In this episode, Dawn Williams speaks to Laura Camien, Blue School’s Director of Advancement. Laura is a creativity coach, Broadway producer, playwright, screenwriter, and cohost of The Spark File podcast. Laura and Dawn discuss creativity during this time, self-compassion, and finding your ‘spark.’
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DAWN: Welcome to On Balance, a podcast for parents created by Blue School educators. We know that even in ideal circumstances finding balance can be a challenge, and now so many of us are finding that our work, home, school, and parenting lives are more tangled than ever. We see you, and we’re here to partner with you. Blue School is an independent school in New York City that has successfully pioneered a balanced educational experience, empowering children to be creative, analytical, joyful, and compassionate.
I’m Dawn Williams, Blue School’s director of enrollment and proud parent of a Blue School graduate. Every week I’ll be talking to an educator, a Blue School advisory board member, or a special guest about today’s ever-changing landscape, and how we can help each other find our footing. Whether you’re the parent of a toddler, or a teenager, or anything in between, we’re glad to be on this journey with you. Together we will find our way.
Today I am the luckiest. I get to talk with Laura Camien. Laura is Blue School’s Director of Advancement, and also a creativity coach, a Broadway producer, a playwright, and screenwriter. She was long time VP of communications for Blue Man Group, and creative director and head writer for Blue Man Group’s book, Blue Man World. She’s also the co-host of the award-winning The Spark File podcast.
So many of our listeners know you as Blue School’s Director of Advancement, but I’m guessing that not everyone knows about your life as a writer and producer and creativity coach. Thank you so much for taking time to share these parts of yourself, and to conspire with us today, Laura.
LAURA CAMIEN: Oh Dawn, I’m happy to. It’s my pleasure.
DAWN: So much of your very special podcast is about reflecting on what you are moved by, what you’re sparked by. And then about sort of lighting up your listener’s creativity and getting our ideas jumping. I’m wondering how mining other people’s stories, or guests’ stories of their artistic and creative process has affected your own.
LAURA: Well, I would say probably the biggest effect it’s had on me is that after talking with so many people, we start to see these themes emerge. And themes about how they feel about their creativity, what their fears are, how they move through those fears. And that has been super inspiring, because it’s really — I guess it’s dismantled, in a way, some of the belief systems that I had — that I’ve carried with me, and maybe in some ways that I’m aware of and in other ways I’m not aware of. But listening to really prolific makers who are top of their game, talk about how things like, the fear never goes away. It isn’t about like, oh one day there’ll be a day where ‘I don’t feel nervous to do this, I just — it just — creativity just flows out of me effortlessly.’ It’s just not true. And it’s so — it’s very, very helpful and empowering to have this knowledge that it actually isn’t about that, that’s not the goal. The goal is to feel the fear and do it anyway.
DAWN: Yeah, — so these days especially I feel like more and more we keep hearing stories about people for whom these nine months have — it’s really shifted the way that they use their time for cooking and writing, and sourdough making and music making.
LAURA: [LAUGHING] Yeah.
DAWN: And maybe even for building community with other artists and makers, albeit virtually. Can you share what this time has been like for your Spark File community? What’s been born of this time?
LAURA: Sure. You know, I think that we’re seeing every bit of the spectrum from people who will write us and tell us they have not been able to be creative at all. Like it’s — there’s been literally a barrier to — between them and their creativity, and it’s very frustrating. To other people who have found ways to very, very patiently and slowly with themselves like allow some creativity to come through, and celebrate those small wins. Where maybe they started the quarantine with, I’m going to write King Lear, and a few weeks in were like, maybe I will bake some bread and that’s going to feel good. That’s going to be enough for me.
And so what we have been talking a lot about is finding that patience with yourselves, maybe lowering the bar in terms of what we’re expecting of ourselves right now because we are doing so many things, and our bodies and our minds are processing so much right now that maybe — maybe it isn’t healthy to expect that the next life-changing screenplay is going to pour out of you during this time, but rather can you find daily bits of creativity that feed your soul, and make you feel better, and enrich your life during this time.
DAWN: And are you — are there pieces of that daily practice that you can share with us? Are there things that you’re finding are sort of resonating in daily practice for your community?
LAURA: I think that again it’s like small. It’s like thinking small instead of massive projects. So I guess for me it would be journaling. I like to write, and on days that I can — you know, morning pages, all of that stuff, like that really works for me, and makes me feel good when I’ve done that. When I've just found five, ten minutes to record my thoughts and drop some things, get them up and out of me and onto the page, and walk away from them. It — to me that feels very satisfying, and it feels like — it improves my life in a number of ways to just take that ten minutes to do it.
But I think it’s different for everyone. And we’ve talked a lot about that. I’m sure many people have. But when we started the quarantine there was a lot of talk of everyone, like we’re all in the same boat. And with many members of our community have had this ongoing conversation of like, well we are in the same storm, we’re in similar storms, but we are not in the same boats, and all of our boats are different. And the stresses that someone who has been working every day of this pandemic, and is thankful to be employed and have a paycheck, but has other levels of stress. They’re just different levels of stress than a person who’s like, well I have time on my hands, but I am stressed about paying the rent and I am stressed about — or parents, my god. The level of stress.
So everyone’s dealing with stress, different types of stress, but I think it is across the board finding small ways to — to find a moment. And looking at creativity differently, and again, I’m not necessarily painting a masterpiece, but can I look at the way I’ve organized my desk space, the way I’ve organized my closet, or this new recipe I’m trying, or the Christmas cards or holiday cards that I’m making. Can I see those as acts of creativity that all serve to empower and enrich me, and make me feel good.
DAWN: There’s another side, as you’re saying, to these months. Whether it’s the people who are feeling that barrier that I think you spoke about earlier, or people whose circumstance is really making it feel impossible to be making. I know, as you mentioned — some parents are having an overwhelm taking care of children, and what it is to care for someone else physically and emotionally during this time.
LAURA: Oh my gosh.
DAWN: Plus like getting all the little things done, right? Just getting them to school and navigating Zoom with a six year old, and — and I know I’ve heard parents, and I’m sure through the Spark File you’ve heard plenty of people talk about losing themselves. I talked to a parent who was saying, like everything she has was going into her kids. And —
LAURA: Oh gosh, yeah.
DAWN: And that —
LAURA: To feel a loss of self, really. A loss of identity, yeah.
DAWN: To feel that loss of self, exactly, exactly. So I am wondering if there are pieces that you’re thinking about holding that can help us start to re-find that, like re-greet our creative self.
LAURA: Well, I think that we — you know, at the Spark File we’ve just been accepting that what a majority of us are feeling right now is grief. And grief in its many stages, seven of them to be — you know, to be accurate. And to allow ourselves that, and when we’re able to try to capture some of those feelings. I think that they can in fact be sparks of creativity, they can be sparks of inspiration that can move us toward a creative state or a creative flow. But I also think that it’s not realistic. I think we have to change what we’re expecting of ourselves honestly. It’s just not realistic, maybe, to again think I’m going to get my dance practice back up and running, and I’m going to have two hours a day. You’re probably not.
And if you can accept that in a way, and grieve that for now, but know that that is — that can be on the horizon for you, but maybe just not today, there is a way to I think give yourself space to process the grief, and be okay with that. And everything is — I mean, if anything this time has been such a reminder of the things that are just simply out of our control. And one is the time that it takes for this to resolve and move forward in a way that looks or feels even remotely normal to us, that timeline isn’t within our power to determine. And that’s one of the most frustrating things I think. There is a lot of like muscling through this at the beginning of like, I’m going to power through this, and I’m going to become my best self during this time.
And I think that there’s been at least in my community more acceptance of like, you know what, we don’t have to power through this. We actually might want to settle and just be, and take whatever time that we can find to be with ourselves and be with our thoughts, and whatever those thoughts may be. If they’re grieving, if they’re angry, if they’re frustrated, that’s okay, you know? Let them be. And I think that’s — when I started to feel that shift a few months back, that was actually a pressure off for me. I don’t know if that — if everyone feels that way, but for me it was like, right, right, right, you don't need to power through this. You can simply be through this.
DAWN: Yeah, hearing that is really helpful to me. I would say I’ve been stuck in this idea of being in a sprint and a marathon at the same time. Like I — I keep thinking, right, this isn’t a sprint, it’s a marathon. And then I think I don’t know what to make of that, because it still feels like a sprint.
LAURA: A marathon takes so long. Really, pick up the pace.
DAWN: That’s exactly — exactly. You are bringing up something that I’ve been — I’ve been grappling with a lot, which is I do think that this time has made me acutely aware of what’s important to me. Like and that’s family and connection and justice and fairness and —
DAWN: And then I’m holding sort of simultaneously that art and making is related to all of this.
DAWN: And it isn’t just something extra, and it isn’t an add on.
DAWN: And I’ve listened to you in your podcast grapple with this. I find it really helpful. And I wonder how you’ve reinvested in the importance of this work during this time.
LAURA: Yeah, a lot of ways. We just did a creativity challenge over the long weekend recently. And we have workshops coming up over, like, New Year’s. And we’ve had people write in and say, “I just feel like — like is creativity a luxury that I can afford right now? And it feels like, of all the different things, is this really where I should — is this what I should be focused on?” And when we were getting ready to launch season two, I had that moment. Because we took a break over the summer from recording, and then we were coming back and I was like, is this — is talking creativity, is this — the world’s changed in a year, and is this really — again, is this where my focus should be?
And so what I did personally for my first spark was like a deep dive into what creativity does for us as individuals and what it does for us as a culture. And kind of reinvigorated myself. It got me very, very excited when I — I just — I did like an in search of, you know? I’m going to gather evidence on behalf of creativity. And I got super, super excited when I just reminded myself of what it does for us as individuals even if no one ever sees your artwork. How being in creative flow relaxes us and deepens our breath, and the physical — what it does for our brains to be in creative flow. All of the benefits that you feel — again, even if you never share with anyone else.
But then when we do the sharing and we are like, oh I see, I see that pain in you, and I have that pain as well. And now we have a shared vocabulary that we can talk about our pain, you know, in the context of this artwork. And then it just grows exponentially from there as we as a culture experience art together. And I just got so excited again. I was like, yes, we need to be doing this. This can serve people individually again not about creative fame, fortune, success and all that, just on an individual level. But also then the fulfillment when you do share it, if you choose to share it, and to find that we have so much in common as human beings. And art is the way that we can communicate about it.
I think I came across like a Nietzche quote that was about art. “We have art in order to not die of the truth.” And I was like, oh my god, this — like right now if we just look at, like, the truth of our circumstances and things that are happening around us, it can be so painful. And we need art and we need creativity in order to lift us up and out of that I think.
DAWN: Thank you for sharing that.
DAWN: I actually can’t more highly recommend the Spark File. I've been getting lost in — And I just — I want to share that everybody should be listening to the Spark File.
LAURA: Oh, thank you.
DAWN: I wonder if you could just share sort of what the Spark File is, like, the podcast —
LAURA: Yeah, sure.
DAWN: — but also like the actual Spark File.
LAURA: Sure. So the Spark File podcast is a podcast all about creativity, and it was really born out of the idea that ideas and inspiration are — it’s free and fruitful and that the exchange of ideas is to me the best — it’s the best, and it’s the antithesis of the experience I had in a number of like, acting or screenwriting classes. this idea of, like, protecting your story, and you don’t want to tell anyone. And, like, someone might steal it. And we were like, what if we go the other way? Like I have more ideas than I’m ever going to actually do anything with. And if it sparks someone else and then they take that idea and they build upon it and make it something else and run with it, nothing makes me happier.
We’ve had people like write in and say, oh my gosh you did that Spark about this old Hollywood legend. I wrote an opera, and now it’s in the Edinburgh Festival. And those things please me so much. I’m like, that’s so great because I wasn’t going to do anything else with it, and yet that story and those thoughts and ideas needed to be out there. So we really subscribe to that idea that, you know, ideas are everywhere, inspiration is everywhere, and we want to share it, and we always encourage our listeners to take it and make it. So if anything about this conversation sparked you to go research something, to go write a story, to go create a dance piece, please, please do.
So that’s what it was born out of. And then we also talk to makers. We’re obsessed with the — these ideas of fear and failure, and how — how we internalize them to — to create reasons not to take steps forward in our own creative pursuits. And so that’s been incredible, to really explore these ideas with people who are willing to go there, you know? They’ll — they can talk about their highs, but really talking about their lows is so fascinating because they all have them. Lin Manuel Miranda is like, “That fear never goes away, that doubt never goes away. It only actually intensifies, because now I feel more pressure and more fear.” But he does it anyway.
So that — that theme to me has been one that has made such a huge difference for me. Like now all the time I’m like, I feel uncomfortable, I don’t know how to do this, oh, but I’m smart and I can figure it out and I’ll do it. I’ll do it anyway, you know? And so that’s been life changing for me. But -- so this is all — like with the Spark File, that’s the podcast. And then beyond the podcast we do coaching, we do private coaching and consulting. We’re working with someone right now who is writing a musical, and it’s so gratifying, because Susan and I both have written screenplays, musicals.
DAWN: And Susan is your partner with whom —
LAURA: Susan is my partner. Susan Blackwell, yeah, is my co-host on the Spark File. And so essentially getting the chance to help people surface what their real creative dreams are, and then put a plan in action to how they’re going to achieve them, and then see them all the way to getting done. It’s so simple, but one of the biggest takeaways for us has been this concept that no one does it alone. It might look like it. You might see those people out there of like, wow look at that career they built. Guaranteed there is a support system and a group of people around them who helped them to build that, and to make that happen.
And so we’re very much about, like, you don’t have to do this alone. You don’t have to — if you dream of having a show in an art gallery or getting a screenplay written, produced, and shot, you don’t have to do that alone. There are plenty of people who want nothing more than to connect and to work together, collaborate. There's coaches like us and other people who are there to literally walk side by side every step that you take, and get you to the finish line, and across the finish line. So it’s super exciting and super gratifying to be doing it. And I feel — I don’t know, I feel very happy for me I guess. Back to one of your original questions, what has this work done for me during this time, it has strengthened my feeling of purpose and deliberate intent to get more work done. And not just my own, but other people’s as well.
DAWN: I am so fascinated by the way you take this idea of the lone artist, like the separate artist sort of off in their room, and you turn it on its head with this focus on how we’re fed by each other and how we support each other. How are you finding that community for yourself during this time I’m wondering?
LAURA: I mean, it’s such a gift. Those days where I’m like — you know, where I have them — I have them too, where I’m overwhelmed, I’m sad, I’m angry. All of the things. We turn on the news and we feel this huge gamut of emotions. And this community has been so grounding. we literally have people, Scotland, London, all over the US, Canada. And they come together and are interested in supporting each other, and seeing each other, like, achieve their goals. And it could be that someone — like one person is crocheting a sweater for a holiday gift, and another person is like, “I’m writing an opera and submitting it to the Fringe Festival.”
They’re from all over. But all of them understand that feeling, the feeling that we have when we have completed something, when we’ve — oh my gosh, I don’t even know that I can describe it, but we all know it. It’s that sense of like, self-expression, check, self-fulfillment, check. It’s done. And I made that. There was nothing here before, and now this is here. It’s a stack of 120 pages of a screenplay, that exists now because I put those words on the paper. Or this meal exists, this -- all these new recipes and new flavors and new experiences that my family is having, that exists because I made that. And so I guess for me it’s this group of people who are really celebrating that feeling in themselves and each other and -- and pushing each other along gently and kindly and supportively towards that feeling.
DAWN: Yeah. I’m so interested in the fact that you’re an artist And then you also do all of this work supporting artists. What brought you to the creativity coach role? And then I’d love to know more about how you work with people in organizations, what that looks like. I’m thinking, as a parent, what can I glean from the way that you are sort of in it with other people? Like are there takeaways that I can bring into my life as a parent, and the parent of an artist too?
LAURA: This is such a good question, Dawn. There’s a lot there.
DAWN: There’s a lot there. This is maybe five questions. I guess as a starting point I’d love to know what brought you to this work. So maybe that’s the first question.
LAURA: It was sort of accidental. But it is. That’s the truth. When we started doing the podcast, both Susan and I had experience creating our own work, creating in groups of people and collaborating. We also both had experience teaching to a certain degree. Various workshops and — and we also have had different roles in other people’s creative process. So everything from friend/supporter to sometime consult — you know, gently consult when asked to full-on collaborate.
And so we’ve played all of these different roles, and we have seen a lot of work get over the finish line. And we realize like -- so we talk about in our workshops, we call this spark cycle of creativity. And it’s really like from the spark of inspiration, which is getting the idea — a lot of people are idea people. And they can bounce off a thousand ideas, but don’t ever necessarily take the steps to do the work then, you know? Once you like, settle upon what idea you want to make, then there’s the actual, what we call the next step, which is fanning the flames. That’s doing the work. And a lot of people get stuck there, because they’re like, well I know I want to write this novel and I’ve got some ideas and I have them down on paper, and I just don’t know what to do next. I literally don’t know how to fan the flames and how to make this thing.
So that’s its own entity and its own mindset. And then third is sharing the light, which we — is really all about communication. So it’s effectively sharing your idea in such a way that other people can get excited about it, or come on board, or give you funding, or any number of things, or gain followers, etcetera. But how do you share your work with the world when you're ready to in a way that is satisfying for you, and brings enthusiasm to your project. So we talk a lot about how a truly fulfilled, or fulfilling creative life we think requires the ability to bounce through these three mindsets at any time. If you think about it, if you are Lin Manuel Miranda, in the morning one day you might be doing press interviews for a project you did two years ago. In the afternoon you might have a brainstorming session for a new project that you have coming up. In the evening you may have a writing session where you’re actually getting words to paper for your current project.
if you have multiple projects, you’re bouncing through those at all times. But if you — even if you have just one project, then you’re maybe more methodically going through those steps. So we literally have workshops and sessions that can focus on any of those — strengthening your skillset in any of those three areas as a creative, as an artist. So we got into that because we — we feel passionate, and we realize we actually have skills in all of these areas, and we can help other people with it, and have been doing it to a certain degree, but wanted to maybe formalize a bit more what we can do to help.
So we have workshops in regard to the whole spark cycle of creativity as we call it, we have individual sessions and workshops we can do on each of those mindsets. We also have a firm believe that we can rewrite our own stories. Like the story — until you are out of breath and done on this earth, your story can be rewritten. So if you have a project that you’re like, well I tried that once and I didn’t finish it, or I didn’t do it, or no one liked it, or however you thought that story ended years ago. We believe the story is not over until you decide it’s over. So we have a whole workshop on ‘let me try that again.’
DAWN: So powerful.
LAURA: Thanks, we’ve worked with other coaches, and meditation teachers who also teach about, like, self-forgiveness. So one of the really powerful things we like to do is help people forgive themselves for the unfinished projects that are sitting in a drawer or half-made. Because as they are now, they may be operating as evidence to a belief system that’s like, oh but I don’t complete — I never get anything done. I never finish it, you know? And we do work with a lot of people who have that mindset. And so we really work to forgive and release that project. That story is not over. So we have a whole workshop on ‘let me try that again,’ and rewriting the ending to some of the stories that you may have replayed in your own mind over time. So I think you can see thematically we really work on empowering people to regain their creative self. And in terms of the part of your question relating to parents and —
DAWN: Yeah, I guess if you’ve worked with children on these ideas, or if you have thoughts about how parents or educators might translate some of this work for children or students.
LAURA: We have not worked directly with children, but we have worked with — in particular, Susan has worked with high school age students, and actually we’ve both taught a good number of workshops to both college and high school age. In particular during this time when there’s a lot of pain around high school musicals that aren’t happening, performances that aren’t happening. So we have also worked with some educators in regard to coming up with other ways that we might be able to show our work. For example, my alma mater, Kansas State University, they pivoted their entire theater season to a podcast season where they do radio plays.
And all the students got one of these gorgeous microphones, and are now — like they spent the whole season learning vocal technique. And I — I’m super excited about it, because they used one of my screenplays and turned it into a radio play and have put that out there. Which is just super fun, and again, satisfying because we’re really, like, all about what is the pivot we can make, what can we do, you know? Obviously our minds go to all the things that we can’t do that are very painful right now. And we can’t have live audiences, and we can’t gather together to make something in person. But what can we be doing right now? So we have worked with a number of organizations, schools and students, to try to figure out what a pivot might be that could keep their creativity moving forward and again, give that sense and feeling of satisfaction and fulfillment.
DAWN: Thank you so much, Laura. This has been a real nourishing conversation. It’s really so lovely to hear you talk about these issues about creativity. And who we are when we think about our artistic selves. It’s really powerful.
LAURA: I have to say, I would be remiss if we end this conversation without me saying it’s one of the things that excites me most about the work that is done at Blue School every day. You know, there’s creativity in the form of art, etcetera, but there is also creative problem solving. I love, love, love watching these students come up with, you know, their -- the way their minds work, and that no one has told them that their minds need to work differently. it’s super exciting. And then the way they express themselves all uniquely and so articulately.
I didn’t have that growing up. So it is — it's just one of the most stunning things to me about Blue School and the students there. So I — if anything, in regard to your last question, if anything it’s like more of — more encouragement of self-expression, of fearlessness, of it’s okay if it’s not the same as what everyone else is. But mine looks different, that’s okay. That’s great, that’s wonderful, right? And making sure that the students — for my nieces, for me, like I’m passionate about just making sure that — that they know that they’re going to have fear. It’s going to feel uncomfortable, and that can propel them into something great, you know? Or they can stop there because they felt discomfort. And I just always want to encourage them to feel the fear and do it anyway.
DAWN: Absolutely. And to know that they’re surrounded by people who are cheering them on.
LAURA: That’s right, that’s right.
DAWN: As they feel the fear and do it anyway. Yeah.
LAURA: They have the support system, it’s safe. And we welcome their bravery in stepping forth, and we’ll support them in every way.
DAWN: Yeah. Thank you again, Laura. This has been lovely.
LAURA: Sure. It’s my pleasure.
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