The Intentional Expat

Living Your Best Life Abroad

TEDxMadrid: Reflections on the Creative Process and How I Got Myself Into this Mess


In March 2005, I embarked on my very first trip outside of North America. Along with 29 other students from my university, I boarded a flight to Europe to embrace twelve weeks of travel throughout Spain, France, Austria, Germany, and Italy. I’ve often been asked what inspired me to sign up for this trip and the truth is that I have no clue. My family never traveled abroad, my experiences outside the states up to this point had been limited to a couple trips up to Vancouver, B.C. and I didn’t have any desire to learn a foreign language. But I knew without a doubt that I wanted to go abroad during college. The only possible explanation is that when I was a child I would often spend my weekends curled up under a table with my nose in a book, letting myself getting carried away to far off lands. Maybe my 20 year old self sensed that it was finally time to put down the books and get some real life travel experience.

What awaited me was greater than I could have ever imagined. For over two months I was surrounded by new sights, smells, tastes and experiences. Examples of artistic expression abounded, my days were filled with museums, symphonies, operas, musicals, architecture and the artistic marvel of the differing landscapes we witnessed. It was impossible not to write on a daily basis. The words just came tumbling out in poems, prose and recollections on the things I was seeing and old ideas and patterns I was being forced to reconsider because this physical (and mental) space away from the life I’d always known was giving me the freedom to imagine new possible futures, which is exactly how my dream of living abroad was born.


On my first trip through Europe I was more often than not spotted writing in my journal with some sort of hat on my head (because creativity can also manifest itself in your wardrobe!)

It was precisely on this trip, following a  performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony in Vienna’s State Opera House where I first began to ponder the creative process. As we all excitedly chatted about the exquisite performance we’d just been lucky enough to experience, our professor asked us to consider that this symphony had been created, that once upon a time Beethoven had stared at a blank sheet of paper and out of this nothingness had given birth to the awe inspiring piece of music that we had just enjoyed. It might seem like a simple realization, but it changed the way I encountered examples of artistic expression throughout the rest of my time in Europe.

However, this realization also left me with a dilemma, one that I became even more painfully aware of as I tried out an Imaginative Writing course at my university the following spring. I wanted to create, I wanted to write. My experience in Europe had made me even more aware of that. But, creating something out of nothing was an overwhelming and intimidating task. Who was I to think that I was capable of doing such a thing? What had I studied that made me qualified to create things? As I learned throughout spring quarter that year, experimenting with sharing my writing with other self-identified writers, writing sucked. Don’t get me wrong, I still enjoyed putting a pen to paper and getting my thoughts down when I felt like it, but this whole process of editing, sharing, and letting the creative juices flow when I wanted them to (and when the course syllabus demanded) was just too much for my perfectionist, self-doubting, control-freak college senior self to handle. While I did produce a couple of pieces I was proud of, it required me to take a giant leap out of my comfort zone, which I wasn’t capable of handling at that moment in my life.


The cover of my Imaginative Writing portfolio. Notice the bottom right hand corner: “Not a Walk in the Park.”

Fast forward eight years later and last fall I found myself trying to recreate my life after a breakup with my long-term boyfriend forced me to…build something out of nothing. And it was in this space that felt like nothingness that I decided I would find meaning in this unexpected turn that my life had taken by once and for all pursuing my writing seriously. At this point I didn’t know why this was all happening, my suffering still felt pointless and futile, and ultimately the only thing I wanted was to get back with my ex. But I made a deal with myself and the universe. I said that I would accept that me and him weren’t meant to be together if my life falling apart meant that I would finally pursue my dream of being a writer.

Throughout the years I had crossed paths with many people who had sworn by Julia Cameron’s “The Artist’s Way,” for helping writers and other artists along the creative process, but despite having had the audiobook on my computer for six years, I hadn’t been ready to check out her twelve week course for “recovering creatives” until now. Each Sunday night I grabbed my ipod and went strolling around Madrid to see what she had to say about the creative process, healing our artist’s child and the weekly tasks I had to take on in order to pursue my own creativity. I began to write every morning for 15 minutes, “morning pages,” as she refers to them, and scheduled a weekly artist’s date with myself (observing street musicians, perusing small book shops, taking in Madrid’s architecture, exploring the different colors and textures on display at the local fabric store, etc.).


Sometimes my artist’s dates included teaching (and participating in) a weekly arts & crafts class with a group of ten year olds. Tuning into our creativity requires you to tune into the child inside and PLAY!

There were other tasks too, which I found to be remarkably similar to the homework assignments I give to my clients. Writing a letter to your future self, identifying your values, posting self affirmations in your work space…In many ways the process of recovering your creative self seemed to mirror the therapeutic process. I learned that I was not alone in my fears, that numerous artists from varying disciplines also found this assignment of creating something out of nothing to be daunting and overwhelming. Taking it on required working on your self-confidence, challenging your self-defeating thoughts, not letting perfectionism get the best of you, accepting fear as a part of the process and finding ways to put a positive spin on what could otherwise be seen as a failure.

Cameron’s book also has a strong spiritual component to it. She believes that in order for artists to thrive, we must accept that there is a larger creative energy that we are tapping into when we create. In her book she refers to this energy as “God,” although she encourages readers to use whatever word they feel most comfortable with. I do consider myself to be a spiritual person, but I can see how this aspect of the book could be unsettling to others.

However, whether or not you believe in this spiritual aspect of the creative process, I cannot deny that my experience of going through the twelve-week course was life changing. Yes. Life changing. This book speaks about how when you start creating strange coincidences start happening, “synchronicity.” You find just the inspiration you were looking for to continue with your painting, novel, film, etc. or you cross paths with just the person who can help connect you with a publisher or agent. In her TED Talk on where creativity comes from, writer Amy Tan speaks about this experience of finding just what you need when creating something. She wonders if it is because you are focused on a task and therefore more alert to the arrival of things that could work with your project or, could it truly be that the universe is helping you in that process of creating something out of nothing? While neither Amy, Julia, nor I have definitive answers on this, I think anyone who has ever gone out to create and has found just what we were looking for, seemingly out of nowhere, is incredibly grateful for this synchronicity and my own life has overflown with these moments over this past year. Honestly, it would be easy to write a book of what’s gone on in my life these past twelve months, it feels like life (the universe?) has just dropped an incredibly good story in my lap.

While at home in the states this summer, I learned that Seattle is home to a center that offers “The Artist’s Way” courses. With a group of ten other aspiring creatives, you’re guided through the twelve week process of discovering your creative potential. Seeing the flyer that advertised these classes awoke in me a desire that almost didn’t make sense, much in the same way that my desire to go study abroad came about. Without a doubt, I suddenly knew that I wanted to lead a course of this type that could help other individuals to work through their creative and psychological blocks to pursue their own creativity and reach their full potential in both their personal and professional lives.

blog cover

Launching this blog was in thanks to everything I went through in the past year. I’ve had another blog for the past 6+ years, but never before felt ready to share it.

Which is how only one month later I now find myself less than a week away from leading a discussion group on the creative process at this year’s TEDxMadrid event. Although it will be my first TEDx event, I’ve been told that it’s the place where the most creative and innovative minds come together, so I’m looking forward to tapping into their own creative experiences and further discussing the ideas I have about developing workshops and guiding people on the path to unlocking their creative potential. I’m also terrified. The kind of fear that affects your sleep and makes your mind race with possible ways to back out of the commitment. But, unlike that twenty-one year old soon-to-be-college-grad in me who ran the other way when fear crept up in her Imaginative Writing class, my creative self now knows that this is all part of the process and she’s eager to actively search out inspiration. And, if nothing else, as I’m so fond of saying here, it’s certain to be blogworthy!

Do you consider yourself to be a creative person or would you like to be more creative? I’d love to hear about your own experience with the creative process and how you deal with fear and feelings of inadequacy. Leave a comment below or send me an email to get the conversation started. 


Author: Melissa

Born in the rainy, green Northwestern corner of the United States, Melissa relocated to the almost-always-sunny city of Madrid, Spain five years ago. After getting her master's degree, traveling to places her friends at home drooled about, falling in love with a Spaniard, and having her heart broken by said Spaniard, it's safe to say that she's learned firsthand about the less than glamorous side of living abroad. Thankfully, she gets to use this experience, along with her professional expertise, in her work as a mental health therapist in Madrid where she helps other expats learn to deal with the inevitable ups and downs of living abroad. This blog is designed to be informative and is in no way intended to serve as a substitute for therapy.

4 thoughts on “TEDxMadrid: Reflections on the Creative Process and How I Got Myself Into this Mess

  1. What a great post, I loved reading about your journey towards becoming a writer and pursuing your dreams. And you nailed it when you said that writing is hard… the creative process is both invigorating and energizing, but also isolating and frustrating and, at times, maddening. Can’t wait to hear how your experience at TedxMadrid goes!


  2. Awesome. So much I can relate to in this post! Am also very excited for your TEDxMadrid experience! Will your speech be in English or Spanish?


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