What’s the point?

By Laura M.

Here’s the thing about creative pursuits: not everyone is gonna care about them. You can record an album, write a book, or make a sculpture. But there may not be anyone on the other end who wants it. This is all well and good if you’re really only interested in the journey or don’t require external validation. If that describes you: God bless. You are so lucky.
For the rest of us, it can feel a little like we’re hollering into a black hole.

Rather discouraging, to say the least, when you get no response. But no response is not an indication of a lack of an interesting topic or dearth of talent. Sometimes it’s due to a lack of influence.

Take, for instance, the class that Ellen and I designed last summer. There’s a local community education program that allows anyone (and I mean anyone) to teach a subject to adults over a series of weeks at local community centers. We decided it would be fun to lead a class on how to tap into your best creative self. We met every week for 6 weeks to discuss the curriculum. We talked about the big idea (that everyone is inherently creative, it’s just a matter of tapping into it), researched the science behind it, and talked about different activities we could do that would inspire students. We arranged for guest speakers and made inventory lists of items we would need to supply during class. We mapped out a schedule of what would be ‘taught’ in each class and even factored in when ‘assignments’ would be due, what we’d ask students to provide on their own and what to do if students didn’t have access to the technology required. We participated in an open house where we dutifully sat at a booth with our materials and handouts and talked with potential students about our class. You get the picture here, right? You understand that we devoted a lot of time to this?

We told our friends, we posted on Facebook and Twitter. Registration opened and (did you see this coming?) NO ONE signed up. Personne (that’s French for no one.) NOBODY!

So get this: two weeks after our class was cancelled due to lack of enrollment, Elizabeth Gilbert came out with her book “Big Magic.” It’s a book about, wait for it…finding your inner creativity. In case you don’t know, Gilbert sold a gazillion copies of her book Eat, Pray, Love. It was even made into a major motion picture with Julia Roberts. So she’s kinda a big deal. This new book of hers (out last September 2015) has sold a lot of copies. I can’t find the exact figure but trust me – it’s a lot. She’s doing an online course in creativity, in conjunction with the book. Guess how many people signed up? 4,228 students.

So clearly we had a good idea but not the influence or exposure to recruit students. Lest you think I’m complaining, you need to understand that this very blog you’re reading came about because of the ‘failure’ of our course. We knew we had some good ideas and we felt like there was an audience out there comprised of people we don’t know.

Of course, this blog comes with its own set of hopes and disappointments.We’ve had some lovely responses from fellow bloggers and friends alike. But many posts are published to…crickets.


Where am I going with this? Well, I’m not soliciting SEO advice or suggestions on how to draw a bigger audience. I share my (our) experience because I think it’s what the majority of creators experience. It’s my belief that when you’re in this situation you have to figure out a way to be ok with it. And in the words of Martina McBride (and Brett and Brad Warren, her co-writers), “Do it anyway.”

So my query to fellow bloggers and creators: how do you get comfortable with creating something that potentially has no reward or audience?

P.S. I’ll admit that video makes me teary-eyed.


I shared this post via FB and I got these thoughtful responses:

from Bobby, a songwriter and poet: I just finished listening to the audio book attached here. The author talks about “creating for the sake of creating, how that has diminished in our society, and how important it is for many reasons.” His comments about “flow” and “creativity” helped me to see that much of the creative experience is just about getting into “flow”–a space where the soul is nourished, a space where the mind and the psyche can play. Many of these things I have known, but thought I was alone in my feelings. This book is like a license to be a creative person who does not have to answer to those who do not get it. Create. The opposite of that is “die.” https://www.amazon.com/Creativity…/dp/B000TG1X9C…From my experience: There are writers who thrive on being in the creative process; there are writers who live to have written. I’m the first kind. : )

from Darla, a potter and Zentangle instructor (who has her own WP blog site here): It is so hard to separate your identity from your creative endeavors. I can spend weeks developing a class, order supplies and no one signs up, then I’ll have an awesome group come in for a class and it’s amazing and makes it worth it. I guess we hang in there for the Sparks of shared experience that we are sometimes rewarded with.

from Brent Baxter, a songwriter (who also has a blog here): it always has a reward. The process itself and the joy of completion. Writing a song is fun. Yeah, I’d rather millions of people hear them than just a few, but every time I write a good song I get a good feeling

Denise, a writer, commented here on WP (see below.) Her awesome blog is here.


Keep your day job

by Laura M.

There’s this nifty venue here in Nashville, TN called Cheekwood. It’s an old mansion that’s essentially been converted into an art gallery. The hilly grounds surrounding the manor are host to beautiful gardens (100,000 tulips in the Spring!) and amazing outdoor art installations from the likes of Chihuly, Bruce Munro, and Jaume Plensa (all mind-blowing!).


Me and the sculpture “Laura” (named after his wife) at the Jaume Plensa installation at Cheekwood in 2015. 

A few months ago, Cheekwood held a pop art exhibit. I don’t know a whole lot about that form of art. I’m familiar with Andy Warhol’s Campbell’s soup can series, Roy Lichenstein’s comic book art…the real mainstream stuff. I walked through the upper gallery, checking out the small collection they had put together, not spending too much time on each piece. That is until I saw a bio on the wall of Corita Kent.

First of all, seeing a woman’s name in the pop art collection made me positively giddy. I wasn’t familiar with any female pop artists. [I’m sure there are more – please excuse my ignorance. I was a toddler at that time and have not studied that genre to know it well.] Second of all, she was a NUN! Sister Mary Corita Kent of the Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary order in Los Angeles, CA.


image of Sister Mary Corita from the Corita Art Center

Sister Mary Corita had always been interested in art. She got her undergrad and masters degrees in art and taught art at a college (eventually becoming the chair of the art department.) All the while she made art, predominantly silkscreen, serigraph and printmaking.

Having an interest in social justice and peace, Corita imbued her art with positive messages and affirmations: “Hope is the memory of the future,” “Life is a succession of moments, to live each one is a way of succeeding.” Her political activism eventually led her to leave the church and pursue art full time in Boston.


image from the Corita Art Center

Depending on your age, you may recognize this piece of art by Corita:


US Postage stamp 1985

Also in Boston in the 70s…

Psychologist Ellen Langer has spent her highly-respected career researching mindfulness and its applications to our daily lives. Through her research at Harvard University, where she is a professor, she has proven that mindfulness can improve our health, creativity and effectiveness. Jennifer Aniston is even making a movie about her and her work. You know a movement is legit when it makes it to the silver screen. 😉

As it so happens, Dr. Langer loves to paint. She took it up later in life (in her 50s). She’s not necessarily interested in the outcome as much as the experience she has with the process. She just really enjoys painting. Feeling the paintbrush in her hand, how the bristles bend as she presses it onto the canvas, the trail of paint the brush leaves behind…you get the picture.

Dr. Langer’s work is now sold in galleries as she forges ahead with her fascinating research on the human condition.

So why do I talk about these two ladies? Because I find them inspirational. Not just that they found a vocation about which they were/are passionate, but that they also created space in their full lives for creativity. Very much like Dr. Andre Churchwell, the physician/fashion designer/illustrator.

Here in Nashville there are a ton of people pursuing their dream of being a singer or songwriter. 95% do not attain that goal and work a day job in order to support themselves. In the instances of these ladies, their non-artistic occupation wasn’t their backup plan. Isn’t that a cool twist?

Ultimately, what I’m saying is: Creativity doesn’t have to be front and center in a person’s life for it to be valid or merit worthy. It can be a big part of it but not the be all, end all. It’s not like Sister Mary Corita became a nun because she couldn’t hack it as a printmaker. She LOVED her faith. But she also loved art and made room for both. So even if it’s not the main focus of your life, it’s still worth doing.

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.

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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!

Creative Inspiration

by Laura M.

Like many cities, Nashville is host to a multitude of creative offerings. Beautiful gardens, live music everywhere, visual art, dance, bookreadings, etc. But what’s even better is the number of opportunities to explore your own creativity. And I bet your city is like that, too (or at least I hope so!)

There are many entities that offer classes, whether they be one-offs or series. One of them, the University School of Nashville, offers one-off classes taught by alumni or parents of children who attend their school. The money you pay for the class goes towards scholarships for USN students. Now that’s a win-win!

This past Winter I signed up for 3 classes (I wanted to take 6, but was on a budget!) My favorite was a book-making class I took from these two lovely ladies, Emily Holt and Leslie Patterson-Marx at Platetone:


You can actually thank Emily for pushing me down my creativity path. She taught a book arts class for adults for a few years that was offered by Sarratt Art. That was the first time, as an adult, that I created something that I never thought I could and was proud of it. It encouraged me to try other new things I never thought I’d be good at.

At this particular class we made a simple small book:


I keep it in my purse for when I need to take notes. Super cute, huh?

The class had people of all ages and craftiness levels. Everyone was friendly and eager to make something cool. We were all so thrilled to walk away with something so easy to make, looked nifty and is practical.

I really encourage you to seek out classes like these. If you’re not in Nashville, check your local library, arts museum, JCC, university and art stores.

Here are some great places in Nashville at which you can take classes:

Gordon Jewish Community Center – I took a paper cutting class there from Kim Phillips. Such intricacy! I gave my creation to a dear friend of mine who hangs it proudly in her home.


Owl’s Hill Sanctuary – Ellen and I have taken both a painting class and a book making class there. It’s especially nice when the weather is temperate and you can sit outside under their pavilion.


Sarratt Art Studio Classes – this is the venue through which I took my first book making class with Emily. Look at all these treasures! I learned so many different binding types and was able to give many as gifts over the years.


USN Evening Classes – they offer so many kinds of classes! I’ve taken creative writing, a ‘leftovers’ cooking class, and mixed media art class. This is from the paper collage class with Beth Grubb.


Cheekwood – Probably one of my all-time favorite classes I’ve ever taken was a 6 week mixed media class taught by Cindy Birdsong at Cheekwood. Talk about creative! She has ideas and ways of making art that are so inventive and unique. Especially helpful if you’re on a budget. One of her brilliant ideas is to use spackle (yes, spackle!) to ‘build’ density, texture and dimension. I highly recommend Cindy’s classes. I made this piece as an homage to my dear friend Kelly.


Plaza Arts – I’ve taken a paper-making class here from Courtney Adair Johnson, a wonderful local artist who works with found objects and advocates for re-purposing to create art. The purple paper you see in the above painting is from the class I took with her. I took another class by Cindy at Plaza Arts. She taught us a form of art called Encaustic (see below image) where you work with wax to create an image.


There really are so many things you can learn from so many talented folks here in our fair town. What about you? What are your favorite places to take classes from? Please share your leads with us!

Update on 4/10/2016: reader Charlotte recommends art classes from Deby Dearman, some of which are held in Westhaven Resident’s Club in Franklin, TN. Thanks for the recommendation, Charlotte!

Creativity is…

(By Ellen Margulies*)

…not a question, really; just so many answers.

It’s finding the best time to create.

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It’s hitting the 3 o’clock slump when you need to focus on the writing.


It’s breaking out of your breakfast rut.

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It’s taking a walk around and around your office building to clear the cobwebs, and then walking around in the opposite direction and finding a new view.


It’s gluing coloring hammering painting tearing typing stirring draping until it looks like shit, and keeping at it until it looks good again.

bad hair

It’s finding that last-minute burst of energy you didn’t think you had left.


It’s dragging yourself upright in bed at 0-dawn-thirty because this amazing thought just struck and if you don’t get it down right now you will never remember it in the morning.

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It’s creating for the sheer joy of it, whether you’re dancing like nobody’s watching or starring in your own imaginary love story.


It’s pulling something out of your ass at the last second because DEADLINES.


It’s about being your own weird little self, even when you’re ripping off a little bit from everybody else, too.


It’s the confidence of knowing somehow, some way, you will figure this thing out.


It’s my truth.


It’s yours, too.


Creativity is an act of defiance.
—Twlya Tharp


*Most images shot by Ellen Margulies unless otherwise credited or obviously and blatantly swiped off the Internet. No copyright infringement intended.