Meet my friend, Jessica Gilkison
I am beyond excited to announce the first in what I intend to make a recurring column on this site called, Creativity Corner. In Creativity Corner, I will explore the ways in which different types of creativity inspire people to live healthier more meaningful lives. But first, I want to share a little bit about how I first made the connection between creativity and healing.
When my daughter was living in residential treatment, the parents participated in the same therapeutic arts and crafts projects as the kids. These Saturday projects were springboards for intense and emotional conversations designed to encourage open and honest communication between us. One Saturday, our task was to use crayons to color in a six slice pie chart. The purpose of the chart was to help us clarify our feelings of self-esteem around six key areas of human potential. Theoretically, the more colored in our chart, the better we felt about ourselves. In actuality, the damn exercise was dead on. After a lifetime of trying to hide it, I saw my low self-esteem reflected back to me in the white space my chart contained.
I will be writing about these events in more detail here on the blog and in my book, but for now the important point to know is that this was the moment I realized that I needed to change my focus, to redirect my diligent hard work of trying to control the outcome of my daughter’s illness onto my own healing. My daughter was in treatment and as safe as she could be. She was learning, I hoped, how to fall in love with herself, how to see herself the way I saw her. I needed to learn how to do the exact same thing – to lead by example.
If this sounds like a Herculean task, or maybe just a really murky one, it was. I had no idea where to start except I figured it would be with a book. For me, everything starts with a book. I remembered having heard one name come up repeatedly, in different ways, during the course of my daughter’s treatment and also in the “regular” parts of my life, like at writing retreats and in my own therapy. That name was of shame researcher and writer, Brené Brown.
To say that Brené’s work has had a major impact on my life is the understatement of the year, or maybe the decade. I mention her work in almost every post I write. Her book, The Gifts of Imperfection, started me on a course toward leading a more fulfilling and wholehearted life, which, in turn, leads me to be telling you why I wanted to create Creativity Corner.
In her research, Brené discovered that cultivating creativity is one of ten guideposts that help us let go of who we think we’re supposed to be and embrace who we are. She devoted an entire chapter in Gifts to creativity because its importance is about so much more than fun with paint and sparkles. Creativity is about making meaning, and we humans want to make meaning. We humans are also inherently creative beings. As I read Brené’s chapter on creativity, I thought about the endless hours I spent during my childhood writing poetry, short stories, and drawing. I loved to sing and choreograph dance routines. I remembered how happy these activities made me, right up until I stopped doing them. Over the years as I grew older, I dabbled in art but never gave it my full attention. Once in a while, I’d think, Man, I really feel like (fill in the blank with painting, drawing, coloring) but would slough the idea off as a waste of time. I couldn’t have been more wrong.
“Creativity, which is the expression of our originality,” Brown writes, “helps us stay mindful that what we bring to the world is completely original and cannot be compared. And, without comparison, concepts like ahead or behind or best or worst lose their meaning.” (p. 97) I don’t know about you, but most of my adult life – hell, for my whole life – I’ve fallen into the trap of comparison, in just about every way a person can. I’ve compared my body, my possessions, my intelligence, my mothering ability, my – if you can name it, I’ve compared it to what another person is or has or does. In my mind, invariably, I came up short. I understand now that comparison is about “conformity and competition.” This is an unhealthy place in life to reside. In fact, it’s exhausting. Creativity – our originality – helps us combat our tendency to compare and to feel like we come up short.
A few months after my daughter returned home from treatment, I undertook an on-line course hosted by Brené that was an arts and crafts journaling class based on the guideposts in The Gifts of Imperfection. I created art that gave me permission to be imperfect, that reminded me I’m enough just the way I am, and that represented gratitude as the practice that it is. If the pie chart and crayons were the wake-up call to start this journey, my new art projects became a type of hammer and chisel, chipping away at the wall of negativity I’d constructed around myself. I layered paint and glue and tape onto blank white pages, and, small though my projects were, each one added new perspective to past events. Markers and stickers and water colors helped me to see myself as deserving of the same compassion I so willingly showed to others and reminded me that no one else can do what I do or say what I say. I realized that I am unique!
After the class ended, I wanted more. I prioritized creativity, in one form or another, each week on my to-do list. I bought animal and mandala-themed adult coloring books. My daughter and I started doing art projects together. To my journal, I added poetry, pictorials, and collages. Now I keep my journal on the counter behind my writing desk. When I’m not adding art to it, I often page through to reflect on the lessons it contains and to inspire new ones.
Creativity, I also learned along the way, dovetails perfectly with wanting to live a more mindful life. Creativity helped calm my monkey mind and tame my thoughts in the present moment. Being more present opened me up to the creative process in ways I’d never before experienced, like allowing the process to unfold through me instead of trying to force it, and showing me that a project has more tangible benefits than the pleasure of doing it. Writing is an area where I still fall into the trap of comparing myself to others. Non-writing creative endeavors help me to let go of my feelings of insecurity and to heal by accepting that my life path is unfolding the way it’s supposed to.
Creativity Corner: Jessica Gilkison
My dear friend (and guinea pig), Jessica Gilkison, was a great sport when she agreed to take the plunge and be the first person spotlighted in Creativity Corner. Recently, she left her job at a university to embark on a more creative lifestyle that includes the writing of her first book. I asked her about that, about how the creative act of writing is helping her to grieve and to heal after her mother’s death, and more. I hope her answers will inspire you to pick up a pen or a pencil or a paint brush or to head immediately to Jo-Ann’s to stock up on art supplies. I hope that if you’re upset or struggling, or hurt or grieving, you’ll consider allowing art to help ease your pain, that you’ll let it work some magic and bring you some peace. In so doing, I hope you’ll remember that you are a one of a kind original, perfect in your imperfection.
Tracey: So Jess, we met for the first time in February 2013. We were both in Montana for a Haven Workshop, led by best-selling author, Laura Munson. Can you tell us little bit about why you decided to go to Haven the first time?
Jessica: I went to Haven the first time because I was finally ready to honor the little voice I’d been ignoring for years. I had longed to write since falling in love with books as a kid, but I was thoroughly intimidated by writing outside the structure of school or work. Give me a topic, a page limit, and a font size and I would dive right in, but I didn’t know how to get started with a blank page and no parameters. It seemed there was some magic writers knew that I wasn’t privy to, so I hadn’t written much of anything outside my journals. I thought of myself as a reader, not a writer.
Then I found myself at a point about 18 months after my mom died, six months after my husband’s most recent health crisis, and right smack in the middle of our then-12 year-old daughter’s descent into depression and anxiety. Seeking a creative outlet at that time was probably a subconscious survival instinct, possibly because I had witnessed how healing writing had been for my mom in the last several years of her life. Still, I wasn’t looking for a writing retreat and had never been to Montana, when Laura’s announcement showed up in my Facebook newsfeed. It was outside my comfort zone and scared me in that way that let me know I was at a possible turning point in my life. I could take the invitation for growth and change, or I could continue to hang out in the status quo.
My main goal for the first retreat was to just start writing. I’d been doing the not-writing thing for so long, and it wasn’t serving me. Over the first couple days I struggled to get in touch with my truth on the page. I didn’t know how to write about what really mattered to me, and I wondered whether I truly belonged there. After a few ugly moments one evening in the privacy of my room, I got over myself, tuned in to the talent and vulnerability unfolding in others around me, and started to get comfortable writing and sharing my words. I inhaled as much wisdom and courage from my surroundings and new friends as possible, and brought home a nugget of a writing practice.
Tracey: We both had such a positive experience at Haven, we decided to go a second time. You made some big decisions regarding your personal and professional life around the time of that second retreat. Can you tell us a bit about what you had been doing, what you decided to do and why?
Jessica: For six years I had been teaching at the Center for Patient Partnerships at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. As faculty in this experience-based clinical program, I supervised professional and graduate students who provided health advocacy to patients with life-threatening or serious illness. The advocacy included assistance with a range of issues including understanding a diagnosis, exploring treatment options, medical decision-making, healthcare access and coverage, employment issues, and more. I was drawn to this work because of my own involvement in clinical programs during law school, and my many experiences navigating the healthcare system with family members.
After my first trip to Montana, life continued to serve up twists and turns—especially in the parenting realm. I didn’t so much nurture my writing practice as use it to document unfolding events. It was my sacred coping strategy. Our daughter was incredibly private so I had to balance her wishes with my need for support. Writing gave me a place to be honest about what was going on without violating her privacy. Putting words to our experiences also provided some relief and helped me better understand myself.
By the fall of 2014, things were settling down. Most importantly, our daughter was on the recovery path and flourishing in her first year of high school. I had written my way through intense grief, deep fear, and unfamiliar territory. Now I was ready to reflect on what had spilled out on the page, and take another step toward integrating writing into my daily life. A second Haven retreat beckoned. This time I felt completely open from the beginning. I was finding my voice on the page and it was transformational. My spirit buzzed in that way that confirms you are exactly where you’re supposed to be.
Near the end of that retreat I had a moment of total clarity. During a group discussion one woman shared a simple but powerful question she’d been asked: What is life giving, and what will deplete you? I felt my answer immediately. Writing is life giving, and continuing my current work will deplete me.
See, I had recently discovered a book proposal my mom wrote while she navigated her third and final journey with cancer. She had a draft of a memoir and some amazing spiritual writings she wanted to share with others, but got too sick before she could take the next step. Discovering this artifact of my mom’s aborted writing life felt like a message directly from her telling me not to wait for my own daughter to someday find the proposal for my unfinished book.
With the support of my husband and our daughter, I came home and immediately gave notice at work that I’d be leaving at the end of the semester. Instead of fitting it in around everything else, I needed to make writing my priority. I had no idea what that would look like, but I knew it was the right decision with every fiber of my being.
Tracey: Can you give us a couple of examples of what you might consider the “easy” part of moving into a more creative daily life and also of the “not so easy” part?
Jessica: I knew my biggest challenge in moving into a more creative life would be to establish good work habits for myself from the beginning. I was desperate to be free from externally imposed constraints so I could see where the writing would take me, but I would still need to create some structure for myself. Otherwise, I was at risk of finding myself in pjs with un-brushed teeth at 4 p.m. My last day at my former job was on a Friday, and at 9 o’clock the following Monday morning I sat down at my new writing space and got to work. In those early weeks and months, I made sure I did all the things we typically do when we’re going to work in a more traditional job—I set my alarm, showered, got dressed, had breakfast, and made coffee. It felt like an important foundation for myself.
Some of the easier aspects of moving into a more creative daily life are the flexibility and freedom. What I work on and where I work each day are up to me, which is such a radical change. I listen to whatever work is calling me at the moment, so I might pick up where I left off writing the day before, or I may switch gears and do some research. If my work is feeling stagnant, I pull out some art supplies and mess around a bit to shake things up. I often work at my desk at home, but sometimes I need the company of strangers at a coffee shop, or to simply bring my laptop outside and sit on the front porch.
One of the not-so-easy aspects of moving into a more creative daily life is the potential for isolation. I enjoy—and probably even require—more downtime and solitude than the average person. On the other hand, not having the built-in human contact that comes with most jobs can be a challenge, so I have to be intentional about regularly scheduling time to see friends and family. Thankfully we have two sweet dogs that keep me company when I work from home.
Another thing I’ve noticed is that when you’re working so independently you need to find different ways of measuring your progress and performance. I was accustomed to feedback from colleagues and students, which helped me improve my teaching style and curriculum. Without that kind of input, it’s hard to have perspective on whether something I’m working on is any good or to gauge whether I’m making reasonable progress. I think we need to find or create communities to support each other in these ways—to be sounding boards, to provide feedback, to challenge, and to affirm.
Tracey: You are working on a book. Can you tell us a little bit about it?
Jessica: As a reader, I am drawn to memoirs, personal essays, and other creative nonfiction. I look for tales of resilience, of redemption. I seek stories of deep pain, of struggle, and of hope rising. I want to know how other people survive the things I think I couldn’t endure—and as a writer, I want to tell other people how I’ve done the same. It’s one of my favorite things we humans do for each other.
At this point, I’m primarily working within my own story as a mother and a daughter. I’m exploring the relationships between my mom, her mom, my daughter, and myself, and the recurring themes of love, loss, resilience, and abiding with one another. I’m fascinated with what we will do to try to keep our loved ones safe, and how we find ways to take care of ourselves amidst challenges and loss.
This project is probably a memoir, but it may also evolve into something else—maybe a collection of personal essays, a book about my mom and her experiences with cancer, and/or something co-written with my now-teenage daughter in which we share our journey together. My focus is on the memoir angle right now, but I am staying open as this continues to unfold.
In addition to my own writings and those of my mom, I also have dozens of letters by my grandma. Her correspondence home to their family in Wisconsin documents the summer of 1955 when, at age seven, my mom was diagnosed with bi-lateral retinoblastoma. In the third trimester of a pregnancy with her fifth child, my grandma took my mom to New York City where she received a prosthetic eye on the side where she had already lost vision, along with experimental treatment that saved the vision in her other eye, and ultimately her life. I came across the letters shortly after deciding to leave my job, so they feel like a gift to me and to my writing life. As I’ve been reflecting on my own experiences as a mother and a daughter, it’s been fascinating to find my grandma’s firsthand account of the lengths she went to as a mom to take care of her own sick kid.
Tracey: Here’s the biggie. Can you describe for us a little bit about how your writing life and creativity in general are helping you to heal?
Jessica: Since making this professional transition, many of my days have a sense of spaciousness of time and of mind, which in itself is quite healing for me. It’s so easy to fall into the trap of busyness, focused on planning ahead and rushing to the next thing. I’ve done that to varying extents for years, but it’s not a healthy or sustainable way for me to live. I’m drawn to a slower pace and a more contemplative life, which can be challenging to cultivate in our society.
Working on this memoir project is providing me the space to examine the experiences of the women in my family in detail, to turn them over and explore them from all angles. This allows me to make sense of things that have happened with the perspective of time, and that’s been priceless in healing. Writing my way through the end of my mom’s life and my daughter’s struggle with mental health issues was therapeutic at the time, but there’s been a second level of healing that’s come with revisiting those words and spending time with the stories. In some ways, I feel as though I am crafting a new story, not in the sense of revisionist history, but in the way we do when we are on the other side of an experience with the knowledge that we’ll make it through, even when things didn’t go the way we’d expected or hoped.
After writing my response above, I came across something by Julia Cameron that for me succinctly speaks to your thought-provoking question, Tracey: “Making art is a way not only to metabolize life but to alchemize life as well.”
Tracey: In The Gifts of Imperfection, Brené Brown describes comparison as the “stifling combination of fitting in and being better than.” She goes on to describe creativity this way, “Creativity, which is the expression of our originality, helps us stay mindful that what we bring to the work is completely original and cannot be compared.” Can you talk about how your writing has helped you let go of comparisons?
Jessica: I’m pretty sure I haven’t completely let go of those comparisons, but I think the cycle of ‘read, write, share, repeat’ is helping me release a lot of the unhealthy stuff. Even when I’m intimidated by excellent writing, ultimately I am even more inspired by it. I’ve read so many memoirs about mothers and daughters dealing with illness, death, and other forms of loss. I have my moments of wondering what I could possibly add to what’s already out there—especially after reading authors like Abigail Thomas and Terry Tempest Williams. And yet, I know our story is unique. The more I read, the more I realize no one else had the exact mother I had, and nobody else is mother to this singular 15 year-old girl I have the pleasure of parenting.
For me, being part of writing communities and sharing what I write—whether it’s with other writers, or my friends and family—is another key part of letting go in the way you’re talking about. Sharing my writing used to be so hard for me, and still is at times, but my first Haven retreat gave me the nerve to just keep doing it. For so long I was creatively paralyzed by a fear of criticism, but now when opportunities to write and share come across my path, I’m taking them—and the scarier, the better. I recently participated in a workshop on spoken word poetry. This isn’t my genre and I didn’t know anybody at the event, but I brought my notebook and pen and joined a small group of people who were willing to search and be vulnerable together. Our voices and stories were so diverse, and we found common ground through listening to each other and baring our souls among strangers. It was terrifying and liberating.
Tracey: How does this healing effect/letting go of comparisons ripple out to your wider life in general?
Jessica: Being able to live with a creative focus is allowing me to discover who I am when I strip away a lot of the external dictates of daily life. I’m letting go of many of the labels and definitions I wore as armor and am exploring what’s underneath all that. I’m taking the time to be present to my own experiences in a deeper way than ever before. It turns out I like myself and genuinely enjoy my own company—what a revelation at age 45! Being happier with myself and my day-to-day life can’t help but lead to healing and to releasing my grip on wanting anything other than what I have right here and now.