How to train your mind and body to let creativity find you


For me, the secret to staying inspired is movement.

Whether it means that I move my fingers across the keyboard from the moment I sit in my writing chair until I leave, or that I get up for regular dance or tea breaks, it’s shifting my body that shakes ideas loose.

I think ideas are sticky. They’re the product of all kinds of processes and I think they get stuck in our heads and it can be hard to pry them out.

This is why movement works.

Instead of concentrating on the outcome or the absence of an idea, you shift your focus and move.

Much of day we shorten our gaze to the width of a screen. Whether it’s on a phone, a computer or a television, that flat screen defines the span of what we encounter. Despite the knowledge literally at our fingertips, creativity can flatten and shrink during the hunt for small pieces of information if we don’t expand our gaze.

There are moments when you need to narrow your focus. Instances when the ability to zero on your quarry is what allows you to push through a deadline with the requisite number of words.

But to create those moments when the work feeds itself, I need to allow it to come to me. Instead of hunting creativity, I need to let it find its way into my story.

I do some of that by removing doubt.

After I walk the dog, unless there’s blood or fire, I’m going to eat breakfast and write for two hours. Whether or not I feel like it or am inspired is irrelevant. It’s what I do at that time of the day.

Once I’m in my writing room, I follow a set pattern of turning on the electric fireplace, the weird dolphin light I got at Good Will and lighting my candles. My dog gets off his bed and stretches out on the cool basement floor and I make my fingers move. I don’t stop to think if what I’m writing is good or if I like the scene I’m working on because I might not like the answer. And more importantly, when I get to the editing process, I might find out that “writing me” was wrong.

Thanks to NanoWrimo training, I write through to the end of the story and when it’s done, I start the next one, because it’s easier to keep going than it is to get started.

Momentum works.

And movement, done with intention, can keep the momentum going.

Instead of zeroing in on your screen or book or task at hand, softening your gaze allows you to notice things out of the corner of your eye. Lulling your brain with rhythmic movements allows it to relax and make connections between a random comment on Facebook, the music playing through your speakers and the trouble with the pacing your last chapter.

Movement done in a relaxed, steady manner, whether it’s walking, dancing or loading the dishwasher replaces chasing after the story with an invitation for it to come to you.

This is easier if you pay attention to your breath. Allowing your in breath to descend into your diaphragm to spread your ribs like wings and following the breath through a complete exhale can help you relax enough to let your story find you.

If all of this sounds like yoga or meditation, you’re close.

For me, creativity comes when I achieve a state of trance. I can get there through rhythmic movement or immersing in a task, but it’s the product of relaxed action.

This doesn’t come easily.

It’s not like you can go sit wherever you write, snatch a couple of breaths and tell yourself to relax and it will work. Especially when faced with multiple demands on your time, the state can be hard if you haven’t laid the groundwork. This takes practice. You have to train both your mind and your body.

Figure out when you do your best work by trying to write at different times of the day. See if that time meshes with your schedule, which may take some rearranging. (My best time doesn’t work for mine or I’d have written this at three in the morning when the only sound is the world breathing.) If you have too much to do, get your writing done first. Even that shift in priority can provide the perspective to receive other ideas throughout the day.

Because you’re in a story mind, co-workers may offer bits of dialogue or plot points. You might encounter colors or situations that suit your plot.

Putting your story first sets you up to receive inspiration instead of chase it.

Because inspiration is a little like love — it finds you best when you’re doing something else.

Need more inspiration? This post was written as part of a Blog Carnival of Inspiration with several of my fellow writers.

PROFILE: Maria Morca

"Maria Morca's Belly Dance Work Kit" published in 1975.
“Maria Morca’s Belly Dance Work Kit” published in 1975.

During the ’70s, belly dance books flourished. From how-tos to histories, paperbacks and hardcovers with lots of pictures made it into print and, by the ’90s, onto used bookstores’ shelves.

I stalked these books, lucking into volumes by Serena Wilson and Özel Türkbaş, Sula and others. After practicing or class, I’d look at the photos and wonder when I’d be able to stare into the camera with such confidence.

But it wasn’t until I discovered “Maria Morca’s Belly Dance Work Kit” on a shelf at the Capitol Hill Half-Price Books that I came across these words:

“Did you, when you picked up this kit, realize that you were also picking up a way towards personal identity?”

Not then, but I do now.

Maria Morca, flamenco, seattleHave you ever wished a character in a book would just come alive and talk with you or teach you what she knows? Yes, it’s that freaking exciting. More than a decade later, I have the privilege of being coached by Maria Morca. Let me tell you about her.

Although she’s from a musical family, a trip to the movies when she was five secured her future. After seeing the dancer moving on the screen, all she wanted to do was dance. 75 years later, Maria is still dancing, teaching flamenco classes for children and adults in Bothell at Zamani World Dance  and LaVida Dance and Yoga in Bellevue. She also offers vintage belly dance workshops and coaches belly dancers like me and Belly Dance of the Universe champion Roxy Stimpson.

At eighty, keeping up with Maria Morca can still make me sweat.

Maria Morca. flamenco, Seattle
Publicity shot for the Chateau in Hollywood with Manolo Vasques and Maestro Manuel Garcia-Matos, taken in 1967.


Maria’s professional career began when she went on the road with Lola Montes and Her Spanish Dancers, touring the U.S., Mexico and Canada. Maria celebrated her 21st birthday with the group: “When you’re traveling, you can’t gain weight, so desserts were not a problem. I think I had a strawberry shortcake,” she says.

Maria Morca, ballet, Seattle
Maria studied ballet with Bronislava Nijinska (Nijinsky’s sister) and Karoun Tootikian.

But before hitting the stage, Maria studied ballet and interpretive dance with Karoun Tootikian, a Denishawn dancer and Director of the Ruth St. Denis Foundation. Maria’s studies were interrupted when Tootikian went to work on the Hollywood production of “The King and I” as a consultant to the choreographer.

While she was away, Tootikian asked Maria’s parents to continue her studies in classical ballet with Vaslav Nijinksy‘s sister, Bronislava Nijinska.

When Tootikian returned to teaching, she only wanted to teach at the Foundation, which was very far from Maria’s home. As working musicians, her parents could only afford one class — and Maria had to take three buses and walk one-quarter of a mile on an unpaved street to get there (the street is now Ventura Blvd.).

Through Tootikian, Maria became a protégée of the Ruth St. Denis Foundation. Her parents paid for one class and the Foundation gifted her others, allowing Maria to expand her studies.

One of the founders of modern dance, St. Denis built her reputation traveling the world performing dances inspired by Egypt, India, China and other locations. When asked what it was like to study at the Foundation, Maria tells me:

“Miss Ruth did not teach. You absorbed from her demonstration, from her conversation. Teaching wasn’t one of her fortés, but certainly she is a great influence for anyone who was at the Foundation.”

Decades later, Maria continues to draw on that experience:

Maria Morca, Ruth St. Denis, Seattle, flamenco
Eighteen-year-old Maria Morca performing in one of the Ruth St. Denis Foundation costumes.

“Miss Ruth would from time to time tell us stories or [demonstrate] ‘how it should be done’ or she would give us little gifts from her travels. One time she opened a big steam trunk and gave something to each one of us. And there was a picture from National Geographic of a Balinese dancer and I wanted that so much. She gave me an old Christmas card of the Madonna and Child. She could see on my face that that wasn’t what I wanted. ‘When you learn to dance and the audience can believe you are actually holding the Christ child in your arms, then you’re an artist.'”

I asked Maria to tell me if she’s pulled it off. Despite a lifetime of achievements, here’s what she had to say:

“Not yet, my career, as everybody else’s, is evolving, which is wonderful because you never feel like you’ve done it all. There’s always something exciting to look forward to.”

Studying at the Foundation was “very magical” Maria says.

“We would never know when Miss Ruth would appear. She lived upstairs. There was always a lot of activity and one of the reasons it was very exciting was because visiting artists from around the world would stay at the Foundation. What do you do when you’re in-between jobs? You teach.”

During that time, Maria learned from dancers from Japan’s Kabuki theater, Tahitian from several large groups including Hilo Hattie, Javanese and Indonesian dance as well as studying with dancers from India.

Transfer of energy

I asked Maria to share one thing she learned from St. Denis that she still uses on stage today. She said it was “very hard” to pick one thing:

“Miss Ruth also was very much into esoterics and flow of energy and one of the things when she would demonstrate was how to flow one move into the other. It flowed something like you might find in aikido for when you do a movement and your movement goes through your partner and flips them.”

In addition, Maria mentioned St. Denis’s skills as a dramatist and ability to project, “But it took many, many years for these early impressions to surface in my work. The older my work and I get, the more I rely on these things.”

[soliloquy id=”244″]

[soliloquy slug="maria-morcas-fabulous-costumes"]

Maria Morca, flamenco, Hollywood
One of Maria’s favorite photos.

Getting to know her first love: Flamenco

When she was 13, Maria was out front of her school doing “noon duty” with another student of dance. Except her friend was studying flamenco. When the friend’s father learned that Maria was studying with the Ruth St. Denis Foundation, he told his daughter to teach Maria what she was learning and wanted Maria to share what she knew. After that, Maria says, “I was hooked.”

“There is a certain type of nostalgia that flamenco music has within it and it’s kind of like you’re drawn to return to something so nostalgic that it’s probably so far back in your past or maybe even before that, who knows, but it’s a longing to get to back to your soul.”

Maria Morca, vintage belly dance, Seattle

Becoming a belly dancer

Six years later, Maria made her living dancing flamenco and continued to do so until the ’60s when belly dance superseded flamenco in popularity.

By this time, Maria had also made inroads into Hollywood’s studios, accepting calls whenever they needed an ethnic dancer. She met Zanouba of Cairo after watching her bead a costume while on the set. Taught to bead by her grandmother, Maria recognized the complexity of the woman’s work. After asking if she was a “belly dancer,” Maria learned that the woman called herself an “oriental dancer,” but she also invited her to one of her shows.

But it wasn’t until one hot day that belly dance became a possibility. As the Santa Ana winds blew heat into Los Angeles, rendering Maria’s small apartment unbearable, her friend, Zanouba, invited her to swim at her apartment’s pool. The high-end address caught Maria’s attention. As a consequence of the swim, she moved into a nearby apartment at a reduced rate.

That New Year’s Zanouba called her with a paying gig that required two other dancers. She wanted Maria and Aisha Ali to perform. But Maria was worried that she didn’t know how to belly dance.

“Don’t worry you’re a professional dancer, I teach you five steps. You just do it over and over.”

Maria made a costume and danced. As the night wore on, the party got rowdier and one of the guests wrapped an ice cube in a dollar bill and put it down her bra.

After giving him a karate chop, Maria thought she’d never belly dance again, but she’d been working in movies and TV and had let casting know that she had a belly dance costume. A short while later, they called her for “I Dream of Jeannie.” Maria’s dancing in purple in the remixed clip below, followed by Zanouba of Cairo.

At that time, she averaged two or three shows a week, racking up credits like:

Maria Morca, right, In "The Greatest Story Ever Told."

 The Brother’s Grimm

Ship of Fools

I Dream of Jeannie


Mission Impossible TV show

I Spy

The Greatest Story Ever Told
(at left, Maria is on the right)

The Story of Ruth

The Lucy Show

Can Can

Hello Dolly

Funny Girl

The Nutty Professor

Two Weeks in Another Town

Unsinkable Molly Brown

Run For Your Life

Journey to the Center
of the Earth

Plus various television commercials

Toronto connection

In the ’70s belly dance as a fun way to get and stay fit was heading north, Maria relocated to Toronto, Canada. At the time, Maria was teaching, but only had a few students in flamenco and an equal number in belly dance until a local paper asked her to “mentor” an article on belly dance. She was supposed to help the model look authentic during the photo shoot.

She arrived at the shoot with four costumes. The model never showed because at the dance store she could only find a white leotard in her size. Concerned that it would be too see-through, she cancelled.

Maria Morca, vintage belly dance, SeattleThe newspaper turned to Maria. She ended up with a three-page write-up that included her phone number. Soon she was teaching four nights a week, three times a night with 12 students in each class.

Maria connected with George Sawa, who was a student at the University of Toronto and a “brilliant” qanun player. He and his ensemble would play jobs for Maria and her students and she invited him to collaborate on the LPs that went into her work kit. Sawa is now an ethnomusicologist who continues to play and teach in Canada.

For a long while, Maria was the only belly dance instructor in Toronto. Given belly dancing’s challenging reputation and Maria’s understanding of dance history, she began formulating her ideas and wrote several articles for dance magazines.

Around the same time, Penguin Books reached out to her and suggested she write a book on belly dance.

“My whole mission was that belly dancing can be a performing art and the history of why it has such a tarnished reputation, but Penguin Books wanted a book with lots of how to and photos of dancers in skimpy costumes. Exactly the opposite of what I wanted to say.”

When Maria explained her position, Penguin withdrew it’s offer. She says she would have been happy to write a pamphlet for her students, but her husband at the time encouraged her to go ahead with the book. Although the book is currently out of print, she has a limited number of copies available.

Some years later, Maria returned to her “first love” to form “Maria Morca’s Dances of Spain,” creating many choreographies which continue to be performed around the Pacific Northwest. She also created “Maria Morca and the Middle Eastern Ensemble,” appearing at events around the Seattle-area.

Maria passed her dance companies to her gifted students Jacquelina Villegas-MacLin and Deborah Katz, thinking she would enjoy the weather, she went back California several years ago. Finding it too hot, she’s back teaching and performing in the Seattle area.

Villegas-MacLin still produces and teaches flamenco in the Seattle area while Katz passed on Maria’s Middle Eastern Ensemble to Bellevue’s Zulaika after only a few months.

Dance continues to be a form a self-expression for Maria. She also credits dance with maintaining her mental and physical vitality: “The more flexible you are physically, the more flexible you are in life.”

Accepting students

Maria Morca is currently accepting students in both flamenco and belly dance. Reach her at

 Upcoming performance

Springtide at Third Place Books

May 2nd, 1-4pm

(other dancers will also be performing)


Practical advice

Visualization: Maria tells me she’s never liked to practice, but while riding all those buses to get to the Ruth St. Denis Foundation, she developed the ability to mentally practice to the music she could hear in her head. “Most of my planning out of a program or setting a choreography or even teaching a class is done to this day in a nonphysical mode and then is tried with physical movement,” she says.

Maria Morca, flamenco, belly dance, Seattle, Bothell, Bellevue
Maria Morca maintains her stunning posture whether on stage or sharing a pot of tea.

Posture: A session with Maria makes me sit and stand taller for a number of days. One of the most noticeable things about her is her posture, which would be extraordinary on a twenty-year-old and is impressive for someone who’s turned eighty this past January. I asked her what advice she might have for chronic slouchers: “Remember that flamenco dictates a certain upright posture. Notice I said upright, not uptight.” Maria credits many of her postural habits with being born into a family of professional musicians and dancers, but says “one of the benefits of dance is that it improves your posture, “making it easier to breathe as you take weight off your abdominals, which is especially important for women. With proper carriage, you are more flexible and you can move more freely.” Standing and sitting correctly, Maria says, alleviates a great deal of pain “and it’s better than taking aspirin.”

Know of a belly dancer who needs her (or his) story told? Once a month, I’m blogging about dancers from the 1970s (and earlier) with the goal of educating and expanding audience for this incredible dance form. The selection process is entirely subjective. Please send suggestions to


False Eyelashes (or taking cues from the ’70s)

false eyelashes, Seattle, belly dance, J.C. O'Brien
These are the false eyelashes I use for dancing. Wearing them feels like I’ve attached a five-pound weight to each eyelid.

Yes, this week I’m writing about false eyelashes since they’re now the fashion amongst belly dancers. Back when I started, heavy mascara sufficed.

In the ’70s, my mother would painstakingly glue tiny clumps of false lashes to her own. I’d sit on the commode and watch her twease a clump, dip the end in stinky glue and move that mess toward her eyes. I couldn’t look away, but there was no way I was putting that crap on my own lashes.

Flash forward to my first belly dancing gig in over a decade and I’m in the bathroom with tweezers and glue that doesn’t stink and strip lashes I picked up at Walgreen’s and I’m realizing that I’m really glad my husband was a teen in the ’70s because I needed a consult to get the lashes on straight.

As I mentioned before, the things are heavy , like wearing hand weights on your eyelids. A number of gigs later, I can tell you that men get stupid when you where false eyelashes. Whether it’s my husband, his pals, the waiter pouring my drinks or the checkout guy at Rite Aid (pantyhose, not eyelashes — they’re suprisingly reusable) they all suck in their breath when I lift my eyelids high enough to see them. To a man, they act like little boys who’ve found an unexpected present under the tree. Unlike the influence of modern adornments, men keep a polite, but amazed, distance. For someone who’s dealt with sexual harrassment in the workplace and criticism from fellow feminists for wearing makeup and earrings it’s a tantalizing breath of power.

While I hesitate to break the false eyelash spell, I wonder what else the ’70s might have to teach me.

When I started belly dancing in the ’90s, much of the dancing was heavily Modern Egyptian, which wasn’t bad. It just wasn’t the image that made me want to belly dance. Except I didn’t think I had an image in my head.

Turns out that if you watched television in the 1970s, you watched a lot of belly dancing. Nearly every one of my family’s favorite shows included a belly dancer at some point.

Since that time, I’ve learned that there was a shift in America when dancers travelled to Egypt and came back to tell some gorgeously talented dancers that they were doing it “wrong” instead of understanding that what they were doing was different.

Many of the dancers in clubs across the United States tested their talents with musicians from a variety of countries, working to express Egytpian style for one audience, Turkish for another, Greek for a third or performing their own mix of styles that, by all rights drew on heavy Turkish influences.

This is where I want to dance, but sadly, these clubs no longer exist. But the music does and there are a number of dancers that graced those stages and dance floors, racking up hour after hour of experience that has transformed them into true masters of this art that I adore.

While many of these dancers are still teaching and performing, the audience that once loved them has shrunk to practioners of their dance form.

That’s not good enough.

The rest of you are missing out.

There are a whole bunch of people who don’t even know these dancers exist. Well, I’m going to change that. Starting with next week’s blog post.

Once a month, I’ll be interviewing a dancer from the ’70s or earlier and sharing video clips of performances as well as insight and anecdotes and how you can get in touch with them to take classes or watch them perform.

NEXT WEEK: Maria Morca

Maria Morca, flamenco, belly dance, Bellevue, Bothell, Seattle
Maria Morca teaches flamenco and vintage belly dance in Bellevue, Bothell and Seattle.

Next week I’ll be featuring my dance coach, Maria Morca. Maria’s racked up 61 years on the stage and can still make me sweat during our sessions. For dance historians out there, she studied with one of the mothers of modern dance, Ruth St. Denis.

UPDATE: Maria tells me that, despite labeling, Miss Ruth is only in the first clip presented in the video below.

What if you approached writing the way your dog approaches a walk?

Black dog, nose, Seattle, J.C. O'Brien
Writing companion and nose model, Leo O’Brien, shows off the entrance to his 300 million olfactory receptors.

A dog about to head on a walk is worried about three things: the leash, his human and getting out the door. Even if what happens after he’s outside is the same route he takes every day, the dog’s excited to sniff to find out who else has walked that way, how the weather has shifted and if there is anyone exciting up ahead.

In other words, even though he might use his 300 million olfactory receptors , he’s only concerned with what actually reaches his nose.

Which is a lot like writing:

  1. Take in as much information as you can.
  2. Figure out what it means.
  3. Share that information with others.

The dog’s sharing takes the liquid form of paying it forward or swapping sniffs with dogs he might meet along the way. Writers can do the same thing, with shorter missives like this blog post, or through longer, crafted works.

But the main thing is that the dog saves his worry for important things, like when the hell you’re going to get home, which proves to be great advice for a writer. Save your worry for when the humans are going to return and write as far as your nose takes you.