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.


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.

Jun 082012

If a guy goes about his work with care, thought and professionalism, he just may be an artist. (Photo taken by D.M. Vernon, available through Wikipedia)

Creative people sometimes get a bum rap.

We’re different. We don’t play well with others. We get crazy when shoved into cubicles or parked at an assembly line.

It doesn’t help a lot that many creatives perpetuate that bum rap. We may be more self-absorbed than the average person. We lead more dramatic lives. We may fall into substance abuse, lousy relationships or random dysfunction more than others. Which may or may not be so — brain chemistry may have a little something to do about all that — but using this “creative” angle as an excuse for bad behavior just doesn’t cut it.

Steven Pressfield, who wrote the excellent book “The War Of Art” offers the idea that we’re all creative in some manner. And maybe he’s right, but he does extend the “creative” description to include those with a business idea, wants to run a marathon, or even the person who wishes to improve himself somehow. It’s not just crazy artists.

Now that I think about it, Pressfield is probably right. I have a friend named Terry, who has a side business in tree care. He only has time to handle one client per week (full time jobs will do that), and I’ve been assisting him lately. He’s got great equipment and is an insanely hard worker, but it amazes me to watch how he approaches a tree. He attacks it like he’s playing chess. He knows how to fell a 40-foot pine in someone’s front yard without damaging house, utility wires or passers-by. He’ll assess his work as he goes, decide how he’s going to tie off the branches so he could lower them with ropes, and he knows when to bring out his bucket truck or just strap on his cleats and climb that sucker. He thinks that tree down.

I’m an intelligent and creative guy myself, not afraid of a little hard work, but I find it tough to keep up with him. Myself being so (pun alert!) green at this tree-care business, I find it humbling to work with him.

Terry’s a real salt-of-the-earth guy, and he’d probably be embarrased to tears if I called him an artist. But he is; no question about it.

Pressfield believes many of society’s ills can be chased down to a mass of people knuckling under to the “resistance” that stands in the way of living one’s vision.

“How many of us become drunks and drug addicts, developed tumors and neuroses, succombed to painkillers, gossip, and compulsive cell phone use, simply because we don’t do that thing that our hearts, our inner genius, is calling us to do?” Pressfield asks.

All of us know some incredibly talented person who put his or her genius in cold storage because it was time to be “responsible,” right?
I’m thinking about Bob, a tenor sax player I knew several years ago. He played as a kid but put his instrument away when he allegedly grew up and married his first wife. That marriage didn’t last, but his second wife was probably the best thing to ever happen to him. She encouraged him to blow the dust balls out of his sax and go hit some jam sessions. When I met Bob he’d only been playing again for few weeks and was quite rusty. Didn’t take long for Bob to catch up with the rest of us musically, and he discovered what it was like to be alive again.

I don’t know if creative folks just see their vision a little clearer or we’re just more interested in making these visions become real.

A little background here: I’m a writer and musician. But at some point I thought I should try being responsible, and there’s certainly nothing wrong with that. But I spent several years not writing, not making music. And I was miserable. My brain chemistry, always a dicey subject, always seems to go haywire when I’m not doing these artistic things or if I’m using them for the wrong reasons. I’m professional at both these pursuits.
A professional, by the way, does his thing for money and for love. If he’s just doing it for money or for recognition or for praise, he’s no professional. He’s a mercenary.

A real professional does these things because he has to. Because this is what he does. Even if he’s just a weekend warrior and has a fulltime cubicle job, he’s a professional if he still drags out his saxophone or word processor or canvases at a set time every day and goes to work.
And that’s when the cool things happen. Like creative things.