Eric Pulsifer

Jun 192015
 

Nut graf: Ornette Coleman faced a lot of obstacles on the way to becoming a jazz giant.

"Ornette Coleman" by Geert Vandepoele - Ornette Coleman. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons - https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Ornette_Cole"Ornette Coleman" by Geert Vandepoele - Ornette Coleman. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons - https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Ornette_Coleman.jpg#/media/File:Ornette_Coleman.jpg

Ornette Coleman (photo by Geert Vandepoele. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons)

The first time I heard the late Ornette Coleman play, I knew it was the drugs. His, not mine.

I mean, just what is this guy thinking of?

In truth, the album I listened to was fairly tame by Coleman’s standards. These were some early recordings on a barely-legit reissue, and he had Don Cherry on trumpet and different folks on bass and drums. But this stuff was still a lot crazier than I was used to.

My interest piqued, I got his groundbreaking album Free Jazz and put it on. Might as well go in all the way, right?

My first listening to Free Jazz, it sounded like a completely disconnected skronkfest. Coleman on alto, Eric Dolphy on bass clarinet, Don Cherry and Freddie Hubbard on trumpet, Charlie Haden and Scott LeFaro on bass, Ed Blackwell and Billy Higgins on drums. All playing together, more or less. The whole thing sounded like a coal truck slamming into a circus train.

Facing opposition

But that was Coleman’s early career track. In the late 50s he was making a name for himself, but I will not relate some of these names in a family venue such as this. Word was that he couldn’t play. At the time Miles Davis said that “psychologically, the man is all screwed up inside,” Many other jazz players gave him similarly glowing reviews, but composer Leonard Bernstein really liked what he was doing.

He’d always run into resistance. The Associated Press related this story after Coleman’s recent death:

One incident remained deeply ingrained in his memory: The night circa 1950 when the saxophonist was playing with an R&B band at a Louisiana road house and his solo stopped the dancers in their tracks. Coleman was dragged outside the club, roughed up and his horn was thrown over a cliff.

“One guy kicked me in my stomach … and said, ‘You can’t play like that!’ He didn’t even know what I was doing. I decided to take my beatings until I can establish where people can say, ‘Oh don’t beat him, listen.'”

Just listen. Pay attention. Real art looks and sounds totally out there at first, but it might develop some clarity after a second or third viewing/listening.

Coleman saw the connection betwen Free Jazz and a Jackson Pollock painting.

Coleman saw the connection between Free Jazz and a Jackson Pollock painting.

So that’s what I did with Free Jazz. I put it on again, this time with headphones. Coleman, Cherry, LeFaro and Higgins were on one stereo channel while Dolphy, Hubbard, Haden and Blackwell were on the other. With the stereo effect I started to get the idea. Not just two musicians crossing swords or playing off one another, but two full bands. Yet aided by the stereo separation I noticed they were indeed playing together.

Influences and developing voice

When Coleman was first coming up he developed an ear for bebop.  “Charlie Parker was the main man,” he said in an interview, ‘Oh man, what kind of music is that?’ And I thought I’m going to play that.”

But when he got to where he could play Parker’s stuff backward and forward, it was time to move on. To develop his own voice. I’ll bet all creatives go through that phase. I know I did.

But even with our own voices we still have our influences. When I meet a new musician or writer my first question usually is “who do you love?” That’s Eric-ese for “what are your influences?”

As out there as Coleman got, you could still hear his early influences: Texas blues. But he didn’t stop there, and he didn’t stop after he found real success. He kept growing. Experimenting with new song forms. Trying different lineups (the London Symphony Orchestra for Skies Of America), even learning new instruments.

Coleman will be missed. He didn’t just leave a legacy of revolutionary music, but by example he left some real actionable truths of the creative process.

#endit#

May 222015
 

Nut graf: I already know I’m not as good as the masters, but does it really matter?

I can't compare myself with somebody else until I've been through his trash.

I can’t compare myself with somebody else until I’ve been through his trash.

Of course I fall into the trap of comparing myself to others. It’s an occupational disease that any creator in good standing can tell you about.

There’s always going to be someone who can kick my tail. I get that. I’ll never be as good as John Steinbeck or Miles Davis. It’s just not in the cards even with those extra aces I keep in my shirt pocket.

But someone called this to my attention. Self-comparison isn’t a fair fight anyway. I can compare myself to the other writer or musician across town, but I haven’t surfed his dumpster lately.

Any creator who enjoys even a bit of success is going to generate a lot of hot garbage. Might even have a commercial account with the local waste haulers for all I know.

Let’s say you went back in time and you’re in Havana or Key West or wherever Ernest Hemingway was working. You see his trash can and, looking both ways — ratting through someone’s garbage late at night looks pretty suspicious — and you go through it.

What would you find?

Besides the whiskey bottles and cigarette butts you’ll find pages and pages of handwritten or typed work. This is a real find, right? You read through them and realize you could do better than that. Maybe the whiskey bottles are a clue here.

What you see on the open market is the best of Hemingway’s best. Many drafts. Much fine tuning. Polished beyond polished. Even his worst published work is awe-inspiring. But the stuff in his dumpster? Not so much.

Kind of changes the equation, huh?

That’s the fallacy of self-comparison. I only see my rival’s or virtual mentor’s best work.

With mine, I see all of it. The good, the bad, the butt-ugly.

For my own reasons I like to work the old-school way. On paper for the first drafts. I keep them in a 12″x12″ box, and not quite halfway through 2015 I filled it halfway up. That’s a lot o’trash.

My current work took up more than a ream of paper, and it’s all going to get thrown out anyway. Or saved in that box as a visual reminder of how much written BS I can truly generate.

All of it is fixable. Each time I rewrite the quality improves by a couple of degrees. As far as the first drafts go, though, they’re totally experimental and I don’t have to admit to doing them.

The truth is that I know I’m not in the same league as these guys.

What’s equally true is that it doesn’t matter. What matters is doing the things that fall within my own strengths, and knowing the great ones are every bit as capable of turning out terrible stuff as I am.

May 112015
 
I generate garbage for a living,. These are my first drafts for 2015, and the year's not half over yet.

I generate garbage for a living,. These are my first drafts for 2015, and the year’s not half over yet.

By my own estimation it’s around 512 pages, but I’m not gonna bother to count them. It’s thicker than a ream of paper, and at least a few trees sacrificed themselves for my work.

Or something.

It’s uncut, with nothing between brain and paper except an old typewriter. Much of it is stream of consciousness, with an outline being thrown together after the fact. The whole thing took 40 days and at least two cans of Cuban coffee.

It’s terrible, but all first drafts are. Hemingway called all first drafts — including his own — something that I will not repeat in a family venue such as this.

No third party reads my first drafts and lives. But that’s the creative process.

If you listen to the uncut version of your favorite jazz album you’ll probably hear multiple takes, false starts, train wrecks, conversations with the sound guy, and the leader screaming at one of his sidemen. Pharoah’s Dance, the 20-minute opening cut on Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew album, has something like 19 edits. There are a couple of places where you can hear the splices. But it’s an amazing album, essential listening.

Every time you fumble through a song the first time, every blog post you write, every porch you build or every piece of software you create is gonna have issues. Big ones. You’ll end up throwing half of it out and totally rebuilding the other half.

Then you hope you threw out the right half.

It’s a necessary step in the creative process.

The next step is to let it sit a good while. Detach myself from the project and do something else. Forget it’s there. Then on July 1 I’ll pull it out of the box, read through it, go through a few red pens and try to pull something out of it. Kind of like finding the pony in the mountain of horse flop.

Diamonds come out of coal. Oil comes primarily from dead things. Art comes from the aforementioned pile.

You need to create the garbage before you can dig out the good stuff.

The garbage comes first.

#endit#

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Click on Mr. Zip to get started.

May 112015
 
Word count: 102,365. Half of them may live.;

Word count: 102,365. Half of them may live. The typewriter is even older than I am.

Trust me. It’ll be pretty bad.

It’ll sit in cold storage for 40 days and 40 nights, and will come out July 1. Then I’m gonna bleed all over it with a red pen.

Half of it will get thrown out, and the other half totally rewritten. But that’s the nature of the business.

There’s a story in there somewhere.

#endit#

Apr 132015
 

Nut graf: Find your own stinkin’ secret sauce.

How I do it doesn't make any difference.

How I do it doesn’t make any difference.

I got into a conversation with a fellow writer, and we were comparing projects. She’s working on a screenplay and I’m drafting out a novel.

Then she asked me about my work habits. Like, how do I get the stuff down?

It’s a question all writers ask. All creators, in fact. We’re all comparing ourselves with others, or at least looking for that secret sauce. Find whatever it is that boosts productivity, improves your work, makes you fit, trim and attractive to the opposite sex.

Here’s my writing practice, in case you’re interested:

– Banging the stuff out on paper, on a vintage typewriter, standing up.
– Throwing the completed pages in a box.
– Forgetting about those completed pages. At least that’s the theory.
– Outlining as I go, developing characters as I go.
– I leave a wide margin on the right hand side of the page for markup, and this is used after I finish with the draft. Theoretically.

“Who don’t you use a computer?” my friend asked “Wouldn’t it be easier?”

Uhh, yeah. It would. But somehow I get a better connection to my work when I bang it out like that. Maybe it’s me, but the only way I can get an even better connection is by writing it out longhand.

Besides, you can’t slap a computer. For me, the act of writing is very physical. Violent, even. It’s noisy, bloody, messy. But that’s personal.

I wouldn’t necessarily recommend anyone do it this way. In fact, when I talk about methods, ignore everything I say. Find your own stinkin’ secret sauce.

How I do it doesn’t matter. Creativity is like the snowflake. There are plenty of creative people and projects out there, but they’re all different. To each his own, and whatever works works.

Right now I’m at 31,500 words, or 157 pages. Most of it will be thrown out, but that’s part of the process too. But again, how I do it doesn’t matter.

I try not to get too bogged down in tools and methods. My emphasis is on getting the stuff out, particularly in a first draft. Your first try at playing a new song is equally messy. You slop your way through it any way you can, whether it’s by playing to a YouTube video or trying it out on stage with people watching. How you do it doesn’t matter anyway.

I’ll admit, though, I did my preliminary tool-gathering before I started writing. A new ribbon, which took all my online resources to find. Two reams of cheap copy paper. Another 300-pack of index cards. A brand-new composition notebook. Binder clips, rubber bands, blue high-lighters, staples and all that junk. Storage boxes to throw my drafts in after I’m done with them. A spreadsheet to track my progress.

Now, if I couldn’t find a ribbon, for example, it should not make a lick of difference. There are other tools at my disposal. Pens, pencils, legal pads, computer, Libre Office, emacs, Scrivener.

But again, that doesn’t matter. Working on the project, moving the needle every day and completing it are the only things worth talking about.

# # #

Mar 062015
 

This is from John E. Branzell, who posted this on the 48days web site. Profound stuff:

“My brain has become accustomed to the less than spectacular.​Can a man be born again​, I ask after he is done with his first career as a paramedic​, firefighter​, & dispatch​er​.​  Can ​I​ rise again to re-create from​ ​the ashes of ​complacency … I long to try​,  maybe I can fly​.  ​If I shoot for the moon maybe ​I will at least hit the stop sign​.”

Read the rest at http://48days.net/xn/detail/2366608:BlogPost:974028

Mar 062015
 
Do I take my chances hitting the dip, or just deep-six the whole thing?

Do I take my chances hitting the dip, or just deep-six the whole thing?

Seth Godin wrote about The Dip some time ago, and you can almost guarantee you’ll hit it when you’re doing a great work.

The only way to avoid that dip is to quit the project before you get there, but for me that’s not an option.

I’m completing my latest novel (Desert Vendetta) and will publish Part I on Amazon in about a week (there’s a preview .pdf here), and it was touch and go whether I’d finish.

Sure, there’s resistance all through the course, but the big bohunkas is at the end … real close to the end … when you hit that dip.

Hit it wrong and you’ll tear your bottom out. Or worse.

Don’t hit it at all, and that means the project will never get done.

Hit it nice and easy, and you’ll feel it. But you’ll get past it.

This project was a bear. It almost croaked in the starting blocks.

It almost was forgotten because some other projects looked so much better at the time.

It almost fell by the wayside as I dealt with a family tragedy. Okay, that’s a good enough reason; if you continue working through something like that there may be something wrong with you. But at some point it’s time to pick that back up again. I almost didn’t.

Then, the third draft. Dip approaching.

You can tell when you’re at that point. The work is no longer fun. In fact, you’re beginning to hate it. You see all these miles of bad road in front of you and wonder what you were smoking when you decided to take this project.

Sometimes it’s best to just cut the losses and go. A bad boss. A relationship gone south. That investment in hairless chinchillas isn’t as promising as it looked. The Dip is a good time to bail.

But if it’s your own project, your own baby, you might want to push on. Like the man said:

I felt it. Rather than bouncing out of my rack every morning ready to attack it I’m finding other things to do. The palm trees are taking over the yard and I need to tear them down. I need to clean the cobwebs and rat carcasses out of the attic. I’d rather bob for French fries before doing this project.

(Fast disclaimer: I don’t think I’ve ever bounced out of bed all ready to go in my life. But you get the idea.)

All the mental talk started ganging up on me:

  • This work is so not good.
  • I have too many highly inappropriate scenes that don’t move the story.
  • That scene is just not realistic. Rip it apart and redo it. Doesn’t matter if I did that five times already, it needs a wrecking ball.
  • I need to do more research, editing or mental (fill in the blank) before I can go.
  • I hate my computer.
  • I hate this project. Been working on it for nine months and it gets worse and worse every time I look at it.
  • You mean I put nine months into the process and all I got was this butt-ugly baby?
  • I have more personal roadblocks.
  • If I run out of those personal roadblocks I’ll have to invent some more.
  • Etc.
  • Etc.
  • Etc.

I’m not sure why I even bothered.

Maybe because I thought maybe the baby might turn out beautiful despite what I had to work with?

Maybe I hate the thought of investing all this time into the project and basically flushing it away?

Maybe because, at this stage in life, quitting isn’t an option?

Maybe I’m too dumb to know when I’m shovelling horse dung against the tide?

Maybe I was being intentional about making it through the dip.

Sit down, buckle up, shut up and hang on.

(What do you think? Have you hit that dip yet? How did you approach it? Please share in the comments below.)

Disclaimer: The book links are either a) through an affiliate program and I get a small commission for each sale, or b) my own product. Either way, we both gain.

Feb 192015
 

In his colossal bestseller The 7 Habits Of Highly Effective People, author Stephen Covey spends a lot of time discussing what he calls “sharpening the saw.” As if it’s important or something.

Abe Lincoln put it this way:

“Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe.”

Sharpening the saw — or axe — is basically what you think it is. Investing in your craft. Investing in yourself. Working on your, uhh, chops. But there’s a whole lot more to it than that.

That thing needs to be sharpened.

That thing needs to be sharpened.

Anyone who knows about knives will tell you about it. A dull blade is dangerous. You’re more likely to slip and chop off fingers. Also consider this: They tell me it’s a whole lot more painful to chop off your fingers with a dull blade than with a sharp one. That’s what I’m told, though I am not going to check on it myself. There are limits to good journalism.

Okay. At first glance this whole saw-sharpening thing runs counter to the whole just-do-it emphasis of this blog. At least until you take it within the context of creativity.

You might have noticed I oppose the thought of sitting around waiting for inspiration. That just doesn’t happen. And I resist the idea of making sure you have the right tools to do your work. For writers, I mean not waiting around until I have the latest whiz-bang writing program, a computer that does everything including making your coffee, the right brand of pen and a Moleskine note pad.

I’m not talking about acquiring new tools. I’m talking about taking care of the tools I already have.

Sharpening the saw is like an athlete’s training. A guy’s not gonna get up from the couch, throw away the empties and through-hike the Appalachian Trail. Not without logging some serious time on some other trail with 35 pounds on his back, anyway.

For a musician, the saw-sharpening means a lot of practice. Developing the muscle memory and speed on his instrument. But most of it is in listening, and not just to music. Time to listen to the sounds around you, musical or not — a train, birds tweeting, conversation, even traffic.

For my writing it’s things like getting out and hanging with people, listening to good music, taking a long walk with my dog, getting into some good reading even if it’s not in my genre, and drinking strong coffee. Basically living life.

I guess you could say I spend a certain number of hours hammering out my work. All the rest of my waking hours are spent with the whetstone.

All of this off-hours saw-sharpening activity clears the way for inspiration, even though it looks like it has nothing to do with my at-the-keyboard time.

But it does.

If my saw is sharp enough to shave with, then I’m right where I need to be. I’m ready for The Muse, if and when she does pay a visit.

And if she doesn’t, fickle little wench that she is, it doesn’t matter. I’m in position, using my sharpened and oiled tools, getting stuff down.

Again, though, there’s that right balance. I could spend so much time sharpening that saw that I don’t have time to actually do anything with it. I can only read so many books, listen to so many podcasts, listen to so much music that I never get around to doing some of that myself. Overpreparation is nothing but procrastination that sounds good.

That’s why I assign myself daily word counts and make actual dates with the keyboard. At least that crazy lady knows where to find me should she arrive with the Muse dust.

But I still need to spend serious time honing my tools. That saw must be sharp.

# # #

Disclaimer: This link is through my affiliate account, so I get a commission for any sales. That said, I still recommend the book. I’m reading it now, in fact.

–Eric

 

Jan 302015
 
If that great idea gets in the way of the story, it might need killing.

If that great idea gets in the way of the story, it might need killing.

We’ve been on the subject of killing things lately, which suggests I might need to have my medication changed. But have you ever had a project going and you absolutely loved it and discovered it just won’t work?

Or how about that nifty turn of phrase or a great scene that doesn’t move the story along? That amazing instrumental solo that does more to derail the song than make it work? That incredible innovation that you’re in love with but actually scatters energy from your business?

I’m guilty of that. I tend to get a little picturesque in my language when I talk or write. Perhaps a particularly graphic one-liner, like “I’d rather gargle razor blades than do ________,”

Okay. That’s great. Expresses the mood very well. But somehow the listener/reader homes in on that description and loses focus on the message or story. Breaks the chain of thought. It’s effective but it’s not.

Creating can be bloody work, especially when editing.

Creating can be bloody work, especially when editing.

Stephen King urges the writer to “murder your darlings.” Yeah. Rip it out of the typewriter and deny ever seeing it. For the good of his story.

By inference this concept holds true for any artist or innovator.

Let’s say you’re developing a whiz-bang computer program. Maybe a writing app, just for the sake of the discussion. You might include a couple million lines of code that will make that program brew your coffee and go online to find some writing music for the user. You as the designer might be in love with these extra bells and whistles, but how about the user? He just wants to write, and he can brew his own coffee and find his own music. Meanwhile, the program itself is so bloated from all this extra code that it hangs up the computer.

Okay. Stupid illustration, but you get the idea. Better to eliminate that extra code.

I hate having to get rid of that pet phrase, that instrumental solo. But if it gets in the way of moving the work along, it’s time to murder my darlings. Again.

Jan 232015
 
Ever felt like doing this to your work?

Ever felt like doing this to your work?

John Steinbeck almost killed The Grapes Of Wrath before he even sent it out. He almost ate his young.

He already completed it and hated it. He wrote a letter to his editor saying his work was unpublishable. Didn’t meet his standards. A bad book.

“I know, you could sell possibly 30,000 copies,” he wrote. “I know that a great many people would think they liked the book. I myself have built up a hole-proof argument on how and why I liked it. I can’t beat the argument but I don’t like the book… Not once in the writing of it have I felt the curious warm pleasure that comes when work is going well.”

Ol’ John was ready to chow down on his offspring. Ewww!.

According to Live Science, quite a few animals eat their young. Some species of finches do, and if you’ve ever had tropical fish you might have seen momma give birth to a litter (is that what they call them?) and scarf them down right away. While researching for this piece I pulled up Youtube videos of hamsters and cats munching on their little ones, but I’m not going to provide links here. If you’re that sick (obviously I am) you can do your own stinkin’ Web search.

Artists also eat their young. I’ve done that by forgetting about a project and coldly deleting all traces from the hard drive.

In one of my novels I related a scene where the protagonist read the first draft of her work and didn’t like what she saw:

“This sucks.”

She read for the next two hours, liking less and less of her work. The red ink flowed across the pages, and her floor was covered with paper. More fix-it notes went down in her notebook.

“This really, really sucks.”

She went into her kitchen and pulled out her empty metal wastebasket from under the sink. Loaded all her work – all 75,000 words of it, a good size for a novel – in it and placed it in the middle of the kitchen floor. Opened all her apartment windows, turned on her window fans, went back to the wastebasket, and struck a match.

She felt better as she watched the paper burn.

You know I was taking it a little personally as I wrote this. Funny thing, when I read that chapter to a writer’s critique group many of the listeners winced. That’s when I knew I struck a chord, but then it could have been the quality of my writing.

That manuscript, by the way, was from a project that saw a little retroactive birth control. I wrote a different story line some years ago and eventually trashed it (through a more peaceful means than by fire) but I liked the characters enough to keep them.

I’m not sure why I killed that project. Maybe the time wasn’t right. Maybe it needed killing. Maybe it just needed some work, a little tweaking, a different perspective. Maybe I needed to practice my craft more, or live life more, or something. Maybe it was my brain telling me lies again.

Good thing Steinbeck got on the ball, maybe fine-tuned his manuscript a bit, and finally released it. It’s the novel that, probably more than any other, is most closely associated with Steinbeck’s name.

Maybe eating your young is a necessary step in the process, but be sure to save some leftovers. They may be salvageable.

###

You tell me: Have you eaten your young?

(Disclaimer: One of the links is an affiliate link and I get a commission for each item sold. Another is a link to my own book where, duh …)