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Coaching the Artist Within
Advice for Writers, Actors, Visual Artists & Musicians from America's Foremost Creativity Coach
By Eric Maisel
New World LibraryCopyright © 2005 Eric Maisel, PhD
All rights reserved.
BECOMING a SELF-COACH
The ability to effectively coach yourself hinges on your having enough space to positively influence yourself, to openly communicate with yourself, to carefully monitor yourself, and to regularly chat with yourself. This mindful and ultimately courageous way of being requires that you get some distance from yourself, becoming a witness to your own life, birthing someone who compassionately but unflinchingly notices your antics and your defensive maneuvers and who, from the vantage point of an observer who has a little cultivated distance, motivates you, congratulates you, chides you when you need chiding, and loves you when you need loving.
This is the first skill we'll practice, separating yourself into two parts, your ordinary self (with which you are very familiar) and your "inner creativity coach" (which may prove a revelation). To that end, please try your hand at the following exercise.
Chatting with Yourself
Get two kitchen chairs and position them so that they are facing each other. You are about to have a chat with yourself. When you sit in chair one you are going to be you. When you sit in chair two you are going to be your "inner creativity coach." It's as simple as that. Pick an issue that's been on your mind such as:
not finishing your novel
hating your day job but seeing no way out
having doubts about your paintings' subject matter
wanting to perform but suffering from performance anxiety
tackling your anorexia
being deeply, pervasively bored
wanting to make documentary films but not feeling up to the challenge
I think you can see that this first step is magnificent and profound — finding the courage to confess to a real problem. We do this only rarely. We may suffer the fleeting thought "I am not finishing my novel" fifty times a day without once stopping to acknowledge or confess to the problem. We refuse to stop because we believe that stopping would make us incredibly anxious and ultimately result in a blow to our self-esteem.
We fear that if we stopped to confess we would drown in despair and self-loathing. So we needle and belittle ourselves while simultaneously doing nothing to solve the problem. What we must do is to fearlessly acknowledge the problem. This is what you do in chair one. You sit there and say to your coach, "I am not working on my novel. There. I've said it."
Then you move to chair two and play the role of coach. What do you reply as your own coach? It can be something in the spirit of inquiry, something obvious like, "Why aren't you writing? You claim that your novel is damned important to you, so what's going on?" This inquiry is a vital second step in the process. You-as-coachare interested in the "why" of the matter, just as an inventor is interested in knowing what filament works best in a lightbulb. You sit the reprepared to figure out what's going on. You are going to bring everything you know about human nature and the realities of living to the encounter for the sake of getting to the bottom of the matter and finding a way out.
Now you return to chair one, since a question is pending. Reseated in chair one, you mutter, "Why? Because the novel is shit." Now you must return to chair two instantly! If you don't, you'll wallow in that characterization, hate yourself and your novel, and be at exactly the same place you usually find yourself, paralyzed and without hope.
Back in chair two you continue: "So you say it's no good. First we need to figure out what that means. Is the novel's conception faulty? Is it really as boring and undramatic as you fear? Or does it just need more drafts and revisions? Golly, we certainly know how many revisions a novel might require! Have we forgotten that? — or do we think that we should be spared the task of revising? Or is it that it must be radically redone? — yes, I know how much work that would be! First of all, is your appraisal even correct? Do we need to show bits of it to Mike and Jane and see what other people think? We've certainly been avoiding doing that. What do you think?"
You can see that the basic requirements for becoming a coach are courage and common sense. As your own coach you ask yourself the most obvious questions and then try to answer them. You enter into real dialogue, you scratch your head, you try things out, you bat the issue back and forth. Virtually no one does this, even though it is clearly one of the best ways to proceed How many times have you entered into real dialogue with the part of you that could coach you out of your difficulties? Today, if you are willing to do this exercise, the answer is, at least once.
Continue moving between the two chairs until you can honestly say that you've faithfully examined the issue you broached. Let an hour or two pass and then try the exercise again, this time without the chairs. Present an issue to your coach and coach yourself to an answer. Begin an everlasting coaching partnership with this simple exercise.
* * *
When you can't step away from yourself to observe, when you are boxed into yourself, your sight is myopic and your thinking repetitive and stereotypic. You can't see answers; in fact, you can't even see questions. Those thoughts and behaviors that do not serve you — calling yourself bad names, not creating, wresting illusory control by bingeing and purging or running marathons — become the only thoughts and behaviors available to you. You become a one-note wonder and the largeness of the universe cannot manifest itself in you. In this very common state you can't carry on a simple conversation with yourself, a conversation that might begin, "Eric, you haven't been writing recently. Let's chat about that without getting all anxious and defensive."
Acquiring this coach-inside, this compassionate witness, this round-the-clock friendly companion and taskmaster, is important beyond reckoning. Without this coach-inside, you are three-quarters blind. You make decisions only because you are feeling anxious and need to decide something. You spend years neither articulating nor fulfilling your life mission. You remain stubbornly uncoachable, someone who takes pride in his or her own small, faulty ways of doing things. It is one thing to reject the coaching of others — that can certainly be wise. But to reject your own counsel? That has to be very close to cowardice.
The first self-coaching skill you must acquire is the willingness to bravely become your own coach. If you are not willing to take a radical new stance, to have conversations with yourself rather than shutting your mind to your own good thoughts — out of fear, doubt, and anxiety — you will not be able to master the other eleven skills I want to teach you. You don't need to take a formal coaching course — you already know everything you need to know. What you need is the willingness to coach yourself.
Perhaps you are deeply resistant to this process because of what it entails. It means exposing your cherished defenses and favorite excuses to the scrutiny of a second voice that says, "I love you, but no more bullshit." It means taking responsibility for what is in your control, not for wars and famine, not for overpopulation and a shrinking ozone layer, not for your father's temper and your day job's lousy vacation policy, but for how you will make meaning and for when and where you will create.
Most people never achieve this level of self-awareness, self-communication, and real courage. As a consequence they never become wise about their own motives, methods, and madnesses. They succumb to their depression and anxiety, soothe themselves by shopping or watching sports, and let decades pass in a trance. This is the common way, the entirely human way, the way that most people live, including those who have the itch to create.
This enormous first task, finding the willingness to become your own coach, really means finding the willingness to be truthful and objective about your situation and then doing whatever your situation requires, including things you don't want to do. There is simply no one else who can do this witnessing and coaching for you. A coach can't hit and field for his players. Each player must be her own self-coach if she is to throw to the right base and not swing at balls out of the strike zone. Your job today — and you can do it in five minutes flat, but only if you are willing — is to internalize a self-coaching voice, to say to yourself, "I am going to grow aware of my own antics and become my own unflinching friend, guide, and advocate."
This is not like activating your "inner stockbroker," "inner masseuse," "inner herbalist," or "inner real estate agent." This is the largest existential task confronting you, taking responsibility for the way you operate, the way you make meaning. Hiring on your inner creativity coach is the equivalent of saying, "I am ready to step up to the plate." You can do this only if your reasons for creating make sense to you. Why step to the plate if your potential paintings, songs, or poems — even the most profound and beautiful ones — don't really matter to you? The next exercise will help you discern what does matter to you.
Deciding to Matter
Your ability to create is intimately connected to your intention to matter. If you don't really think that you, your ideas, or your work matter, you won't have the motivational juice to create. So I would like you to say, "I intend to matter" or, "My creative work matters," or "I matter" twenty or thirty times today. Will you do that? Start right now by saying "I matter" loud enough for me to hear you here in San Francisco. Keep saying "I matter" out loud and without embarrassment, until something clicks and you feel a steely resolve to be of significance.
* * *
Your first self-coaching skill is accepting the mantle of self-coach. Accepting this mantle is a learned skill — it is absolutely not automatic. In fact, this process runs counter to our habitual ways of dealing with things. If you learn to accept this mantle, then when something comes up — when anything comes up — instead of exclaiming, "Oh, hell!" or, "How disappointing!" or, "There I go again!" you stop, breathe, and say, "Let me coach myself through this situation." I don't expect that you'll learn this skill in a day, but I do hope that you'll at least consider beginning. Start right now by airing an important issue for you and your self-coach to consider.
Rising Sun, Indiana
I am in Rising Sun, Indiana, to give a keynote address and some workshops at the fledgling Rising Sun Writers Conference, which, it turns out, will be held at a middle school and will prove to be sorely underattended. The organizers have underestimated how long it takes to put together a writers' conference and have bravely tried to accomplish the feat in a few short months. As a result there are almost as many presenters as participants.
I am lodged at a waterside inn down a dirt road past the golf course. Outside my window rain is falling on the Ohio River. The river is much cleaner these days than in years past, and otter and beaver have returned in significant numbers. It is a beautiful spot, Indiana here, Kentucky there, forested glens, almost-extinct waterfowl, fertile, cultivated land on either bank diving right to the water's edge. The owners of the inn sport his-and-her Harleys and run off whenever they can for thousand-mile rides. An October rain falls, a harbinger of snows and winter. Coal barges drift down the river. The gambling boats that recently plied the Ohio have permanently moored at places with names like Aurora and Rising Sun, and resorts have sprung up on the shore beside them. Gambling money has given Rising Sun a new lease on life, and artists have been attracted here, to what was (and still is) a poor town in the poorest county in Indiana. Their numbers have increased so much that this year they organized the Rising Sun Writers Conference.
Last night at the conference reception I talked to several would-be writers who wished they could get their books going. Would they? Probably not. It wasn't that they couldn't write or didn't have the time. Rather, it was that they lacked that special internalized voice, that inner creativity coach, to help them weather the creative process and the fiery crucible of trial and error. They needed that spunky, sensible observer-cheerleader-taskmaster to provide simple advice like, "Write a first book and, if you don't like it, write a second book." They desperately needed their own help and guidance.
Why hadn't they hired that inner coach on? If the answer was fear, it wasn't fear in any ordinary sense. These would-be writers weren't cowards. They had survived divorces, sculpted with chain saws, raised children with severe disabilities. But despite their everyday courage, the courage to create eluded them.
I knew that what they feared was opening up a frightening can of worms. The sheer number of these anxiety-inducing issues overwhelmed them before they could even start. They feared their own intractable personalities, the hard work of creating, the art marketplace, and, above all else, core issues of meaning. To write would be to look meaning square in the eye. Dreadful, really! Fearing all this, they shut their minds to their own wisdom. This fear and its resultant lack of self-relationship made them feel downright stupid.
As a case in point, last night a participant at the conference, a woman of about thirty, came up to me, thrust out her hand, and introduced herself by saying, "Hello, I'm a dummy!" You think I'm making this up, but I'm not. I've heard some variation of this self-indictment more times than I can count. "Hi, I have no talent!" "Hi, I'm not really a painter!" "Hi, I haven't a thought in my head!" People really do shake my hand and say these horrible things.
I looked her in the eye and replied "Never say that again." She laughed, but something registered. We went off into a corner and talked. Her name was Melissa, she worked in a health food store, and she was chronically depressed. Naturally! Who wouldn't be severely depressed if her internal organization, her view of herself and her chances in life, caused her to introduce herself in that way? Just as naturally, she claimed to have no idea what book she might write; she had only this itch — an itch beyond scratching — to write something. There, in the comer, I coached her.
I asked her the simplest question: "What are you hoping to write?" There's nothing at all mysterious about the questions a creativity coach asks, any more than there is anything mysterious about the questions a doctor asks, like, "Where does it hurt?" and, "How long have you been running a fever?" When you act as your own coach, these are exactly the sorts of questions you'll ask yourself.
"I want to do a book about a famous dancer," she confessed.
"Any particular dancer?"
"No. I don't know who."
"You mean a novel? Or a biography?"
"A biography. I think."
"Man or woman?"
"Because her life would be interesting and yours isn't?"
Excerpted from Coaching the Artist Within by Eric Maisel. Copyright © 2005 Eric Maisel, PhD. Excerpted by permission of New World Library.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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