Say Yay to the Yaysayers
Welcome to Creative Conversations: discussions about the creative process. Today I’m talking with uber-talented Margaret Kellermann
“Pay attention!” It’s what teachers say when you’re trying to nap. But it’s good to pay attention, even if you’d rather not. When Margaret Kellermann was 10 years old, she walked a mile through the snow with her brother and his friend to a cliff over the ocean. The place was called Purgatory Chasm. It was the coldest day she can remember. If she hadn’t paid such close attention while she was freezing her mittens off, she might not have had so many words about the adventure to put in her middle-grade fiction manuscript, “Annie California.” Margaret writes three gratitudes in her journal (almost) every night, plays guitar with her band Small Solace, and lives with her black lab, Luke, in Northern California.
Janet: I love this bio, Margaret, and I have a few things to add, like: You are a singer/songwriter, a painter, celebrated poet, and author of three nationally published books read by children and adults:
Journal Keeper, of which The Secret Life of Bees author Sue Monk Kidd wrote, “The author is an able and poetic guide”;
Made with Love (30 stories about handcrafters, each story containing a craft for children and adults to create together); and
A Holy Struggle: Unspoken thoughts of Hopkins, of which Madeleine L’Engle wrote, “I have long loved Hopkins, and Margaret’s poems have led me intimately into what I feel to be truly his spirit.”
Now let’s talk. What’s on top for you creatively today?
Margaret: Hi Janet! Thanks for bringing me into your creative conversations. So…I’ve been thinking how the naysayers are taking up way too much room in my head. How to get them to stop talking? Respond to them, or not respond at all?
Janet: I took Julia Cameron’s advice and named my inner critics. They are:
• Priscilla Perfection, a professorial person who expects each line to be beautiful and poetic. Priscilla aims for quality over quantity. “One perfectly artful line of prose is better than ten pages of schlock!”
• Trudi Timekeeper, who wears a circus outfit and flicks a whip, is a quantity over quality girl who expects a high word count every day. “Stop polishing and get a move-on. Now!” Flick!
Naming them was just the beginning. It sorted things out in my brain, but for a long time, these two were making my writing life impossible. I had to figure out how to deal with them. Over time, I gleaned some inspiration regarding that but would like to hear from you first. What were your inner critics saying to you?
Margaret: The first thing I want to say is that the naysayers need to know they are not the only voices in my head, but I’m giving them too much room. Let’s say 10 people show up at my solo art show opening. Three say lovely things about the paintings. Three walk through and say nothing. Then four say things that I scratch my head over, like, “What is it supposed to be about?” “My kid could do that.” Or, “That’s a lot of blue paint.” All of which people have said to my face when they see my paintings. So these are not just internal voices, after all! Well, out of those 10, which voices come home with me and circle over my head as I’m trying to sleep?
Janet: I can guess which ones do! I especially like “My kid could do that!” It’s the sort of thing Ms. P. Perfection would say to me while I’m trying to work. I used to let things like that into my workspace, but I’m trying a few new tricks. Early on, I imagined putting my critics in a nice little box and telling them; I’ll let you out later when it’s time to critique. That helped. I can’t create art when the critics are dominating because creation requires getting out of the way and focusing fully on the thing I’m doing.
Margaret: Okay, you bring up some great points here, Janet. I agree that critics tend to dominate any conversation until a more commanding voice shuts them down. I think of the storm in the Sea of Galilee, the disciples screaming –first storm, now ghost walking on the waves toward them!– and Jesus saying, basically, “Hi, it’s me.” Not necessarily the loudest voice in the place, but the most commanding one.
So…when I tell myself the naysayers aren’t the only voices in my head, that helps me respond to the kind voices, too. Friends who are with me at the art opening tend to say afterward, “That was a great show.” And I say, “Yeah, but did you hear that person belittle my masterpiece?” Kidding, kind of. And my friends say, “Yeah, but did you hear those three people say they would love to have the paintings in their homes?” I need my friends to remind me–and I’m slowly becoming one of those friends reminding myself–that there are kind voices to consider. I can say yay to the yaysayers.
Janet: Love the idea of letting the “friendly voices” in to have their say. There are plenty of critics in the world. You can always find them. I have been practicing a new technique Martha Beck talks about in her book Finding Your Way in a Wild New World. She calls it going into wordlessness. I put on the sound of waves, dance to the sound, try to move to a place beyond words, then I sit down to write, focusing only on the story as it comes. There’s no room for the critical voices here, only the voice of the story.
Margaret: Beautiful. There have been times–or times out of time–in recent months when I’ve experienced that wordlessness. Say I’m at the beach with my dog, and we’re just sitting looking out at the waves together. Maybe a seal pops out of the water or is sunning on a nearby rock. A gull goes by. I feel myself falling into this animal state, where I feel perfectly content to be here, rather than running through a to-do list in my head, complete with those voices: “What? Why are you just sitting here? Why haven’t you figured out a book outline for your new manuscript yet?”
At the same time, I’m thinking that the critics might be blessings in disguise. I’m reminded of Pema Chodron, in her book Comfortable With Uncertainty:
“‘Be grateful to everyone’ is about making peace with the aspects of ourselves that we have rejected… If we were to make a list of people we don’t like — people we find obnoxious, threatening, or worthy of contempt — we would discover much about those aspects of ourselves that we can’t face.”
And, “Nothing ever goes away until it has taught us what we need to know.”
Janet: Yes, maybe the job is just to hear them out when they say, “Where are you in the story? How many pages are you going to get done today? This last scene isn’t working!” then say, “Thank you. I’m going to work on that last scene now,” and leave them behind during the worktime. There is a time to look at the work critically; it’s just not during the time of the work. That time, when new words are forming, or the paint is moving, or the song is singing, is sacred space.
Margaret: So true. What you say reminds me of a song I wrote a few years ago, “Holy Ground,” with the line, “Take off your sackcloth, dance around. Everywhere is holy ground.”
Janet: Oh, I love that song!
Margaret: Coming from you, that’s a high compliment! One thing that works for me is to write down in my journal at night a few kind things that people said to me that day. Even if I write that someone said, “Your blouse matches your eyes. You have a creative way of dressing,” that’s a way to invite the friendly voices into my night thoughts. Later, if I can go to my writing desk with good, kind thoughts about myself and my creativity–helped by people in my community– it gives my writing a lightness and joy that I want to share with my readers.
Janet: There’s a lot of bosh out there about having to sweat bullets to get something down on the page. Writing can be hard, challenging, emotional work. Demanding edit letters and deadlines are stressful. That said, the actual time of creativity sometimes feels very much like that state you described when you were on the beach with Luke. Leaving myself and entering another world. Being fully present. Listening. Letting something come through me. Elizabeth Gilbert in her book, Big Magic, contends that genius visits us, it is not something we possess but something that pours through us. I like that. I’m not often in that state, I just do the work, but sometimes (and I know you know what I mean) the flow comes, and it’s worth it all.
Margaret: Yes, absolutely. And we often don’t know who is getting something out of what we’ve created. I remember years ago, watching a teen pick up your book Wenny Has Wings at a party. I said, “Oh, that’s one of my favorite books. I bet you’ll like it.” And the teen, who had been completely bored a few minutes before, was enraptured. You may not recall that I told you that, but it opened up a room for me, a place where I was able to see that our readers don’t always tell *us,* the authors, that they were transported, but we need to trust that there are many more readers who *get* it than we hear about.
Janet: Thanks for that story. I don’t remember hearing it before. I’m holding it to my heart. What if the very thing that transports us when we create, transports others? The reader, (books), the viewer (art) the listener, (music) participates in the creation and is also changed by it. I like to think that. I want to ask something else, my talented friend. Are there different voices in your head when you paint?
Margaret: Great question. The other day, I went into my studio where my paints and canvasses had been patiently waiting for 3 months. My naysayers had told me I couldn’t possibly work on a painting until I had done a long series of Way More Important Things. I went in there with trepidation and said, “Just get some paint on the palette. You can do this.” Once I did this, I said, “Great, now just smear it on the canvas. You can always cover it up if you don’t like it.” The process was like trying to get a cat to cross a mud puddle to safety.Not easy.
Once I got the paints working together on the canvas, I was in the flow, as you talk about, and soon I was pacing around the studio with a wild look in my eye, I’m sure, dabbing at the canvas and stepping back to look. My dog Luke—my critic?– kept checking in on me, until I had to put him in a different room and close the door. Because I knew the next thing that might happen was that I would start crying. Which happened. I was letting everything flow, including tears. I was beating back the critics while painting, and it was an epic battle.
Janet: Beautiful. I see you mastering the voices by encouraging yourself to take the next step, then the next. The big moment happens at the beginning. Just tapping the keys and adding a few more words. Just putting paint on the palette.
Margaret: Yes, I made myself laugh at one point by picturing myself fencing with the painting–a similar look, indeed.
Janet: You made it into the studio after the long hiatus! That’s monumental!
Margaret: Thank you. I often ask myself why I continue to paint when so many paintings are sitting in the studio, unsold. But then I also laugh when I think of the scene in the movie, “Mr. Turner,” where the housekeeper says sweetly, “You’re still making your nice little pictures, Mr. Turner.” Instead of getting hoity-toity about it, this famous painter just giggles, “Yes.”
Janet: I’m sure the housekeeper is concerned with the mess he’s making. Ha! Let’s keep making messes, Margaret. I hope I can be one of the positive voices that visits you when you’re dealing with doubt. It makes me happy to know you’re writing, singing, painting.
Margaret: And you are certainly one of those very positive voices in my head, thank you. There’s a George Herbert poem from the 1600s,
And now in age I bud again,
After so many deaths I live and write;
I once more smell the dew and rain,
And relish versing: O my onely light, [sic]
It cannot be
That I am [s]he
On whom thy tempests fell all night.
Janet: Ah! May you continue to bud again, Margaret.
Margaret: Thanks so much for spending this time talking about the process with your fellow artists, Janet.
~Take off your sackcloth, dance around. Everywhere is holy ground.~
Dreamwalkers, I hope you find this talk with Margaret Kellermann inspiring. If you practice any kind of art and would like to do a creative conversation with me for Dreamwalks, please contact me. (see contact info in the “About Janet” page of this website)