One day as I walked along a beautiful beach under a bright blue sky, I glanced at a woman in a chaise longue—a tourist like myself—and wondered, when she looked at the sky, if we saw the same blue. Was the shade she saw determined by the margarita she was drinking or by an argument she had had with her husband? Was the blue I saw determined by the elation I felt over giving myself this vacation?
Who was I here on this tropical isle? Was I the writer who had just finished a book? Was I the artist who drew pictures and took photographs? Who was I with my boyfriend? My family? My friends? My colleagues? My students? There are so many different parts of me, I mused. Are some parts more real than others?
The day I was thinking these thoughts I could have chosen to explore more of the island. But, instead, I sat in a chair by my cottage on the beach and opened a sketchbook I had brought just in case I felt the impulse to write or draw. I began jotting down ideas that became the basis for this book.
As an artist, I’ve always been interested in how we see ourselves and the world. I’ve always been interested in breaking down barriers of rational thinking so we may see beyond our usual limits, beyond the demands of our everyday lives, into our spirit, our soul.
Our views of ourselves are limited by our experience and by what we’ve been taught. My aim here is to redirect your focus instantly so you see yourself and the world in ways that not only ring true, but surprise you.
As a writer, I’ve always been impressed by the power of words: how writing things down helps us find what is true. As a teacher, I’ve seen how a single word, such as “envy” or “leaf,” triggers a different response when each student is asked to write about it.
Sometimes when I see my students writing with great intensity, I am reminded of the faces I drew with that same intensity when I was a child. Those faces were my companions, my friends. They kept me company in my loneliest hours. Since I was not allowed by my mother and grandmother to play or get dirty, all my pent-up energy—my “aliveness”—went into my drawing.
I put so much pressure on the pencil when I drew that I deformed my middle finger. But that still seems to me a small price to pay. Years later, I would realize that pressure brings energy to the surface. Years later, I would call that “aliveness” energy.
I remember how afraid I was the day before I left on my journey alone to the Peruvian Amazon, and how alive I felt when, two days later, I walked the streets of Iquitos, Peru’s largest Amazonian town. All my senses felt heightened. The hot, sweet-smelling air made me feel as though I were in a greenhouse.
I felt present, connected. I saw myself and the world from a state of “aliveness,” in which I was no longer separate and alone but part of something much greater than myself.
I did not realize until later the tremendous energy that had been locked inside my fear. Living my childhood dream of going to the Amazon (where I could play and get dirty) allowed me to release that energy and let the “aliveness” out.
Though each one of us is unique, I believe we are all connected. We are all part of a much larger picture. What we see is a very small part. This book is my attempt to help you see more of yourself and others.
There are no right or wrong answers to the exercises in this book. There are only your answers. Your answers are unique to you. No one else sees life exactly the way you see it.
This book offers a unique approach that allows you to see yourself from angles and perspectives you would not otherwise see. All you need to do is be open-minded, curious, and willing to respond instantly and imaginatively to exercises that invite you to explore your memories and beliefs, your desires and dreams, your secrets and fears, and how you relate to others.
The process is simple, easy, and fun. At the very least, you will get surprising glimpses of yourself. At best, you will have deep insights that lead you to action or to accepting yourself just as you are.
Do the exercises quickly and spontaneously. If you are someone who tends to pause and think, use a timer. As soon as you read the question and look at the picture, set it for two, three, or four minutes and go! The time limit you choose will depend upon the amount of space provided and how fast you write. Experiment to find out. By using this method, you bypass the judge inside you who might censor your response.
When you do each exercise, notice whether or not it has energy for you; notice whether or not it makes you feel more alive. Energy is the spark that ignites when you connect with a place, a creature, a worrk of art, a sunset, a symphony, another human being. Energy is the invisible force behind the words. That invisible force is often locked inside a shell of fear and burrrrrsts forth when you break that shell.
An exercise with energy makes you feel something—even if it is just for a moment. The feeling may be faint or intense: you may feel sad or happy, excited or distressed. Feeling more alive is not always feeling good. Give yourself permission to feel whatever comes up. Your emotions are part of you and part of this process.
You know you’ve tapped something important in yourself when your exercise has a lot of energy. In order for that to happen, allow yourself to write whatever comes to mind, no matter how silly it may sound to you, how nonsensical, foolish, or even scary! Follow your energy wherever it leads you. Allow yourself to be who you are.
Be brief. Use the space provided for each exercise. Get to the heart of what you’re saying as soon as you can. This will keep you from writing endlessly, straying off course, and losing your initial energy. Your exercises should be the verbal equivalent of quick artist sketches, in which a model is captured with just a few strokes.
As you go through this book, you will have opportunities to pause and reflect on previous exercises and to continue the ones that are most charged or that feel incomplete. Keep a notebook handy for this purpose.
Not every exercise will have energy for you. When you draw a blank on one exercise, go on to the next. If you find yourself resisting an exercise, come back to it later. Do the ones that come easily.
Years ago I had a masseur who started each session with the words “It ’s not serious.” As he worked on my tense back, relaxing all the muscles, he continued saying “It ’s not serious” till it became a kind of chant. Eventually my back problems disappeared, but the words “It ’s not serious” stayed in my mind.
The things that made me so tense seem laughable now. At the time, I was the freelance art director of a French food company, overwhelmed by deadlines. Joel, my masseur, was right. It wasn’t serious. Remember those words when doing the exercises in this book.
Copyright © 2003 by Roberta Allen. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Company.