Sep 072012


I’m old enough to remember watching Fred Sanford fight. It was always good for a laugh, and even decades after his doppelganger Redd Foxx’s passing, it’s still funny. It’s still seen in male-bonding situations everywhere.

But it’s more than just humor there. Foxx’ pugilistic methods are those of a guy who has all the right moves, has good reflexes, maybe even a good left-right combination. But his opponent is perfectly safe. He may get pneumonia from all that fanning, but that’s about all.

Ol’ Fred’s boxing is aimless. He’s just beating the air.

All art, including comedy, imitates life. The things we creatives do to accomplish our work are taken right from life.

Without a sense of purpose, my work is little more than wildly swinging in random directions. If I hit my target, it’s accidental.

Here’s the thing, though. My purposes may change over time, or even according to the project. When I first started writing, my purpose was to make sure I could really do it, that it wasn’t a mirage.

Later I wrote for practice. I still do that, but over the years I found some other purposes.

For a long time I wrote to make a living, to shake up the status quo, to maybe gain adulation and some awards. I wanted folks to think, man, that Eric is some kind of journalist.

But let’s back up a minute. There’s that purpose thing again.

I think one of the reasons I put all writing on hold in the late 1990s was because I got mixed up on purposes. I wrote to keep food on the table, and it’s not one of the easier/more effective ways to make a living. Are you kidding? Driving a taxi or working in a factory is much easier, and the pay is better. Journalism became a job. I felt like I’d lost all other sense of purpose.

I was beating the air again. Trying to make it interesting. Turning a cool phrase, not for anything related to the story I was telling, but to show off. Launching the Fred Sanford knockout punch, fanning the breeze.

But as far as the other things that come from doing my work — the joy, the fun, the sense of sharing something important, of telling a story that no one had ever told in that way before — those things were not there.

Purpose is important in what the artist does. He need not tell others what this purpose is; some things are best left inside. And it’s worthless to cast a judgement on what the artist’s purpose is. As long as he knows, that’s all that is needed. Besides, if creativity is done for the wrong reasons, the results will show this eventually.

A few years ago I picked up my pen again and scratched out my first uncertain lines in a decade. I had no idea what was going to happen. I wanted to make sure I could still do it; that was enough purpose for me then. Again, making sure I didn’t lose too much.

After my old editor saw some of my work online and told me I still had my fastball, other purposes started to fall into place. I can rattle off a few right now, in just the time it takes to type them out:

I write for fun.

I write to share.

I write because I love to tell stories.

I write to encourage other people.

I write because I can.

I write because if I didn’t, that tiger that lives inside would shred my innards.

I write because I must.

I also write to explore a personal issue, to get it all out, to have a nice healthy purge all over the page. For me, that’s crucial even though I’m the only one who is ever going to read it. Keeping a journal is something I wholeheartedly recommend to anyone.

And, oh yes, I do write to improve my bottom line. I won’t discount that, as I’ve gone on record here urging creatives to seek whatever remuneration the work is worth. But if that’s the only reason I do my work, that’s an awfully thin purpose.

You can bet Thomas Edison wasn’t thinking future profits down the road when he assembled the first light bulb. Rather than thinking about what his creation might do for the per-share price of ConEd, he might have been thinking he won’t have to run to the store to pick up more candles. Or more likely, he had that idea that was there, like a burr in the saddle, and he wanted to do something about it.

I write because it was a gift given to me before I was even born, and it’s my responsibility to use it wisely. It’s not like it’s something I own, but I’m holding it in trust.

Man, that’s a heavy purpose.


Jun 292012

If Edison laid down on the job, the light bulb would still have been invented ... by someone else.

“If (these guys) didn’t do their work, it still would have been accomplished. Only Joe Smoe might have invented the light bulb, Joe Sixpack might have created the airplane, and Joe Lunchmeat might have written The Godfather.”

* * *

“They stole my idea!”

I’m sure you’ve heard that one, and probably enough times to know what it actually means.

Every time something brilliant comes down the pike, you know someone will say he had the idea first and someone stole it. Right out from under him, just snatched it right from his brain or something. Or he didn’t have the a) chance, b) money or c) backing to pull it off.

Try d): Didn’t have the vision or the motivation or the ‘nads necessary to make it work.

Who is the person who would utter such a lament?

I can guarantee you, this is the person who doesn’t get ideas very often, and when he does he’s clueless what to do with it.

One of the hard truths about the creative’s life is that ideas are cheap.


This bears repeating: Ideas are cheap.

And if you’re creative, you learn these ideas are like buses. Another will be along directly. A true creative never has a shortage of ideas; more often than not he’ll have more of them than he has time to execute them. He has to decide, which ones are worth the effort?

It’s like fishing. Some ideas are keepers. Others may put up more of a fight than you are able and/or willing to handle. And some are not developed enough and should be thrown back. Maybe you’ll catch it later, or maybe someone else will. It does not matter.

But that is indeed the way things are. Ideas are not exclusive. Among minds, they’re public domain. If you don’t pick it up and do something with it, someone else will.

Things will get done whether you decide to show up for work or not. That’s how things work in the great scheme of things. While you’re out playing with the squirrels your brilliant idea will be given to someone else, and it’ll become real at some point — only without your participation, without your fingerprints. Then you might say someone stole your idea.

That’s nonsense. By default you threw it back.

An idea is intrinsically worthless until someone can catch it and has the gumption and the ability to develop it. To make it into reality. A whole bunch of folks may have conceived the idea of the incandescent light bulb, but it took an Edison to pull it off. More than a few tried to be the first to get a flying machine off the ground, to reach the South Pole, to design an operating system that would put computers into the hands of the masses. Several people might have had the idea to write the mother of all Mafia novels, but a relative unknown named Mario Puzo finally penned The Godfather — and triggered a whole franchise in the process, with sequels and everything.

But the funny thing is, if Edison or the Wright Brothers or Roald Amundsen or Mario Puzo didn’t do their work, it still would have been accomplished. Only Joe Smoe might have invented the light bulb, Joe Sixpack might have created the airplane, and Joe Lunchmeat might have written The Godfather.

Grab that idea. Assess it. If you can’t make it real, throw it back. Someone else will do something with it; applaud his success.

But if you can, pick it up. Run with it. Move it from the idea stage to the physical stage. Write that novel that’s bouncing around in your head. Compose that song you keep hearing. Invent that email reader that also checks your morning news, gives you your daily schedule and brews your morning coffee. Create that life-changing Android app. Develop that business plan and hang up your shingle.

Then you can claim it.


As I was getting ready to post, this article by Anne Wayman (About Freelance Writing) slipped across my transom. And yes, it shows how plentiful these ideas are. Check out her comments section to see how folks cope with the mental flood.

And while you’re about it, leave a comment here.