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.


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Mar 132013

I’ve been called a computer geek, and maybe I am. Always looking for the perfect word processor, the perfect text editor, the right mindmapping tool. Plus several Web browsers. Productivity tools up the wazoo. All of this software is the latest version, and most of it is still in beta.

My love for tools isn’t restricted to the computer, either. On my desk I have several fountain pens (my favorite; you can’t beat them for smooth writing), plenty of ink cartridges, pencils, a stock of legal pads in two sizes, and enough blank index cards to last me through the decade.

I laugh when people tell me they can’t write until they have the proper tools, but it turns out I’m guilty of the same thing. Shoot, Ernest Hemingway got by with his old typewriter and seven pencils, which he methodically sharpened every day. But being a tool geek becomes a handy substitute for doing something important and letting my voice be heard.

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Nov 162012

This takes my pre- pre-prep prep time: Brew it up and suck it down. My coffee maker doesn’t look like that, but the coffee sure does.

I read once that Ernest Hemingway always did the same thing before starting a writing session. He’d take seven #2 pencils and sharpen them. As soon as they were sharpened to his obsessive-compulsive specs (remember, this was the guy who rewrote the ending to A Farewell To Arms more than 35 times), he was ready to work.

Other writers have their own rituals before starting. Some I’ve read about include lighting fragrant candles, playing a certain song, wearing a lucky sweater, or grinding one’s own ink. That last one sounds like something I’d like to try, just ’cause. The ink-grinding thing is probably one of those goofy mindfulness exercises that primes the brain, but writing with ink I made myself? How cool is that?

I guess rituals are important. They sort of ease that hard transition into work mode.

These rituals aren’t restricted to creative work, although they’re less mystified when the average Joe does them before hitting the assembly line or cubicle.

When I had my day job at a railroad yard, I usually arrived 10 minutes before time to clock in and had my own rituals before starting. Change into my steel-toed work boots, which I kept under my desk. Throw on a pot of strong coffee. Say hello to my coworkers. Fill my water bottles. Grab my handheld computer, drop in a battery from the charger, log in. Grab something from the snack machine. Clock in, then I was ready to start. Coming back from lunch I’d swap out batteries and start again.

These rituals serve as a buffer, a signal that it’s time to leave the real world and go to work. For some, there’s an element of luck there — like the athlete who dresses from right to left, from putting on his pants to getting into his shoes, before the game.

I’d like to say my ritual is just to start, to hit the ground running. I’d like to say that, but I’d be speaking with forked tongue. I guess all creatives have some sort of ritual that sets them into the frame of mind required to create.

In truth, I have my own startup rituals:

  • I’ll methodically lay out my work area. Coffee cup, water bottle, and smartphone — plugged into my computer because I use that to store my files — to my left. Always to the left. Notes and some snacks to my right. Kitchen timer in front of me. All of these without exception.
  • A couple of minutes to stretch my back and legs. Writing can get physical, especially the way I do it.
  • Crank up stereo.
  • Flip open laptop, log in.
  • Open text editor. I use one of those distraction-free editors that takes up the whole screen, with green sans-serif text on a black background to mimic the old VDT terminals I used in my journo days.
  • Set timer to 25 minutes.
  • Start writing.

I have some other things I like to do before I even leave the bedroom, though they’re hopefully not as OCD as Hemingway’s pencils. But call it my pre-prep prep time. I like to dress for the part. While I have the option of working in my underdrawers, getting fully dressed — even shoes — reminds me that it’s time to work.

Because I prefer to work standing up, I like to have the floor cleared in front of the desk. I’m not much of a housekeeper, but stepping on wires while I work distracts me. I’ll kick any loose power cords out of my way before I start.

I keep a tall stool a few feet away from the desk, out of my way when I write.That’s where I sit when I take my five-minute breaks. I’m a pacer, so I’ll also step away from the desk when I’m wrestling with a phrase or thought during a writing session, but I’ll remain on my feet.

But these are not exactly rituals. OK, maybe they are. I know that variations in even the less-essential stuff — like not wearing shoes, like putting my coffee cup to the right, like wires underfoot — will throw me off a bit. Just takes longer to get my act in gear.

These rituals do the same thing as Hemingway’s seven pencils, as grinding ink, as the fresh battery. They tell me it’s time to quit screwing around. They tell me it’s time to quit thinking about writing and start doing it.

How about you? What do you do to start your work? Would you feel right if you didn’t do these things?


Jul 302012

How do you do your work? In front of people? With doors locked? Wrapped in barbed wire?
Sitting on a rock overlooking the ocean? Right there in the middle of the freeway? With a box? With a fox?

So how do I get my stuff done? It’s complicated. The process is probably the most individual thing about creativity. Hemingway liked to write standing up, most likely with a drink close by. Victor Hugo dealt with writer’s block by in the nude (that’s a visual for you) and with nothing in the room except himself, a pen and some paper. I also like to work standing up, with the stereo pushing some heavy jazz near the threshhold of pain.

The process is so individual that most of the how-to advice becomes useless. How you work is how you work, and it’s as much a part of you as your fingerprints.



Jul 282012

Ernest Hemingway sat down with George Plimpton (yeah, that George Plimpton) in the 1950s for what was probably the definitive interview of an artist. Hemingway discusseed why he rewrote so much, and gave a rare insider’s view of the creative process for the Paris Review. It’s a long piece, but well worth your time. ###