• tarahthornburg

The Ultimate Creative Lesson: Stop Trying to Control Everything

The Fearless Creative Small

The Fearless Creative podcastIf you’d rather read instead of listen, I’ve included the abridged transcript below. 

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Welcome, welcome, welcome to the show. Today is Sunday as I record this episode. I have had a very calm and rejuvenating weekend, which is wonderful because I know I have a big week ahead of me…

I took an early afternoon on Friday to go up to the land and see the progress on our house. I got to spend most of Saturday with my husband, and I took the dogs to Red Rocks this morning so they would be nice and quiet and exhausted while I recorded this episode.

I am very excited to announce that we have new listeners in Botswana and Singapore. We now have listeners in 15 different countries…But the top city for listeners continues to be Columbia, Missouri. I have to laugh because I know my mother-in-law Frances is responsible for probably about half of our listenership. I think she is the podcast’s number one fan. 

This week I want to talk about a theme I’ve been moving through the last few weeks…and it may be kind of an unpopular one. Or it may be one that people really like. I’m not sure. I’m going to explain how this lesson has been presenting itself in my life over the last few weeks and share some things that I am doing to support myself and my creativity during this time.

But first it’s time for this week’s Discovery segment. This is the part of the show where I talk about a book or a podcast or a TV show that I’ve found helpful or interesting. And this week I wanted to mention a book by Deepak Chopra. It’s called “The Book of Secrets: Unlocking the Hidden Dimensions of Your Life.” And I’ve been reading a lot of Deepak Chopra this year and listening to his audiobooks, but I particularly loved this one. I actually put it down a few weeks ago and just picked it back up this week, and I have been really flying through it. 

In the book, he tackles a lot of life’s big questions about life and death, our relationship with the Universe, love, happiness…All that stuff. But one thing I really appreciate about Deepak Chopra is that he is a physician and a scientist, but he’s also spiritual. So he approaches each concept through the lens of quantum physics, biology, and several different world religions. So I would highly recommend “The Book of Secrets.”

Let’s go ahead and get into today’s topic. But before we really dive in, I want to take a moment to acknowledge that this lesson might seem like it runs counter to some of the things we talk about a lot on this podcast. It’s not actually contradictory advice, but it might seem that way on the surface.

Between the podcast and the blog and coaching, I feel like I’ve given the same advice so many times…And almost always my advice to writers and creatives is to set concrete goals and create a system that will help them follow through on those goals…Basically to set themselves up for success by creating a very regimented system, a very regimented schedule, that will allow them to regain some control over their time and use that time to make strides toward their goal.

And this is how I would typically approach any problem — creative or otherwise. You identify the steps you need to take to get yourself from point A to point B, and you tackle one step at a time. This is how I built my business. This is how I earn my livelihood — I write books. I literally create something from nothing. And the beauty in that is that I get to control everything. I come up with the initial idea, I execute that idea, and I get to shape the entire process of publication and promotion.

I am the type of person who always thinks that I can eat an elephant…if I just do it one bite at a time. Anytime there is a problem, my response is always “Okay, let’s make a plan to fix this.” It’s kind of a masculine way of being.

If you ever read that book “Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus,” you’ll remember that one of the core ideas is that women stereotypically get annoyed with men because they just want men to listen to their problems; whereas men always want to fix things. This is not me…I am always trying to fix things. If it can be put into a pro-con list or organized into an Excel spreadsheet, I immediately feel calmer. 

But there have been a few times in my life where a systematic approach doesn’t work, and the more I try to problem-solve my way out of something, the more out of control a situation seems to become. And as someone who enjoys predictability and control and as someone who is a good problem-solver, nothing throws me into a tailspin faster than when things seem completely out of my control. In other words, when life feels like complete chaos. 

And lately, I have felt very much like I am standing in the eye of the hurricane. My husband is up at the job site every day building our house. We’re trying to get it under roof this week, which means we need to get the plumber and the HVAC guys out there. So I’m fielding phone calls and scheduling subcontractors and doing things down here, which means all day long I’m getting calls and texts from men who all have very basic four-letter white guy names that I sometimes mix up. Names like Rick, Mike, Paul…I don’t know why I have the hardest time keeping people with basic names straight.

Anyway, I’m doing this as I’ve been fighting my way through finalizing this online course I’ve been working on. And I say “fighting my way through” because the platform I’ve been using to edit the video has been having serious glitches. And anytime I have an issue, I have to contact the support team, which is really terrible. And to make things worse, they are six hours ahead and they’re real chill European types with zero sense of urgency. So the only time I can ever reach them is the morning, and their response is always like “We’ll have our engineering team look into it.” 

All this time, I wanted to be done with the course so I could finish revising my nonfiction book that I’ve been working on literally since January. (That might not sound like a long time to you, but I can usually put out a novel in four months, and this book is half that length and has taken almost twice as long.) Meanwhile, I’m trying to figure out what I’m going to do for the blog and the podcast, and I just felt like I had no creative drive. I was just so mentally worn down by everything that was going on.

Then this last week, I started to get the feeling that I was getting sick. I almost never get sick. Usually, the only time I get sick is when I’m under a lot of stress. I never used to notice this because when I was younger I got sick more frequently. But now I notice it because it happens so seldom, but when I do get sick, it’s really a doozy. Basically, my body just gets fed up and says, “Shut it down.”

And to be honest, I think one thing that was contributing to my getting sick was that I wanted to be happily creating a new book in my little butterfly garden of creative la-la land with nothing else going on, which of course, isn’t how life works. Instead I felt like I was stuck in tech support hell and spending all my spare time reading reviews for dishwashers.

I knew I had to make a major change if I didn’t want to be totally sidelined for several days, so I slowed down. I stopped working out. I tried to take some things off my plate and calm down. And because I was getting nowhere with tech support for the video course, I decided to start revising the nonfiction book like I wanted to. 

And it was wonderful. I felt so much better getting to do something creative that I really wanted to do rather than trying to bulldoze my way through a problem that I really couldn’t fix. I felt like some of my fog of overwhelm started to lift, but this letting go has to happen in stages. It’s very rare that we are able to just completely let go.

But this fully clicked into place for me Thursday morning when Ben had a mini meltdown before he left for work. 

I say mini meltdown because it kind of pales in comparison to my breakdowns. For me, a breakdown usually happens late at night. One thing will set me off and I’ll end up crying hysterically for a few minutes about how overwhelmed I am and then it peters out and I’m fine. For him, he just gets paralyzed and really quiet for a few minutes and tells me that one thing fell out of place and now everything is ruined. And this happened because he hadn’t ordered some cedar fascia that he needed to finish the front porch, which he needed to finish for the framing inspection so that we could get a roof on the house so we could go to Missouri for his birthday.

And I was actually really calm and supportive and reasonable for all of this. I’m getting better at being married. And he ended up getting the fascia and moving forward like I knew he would.

But in that moment, I realized that I couldn’t control the outcome. I didn’t know where we could get some 16-foot pieces of cedar. I couldn’t finish the porch for him, and I there would be nothing I could do if the roofers couldn’t reschedule us. And I felt myself let go a little bit more.

What’s sometimes frustrating about life and creativity is that we go into things having a plan, and sometimes life or our project just won’t cooperate. It won’t do what we want it to do. And this can be extremely painful if you are a control freak or if you’re the type of person who always has a plan. People like us hate when there’s an unexpected delay or when we have to rely on someone else whose attitude doesn’t match ours. 

And in these situations, the best thing to do actually feels like the most impossible thing to do. Because our first impulse is to tighten our grip and try to control things even more. But really the best thing to do, if you can, is to let go.

I had to let go a little bit more yesterday. When I woke up on Saturday morning, I wasn’t even out of bed yet and my head just started spinning with everything I felt I had to do. I was making a to-do list in my head, and it really wasn’t working because I had so many things that could have gone on that to-do list — that should have gone on that to-do list — and I didn’t want to do any of them.

And as I laid there in bed getting more and more worked up, I just let go a little more. And I decided the only thing I was going to make myself do was clean the house, because it’s always easier for me to relax when I have a clean house.

From there, I decided to let the day unfold however it wanted to unfold. Ben ended up not going to work on Saturday, so we drove over to the fireplace store and picked out the wood stove that’s going to go in our new house. We ate lunch, came home, and spent the rest of the day relaxing, talking, and watching about six episodes of Stranger Things season 3.

Sometimes this is what we have to do…We have to let the day be what it wants to be. We have to let events unfold the way they have to unfold. 

The best analogy I can give comes from a guy we know named Barry. And Barry runs the venue where Ben and I had our wedding. He’s a landscaper by trade, but that doesn’t really cut it for describing what he does. He’s not the type of landscaper that comes to your house, shoves six hostas in the ground and goes on his way. What he does I can only describe as landscape artistry.

He owns this gorgeous property in the middle of Missouri where he’s created these amazing Japanese gardens and water features. He even has a little water feature in his house with plants and little trees. It’s extraordinary. And when we came to visit the venue for a tour, he said the main lesson he’s learned as a landscaper is that you are better off letting the water show you where it wants to go, rather than trying to force the water to go where you want it to go.

And I think this is definitely true of any creative project. We always start off with an idea of how it should turn out, but part of the process is letting the book or the piece of art show us what it wants to be.

I am a meticulous outliner when I write, but several times I’ve gotten to the end of a book and just known that it has to end differently than I originally wanted it to. Or a character has to do something different than what I wanted her to do because she has taken on her own personality.

This is the beauty of the creative process, and I think most of us can recognize this. So why do we have so much trouble recognizing this about life? Life is really just one big creative project…But the worst/best part for most of us is that it’s collaborative. And if there’s one thing control freaks hate, it’s a group project. 

Any time there are multiple people involved, things get messy. Things take longer. Things don’t go as planned. But, as we know, the person who is always the least happy in a group project is the one who “does all the work.” In other words, the person who tries to control everything. 

That doesn’t mean that we should be passive. The world can’t run if no one is steering the ship. But I think it does mean that we will have a much more enjoyable experience if we can learn how to let go — even just a little bit.

So my motto that I’ve adopted this week is “Everything always works out for me.” And if you think about it, things really do have a way of working themselves out. Sometimes it seems like we stress and stress over finding a solution, and then a solution presents itself or we end up being fine with an imperfect solution.

I’ve also been supporting myself by making sure I go to bed early and get plenty of sleep. Sleep is often the missing piece of the puzzle whenever we get stressed — especially if our stress makes it hard to get to sleep. But it’s really so important.

I’ve been cutting down on my caffeine because I typically live in a state of constant over-caffeination. I’ve been limiting myself to one cup of coffee in the morning and a glass of ice tea with dinner. If you are an anxious person or you’re under stress or having trouble sleeping, you don’t need to be making things worse by adding in a bunch of stimulants. I’ve gotten into some herbal teas, and I’ve been using some herbs that have a calming effect and herbs that are adaptogens, meaning they help the body better cope with stress.

Finally, I have made the decision to take some things off my plate. One thing that I’m going to be dialing back over the next couple weeks is the blog. I fully plan to return to the blog full steam here when things calm down a bit, but for now I’m probably be going to be posting monthly rather than weekly. Just until some of the house craziness and project craziness dies down and I feel like I have a little more breathing room.

What little free time I do have, I am trying to spend more of that out in the garden. Lately, the only thing that seems to be really effective in calming me down is being out in my yard pulling weeds and fussing over my plants. This year I decided I wanted to have a lawn, which is kind of a big deal in Southern Colorado. To have green grass where it’s so dry and sunny all the time takes a lot of babying, so I’m making time to do that because it’s really healthy and grounding to get outside in the early morning and evening…get some fresh air, get your hands dirty, and support all the life that’s immediately around you.

That’s about all I have for you today…If you are struggling through a creative project right now or just a life project and it’s stressing you out, instead of getting yourself worked up trying to control everything, see if you can let go just a little bit to give yourself a break and see if things kind of naturally work themselves out.

As always, if you enjoyed this episode, please subscribe to the podcast and leave a review. A lot of people have also been telling me they’ve recommended the podcast to friends. I appreciate that so much, and please continue to do so. This helps me grow the podcast, and it helps creative people like you find their home away from home on the Internet.

If you want to get in touch with me, you can follow me on Instagram @writewithtarah or find me on the web at www.writewithtarah.com

I’ll see you next time, and happy creating!

Photo by Paul Gilmore

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