creativity, learning, lifelong learners, workshops, writer's conference, writing

Tribal Art

“Think back to your childhood. What did you enjoy doing? What were you naturally drawn to? When you were a little girl what made you happy?”

“Take your time. Dig down into the deep recesses of your mind.” I continue, noting a few furrowed brows in the room full of women.

“Some of us will have to dig deeper than others,” I add with a smile, and good-natured laughter erupts from the corner of the room where two women in their seventies sit.
Did you spend hours outside poking anthills with sticks? Follow your mother around as she cleaned house, begging to dust the furniture? Love working with your grandmother in the garden? Were you a voracious reader, devouring books like the chips in a Pringles can?

A younger woman looks up from the sheet of paper in front of her. “I’d almost forgotten! I used to spend hours making Barbie doll clothes! They weren’t very good; just quilt scraps my mom gave me that I cut holes in for the arms.”

A single woman in her thirties, the Barbie clothing designer sports spikes black hair, a ring in her nose, and arms covered with colorful tattoos. She looks the part of a creativity group member, but the truth is, all of the women belong; something about creativity appealing to a restless stirring inside them.

Thirteen women attended the inaugural meeting of the inelegantly dubbed “Lifelong Learner’s Creativity Group” I began at the library where I was employed in 2017. Forming the group made sense for a librarian. A 2015 Pew Research study revealed that adults who use libraries are more likely to consider themselves to be lifelong learners, actively pursuing learning opportunities. The group was consistent with a library’s mission to engage learners and inspire thinkers, but organizing it was not simply a job-related, altruistic move. It had been months since I’d experienced the kind of creative energy that ignites in a room full of people interested in the same thing. I’d seen it happen in writing classes I’d taught and at writing conferences I’d attended. I missed the passionate exchanges about writing and the rush of adrenaline that came with speaking and practicing one’s passion, the camaraderie of being in a room full of people that shared that passion. Those women needed what the creativity group could offer.

So did I.

As we took turns introducing ourselves, it soon became apparent we all had one thing in common; we wanted to add creativity into our lives and suspected that doing so would make us happier.

We were correct in that assumption. Scientific research demonstrates that practicing creative pursuits results in a happier, healthier life. The activity can be as simple as journaling, playing an instrument, or spring gardening, so long as it has meaning for the individual.

I didn’t make friends easily for most of my adult life. I was too busy raising eight children. That changed in 2011, when I attended my first writer’s conference, connecting with women and men interested in writing and publication.

writers conference 002
Cedar Falls Christian Writers workshop 2011

A year later, I’d discover the value of friendship when my husband unexpectedly died and some of those writers attended his funeral, becoming a support system of sorts. I made additional friends outside of that writer’s circle through a workplace setting, classes I taught, involvement in grief ministry, and by forming both a Bible study and the creativity group.

“You are the average of the five people you spend the most time with,” entrepreneur and motivational speaker Jim Rohn once said. The Longevity Project, which studied over 1000 people from youth to death found that the groups you associate with often determine the type of person you become. If you want a stronger faith, become part of a faith community. If you want to be more interesting, spend time with interesting people. To be more creative, hang out with creative individuals. Find your tribe.

It wasn’t long after I traded in that library job for one as a Program Coordinator at a Spirituality Center that I began a similar group there, aptly named “Artisan Souls.”

Something extraordinary happens when I facilitate groups and conduct workshops. I’m so exhilarated by the energy in the room, I’m hardly aware of the passing of time, and I leave those meetings deliriously happy, a soaring feeling that can last for hours, even days. Researchers call this joyful state “Flow,” the loss of time and self-consciousness that happens when we’re completely absorbed in an activity, whether it’s intellectual, professional, or physical. Flow can be achieved through activities such as running a race, playing the violin, or writing a book, as long as the activity is voluntary, intrinsically motivating, requiring skill, and challenging in some way. A growing body of scientific research proves that flow is positively correlated with happiness, and that people who experience a lot of flow also develop increased concentration, performance, and a higher self-esteem.

I enter the state of flow when I write or conduct workshops, but I’m open to experiencing it through other avenues, which explains one of the tenets of our creativity groups; to try new things. In these two groups I’ve painted on canvas, designed Vision Boards, practiced hand lettering, and made jewelry.

painting with James Kennedy Public library Lifelong Learners

One month, a member of our Dyersville library group brought ukuleles for everyone, insisting we’d be playing a tune by the end of the evening. As my fingers fumbled clumsily with fret and chords, my cheeks flushed with embarrassment. I wondered why I wasn’t catching on when the women on either side of me made it look easy. Then I happened to glance up. A woman across the room was having just as much trouble as I was. Our eyes met, and we both laughed. I didn’t have to worry about failure or looking foolish. I was there to have fun, not to become a musician.


I’d found my tribe.


creativity, writer's conference, writing

What would Mom do? Top 5 Reasons to Attend a Writer’s Conference

It seems fitting to discuss writer’s conferences on Mother’s Day, because for many years the only Mother’s Day request I had was for time alone to write. My favorite gift from my husband or one of my older children was a gift certificate for a local restaurant, along with a promise to watch the kids while I took myself out for breakfast and wrote for two hours. I was a self-taught writer who’d learned the basics of query letters, manuscript formatting, and book proposal writing from the many books and magazines I pored over. Conferences and classes seemed like what a “real writer” would do, not a mom of eight who clutched madly to what little creative time she could get.

The first writer’s conference I attended was the Cedar Falls Christian Writer’s workshop in Cedar Falls, Iowa the summer of 2011. I’d been writing for nearly twenty years by then, but it wasn’t until my own mother’s death that I made the decision to take my writing seriously.

When Mom passed away in November 2010 (on my birthday, no less) she left very little in the way of material items. It was her artwork we desired; the quilts, teddy bears, paintings, and woodcarvings that embodied her creative legacy.  As the writer in the family, I inherited many of her notebooks, journals, and several versions of three unpublished manuscripts. In her writing, I discovered two distinct themes; my mother’s strong desire that her children get to Heaven, along with her fervent hope that each of them would utilize their God-given talents while here on earth. Repeatedly, she wrote about her dreams for her children and grandchildren. It was evident that she never doubted for a moment that every single one of them had talent.

newspaper article.jpg

newspaper article2.jpg

newspaper3.jpgWhile I’d briefly considered attending a writer’s conference one year, the cost seemed prohibitive. After Mom died, I asked myself what she would do if she’d had that kind of opportunity to further her creative endeavors. My interest in the conference was just as much spiritual as it was creative, a way to hone my craft while fueling my faith. My husband not only encouraged my attendance, he insisted it was high time I invested in myself, something that people who believe in us tend to see long before we do. I believed my mother would have said the same thing.

I’ve never looked back. Every year since 2011, I’ve set aside tax refund money and kept the dates of that Cedar Falls workshop open so I could attend. I look forward to it all year long. When I was being interviewed in February for my current job, I made it clear; “The schedule sounds fine, but there’s a week in June when I will be attending a conference.”

Why would I recommend writers or aspiring writers attend a conference or class? There are many reasons, but here are my top five:

To learn more about the craft of writing. I believe in lifelong learning. No matter our level of expertise in writing, there is always something new to learn. Sometimes we have to make a commitment to hone our craft and that commitment might involve both time and money. Committing to a conference or a class could be the first step in taking our writing seriously. Call it an investment in yourself. I tell attendees in my writing classes that paying for a class gives them a reason for taking time out of their busy days to write. “Tell your husband or your kids that you paid good money for a writing class so now you need to write and sell something to recoup your money.” If you take yourself seriously, others will take you seriously, too.

To learn more about the business side of publishing. It’s not enough to be a good writer; you also have to learn about the ever-changing world of publishing. What is a book proposal? How do I write a query letter? How can I build up my platform? Do I need an agent? Where do I find markets for my work? These are questions you can find the answers to at conferences and workshops.

To connect and network with other writers. There is nothing more enjoyable than “talking shop” with another writer who understands the foibles and follies of the world of writing. Writers at conferences and workshops share markets with each other, commiserate about rejections, and support each other’s accomplishments. I’ve made life-long friends at each conference I’ve attended. My world has gotten so much bigger in the last few years. It was at a conference that I met my mentors (and good friends), Shelly Beach and Cecil Murphey.

To meet and network with editors, publishers, or agents. Not everyone who attends a conference ends up sitting next to an agent at a lunch table and subsequently signing a contract with her husband a few months later, but I did. I’ve developed both personal and professional relationships with editors and agents at conferences. While initially the prospect of meeting with an agent or editor was quite daunting to me, I’ve experienced some wonderful conversations with several. I can’t speak for non-Christian conferences but those I’ve conversed with at the Christian conferences have been wonderful. Of course, the easiest conversations are those I’ve had without the anxiety of attempting to sell something.

Amazing things happen at Christian writing conferences. Again, I can’t speak for all conferences as I’ve only attended Christian ones, but I’ve found that if I pray fervently before, during, and after a conference, and keep my eyes and heart open to God, amazing things have transpired at each of the conferences I’ve attended, some so powerful they’re difficult to talk about without crying.

This advice doesn’t just apply to writers; I would encourage all creative people continue learning and honing their craft throughout their life, whether that is painting, drawing, music, or quilting. During some seasons of our life, it might have to be simply checking out library books or subscribing to magazines on the subject, but if time and money permit, a class or conference can be a great jump-start to living creatively!

Maybe the best Mother’s Day gift is a gift you give to yourself; enrolling in a class or workshop.

creativity, learning, life, research for new book, writer's conference, writing

~Creativity Calling~

“Each person has a unique creative sensibility, but that can so easily become buried beneath the stresses and responsibilities of adult life. Sometimes a re-awakening slowly occurs by one taking hold of a thread of something that’s linked to something that remains pure inside each of us, a longing for expression, safe from the judgments or order imposed by the external world.”- Eileen M. Clegg, in “Claiming Your Creative Self”

Some writers avoid reading anything related to their current project. I’m the opposite, immersing myself in the topic for weeks as I delve into what has already been written, taking copious notes, and printing out page after page of pertinent research. The reading and research not only helps me narrow down my broad outline, clarifying what I want to include as well as exclude from my own book, but also helps me write my book proposal. Perhaps some of these authors will be approached for a blurb endorsement, or the book’s forward.

I began research for Coupon Crazy in 2009, reading books about couponing, marketing, branding, and ethnographic research on related topics. I needed to unearth archived newspaper and journal articles to dig deep into the history of refunds and rebates. I interviewed 50 avid couponers from all over the United States. By the time the manuscript was complete, I had 20 file folders, as in actual paper file folders, packed with research.

creative books2.jpgA few of these creativity books were shelved on my desk for four years, waiting to be plucked from the “to-read” stack. Some I recently purchased might end up as keepers. Others will end up being turned in for credit at HalfPrice Books. An especially observant reader of my blog might realize a couple of books have already disappeared from my generous research stack, while new ones have magically appeared. One book that disappeared greatly disappointed me when the author’s real secret to creativity in women seemed to depend on three things: #1) a discretionary income of some means, #2) copious amounts of solitude, and #3) either have no children, or one child. My book’s intended audience is more the woman at home with young children, a woman wishing to hone the lost domestic arts, or the empty-nester who thinks it is too late for her to do anything creative.

Maybe a woman whose desk looks something like this:

mom writer deskI bravely shared this horrifying 1996 photo on my Facebook page a few days ago. I also plan to incorporate it into my power point on utilizing creativity in the everyday. While some might see a mess, I see an extremely creative period in my life. I’d had my first book, Homeschooling From Scratch, published a few months before, had recently been paid $200 for a Chicken Soup essay, and wrote regularly for several national magazines, such as “Backwoods Home” and “Home Education.” I was an avid couponer and refunder, sending for cash and gifts through the mail and saving hundreds of dollars at the grocery store. I ran a home business selling used books and helped my husband operate a bookstore. I was also into bartering, trading used books with women all over the country, in exchange for educational materials and high-end brand name clothing for my toddler.

What I didn’t have was money, solitude, or obviously, since toddler Emily was our sixth, a lack of children. Yet I managed to utilize my creativity, even if it wasn’t in the domestic arena.

An extraordinary thing can happen when you immerse yourself in an interest. The process can ignite your own passion for the topic. I was never so involved in couponing as I was during those years I worked on a book and developed a coupon workshop.

Being around other writers does the same thing for my writing. I know from experience that a writer’s conference or a room full of students eager to learn about getting published energizes my own writing. Members of a group can feed off each other’s creativity. For a long time, I’ve talked about either joining, or beginning, a lifelong learner’s group of some sort. While I am a member of the Iowa City branch of the National League of American Pen Women (NLAPW), an organization of professional women artists, musicians, and writers, I don’t make it to the meetings that are mostly held on Saturday mornings or a weekday in Iowa City.

As a reporter for 18 months, I had the incredible opportunity to interview a lot of creative people; writers, artists, quilters, a yoga instructor who also held journal-making classes, a fiber artist, and countless others who fascinated me in their endeavors. That I was paid to sit down and talk to them never ceases to amaze me. I’ll never forget the woman who came to our interview with sheets of notepaper in her hand. She’d prepared for our interview on lifelong learning by jotting down a long list of simple things that brought her joy.

In my new job as a Senior Services librarian I’m responsible for planning, and presenting, programs for a “certain age.” I’ve spent the better part of two weeks working on a power point to present at a local retirement center, on a topic I’m already well-versed in, the lost art of letter-writing.  In the process, I’ve done a lot of research on the history of the postal service, unearthing facts I was unaware of that I am sure will fascinate and entertain. The “lost art of letter writing” morphed into “Mailbox Memories,” a program I’d love to present elsewhere.

It occurred to me as I’ve been researching creativity that my new position also offers me the opportunity to begin the very group I’ve been yearning for at the library where I’m employed. This means the reading and research I’ve been doing now serves three purposes; #1) for my book project #2) for a power point that can be presented at libraries and women’s groups, and #3) as background and inspiration for the lifelong learners group I’ll soon be forming, a creativity co-op of sorts.

Now, back to the books~ I expect our first meeting might involve reading one of these books and discussing the concept of creativity.