Dwell time


In my experience, work-in-progress doesn’t look like much of anything.

It doesn’t feel like work.

It doesn’t look like progress.

Case in point:


The very rough beginnings of paint on paper.

This is how I always begin new work.

By throwing paint down on a surface without knowing what is going to happen.

Turning magazines into sketchbooks – a blank slate for my thinking and feeling into what books or paintings or workshops will come next.


For most of my life, I’ve done all of this exploration in blank, standard-issue artist sketchbooks.

Since living in Mexico, where sketchbooks are not to be found for some mysterious reason, I’ve been making my own.

Usually out of paper that I find, and lately, out of magazines, so I don’t have to bother with binding them.

Sitting here writing about it now, certain patterns come into focus.

Like how my work is so often made out of existing, discarded materials. In The 1008 Paintings Project, for example, everything was painted on cardboard that I dragged out of dumpsters from LA to San Francisco, and back and forth to various locations in Mexico. And also in France and Spain, come to think of it.

I kept seeing cardboard as a blank canvas.


And so after a couple of years of preparing old magazines for sketchbooks, I am seeing how they, too, want to become something.

But I do not know what.


I meant to write about dwell time for this post.

Let me see if I can circle back to that for a moment.

Dwell Time

Dwell time is this place of creation where nothing is really formed.

It seems like nothing is happening.

Certainly nothing worth writing home (or on a blog post) about.

But since I teach and write about creative practice, I thought it would be good to show you what it looks like for me.

Creative practice is, paradoxically, a place where nothing and everything is happening at the same time.

To further confuse and distort our perceptions, it’s usually impossible to tell the difference between the two pole of nothing/everything, and *good/bad, for that matter, while we are practicing.

The trick of it is to keep working, and not get to distracted by the analytical mind that craves outcome, product, progress

In my experience, inhabiting this space is both the most thrilling and terrifying part of doing creative work.

My questions for your consideration are:

What does dwell time look and feel like to you?

How do you manage uncertainty, and the unknown, when you create?

Are you aware of cycles or patterns in your creativity? What are they?

When you experience a lull of not working or lack of focus, what forces (both internal and external) are at play?

These are the kind of questions I offer you to ask and answer in the privacy of your own journal or sketchbook.

As always, I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.

*Everything is “good” when it comes to practice. We’re practicing. That’s good. In practice, we don’t judge the content either way.

18 Responses to Dwell time

  1. Renee Garcia March 12, 2015 at 10:36 pm #

    Thank you for sharing this- I found it really useful. My version of dwell time is all of the spaces in between- waking and sleeping- between night and the sunrise, and daylight and the sunset. It’s walking and looking for the crows and the beauty I can find. It’s pen drawing on paper and paint if I have it. I always consider this a part of my writing practice. (Though my internal critics make a lot of noise about what I’m not doing- I have to dial the volume down) It’s just what comes before the words and If I pay attention an idea arises or characters come and whisper to me and if I keep listening pretty soon a story is happening. Also I love using the found materials. I like cardboard too and brown grocery bags. 🙂

  2. suzana April 21, 2014 at 7:16 pm #

    What stood out for me: “The trick of it is to keep working, and not get to distracted by the analytical mind that craves outcome, product, progress…”

    For lots of reasons, I’m forever battling the ‘voices in my head’ that keeps telling me that if nothing ‘useful’ is going to come of it, I’m just ‘wasting time’. I know exactly where they came from/ why I shouldn’t listen to them – but the little gremlins are just so damn persistent!

    So, I drew them… and you know what? They’re a lot smaller & ‘cuter’ (certainly less intimidating) on paper. And I can put them in a box and tell them “I’m busy Dwelling”.

    Thanks, Lisa!

    Creative challenge? How to share my work, especially when I feel like it’s “Certainly nothing worth writing home (or on a blog post) about.”

  3. Heather April 18, 2014 at 11:39 am #

    I love this reminder that that time that feels like a whole lotta nada is happening that it’s part of the process. I got from this post that dwell time is critical to the creative process. And I am working on leaning into that!

    My struggle comes when I think I am always getting ready to get started. Where I take what could have been amazing dwell time and let it become the fear/excuse vortex.

  4. Anne Dexter April 17, 2014 at 4:30 pm #

    This post really resonated with me. What does dwell time look and feel like? I wrote a response to this during #Dreaming on Paper, I liken my dwell time to bouncing a ball for hours, the only activity is the thump, thump, thump of the ball on the ground, but in my head, if that makes sense. It can also feel like twisting a rubber band around a pencil, like a propeller. I meditate on what I am feeling, during the ball bouncing phase, then suddenly I am all action and the ball goes up in the air. Then I am off, the pencil spins like a propeller, things take shape on the page.

    So I relate to dwell time big time, its almost as much fun as actually doing the thing it turns out to be. When I worked in tv news there was no dwell time, everything had to be done at warp speed, with anxious producers and journalists doing their headless chicken thing all around. It really didnt worry me at all, but now after years of creative inactivity I am relishing the dwell time with my journal.

    There is a but though, I still havn’t managed to return to painting on canvas, which is what I thought I should do. So resistance shows there, and still not quite sure what to do about that yet. Lisa I need your help?

    • Lisa Sonora Beam April 17, 2014 at 4:56 pm #

      Anne –

      1. get a canvas. any canvas – any size. whatever you’ve got. size of your journal page if you go buy one.

      2. pretend it’s your DOP journal

      3. go through your favorite DOP painting techniques – set a timer and go fast – 15 mins. max.

      4. let dry. write on top. pick your favorite prompt.

      5. add some collage – using your fav. DOP techniques.

      6. rinse and repeat until your “page” is done.

      7. send me a picture. post in the DOP group.

      You’ve totally got this.

      • Anne Dexter April 17, 2014 at 7:04 pm #

        Thanks so much Lisa,

        I will do this.

  5. Nela April 17, 2014 at 3:47 am #

    Like Sally, I too am a perfectionist. So what that dwell time look and feel like to me?
    Like nothing is going well.
    Like I’m probably just wasting my time, because my God this is awful.
    Like I’m doing everything wrong, and those wonderful creative people who make beautiful art journal spreads must know some secret I don’t because their stuff looks so great, and no way am I going to be able to match that.

    I’m not sure I learned how to manage uncertainly and the unknown. To a perfectionist, the uncertainly is the greatest enemy.
    “What do you mean you don’t know what you’re doing? That’s impossible, that can’t be!”
    And so I struggle and I burst through this thing mostly by force, until something takes over me and starts pulling me in the right direction. Then flow happens, and everything is wonderful and magical and I’m pleasantly surprised by what comes out of the unknown, but man it wasn’t easy getting there…

    The forces that cause a lull are my inner critic (a part of me that has major self-worth issues) and… boredom. I don’t know what a better name for it would be. I feel it’s like a little kid who just doesn’t want to play anymore.

  6. Sandy April 16, 2014 at 9:11 am #

    I am slowly learning to cherish this sacred place in my creative practice. I have to say that as someone who has suffered from crippling perfectionism this has been the most challenging aspect of my creative practice. For years the dwell time stopped me from creating. I can’t imagine how many embryonic pieces were aborted and then discarded in the trash. Ironically, my husband, and best supporter, the one who remembered who I am before I could own it, would secretly go through the trash can in my studio and confiscate all aborted pieces and stow them away in the attic.He had this gentle way of returning them to me at just the right time. Today I very much am committed to bringing my art practice to life so that I may help others retrieve the fragmented pieces of their soul. Funny how an art practice has a way of doing this. It is my deepest desire and dream to create a self sustaining business utilizing intuitive painting, meditation, art journaling and movement. Thanks for sharing yourself with the world, Lisa. You are amazing!!!

  7. Janet April 15, 2014 at 8:55 pm #

    This: “This place where nothing/everything is happening. The trick of it is to keep working, and not get to distracted by the analytical mind that craves outcome, product, progress… In my experience, inhabiting this space is both the most thrilling and terrifying part of doing creative work.”

    This speaks to me where I am at the moment. For months I’ve been busy, productive, expressive, and now my analytical self is talking, fretting, pointing fingers and I feel stuck. Just stuck. I’ve made swatches, and mixed colors thinking that would get me going. Repurposed plastic bottles as containers for pencils and pens. Sat in front of my textured and gessoed canvas — and I can’t think what to put on it because my analytical self says there needs to be a plan and purpose; it needs to BE something.

    And thank you for your generosity in your give-o-way!

  8. becca givens April 15, 2014 at 7:38 pm #

    “The trick of it is to keep working, and not get to distracted by the analytical mind that craves outcome, product, progress…”

    Thank you for giving me this gift – pointing me in a direction of allowing myself permission to work through chicken-scratch instead of thinking “this is not going to go anywhere” … and walking away. I may have walked away moments before a breakthrough – but walking away prevented me from discovering it!

    My spirit feels lighter already! 🙂

  9. Abby Andersen April 15, 2014 at 5:16 pm #

    So, back at this one again – from a totally different place this time. I was all action and doing and racing and making when I commented originally – IE – what I THOUGHT was dwell time, well, WASN’T. And also give-o-way! 🙂

    ONE word – actually – which is EXACTLY where i am right now (which also probably serves to answer question two, but i’m wordy, and we’ll get to that. The word? Terrifying. TERRIFYING. I find it interesting that someone who does and knows so much would be in the same place as I am. I KNOW what i’m meant to do, but when I dwell, or typically, in the past, it’s been the precursor to something that looks, from the outside, something very much like dwelling, but isn’t. That thing? Stagnation. Loss of drive. Stuckness.

    And that’s exactly (to answer your other question) what I’m dealing with now. I was queen of the go-getter, gung ho – and then some life stuff happened, and I started to focus on my fitness, and poof – I went into near total creative shut-down, both materially and spiritually. I’m guessing I just didn’t have the bandwidth to continue at the pace I was traveling at AND add the gym and 3 personal trainer sessions to that per week.

    But art always makes me feel like superman.

    So when I get stuck, I think back to the time when I was so stuck that I just…did nothing. For like, 5 years. And that was awful. I regretted my “artist” tattoo. I gave away much of my stash of supplies. I felt like a fraud. Now, I don’t see that happening again, however, I’m afraid that’s what’s happening. I want that gone.

    I want the ability to just pick up and DO without it having to BE anything. To cut stuff out or glue stuff down or just play without any particular agenda. And I did that, with the 30 day journal exercise – but in that time, I didn’t do anything out of my book.

    So maybe the question is, “How can I be free enough in a daily journal practice and still have the discipline to work on bigger things, writing my curriculum, setting up my store, etc. Hoo boy. That was a lot more than I thought would come out, especially on a question that I thought (LOL) I’d already answered.

  10. Tina Golden Crow March 23, 2014 at 3:24 pm #

    DWELL TIME, for me, starts as a subconscious scratch. Like something alive trying to get out of a too-small space. It progressively adds intent and scratches harder, creating an uncomfortable static which collides with my “real life” task energy which self-importantly fights for all my time (Grocery Shopping, Taxes, Insurance, DentistVacuumRecycle) until I’m shivery anxious with left brain/right brain dissonance, often frosted with a quarter cup of ADD and a couple tablespoons of PTSD. I might whine a bit to my journal, but will finally break & cram the responsible adult part into a psychic holding space, sit down at my studio table and see what falls out. I’m the last to know. Whew! Grounded and peaceful during flow time; then it starts all over again. But it’s situational. I’ll be better soon. 🙂

  11. Julie Williams March 20, 2014 at 8:18 am #

    I’ve been playing in old magazines lately, too! Don’t you love the way the pages feel with paint on them? And the way the print and images show through? Current favorite thing.

    Creative flow. Almost always when I feel the most stuck that’s when the most is going on under the surface. On some level I know this, but I don’t always trust it, so then there’s a lot of agitation that starts to build on the surface. If the project I’m stuck with is focused mostly on writing, that’s when the art journal is the most helpful. Just playing with color and images without worrying about words helps to loosen up the interior process. A day or a week later I’ll be doing my morning writing and all of a sudden out will pour the inner workings that have been eluding me.

    If I’m stuck on an art project, then I really need my morning writing to keep me from imploding. So I go back and forth between the two. If the stuck place isn’t about my creative work, but about something else going on in my life, then the writing and art journals are my go-to for working through whatever’s going on.

    One of the things I’m focusing on in these workshops with you is finding the ways to join my two very separate journaling processes. I find the integration of your work really inspiring.

    • Lisa Sonora Beam March 21, 2014 at 1:08 pm #

      @Julie – thanks for sharing how you work.

      The thing about creative work is that we can’t think ourselves out of the stuck place (if only!). So when we’re there, we feel a lack of trust, among other things, but DOUBT is so huge – and the only way to deal with it is to go through it experientially.

      It doesn’t matter what I know, intellectually…also need to call upon the experience of feeling and action…

      funny…I am just writing about this very thing for a new workshop, so thank you! This dialogue helped me get unstuck from my own overthinking – which is a very real part of my own creative process.

      Too much thinking usually proceeds the work. I’m trying to shorten that a bit…awareness is the first step.

      Do you blog or keep a project journal about your own creative process? Or your creative work?

  12. Jane Bell Lassiter March 19, 2014 at 5:43 pm #

    It is loosening up and just making marks on a canvas or in a sketchbook. I’m using my “dwell” time to learn to detach from a particular “outcome”. I have a good mix of left-brain (helpful in my “day job”) and right-brain. I find if too much time has gone by between creations, I need to loosen up with colors, textures and marks.

    Loved your post!

  13. Abby Andersen March 18, 2014 at 8:55 pm #

    Right now, it looks like workshops – and writing and being active in groups and doing exercises -but i know that something’s coming – my gelatin plate is out on the table, and so are my paints. it’s spring break, so i have a breathing room i didn’t before. and i’m looking at shadow, and there’s always good stuff in there…


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