Jan 092015
If necessity is the mother, "what if" is the daddy.

If necessity is the mother, “what if” is the daddy.

What if you built a golf course in the desert?

What if you made a computer so simple your grandfather could run it? Then, what if you made that computer into a work of art rather than just a plain white box?

What if you made a car that even working folks could afford?

What if a military-grade superflu wiped out 99 percent of the world’s population and the survivors had to recreate society? What if they had to choose between good and evil while doing so?

What if a company tries a contest to attract customers and everything goes wrong? What if it decides killing the winners is the answer? (Whoops, that one was mine.)

What if you took a pop tune and gave it a jazz treatment?

What if you were able to replicate a dinosaur’s DNA and turn that idea into an amusement park? (Don’t try this at home, kids.)

What if you could create a hamburger that can be made quickly, in enough volume to serve billions and tasting the same every time?

“What if” is one of the roots of all creative processes. Architect David Rockwell thinks so. He says he’s into hybrids — nailing together two things that were never nailed together before, as George Carlin once said.

Mel Brooks told the Los Angeles Times about the birth of one of his movies, and how it came from actor Gene Wilder’s what-if:

“I was in the middle of shooting the last few weeks of Blazing Saddles somewhere in the Antelope Valley, and Gene Wilder and I were having a cup of coffee and he said, I have this idea that there could be another Frankenstein. I said not another — we’ve had the son of, the cousin of, the brother-in-law, we don’t need another Frankenstein. His idea was very simple: What if the grandson of Dr. Frankenstein wanted nothing to do with the family whatsoever. He was ashamed of those wackos. I said, “That’s funny.”

The result, Young Frankenstein, gave us one of the great comedy scenes of all time:

That same question, in some iteration or other, gave us things like Palm Springs, the MacIntosh and iEverything, the Model T, Stephen King’s The Stand, John Coltrane’s greatest works, Jurassic Park and McDonalds. Yeah, some of these innovations worked out a little better than others, but you get the idea.



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.


Jul 162013

I ran across this interview that a couple of high school kids somehow got for their school radio station, a chat with the great Louis Armstrong. By then Satchmo was in the business 50 years, already had several careers as a jazz trumpeter and as a singer, and achieved more than most musicians could ever fantasize.

But even after years of playing and working with the same eight notes in the musical scale all that time, he still held to his practice regimen.

“Even if I have two, three days off, you still have to play that horn,” Satchmo said. “You have to keep up those chops. I have to warm up every day for at least an hour.”

John Coltrane, one of the greatest ever on tenor sax, practiced at least eight hours a day, at leadt according to a guesstimate from one of his contemporaries. And when jazz pianist Bud Powell was incarcerated he found some chalk, drew a keyboard on his cell wall, and practiced on that.

Doesn’t matter what your art is, you probably have specific things you do for practice.

Some writers free-associate on paper, putting down anything that pops into their heads, and keeping the pen moving is the only real objective. Daily journal writing is what this ink-stained wretch calls practice. Whatever it is, my practice is done in longhand while the coffee is brewing. It’s part brain dump and part playtime, where I can experiment with stuff without worrying about it being readable.

Practice. That’s the time to try those phrases kicking around in your head. Time to see how that melody sounds against the chords you keep hearing. It’s when you develop your muscle memory, build up some physical stamina, fine-tune your eye and ear. Become even more familiar with your tools. Absolutely essential.

My phrases may come out all tortured and my logic twists all over the place during practice, but that’s fine. Satchmo’s and Trane’s practice sessions were probably more skronkfest than those burnished tones you expect from a musical genius, but that’s also fine.

Practice is absolutely essential, but it’s also playtime. It’s supposed to be fun.

# # #


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.

Nov 212012

Every once in a while I’ve gotta do it.

What with Thanksgiving coming up and myself planning to do some serious eating — and yeah, relaxing after a wild week of pulling together copy into that ebook, I took a few days off.

I was treating myself.

That’s important. Small victories deserve a reward, and the best one I could think of was to lay out for a couple of days.

I have another favorite way of celebrating victories. I’ll shut the text editor down, crank up my stereo to raise-the-dead levels, and cue up John Coltrane’s Giant Steps. It’s my personal commentary, and any victories I post on Twitter come with the #giantsteps hashtag.

It’s natural. It’s no different from coming home after work, taking your shoes off, and sitting on the front stoop. I always called it the “cool-of-the-evening feeling.”

Guess I’m saying here, enjoy your victories. Revel in them. Toot your horn a bit. Take five and put on a pot of your best coffee. Chill out on the porch. Shoot, take the rest of the day off.

Tomorrow, it’s back to work. There’s plenty more of that to do.


Oct 192012

Some things are demanding or complex enough to require a person's best.

There are probably times during your day when you operate at peak efficiency, and others when you’re probably better off taking a nap. The good news is, these times are usually predictable.

There’s even better news on this front: These peak times will evolve as you develop personal habits. I’ll get into that part later.

The whole trick here is to find those peak times, and to my knowledge there’s no real test to determine what those are. As far as I know, there’s no substitute for the good old-fashioned trial-and-error method. That, and running an audit of yourself.

Once you know your peaks and valleys, you can plan your day somewhat. If you’re self-employed, this knowledge is huge. If you have one of those day jobs where you have some control over your work flow, this is still good stuff to know. If you have one of those on-the-line jobs where you make grommets all day, it’s still good information.

If you have a day job and are exercising those creative muscles by building something for yourself in your off hours, this knowledge will be like gold.

What I found out: Some surprises

I did this audit recently, and came up with a few surprises. I have two peak periods a day where I’m really smokin’ and dealin’ — but those peaks are several hours apart. Which means if I was working for someone else full time and need to be at my best for the whole time, a split shift is the thing. But no single employer deserves that much from me.

My peak periods run from about 9 a.m. to noon, and from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. Each of these periods is followed by a three-hour stretch where I start to wear down but am still good.

But from 3 to about 5 p.m., forget it. I’m useless. Anything requiring brain power takes considerable effort.

Gee, maybe that explains why I was such a strong starter but not a great finisher on my former day job. Getting toward the end of the shift I was sucking on fumes. If that job required any brains, it would have been worse than it already was.

I’m still trying to figure out how the morning thing got into the picture. Like, how did this longtime night person manage to operate in a halfway intelligent manner in the mornings? I’m getting ahead of myself, though. I’ll get to it; just let me lay my story out right.

Trust me. That monkey mind will get ya.

I’m writing this at 9:30 a.m., right there in my wheelhouse. My peak periods are reserved for writing and brainstorming; the real high-impact stuff. A problem is that my mind is so active during these stretches that I’m particularly susceptible to distractions. Especially in the morning session, when I top-load most of my work, I use a timer to keep me focused. Otherwise, monkey mind takes over.

I use my declining periods for some editing, pitching some work, research and work-related correspondence. I try to put the most important stuff toward the front of this time while I still have something.

From 3 to 6 p.m. I’ve shut work down. Forget it. I’m borderline useless. No writing or editing then, otherwise I’ll make a mess of things. Save that for reading, some correspondence, some social media. As I get older I’ve come to appreciate a good nap, and that’s the time for me to do it.

Although I always thought my chunked-up day was because I’m a max-effort kind of guy, after talking to other creative types I find two separate peak periods in a day isn’t all that unusual. It’s like the brain and body catch that second wind. Even when I try to push against my personal tide and try to get stuff done during my useless period, I still perk up in the evening. The only real difficulty here (besides the monkey mind) is that I need to bring things to a hard stop; otherwise I’ll go past midnight. This old guy needs his sleep.

Using the chunks instead of blowing them

OK, so you have a day job and maybe you’ve identified two peak periods in your day. Give one to your employer because that’s the right thing to do. Put your more intensive work into that time slot, and use non-peak times for the more mundane tasks. But if your employer demands both of your peak periods, he’s stealing.

If that other peak time is in the evening, use it for the stuff that demands your best. Write that novel. Work over the chord changes of “Giant Steps.” Build that Next Big Thing. The declining time is still good for engagement, social stuff, and anything that requires you to be present.

Appendix: Peak times will evolve

I find it interesting how my peak times adjusted over the years. I’ve always been a night person; I even sought the midnight-to-8 shift whenever possible. Mornings were for other people. I just don’t do mornings, and anyone who called me before noon usually caught an earful of naked hostility.

What happened?

I’d like to think I’ve matured, but that’s not likely (no future in that anyway). More than likely it was that aforementioned day job. I had to hit the ground running at 7:30 a.m. each day, no fiddling around. That, I think, trained me to those hours.

Some further reading

OK. I’ll admit falling asleep is an issue for me, especially when my mind is in overdrive. I noted it on Twitter the other night:

* * *

Ugh. Still up. #amwriting at 12:30 a.m., BDT. That’s #Bipolar Daylight Time for the uninitiated around here. #brainshutup

* * *

Gets rough around here sometimes.

Liisa Kyle, Ph.D and Lisa Rothstein, those outrageously multitalented ladies at davincidilemma.com, came out with a blog post about things to do when you can’t sleep, and it’s really interesting. Kyle, who wrote the piece, suggests our current model of falling down and sleeping for eight hours is a fairly recent phenomenon. She cites a BBC piece as evidence.

It seems the normal sleep pattern until the 20th Century was to fall asleep for about four hours, get up for an hour or two, then go back to sleep for another four. The straight eight started to catch on the late 17th Century, and pretty much took over by 1920. You could say increased industrialization and shift work more than contributed to this change.




Oct 162012

What may have been the greatest jazz album ever started with a sinkful of dirty dishes -- at least that's the legend.

In 1964 John Coltrane recorded A Love Supreme, one of the greatest jazz albums ever. In the liner notes to the 2002 deluxe version, the activities of several creative geniuses during their a-ha moments were mentioned.

The writer suggested Michaelangelo’s best ideas came while he swept up his Sistine Chapel work area. Louis Armstrong took five and grabbed lunch. And Trane’s album had its genesis in a sinkful of dirty dishes.

Doing some mundane task — vacuuming the apartment, hoeing the beans — isn’t mentally taxing, takes just enough brainpower to be engaged. And while the hands are busy, the mind can ride the range.


Sep 212012

Back in the late 1980s, when I was a relative kid just stretching my legs in writing and music, I did a little work with Rosie Hamlin.

You’d have to be a baby boomer or a real oldies freak to know of Rosie. She was the lead singer for Rosie & The Originals in the ’60s. Her big song back then was “Angel Baby.”

Now, when I worked with her, everybody wanted her to do that song. Except she was a teen then, and her voice had matured considerably and getting the high parts punched holes in her range. Besides that, she wanted to do blues. To accommodate her fans she’d work Angel Baby into a medley, singing just part of the song.

An artist knows when it’s time to move on. With some — particularly in jazz — it’s expected. Miles Davis redid his career several times, creating several subforms (cool, modal, fusion) in the process. In a couple of years John Coltrane completely changed his sound from his Classic Quartet days to his Pharoah Sanders period.

You’ll find this process elsewhere. Basketball great Wilt Chamberlain morphed from scoring machine to assist man to defensive specialist in just a few years. While his critics swore these changes were just because he was getting old, it was just Wilt moving into a new role for his team. Shoot, his Lakers already had enough high-octane scorers; if he hadn’t redesigned his game they’d need three basketballs out there.

If you’ve been creating for a while, you may notice major changes in how you do things. You learn new techniques, you find different stories to tell, your imagination goes places you’ve never visited before.

But the catch here is in making sure your audience — your tribe — goes with you.

If you can do something that satisfies that inner Muse and carries enough authenticity to keep connection with your tribe, you’ve probably pulled it off. Otherwise, you’ve just jumped the shark.

After Fleetwood Mac recorded that great Rumours album, the question was what do they do next. Their answer was Tusk, and the title track was recorded with the USC (Southern California, not South Carolina) marching band. A lot of Fleetwood Mac fans were scratching their heads over that one, saying they’d lost it. Maybe, but I thought it was a real gutsy move.

Some of my favorite novelists ended up writing things outside their realm — David Baldacci and John Grisham wrote coming-of-age stuff and relatively lightweight (for them) fare. Stephen King wrote books that do not scare the stuff out of you.

Robin Williams started doing serious roles (The Awakening, Good Will Hunting) and made new fans. Even Richard Pryor wanted to try something serious.

It’s so easy to do the same thing you started with. It’s a whole lot safer, and the rationale is solid. Why argue with success? Stretching things out is a risk.

But sometimes growth is forced upon you. I’m thinking of all those out-of-work newsmen who have to change things up one way or another. Rebuild some skills and go into freelance? Work on the periphery, such as technical writing?  Throw the dice on writing/publishing that novel? Play it safe and hook on with another paper that may actually survive the year? Sell blood for a living?

Other times that growth comes on from pure restlessness. I find that’s true of me. One of the disadvantages of living full tilt is that I get burned out quickly. I need to constantly adjust, keep trying new things. To stay motionless is to die.

Maybe it’s just me, but I can’t picture a creative life without growth. To me, if my work looks a lot like it did 20 or 30 years ago, I’m moving in the wrong direction. Even if this means getting dangerous and trying my hand at something I’ve never attempted before.


Jul 262012

Jazz great John Coltrane had such facility on his instrument and such advanced harmonic thinking that Lee Konitz, one of his contemporaries, suggested Trane practiced 10 hours a day.

Bassist/composer Charles Mingus took his practice a different way. As he progressed he spent less of his practice time actually playing his instrument and more time listening to others play. His reasoning was that physical practice existed mostly to a) build up his stamina, b) improve his facility and speed, and c) increase his muscle memory. Writers may not spend more than a few hours actually putting stuff down on paper or disk, but the best ones read everything in sight.

Your practice should include time when you’re actually doing your work, and immersion time studying the work of artists you admire. Both count as practice; the trick is to find your ratio and to be consistent about it.