Unleashing your Creative Beast: Three Tools for Cultivating a Creative Mindset

Picture 5

Alfred Hitchcock said, “Ideas come from everywhere.” So why is it that when we are most in need of a great idea, they are suddenly nowhere to be found?

I have heard a few times the lamenting of people who share a love for art and design, but just don’t think it is for them because they don’t fancy themselves as the creative type. Whether or not you want to be an artist, we all could use a little more creativity. Who wouldn’t like to pull out a creative idea on demand during an important meeting or avoid procrastinating on a project right up to the 11th hour?

creative beast in berlinThere is one generally acknowledged truth about creativity: that it cannot be rushed. It is a widely prescribed notion that ideas come to us, and that somehow implies that we can just sit around and wait for them. But nothing is really that easy. If you want ideas to come to you, then you must do some of the legwork.  Here are three things that you can do to become an idea magnet.

These three things are the ideas behind the three basic tools of creative practice introduced by Julia Cameron in her series, The Complete Artist’s Way: Creativity as a Spiritual Practice (1992).

1. Make space

Tool #1: Morning Pages

Cameron advises that you spend about a half hour every morning writing three pages stream-of consciousness in order to clear your mind of clutter and let go of stresses in order to allow yourself to focus on the important things through out the day. I find a suitable alternative to this tool is the humble to-do list. I sometimes write several of these a day as circumstances and priorities change. By getting everything down on paper, I no longer need to concentrate on retaining all of those little details or things for later, so I am better able to concentrate on the task at hand and I am less distracted.

2.  Explore

Tool #2: The Artist’s Date

Cameron says, “the artist who forgets how to play soon enough forgets how tocreative beast in berlin work”. She is referring to the play of imagination that is essential for creative thought to take place. In order to nurture this state of play, she suggests setting a weekly solo date with yourself to “explore something festive or interesting in your imagination”. She gives the example of visiting a toy store and treating yourself to some of the fun trinkets, like playing with Lego.  I believe the same benefits can be had by trying anything new and out of the ordinary, either solo or with a small group. This could be something as simple as playing a new game or something bold like visiting a new city. Continued exploration forces your mind to make new connections and sets the stage for new ideas.

3. Walk it off

Tool #3: Weekly Walks

“Walk on it” is Cameron’s advice for any problem that troubles the mind. Often when we have a problem we turn to brainstorming, with the belief that, “the head is the source of all wisdom.” We overlook the fact that clearing the mind is often just as effective a problem solving technique as brainstorming.  As part of her teaching, she assigns a minimum of one 20 minute walk per week, citing, “Native Americans pursue vision quests, Aborigines do walkabout. Both of these cultures know that walking clears the head…You will find that these walks focus your thinking and instigate your breakthroughs.”

The next time you need to unleash your creative beast, try these techniques. Or better yet, start now and be prepared for the ideas to start coming to you.

From West Coast to Country Western

The country western culture is foreign to me and there is no better introduction to a new culture than total immersion. At least that’s my favourite strategy. I was of the “anything but country” variety for many years before I started dating a born and raised Calgarian. This year will be the 100th anniversary of the Calgary Stampede so it seemed like the ultimate introduction to this integral part of his upbringing.

When I imagine the Stampede, the picture in my head is a toss up between a lawless, raucous street festival and an urbane city fair with partners swinging partners doe-see-doe.  Of all the stories I’ve ever heard about the Calgary Stampede, I have heard very few adjectives used to describe it.  Usually people tend to stop short at “It’s just so –“ or  “You’ve just gotta – “.  These types of descriptions, while leaving plenty of room for my imagination to run wild or “stampede” with visions of what to expect, may or may not be preparing me for what to actually expect on my summer vacation next week. From the information I have managed to gather, there are a couple aspects of the Stampede that seem to be especially community building in nature.


I am so looking forward to the prospect of an entire city taking part in a weeklong theme party.  I am a costume party enthusiast to say the least. It’s hard to imagine all of Vancouver getting dressed up in any one costume besides Canucks team wear but I do like to imagine everyone dressing up as fishermen for a week while for the most part going about their daily routine. Or if during the Olympics, instead of just wearing red mittens, we had all dressed up like the ancient Greeks. I have also heard tell of a special Super Hero Day in the Brazilian Mardi Gras celebrations when everyone dresses up as super heroes. From what I gather, it’s the nostalgic feeling of dressing up that really makes the Stampede more than an urbane city fair and more of community cornerstone.

FREE PANCAKE BREAKFASTS! Get everyone together and give them free pancakes. The genius of this simple idea should not be understated. I have written before about the strong power of a shared meal. People are much friendlier when they have full bellies and even more friendly when they have recently been the given something for free. Friendly people are catalysts for community building. Perhaps the way I phrased it the first time should be corrected. The real idea here is, “if you feed them, they will come”. Notably, this concept was a smash hit over the Canada Day long weekend in Vancouver with the first ever Food Cart Festival drawing in huge crowds and selling out their street eats.

Of all the adjective-less descriptions of the Stampede that I’ve heard, there has been a consistent excitement present in all of them. That excitement is undeniably contagious. I have my best outlaw gear at the ready and I’m raring to go to my first rodeo.

Here We Go A Waffling

waf·fle 1 (wfl)n.A light crisp battercake baked in a waffle iron.
waf·fle 2  (wfl) Informalv. waf·fled, waf·fling, waf·flesv.tr. - To speak, write, or act evasively about.

Something strange happens as you walk along Robson St approaching Denman in downtown Vancouver. It may take a moment to detect the conspicuous absence, but as you walk past the McDonalds on the corner of Robson and Bidwell, the smell that overtakes your senses is not that familiar greasy fry.  By some miracle, the tiny Nero Belgian Waffle Bar located next door has eclipsed that ubiquitous aroma with the sweet sugary scent of their delightful delicacies.  And if the smell alone isn’t enough to lure you inside the small but very pleasant interior, the friendly Belgian owners and their incredible talent for making their most famous national dish should convince you.

The first time we stumbled upon this I myself was not convinced. I didn’t even order a waffle. You see, I don’t consider myself a waffle lover by any stretch. In days gone by, I would have voted pancake every time – hands down. But I have been converted and I have now visited Nero for breakfast every weekend for the past three weeks. I have tried the Savoury Brussels waffle with Bocconcini, cherry tomatoes, cucumber salsa, olive oil and lemon zest, the Parisienne waffle with brie cheese, walnuts, honey, and added strawberries, the sweet and chewy Liege with Belgian chocolate, and the light and crispy Brussels waffle with ice cream and strawberries.

I quickly put aside the notion that this is something I could create myself by procuring a waffle iron of my own. These guys do it so well, that I am happy to return again and again rather than try in vain to recreate the perfection they seem to achieve unfailingly. And as an added bonus, the espresso and atmosphere make it a great choice for a coffee stop! There’s nothing to waffle about here! I will bring everyone I can to this cozy little wooden sided secret spot. I’m even inviting you right now!

Visit Nero at 1703 Robson Street, Vancouver, BC.

Masthead photo courtesy of digiyesica’s photostream on Flickr

A Hunch about Lunch

One of the most important communities in daily life is the work community. What do I look for in a workplace community? Well, there are a few key factors, but the latest to be added to my wish list is ‘a place where people eat lunch”.

Sharing a meal is one of the most powerful ways to build community and being “a place where people eat lunch” can benefit a workplace both culturally and in terms of productivity. Unfortunately, I have been noticing a major absence of shared meals in my working life and have heard this same thing echoed among many of my peers. I’m starting to think I’m going to have to move to Europe to locate this appreciation for the mid-day meal.

North American Culture prides itself on hard work and ambition. Michael Pollan, in his book, In Defense of Food; An Eater’s Manifesto, suggests that as an effect of this ideology, North American’s view food as merely utilitarian fuel rather than something to be enjoyed for it’s own sake. He brings up several examples of the stark difference between North American attitudes to food as compared to European attitudes the most striking example given is a comparison where American and French people are shown a picture of a piece of chocolate cake and asked what word it brings to mind. The most common American reaction is “guilt” while the most common French reaction is “celebration”!

Perhaps it can be chalked up to the fact that I was raised with a European attitude towards food, but I do not believe that eating a protein bar at my desk can be classified as lunch. Nor do I believe that it can have any long-term benefits to my employer or my career. I can see some very real and lasting benefits however, in taking a ½ hour to share a meal with my co-workers.

Sharing a meal is the fastest way to establish shared experiences, which are the building blocks of community. With strong community comes creativity because two heads really are better than one (and all heads are significantly more powerful when they receive more than just caffeine as a stimulus).  Creativity can invigorate a workplace and make its entire workforce more productive and motivated in all of their working hours.

Each of these outcomes produces more powerful benefits than that extra ½ hour in front of the computer and these are just a few of the benefits to be had when you turn your work place into a place where people eat lunch. If you aren’t lucky enough to work in one of these places already, why don’t you try something new for lunch today?

The Vancouver Cherry Blossom Festival is in Full Bloom!

Images by Allison Blake

I first learned about the Japanese tradition of Cherry Blossom festivals, or Hanami, during an undergraduate course in the philosophy of aesthetics. I heard about how everyone would take time out from their busy schedules to sit under the trees and immerse themselves in the beauty of the pink blossoms. We discussed how the beauty of the blossoms has as much to do with their fleeting presence as to do with their exquisite appearance. This awareness of the transience of the blossoms themselves and the happiness we derive from their splendor is described in the Japanese aesthetic term “Mono no aware” or “an empathy toward things”. This is an enduring concept in Japanese cultural and aesthetic traditions.

I have always looked forward to and admired the Cherry Blossom season, which is particularly rich in Vancouver thanks to many trees received as gifts from Japan. My parents have a cherry blossom tree that for years served as an exceptional climbing tree and a fortress of sorts. I remember climbing it while it was in bloom, and how I could be completely concealed within the cloud of soft blossoms. Now, every year the first budding cherry trees fill me with anticipation for when warmer, sunnier days will slowly but steadily start to beat back the gray damp walks to and from the Skytrain on my daily commute. I know that the cherry trees will only bloom for a short time, and by the time they are gone, I will be enjoying the warmth of the sun on my skin once again!

Until I learned about the Japanese traditions surrounding this season, I had never really considered how brief a time we really have to enjoy these particularly pretty trees in the span of a year. Learning more about the aesthetic and philosophical traditions surrounding the trees deepened my appreciation of these natural art forms. I can’t help but consider how their slow emergence, or sometimes sudden appearance, transform a familiar landscape much the same way a piece of public art can change the experience of a familiar place.

The fluffy blossoms spanning every shade between fuchsia and white are even more moving when grouped together. There are countless streets lined with the blossoms and the VCBF website has 900 suggestions of places to visit and walks to take to appreciate the blossoms in all their glory. They even include updates of when a particularly popular area is no longer in bloom so that you don’t end up disappointed.

My particular favourite  spot is one I visit 5 times a week, twice a day. The entrance to Burrard Sky Train station is a tiered garden lined with rows of cherry blossoms and Magnolias. On nice days, the sun shines through the blossoms illuminating them like a forest of lights! As the buds continue to multiply, so do the number of people who stop to take photos, or simply to sit beneath them and bask in their magnificence for a while. I highly suggest you do the same. It is simply breathtaking. It is one of the best art shows of the year.

Why Not to Hate Valentines Day

Valentines Day is equally as loathed as it is loved. There are movies about people who hate Valentines Day and parties for people who hate Valentines Day. People will tell you things like, Valentines Day is just another consumer cash grab or that Valentines Day is only for people who are in disgusting love or that it sucks to be single on Valentines Day.

These people are all wrong. Unless you are entirely alone and lonely, meaning you have no friends and will see no humans or even dogs on Valentines Day (in which case I am very sorry for you and I wish someone would just find you in your hole and give you a cookie and lick your face) then there is no good reason to hate this day of chocolates and flowers when the colours red and pink are happiest together.


  1. You will get a treat. Kids like Valentines day because it means chocolate! That stands no matter how old or alone you may be. People carry around chocolates and cookies and candies and it’s almost a given that you will get your hands on at least one of them at some point during the day.
  2. It is an opportunity to tell your friends and family that you think they are awesome.  It is a fallacy that you need a hot date to have a Valentine. Mom’s make great Valentines too.
  3. Saying the word happy over and over has good effects psychologically.
  4. You don’t need to buy any presents but you can if you want.  Home made presents like brownies and pop-up cards are equally as awesome as boxes of chocolates and store bought valentines with pictures of trains saying things like “I choo-choo-choose you”.
  5. It is the punniest holiday of all. See train quote above.
  6. If for some reason this day does make you feel sad, you at least have a good excuse to treat yourself!

    My Punny Valentine

Some Ideas for Making Valentines.

How to make a pop-up card:

Take a piece of  paper. Fold it in half.

Take another piece of paper. Fold it in half. While it is folded, cut a few straight lines about an inch long at the fold. Open up the paper to 90 degrees. Push the little cut bits out so they fold the opposite direction. Glue the cut paper inside the other folded paper with the cut bits ‘popping out’.


Fold another piece of paper in half. Cut a fish-hook shape beginning and ending the cut on the folded edge. Unfold to make a heart shape, or cut out whatever other shape you like. My favorite pop up card had a Snakes on a Plane theme.


Glue this shape onto the “popping out” bits on the inside of the card. This will make the shape pop out from the rest of the card in 3D!


Voila!  Add your own super cheesy message and pass it on to see the look of joy on another persons face.

Happy Valentines Day.

Masthead photo courtesy of @damoward


I Said ‘Macbeth’ at the Theatre and Disaster Struck

I went to see the Vancouver Playhouse’s production of Red, a play about Mark Rothko at the height of his fame. This is not a review of that play. This is a story. There is a full review of the play in the Georgia Straight in case that disappoints you.

Mark Rothko via http://victoriatopping.blogspot.com/2011/04/rothko-moment.html












As far as communities go, the theatre community is a superstitious bunch. The most well known display of this trait is the taboo of saying good luck to a performer before a show. They would rather be told to break a leg. This one I know but, somehow, after 3 years of living with a theatre major and the daughter of an actor, I failed to learn or at least failed to retain any knowledge of another famous theatre taboo; the “Scottish Curse”. As I read out the stage credits of the lead actor, I learned my lesson. Among his credits was a stint in Macbeth.

In my own defense, if this curse is such a big deal actors should not be able to list the play among their credits. As far as I am concerned, that is just asking for trouble. Doesn’t everyone read the program aloud to their friends?

A little Googling after the fact has since taught that the antidote is a quote from Macbeth for someone to say, “‘Angels and ministers of grace defend us.’ Then the offender must leave the house, turn around widdershins (counterclockwise) three times, swear and knock to be readmitted.”

My companion looked at me aghast but did not call for any angels or ministers. I didn’t turn widdershins even once. So, naturally, disaster befell the production.




A gigantic screen that was used as a vehicle to change between scenes fell off it’s runners and the play had to be halted while four people tried to coerce the sail back into it’s tiny crevasse without dropping it onto the rapt audience in the process.


This could be chalked up to going to see the first preview of a show, but I did say the word and then…could it really be coincidence?


I overheard someone behind me say that it rid the theatre of its magic and mystery when things went wrong with the set. I don’t know that that was a negative thing for me. Particularly, since it was a play about the visual arts and the very next scene contained a reference to the adverse effects of bringing up the lights on a stage set. The line was apt but inaccurate. The lights up, behind the scenes moment gave the production a more physical presence. It gave more importance to the stage and set than the magic of a performance without a hitch would have allowed it to have otherwise.


Perhaps I will use this weapon strategy again the next time I attend the theatre. Watch out!

Handel’s Messiah at the Orpheum

Composed in 1742, Handel’s Messiah has become a cultural fixture of the Christmas season. When I heard that some of my family planned to see the Vancouver Chamber Choir & Symphony Orchestra’s performance of it I recognized the name but didn’t know exactly what it was. I knew it was a classic that I wanted to experience for myself so I jumped at the chance to do so.


Image: Tourism Vancouver, Orpheum Theatre

The performance was at the Orpheum Theatre on Granville Street. This was my first time inside the Orpheum so I just need to briefly gush about the iconic building. The red and gold fixtures and the mural on the vaulted ceiling make it difficult to imagine this was ever a movie theatre, but the old photos on the walls are both proof and nostalgic reminders for visitors like my Mom, who remembers seeing movies there when she was young.


The baroque epic is composed of bouncing vocal rounds interspersed with soloists reciting what are almost comically repetitive choruses. You get the sense that they really want to make sure you now what they are talking about. Except for the soprano who sang in a pitch so high that what she sang couldn’t compete with how she sang it. Handel’s own habit of customizing the lyrics for each performance has become a part of the living tradition. While a live musical performance is always unique, it is not always intentionally so. I love the idea of a composition that was written over 250 years ago with the intention of performing it differently for each occasion. It makes the occasion more exciting for the audience, and the performers.


Handel was super rich. He still ranks in the top 5 richest classical composers. Messiah is just part of what made him so plentiful of resources. Handel is credited as being the first to write English language oratorios. An oratorio is a sort of no frills no gimmicks opera that cut out all the typical expenses that made Operas so unprofitable, such as costumes, sets, and star performers.  Mostly unknown performers on a simple stage created a vocal symphony so compelling that record-breaking audiences have attended since the first performance.


The ease and low cost of staging the show combined with the incredible popularity with audiences made Messiah the most profitable performance of it’s time and it remains one of the most performed pieces in the world to this day. This was a great opportunity to get out and enjoy one of the city’s best venues and one of the world’s most popular pieces of music and, to top it off, the tickets were only about $30. Halleluia!

An Appropriated Diet for a Full Life

My Dad’s favourite book of the year is Tim Ferriss’, The 4-Hour Body. At his insistence I had to check out the website where I found a bonus chapter, written by Dr. Seth Roberts, that really sent my mind on a tangent. I’ll explain it from the beginning…

“Louise and Brody build the Eiffel tower” by Gedidiah McCaughey

Dr. Roberts is a professor of psychology and a member of the editorial board of the journal, Nutrition. His work has appeared in the New York Times Magazine and The Scientist. He’s legit. The theory that captured my imagination is the basis for what he calls The Shangri-La Diet and springs from Pavlov’s psychological framework of associative learning. The idea is that our brains are hard wired from the days of hunting and gathering to stock up on calories when they detect that there is an abundance of good food.  The brain detects that abundance when it registers familiar flavours or smells. The first time we taste something, our brain has not yet made the connection between the associated flavours and the calories that are derived from their consumption. Because no association exists yet, the impulse to stock up on calories is not triggered and we feel satisfied with less. The next time we have that same thing, we subconsciously remember we like it and want more! Essentially, flavours are addictive and make us crave progressively more and more in order to feel that same initial feeling of satisfaction that a new taste experience elicits. The stronger the smell or flavour, the stronger this effect is. This is the same theory that industrial food brands capitalize on by striving to make their products taste identical each time and therefore making us crave their products at the first familiar whiff of grease or sugar.

This theory about appetite seems to me to be a very apt analogy for many human conditions. Particularly, it seems to me that our experience of time is affected very similarly. It is well recognized that as we grow older time seems to speed up. In the beginning of our lives when everything is unfamiliar and new, a few days can seem like an eternity. As we grow older and more familiar with what it is to experience the passage of time and as our daily experiences become well-worn routine, the months seem to fly by before we have the chance to even flip the calendar page and satisfaction doesn’t come as easily. The weekends seem to get shorter and shorter, and vacations are never long enough. We crave more and more time for the things that really nourish our lives but we are restricted to our standard time tables and schedules.

In this context it is logical that humans strive to perpetuate the feeling of satisfaction that a first experience produces.  Drugs have been used throughout history as a tool to do this. The desired effect being to alter human perceptions, arguably in order to experience the familiar in a new way and ultimately recreate the initial satisfaction of what was once new and novel.

Another tool we can use to break us out of the monotony of our daily experiences and alter our perceptions of the world is art. Consider how a new song can make a routine commute seem fresh again, or an unexpected piece of public art can transform a familiar city or landscape. Art has the power to make us reassess our surroundings and experience them like new again. It can also be the stimulus that makes us reassess our assumptions and see the familiar in a new light. This is why art is such an essential part of a full life experience. It alters and enriches daily experiences and offers an alternative to monotony. In a Big Mac world Art provides the nourishment that makes your life feel fuller longer.

So, there you have it. That is one insightful diet book. Thanks Dad!


Fresh Turkey: Breaking Thanksgiving Tradition

Thanksgiving traditions are treasured. Thinking back though, I realize that it has been a very long time since I had a traditional Thanksgiving. Hearing people discuss their plans for the upcoming weekend of feasts had me feeling a bit dejected for the past few weeks. If you share this circumstance or have occasionally caught your lower lip jutting out towards self-pity in recent days, take heart. I am here to tell you that missing out on all the usual trimmings really isn’t the same thing as missing out on all the fun.

The Gumboot proclaimed winner of the ‘war of the holidays’ earns its crown for many reasons. Many of those things that make Thanksgiving so favored are conspicuously absent from what has become my atypical Thanksgiving.  If upholding tradition is an option, it is still probably the best option but, if not, there is still hope for your Thanksgiving weekend to be full of all the warmth and happiness it’s meant to bring.

Coming from a large matriarchal family, my Italian grandmother and her many daughters (my mom and aunts) have always been counted on to orchestrate incredible feats of holiday gatherings where food and family take center stage. Thanksgiving, however, has become the exception to this rule since the year my family elders decided they would rather roast themselves in the Palm Springs sun than roast turkeys to feed 40 people.

Since the first abandonment occurred, I have been launched from my cozy continuum of consumption and into an experiment of creating my own holiday rules. Each year a new occasion has been invented or discovered. One year was an Oregon art gallery where many new friends were eagerly introduced to the Canadian version of a holiday they also love. Another year was a potluck pool party with all the fixins. Another was simply a long table in a tiny apartment packed with close friends. Whether they were spent with old friends or new, these deviations from the thanksgiving norm that I grew up with have been filled with good company, delicious food, and the thrill of breaking free from the norm and creating something new.

The emptiness left by a tradition lost can seem much more difficult to fill than that of a hungry belly. But losing one isn’t always an occasion to grieve. It can also be an opportunity to create new experiences that will stand out from the repetition of other holidays and to create something truly memorable and soul filling. The hunt is on for this year’s adventure. I’m still not sure what it will be, but I am certain that I will find a sense of community, if not a sense of tradition, wherever I wind up.