Creativity 101: How I Am Like Robert Downey Jr.

6773980776Working hard in a creative field can sometime feel like…well…work. In my own experience, there is no substitute for consistency, hard work, 1000 words a day. These things accumulate and become more than the sum of their parts. The words take on substance. I start to see not just the words but also the spaces between.

But even devotion has its dangers. Sometimes, these long continuous periods of creativity dig deep inside of us, and ruts begin to form, unnoticed at first but eventually effective. Work starts to feel less and less like spreading seeds over fertile ground and more and more like taking a day’s worth of seeds, digging a small hole, and piling them all in one spot. And covering them up.

Something I’ve recently discovered about creativity is that it thrives in variety. I’ve discovered this by commandeering my daughter’s paint set she got for Christmas (as well as one of her canvases), and painting my first acrylic painting. It’s terrible, but that’s not the point. The point is that when I engage in other creative efforts, things shift inside of my brain. Old ruts are filled in with inexperience and innocence and the scattering only a novice can initiate.

So try something different. Paint. Write a poem. Carve a piece of wood.

Or sing with Sting:

This Woman Prepared For a Double Mastectomy…By Dancing

We steel ourselves against the challenge to come. We fight it with heavy sighs and clenched jaws and a firm resolve. We are like dour-faced pilgrims, preparing for the long journey. We count the cost.

But what if we faced the upcoming climb with joy? What if we stared in the face of this next test, this next hearing, this next marathon, with a peace that no one could understand?

What if we danced before we climbed?

If we somehow managed to do that, it would look like the woman in this video, preparing for her pending double mastectomy by holding an impromptu dance party.

This kind of dancing in the face of a difficult journey is not easy. It almost always requires a strong community, a band of people willing to rise up alongside us and dance as well, even if they can’t join us on the road, even if they are only there to see us off. This is the kind of friend we all need, the kind of friend we all need to be – willing dancers, ready to celebrate even the embarkation into dark and stormy waters.

* * * * *

Speaking of cancer, a good friend of mine from high school, Peter Perella, could use our help.

Peter has been diagnosed with metastatic sinus cancer. He was treated 3 times previous to this, but it has returned and spread. As you can imagine, Katie and Peter are overwhelmed with the depth and breadth of this and are working through the details of the impact of this on their family. With the recent prognosis and with the family’s blessing, we have created this personal contribution fund for the Perella family.

If you, or someone you love, has had to fight cancer, you know how taxing it can be, in every way. Please consider lightening the Perella’s financial load by donating HERE.


Finding the Knives and Who I Used Them On


“Sometimes this human stuff is slimy and pathetic – jealousy especially so – but better to feel it and talk about it and walk through it than to spend a lifetime being silently poisoned.” Ann Lamotte, Bird By Bird

I was surprised at the way it jumped out and wrapped itself around my throat, sort of pulled me to my knees in less than a second. I thought I was finished with that old foe. I guess I’m not.

It all started when a friend of mine made a simple comment about another friend of mine, how well his book is doing, how widely-read he is. And not only that but how he’s such a nice guy with a great smile and a wonderful family.

I went from peeling a mandarin orange to looking for the knives in less than a tenth of a second. To use on who? The friend doing the talking? The friend he was talking about? Myself? Those old insecurities sort of lurched out of the shadows and set up camp in my mind. They were making themselves at home. They figured it would take me a few days to get this all sorted out, and in the mean time they could enjoy themselves.

That’s the problem with jealousy – it brings so many of its friends along for the ride.

* * * * *

I tried to slow down my breathing but before I knew it I was going on and on in an uninterruptable speech about how well my next book would do (I was sure of it, and very convincing). I may or may not have thrown in a few lines about how well my blog was doing and how much money I made last year, how it was my best year. Thinking back on my response is rather humiliating. It was like I had thrown up all over myself and didn’t have the decency to leave the room.

A few weeks passed. A few months. In the mean time I exchanged a few emails with the very person my friend had talked about, the very person who had so inspired my jealousy, and I was able to remind myself of a few things.

He is a nice person. A good person even (at least as far as I can tell). He acts and talks as if I am further along than he is in this whole writing thing (which, you know, what does that even mean?). I sigh. This is getting me no where.

* * * * *

Sometimes the only thing that helps me get through my deepest insecurities is to put one word in front of another. For me, writing is the equivalent of running around inside my brain with a little mason jar and capturing all those flashing bugs of thought, then release them on to the page. It’s not a sure-fire cure, but sometimes it helps, just to look at it. Just to see it for what it really is.

* * * * *

Then, in the middle of writing this post and skimming Facebook and generally procrastinating the start to my day, I read this by Michelle DeRusha:

Once upon a time I knew this. Once upon a time, six years or so ago, I knew the book was enough. Just writing the book was enough, more than enough, because writing it brought me back to God. And how could that ever not be enough?

But then, little by little, it became not quite enough. The book needed it to change someone other than me. The book needed it to make an impact, transform a life, become something more. I needed the book to be more.

The book became about finding an agent, and then about finding a publisher, and then about marketing and platform and promotion. Before I hardly even realized it, the book became not nearly enough.

That’s it, I realized. That’s one of the large roots of the jealousy tree growing inside of me: a desire for more. More money, more readers, more attention. And if someone else has it, due to the false law of scarcity, that means I can’t have it. Just the idea that what I have right now could be enough immediately began to starve the life out of my jealousy. I realized I could breathe again.

I realized that what I have, right now, today, is enough.

Maybe that’s where jealousy takes roots in you? Maybe one day all you wanted to be was a teacher, but now you’re surrounded by the competition of academia. Maybe one day all you wanted was to be a pastor but now you can’t take your gaze off all those huge churches out there. Maybe one day all you wanted was to own your own business, but now you’re obsessed with outpacing your competition.

I don’t know. Maybe the cure for the jealousy inside all of us is to realize that what we have, right now, today, is enough.

* * * * *

How do you approach the areas of your life visited by jealousy?

Why I Write For a Living

The cold these days is the kind that makes me pull my shoulders up as soon as I walk outside. It’s the kind that reminds me I’m getting a little older – when I was a kid, winter was my favorite season, with or without the snow. Now, as soon as the Christmas decorations are packed away, I’m ready for spring, for some sign of life to break through all those dead leaves and tangled, naked branches.

I drive through the cold listening to the audio book of The Brothers Karamazov, the heat cranked up. I drive on winding roads and long country straightaways. I drive slowly around the large elderly complex, park, then walk under the red canopy that leads through sliding glass doors into an ornate foyer. The smell reminds me of my grandma.

* * * * *

The mystery of human existence lies not in just staying alive, but in finding something to live for.

Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamzov

* * * * *

“Hi, I’m here to visit Emma,” I tell the two white-haired women sitting behind the low desk.

“Oh, she’s not the one they took to the hospital this morning, is she?” one asks the other.

“No, no, that was someone else,” she replies, writing a few things on a small pass while I fill out the guest book.

Shawn Smucker. Emma Williams. Room D108. 10:30am.

“Do you know where you’re going, honey?” the second woman asks with a kind smile.

“Yes, thanks,” I say, returning the smile, then walking slowly through the massive retirement complex.

The carpets are heavy, as are the thick curtains. Everything moves slowly there: the people, the air, time. I walk behind a man pushing a walker. He leaves two long lines behind him where the wheels drag. He’s taped two playing cards to the back legs of the walker, face down, so that it slides easier. I stop by the elevator and wait.

* * * * *

Being at a loss to resolve these questions, I am resolved to leave them without any resolution.

Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamazov

* * * * *

Up on the third floor I make my way down the narrow hallway. The ceiling feels low after all those high foyers and two-story lobbies. I stop by a door and notice the wreath has been taken down. I knock louder than I would usually knock on a door. When Emma doesn’t come right away, when I don’t hear her stirring in the apartment, I wonder if maybe the second woman was right. Maybe Emma was the one taken to the hospital.

But then I hear the phone ring inside, and she answers it after one ring. I wait until she is no longer talking, then I knock again, practically pounding. I hear her walker, then she opens the door.

She is 94 years old, sharp as a tack, but slowing down physically. I can tell it annoys her. I can tell she will not go down without a fight.

We spend two hours together. She does most of the talking, and because I know the recorder is doing its job, and because her apartment is very warm, and because I didn’t get to bed until about midnight the night before, I have to fight to stay awake for a short stretch in the middle. But I still make a few notes, write down a few follow-up questions. She tells me about the days following the death of her first husband, when she was 39 with three children. She tells me how she had $22,500 in life insurance money. She tells me how she lived on $400 a month.

Sometimes, when I sit down and listen to these life stories, it can make me feel very insignificant. Very small in the big scheme of things. Her husband died 56 years ago, and now, besides her and her three children, he is mostly forgotten. In another fifty years he will practically vanish from memory.

It makes you take a deep breath. It makes you think about things.

“Well, that’s two hours,” I say. “That was a good two hours. You’ve given me a lot to work with.”

“Yes,” she says, nodding slowly. “I guess that was a good two hours.”

“See you next Wednesday?” I ask. “Same time?”

She nods.

“See you next Wednesday.”

* * * * *

This is my last message to you: in sorrow, seek happiness.

Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamazov

What I Found Inside an Old Doc Marten’s Shoebox

pic7On Monday night we took out the old Doc Marten’s shoebox and opened it up. You have to hold it in a certain way so that it doesn’t completely disintegrate in your hands.

“This game is called Settlers of Catan,” I told the kids. They stared at all the pieces as I pulled them out of the shoebox, intrigue and skepticism tugging back and forth in their minds. How could something so complicated, so messy, be any fun? How could something so messy, so complicated, NOT be fun?

So Maile and I started sorting through plastic bags of cards and pieces, all while explaining the rules. The robber. The harbors. We couldn’t remember if it was clay or brick. Oh, well. And that’s how the next fifteen minutes or so went.

Then, at the bottom of the box, I found a blue notebook. I opened it. Inside I saw four names: my sister’s, my brother-in-law’s, Maile’s, and me. Under our names was a long list of scores, a system we had created in order to keep track of who won the most games over a fairly long period of time.

And suddenly I was there, in that second floor apartment in Great Missenden, England. I was there when it was just the four of us playing, and I was there when it was the four of us plus two very large stomachs (Maile and my sister were pregnant at the same time). And I was there when we played Settlers while rocking two newborns in their small bouncy seats or on our laps or while the girls breastfed and refused to trade wheat or sheep.

We spent many an entire Saturday there, in their apartment, playing Settlers for ten hours straight. We were hooked.

Those England times were long days. Long years. There was the time we opened our first store in Victoria Station – we were so full of hope, and I worked 33 17-hour days in a row. Then there was the time, three years later, that we closed Victoria Station, my brother-in-law and I packing up the shop, removing all the equipment, slowly lowering the clackety-clacking storefront shutter one last time, then walking through the empty, late-night train station, wondering if we could have done something different, something better.

“Check this out, Maile,” I said, holding up the book. She smiled.

“No, seriously,” I said. “Look at this.”

I held the book closer to her and she peered in at it. Then she took in a small breath.


The date of our last recorded Settlers game was eleven years to the day. January 6, 2003. That seemed ironic. A lot can happen in eleven years. Four children, two miscarriages, one on the way. One job, three businesses, two of which ended without much fanfare. Ten books. A lot of white hairs.

A lot can happen in eleven years.

The passing of time reveals itself to us in the most random, powerful ways. Which means you can’t always be on guard or prepared for how the next thing you stumble on will remind you what you were doing ten years ago, twenty years ago.

Eleven years ago.

What would I have thought if eleven years ago God or an angel or someone, anyone, would have told me what I was about to go through in the next eleven years? What if they could have walked me down that path, in advance, preparing me for what was to come?

I’ll tell you what would have happened. I would have been terrified. I would have seen the challenges, the despair, a few of those long, difficult years, and I would have wondered how in the world I was going to make it.

We have no idea where we will be in eleven years. No idea what disasters and triumphs will come our way. And what a blessing that is, our lack of foresight. For all of my impatience, all of my striving to bring the future into the present, seeing that list of scores and the date, January 6th, 2003, gave me an incredible sense of peace, and a resolve to live in this moment.

The future will take care of itself.

What Happened When We Told Our Kids a Baby Is On The Way

IMG_0462In mid-November we decided to tell our four kids that there was a fifth on the way. Their reaction was not exactly what we had expected.

“Everybody come up to our room,” I shouted downstairs. “Mom and I have something to tell you.”

The sound of eight little feet pounded up the steps, slip-sliding their way into our room. All six of us crawled up into the bed. The kids eyes were large and curious – that is where we have the most serious of conversations, in our room, sprawled on the bed. This is where we talked to the littles about, as Sam calls it, “private-cy.” This is where we read together. It is, in other words, Holy

I found myself getting more and more excited to finally tell someone. Anyone. We had been keeping everything quiet, keeping our hope caged up like a small bird. But here it was: a chance to tell. I wondered what it would be like. I wondered if, in saying the words aloud, it would seem more real to me.

“Mom and I have something to tell you,” I said quietly, anticipating their cheering and shouting. I paused for a moment.

“What?” they all said. “What is it? Tell us!”

“I’m going to have a baby,” Maile said.

The response was not what we had expected. Let me rephrase that. The response of our oldest two children (ages 10 and 8 at the time) was not what we had expected. The younger two leaped to their feet and cheered. Sam screamed with delight, over and over again, “I’m not going to be the youngest anymore!” Abra grinned, her blue eyes wide and full of hope.

But the older two. Ah, the older two. I keep forgetting they are full-fledged people now, with their own hopes and dreams and expectations. Cade’s eyes filled with tears and his lip got all trembly. Lucy openly wept. Maile and I looked at each other. What had we done?

“What’s wrong?” Maile asked, on the verge of tears herself.

Cade spoke first, his voice wavering.

“I…don’t…really…want…our…family…to…change,” he said, balling up his fists and rubbing his eyes.

I leaned over and put my arm around Lucy.

“And why are you crying?”

In the most mournful voice possible, she replied.

“I don’t want another baby to die,” she said, through those hiccup-sounding sobs, then burst into tears again. Lucy had taken the previous miscarriage very hard. She had been seven years old, and very much looking forward to a baby to treat as her own. For her, the possibility of encountering that pain again was a scary, overwhelming thing.

Maile and I looked at each other. I was hugging Lucy and she was holding Cade’s hand. After ten minutes of assuring and reassuring and explaining and encouraging, the four of them went back downstairs, returning to their busy childhood lives.

I turned and looked at Maile.

“Well, that went well, don’t you think?”

* * * * *

Anxious about change.

Scared of death.

I realized that the reactions of my oldest two children pretty much sum up the foundational fears of most of humanity. Most people I know avoid change because it’s scary and unknown and makes us feel insecure, like a soft-shell crab. And you don’t have to look far in our culture to find the fear, or denial of, death. We flock to any remedy that keeps us younger, our hair less gray, our skin less wrinkled, our age less apparent. We want to be young forever.

We surround ourselves with noise because at the heart of silence lies an awareness of our mortality. Noise helps us forget the steady, onward march of time and the inevitability of our passing.



The reaction of my oldest two children has me thinking about the coming year. Because, a baby! It’s not that both of them won’t be ecstatic to have a baby in the house. But the fear of change and the fear of death steered them away from wanting this new thing, this new adventure.

What changes are you avoiding because you’re afraid?

What potential deaths (failures, mistakes, the end of a relationship, potential discomforts) keep you from moving into an area of life where you know, deep down, you want to go?

* * * * *

Related Post: Miscarriages, Waiting, and “Do Not Be Afraid”