[00:00:02] Hey, welcome back to Written, Spoken. I’m Dave Ursillo. This is my podcast. Written, Spoken is a very simple idea for a show. You’re listening to the spoken word edition of 10 of my most recent written essays and stories that I usually only share exclusively with my online readership. So if you like what you hear on Written, Spoken — and you want to receive these spoken word essays on mindful living, creative self-expression, what it means to live with self-knowledge in today’s world, even things like how to embrace a more fully expressed lifestyle — consider signing up for my reader-loved newsletter at DaveUrsillo.com/Newsletter. That’s DaveUrsillo.com/newsletter. You’ll get the written version of these stories, live, right when they’re written, hot off the presses, in the form of one email in your inbox every other week or so.
[00:00:55] Like I said I write personal narrative essays and human interest stories that, in so far as I intend them, are actually worth taking the time to read. That means no junk, never any spam, no list posts, no skimmable-whatevers. Just quality thoughts worth your time, worthy of your attention. In today’s episode we’re picking up where we left off last time with the question, What do you do when a good natured creative impulse — you know, the simple innocent desire to make something — smashes up against a suddenly cruel reality? When the spark of joy that you’re following turns out to not be as easy or as simple as you thought it might be? If you’ve ever had a spur the moment desire to try something new and creative, you may have resonated with what we discussed last time. If you didn’t hear that episode, go back and give it a quick listen then jump back here to listen to what I did next when my Great British Bake-Off inspired foray into an amateur baking ended and a rather disappointing fashion.
[00:02:03] Let’s get into the episode. Here we go.
[00:02:10] Dear friend. When we last spoke I told you the story of my not so great Great British Bake-Off inspired foray into home baking. It ended disastrously. I abandoned my intention to bake something “scrummy” altogether and instead I eat three already made cupcakes in the car on my drive home from the grocery store. It was completely, completely sad. But didn’t think I could just end that story there, did you know? No, I’m not starting a baking blog. No, I’m not slowly morphing all of my correspondence with you into Dave’s own little weird homage to British baking all because I enjoyed a reality show on TV. What I am sharing with you today is what happened next: the actual process that I took as a novice creative — in this case as an amateur home baker — after my doe-eyed desires to make something hit the hard wall of what I call the other half of the creative equation, destruction, and stopped cold.
[00:03:13] As you know this year I’m celebrating my 10 year anniversary of quitting my job in politics, starting my blog at the very aptly named DaveUrsillo.com, and setting off on a bit of an uncertain odyssey into a life and a career of writing. So throughout this year I’m challenging myself to offer you some fresh and intimate and unconventional explorations around what it really means to create something in today’s world. For you that may mean creating change or creating art or creating a body of work or creating a new outlook on life. It might mean creating more joy and contentment in your everyday. It might mean creating a business. It might mean creating a new story to live by. I believe we are constantly creating and recreating ourselves in the daily choices that we make, in what words we speak, and what words we leave behind, and even in the stories we choose to believe about who we are and what we’re capable of.
[00:04:08] That means we’re all creatives whether or not you’re a professional writer like me or an aspiring entrepreneur or anything like that. We are all creatives by our nature. And truth be told sharing my own silly little confrontation with home baking with you, that wasn’t really about baking at all. It was an honest reflection of what tends to happen to all of us when the desire to create is confronted by an uncomfortable reality. So what follows isn’t really about baking, it’s about the common experiences that we all share when good natured innocent natural desires to create to make it perform to be inspired to engage in any act of doing. When all that good stuff hits the other half of the creative equation as we’re calling it here or the destructive side of creativity. We will all face this shadowy element at some point or many points in our lives.
[00:05:11] So, after wiping the cupcake crumbs from my chin I went back to face my discomfort all over again so I could document the process of what would help me through my discomfort so I could share it here with you. Here’s what I might recommend you do to endure your own creative challenges that arise along your journey; when your creative impulses clash with that subtle underbelly of discomfort that naturally arises with a desire to make.
[00:05:38] Step number one. Start at your starting point. After watching really good amateur bakers whip up ridiculously beautiful cakes and tarts and puddings, my instinct was to naturally throw myself into the proverbial deep end of baking. I had ideas that I could grab a few ingredients and suddenly whip up complicated Genoese sponge and French macaroons and everything that I saw my pretend friends on the Great British Bake-Off making with seeming ease.
[00:06:10] That was my first mistake. I failed to temper my expectations. Tempering expectations is surprisingly difficult especially when it comes to any new artistic or creative endeavor. First, the aspirational quality of art which promises total freedom endless possibility and so much potential, is so seductive that the notion of deliberately tempering your expectations can feel deflating, unmotivating, maybe even self-defeating. After all the exhilarating potential of “what could be” is what pushes us to try anything creative at all. Dreams fuel us to take big risks despite the odds. Reigning back sheer excitement on purpose? Lowering your enthusiasm from the start? It’s not fun and it may even deflate you from beginning on a new creative idea in the first place.
[00:07:10] Second, our expectations — what we consider to be good art worthwhile art worthy of our time art — are set at a ridiculously high bar. Think about it: as consumers most of our exposure to art comes from finished products of a really really professional caliber. What we see are results of countless hundreds or thousands of hours of dedicated hard work. We see the one-hundredth version of a book that ends up on a bookshelf not the clunky, ugly, piecemeal rough draft on the author’s hard drive.
[00:07:46] Our exposure to finished art falsely inflates our understanding of what art is at all. Finished art gives us a false impression that the process to make is mostly just showing up before creating something spectacular from start to finish. This misleading concept also discounts how many people contribute to shaping so many of the finished products and projects that we consume every single day. We don’t see these scores of experienced talented professionals whose entire careers have led us to witness the Hulu or Prime or Netflix or HBO show that just magically appears on your TV one day.
[00:08:27] We never meet the editorial team behind the best selling book. We don’t consider the sound engineers who meticulously perfects the chorus of that new pop song on the radio. Our exposure to most done art or finished art is not representative of what ninety nine point nine nine percent of all people make. Even the full time professionals. Especially on their first attempts.
[00:08:56] Realizing that I had no recollection of baking anything from scratch in my entire life I figured I might not set the bar of expectations as high as some of the most challenging and historic of European baked desserts of the last couple hundred years.
[00:09:12] What I did next: I went all the way back to the start. Like back to the grade school start. I bought a package of stir-and-bake cookies on my next visit to the grocery store. Just Add two eggs whisk and you’re a baker. Yep I nailed that. Later that week I went back for a package of sit-and-bake brownies. Yep nailed that one to.
[00:09:37] Why it works: Tempering your expectations isn’t about deflating your passion for a new creative venture, it’s actually about preserving your passion for long enough to actually get where you’re hoping to someday go. By pulling back the ambitious ness of my first few baking attempts I found a starting point that wouldn’t derail my young creative impulse from the get go.
[00:10:01] How to do it for yourself: Aim for one small win set a small manageable container of expectations like my sit-and-bake cookies and brownies, and know that this starting point means to serve you with the chance to “do” or in other words to be in the experience of the making and the creating. And just as well aiming for one small win gives you the chance to actually finish and complete something as well finishing something even small starts up the vital cycles of learning and growth with which you’ll build stronger skills over time.
[00:10:37] Started your starting point. Aim for one small win. Finish something that’s step 1.
[00:10:46] Step number two. Enlist some help. After rocking the hell out of my ready bake brownies and cookies I knew that I wanted to up my baking game. My next small goal was to bring holiday cookies to a family gathering right around Christmas: a cookie exchange where guests put a special spin on their favorite cookies and they trade them with a group so that everybody leaves with a blend of holiday treats to take home with them. It’s kind of awesome. And as someone who is instinctively taking on the role of consumer of everyone’s baked goods for my previous 33 years of life — imagine something like a human Dyson vacuum attacking the homemade Italian cooking and baking of my grandmother, my aunts, my mom, and my cousins for years on end — I figured that I might become an actual full adult and contribute something this past year. Wild learning and growth, I know, I’m all over it. So in order to narrow down some of the endless possibilities and thus the indecision and overwhelm that can come along with picking which path to take, in this case of what cookie I might bake, I knew that I could use a little help and guidance. But in lieu of having Paul Hollywood on speed dial to whom I could turn with my still as of yet inexplicable desire to become a homemaker, I enlisted my best friend Coral instead.
[00:12:05] Not only did Coral have some actual baking experience but she and her husband my buddy Brian (who actually happens to be a professional chef, super convenient) possessed all the necessary instruments and the fancy ingredients for baking cookies, like a stand up mixer and baking sheets and all the stuff that I very much did not have.
[00:12:24] To be honest, at this stage I still didn’t really know if I enjoyed baking at all. This desire was still very young and it was an unformed idea that I was just exploring. Is a passing whim, not a whole new identity that I knew I wanted to to take on and commit to. It’s so easy to feel judged, to feel embarrassed, to even feel ashamed for trying something new as adults especially when it’s something creative. The vulnerability of that can prevent us from even trying at all.
[00:12:57] So based on our history, our deep friendship, and years worth of learning based experiences that we’ve supported one another with for for quite a few years, I knew that Coral wouldn’t joke at my expense or make me feel bad when I told her I wanted to learn how to bake something.
[00:13:12] What I did next: After a little convincing which sounded like “Hey I’ll share half of the cookies with you,” and deliberating over a recipe together — Coral and I landed on a simple chocolate and sea salt dipped peanut butter cookie — I headed over to Coral’s and Brian’s baking ready kitchen for emotional support and guidance from a peer who knew what the heck needed doing.
[00:13:35] Thanks to my new so-called baking coach I was able to proudly present an elegant basket of homemade cookies at my family gathering. My cousin Lauren freaked out. She started shouting “You brought cookies? Look at you, who do you think you are? There’s a freakin bow on them! You wrap them with ribbon?” She lost her mind. Now that was all really Coral’s doing, the presentation, I have to thank her for that. But the cookie came out great. My discerning 10-going-on-11-year-old little cousin said that they were the best cookies at the party, which was like the highest compliment that I ever could have received, and the family like I said it was just totally flabbergasted by my A-Level display game. So thanks again. Coral.
[00:14:19] Why it works. It only makes sense to enlist some help when you need it, right? But why don’t we do it more often. Well I alluded to those reasons why we don’t want to earlier. The truth is that it tends to be particularly uncomfortable if not outright embarrassing to lay claim to a new and budding desire especially if it’s like a young and unformed creative impulse. Creative whims and intentions feel particularly personal to each of us. Thereby it tends to feel particularly vulnerable and exposing to lay claim to them out loud. If you don’t know why you want to try or where the effort may lead you or even if you’ll enjoy the experience in the end, taking ownership of a new creative passion can be surprisingly daunting.
[00:15:04] Enter enlisting the help of someone: a “right” someone; a friend; a coach; a peer. To do so does require you to take on some ownership of the desire that you have; it does require you to be seen, to be heard, to be witnessed for this curious calling that you’re still striving to understand yourself. And yet once you do lay some claim of ownership to that calling, that curiosity or that desire, you open the door to being supported and guided in the ways that alleviate some of the daunting overwhelm of not knowing where to begin or how to get properly started or the ways in which you ought to best focus your efforts moving forward. In other words enlisting help from the right person makes the exploration of your creative impulse far easier on you.
[00:15:55] How to do it for yourself: What a friend like Coral provides to me (and what I strive to provide my clients and my Writer’s Group of Two coaching, for example) is a blend of hard earned trust paired with compassionate guidance. All creatives in particular require this delicate balance of hands on support and hands off understanding. It’s this interplay like a parent guiding a child’s bicycle before letting go that holds the space for us to feel supported and encouraged and seen while still being free willed and autonomous enough to navigate our own learning curves without any added pressures.
[00:16:37] When you’re enlisting help of a peer a friend or a professional coach be extra discerning. Remember not all support systems are created equally. Turn to someone who you feel you can trust and someone who can trust you back enough to do your own learning and exploring and figuring out. Remember part of the magic of the creative experience is the privilege of creating our own path, not someone else’s. That’s step two.
[00:17:08] Step number three. Explore widely, then narrow. After conquering the family cookie exchange I had something of a revelation. I didn’t really enjoy baking. At least I didn’t enjoy baking sweet things like cookies. There was something about dessert baking that didn’t really inspire me or feel particularly rewarding. I wasn’t sure why but I just knew that that was the case. And this may sound like small peanuts right? But I was hitting on something of a watershed moment. It happens at certain stages of our creative journeys when we begin to learn enough about our desires for the desires to start talking back to us. At first my ill defined creative impulse to bake was seeming to tell me, just bake something, it’ll be fun. Then with a little bit of experience under my belt I heard my desire starting to tell me, “Enough play time and cookies and brownies, young padawan learner, now find a direction that really feels fun to you.” My desire began to tell me that it wouldn’t survive on making sweets. I need an alternative that would inspire and motivate and keep me going.
[00:18:21] So call me an American of Italian descent, which I am, but bread has always been something of a religion to me. At least when I eat really good bread which I do almost daily, you could say that I’m having some sort of a religious experience. And thankfully my source of inspiration for baking, which of course is the Great British Bake-Off does have a whole week’s worth of baking dedicated to bread. I found the prospect of bread baking from home from scratch to be of particular interest to me. It would honor my own personal bread loving heritage and would teach me something of a lost art if you will and would offer equal parts excitement and challenge. I knew there would be fun but that it would offer a lot of lessons along the way. So I decided to give bread baking from scratch a try.
[00:19:10] What I did next. I Googled around for simple bread recipe, in fact the simplest one that I could find, until I found one that had only a few ingredients, a short bake time, and didn’t require a world of effort (Remember step one on tempering expectations). Go figure the very recipe that I found was for a simple white bread written by the Great British Bake-Off judge, Paul Hollywood. So it was like pretty much faded. In the following days I made my first dough from scratch and baked four loaves one after the other based solely on this single recipe. Remember: start at your starting point. Aim for one small win. Finish something. Times four. Each time I made a loaf of bread, I was practicing my technique and I was learning based on the outcome. As it turned out I really loved the process making bread from scratch is kind of awesome. And the fact that just a few ingredients and techniques can come together to make what has been a long nourishing staple of humanity’s diet for thousands of years, it’s rather radical, it’s totally neat. Bread, as it turns out, is my new baking passion.
[00:20:20] Why it works. We all understand that developing strong creative skills like any other non creative skill requires dedicated practice and hard work. That’s why so much advice you’ll find online and in books tries to encourage you to focus on a single track path in pursuit of expertise or mastery. This is a remarkable oversimplification however and I’ve found that for most people who are exploring a new creative passion the idea that you should find your focus early and quickly then pursue it with reckless abandon until you’re an expert threatens to suck all of the joy and the reward out of the creative journey.
[00:21:02] The least you can do for yourself before you begin to invest hundreds of dollars or thousands of hours into a brand new creative pursuit is to figure out if you really enjoy it and why. That’s why I encourage all of my clients to indulge in open exploration, play, experimentation, and a sort of like creative meandering at a certain stage of their writing journeys. As I did with my baking starting, with a wide ambling exploratory focus embodies the essence of that seductive, “anything is possible” quality behind creativity that we all know and value. This essence of creativity allows you to wonder, to wander, and to play. It gives you the gift of an opportunity to use your feelings and your gut instincts and your intuition to learn more about yourself; to learn more about what you value; to learn more about what it is that you genuinely desire. It gives you the chance to just feel good without the need to rationalize it or defend it. When you allow your desire a chance to speak back to you, if you will, you find an easier sense of direction as you go along.
[00:22:13] How to do it for yourself. All you have to do is to give yourself full permission to try. Forget becoming an “expert” or a “master”. A lot of that pressure to go from zero to expert comes from our society’s askew values that equate your worth and your value to your wealth, your status, your fame, your acclaim, your numbers of followers. It’s the reason why so many of us struggle to embrace creativity without our societies over-masculinized, overly industrialized norms interfering with our open exploration with the pure indulgence of what feels good and fun and joyful and rewarding.
[00:22:53] Treat your creative endeavor as a journey of learning that you trust will inspire natural reflection and growth. In other words if you don’t know what you desire yet don’t let that derail you. Keep exploring and keep playing and the desire will make itself known. At that point you can focus yourself in one direction and grow your skills in ways that may be challenging but will still feel rewarding. Explore widely then narrow at Step 3.
[00:23:25] Step four. End to begin again. After baking four loaves of bread from scratch in about a week or two something became very clear to me, which brings home all the stories that I’ve been writing to you about in these episodes over the last few weeks about the so-called two halves of the creative equation. One is the making side in the other side is the destructive side. Cooking and baking as it turns out are excellent teachers of both halves of this creative equation because with every effort to make you are compelled to complete the making or else the destruction will find your project any way.
[00:24:05] Think about it. With baking and cooking in particular, there is immediacy and urgency built into the process. These are living ingredients that will spoil or go stale or grow mold or otherwise become inedible. So if you don’t finish the task of making by choosing the destruction — which creatively usually just means finishing a project, ending a task, or completing what you’re working on — the destruction will come anyway and spoil which you are creating in the first place. Baking in other words requires you to practice the art of ending, completing, finishing, or letting go.
[00:24:45] Unlike writing a book or working on a painting or composing a song, you really can’t hit pause on baking bread or assembling a towering three layer cake. Sure you can quit midway through but unlike burying a script on your hard drive or putting an oil painting in the closet for a while, baking compels you to finish, to complete, or to try again. Cooking and baking thus taught me is that the importance of taking your creative efforts to some state of completion. This is my fourth and final step toward overcoming the destructive side of creativity and it’s this: it’s embracing the destructive side as a practice in starting again.
[00:25:26] All that really means is ending an effort, completing a task, finishing, or at the very least surrendering and moving on to what comes next. It may not be perfect. It may mean calling it quits when something’s just not working. But you have to learn to end a creative effort if only so you can begin again.
[00:25:53] Why it works. On a practical level what happens when we neglect to finish is that we lose out on these vital feedback loops. We miss out on learning and growth which are essential for growing skills and developing experience. When we don’t complete or and or finish or let go of a creative effort, the learning-growth cycle short circuits. We get stuck.
[00:26:18] Ending a creative effort is essential because it compels the cycle of creativity to begin anew by our own choice. Either way the destruction will happen. And perhaps in a far more ominous way that affects more than just our creative practice. What’s at stake that’s more than the painting, or the loaf of bread, or the book we want to write? Losing self-confidence, losing enthusiasm, losing the zest to try new things. We may learn to distrust our passion. We may learn to grow skeptical of our desire and our wanting. When we willingly complete a task, when we learn how to surrender, let go, finish, or release expectations, then we start to become true practitioners of creativity because what we start to practice is both sides of the creative equation: the making and the letting go. The faith and the surrender. The journeying onward and the strength to begin again. Yours in creativity, Dave.
[00:27:34] Alright, that’s all for this week’s episode. Thank you so much for listening. I hope you enjoyed this edition of Written, Spoken. And if you’re enjoying the podcast. I mean a whole heck of a lot if you left us a five star rating and a brief review on Apple podcasts or wherever you listen. It goes a long way to helping other listeners find the show. Next week’s episode turns away from amateur home baking in the so-called two halves of the creative equation and instead turns into a personal story of a letter that I’ve been avoiding for upward of 10 years.
[00:28:04] Why is it that we avoid certain things that we know we have to do or are expected to do or feel would be in our very best personal interests? If you’ve ever been curious about why human beings avoid what we avoid and why you’ll really find next week’s episode interesting. And if you’re navigating your own avoidance these days I hope this next episode might encourage you to face which you’re avoiding right along with me.
[00:28:32] Until next time, I’m Dave Ursillo, and this is Written, Spoken.