Stop Picking Your Nose, or, Reclaiming Your Creativity in Stages


on the living room floor

When’s the last time you came home tired?

Not the kind of tired you feel after you assemble a piece of heavy furniture, or weed the garden, or kayak all day, but the kind that has you bee-lining for Advil and Netflix?

Also: When’s the last time you used a glue stick? And scissors and a ruler, construction paper and sharpies? When’s the last time you got down on the floor in the living room or the bedroom or made a mess of the kitchen table, the music turned up loud enough for the neighbors to hear?

When’s the last time you dusted off the books of poetry you used to read daily, or the sketch book you bought with equal doses of nostalgia and resolve to start drawing again?

The answers matter. And they don’t.

What really matters is now. In fact, now may be the only thing we really write about here. Annie Dillard said it best: “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.”

Yes, you could’ve been a _____________. You should’ve studied _____________. And maybe you would’ve even tried _____________.

If this. But that.

It’s a sinkhole, to be sure. If that’s where you hang out on a daily, or even weekly basis, I’m not sure whether to say read on or stop reading here.

That’s up to you, of course. You have the choice to ditch this post. You also have the choice to ditch that way of thinking about your creativity and dreams–things you lost along the way, or deferred or dabbled in but never believed could really amount to anything.

What do you lose track of time doing?

Call if Flow, call it the Zone, call it Passion. What it is doesn’t matter so much as remembering that it’s at your fingertips and you are the only one who can do or not do it.

OK, let me back up a little.

When I was a teenager, I made little books of poems.

These days, I work, spend a lot of time with my girls during the half-the-week and every-other-weekend they are with us, take out the recycling on Tuesday nights, and do my damndest to get cash into the appropriate envelopes on the first of the month.

But at sixteen, I spent hours and hours printing poems in my father’s study, figuring out pagination (probably the most mathematical thing I did in all of high school), cutting and pasting and assembling words onto pages, choosing cover art from whatever magazines were in the house, and walking to the copy shop in town to use the coin-operated machines. I wrote little blurbs About the Author on the back, and inscribed every xeroxed copy of each book to someone–a family member, a boyfriend.

I used to be. A bookmaker. An artist.

And then. Life happened.

Do you hear this a lot, life happened? I do. I hear it sometimes out of my own mouth.

What does this mean about us, and about Life? This  reminds me of these line from Emily Dickinson’s poem #640, which I have loved for years:

And Life is over there – 
Behind the Shelf

The Sexton keeps the Key to –

Life happened over there while we were living it, busy, forgetting that the choice to spend time doing what we love most never abandoned us, but we it.

If life is over there, where are we? It can get depressing, this trajectory.

But there is good news, too.

Yesterday, I came home from work craving fresh air and sunlight and movement and something that didn’t involve any kind of screen. So I changed into shorts and a t-shirt and asked Mani if she’d take a walk with me. She said yes. As we walked, and she told me all about the paragraph she’d written of the novel she’s working on, and how she used the remainder of the hour she’d allotted herself for fiction-writing doing research, which led to a long story about something I knew little about.

When we came back home a little stinky from sweat, I took the two Advil and declared that I would spend  at least thirty minutes being a bookmaker. Not a sixteen-year-old one, either. A forty-year-old bookmaker, on the living room floor with a glue stick and scraps of paper from the bin at the art store and the White Keys blasting on the Apple TV.

By the time I came to a logical stopping point on the creative project I’m working on, I noticed that my headache was gone. I felt ready to eat some leftovers, and to write. I had done two things, two things I lose track of time doing–walking, and a glorified version of arts-and-crafts destined to be a gift to someone I love dearly.

How we spend our days.

If you aren’t in love with how you spend your days, you may or may not be able to change that all at once. But one thing is for sure–you will not change it at all, ever, if you don’t start choosing to spend time, just little bits even, doing things that recharge you, remind you not just of you were when, but of who you are now.

I cannot reveal the source of the following conversation, but I share it here due to its relevance to our topic:

Real-Life Dialogue:
Anonymous Person: I’ve been working on not eating my boogers.
Me: Yeah?
AP: Yeah. And and now I’m working on not picking my nose at all.
Me: Oh!
AP: It’s easier, when you go in stages like that.

From the mouths of babes, the saying goes. And ain’t that the truth. It’s easier when you go in stages. Don’t have time to exercise? I do squats in the elevator at work, for the time between the third and first floors. I don’t know, but it couldn’t have been more than 40 seconds. (p.s. Don’t worry–only when I have the elevator to myself.)

I don’t know anyone who has ever received a hefty–or any–advance for their first novel. No, she writes a paragraph a day, between the paying clients and changing the laundry. The time she carves out to write that paragraph, though, is a choice–and a sacred one at that, meaning it cannot be put off until tomorrow when she has more time. Because she will never have more time.

We will never have more time another day. Life will not magically slow down after the next board meeting or deadline–unless you claim it. Thirty minutes, fifteen. One, even.

It’s easier, when you go in stages.

Stop eating your boogers before you worry about not picking your nose. One thing follows another, and before you know it, you’ll have broken an unwanted habit or rekindled a dormant passion, or banged out three chapters of your novel, or made homemade ice-cream, or taken a walk, or started a writing group, or sketched during breakfast.

Just start.

If you’re thinking of how it won’t really amount to anything, you might be right. But what if you’re wrong? Don’t you want to find out?


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