I’m so excited to interview writer-poet-painter-friend, Julia Fehrenbacher.
I first discovered Julia last July when her poem, “Unleashed,” was published on Kind Over Matter. I was in the middle of my Year of Fearless Love, and if you’ve read The Love Essays, you know that July was a turning point for me, the point at which “fearless love” became not just a theory for me to research but a lifeline, a desperate, hopeful leap into the rest of my life. In the midst of all my shit, I read “Unleashed” and it was as if Julia, who I’d never met (or even read before) had plucked me from my fear and uncertainty and pulled me close.
A lot has happened in the year since I read that first poem, and one of the most exciting things is the publication of Julia’s new book, On the Other Side of Fear. I’m seizing the opportunity to ask her some questions about the creative process, about where inside us art comes from, about courage, love, beauty, pain and release…
j: Many of your poems are written in second person, as if to the reader. Do you usually have someone in mind when you write them?
Julia: Yes. Sometimes I have a particular person in mind, a friend who is struggling to know her worth, a fellow blogger or reader of my blog who is pained and paralyzed by the same old I’m-not-good-enough-thoughts. Often my poems are sparked from my own discomfort and doubts, my own deep desire to move past what keeps me spinning in fear and into my most empowered self.
Sometimes I think of my dear Aunt May, a woman who took her own life when she was just twenty-six. I was a teenager when she died, so it’s been decades since her death, but I feel her presence often. When I sit down to write, I often think of the words I wish I (or someone) could have said to her, words that might have helped her to know she wasn’t alone, that she was just right exactly the way she was. I imagine her, or others, who suffer (which is all of us) finding some comfort, a gentle embrace, a stirring of empowerment and possibility—a reason to get up and try again even when the tired runs deep.
j: I love the whimsical quality of your art. Many of the paintings have words in them, like “Breathe” and “Create With Abandon” (two of my very favorite pieces). What comes first for you, the words or the image?
Julia: The image comes first. After I sit with a painting for a bit, after I stand back and get closer and stand back again—its essence begins to speak to me and the words slowly reveal themselves.
j: So, how does a painting come to you then, versus a poem? I’m wondering if the process is similar, or completely different?
Julia: It’s never the same, really. Sometimes I’ll see a photo, or I’ll be walking in the woods with the trees and birds and get the urge to capture the sweetness in a painting. Sometimes I’ll see someone else’s art or a splash of color that sparks a feeling inside of me that needs to be turned into something others can see.
Which reminds me of one of my very most favorite Rumi quotes: You dance inside my chest, where no one sees you, but sometimes I do, and that sight becomes this art.”
Yes, like that.
My favorite thing is to treat painting as a meditation or a spiritual practice—this is when I sit down with the intention of getting out of the way, letting go of trying to control and needing it to be “good” (this is much easier said than done), and instead focus on allowing something to flow through me. When I painted “Fearless Me,” which is the cover painting for my book, it was a moment by moment unfolding. I had no idea what I was going to paint when I began. Despite everything in me trying to control the process, I was able to drop deeper and allow something beyond my mind to lead me, one brush stroke after another. That painting would have never come through if “little scared me” had tried to control the process.
j: Letting go during the creation… that can be so scary. Trying not to think, “What if it’s shit when I’m done.” Whenever that happens to me from now on, I’m going to remember “Fearless Me.”
Julia: Yes, definitely, it can be scary. Yet, it’s the fear-infused thoughts like “what if it’s shit when I’m done” that keep us paralyzed and get in the way of the magic flowing through. It’s not a matter of “trying not to think” the limiting thoughts as it is choosing, moment by moment, to drop below the level of the judging mind so magic can move through. I see so clearly that the more I hang on and try to control, the less room there is for the surprising new to move through. Ironically, the more I try to control/plan/manipulate the process, the more likely the process and the outcome will be shit. Like the example of painting “Fearless Me,” once I stood in the midst of fear and let go of needing to control, I touched something sacred. Even if I hadn’t liked what I’d painted, I would have come out on the other side of fear—freer, more trusting—changed for the better.
j: So many of your poems are about letting go – of that need for control, of the past and the stupid voices (inside and outside) that tell us we’re not big or strong or talented enough. When I read those poems, I feel such a sense of release and reassurance. And always when I finish I think, “Why can’t I just remember this.” Why do you think we can’t remember how good it feels, how much we accomplish when we simply believe we can?
Julia: Ah, yes, those stupid voices are so damn persistent. The ego mind is such a powerful little machine and has had decades of training. The mind is gifted at spinning and replaying the same stories over and over again. I read somewhere that the majority of thoughts that spin through our heads are just recycled worries, fear-infused stories about the past and the future, doubts and insecurities—basically thoughts that do everything but serve us. Very few of them are new and fresh and empowering. It is a moment by moment practice to drop below the level of this mind noise and into the moment we are in—the moment that has never been before and is absolutely fresh and new.
When we show up right where we are, we can meet what is directly, with an openness to what IS rather than our stories about what is. Our minds are conditioned to be on alert, to look for what’s missing, for what’s potentially dangerous or wrong. It convinces us that it’s being protective, that it’s for our own good to stand still and not take risks. We must be very mindful and alert to drop below the level of this well-worn-groove of fear-based mind noise so we can allow ourselves to step into the deep breath of fresh and new.
j: Which brings us to your donkey. I LOVE your “Just Right” painting. I think your colorful winged donkey IS perfect. Do you? Are you able to stand back, embrace your own magnificent point, and say, “Yes. My donkey is just right”?
Julia: Yes. I truly am. That sweet winged donkey talked to me the whole time he was being created. He told me to just begin, to take it moment by moment. He told me to breathe and trust, that he was all mine,that he didn’t need to look like anyone else’s donkey. He told me not to quit even when he looked like a big mess on the canvas. He told me that he was just right, exactly as he is. And that I am too. I love him for that. I have the original in my living room and every time I look at him he reminds me to trust, to keep showing up as ME, that I am just right. He’s quite a wise one, that guy.
j: Your reference to “the big mess on the canvas” reminds me of a TED Talk I heard once. The speaker was talking about a reality show in which an interior designer makes over people’s homes. They aren’t allowed to watch the work being done. They can only come back at the end, once the magic is finished because – as with all works of art – the process can be so ugly it’s disheartening. When I heard that I thought that we, as artists, have to fight through our own insecurities and impatience, or we risk giving up on something that, in the end, is “just right.”
Julia: Yes! Rarely have I created something that didn’t first go through the “ugly phase.” Our little selves love to get in there and judge every word/every stroke of the brush—our minds are forever trying to take the reins. If I left it up to my fearful mind, I’d bale on everything in the midst of its ugly phase. I think that in order to keep moving we must not so much fight our minds but rather embrace every stage as simply part of the process. I find that when I embrace rather than fight I am able to drop into trust, and allow my “just right” to emerge.
j: Some of your poems, “Complete” and “Like the Moon” are very short, but they convey so much. How do you know when a poem is done?
Julia: After I’ve re-arranged and whittled the poem down to its essence by getting rid of all the excess, I just sit with it until I know—it’s not a mind/thinking knowing, it’s a deeper/trusting knowing. It’s one of those “I just know” kind of feelings that we’ve all had but can’t necessarily put into words.
j: Actually, whatever that sense is, I’m lacking. After a piece of mine gets published, I have to stop reading it. I never stop wanting to tinker.
Julia:Yes, the mind would forever go on tinkering/tweaking/trying to make better. I think if we left it up to our little selves, we’d never be fully satisfied. Which is why it’s essential for me to allow the deeper/wiser part of me decide.
j: I think most writers and poets come back to the same themes over and over again. Near the end of his life, Kurt Vonnegut was asked what he felt his theme was and he said, “family.” What do you think your themes are?
Julia: Trust. Letting go. Opening. Embracing. Listening. Breathing. Enoughness. Freedom. Possibility. Gratitude. Love.
j: Thank you, Julia.
Julia: Beautiful J. Thank you so much for these just right questions, for being exactly who you are. Your support and love, your seeing me, has helped me to be more of who I am. I treasure you, my friend.
j: Me too, you. I’m not only a friend, but an enormous (only slightly slobbery) fan. I want to shout from the rooftops, “BUY THIS BOOK!”
Win the book!
Okay, it’s your turn! I had such a great time talking to Julia. I’d love for you to jump into our conversation. Leave a comment, and next week (July 9th), Julia will pick a name at random to win a signed copy of her book! (I got my copy in the mail last week. It’s… well… just right.)