Fiona writes: I found Colleen Leonardi through her lovely blog, and soon discovered that she was multi-talented… choreography, cooking, yoga, writing… a fine candidate for our series of creativity interviews. We’re very privileged to welcome her here today.
Welcome, Colleen. What drives your creative work?
My love of grace and the imagination, and an endless sense of curiosity. It’s a longing I feel in my body to understand things, transform things, and give back. When I was young and training in dance, it was the desire to jump higher, turn faster, and dance as much as possible. My writing life was private. I kept journals and promised myself that someday I would be a writer, but for the time being, dance was my passion. As I grew up, experienced the world, and came to accept how I see things, my passion for dance and my private desire for writing mellowed, each moving into the other. Eventually, I came to see my all of my life as creative work. And the longing I have in my body to write, cook, move, knit, make things needs to be expressed on a daily basis in order to feel like I’m connected and contributing to the world. It’s also a matter of survival. For me, the drive to create is like the drive to eat. If I don’t do it, I get hungry, cranky, and weak.
What would you say to yourself if you could go back in time and meet yourself at the beginning of your creative career?
Trust your voice. Listen to your inner angels. And don’t be so hard on yourself. Life is for fun, so have fun. Play to know but also remember you know more than you think. And be kind to yourself. Be so, so, so kind and gentle to your most beautiful self.
How do you keep creating when things get difficult?
Sometimes I can’t keep creating through the difficulty. I have to stop and take a restorative break. If I’m being honest with myself, that can take a week, a month, three months, sometimes a year! I’ve gone through phases where I’ve quit dance for a year at a time to ground and nourish my most basic self. Or I’ve stopped writing a story only to return to it months later. More often, it’s daily difficulties that can wear me down. And I have my tools: take a tea break, clean up and organize stuff, go for a walk, leave it for tomorrow, cook food for myself or someone I love, spend time with my husband, pull out my file of inspirational things and play—get inspired and play, come back to what it is I love about my creative work-life. Oh, and I remind myself of something Pema Chödrön said about something Rilke wrote: “Just keep going…the beauty and the terror…no feeling is final.”
How does your creative work affect the rest of your life?
I tell myself that my creative work is my life and my life is my work. And I work to strike this dance for myself. And, for the most part, I do. But I would be dishonest if I didn’t admit that sometimes my creative work gets the best of me, leaving little for my family, husband, and friends. I once read something Willa Cather said when she was writing one of her novels: “My art is more important than my friend.” I was conflicted reading this. I love my friends, but I understand what Cather was suggesting. I feel a duty to my creative work. It’s how I know myself. And sometimes the creative impulse emerges at inconvenient times—for my family or friends—but I have to honor it. I have to turn my back, hunker down, and go.
What is it like to send your work out into the world?
Nerve-wracking and thrilling. After I send my writing out into the world, I have this strange bodily experience—I don’t know how people are going to experience it, so there is grief and fear for me but also peace. I feel like a Picasso painting—totally twisted but serene. With dance and performance, I am the experience, I am generating it while people generate their feelings and thoughts about it. And that is a distinctly different bodily experience. It’s an absolute high—pure energy running through me, out into space, into the lap of a perfect stranger. I feel alive when I perform my own choreography. As a writer, I experience that aliveness during the writing and imagining of the work—all those long hours at the desk and staring out the window. Writing is a performative act for me in the sense that I have to get into a state of mind to do it. I also think performers experience the grief, fear, and peace of releasing your work out into the world after the show or project is over.
What was the best advice anyone gave to you?
“The freedom is in the discipline. The discipline is in the freedom.” It’s from an old ballet teacher of mine. I remember hating this when I heard it. All it meant to me was that I had to practice a lot to be able to turn faster, jump higher, etc. Now I see that it is your practice that sustains you when all else fails. And the rigor of your practice has so much play and freedom in it. But you can’t truly have play as an artist without the discipline, form, craft, commitment—call it what you will. You need the discipline to find your own freedom within it. It’s a paradox worth living.
What helps you to pay attention to the world?
A commitment to the world and a curiosity about how it works. I consciously make time to go for walks, see things, meet with people, engage with the place where I live, and stay active in the community as a part of my creative work-life. And I take breaks throughout my day to stop, breathe, and truly see. And seeing for me…it’s about accepting and listening to others and accepting and listening to myself. I know I’m not really seeing when I’m “lost in thought.” It’s when my ears open, my eyes widen, my breath deepens, and my body softens that I know my attention is truly with a friend, or the world, and I see them—I’m caught in that luscious, sensory space between perceiver and perceived. I’m present.
Colleen Leonardi is a writer, editor, and choreographer with a passion for cooking and teaching yoga. As an artist, she aims to build a body of work authentically rooted in how she sees the world. Currently, she is editor of Edible Columbus, a member of Edible Communities, winner of the 2011 James Beard Foundation Award for Publication of the Year. She teaches yoga at Yoga on High in Columbus, Ohio. She is a member of Skoveworks, directed by Lily Skove. And she make dances from time to time under the umbrella Colleen Leonardi & Co. Learn more about Colleen and read her work on her blog. Photo by Colleen.