Oct 312012
 

What a shock when we hit the Appalachian Trail last week. We just started and would finish whenever, but the reality of the more than 2,100 miles hit us. The mountains looked bigger than they did on paper.

The whole thing was bigger than any of us. Bigger than all of us.

If you’re working on some great project, you’ll notice it. The thing is bigger than you are. Probably way bigger. This may be overwhelming enough to cause some to quit, but isn’t it great to be part of something big?

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Oct 302012
 

When my friends and I hiked a piece of the Appalachian Trail, we didn’t meet our (overly ambitious) goal. And although we all made it back without becoming a plaything for bears, there was some disappointment over this. Actually, a lot.

But we did the thing that not everybody could claim: We started. All of a sudden all this talk became action. All the what-ifs disappeared from our vocabularies. We were doing it.

Starting a pursuit — any pursuit from writing a novel to building a business — does indeed begin with that first step. Without that start, the question of where you’ll finish is moot. Starting to actually do something is what separates the sheep from the goats.

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Oct 292012
 

Your living-room couch is a dangerous piece of furniture. It’s so comfortable, such a refuge with all life’s diversions within arm’s reach, but it’s a terrible place to stay.

I don’t have any numbers to back this up, but I’m willing to bet more people die on the couch than have creative moments there. The couch is the place to escape to, to hide on, to evade life and the thought of doing amazing things.

If you’re reading this on the couch, you’re in the wrong position. Creativity is active, living, forceful. It’s best taken standing up.

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Oct 272012
 

I know that makes a bad, perhaps scary visual, but … some of these items on the list sound like fun.

If nothing else, just thinking about some of them may tweak your perspective on some things and jump-start the creative process.

Got this list from The Creativity Post. Link: http://www.creativitypost.com/create/101_tips_on_how_to_become_more_creative

Confession time: I used to keep some bizarre statements like those written down on a pack of index cards on my desk. When my mind started to wander with a project or I get stuck, I’d shuffle the deck and pull a card.

“Paint it green.”

Or maybe “Pull my finger.”

Bam. My head’s back in the game, and maybe I’ve thought of a whole different angle to take on the project.

Just a thought.

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Oct 262012
 

How do you define success? I already know my chances of getting the Nobel Prize for literature or a Grammy award for best instrumentalist are really slim, so I’m not going to think about it. The odds of getting a novel published and never having to work again, ditto. Even getting published through the traditional means is tough these days, as I’m finding out. But the odds are still a whole lot better when you do something than when you don’t. If that’s how you define your success, you’re in for a long slog. Like the old pitch for the Arizona State Lottery went, you can’t win if you don’t play. 

Where do you get success? If it’s from other people via kudos/validation/permission, then you’re probably going at it all wrong. The only one who can make the call about your own success is your own self.

Why are you doing this anyway? If you’re doing your work because you enjoy it, because you always wanted to see what your idea looks like in real life, or because you’re getting someting off your chest, pause for a moment. Are you accomplishing these things? Then you’re successful. Next question?

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Oct 262012
 

There’s something about that trail that attracts hardy souls and adventurous types.

I heard her long before I saw her, mostly because sound — especially when it’s a war cry — carries well in the mountains.

But as I talked to the 60-ish black lady with the tattoo on her forearm and a headband around her close-cropped white hair, I began to realize what I was doing up there on Sassafrass Mountain.

Sure, it was a time of refreshing, some bonding with my two friends who are closer than brothers, of good clean manly fun, of testing our mettle against some seriously uncompromising terrain.

But it turns out my reason for being on that Appalachian Trail hike was to hear the war cry near the summit of Sassafrass Mountain.

To talk to people like the two Canadians we ran across near Three Forks, about five miles into our trek. They were heading due south, just a sniff away from the trail’s end — and from the culmination of a longtime dream. They started hiking the AT in 1993, when I was still in Arizona and my two hiking buddies were still in their 20s.

Among hiking circles, everyone knows what the AT is. The big’un. The mother of all hikes. Stretching from Mount Katahdin in Maine to Springer Mountain, Georgia, this trail takes 2,184 miles. Little of it is on flat ground.

Check this. If your idea of training for the AT is to walk along some hiking trail near you, even with a full pack on, it may not be enough to get you through this hike. Even a 10-mile trip over the Cooper River Bridge in Charleston isn’t enough. Sure there’s incline, but all the pavement is there. It’s relatively smooth. There are no switchbacks on the bridge.

A mile is a mile on the bridge, but it’s a whole different animal on the trail. We usually logged a mile in about 15-20 minutes fully loaded in training, but on the trail that same mile took closer to an hour.

If you think you’re pretty big stuff, take about 10 miles or so on the AT. Start anywhere, but just do 10. It’ll humble you quickly.

Maybe it’s the scenery or the challenge, but The Trail sees plenty of visitors anyway. Some just make it a day hike along part of it. Others will section-hike, starting at one end and finishing at the other, a few days at a time. Other real hardy (and independently wealthy) souls will do the whole thing at one whack, “through-hiking” the trail. If that’s your goal, expect to take at least six months off for this.

Starters and finishers

The three of us — me, Derek, and John — started our first section hike at the southern terminus. When will we finish? No one knows. I may be on a walker when we hit Maine, but we do plan to finish this thing somehow. But there’s no rush.

Derek takes a precarious rest stop.

Our new Canadian friends took 19 years to complete their hike. When we talked to them, they were going at a goodish clip of 15 miles per day and planned to hit the Springer Mountain summit in time for lunch.

“We’ll probably open that bottle of wine we packed,” said one of the hikers, patting his backpack.

Since starting their adventure as younger men, they continued to meet once or twice a year at whatever point they left the trail, strap on their backpacks, grab their trekking poles, and go cut some trail. Most of the time anyway. For about a four-year stretch, they didn’t make it to the trail. Family matters, work, that little thing we call life kept getting in the way. Which, I’m sure, will make that wine extra heady at trail’s end.

“We’re thinking about through-hiking it next,” one Canadian told me. “But we’re still trying to wrap our heads around this.”

War cries from the turtle snail clan

I finally see the shouting lady a couple of hundred yards ahead of me, making her halting way up the mountain to where the front-running Derek (the mo-sheen, we call him) was taking a breather. Clearly pooped, she leans her pack against a rock to take some weight off. She considers a couple of miles to be a good day.

Outfitted with his trekking poles, John’s ready for the trail.

“I’m of the turtle clan,” she says, citing some Native American — Hopi? — lore. “But now it seems like a snail.”

No worries. Never mind what the doctors say. She has arthritis, wears a brace on one ankle, and the doc told her that hiking the AT was one of those things she should never attempt. But she’s hiking for her own reasons.

“I’m a healer,” she says. She does have that New Agey look and bearing about her; her tattoo is of some spiritual motif and she has religious items in her pack. She swears she generates enough electrical energy to destroy a cell phone. “But now I’m healing me. I keep looking off from this mountain and I say, that’s my past.”

It’s clearly a tough go for her. She decided her pack was too heavy to make the climb up Sasafrass Mountain (elevation 3,336 feet), so she gave some of her food to some other hikers.

But she made it this far, and we talked with the summit within sight.

“You’ll hear me shouting when I get there,” she says.

To the members of my hiking party she’s pretty zingy, from way out in deep left field someplace. But we have to share a unanimous “good for her.” She’s on the trail, beating some odds, achieving a dream.

Just like our two Canadian friends.

Or just like John, Derek, and myself.

Sure, life happens. We have jobs and/or businesses, and sometimes we have an uneasy truce with our work lives. We have expectations to meet, promises to keep. John and Derek both have wives who would probably never join us on the trail. This is, for us, extracurricular activity. The boys’ night out.

For more photos, check out The Column

But for Derek, who grew up in northern California and went to high school in Twentynine Palms in the desert, this is something he’s always wanted to do. And John, well-educated with a good job in hospice care, well, this is also something on his bucket list.

I still think I look like I walked in from the set of Deliverance here.

I first heard of the AT when in my early 20s, and it immediately went on my list as something I had to do before I got too decrepit. A couple of years ago, my friend Rick Moore invited me to join his group for a section hike, and I had to beg off due to a foot injury.

But the Trail grew larger in my mind, so the three of us began training and planning for the hike.

Even though life happens and often it’s a series of busted dreams, there’s no reason for me to give this one up.

Postscript

The trail kicked our butts. Basing our projections on our training runs, we expected to hit 37 miles in four days. Didn’t even come close.

Epic fail, right?

Wrong.

We’ll be back up there in six months, better trained, better equipped, and a whole lot more humble.

“I think that’s the biggest thing,” the shuttle driver told us as he took us back to our vehicle. “I think (many hikers) overextend themselves.”

He knows a little something about this. He’s driven an AT shuttle vehicle for 23 years, picking up hikers who fall short of their goal and take them to their vehicles — just like us. It’s a living.

He hears hikers say it’s easy to hit 20 miles per day right from the jump, and he believes it’s all a bunch of hogwash.

“Your system needs to adjust to this,” he said. “Through-hikers don’t start feeling right until they hit Neels or Unicoi gap (both past the 30-mile mark), then they get their legs and they’re gone. You don’t eat right on the trail. You don’t sleep right. And if your training is just running on the beach … ”

Gee, suddenly I don’t feel like such a wussy.

Get right down to it, even with the blown expectations, our hike was a success. We went out there and did it. We nibbled at it. We want to continue, hopefully for a bigger bite next time.

We came back with a better idea of how to approach the trail next time. Better training. Strip down our pack weights. Plan around water sources. Come back with a new respect for the big’un.

The epic fail would be if I wrote the whole thing off and never attempted to act on such a consarn idiotic idea again. If I gave up and settled back on the couch.

But I’m just not wired like that.

I’d rather listen to my own instincts than to reason any old day.

Catch me and my friends again in about six months. We’ll have some more trail grime to clean off and some more stories to tell you.

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Oct 242012
 

Writing or playing music or problem solving isn’t like doing heart surgery; it doesn’t take years of schooling to become proficient.

You learn as you go. With each wadded-up page from your legal pad, you learn. You learn from each busted guitar string, from each destroyed canvas, from each ruined blueprint, from each adjustment you make to your business plan. Each poison-pen letter to the editor, each booing fan becomes your teacher. The best creativity instructor is hard experience, and you only get that from doing it.

Although you can never learn enough about your craft, most education goes about it the wrong way. A certificicate or diploma is merely institutionalized permission for you to do your work. You don’t need permission for that; you only need to start.

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Oct 232012
 

Mel Bloom, a reporter who never minded a little controversy, once described the time he thought of resigning from his job because of all the criticism he received because of something he wrote. He made the mistake of telling his editor, the late Verne Peyser. Yeah, the same lovably irascible Verne Peyser who taught me so much. Here’s how Bloom told it in the Ojai Valley News a few years ago:

“Listen, punk,” (Verne) said grabbing me by my shirt. “You want to be a newspaperman? Then develop a thick skin. There ain’t a (!) (!) (!) thing that has ever been written that someone doesn’t find fault with. Now get your keister out there and bring in next week’s column.” … I think I must have saluted and said, “yes sir.”

Now, that’s a packed statement. According to Verne, a thick skin is developed. It’s like the calluses on a guitarist’s fingers. But that’s good news indeed. If you’re going to write, paint, play music, start a business or follow your dream, you’re going to need that thick skin. But it’ll develop over time and with practice.

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Oct 222012
 

(I’m realizing a decades-long dream this week, and am out hiking the Appalachian Trail. I’m far away from a reliable wireless connection, so I posted this week’s 3 graffs ahead of time. If creative & dangerous doesn’t come back on normal schedule Oct. 29, you can assume a bear got me. Or something.)

Talent is good to have; it turns the good into great and the great to absolutely amazing. But passion is better. Having guts is better. Having a sense of calling is better.

Working with writers and musicians, I always tried to stay away from the ultra-talented ones who knew their ability but tried to ride that to the top. Give me scratching, diving, hard-working journeymen who bring their lunch pail to the job and get it done even if they’re not as talented as the so-called stars. These guys are willing to put in the 10,000 hours needed to master what they have and are constantly trying to improve themselves. Put it bluntly, the journeymen are better.

Besides, if it’s a real sense of calling, you’ll have the talent to go with it even if it’s buried deep. The hard work that comes with honing your craft will bring that talent out and polish it so it shines.

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Oct 192012
 

Some things are demanding or complex enough to require a person's best.

There are probably times during your day when you operate at peak efficiency, and others when you’re probably better off taking a nap. The good news is, these times are usually predictable.

There’s even better news on this front: These peak times will evolve as you develop personal habits. I’ll get into that part later.

The whole trick here is to find those peak times, and to my knowledge there’s no real test to determine what those are. As far as I know, there’s no substitute for the good old-fashioned trial-and-error method. That, and running an audit of yourself.

Once you know your peaks and valleys, you can plan your day somewhat. If you’re self-employed, this knowledge is huge. If you have one of those day jobs where you have some control over your work flow, this is still good stuff to know. If you have one of those on-the-line jobs where you make grommets all day, it’s still good information.

If you have a day job and are exercising those creative muscles by building something for yourself in your off hours, this knowledge will be like gold.

What I found out: Some surprises

I did this audit recently, and came up with a few surprises. I have two peak periods a day where I’m really smokin’ and dealin’ — but those peaks are several hours apart. Which means if I was working for someone else full time and need to be at my best for the whole time, a split shift is the thing. But no single employer deserves that much from me.

My peak periods run from about 9 a.m. to noon, and from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. Each of these periods is followed by a three-hour stretch where I start to wear down but am still good.

But from 3 to about 5 p.m., forget it. I’m useless. Anything requiring brain power takes considerable effort.

Gee, maybe that explains why I was such a strong starter but not a great finisher on my former day job. Getting toward the end of the shift I was sucking on fumes. If that job required any brains, it would have been worse than it already was.

I’m still trying to figure out how the morning thing got into the picture. Like, how did this longtime night person manage to operate in a halfway intelligent manner in the mornings? I’m getting ahead of myself, though. I’ll get to it; just let me lay my story out right.

Trust me. That monkey mind will get ya.

I’m writing this at 9:30 a.m., right there in my wheelhouse. My peak periods are reserved for writing and brainstorming; the real high-impact stuff. A problem is that my mind is so active during these stretches that I’m particularly susceptible to distractions. Especially in the morning session, when I top-load most of my work, I use a timer to keep me focused. Otherwise, monkey mind takes over.

I use my declining periods for some editing, pitching some work, research and work-related correspondence. I try to put the most important stuff toward the front of this time while I still have something.

From 3 to 6 p.m. I’ve shut work down. Forget it. I’m borderline useless. No writing or editing then, otherwise I’ll make a mess of things. Save that for reading, some correspondence, some social media. As I get older I’ve come to appreciate a good nap, and that’s the time for me to do it.

Although I always thought my chunked-up day was because I’m a max-effort kind of guy, after talking to other creative types I find two separate peak periods in a day isn’t all that unusual. It’s like the brain and body catch that second wind. Even when I try to push against my personal tide and try to get stuff done during my useless period, I still perk up in the evening. The only real difficulty here (besides the monkey mind) is that I need to bring things to a hard stop; otherwise I’ll go past midnight. This old guy needs his sleep.

Using the chunks instead of blowing them

OK, so you have a day job and maybe you’ve identified two peak periods in your day. Give one to your employer because that’s the right thing to do. Put your more intensive work into that time slot, and use non-peak times for the more mundane tasks. But if your employer demands both of your peak periods, he’s stealing.

If that other peak time is in the evening, use it for the stuff that demands your best. Write that novel. Work over the chord changes of “Giant Steps.” Build that Next Big Thing. The declining time is still good for engagement, social stuff, and anything that requires you to be present.

Appendix: Peak times will evolve

I find it interesting how my peak times adjusted over the years. I’ve always been a night person; I even sought the midnight-to-8 shift whenever possible. Mornings were for other people. I just don’t do mornings, and anyone who called me before noon usually caught an earful of naked hostility.

What happened?

I’d like to think I’ve matured, but that’s not likely (no future in that anyway). More than likely it was that aforementioned day job. I had to hit the ground running at 7:30 a.m. each day, no fiddling around. That, I think, trained me to those hours.

Some further reading

OK. I’ll admit falling asleep is an issue for me, especially when my mind is in overdrive. I noted it on Twitter the other night:

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Ugh. Still up. #amwriting at 12:30 a.m., BDT. That’s #Bipolar Daylight Time for the uninitiated around here. #brainshutup

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Gets rough around here sometimes.

Liisa Kyle, Ph.D and Lisa Rothstein, those outrageously multitalented ladies at davincidilemma.com, came out with a blog post about things to do when you can’t sleep, and it’s really interesting. Kyle, who wrote the piece, suggests our current model of falling down and sleeping for eight hours is a fairly recent phenomenon. She cites a BBC piece as evidence.

It seems the normal sleep pattern until the 20th Century was to fall asleep for about four hours, get up for an hour or two, then go back to sleep for another four. The straight eight started to catch on the late 17th Century, and pretty much took over by 1920. You could say increased industrialization and shift work more than contributed to this change.

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