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?

#endit#

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.

#endit#

Aug 152014
 
Sometimes the best ideas take you right off the cliff. (Photo by Eric Pulsifer)

Sometimes the best ideas take you right off the cliff. (Photo by Eric Pulsifer)

Dad’s seriously into classical music. Not an expert to the point where he can tell you who-all played in a particular recording, but he knows what he likes. The radio in his living room is on classical all the time.

Some nights, though, the music gets a little … well, strange. Up-and-down-the-scale violin and cello, out-there violas and woodwinds, strings sounding like a chain saw in need of a tuneup. Somehow I can’t picture Dad sitting through that — his tastes are normally rather bland — but he enjoys it. Maybe it’s because he can’t hear so well.

Hey, I like a litle out-there stuff myself. I’ll have Albert Ayler or Pharoah Sanders blasting on my Bose stereo late at night, and it’s edgy invigorating stuff. Once when listening to the title track of John Coltrane’s Kulu Se Mama I tweeted something about how it sounded like someone ripping the head off a live chicken in a Santeria ceremony. But that track is one of my favorites.

In truth, I find that really crazy stuff is best when I’m writing fiction. The music and my mind both wander.

But this is the stuff that, at first listen, I wonder what in the world I’m getting myself into.

Much of the best art — in fact the best anything — meets a lot of that say-what? at first hearing or viewing. Seth Godin, a man I respect, suggests that I-don’t-get-it response is a good way to tell if that idea of yours is a good one.

If everybody “gets it,” the idea may be too bland. Too obvious. Maybe of no consequence whatsoever. In all probability no one will give a rip. Everyone likes it but no one’s all fired up about it, either to the positive or to the negative.

“The popular, obvious, guaranteed ideas have definitely been taken,” or are so small that they’re not really worth your blood and tears,” Godin says. True.

The popular, easily understandable stuff has already been done once. Maybe twice. Now if I was to put together an online microblogging service where you spit out your thoughts in 140 character bursts and we follow each other, big deal. Boring. Been done.

But in 2006, four guys — Evan Williams, Jack Dorsey, Biz Stone and Noah Glass thought that same thing up. And obviously they were smoking some bad stuff there. Listen, I’m fairly up on the tech stuff and it still took me more than a year to figure the point behind Twitter — let alone learn how to use it. Now it’s the social media platform I go to before anything else.

If I’m throwing that book concept to my writing group or that song arrangement to my bandmates, maybe I should pay attention to the response. If everybody gets it right away, I need to spin and try again. I’m not saying anything new.

#endit#



Jun 132014
 
enough-pollution-1069612-m

On heavy writing days I’ll run through a lot of paper, along with everything else.

There’s the old image of the writer at his typewriter, which always seems to be a manual. He’s always there with a hill of wadded-up paper all over his desk. Sometimes you can even see the writer among that landfill.

The new model is one of deleted files, editing done to the actual file and rewrites done on the fly. A lot more efficient and more ecologically sensitive, but this new model doesn’t carry the power of the old image. You don’t see the mess anymore.

The creative process, at least in the early stages, is a violent act. You get the bleeding, callused fingers. The keyboard or piano or drafting table gets hit in a frontal assault. Hair gets torn out. Many trees denuded for the sake of art; all those paper wads have to come from somewhere.

Even though most work is now done on the computer, think of all those baby electrons you clubbed to death.

Forget about trying to make this sound politically correct; there’s no way to do this without totally diluting the process.

But let’s also crank in the other costs. Some are equally violent: The hours chewed up while you’re working on that great concept. The people who get things thrown at them because they dared to interrupt in mid-thought (I’m denying everything here, and the statute of limitations has expired in many of these cases). The wreckage I’ve made of my body because of the coffee, desktop snacks, forgotten meals and inconsistent exercise. The psychological damage, whether real or imagined.

The economics don’t make sense

There’s always a cost. And while the internal (psychological) costs have been discussed in many articles and blogs, what about the externals? The sunk costs?

There are plenty of these in the creative business. If you want a halfway decent chance at a return on your investment, you’re really in the wrong place. And most of the best creative practices go against sound economics.

(**Disclaimer: My own knowledge of economics is pretty limited. I know how to make a budget and balance my checkbook, but that’s about all. I do put my money in CD’s, mostly of the Willie Nelson and Charles Mingus variety. I’m also a great fan of Freakonomics, so that’s my pedigree.)

Artists, writers, musicians and entrepreneurs all try to avoid getting entangled in speculative work, but let’s get to the truth. Along this path it’s all speculative. You’re doing something now and have no idea whether it will pay off later — or even if it’ll work.

Might as well throw your resources into farming hairless chinchillas, huh?

Knowing when to fold ’em

As I write this I’m assembling an outline and character studies for a new fiction project. I’ll spend July and half of August at my manic best, slamming the first draft down on my older-than-I-am Royal typewriter. After that it’ll sit in a #2 mayonnaise jar on Funk & Wagnalls’ porch for the prescribed 40 days and 40 nights.

Which means when I do my first read-through near the end of September, I’ll have an idea whether the thing will fly. That’s only about three months.

So already I can see the costs, and it always pays to count them first:

  • A whole lot of paper. I’m saving a bit here because most of that paper has already been through a printer once. Reduce, reuse, recycle.
  • Three months of my time. As I noticed, three months is worth a lot more when I’m 56 than when I was 26.
  • 100,000 words: That’s about 2,500 of them a day. About 10 pages, and right in line with my usual production. While some folks swear I can easily toss off 100,000 spoken words in a day (watch it), it’s really tougher than it looks.
  • Pride. Of course. I’ll admit that’s a big issue with me. Don’t know if it’s a guy thing or an Eric thing. But there’s the risk of being proved wrong, which hasn’t happened in my adult life. Mistaken, yes. Wrong, no.

Now here’s where it gets tricky. I mentioned the sound economics and cutting your losses. If those chinchillas fail to reproduce or you run out of Rogaine for them, do you get out while you can and forget the bad investment?

See, that’s some real-life stuff here. How many people stay in a truly wretched job, town or relationship because they’ve invested too much time in that?

So after those three months, a lot of paper and many destroyed brain cells, that’s when decision time comes:

  1. Push on regardless, meaning I’m throwing even more resources into what looks like a loser?
  2. Try to eliminate the bleeding by calling it done and pitching it elsewhere? Maybe to a fresh audience or a new market?
  3. Throw it in the blender, let the blades work on it some more and give it another shot? (The imagery here gives me some ideas for a murder scene I’m grappling with. Thanks.)
  4. Pull it out of the queue, stick it in a drawer and work on something else? Maybe some answers will come on the first concept, by which time I’m in a position to do something about it. Or maybe answers won’t come and it’ll be a sunk cost. I’m not waiting around for something to happen.
  5. Hang the costs, cut the losses, light the essobee on fire and deny ever knowing it?

Maybe it’s just geting older or learning a few things about the creative life, but I find myself leaning away from the loss-cutting option. But is it stubbornness, the refusal to quit, stupidity or the faith in the concept that’s driving me here? It sure isn’t good economics.

But while the pushing on sounds good, options 3 and 4 sound even better to me.

It’s never in my best interest to be “married” to a project, even though in the creative world you’re in a common-law relationship with your work. I find that’s especially true with longer projects, like the one I’m outlining now.

It’s easier to dump a shorter project of 500 to 1,000 words. My hard drive has a ton of old blog posts that I abandoned in second draft — something I’d never consider for a larger work. I’ve helped line at least one landfill with my messed-up first drafts.

But can I trash 100,000 words and three months?

Not any more. But I can shove it in the blender. Chop, dice or liquefy?

#endit#

Talk to me: How do you handle the sunk costs of creativity? Is it advisable to just scuttle the whole thing if it’s a loser? Oh, yeah, and a friend of mine wants me to get in on his hairless chinchilla venture. Should I take him up on it? Please share in the comments.

Apr 192014
 

If you run across the Muse, shoot her.

Like dead. Like graveyard dead. Tango Uniform. On the slab. Life-challenged.

I know, that sounds like blasphemy of the highest order for an artist.

Who wouldn’t love a whole bunch of Muse dust dumped all over your head when it’s time to create? I know I’d take it.

But the Muse is fickle. A crazy lady. Left to her own devices, the Muse is an excuse.

We all have our own vision of a writer. Of any creative person, for that matter. He’s there, typewriter or computer in front of him, a blank sheet of paper or blank screen. and he’s staring out the window.

Waiting for inspiration.

Of course, he never gets much of anything done.

If every artist worked only under the influence of the Muse, a whole lot of wonderful works would never see the light of day. There won’t be nearly as many great books. Very few amazing musical compositions or performances. Art galleries would be empty. Very few great inventions or business ideas. Bill Gates and Richard Branson would be assembly-line mates in some yarn factory or someplace, trying to talk over the machines and retiring for a cold one after knocking off.

Let’s just say we’d be back in the Stone Age. Hyperbole? Probably, but not all that much.

Inspiration is overrated.

The Muse is an excuse.

Let’s follow that logic for a minute, just for grins. If the above is true, there’s no such thing as writer’s block either.

In this great TED talk, writer Melissa Gilbert discounted the idea of writer’s block and explaining the fickleness of the Muse. Her father, she said, was an engineer. No one ever approached him to ask how that engineering block is coming along. And engineering takes as much imagination, as much soul sweat as writing or playing music any old day.

Many of the big-name writers say the same thing. The Muse is a fleeting thing, but she may stick around if she feels like it. The best way to curry her favor is to look busy when she arrives. Check out the conversation (yeah, shameless plug) between Karen and her short-time boyfriend Darren on how the Muse works:

* * *

“I don’t see how you do it,” Darren said, breaking into her thoughts.

“Do what?”

“Write every day. And I mean every day.”

“Because that is what I do.”

“I can’t. I have to be inspired, you know.”

“Me too. That’s why I write every day. The Muse knows where to find me. At my desk at 9 a.m. sharp.”

“What if it doesn’t show up?”

“Then I kept my end of the bargain and I write anyway. Then she shows up, or sometimes she doesn’t.”

“How much do you write, anyway?”

“At least 250 words. I try for 750, three pages worth. I can sometimes get that in an hour.”

“No way.”

“Been doing it that way for years. Used to do way more than that, probably around 2,000 words a day at the newspaper.”

“I don’t see how.”

“You just do it, that’s all. Don’t worry about the Muse showing up in a newsroom. Too noisy for her.”

* * *

Darren never did get it, and he’s probably still working on that same short story he was tinkering with.

Here’s the deal. It’s so easy to get enslaved by the Muse. You can let her dictate whether you do your work or how you do it.

The best way I found to freeing myself from that evil old gal is to go to work anyway. It doesn’t matter whether I feel like it or not. Just show up. I make an appointment just like I’m going to work.

I dress up like I’m going to a day job. No flip flops, no sweat pants. Writing’s a tough enough business that steel-toed boots and a hard hat may be the thing to wear some days.

But dressed for battle, I show up. At a certain time every morning — usually 8 or 9 a.m., but it’s prearranged. I’m up, at my desk, in firing position. Just like a real job.

Because it is.

As long as I remember that, I will continue to take it and my work seriously.

-endit-

 

 

Mar 282014
 

I was really enjoying this documentary on the Algonquin Round table. Check it out if you have the time; it’s about 26 minutes. A youngish Walter Cronkite narrated.

 

Quite a group of writers and others met regularly as part of this group. Guests included Dorothy Parker, Alexander Woollcott, Heywood Broun, Robert Benchley, Robert Sherwood, George S. Kaufman, Franklin P. Adams, Marc Connelly, Harold Ross, Harpo Marx, and Russell Crouse.

From what I get, it’s part mastermind group and part Friars Club roast.

Enjoy!

-endit-

Feb 212014
 
It's what's inside that counts.

It’s what’s inside that counts.

So I’m getting ready to publish B.I.C Cartel. I mean the full version, and not just the wimpy ol’ part-by-part release. I mean the whole thing.

I get asked this a lot: What’s that like?

Best answer I can give is to let the characters tell it. Karen Watts is getting ready to publish her first novel “Desert Secrets” on Amazon. Her friends are there to help her, to cheer her on and to keep her from bonking out at a late stage. You can check out the dialogue and all the encouraging words here.

I sure hope the publishing process isn’t nearly that hard for me, but you can bet it will. It’s all good news, though. I’m committed to this thing (or maybe I should be committed). Provided I don’t find a handy excuse Part III and the full version of B.I.C. Cartel comes out March 3.

-endit-

Jan 302014
 

I really like this:

“There’s no such thing as writer’s block. That was invented by people in California who couldn’t write.”

– Terry Pratchett

There’s no such thing http://feedproxy.google.com/~r/ThePassiveVoice/~3/U42orEI-UHs/

Strong words. But is this statement true?

I’ve always denied its existence. Quite adamantly, too. With one newspaper job I’d pause for a couple of minute and stare at a spot on the wall. Sure enough, that’s when my publisher would stop by my desk.

“Writer’s block?

No, you idiot. Concentrating, until you broke it. Go away.

“Ain’t no such thing,” I’d tell him. Sometimes I’m just too nice.

But see, there are so many moving parts in the process of creation. This is especially true when you’re going it alone. You generate the idea. You put meat on it. You beta-test to make sure it works. You ship it. You promote it.

With writing – even if it’s comparatively soulless like newspaper work or Web content – goes through similar steps.

• Generate the idea.

• Find an angle.

• Develop the story.

• Get the research.

• Draft the thing.

• Dip back into the research while editing.

• A lot of back-and-forth among the levels.

• Keep an eye on how you’re gonna present that thing – keywords, headlines, placement.

That’s a lot of moving parts. It’s the same thing when you do anything creative like, say, cooking a meal.

• Decide on the ingredients (which can to open).

• Come up with some ways to improve it as you go (more Texas Pete).

• Taste as you go (still more Texas Pete).

• Have someone else try it (it hasn’t killed you, so it must be okay).

• Present the meal properly (why doesn’t it look the way they always show on the can?)

• Put the final product out there (if you don’t like it you din’t have to eat it.)

See, a whole lot of moving parts there. If one bonks out it’ll probably affect the result and maybe even my attitude toward completing the work. Like if my beta-taster in the cooking example croaks I may decide to never enter a kitchen again.

Maybe it’s me, but I find the writing to be the easy part. Really, though others would say it’s the hardest.

Consider: I’ve been writing professionally for 30 years. (Yeah, yeah. Off and on, I know.) I’ve come up and developed with some really squirrelly ideas for even longer than that. I’ve worried about headlines maybe five of those years. I’ve paid attention to keywords for less than a year. I’ve promoted things for maybe about 15 minutes.

Not only are these steps interdependent on each other, all require at least some cooperation from the outside world whether I’ll admit it or not.

Y’all probably figured from reading this blog that I’m big on the “just start” mindset. And I am. Always. Can’t get anywhere unless you start; that never changes.

But finishing. It’s not what it once was. It’s no longer done when you type “endit” or sign your work. There’s more, and all of these post-finishing thoughts can screw up your thinking enough that you’ll tank a project at a very late stage.

Right now I’m finishing Part II of B.I.C. Cartel, a fiction work. I’ve already typed “endit.” It’s formatted, cover art ready, Part I has been up a month. But this thought of marketing the stupid thing again paralyzes me. It’s way out of my comfort zone. My promotional efforts are laughably ineffective. Nobody’s going to read the book except the crickets and maybe some family and close friends, and only if it’s free.

That’s what I tell myself.

Am I full of it? I never am, and that’s my default setting until proven wrong. Even though I believe this novel is an excellent work, I’ll sure enough find a way to sabotage it.

Will this defeatist mindset affect my release schedule on Part II? Hope not.

Will this affect how I write Part III? Hope not.

Will this affect whether I complete/ship Part III, the completed version, the print version, the deluxe version?

Better not.

Writer’s block? Creativity block?

Nahh. Still no such thing. Call it moving-parts block.

But whatever you call it, the result is the same.

# # #

What say you? What’s your personal moving-parts block? Please share.