Dara Lurie: Living a Creative Life
Image credit: Courtesy Dara Lurie
Practical advice for single moms to recharge their creative ambitions
After earning her MFA in creative writing, Dara Lurie stepped off the beaten path to create a life of “meaning and joy,” something she learned to value in childhood by watching her Solo Mom. Now Lurie helps people charge up their ambitions, commit to their creative projects, and live into the wonders of the imagination. Recently, Lurie spoke with ESME, offering practical advice for nurturing a creative life.
Q: As a writing coach, you have made a career out of encouraging people’s creativity. That sounds like a dream job. How did you start out on this path?
A: There’s a great quote from someone that goes “You are what you do repeatedly.”
I ran my first creative writing workshop at Pace University back in 2002, the same month I completed my MFA in creative writing at Hunter College.
It was an exciting opportunity to create the kind of writing environment I would have liked more of in my graduate program—technically and emotionally supportive without being invasive. The workshop went really well. A wonderful atmosphere of trust and respect emerged in the group right away. I was so thrilled!
After many years of bouncing from one job to another, it felt great to finally discover the kind of work I was good at and loved doing. I kept teaching and developing the workshop format. After a while, I got even more focused on understanding how creativity works and began studying the science of creativity and innovation. There’s a ton of books out there now, but I went back to some of the early thought leaders in this field, including Howard Gardner and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. (Yes, there are really 16 characters in his last name.)
It’s an incredible experience when a person comes to a workshop thinking they have one or two stories they want to write for themselves or maybe to share with their kids or grandkids, but over the course of that six or eight weeks, they are amazed to discover a much deeper treasure trove of stories and more personal significance than they ever suspected.
This has been my workshop experience again and again over the years. It’s transformational—for the writers and for me, too, as a guide and witness.
Q: Many Solo Moms will tell you they’re too busy with their real-life responsibilities to explore their creativity. As you say on your website, “Daydreaming doesn’t pay the bills, right?” What would you like to say to these Solo Moms?
A: In terms of the immediate picture, daydreaming isn’t going to pay your bills, unless you already have a job working for a company like Disney or Pixar. But in the bigger picture, if you’re willing to nurture your daydreams with an active, consistent approach, you can open up a whole world of opportunity in your life.
I’m talking about the possibility of creating work for yourself that’s creatively and financially rewarding.
Start small by making time in your life each week to do the activities that feed your imagination and soul. A journal is a perfect way for you to keep track of your ideas and goals over time. Jot down your wish list, goals that seem attainable as well as the totally crazy ideas you have. Brainstorm about different ways you could earn extra cash. What are you good at? What do you enjoy doing? What problems can you solve for others?
When I moved from New York City to the Hudson Valley 10 years ago, I had to totally reinvent my life. In the city, I’d been working as a legal assistant to support myself while writing my first book. Outside the city, the same work paid about 50% less. It was just a slower way to go broke. Besides, I really didn’t want to continue being a legal assistant.
I started creating teaching opportunities and building my list of contacts. I also found part-time work coaching special-education students at work sites. At this point, I was also giving readings for my book, which had been published the previous year.
Then a teacher who worked at a school for students on the autism spectrum saw a poster for a reading I was giving. On the poster, it mentioned that I worked as a job coach with students who needed special education. He got in touch with me about the possibility of teaching creative writing at his school. This resulted in a two-year teaching contract.
What I’ve learned is that there is no exact blueprint for finding your ideal work and lifestyle. You have to keep putting yourself in the way of possibility. Keep announcing your desires to the world, and the world will begin to answer you back.
It doesn’t take a lot of time to nurture creativity in your life. But if it’s something you want, you have to make it a habit. Instead of watching TV at the end of the day, put on some music, pour a glass of wine, and spend 40 minutes painting, writing a poem, or doing something that allows your mind to dream.
Q: We know what’s at risk if we don’t take care of our bodies by eating well, getting regular checkups, and moving with intention. What’s at risk if we don’t explore our creativity?
A: According to best-selling author and thought leader Daniel Pink, “The future belongs to a very different kind of person with a very different kind of mind—creators and empathizers, pattern recognizers, and meaning makers.”
You can’t give your children what you don’t have yourself. So, if you want to prepare your children for success in the world, nurturing your own creativity is one of the most important things you can do.
If you live your life like a workhorse and don’t allow yourself time to get creatively involved with either solo or group activities, you are not only depriving yourself of key nutrients to support your own emotional well-being but also sending a message to your children that creative development is not that important.
In fact, we’ve already seen that many types of jobs are either disappearing or have gone overseas. The economy of the 21st century will be built by right-brain creative thinkers, so it’s absolutely crucial that we all nurture these abilities within ourselves and our children.
Q: Will you talk about the difference between the kind of thinking that helps us accomplish our daily tasks and the kind of thinking that nourishes creativity?
A: The kind of thinking that’s most effective for your daily tasks is linear thinking. Linear thinking is about getting things right and avoiding mistakes whenever possible. In linear thinking, your brain is engaged in problem solving. Your goal is to get it right. You go through your day making a thousand small and large judgment calls—answer that e-mail, stop at the red light, go when it’s green.
Creative thinking, on the other hand, is nonlinear thinking. You’re not working with yes/no, right/wrong equations. The goal is not to get things right. Instead, you’re asking a lot of questions that begin “What if—?” Instead of problem solving, you’re problem finding.
In your daily thinking, you try to avoid problems; in your creative thinking, when you encounter a problem, you sit down with it and ask “What are you good for?”
This kind of thinking isn’t just for writing short stories or novels; it’s also how some of the most successful inventions came into being, like Post-it notes that were created when the engineers at 3M figured out what a batch of weak glue was good for.
Q: For those of us who live in the “adrenaline zone,” how can we begin to cultivate the attention creativity requires?
A: There are different ways for you to modulate that adrenaline-energy to a softer, more creative focus.
Use an action trigger to signal to your brain that it’s time to shift gears from daily to creative mode. Some of the best action triggers include setting an alarm for 20 minutes and committing to whatever activity you choose, like playing calming music or lighting a candle.
My absolute favorite way to shift into a more creative mindset is to sit in a spot and take several conscious breaths. You don’t have to sit in meditation for 20 minutes to do this. All you need is a few conscious breaths where you center your attention on the way your breath feels coming in, expanding, and going out.
On some days, it can be a challenge to focus completely for even those three breaths. If your mind is jittery, all wound up with lots of thoughts, just keep gently directing your attention back to those three focused breaths.
You can also say to yourself, Breathe in, as you breathe in and Breathe out, as you breathe out. This is one technique for capturing your wandering mind.
Once you learn how to open up that space in your thoughts, you’ll want more of it.
Q: You are the daughter of a Solo Mom. How did this experience impact your childhood? How did it help you become the person you are?
A: I was the oldest child and very aware of my mother’s struggle to keep things together after my father died. I was also aware of her profound disappointment with her life because she never got to fully live her dream of being a dancer, the thing she loved most. Growing up around my mother’s lack of joy made a huge emotional impression on me. I promised myself that I would create a life that contained meaning and joy. I’m sure that’s why I’ve gravitated toward the work I do, supporting creative and ambitious individuals who are reaching for their dreams.
Q: Let’s say you strike up a conversation with a Solo Mom while waiting in the checkout line at Target. She tells you she’s been carrying around an idea for a book (or blog or other creative project) for years, but she just can’t quite get started. What would you tell her?
A: I’d say, “You’ve got to carve steps in the mountain.” Don’t try to tackle your idea as one large project. Instead, start breaking it down into a collection of smaller pieces that you’ll work on in short, scheduled bursts.
If you schedule three or four 20-minute sessions per week, you’ll be amazed at how much you can get done.
The key is consistency. You have to show up on a regular basis. So it’s very important that you schedule your creative time just like you’d schedule any other important time in your week.
Whenever you miss a writing appointment—which is likely to happen—look at it as you would any other missed appointment and reschedule it for the next available date.
Q: Any final thoughts you want to share with Solo Moms about creativity or making an investment in themselves?
A: You are a creative being. It’s wired into your DNA. The idea that only certain people are gifted with creativity is simply not true. Creativity is not a rare gift; it’s a set of habits that you can cultivate in your life.
We are all born with creative intelligence, but as with any other ability, that intelligence has to be supported and developed. The most successful creative people are the ones who develop the right supporting structures in their lives.
Begin by scheduling several short appointments to do your creative work each week. Find a partner or group to be accountable to. This should be a reciprocal arrangement. Finally, honor your curiosity (it’s your gold) and learn new stuff.
Want to hear more from Lurie? She’s offering free 45-minute focus sessions for the first three Solo Moms who contact her at Dara@Transformative-writing.com. Just type “Creativity” in the subject line and tell her about the writing project you’ve been dreaming of starting. She’ll help you create an action plan that will get you going.
Cheryl Dumesnil, ESME’s LGBTQ Resource Guide, is an author, educator, writing coach, all-around do-gooder, and one of two moms separately coparenting two amazing boys. You can follow her on Twitter at @cheryladumesnil.
Please feel free to contact us with any comments or questions.