Apr 302013

I can’t be working. I’m doing this thing I love, not even sweating, no straw boss to bother me and not a pair of steel-toed boots in sight. How can I call this working?

Ask me again in a couple of hours when my brain fuzzes over, my face melts, my fingers feel about this long, and the neck and shoulders scream. Oh, yeah, plus an empty stomach ’cause I spent the last two hours essentially vomiting on the page.

Whoever said this creativity thing wasn’t work is completely full of it. Telling you tales. You may not get the calluses on your hands, but you’ll get them on your soul.

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Apr 292013

[Backgrounder: It’s been a few years since I was 25. OK, let’s be honest. Decades. But at 25 I was in college, taking my first journalism classes, had an 18-year-old girlfriend, still had hair. And at that point I wasn’t published yet. Maybe I’ve become hardened over the years, but I sure learned a lot since 25. Let’s explore some of the things I wish I knew and see if they ring any bells for you.]

Maybe the “oooooh, pick me” works in high school, but not so much in the real world. Few actively seek a writer or musician, and the draft pool is beyond crowded.

OK, I stand corrected. Maybe some will approach you on their own initiative, but these are most likely the ones who want something for nothing. Avoid these at all costs.

A goodly part of the creative process is in me putting myself out there, showing my stuff, screeniing potential clients, networking like a madman and pitching some more. That is, if I consider myself a pro. But being a pro carries no promise that I’ll be picked anyway.

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Apr 192013

Sometimes being underwhelmed can be overwhelming.

I know, that sounds like one of those ooo-eee-ooo Zen statements in that it makes no sense (what is the sound of one hand clapping?) but think about it for a minute. Not only does it make sense, but it’s also true. 


Mr. Computer …?

While the obvious scenario is the guy with a doctorate degree working as a barista at your favorite coffee shop, that’s not exactly what I’m thinking about here.

A blogger/podcaster named Joel Boggess tells of a meeting with a journalism professor who seemed to have the dream job. Two, actually. She taught jorunalism at one college campus and introductory writing at another. She was trained for it, the jobs served her well in the past, and she got to dispense what she knew to a new generation of writers and journalists. What’s not to like?

Except this job was killing her. Maybe not physically, but it was sucking the oxygen out of her fire.

She was caught up in the busy-work of the educational world. She was grading all these papers from aspiring writers, getting buried in all the paperwork. Maybe even thinking she was wasting her time.

Her dream turned into a nightmare.

Ever have that happen? Where you get that so-called dream job and come to realize, I’m in the wrong business?



… Meet Mr. Hammer.

I knew this guy back in California who went through something like that. He was a teacher but knew he wanted to be a lawyer. A real intelligent man, well-educated, opinionated, my kind of person. He continued teaching while he went to school, did the all-night study sessions (they tell me law school is tough), drank a lot of Jolt Cola and ate a lot of cold pizza from the fridge — just like a real college student. He finished law school, passed the bar, hooked on with a fairly prestigious law firm in town.

He’d arrived. He was in his dream job.

Or not.

I don’t know all the specifics, but I know he stayed with the law firm less than a year.

Understand, I don’t know much about the legal business except what I’ve read in John Grisham novels (and occasional conversations with some attorneys I knew). But I’m told that life with a legal firm makes law school look like basket-weaving classes. The pay’s great but the hours stink. If you put in 80 hours a week, you’re a slacker.

Anyway, a year later this man was back in teaching. Last I looked he still had his bar certificate, but he hadn’t used it.

Was he overwhelmed by the legal business, or underwhelmed? Again, don’t know. Probably both, and yes, that’s possible.

Not long ago I wrote something (actually for my own amusement but I might use it for a fiction project sometime in the future) about a gifted artist who worked on the fringes of his ability. Painting billboards and signs by day, watching his beloved Los Angeles Angels get their butts handed to them on TV by night. I must warn you it’s a first draft. so it’s going to be pretty bad. Here’s a sample anyway:

“C’mon, Sal-mon,” he mumbled at the screen. Robert loved that TV; had the largest screen they made. You could really tell whether the centerfielder was spitting tobacco juice or sunflower seeds out there. You could see the sweat on Tim Salmon’s neck as he waited for the pitch. “Two guys on, two out. That’s why they’re paying you the big bucks.”

He was finishing up his potato salad; the meatball sub was already gurgling around in his ample gut. A cold Heineken sat on the table next to his recliner.

He’d rigged that big-screen TV to play the sound through his stereo and a pair of tall speakers. This home-entertainment system set him back a small stack of C-notes, but it was worth it.

“Strike one,” he snapped. “C’mon, ump. That was at least a foot outside. The catcher had to jump for it, in case you haven’t noticed.”

He’d rearranged his apartment living room to make room for that monster TV. For years he had a 17-incher that you had to huddle up to if you wanted to see anything. Now he could tell if the pitcher was touching the ball up with sandpaper before winding up, as Robert suspected.

To make room for the television, he had to move a bunch of stuff in his bedroom closet. He had his easel there, some well-used drop cloths, his paints and brushes. Some turpentine. Some linseed oil. All the stuff had to be moved.

Haven’t had time, he reasoned. Running a business is rough, takes a lot more hours than you’d spend working for the man. Got to go out and hustle. Find some customers. Show his work on his Geocities web site. Make estimates. Do the work, and hope the customer is going to pay sometime this year or next. I paint signs and billboards all day, he thought. Why do I need to smell more paint when I get home?

“Strike two. C’mon, Sal-mon. You can’t hit the ball with the bat on your shoulder. Let’s do something, man.”

Times like this, he wondered if he made the right choice, sticking his art supplies in the closet.

Robert always had the gift for art, though he didn’t know it for a long time … (snip)

…Sal-mon struck out on a fastball that dropped at the last instant and bounced off home plate. Had to have been that sandpaper pitch. The million-dollar man looked bad on that one, though there was no way anybody could have hit it and the ump would have called it a strike anyway. The inning was over, and the Angels went to the first of a line of arsonists from the bullpen. Four innings to go, but this game was over.

Robert drained his Heineken and closed his eyes at the thought of the late-inning onslaught. Shut the TV off, he told himself. You won’t miss much. Drag some paints out. Get it all out of your system and onto the canvas.

Forget it, he reminded himself. I paint enough all day long.

Bummer, isn’t it? Robert’s working on the fringes, but he’s pretty underwhelmed. Good thing he’s not real, huh?

As you probably suspected by now, I love to write. Have done it off and on since I was a little shaver. Spent years in newsrooms, and now I make my daily bread writing online.

Here’s the catch, though. Despite the stuff that passes for reporting these days, there’s nothing really imaginative about journalism. Get the facts, write ’em down quickly, hammer your story together with the most important information first, then the less important. Writing to a template they call the inverted pyramid. At best, the reporter for a daily writes a first draft, gives it a fast read-through and calls it done. Hate to say it, but it’s chimp work. Nifty little turns of phrase are verboten unless you’re lucky/good enough to get a regular column. Writing news stories was a drag, but since I had a regular column I was able to scratch that itch at least a little.

Web content writing, well, that’s basically journalism 2.0. It’s not exactly something to fall in love with. I write most of my Web content under a different name, because it’s quick-and-dirty work I wouldn’t want to show in my clips. True, it pays the bills, but that’s about all. It’s writing, kinda sorta. (This nonexistent person even has its own email address

I love to write. Allegedly, this web-content stuff is writing. But I don’t love it. It’s pretty underwhelming stuff. If it was the only writing I did, I’d feel like a) drop-kicking the computer through a window and b) cutting off every one of my fingers with a pair of rusty tin snips.

OK, I know I have to make a living, keep a roof over my head, keep the lights on, keep the cat in Meow Mix. So how do I cope?

I have my other outlets for writing. Although the amount of copy I’ve posted has dwindled somewhat in recent weeks (yeah yeah yeah), this blog is still my outlet. My testing lab. I get to go wild, chase a few literary squirrels, write stuff I care about. My ebooks (two out, one on the way) are my outlet. I have a lot of fun doing those. Plus some of my day’s warm-up writing exercises, plus some of the extemporaneous things I do off a prompt for my writing group, plus playing with fiction.

But here’s the question: Will these pursuits put beans on the table?

Probably not. Although I certainly won’t mind if my blog makes everybody forget Seth Godin or my longer projects out-potter Harry Potter, I certainly won’t mind. But the chances of that happening make a Powerball ticket look like a clearheaded blue-chip investment by comparison.

But these side projects keep me sane, and help me scratch that itch. Once that oh-so-important business is taken care of, I can concentrate on the real world of making a living without wishing I was out herding sheep instead.

As far as that journalism professor, I understand she quit her jobs. Don’t know what she’s doing now, but I hope she’s not a barista. Unless, of course, she’s doing what she loves on the side. 

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Apr 162013

I like how multi-published author and Internet thought leader Guy Kawasaki described the process of writing a book. I don’t have the exact quote in front of me, but here’s the gist of what he said:

Writing a book can be compared to the process of vomiting: you spew out your book as fast as possible and then you spend the next 6 to 9 months refining your vomit trying to get to something that is beautiful.

OK, that’s kind of gross but it serves a purpose. It’s not just about writing a book, though. Any creative process involves purging and picking. Ain’t nothing pretty about it but the result.

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Note: To get the full interview (Kawasaki and Danny Iny of Firepole Marketing), check out this link here. It’s a goodish-sized sound file, about 23 minutes, so you’ll want to carve out some time for it.

Apr 102013
little blue pills

If you miss a goal, treat it the same way as a missed dose. No do-overs.

If you’ve ever had a prescription for some really strong drugs, you’ll probably remember the doctor’s stern advice/warning about taking them. One that particularly sticks out in my mind is this: If you miss a dosage, wait until your next scheduled time and resume. With a single dose, not double.

This really makes sense, and it really applies to my creative practice too. So I miss my 1,500 words today. So what about tomorrow? Do I shoot for 3,000?

Wrong again. I try for 1,500 again tomorrow. Creativity is tough enough without the pressure, and the worst kind is the pressure I put on myself. Tomorrow’s a fresh day. 1,500 is sufficient. Now if I really bring the chandeliers down tomorrow and slam down 3,000 or 4,000 words, I won’t complain. But I’m not going to chase it. 1,500 is still tomorrow’s goal.

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Apr 092013

Backgrounder: I’m a big goal setter. I’m also not always realistic about these goals. Life happens. Ordure occurs. My ambitious plan to write 1,500 words a day is sometimes hit or miss. Sometimes, despite my best intentions, I miss a day (or even a week) with this blog. I’m a little behind on my current ebook project. I still haven’t mastered all the chord changes to John Coltrane’s Giant Steps. Sometimes I have a bad day and forget all these goals. So what to do? Let’s explore this idea this week.

So I blew a goal yesterday. Two goals, actually. I didn’t send off some important mail like I planned, and I didn’t get my 1,500 words in.

OK. One of these goals is more time-sensitive and urgent than the other. But both are important enough that they needed to get done. It’s so easy to kick myself in the tail and tell myself what a slacker I am. I wasn’t raised to slack off, so it’s easy to take this way too seriously.

The cool thing is that there’s always today, and tomorrow. Forget where I screwed up. Maybe it’s important, but nothing’s so important that I need to carry the weight of it tomorrow. Just forget about that stuff, put it on today’s to-do list, reload and try again.

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Apr 062013
jumping from a perfectly good airplane

Looking for a safer, less stressful occupation has occurred to me.

I almost quit last week.

Seriously. Much as I love to write, I almost threw in the towel and started checking the want ads again.

Since I’ve spent maybe 12 of the last 15 years working for myself, I’m probably terminally unemployable. I’m not known for being a pliable employee who will shut up and just follow orders. I’m not a good fit in job situations like that, and there are not many sheep-herding gigs in Charleston.

But there I was again, wondering what I was doing wasting my life with this writing thing. Isn’t it time I grew up, became a responsible contributing member of society and all that malarkey?

I’ll admit, I’m subject to these mood swings. This week everything’s aces, next week it’s a black hole. That’s just part of the package I tote with me. Yeah, I know there’s medication for people like me, but that’s not the real issue here.

I’ve mentioned before that this creativity thing is a tough business. You’re more subject to what other people think than, say, someone who lives in a cubicle. As soon as you put your stuff out on the market, folks are going to judge it — and by implication, you.

Anyway, I had kind of a cold streak this past couple of weeks where my biggest client kept sending my work back for a rewrite. It’s all fixable, and I know in my heart that if I don’t get it right the first time I’ll nail it on the rewrite. That’s what my heart says, anyway. That’s also what my work habits and track record say.

But it’s my yakking brain that tells me different. It’ll even throw a little Aristotlean logic at me just to give it a sense of authority. The work stinks. I did the work. Ergo I stink.

I tell you, a guy can only take so much of this stuff. It’ll crack the shell of even a tougher-than-thou type such as myself.

Is there a cubicle I can hide in?

How ’bout those sheep?

(Note: That’s as far as I went on this post on Tuesday. I put this aside and picked it up Saturday. Note the timing here. While I usually don’t explain how I do stuff, it’s really part of the story. Pay attention.)

Strap on the helmet and ram something

That was last week. This week, unpredictably (or not), I’m back on a roll.

On Thursday, I stood up at my terminal and blasted out a whole bunch of copy. I didn’t count it, but my own best estimate based off previous and current word counts puts it at nearly 8,000 words. Totally amazed. That’s at one stretch, pulling myself away from the terminal every so often to untangle a fuzzy thought or test out some phrasing. But 8,000. That’s twice my previous record.

OK, so what happened here?

I could take the easy way out and say it’s the medication kicking in, or some really good espresso, or something like that. But it’s a crock. It’s just strapping on my helmet, ramming that brick wall and moving forward again.

The creative life is full of roadblocks. All look big from where I stand. All look like they’re built like brick outhouses, all with solid materials, good mortar, strands of razor wire on top. Many are tough enough for me to say, why don’t I just chuck it all and find something easier? Something like skydiving or defusing bombs for a living?

I like the way Steven Pressfield describes these roadblocks. He calls them “resistance,” and many of them come from outside. That would be the day job that gets in the way, the needy spouse who thinks you’ve spent enough time doing your thing.

But most of that resistance is from within. It’s those feelings of inadequacy. When you know you’re not good enough. When all your stuff comes back to you covered in red ink, and you take it all to heart. When you’d rather drink, do drugs, drive real fast, get into another weird relationship or watch soap operas all day instead of doing your work.

This resistance thing is pretty predictable, though. It always gets heavier when you near the finish line. It gets heavier when you’re about to hit a new level. When you think you’ve plateaued and resting on your laurels — or again, giving up the whole thing — feels like an option, there’s that next level right in front of you. Dare you go there?

But is it sustainable?

After that marathon, scary-productive writing session I began to feel it. My neck felt wrenched, and my back and shoulder felt like they were installed backwards. Despite the obvious physical discomfort, the mental surge continues. Today, I’m jamming along a mile a minute with this essay. Just an hour ago, with my writing group, we all wrote short essays off a pair of writing prompts. The group leader gave us all a couple of photos and told us to write something from that. Both of mine, even I thought they were pretty good.

Will this productive period last?

My history says no. Sheer logic says no; nothing like this is sustainable. My neck and shoulder and back all say it better not or they’ll haunt me.

So, the question: Is this sustainable?

The short, snappy (and true) answer is this: Who knows? Who cares?

While I’m there, I might as well enjoy it.

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Apr 042013

This one should be right up my alley. I’m real good at self-sabotage. I’ll get on a hot streak and proceed to tank the whole business. I could write a book on it, and maybe I will sometime.

Exploding flaming truck

Maybe there’s really something to this blowing-stuff-up thing.

I could be onto something here, although my reasons may be the wrong ones. Here’s the deal: Sometimes it’s good to blow everything up, reshuffle the deck, hit the restart button. But it better be for the right reasons.

Shaking things up does prevent me from getting complacent. It’s so easy to get comfortable doing something just to coast. When I’m working a fulltime job it’s tempting to put all my eggs in that basket and not pursue the things that are important to me (which is part of why I didn’t write for a long time). Blowing the whole thing up is good if it forces me to take those giant steps and really progress in my work. But to do it for any other reason is just self-sabotage, plain and simple.

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Apr 032013

I get such a kick out of my dad. He’s a quiet type who’s not given to tooting his own horn. It wasn’t until fairly recently when I realized his accomplishments and the importance of his job.

cartoon rooster

Maybe I ought to strut my stuff more. Can I do it without getting obnoxious?

I’m kind of that way, and maybe some of that is to my detriment. I’m not a promoter type. I’d rather let my work do the talking. I do love to flash my chops in all the things I do well (writing, music, tweaking computers), but when complimented I’m likely to blow it off. Pshaw, it’s nothing. Yeah, right. Nothing, my butt.

But this dislike of self-promotion gets in the way sometimes. I’m learning the necessity of marketing my work, using social media to show off, putting the word out there. Letting people know what I’m doing. While I don’t want to sound like a car salesman on late-night TV, I don’t feel like doing my work in a corner either.

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Apr 022013

Backgrounder: I knew I was listening to the wrong people. Or, by following my own instincts and not listening too the wrong people, maybe I’m on to something. We’re taught to go easy on ourselves and avoid showing off, along with a bunch of other nuggets. But many of these old pieces of wisdom don’t seem to matter much to highly successful people — or highly creative ones, for that matter. Sometimes it’s good to blow up the conventional wisdom. Let’s explore this idea further this week.

We’re taught that isolation is a bad thing, and living inside one’s own head is even worse. And for someone like myself, too much private time is leads to a lot of weird stuff that I won’t bother to discuss here.

However, the creative process calls for public and private time. Stephen King calls it the “door open/door closed” practice in writing. After so much public face time I need to retreat back to my home office, kick the door shut and tell the whole world where to get off. That’s when I write or just ruminate on an idea and develop it. Many successful people require significant alone time.

The trick for me is to find some balance. I’m training my friends to not bug me in the early morning or late evening. My daily to-do list has things I can do in public and those where I need solitude, and I build my schedule around that. A real challenge for me is in knowing my rhythms and using those as my foundation.

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