Creativity Found: finding creativity later in life

Shirley Novack – blending fact and fiction

January 12, 2024 Claire Waite Brown/Shirley Novack Episode 91
Creativity Found: finding creativity later in life
Shirley Novack – blending fact and fiction
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Show Notes Transcript Chapter Markers
From selling sweets to Cyndi Lauper to being questioned by the US Secret Service, Shirley Novack has lots of stories to tell, but when her father died she came across the story that she wanted to write down.
As a child, Shirley's Eastern European parents’ conventional beliefs were not to her satisfaction, so she worked tirelessly, pursuing education and working alongside pioneers of fetal surgery, despite only holding an associate's degree.
She later shifted gears, bringing life to rooms as an interior designer and capturing the hearts and minds of students as an educator. Each career pivot reflects her multifaceted interests and her ability to adapt and thrive in various professional landscapes.
The most compelling turn in Shirley's life came after the passing of her father, which uncovered a family history ripe with hardship and survival. His hidden past became the spark for her foray into the literary world, blending the lines between truth and fiction in her writing.
In this episode Shirley also shares her insight into the challenges and triumphs of publishing and self-promotion, her journey through the publishing industry is an encouraging tale for aspiring writers, emphasizing that with dedication and a bit of luck, the dream of seeing one's work in print can become a reality.

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Researched, edited and produced by Claire Waite Brown
Music: Day Trips by Ketsa Undercover / Ketsa Creative Commons License Free Music Archive - Ketsa - Day Trips
Artworks: Emily Portnoi emilyportnoi.co.uk
Photo: Ella Pallet


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Speaker 1:

I was the youngest of Eastern European parents who believed that education was wasted on females, that I would just get married, have children, be a housewife and that's what they thought for me. So I put myself through school. I could only afford two years and ended up working for the pioneers in fetal surgery At 12 years old and 9 years old. My father and his 9 year old brother used to live in the care of a grotto. When you write, you become part of your characters. They become part of you and their family. I mean, a lot of people want to write a book but they're afraid to sit down and start and my advice is to just do it.

Speaker 2:

Hi, I'm Claire, founder of Creativity Found, a community for creative learners and educators, connecting adults who want to find a creative outlet with the artists and crafters who can help them do so with workshops, courses, online events and kits. For this podcast, I chat with people who have found or re-found their creativity as adults. We'll explore their childhood experiences of the arts, discuss how they came to the artistic practices they now love and consider the barriers they may have experienced between the two. We'll also explore what it is that people value and gain from their new found artistic pursuits and how their creative lives enrich their practical, necessary everyday lives.

Speaker 2:

This time I'm speaking with Shirley Novak, who loves the story and tells a few in this episode, from putting herself through college and selling sweets to Cindy Lauper to being questioned by the US Secret Service and having the bomb squad called on her. You'll have to listen right to the end to hear them all, but it wasn't until her father died that she came across the story she wanted to actually write down. Hi, shirley, how are you Good? Claire, how are you Very well? Thank you, nice to see you again. Thank you, and you, and to hear you Start by telling me how you have started to express yourself creatively.

Speaker 1:

I think I've always been creative, but I never realized it. But I started writing. I've always wanted to write. I felt I always had a talent for writing. My fourth grade teacher told me I would be a great writer someday, and so now I'm writing like a banshee and I am loving it and I can create whatever I want, whether it's true or not. So it's a wonderful feeling to be able to sit down and put down on paper just things that are going on in your head. It's bizarre as it may be.

Speaker 2:

How exciting. So you mentioned your fourth grade teacher there. Generally we're writing and other creative pursuits encouraged in you in childhood, at home and in education.

Speaker 1:

Actually, it was not encouraged. I was a girl. I was the youngest of Eastern European parents who believed that education was wasted on females, that I would just get married, have children, be a housewife, and that's what they hoped for me.

Speaker 1:

Well, I had other aspirations and I was strong enough to see what I did not want to be and I just worked. From the time I think I was 10 years old, I always worked, either at babysitting or when I was old enough to get a real job. I worked after school, I worked weekends and I put myself through college because that's what I wanted and my parents weren't going to pay for it. So when we were poor, we didn't have a lot of money in the house, so I put myself through school. I could only afford two years, but I got a degree in laboratory science in two years and ended up working for the pioneers in fetal surgery.

Speaker 1:

We were the first people to operate on the unborn. They really wanted somebody with a master's degree and I only had an associate's degree, but they said that my enthusiasm was so overwhelming that they had to hire me. And then they sent me to the University of Rochester where I took a crash course and I became their hematologist and it was the most incredible job anyone could ever hope for. However, my parents kept telling me you'll never get it. You'll never get it, just meet a nice guy and get married. Yeah, but I got it.

Speaker 2:

Yeah, well, good for you to continue with those aspirations despite having negative external influences there. Why did you choose that subject at college?

Speaker 1:

Actually, I've always loved the medical profession.

Speaker 1:

I had volunteered in the hospital and I just loved the camaraderie and being around people of science.

Speaker 1:

I lived in Boston, I was brought up in Boston and at the time you had to decide when you were 14 years old whether you wanted to go to college or not, because if you were going to college, you couldn't take shorthand in typing. If you weren't going to go to college, you could. You could take a business course, but you had to decide early on and with my parents saying, no, you're not going to go to college, I had to take the business course. So, having the business course, I didn't have enough math credits to go to a four year college. Anyway, I did not want to become a secretary and I happened to be a klutz. And one day in the guidance office I knocked into a table and a brochure fell on the floor that Fisher College in Boston was offering a two year program in laboratory science. And because all the boys in my high school were in science courses, I had enough science credits to apply to this school and I got in and yeah, I couldn't live away from home.

Speaker 1:

I had to live at home and I wanted to live at school, but I couldn't.

Speaker 2:

Yeah, that's really funny. It fell in front of your eyes.

Speaker 1:

Honest to God, it just fell in front of my eyes, and to get a job like that with only an associates degree was amazing. Amazing because I ended up doing things I never would. I delivered sheep. Really I did. I delivered a lamb. We had purebred beagles and sheep in the research department and they were all pregnant. We didn't kill anything. We would give the fetus a disease, some kind of a problem, and then we would go in and repair it before they were born and then we would watch their growth, wow. And then we finally did it on a person no-transcript.

Speaker 2:

That's amazing. I can see how you would be so fascinated and loving that job. Did that last for a long time? It?

Speaker 1:

lasted for about four years, and then federal funding started to get cut out and I knew everybody's job in my group.

Speaker 1:

So they had to let everybody go, but they kept me and as soon as we would get money I could be working 48 hours straight. And then suddenly nothing. And a school opened in Boston called the Breiman School and it was a paramedical training school for medical assistants and dental assistants. And because of my experience and background they hired me as a teacher. So I left the research group and I started teaching anatomy and physiology to the whole school and the medical assisting program.

Speaker 1:

And I think being a teacher was my first love, because my students were between 18 and 50 years old. You know they were children. I loved it, I loved it, and then I got pregnant so I made that part of the part of the syllabus Out of the course. I would bring in the photometer from my doctor's office and let the students hear the baby's heartbeat. And I did that for a while. And then I had my third child and they called me from school and said if we create an evening school, will you teach? And I did and I went back to teaching again. But having three kids, I just wanted to be home. But I loved, loved, loved teaching. Yeah, so I was lucky. I just kind of fell into these things.

Speaker 2:

You know it was great Well, speaking of falling into things, how did you go from science to interior design?

Speaker 1:

Two designers opened a showroom in my town and I hired them to work for me and I would go into their showroom to see what other people were doing and they finally said you've got to come to work for us. So I went to work with my youngest was a nursery school at the time and I said, okay, you know, with certain stipulations. I took a part-time job with them and I worked for them for three years until one day one of the disgruntled clients came in with a gun because they were they were cooking the books a little bit Right. So I quit. I said no, christ, christ, cry, kay, yeah, yeah. But I had a following. So I said well, if I'm going to do this, I'm going to do it right. And I went back to school. I took one course, one course, a semester for nine years and I got my degree in design. But by the time I graduated I was already an established designer in Boston. So I did it for me to give me credibility to what I was doing.

Speaker 2:

For someone that was not meant to go to college. How many degrees have you got now?

Speaker 1:

Oh, just two. But see, I have two extremely highly educated brothers. They were so smart, I mean they went on full scholarships. My middle brother is a history professor. He's published 14 books and he was dean of one of the colleges at Miami University in Ohio.

Speaker 2:

So were they both of your brothers encouraged in that direction and you pushed yourself.

Speaker 1:

We were fairly poor people. My father worked seven days and nights a week. My mother was a devoted housewife. We talk about it now because we say we saw what we did not want to become and that was the positive for us. We were strong people and the funny thing is is that my mother was clinically depressed in and out of institutions and I was sent to live with various relatives at times. Yet the three of us are so incredibly well adjusted and happy people and it's like amazing that it worked that way. We talk about it because, you know, we always see the bright side of life, where my mother was just the opposite and she lived to 105. Wow, I know, yeah, so I don't think there's anything. Well, I can't try, I can't succeed at everything, but I think that as long as there's a breath in your body, there's nothing that you can't do if you put your mind to it and you want to do it.

Speaker 2:

And that takes me on to another question of anything you want to try. Tell me about your family's summertime business.

Speaker 1:

We built a house on Cape Cod and we built it in a resort community. We built it as a means of renting it for the summer, as a money making project. Being a designer, I designed the house, I furnished it, I did everything. And there is a marketplace inside this resort where there were 24 little boutiques and they were only open from Memorial Day to Labor Day, but there was no candy store. Now, how do you have a marketplace with no candy store? So I volunteered to open one the next summer, which meant I had to stay there, right, and my kids were guaranteed summer jobs. They were the most popular kids there because they owned a candy store. Well, it turned out to be very successful and we had a celebrity clientele. I can't even made it over to David Letterman's show because Cindy Lauper was a neighbor. It turned out to be amazing and I did it for seven summers. Then my kids were getting too old to spend the summers there and they had a life, so we gave it up.

Speaker 2:

Yeah, but it was fun while it lasted.

Speaker 1:

Oh, yeah, because I could. I could walk to the beach, check in at the store, see that everything was okay. The kids that worked for me were my kids, my niece and some other kids. Everyone wanted to work at the candy store and they were able to give away as much as they wanted to. Because who knew? Yeah, and it gave me a reason to be on Cape Cod for the summer. Yeah, I was in an unhappy marriage, so for me it was really great to be away. So, yeah, you know if it's not in front of you create it.

Speaker 2:

That's what I did with this show. That's what you do with this show. That's right. And look yeah, an interesting concept, and it's something I talk about generally. There are things that I don't see, so I make them like I used to produce a pantomime in my village because there wasn't such a thing and people and people wanted to do it. It turned out and we did it for about seven years. It was so pretty.

Speaker 2:

No, oh, that's fun. It was really lovely and it helped make really good friends, because when you're in a show together and you have to do stupid things, you very quickly get much closer and you get to know people. When you have to be stupid together or make mistakes.

Speaker 1:

I'm sorry, but you just. That's all right. This phone's all over my house, so I have no way to set off as many as I could.

Speaker 2:

Well, thank you, there's no problem whatsoever. Going back to the design, did you find working in that field was a good source of creative expression for you?

Speaker 1:

Yeah, because I could create for other people and it wasn't necessarily always something I could live with, but I could give them what they wanted and know that it was good design. So I used to tell people I'm here to keep you from making mistakes and from spending a lot of money on something that you don't want, because I respected and listened. Which is the most important part, I think, of any business is listening to what the client wants, instead of you telling them what they should be doing. It was amazing how many of my clients came from people that were disenchanted with their previous designers, because their designers would come in and say this is what we're going to do, not what would you like.

Speaker 1:

In fact, I'm really retired from design right now, but I kept three clients. Each one of them has been with me over 20 years, consistently in various forms, and I don't do aggravation anymore. So if somebody calls me and says you're taking on new clients, I just say I'm only those who don't aggravate me. But I don't. I'm not taking. I've been doing it too long and it can be a demanding business, but the clients that I did keep they're like family and it's fun to be with them and they allow me to create. They just tell me to do what I want. They tell me to do what I want because they've been with them so long. I know what they want. So I'm keeping my hand in it a bit, but writing is my top priority right now.

Speaker 2:

Yeah Well, brilliant, you're doing so well at moving me on to my next questions, everything you say, because that's just what I'm about to get to. How did the writing? How and when, in fact, did writing come in? Was it something you'd been doing on the side? Was there a catalyst? I always loved to write.

Speaker 1:

I mean, I helped my kids with the term papers you know what I mean, and when I was a kid I wrote a lot of poetry and I've just always loved to write, but I've never published anything. Well, my father died suddenly in 1984, so it was a long time ago and after he passed away, a lot of stories came out about his youth that I never knew and they were pretty tragic and I felt there was a story there and I wanted to tell it. I had a different relationship with my father than my brothers did. Like my brothers read my book and they say this isn't the dad I knew. I was the youngest, I was a girl and I was the light of his life. He treated me differently, he adored me and then all of a sudden he dropped dead one day and then I found out this horrible story about his childhood and I felt it needed to be told and I just started to write. I did a little bit of research. I went to Ellis Island and I found his papers there. I found the ship he had come in on and all this other information. My brother, being a historian, insisted that if you're going to write a book, it has to be nonfiction and I said well, my mind doesn't work that way. I want it to be a bestseller. I want people to want to read it. You know, really not just historians. So the beginning of the book is true and from quarter of the way in to the end is fiction.

Speaker 1:

But my dad, who was born in 1904, koretz, poland, had a father who was an absolute evil tyrant. I got to know him. I could not exaggerate his meanness. It was terrible. So when my dad was 12 years old, his sweet mother died and she was just a wonderful person, and his father said I'm going to go to America and I will send for you boys.

Speaker 1:

My father was 12, his brother was nine and in the meantime you're going to be living at a certain place. Well, the place was a brothel and he, at 12 years old and nine years old, my father and his nine-year-old brother went to live in the care of a brothel. He was there for three years before his father sent for him and by the time his father sent for him he had been raped by a Polish soldier. So this is all true. Then he comes to America, he's just turning 16 years old, and his father says you're old enough to get out and be on your own. So here's my father 16 years old, can't speak a word of English and he's tossed out on his own.

Speaker 1:

In a country that he doesn't know, can't speak English, and fortunately at that time there were so many immigrants coming over and they all helped each other and my father rose above it. This was a story I wanted to tell. So what do I do from here? Now he's in America, so I brought the Polish soldier back into my father's life in America, and then there's revenge and there's kidnapping, and there's murder and mayhem. There's love found and love lost. It's got everything, yeah.

Speaker 2:

And how long were you writing it and what time span was this? Because you said that your father died in 84 and that's when you started.

Speaker 1:

Well, I started it, I stopped, I started it, I stopped. But then the pandemic hit and I said I have no excuse. And all of a sudden it was like a hand came over me and I had no idea where I was going with the book. I would just sit down and write and write and write and it created itself. It did. It was a year and it just created itself. And then I had to learn what a query letter was and I sent out one query letter and I sent my manuscript to one publishing house, which was a hybrid publishing house, and they took it right away. And what hybrid publishing is? You put up a certain amount of money up front, which I considered to be very small, and then they do everything, from soup to nuts, they do the whole entire project, like any publisher would do, and then at the end they don't take any money until you've made back your initial investment.

Speaker 2:

Ah yeah, Were you writing it to get published or did that come later, the idea that it could be published?

Speaker 1:

I never thought it would get published. I did not want to self-publish and you can't just walk into a random house or sun in a shoestree and say, here I am, oh yes, we'll take you.

Speaker 1:

We'll take you. So then I found out about hybrid publishing, which I never heard of, and I said, well, maybe this will work because I did not want to self-publish. And I contacted them and they took the manuscript and they said we'll get back to you in a few weeks. And they called me in three days and said we'd like to sign you. And that's how easy it was for me. Like it, just it just. I picked the right place at the right time and they did it. And because of the pandemic, the supply chain was very slow. It was supposed to come out in November of 21 and it didn't come out until, like March, february, march of 22.

Speaker 2:

Yeah, but it came out and it was well liked. But how do you had you had it read by other people before the only person that read it was my husband.

Speaker 1:

He's a voracious reader and so every day I would give him what I had done that day. Or and one day I came downstairs and I was crying and he said why are you crying? I said because so-and-so just died. And he said yeah, but you're the one who killed her. But when you write, you become part of your characters, they become part of you and their family.

Speaker 1:

I mean, a lot of people want to write a book, but they're afraid to sit down and start and my advice is to just do it, and it doesn't matter whether it's good, bad or otherwise. Be honest. Just be honest in it and write for you, write for yourself. It's your truth, and if you write for yourself, it can't help. But being good, and if you have a publisher, they'll take care of the editing and the.

Speaker 1:

Although I will say that I need it, I'm very proud of the fact I need a very little editing. I love English, I love the language, I love the word, and then I started to do podcasting not guesting on podcasts and one of the people that was the host called me and said I just finished your book. I have a really good friend who's a publisher. Can I give him your information? And he did, and this person called me the next day and said I understand you're writing another book. We might be interested in publishing it. So I've been sending his editor chapters as I'm going through it and she's can't wait for the next chapter to come out. That's what she tells me.

Speaker 2:

And is the second book, since the first book had a basis in reality, is the second book pure fiction, pure fiction.

Speaker 1:

It deals with human trafficking. I love crime. I don't want to be a criminal, but I love true crime stories. I love all the tv shows that are about crime, and I don't know why, because I'm really not a criminal, but I like it. So I'm having a good time researching with this book. But if the FBI ever takes over my computer, they're going to see all my research into human trafficking and, oh yeah, your search history, oh dear.

Speaker 2:

And what do you think the kind of peripheral benefits are for you of being able to be involve yourself? In writing.

Speaker 1:

My kids are, like so proud of me and I'm getting to meet the most wonderful people through doing book clubs and signings and yourself doing podcasting, and so I'm getting to know the international world and I'm having so much fun with this and I'm loving everybody I meet. It's been a really great journey.

Speaker 2:

Yeah, I think the social aspect is often not the first one that's thought of when you're saying to someone well, what do you get from? You know being creative, what do you get out of it? But it's certainly something that I always say as well as having started the podcast, it's the wonderful people that I've met, whether as guests or whether I'm out and about promoting it and networking stuff, and how much I really enjoy and benefit from meeting lots of people.

Speaker 1:

I know I mean I'm a people person. Throw me into a room full of strangers. I'm happy. I love hearing who they are, what they are. And the other thing that I found out about myself, not that many years ago, is that I have something called synesthesia, and that's when sensors in your brain are crossed so you may experience sensory of two entirely different things at the same time, like for me. Shapes, colors and numbers all come together as one. So let's say, number six is soft, number six is blue to me, and that's what. When I see number six, I see it blue. When I see it round, and by the same token, seven would be sharp. Seven is green, and that's what I see. When I see number seven, I see a very sharp corners and green what number is orange?

Speaker 1:

aren't.

Speaker 2:

Orange is four wow, that's funny because I was going to ask about four, because four is my number.

Speaker 1:

Of course, your number.

Speaker 2:

Yeah, and orange is my color. I can see, I know, other than the second book, which when your Hand's Better, you Can Work on More. What kind of plans or aspirations do you have for the future? Near far.

Speaker 1:

Probably become a pole dancer. No, right now I am just having a great time writing and, as bizarre as this may sound, I've gotten a lot of people saying to me my first book should be a movie. It has all the makings of a good movie. I don't know how that happens. I would like it to get more attention, because the marketing is where the publishing company did fall short. Unless you really get out there and push it yourself, it ain't going to happen, hopefully with my second book. If this publishing company does actually publish the book, then it's a really good, legitimate publisher who will take over the entire thing and push it to be marketed.

Speaker 2:

Yeah, I do find a lot of authors saying that, whether they're self-published or traditionally published with companies, that there's still a lot of the marketing you do yourself, and you've already talked about book clubs and podcasts and things. Yeah, that's what people do to get noticed.

Speaker 1:

Yeah.

Speaker 2:

It's been absolutely super to speak with you talking about promoting. Tell us the name of the first book, because so far it's been called the first book.

Speaker 1:

It's called the story of dot dot, dot and the three dots are important because that's indicative of all the immigrants that came over to the country, to this country, at the beginning of the 20th century and they all have stories. So the three dots are the stories that are still untold. But my father's was a little more unusual because of the brothel experience. But everyone has some kind of a story and what's really interesting is that my father became a furniture maker and some of the people that he came over with on his boat to Boston became involved in the textile industry. So they all helped each other, they all helped each other. They were there for each other till the day they died, actually, and a couple of the people became extremely successful textile manufacturers that are known all over the world, and they were my father's friends. My father stayed poor, but he stayed very humble and talented and he always undersold himself. I grew up in an area where everybody was the same, so we didn't know. We didn't know we were poor. We just knew that if we wanted a good time we had to create it. The people in my neighborhood grew up to either be hardened criminals or very, very successful. There was nothing in the middle. It was either in prison or successful. Yeah, fortunately no one in my family became a criminal. Good, so although I have been accused of being a terrorist a couple of times, what, yes, why? I had to go pick up a cocktail table. It was coming in on a plane at the airport in the cargo area, and I had no idea where the cargo area was. So I finally get to the cargo area, the plane comes in, the table is not on the plane and the man says to me it's coming on the next plane. So I said, okay, I'll go over to the terminal and have dinner and come back. And as I'm leaving the cargo area, there's a whole motorcade going by Of limousines and secret service and the American flag. And I say, well, I don't know where I am, I don't know how to get out of here, I'll just follow them.

Speaker 1:

So now I'm in a van with tinted windows and suddenly they all stop and I'm at the end of a private runway. Air Force two is on the runway and I'm surrounded by secret service and state troopers. I'm trying to tell them let me leave, I'm leaving and I go to back up and I can't. I can't back up. My car stalls Now they won't talk to me. They're calling in my license plate, but no one will talk to me. I can't leave. So the plane takes off and they all go into a building and I'm stuck Right. No, my car backs up.

Speaker 1:

So I pulled into the service station at the airport and the man checks out my car top to bottom, and I happen to have a phone at the time hardwired into my car. And the man says to me I bet your phones did and it was Because the secret service had a device where if you're in motion they can't stop you, but if you're in a stop position they can prevent you from leaving. And that's what they did. Oh, no. So I came home that night. Oh, and the table was not on the next plane. So I come home that night and I go, wow, what a story I've got. You know it's like, hey, I'll do anything for a story. You know, if you get a good story, I didn't have the brains to be frightened, I just wanted a good story.

Speaker 2:

Good, good, I would have been petrified.

Speaker 1:

That's what everyone says. I would have been petrified. I would have been so frightened. How could you? You know, and they had. Had I opened the door and tried to get out of the car, they probably would have shot me. I don't know, you know, but I just looked at it as a great story. I certainly, is that how many people? And then I got stopped at the airport again for they thought I had a bomb in my bag and I do. I look like a terrorist.

Speaker 2:

That's why they chose you because you don't look like a terrorist.

Speaker 1:

Yeah, I had medicine packed in ice and the crimp, the crimped ice look like wires, and so they called the bomb squad and once again I said what a story.

Speaker 2:

Yeah.

Speaker 1:

I said, turned out to be a lot more involved than that, but danger just seems to follow me.

Speaker 2:

Oh dear, that's amusing, right. Let's get back on track. How can people connect with you? Surely?

Speaker 1:

Well, my book is available wherever books are sold. You may have to ask for it, and the way to ask for it is the title the story of dot dot dot by Shirley B Novak, and it's Amazon Bounds and Novels. It's audible, so it's in audio paperback, kindle, hardcover. It's everywhere. The other thing is my email address. Well, my website is really my business website, but it's surely at snovaknovaccom, so it's novacknndassociatescom or sobuno-s-o-b-o-n-o-e, at aolcom, on LinkedIn, facebook, amazon books, but I'm pretty visible around. Brilliant, I'm happy to hear from people all the time. Lovely, brilliant, yes, and I'm so happy to meet you and talk to you, even though it took a while.

Speaker 2:

We had some technical issues, but we got there.

Speaker 1:

Couldn't understand what it was. But yes, we did. We had some technical issues.

Speaker 2:

Oh no, that's no problem. Thank you so much, Shirley. That was an absolutely brilliant chat.

Speaker 1:

Thank you so much for having me, and as soon as I'm done with my next book you'll hear from me, okay, thank you.

Speaker 2:

Thanks so much for listening to Creativity Found. If your podcast app has the facility, please leave a rating and review. To help other people find us On Instagram and Facebook, follow at creativityfoundpodcast and on Pinterest, look for at creativityfound. And finally, don't forget to check out creativityfoundcouk, the website connecting adults who want to find a creative outlet with the artists and crafters who can help them tap into their creativity.

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