Little Paper Pieces: On the Tearing Up and Rewriting of Your Life

NOTE: The following is a featured post from 2016 which first appeared on my former creative blog, Scrappy Storyteller. I’m sharing this as a way of embracing my past creative self and sharing ideas she had that, well, still matter today. Enjoy!


Anyone who knows me well knows how much I hate the process of revision. Ideas tend to flow through me like freight trains, complete thoughts barreling down the track that is my early phases of writing. They’re coherent and prolific. This blog post itself is mostly a first draft, composed on-the-fly with a few stolen moments of time.

Generally after composing such a first draft, I walk away satisfied that I got my meaning across. This is probably the only real reason I write: not for the beauty of language itself, but to get something off my chest. 

And that is where things start to get messy.

Because the process of polishing my thoughts is never as straightforward or simple as the getting them down in the first place. I hate chaos, so there’s something inherently horrific to me about taking my neatly ordered ideas and tearing them up. Why un-make and re-make again what was decently adequate to start with—especially when it involves such violence?

To me, revision feels like a death: my beautiful first drafts get torn up into “little paper pieces” and scattered on the wind. Why can’t I just write it well the first time?

This is of course the purest form of creative impatience. Nothing on the planet (not even my words!) show up in the world fully formed. It must be shaped and fashioned, nurtured and evolved. Many sentences and paragraphs must die and rise again in new forms before the final product emerges.

That’s just not how the creative process works in real life. I think the same can be said for our inner stories as well.

A few weeks ago, I wrote about The Other Side of Storytelling. In this post, I explored what it now means to me to refashion my personal narrative of my own life experiences—so I can actually live with myself and move forward. Author Jean Houston has called this the process of “re-mythologizing your life.”

Just as cultures tell themselves stories to make meaning of their collective experience, so we individuals do the same. Just perhaps, more unconsciously. But as I’ve learned since I wrote the post, re-mythologizing an inner reality is much closer to the traditional process of creative revision than I imagined at the outset.

Revision is nothing more than a process of Getting Your Story Straight. To get your story straight, you must be willing to revise it, a thousand times if necessary. You must not fear the violence of ripping paper or the whine of the shredding machine. You must, in short, be willing to tear every unsatisfactory draft up into tiny paper pieces and scatter them to the wind.

Oh, the mess it makes!

Despite this mess, over the past few months, I have been blessed with so many angelic individuals coming into my life to help me “see” myself properly and retell my story at a crucial moment. Some of them are friends. Some are clients. Some occupy other capacities altogether in my heart and mind. But they all share one thing in common: 

They have, each one of them, forced me to tear up and rewrite my story—again. 

Every time I am tempted to settle for a less elegant rendition of what has happened in my life, or put up with a self-destructive turn of phrase, they pull out their red pens and call me on my bullshit. It’s editorial license of a breathtakingly destructive kind.

The funniest—and perhaps most grace-filled—part of it, is that most of these editors don’t even know they’re on the job.

They don’t know how many times I go home from being with them, feeling like my soul has been ripped up, ripped out or ripped open. They never see the tears I shed, or the long journal entries in which I force myself to reframe experiences that I have always naturally avoided, or seen in a particular, self-destructive light. Inspired by their nudges, I’ll start writing my story again, thinking this time I’ll get the final healthy version down pat. 

But it just doesn’t work that way.

There’s always another draft I need to write. And pronto.

Despite my frustration with the slowness of this process, there is hope. In my most private moments I find myself gradually being filled up with a story that (while different from the one I originally wrote) is probably far stronger. Yet in the presence of my editors, I still find myself frequently at a loss for words, or saying the wrong things, or losing my power of self-expression altogether. 

I do not have just the right turn of phrase to replace the part of my story they just redlined, or marked up with that dreaded bit of commentary: “Unclear. Rewrite!” 

Paper pieces start showering down everywhere, and no matter how fast I chase them with broom and vacuum, I can hardly keep up with the mess.

Of course, I hate the mess. And I worry that my friends and clients and others in my life will soon grow impatient with all the flotsam in my wake. Don’t they hate breathing in wood pulp? Don’t they get tired of red ink-stains on their fingers? And aren’t they going to revoke our contract when they get another horrible mid-revision draft that’s just north of complete drivel?

Then I remember, that they don’t see what’s happening in my soul. They aren’t inside my process of re-mythologizing my life. 

The paper pieces are likely invisible to everyone except me.

My mess, self-made, is also only self-seen.

So this is a thank you to all those brave souls out there who engage with me at a level I’ve never experienced before. You know who you are. You know how much you matter. 

What maybe you don’t know is just how painful (in the best of ways) your kindness is. 

I’m reminded of a quote from A Course in Miracles, which states, “Discomfort is not the final result of your perception.”

I trust wholeheartedly that this time of new perceiving of myself, and of rewriting my understanding of my life, will bear fruit in the years to come. I trust that the discomfort of my new perception, inspired by your collective kindness, will be rewarded with a great joy that I can give back to you a thousand fold. I trust that the sea of red ink you help me splash all over my internal narrative will deliver us at last a clean, fresh story that is satisfying all the way to “The End.”

I trust this, yes. 

And still , I grieve a bit every time a new draft splits into a thousand useless scraps.

Then again, maybe re-mythologizing not about getting the story “just right.” Maybe it is not about the death of the old drafts at all, but the celebration what might come in the next. And maybe—just maybe—that’s where I’ve always gone wrong with revision.

One can view the act of writing as a tearing up of the old, or as the welcoming in of something brand-new and wonderful.

Little paper pieces, I suppose, make their own kind of confetti.

What to Do When Your Creative Muse Goes AWOL

I wish my muse was better behaved. I really do. But like me, she’s a free spirit—and sometimes she takes the day off without letting me know. 

In the past, if I’m honest, she’s taken more than a day or two. Once, she even took off a whole decade. (That’s another story for another day…) But even when my Muse IS on the job, the “fits of genius” come sporadically at best. So much of the time, showing up for my art or my passion project feels like plain old work.  

What’s a creative woman to do when her deepest creative self seems to run on fumes … and she really just wants to get back in the FLOW?

First, don’t panic. 

Everyone experiences dry spells. It could even be that you are coming back to your creativity after a long dry season, or a busy season serving others, and you wonder if it’s even possible to muster up that mojo again. 

I’ve been in both scenarios, and I can say for sure that it IS indeed possible to get that mojo back. But not by trying so so so hard to make it all happen. 

I like to think about creativity like a small child, or a small animal. She only comes out when she truly feels safe. 

Rush your Muse, pressure her, or make demands—and she’ll likely run the other direction. But if you can create a relaxed, fun environment that invites her to come close without forcing it, you might be surprised how fast the ideas spring up again. 

So perhaps the best advice I can give you is to …

Relax. 

Yes, I know, woman of action: that might not come easily to you. It seems more valuable to just keep piling on the action, trying to get more done, putting yourself under and even bigger load. But the more you sweat and strive, the less far you’ll actually get. 

So put on some music that makes you feel happy. 

Take that overdue bubble bath. 

Have a glass of wine or herbal tea.

Take a hike or do some serious yoga. 

Indulge in the nap you’re craving. 

Have dinner with a friend who makes you laugh. 

Finger paint with your kids for awhile. 

Or maybe … just maybe … pull the covers over your head and try again tomorrow. 

Doing this once or twice isn’t going to change everything, either. You’re going to have to make a new habit of just … having fun. 

Because the more you allow yourself to feel pleasure and joy, the more the ideas will flow.

By releasing the “pressure valve” on your inner need to perform, you will actually create space for your muse to whisper in your ear—and actually be heard. 

All of this, though, points to something much deeper than finding the last lyric for that song or the right color for the last stroke of that painting. 

It’s about learning how to fully and deeply open up to what is happening in the present moment. 

Perhaps what your Muse needs more than anything else is simply for you to accept that feeling “blocked” is where you are right now. 

This iS what is. And it is okay. 

You don’t have to have the idea right now. It can take a little more time to make itself clear. 

Sometimes the best way to get the answer is simply to release the pressure of needing to have it. 

Because after all, your Muse has a mind of her own. Let her be who she is, and you might be surprised what she gives you in return. 

Your creativity may feel AWOL right now. But maybe it’s just around the corner, waiting for you to breathe deeply, loosen your shoulders and dance. 

In the middle of the dance, you’ll know what to do. 

 

 

A Short Tour of Reykjavik Street Art

There were a lot of things no one told me about visiting Reykjavik in December, which I did in 2017. Although in fairness to the everyone implied in “no one,” I never really asked them. I just went

Take the city’s muted tones, for example. The whole urbanscape deserves to be picked up and dropped inside some sort of Art Museum to European Modernity—or at least, that’s how I felt of the washed-out greys, blues and browns that seem to make up the winter Icelandic palette. When you can see it, of course. Many days you’re lucky to get an hour of daylight out of the four or so that are possible at that time of the year.  

Sunwashed Tuscany in September, it most definitely was not. However, the city did offer some charms I had not foreseen. Like its amazing plethora of street art. Worthy of a museum on its own, to be sure. Though wouldn’t putting street art in a museum sort of undercut the definition of “street art?”

But I digress

One might be tempted to assume that Reykjavik street art follows the typical patterns as its counterparts in the U.S.—words hastily scrawled on the sides of buildings. Stencils scattered across concrete pavement, and the like. But nothing could be further from the truth. 

Take this gorgeous Van Gogh-esque home facade, for example. Who could possibly mind coming home every day to this cheerful exterior? Even if it means living in a city where the average December temperature is 3 degrees Celsius, and 10 AM is liable to be as pitch-black this time of year as 10 PM?  

Every where I looked, there was something whimsical to see.  

Dragons, for example. There be dragons in Reykjavik. Lots of ‘em. Of course serpents and dragons figure prominently into Norse mythology, so I’m sure there’s some connection. But I’m not sure what these dragons represent, specifically. 

They could be something like Níðhöggr, the serpent that nibbles at the base of the world-tree, apparently causing parts of it to rot. Or, they could refer to the dragon that Sigurd slayed in the popular Nordic epic. Or one of how many others. 

The artist wasn’t really around to ask.  

Sometimes, though, Reykjavik dragons like to catch you off guard. … Like, when you come around the corner, least expecting to see them ….

Oh wow, it’s a big one! 

Some places have a yellow brick road. And some of them … have a multicolored serpent brick road. 

It might feel like Oz here in Reykjavik, but it sure doesn’t look like it.  

Somehow, monochromatic winter wonderland of Reykjavik was a match for the “blah” I felt in my soul at that time. I was off on a “big” European adventure with no money to my name. I could barely afford to eat in the city, let alone take in any of the interiors of the museums or other places a tourist might normally visit.

Yet here I was, wandering the streets counting my krona for every cup of hot chocolate, and still I was treated to so much amazing art that it was like having a whole museum at my disposal.

There’s something poetic about that, to be sure.

All in all, I found the street art of Reykjavik a welcome and refreshing break from the winter landscape that offered little in the way of visual pleasure. For brave folks who have survived in this amazing country for so many thousands of winters, this artistic expression must offer a chance for laughter, joy, and beauty.

No matter where we live, do we not seek to make it beautiful? Reykjavik reminded me that no matter what the landscape of our lives, it is possible to create beautiful from what we have on hand. 

No excuses. No questions. No hesitation. Even in the “winter” seasons of our lives, even in our own Decembers, we can paint the walls with brilliant color. And all sorts of pictures, straight out of our imaginations. 

If the artists of Reykjavik can do it, I can too. So can you.  

Get Your Story Straight, and the Rest Will Follow

NOTE: The following is a featured post from 2016 which first appeared on my former creative blog, Scrappy Storyteller. I’m sharing this as a way of embracing my past creative self and sharing ideas she had that, well, still matter today. Enjoy!


Every year I have great plans for February. And every year, they get totally derailed.

Like it or not, for me February seems to be the month when I’m called to hibernate in my own soul, mulling things over. I feel like that bear in a cave, slowly burning off the fat of her last intellectual meal so that when she awakes, she can stretch and crawl out of her cave in search of a good trout and a handful of berries.

The reward for my hibernation, however, is rarely a sense of well-restedness. (I actually slept terribly this month.) 

It’s a sense of renewed understanding and purpose.

As I explored in my last post, there are apparently phases to this thing called the creative life. The early phases are so exciting! You watch concepts you heard and read about unfold before your very eyes. 

But once the excitement and glitter are past, you’ve got a long road of hard work ahead of you.

And as it turns out, that is where our storytelling skills most come in handy.

You see, in the middle of all my intellectual machinations and internal questioning this month, it occurred to me that our storytelling skills really are so much more important than we think. And not just for the creative endeavors we might be pursuing.

They’re critical to the living of this thing called life.

This month it occurred to me—possibly for the first time ever—that the story truly must come first in any endeavor, not just in art but also in life.

So often we want to rush into action, or see change happen, without getting the story straight first.

Every day, every hour, I’m shaping a narrative inside my own head about how my life is going, whether I’m the hero of a comedy or tragedy, or how close I am to achieving my goals.

The most important story I’ve been telling all of my life isn’t one of my many specific fictional tales. It’s the story I’ve been telling to myself about my life. 

I am my own first (captive) audience. I am also perhaps my own most important audience.

And like the reader of a choose-your-own-adventure novel, I will ultimately decide how the story turns out.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I am not suggesting I have ultimate power over my own life, or some kind of omnipotent edge that can merely think away obstacles and fly to the moon. But I am suggesting that I do have the power over how I react to, respond to or view what happens to me.

That internal narrative is just as important—maybe even more so—than any external one I’ll ever write.

So, yes. 

As I was lying awake many nights this month, thinking over many things, or letting my mind wander as I doodled in my art journal . . . I realized that the creative life really is not about being in the “right place” with the “right people” or the “right work.” 

It’s about telling yourself the right story about yourself, your place, your people and your work.

This is not to say that we should never make changes to our external environment, or pursue new opportunities, or perhaps finally lay that languishing project to rest. But perhaps we’re just too quick to look around us, expecting the change to happen.

We look to the details of the story to change magically on their own, rather than asking the Storyteller to change the plot.

I am the Storyteller. So are you. If we don’t like the story . . . all we have to do is change it.

After all, isn’t that the beauty of a story? It’s not completely random? There IS a Teller out there somewhere, shaping our understand of what’s happening, and helping us to make meaning of the events as they unfold.

In the case of life, we rely on ourselves to make meaning of what’s happening to us. It’s one of the sacred tasks we’ve been given.

So I’ll ask you the question I had to ask myself:

Do you like how you’re shaping the story of your own life?

If not, you always have an opportunity to shift the narrative inside your own head, and in doing so, to transform your reality.

That’s what stories are all about, anyway: the power of transformation. The transmuting of a soul from one state of being to another—whether literally in the physical realm or figuratively in the metaphoric one.

(I didn’t tell you we’d be delving into alchemy today, now did I? Well, every good story has got to have a plot twist anyway . . .)

A story starts off in one place and must alway end up in another. If there’s no shift or movement, there has been no story.

The bottom line for us is: transformation is possible. And it starts in our own heads.

So as we enjoy this unusual extra day in February, and prepare for March (already?!), I hope you’ll remember with me that we really, truly are the story that we tell ourselves. 

If we don’t like the story we’re living, the problem isn’t usually in the story. It’s all about the telling. 

This is why movies go south. Novels flounder. Graphic novels fall flat.

The telling of the story just wasn’t as grand as the original idea.

Our own less-than-effective telling is why the story of our life sometimes turns out as less than we’d hoped, too.

But the problem is never the story itself.

The narrative we spin inside our own heads, about our own lives, is quite possibly the most important narrative we’ll ever write. 

It’s about time we got absolutely clear on who we are, what’s happened to us, and why it matters.

Because when we get our story straight, the rest (of life) will always follow.

Creative Flow #4

“Stained Glass Life: Always Leave One Panel Open” — Watercolor by Lisa England Feb 2019

I consider myself a stained-glass window. And this is how I live my life. Closing no doors and covering no windows; I am the multi-colored glass with light filtering through me, in many different shades. Allowing light to shed and fall into many many hues. My job is not to direct anything, but only to filter into many colors. My answer is destiny and my guide is joy. And there you have me.”  C. JoyBell C.