For struggling artists: other tales of woe

Here’s the good thing about struggling as an artist, whether a painter or musician, writer or dancer: you are completely, totally not alone.

I picked up a book about art history recently (title below). A children’s book, because often, this is how I start to learn about something - the simple explanations and plentiful photos and drawings are a much easier entry point than thousands of pages of dense, detailed facts. And I was rather delighted to be reminded of the fact that many “famous” painters were not famous in their own time.

Just for fun, here are a few examples:

Paul Cézanne: He was expected to be a banker, but chose to be an artist against the wishes of his father. So he moved to Paris, devoted himself to his work and… nothing. No one would exhibit his paintings. He kept at it his entire life, painting dramatic landscapes, portraits and still lifes (for which he often used things he found in his own house), but his work was mostly unknown. Most of his life, he thought he was a failure.

Stilleben, Draperie, Krug und Obstschale 1893-1894, Paul Cézanne

Stilleben, Draperie, Krug und Obstschale 1893-1894, Paul Cézanne

Henri Rousseau: Terrible in school, Rousseau eventually worked as a toll collector and taught himself to be an artist in his free time. Today, his paintings are famous - but during his lifetime, his work was rejected. People even joked about his paintings, calling them simple and unreal. He had one solo exhibition during his lifetime without much success.

Surprise!, Henri Rousseau

Surprise!, Henri Rousseau

Vincent Van Gogh: We all know Van Gogh today, but during his lifetime, his artwork was not revered. Or even liked. He painted nearly 2,000 paintings over the course of a decade, but only sold one while he was alive.

Starry Night, Vincent Van Gogh

Starry Night, Vincent Van Gogh

So, if you find yourself in the same boat, working and working on your art, only to feel it goes by unnoticed (or possibly even disliked), take heart. Many others have trod that path ahead of you. And really, it isn’t a bad place to be. After all, you’re still making art - and that’s always a success.

Secret bonus: more than the fame and money, the glowing reviews and fan mail, we all know that the process of creating is always the best part.


Source: A Child’s Introduction to Art: The World’s Greatest Paintings and Sculptures. By Heather Alexander, illustrated by Meredith Hamilton.

All images of paintings from Wikipedia Commons.

Loooow expectations (in writing and life)

We recently took a little family ski trip. And we did it on the cheap.

We chose a resort we could easily drive to (that was always covered by our ski passes) and booked the least expensive motel we could find. Then we packed our bags and set off.

I started to question our decision when we pulled into the motel parking lot, only to be greeted with a “Housekeeper Wanted” sign and a beat-up van with a flat tire.

No, this wasn’t our motel. But you get the idea.

No, this wasn’t our motel. But you get the idea.

But since we went into the trip with very low expectations, we were freed from disappointment, annoyance and frustration. And we were open to something different: gratitude.

We didn’t expect our hotel room to be great, so when we walked into a spacious and clean room with a mountain view (just beyond the highway, that is), we were ecstatic. Even better: there was fantastic Mexican restaurant on one side, and a well-reviewed Chinese restaurant on the other.

Our day on the slopes was cold and windy, but it wasn’t very crowded and we soaked in the views. And when we found our motel’s simple breakfast was actually quite filling, we were even more pleased.

So what’s this have to do with writing? Well, if I sit down at a blank page and expect my words to come out brilliantly (ie, have HIGH expectations), I’m always disappointed. Because for me, that isn’t realistic. My books are born through the slog of writing and rewriting and rewriting and rewriting some more. They’re horribly bad when their in first-draft form. But they can always be made better.

Wait for everything to be perfect and I end up with a grand total of ZERO words written…

Wait for everything to be perfect and I end up with a grand total of ZERO words written…

At the beginning of the process, I have to keep expectations very low. Otherwise, I may stop after the first few pages.

That’s not to say that expectations are bad. But I find in my own life, they can get me off track very easily.

So here’s to opening the door to low expectations, bad writing, and the joy that comes along in the process.

A little skate ski up into the mountains was one of the very real treats of our trip. To keep it real: there were lots of candy bribes and a number of tears involved… but hey, that’s life, right?

A little skate ski up into the mountains was one of the very real treats of our trip. To keep it real: there were lots of candy bribes and a number of tears involved… but hey, that’s life, right?

Skiing the trees (and book writing)

For awhile now, I’ve wanted to hone my tree-skiing skills. But it’s daunting.

Standing at the edge of a stand of the woods, it can feel impossible to find a way in. The trees seem to stack up against each other, no room for a route through.

But it’s pretty in there, among the smooth, slender aspens and wide bushy evergreens. Quiet and still, with pockets of powder that last much longer than on the groomed slopes.

snowy trees - skiing.jpg

So this year, I’ve started to point my skis into the woods and see where they take me.

And I’ve discovered something amazing. Often, as soon as I’m in the woods, the trees open up, spreading out. Letting me find my way through.

It reminds me of book writing.

From the outside - the moment before you’ve actually begun the work - the project can feel impossible. Too big, too unwieldy. A thick woods that you’ll never be able to traverse.

But then, after I spend hours and days, or sometimes weeks and months, whining and distracting myself and otherwise procrastinating (am I the only one who does this?), after the thought of putting the work off feels much worse than sitting down at the desk and staring at a blank page, I finally begin.

And just like slipping into the woods, a path opens up. The words may be halting at first, but eventually they begin to flow. Ideas build and grow. Paragraphs stack up, one after another, until there are pages, chapters… and eventually, a book.

Starting is always the hardest part. And yet, as any artist knows, creative work is full of starts. Over and over, we begin again. Anew. And pray that once we’re inside, we’ll find a way through.

Which somehow, amazingly, we do.

tree skiing.jpg

When vinegar meets slime

Slime has been a mainstay at our house for the past two years. And while I don’t love the sticky mess left behind in bowls and on spoons, I have to admit that the stuff is fascinating.


And, pretty harmless. Because no matter how hard and gunked-up leftover slime gets, I can dissolve it all with vinegar.

Which made me wonder - what exactly is happening when vinegar comes in contact with slime?

First, a quick slime primer. Slime is a weird substance, acting alternately like a liquid or solid depending on the presence or absence of pressure. It’s like quicksand and ketchup - more details here.

That happens because slime is made of glue (a polymer, or long chains of repeating molecules), plus an activator or “cross-linker” like borax. The polymers in the glue and the borate ions (formed when borax dissolves in water) start to link up, stopping those long chains from easily sliding past one another as they had done before.

And then, drumroll……. vinegar enters! Add a decent splash of vinegar, and the whole thing goes liquid.


Vinegar dissolves lots of stuff - remember the old egg-in-vinegar experiment? In that case, the acetic acid in vinegar reacted with the calcium carbonate in the egg shell, producing carbon dioxide gas and turning the shell rubbery.

With slime, vinegar breaks up those cross-linking bonds… and frees whatever the slime was stuck on.

So keep making that slime. Just keep some vinegar nearby.

Resolutions: The Good, the Bad, and Mine

I’m not a fan of resolutions.

Over the years, I’ve made some of the typical resolutions: eat more healthfully, exercise regularly, get better sleep, put down the iPhone/iPad, etc, etc. And they never stick. Ever.

The fireworks go off, the resolutions are written and then the resolutions are promptly ignored.

The fireworks go off, the resolutions are written and then the resolutions are promptly ignored.

My determination lasts long enough to motivate me to make the list. And then, list happily made, I go back to my regular life.

That’s not to say I’m not a pretty motivated person. It’s just that resolutions never help me get there.

But this year, in the spirit of author Claudia Mills (for the record, I LOVE her blog), I’m going to resolve to do something that seems both good for me AND fun.

I’m going to resolve to do a regular Artist Date.

A photo from my last artist date… in November.

A photo from my last artist date… in November.

The Artist Date idea comes from Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way, one of my favorite books about creativity. I credit it - and the Artist’s Way class I took with other artists, who ranged from opera singers and painters, to writers and photographers - with helping me stick with writing books long enough (um, about 10 years) to finally publish one.

An Artist Date is something you do by yourself for fun. It can be short (a ten-minute stop at a clock shop or pet store) or long (an all-day drive into the countryside). It can involve anything, from painting an old wooden table to smelling perfumes at the mall, and from trying out a new restaurant to cross-stitching. It’s playful. You don’t do it for a purpose.

Which is probably why these are so darn hard for me. I like productivity and efficiency… to a fault. And guess what? That doesn’t always (or ever) work when it comes to art.


Getting myself to do an artist’s date is like pulling a tooth. I delay, I hem and haw, I find other more useful things to do.

But when I finally do one, it’s magical. It helps me see the world in a new way. And it’s sneakily useful.

Making any sort of art requires you to dip out of your well of experiences, emotions and images, over and over. To continue making art, you need to fill your well back up again. Which is exactly what Artist Dates do.

So, the Artist Date is not only fun, but very important. And I want to do more this year.

Which leads me to the ‘regular’ part.

Technically, you’re supposed to do an Artist Date every week. But I already know this is too much for me. So, I’m going to try for TWENTY this year. And I’m going to keep a list. (It will probably involve pretty markers and stickers for extra motivation.)

We’ve already plunged well into the new year and, not surprisingly, I haven’t done a single artist date yet.

But that’s okay. There’s still plenty of time. And I’m hopeful that once I start and remember how fun Artist Dates are, this will be one resolution I’m happy to complete.

I’ll let you know. And if it doesn’t stick, there’s always next year.


The BEST Christmas (and book launch)

It’s here! The time of year when my expectations go into overdrive. It’s the holidays, after all. And I suddenly want it ALL.

There are going to be waaaay more presents than that. At least in my perfect Christmas scene.

There are going to be waaaay more presents than that. At least in my perfect Christmas scene.

I want my kids to have an amazing Christmas, the sort that childhood dreams are made of, with presents piled under the tree and a magical Christmas morning complete with fresh baked cinnamon buns and steaming hot cocoa and the sound of sleigh bells.

I want said Christmas to not break the bank.

I want someone else (not me) to don our house with twinkly lights that are pretty and warm and always turned on at the appropriate times.

When I drink hot cocoa, this is what it’s going to look like. Pine cone, powdered sugar and all.

When I drink hot cocoa, this is what it’s going to look like. Pine cone, powdered sugar and all.

I want cozy family evenings filled with snuggles and movies. And ideally a fireplace (it wouldn’t be too late to find a contractor, right?).

I want perfection.

And then I remember. There’s nothing about me that’s perfect. There’s nothing about our lives, our bank accounts, our schedules that is perfect. This little niggly “goal” in my mind, one that’s likely fueled by advertisements and holiday movies, is totally, completely unreachable. In fact, it has its own sinister side.

Because The more I strive for perfection, the less I enjoy it all.

And on this eve of launching my first book (Crow Flight is officially out tomorrow!! Thank you, thank you to all of you incredible launch team members and friends for cheering me on through the process!), I need to apply this lesson to my book launch.

Because of course, my wild imagination can get the best of me, and lead me straight to… Best Seller Lists! Morning Show Interviews! Book Sales by the Truckload!

And if that’s what I expect, most likely, I’ll be disappointed.

But do you know what? Right here, right now, I’m going to reframe my expectations. This launch has been (and will continue to be) a great learning experience - it is my first one. I’m proud of the book and the work that went into writing and rewriting and rewriting some more.

And after all… it is a BOOK! There are many, many amazing books out there that don’t make it to this point.

So tomorrow morning, when that “Buy Now” button turns orange on Amazon, I’m not going to be frantically watching sales numbers. I’m going to crack open my very own FINAL copy of Crow Flight and skim through its pages. I might just walk around town, carrying the book in my shoulder bag (because it’s just fun to do that). And you know I’ll be at our local bookstore, buying the very first copy they sell.

I can make popcorn. And Swiss Miss. And that fire in the background may just be on TV.

I can make popcorn. And Swiss Miss. And that fire in the background may just be on TV.

The same goes for our Christmas. Less striving, more enjoying. And I’m going to remind myself to feel grateful through all of it. Because if I plan on perfection, I end up feeling not enough. But if I practice gratitude, I feel full to the brim.

The bad haircut

I got a haircut for the first time in a while last week. And as soon as it was done, I regretted it.

I wasn’t the only one. “Why did you cut your hair?” my husband asked. “I thought you were letting it grow long.”

I spent that first day looking at it in the mirror from different directions, and admiring friends who had the patience to let their hair grow and grow… as though that would glue the chopped pieces of hair back on. I woke early the next morning and felt my stomach sink as I studied it again - had it turned orange? Why oh why was it so short?

Spoiler alert: the hair cut wasn’t terrible. It was what I asked for. And I realize there are WAY worse things that could happen. But I still regretted it.

Here’s where I went wrong… and how (of course) it applies to writing.

1) I asked for the stylist’s opinion… and valued it above my own. When I go in a salon, the hair dresser becomes the expert because, well, she is. Her hair and makeup are flawless. Her sense of fashion superb. And so I default to whatever she recommends.


I love getting opinions. And I take them all seriously. Which is sometimes good. And sometimes not so good. Because often, I know what I really want in my heart. I’m just afraid to trust it.

And this is so important when writing, especially in the very early phases of writing a book about a maybe-sort of idea. If I share too much, too soon, it is easily squashed. If I ask for too many opinions, my own ideas get smaller and smaller, and feel less and less compelling. This is one of the reasons I’ve learned to protect my work in its early stages and don’t share in writers’ groups right away.

2) I changed my decision at the last minute. I was impulsive. As soon as the hair stylist gave her opinion (at my request, I must add), I decided to go for it.


With writing, I have to be careful about being impulsive. When I finally type “The End” on a first draft, the last thing I need to do is start rewriting. I need space. Time to let the work settle in me. Time to freshen my perspective. Otherwise, I may dive into changes that take the story in the wrong direction or didn’t need to be made in the first place.

3) I focused on efficiency. Cut another inch or two off? Sure! That way, I won’t have to come right back. We’ve been frugalizing for the past few months, and this hair cut was definitely a splurge. The last thing I wanted was to have my new hairstyle look worn-down and unruly in a week or two. But efficiency doesn’t always get you where you want to be.

I love the messy first draft phase of writing because often, I can crank out thousands of words at a time. Until I can’t. If exhaustion sets in, or inspiration fades, those words don’t come easily. And most of the time, that means I need a break. A totally inefficient, unproductive break. A break that involves going for long drives or looking out the window or ducking into little shops downtown.

Efficiency is sometimes good. And sometimes not. And, when it comes to writing (and hairstyles), I just have to learn to trust when being efficient becomes inefficient.

4) I forgot that it’s not as bad as it seems. That first day with my new haircut, I was kind of mortified. I pulled my hair up, then loosed it back down, wondering what I had done.

But I had forgotten that sometimes, you need a few days or weeks to settle into a new haircut. When I finally washed my hair and dried it properly, I was surprised to see it wasn’t that terrible. It had some good points, really. And some room to grow. And it rather looked like me.

Same thing applies to a writing... especially when it comes to feedback on my writing. I have to take it in, give it some space and time, and then filter it through who I am and what I know to be true. Once I do that, I usually find the big changes that seemed impossible actually aren’t that hard.

So there you have it. Today is a new day, and I don’t mind my hair cut much at all. I suppose you could say it’s growing on me. After all, hair always does.


STEM Spotlight: NCAR Associate Scientist

I’m so excited to pull back the curtain on what my scientist-artist friend, Molly McAllister, does for work. As an associate scientist at NCAR (the National Center for Atmospheric Research), Molly is a true left brain/right brain thinker and excels at sharing the nitty-gritty details of science in an understandable way. And, she keeps it all fun!


1. Describe what you do: I’ve spent my career supporting scientific researchers, policy makers and the public in their pursuit of better understanding the physical world. Right now, I support people around the world who are using a massive, cutting-edge hydrologic model that predicts how water interacts with the landscape after it falls from the sky. This model helps scientists and the National Weather Service predict stream flow, forecast flooding, manage water supplies and study climate. For instance, when Hurricane Harvey hit, the model was used to help determine where it was wet, where it was dry and where emergency services could go. I work as the connection between the people who develop the model and the people who use it.  

2. How and why did you get into this field? Growing up, I loved watching storms rolling in from across the acres of my family farm. The towering clouds, the crack of the thunder, the pitter-patter of droplets or ice. And then, the beautiful colors that arced across the sky as the sunlight filtered through. At night, I would lie out on my trampoline and gaze up at the Milky Way, always searching for Orion's belt so that I could peer into the Great Nebula and witness the birthing of a star. 

Simply put, I’d go outside, look up and wonder. I’d think, ‘Wow, how did the stars get there?’ Or, ‘Look at the clouds – how do they form?’ My love of light and water, in all of their forms, and my innate curiosity eventually led me to study remote sensing, which is about using different wavelengths of light to understand the environment around us. Those same curiosities led me to my work now with a water model. 

3. Describe an interesting application of your field: Everything gives off energy and has a spectral signature, or a certain way that light reflects off of it - you do, I do, the cat does, that rock does. We try to build sensors to read those different signatures for the planet so we can see what it’s telling us – where it hurts, where it’s okay, where it needs help. 

We can determine things like crop health, whether an ice sheet is going to fall apart, if an area is experiencing drought. You can literally see the earth breathe by watching the evapotranspiration of the Amazon rainforest or visualizing global CO2 levels.  

photo by Vanessa Bauman

photo by Vanessa Bauman

4. What's your typical workday like? I start my day outside by biking twelve miles to work. Then at the office, I work with a team of scientists and software developers to document their software. I help people understand how to use the model via email and in person, and I work with our sister agencies to coordinate hands-on workshops. 

5. Describe your workspace: I have my own office with a stand-up desk, which is very important to me, and a large window that overlooks a big tree. I have a plant named Franti and colored boxes that are in Chi directions to make sure energy flow is good. I have photos of places I’ve traveled (I’m also an avid photographer and traveler), and photos of different forms of water (clouds, rivers, snow). Our building is filled with office spaces, lecture halls, and a cafeteria, areas that are designed for sharing ideas and having discussions. 

6. Do you have any favorite scientists, engineers or programmers?
Einstein, for sure, and also Leonardo da Vinci. Not only was he a genius, but an artist, scientist and inventor. I like to think of myself as a fellow polymath, or someone who excels at a lot of different subjects. Some people are specialists, but I gravitate to variety. Art is just as valuable as science, and there’s an art to science and a science to art. A mathematical proof is a work of art. It is beautiful.

I am also inspired by the doctor Patch Adams. He connected laughter, joy and fun into the healing process and overall health. That has been a major influence overcoming issues throughout my life. 

7. Any favorite quotes, movies or books? "Imagination is more important than knowledge. Knowledge is limited. Imagination encircles the world.” –Einstein

"Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication." –Leonardo da Vinci

“Humor is the antidote to all ills.” – Patch Adams 

8. How has your work helped you with a 'real life' problem? I have spent my life answering questions for the gamut of society. This has helped me find value in saying “I don’t know but I would like to explore this further. How can we work together to solve this problem?” 


9. What’s something else we should know about you: For me, variety is the spice of life. Besides my day job, I also teach water aerobics and pottery. I am an avid salsa dancer. I love the feeling of being suspended in air or water. I take every opportunity I can to be up in the air, hangliding, paragliding, and jumping on trampolines or in water swimming or kayaking.  

Most important, I try to approach everything I do with a sense of joy. There’s a lot of joy and fun in life. Sometimes you just have to find it.



Woot woot! We're building a launch team...

So much of writing a book is quiet, solitary work. You sit back in your office (or bedroom if you’re me) and type out words about imaginary people for weeks, months, years… But now that I have a book that’s actually going to be out in the world, there’s some exciting work to be done to get the word out.

And as much as my writerly self would choose to hide in the closet rather than talk about, well, me, this bit of work is actually cool. Because it means that me and a bunch of YOU get to have some fun.

Right now, I’m pulling together a launch team. Aka, a group of people who want to get a free, early copy of CROW FLIGHT, and help it fly into the world.


And there are more perks than just a free book - I’ll have other fun giveaways to share, and we’ll stay connected as a group, which will be plain ol’ fun.

What’s a launch team?

A launch team is a group of volunteers who are willing to help announce the release of CROW FLIGHT. Basically, you’ll read the book, write a review on Amazon and (if you want!) spread the word through your circles - whether that’s on social medial, on a blog, or simply to your friends.

See, everyone’s doing it. Come join us!

See, everyone’s doing it. Come join us!

Who can apply for the launch team?

Anyone! I realize it’s a big ask, but if it interests you or if you’d like to get a behind-the-scenes look at what a book launch is like, definitely give it a shot. I promise this will be easy and fun.

What DO I do?

1. Read the book. Hooray!

2. Tell people about the book (on social media, in your circles of influence) for a few weeks surrounding the launch (12/11/18).

3. Post a review on Amazon or your favorite bookseller’s website.

What Do I get?

A free advanced digital copy of the book and an insider’s look at what’s involved with marketing a book. Did I mention I’ll also be sharing some fun giveaways? And I will be FOREVER GRATEFUL for your help!

How Do I Join?

CLICK HERE to join. You’ll be asked a few simple questions, just so I can contact you and get to know you.

Thanks so much for your consideration. It means so much!!!

Cunningham Susan Crow Flight cover 20180831.jpg

All I've learned from watching birds

I’m new to the bird-watching hobby. It’s something I’ve always wanted to try, but have struggled to make time for. But when a health issue sidelined me this summer, it seemed like a good opportunity to try something new (and non-physical).

So early one fall morning, binoculars and bird book in hand, I drove out to a quiet country road with a seasonal creek and big willows. And I watched birds.

I thought I’d be like this guy. Observing a gigantic hummingbird - a discovery! Hurrah!

I thought I’d be like this guy. Observing a gigantic hummingbird - a discovery! Hurrah!

The crisp, cool air frosted my breath. And I found my first subject, round bellied and still. My bird book at the ready, I pulled up my binoculars to focus in on a… robin. An American Robin, to be exact.

I have to admit, I was hoping for something a bit more exotic. But a robin it was, and so the robin I watched. It gave its chirpy call, then flew its full-bellied flight to another limb.

A few more robins appeared. And then some chickadees. Flitting among the branches, inquisitive and fast. Fun to watch but rather… mundane.

Chickadees are so common they’ll sit on your hand. Just not mine.

Chickadees are so common they’ll sit on your hand. Just not mine.

I waited there for a good 40 minutes. Observing robins and chickadees. And I wondered: why did I drive out into the countryside to look at birds I could’ve observed from my own backyard?

And then I remembered two things a real birder had told me.

First, he said when you start out birding, you need to spend lots and lots of time observing common birds. In other words, robins and chickadees. Then, when you come across something different, you recognize immediately that it’s just that - different.

And second, he said that though he’d seen hundreds of species, his favorite bird was always, “Whichever one I’m looking at.” Because every bird is beautiful. You just have to take the time to look.


I looked again at that robin. Then researched it on Wikipedia, surprised to learn a few things about these black and red birds. For instance: robins sleep in big groups at night (where does this happen and why have I never seen that?)… they keep their nests tidy and clean up after their young by carrying waste away… they aren’t duped like other birds into raising young from the eggs of parasitic cow birds… and they don’t mind people - they’re smart enough to realize we aren’t a threat.

I watched the birds a bit longer, suddenly enjoying these common feathered friends. And resolved to never ignore the ordinary. Because even the ordinary, when you look at it close enough, turns out to be - you guessed it - extraordinary.