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.


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Click on Mr. Zip to get started.

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.



Jan 162015
If there's an exit in sight, I'll take it. Therefore ...

If there’s an exit in sight, I’ll take it. Therefore …

I up and did it. I’m tooling along on a draft and had no idea what to do next. Not a clue.

Red alert.

Now, here’s the thing. If I had just a hundred pages or so, it would be easy. Just junk the whole thing, or set it aside and revisit it a couple months or years or decades later. But I had way more than that invested.

No way out.

Funny thing. When my back is up against the wall like that, interesting things happen. It’s what Andrei Nana called it in Psych Central: The no-exit strategy.

Simply put, if there’s an escape in sight I’ll take it.

If my only option is to complete the work, I’ll complete the work.

This idea isn’t new, Nana says. A couple of thousand years ago Sun-Tzu laid it out in the Art Of War:

“Throw your soldiers into positions whence there is no escape, and they will prefer death to flight. If they will face death, there is nothing they may not achieve. Officers and men alike will put forth their uttermost strength.”

Implementing any sort of change often requires the no-exit strategy. If someone decides to lose a whole bunch of weight to look good in a bathing suit, it may or may not happen. But if a doctor tells that person to lose that weight in order to stay alive, that ups the ante considerably. The only exit is feet first, so that becomes the commitment strategy.

Okay. Changing a habit to save your life is a whole different animal than finishing a writing project. The stakes are different. However, the strategies remain the same.

Get rid of the exit strategies and there’s only one way to go. Through it.


Jan 022015
Without that creative outlet, who knows what will happen?

Without that creative outlet, who knows what will happen?

I found this post in Buffer Open, a site put together by a pretty decent Web service. Call it a primer of the creative process.

You may already know most of this stuff, but it’s a good way to start the year. The writer, Kevan Lee, lays out the following 17 ideas here. The comments are my own:

1. You’re as creative as anyone: What I create is the sum of my life and experiences, good and bad. I try to use everything in my writing and music, and hopefully it puts my own unique spin on things. I think the prerequisite to creativity is living a life.

2. Never underestimate the value of a creative outlet: Musicians gotta play, writers gotta write, and entrepreneurs gotta start a new business. Without these outlets, I get into a lot of hey-y’all-watch-this moments. Scary.

3. Make time for creativity. The same time. Every day: I have my evenings for that. Start at six, shut down at 10 to make dinner. My dog stands guard at the door during that time to warn me of intruders.

4. Embrace constraints: A job? A family? Crappy computer? The only creative time available is 15 minutes reclining in the head? Just finding the time/tools to get going takes creativity.

5. Trying and failing is better than never trying at all: I won’t even know if the idea is any good unless I take an honest whack at it. It takes me a while to know whether the story line is the bomb or is just gonna bomb until I’ve read through the completed first draft.

6. Be prepared to toss your best ideas: For each blog post I write, I have two or three that will never see the light of day and those are flat-out brilliant. I have several book projects in me that won’t work now. I can find them on my computer and I can revisit them later. Some, again, will never be written. That’s okay too.

7. Soak up all the influence you can: I’m a big reader because that’s what writers do. Maybe some ideas — even word usage or ways to turn a phrase — might stick to my brain.

8. Collect what inspires you: That’s why I love biographies. According to my Goodreads log I’ve read a few good ones: Steve Jobs (Walter Isaacson), American Sniper (Chris Kyle), Unbroken (Laura Hillenbrand), My Cross To Bear (Gregg Allman), everything by Steven Pressfield. Currently reading: Wild (Cheryl Strayed).

9. Creativity is about making connections: I try to seek out peers, other writers and musicians, entrepreneurs and r&d types. I still need to connect up with a few movers and shakers. But it’s better to connect with these people because I enjoy their company rather than just a career move.

10. Others will be better than you. And that’s a good thing: They tell me life really stinks when you’re at the top. Even as ambitious as I am, I hope I never find out. It’s like running out of goals. Bad thing. Besides …

11. Surround yourself with greatness: If you can, include the people from #10. If I can’t hang out with them in person, I’ll study their work. Some of it will rub off on me.

12. Create without thinking: That one’s for me because I’m an overthinker. But some of my best work is almost stream of consciousness. It’s also terrible, but that’s why I edit.

13. It’s okay to create alone: Even though so many people pay lip service to creativity, it scares many of them. They won’t be on board with me. But that’s fine with me.

14. Start something today: While it’s still called “today.”

15. You’ll love the rush when you ship it: I published my first novel standing up at a table in a McDonalds in Charleston SC. I know I did a happy dance as soon as I hit “submit” and everyone moved away from my table. I didn’t care.

16. Go big with your goals: Of course, cracking the bestseller list is always good, but it depends too much on other people. So shipping two novels and two nonfiction ebooks in 2015 looks pretty good.

17. Create what you enjoy: I moved away from writing crappy web content for questionable sites because, although they were paying me fairly well, I hated it. I think creating what I enjoy will be my theme for 2015.

Thoughts, anyone?


Dec 192014
Your crowd is one of the things that shapes you.

Your crowd is one of the things that shapes you.

I can’t remember who said it, but if you want to know what someone is like, look at his five closest friends. If they hang out at the tavern every night and watch football, you can bet the person in question does the same thing.

If the person runs with people who live from paycheck to paycheck, you can almost guarantee it. You know our friend also does. Especially true if our man (gasp) asks his friends for investment advice.

I totally believe this. Which is why I like to hang out with talented people. Writers, musicians, entrepreneurs. It’s likely I’ll catch what they’ve got, or at least pay more attention to those special things I bring to the world.

I think I wrote about it once … matter of fact, I built an entire novel around that concept. But the idea remains the same. Talented people band together even if they’re not involved in a group project, and the end result is greater than the parts.

I’m not even thinking about folks I might want to work with or people who might buy whatever it is I’m pushing. These are folks who can set an example for me, who might encourage me, and especially people I might encourage.

It’s even better if the people I run with are at about the same level as I am, with some who are ahead of me. This isn’t a contest to see who’s the smartest guy around; I’d rather have at least a few folks who can show me a thing or two. Even better if they’re willing to push me.

Hang around with the pros. That’s a good recipe for growth.

Gregg Allman said in his autobiography that if you moved a bunch of random people into a strange town, the musicians will find each other faster than anyone else. I’m finding this is true as I set up shop in this strange town I live in now.

I’m using sites like Meetup to run across other writers and musicians. Going where the people hang out. Getting into networking. As 2015 kicks off one of the #giantsteps I plan to do is hook up with a Toastmasters group. That organization is top-heavy in high-achieving types, just the ones I want to hang with.


Dec 112014
You don't want to know what goes in.

You don’t want to know what goes in.

A few of us get together every week for a jam session and try new and creative ways of screwing up familiar and unfamiliar songs.

And you know what? It’s a lot of fun.

There are four in the core group: a lead guitarist, a rhythm guitarist, a bassist who doubles on piano, and me. We have others, but these are the ones who show up every week.

We also have a few people coming in just to listen. Love ’em. They must be really tolerant or totally deaf, because sometimes what we do sounds pretty bad. Like geese farts on a muggy day? You bet.

We have our moments, but we call that thing we do “making sausage.” You don’t want to know what’s in it and you probably don’t want to watch us make it. Unless you’re brave.

That’s the creative process for you. It’s ugly. You don’t want to watch. It’s embarassing. If you want to project the image that you have your stuff together all the time, you’d avoid doing this at all costs. And you sure don’t want to do this stuff in front of people.

But that’s where we grow. Forget about grabbing the side of the pool at the shallow end and working on the kick, you’re learning to swim by jumping off a boat. But that’s not an apt analogy. A better one would be if there are people in deck chairs watching you struggle to stay afloat, holding signs like 6.4, 5.5 and the like. You’re not going to see any 10.0’s.

Making sausage is one bold act. But it’s an essential part of the creative process, with or without the audience.

Talk to me: What messes are you making this week? Please share.

Dec 042014
Drowning worms or thinking? Yes ...

Drowning worms or thinking? Yes …

I was always the kid getting in trouble in school because whatever was out the window was more interesting than the classroom.

Eventually the teachers got wise and put me in an aisle seat, so things like the back of the cute girl’s head in front of me — or the inside of my eyelids — held more interest.

Of course there’s a semantic difference of opinion here. The teacher said I was daydreaming. I called it thinking. That was my big mistake because the teacher had the power to pass me or flunk me. Of course public education doesn’t promote such things like “thinking,” but that’s a rant for another day.

Years later, in the newsroom I’d be hammering away at the keyboard doing 90 mph, then I’d pause. Stare at the flies doing whatever scandalous things do on the wall when my publisher would come into the newsroom.

“Writer’s block?” he’d ask.

Of course. Anytime a writer stops to collect his thoughts — or gather some more wool — it’s always writer’s block. Didn’t you know?

“Just thinking.”

As I got older the balance shifted. I spent more time doing and less time “thinking” — i.e. imagining what my characters would do next, how to phrase this next passage, what research I need to do, how to synthesize the information I have into something readable. But I still make use of those times to let my mind wander.

Hey, that wandering-mind thing is an important part of the creative process.

When I works, I works hard. When I thinks, I falls asleep.

When I works, I works hard. When I thinks, I falls asleep.

The dream cycles are a big part of this. According to the Creativity Post, Google scientist-in-residence Ray Kurzwell uses that time. He makes sure he gets eight hours of Z’s every night and assigns himself a problem to tackle during that state of repose. Then when he wakes up he’ll stay in bed and let his mind wander for another 20 minutes or so.

Trust me. It does work. I also keep my note pad at bedside, and when I wake up for some reason — like those kidney-tapping times that seem to come up more frequently as I get older — I’ll usually have something to write down. Of course, reading my scrawl in the morning is another matter.

Listen, I’ve come up with entire scenes while asleep. The premise of an entire novel? You bet. If you asked where the idea for my current work came from, I’d have to tell you it came in a dream, like with the guys in the Bible. Ooo-eee-ooo.

Every day, weather permitting, I’ll take my dog out and we’ll walk a good two or three miles. Always carry water for the both of us and some index cards. Usually on these walks I’m not thinking of anything, and that’s when the good stuff pops into my head. I’ll put it down on a card, take it home, put it with other cards and forget about it. Later I’ll sort through those cards and separate the pearls from the stinkers.

I’ll take frequent breaks while working, and spend time doing other things. I hate doing dishes, but that’ a perfect task for break time. I’m (hopefully) fully there, washing that dish and letting my mind run all over the place. Or I’ll notice some weeds growing in the garden and they need to be pulled out. Now, it’s a distraction if I keep thinking about it while I’m working. If I attack it during my break, I’m being strategic. Or at least that’s what I tell myself.

Try this sometime: Keep a note pad next to you. Any time one of those little distractions pops up while you’re working, write it down and forget about it. Hit it on your next break, again be fully into the task and let your mind wander some.

If I’m putting in time at the keyboard because I feel forced to, this shuts off the mind-wandering process. While I keep a deadlines and daily word counts, treating them like they’re cast in stone, neither are hard to hit. I give myself all sorts of margin, and if something in life happens — such as a family emergency like what happened recently — I’m not going to push myself. There’s no need for that.

Doing is good. Scratch that, it’s great. Nothing happens without doing. But without the thought behind it — without the constructive use of downtime the action will be second-rate.


Nov 212014

I recently read Walter Isaacson’s “Jobs,” the recently-released bio of the Apple/Macintosh/Pixar pioneer. While I didn’t care much about his personality, his ideas and approaches were amazing. His original iPod Shuffle had no display, little in the way of actual controls, but was as simple as it gets. Jobs built his computer brand around simple operation, a stripped-down interface, around Zen art.

He liked to keep things simple, and maybe even idiot-proof. Although the old SPARC operating system played with the concept of a graphical interface, Jobs and Steve Wozniak were the first to really pull it off with the old MacIntosh. This made computers much more accessible, because clicking on an icon is a lot simpler and friendlier than trying to remember what to type at the command line. And despite what Microsoft loyalists say, the first Windows system looked like a dead ringer for the old Mac interface.

I don’t know if it’s the ease of operation and the art of minimalism that drives Apple’s success these days or its cult factor. I’d say both, but I’ll give extra weight to simplicity.

But Jobs still had his over-engineering (or more correctly, over-designing) moments — the company could have slid down the toilet while he vacillated between a pure white or smoke-gray computer housing. Even in the name of simplicity, the wheels sometimes fall off.

Keeping things simple. That in itself is an art. Charles Mingus, the great jazz bassist put it well:

“Making the simple complicated is easy. Making the complicated simple, awesomely simple, that’s creativity.”

Think about it. It’s like the hoary tale about the public speaker who said if you wanted him to talk for 15 minutes he could have it ready in a couple of days. If you want him to speak for two hours, he’s ready now.

Anybody can come up with a convoluted mess. The real art is in trimming it down to a manageable size and simplicity.

Notice this. Mingus did not say anything about making things easy. As a bandleader he was a taskmaster with an explosive temper, and he liked to change timing structures right underneath the soloist. His piece “Passions Of A Woman Loved” shifts through multiple time signatures, and the band really had to be on the ball.

But if you can get something as densely-packed as a Mingus composition or as wide-ranging as Apple’s computing concept and make it simple, that’s creating.

(Video: Charles Mingus, on a 1964 concert tour. He wrote this song for his alto sax player Eric Dolphy, who was the second sax soloist.)


If you’re so inclined …

You can get Jobs for your Kindle here. I think I rated this book four stars out of five.

Disclaimer: I get a small commission for copies sold through this site. If enough of y’all order, you might even defray the cost of my own copy. But it’s a good read.




Nov 152014
Got to love this old ad. Despite the lack of political correctness it did give birth to a great catch phrase.

Got to love this old ad. Despite the lack of political correctness it did give birth to a great catch phrase.

Quickly: Who said, “Getting there is half the fun?”

If you said Cunard Lines, congratulations. For what, I’m not sure — either for collecting that useless nugget of information or for being seriously old. The pitch is from the early 1950s, before I was even around.

Okay. Is getting there half the fun of creating?

My first shrink seemed to think so. She was into that oo-ee-ooey stuff about presence and mindfulness and the sound of one hand clapping, so in my mind her credibility was shot. But she suggested the idea of enjoying the process.

Who? Wha’? I’m all about results. Did I complete x work? Is it up on Amazon? Is it getting read? Those are the important things. Enjoy the process? What kind of foolery is that?

Except she may have been right.

Seth Godin recently said enjoying the process takes guts. You’re working without the end in sight. This runs counter to the way I’m wired, and maybe it’s the opposite of how many others like to work.

But it’s fun. It’s getting into that high-performance car that might even scare Tony Stewart. You fire it up, feel the vibration of the engine, listen to the roar, take off in a cloud of dust and burnt rubber.

Not because you’re in a hurry, but because it’s fun.

For me, the act of writing is sometimes a drag. I have word counts. I have deadlines. I have standards (believe it or not!). I have mental shutdowns when the words don’t come, distractions that look a whole lot more attractive than my work, a hangnail that’s killing me when I type.

But I also have the opportunity to play what-if with my characters. To build a whole world, even if it’s not as elaborate as those of Tolkien, C.S. Lewis or J.K. Rowling. Shall I use an existing city that I know for my setting or build a whole new one? Who gets to play? What kind of characters do I want? How shall I move the story along — lime pit or mine shaft? How about the good old-fashioned wood chipper?

Now that’s fun.

Practicing scales is not fun. Playing that same piece for the 40th time today is not fun. Diving into a musical hole so you can find your way out — now that’s fun.

But Seth’s right. I’m not even thinking about the end product. Deciding what species of shark to feed the body to — or deciding whether to transpose from C to A minor — doesn’t necessarily take the result into consideration. Shoot, it might not even make it into the final product. It’s just fun.

Maybe getting there all the fun and the actual result is anticlimactic. Reckon?