Aug 072013
 

Stop me if you’ve lived this before.

My personal bucket list is insanely full. I feel like Roy Scheider in the movie Jaws when he told Robert Shaw, “You’re gonna need a bigger boat.” Like the shark hunters, I tend to take on a whole lot more than I can actually do.

But then, that’s part of this creativity thing. I want to do everything, and in more than one discipline.

Some of the items on my bucket list (2013 version) are more viable than others, and some are pure fantasy:

  • Write and self-publish some fiction.
  • Pitch and land some freelance magazine work.
  • Be in a position where I can phase out my relatively low-paying Web content writing.
  • Land some local (or not) freelance clients.
  • Start a podcast based on the principles laid out in creative&dangerous.
  • Start coaching, again based on this blog.
  • Start a mastermind group, again based on the same idea as the last two items.
  • Build a telecourse, another creative&dangerous-based project.
  • Get the ebook writing on a reliable paying basis, enough to cover my simple financial needs all by themselves.
  • Assemble a new, custom Linux system from scratch, built from my own specifications.
  • Record a full-length album built from my own musical ideas.
  • Learn and master the tenor saxophone.
  • Through-hike the Appalachian Trail.
  • Make a four-corners trip around the United States, driving and camping my way across, stopping at any place that sounds interesting.
  • Pee in all 50 states. (For the record, I’m about halfway there.)
  • Tame my bipolar illness to the point I’m almost functional most of the time.

Wow. That’s a lot of stuff.

No wonder I feel so overwhelmed, and I bring that on myself.

But here’s the thing. God willing and the crick don’t rise, I have time. Based on my age, health and heredity, I’ll have about 20 years to do this. I don’t expect to start losing my marbles until I’m about 75 or so (just shut up).

 

Batting averages and the Mendoza Line

But this bucket list is extensive to the point where I’ve stopped sharing these ambitions with my parents. In fact, I hope they’re not reading this now. They’ll think I’m even more dysfunctional than I already am.

See, of these 16 items, I’ve accomplished none of them. If this was baseball, I’m batting .000.

However, I’m close enough to accomplishing two of them. Close enough to call it soup yet. Batting average: .125, well below the Mendoza Line.

I’ve actually started two others, for a batting average of .250. That’s enough to land me a seat on the bench even though I’ll get splinters in my butt.

OK, that’s the stuff I’ve started. Of the rest, I’ve done enough to get my feet wet on three and roughed out a game plan on another six.

But these don’t count. These nine are still in the dreaming phase, though it’s a little more fine-tuned. I haven’t committed anything, though. With those nine I’m still taking my brains out and playing with them, or whatever metaphor you choose to insert here.

Improvement breeds improvement

To be honest, it hasn’t been but a year or so that I actually got around to completing stuff. To wit: Completing an ebook, starting a blog that has an actual theme, taking a short hike on the Appalachian Trail, finishing a first draft on some fiction without getting so disgusted with my work that I burn the manuscript in a trash barrel.

If you asked me if I intentionally completed anything before that, I’d have to sit down and think about it real hard.

That’s an improvement anyway. Baby steps, man. Baby steps.

I mentioned the four items I’ve actually started and the fact I’m close enough to completion on two of them to almost call them done.

Maybe in the last couple of years I’ve sprouted a sufficient enough pair (don’t ask) to actually see things through.

But still, most of this bucket list is still dreaming.

The power of just starting

OK, I’m almost done with the self-absorbed crap. I’ve wasted about 675 words on that.

Here’s the thing. Assuming I’m at least reasonably functional, a major key to realizing any of these dreams is in taking action.

That’s it. Just starting.

Plus, realizing that whatever I do isn’t going to be perfect no matter how long I tinker with it, but that’s another post for another day.

  • Just. Start.
  • Develop some realism of what I can and can’t do, and what dreams are serious enough for me to expend some effort to complete them.
  • Don’t try to start everything at once or nothing will get done. Stick some aside in a queue, revisit them once a year, finish one action item at a time and holler next.
  • Have maybe two active items from the bucket list, one in the works and one on deck. Two, not four like I’m doing now, and just plain start. I’ve got time.

The last few principles are kind of like the Dave Ramsey method of wiping out your debts. Start with the smallest, easiest one, build your confidence and momentum, and work from there. While I like giant steps as much as the next fella, save those for when you can smell the finish line. You’ll need them then because those last few steps can get pretty hairy. Until then, baby steps are sufficient.

start button

Starting is the biggest part of the battle. (Photo by Eric Pulsifer)

That idea of just starting isn’t exactly new, but it’s important nonetheless. David Allen, he of Getting Things Done, teaches this. For each project in your system, designate something — anything — as a Next Action. It could be as insignificant as making a phone call, but let’s get this thing rolling. Start on your Next Action.

Starting is the biggest part of the battle.

Maybe my time frame still lacks some realism, but by just starting — and completing — an arbitrary two in a year it won’t take long to nail this list.

Don’t want to put too much pressure on, though. None of these are exactly time sensitive, and even if they were, blowing a deadline won’t kill me. I mean, in another 50 years I’m not gonna notice the difference anyway.

With very few exceptions, these listed items are for fun. I can only see one that’s an absolute must-do and it’s started and ongoing. Because it’s ongoing and more a process than a goal, I didn’t include that on my two-per-year list. I may have one or two others that are almost must-dos, but they’re probably not as crucial as I try to make them.

Maybe that’s another key to finishing stuff. It’s supposed to be fun and/or profitable. Preferably both.

 

Sometimes you have to let something go

Just for grins, let’s add one more principle:

  • I mentioned revisiting the list every year or so. If an item has been sitting there way too long, it probably means I don’t have enough fire in my belly to start or finish it. Either start today and ship it, or let it go. Something about getting off the pot.

Maybe pick it up later if I still have any desire for it, but get it out of the queue. Right now. But that’s hard. To my (warped) way of thinking, abandoning something is tantamount to quitting, of admitting defeat. I’m just not wired that way. Real men don’t quit. If you think finishing something is hard, try letting it go. You’ll see what I mean.

On my list, one sat there for 40 years. Fortunately, it’s one of the two that’s nearing completion. Five others were on the list for a decade, but a couple are still doable and/or worth doing. Three more sat on the list five years ago. OK, so maybe I’m not real good at eating my own dog food, but you get the idea.

Save the unformed dreams for later. Barring the unforeseen, there’s still time.

# # #

What say you? How are you on starting stuff? How about finishing once you start? Can you take unrealistic dreams out of your bucket without feeling like a quitter? Leave a comment and share your thoughts.

 

 

 

 

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.

 

# # #

(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.

# # #

 

 

 

Feb 012013
 

I have this ritual I observe when I do something significant. I crank up my phone’s mp3 player and cue up John Coltrane’s Giant Steps.

I did that again today as I uploaded my newest ebook into Amazon. I was doing this in a Starbucks (home of free wireless Internet) so I put my headphones in, put the song on, and enjoyed my victory.

This also means putting something up on the usual social media channels, all with the hashtag #giantsteps. I’m celebrating, and I don’t mind folks celebrating with me.

Hey, this is big stuff in my world. I’ve beaten my enemy, including myself. I’ve put one right in the face of resistance, soldiered on, taken the bull by the horns, completed something, shipped something.

#giantsteps has become my rallying shout.

For this writer, these #giantsteps moments are rare. I save them for shipping a large project such as an ebook, for pitching an article, for completing something. Those are moments to be savored.

In my daily journal I also have several questions I ask myself. What four victories can I claim for the day? What am I most thankful for? What giant step did I take?

On those really bad days when that bipolar stuff starts giving me a bunch of trouble, I might fudge on the four victories. Getting out of the house when I’d rather isolate can be one of the four, but then I have to use my imagination to come up with three others.

Days like that, I’m totally at a loss to answer the question about giant steps, so I’ll leave it blank. I’m not going to fudge on that, so the Trane isn’t heard around the house that day.

Sometimes you gotta take those #giantsteps.

Depending on where you are in your creative life this could mean getting up and writing 500 or even 250 words. It might be submitting a story. It might mean blowing the dust balls off your guitar and playing a few chords. It might be making that sales call, or sending out a proposal for your new business.

Small steps can push-start your project

Even one action that pushes a larger process along — that “next action” in GTD parlance — can qualify. The further along you are in your creative development, the more likely you’re going to be a hard grader. Doing my daily word count barely even qualfies as one of the four victories, let alone that rarefied territory of #giantsteps. Shoot, that’s just a day’s work most of the time.

But even small actions can take that hashtag. Making a phone call I’d been dreading even though I know it starts something I need to do is a giant step. It’s not the size of the action, but the size of the project that it drives.

It’s going public with a project, knowing it’s a small action — how long does it take to send out a tweet? — but it commits you to completing your work. It’s telling a friend that you plan to hike the Appalachian Trail or lose weight or get out of debt or quit smoking, knowing full well that your friend will hold you to your word and tell you you’re being a flake if you don’t follow through.

It’s that moment when you shift from an ahhh-what-the-heck-maybe-I’ll-try-it attitude to one where you know you’re all in with something. That’s when things happen.

What I’ve noticed is that noodling an idea, Thinking about a project, or planning it out doesn’t count either. There’s no commitment there. I’m a real planner, with mind maps drawn out on my office white boards and on legal pads everywhere, but all those mean nothing until I take that action step. Victories are reserved for action, and #giantsteps even more so.

Here’s my rationale: While planning is critical stuff, sometimes you’ve got to pull the trigger.

Sometimes you gotta take those #giantsteps.

Then, celebrate. Build a personal ritual around it. Put it up on Twitter and share it. Feel free to use the #giantsteps hashtag.

So what giant steps are you taking? What do you do to celebrate?

###

My ebook, “Meditations I: Brain candy from creative & dangerous” will go live on Amazon once it clears review in a day or two. It’ll be free for a few days, so that will be a good time to grab it. If you like it, tell me. Or better, tell Amazon.

If you’re stuck for a victory song and you like the one I shared, grab Coltrane’s Giant Steps album at Amazon. Full disclosure: This is an affiliate link and I get a commission on it, but I love the album.

Jan 042013
 

I’d written about peak hours before, and I guess it must be a hot topic in some circles. Folks are always trying to squeeze more productivity out of their days, and playing with the body clock seems to be the favorite way of doing this.

More sleep? Less sleep? Uninterrupted or multiphasic sleep?

Start your day doing little, easy-to-do things or tackle that big job you’d rather not think about first?

Is it true that if you burn the candle at both ends you get more light?

Is my brain really more creative when I’m tired? And why won’t my brain shut up at night?

Everyone’s got an opinion there.

I found this infographic from HealthCentral (and some other perspectives by Ridiculously Efficient) a few days ago, and it’s interesting. I’ve pasted it here so you can have a look at it, and myself being one who keeps his opinions to himself (why is my nose growing?) I’ll have some observations here.

Accomplish more in a day by synchronizing your cicardian rhythms

One of the things that caught my attention is the assertion that most people keep a similar natural timeline — like about 80 or 90 percent. This suggests most so-called night people are that way by choice.

I noticed this because I’d always gravitated toward night work. I did a lot of nightside reporting back in the day, spent a lot of late nights playing music, and even most of my so-called day jobs (cab driving, casino work) were at night. But was it me, or was there some other attraction?

OK. Maybe the pay was better, the boss more easygoing, the clientele livelier and the girls prettier at night. But as I got older, I found myself going more toward days. Most of the time (except those times my overactive brain keeps going) I’m usually in bed by 11, like an old fart. Even New Years Eve — a time when most people are out howling — I struggled to keep my eyes open while waiting for the ball to drop. 2013 almost started without me. Man, did I feel ancient.

I’ve also noticed how, on this infographic timeline, the creative process kicks in at around 8 p.m. This in itself is interesting. Fatigue seems to kick-start the process, according to HealthCentral.

I do see evidence of this. At around 8-ish I’ve usually had dinner, my computer is shut down, and I’m chilled out in the recliner, some heavy jazz playing on the Bose, and my mind goes all over the landscape. I usually spend that time with a clipboard in my lap, slamming down ideas as fast as I get them. That’s also when I write my crappiest but most imaginative first drafts and do my wildest brainstorming. Sometimes my bipolar brain won’t shut up, so I gearing down and getting to bed at a decent time is an issue. This does cut into my beauty (!) sleep.

A couple of other things I noticed:

  • A person is more easily distracted from about noon to 4 p.m. (For me, true.)
  • A power nap at 2-ish is good for the body. Maybe it’s encroaching geezerhood, but I find I do this more often than not.
  • But while the brain is easily distracted in the early afternoon, hand-eye coordination peaks around 3-ish. Interesting.
  • Cognition is at its best in the late morning. (For me, also true.)
  • A hot shower is recommended in the morning, because it’ll warm the body and make you more alert. That’s the claim, anyway. I do know my body thinks it’s a Ford because it doesn’t start well when it’s cold.
  • Email sent out before 9 a.m. is most likely to be read. I do have to challenge this, but that’s because very little of my correspondence stays within the Eastern Standard Time zone.
  • For social media junkies, 8 a.m. tweets are the most upbeat and those sent out in the late afternoon are most likely to be retweeted. Facebook status messages sent out at 8 p.m. are the most “liked” (again not accounting for time zones), and a person who builds his whole day around a social media schedule is probably addicted.

Or something.

This whole thing is interesting, but probably not a be-all end-all. Will my habits change because of this infographic? Of course not. I’m not even sure if this infographic is based on hard science or wishful thinking, and even if it was hard science we’ve all got our own peak times anyway.

I think my own biggest take-home is how the brain runs rampant when the body’s tired, but that’s something I’ve suspected anyway.

###

 

Nov 232012
 

Emotional weather report: Storm clouds piling up in the northwest corner of my apartment (thank you Tom Waits).

This is not a good time of year for me.

Even in the semitropical Lowcountry, it gets cold out there right now. It rains a lot. The sun shows up whenever it pleases, and half the time it just decides to lay out instead. There’s usually a cloud cover over my psyche.

Forget about this getting-stuff-done thing.

With winter less than a month away and a bunch of holidays going on, it’s difficult to get my head in my work. As the mornings get colder I don’t bounce out of the rack ready to face the day. I’d rather mummify myself in the extra blankets I dug out of the closet.

It’s that funk time again.

Everybody goes through this stuff, but it’s worse if you have a chemical imbalance as I do. Those funks get deeper, just like those energy-charged days of spring and summer make me an unstoppable force. I’m particularly susceptible to these changes.

It’s time to break that funk up a bit (and remember, telling myself to just snap out of it does not work when the body chemistry is screwed up. Ain’t gonna work.)

But I can monitor myself, and I can change my environment some.

I read a piece in The Creativity Post that suggests ways of breaking that funk. Now, again understand that’s more directed toward those who don’t have the aforementioned physiological issues. But I can steal some ideas from the article. I can’t fix the body chemistry, but I can at least watch for those triggers.

Breaking up the clouds

It’s recommended I connect with people when the funk’s on. Absolutely. When I’m feeling bad my first reaction is to go hide. Don’t want anybody to see me like this. Isolation looks like a cure, but it’s really a curse.

Fortunately, I have friends who will call me or text me when they haven’t seen me for a few days. They’ll drag me out of the house if necessary.

Not having an Internet signal at home helps a lot. To upload my work I have to leave the house and — yes, risk being seen.

Understand, I’m talking about real people. Social media doesn’t count.

Another suggestion is to read an engrossing book or watch a really good movie. But that becomes a reason to isolate, so I’ve scratched that one off my list.

Also mentioned is to commit to a new goal, but that’s not so good if you tend toward the manic. So let’s change that around a bit. Instead, I revisit the goals I have already set. How’m I doing on those? Do I need to reboot some goal, or figure out why I set it in the first place?

If I can fall in love with that goal again, that often gets me going.

Get out more: Absolutely. Not only does this break the cycle of isolation, it also gets my blood pumping. A good long hike, a fast bike ride, things like that. A nice endorphin rush is a whole lot better than Prozac any day, and it doesn’t take away that edge I find so important to do great work. It’s even better when I do this with a friend.

Not only are my whiteboards functional, but they sure do brighten up the joint. Especially when I’m using all the colors.

Changing up my environment always helps. I make sure my work area is well lit (I use those light bulbs that mimic sunlight) and I must have my window shades open. Working standing up helps a lot, too. I feel like I’m doing something, going somewhere as I write.

This environmental adjustments go into my decorating. My office wall hangings consist of two 4×4 whiteboards nailed up near my desk, with outlines and mind maps done up in really bright colors. Not only is this functional, but it does brighten up my work area.

I try to stay aware of my moods, particularly at times like this. I write in my journal at least once a day, sometimes twice, and I make note of the funk status. But I don’t spend more than a few minutes doing this. Too much self-analysis breeds self-absorption, which feeds that nasty spiral. But I try to have my nice healthy brain dump at least once a day.

But while I’m subject to these peaks and valleys, I might as well make use of both ends of the spectrum. The melancholy times are good for thinking (and doodling on the whiteboards) while the more manic periods are great for pull-out-the-stops Katy-bar-the-door production. Got to have both; all production with no rumination is every bit as worthless as all noodling and no doing.

Even without imbalances, the blues hit hard

OK, I’ll admit I’m an extreme case. I need to take extra precautions that many productive and creative people don’t. But all of us have those periods where the ideas turn into sludge. All of us get those funks.

How about you? How do you jump-start the process when in a funk? Use the comments section below, or email your thoughts to me at eric@creativeanddangerous.com if the comments system is still busted.

###

Sep 262012
 

I’m not exactly the most well-adjusted person on the face of this earth. I probably have more fears than most. But the funny thing is, most of these fears tie in with the twin gifts of writing and music, something I should excel at.

I keep telling myself that whatever it is I’m doing, it’s not good enough. My work isn’t thorough enough. Folks won’t like what I’m doing. I’ll never be able to make a living at it. Any success is because I’ve fooled your pants off.

This sort of bad self-talk gets in the way of using a gift. It’s probably the strongest force of resistance I face, and it gets worse when I’m close to finishing something. Here’s the deal, though: When I run through the litany of bad self-talk, it just shows that even though I can fool some of the people some of the time, I can fool myself any time I want.

###

Jun 222012
 

“Good morning, bipolar. Are you going to behave yourself today?”

Creation is usually a lonely business, best done when no one is around to bug you while you’re working. By it’s very nature it’s easy to go into isolation when you’re in full creative flight.

This isn’t such a good thing if you are prone to any of a variety of mental illnesses floating around. Depression, bipolar, all that stuff seems to grip a person by the throat when he’s by himself and the doors are locked.

I recently read a short piece by Julie Fast, a writer/coach who knows a little something about bipolar disorder. She lives it, she fights every day to even get to where she can function, and she’s in-your-face honest about it. She knows what she can and can’t do with her illness, and she works within her limitations. One of her books, Get It Done When You’re Depressed, occupies a place of honor on my desktop bookshelf by the dictionary, thesaurus, Writer’s Market, and Stephen King’s On Writing. Its pages are well-thumbed, high-lighted, annotated and coffee-stained.

What is it about these creatives?

A thing about artists and mental illness: I’m not sure why the two seem to go together. Maybe the same gene produces both. Maybe artists are just naturally more sensitive to problems of the brain and spirit. Maybe it’s a byproduct of living a life that’s just out of the mainstream. And maybe artists, writers, musicians and entrepreneurs are just more self-absorbed than the average person. This is all conjecture, and I’m not qualified to do more than voice my opinion. All I know is that I wake up every morning and say: “Good morning, bipolar. Are you going to behave yourself today?”

Julie knows she can’t function worth a flip when she’s isolated. So she does much of her writing in public. Drops in at a coffee shop or library, even in a noisy karaoke club, and does her work. “I outline in noise and write in quiet,” she recently said in her blog in response to a reader who wrote about self-isolation. “I’m writing this in Starbucks.”

I know this goes against the grain. We artists like to do at least the first stages of our work in privacy. It’s what Stephen King calls writing with the door closed, and writing with the door open. First drafts are done solo. Later, you’re feeling more social and will welcome comments, ideas, suggestions.

Most creatives are funny about working in public. I never like to show anyone my works in progress. Most people may not even know I have works in progress ’cause I’m sure not going to tell them. But I have to kick that door open sometime, if for no other reason than my own sanity. Yeah, that could be important.

My own practice

A couple of years ago I started writing for a few Web sites, and put out a lot of work. Most of it was hack work; nothing I’d want to show in a portfolio and all of it was under another name. But I made the mistake of doing the whole thing at home. I had a broadband Internet connection, I had a coffee maker in my office and a bowl of snacks nearby. I could work long stretches, only getting up to visit the bathroom or raid the fridge.

A funny thing happened.

I started another one of those nifty death spirals. Eat only when I think about it, which wasn’t often. Take a shower whenever … well, whenever I can’t stand myself any more. Shave when I itch and not before. My friends helped me shortstop this spiral, though. A couple of times a week I’d go out and hike about six miles with a buddy. I’d get text messages — Eric, is everything OK? You’re not living in your head again, are you?

That’s the kind of friend everyone needs, artist or not. But especially if you are.

Today, my practice is a little different. I got rid of the broadband connection. If I need the Internet so bad at home, I can always go online using my Android phone. But I do my closed-door writing in the morning. That’s when I generate blog posts, work on some articles, brainstorm things out, and pick away at this novel I’m playing with. All done standing up; that helps me focus. And unlike the stereotyped freelancer who works in striped pajamas and bunny slippers, I’m fully dressed for work. Even the shoes.

But at the most my closed-door session runs three hours. That’s all the isolation I can handle. After that it’s road time. Get on the bike. Ride to the college library or Starbucks. Do my online stuff. The library is more private because I work in one of the carrells, so I can get a lot done but it’s still isolating. Starbucks is better because I’m out among ’em, I can make phone calls from where I sit, and I like their dark roast. It tastes like someone dropped a cigar butt in the pot, but that’s just the way I like my coffee.

But you get the idea. I’m out there, in public, hammering away at the keyboard, slugging down strong coffee, saying hello to people, seeing something of the world.

Counter-productive? In some ways, yes. But I’ll take that trade-off, and I’m learning to do my work under less than ideal conditions — which they all are.

###

Late add: Here’s another story on the subject, through Mediabistro. I’m actually surprised I shared it now; the temptation was to sit on it and use it as fodder for more posts. I might still do so, but I’m into sharing today.