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Coaching the Artist WithinAdvice for Writers, Actors, Visual Artists, and Musicians From America's Foremost Creativity Coach
By Eric Maisel
New World LibraryCopyright © 2005 Eric Maisel
All right reserved.
IntroductionOne morning I get a call from John, a well-known musician who lives in Los Angeles. His band is falling apart. The drummer is back on heroin. The bassist is doing something criminal, dangerous, and stupid (though not drugs). The lead guitarist - this seems to make John the craziest - has taken to wearing a floppy hat on stage, a hat that John just can't stand. A hundred things in his life - no, two hundred - are a total mess. John runs through four of the two hundred - troubles with his girlfriend, troubles with his big house, troubles with his label, troubles with his manager.
"That's a lot to take in," I say.
"That's a lot to live," he replies.
"What do you want to do?" I ask him.
"Come to San Francisco and see you," he says.
We meet at my office - an out-of-the-way café with a quiet garden in the back. This is where I see clients. We talk for two hours. It turns out that what's actually on John's mind is that he hates the songs he's been writing. We focus on this. I ask him questions, listen to what he says, come to certain conclusions about what he really means and really wants to do.
"What about writing ballads about your childhood in Budapest?" I ask. "That might get at what you've been saying."
"That's exactly what I want towrite!" he exclaims. "But I can't write those songs. The label would hate them. The band would hate them. Our fans would hate them. I haven't got an ounce of permission to write those songs."
I wait. He's thinking. I know that this is the moment John's been moving toward for months, maybe years. He needs a little nudge, a little encouragement.
"Do you want to write those songs?" I ask.
"I do," he replies in a small voice.
"Will you write those songs?"
"I will." It's barely a whisper.
"Start one right now."
"Right now? Here?"
"Here. I'll get us refills. Just begin."
He looks skeptical - but also willing. He jots a note on the pad in front of him. He makes another note. Suddenly he looks around. It's an only-in-San-Francisco moment. In parts of San Francisco not much has changed since the sixties, and there on the bench across from us are a couple of leathery-skinned blues musicians, guitars in tow. My client gets up from our table, chats with them for a minute, and borrows one of their guitars. By the time I return with our coffee, John has a song written. It becomes the seventh track on his next album, an album that everyone proclaims to be the band's most poignant and lyrical.
Later that morning I get my weekly call from a best-selling novelist in England. Her house has more windows than my ?at has books, and she has at her behest the kind of help you only encounter in English novels: gardeners, a personal assistant, a driver, specialty physicians who provide her with exercise and nutrition regimens, an astrologer, a masseuse. She has written a zillion genre novels. But she feels like a fraud because she's never tackled a single novel that she considers worthy. She claims she wants to tackle a novel of this sort - she even has one in mind - but she has set up her life so that deadlines for new novels arrive every four or five months. Then there are the publicity demands associated with each new novel. She's managed to allow herself absolutely no time or space to begin her "real work."
Margaret is aware that this unfortunate routine has to do with her fear that she isn't really capable of doing great work. She also knows that this fear is connected to childhood experiences of abandonment. She has excellent insight into her situation and in fact often acts as a lay therapist for her friends. But when Margaret tries to get near her "worthy novel," something like a hurricane rises up in her, causing all sorts of mayhem - accidents, legal assaults, crises with her children. She has a strong notion that the gods are demanding that she do great work and also that they are mocking her and preventing her from starting. She is their beloved at the same time that she is loathsome in their eyes.
We work on this issue, as we do every week, in the intimacy of a phone conversation. There is no more intimate coaching work than phone coaching. My clients who reside in London, Paris, New York, or Los Angeles are only a breath away, a millimeter away, as close as a person can be. In the course of our chat Margaret mentions the (very large) sum that her latest novel has made in its Swedish translation. It is more than I have made from a lifetime of writing.
"They love me in Sweden," she says.
"More than you love yourself," I murmur.
"Infinitely more than I love myself," she agrees.
"That'll be our work for the next fifteen minutes. All right?"
"I can feel the hurricane rising up already."
"I know this is the work. All right."
"You have worthy novels in you. Do you believe me?"
"I love it that you believe it. But I don't know if I believe it."
"Take that as your affirmation. All right? 'I have worthy novels in me.'"
"I have worthy novels in me."
"What are you feeling?"
"Like I'm going to die."
We sit with her terror for several seconds. Then we resume, two intelligent mortals taxed beyond all reckoning by the task of healing this wounded writer. It is the hardest of all labors, birthing a worthy book from a woman who doubts that she can deliver. When the hour is done I reheat my coffee and sit by the window for a moment, looking out at my corner of San Francisco Bay. The vista is framed on the left by a distant Mount Diablo and on the right by Candlestick Park. A mockingbird is singing.
In the early afternoon I drive to a local music conservatory and give a performance anxiety workshop for young opera singers. I teach them a special anxiety management tool I've been developing, called the Centering Sequence - a six-breath, six-thought, one-minute calming exercise. Then I have them stand, one by one, and silently sing arias to themselves. At a certain point I interrupt the current silent singer, whose anxiety is palpable.
"What's on your mind right now?" I ask.
"The D above high C that's coming soon," she replies.
"Do you feel prepared for it?"
"But you usually hit it?"
"I hit it. But it's never beautiful."
"It'll be beautiful if you can just relax. You can add two or three beautiful notes to either end of your range if you're more relaxed. Did you know that?"
"I've heard people say that. But it has no real meaning for me."
"Okay. You're going to practice the relaxation technique I taught you earlier. Then you're going to sing out loud. All right?"
She runs through her warm-ups. I walk her through the Centering Sequence, and she sings. She hits her high notes beautifully. The young opera singers in the room are more than impressed: they are instantly motivated. We spend the rest of the time practicing the Centering Sequence and learning a few additional techniques. They chuckle when I teach them a personal favorite, silent screaming.
That evening my wife and I visit the Wild Side West, our local pub, a lesbian-but-hetero-tolerant bar with a fantasy back garden of toad-shaped benches, ruined pagodas, and leafy drinking niches. We catch up. Ann is a high school administrator and has many stories to tell. I tell her about the opera singers and the tricky turn my current non-fiction book is taking. We chat about our daughters, about recaulking the tub, about the possibility that we're eating too much fish. I give her the celery out of my Bloody Mary, which is no idle gesture, as we both love that celery.
At six the next morning I'm at my computer writing. I write every morning, seven days a week, for at least an hour and on good days for three or four. I try to sell the idea of regularity and routine to my clients, the idea that some significant percentage of the disappointment they feel about not creating will evaporate like sun-kissed mist if only they will commit to getting to their creative work first thing every morning. Creating should come first, absolutely first, before their yoga, before their mental chatter begins, before they start dressing for work or hauling the kids off to school. If they could only bring their "new-morning" mind to their creative work, they would work like angels. This is one of my coaching mantras.
At nine I have a phone client, an ex-pat painter who lives and works in Mexico City. She has the oddest problem, which actually isn't so odd at all. Six months ago she finished the largest project of her life, an enormous mural painted on the side of a church. She had a huge grant and several helpers. The project was so large that it took them a full six months just to prepare the wall for painting. The mural was a great success. She can hardly explain how good it felt to complete it and what pride she takes in the accomplishment. But since the day she finished the mural she hasn't been able to return to her studio. Her normal-sized canvases now bore her to tears.
Our work is to help her love painting in the studio again. Part of the problem, it turns out, is that she is tired of her old imagery. Returning to the studio feels deadly dull on two scores: the canvases feel too small, and the subject matter feels trivial. She has become quite well known for Mexico City cityscapes that are close to touristy, full of whimsy - or is it irony? - and that are incredibly popular with collectors. It has taken a few sessions, but today we arrive at the truth of the matter. She wants to go fully abstract, to pour her passion, wildness, and, yes, her despair and destructiveness into her canvases. She wants to break out of the jail of her customary imagery.
She's been holding the mural as both a blessing and a curse, staggeringly wonderful to have done but a stake driven into her normal way of working. Today we see it for what it was, completely a blessing. It has given her a powerful push in the direction she has long wanted to go. It's time for her to make enormous abstract paintings, even though her collectors will be horrified. Or will they? We agree that we don't know. We agree that it's impossible to say. We agree that, really, there is nothing to fear. She is excited, too excited to keep talking. We stop ten minutes early. Four hours later I get an email from her, telling me that her first abstract painting is now finished.
One of the things I've done during those four hours is read lesson responses from the creativity-coaches-in-training whom I'm grooming. Twice a year I initiate a sixteen-week training that draws about twenty aspiring creativity coaches. They live in the Netherlands, New Zealand, Israel, Singapore, Switzerland, rural and urban America, everywhere and anywhere that email reaches. In turn, they work with clients who themselves are flung all over the globe. The world has never seen anything like it. A coach-in-training in rural Georgia can work with a painter in Brazil, a rapper in New York, a poet in Berlin, and an architecture student a long stone's throw away in
I find their responses poignant. They are just learning how to coach others, and they are also just learning how to coach themselves. What they are learning - about negative self-talk as a creativity killer, about the necessity of creating "in the middle of things," about the virtues of plans and schedules and baby steps - is eye-opening for them and is inspiring them to create. This is something of a problem for them, because they need to devote the little spare time they have to their work with clients. What I know will happen is that a substantial number of these coaches-in-training will experience an amazing burst of creativity as soon as the training ends. Though this was not their goal when they signed on - they thought they were investigating a new career option - it is an entirely welcome by-product of paying attention to how the creative process actually works.
In the afternoon I meet a client who's driven two hundred miles from Santa Barbara for our meeting at my "office." He is a successful (though not wildly successful) abstract painter whose canvases sell for $10,000 apiece and who, in good times, sells ten or more canvases annually out of his trendy Santa Barbara gallery, which his wife manages. I learn as we chat that he wants two contradictory things, to become a painter whose new paintings bring in $30,000 apiece and to stop painting altogether and become, at the age of fifty-five, a sculptor.
He is new to sculpting and is making many messes and mistakes. He is also new to the fabrication process and is finding it hard to rely on others. In his mild paranoia he feels that others, who happen to be less successful painters toiling away as fabricators, are actively sabotaging his sculptures. He is also worried (or rather his wife is worried) that sculpting is a grave indulgence, considering that they have bills to pay, including stunning ones for a new painting studio addition to his seaside home. Despite these caveats, he wants to sculpt. The problem isn't exactly that he's tired of painting, although that's part of it. More to the point is that his style of painting no longer challenges him, whereas everything about sculpting does.
In fact, he is looking for permission from me to be an artist. He wants to hear that I understand why he wants to sculpt and that I think he ought to sculpt. I freely grant him that permission - but not without first marching him step-by-step through the minefields, through the real conflicts, within him and between him and his wife, that are preventing him from committing to sculpture. Each conflict carries weight and must be addressed. Is it right to embark on something that will have a financial impact not only on him but on his wife? Is it wise to abandon painting entirely in this, the first blush of enthusiasm for sculpting? Is there a smart way both to paint and sculpt? These are the matters we address as a breeze rustles leaves and shifts shadows around us.
Later that afternoon I have an initial phone session with a woman who is working on her first novel. Jessica has worked on this novel sporadically for four years and is very disappointed in herself for making so little progress, for stumbling along without much energy or enthusiasm on a project she once thought she loved. She announces that she should probably be out making money, which her lawyer husband would dearly love her to earn, at some job or other rather than wasting so much time brooding about her novel. She hates feeling like a dilettante, a wannabe, a fool, and a failure.
Excerpted from Coaching the Artist Within by Eric Maisel Copyright © 2005 by Eric Maisel. Excerpted by permission.
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