Stroking the creative

Because big egos are almost always fragile egos

By Ellen Margulies

My mother called me in the middle of my workday today to play me a message from her answering machine. “Can you hear that?” she kept interrupting, speaking over the recorded message from one of her church friends. “Yes, Mom, if you would just stop talking,” I said through gritted teeth.

I want to validate my Ugly Mugs barista today, who made this lovely latte art even though I ordered it to-go!

Mom, a natural-born storyteller, loves to build a little suspense, so I had no idea where this was going. And since our phone calls often end with things like, “You really need to… (fill in the blank here with some hideous task like ‘get a root canal every 3 weeks,’ ‘clean out our attic in mid-July,’ ‘refinance your mortgage by this afternoon or you’ll just be throwing money away,’ etc.; I wasn’t super-hopeful.)” But, delightful turn of events, my parents’ church friend was calling to tell them how much she loved 5 to Try, the food column I write for our local paper every Wednesday, how funny it was, how hungry it made her, how much she looked forward to it.

Tears started to sting my eyes. That’s how grateful I felt that someone who doesn’t know me, isn’t related to me and has nothing to gain and no favor to ask just wanted to compliment my work. I thanked my mother for sharing it with me and told her how I often feel like I work in a validation vacuum, to which she said, “I knew you’d appreciate that.” (Moms are great sometimes. They should have their own holiday.) This particular church friend has passed on such compliments to my parents before, but to hear it in her own voice was actually very special.

Granted, my father emails me religiously every week to tell me how much he loves the column or, if I whiffed something, how I COULD’VE done it better, but he’s my pop and therefore slightly biased, and sometimes I just need more pats on the back from the outside world. My mom’s share reminded me how important that is for all of us who create.

We can and sometimes do create just for the sake of creating. We do it to make ourselves happy or work out some problem or express a feeling. But when we share that creativity with the world, whether that world is the 47 people who read my food column who aren’t blood relatives or your 2,028 Instagram followers or the 9 million strangers who watch the Super Bowl half-time show, we creators are just holding our collective breath, waiting for some sign that unzipping our outsides and revealing a bit of vulnerability wasn’t a colossal fail.  

Validation is more than a thank-you; it’s a gift. A gift of connection.

remembering taylor swift
Beast of Ego needs love, too. (“Remembering Taylor Swift,” 3×3 acrylic on canvas, by Ellen Margulies)

It’s not that I’m some egomaniacal self-centered beast that has to be fed a steady diet of compliments. Although, I guess I kind of am that beast, at times. I guess a lot of us creatives can be, at times. But if you look underneath that rock, if I may be allowed to switch metaphors here, what you’ll find on that dark, wormy underside is a gaping maw of self-doubt and insecurity, perhaps the remnants of a 5-year-old who just wanted his drawing posted on the fridge or a middle-schooler who never got up the nerve to enter the talent show. We’re all just ugly beasts wandering around with a big bag of rocks, looking for love and validation.


So the next time you encounter something you love, be it a poem or a pizza, or you see the person who created the thing you love, let them know. Click the “like” button. Tap the heart. Send the email, make the phone call, or blow a kiss to the passing celebrity and call out, “I LOVE YOUR WORK!”

Turns out that kind of thing never, and I mean never, gets old.   

P.S. Two final notes here: 1. There are probably people out there who are so self-actualized that they don’t really need the approval of others. Please share your wisdom in the comments below, and go easy on the rest of us for our neediness. 2. Laura, your blog post last week on creative influencers was freaking awesome. You are DEFINITELY one of my influencers!!


Art vs. Science and Creative Influencers

by Laura M.

How does art relate to modern medicine? Dr. Churchwell spoke about this to a group of community members, students, staff and faculty at Vanderbilt University last night. He challenges those who believe that art and science are mutually exclusive. Instead, he believes they can act in concert. When they come together, which can happen on an individual basis by melding the left and right brain, people end up seeing things differently. Seeing things differently can lead to innovation.

In Churchwell’s case, his right brain muscle is exercised when he illustrates and designs fashion. Here are some of his illustrations (can you tell he is influenced by Jack Kirby?):


Churchwell’s father drew pictures for him when he was a little boy and that inspired him to draw. His father also inspired an interest in clothing. Every Sunday Churchwell and his siblings would line up for inspection. His father would tell them what worked and what didn’t. Check out this article about his fashion sense. Esquire Magazine has called him one of the 50 best dressed men in America (way to represent Tennessee, Dr. C!)

Flipping to the other side of his brain, Churchwell’s left brain muscle is exercised when he does his day job of leading the Cardiology Division at Vanderbilt, helming the Diversity Affairs initiative at the School of Medicine, teaching radiology and radiological sciences and biomedical engineering.

Photo Credit: Joe Howell

Churchwell’s mentors in medicine embraced ‘whole brain’ thinking. Tom McMahon oscillated between writing fiction and his science lab. Arthur Guyton believed that adversity + imagination = discovery. So, while bound to a wheelchair due to polio, he invented the first mechanized wheelchair.

Hearing Churchwell talk about the influence of these great people on his life made me question what/who fuels my creativity/curiosity. My two favorites are Brene Brown and Tim Minchin.

Because of an ecourse I took from Brene Brown, I explored many different creative outlets, many of which I passed on before because I didn’t consider myself a creative type. Here is a nice synopsis of Brene’s take on creativity.

Tim Minchin, an Australian comedian, gave a commencement address at his alma mater that I have now watched on Youtube countless times. One of my favorite pieces of advice from his speech is to examine our own opinions. Think about that. If you examine your own opinion, it naturally opens you up to curiosity. “Why do I think/feel/believe that? How did I arrive at that decision?”

I’d love to know how you, our readers, blend left and right brain thinking. Do any of you have left brain jobs and right brain hobbies? Are you able to find time to exercise the right brain muscle? Who influences your creativity?






Time for creativity

By Ellen Margulies

You can tell by the blurriness whose photo this is…

When I die, there are any number of things my loved ones could inscribe on my gravestone. But the truest thing would probably be this: “She was not a morning person.” It’s a bit of an understatement, sort of along the lines of “Donald Trump has unusual hair” and “Kanye West is not lacking in self-confidence.”

In my 20s, I once briefly considered joining the military (I think I was just having a REALLY bad day). I drove to the recruitment office a half-hour away. I found a parking space, put the car in park, let it idle for 5 minutes… then drove off. Given the early-rising nature of military service, along with someone constantly telling me what to do and teaching me to use an assault rifle, things could’ve ended badly for everyone.

What this means is: you’re not going to get my best work in the mornings. Hit me up in the night hours, though, and I’ll be sizzling. I’m at my most creative somewhere between 8 p.m. and 3 a.m., which can be inconvenient when you have to align your hours with a business world that gets cracking well before noon. Yet there are plenty of creatives who do their best work just when the sun comes up.

Can you schedule creativity? Consider these snippets from Open Culture’s website:

Novelist/runner Haruki Murakami beats the sun to his desk every day: “When I’m in writing mode for a novel, I get up at 4:00 am and work for five to six hours. In the afternoon, I run for 10km or swim for 1500m (or do both), then I read a bit and listen to some music. I go to bed at 9:00 pm. I keep to this routine every day without variation.”

When Franz Kafka was a clerk at an insurance company, he kept an insane schedule that nevertheless made the most of his magic hours, creativity-wise: He worked his day job from 8:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m., napped from 3:30-7:30 p.m., and started his writing at 11 p.m., working until anywhere from 1-6 a.m.

The Daily Routines of Famous Creative People has the most fab graphic, based on Mason Currey’s equally fab book, on famous creatives and their schedules; if you hover your mouse over the colored blocks, you’ll see exactly what they did when. Pablo Picasso did his best work between 3-9 p.m., when Kafka and I would prefer to nap and maybe watch something on Hulu. Beethoven was more of your 7 a.m.-1 p.m. creator, while Voltaire and Charles Darwin worked in fits and starts throughout the day.

Of course you can schedule creativity. If you’re lucky, you can pick the time that best suits you. Other times, you just have to force it, like Play-Doh hair.

Remember: Chefs and reporters don’t have the luxury of creating when they feel like it; their creativity is dictated by their audience. And their audience’s stomachs. Not necessarily in that order.


Find your best creative time

If you’re just not sure when your best time to create might be, give yourself a little test. Set aside 5 minutes at various times of day and make a list. The list can be any theme; I’ll give you some sample subjects: songs to play when you’re feeling sad, menus for a dinner party, must-haves for a spring wardrobe, ways to entertain your toddler on a road trip, etc. (You may have to start out with a list of lists!) Do this for several days in a row, using different topics. At the end of the experiment, see when you come up with your longest, most creative lists. Is it 10 in the morning? 4:30 p.m.? Right after your daily run?

You’ll start to get an idea of when all the cogs are turning quickest for you. I did a little experiment last week in which I compared my performance on Lumosity brain-training games at different times of day. I consistently scored best at night, around 8-10 p.m., although, surprisingly, my second-best time was before 10 a.m. Don’t go getting any ideas, though; I’m still not a morning person. (You can download the free Lumosity app in the Google Play Store, FYI. It’s addictive.)

I think it’s important to find a way to shoehorn creativity into your life, so if that means getting up 2 hours early to write or blocking out time on weekends, then do it. Many people who feel shy about tapping into their own creative urges may feel intimidated by this at first, but it gets easier. I’ve been writing for a living for a few decades, and my schedule is dictated by outside forces about 90% of the time. But I still enjoy painting on Saturdays, and I keep a notebook by my bed in case inspiration strikes irritatingly in the middle of my slumber.

NashvilleCat (2)
“Nashville Cat” was painted on a Saturday. Humblebrag: I entered it into an art show, the Cats & Guitars show at Chartreuse Gallery in Phoenix, and it actually sold to someone I’ve never met and isn’t related to me.

I think one of my favorite quotes about making time for creativity is from Van Gogh: “If you hear a voice within you saying, ‘You cannot paint,’ then by all means paint and that voice will be silenced.”

Happy creating!