it depicted me:

Thankfully, I’m no longer in that place. And I sincerely believe that composing the song helped me out of it.

What about you? Do you discover much about yourself in your stories? Or do you cope with emotions, stress or conflicts by writing through them?

‘Yes’ to Suspense

Hi! And thank you for visiting my blog. In addition to reading and writing—namely suspense/fiction, I love connecting with other readers and writers ‘o plenty.

I’ll start by posing this question: What is suspense? According to our trusty pal Webster:

sus·penseNoun/səˈspens/ 1. A state or feeling of excited or anxious uncertainty about what may happen. 2. A quality in a work of fiction that arouses excited expectation or uncertainty about what may happen.

Shouldn’t all stories fulfill these purposes? In my humble opinion, yes. Case in point: Anita Shreve is one of my favorite writers. Her books, although not categorized within the suspense genre, keep us guessing…wondering…flipping page after page…

What do you think?