Be More Creative: An Interview with Founder Toni McLellan

You know I’m all about getting your mind and body on speaking terms so you can hear what you truly want, right? (Right?) Well, it’s not the only way to make sure the decisions you make and actions you take jibe with the real you.

My good, old friend — she’s not old, our friendship is — Toni McLellan offers another way: by being creative. She’s not picky about how you fly your creative flag. She’s only adamant that you do something inventive on a regular basis. That’s why she founded the fabulous Makearoo: Creativity Camp for Grown-ups (where I was proud to be a virtual presenter this past May), and blogs at It’s also why she has blackboard paint on the wall behind her desk, and once took a photo of herself every day for a year — but we’ll get in to more of those specifics in a moment.

I asked Toni to be interviewed here because I know even the simplest crafty-type stuff — starting seeds, fingerpainting with my kids, cooking — scratch an itch down deep in my soul, and yet I don’t leave much time for them in my life. I wanted to know: Why is she so in to creativity? What’s her story? How can scrapbooking lead to inner peace? All these questions and more are answered in the following Q&A. I hope you enjoy it!

What’s the big deal about being creative?

Everyone is creative. Everyone. Even the most left-brained surgeon or electrical engineer will tell you she applies creativity in
problem-solving on the job. And quite often you’ll find people working in left-brained professions pursuing creative activities off the clock (the lawyer with the novel on his flash drive, the CPA who photographs wild birds on weekends). Whether for your profession or your passion (or you’re like me and lucky to combine the two), I think it’s
essential to express ourselves. I also deeply believe that we are all connected and most of us want the same things: autonomy, dignity, self-expression, connection, and belonging. Being a creative person seems to fill these essential needs beautifully, assuming you don’t buy into the ‘we must suffer for our art’ mythology–including becoming a starving artist who must wait to be ‘discovered’ in order to experience success. I sure don’t buy into that myth and part of my mission at Makearoo is to bust it wide open.

The Makearoo logo was inspired by Toni's pet budgie, Ozzie

What’s your earliest memory of feeling gratified by being creative?

I have two, and they’re each tied to my current creative pursuits, writing fiction and making photographs, which essentially boil down to ‘storytelling’: I grew up near the train tracks northwest of Chicago, and a circus train came through town and was touted as a big deal (this was pre-Internet and cable TV–quaint, right?). I remember grabbing my Kodak 120 camera and snapping photo after photo and realizing even then, at about age nine, that I was operating in a state of flow. I still love experiencing those moments, where time stops, with my digital camera and even iPhone cam today.

The second was writing a short story about two girls who lived on an island off this creek about a mile from my house. I was in the fifth grade and I remember my dad praising me for the details I included; I still remember feeling pride in something I’d made, maybe for the first time ever.

I remember when you took a self-portrait a day for a year. How did committing to a daily creative act change your life? What did it teach you?

I had so much fun with that project, which I did on flickr via the online groups there, where other people posted their daily ‘365’
shots. So while it was a solo pursuit, there were others doing the same thing, and the social aspect made it even more fun and gave me great ideas and inspiration. Last year, I visited my local park once a month for twelve months and displayed twelve prints at my local coffee shop. It was so gratifying to get such a strong sense of place and to just take that time for myself, enjoying the flow. I love having a project to pour my creative urges into, and that my brain and spirit need something to chase around, regardless of its practicality or potential for monetizing. Putting spirit first is always a win. Always, always, always.

How do you recommend busy people with kids, jobs, and all that other grown-up stuff make time and space for making stuff?

I’ll break this down a bit, because this could be an entire interview topic itself!

1) Ask for help. I know we’re socialized to bootstrap it and go it alone, but as I mentioned earlier, we are all connected. And I really do believe in the ‘it takes a village’ model for raising caring humans who also know how to care for themselves. Hire a ‘mother’s helper’ once a week so you can paint or write or just go stare at the walls at a colorful coffee shop until you feel your creative well refilling. Delegate tasks to your partner if you have one and your kids when they’re old enough.

2) Making what Julia Cameron in The Artist’s Way calls ‘artist’s dates’ with yourself and putting them on your calendar
is a powerful tool. It’s all too easy to let other stuff take over–re-grouting the tub, kids begging to go to the pool, that Netflx
queue, or your local church/civic org calling to ask you to volunteer. Again. If we don’t set an intention for ourselves to follow our
dreams, and then take action toward that, it’ll all be just dreams and just talk. Current procrastination equals future regret, and nothing stomps on regret faster than action, even if you’re not quite sure where you’re going. Momentum, momentum, momentum.

3) Finally, I know we live in a society of quick fixes and seemingly overnight dramatic transformations, but it really is true that
anything worth having requires effort applied consistently over time. This does not mean rigid adherence to a strict structure or plan that doesn’t suit your creative process. It simply means ‘keep showing up as often and regularly as possible.’ Last fall, I woke an hour earlier than usual to meditate and write fiction, getting 35K into my current work in progress in a couple of months. All of that showing up and doing the work over time, and never giving up? It really adds up.

What’s the benefit of giving yourself some time away from your normal life to really dig in to your creative pursuits?

I have often thought of travel for any purpose as like peeling an onion; the layers of everyday existence fall away and we reconnect with our essential self, our core. It’s very freeing and invigorating, and new insights almost always start popping like flash bulbs.

What light bulb moments did you have at the first Camp Makearoo event?

“OMG, I ABSOLUTELY LOVE THIS WORK!” was the first one. I was right where I needed to be, and so was everyone else. And we all knew it, to our bones. It’s impossible to manufacture or force that sort of chemistry. Building a business that was essentially and uniquely me allowed me to show up and be the best conduit and guide I could possibly be, and people sensed that and followed suit.

Guests and speakers attend an invigorating talk on creativity at a local warehouse-turned-art gallery/community

What’s next for you and

I’m still writing fiction, determined to finish and sell one of my stories, and I joined a group that does monthly readings in my small town here in Illinois. My knees were knocking as I stood on stage that first time! The next Camp Makearoo is at the same place next May (details at After that, I’m going to switch to an annual event with one or two smaller, more intimate retreats. I’m also getting ready to launch some new offerings, including small, focused group workshops and opportunities for one-on-one work with me in a couple of fun ways. My newsletter subscribers will be the first to hear about that great stuff; there’s a link to sign up on my home page (or a handy one right here).

Any parting words?

Get to know and love yourself. Embrace your essential weirdness, because that’s what makes you and your work unique. What makes you tick? What drains you? What enlivens you? Map out a process for working on your cool shit. I know that sounds really basic and maybe even cheesy, but it’s a fundamental building block to creative success that we skip at our peril. If there’s not a solid foundation of love and weirdness, your work and success will reflect that.

Hooray for weirdness! If anything Toni said resonates with you, check out her website at Thanks Toni, for stopping by. You’re the best.


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