Aug 312012

If you have 15 minutes, that just might be enough to get something down.

One of the things I hear from gifted people is that being creative sure sounds good, but who has time for that kind of stuff?

I hear ya. Most people have jobs, they have families, they have responsibilities. There’s a claim on every one of those 168 hours in a week.

Everyone has the same time allocation per day and per week; none of us are special enough to get an extension.

It’s so easy to fill up your plate, and if you don’t others will gladly fill it for you.

I’ve known outrageously talented musicians who gave it up after they got married, and amazing writers who stuck their gift in the junk drawer after taking on a new job. After growing up.

Too busy, priorities changed, things like that.

A tiger in your tank

When I took a job driving a taxi some years ago, I fell in love with the freedom of being my own boss, liked the money, and worked a lot of 60-hour weeks. Writing? Who’s got time for that foolishness?

Come to realize later that I had to write. Needed to. Was going all dysfuntional without it. Learned that when you have a gift and you don’t use it, it’ll rip you to shreds. Like the old Esso gasoline commercial goes, it’s like having a tiger in your tank.

Here’s the deal. I have that gift that claws me from the inside. I also like to eat. And have a life. And improve my mind. And help folks who have that creative itch. And keep up with all the news, trends and gossip. And find time to read, hang out with friends, and go hiking every so often. So what’s a guy to do?

Everybody’s got time constraints

I’m not going to go all efficiency-expert on you and suggest ways to maximize those hours. Not here anyway. But everything that goes on your plate got there either by active choice, or as the byproduct of another active choice.

I'm kind of dating myself, but you know the deal.

Like sleeping. I must have my straight eight, though I can get by on seven. Much less than that, I can feel the dropoff.

Or work. Most of us have that every day, at 40-50 a week. That’s not real negotiable either. Or a spouse and young’uns. That’s job one, so it’s also not real negotiable. Leaving them completely out of the picture means some hopelessly screwed-up priorities.

OK. All those things are a given. If you spend a third of your life asleep and a third of it working, it’s that final third that gets interesting.

Now here’s the trick. It really doesn’t take much time or equipment to exercise your Muse, and if you’re consistent about it the Muse shows up when you do.

A few minutes with the Muse

My best weapon is be those odd between-times that eat up so much of my day. Standing in line. Browsing the produce section at StuffMart. Slow periods on the job (watch it). Taking the bus to work. Those times where you don’t need to be actively engaged.

Since writing is my main gift, it’s probably a little easier. I always carry the following tools everywhere I go, even (seriously) to the head:

• Packet of index cards
• Composition book
• Pen
• Smartphone

That’s all. The index cards are there to capture and develop an idea. The smartphone becomes an all-purpose tool and occasional time waster. The cool thing is I can write on it, and everything ends up on my computer. But the real work is done in my 99-cent composition book.

The other day I needed to take a bus downtown, an hour-long ride. Rather than complain about that colossal waste of time, I had that composition book out. Knocked out about 1,000 words. That’s about four pages, a good output. Time well spent.

See, I’m getting better at identifying those times where active engagement isn’t required and am getting better about using them.

The important vs. the merely urgent

It’s not such a good thing to borrow from, say, quality time with the spouse and/or kids. Forget about cutting into your family dinner hour. But there’s nothing wrong with having your notebook out while you’re sitting with the horde during your communal TV time. You’re there, close enough for the family unit to touch but getting your work done.

John Grisham had a fairly busy life. He was a lawyer who also served as a state legislator. Time was at a premium for him, but nearly all artists can claim that unless there’s a trust fund somewhere.

Sometimes "urgent" means someone else says it is. Not to be confused with important.

Can’t find time? Now might be a real good time to audit your day. What are your big commitments? Which ones are important? Which ones are merely urgent, and who made them so?

From there, again, it breaks down to choices. Priorities. Some things belong at the top of the list, like family and making a living. Others, not so much.

If the latest episode of CSI is more important than developing and using your gift, you’re at the wrong website.

If chatting with your Facebook buddies is more important than putting together a few paragraphs, sketching out a few ideas or developing a marketing plan for your Next Big Thing, go ahead and do so. But please don’t tell me you don’t have enough time.

Borrowed time

Grisham decided he needed to write. He had a story that needed to be told. Maybe it was that tiger thing again. Busy as he was, he spent a few minutes when he could, writing his first draft for A Time To Kill on a legal pad in his desk. A few minutes at a time.

Do the math here. A novel takes up about 70,000-100,000 words. If we split that down the middle, called it 85,000 and decided to do the first draft in a year, that’s what — 233 words a day? Less than a page. So it’s doable.

Now understand that’s just a first draft and it’ll probably stink out the joint. Mine always do, and every writer will tell you the same thing. But that’s OK.

You’ll have it down.

You’ll have something to work with.

You’ll have started and completed something.

Now, wasn’t that better than CSI?


Aug 302012

Alexander Fleming forgot to clean up his work station one day and some weird stuff grew back there just like it does in my fridge. Oops. But he noticed how bacteria didn’t seem to like the stuff. This poor housekeeping became our first real antibiotic, and penicillin plunged medicine into the modern era.

Rubber was essentially useless until Charles Goodyear put some in a container with sulfur and lead, and proceeded to spill the whole mess on a hot stove — whooops!. Burnt it up pretty good, too. But he discovered the process hardened the rubber so it was usable. Now you’ll find vulcanized rubber everywhere, like in your tires.

But you can bet Fleming and Goodyear — and others like them — were sure they’d just screwed up big time for a minute. At the onset you don’t know if that train wreck you produced is just a mistake or an innovation.


Aug 292012

One of the cardinal rules of writing is that your first draft will be an unholy mess. Bet the hacienda on that. And the first time musicians get together they’ll produce a lot of disconnected skronks.

This will improve over time, but it’ll never be perfect.

The cool thing is that your audience doesn’t expect perfection. If your humanness shows up in the work, that’s fine. Your audience just expects a product — with your name and your fingerprints on it.


Aug 282012

If you’ve ever watched a baseball game, you’ve probably watched the second baseman stand there and wave at a line drive as it blows past him. Shoot, the guy didn’t even try, and the play was probably called a base hit. The second baseman screwed up passively.

Then on the next play the shortstop may leap after another line drive, get himself all dirty and maybe get a glove on the ball before it squirts away. The hitter gets on base, so the result is the same. The only real difference is that the shortstop gets charged with the error. The shortstop screwed up aggressively.

The lead-footed, passive second baseman will look better in the box score, but which player would you rather have on your team?


Aug 272012

In the workaday world, if you screw up the boss will let you know — unless you’re smart enough to cover your tracks or find a scapegoat first.

Maybe it’s part of human nature to avoid making mistakes, or maybe it’s just western society. The prevailing wisdom is that your first attempt must be good enough to ship.

When creating, though, feel free to screw up and embrace your messes. Most of your work will be in fixing errors and twisted logic. But if you don’t have a few pages of messed-up stuff, you have no starting point.


Aug 272012

I love stepping in it, especially after I was the one who stirred it up.

Tracie McBride offers what she calls “a contrary viewpoint” to my recent post about working for free. Only it’s not so contrary. In it, she offers instances where you might want to work for free.

Maybe you love the idea of seeing your work out there in the general public. And she’s right. Even now I still get that tingly feeling about it.

Or maybe you’re helping a friend, or working for charity … well, shoot. Read her article:

Not so contrary, really. But call it a supplemental viewpoint. If you need to set boundaries on what you will or won’t do, this’ll help.


If for no other reason, check out her post because there’s a very cool photo of a bottom feeder.

Aug 262012

(Special thanks to Matt McCall, who gave me the idea while he was making a joke.)

One of the worst things that can happen when you’re on your day job is making a mistake.

The only thing worse than that is if your boss finds it.

This aversion to making mistakes spills over into the creative process, and it just doesn’t belong there. Perfection doesn’t come right from the jump; in fact it never does. Just having a product you can ship is the goal, not this phantom perfection.

This week I’ll explore the fine art of screwing up further. Read. Learn. Try new things. Wad up a few first drafts. Burn a few early blueprints and try again, taking what you learned from those efforts.

Just don’t screw up. (Just kidding.)

Aug 242012

If you're reduced to this, there's something wrong.

When you start using your gift and developing it, one thing is almost guaranteed to happen: People will try to take advantage of you.

They’ll want a piece of it, a piece of you. For free if they can get it.

If you’ve ever been asked to work “for exposure” you’ll know exactly what I mean.

I can understand the rationale here, kinda sorta. You love your work. Just the thought of people actually paying you to do something you love just blows you away. It sure does with a lot of other people.

Most people, I’ve come to discover, have at best a grudging tolerance for their jobs. Those are the lucky ones, too. Many others would sooner gargle razor blades than go to work. That’s when the rationale kicks in: If you love what you’re doing you can’t be working, right?

And since you’re an artist, well, all you need to hit the big time is a little exposure and … yada yada yada.

They really think they’re doing you a favor, too. Seriously.

But how an artist responds to the will-work-for-exposure proposition depends on whether he’s turned pro or not, keeping in mind that “turning pro” is a self-declaration and attitude. A professional knows his work has value, while an amateur isn’t so sure.

The dogs and ponies are waiting out in the hall

I ran across this exposure proposition yet again last night. I won’t mention the name of the guy, his company or his website, because that’s not important. I don’t want to send more Web traffic his way because that’s his game and I don’t want to encourage him. But he approached my writer’s group with his proposition.

Basically his company — a media outfit from some big city Up North — owns a bunch of really choice Web domain names and he needs some content to fill his pages. Preferably quality stuff that fills a niche and brings eyeballs to his Web pages so people can then click on some ads and make his company a pantload of money. Or something like that.

In return, the writers get “exposure.” Their stuff gets out there where it can be read.

I don’t know what y’all call it, but I call it a scam.

As far as my writer’s group, it was pretty well split among the 14 people there and nobody rode the fence on this one. Some were ready to sign up right now. Others — including myself — said thanks but no thanks.

OK. A couple of us were downright hostile, and yeah, I was feeling my oats. I’ll admit it. I must say, though, I was a lot more polite than I should have been. It took a lot of restraint to keep me from carving the guy a whole new one. But I did let him and the rest of my writer’s group know where I stood, with no room for doubt.

Another day, another offer from another bottom feeder. That’s life in the creative world.

Listen, the offer of “exposure” is outdated by at least 20 years, and it wasn’t all that promising then. Like noted philosopher Yogi Berra put it, “a nickel ain’t worth a dime anymore.” Ol’ Yog knows what he’s talking about here.

The crux: Exposing yourself

If you need exposure, you can do it yourself and spare yourself the screwing. If you write, get an accont with Squidoo or Hubpages and startt banging on that keyboard. Or better, go to Blogspot or WordPress and start yourself a free blog. With Blogspot you can even put ads there and maybe make enough to treat yourself to lunch now and again as long as you order from the dollar menu.

If you’ve really got the fuzz for it, get a self-hosted WordPress site or build your own website. It’ll cost a bit, but it’s worth it. All your work is your own, and self-hosted means you’re serious. Even with my minimal (by Web standards) hit count, I still get job inquiries through my self-hosted site, and it makes a great online portfolio.

Traffic? Sure it’s always good. I’ll take more traffic. Share this with your friends, put it on Facebook, let it go viral. I don’t mind. But I’d rather own my work and use it any way I want for smaller exposure than give it away and line some other fella’s pockets for the sake of greater exposure.

(Full disclosure time: I have a Hubpages account. I’ve added five entries all year, so it’s not real active. Still, it gets a lot of traffic. My old Blogspot account is still out there and getting hits, though I haven’t added anything to it in nearly a year. Both Web domains involved here, and are my own.)

If you play music, get your exposure through one of the band pages online and upload your material. Even is good for gaining some traction, even though it’s on the endangered species list. Or open a Youtube account and post some videos.

If you draw or paint, go with something like Pinterest or one of the visual-arts sharing sites. Even something like Flickr or Picasa will work. And use your social media sites to get the word out. Use Twitterfeed to put your stuff out on your Facebook and Twitter accounts automatically, as soon as it goes live.

Upshot is, any of these options are so much better than this so-called “exposure” some sharpie is offering. These offers of exposure are every bit as generous as the ne’er-do-well kinfolks that always turn up when you get your tax refund, and every bit as trustworthy.


Aug 232012

(*FUD: Computer user’s term for Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt. We’ve been discussing it all week.)

Being in a place where you’re warm, happy and comfortable can be a real tease. It could be anything. When you think about it, even sitting barenaked in a pile of horse dung will give you that warm happy feeling.

The comfort zone may be well protected from the FUD* monster, but nothing ever gets done from there. In the creative world, there’s no such thing as remote control. You have to be out there where the action is.

It’s gonna get cold out there. You’ll face a lot of resistance, from yourself and from outside. They’re using live ammo. You’ll need to learn to duck. The FUD monster will slobber all over you. But you’ll be using your gifts and getting some real significant things done.


Aug 222012

(*FUD: Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt. It’s a computer user’s term, and I stole it for my purposes here. If nothing else, I’m increasing your vocabulary.)

What scares you the most about your creative process? Sitting down to write your daily quota? Pitching your work to a publisher? Telling a group of people what you do?

Whatever that scary thing is, that’s probably what you need to be doing. Acknowledge the FUD* monster. Say howdy. Then take the offensive and ram it down its throat.

Do something dangerous. Every day.