A Woman's Guide to Unblocking Creativity. By Susan O'Donherty, PhD. Seal Press, 2007. Review copy courtesy of MotherTalk. When I saw that this book was going to be part of the MotherTalk blog tour I jumped on it so fast I almost pulled a muscle. This has been a summer of reading writing texts for me and finding one that addresses strategies for dealing with creative blocks is very exciting.
O'Donherty approaches the subject with experience as a writer and clinical psychologist. Her advice column for writers, “The Doctor Is In,” can be found on Fridays on the blog of MJ Rose, "Buzz, Balls, & Hype." She has numerous stories, poems and essays published. She has contributed to the anthology It's a boy! Woman Writers Raising Sons, edited by Andrea Buchanan. This is her first full length book. She tells the stories of several women artists; those who write, paint, and composes music, as well as her own story. I particularly appreciated her personal involvement in the writing process. It is striking how similar the obstacles all of these artists face. Chapters about the importance of role models, early artistic experiences, our shadow selves, managing motherhood, the perils of success, society's expectations of women's roles, and how we change as we grow older give the scope of artistic women's lives. Starting with the messages we hear as children about "what girls should do" and spanning the young adult development, mothering challenges, mid life peeks, and new freedoms of maturity O'Doherty guides us through the ups and downs.
She includes exercises at the end of each chapter, designed to turn us inward and give us a chance to listen to the wisdom we so often silence or ignore. She encourages us to keep a notebook and write about the meditation experiences. I tried to do all the exercises even though I don't feel particularly blocked at this time in my life. I am writing a lot this summer but there have been years in my life when I pushed it to the side and ignored it, believing I had nothing to say or that no one was interested. I know those times will come again and I want to be prepared. I am trying to make progress in my writing and at this point I am a willing student.
I confess I did some of these exercises halfheartedly, at the end of the day, lying on my bed. That might account for why I feel asleep during the visualizations and failed to achieve profound insights. Actually those particular exercises might be the ones I most need to practice. Perhaps there is something in the dark recess of my mind that I am not yet ready to hear. I will have to read this book again and dig a little deeper.
The exercises include writing a list of all the things we are told in childhood that "girls should do". I filled a page with that one. In "identifying your inner critic" she suggests we try to remember our earliest artistic attempts in childhood and record what messages we received from adults about our work. I spent a couple of hours searching through the memorabilia in the back of my closet looking for old school papers that might have my childhood poetry recorded. I didn't find the haiku I wrote in fourth grade but I spent some time remembering that it was received with a typical perfunctory enthusiasm that didn't recognize the profound influence haiku would have on my life.
In "communicating with your shadow self" she tells us to plan a day of sheer indulgence. What would we do, where would we go? Imagine living that day and then draw a picture of yourself as you would be. The woman who lived that day is your shadow self. What wisdom does she have to share with you? I enjoyed doing this exercise and wrote several pages about it. My shadow self told me to stop looking at clocks, among other things.
My very favorite exercise was the one after the chapter on "the impossible position: managing motherhood and creativity". After reviewing the challenges of loving, nurturing and serving our children while still being true to our artistic gifts she tells us that "what is crucial is to keep the light burning". The exercise is to have someone else watch your child(ren) for a time so you can go off and do your art. Even if you have to guilt a friend or relative into babysitting, she says you must make time for actually making art. You must take yourself and your work seriously enough to carve out time and dedication to it. She says, "the value of this work is immeasurable." I read this chapter at nap time on a day when both of my little boys happened to fall asleep at the same time ( a rare occurrence these days). I was delighted to jump up, go downstairs, take some photographs and write. I haven't gotten to the point where I will hire a babysitter to cover my writing time yet, but that day is coming.
In the chapter "a woman's place; creating art beyond what is expected" O'Doherty discusses how sexism and racism create barriers holding us back from fully dedicated work. She talks about the way making and sharing art makes us vulnerable to other's opinions, which we have been trained from childhood to value more highly than our own thoughts and feelings. She gives examples from her own life and the lives of other women artists that bring a deeper insight than we normally pursue, as well as advice about how to deal with these challenges.
In the back of the book O'Doherty gives a list of resources for further reading, which I plan to pursue. I have found this book both thoughtful and challenging. I have a new perspective on the writing process and a deeper commitment to facing the challenges head on. I recommend this book to every woman interested in exercising her creative energy in any artistic expression. I already have a friend waiting to read my copy, which I am happy to pass on to her. Look for this book!