No Great Story Ever Started with “I Think I’ll Take a Nap”

A friend of mine recently attended an afternoon writing panel on which I was speaking about Strong Women in Children’s Literature. She’d had a busy morning. She’d worked out and followed that with a heavy lunch with her family. She was tired and tempted to skip my panel in favor of a nap. After the event, she told me how glad she was she decided to forgo sleeping and come to the panel, where she felt educated and inspired. “I reminded myself, no great story ever started with the character deciding to take a nap,” she said.

What a good lesson that is for everyone. We are all so terribly busy and overwhelmed and just plain tired at times. And our art and the study of our art can feel like one more thing to add to our plates. Even those of us who do this full time find it tempting to skip work some days in favor of a long walk in the sunshine or finishing the last two chapters of that awesome novel we’ve been reading.

But like most things in life, once you sit down and put some attention toward your art, you typically get drawn in. It might take a few minutes, but pretty quickly you get a sense of where you left off and start to feel that tug to move forward. That’s why it’s so important to set regular hours to pursue your art. Even if you can’t do it every day, knowing there is a time that week you have dedicated to your art will help you stay focused and on task. And while you are away from your desk or easel or musical instrument, your mind will know that deadline is approaching and will work subconsciously to get you ready for your date with your art.

Relationships take work. If you’re going to court your muse, you need to give her some time and attention. She needs to know she matters.

So no more excuses. You can sleep your way through life, or you can engage. What’s it going to be?

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Want to Know the Secret to Being a Great Artist?

The secret to being a great artist is being observant. Yep, it’s that simple. Regardless of your level of skill or talent, you can still make a connection with an audience if you simply learn to listen, notice, feel, and experience the world around you.

Ask any writer who is good at dialogue what her secret is and she’ll tell you, “I listen.” I lurk around coffee shops and malls and networking groups and bars and I listen. I listen to how you talk to your children and how they talk to you; how you sound when you’re frustrated and how you sound when you’re happy; what you have to say about a current issue and what you say when you don’t want to talk about it.

Ask any painter how he captures light or color so perfectly and he’ll tell you, “I notice.” I notice how the light streams through closed blinds and hits the plant on the table or how the red in a tulip changes when the sun dips behind a cloud. I notice the way the pink in your shirt highlights the blush in your cheeks or how the color of the wine in this glass changes when I hold it up to the light.

Ask any songwriter how she so perfectly captures emotions in her songs and she’ll tell you, “I feel.” I take note of how it feels to have my heart broken or to hold a new baby in my arms. I stand on the edge of a cliff and notice how it feels to have my toes dangling over the edge and I stand in a corner and feel alone in a room full of people. Sometimes I sit on a swing and pump my feet as hard as I can to remember how it feels to fly.

Ask any dancer how he makes you believe he’s dancing in the snow and he’ll say, “I tap into the experience.” I go outside when the first flurries fall and stretch out my bare arms to feel the flakes land on my skin or I close my eyes and imagine a world of white and cold. I turn down the heat in my apartment while I practice, and on the night of the performance, I try to remember everything I’ve ever known about cold and snow and beauty and belonging.

All it takes to be a great artist is to be aware, to take note of the world around you, not rush through it or past it. We all know how to notice. We did it all the time when we were babies and toddlers. We noticed everything then. It’s still in us, we just have to remember how. Try it now. Look around the room. What do you see, hear, smell, taste, touch? And now, how do those things make you feel? In that connection lies your art.

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Sometimes You Just Gotta Do It

I’m not sure if you are familiar with the program “StrengthsFinder by Gallup.” I was introduced to the book years ago and it made a huge impact on my understanding of how I function as an artist and a business woman. As it turns out, though, most of my strengths lie in the category of strategy (I’m more the big picture thinker). I have zero strengths in execution (you know the little tasks that have to get done to put a plan in motion).

So the past three weeks have been difficult, frustrating, annoying, and draining for me. When you are launching a new book (and two other projects at the same time), there are plenty of little tasks that need to get done. You can spend an entire day filling out forms, double-checking entries, selecting and ordering items, playing phone tag, even running to three different stores to get all the items you need for the related events.

So I’ve been cussing a bit more than I usually do, and slumping in my chair, and whining—a lot. But sometimes you just gotta do it. It’s worth it when it’s done.

Maybe for you, the tasks I just described sound easy and fun. We all have different strengths. That’s what makes us a good team. But there are going to come days when you have to operate outside your strengths, and you need to acknowledge that those tasks need to be done and find the stamina to do them.

There is no perfect job. People think we artists have perfect jobs. That we just sit around all day practicing or musing about our art or daydreaming about success. But there are plenty of tasks we don’t want to do. Plenty of chores that need to be done.

Still, one of my favorite quotes is from an old 80s TV show (can you guess it?). “I love it when a plan comes together.” And I do. I LOVE it when my projects launch and launch well. So I’ll do whatever it takes to make that happen, even if it takes a lot more cussing.

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Birthing Your Creative Baby

The other day, I was visiting with a group of writers, one of whom had finished a second major revision of her book and was about to start a third. “It’s like birthing a baby, isn’t it?” One of the other writers said.  “Yeah, a breech baby,” my friend responded.

There is nothing quick or easy about writing a book. The writers who make it look easy likely worked much harder and longer than you or I will ever realize. I’m releasing my newest book soon, and I can’t tell you how many hundreds of hours went into producing “just a children’s book.”  I can tell you, though, that the amount of time I spent revising the book equals the amount of time I spent writing it!

Those writers (and other artists) who brag about how quickly they produced a certain work don’t always tell the whole story. “I wrote my book in 30 days,” they say. What they don’t tell you is that for those 30 days, writing is practically all they did. And they don’t often count the time they spent in revision after their 30-day baby was reviewed by a trusted reader or editor.

“Anything worth doing is worth doing well.” I remember hearing that old adage often when I was a child. I keep it at heart whenever I start a new project, but it’s not always easy. As the very long process of researching, writing, producing, and promoting a book unfolds, it’s often tempting to cut corners.

But just as any good mother does her best to nurture the child in her womb, bring him safely into the world, and raise him well, any good artist does his/her best to bring art into existence that we hope adds something of value to the human experience.

So to all you artists out their toiling long and hard on your new works, know that we appreciate your efforts. Your babies are beautiful!

Are You Producing or Creating?

This entry marks the fourth anniversary of this blog and the 200th post! Hard to believe. I’ve now shared 73,500 words with you, loyal readers. Enough to fill a book! Words I hope have provided inspiration, encouragement, support, and a kick in the butt as you pursue your artist journey or uncover your creative self.

The other day, a friend told me she had lost interest in a particular artistic endeavor to which she had committed herself. She said it no longer felt like she was “creating” only “producing.” What an interesting distinction.

We hear it said all the time that certain artists are “producing at a high level” or that good artists should be “producing work all the time.” There’s a lot of language thrown our way that has to do with production, a word that’s base is formed from the word “product.” But when we are producing our best art, it doesn’t feel like production at all. It feels like creation.

It feels like giving birth, the ultimate act of creation. It feels like something bigger than us is flowing through us, a divine creation. It feels like this is exactly what we were meant to do, a bit of self-creation. It feels like we’ve been touched with unexplained power, a magical creation.

It doesn’t feel that way all the time. And often it doesn’t feel that way for long. But it’s the thrill of creation that keeps us coming back, whether we are doing it on our own or with a team.

Creation feels new, original, and untapped. Production feels old, predictable, and routine. It’s not to say production is a bad thing. Without it, we wouldn’t have cars to drive or cereal to eat. Production can still produce great things. And sometimes it’s necessary (like my friend with her contract).

But creation is where the true art lies. Creation leads to growth. It stimulates our sense of wonder. It brings us wisdom while keeping us young.

I wondered if I’d reach a point where this blog would feel like production. If it ever does, I promise I’ll stop. For now, every week, it still feels like creation. It still feels like we’re in this together, you and me. Filling up on each other’s energy and passion and love of art. Fueling each other’s creations. Thank you for taking this ride with me.

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What If?

What If? My two favorite words. They’ve spawned every creation since the dawn of time.

The poet asks “what if?” before he puts his pen to paper; the politician asks “what if?” when she’s proposing a new bill; the humanitarian asks “what if?” when he’s imagining a better world; the scientist asks “what if?” when she’s tried everything else.

“What If” gets us unstuck. It pushes us forward. What if you were to quit that job you hate and take the one you want? What if you committed to that person you love? What if you stopped waiting for the perfect time and had that baby now?

“What If” leads to breakthroughs and paradigm shifts and whole new philosophies. It brings people together, “What if we could find a way to compromise? What if you tried this and I tried that?”

“What If” challenges old beliefs. “What if the world is not flat? What if slavery is not sanctioned by the bible? What if women really did have the right to vote?”

“What If” fires artistic expression. “What if I painted my poppies green?” or “What if I wrote a short story using only dialogue?”

And “What If” doesn’t need to be taught. Even babies get it. “What if I put this teddy bear in the snow to turn him white?”

“What If” is what this world needs now. We need people to stand up and say, “It’s only ‘the way it is’ until we decide to change it.”

And what if that person were you? Fill yourself with “What If” and see what happens.

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How to Be in the Flow and Still Keep Living

I’ve always prided myself on being one of those people who never drops the ball, no matter how many I’m juggling. People ask how I stay so organized and on top of things. Oddly, I don’t think of myself as organized (you should see my desk), but I do take my responsibilities seriously.

But lately, I’ve been doing some deep thinking and exploration that requires a certain type of focus. Suddenly, this past week I got my times mixed up for two different appointments and there were a couple of other small balls I dropped. It was a goal of mine this year to regain “deep focus” in my work, but I’m discovering the more deeply you are focused, the less notice you pay to the little things.

Maybe my concern over all of this goes back to one of the many myths we maintain about artists: that artists are flighty, head-in-the-clouds, overgrown children who don’t notice when their shoes don’t match, much less when they’ve forgotten to pay a tax bill. I’ve spent my entire career trying to debunk that and so many other myths about artists.

Then again, there is some truth to the distraction of being “in the zone.” When the creative juices are flowing, it’s hard to stop and address other things, no matter how important. It’s very possible, even probable, you will lose that great work if you end it too early, but I don’t think this a phenomenon specific to artists. I’ve seen it happen with scientists and nurses and even mechanical engineers. In other words, anyone who is working to solve a problem, come up with a solution, or just provide an extra layer of care.

So how do we strike that balance between surrendering to the flow and maintaining responsibility in our lives and business? Well, Hemingway used to make a practice of stopping his writing mid-scene so that when he came back to the page the next day, he knew right where to start. He believed the subconscious mind would continue to piece together the work while he went on with the rest of his life. I like this approach because it gives me permission to stop when I need to and still believe the work will not suffer.

My point is, it’s not just artists who get caught up in the flow of work or life. It can happen to anyone. So the next time your artist friend is late or doesn’t show up, don’t call her “flaky,” remember it could easily be you the next time you get a professional call you just have to take or meeting with a new client takes longer than expected. A little patience and understanding goes a long way among professionals.

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How to be One with Everything

I was that child who never pulled a leg off a grasshopper or a wing off a bee. I never burned an ant with a magnifying glass or kicked a dog for barking. I was that kid who named our plants and urged them to grow. I named our cars, too, and was furious with my dad when he sold one of our sedans without letting me say good-bye. I was that child who talked to the people in the paintings, and they talked back.  And the kid who knelt backwards in the backseat of the car chatting with the moon, whom I called Moonie. He was my friend. I knew that because he followed me everywhere.

I was that child who cried at night because children were starving in Ethiopia, while we had a grain surplus in America. And the kid who’d ask some elderly person what it was like when he was young. I waved at people in passing cars like I’d known them my whole life.

I had sleepovers with my guardian angels, and Jesus was that friend to whom I could tell all my secrets. Mother Mary was my second mother. And God? Well, God sent his Holy Spirit to fill me up in the confessional, so I wasn’t afraid. God had my back, even when bad things happened. And he had everyone else’s back, too, whether they were Jews or Muslims or Buddhists, as long as they were “good people.” It was that simple.

It’s not hard to be one with everything when you’re a child. It’s not hard to see how it all fits together: humanity, nature, science, art, religion, the cosmos. It’s not difficult to believe in the divine or in magic or in imagination. And then we grow up and have to “work” at being one with everything. We have to read books on the subject and attend lectures. We lose faith in everything, even ourselves. We no longer believe that anything is possible and that everything is relevant. We question it all.

But deep inside us dwells that child, the one who believes with all her heart we are capable of great things, and everything we create—if it’s created for good—is important and deserving.

That ability to believe is not something we need to “develop,” it’s something already inside us. We just need to feel into it once again and know without doubt that being one with the universe is as easy as seeing everything and everyone as your equal. Only then can you be truly open to anything. And with openness will come your very best art.

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It’s Time to Be Bigger

2017 was a hard year. Political turmoil, worldwide terrorism, natural disasters, and so much more. Many of my friends started the year in a state of panic. So much to do, so much to undo. They took to the streets to protest and rally, and to the phones to call their senators and congressmen. They joined or formed political organizations and recommitted to causes they value. They used their art to express their worry, fear, outrage, and confusion.

But as the year came to a close, something happened. Many of the people I know who care deeply about this planet and its inhabitants finally stopped to breathe. They began to focus. “I can’t do it all,” they admitted. “I need to figure out where I can best serve.” And they started to dig deeper into the things that mattered most to each of them.

This year, more than ever, I’ve seen people turning to words to help them identify what they stand for. They are asking, “What do you resolve to do this year? What will be your guiding word? What is your motto for 2018 (or mission statement or manifesto)?” We are looking for our purpose, and looking to state our intentions out loud.

I have not lately been one for New Year’s resolutions, and have never before adopted a motto, but I am this year. My motto for 2018 is “Be Bigger.” It was “think bigger,” and then my guides informed me that “thinking bigger” is not what it’s about for me. I’m already too much in my head. In the past, I’ve been driven by a nagging voice whispering always in my ear, “Figure it out.” This year, they said to tune out that voice and focus on being bigger so I can feel safe to stand in my power.

So that’s my goal. And in order to do that, I need to reduce stress and get quiet. And in order to do that, I need to focus only on the work that really needs to be done.

There are plenty of bad people in this world doing bad things. There always have been, and there always will be. But the good people are rising up and challenging them. They are using words as their weapons, and finding the courage to speak up, speak out, and speak for. It’s time for us all to “be bigger,” to find the power that resides in each of us and the courage to express it with our words, our actions, and our art.

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Happy Holidays from Teresa Funke

May your holiday season be filled with love, laughter, faith, hope, and peace.

Let your talents shine.

Show your true self.

Embrace your truths.

And get ready for a heartfelt, soul-driven, creative New Year!

With love, Teresa Funke