As 2020 comes to an end, it’s safe to say that it’s been one of the most stressful years on record in recent history. In fact, the American Psychological Association has found that 67% of Americans have had increased levels of overall stress during the novel coronavirus pandemic. And for the LGBTQ community, who already suffer from increased levels of stress, this year has been especially draining. It’s no surprise that many people have found it hard to be creative this year. In fact, medical professionals say that long-term battles with heightened anxiety can be killers for creativity and inspiration.
That’s why writer, director, producer and former BuzzFeed creator Ashly Perez’s brand-new book, “Read This for Inspiration,” couldn’t have come at a better time. Filled with a collection of “sparks” to ignite one’s imagination, general life wisdom and encouraging anecdotes of strength during hard times, Perez has taken her unique perspective as a queer BIPOC writer to give readers a new outlook on self-help and mental wellness. Between The Lines sat down with Perez to learn her recipe for inspiration, why practicing mindfulness is important and how to spark creativity when things seem bleak.
To be kind of hokey, what was your inspiration for writing this book?
Honestly, after 2016, I feel like something different happened in terms of how we consume news and how it became the start of our days for most of us. Just waking up, reading truly dreadful news and then feeling like, “OK, I’m still supposed to go on with my day and hopefully try and be a productive and healthful person in the world.” But I found it was really hard to do that. I love all those inspirational books — I love Oprah, I love Brené Brown — but they’re mainly in forms that are chapters. I loved Oprah’s book, she has two “O’s Little Book of Happiness” and “What I Know for Sure. And those are great because [the chapters] are like two or three pages, but even that, sometimes it’s too much because you only have a few minutes in the morning. So, I wanted to write something that was literally one page. I think at the most there’s two-page little mini-chapters. What I’ve described it to people as is a millennial “Chicken Soup for the Soul.” So, I wanted something that I physically could pick up and read right when you wake up in the morning.
Maybe because social media has conditioned us to this, but I think a lot of people are looking for little tidbits of advice like this right now.
Yeah, I guess that’s so true. It’s not only the election that changed that, but just how social media has been moving anyway. And, honestly, for me, I have ADHD, so it’s very hard for me, personally, to read multiple chapters of something. So, I kind of wanted to make something that was conducive, in general, a person like me who, I have lots of interests across lots of different spectrums, which is represented in the book. Some of it is illustrations, and there’s an upcoming workbook that’s coming out as an accompaniment to it next summer that is also the same kind of format of really quick bursts that even someone with my attention span can pay attention to.
I enjoyed the many animations with the text. I’m curious, how did you go about designing it? Did you have a team?
Yeah, absolutely. I was very adamant about finding female designers and so I went on the Instagrams of people that I had already been following and it’s Marisol Ortega, Sarah Walsh, Olivia Herrick and Jen B. Peters who are just people I had admired. And it was really cool working with four different women and getting their voice, too. So, basically, I would have a concept and would pre-sketch it out, but I’m a terrible illustrator. And it was so cool; I loved that element of collaboration to see it come to life. They brought things that expanded the meaning of the words for me, so I also liked that. But I also wanted a coffee table book that you could leave out and someone could flip through and read through and also something that if you’re reading it all at once, some days there’s just a painting or a picture it’s just meant as a reflection for that.
In the introduction, you talk about being mindful and taking time to be present. Did you have a moment in your life where you thought, “I need to start being more mindful?”
(Laughs) You know, the biggest thing about the book, I know it’s called “Read This for Inspiration,” which seems very prescriptive, but, more than anything, it’s a book that I also wrote as a reminder for myself more than anything. So, my mindfulness is something that I only recently discovered in the last four or five years. I use Headspace pretty regularly and I found, particularly for someone who has ADHD, that it’s one of the most grounding things. And I also have anxiety, so mindfulness is the best way to alleviate both of those things and I’m glad that that was reflected in the book for you, because I think it’s hard to be inspired without being mindful. And a lot of the book, the ending chapter, is about Mary Oliver’s poem about how to live a good life and it just says “pay attention and be astonished.” Really, that’s the distillation of what I discovered in writing the book about inspiration. If you’re not present in the moment, then you really can’t be inspired because you’re not really seeing anything and really feeling it and absorbing.
Do you think there’s a recipe for inspiration?
The thing that I really liked about writing this book is discovering that inspiration comes at all sorts of weird times and weird moments but that the key throughout it is that you have to be wherever you are in order to see something and, therefore, to be inspired. My view right here — there’s a chapter called Komorebi, which is a Japanese word that means the way the light filters through the leaves — and I wrote most of the book from this spot [on my balcony] looking at the leaves as the light kind of shone through. It was just such a grounding moment. Any time I would get distracted I would just take a moment and look at the leaves and soak up what that feeling is. It was a good reminder to me that I can always be inspired every day. That, to me, is the recipe for inspiration no matter where you are. I just planted flowers in a little garden and I have a tiny apartment balcony in the middle of LA, but I planted flowers and then all of a sudden all these bugs started appearing. I was like, “Where are they coming from?” And then I sit here every day and it feels like a new place unfolding for me with different bugs in my garden. One thing I’ll say is a quick hack for inspiration is definitely nature. As close as you can get to it, even if you’re in the middle of the city. To buy flowers and watch that change happen has really been inspiring for me.
There was one particular tip that I saw in your book that spoke to me, the two-minute rule, where if there’s something you can do in under two minutes you should just do it because then it won’t pile up and overwhelm you. Is there one rule that you find yourself leaning on more than others?
That one is definitely one of them. My manager told me about the two-minute rule and, honestly, when I make my to-do list, I’ll go through sometimes and highlight the ones that I can do in two minutes and do them first to get [them done]. A lot of the book is also about getting momentum and getting the ball rolling. There’s a chapter in there about cleaning. I often get very disorganized and then I get overwhelmed about where do I start, and I just do one surface at a time. The surface that is directly in front of you instead of being like, “I have to clean the whole house.” The other one is shower check. It’s another mindfulness thing of just being aware. A good way to test yourself every day and see how mindful you’re being is every time you’re in the shower think about, “Am I actually in the shower?” I think we’ve all had the experience of, “Did I wash my hair?” And it’s because when we’re in the shower during automatic moments, it’s one of the only moments where we’re free from our phone and we have a moment of thinking and peace to ourselves. But even though good thoughts can come from that, it’s a good time to practice 10-second mindfulness and be like, “I’m in the shower. What am I doing right now?”
Are you thinking of writing a follow-up book after a period of time?
Oh, it’s been funny. I have a note already in my phone of things that I learned after this book that I’m like, “If there’s ever a follow-up I would do this.” My favorite job I ever had, I was a camp counselor for three years. I would love to write something for that time in life. Most of my journals, most of my drama and most of my feeling of existential dread came from, “Who is going to help me get through this period of life?” Because you don’t want to listen to your parents then (laughs).
(Laughs) Oh, no, of course not!
You actively do the opposite of what they say (laughs). Most lessons you have to learn yourself, and I think that’s going to be the truth of this book, too. I hope that there’s some things that people can learn just from reading it but oftentimes books come back to us later. I’m sure people will read these things and in a moment of stress be like, “Oh, shower check.” Almost as touchstones more than, “I need to do this and implement this immediately.” I know that most people, even if they’re being diligent about reading them every morning, life gets in the way at some point. But the reason I wrote this is because these are my touchstones and these are the things that I’ve continued to come back to in my life and the stories that I continue to tell myself. Like Lucille Ball was 40 when “I Love Lucy” debuted. She was 40. I’m nine years away from that and I’m so stressed, but she’s one of the most iconic comedians ever. And so, that’s why I included a story like that because it’s a story I tell myself all the time.
So, when you’re in a panic moment and you feel like everything is going to end poorly, how do you turn that around?
There’s a few things that come to mind, and they’re all in the book in some version. I think the panic of inspiration comes from feeling like we have to get something done and it has to be prolific and one of the things that has to be done is Oprah did, I think it was 4,578 episodes or something like that. Of all of that, we as a society remember three moments from the “Oprah” show. And so, I think sometimes it’s the context. I think the most important thing that you can give yourself, in terms of the panic of inspiration is context, time and space. So, put yourself in context. Take a moment to think about, “Who was I 10 years ago? What was I worried about?” So, I think just remembering that it’s not all about doing stuff is actually the way to be inspired. Then it’s not on you. The things that are inspiring me will continue to inspire me for the rest of my life. Just pay attention. And then be inspired (laughs).