The Grand Graphic Novel of 17 years

I am now starting another 30 days of no sugar/low natural sugar, after a successful 30 days that ended last Wednesday. The next day I had an ice cream and then Friday began the next 30 Days.

This new eating “plan” is working on a much grander level. Yesterday at a party I met someone who just started something similar and we shared how this is much more than about dealing with sugar addiction and eating healthy, how this can help you focus on doing the important things you want to do that you neglect. It’s the secondary side effect, being more able to follow through with goals and projects and why food is such a big factor with ADHD for me.

I started writing a graphic novel “fantasy/memoir” 17 years ago in 2000. I took a class at the Open Center with a comics expert friend about writing graphic novels. It was taught by a woman who wrote a graphic novel about having a baby as a teenager. She got us to figure out what was important for us and what we wanted to write about and to get going with the nuts and bolts of layout and drawing and speech bubbles. I got started and got the first 10 pages done and got a lot of great feedback. People who read it thought it was funny and well, good, worth continuing.

There is nothing like immediate “success” to stop me in my tracks. I kept working on it and then at some point put it aside and left it to collect dust. It was too hard and I reached a place where I didn’t know what was supposed to be on the next page. Since then at various points in the last 17 years, I have taken it off the shelf and worked on it. For a while in 2006-2007 I was meeting up regularly with my friend I took the class with to work on our graphic novels and encourage each other. Then life got in the way and I put it back in the black hole of writer’s block until the next spurt of inspiration hit. In 2013 I got very revved up to get it done by my 50th birthday and figured out how to get 100 pages done by doing a page every 16 or 17 days and posting some of it on Facebook. That went on for a few weeks, then I lost several pages of the book and gave up again. I picked it up and did a few more pages and even found the lost pages, after putting the loss of the pages in the book. By then, the book had  developed a life of its own and was also about my inabilities to keep going and doing it. Fast forward to a few weeks into this new “food plan”. About 4 weeks ago, I decided to get one page done per week and use therapy to make me keep it up, so I had to do a page by Friday and send a photo of it to my current therapist. I am now working on the 4th page (page 44 of the book). If I keep it up, I will have about 31 pages done by my 50th birthday and be on page 71. It won’t be finished but it will be more finished than it’s ever been.

Getting back into it and forcing myself to do it each week has been enlightening. One question that I won’t be able to answer until I finish is what is this project getting in the way of in terms of other things to accomplish with my creativity? I always thought in terms of all the things I manufactured as reasons to not be working on the book and what are all those things I put in its way, but I hadn’t thought in terms of what this unfinished big block of a project might be obstructing. What if this book is an obstacle itself? I won’t know until I do it and finish it.

When you force yourself to work on something like this that has been 17 years in the making, you learn things for sure. It is just at the point of shit or get off the pot, put your money where your mouth is, etc. So I have decided while getting back in the process that I have to get this done and finished and then get it published so I can continue with whatever else I am doing with my artistic and writing career. I definitely have another book, not graphic, just writing, that I started last year and am working on which I have put aside lately while doing the graphic novel. I posted a few things from that book on this blog, but for sure, I will have to write it at the same time or get the graphic novel done so I can do the book.

The book is going to be called The Art Box and is a book of essays/reflections, mostly about doing art therapy with adults, especially my work at my old job at FEGS Rockwell Continuing Day Treatment Center that I left in early 2003 to start my private practice.

The graphic novel process is extremely challenging as each page takes a really long time to conceive and complete. It’s much more frustrating than pure writing as the images are a big deal and take a long time. Sometimes I forget how fun it can be. I started it in black and white, drawing in pencil first and then covering in black sharpie. Now it is in color as well and I am trying to vary the layout and composition. The one benefit of taking forever to get it done is that now the internet is so great for research, whether to look at examples of fight scenes in comics or look up things  that relate to the content. I also just organized my sketchbook journals that I started doing in 1987, so there are 30 years of them, minus a few that I took apart. I’m going to have to look in them more for more info and ideas. I have been using old drawings from my journals to get image ideas for the pages in the past few weeks. Today I used a scribble drawing from 2012.

The second week I noticed how it is difficult to deal with the inner critic saying this isn’t good enough, your drawing is bad, there isn’t enough variety, maybe you won’t get it published. You have to just keep going and keep in mind that you are going to keep going and not stop. Stopping is the deadly thing, so having this idea of having to do a page a week at least is great for momentum and also keeps me motivated to stay with this eating plan, as the fear is, going back to eating badly will remove my motivation and I will give up. Each goal feeds the other.

I hope this continues to work as it’s reached the point where 17 years is enough and I have to get it done in the next year-year and a half!

Creativity and Inspiration: Leonard Cohen Agrees With Me!

I started a series of posts about creativity and so called “creative blocks” quite a while ago, and now that I’m on vacation, I will post someone else’s words about the creative process. “Show up” is the message, and I would say its true of everything in life. What’s the key to bring a good parent? You gotta show up every day however flawed a person you are…

My mantra or idea that we artists don’t wait for inspiration, we make art on a daily basis just like any other daily habit is not original or particularly earth shattering, but are you practicing it with your particular medium/media?

Most of the time I am lucky because I simply don’t care that much if I “like” what I am making or not, sort of like how you feel after your yoga class that the benefits come from doing it often and it doesn’t make much sense to judge how you did yoga.

Anyway, Leonard Cohen is one of my favorite musical artist, and he talks about his own process from “Brain Pickings Weekly:

“There are always meaningful songs for somebody. People are doing their courting, people are finding their wives, people are making babies, people are washing their dishes, people are getting through the day, with songs that we may find insignificant. But their significance is affirmed by others. There’s always someone affirming the significance of a song by taking a woman into his arms or by getting through the night. That’s what dignifies the song. Songs don’t dignify human activity. Human activity dignifies the song.”

I would add that sometime so called boring activities inspire all kinds of creations from Charles Schultz’ beloved Peanuts to the TV show Seinfeld (which I believe took a lot of inspiration from Peanuts). There is a line in a David Bowie song about the artist Andy Warhol that I love:

“Andy walking, Andy tired
Andy take a little snooze
Tie him up when he’s fast asleep
Send him on a pleasant cruise
When he wakes up on the sea
Be sure to think of me and you
He’ll think about paint
and he’ll think about glue
What a jolly boring thing to do”

I myself do love to think about glue and tape and practically any material.
Anyway here is the piece:

“Cohen approaches his work with extraordinary doggedness reflecting the notion that work ethic supersedes what we call “inspiration” — something articulated by such acclaimed and diverse creators as the celebrated composer Tchaikovsky (“A self-respecting artist must not fold his hands on the pretext that he is not in the mood.”), novelist Isabel Allende (“Show up, show up, show up, and after a while the muse shows up, too.”), painter Chuck Close (Inspiration is for amateurs — the rest of us just show up and get to work.”), beloved author E.B. White (“A writer who waits for ideal conditions under which to work will die without putting a word on paper.”), Victorian novelist Anthony Trollope (“My belief of book writing is much the same as my belief as to shoemaking. The man who will work the hardest at it, and will work with the most honest purpose, will work the best.”), and designer Massimo Vignelli (“There is no design without discipline.”). Cohen tells Zollo:

I’m writing all the time. And as the songs begin to coalesce, I’m not doing anything else but writing. I wish I were one of those people who wrote songs quickly. But I’m not. So it takes me a great deal of time to find out what the song is. So I’m working most of the time.

To find a song that I can sing, to engage my interest, to penetrate my boredom with myself and my disinterest in my own opinions, to penetrate those barriers, the song has to speak to me with a certain urgency.

To be able to find that song that I can be interested in takes many versions and it takes a lot of uncovering.

My immediate realm of thought is bureaucratic and like a traffic jam. My ordinary state of mind is very much like the waiting room at the DMV… So to penetrate this chattering and this meaningless debate that is occupying most of my attention, I have to come up with something that really speaks to my deepest interests. Otherwise I nod off in one way or another. So to find that song, that urgent song, takes a lot of versions and a lot of work and a lot of sweat.

But why shouldn’t my work be hard? Almost everybody’s work is hard. One is distracted by this notion that there is such a thing as inspiration, that it comes fast and easy. And some people are graced by that style. I’m not. So I have to work as hard as any stiff, to come up with my payload.”

Taken from:

Leonard Cohen on Creativity, Hard Work, and Why You Should Never Quit Before You Know What It Is You’re Quitting

Altered Book Workshop Proposal Accepted!

The good news is that my altered book workshop proposal for the 2013 Creative Arts Therapy Summit this fall was accepted! The whole event will be taking place in NYC in various locations, from November 7-13, 2013. Link to the site is:

http://www.cvent.com/events/expressive-therapies-summit-2012-registration-site/event-summary-a631d616cdd6499c92f749761a4d1d3a.aspx

The other part of my news is that instead of a 3 hour experiential workshop, I will be doing the workshop in 80 minutes, basically and hour and 20 minutes, which basically cuts out a little over half the time, so I tried to re focus the workshop.

Here is my description of it: (Let me know what you think; it’s a lot to pack into 80 minutes!!!)

Title: Altered Books with Adults in Art Therapy; Conquering Creative Blocks and Depression

Description:

In this workshop, we will discuss how the medium of altering books in art therapy uniquely treats adults with any kind of creative block and/or depression, connected with past or present trauma and feelings of creative deadness or loss of the creative “spirit.” Through the experiential, participants will choose a book and begin to alter it, thereby experiencing the uniqueness of this format that allows for the creative spirit to reawaken. The transformative experience of “destroying” a book to create something new can jump start the creative process through the variety of options, length of the project and the holding environment of therapy. I will also provide actual examples of Altered Books in process by some of the adults I am working with to demonstrate the scope of options in this particular medium and the essential role of the art therapist and therapeutic relationship in this long- term process.

3 Measurable Objectives:

  1. Participants will learn about ways that creative blocks and/or loss of creative spirit in adults is best treated through the creative process itself combined with the relationship with the art therapist.
  2. Through art making and viewing real examples of patient and therapist artwork, participants will learn about the different options provided by altering a children’s board book versus an “adult” hardcover book, and the messages the choice of book can convey to the patient and therapist.
  3. Through the experiential, participants will start the process of altering books and use at least 3 different media and techniques involved in the process of making an altered book.

 

More on Creative Blocks and Trauma/Depression

I think my most recent post was about daily habits and establishing something that works for you as a daily creative thing to do, even five minutes… So, continuing on with this series of posts about creativity as a healing process…

Creative Blocks and Trauma Related Depression

I think there is a connection between having a lot of trauma in your past and/or recent past, being depressed, and also having creativity blocks. This is a kind of depression that is not necessarily that noticeable although sometimes it is very much in the forefront of your life. For some people, it is a lowgrade depression, characterized not so much by depressing thoughts or great feelings of sadness and melancholy, but more like a kind of daily feeling of a lack of excitement and pleasure in your life. A person can get used to sort of feeling “ok” and functioning at work and with others but not really looking forward to anything or being very excited by much in their life. “Going through the motions” is part of it. Also a kind of low expectation for oneself that seems to creep up on the person slowly so that they notice they are older and don’t have a lot of “big dreams” or exciting plans for the future. Sometimes this manifests in “forgetting” to plan a fun vacation, going to work but not really liking your job while at the same time not hating it or thinking of other options. It’s also as though the idea of “other options” keeps receding and the person has stopped thinking of their “Bucket List” which may have just been things they were thinking of doing in their early 20s they didn’t end up doing and have developed a block about, such that they do not even think about other possibilities, even little things like taking a class in something new or something you liked as a “hobby” but gradually just stopped doing and “forgot” about…

The “forgotten life” is a sad part of this depression. It is easy to go about your day with blinders on and come home just tired, not expecting much, watching some tv, helping your kids with their homework but not getting much joy out of anything. Sometimes a person with this kind of depression is feeling ok or happy when with their kids and family or their dog or other animal companion and has moments of joy that are connected to these relationships but can’t muster up much gusto for doing anything for themselves. Even without depression, it’s easy to forget to talk to your parnter/husband/boyfriend/girlfriend/companion about anything much besides the usual talk about daily matters.

This is an insidious kind of depression because it is not very obvious. The person seems fine and does not demonstrate the usual big red flag signs of depression, no sudden weight loss or weight gain, no sleep problems, no crying, no thoughts of death or suicide. The big connections with really bad depression are “anhedonia”, which means lack of ability to feel a sense of pleasure and enjoyment of things, as well as a kind of hopelessness, but unlike dramatic major depressive disorder, the person is barely aware of their hopelessness as it manifests in this kind of “blinders” not expecting much from life kind of attitude. In my experience of working with people who suffer from this kind of thing (and if a person actually goes to therapy, they do start to notice these little signs, but sometimes the person has gone to therapy for some other reason and has no awareness that s/he is also depressed in this way until later on in the therapy process), many people who have this kind of barely noticeable depression have also suffered from traumatic events in their life, ranging from terrible childhood trauma to small kinds of trauma that the person does not even consider to be unusual but nevertheless, these “traumatic” kinds of events have left a mark on the person. Early or later loss of a parent, the earlier the loss, the more traumatic, or loss of a sibling or love partner, surviving a fire, moving many times, dropping out of school and other even less obviously traumatic types of events, such as living with a partner with a significant chronic physical or mental illness or addiction, or being the child of a parent with such an illness, as it is easy to forget while being the caretaker, that you have also suffered. Children of such parents are also used to thinking of others as being sick and not noticing their own suffering.

Silent and unaware suffering is sad in a very different way from very dramatic kinds of suffering.  This depression that I have described is not only accompanied by undetected or worked through traumas but also very importantly, a lack of creative drive and a lack of creative activity in the person’s life. 

The magic of creative arts therapy is that I have seen such people suddenly awaken to themselves by starting to make art in sessions with me. Often it occurs after I have been working with an adult for quite a long time and established a trusting relationship and suddenly the person becomes interested in trying out some kind of art making, maybe out of curiosity from being in my art studio for so long, surrounded by art and art materials, sometimes at my suggestion. Often it probably starts as a desire to please me, especially in people who are used to trying to please others in their lives and not thinking much of themselves. I welcome this because I know that a person cannot create for very long just for another person, even their therapist, without experiencing a sense of enjoyment and pleasure that belongs to them and is witnessed by me. As this person starts creating, some changes start occuring that are purely related to the creative process and how powerfully healing it is. I know there are studies of creativity and brain activity, and I’m certain that the act of creating lights up places in the brain and awakens parts of the brain that were not being used much, even though I don’t have the scientific knowledge of this. I have witnessed too many magical transformations that are directly related to the person creating more, even if it is only once a week in the session with me. 

This is the magic and beauty of the creative process. Of course it feels like one is back in kindergarten, so the cliche goes, but it is wonderfully true, as many adults have not made any art since the age of 4-6. To bring a person back to Kindergarten is to bring them back to the Source of Creative Healing, to a feeling of safety and trust and even a wonder at what they have made. (See my post of the wonderful poem “All I Really Need To Know I Learned In Kindergarten”)

These are the moments when I truly love my vocation and feel privileged to be witnessing such deep healing. No matter how long I do this, I am consistently amazed at the shift in energy in the room, at the sense of wonder creeping back into this person’s life and also touching me. 

On a personal note, I started making art as an adult around the age of 20, while being in college and consistently pretty depressed. A simple beginning drawing class with simple ingredients: lots of students but enough attention from a great teacher, low expectation of any kind of “realistic” type drawing, even positive reinforcement from the teacher and the assistants who loved most the images made by students that were unrecognizable as anything “real”, simply “marks on paper”, a phrase of the teacher’s that I never forgot, that had a profound effect on me. I had not thought of drawing or painting since kindergarten, probably had to do some art class in high school but I mostly remember noticing that I could take photography and avoid drawing and painting while in high school.

This elective art class in college changed my life in a profound way and is one of those moments on the journey of life that one sees later as a “marker” of a change in direction. The process of doing something non verbal and so pleasurable was so surprising and wonderful that it “woke” me up out of my depressive college “angst” at least to the point where I started drawing outside of the class to express some of this angst.

I mention this just to point out that the act of beginning to use one’s creativity in a different way can really stir up and awaken a little flame of excitement and “libidinal” creative energy and then the small flame becomes a fire, maybe quickly, maybe over time, but just lighting one little flame can really stir up the brain and knock out this kind of depression in a person to the point that s/he starts to have daydreams or quiet little desires to do new things or to enjoy little things, sometimes it results in a person taking out their guitar after ten years of no playing and playing it, or journaling daily or starting to write poetry. For some, it results in buying art supplies and having fun painting or collaging at home.

These little beginnings when fed and properly witnessed by the art therapist can result in some small or big shifts in a person’s life. The depression starts to get knocked off or dusted off, and the person starts to see more around him or her and inside him or herself. Like a small pebble tossed into a pond, the ripples go outward, the water gets stirred up and energized.

Thus begins a healing process and a slow or fast disappearance of the little depressive symptoms. Excitement and enjoyment of little things and/or big changes occur.

I strongly believe that this kind of depression is most helped by creating and bringing more creativity into the person’s life. Exercising, eating better, doing more besides the usual, that all helps too, and sometimes it actually comes along with the creative awakening. Medications do little to stir up this depression in most cases in comparison to what a few art supplies and encouragement from a safe, trusted art therapist can do.

Proposal!

After a lot of extraneous inner wrestiling with myself about this workshop proposal and whether I should even submit one (Questions like, do I really want to do this or do I just think I should be in this and doing it? Answer: don’t know. probably a little of both.), I talked to some colleagues who basically said, you’re overthinking it, just do it. Me: but I’m a therapist who doesn’t like talking in front of groups of more than about ten people, of course I’m overthinking this, and even if I wasn’t a therapist, I’m an artist, so of course I overthink everything and often arrive at the conclusion that anytihng requiring a lot of extra time and thought is just getting in the way of time that should be spent making art…

I went back to the website and just typed the answers to their questions. I stopped short of impulsively sending in the proposal right away which is what I’d be inclinded to do. I’m not going to overedit it, but it’s probably a good idea to wait a day and reread it once and find my resume before sending it in. Looking at my last blog post, I thought the writing in it was far better than the dry writing of the proposal but they limit the word count so there’s no room for metaphor…

Here is what I’ve written to submit: only missing the resume and photo

Proposal for Expressive Therapies 2013 Summit:

3 hour Workshop

 Title: Altered Books with Adults; Conquering Trauma and Creativity Based Depression

Presentation Description:

In this workshop, I will discuss how the medium of altering books in art therapy with adults can uniquely treat people suffering from low grade to serious depression that is connected with past and/or present trauma and a feeling of creative deadness or loss of the creative “spirit.” We will look at how this kind of depression is best healed through the creative process and what is unique about the altered book format that allows for the creative spirit to reawaken. I will discuss the role of the therapist in this process and through the experiential, I will invite participants to choose a book and begin to alter it. We will process the transformative experience of “messing up” and “destroying” a book to create something new and how it can jump start the creative process through the variety of options and the holding environment of therapy.

 

3 measurable objectives:

  1. Participants will learn about the connections between trauma and depression, kinds of depression that do not meet the DSM criteria but are very debilitating, and how this depression is rooted in a deadness of the creative spirit which was caused and triggered in a large part by childhood and current traumas, from severe trauma to less severe but serious trauma. They will learn to identify this depression in their work and how art therapy is uniquely suited to healing.
  2. Participants will learn about the technique of making “Altered Books”, including:

The importance of bringing in certain choices in books and how to present the project to their client, the difference in art techniqhes and media used to alter adult hardcover books versus children’s board books

3. Participants will choose a book and start the process of making an altered book so as to learn ways to identify different techniques that will “unlock” creativity and the importance of experiencing the making of an altered book first hand as well as the therapeutic value of making an altered book alongside their client.

Ideal Format and Preferred Length of Presentation:

This will need to be a hands on experiential workshop with time for explanation and discussion of topics presented and ample time for participants to actively start and altered book and share their process and experience with the group, so 3 hours is probably the best length.

Bio:

Natasha Elena Shapiro, ATR-BC, LCAT, holds a master’s in Art Therapy and Creativity Development from Pratt Institute. She has worked in private practice for many years in her Tribeca art studio where she specializes in working with adults and children with a variety of emotional issues. As an Advanced Reiki Practitioner and a practicing professional visual artist, she views creativity as central to the healing process. She also facilitates an art studio based supervision group for professionals and an art therapy group for women struggling with anxiety and depression. Her studio space is an environment designed to be inviting and help with self-acceptance and relaxation.

 

Literature Citation:

Gioia Chilton MA, ATR-BC, Altered Books in Art Therapy with Adolescents, Art Therapy: Journal of the American Art Therapy Association, Volume 24, Issue 2, 2007, pgs. 59-63.

 

•  Art Materials Requests: Ideally a variety of hardcover books in any language as well as some early child board books, art materials including paint, brushes, scissors, colored tape, yarn, buttons and other embellishments, collage images. (Note: If some of the basic supplies are provided, I can bring in things like rhinestones, yarn, buttons, tape and collage images. In addition, if need be, I can find more books to choose from depending on the amount of people in the workshop.