Making Your Creative Mark: Nine Keys to Achieving Your Artistic Goals

Making Your Creative Mark: Nine Keys to Achieving Your Artistic Goals

by Eric Maisel

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Eric Maisel distills his decades of coaching, teaching, listening, and creating into nine keys that help creators implement real solutions to their individual challenges.  See more details below


Eric Maisel distills his decades of coaching, teaching, listening, and creating into nine keys that help creators implement real solutions to their individual challenges.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Art is often work that you do alone and for yourself, but Maisel (Mastering Creative Anxiety) stresses that you are also “creating for other people; you are relating to other people; you are working with marketplace players and selling to your audience.” Accordingly, the therapist and “creativity coach” offers practical advice designed to overcome the blocks that artists face on their own, as well as the challenges of being an artist in the world. Organizing his work according to nine themes (or “keys”—e.g., passion, freedom, empathy), Maisel marshals diverse therapeutic techniques, like Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and mindfulness meditation, in addition to sensible self-assessments in order to help artists cope with obstacles like self-censorship or lack of focus. While many of these are useful, the pragmatic recommendations sometimes feel tedious or generic, and his attempts to appeal to a myriad of artist types (e.g., musicians, writers, visual artists) suck the life from portions of the book. Still, his advice on relating to the outside world—other artists, the market, societal pressures—is astute and contains valuable lessons. (Apr. 15)
From the Publisher
“Maisel is a meticulous guide who knows the psychological landscape that artists inhabit.”
The Writer magazine

“Eric Maisel’s books should be required reading for anyone involved in the arts, especially students and their teachers. Maisel demystifies the process of creating art.”
Theatre Design and Technology

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Making Your Creative Mark

Nine Keys to Achieving Your Artistic Goals

By Eric Maisel

New World Library

Copyright © 2013 Eric Maisel
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-60868-163-1



Your first task as a creative person is to "mind your mind" and think thoughts that serve you. Doesn't it make sense to speak to yourself in ways that help you create more deeply and more regularly, that allow you to detach more effectively from the everyday chaos of ordinary life, that decrease your anxiety and negativity, and that remind you that you are in charge of showing up and making an effort?

Many of us do a poor job of minding our minds, of choosing to think in ways that serve us. We present ourselves with self-sabotaging thoughts and refuse to dispute those thoughts once they arise. If we all did a better job of noticing what we are thinking and making an effort to replace defensive and unproductive thoughts with more optimistic and more productive ones, we would live in less pain and give ourselves a much better chance of our dream life.

It is this simple: Notice what you are thinking, dispute those thoughts that bad-mouth you or that send you careening in the wrong direction, and replace them with thoughts that better serve you. This is tremendously important!

You can use many useful strategies, available from the cognitive-behavioral school of therapy, to get a better grip on your mind and help yourself think more productively and positively. Here's one I've created.

Often you have a productive thought, but then you immediately follow it with an unproductive one that stops you in your tracks. This sounds like "I'd love to practice the piano" followed by "but I'm much too old to learn complicated piano music." Or "I want to get my novel written" followed by "but I don't really know what my novel is about." Or "I love my photographic collages" followed by "but lots of people are doing them."

People engage in this self-sabotage all the time, deciding that something matters to them and then talking themselves out of taking action. It is almost what we do best as a species. I would like you to notice how this dynamic works in your life. Look at your own defensiveness, self-unfriendliness, and self-sabotage when it comes to those things that matter most to you. Look at this pattern, and then change it.

Complete the following, filling in the x and y with your own responses: "I say that x matters to me. But I often follow that thought up with y thought, a thought that does not serve me. I no longer want to countenance that thought." You may have more than one self-unfriendly y thought — you may have lots of them! By all means include as many y thoughts as you like in your response. The clearer you are on the things you say to yourself that don't serve you, the better will be your chances of extinguishing them.

Here is how some of my creativity coaching clients completed this exercise:

"I say that making art and selling my artwork matter to me. But I often follow that thought up with the thought that my artwork is not good enough to be considered attractive to buyers, a thought that does not serve me. I no longer want to entertain that thought. I will be open to opportunities to create and market my art, and I will make an effort to gain the support of art patrons."

"I say that being organized matters to me. But I often follow that thought up with the thought that I will take time to organize my work space some time in the future, a thought that does not serve me. I no longer want to entertain that thought. I am taking the time to organize every day so that my studio feels peaceful and spacious, with a good energy flow."

"I say that writing my screenplay and revising my novel and sending out articles are important to me. But I often follow up that thought with 'What does any of it really matter?' In the past few years, I've come up against so many roadblocks. It doesn't feel like I matter to anyone. My husband is sick and needs my attention. Maybe concentrating on more basic needs is the most important thing to do — cleaning, gardening, exercising. But I realize that the only sure way I can fail at my writing is if I stop. The thought of quitting doesn't serve me because it prevents any success from ever happening. I no longer want to entertain the thought of stopping."

"I say that making and marketing my art matters to me. But I often follow that up with thoughts that I don't have anything important to say, that I can't decide which ideas to work on, that I'm too unoriginal, and that if I were to succeed I would have to be too social. These thoughts don't serve me. I no longer want to countenance them."

"I say that fiber craft matters to me, but I often follow that thought up with the following ones: that I'm too tired to knit; that it's too troublesome to gather the materials; that I don't know what I'm doing; that I'm not making art, I'm just following instructions; that I don't have the right tools; that I'm a poser and a pretender; and that I'll do it wrong. These thoughts do not serve me and I no longer want to countenance them."

"I say that music matters to me. But I often follow that up with the thought that I can't afford to dedicate myself to it, that there are more important things in life, that I'm not good enough anyway, and that there are a lot of other things I'm interested in and almost anything pays better than music, which generally pays close to nothing. I no longer want to countenance those thoughts."

I'm sure you can see how this process of telling off the thoughts that do not serve you will help you to create more often and more deeply and will improve your relationship to the art marketplace. Complete this x-y exercise, and then put the results into practice.

Creating depends on having a mind quiet enough to allow ideas to bubble up. Living a successful, healthy life as an artist requires that your self-talk align with your goals and your aspirations. Your job is to quiet your mind and extinguish negative self-talk. These are your two most important tasks if you want a shot at your best life in the arts. Here are some handy tips:

1. Recognize that you are the only one who can get a grip on your mind. There is no pill to take. There is no one to consult. There is nothing to read. You must mind your mind. You can let your thoughts do whatever they want and go off in any direction, or you can say, "No, that thought doesn't serve me." Only you can do that work.

2. Recognize that you do not have to accept, tolerate, or countenance a thought just because you thought it. You may have the thought, "Wow, John really made me angry at work today!" Then it is your choice whether to brood about John or whether to get on with your novel. It may be easier to brood about John than to write your novel, so you may have powerful reasons to stay angry. It's your choice.

When we say something to ourselves like "My novel stinks" or "I won't play well tonight," we believe that thought just because we thought it. But many of our thoughts are simply not true, and even if they are true, they may not serve us.

3. Listen to what you say to yourself. If you can't hear your own thoughts, you can't get rid of the ones that aren't serving you. If you can't admit to yourself that you are constantly thinking that life is a cheat, that you've badly disappointed yourself by wasting so much time, or that you hate to be criticized, you won't be able to dispute and extinguish those thoughts. Yes, it can be extremely painful to admit to them, but it is better to grapple with them than to let them cycle endlessly.

4. Decide if what you are telling yourself serves you. You are not looking at the truth or falsity of a thought but rather at whether the thought is or isn't serving you. Countless true thoughts do not serve us. All the following may be true thoughts that nevertheless do not serve you to think: "I might have written ten books by now"; "Writing a novel is hard"; "Selling a novel is hard"; "I'm not sure I have it in me either to write a novel or to sell a novel." None of those thoughts, even if true, serve you. The only thought that serves you, if you want to write a novel, is "I am off to my novel!"

5. When you decide that a thought doesn't serve you, dispute it and dismiss it. It can seem very strange at first to dispute your own thoughts. Yet dispute them you must. Get in the habit of saying to yourself, "That was an interesting thought. Does it serve me?" If you know or suspect that it doesn't, dismiss it out of hand. Do not linger over it! This sounds like "That thought doesn't serve me and I am dismissing it!" Mean it when you say it!

6. When a thought that doesn't serve you lingers, actively combat it. Some thoughts just won't go away. Maybe it's "No one wanted my first novel, and my second novel is an even more difficult sell, so why in heaven's name am I writing it?" You may not be able to get rid of this thought simply by snapping your fingers. Then do more than snap your fingers — fight the thought tooth and nail. Maybe you'll have to write out the ten reasons why this book may be wanted. Maybe you'll have to chat seriously with yourself about self-publishing. You must battle brooding, clinging, disabling thoughts — or else you will be thinking them regularly.

7. After you've disputed and dismissed a thought, think a thought that does serve you. Creating thought substitutes is an important part of the process. These substitutes can be tailored to the situation, or they can be simple global affirmations that you create once and use over and over again, such as "I'm perfectly fine," "Back to work," "Right here, right now," or "Process." Because for so many of us the default way of thinking is negative, self-critical, and injurious, we want to create and use thought substitutes that help prevent our brain from conjuring up its usual distortions and distractions.

8. Get in the smart habit of extinguishing unproductive self-talk even before it arises. Often we know when a thought is coming. Maybe you've been waiting to hear from an editor who said she would call on Tuesday, and now it's Friday. You know that if she doesn't call today, you are certain to begin thinking thoughts like "She's never going to call," "She's about to reject my work," and "I can't stand all this waiting." You know these thoughts are coming. So extinguish them now and replace them with "I'm spending the weekend working on my new pet project! And I won't think about that editor until Monday!" How many times have you known that a thought that doesn't serve you is coming and let yourself think it anyway? It's time to stop doing that.

9. Engage in active cognitive support. This means creating the thoughts that you want to be thinking and then thinking them. These thoughts might include all of the following: "I paint every single morning"; "I'm going to succeed"; "I know how to make meaning"; "I'm lavishing my love and attention on my current painting"; "I'm not afraid of process"; "I show up"; "I take the risks that I need to take, with my work and in the marketplace"; "I am creating a body of work"; "I am a painter." You can think thoughts like these if you choose to think them.

You may never have thought about the possibility of getting a grip on your mind. I hope that you'll seriously consider it now. Here are some features of your mind that you most likely have always believed weren't in your control. Want to wrest back control of them?

Are you easily distracted? Probably you think that the things that distract you simply are distractions. But distraction is just a word you yourself have invented for the something that has happened or is happening. Yes, a truck has rumbled by — but that is only a distraction if you feel inclined to be distracted. Otherwise, you just look up and then you return to your creative work. Because creating is hard and because we are often secretly looking for reasons to stop, we turn our cat's walking by into a distraction and stop to watch her. You can change your mind about doing that.

Do you lose focus a lot and mentally wander off ? Most often this occurs because we don't know what comes next in the work, and as a result we grow anxious. It is in your power to regain your focus by recognizing that you've gotten a little anxious and by employing some techniques to reduce your anxiety and to talk yourself back to work. Managing creative anxiety of this sort is one of your most important tasks, and I recommend that you begin to employ one or two anxiety- management techniques from the more than twenty I provide in Mastering Creative Anxiety. Manage your anxiety, and you will do a better job of getting a grip on your mind.

Do you often feel mentally fatigued? This is different from being physically fatigued. Sometimes we're mentally fatigued because we've been using our brain all day, and that's pretty analogous to getting physically tired. But more often we get mentally fatigued as a result of feeling taxed by the work directly in front of us. That is, the work in front of us daunts us, and this tires us. The simple solution is to take a microbreak. Rather than straining more and getting more mentally tired, leave the work — with the intention of returning.

Do you tell yourself things such as "I can't paint today because the plumber is coming"? This is just a thought, and as just a thought it can be disputed and dismissed. It is completely within your power to hear yourself say, "I can't paint today because the plumber is coming," laugh out loud, and dismiss that thought with a new thought — for instance, "How ridiculous! The plumber isn't coming for four hours! Off I go to paint!"

Do you leave your work too easily and too soon? Perhaps you've had a small, anxious feeling or a thought that doesn't serve you, such as "Gee, I don't know what comes next." Maybe you've gotten a little anxious because you have come to a spot in your novel where you don't know what happens next and you don't want to do the wrong thing. That's a place where writers typically find a reason to leave the work. Instead of finding such a reason, you can say to yourself, "I'm going to walk around the house ten times, and then come right back." That's the essence of getting a grip on your mind.

Maybe you think that true thoughts can't be dismissed — or even that they shouldn't be dismissed. Well, often they can and they should. Just because you've had a thought that is objectively true doesn't mean you have to give it any credence. You might have a thought like "Wow, it's hard to get a literary agent!," which is true enough — but if you give that thought credence you're likely to stop writing. If a thought like that flits through your mind, you must instantly dismiss it as not serving you, replace it with your substitute thought (which might be "Back to writing!" or "I'm perfectly fine!"), and get back to work.

Many other challenges that you've decided you can't fix, for example, general mental confusion or attention deficit disorder, are likely much more in your control than you imagine. You can become a much smarter, calmer thinker and a much better self-advocate if you switch your head right now and decide to get a grip on your mind.

Feelings and Thoughts

Sometimes we can think a useful thought only after a painful feeling has subsided. The feeling may be too powerful for us to think clearly in the split second of feeling it. That is the way nature built us, to have powerful feelings that can trump thought. However, when that feeling has subsided, then it is our job to decide what we want to think. Here are two examples of what I mean.

Mary sent her slides off to a gallery where she had high hopes for representation. What she got back was a terse email: "Your work isn't up to our standards."

Mary stopped painting for the next three years.

Such dramatically unfortunate events happen all too often in the lives of artists. One sharp criticism can derail an artist not only for far too long but sometimes altogether, making him completely doubt that he has the right or the wherewithal to be a professional artist — or any kind of artist at all. The consequences of receiving this kind of blow are so severe primarily because of our powerful initial reaction to them, one that is often out of scale with the incident.

When someone says, either in veiled language or in no uncertain terms, that you are an idiot, that you have no talent, that you're mediocre, that you're a hack, that you're derivative, that you're ... fill in the blank ... you will have a reaction. Often it is a whole-body, hard-to-tolerate emotional reaction that shifts your world.

Virtually everyone has a strong, visceral reaction to being criticized, humiliated, or shamed. These powerful, automatic whole-body reactions, like our blushing response or our fight-or-flight response, are fundamental, hardwired parts of who we are. Maybe some very advanced human being can avoid feeling these things; maybe some very detached human being can avoid feeling these things. But the rest of us feel them. It will feel as if something tremendously large and bad has happened — and yet all that has really happened is that we are having a feeling.


Excerpted from Making Your Creative Mark by Eric Maisel. Copyright © 2013 Eric Maisel. 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.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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