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Memories & Creativity- Happy New Year

Happy New Year to all. Steve asked me last night as 2009 ended, what was my most memorable New Years Eve. Granted, I’ve spent more than several of them listening to his band at a party, but sorry honey, they were not my most memorable. Listening to music is always great and his band is awesome, but those New Year’s Eve gigs all blend together since the volume excludes much interactive conversations. And yes, folks, I was sober, so you can’t blame my faded memories on the influence of booze or other mind altering elements like, oh say, sleep deprivation. I take plenty of naps.

But he asked about my most memorable, not my best (which of course are those spent with him). My most vivid New Year’s Eve memory is strikingly simple. I was at my sister Kim’s house the  year she and her husband Andy moved to the Florida Keys. He was working the night shift at the airport in Miami, so it was just Kim and me. We didn’t plan anything other than maybe to stay up for the traditional ball drop countdown in Times Square on TV.

I’d nodded off on the coach on the enclosed porch, which is where I was going to sleep anyway. Just before midnight it starting pouring rain. I mean teeming. The sky had opened and rain was pounding on the corrugated vinyl-plastic roof like a train running through the night desert full speed or maybe more like a stampede of cattle. I’ve actually heard both, so I know what I’m talking. It was LOUD, deafening loud. Anyway, it was a startling way to wake up, but I just lay there listening in fascination to the pounding. It was minutes before midnight, Kim was awake and appeared with a cups of tea to welcome the new year. We sat under a roof of loud rain that seemed so determined to wash the world clean. Well, at least our part of the world. That is my memory and I don’t even expect that she wouldn’t remember it.

Okay, what has this to do with creativity? I guess I’m exploring how we experience things through our senses and how that may affect our memories. Our memories are great places to explore for creative inspiration. Why did the loud rain evoke a more vivid memory than the loud music of Steve’s band? I don’t know, but perhaps it was about being a unique and unexpected experience.

How can this help you be creative? Pay attention to what causes you to pause. What are the sensational components of your memories? (Visual, sounds, movement, touch, aroma or flavor)  What caught your attention? How did it make you feel? How can you use it expressively in your creative medium?

So what was your most memorable New Year’s Eve, birthday or holiday. Write about it, paint it, compose a melody…and pay attention everyday to what might make a memory.

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A Stampede of Wild Rocking Horses

I drove up a long dirt driveway, through the woods toward the home of an artist I know. I had never been to her studio, so it was a new experience. Along the dirt road were little stone totems to either side. The rocks were placed one on top of another, biggest at the bottom and smallest at the top. They seemed randomly placed along either side of the road to greet visitors as they approach, but I know that each was carefully stacked in just the right place to appear random. That is a creative skill that I call “intuitive composition” or in places that are less obviously art, “intuitive placement.” It is quite intentional, simply processed using our senses.

I do think it is a skill that comes with the territory of being a right brained person, but with practice it can be learned and improved. Beyond the stone monoliths, I came to a clearing with a pond  to my right and the artist’s home and studio ahead. The adventure was just beginning. Along the edge of the pond were a dozen or so wild plastic rocking horses on spring frames (vintage 1950s-60s). The horses were painted with broad diagonal strokes of bright colors and were all posed as if galloping across the yard. Again, how can you calculate galloping horses to look randomly in action? Intuitive composition.

I could go on about my visual feast during this visit, about the house looking like it belonged in a fairy tale. The garden fence had Laurel branches woven around the top and antique iron bed frames placed at intervals against it. That was a tactic to confuse the deer, so they won’t try to hurdle the fence to get at the garden. Everywhere I looked on this artist’s clearing were odd little shrines of old toys and antique signs or machinery. All in just the right spot to be noticed, but at the same time blend in as a natural part of the yard, woods and two ponds that surround the house. Since then I’ve been looking at how I embellish my environment and where my wild rocking horses are stampeding.

How often do you explore your yard ? What natural forms can you create that establish a sense of awe or to meditate among? What objects can make bird baths other those commercially produced as such? Does you garden have fairy houses? Is there a sign that provokes a chuckle or a path that guides you through a labyrinth? Even in the stark winter, there are objects that can be intuitively placed to create a sense of intrigue or excitement or meditation. Study your space. Study your object of interest. Move about the space and place the objects in random spots and step back. Rather than thinking about it’s effect, feel it. It will tell you where it wants  to be. No kidding . You’ll hear it in your head. If you can find some wild rocking horses, they will more likely whinny.

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Creative Tables- Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?

   For many years I gave an assignment to my 3D students that involved using found and available materials to create a place setting for a famous person. I had them select an artist, hero, literary character or historic figure and then design a place setting for that person who be a guest at dinner.

   This was a take home exam and since art supplies were not in every home it was imperative to be creative with what was available.  The key was not to spend money. Sometimes the offerings determined who was coming to dinner, sometimes the selected guest provided guidance for what to look for.

   One example was Popeye- the place mat was two pieces of contact paper  enclosing wavy strips of blue paper cut from magazines to simulate the sea with rows of beach sand in between. Around the edge was nautical rope with sailor knots in the corners. A plastic plate was decorated to look like a porthole and the drinking cup was a tin can with the lid bent up with a spinach label still attached. The fork was made from wire to look like an anchor. Let us not forget the corn cob pipe. The student dried a real corn cob, cut it to shape and then stuck a straw in the end, Voila’ or should I say Ahoy’, the spoon. A piece of fish netting was folded across the plate as a napkin. On the plate there were tangles of green yarn (spinach), little round green beads (Swea’Pea’s) and next to it a small cruet with the label Olive Oyl. The name card was 3D, folded and painted to look like an old scrub of a boat. It read simply, ”I Yam what I Yam”. Clearly it was a place setting for visual effect and not necessarily for practical use.

   I was reminded of this lesson, because I have been invited by not one, but two organizations to create a table scape of my book Nature’s Royal Tea Party. One event, The Fairy Tale Ball, is a fund-raiser for the Connecticut  Children’s Museum in Niantic to be held at the Sonalists studios in Waterford. The other is a Children’s Tea to honor the 10th Anniversary of the Tassy Walden Awards for children’s literature sponsored by the Shoreline Arts Alliance. This will be the ultimate in creating a design for more than one character and for a table that people will actually sit down and eat at. I will be including my students in this undertaking. I trust their instincts although I dare say we will not be using tin cans for drinking glasses. Admittedly, I am excited about this process, which includes sketching out a plan that has flexibility and can be set up quickly. I’ll be documenting the process and sharing more as I go along.

Your challenge is to make your dining a visual experience. Whether it be a special occasion or any other day. It may simply be garnishing your plate for aesthetic appeal. One of my friends, a master chef, also became a potter for the singular purpose of creating dishes that would go with the vision of specific meals he prepared . You need not go to that extreme, but you can go to your own extreme. Make a list of ways you can make a meal visually fun and see how your creativity expands and grows. Step outside the box of the usual. Thanksgiving is right around the corner, what does your table say about gratitude? Those of us in the North might find the first snowfall to be inspiration. If you’re hooked on a TV show and gather with friends each week to watch, how can the snack table be inspired by the theme or characters for the show? I also have a theory, that if we spend time on the visual  appeal of our meals, we might also be inspired to improve the quality of the foods we choose. Just a thought.

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Autumn Inspires Creativity

Red Onion Waiting for Soup

Red Onion Waiting for Soup

I am never happy to see Summer end, but once the Autumn Equinox rolls around, I have to accept it. Even though we are rapidly losing light in the Northeast, we still have some warm enough days here along the Connecticut shoreline. Some folks to go out apple picking, while others of us continue to nurse our geraniums until a frost.

It is in these early weeks of October that many people  decorate their yards with pumpkins, corn stalks and Mums. The best decorating is done by Mother Nature who paints our trees with vivid reds, oranges and yellows. In Greek mythology, this change of season is the sadness of Demeter saying good bye to her beloved daughter Persephone, who leaves her mother to live half of the year with her husband in the underworld. It is at least a spectacular farewell inspired by a mother’s love that precedes the cold barren winter as she awaits her daughter’s return.

My childhood memories are of the carpets of leaves across our yard that we raked into a mountainous pile. Of course, you know what kids do with a pile of leaves. We weren’t concerned about twigs or ticks back then, just diving into a pile of leaves and disappearing below the surface only to pop out on the other side in a burst of energy. I almost think we started that annual rite after being tossed into the piles of leaves by my father. Perhaps to inspire us to rake the yard willingly each year? Autumn inspired our creative play.

Consider all of the color that is about to be painted across New England and anywhere else that shows season changes in foliage color, like the Aspen in Colorado. It is an opportunity to be creatively inspired in art, poetry, play and especially cooking. Notice my red onion, not what you’d expect but Autumn inspired just the same.

It is a season of nurturing and the arts do just that.

Be creative – Pumpkins and squash centerpieces that become a still life painting one day, can be soup or bread the next. Acorns can be strung on a cord as a necklace or glued into a wreath with moss and colorful leaves. Even as the leaves dry and lose color there is still beauty in their shapes and varied tones of brown. I remember as a child, taking fresh colorful leaves and pressing them with a hot iron between two pieces of waxed paper to create a stained glass effect to hang in a window pane. The beauty lasts last just a little longer than the ones on the ground. (If you try that , put newspaper between the hot iron and the wax paper)

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Not Mona Lisa’s Cup of Tea

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A woman was being held in Paris today after attacking the Mona Lisa with a cup of English breakfast tea. Okay. First of all what did Mona Lisa ever do to her and I don’t even want to analyze why she used English Breakfast Tea, my favorite. Sheesh!

I have to say that I’m a big fan of Mona Lisa. I was fortunate to see her hanging in The Louvre when I was in high school. I consider myself blessed for being able to see numerous art treasures when they weren’t under high security protective glass, as Miss Lisa was. In this case, no damage was done.

   Once it was just art thieves trying to score big money that was the concern, but in the last 50 years the whackos have posed an equal threat to art. Do you remember the sledge hammer attack on Michelagelo’s La Pieta?

   I don’t know about this case, but evidently there is a mental disorder called Stendhal Syndrome that verifies that art can make people crazy.  Really. It causes confusion, dizziness, panic, paranoia, and basic madness as a result of being exposed to too much artistic stimuli in too short a time. It’s kind of like what Rap music does to me. It even causes people to carry out theft and vandalism of art. However, I don’t know if it counts when it’s premeditated.     

   It reminds me of a recent theft of Edvard Munch’s painting ‘The Scream’. As I recall, the thieves stole it in broad daylight and threw it in the trunk of their car. Just visualize that, a painting of screaming face being thrown in the trunk. I’m sorry, it just makes me giggle. But I wonder if the thieves were victims of Stendahl Syndrome. Their choice of paintings was certanily crazy. It would make a great case in a court of law. Not guilty by reason of Stendahl Syndrome, even though there were black ski masks involved.

    But back to Miss Mona- I am such a big fan that I recreated the painting to wear when I teach about Renaissance art. I also wore it for Halloween a few years. It’s crude compared to Leonardo da Vinci’s standard. Mine is life size ( the original is much smaller than people expect) on corrugated cardboard and has holes cut out for my head and hands to poke through. I wear a long black dress and at this point in life don’t have much of my eyebrows left, so it works out. Thank God she blazed a trail on that fashion statement.

It has a gold painted cardboard frame, so I appear to be art on the wall until I move or speak. It’s really fun to watch people react (jump ot of their skin). Now, I can see that kind of art making someone crazy.

 Assignment- for a costume party or just for fun, find a famous portrait and recreate it on a large piece of corrugated cardboard. Use a grid to enlarge it. Make sure the face will be life size. You will need to cut an oval big enough to press your face into, so be sure the whole painting is scaled to that size. Paint it with acrylic paints. Once the basic painting is done, cut four strips of cardboard about 3-4 inches wide the length of the cardboard panel and frame it using glue. Paint the frame gold. It helps to set up some shoulder straps to hold it in place.  Have some fun, but don’t be surprised if someone throws English Breakfast Tea at you.

Speaking of which, I’m still wondering why the lady in the Louvre was allowed to walk around the museum with a hot cup of tea, looking for the Mad Hatter?

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Dance Party

Dancers

Change the way you move, change the way you think. Movement is something so many people take for granted and don’t often appreciate the ways that our bodies’ health has so much to do with our brain’s health. I love walking and find that many of my issues of the day are resolved or dissolved by the end of twenty minutes moving through space at a good clip. I am able to walk out things that require planning, patience, understanding and forgiveness. I can start to deflate anger and anxiety  by redirecting my energy from emotional to physical simply by moving one foot in front of the other. I always come back calm and clear.

    I wonder how many people who experience road rage would ever attempt to speed after another driver if they had to on foot. I doubt they would remember why they were mad if they did catch up to the offender. 

   Running, dancing, being actively involved in physical movement helps both body and brain. Not everyone has complete freedom of physical motion, but I believe it’s still important to find ways to create tactile experiences that challenge the brain. As much as I enjoy walking, some days my feet hurt and I really can’t do the major hike.  On those days I make large circles with my arms to open up my breathing, I may end up incorporating circles somewhere in the next painting. I may simply loosen up enough to get the oxygen flowing, so I can  think more clearly about my next creative project. I was never much of a fidgeter, but I’ll bet that kind of energy goes to creative use. 

   Movement can elicit great joy.  I remember when I was a kid, my family had impromptu  dance parties in the living room. Dad played records on the Hi-Fi and Mom and the rest of us danced. Any cousins visiting got caught up in the mania. We danced the Twist, the Mash Potato, the Swim, even the Cha Cha and “was it the moon, no, no the Bossa Nova?”  Whatever music got spun, we were up dancing to it.  It was absolutely joyful.  I believe that ritual supported a lot of creativity in my whole family.

   I’ve rediscovered that old joy plugging by into my new IPod and dancing about the house when nobody’s home. But to be honest, I think it’s time for a real dance party and maybe to pull out the Hi-Fi and vinyl. More dancers can only increase the creative energy in the room.

   You will notice that I have not mentioned sports as it pertains to creative movement (well, actually I just did), but it’s a topic for another day. Right now, come to my dance party!

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Change of Scenery

IMG_0110   One thing that I find always gets my creative juices going is a change of scenery. Now it’s not always convenient to run away to a Vermont inn or fly off for a week to explore Tuscany.  However, there are ways to change the scenery right where you are. My mom and my sisters all rearrange their furniture every few months. Honestly, I don’t have that kind of energy and I know my way around in the dark too well to change my sleep walking pattern. But, I do have to say how refreshing it is when I go into one of their homes to find things changed. I notice things I’ve never seen before. Things that have been in that room all the time, just in a different corner. Often I see what I think are new objects of art that look great at my sister’s, only to find out that I made them myself years ago, but wasn’t happy with them then. My sister had enough sense to fish them out of my trash. A change of scenery sure does have an impact on how we appreciate things. And no, she won’t give them back.

   Changing scenery can be an adventure. Go for a walk in someone’s garden, look in an antique store you’ve never been in, try a different coffee shop or drive an alternate route to work. Actually, sometimes when I do that, I get lost in thought and forget where I’m going.  Make sure you have enough time to reorient and back track if that happens.  It’s worth the extra few minutes, as I get to see apple orchards blooming in the Spring and pumpkin patches  in the Fall if I go a different route.

  Of course, I have intended destinations on my list that are sure to refresh my creativity, but they require planning. Some changes of scenery are down  Memory Lane and can be spontaneous, like today I spent a few minutes  discussing my trip to China with a friend who had also been there.  I had such clear images of my experiences and I felt so happy describing things to him. As I listened intently to what he shared, I was able to be there, if only in my head.

   So, until I can be where I want to go, my other source of changing the scenery is my imagination.  One thing that is great about imagination is that you can go places and still be where you are.  

   Where do you want to go? Make a journal or collage of places you’d like to see .Find pictures and put them on each page with all the things about it that intrigue you. Write the names of cities, museums, beaches, landmarks or people that make it the unique place that it is. As you imagine what it is like there, create a poem, a work of art, special food to put you there in that moment. Make it an intention that you might be really be there some day. It’s funny what happens when you put your intentions on paper. Just imagine.          

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Visiting Museums

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One of the most uplifting experiences a person can have is to go to an art museum. A lot of people take advantage of museums in cities all over the world, and aren’t we fortunate that there are great collections of art. Artists remind us who we are as a human society and of the various cultures that exist and where we all come from in history. Art provides a document of humanity. I’ve always felt that artist have a huge responsibility to record and interpret the human condition and to elevate human spirit.  A museum experience is always an opportunity to learn and reflect.

   I learned from a friend how to look at art. It was her first visit to an art museum. She explained that she had no idea how to appreciate it, but noticed that when I went into each gallery of the museum I would scan the room and then go directly to one or two  works of art, study it and then move on.  She figured that with all the art in the place, there was not enough time to see everything, so I must be practicing time allotment. Actually, I realized that I do experience museums that way. Not so much to manage my time, but my mind.

   I feel attracted to a work of art for some reason and want to spend my time figuring out why it’s calling to me. It may be the color or composition that draws me. Perhaps the style (I love Pre-Raphaelite paintings) has an appeal to my essential self. It might be the expression on a face in a painting or the joy of form in a sculpture (Degas- Little Dancer Age Fourteen). But the connection that has been made between the artist and me is worth exploring.

   I offer a simple process for any one to enjoy viewing art. When you look at a work of art, be aware of how it makes you feel. The artist may have had an intention, but once it is put out for the world to see, it is open to interpretation.

First- Facts. What are the facts of the piece? What do actually you see?  Title? Study those details.

Second- Design Structure. What design elements and principles is the artist using to communicate more about the facts. Color may set the mood for an underlying story, pattern may be evident to show an ethnic culture, value would certainly determine how light effects the image.

Third- Interpretation. Once you see what the facts are you can analyze the use of design and then you can interpret what you see. Interpretation might be – what is the story or message. It might be why does it make me feel this way?Remember I mentioned tapping in to how the art makes you feel earlier.

   What is so wonderful, even if you completely miss the artist’s intention, is that you can still have a meaningful experience based on what your knowledge and life experience brings into play. Of course, you can always ask a docent (museum guide) or read the information available on the wall to help you learn more about what the artist intended. Either outcome, you will benefit from what you see. 

Visit an art museum. Most museums have restaurants and I always enjoy lunch in that environment. Plan an afternoon. I’ll share a few of my favorite museums later on.

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Risk Sharing your Creative Work

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The appeal of showing in an Art Museum is exciting and daunting at the same time. One can’t help go through the self doubt about ‘is my work good enough’, especially when you see work by other artists at drop off. Those doubts creep up on the most experienced artists who submit their art to juried shows regularly. My thoughts about it over the years, especially after witnessing and participating in the jury process, are always about why the piece wasn’t accepted. That doesn’t in any way mean that it wasn’t good enough. Many jurors review the entries and then look for a cohesive assemblage of pieces that make a great show.  There is often talk among artists about upcoming shows and the juror(s) may have a particular reputation for a genre that would deter some from entering.

I think that the risk factor always appears bigger than it is.

   First, there is only so much room to exhibit, so there has to be a selection process simply to accommodate the space.

   Second, read the rules. If there is a size limitation, adhere to it. If it says no photography, don’t send it. If there is a deadline, don’t bother being late. Not all rules are made to be broken. Often, artists eliminate themselves because they don’t read the rules.

   Third, there are many competitions that build reputations, however don’t overlook the local opportunities. It’s still exposure and fun.

   If you are new to submitting work to juried exhibits, my message is don’t be afraid. Put it out there and let it be seen. Sometimes you won’t get your work in. Often you will.

   One group of local artists responded to having their work ‘not accepted’ to a major juried exhibit. They banded together and in homage to the early French painters had their own Salon of Rejects. In the spirit of self mocking and self adoration it was a wonderful exhibit. 

   In the movie Chariots of Fire, the Olympic marathon runner who trained his whole life for the race is faced with a worthy opponent, so his victory is not such a sure thing.

 He says to his lady, “I won’t run if I can’t win.”

She replies, “You can’t win if you don’t run.” 

 ***Above you will see an oil painting (4” x 4”). I baked blueberry muffins that looked so tasty, I had to paint them while they were still steaming. I did it all in twenty minutes. When I considered putting the little gem into a regional art exhibit I hesitated. Of course, self doubt. It’s too small, it’s just blueberry muffins, who is going to take it seriously?

   I even assisted on receiving day and left it in my car while I sat there encouraging others to submit. It finally dawned on me that I should submit the piece and pay the fee for the simple purpose of supporting the art league. If it doesn’t get in, so what.  The following week the jury slip arrived in the mail, which was  humorously confusing as it had both Accepted and Not Accepted checked off. Yeah, huh?

   I went to the opening reception with no idea if it would be hanging on the wall. The President of the art league approached me and said, “Oh, good, you’re here. I left you a message on your answering machine.”

   Well, actually she didn’t. She left a message at a wrong number. As it turned out,  I did get my little blueberry muffins into the show.  The painting also won a prize. So, maybe the key is not to take it so seriously. Once I let go of feeling desperate about getting the piece  in, I left room for the opportunity for something good to happen.

   You r assignment- submit your creative work to a competition. Poetry, music, art, cooking, whatever. The most amazing part of the competition is usually the process of taking a risk. If your work is not selected, so what? I’ve had the same piece rejected from one show only to get a top prize in another. So what if it doesn’t get in. This is not an assignment of winning and losing. It really is about the practice of risk taking and at the same time making connections with other creative people. So many opportunities come from participating. There is always something new to learn. The bonus, if you are selected it’s an opportunity to celebrate.

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Turtle Steps

  In one of Aesop’s most famous fables, The Tortoise and the Hare, the moral is “slow and steady wins the race.”

    It’s a process of looking at the big picture or an end that is not in sight and breaking the main task down into a series of smaller tasks or in the turtle’s case, steps. The point is most things that seem overwhelming can be broken down to less intimidating and more manageable tasks. 

  I had a goal that I’ve met recently that took time and lots of turtle steps. I started it six years ago when I had an idea for a children’s story. It actually bumped around in my head for two years as I considered story lines and characters.  I sat down one day and wrote it in two hours. Then I broke the story down line by line, page by page, to see where images would best fit. Then I roughed out some thumbnail sketches of each illustration and eventually I created each final illustration. This took another four years of turtle steps, making time here and there, it was a job that had no end in sight, until I realized I’d completed eighteen illustrations and only had a cover left to design. The steps also included research, attending writing conferences, talking to other published and self published authors, learning the technical processes it requires to prepare art for printing and also the politics of this new “business” I was venturing into.

   But life is good. At this moment, the pre press process is in good hands at a graphics company in Ohio and within a couple more weeks should be on its way to the printer in Kentucky. Turtle steps, patience and perseverance, as well as a great cheering section and support from family and friends cannot be underestimated when it comes to achieving goals. And yes, you will hear more about it later.

   Amazingly, I have had a life all the while this was happening and enjoyed the entire process of learning with each turtle step. Did I know that I could do it before I started? Ah, yeah. I’ve known the story about the Tortoise and the Hare since I was a kid. It made sense then and it makes sense now. Call it what you will, chunking, breaking things down, baby steps…keep it simple and keep it moving forward, you will eventually get there. I share this as much as I believe in myself, it is a process that allows me to achieve. You just need to understand it only take s turtle steps.

The best place to start is at the beginning. Determine what you want to accomplish, whether it is a creative project or running a Marathon. Make a list of everything you need to do in the order you need to do it. Then isolate each part into a step that can be accomplished in the time you have allotted for it. If you are write a book of poetry or create a graphic novel, maybe you only need to set aside an hour a day or if that is not available maybe only one evening a week. For most people who have a passion for their art form, it’s not hard to make time because it sort of integrates into the rest of their life, but even that doesn’t guarantee you can focus on small steps to build upon. It is truly amazing to see how that one hour a week accumulates into a lot of words. If it’s a Marathon you want to run in, just imagine all the extra benefits you get from accumulating frequent runner miles. You may even see the tortoise at the finish line, cheering you on.   

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