Jul 302013
 

It’s funny how fear goes. I’m talking about rampant, off-the-leash fear. It’s often full of contradictions.

If you have a healthy love of paradox, you can find it in fear. It comes in couplets:

  • Fear of failure, but fear of success.
  • Fear of the past, but fear of the future.
  • Fear of confrontation, but fear of not confronting.
  • Fear of people, but fear of being alone.
  • Fear of moving ahead, but fear of the status quo.
  • Fear of the unknown, but fear of the known.
  • Fear of what could happen, but fear of what could happen. (Think about this one; it’ll make sense eventually.)
  • Fear of starting, but fear of finishing.

No wonder things get messed up so easily.

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Talk to me: What paradoxical couplets of fear can you claim? Post a comment below.

Jul 232013
 
trail magic leconte

All sorts of amazing things happen when you’re out walking. Like “trail magic” and thin mints. Photo taken ascending Mt. LeConte in the Smokies.

So my brain is fried, my words pass gas instead of sing, and the thought of getting a lousy 100 words down feels like do-it-yourself surgery sans anesthesia. What to do, what to do?

I won’t call it writer’s block because in my mind there’s no such animal. Let’s be honest, though. I was writing. I’m blocked. What else do you call it?

Time to do something else. Get some blood flowing because my butt or feet have lost their circulation.

That’s when I jump on the bike and pound out a few miles. The more blocked I am, the harder I’ll pedal.

Even if it’s a cold day or there’s a light rain, I’m out there getting a good sweat rolling. If it’s raining hard, it’s going to be a messed-up day.

If not biking, I’ll just take a walk.

 

Anecdotal evidence: How moving around works

I recently read an account of Mark Twain visiting his friend Nikola Tesla’s lab one night. Twain got on this vibrating platform, and before throwing the switch Tesla warned him the vibration was only good in small doses.

But Twain was having the time of his life, really enjoying the ride, saying he never felt better and wild horses couldn’t drag him off.

Until he started looking really uncomfortable, signaled Tesla to stop that thing.

Then dashed off to the bathroom.

Sounds crude, but getting up and moving around does shake everything loose like that.

In his classic list of activities to keep you young, baseball player and ageless wonder Satchel Paige once explained this idea:

“Keep the juices flowing by jangling around gently as you move,” he advised.

Of course, in that same list he said, “avoid running at all times.” I’m totally with him there. Biking is great. Walking is great. But running? Forget it. Too violent on the ankles, knees and back. If God meant for us to run, we’d have been born with a pair of Nikes.

But that walking or biking, with or without the jangling, does knock the crud out of my brain. Seriously.

 

Advantages of taking that walk

All kinds of cool things happen when you take a walk or ride:

  • You get to disconect from your project for at least a few minutes.
  • You give your eyeballs a chance to adjust after staring at a computer screen, legal pad, sketchbook or music charts for several hours.
  • You’ll get back to work refreshed.
  • If the walk is long enough — for me about seven miles — the endorphins kick in and I feel just plain wonderful. Some people spend good money for that feeling, but you can get it for free.
  • Think of all that vitamin D you’re sucking up.
  • It’ll help get rid of that seceratory’s spread if that’s an issue with you.
  • While disconnecting and walking (or riding), great ideas come to you. When you’re not thinking about your task, the creatures in your attic are busy cranking off those ideas and feeding them to you. That’s why I always carry some index cards while I’m out on my ride. If I have to pull over and jot something down, it’s been a good ride.
  • You’ll get unstuck. Stephen King said he found the key to continuing The Stand while out on a walk. Of course, he discovered a disadvantage to walking when some guy in a van mowed him down. Took him a long time to heal from all the broken bones. So there’s that.
  • If you walk with a friend or you meet cool people on the road, you’ll get to engage in some real conversation. That’s always great fodder for your next great idea, and it beats the isolation that often comes when you’re creating something.
  • People-watching is great fun too, and it sure beats daytime TV for afternoon entertainment.
  • It’s great for burning off stress.

Listen, that last part is important. I finally figured I don’t do stress well. I can easily handle it when it’s just a couple of days’ worth, but when I hold onto it for too long my brain goes haywire. Neurons fire at random. The inside of my head starts looking like some lunatic’s electrical experiment. I turn the whole doing-stupid-stuff routine into an art form.

Telsa's experiments

This is my brain on stress …

The best advice I’ve received over the past year is to burn off that stress, that excess energy every day. I’ll do this after my writing is done for the day, and sometimes in midstream if everything gets too heavy for me. Even a walk to the corner grocery store helps.

(For the record, the second best piece of advice I’ve received over the past 12 months was to never fry bacon in the nude. But I digress.)

So get out there.

Strap on that backpack.

Clip that water bottle to your belt.

Get out there.

Get rid of the gunk.

Sniff the air outside (this is better when this air is something you can’t see, but do the best you can).

Notice what’s around you.

Get some sun on you.

Flood your body with those feelgood endorphins.

Then get back to work.

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You tell me: How do you get rid of the brain fuzz and/or junk in the trunk every day? Share with a comment.

Jul 192013
 
START sign

So which part of ‘NO’ do I have so much trouble understanding?

No wonder I have more projects in the works than even someone with my energy level can handle. I have this real problem saying no.

New client? Check. Another ebook? No problem. Help a friend out? Absolutely. A chance to study, learn, better myself? All over that one. A part-time job or two or three? I’m on it. A music gig in a distant city? Ah’m your huckleberry. A dinner invite with friends? Whatcha having and time shall I be there?

See, I just don’t want to be the bad guy, and even if a) I simply don’t have time for your idea or b) your idea totally stinks, well, let’s see what I can do here.

Turns out I’m not the only one with this problem. It’s probably an occupational disease that’s not limited by occupation. Even the biggest jerk wants to be the nice guy sometimes.

A good buddy of mine (actually my brother from another mother) has that tendency sometimes. He’ll take on a whole lot more than he could handle. But he’s like me — not far behind me in age but with an insane energy level — and we’ve had talks on the subject. After a while we both reach that point where we have to dump something before taking something else on. But what? We both like to be Superman. He’s not happy unless he’s the groom at every wedding and the corpse at every funeral. I totally understand that because, well … I’m kinda sorta that way too. Maybe a lot that way.

It’s kind of like loading your plate at a buffet. Now, I’ve eaten at my share of casino buffets so I know how to arrange the entree and side dishes, layer them just right and maximize every square inch of plate space. Much practice made me good at this. But there’s still a tipping point; for me it’s usually when I can’t see over the plate any more.

But at a buffet you can’t just put something back to accommodate the next tempting thing you see. It just wouldn’t be right. The only option I have is to eat something from my plate real quickly while in line (destroying evidence) and make room. That’s totally crude, but I’m not known for gentility.

Like a plate at a buffet, there’s a tipping point. But unlike the plate, you can always scrape something off. You won’t spread disease or gross someone out but you might hurt someone’s feelings, so there’s that.

I’m not always good enough to say that a person’s project is a lousy one, but I’m getting better at pleading lack of time.

“Gee,” I might say. “I have all these other things on my plate (list a few) … which one shall I throw off?”

I like how my Dad does it. He’s 85 now, a real intelligent guy and great American. But I remember what he’d say when he was busy and I had some childhood request:

“Whatever it is, no!”

Now, that’s so cool. As I’ve gotten older I’ve come to appreciate and admire Dad more. When I grow up I want to be just like him.

 

What all this means

OK, so what does this have to do with creativity?

A lot, it turns out. I do much better when I have time to develop an idea, draw it out on a whiteboard, try a few instrumental licks before coming up with something. Doing great stuff demands attention, and chances are the more attention and time I give it the better the end result will also be.

But if my in-box is clogged, my time is likewise clogged and my attention divided. It shows up in the results, too. I’m launching ideas prematurely (this has nothing to do with dithering over a project to delay/avoid shipping it, by the way), giving them less care and generally trying to hurry through the process just to keep up with all those yesses.

I’m also not real good at multitasking. But then again, if you’re really honest about it, neither are you. I mean I can write while listening to music, something like that. Listening to music isn’t that demanding, unless I’m thinking like a musician by nuts-ing/bolts-ing a song. It’s in the background. But if I’m writing while trying to a) sound intelligent over the phone, b) digging up new sources, c) answering my email or d) all of the above, something’s gonna fall through the cracks. In truth, all of them.

What I’m hearing from scientific types these days is that multitasking is nothing but an illusion. The brain doesn’t absorb several things at one time, instead it switches back and forth. Often several times within a few seconds.

The general result: All these things you’re trying to multitask on are gonna stink.

I don’t know about you, but that’s a heck of a way to run a lemonade stand.

But multitasking aside, this juggling act merely creates more stress. Now, I still think my body is 22 years old and will attempt to climb mountains at 55, but this is different. While it’s true I’ve lost a few brain cells over time (don’t say anything … not one word) one can only take so much of this stress.

I recently came to the realization I don’t do stress well. Probably less so than most. OK, I can handle it on the short haul but after a week or so of this nonstop stress I start getting all squirrelly and my cop friends have to taze me again.

For me, the best way to handle stress is to burn it off regularly. Like daily. Get on the bicycle and pound out a few hard miles. Take a long walk.

Or better yet, practice saying no. Take care of the stress on the front end.

Let’s say it together, shall we?

Whatever it is, no!

 

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You tell me: Do you have a problem saying no? Do share. That’s what the comments section is for.

 

Jul 162013
 

I ran across this interview that a couple of high school kids somehow got for their school radio station, a chat with the great Louis Armstrong. By then Satchmo was in the business 50 years, already had several careers as a jazz trumpeter and as a singer, and achieved more than most musicians could ever fantasize.

But even after years of playing and working with the same eight notes in the musical scale all that time, he still held to his practice regimen.

“Even if I have two, three days off, you still have to play that horn,” Satchmo said. “You have to keep up those chops. I have to warm up every day for at least an hour.”

John Coltrane, one of the greatest ever on tenor sax, practiced at least eight hours a day, at leadt according to a guesstimate from one of his contemporaries. And when jazz pianist Bud Powell was incarcerated he found some chalk, drew a keyboard on his cell wall, and practiced on that.

Doesn’t matter what your art is, you probably have specific things you do for practice.

Some writers free-associate on paper, putting down anything that pops into their heads, and keeping the pen moving is the only real objective. Daily journal writing is what this ink-stained wretch calls practice. Whatever it is, my practice is done in longhand while the coffee is brewing. It’s part brain dump and part playtime, where I can experiment with stuff without worrying about it being readable.

Practice. That’s the time to try those phrases kicking around in your head. Time to see how that melody sounds against the chords you keep hearing. It’s when you develop your muscle memory, build up some physical stamina, fine-tune your eye and ear. Become even more familiar with your tools. Absolutely essential.

My phrases may come out all tortured and my logic twists all over the place during practice, but that’s fine. Satchmo’s and Trane’s practice sessions were probably more skronkfest than those burnished tones you expect from a musical genius, but that’s also fine.

Practice is absolutely essential, but it’s also playtime. It’s supposed to be fun.

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Jul 122013
 
mind map, exploring why

What happens when I start why-chasing. Your methods, results and mileage may vary. (Photo by Eric Pulsifer)

“Sufferin’ catfish! All’s I wanna know is why?

That’s an expression an old girlfriend liked to use, usually after a couple of drinks. Even 25 years later I can picture her crying that out, with all the emotion and punctuation and everything. She was, of course, nuttier than squirrel scat.

But when you think about it, she was asking a really good question.

Maybe it’s just another version of my old practice of taking my brains out and playing with them (or insert your own descriptive phrase here), but I also want to know why.

Why do I do the things I do? Why do I write? Why do I play music? Why do I spend perfectly good hours with this blog?

Why?

While that’s one of the basic six questions every good journalist was trained to ask back in the day, the one they’re most likely to forget is why. Of the five W’s and an H (who, what, when, where, how and whatever), often the difference between a good reporter and a run-of-the-mill one was whether he got around to the why.

 

Asking the question

This Why thing keeps coming back to my attention. Blogger/speaker Michael Hyatt says it’s a key motivator. Many of the other high achievers I’ve been paying attention to lately get into that question. My older brother Rick, getting dizzyingly close to 60 as I write this, is also spending a lot of time with that same question.

Just plain why?

I’m gonna get personal here. I was in my mid-20s before I got around to college. Never was much of a student in high school; just going through the motions might have had something to do with it. But in college I practically tore the curriculum apart. Straight A’s, honor society, all that good stuff.

What happened here?

It’s that why thing, and it got real big.

See, I was absolutely fixed on the notion of becoming a newsman. It was something I realized I enjoyed, and I was good at it. At the time journalism seemed a whole lot better than my evening job as a delivery driver. I didn’t exactly have time on my side (at 26, what does a person know?). But that why was so real I could slap a coat of paint on it. I didn’t have to hunt it down. It was big enough on its own, thank you.

A little more than a year later I completed every journalism class the school offered and got a couple of part-time jobs writing. Pretty much nailed my why, so I started going through the motions in school again. My A average dropped to a midrange B, but I wasn’t worried.

Maybe losing track of the why was one of the factors in quitting journalism. Or maybe my own personal instability. Or a dozen other things.

But funny thing; that ‘why’ covers a multitude of negative factors.

That why is important stuff.

 

Playing with my brains again

Minutes before I started writing this post, I spent a bit of time at the whiteboard and in my journal chasing down some whys. It’s pretty revealing stuff. Maybe not as revealing as when Hank Williams Jr. examines himself (why must you live out the songs that you wrote?) but it’s interesting.

On music I wrote:

  • This is what I do.
  • Makes people smile.
  • Encourage people.
  • Burn off some of that good ol’ bipolar energy.
  • Ego, definitely.
  • Because I’m good.
  • ‘Cause I love it.
  • Born to boogie.
  • If I don’t, I go crazy.

That last one is especially important to me. John Lee Hooker said it best; ‘cause it’s in him and it has to come out.

On writing I put down:

  • It’s fun.
  • It was my occupation.
  • Ego, definitely.
  • This is what I do.
  • Because I love it.
  • Because I do good work.
  • If I don’t, I go crazy.

OK, not as strong and definitive as the music, but good enough to keep doing it.

As far as this blog and other creative&dangerous activities, I named names. The guy who picked up his tenor saxophone after storing it in his closet for 25 years. The friend who paints off and on, mostly off. Or even my own backstory of how I quit writing for more than a decade. Those stories stay with me and drive me along on this pursuit.

When the why is real clear, even this blog’s slow growth isn’t enough to derail things.

Just for grins, I looked at my biggest writing client and asked why again. Wasn’t so encouraging:

  • Making a living, I guess.
  • Getting my chops up.
  • Preparation for bigger and better stuff down the road.
  • It’s a job.

So what does this mean?

It means my future isn’t exactly there. If I concentrated on the short term (it’s a job), I’d go through the motions again. If I take that angle, might as well work at a gas station for all the good it does.

But if I focus on the longer-term stuff like working on my chops or building for the future, this makes a lot more sense. Working this client is worth it now, but less so if/when better things come along. So that becomes a goal.

I might mention, asking why is tough business. Dangerous, like defusing a bomb or something. You might come out sweating. It might take you places you don’t want to visit. It’s not for weenies. Maybe that’s what makes it worth the exercise.

 

Throwing down the challenge

That said, let’s try this sometime:

Write down the things you do, and start asking yourself why you do them.

This may include your occupation or how you spend your time. Hobbies — including the reading, TV watching or Facebook games are included, and they deserve a list on their own. I had four or five of them myself.

Any note-taking format is fine, and I really don’t care how you do it.

Sit down, free-associate, let your imagination run wild.

You’ll come up with something. I hope. If you can, boil it down to one sentence per list. I haven’t done that yet, but I reckon I will before too long.

C’mon. I double-dawg dare you.

When you find that why, grab hold of it. Stick it on your wall, inscribe it on your hand, carve it on your gateposts. It’s that powerful.

 

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(Talk to me: Have you found some whys lately? Do they help push you along? Leave a comment below, and let’s kick it around some.)

 

 

Jul 102013
 
jumping coffee beans

According to vicious rumor, I can make coffee nervous.

What is it about that mystery brew I consume every morning?

Honore de Balzac, who’s been known to consume mass quantities, describes the mental energy that can only be attributed to coffee:

“This coffee falls into your stomach, and straightway there is a general commotion. Ideas begin to move like the battalions of the Grand Army of the battlefield, and the battle takes place. Things remembered arrive at full gallop, ensuing to the wind. The light cavalry of comparisons deliver a magnificent deploying charge, the artillery of logic hurry up with their train and ammunition, the shafts of with start up like sharpshooters. Similes arise, the paper is covered with ink; for the struggle commences and is concluded with torrents of black water, just as a battle with powder.”

 Good description. Of what, I’m not sure.

That first cup does get a whole bunch of stuff galloping, but let’s get real. Balzac’s account may also be attributed to several other things. Catch his racing thoughts? The chaos seeking some semblance of order in his brain? They tell me there’s therapy for stuff like that.

Creative types swear by the powers of this amazing brew. Guys like Voltaire and — yes, Balzac — drank at least 30 cups of it a day. Balzac’s caffeine consumption was so legendary that a Web search shows a number of coffee shops that bear his name. Now, that’s a reputation.

Yeah, I mentioned Voltaire. Someone told him coffee was a slow poison, and he said it must be. He’d been drinking it for 50 years and wasn’t dead yet.

Myself, I’m a relative novice at this caffeine thing. I’ve only been drinking it for 40 years. Figure it out. I’m 55 now, and started grabbing that last (strong) cup from Mom’s and Dad’s percolator at 15. OK, I was a wuss. Two spoons of sugar and a blast of milk made it drinkable.

By the time I was 20, I began leaving out the milk and sugar. Maybe it was partly a financial move, but the straight stuff tastes so much better.

Now my blend of choice is Cafe Bustelo, a relatively inexpensive espresso blend. It’s finely ground, and it does the job. While running around with a friend I had a pot of that blend in a Thermos, and soon after he had a cup he said he needed to take something to bring him back down.

What a lightweight!

Caveat: With a finely-ground espresso blend, making campfire coffee gets problematic. I use a tea strainer when out in the wild, and all the grounds leach out. What I end up with is a cup of sludge. Best. Coffee. Ever.

I got into a recent discussion with some fellow writers (at Starbucks, of course) about coffee snobs. Now, that’s a term you never heard until a couple of years ago. But now you have folks who eschew anything you get from a supermarket and only get their brew from someplace like Starbucks or Dunkin Donuts; that’s the working definition of a coffee snob.

I had to ask: “If I only drank coffee that tastes like someone dropped a cigar butt in it, does that make me a coffee snob?”

No, my friends assured me. That just makes me a junkie. Somehow that sounds better.

 

Caffeine confessional

One of the realities of my usual range of moods is that coffee does a number on my equilibrium. Just about every mental health professional I know offers the same advice: Cut down. Or cut it out.

Uh, not so fast. I’ll swallow my meds, get good rest and do my level best to avoid too much stress. When you start talking about eliminating coffee, them’s fightin’ words.

coffee beans in a cup

Now, that’s how to drink it. Really.

I have, however, cut down. Somewhat. It was kind of enforced. I had this big beautiful 12-cup coffee maker in my kitchen. Yeah man, a 12-cupper and I live alone. You can figure that one out. Anyway, this 12-cupper (with a built-in grinder) bit the dust on me — overuse perhaps? — and I needed a fast replacement.

So I moved my desktop coffee maker to the kitchen, where it became the primary machine. Rather than 12 cups, this one makes four.

Four small cups, that is. Four teeny-tiny cups; the kind you’d find with a child’s tea set, that is. It fills my jumbo coffee mug twice. But that’s my morning ration.

OK, I’ll cheat a little bit. A couple of days a week I’ll go over to Starbucks for some heavy writing/uploading, and of course I’m gonna buy something from them for letting me use a table and wireless signal. It’s a courtesy. For me that’s a big (they call it “vente”) cup of their strongest, hold the cream, hold the sugar, all the caffeine I can stand. Add a blueberry muffin and that’s all the fuel I’ll need.

Starbucks makes a good work area and I get a lot done, but I try to tune out any conversations coming from the counter. The last thing I need to hear is people asking to adulterate their coffee. Somehow, when you add the chocolate sprinkes, whipped cream and a triple shot of something or other it ceases to be coffee.

 

Optimum levels

OK, here’s what I found out. I have an optimum blood-caffeine level. Anything more than that and I’m all over the map. Forget creativity at this point. Ideas may come, but execution is a whole different matter. I get sloppy. Anything that involves surgical precision — such as fixing this Web site after I blew up the coding like I did a few days ago — is impossible. Shoot, even reading the instructions on how to fix this Web site becomes a chore.

For me, two jumbo mugs in the morning — about what my four-cupper makes — is my optimum. Maybe a maintenance dose at Starbucks in the afternoon. Maybe a cup or two with friends in the evening, but that’s like social drinking.

OK, let’s assume I need to cut down or eliminate the caffeine. Just the thought frightens me. OK, so how about decaf?

Forget it. Now if I was into one of those weirdo latte drinks it might work. I mean, by then you won’t be able to tell if there’s coffee in there anyway. But if you take it straight, you’ll know right away.

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