5 Habits to Feed Your Creativity: A Morning Routine

by Marian Schembari on April 16, 2015

After spending a magical weekend with my best, most creative friends in Ashland, Oregon, I was challenged to re-read (and actually complete the exercises) in The Artist’s Way. It’s one month later and I’ve read two chapters. While this may sound like a bit of a failure, this magical thing has happened — I found my way into a morning routine that’s set me up to be epically more creative than I’ve ever been in my whole life.

So here’s what my morning looks like:

6:00am Husband wakes me up with his showering, coffee grinding, and general awakeness.

6:30am I turn on the bedside light and lie in bed, groggy and cuddling Puppy. Contrary to every article ever, I check my email first thing in the morning to take the pressure off. Once I know for sure that no one is about to die, I can focus 100% on navel gazing.

7:00am Morning pages.

7:30am Green smoothie! I’ve been drinking these for years and have yet to get sick of them. If I miss a few days, my skin breaks out and I have significantly less energy.

8:00am Coffee and coloring and YouTube. (Get excited for more info on this below.)

8:30am – 12pm Write like a motherfucker.

So here’s what happened: I started writing a book. Like, a book that had 10 words last month and now has 12,000. A story I’ve wanted to tell for the last decade but have never had any idea how I would go about actually doing it.

While my routine changes depending on whether I’m working from home or if my husband walks the dog or if I got enough sleep the night before, focusing on activities I enjoy first thing in the morning has better set me up to dive into my creative work in a way I never imagined doing before.

Habit 1: Morning Pages

I write about anything and everything, from what I did the day before to analyzing a therapy session to doing an exercise from The Artist’s Way. I’ve written about morning pages before using 750words.com, but I’ve switched to analogue and it’s changed my tune. Any excuse to get off my computer.

Habit 2: Inspirational Videos

This is my most recent and indulgent addition. Right now I have a mild (okay, not mild at all) obsession with Elizabeth Gilbert, whose interviews are hilarious and provocative and inspiring and always make me feel like, “Yeah, I’m creative, my work is important. Onwards!”

Habit 3: Coloring Books

While listening to that day’s video, I take my favorite purchase, Secret Garden Coloring Book by Johanna Basford, and my trusty Staedtler markers and I go to town for about half an hour. It’s meditative and I feel like I’m creating something beautiful without working too hard. This, over any other habit, puts me in the zone, after which I tend to write without judgement for about two or three hours. This is the number one reason I now have 12,000 words in Scrivener.

Habit 4: Walks in Nature

While obviously exercise is the magical bullet for any ailment ever, I’ve mostly lived in cities. And seeing that I’m a “highly sensitive person“, too much noise and traffic and smells actually saps my energy instead of feeding it. But since moving to the beautiful Mill Valley, I get to walk through trees and streams and meadows. After an hour of solitude in the sunshine, all is well.

Hiking in Mill Valley Marin

 Habit 5: 10 Minute Meditations

Meditation is the bee’s knees. I have ten minutes blocked off in my calendar at 1:15pm every day, but I usually just meditate whenever I start to feel my brain going crazy. If I have the thought, “I don’t have time to meditate, I have too much to do,” that’s the indication that I must immediately stop everything I’m doing and meditate rightthefucknow or else I will get nothing else done for the rest of the day.

I use the app Headspace. The meditations are easy and well-explained – perfect for those of you interested in benefits without chakras. Check out the video below, which perfectly captures the essence of what Headspace is all about.

There are a million other things I’ve tried to help get me in the zone – writing down every idea I have, longer-form meditation, sketching, creative writing exercises, but these are the habits that stuck.

What habits are feeding your creativity lately?


Online Learning vs Real Life Lessons

by Marian Schembari on March 30, 2015

In my year of living more creativity and embracing my off-again on-again obsessions with everything from knitting to storytelling, I’ve been taking a lot of classes.

I’ve always had a great love for learning, buying the latest book on tidying up, personal finance or memoir writing. But, like many people, I tend to buy a book, read half of it, do the exercises (sort of), then leave said book on my bedside table where it sits, unread but half highlighted, for months before storing it for “I swear I’ll read it later” use.

Thankfully though, San Francisco is a learning mecca and I’ve been experimenting with in-person classes. Unlike college, I’ve never been too tired to go and I desperately want to be there.

My first foray into being a student again was during my yoga teacher training in New Zealand. Then again on a Trail Mavens trip where I learned how to read a topo map. At Workshop I learned to sew. At the Renaissance Center I wrote a business plan. And then, most recently, at my writing class at the Book Passage.

I also took a storytelling class through Udemy. Which, for those of you unfamiliar with the platform, is online. The class was fantastic. I learned things. I did the worksheets. I got a fantastic foundation for storytelling. But I didn’t leave feeling particularly inspired.

Not that the teacher wasn’t great. And not because the material was boring. He was and it wasn’t. The problem is that I’m always on my damn computer, so adding more things to my digital to-do list doesn’t fill me with longing. I found myself playing Hay Day while only half listening to the teacher. Being in a classroom, on the other hand, demands my full attention and I leave empowered and ready to work.

During January’s writing class my love for the written word overwhelmed me, in most part due to the room’s energy. Everyone’s attention was 100% focused on the teacher, who answered questions as she went and rewarded us with compliments and eye contact. We did exercises then and there, receiving immediate feedback. We took breaks and talked to each other about our personal projects. We shared stories we had written. We were present. Going back to my notes has not only been educational, but fills me with the same sense of longing I felt during those six hours in a classroom. I not only learned how to be a better writer, but I left feeling like one.

Online courses, though, have left me only partly educated and feeling very much like an amateur. And trust me, I’ve done them all – everything from starting an online business to blogging to running. And while I 100% value these courses, I have actually finished, and found value in, very few.

I understand why people create these classes as it’s scalable passive income. I’ve done it myself. Anyone with a skill to teach can do it and there are dozens of platforms to host your video series/ebook/online community. I might even do it again.

But I recently considered applying for an interior design program at San Francisco’s Academy of Art, where I found out that should I want to get my degree online, it would cost exactly the same as doing it in-person. That worries me. When did we start thinking the two were the same?

To be honest, the most value I get from an online course is the moment I buy it. The feeling of excitement that I’m about to make a change. The burst of motivation from getting materials via email that eventually dissipates into yet another to do.

Part of my desire to get creative this year is due to a lack of inspiration found sitting at my laptop. And while I’ve learned more online than I ever did in my four years of college, I’ve never been as inspired and hopeful as I was as a student. I wish I could marry the two.

Is this just me and the way I learn? Or have you too felt underwhelmed by learning online? I’m eager to hear if I’m missing something or if I should, from here on out, focus solely on in-person learning.


A Podcast Love Affair

by Marian Schembari on February 17, 2015

I discovered the magic of podcasts while living in New Zealand. And while I’ve since listened to hundreds of episodes from dozens of shows – whose themes blended together with time – my inaugural listen of This American Life stands out with such sharp clarity.

It was a Christmas episode and David Sedaris (shocker) was talking about his time as an elf in a department store. I was on the ferry heading across the Cook Strait, head leaning against the window, barely registering the land disappearing behind us as I stifled laugh after laugh.

And that was that. Stories hooked me.

Back in Auckland I downloaded dozens of episodes, thinking they would entertain me during my commute. I couldn’t wait to get out the door every morning. I had My Stories. I found myself moved, every time, by the complexity of human life.

That was years ago and the only thing that’s changed is my repertoire. I drive to work now, and in those 45 minutes I listen to The Moth, Risk!, Savage Lovecast, Serial and StartUp.

I’ve downloaded RadioLab and TED Talks, but I always find myself zoning out. There’s something about real human experiences, told by the people who’ve lived them, that anchors me to the world.  In San Francisco it’s easy to forget that not everyone is either a tech worker or a meth addict. These podcasts remind me what diversity is.

There’s a 90-something female helicopter pilot from WWII, a doctor who diagnosed his mom with a collapsed lung, the young gay man still in the closet, a funeral director from Harlem. Every morning I can’t bring myself to leave the car and head into my real life.

Which is why February is my month of storytelling.

Kevin Allison, the host and founder of Risk! happens to lead an online storytelling class. Once I decided to focus this year on creativity and learning, I knew becoming a better storyteller would be at the top of my list. Whether it’s through the blog or at work, I love to connect with people. The few times I have gotten in up in front of a crowd, I felt heard.

Attendee Stories from Chris Guillebeau on Vimeo.

I think that by focusing on becoming a better speaker and storyteller, I can be a better writer. But deep down, my Big Scary Goal is to actually perform on one of these podcasts.

Two weeks after starting the course I found out that Risk! is hosting a show in Portland next month. The theme? Crisis. The story I want to share? That time I was detained in a London refugee center.

My pitch is due by next week so stay tuned. In the meantime, send me good vibes and luck.


A Dog Story

by Marian Schembari on February 5, 2015

As part of my commitment to challenge myself creatively, I’m writing in new ways. I’ve always been too scared to try my hand at fiction or tell a story as a scene instead of summary. (Never mind actually writing it for the world to see.)

Today I’m doing both.

To ease myself into it I’m taking stories from my every day life, picking up a book I’ve enjoyed, then mimicking the author’s structure to tell said story.

Please also accept this photo of my ridiculously attractive puppy, Homer.

A photo posted by maschembari (@maschembari) on

“A Dog Story”

based on Me Before You, Jojo Moyes

When I round the corner of the trail, Homer is foraging ahead of me, nestled between the trees and chewing whatever delicious sticks and leaves he can find on the damp forest floor. He’s such a cutie this morning, a white shock of fluff in the midst of misty woods in a way that makes him look both out of place and perfectly wild. I stand there watching him, enjoying our morning ritual that’s just for us, savoring this hour alone before chores and work consume my day.

Homer can tell I’m watching him, so he looks up and stares straight into my eyes. Sometimes I forget he’s still a baby, but we’ve been together long enough for both of us to act like we’ve always had each other.

The sounds of a runner perk us both up. Good thing Homer is out of the way of the narrow trail, meaning whoever it is can sail on by. I might get to avoid the awkward, “hello” to a stranger. When I’m out here I  pretend it really is just us alone in the middle of nowhere.

I move out of the way in preparation, turning my back on the direction of the noise, focusing my attention on Homer. The sounds stop and I feel someone behind me, waiting, wanting something. I turn around.

She’s a couple yards away, almost hidden under a narrow tree, cowering in rage. Her eyes bore into me, radiating fury where I can feel it absorbing into my skin, muggy and rank. She’s tightly gripping the leash of a black dog, the fabric wrapped around and around her wrist. The dog stares at us too, aware of the sudden change in atmosphere.

She doesn’t move, just stares. I wait for her to say something, anything.

“Is he friendly?” I eventually ask, interrupting our silent staring contest. I assume she’s terrified that either my dog or hers is about to attack and we’ll be left on this otherwise empty trail surrounded by blood and fur.

After a beat, she speaks, her tone laced with poison. “He’s friendly, but this is an on-leash trail, you know. I run here every morning because it’s on-leash.”

I curse inwardly as I immediately start pouring through my mental trail maps for proof that this trail is, in fact, off-leash. I’m here every morning and have never seen her. I’ve also never seen any dog here on a leash. This is the only magical wonderland us dog owners can take our companions to roam free, chasing squirrels. What do I say? Do I argue? This woman is clearly out of control with fury and I’m not great at confrontation with strangers, especially when I’m being accused of what she seems to think is akin to murdering babies. Never mind that it’s seven in the morning and I’m having to switch from enjoying-the-misty-alone-time-mode to dealing-with-an-angry-bitch-mode.

I try to keep my voice calm. “Actually, the map online says this trail is off-leash.” I still don’t look at her, hoping she doesn’t notice how nervous I am.

“This part of the trail isn’t. They just changed it.” While her tone is icy, she’s the one who seems unsure. My blood starts to boil. This woman is fucking with my morning.

At this point Homer has stopped his foraging adventure. Tail wagging, ears back, he trots towards this woman and her poor dog. She rears back and yanks her dog even closer.

“Watch your dog!” She shrieks. Her horrible voice pierces the silence of the woods. I imagine a swarm of crows frantically flying out of the trees at this very moment.

“Homer!” I call, lightly, high-pitched, pretending I’m not completely terrified this woman is going to beat me to death.

Thank god for Homer. He stops, sensing he shouldn’t go any further. I approach him and grab his collar. It’s time to go. This is ridiculous and I have nature to enjoy. He whines in discomfort as I walk past this woman, giving her a wide berth. The air is heavy and toxic. All I can think about is getting as far away as possible. My face is red in embarrassment while underneath I simmer with shame.

Oh god she’s not done.

“This is an on-leash trail! They changed it!”

I can’t get a read on her problem and she’s angry for no reason. As I walk past her, crunched over clinging to Homer’s collar, I wave my hand up behind me as if to say, “Yeah yeah, whatever.”

“Okay”, I add, snarky, as if I’m suddenly 16 and my mom’s reminding me to empty the dishwasher.

Suddenly, the forest is sucked of all sound. The birds have stopped singing and the wind has stopped blowing and Homer’s footsteps have stopped crunching the twigs and leaves. I keep walking, sensing some horrible storm is about to hit, quickly trying to get away from this horrible woman.

I can practically hear the sound of her mouth opening, her breath inhaling, preparing. That’s when she says, echoing through nature, “You know what?! FUCK YOU!”


Writing Extraordinary Prose

by Marian Schembari on January 28, 2015

Well, my first writing class was a roaring success.

You know in those romantic comedies, when the girl gets together with her sexy male best friend she ignored for the whole movie at just the last moment before the credits roll? The guy who was perfect for her all along, but she just couldn’t see it? And you think, “Finally, you silly girl!”

That girl would be me, both oblivious and resistant for way too long, realizing that this is what I’m meant to do.

Last Saturday I took a class in Writing Extraordinary Prose, taught by an author and professor at San Francisco’s MFA program.

The focus of the class was on the variety of ways to craft a sentence. We pulled apart work from James Joyce and Virginia Woolf and Truman Capote. We turned them inside out and analyzed their structure and the author’s reasoning behind that structure. We’d then try writing our own sentences following a similar format to see what we could come up with. It was fascinating and mind-blowing and really freaking hard. The math behind art.

I was so excited slash nervous for class, barely able to sleep the night before. Besides worrying about my ability to write creatively, I worried about the people. What would the other students be like? Would I fit in? I expected literary folk, looking like they either stepped out of some obscure novel I’ve never heard of, wearing black turtlenecks and perfectly placed berets, or bored frumpy housewives writing self-published young adult novels about faeries marrying spirit elves with PDF book covers designed on elance.

Instead I found retired school teachers, accomplished novelists, one doctor, one life coach and one cancer patient/professional golfer who used writing as a form of therapy.

I was intimidated and impressed by them all. I twenty years younger than the youngest student and I felt my age every moment. When we had to expand the sentence, “the boy climbed the tree” I struggled. The boy clambered up the tree? The boy hoisted himself up the knotty tree? Oh god no this is horrible. Beginner’s stuff. One woman talked about a war happening beneath the tree, which the boy climbed up as a means of escape. Other students got incredibly descriptive about the history of the tree, who had lived there for hundreds of years.

For six hours we worked on many, many sentences. I did my best and it got easier with time. I ended up pulling most of my ideas from life experiences. I wrote, terrified the teacher would call on me, about my writing insecurities, my marriage, my job.

Writing what I’ve experienced seems to be, for now, the only way I’m able to start thinking more creatively. From there I’m then able to tap into the feeling I get when writing is easy like breathing.

The class was everything I’ve ever wanted. Suddenly I was writing words that didn’t sound like me, but were beautiful and mine regardless.

And that’s where I hit my first challenge. I’m strangely protective of my voice. It keeps me from hating to write and I love how easy it is.

My second challenge was that I don’t particularly enjoy reading James Joyce or Virginia Woolf. I get lost in their work. Trying to reorganize a sentence in my head so I can understand its meaning takes me out of the story. For example, from Mrs Dolloway:

How fresh, how calm, stiller than this of course, the air was in the early morning.

What a fucking gorgeous sentence. It conveys a feeling. A rhythm. I am there, in this morning.

Sort of. After I read it a dozen times.

But if she had written, “The early morning air was fresh, calm and still,” we wouldn’t get that same impact. That sense of wonder and playfulness.

It’s not like I’m torn up inside about whether one way is right or not. Just that for the first time I feel challenged as a writer. Could I, if I tried, write that way? Would I want to? Would it still be me?

This all said, despite being terrified my sentences would suck, I came home buzzing about base clauses and modifiers and rhythm and how I made a sentence that sort of sounded like something Elizabeth Gilbert might write and who knew a sentence could be such a beautiful thing and oh my God maybe I could possibly someday write a novel and do I need to get an MFA?

Overall, here’s the most important piece I came away with, care of our wonderful teacher Nina Schulyer:

“Intuitively, most of you are already doing this. But by bringing awareness to the decisions you’re making, you now have the freedom of choice. Awareness leads to mastery.”

For years I’ve attempted many career changes. Design! Cooking! Yoga! But halfway there I’ve realized I’m so caught up in the final product and never the journey. Which is usually when I quit.

If I was never paid a dime at the end result, what would I do anyway? I sure wouldn’t teach yoga. Or design homes. I definitely wouldn’t teach people how to Facebook their lives away.

But I would write. I do write. Every day. This realization hit me halfway through class once I recognized that weird feeling in my chest was a heart filled with joy. Now, suddenly, there are goals I want so desperately, resonating someplace terrifying within me.

Finally. You silly girl.