May 232014
 

Tick tock ... tick tock ...

Tick tock … tick tock …

I got into a discussion — okay, call it a debate — about the best motivation to push a project forward.

Put a date on it.

That’s the final leg of the so-called SMART goals that are all the rage these days. Depending on who you listen to, the other four parts may include (s)pecific, (m)easurable, (a)ttainable and (r)ealistic. It’s that fifth one that remains the same no matter who interprets the goals, so it must be important.

In the acrostic, T stands for time-sensitive. There’s a deadline attached.

I’m an old journalist and I know what blowing a deadline means. It means you’re fired. So it’s important stuff.

In the real world of creating and hopefully finishing things, a deadline means something else:

It means you’re serious.

It means you will start, and finish. Or at least you’ve improved the odds considerably.

You’ve made a date.

Michael Hyatt gets more projects and requests than any person can name. He’s a busy guy. But when he’s really serious about getting something done he puts it on his calendar. He’s adamant about not blowing off appointments.

For me, the simple act of putting a date on something became a revelation.

See, I’ve always had a gazillion projects going on.I’m busy, reasonably unfocused and admittedly manic enough to load my to-do lists until they break. So I’ll stuff things in there, give it a shake in the hope that everything will settle on shipping, then load it some more.

With my first fiction work, I decided to try something different. I experimented with deadlines.

I set one for completing the first draft, one for the second draft, another for the final draft and a fourth for shipping.

Nailed ‘em all. And this is a guy who can’t complete anything.

Until I put a date on something I’m just screwing around.

I’m a wanna-be with an amateur’s attitude.

Professionals take their work seriously. Pros also get stuff done.

If I look real hard at those twin statements, I just might find a connection.

I have another fiction project in the works, and am now finishing the second draft. That’s the one where I sort through the hastily-thrown-down first draft and ruthlessly kill those wonderful turns of phrase I fell in love with but they don’t move the story forward.

My self-imposed deadline for the second draft is May 31, and based on my progress I’m going to achieve that with time to spare. And that’s after taking several days off for a cross-country drive.

I’m gonna knock it out of the park.

If you’re a real killer in the getting-stuff-done world, you can double your fun by publicizing your deadline. Put it up on Facebook, Twitter, even on LinkedIn.

As I wrote this I decided to eat my own dog food here. I posted on Twitter:

creativedanger May 13, 6:26pm via HootSuite

On 2nd draft of my new novel Damage Control. Self-imposed deadline is May 31. I’m gonna nail it. #amwriting

That’s going public. What’s even more public is putting it up on LinkedIn, which goes out to a more professional network. These folks know me and are about something.

So I guess that means I’m kinda serious.

#endit#

Talk to me: Do you impose deadlines? Do you publicize them? Please share.

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.)

 

 

Jan 112013
 

Any truly creative act will come with a lot of pain and blood.

“If you want to talk about pain, try giving birth.”

I can’t remember who said that to me more than 20 years ago. Might have been a girlfriend, or an ex-wife, or just some random person. You can bet, though, that whoever said it was female.

For obvious reasons, I’ve never experienced the giving-birth thing. I never will. If it does happen, the folks at Weekly World News will definitely want to talk to me. So I don’t know diddly about giving birth, and have no authority on the subject. Next question …?

Here’s the thing, though. Any creative act, if it really is creative, is going to come with a lot of pain. Lots of screaming. Convulsive stuff. Pass the wonder drugs, please? It’s a lot like, well, like what they tell me about giving birth.

Little, if any, of this pain is physical. I may feel fine and nobody may know all the wrenching stuff that’s going on inside. Maybe that’s why so many gifted people succumb to drugs and strong drink, usually of the depressant variety. Stephen King wrote Cujo while blasted on Schlitz and couldn’t remember any of it. “I like that book,” he wrote later. “I wish I could remember the good parts as I put them down on the page.” Jazz innovator Charlie Parker shot heroin, and many of my favorite authors and artists fought many a bottle battle with themselves. Even that cool band you heard at the club last night probably spent at least one of their breaks in a “safety meeting,” where one of those left-handed cigarettes gets passed around.

But there are a lot of parallels between the creative act and giving birth. The idea grows inside you for a period of time. You rejoice as you feel it move. You wonder how it’ll look on the ultrasound. You sweat a lot, bleed a lot, try to keep your breathing under control. You’re amazed to see the final product. And even though the rest of the world thinks it’s butt-ugly (I looked like an alien in my minutes-after-birth photo and thankfully it was in black and white) it’s still the most beautiful thing you’ve ever seen. And if someone says your baby looks like a lizard or alien, you’ll dispute that with everything you have.

I didn’t want to write this

Heavy confession time: Every time I stand at my terminal to write this blog, I wonder what I’m doing. There are quite a few excellent online sources that will tell you the same things I say. Very accomplished people are writing about this very concept of being creative and dangerous.

OK, so who am I to declare myself an authority … of anything? Shoot, I have enough challenges conducting my own life. Sometimes it’s even a struggle for me to shave without needing a transfusion afterward, so what am I doing writing this blog?

That’s my daily pain. But either because I’m too goofy to know when I’m out of my league or too old to give a rip, I soldier on regardless.

Or more likely, it’s because I realize none of this is about me anyway.

  • Do I worry about whether you like my words or ideas? Of course.
  • Do I feel out of sorts when I check my page analytics and see I’m far far far away from 100,000 page views? Daily.
  • Do I hear the whispering that I really don’t know what I’m writing about? All the time.
  • Do I obsess after posting an entry because maybe I used the wrong phrase or the wrong emphasis, thereby alienating half my readership? All day.
  • Do I worry about steering you wrong? No …

Because again, even though I relate my own unique misgivings, fears and challenges, this isn’t about me anyway. Really.

In my recently published ebook (Finding Your Passion: Where Creativity Meets Danger) I had a ton of BS bouncing around in my head every step of the way. In my heart I knew the writing sucked wind. I knew the concepts needed a whole lot of work. I was absolutely sure the graphics were horrible, the typography awful, the download all scrambled and the entire subject matter beaten to death.

Those murmuring voices within grew so loud I had to crank up the stereo to drown them out.

It took several tries to hit the upload button on Amazon. At some point my coordination went bye-bye, my vision fuzzed over, and my Chrome web browser started acting all stupid.

All through it I kept asking myself, what am I doing?

Now, see, if all this was about me, I’d be in a pantload of trouble.

Chances are, none of this would have been done.

Too much pain involved.

I’d rather bob for French fries.

I’d rather gargle razor blades.

Working a nice safe boring job at an injection molding machine (done that; it’s a wonder I stayed awake through it) sounds preferable.

But a funny thing: I recently got an email from a woman in Tennessee who wants to start a group for folks who are struggling to find their own passions and strengths, and she’s using this little 32-page nothing of an ebook as the group’s first textbook. Now, I sure didn’t anticipate this when I wrote the first draft, but it turns out that’s why I wrote and published it anyway. For the group in Tennessee. For anybody else who might derive some benefit from it.

That’s why I write this blog, too. If someone’s encouraged enough to start creating, I did my job.

Uniqueness is what sets things apart

Getting back to my misgivings: Sure, there are a lot of blogs touching on this same subject matter. There are a few people online who tell this story, but better. I’m thinking of Jeff Goins, Michael Hyatt, Steven Pressfield, Dan Miller and a bunch of others.

So there’s nothing unique about what you’re reading here.

Or maybe there is.

My voice.

Jeff Goins writes about the joy and pain of creation in Jeff Goins’ voice. Steven Pressfield tells his story in Steven Pressfield’s voice. And so on. And all of these people I mentioned realize that, even with their own unique voices, it’s not about them anyway.

Me? I’ll tell my story. The one about the guy who lived a creative life, got sidetracked, tried to deny his gifts only to have them come back and whop him across the head with a 2×4. My voice? A beta reader nailed it when she pointed out my love of rich imagery and my tendency to make the reader uncomfortable.

That’s the unique stuff I have to offer. The sum of my experience, my voice. Much of this was forged by … again … by pain.

But you know what? If you’re reading this, you probably know about experience and voice and pain.

Probably have your own, in good measure, shaken, stirred, all that. Your own personal mix.

And that personal mix is what the world needs to hear.

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Oct 052012
 

Paradox: Doing nothing can be a productive part of your day.

You wouldn’t know it by looking, but doing nothing can sure be hard work.

If you’re anything like me, the whole thought of doing nothing goes against your grain. If you’re addicted to action, if you’re always “on” (raises hand), this can be the most counterproductive foolery I’ve ever mentioned in this space.

Sure, I can gear down but only under protest. I can take my time getting my engines going in the morning, but I’m always doing something. Even when fatigued and my body screams “enough!” my brain is still engaged, looking for something to get into, looking for more squirrels to chase.

If you take a book, clipboard, journal, or smartphone into the head with you, doing nothing is probably a foreign concept.

But there’s something about this doing nothing.

Doing nothing on the schedule

I recently heard a podcast with Michael Hyatt, former CEO of one of the world’s largest publishing companies. Even though he left that job, he’s still a busy guy. He’s always on demand on the lecture circuit. He writes his regular blog posts and puts out the occasional podcast. He wrote the book on writers and artists getting the word out via the Internet. Although he guards his time, he serves as a mentor to several other leading lights in the writing/platform-building world.

'Scuse me while I chase this squirrel ...

Hyatt says he starts his day by doing nothing. In a studied manner. It’s something he puts on his schedule. He spends 15 minutes doing nothing, enjoying the quiet and solitude, then goes into the rest of his morning ritual.

This, he says, is probably the most important addition to his day and to his productiveness cycle. This is a guy who has his priorities straight anyway — he keys on what’s important in his life, makes sure he gets enough sleep, has his mental quiet time, then gets busy.

Think about this. When you’re creating, those doing-nothing times are valuable. Many novelists suggest taking some time to shift between full-on creative mode (first draft) and editing mode (second draft). I’ve heard anywhere between one or two months of doing nothing.

This does several things:

  • You hopefully succeeded in putting the story out of the forefront of your mind, though it still resides in the subconscious. That’s when the creatures in the attic begin their work, and what they come up with is usually an improvement.
  • By putting some distance between you and the project, you can see it with fresh eyes when you pick up the manuscript again. I can usually tell I’ve done this successfully. When my project looks like it was written by a Martian, then I know I did this doing-nothing time right.
  • You can rest and recharge, and hopefully your brain shuts down with you.
  • You train yourself, and you train your sense of inspiration. Artists complain that the Muse is inconsistent; it doesn’t strike when you’re ready but it keeps whispering stuff in your ear when you’re busy with something else. You’re synchronizing schedules, and also making yourself more receptive to inspiration.

Sometimes if you’re trying to get on the same page with that inspiration thing and it’s not working, it’s a good thing to walk away. Go for a bike ride. Hike the Appalachian Trail. Work on something else. You might find this elusive Muse hanging around in your subconscious, conspiring with the creatures in the attic again.

My own attempts to sit down, shut up, and listen

There’s a beauty to just sitting quietly, and it’s worth discovering — especially if, like me, you can’t sit still for nothing.

A scheduled doing-nothing time may be the only rest you get all day, so enjoy it.

I’m experimenting with a scheduled doing-nothing time, and my results are kind of mixed. Perhaps it’s because it takes time to develop the habit. Like Hyatt, I’m trying to get it going first thing in the morning.

For me, it’s really hard. Beyond difficult. Next to impossible. When my alarm goes off, the first thing I usually do is start the coffee. See, already my brain and body are engaged and it’s downhill from there.

What about if I set up the coffee before going to bed, put it on a timer, use those first few minutes constructively doing nothing? I usually like to have two hours between waking up and starting work, because it takes that long for me to find my brain and get into a groove. Have my doing-nothing time first thing, then grab that cup of joe before doing my morning reading and journalizing. That’s what I’ve been playing with.

So far, it’s rough. I’m not used to doing nothing, and my first impulse is to use that 15 minutes for additional sleep. But let’s get real here. All the beauty sleep in the world’s not going to help me anyway, and I might as well use that time for something useful.

And sometimes doing nothing can be downright useful.

###

 

Jun 212012
 

An excellent teleseminar +Michael Hyatt gave on platform building the other day. A must if you have an idea/business/whatever and need to put the word out via the Web. He knows his stuff.

Here’s the link to listen and/or download:

http://ds1.downloadtech.net/cn1086/audio/15475461631662-004.mp3

Had to share.

###

 

 

Jun 022012
 

As I continue rebuilding some writing credentials, I find I’m getting more interested in the creative process that the job entails. And the more I learn about the creative process, I find it’s a lot simpler than what a lot of self-appointed creativity gurus say it is.

It all boils down to doing your work.

You can read all these blog posts and to-do manuals about increasing your creativity, but none of them mean a thing unless you first park your butt at the terminal and write.

I can get all mystic and say creativity is nothing but a date with inspiration, but you still have to dress for the date. That means your writing shoes are on and your fingers are wearing a keyboard. Or something.

In the terminology of those who do actual writing instead of just talking about it: Butt in chair.

OK. Maybe not in all cases. I prefer to work at a stand-up desk, but you get the idea.

Still, there are plenty of folks out there who need that kick in the same general area that makes contact with the chair. Maybe you’re one of them. You want to write, but you haven’t made the butt-in-chair connection yet. Or maybe you have and you feel your writing stinks. Or you write, but have yet to call yourself a writer.

If you look around online, you’ll find many writers and bloggers who dispense some really sound wisdom. I’m thinking of people like Jeff Goins, Michael Hyatt, Steven Pressfield and Anne Lamott. That’s just for starters, and these people are excellent sources for inspiration, ideas, or that proverbial kick in the tail section. I highly recommend sitting down and learning from these people, as long as you’re doing your work.

And let’s not forget Stephen King; his book “On Writing” is one of the best if you want to write. I’m on my second copy, and it sits on a shelf above my computer with some fast company — the dictionary, thesaurus, “Writers Market” and “The Elements Of Style.”

I’m doubly blessed. I write, and also play music. But no, I have never written a song; the closest I’ve come to that was improvising some lyrics when I forgot them one time. The creative process is identical in both disciplines; only the tools are different.

I may take this thought a step further. If you’re an entrepreneur, you’ve probably had a brilliant idea or three — maybe in coming up with a new product, maybe in a different way to pitch the product. But again … guess what? It’s the same process.

It’s true there’s nothing new under the sun; what has been done is what will be done. A creative person doesn’t conjure something out of thin air. Humans don’t have that ability. But approaching something in a new way, mashing something up, that’s where you find the creative process. A writer has only a certain number of letters and words to work with, and all fiction follows one of only a few general story lines. A musician has only 12 notes at his disposal, and five of those will sound like crap when played with the others. But like the late George Carlin so cynically said early in his comedic career, if you nail together two things that were never nailed together before, some schmuck will buy it from you.

OK. It’s that nailing two things together. That’s where the creativity kicks in.

But before your mind can get all wildly creative, you’ve got to work on your chops. Get writing, get playing, get nailing. Let inspiration catch you when you’re ready.

A little bit about me: I left the newspaper business in 1997 and didn’t write a serious word for nearly a decade. Spent that time trying to be a normal person who doesn’t know if he has a gift. It was the most miserable, most dysfunctional time of my life.

Finally parked my butt in the chair and did some writing. And it was horrible. It looked like it was put together by someone who hadn’t written in a decade. Like it was written by a Martian. But still a victory; I was writing.

In this blog we’ll discuss some aspects of the creative process. Maybe talk about a few things to facilitate the process, ways to dress when inspiration comes tapping at your door. Possibly even coping with that creative mind that goes off on every rabbit trail. I’ll probably have one long post a week and — hopefully — shorter ones, no more than three paragraphs, every day or so. That’s the idea, anyway.

Let’s talk about it. Are you nailing those two things together?

Is your butt in the chair?

Are you doing creativity, or just reading about it?

And if you’re not doing it, what’s stopping you?

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