Sep 282012

Yes I'm assigning homework, and yes that's a creepy photo.

If you have the time to listen, this podcast I checked out the other day is well worth it.

Writer Jeff Goins, who keeps a blog on writing and the creative process, covers a whole lot of ground here. Self-declaration. Working with a cantankerous and demanding Muse. Starting something instead of just thinking about it.

This podcast is of a nearly 50-minute interview between Goins and Erik Fisher, who produces the Beyond The To Do List blog and podcast series. A happy discovery for me; I’d never heard of Fisher until just a few days ago.

Let’s put it this way. If you don’t have at least one workable idea coming out of this podcast, forget it. There ain’t no hope for you.

The more I think about it, the more I realize Jeff is probably my brother from another mother. You heard it here first.

Listen to or download the podcast. Check out Jeff. Make those two things your weekend homework assignment. There may be a quiz later.


Sep 282012

The process is more than just the means of achieving a result.

I have this goofy tendency to think way ahead of things. I’m a big-picture guy, and sometimes it rubs people the wrong way.

When I took a job at a railroad yard some years ago, my role was a fairly small one in the scheme of things. I dealt with truckers coming in and going out of the yard. What they did while on the property, I had no clue. All I knew was that they came in with a shipping container, left without one, and there was a train parked thereabouts.

So I had a tour of the yard. I picked our load planner’s brain. I asked a gazillion questions of our crane operators. I bugged the crap out of my boss, and I’m sure my caffeinated personality didn’t help my cause. To this day he’s probably glad he’s rid of me. But with each question I understood better what I was supposed to do.

I think best with the big picture in mind. Hang the process, give me results instead.

My one-time shrink once suggested I look more to the process and enjoy that. Results will come, she said. The whole thing sounded so Eastern with a high ooo-eee-ooo factor, so it was quite natural that I thought she was full of it. I’m just not wired that way.

As a writer I always had my eye on the finished product and on the deadline. The steps I took were merely the means toward an end. I didn’t have time to enjoy what I was doing.

Now hear this: Getting my stuff down on paper is fun. Taking a totally random germ of an idea and building it into something workable is a real kick in the pants. Talking to folks to gather the info I need is enjoyable. Shuffling through my arsenal of words to find The One that conveys the exact meaning I want, that’s fun too.

Isn’t it always a blast when you come up with that nice turn of a phrase, one that expresses everything you need to say in just a few words? Even if that masterful wording gets up snipped out in the final edit (always done with weeping and gnashing of teeth), it’s still a great feeling.

I remember this guitarist I used to work with. Guy was a musical genius but had some serious social deficiencies. He told me in a rare lucid moment that he had Asperger’s Syndrome, which is a form of autism, and I totally believe that. He’d go a whole gig without saying a word. But watching him play was something else.

He’d stand there with his guitar clutched to his chest, wringing out flurries of notes and chords, all correct within the context of the song but challenging you at the same time. He’d make faces as his mind worked through the song, and his eyes would be fixed on a spot on the ceiling. If somebody came in with a high-powered weapon and began mowing down everybody in the place I’m sure the guitarist wouldn’t notice.

I’d come to realize, this guy was in love with the process. He’s making music because that’s what he does, like that’s the whole of his existence. Because of this love (and probably the Asperger’s) he was able to do his work with an otherworldly singleness of purpose.

When I first discovered I could write, and later when I realized I could play music, I loved the process. Any moment I could spare, I practiced.

But after a measure of success (in my world, “success” was partly from knowing people were actually willing to pay me for doing something I loved) I loved the results.

Only the process, i.e. my imagination, could conjure up a vision like this.

The process? Ahh, it was there. It was still important. However, it was a means to the result. Results are always wonderful, but like some nasty redheaded seductress in a little black dress, the results took my eye off the process, of just doing my work and enjoying it.

(Now, wasn’t it fun conjuring up that seductress? I tell you, if it wasn’t for the creative process she wouldn’t exist.)


Sep 272012

It took me a long time, but I came to realize that a gift like writing, art, problem solving or music isn’t mine anyway. Not really, anyway.

Though there’s nothing wrong with using it to make a good living, and when I can pull it off I’ll do just that. But I can’t give it away. I can’t sell it. I can’t eat it. And if I tried to bury it (and trust me, I have), it’ll just keep popping back up like in some bad zombie movie.

Each gift comes with, if not instructions, then marching orders. I’m holding it in trust, so it becomes a stewardship thing. This gift is given to me to nurture, to develop to the best of my ability, and to use for good. If I don’t do these things, it’ll sit inside me and claw me to shreds.


Sep 262012

I’m not exactly the most well-adjusted person on the face of this earth. I probably have more fears than most. But the funny thing is, most of these fears tie in with the twin gifts of writing and music, something I should excel at.

I keep telling myself that whatever it is I’m doing, it’s not good enough. My work isn’t thorough enough. Folks won’t like what I’m doing. I’ll never be able to make a living at it. Any success is because I’ve fooled your pants off.

This sort of bad self-talk gets in the way of using a gift. It’s probably the strongest force of resistance I face, and it gets worse when I’m close to finishing something. Here’s the deal, though: When I run through the litany of bad self-talk, it just shows that even though I can fool some of the people some of the time, I can fool myself any time I want.


Sep 252012

Ever look at your special gift and wonder why you got to be the lucky one? I sure do. Like, how did I get stuck with this door prize anyway? Sort of like the guy who thought they said “trains” when they were passing out the brains.

I’ll tell you what, many’s the time I felt like I was the wrong guy for this writing thing. OK, I love to read and I like to write, but why was I given this need to learn everything I can to improve my craft? Why couldn’t I have been, say, a railroad engineer instead? Or a fireman, that’s always cool. Shoot, my brother also likes to write, why not give it to him?

I don’t pretend to know what goes on behind the scenes when the gifts (including brains and trains) are passed out, and I don’t really want to know. But every time I wonder, “why me” I keep getting the same answer back: “Why not you?”


Sep 242012

(This having a gift thing, just what is it like? My short answer: It’s not pretty. Creatives have a whole lot of things to think about as soon as they discover their talent. We’ll talk about some of these this week, all in 3 graffs:)

Discovering you have a special talent can really knock you back off your heels. Something about the heavy responsibility that comes with it.

I know that when I first realized I could write a little bit, it kind of blew me away. What am I supposed to do with this thing? It did help me a lot in school. My ability to write a good essay in final exams, even when I knew I was not dazzling the teacher with brilliance, helped get me semester grades that were much higher than I deserved. I rode that ability all the way through high school.

But considering the awesome responsibility that comes with such a gift is often enough to make a guy think of just burying the whole thing. Forget about it. Try to be normal, like everybody else. Except that gift will keep bugging you until you do something with it.


Sep 212012

Back in the late 1980s, when I was a relative kid just stretching my legs in writing and music, I did a little work with Rosie Hamlin.

You’d have to be a baby boomer or a real oldies freak to know of Rosie. She was the lead singer for Rosie & The Originals in the ’60s. Her big song back then was “Angel Baby.”

Now, when I worked with her, everybody wanted her to do that song. Except she was a teen then, and her voice had matured considerably and getting the high parts punched holes in her range. Besides that, she wanted to do blues. To accommodate her fans she’d work Angel Baby into a medley, singing just part of the song.

An artist knows when it’s time to move on. With some — particularly in jazz — it’s expected. Miles Davis redid his career several times, creating several subforms (cool, modal, fusion) in the process. In a couple of years John Coltrane completely changed his sound from his Classic Quartet days to his Pharoah Sanders period.

You’ll find this process elsewhere. Basketball great Wilt Chamberlain morphed from scoring machine to assist man to defensive specialist in just a few years. While his critics swore these changes were just because he was getting old, it was just Wilt moving into a new role for his team. Shoot, his Lakers already had enough high-octane scorers; if he hadn’t redesigned his game they’d need three basketballs out there.

If you’ve been creating for a while, you may notice major changes in how you do things. You learn new techniques, you find different stories to tell, your imagination goes places you’ve never visited before.

But the catch here is in making sure your audience — your tribe — goes with you.

If you can do something that satisfies that inner Muse and carries enough authenticity to keep connection with your tribe, you’ve probably pulled it off. Otherwise, you’ve just jumped the shark.

After Fleetwood Mac recorded that great Rumours album, the question was what do they do next. Their answer was Tusk, and the title track was recorded with the USC (Southern California, not South Carolina) marching band. A lot of Fleetwood Mac fans were scratching their heads over that one, saying they’d lost it. Maybe, but I thought it was a real gutsy move.

Some of my favorite novelists ended up writing things outside their realm — David Baldacci and John Grisham wrote coming-of-age stuff and relatively lightweight (for them) fare. Stephen King wrote books that do not scare the stuff out of you.

Robin Williams started doing serious roles (The Awakening, Good Will Hunting) and made new fans. Even Richard Pryor wanted to try something serious.

It’s so easy to do the same thing you started with. It’s a whole lot safer, and the rationale is solid. Why argue with success? Stretching things out is a risk.

But sometimes growth is forced upon you. I’m thinking of all those out-of-work newsmen who have to change things up one way or another. Rebuild some skills and go into freelance? Work on the periphery, such as technical writing?  Throw the dice on writing/publishing that novel? Play it safe and hook on with another paper that may actually survive the year? Sell blood for a living?

Other times that growth comes on from pure restlessness. I find that’s true of me. One of the disadvantages of living full tilt is that I get burned out quickly. I need to constantly adjust, keep trying new things. To stay motionless is to die.

Maybe it’s just me, but I can’t picture a creative life without growth. To me, if my work looks a lot like it did 20 or 30 years ago, I’m moving in the wrong direction. Even if this means getting dangerous and trying my hand at something I’ve never attempted before.


Sep 202012

It’s not going to happen. Banish the thought. You’re never going to see any perfection in this lifetime, so don’t waste effort or resources trying to attain it.

Shoot, some days you might as well be content with not stinking out the joint, and you might even call that a good day.

Wadded-up paper, destroyed canvases, broken guitar strings and incomprehensible results are all part of the creative process. Use ’em. Enjoy ’em. Look at your messes and make adjustments. That’ll be tomorrow’s game plan (for further information, see Monday’s post).


Sep 192012

While you do much of your work in private, successes and goals don’t need to be. Now it’s easy to put your large and small triumphs out there; just takes a couple of seconds to post it on your favorite social media.

I’m ready. As soon as I reach today’s goal it’s going up on Twitter, Facebook and probably LinkedIn (love that Hootsuite online tool). How about something like this: @creativedanger Wrote and posted my week’s worth of 3-graffs blog entries. On a roll. #amwriting

Get brave. Sprout some guts. Do something dangerous. Meet your daily goal and let everybody know. I find these dispatches get likes and/or retweets, which is always a bonus.


Sep 182012

I’ve heard that a good way to get started on your work every day is to choose one project and do it for five minutes.

This sounds like nothing. If you’re writing the mother of 140,000-word historical novels or helping Franz Schubert come up with an ending for his Unfinished Symphony, something like that will take years. But in those five minutes of tight focus, a funny thing may happen:

You might strike inspiration. Or failing that, you’ll find yourself so locked in that the agreed-upon five-minute mark passed several hours ago and you’re still rolling. Or not. But without the first five minutes, you’ll never find your groove.