anna brones

writer + artist + producer

Posts Tagged ‘creativity

Lisa Congdon

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“An artist is someone who practices and expresses their creativity intentionally and regularly.”

-Lisa Congdon

Even if you don’t know her name, it’s hard not to have come across the work of Lisa Congdon. Her illustrations have been featured in numerous books and magazines, her wisdom about working as an artist is inspiration for many seeking a creative path, and her bright, bold, thoughtful work has become a visual statement against the oppressive and divisive politics of our time, a balm for many of us.

I have followed Lisa’s work for years, and knew that I wanted to feature her in the Women’s Wisdom Project. But would she say yes to taking the time to do a Q&A?

If there is one thing that I respect about Lisa, it’s that she is very publicly open about how she manages her time, and the necessity of saying no. She recently launched a collaboration with Emily McDowell and she has a new retail space in Portland. All to say, Lisa has a lot on her plate, and I was so grateful when she responded to my email and agreed to answer a few questions.

Originally, I had thought about using either of these quotes in her papercut portrait:

“Want to get better at something? Keep doing it.”

“Every single person who chooses to embark on a creative path has to work at it… You have to stay open and constantly move outside what’s comfortable.”

All of those words have power, particularly for those of us in a creative field, whether it’s personally or professionally. But eventually I landed on something that she wrote in her answers in this Q&A. That an artist is “someone who practices and expresses their creativity intentionally and regularly.”

Why this quote in particular?

The topic of what we call ourselves often comes up in conversation with friends and colleagues. When you are in a creative field, there is sometimes a fear or pushback to feeling like you get to define yourself with a certain term. Simran Sethi talked about this in our interview, not feeling like she could comfortably call herself a writer. I too have felt this many times, hesitating at the terms “artist” or “writer,” wondering if I have permission to employ them.

Instead of defining who we are and what we do on our own terms, we often seek external validation. In our culture, usually that’s money. The Virginia Woolf quote comes to mind: “Money dignifies what is frivolous if unpaid for.”

But you are not an artist because someone pays you to make art. You are an artist simply because you are involved in the act of creating. That’s why Lisa’s quote stuck with me, a reminder to reinvest in the creative act, to continue to be intentional about creative work.

Anna: What does wisdom mean to you?
Lisa: Wisdom to me is perspective. Perspective on life, the flow of life, the ups and downs of life, the relative seriousness of life’s events, understanding that all things pass, even good and exciting things, especially the difficult things. It’s an ease, a loosening of the grip. The perspective that comes with wisdom grows naturally with age, and it’s very comforting.

Is there an influential woman in your life who passed along a piece of wisdom to you? Who and what?

I haven’t seen her in years, but I had a therapist in my early/mid thirties who literally helped me change my life. Previous to working with her, I thought of myself as a victim, as someone who had no agency over her life or happiness. I was really, really depressed and suffered from extreme anxiety. And she helped me shift my perspective to see that I had the power to create the life I wanted through what I believed about myself and about life. Low and behold, I worked on changing my beliefs about life and my own worthiness, and my happiness grew. She taught me that it was my attitude about life’s events — not life’s events themselves — that would determine the quality of my life, and that I should look at even difficult experiences as opportunities to learn more about myself and to grow. Everything shifted for me as a result. I ceased being a victim and began being creative. I began making art. Everything opened up as a result.

What does the word “artist” mean to you?

Someone who practices and expresses their creativity intentionally and regularly.

I think a lot about our cultural use of the words “productive” and “prolific.” Especially in creative fields, these are certainly viewed as positive things, often given as a compliment. And yet, I think that it distracts us from the importance of the process of creative work, because we are instead so focused on the outcome. You are a full-time artist, so how do you find that balance between producing artwork to keep yourself financially flourishing and investing in a process that fuels you?

I am one of those people who others describe as “productive” and “prolific.” People ask, “When do you sleep?” assuming that people who are prolific also do not enact self care or know how to recharge. I think one of the beautiful things about my path so far is that I have pushed the envelope so many times (working too much!) and have managed now to learn the sweet spot where the creative experience and productivity meet but don’t overwhelm me. I’ve made the mistake of taking on too much work or committing myself to too many projects in the past, and I’ve learned when I do that I basically just stressed out and I feel like crap physically and emotionally. So what’s the point? A new client on the client list? Something new to show in the portfolio? Those outcomes mean little if you are miserable in the process of achieving them. My work right now is finding just the right amount of work to pay the bills and feel creatively challenged, but also to do as much of my own personal work as possible (and I’m lucky because I can monetize my personal work), and find time to explore, try new things, and also to rest, ride my bike and enjoy my life. That work is hard because you have to be so self aware. You have to say no when something doesn’t serve that end, even when it’s a beautiful carrot. You have to be super present. It’s daily work. I’m into it, though. I want to feel happy and relaxed. Getting older makes me want to really live what I have left.

Do you experience creative blocks? If so, how do you deal with them?

I do sometimes, but not too often, because I am always actively seeking out inspiration and I also have en enormous amount of grit that helps me work through blocks. In my experience, creative blocks are either exhaustion or fear. So I try to suss out which it is in any particular situation. And then I either rest of push myself through the fear of failure or whatever I’m scared of.

What wisdom would you share with your younger self?

YOU ARE A SMART, CREATIVE BEING. YOU WORTHY OF LOVE AND HAPPINESS.

This papercut and profile are a part of the Women’s Wisdom Project, a project focused on showcasing the wisdom of inspiring, insightful women by making 100 papercut portraits.

Written by Anna Brones

March 22, 2019 at 08:07

Creative Fuel

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In need of a creative kick in the pants this year? Sign up for my newsletter to receive Creative Fuel.

Creative Fuel is going to be a monthly newsletter, sent out the first Friday of every month.

Creativity has always played an important role in my life, but it wasn’t until this last year that I really started to dig into the word and all of its implications. The more time I spent thinking about it, the more I was inspired, knowing that everyone gets to be creative, and that if we want to feel more creative, we have so many simple tools available to do just that.

So that’s what Creative Fuel is here to do: help us invest in and awaken our creative selves. Every month will be an exploration of the creative process, either through prompts or food for thought.

The first one goes out on Friday January 4, 2019. I hope you’ll sign up!

Written by Anna Brones

January 3, 2019 at 19:52

Surprise Art

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I love making things. I also love giving art to people, and I believe that our world is better with more art in it.

I wanted to offer something for the upcoming holiday season, but I didn’t have the capacity to invest money in items like prints or calendars. Instead, I want to offer small pieces of original artwork for people to keep or give away.

But here’s the catch: you don’t know what you’re getting. This is surprise art!

Between now and December 5th I will be making a series of small papercuts. Each one will be matted and wrapped. Place an order and you receive one of these pieces, which I will be sending out in two installments. Because I wrap them immediately after making them, I don’t know who is getting what. Consider it “grab bag art,” like when you were a kid and bought one of those paper bags at the toy store and had no idea what would be inside.

Each piece is mounted in a 5×7″ black mat and ready for framing. You can buy it for yourself, or for a friend, and feel free to order as many as you want. Because it’s a surprise, they are priced a little lower than my original pieces, the intent being to provide affordable artwork to bring a little joy to you and anyone you want to gift it to.

You can order here.

Written by Anna Brones

October 16, 2018 at 08:39

Nature’s Pace

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“Bark looks like islands. Nature’s map.”

I had written those few words next to a line drawing of bark in my sketchbook. I had stood close to a fir tree, so close I could inhale its smell, closely inspecting and drawing with my black pen the lines that I saw. Now that I look at the drawing it doesn’t really resemble bark anymore. But it certainly looks like islands.

How often do we take the time to see? The time to listen? The time to be?

I thought about this a lot last month during a three-week creative residency at Bloedel Reserve on Bainbridge Island. A creative residency is one of those wonderful things that allows you the time and space to let your creative mind wander, and I am so grateful for getting that time. I spent those three weeks with as much physical as mental wandering. After all, the two do go hand in hand.

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Written by Anna Brones

September 7, 2018 at 08:36

Cheryl Strayed

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“We are all responsible for finding beauty in our lives even when things are difficult.”

-Cheryl Strayed

At the end of May, I was lucky enough to sit down with Cheryl Strayed and interview her for the Women’s Wisdom Project. Cheryl and I had met a few times over the years while attending Mountainfilm, and I was honored that she graciously offered to spend an hour with me talking about all things related to wisdom.

Of course, I knew that this conversation would need to go a little above and beyond just a papercut portrait, or even a Q&A. So I asked my friend Gale Straub at She Explores if she would be interested in having me record the interview and we could turn it into a podcast. I got another yes, and soon found myself nervously preparing to record an interview with a new recording device that I had never used.

I say this because I think that context is everything. There’s always a back story, and in this case, the back story was that I wanted to doing something that I really didn’t know how to do (audio recording), and doubt and fear immediately kicked in at the back of my mind (“what if you ruin this audio entirely?”).

I dove in anyway.

Cheryl and I had a wonderful conversation. It’s a conversation that I have thought about so many times since. As for the audio? Well, it wasn’t perfect. But Gale (with a lot of work, that I am very grateful for) managed to turn it into a podcast episode, which you can listen to here.

It was a reminder that you have to push past fear. That things won’t always be perfect, but you’ll learn along the way. That’s a lot of what Cheryl and I talked about in our conversation. I replayed this part of our interview a few times as I was working on putting this piece together:

“One of my quotes in Tiny, Beautiful Things and in Brave Enough is that you give fear a seat at the table. You say, ‘welcome fear, your presence is an indication to me that I’m doing the work I’m meant to be doing.’ Because fear is part of our best work.”

Fear is part of our best work. Remember that.

I encourage you to listen to the podcast, but I wanted to capture some of my favorite parts of the interview here so that you could read them as well (including a couple of things that didn’t make it into the podcast).

I listened to this interview several times, wondering what bit of wisdom I would pull from Cheryl to use as the quote in her papercut. That’s the thing about quotes; they are always snippets, and this conversation was so rich, there was no way to boil it down to one sentence.

But there was one that stood out: “We are all responsible for finding beauty in our lives even when things are difficult.” Even Cheryl will admit that this bit of wisdom isn’t hers. It’s her mother’s. I chose it, because I think that it embodies the fact that wisdom is all around us, that it’s never just “ours.” Wisdom is passed down, it evolves, we offer it to others, and they pass it along to someone else.

We have so much to share with each other, and most often, the most meaningful wisdom and advice that guides is doesn’t come from a notable public figure, but in fact, from the people closest to us.

Anna: You are a prime person to talk to about wisdom, because I think a lot of people seek wisdom from you. 

Cheryl: It’s always strange for me to hear that I’m some sort of fount of wisdom and that’s always been the funny, an uneasy position that I’ve been in, not just as an advice giver as Dear Sugar, but even my other books Wild and, and my novel Torch. My books have always been read in this way that people take from them advice. So much of what I’ve been interested in as a writer is our emotional lives, our relationships, the ways that we love and lose and suffer and recover and grapple with how to be in the world.

What ends up happening is because I have spent so many years really examining that and thinking about that and writing about that, I ended up seeming like this figure, this wise woman. And I have to say, it makes me laugh because because I’ve got so much to learn. I think maybe part of the thing I feel grateful about when it comes to wisdom, it does come from that place of having a lot to learn and it comes from that place of being somebody who has had to do a lot of living and a lot of experiencing and a lot of loving and losing and making mistakes and making amends and trying to figure out the better way.

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Written by Anna Brones

August 8, 2018 at 10:56

You Are Enough

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When I was 16, I was offered a scholarship to go on a 21-day Outward Bound course in the High Sierras. While I had spent ample time outdoors, I had never been mountaineering before, and never on a backpacking trip that long. I would go and spend three weeks navigating the backcountry with strangers, all of us in that awkward teenage stage where we were already trying to navigate our own lives, trying to find our way across the invisible map that is life.

I don’t remember packing for the trip (I’m certain there was a list) and I don’t remember the flight down to Fresno, where we all met before hopping into vans and heading to base camp. I don’t even remember what base camp looked like. All I remember was that feeling in the pit of my stomach as I lay in my sleeping bag trying to fall asleep.

It was that slightly warm, slightly spiky feeling, one could call it “butterflies,” but that sounds too light, too friendly, too sweet. This is the kind of feeling that’s uncomfortable and off-putting, you might want to throw up, but you’re not really sure. You’re uncomfortable certainly, but not enough to indicate the kind of fear that’s intense enough to make you stop what you’re doing. And so you stick it out.

This is a feeling that I have experienced throughout my life, and still do. It’s a feeling of fear and trepidation, it’s a feeling of standing on the edge of a precipice and diving into the unknown, it’s a feeling of anxiety, it’s a feel of nervousness, it’s a feeling of not being good enough, or not being equipped enough to take on the task at hand. It’s a feeling that says, “I’m out of my comfort zone and I’m not so sure I want to be here right now.” Age has taught me that this is a feeling to be endured, because there’s usually good stuff on the other side.

This week I taught an outdoor cooking class. I spent most of the class being upbeat and effusive, throwing ingredients together without measuring them, spewing off ideas for variations that one could try, and generally trying to get the class to be excited about making food outdoors. Internally, there was a different scene taking place. “You’re not outdoorsy enough to be teaching this class. When did you last go backpacking? Three years ago? What do you know about packing light? You only go bike touring, that’s not outdoorsy enough. When was the last time you even cooked a meal outside? Two weeks ago when you went on a bike camping? Yeah, but that was an easy overnight that’s very close to home. What’s adventurous about that?”

I am not the only one to deal with that voice. We all have it. We all experience impostor syndrome on some level. The feeling that we are not truly qualified to be doing the thing that we are doing.

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Written by Anna Brones

July 27, 2018 at 11:46

What Blocks Our Creative Flow? (And How Do We Get Back There?)

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Creative flow is that sought after state that so many of us keep wanting to get to. When we’re there, we feel strong and empowered, as if we are doing exactly what we should be doing in that exact moment. We may work hard, but in a sense, that work feels effortless. When we’re not there, that state feels more elusive than ever, and we try to think of every possible means of chasing it down, hoping to harness that power once more.

But what is creative flow? When and why do we get into that state?

“The best moments in our lives are not the passive, receptive, relaxing times… The best moments usually occur if a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile,” wrote Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in his book Flow. 

That’s what we feel when we are in that moment of creative flow. We are immersed in what we are doing, everything else falls away. This doesn’t just happen in creative practice. Ever felt a runner’s high? That’s because of flow. Or when you come out of an hourlong yoga practice and realize that you haven’t thought about anything else in the last 60 minutes besides your physical presence? Flow.

I found a segment from WNYC from a couple of years ago on the neuroscience behind creative flow, featuring an interview with Dr. Heather Berlin. “Productivity doesn’t necessarily correlate with creativity,” says Berlin. An excellent reminder that just because we are producing work doesn’t mean that we are being creative or doing creative thinking. Some of the best stuff comes to us when we’re on a walk, or staring out the window. That’s because, “the unconscious can do much more complex processing,” says Berlin. The creative flow state can’t be forced. In those moments it’s better to turn off and tune out.

In her interview, Berlin mentions a study that involved MRI scans of jazz musicians’s brains while the musicians were improvising. This study is about ten years old, but the lessons to be drawn from it are timeless. According to Science Daily, “The scientists found that a region of the brain known as the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, a broad portion of the front of the brain that extends to the sides, showed a slowdown in activity during improvisation. This area has been linked to planned actions and self-censoring, such as carefully deciding what words you might say at a job interview.”

In other words, if we can turn that part of the brain off – or at least put it in pause – we might be better able to lower our inhibitions and better tap into our flow state.

Earlier this week, someone asked me what my writing process was. I would love to say that I diligently sit down on a regular basis and write for a predetermined amount of time, avoiding all distractions and committing myself to the process. I can think of about one month in the last year and a half when I was good about doing that (and I managed to write a book in that month, which I guess is proof that such commitment does work). However, for the most part, my writing process is what I call the “marination method.” I have an idea, or an assignment, I file it away at the back of my brain, and let the idea sit and percolate. Eventually the deadline nears, and I have to put pen to paper, or fingers to keyboard, and release those ideas.

Often I feel that I am up against a block, and in those moments I know that before I can sit down and do the work, I have to do something to get the creative juices flowing. A creative warm up so to say. That can be a run or a walk, or just taking a few minutes to paint with watercolors. (Sidenote: I am avoiding a deadline at this very moment, but telling myself that writing this is a good way to warm up to finishing the piece I need to turn in). Something to get my mind away from focusing too hard on the project at hand, and letting it wander instead. Often I find that somewhere in this process the unconscious kicks in, things come to the front of my mind that I hadn’t even considered. When I finally get there, then I feel like I am in the flow state.

I’m not necessarily advocating for that as a writing strategy, but in the moments when we feel that we are up against those creative walls, it’s an important reminder that pushing through isn’t necessarily the best path forward. If you let the prefrontal cortex do too much obsessing, you’ll keep coming up against that block. One study even used targeted electric currents to block that part of the brain, showing that doing so can help to break down that wall and lead to more creative thinking.

But we don’t need electric currents to stop obsessing. Think of another use of flow: physical movement. Exercise is good for our creativity. Intuitively, I think it makes sense that physical movement would lead to creative movement.

If we’re looking for that creative flow state, we have to do the things that get us there. There’s no magic solution, but you can be sure that refreshing your email isn’t one of them.

Stay small; often we don’t have an entire day to devote to a creative project, instead, think about what you could do creatively in fifteen minutes. If you can do those fifteen minutes every day, that ends up leading to a very regular creative practice, which helps to encourage the flow state.

Focus on putting one foot in front of the other; your overall project may be huge, but focus on the individual steps to get there, in order to distract your brain from derailing.

Think process, not product; flow is about being immersed in the moment, not getting hung up on whether or not the end product will be perfect.

Change your scenery. Take your notebook outside.

Avoid distractions. Unless of course they are the kind of distractions that encourage creative thinking.

Move.

Breathe.

Flow.

Written by Anna Brones

July 20, 2018 at 11:40