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BONUS EPISODE: What If Creativity Was an Others-Focused Activity? // Ashlee Gadd

“If the enemy had his way, we would never use any of our gifts in the world. We would just keep them hidden, we would keep them locked away deep in our closet, and never use them for the glory of God or for any other good and holy, sacred purpose.”

— Ashley Gadd

We are so excited to share this special bonus episode with you today!

Have you ever thought that creativity was limited to scrapbooking, or that you just aren't a "creative person"? Ashlee Gadd, author of Create Anyway, is joining Natalie Abbott to talk about why being created in the image of God informs how we should view creativity, why creativity doesn't need to be a selfish pursuit, and how motherhood and creativity collide. May you be inspired to use the creativity God has given you to serve others for his glory!

Today's Dwell guest: Ashlee Gadd is author of Create Anyway: The Joy of Pursuing Creativity in the Margins of Motherhood and the founder of Coffee + Crumbs—a beautiful online space where motherhood and storytelling intersect. As a writer and photographer, Ashlee has spent her entire motherhood creating in the margins. When she's not writing or vacuuming Cheerios out of the carpet, she loves making friends on the internet, eating cereal for dinner, and rearranging bookshelves. She and her husband have three kids and live in Northern California.


“Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience.” — Colossians 3:12


Create Anyway: The Joy of Pursuing Creativity in the Margins of Motherhood  by Ashlee Gadd

Ashley Gadd's website

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EPISODE TRANSCRIPT:Hey, welcome back everybody to the Dwell Differently podcast. It's your host, Natalie Abbott. And this is a bonus episode! For those of you who are regular listeners you know that we always have this schedule where we do a teaching episode and a guest episode. We're always talking about our verse, but this is a bonus episode so we can do whatever we want.(READ MORE)

And I am so excited because this is a total bonus for me because I have been reading this awesome book. It's called Create Anyway. The Joy of Pursuing Creativity in the Margins of Motherhood. And the author of this book, Ashlee Gadd, is with us today.

Welcome, Ashlee.

Ashlee Gadd: Thank you, Natalie. I'm so thrilled to be here for a bonus episode.

Natalie Abbott: You are our bonus. You're my bonus because I haven't even finished this book. I actually was like, "Do I read it all quickly so that I can know everything that's in it to talk to her, or do I just keep savoring it?" And so I kind of did a little bit of reading ahead, but mainly this is my “stay up past 11 o'clock when everybody else is sleeping, savoring it, really enjoying it” book. I have just absolutely loved it. You're an excellent writer. Your style is very honest and engaging. It's encouraging and the way that you weave the Bible throughout and just give us permission as busy, busy moms and women to consider creativity. I absolutely have just loved it.  I think sometimes our subtitle in our lives would be, Create Anyway, the Pressure or the Tension of Pursuing Creativity in the Margins of Motherhood. We have this tendency, I think, not to give ourselves permission to be creative. And I love the way that you explain creativity. It's just such a fantastic resource for anybody who wants to read it and also has these great little journaling prompts and creative prompts throughout the book. It has just been a lovely read. And for our listeners, our memory verse this month is Colossians 3:12, "Therefore, as [00:02:00] God's chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience." But what if we added on “creativity”? What if creativity was an others-focused activity? And I think that is kind of part of what you're saying for us, Ashlee. So can you explain to us a little bit about how creativity can be something that isn't necessarily selfish, but can be done in an others-focused way as a contribution and a blessing for other people?

Ashlee Gadd: Yeah. Absolutely. I tend to think of creativity almost as an offering. When we go to church, when we put our tithe in the basket as it makes its way around, we're sort of giving back to God a portion of what he has given us and I tend to think of creativity in the same way. That when we go out into the world and we are generous with our creative acts and our passions and our dreams and we give some of ourselves away in the art that we make, that is an act of stewardship. It's an act of giving back into the world a portion of the talent that God has gifted us.

And I think that looks a lot of different ways depending on what your creative acts are, whether you're, you know, a writer or a baker or a gardener. I mean, there's so many different facets of creativity and so many different ways that women can be creative and use their gifts in the world. And so I think the possibilities of that generosity are really limitless.

Natalie Abbott: I did really appreciate that about the book because I come from an artistic family. My mom is an artist, my grandma was an artist, my aunt is an artist, like an actual painter - that kind of art. And I can't even take a picture that looks decent. My children are always making fun of me. And my sister does the graphic designs for Dwell, like [00:04:00] there's so much artistry in my family that I always thought, "I'm not a creative person." And yet in your book, you do so much to help us redefine what creativity is. Can you kind of give us a bigger picture of what you would say creativity is?

Ashlee Gadd: One of the strongest foundations I really try to lay down in the book is this idea that every single human being is creative because we are made in the image of the utmost creative God. And so, something I hear a lot from women in particular is sort of, it's almost like a pushback on that word.

You know, I think that the word "creativity" is intimidating for a lot of women to embrace. I would say it's the same as the word "artist" or even for me, "writer". It took me years and years and years to be able to call myself a writer because I had all of these connotations worked up in my mind of what it really meant to be a real capital W writer, you know? I'm just dabbling on a blog on the internet. I'm not a real writer. So I love to expand the definition of what it means to be "creative", right?

Because creativity is not limited to scrapbooking or being like the Pinterest mom who turns her children's lunches into works of art. I don't do any of that. I can't paint. There are tons of creative acts that I myself am not skilled at. But I think that all of us have some sort of individual, unique, creative inkling that God himself has wired into us and that looks different from person to person. For mothers in particular, I have such a hard time when moms tell me they're not creative because moms are creating all the time, right?

Moms are creating memories and magic and rhythms and routines and meals. [00:06:00] And we are creating life. I mean, we are creating all the time. And so I love to reframe that word for people to take it out of this little box that is really intimidating for women to embrace and just expand upon it.

If you were to think about your day from sunup to sundown and really think through all the things and all the ways that you are creating in a day. It goes on and on and on. Women are so creative. Mothers are so creative and I would love to see more women just embrace that label, and not be afraid to claim it.

Natalie Abbott: Okay. I love what you said about organizing as a creative act. That just blew my mind for a half a second. I was like, "What? Yeah, I guess it can be." I'm not that person, but I look at other women who are creative in that way, and I think, "Wow, your organizational systems are amazing! I have a friend who came over when we moved to Pennsylvania - she didn't even know me. First time I met her- she is a professional organizer and she unpacked my kitchen!

Ashlee Gadd: Oh my gosh. What a gift!

Natalie Abbott: I never moved a thing. You know how sometimes you set up a house and you're like, "Ah, my silverware drawer should really be over here because I'm using it all the time."? She has all of those gifts to put everything in their proper place. And it was like, "Wow, what an amazing gift. What a gift and what a service to me."

Ashlee Gadd: I was just gonna say that goes back to the idea of the generosity component. That's such an act of generosity to be that friend that can come over and help you move in your house.

Natalie Abbott: I wish she had moved in this house with me because I think we're gonna be in this house longer and there are so many things where I feel like this is in the wrong place, but I'm maybe too lazy and definitely not aggressive enough with things like that to tackle that project. It would take a long time and I'm like, I'm just gonna leave that there for now.

Ashlee Gadd: Yeah, sometimes we just have to call it good enough. That's another creative lesson for you.

Natalie Abbott: Yes. [00:08:00] Yes. So what do you feel like it is about us as women that is reluctant to either call ourselves "creative" or to give ourselves permission to be creative?

Ashlee Gadd: Mm hmm. With calling ourselves "creative" I think there's just a tremendous amount of fear, doubt, insecurity, that really the enemy uses to hinder us in using our gifts. I think that If the enemy had his way, we would never use any of our gifts in the world. We would just keep them hidden, we would keep them locked away deep in our closet and never use them for the glory of God or for any other good and holy, sacred purpose.

I think when it comes to struggling to embrace the permission, there's a lot at play there. And the one that I think I've experienced the most is just sort of this and I think it's probably more of a cultural narrative that to be a "good mother", you know, "good mothers" are all sacrificial all of the time. We are selfless. We are pouring ourselves out into our family and that's probably been one of the biggest reframes that I've leaned into in my decade plus of motherhood is flipping that on its head to really see what we talked about at the beginning of the episode this idea that when we are using our creative gifts in the world it can be an offering can be an act of generosity, and not only that, it's also a really imperative way that women can care for ourselves so that we can care for our families.

I think as a society, we are getting better about talking about — and I hesitate to use the words “self care” because I think that's a loaded phrase that brings up, conjures up maybe a lot of feelings for a lot of people. [00:10:00] So at the risk of just using that word for the sake of simplicity here, I think we are getting better at talking about this idea that mothers do need to care for themselves to care for their families. We cannot pour ourselves out from an empty cup. When I am taking the time to invest in my creative gifts, to use them to make time and space to do the things that make me feel alive, that put a fire in my belly, that is good for me.

That serves me, it fills me up, it lights me up. When I'm taking the time to invest in myself as a whole flourishing person, my whole family benefits from that. And I think for such a long time, even I struggled to see that or to accept that as truth. The narrative that I had in my head was every minute I spend on something that's for me is taking something away from my family and I've learned to flip that around from a scarcity mindset to more of one of abundance that when I am caring for myself and seeing myself as a whole person that actually is offering something to my family.

There is a value add, there is a benefit. It belongs in the plus column, not the minus column. And it's taken me a long time to really lean into that. But, I'm really passionate about helping women flip that script around a little bit.

Natalie Abbott: Well, I am so glad that you have, because it really is a gift to experience the truth and the freedom that we can have as believers and to reframe the things that I think society might label as negative or you know I think that idea like you're talking about mothers having to be all sacrificial. As Christians, Christ was all sacrificial and therefore when we walk in his sacrifice on our behalf we have this this newfound freedom for all of the things in our life to have a sort of a new life and to take on a new form and to restructure and reframe the way that we think [00:12:00] about things like creativity.

As a child who grew up in a home with a mother, who's an artist, I can remember just doing ridiculous amounts of art projects. I mean, like, if anything, I can look at my own children and be like, "I'm sorry, I haven't done that for you as much as I should have," but I mean, there was always this chaotic joy of creativity in my home. I have four siblings and all of us look back and we're like, "That was magical." My mother created this magical environment for us where we were able to express ourselves and flourish in a way that I think sometimes, I've personally, as a mom, maybe don't give my kids as much of that as I really should, to encourage their creativity. One of the things that you talk about is how kids are just naturally creative. Something about us as adults actually becomes dull when we grow up. There's something about us that loses that wonder and that sense of a desire to engage with the world in a way that is fun and, and unique. So I love how you encourage moms and women to play. That's a good thing for us to do.

Ashlee Gadd: Yeah, it is a good thing. And it's so fun. I love watching my kids engage in the creative process because it truly inspires my own, you know? Their imagination inspires my imagination. Their curiosity leads me to be curious. That's kind of another point I try to really drive home in this book is that we don't have to keep our creativity or our creative efforts separate from our children. When we sort of allow those two worlds to collide, motherhood and creativity, there's a beautiful fruit that comes out of that. And I spent a while in my early motherhood trying to keep those worlds separate. I wanted to kind of keep my motherhood in a box and my creativity in a different box and the more and more that I've just allowed them to collide, the more I've allowed myself to be inspired by the creative work of my children, which has been really, [00:14:00] really fun.

Natalie Abbott: There were four things that so far as I read your book that I have really taken to heart and I think have been helpful. One is "You have everything you need." The second is "You are not an imposter." The third is "Nothing is wasted." And then finally, "Creativity begets creativity." So those are my four highlights so far from reading your book that I have really kind of held onto and have spoken to my heart, and have really said a lot to me.

So let's start with "You have everything you need." What do you mean by that?

Ashlee Gadd: So often when we are setting out to pursue a creative idea or a creative endeavor, we convince ourselves that we need to buy stuff to get going. And the story I tell in the book is me as an early photographer who had convinced herself that I needed more lenses. I needed different presets for Lightroom. I needed different software. I needed this. I needed that. I needed a fancy camera bag. I spent so much of my early journey as a photographer reading Amazon reviews, instead of taking pictures, you know? And I'm guilty of this even now. There are times when I convince myself, "Oh, well, if I just sign up for this workshop. If I just buy this book. If I just sign up for this course, then I'll have everything I need. And then I can really be an artist and I can really create something that matters." And you know, more often than not, the simple truth is, what's going to make you a better photographer is taking pictures. I have a camera. I don't need to buy 80 extra things. I just need to get out into the world and start practicing, doing the work, falling down, getting back up, keep it going, keep it moving, and that's such an unglamorous truth of the creative process, but more often than not, we have what we need.

I love the creative exercise. I think at the end of that chapter is to [00:16:00] sort of make a list of what you need and what you already have. And I think that for so many of us, whether you're, again, you're a writer, you're a baker, you're a knitter, you're a painter, when we think about what we already have, what's already inside of us, you know, we have.

The ability to imagine we have a sense of wonder, we have creativity in our actual DNA because we were made in the image of a creative God when you think about everything that you already have inside of you we are equipped. We are ready to go. Of course you're going to need some bare essentials— you can't paint without paint— but I think so often we're tempted, and for me it usually shows up as a sign of procrastination when I don't want to actually do the work So, I spend time reading Amazon reviews because that's easier than writing.

Natalie Abbott: Right. Right.

Ashlee Gadd: I'd rather read Amazon reviews about a book about writing than actually write. And somehow that makes me feel like I'm being productive.

Natalie Abbott: That leads us to actually the fourth thing that I mentioned, but I think we can tackle it right now, is that idea of "creativity begets creativity." What do you mean by that?

Ashlee Gadd: Yeah, I mean, creativity is, it's a muscle. It's a muscle that we can flex and we can use. And the more you use it, the more you want to use it. And I know for me coming out of a dry season where I haven't been creating very much, that's always the hardest for me to kind of get back into the swing of things.

But momentum is such a powerful force when it comes to the creative practice. And, truly, the more we sit down and write, the more ideas we have, the more stories we tell, the more stories we remember. I mean, it goes on and on and on. And I think one of the coolest parts about creativity is that it truly transcends genres.

When I spend a lot of time writing, it often inspires my photography. And when I spend a lot of time taking photos, I take a lot of pictures in my backyard this time of year, it inspires me to plant more flowers. And when I plant more flowers, it inspires me to eat more vegetables. I mean, I don't know. It just kind of goes on and on and on. It's like [00:18:00] every little seed you plant in your creative practice, it kind of bears fruit for something else. And so, yeah, it's really generative in that way.

Natalie Abbott: I love that. I also love how you were saying in the book how you almost just have to force yourself sometimes. You just have to sit down and do the thing. Sometimes when I have a writing deadline, especially when I actually don't have a writing deadline, I force myself anyway to sit down and write and then I refuse to let myself delete anything until the next day. And then when I look at it, I'm like, "Oh, this wasn't as bad as I thought it was. There's actually some salvageable things in here." At the time though, it can feel like you're pulling your own teeth out. You know? “Why am I doing this to myself?!”

Ashlee Gadd: I think as a mom, a different approach that I have now, or maybe a different appreciation is a better word— but before I became a mother, my whole philosophy for writing in particular was very much like, "Oh, when I feel inspired I'm just going to sit down and write." Discipline was such an afterthought. And now, discipline is such an essential part of the creative practice because it has to be, right? When you have three little kids, I can't just sit around waiting for inspiration. It will never come or when it finally comes, it's not an opportune time to sit down and write. And so I think that act of really forcing yourself in the chair, not only is that really necessary when you're, when you're creating in the margins of motherhood, but also, it plays again into that force of momentum. And I think the more you do it, the easier it gets over time.

Natalie Abbott: I love it. Okay. We get to tackle two more really quickly. "You are not an imposter." What did you mean by that?

Ashlee Gadd: I don't know any creative person on the planet who does not suffer from imposter syndrome. I fought that the entire time that I was writing this book. Feeling like someone was going to figure out that I did not know what I was doing and that I'm actually not a very good writer and I don't know how I got this book contract, but surely someone's going to figure me out. I'm a total fraud. [00:20:00] But, those are really just lies. They're lies that the enemy uses and hisses in our ears to keep us from doing the work that God has called us to do. And it's so essential, especially for believers who are engaging in creative work, to constantly be assessing where those messages are coming from. Because any messages in our head telling us that we're not equipped to do the work that God himself has called us to do, we can call that for what it is, right? That's a lie. That is not from the Lord, and it's really, really essential to know whose voice you're listening to.

Natalie Abbott: Yeah, I loved the prompt at the end of that chapter to fold a piece of paper in half and on one side write the lie, and then on the other side what truth can combat it, either like a written statement or scripture.

And I just thought, that's such a practical thing. I have a friend who's a writer who keeps, like a little postcard note on her fridge, and I can't remember exactly what it says, but every time she feels like she's a fraud, she reads that to herself. And one day she sent that to me and I was like, "This is really encouraging. Why am I not doing this?" But I love that idea that practically there is this encouragement in Scripture that we can take it and tell it to ourselves and fight those lies with truth. So I really appreciated that. But we have one more. "Nothing is wasted." And I love that actually that we're ending on this. What do you mean by "nothing is wasted?"

Ashlee Gadd: Yes, nothing is wasted. So my favorite photo in the whole book is the picture of the basket of burned out candles. So I'll tell that story really quickly. That's related to the nothing is wasted concept. Pretty early in the book writing process, I think I was only working on the proposal at the time, I had a candle. I always light a candle when I'm writing. And I had a candle burn out on my desk one day, and [00:22:00] I remember just sitting there realizing as I was looking at the puff of smoke coming out of the candle how much time I had already spent on this book. And I hadn't even technically started writing it yet.

I mean, I was working on a book proposal. I had to write three sample chapters, but I was still so early in the process and it was blowing my mind when I looked at that candle burn out, how many candles I had already burnt out working on the book proposal. And so I decided right then and there, I'm going to keep every candle that I burn out while I'm working on this book.

I'm going to keep them in a bag in my closet. And when I'm all done with the book, I'm going to put them all out on my dining room table and I'm going to take a picture. And I put those pictures in the book. And the thing that I really, really, really love about those images is that they don't represent word count.

They don't represent any kind of finishing, you know, in the sense of every time I burned out a candle, I finished something. I mean, every time I burned out a candle, I was still sitting in the chair. I was still doing the work. I was lighting another candle. And anybody who is a writer familiar with the writing process knows that half the time when you're writing, you are deleting what you just wrote, or you're staring at the wall, or you're praying, you're asking God to help you conjure up the words that you don't even have, and that's what I love so much about those candles. It really represents this idea that nothing is wasted. I remember when I first got my manuscript word count, it was 60,000 words, and I remember having that profound thought, "There is no way I could ever write that many words."

And yet, not only did I write 60,000 words, There are thousands and thousands of words that I cut from the manuscript that are still sitting in my Google Drive that are, at this point, I mean, who knows? I don't know if they're total garbage. I don't know if I'll use them for something else later, but the point is none of that was wasted.

It wasn't a waste that I wrote a bunch of extra words that I didn't use. It wasn't a waste that sometimes I just sat and stared at the wall. It wasn't a waste that sometimes I would sit down to write for [00:24:00] an hour and I would write three sentences. It's all part of the process. It's all part of the creative journey.

And when God is with us in this work, we have to trust that not one second of that is going to be wasted. It's just like parenting. I mean, how many times as a mother do we feel like, "Oh my gosh, I just cleaned this house and two seconds later, it's a disaster." Or, "I just made this elaborate meal and nobody's eating it."

I can't tell you how many times I think in a day, "That was a waste. That was a waste of time. That was a waste of effort." And yet I have to just believe that God is using every second of my mothering every second of my creative work for some kind of glorious purpose, you know one I might not even see this side of heaven. One I might not even know or understand but I have to believe that he's using all of it and that it's not wasted

Natalie Abbott: Well, I feel like this particular book was not wasted. There's nothing in it that is a waste. It is an excellent book. Like I said, I have savored it. It has been such a joy to read and an encouragement to my own heart. And for those of you who feel like maybe you're not a creative person, this is still a book for you. It gives you the permission to think about these things and to consider them in light of the God who works all things for good for those who love him and who have been called according to his purpose. We all have this purpose, that we are all mini co creators in the world.

And like our verse said, that we are God's chosen people. We are holy and dearly loved. And therefore we should clothe ourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience. In the loving and serving of others in our lives, we can embrace that act, not as a drudgery, but as a joy.

So this book was such a joy to me, Ashlee, and this conversation was such a joy. I'm so glad you were able to join me today.

Ashlee Gadd: Thank you, Natalie. Thank you so much. I loved chatting with you today, and yeah, just appreciate all your kind words. So thank you.

Natalie Abbott: Absolutely. And for our listeners out there, if you want to [00:26:00] find out more, we'll have links in our show notes to the book and to Ashlee’s website. She also has a podcast that she hosts and she does Coffee and Crumbs, which is a great place for moms to come and just feel encouraged. So we'll have all those links for you in our show notes. And again, thank you so much, Ashlee, for joining me today.

Ashlee Gadd: Thank you.

Dwell Blog/Podcast Featured Content

Ashlee Gadd

Ashlee Gadd is a writer, photographer, and the ultimate hype girl for all things motherhood & creativity. She and her husband have three kids and live in Northern California.

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