Tag Archives: letters to a young artist

Artistic Depression: There’s Nothing Romantic About It



What if artistic depression was a response to the existential experience of being an artist and not being paid for what you do? What if depression was unnecessary for the creation of art?

We like to think of our depressed artists as going through some romantic struggle to produce their art. Turns out, depression is not part of the creative process. There are plenty of creative geniuses that have never suffered from clinical depression. And there are plenty of our clinically depressed geniuses that might have lived A LOT LONGER had they not been struggling with the black beast of a dog.

I’m going to try to illuminate a few things about art and depression that might help further this discussion.

In his seminal book Against Depression, Dr. Kramer does a great job of bring to light two different ideas.

ONE: While he was traveling around presenting his first book, Talking to Prozac, Dr. Kramer started trying on this question. “If you could eliminate depression with a single pill, a new magic treatment, would you use it.”

He was surprised by the number of doctors who said they would not use the magic cure for depression. Fearing the loss of the creative, or romantic output of the struggling artist. Would we have Starry Starry Night if not for depression? The premise is false. Depression did not create those master pieces. It was depression that cut them off, that cut these artists down before their prime. Eliminating depression would not have prevented Starry Starry Night from happening, it might have allowed for version 2 and version 3. But we’ll never get to see those creations.

TWO: Depression, like an illness, actually makes physical changes in the human brain. This fact was important as the discussion about behavior vs. illness still runs rampant. The argument goes, if like an illness, we can see the changes in the physical body of the suffering patient, we can … Well, the point is to be able to claim depression as a traditional illness requiring treatment and perhaps insurance payments. But the point is this: as a person experiences massive depressions as a result of some traumatic event, the physical pathways in their brains, begin to lean towards depression. It’s as if the “depression neural pathways” get strengthened in the course of several depressions.

In my case this strengthening was a propensity towards giving up. Simply feeling like I could not go on, I could not be successful at my chosen endeavor, and therefore I should just give up. As I suffered, in my early teens, some major traumas, my brain learned to light up the helpless pathway. The give up pathway. I’m still unlearning this response. I am actively trying to strengthen the alternative responses. The good news is the brain can change. Plasticity means the brain can unlearn these greased depression tendencies.

Just like I go for a tangerine rather than a piece of pie, my brain can be trained to look at setbacks and stresses as a trigger for action rather than a slip into hopelessness and inaction. I have to be aware of what’s happening, I have to be very conscious and vigilant, but I can short-circuit the tendency towards folding. Instead, I’m learning to use my creativity (journaling) to write about the depressed feelings as they are occurring. Thus, I’m attempting to illuminate the old thinking and focus on the new options.

Now, part of being an artist is dealing with the fact that we also have to find a way (outside our art) to make a living. We could choose to be starving artist’s I suppose, but no one really sets out to be poor. More likely, if you commit the time required to become a great musician, for example, the opportunities to become famous, and thus rewarded for your musical talents and practice, you will still need a day job. And the future of creative economics is getting worse not better.

But this is not a reason to fall into habits of despair and hopelessness. Nope. To be an artist you first have to desire your art over everything else, occasionally even companionship and exercise.

The artistic challenge in life is not just to master your art and your self discipline, it’s to find a way to earn a living that does not crush the life out of you and your creative passion. A lot of this is in your mind. I go to a job everyday. The job is one of the paths towards securing the time in my life that I need to create my music or my writing. I can complain about the job, and the man getting me down, or the sorry state of selling recorded music online, or I could just stay focused on the act of creation.

If you believe in what you are creating, there is nothing that can stand between you and your work. The money will come. And until it does, the job is what you must have, that allows you to live a lifestyle of leisure, the time off you actually require to do your work. The first thing that goes when I’m under stress about money, or depressed, is my ability to create works of art.

I have to solve the survival needs first. Once I have begun to master food, clothing, and shelter, can I begin to actually write songs and poems to put in my house.

Depression is NOT a key or romantic partner of creativity. And money is not the root of all evil. But we have to come to terms with both our highs and lows. We have to find a way to make a living while we create our masterpiece.

Don’t give up just because you are not making money. Don’t give up because you might not be discovered in your lifetime. Don’t give up because you MUST create. If you have the burning desire to write, paint, sing, play, keep going. Put the poems in a folder. Put the songs in a collection and release them. Have an art opening, regardless if many people come or if you sell a single piece.

We’ve got romantic ideas about sadness or depression and it’s connection to the creative/artistic spirit. It’s a bullshit notion. And we’ve got the exact opposite impression when it comes to money. Working for a corporation is “always” working for the man. But what if working for the company gives you the house to live in, the insurance for the kids you want, and the ability to NOT work on the weekends, when you drink your cup of coffee and stay up late creating, even when no one is listening, watching, or buying your art.


John McElhenney
@jmacofearth (also seen on Google+: jmacofearth)
permalink: http://uber.la/2014/08/vocation-and-passion-letters/

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image: strategy for jobs, creative commons usage


The Creative Impulse: Easy to Contain, Easier to Kill



It is much easier to ignore our creative impulses than to indulge in the craft of trying to bring them to life. That’s a real problem for a writer, painter, or musician. The little spark of an idea must be captured and fanned until it catches fire and becomes a story, painting, or song. It is the turning away from our creative impulses that can become an issue.

There are a lot of demands on our time. There is the demand to make money if we want to eat and have a place to live. There is the demand to be a parent and a partner if we have families.There is a demand for sleep, and food, and exercise. And if you can attend to all that, and carve out some time that you are not exhausted, well… usually it is in this “after time” that we can indulge our craft.

Even under the best circumstances, when you’ve harnessed the creative impulse and are well on your way to your next masterpiece, it is easy to get derailed.

When I was married with children I used to work on my music and writing between 10pm and 2am. It was the only window of time, after we had put the kids down for bed, that allowed me the long stretch of quiet time to engage with my creative muse. It wasn’t easy. My then-wife would complain if I didn’t help enough around the house. My job demanded I be sharp and not burned out. And some nights I would play video games rather than “create” because I was just too exhausted.

But the commitment to the craft was important to me. And the commitment today is even stronger. That is because I am nurturing the creative voice in my life. I am listening for the creative impulses and trying to go with the flow. I’m not always successful, but I’m always trying.

The other morning, before work, I was struck by a song idea that wouldn’t be tamed. And I thought I had my music capture method down. I recorded some guitar parts into garageband. Or did I put them on video on my phone? Hmmm. Anyway, during the course of the morning I was uber-inspired, so I also wrote down the lyrics about an hour later. Everything was flowing. But… I was running out of time. I had a meeting I had to attend in person.

Here is where the problem is.

I tried to capture all the parts of the song, but just as I should’ve recorded a single, guitar-voice version, I didn’t. I imagined that my multiple capture points had gotten enough of the creative impulse for me to recreate the feeling several days later when I came back to the idea. I was wrong.

The “several days later” became more than a week. And when I finally carved out a few hours on a Sunday afternoon, there was no amount of coffee or enthusiasm that could breathe life into my “parts.” I was sad but not broken. Even in the recovery of ideas, it can still be a “moment” thing. I need to come back to that song idea when I’m fresh.

So even under the best circumstances, when you’ve harnessed the creative impulse and are well on your way to your next masterpiece, it is easy to get derailed. Even when you think you have all the pieces and parts and processes down. It really is “the moment” some times that requires the full attention. Delay and deflection of that creative drive will usually result in a less vibrant expression.

Keep your impulses high. When you have the gift of an idea run with it until you capture as much of it as time will allow. And, in my experience, come back to the idea as soon as possible to reignite the threads of energy that began to weave into the creative work.

Write. Sing. Paint. Draw.

And to it as often as time will allow.


John McElhenney
@jmacofearth (also seen on Google+: jmacofearth)

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Pointing Your Arrow: The Artist’s Way to Happiness



It’s not the success that I’ve had that gives me joy. It’s not fame or fortune that pleases my soul. For me, it’s the perfectly struck chord, the phrase that captures exactly what I’m feeling, the letters scattered across a handwritten notebook that please ME. That’s the important part to remember. It is your heart that is listening. It is your heart that is the most important audience. If you love your craft, your fame and acceptance will be less important to your happiness.

So what is the goal, of this creative life? What do I get from being bombarded daily with poetic ideas, song fragments, and aspirations towards becoming an artist? If I am continuing to “point” my arrow, as in, sharpen my craft, to what end am I laboring? And if I continue to strive, write, sing, create, what is my goal? What am I aiming my pointed arrow at? Where am I pointing this creative life of mine?

I’m 52 years old. I’ve already lived 12 years longer than John Lennon. And if you watch any of the documentaries of his life, can you imagine a more successful creative life? And yet even at the height of his fame he was still searching, still stretching to express himself artistically. With all of the wealth of the world what he wanted the most was time with his family. He missed Julian, but when Sean was born, John basically took to becoming a stay at home dad. His joy was his family. And even as his life was cut very short, remember that point. One of the most successful creative spirits on the planet was still seeking more time with his family. Time and experience that could never be regained. Ask Julian Lennon about the loss of a famous father.

So even in achieving the greatest fame and appreciation possible, John Lennon was struggling to find more time to be with his family.

What is the goal of trying to express ourselves creatively? If fame seems elusive, are there other reasons to listen so intently, to strive daily to write, paint, craft? For me, the experience of living my life through the lens of art is part of my personal life mission. It sounds woo woo, I know, but here’s what I’m saying.

  • I listen a bit more deeply to myself in trying to understand and express my feelings.
  • I listen to others, and record experiences in my mind with a fine attention to detail, in order to absorb as much of the essence as possible. Sometimes level of detail makes recalling experiences a bit more vivid.
  • I am tuned in rather than tuned out. I don’t watch much television or read much mass media. I am actively trying to create my own story. I am weaving my own tapestry experience into a tale of song, poetry, image, and story.
  • I get great joy from my own work. A poem well turned is a thing that can make my whole day. It gives *me* great pleasure. If I’m happy, well, that’s a pretty good result.
  • After capturing a story or an idea I can let it go more fully. Once I’ve written about an experience (good or bad) I begin to understand it more fully. In the case of hard experiences (Losing my father or my older sister, for example.) my artistic expression helps me process the grief. By telling the story I get a chance to re-experience any event in my life and thus reprocess the feelings associated with it.

The art in itself is a joy and a comfort. The act of creation is a form of prayer. (See Matthew Fox) When I am deep in my creative process I am also in the flow. The flow is like meditation. My troubles and personal frustrations are forgotten while I am in flow.

What’s the goal of my art? 

My goal is to live life as fully as I can. To enjoy the time I have with my kids and to make a living. So I have not been able to make the two aspects of my life combine into a famous artist path, that’s okay. It’s not the idea of becoming famous that drives me, it’s the joy that the act of creation brings me today. And if I can write a new song while my kids are busily going about their day in and around me, what could be more joyful?

Aim at your own heart.

Then, regardless of your fame or fortune you are at least making one person happy. And often, if that happiness is genuine, the art will also touch others with a happy resonance. You can hear the joy in John Lennon’s songs about Sean. He was hitting stride again as a solo artist just as he was cut down by a mad man. And in many ways, he was a victim of his own fame. And yet his legacy and music lives on.


John McElhenney
@jmacofearth (also seen on Google+: jmacofearth)
permalink: http://uber.la/2014/08/vocation-and-passion-letters/

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image: be my valentine, martin fisch, creative commons usage

Solitude and the Artistic Temperament


Pass through the darkness. Embrace the dark nights of your soul as they have arrived to tell you something.


We’ve got to talk about the dark side for a moment. If you’ve got a handful of guiding artists that you look to for inspiration, you’re likely to have a few that succumbed to the flip-side of massive inspiration: massive depression. The literary and artistic cannon is filled with tragic artists. Let’s recognize the pattern and align ourselves with the survivors.

Even as we lose lovers, parents, siblings, we have the ability to translate our suffering into expressions of love and beauty.

Understanding the highs and lows of my creative life has been an interesting journey. I have traveled both high and low roads. I’ve sat on mountaintops and done vision quests. I’ve spent countless hours in talk therapy and counseling of many types. If read deeply of the artists who spoke to the blackness of my own journey and tried to learn from their ultimate loss. My list is long, but the top-of-mind artists who continue to inspire me, in spite of their demise (via alcohol, suicide, or mental illness) are Jack Kerouac, Sylvia Plath, Elliot Smith, David Foster Wallace, Anne Sexton. And in my own personal life, my older sister, who was creating at the top of her game, took her life when some of the details of reality became too hard to bear.

But bear it we must. That’s the ticket, that’s the key.

  • Perseverance in the face of great odds. (You will probably not achieve the recognition or fame you desire with your art.)
  • Mental stability in the heat of creative passion. (I still have to dial my own flights of fantasy back when I’m in the throes of a passionate project.)
  • Emotional fortitude even while dipping into the darkness that often illuminates or transforms our work. (Embrace the darkness, don’t be embraced by it.)
  • Financial plans and career maps. (If you’re not making money, you’re going to starve. That’s a path heading in the wrong direction.)
  • Joyful rebalancing. (The joy in your life is your energy. Find ways to rebalance, or self-regulate, your attitude, CONSTANTLY.)

We can learn a lot from the deep passion of these creative souls. Even if a few of them dipped too far into the dark night of the soul, you will eventually have to deal with your own inner demons. We’ve all got them.

Life throws us all types of curveballs. And life is messy. You know some of the tragedies that are ahead: the death of a parent, a beloved pet, the loss of a primary relationship. And there are many of the dark curves that you cannot see, but that will affect you and throw you off your joyous course for a time. It is my artistic temperament that allows me to absorb and be burnished by these events, and in the polishing and blasting of the sadness and fear, I believe, I am transformed.

Life is that way: messy, painful, unexplainable. The artist merely tries to deal with these uncertainties and losses by telling their own version of Dante’s Inferno.

The death of my father when I was 21, is an event that I will never fully get over. But the transformation of that event into stories, songs, and perhaps even a novel at some point, is one of the ways I have found my own strength in not following his will “why aren’t you going to medical school” or his demise as he used more alcohol to distract him from the wreckage of his alcoholic life. I tumbled in the rock-polishing machine for most of my twenties, I railed and ranted in my thirties, and here in my 50’s I’m happy to report that I’m drug and disease free and of relatively sound mind and body.

I say relatively, only to be dramatic. No one is actually 100% healthy. We’ve all got hurt places, little secrets, jealousies, resentments, and vendettas we’d like to see paid in-full. And each of us had a choice to walk the higher road above our own petty grievances, or to fall victim to the angry path through our perceived injustices. The injustices are all around us. Our personal stories are not that unique until we tell them through our art. And in that exposure we might find relief, or at least camaraderie.

Some of the work of these previous sojourners can provide some comfort. Some of them may be too close for comfort. Either way, you will also go through dark times and it is your artistic translation of these horrific events into art that provides 1. comfort for you; 2. comfort for others; 3 something of lasting beauty and value. Dwelling in the darkness for a time might serve you well. We can certainly agree that running from your emotional messiness is not an option, the anger, fear, sadness WILL catch up with you.

It’s okay to be dark. It’s okay to require professional help. It’s okay to struggle for a time with your own personal demons. The world outside our souls is often troublesome, even in the best of times. In my past, when things got really hard, however, it was my art that kept me pointed upward and onward, even when I lacked any inspiration or motivation to do much more than noodle on a poem or pluck a few strings on my guitar.

Pass through the darkness. Embrace the dark nights of your soul as they have arrived to tell you something, to transform your life into something more beautiful. Please don’t lose yourself in the darkness. Too many wonderful and talented artists have chosen the most unromantic ways to take their last curtain calls. Suicide is never romantic or epic. The loss of so many beautiful artists illuminates our lack of understanding and support for the highs and lows of our creative people. Be creative. Be dark. But stay alive and tell us about your journey.

Even as we lose lovers, parents, siblings, we have the ability to translate our suffering into expressions of love and beauty. Listen to your dark whisperings, ignoring them will shut down an entire cathedral of creativity and aspiration that can speak to all of us at some point in our lives. Life is that way: messy, painful, unexplainable. The artist merely tries to deal with these uncertainties and losses by telling their own version of Dante’s Inferno.


John McElhenney
@jmacofearth (also seen on Google+: jmacofearth)

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image: dante’s inferno, kyle boganwright, creative commons usage (artist’s work is for sale)

Survive & Thrive: First Find Your Congregation Within


When the money runs out, my inspiration get’s pretty desperate. Entire creative cannons in motion and lit up begin to crumble as I doubt myself. And trying to push into the creative as an income stream, for me, has never worked. I’m not interested in being a starving artist. So one of the first struggles, for me, is making sure I have my bills covered.

There are a million paths to creative success, but money may not be one of them for many of us. Once you get that concept fully swallowed you can get on with the work of making your art, whatever that is. Sure, you’ll have to find the “day job,” but you can do that. That’s one of the base-levels of survival as an artist.

I’ve disconnected my art from my income needs. This was a major win for me.

Of course there are paths to use your creative craft as a job, but I’ve seen too many copywriters, too many cover band musicians who are doing just that: the job has become the creative outlet. Let me take a couple examples from my home town. Charlie Sexton is an amazing performer, singer, songwriter, guitar player. And how can you blame him for going out of the road with Bob Dylan? See the work, be semi-famous under the hot spotlights along side the legend himself. Sure, no problem. But where’s the next Charlie Sexton disc?

And it chatting one evening after a show by one of my favorite cover band leaders, I asked him, “So when’s your next record coming out?”

He looked at me with a smile, but he seemed to be hiding something a bit deeper. “When I feel a bit less content, I guess.”

That is also a hard one. Contentment vs Creative Drive. Can the two forces exist together. Can you be supremely content and still have the drive to create new works of art? Or is the creative production tied up in the discontent, the angst and struggle of life? I’ve had problems with this in the past. Where I needed some goal to get me out of my current situation as a catalyst. Like the situation I was in was NOT ENOUGH, so I needed to produce my art to affirm my ever-burning quest to be someone else, someone huge and successful.

But I was/am successful in my mind. I have two great kids. I’m growing creatively and as a parent. And while I’m somewhat content, I’m also driven to express my art. At this point in my life I’m not looking for any money from the effort. I’ve disconnected my art from my income needs. This was a major win for me.

I say somewhat content, because there are plenty of things in my life that are way out of balance. I’m working on those. And this week I signed a contract, not for a record deal, but for a work deal that’s going to fill up my work card for November in a big way. And this WIN is actually giving me some energetic leeway to drive forward with  my musical projects at the same time. See, having some financial success in my “career” is actually generating some creative energy in my other career.

And then there are the writers, artists, and creatives who have lost faith in their craft. This is the more common story. Somewhere along life, the act of growing up, begins to dampen our dreams for rock stardom. And unfortunately, that’s so rare, that most of my friends who are creative have left their instruments and paintbrushes behind. The focus on work, life, money, kids, housing… It’s not easy. But the formula is easy.

Survival + Passion + Longevity = A Creative Life

I’m not looking to be a rock star. I might have had those illusions back in my teens. But I was more interested in capturing the perfect song or short story. I learned to work to support my art and not the other way around.

If you can get your survival needs met, and keep your passion for the voice that is inside of you trying to express some kind of beauty you will either persevere or you won’t. And that’s okay. It is fine when people leave music, poetry, painting, writing, behind. It’s not for everyone. And if it was a hobby, then perhaps there are other things in life that give you more satisfaction. Parenting can have a profound effect on your life and your creative output.

Find a place for your art in the daily cadence of your life. And never give it up.

My kids however only inspired me more. I wanted to include them in my musical life. I wanted to surround them with songs, mine and others. I wanted to show them my songs, I wanted to serenade them all the time. (I even imagined a kid’s record, but there were so many that I loved already…) And in learning to work, parent, and continue to give time to my music, I started down a lifestyle formula that worked for me. Today my son is an accomplished violinist and my daughter sings in the choir. (She won’t join me on stage, however, because she claims to have performance anxiety. Oh well, maybe later.)

The part I got right is the survival. I do have a career. And when I structure things right I can work with a bit of flexibility that allows me occasional inspirational afternoons and nights, even in the middle of the week. (grin) When I get out of balance, I begin aspiring towards rock stardom again and I stop making my “work” the priority. That has been an issue for me in the past, but I’m pretty good at managing it these days.

The humorous rejoinder, “Don’t quit your day job,” has never been more appropriate. But the corollary, however, is more important, “Don’t stop believing in your art.”

Figure out how to make a living. Find a place for your art in the daily cadence of your life. And never give it up. You’ll be fine then, regardless of any outside, perceived, success or fame.

John McElhenney
@jmacofearth (also seen on Google+: jmacofearth)
permalink: http://uber.la/2014/11/survive-thrive/

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image: Pink Floyd’s Wish You Were Here album cover, creative commons usage

Paralyzed By Opportunity: The Firehose of Ideas



It’s not ideas that count, it is the execution of those ideas.

Every day of your life, as a creative person, you are going to be assailed by your mind with 227 ideas. (There’s no rhyme or reason for this number, yours is likely to be much higher.) The challenge as an artist is how to capture and filter all the incoming ideas, and make sense of them. Your life’s work depends on the projects you pick and the projects you leave behind. But first we have to deal with the firehose.

I am a victim of this malady, even at 51. My ideas come much faster than I can keep track of them. Remembering that they are merely ideas, I can bat a number of them back into my subconscious without much effort. These are the big ideas, the huge ideas, ideas that I will be working on for years. A rock opera and stage performance, for example. Or one of four screenplays that are haunting my creative imagination, and are in various stages of being written.

But it’s the flow of ideas that’s the issue. How to make sense, to set priorities, and filter out the noise.

FIRST: Your Capture System.

How do you make note of the rush of ideas so that you can evaluate and revisit them later? If you don’t have a capture system, you can’t flush the idea out of your available memory space to make room for new ideas. The little idea (about a color to use in a new painting, for example) will swirl around in your mind, taking up endless cycles of your processing power, while you try to “not forget” and yet “not pay attention” to this little idea. The key is getting the idea down in a form you can recover easily. The better your capture system, the easier it is for you to push the rush of ideas into LATER (painting), LATER (writing), LATER (music) categories for mulling over and processing later.

Your capture system is only as good as the confidence you have in your ability to re-find and recall the energy that was expressed in the idea. As you get better at capturing, your mind will get better at letting go and freeing up space for other ideas, or (as many of us have to tend to) the work you have to do for a living. Your creative life will permeate your working life if you let it. And this is a good thing. Until it’s overwhelming your work life. When you begin calling in sick because you stayed up all night working on a piece, you’d better think about the choices… (Sorry, I’m not trying to be your parent, just a friend along the artist’s path.)

SECOND: The Filtering Process.

When the firehose of ideas is fully in bloom, you will be interrupted frequently by flights of creative fancy. The first step is to remember ideas are just ideas, it’s the execution of the ideas that makes you an artist. The second step is to know when the idea is valuable and needs to be captured, or if the idea is more like a feeling. When your inspiration is a specific detail about a project you are engaged in, the capture should be fairly simple. (Do this-this-and-this next time you open the song file.) When your idea is more meta (or not connected directly to any action, but more of the grand idea variety) you can often toss it back into the supra-consciousness knowing that your big-ideas require thousands of inspirations, and often it’s the gestation of a meta-idea that will become the framework for future projects. These too are easy to jettison out of our real-time memory with the confidence that they will return in more evolved ways later.

Then there are the ideas that are fleeting and hard to capture, hard to nail down, more inspiration and feeling than detail. And these are the ones you need to pay attention to. Entire song compositions can happen for me in the first 5-minutes after I wake up in the morning. If I don’t pay attention those gifts are gone. And it’s often not convenient for me to immediately turn on the recording studio and spend the next 30 minutes trying to capture the essence. You may have similar epiphanies upon waking or in the moments just before you fall asleep. At this point, you have a decision to make. If this “movement” is worth capturing, how can I do it and still maintain my obligations for the day. (Getting my kids to school on-time, for example.)

THIRD: Radical Capture of Ideas

This one takes some creativity. And depending on your medium, you can create your own unique ways of getting at the heart of the idea without actually having to execute on the entire idea in that very moment, which in this case is not feasible.

I’m going to take this idea and parse it into my personal methods based on the creative medium that’s being activated. For me that’s either: music, expository writing, poetry, and visual art.)

Radical Music Capture

  1. Leave yourself a voice mail. Just sing the idea into your voice mail. If you’re traveling, on a bus, or walking down the street on the way to work, don’t miss the little idea that hits you. Call yourself on the phone (or use a recording app on your phone) and leave a message. With music, my melodic ideas are short and simple. But later they can be unpackaged into full songs.
  2. Use your phone to video your guitar or piano playing. Since I’m not all that versed in writing down my musical ideas, I turn on my selfie camera in video mode and record myself playing the guitar pattern. If the guitar has an odd tuning, I can spell that out at the beginning of the video.
  3. Play it into Garageband, or some other quick/simple tool for recording. Sometimes I want a tempo track, or a second part. I can fire up Garageband (Mac) from anywhere (heck I think it’s on my iPad too) and grab a few measures of my idea using the internal mac microphone. Or I can use Garageband to give me a simple tempo or drum pattern and then use my phone to video capture the guitar.

Radical Writing Capture

  1. Evernote is your friend. Since the little app Evernote exists in the cloud, it’s always available on  your phone, your computer, or your tablet. The notes you make on one device are synced to all the devices. YAY.
  2. Remember the outlining technique you learned in school? Outlines rock for getting the structure of a writing piece down before you ever write it. If you can do the outline in 3 minutes and get on with your day, because you have other things that simply have to be done first, go for it. You can write from your outline when you have the time.
  3. Poetry. Yes, this isn’t really a capture device as a radical way to store verbal information in a short period of time. Often when I’m writing a longer piece about some emotional topic, I will also write the same story in a poem. If I can get the essence (for me) down in a poem, the I can return to write the larger piece later. And there’s a lot of cross-over between poetry and music… so there’s that.
  4. Text Editors are your friend. No formatting, just text. Save with a descriptive name and recall it later. (Word is a hog and takes a while to load.)

Radical Visual Art Capture

  1. Sketch. I can design 10 website ideas in 3 minutes with a pen and piece of paper. Get good with your hand skills. Draw out the idea for execution later.
  2. Quick Capture with PPT or other image-driven app. Some of my bigger ideas are better facilitated by a graphic program. And when at my corporate job, occasionally all I had was PPT. So I got really good at sketching out ideas in Powerpoint. Sure, they were not even close to the finished form that I wanted, but the idea was captured and I could let it go, knowing that I could return to my actual canvas or drawing pad later to fully realize the idea.
  3. Take a picture or screen grab of what you were looking at when the inspiration came to you. A lot of artistic work is derivative, don’t be ashamed of that. We’re all “standing on the shoulders of giants.”

You’ve got to listen and tune into the rush of ideas, but you cannot let them overwhelm you. This is a hard trick. The pull is strong, for me, to drop into musician mode and ignore all the other modes that are required of me (dad, worker, boyfriend). But I can use various capture and filter techniques to grab the incoming ideas and put them in my capture system. Later I can map out a plan for them to become works of art, or just one of the 277 ideas that shot through me today.

Just keep going.

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John McElhenney
@jmacofearth (also seen on Google+: jmacofearth)

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Opening to the Poetic In Your Life: Poetic Listening



Poetry is about listening. To your heart. To the words streaming around you. The hardest part is to let go and be poetic. Take all ideas of form, shape, and poetry that you learned and toss them out. Stop thinking about it and put a Word. On. A. Page.

Poetry is not about success or failure, it’s about listening. It’s about exploring your own experience of life.

One word or image is all it takes to set your mind in a spiral. You can choose to listen and record or you can ignore the impulse towards beauty or sadness. I guess that’s some of the resistance. Poetry is feeling. If you’re avoiding feeling things, perhaps it’s hard to drop down into the listening mode required to hear the poetic in your life. But if you are shutting out the sadness, in many ways, you are shutting out the happiness as well.

Flights of fancy are always poetic. Love, or the rush of love, is poetic. You feel little nuances all the time. The goal is to tune-in your radio set just a bit more accurately. If you are flooded with stress, activity, inputs (tv, email, facebook) you might have a harder time hearing the beauty around you. And the sadness is around you too.

We are poetic beings. A good percentage of our thoughts are language-based. Words are coursing through you every second, and you are filtering them in a very controlled (subconscious) way. The idea is to tune into the stream just a bit more, and listen *through* the filters to some of the emotional language rushing by. We are trained to filter this “emotional” stuff out. I mean, if we were fully feeling everything we’d collapse at every mention of global injustice, local tragedy, or personal regret. We’ve got to filter out a lot of emotional language in the course of living productive lives.

As you become a bit more conscious of the poetic language that’s coursing through you, try grabbing a few images, or words, here and there. Put them down. Laugh. Throw the poem away.

Poetry is not about success or failure, it’s about listening. It’s about exploring your own experience of life. It’s about tuning into your lifestream and plucking out the emotional bits so you can celebrate *your* human experience. There is no successful poem. There is only resonance or not. The resonance you are looking for is what happens inside of you when you hit a phrase, an expression, a word, that makes you feel that *ah-ha.*

If you feel it, chances are you’ve captured a slice of the loving/failing/falling human experience. And if you can capture something honest and pure, you don’t have to wonder if it’s good, if you got it. You’ll feel it.

Then you have to let it go.

So much of what represses our poetic impulses is the evaluation and judging of what we’ve written or created. You want to cut past that need for success, that judging of good or bad. What you want to hear, look for, experience is the feeling of a YES when you capture a moment. If a poem has a big YES for you, that is enough.

Dip your hand in the flowing/coursing of yourself. Pull up an idea, image, sound, to share. And move along.

Sharing poetry is another story. Some people will never get it. Some people cannot hear you. And some will simply not resonate with what you’ve captured. You’re best off, keeping most of your poetic meanderings to yourself. When the poetic storm has become strong in your life, the poems will burst out and at some point you will no longer be able to contain them. At this point, when the coursing rage of language and abstract catch and release process is strong within your life, then… You can share if you know your creative process is not at risk or under review.

A poem either resonates with someone or it doesn’t. It’s like the book you try to read that feels flat in your twenties but lights up in your forties. If one person lights up in response to one of your poems, you might begin to get a little heady, a little high. I caution you to reflect back to your own experience and your own process. The biggest trap in creative process is to find something successful and then try to repeat it.

Dip your hand in the flowing/coursing of yourself. Pull up an idea, image, sound, to share. And move along. Don’t fancy yourself a poet. Imagine this awkward scene at a party.

You’re meeting some people for the first time. “Hi John, what do you do in the real world.?”

“I’m a poet.”

Imagine the feeling you might get hearing someone claim that title. What’s your/their first response. “Oh cool. What have you written.”

The only really killer response at that point, the only response that’s going to win love, money, and fame is to say, “Well, I’ve just been chosen as the poet laureate of the United States.”

We’re all a long way from there, right?

Poetry is very personal and precious. Don’t let your self-expression be squelched by others’ opinions or reviews. Do you’re poetry. If it pleases you, be joyous with that. If it pleases someone else, you’ve just had an answered prayer.

You can imagine that e. e. cummings had a lot of “what?” responses to his poems. Fortunately he kept going.

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Just keep going.

John McElhenney
@jmacofearth (also seen on Google+: jmacofearth)
permalink: http://uber.la/2014/10/get-into-your-mess/

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Get Into Your Mess: Cleaning Can Be a Distraction



In my life and my art, some of my best moments are very messy. If I stopped after every session to clean it all back up, well, I’d be spending a lot of time cleaning. Yes, occasionally my studio or office gets a little chaotic for my tastes. When my productivity gets slowed down by piles of ideas, or clothes on top of my recording equipment (not for sound dampening) then I know it’s time to put things in piles elsewhere.

Don’t let your compulsive cleanliness get in the way of your soaring inspirations.

I know when I was a kid I was like this. When I would get a “project” going I’d have ideas and parts all over my room. And sure enough, my mom would come by at some point and say, “You need to pick all that up, you know.” Buzz kill. Even as a young person I knew she was controlling me and my messy madness.

Okay, so mom’s not here any more. And yet, we’re still compelled, occasionally to clean and organize and fold every thing right out of the dryer. But it’s not really all that conducive to creativity for me. Sometimes I like to start with an empty and clean desk. But I also like to leave projects open and half-completed, almost as if they are calling me back. “Come look at this idea, plug the guitar back in, let’s have another run at this one.”

So compulsive cleaning and hyper-organization can be a distraction. You can avoid sitting in the chair and writing, if you feel you absolutely must make up your bed and pick up the books off the floor. BUT… Do you need to? Or are you avoiding the more difficult prospect of facing your creativity head on?

We all have lots of reasons for NOT doing our art. Fear. Money. Time. Relationships. No relationship. Depression. And cleaning your room can be one of those that’s more of a hold over from your little person times, when your mom had more sway than she does now.

Here’s a shot of Kurt Vonnegut working in his home.


The quote I often connect with Vonnegut, but today’s interwebs offered me no reference links, is this.

“You think it’s messy out here?” He said, smiling. Then he pointed to his head, “You should see what it looks like in here.”

– Kurt Vonnegut
(10-points to the first person who can ID or find this quote attributed to someone.)

Get over your childhood ideas about your messy room, or your messy habits. A messy studio is an active studio. A pristine desk or pristine painter’s studio is not in use. You want to put your creatitivy to use, if you’re always cleaning up, how do you pick up again on a project that wasn’t fully baked yet. You don’t.

Let your mess show. Let your creativity bloom in any direction it needs to go. Don’t worry about mom. Send her to this post, when she complains at you. You deserve to get your creativity all over you, and all over your room. Do it. Clean up if you have to, or clean up as a celebration for the completion of some massive project you’ve been working and messing on. Let your mess be a pressure to keep you focused on completing. You can’t clean until you complete.

Don’t let your compulsive cleanliness get in the way of your soaring inspirations. “Just close the door mom,” is a fine answer. (Even if mom is just an idea in your head.)

John McElhenney

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Stop Talking: Do The Work, Don’t Talk About Doing It


Letter Eight

If you’re talking about your work rather than doing it, you are letting out a lot of energy. This energy (joy, excitement, recognition, community, support) is better used by focusing on DOING the work rather than TALKING ABOUT DOING the work. It’s an easy concept, but it’s harder to learn and master.

The “pages” begin to form a relationship between your consciousness (the writing) and your subconsciousness (the flow of ideas).

When you are cranked up about a project it is hard not to share it with others. BUT, the minute you learn how much power comes from NOT sharing it, but working to FINISH it, the quicker you will get the amazing benefit from this idea of containment. You want to contain and build the energy in your creative work and use it exclusively for actually doing the work, rather than explaining it, or celebrating it, while it is still incomplete.

Have you ever been totally jazzed about a piece of work you are in the middle of, and you want to tell everyone? Or you have a specific friend who is a supporter or an artist themselves, and you love spending time brainstorming and venting about your work with each other. Stop that. The celebration is for AFTER the publication or show or performance.

By talking about your idea you might think you are giving voice, or fleshing it out. But you are actually trying to get a bit of the recognition for your great work. Even in the most supportive environments, with the most supportive artist friends, every word you say about your work, is 100 words you are losing in the progress of the work. (Apply as a metaphor to any creative discipline you like.)

Why are you talking about it rather than doing it?

  • You want support (what’s hard about being an artist?)
  • You want accolades (we all want to be recognized for our art)
  • You want to brainstorm
  • You want to let off some steam from the hard day
  • You want to join in the “high” of doing great work
  • It’s natural to want to share things that are making you excited
  • You want to be loved

All of those things are part of the artist’s struggle. Like common internal question, “Why am I working so hard at this if I’m never going to be recognized or, better yet, paid for my work?” If you are an artist, you are probably struggling with some of these identity and livelihood issue right now. (Unless you are Peter Gabriel, or Sting) That’s part of the path of the artist.

Part of the magic of The Artist’s Way is the morning pages. Briefly, the idea is to wake up in the morning and start writing. Your goal is stream of consciousness and volume or time writing. You set a timer and begin. Whatever comes you write. Without thinking too much about it, you simply stroke the pages until your time is up.

What this process unlocks is your internal collaborator and cheerleader. The “pages” begin to form a relationship between your consciousness (the writing) and your subconsciousness (the flow of ideas). As you get more familiar with this connection the stream of consciousness becomes more fluid, easier, quicker. And when you really get going you’re anticipating the morning pages with excitement. It’s a bit like talking to a friend, except in this instance there is little or no loss of energy. In fact, you artist’s voice may become stronger as your subconscious thoughts gain more voice in your live. As you listen to the crazy and exciting things your mind is rambling on about, you may begin to see patterns, evoke idea, change direction in your creative path.

And the morning pages can get scary for some people. When the weird and frightening ideas pop out of your unfiltered mind onto the page, it’s a jarring experience. But this is some of the reason we become artists. We need to connect with this sub-lingual idea machine and give language and voice to the ideas that begin percolating. It’s like self-hypnosis, or self-analysis in the Freudian way, you simply answer the questions: “Then what happened?” “How did that make you feel?” “Can you tell me more?”

If your goal is to create beautiful finished pieces of work, or continue on to create a body of work, you need to STFU and do the work.

In this way, you begin calling out your strange ideas. You begin cultivating a dialogue with some of the swirling beasts that may have been swimming around in your mind for years and years. Our creative process is like saddling them up and riding them onto the canvas or into a song. The morning pages process can unlock a huge amount of energy and set you on a path towards a more creative life.

But again, let’s draw the contrast here.

1. Writing, thinking, dialoging with yourself is part of living whether you are creating or not. By giving some process to this inner stream of consciousness, by making the subconscious conscious, we can pull that energy and those ideas into our work.

2. Talking with another person about writing, painting, composing however fun and fulfilling it might seem at the time, is a dissipative process. When you get jazzed up from telling ABOUT the idea, you are letting out a lot of the energy necessary to complete the WORK on the idea.

If your goal is to create beautiful finished pieces of work, or continue on to create a body of work, you need to STFU and do the work. Celebrate at the opening, record release party, book signing. But keep the celebration of the work inside you until that particular piece of work is done.

A fascinating thing happens when you contain the energy this way: the momentum and energy grows. You want to share your ideas. That’s why you are striving to be an artist, to share, to create, to expand. But until your “piece” is done, keep that energy and momentum to yourself. Do morning pages as a process and see how your inner dialogue strengthens. And finally, get your butt in the seat and do the work.

That is the goal of these letters. To show you ways to get your creativity flowing. But if you don’t put the brush, the guitar, the keyboard in your hand, you’re just thinking or talking about it.

Don’t talk, do.

Don’t think, take action.

Don’t look for appreciation, let your own inner joy be all the appreciation you need to get the work finished.

THEN, when the piece is done, can you celebrate a milestone along your path down the artist’s way.


John McElhenney
@jmacofearth (also seen on Google+: jmacofearth)
permalink: http://uber.la/2014/10/stop-talking-do-the-work/

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image: mixed media painting – detail, see-ming lee, creative commons usage

Letters to a Young Artist in the Digital Age

In 1929, Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet was published. Ten short letters of encouragement to a 19-year old hopeful poet. And the master gives wonderful advice that still heartens any creative artists around the world. Wonderful advice about craft, not showing your work too soon, keeping the fire alive inside even if you never get the recognition for your poetry. It is still an amazing set of letters. As if written directly to us. While I have not read Rilke’s letters for over ten years, I know the spirit and ideas he expressed have kept me hopeful and energetic about my own writing.

My Letters to a Young Artist in the Digital Age has the same intent. Bring a new perspective to the creative process. This creative live is a path and not an end destination. Few of us will become Steven King, or George R. R. Martin, or J. K. Rowling. For those of us still on the path towards recognition or financial success, there are quite a few discouragements and barriers. It can be a struggle to keep your creative self alive and healthy.

In these letters I am in many ways writing to myself as a young aspiring writer. But I am also aware that I am writing these letters for myself as a man of 51-years who is still seeking expression. That alone is a success story. I am still at it. I am still writing, singing, and playing music as if I were still in the race. But of course, it’s not a race, it is life. And if you are a creative person, you have a long life ahead, and if you are lucky, and perseverant, you will continue to create well into your old age.

And in many ways I am writing these letters to my future self as well. Encouraging my current, 51-year old self, to keep writing. I have the magic perspective of time travel to bring all three of these “artists” together in my mind, as I write the little ideas for keeping creativity as a main goal of life. This is my goal: creativity is a life way, if there is anything I can do to help others find their path let me share my own experience.

So, let’s start there. This is my experience, in my 51+ years of being an artist. I have had some successes and many failures, but I’ve always gotten back up and brushed myself off, and continued with the work. Along this path I have come up with some ideas that help me maintain my hope, my energy, and my focus as an artist. And I am writing these pages to you, if you are on the same journey. What we need is friends along the path, to cheer us on. These letters are me, cheering you on. And in many ways, I am cheering myself on, as I continue to create and believe that my life’s gift is in this creating.

I hope you find creativity in your life. And if I can be of any help to you, let me know. I am over here in my own tunnel of life, furiously creating myself, and I will share what I can of the light for us to forge ahead.


John McElhenney
@jmacofearth (also seen on Google+: jmacofearth)
permalink: http://uber.la/2014/09/letters-to-a-young-artist/

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image: my morning spot, john mcelhenney, cc 2014