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#49 Leya Van Doren — Challenging Expectations

Introducing The Infinite Creative, a newsletter for those who are creative, curious and constantly looking for opportunities to learn and grow. Read what I’m learning and thinking about when it comes to being more intentional, productive and impactful as a creative - one idea per day.

My guest on this episode Leya Van Doren, coaches artists on how to navigate the waters of the creative process.

In our conversation we talk about challenging other people’s expectations of who we should be creatively, finding freedom within the structure of a creative practice and balancing security and freedom.

Find and follow Leya online:
Website | Instagram


Matthew Carey

Hi Leya, and welcome to Studio time.

Leya Van Doren

Hi, thank you so much for having me.

Matthew Carey

It's my pleasure. For those people that are listening who haven't heard of you before. Can you tell us a little bit about what you do?

Leya Van Doren

Yeah, that's a great question.

I originally went to university for musical theater. My whole life I've been a creative person. I was homeschooled, until middle school, and my mom had a voice and piano studio, and my dad was the music director of a regional theater. So I grew up doing theater, studying voice and violin and taking ballet classes - just surrounded by the arts.

I wanted to be an actress so I ended up going to school for musical theater. After graduating I had plans to move to New York, because that's basically what everyone who wants to be a theatre actor in the States does. But I unexpectedly got this apprenticeship at a theater out in Connecticut. It was an apprenticeship doing office admin work in their business office, so suddenly my life was taking this different path that I didn't really expect.

I spent a couple years at this theater and during that time I was going through a lot of changes, and questioning who I was as an artist and creative person. Theater was always something that I loved, and I loved to express myself. But after graduating college, I had hit this period of time where I was really questioning myself and didn't know how to achieve the dreams that I wanted to achieve and felt really creatively blocked. I come from a community where you were being creative all the time, and you had people to hold you accountable. You were in a community of people doing the same thing and then suddenly, I was all on my own. I went through this whole period of “Who am I?” and ”What do I want to create?” The arts is my entire life, and that's what I want to continue doing - but how do I make that a reality?

And so I started to do a bunch of different things. I did “The Artist's Way” by Julia Cameron; started reading all these books and podcasts and taking courses. And what I fell upon was this other passion of mine, and that's creativity coaching. Essentially, it's helping people release the blocks that keep them from creating and keep them from bringing the art that they love into life...or if they don't consider themselves a creative person, or they feel like they're not good enough, or they're not talented enough or whatever story it is that they're telling can we work with that, so that you actually use creativity as a form of self care?

To me it's a really spiritual practice. My creative practice is so intertwined with my spiritual practice. I started hosting creativity circles, which is this creativity workshop where we gather in a circle. The idea is that we’re gathering in community to then listen to our own inner voice and see what wants to come to life. What are the things that are holding us back? And through a bunch of different exercises - like meditation, journaling, creative writing prompts and all these things - that's what we do.

So I started hosting these workshops in the beginning of the year, and now I'm hosting longer workshops called Writing Magic, which is a meditation/creative writing workshop. Again, the intention is the same: to really allow people a space where they can listen to their inner voice, and discover who they are as an artist. Not what people may have told them or what they thought they should be doing as an artist. Can we get into alignment and then the truth of who we really are, and how can we express that into the world?

So I'm doing that now. I'm also still working for a theater, I work in arts admin at the Public Theater.

I feel like the whole world is in transition right now, but I feel like I'm kind of on this trajectory that I didn't really expect - but it actually feels much more in alignment with my path than perhaps being a theatre artist.

I still do a lot of my own creative projects. I wrote and performed a one woman show. That was really special to me. I had spent so many years telling the stories of other people and playing different characters, but for the first time, I was playing myself and that was such a beautiful experience and such a great learning experience.

I write poetry and I self-published a poetry book. So yeah - I call myself a multi passionate creative, because this is my life. The arts, creativity, spirituality and all these things. This is everything to me. So I'm just really passionate about bringing that to other people.

Matthew Carey

Wow. Well, there's definitely an hour's worth of stuff for us to dig into here. You know, my first question, going right back to the beginning of your story, is that you were homeschooled until middle school? Do you know what the impetus was for that from your parents point of view? And what was learning at home like, at that age?

Leya Van Doren

My mom is from Russia. She was born and raised in Russia. My dad is American, and they met actually, in Russia. They were both studying music at the Moscow Conservatory of Music. They met and fell in love, moved to the States and they had eight children. I'm number six out of eight children and my mom has always had kind of an unconventional way of doing things. I think homeschooling was really important to her, because she wanted to instill in her kids this freedom of being able to follow whatever you want, and not be so indoctrinated by the public school system.

I think it started with her really wanting to give us freedom to choose what we wanted to study and what our interests were and follow that. So growing up, we did not have conventional schooling in the least. We would go on field trips, and to museums, and we really learned by experiencing the world instead of sitting in a classroom reading about it. We were in theater, we took art classes, I took pottery and ballet and swimming lessons and all these different things that allowed me to grow as a child and play as a child instead of learning math. Then when I finally did go to public school in sixth grade, I loved school. I've always loved school. I love learning because it was never forced upon me.

Matthew Carey

It seems to me - and this is just from my very generalized understanding of different cultures - I think of Russians as being quite organized and strict. I wonder whether the idea of not going to school was a Russian idea, or whether your mom was kind of unique, even as a Russian person... let alone as a Russian person in America!

Leya Van Doren

Yeah, I get the sense that it was unique for a Russian person. I've never been to Russia and I only know my Russian grandma who comes from Russia to the States a few times a year. But they do have this kind of harsh demeanor around them It's not like they're trying to be harsh, that's just the way their culture is. But I definitely think my mom is a little bit outside the box and I don't know why exactly that is, but I think she always really had big dreams for herself and for her children and didn't want anything to limit that.

Matthew Carey

I wonder whether America represented some freedom to her as well. I'm thinking that as a singer and a piano player, that there was quite possibly a lot of regimen in her training up to that point. But talk to me a little bit about - the idea of not going to school at that early age - means that you're not subject to the conformity of sitting at a desk all the time, and standing in a straight line when you move from class to class. Did there come a point where you were itching to go to school because you knew that other people were there?

Leya Van Doren

Yeah, definitely. People do homeschooling however they choose, but ours was really loose. There wasn't any strict “This is what you have to do.” “You have to do this, this and this.”

But I was craving that at an early age. I learned how to read at age six and I was reading Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings by age seven. I remember when I was nine years old, I wanted to do a book report, because I just thought that that would be really fun. So I checked out this book from the library about lemon sharks. I read the whole book, and I did my own book report on it. I definitely was giving myself little projects like that, just because again, I had this hunger and this passion for learning. But I'm the sixth out of eight. And so my mom homeschooled the first four completely, but then I think she was over it at that point honestly, and was giving us the option to go to school. My youngest sister started school in second grade, so she barely had the same kind of homeschooling experience that my older siblings did.

Matthew Carey

It strikes me that the idea of learning at home and having that flexibility; it encourages creativity, or it certainly doesn't stifle it. What was getting to school like? I am guessing that there was a bit of adjusting to do to get used to the conformity that the other students had been experiencing and practicing for years before you got there. How did you feel about that?

Leya Van Doren

First of all, that's such a good question. I don't think anyone has ever asked me that before. So that's really cool to think about, because I don't think I've ever really given it a lot of thought.

School felt really natural to me. Again, just because naturally I have this desire to learn and I love to study. I remember, I would love having homework. Homework was the most exciting thing to me. That sounds so nerdy, but it's just true. I love to study. I fell into it really easily. But I do remember there were little things. One time, we were taking a test. I wasn't used to taking tests. And I was like, “Oh, I don't know this answer. Let me see what my neighbor has.” So I'm looking over at my neighbor's paper, and the teacher calls me out in the middle of the class. “What are you doing? You can't look at someone else's paper. That's cheating.” I didn't know that was called cheating, I just didn't know the answer so I wanted to see what they said. I didn't understand that that wasn't okay.

Besides that, I can't really think of a huge adjustment period, I think I was just really happy to have a set schedule every day. Even though that sounds strange to say, I am someone that thrives off of routine and a little bit of structure.

Something I love about creativity is that it is so free flowing. But I think you have that structure in order for it to really flourish and to really thrive. Because if you don't give it a container to thrive in, sure it might happen one day, you might really feel inspired by something and you want to go write a poem about it or you know, make a dance or whatever it is you want to express. But if you don't set a schedule or a timer, whatever it is, then chances are those opportunities will be a lot fewer than if you were a little more structured about and that's not to say that you have to be but I think you just definitely need a balance of the two.

Matthew Carey

Yeah, it sounds to me that you're helping people learn about and establish creative practices and I think that a creative practice can definitely benefit from some structure.

You were planning to continue your studies as an actor, but you got that apprenticeship in Connecticut. That strikes me as interesting, because that gave you an opportunity to question the path you were on in a way that you wouldn't have been called to ask that question if you'd gone straight on to a tertiary, or a college program. In a sense, you may have bought yourself a couple of years back, by really thinking about that, and getting clear on your intentions earlier on.

Leya Van Doren

Yeah, that's a really good point. Because I felt that way too. I felt it was a hard time, but I'm definitely so grateful now that I had that time. And I had that time in a really safe environment. I had, again, a strict schedule. I was working nine to five, Monday through Friday. Again, as an artist, and just the kind of person I am - that was not what I wanted to be doing. But it gave me a chance to really have this safety net underneath me so that I could really explore and take risks and chances on my creativity.

I think if I had moved straight to New York out of college, like I was planning to... I mean... What they teach you to do, especially as a non-union actor is... Really you’ve got to wake up and hit the ground running. You wake up at 5am and you go to these non-equity calls, and there's hundreds of people in line and you get 30 seconds in the room, if you're lucky, if they're gonna see you that day. I'm a hard worker and I'm determined, and I was so ready to live that life, I was like, “Yes, this is my path and that's what I'm going to do.” But I can imagine that a would have been a disaster, I would have just run myself into the ground.

I think it would have taken me a lot longer to realize that what I'm doing now is more of my truth path and is more aligned with who I am. Because I did have that time to really slow down and ask myself those questions. I think if I was in New York right away, I would have been so busy and so distracted by everything else that I would have never had that space and that time to really sit down with myself in stillness.

Matthew Carey

I think that's so interesting. It’s something that I've been reflecting on lately is an axis of uncertainty on one side and certainty on the other. The idea that I've been noodling on is that if you move towards certainty or security, it can feel safer, but it can lead you to a place of complacency where you don't grow as much as you could possibly grow. But if you go to the other side - of uncertainty or insecurity - as you move in that direction, there's this energy that can kind of really generate creativity. But if you get too far to the end of that axis, you can become paralyzed by fear and not feeling safe - whether it's about whether you've got enough money to survive, whether it’s having a place to live, whether it's just the real insecurity about what your future might be. It strikes me that, with that apprenticeship, you'd already started to find the balance that maybe worked for you.

You had this support of the job that you went to, and you are maybe earning some money, and then you found a place for your creativity alongside that rather than the idea of throwing everything on the risk end of the uncertainty axis by not having a stable income, not having a set structure. And the idea of just throwing yourself into being a performer all the time, and auditioning and everything potentially feeling like it was in somebody else's control rather than your own.

Leya Van Doren

Yeah, that's such a good point. I've thought about that a lot too. I struggled with my path and the way that it was going, because what I saw in my friends was that they were taking that leap to move to New York and kind of just figure it out. I was in a way jealous of that, because I was like, “Wait, that was my plan, too.” Somehow I ended up in this safe, secure job, and “What am I doing?” “Am I being complacent?”

I was asking myself all of those questions. But then as time went on, I saw how my friends would move to New York to audition, then a year passed, and they hadn't gone to an audition in a year and were stuck in the same waitressing jobs, or minimum wage paying jobs, which a lot of artists do take.

In what other profession does someone spend four or six years, studying something and graduating with a degree...What other professions are there, where you see the people who graduate with a degree who spent thousands of dollars studying something, training in something, but at the end of that, there are no jobs for them. They're standing in line with hundreds of other people for a potential of a job that might last three months. That job might not even pay a living wage.

So when I thought about that I was like, “Is that the reality of the artist’s/actor's lifestyle?” I think we hear this trope all the time of the starving artist, and if you want to do what you love, you have to sacrifice everything else. No. That’s not true. I'm a really smart person. I'm so lucky and privileged that I live in a place where I was able to study what I loved. And I was able to graduate with a degree in something that I loved. And I really value that. I really value the time I took. I really value you know, what that means. But I am better than standing in line for hours in the cold to be able to seen for 30 seconds by these people who determine my fate. I have so much more potential than that. And I could see in the room all of these other amazingly talented people. They are so much more than that. And maybe that works for some people, I don't want to knock it down or say, you know - if that's your path, that's beautiful. But I think what I realized is like, “No, I know that there is more out there and I don't have to succumb to this idea of the starving artist lifestyle”... and really create something that does work for me.

For a long time, I felt really badly about having a nine to five job, because it felt like “Okay, once you get that, then you are stuck there.” And I did worry about getting stuck. I was craving to have that like, more flexible lifestyle. I ended up staying in my position at the theater in Connecticut for two years, and then it felt like I needed to go. It felt like maybe I was getting a little complacent. Like you were saying earlier this idea of risking everything for the unknown. I had that moment where I was like, “Okay, am I going to give up this safe, stable thing to risk it for the unknown?” and “Where am I gonna land after that?” I didn't know, but I had to trust that if I was feeling that call, then I had to go.

So I ended up quitting my job. And quitting my job didn't have a place to live. And I went on this three month solo trip to Southeast Asia. I love traveling, and I've always wanted to travel. But I've always had something that stopped me like school, or work, or needing to be somewhere for a job. So I took three months, I went to India and did my yoga teacher training. I went to Bali, and Thailand by myself. That was back in the fall of 2019 and then I moved to New York City, January 2 2020. I had no job, no place to live. And it was kind of like that moment of, “Where am I going to land?” “How can I trust that everything will be okay?“

I still had this idea that, “No, if I want to be a true artist, then I have to be taking these lower paying jobs because they offer more flexibility.” And I was like, that's what I'm going to do. So I was applying to nanny jobs and waitressing jobs and all these things. I realized that it wasn't going to work out. I was trying to cobble a few part time jobs together, but nothing was really working out, feasibly that I could really sustainably support myself. Then I ended up taking another nine to five type job at the Public Theater and luckily, I've been able to work for them for them throughout all of this. But I think that actually the benefit of having a structure of you know, you go to work this day, and you know that you have these hours to then work on your creativity and your artistic life outside of work. But you aren't worrying about “Can I make rent this month?” That was something that I realized. “If I'm worried about rent, I won't be creative, because I'm going to spend all of my energy, worrying about how I'm going to pay rent and how I'm going to eat.” And so it's kind of like Maslow's hierarchy of needs. And again, maybe some people thrive off of that uncertainty. I think you'd have to decide for yourself what you are willing to sacrifice, because there are pros and cons to both lifestyles. For some reason, I've just found myself fell into this one. And it's been working so far for me.