Jul 312014
Sometimes I have to do my work on the side.

Sometimes I have to do my work on the side.


“I’ll never regret the time I spent driving a taxi. That was fun, profitable and educational. But I do regret frittering away a whole lot of perfectly good downtime.”

If you can’t make a living at something, do it for love. If you can’t do it full time, love the time you do spend with it.

I’m reading several articles on the value of having side projects, and the whole concept really resonates with me. Been a part of my life for as long as I can remember — as long as I also remember that I’m working on a side project.

It’s not just me. I already mentioned the barista at your favorite coffee shop. You may or may not know she’s a thriller novelist, and while she’s making your double-chocolate latte she’s shoving someone into a wood chipper. As soon as she’s done with your latte she’ll dash back into the break room and throw down a quick note: “Turn the wood chipper on before you insert the body.”

That’s what keeps her sane. As long as she delivers your latte the way you like it — sans chunks — no one’s the wiser. She’s doing her job. She’s pursuing the side project while she works.

Google’s onto this. If you work for them you’re allowed to spend 20 percent of your work time pursuing some creative side project that pleases you. The rationale is that you’re refreshed and the 80 percent you do give Google is a whole lot better than the 100 percent you give some company that owns your butt full time. You’re taking a break from work. That’s all.

Now, understand there are some restrictions here. Using that 20 percent to cure cancer or write that great jazz composition is a good use of that time, though Google may frown on you using that 20 percent to write code for a direct competitor. I mean, there are limits.

Admittedly, Google’s reaped the benefits of that 20 percent rule. Gmail is one of those projects that sprouted from someone’s 20 percent time.

But that’s Google. San Francisco State psychology professor Dr. Kevin Eschleman studied the idea of employees with side projects and how they help keep a worker at his best.

“The results indicate that organizations may benefit from encouraging employees to consider creative activities in their efforts to recover from work,” Eschleman reports. “Creative activities are likely to provide valuable experiences of mastery and control, but may also provide employees experiences of discovery that uniquely influence performance-related outcomes.”

An article by the Hiut Denim Co. outlines what makes a good side project: It must be:

  • Low risk: You can take your time with it, screw it up all you want and you’ll still survive. Your paycheck does not depend on the outcome of your project.
  • Low pressure: There’s no deadline. It gets done when it gets done.
  • A labor of love: Since you’re not getting paid for the work up front and you’re gambling on the future, something’s got to keep you going with it. How about because you love the work, you love the project?

My own career track has been especially bizarre. Delivery driver. Journalist. Casino employee. Taxi driver. Railroad employee. Freelance writer. Most recently, well, I guess caregiver is now the occupation. That’s all over the map. While I’ve never been dumb enough to tell any of my employers this, the occupation is the thing that makes my side projects possible.

But I found that the best side projects have little to do with the actual occupation. Which means writing that novel wasn’t the best use of my off time when I was out terrorizing politicians and land developers for the newspapers. Been pounding out words for 10 hours today, so why do I need to go home and do a whole lot more? But I could go out and play a few sets with the local jazz group, get some creative juices flowing and have a nice break.

I considered music my “hobby” back then, though I was getting paid for it and was declared a professional by fellow pros. What was funny about my choice of labels here was that this was in the 1980s, when baseball player Bo Jackson said he was going to play NFL football as a hobby:

I did a lot of writing while toiling with the railroad company. A dumb job, hot, sweaty, low pay, but I made good use of the occasional down time. Got a lot of writing done then.

For me, though, a key is remembering I have a side project and actually doing it. Those years I spent driving a taxi? I wasted a lot of that.

See, taxi driving has lots of down time. I’m hanging out in some parking lot waiting for my phone to ring or the dispatcher to holler or someone to walk up to the cab. Could have finished what? A dozen novels doing that?

Nahh. Not even one. Didn’t even think about that then. I’ll never regret the time I spent driving a taxi. That was fun, profitable and educational. But I do regret frittering away a whole lot of perfectly good downtime.

It wasn’t a total waste, though. I did further my music education and played a lot of music during those years.

It’s so easy to get caught up in the survival game or other drama that I lose sight of that side project that means so much to me.

While many say a professional writer or musician does that at the exclusion of everything else, I’ll have to disagree. It’s your attitude that makes you a pro, not the time factor. But I never wanted to play music exclusively, and writing exclusively isn’t so good for my head.

Guess I’d better post this thing; duty calls.

# # #


Jan 082013

(OK, got a little ahead of myself. This is really tomorrow’s posting, so let’s just call it today and be done with it.)

How deeply committed are you to your art? Let’s put it another way: How much adversity can you endure to pursue it?

There’s plenty of stuff around to knock you off track. Life happens. There’s the day job, a family to feed, promises to keep. Many aspects of life threaten to supersede your art.

OK. Some of these things are non-negotiable. But the cast-in-stone things are fewer than you might want to think, and if you’re serious about your art you will find time. If you’re not, you won’t.




Jan 082013

Here’s a question for you: Can you forget that dream without any consequences?

Trust me. I’ve tried. When I walked away from writing I hoped it would quit bugging me eventually. Every time I looked at a newspaper I missed the business, and it got worse instead of better.

Tear that dream, that calling away from the heavily committed, and you’re going to get lots of blood and pain. Guaranteed.


Dec 122012

Whatever your art is, it’s probably solitary. It’s just you and the canvas, you and the typewriter, and the rest of the world is an afterthought. Creative work is a lonely pursuit.

I’m not a big fan of writer’s groups — in my experience many are still in the “aspiring” stage — but I certainly recommend building a network of pros to bump you along.

One may encourage me. One may crack the whip over my back. One may email me just to remind me not to waste time reading my email. One may swap stories with me over coffee. All of these people keep me on task and away from the rabbit holes.


Nov 122012

“I was born to do this!”

That’s a revelation. I wrote about my own epiphany a couple of weeks ago, but there’s a whole lot more to it than that.

I came back from an Appalachian Trail hike with more than a fine coating of forest grime and clothes that smelled of campfires and the insides of a tent.

I came back with an idea.

Really, this idea had been fermenting in my mind for some time, but I came back with it fully formed.

All I had to do was sit down and write it. So I sat in my living room, with my still-unloaded backpack smelling up the joint, and I started writing.

I don’t buy the so-called logic that there is someone on this planet without a special talent and the passion to go with it. Can’t be. We’re all here for a specific purpose, and that purpose does not include sitting in the bleachers.

But that special talent and matching passions are not always so obvious. Sometimes you have to do some detective work and then dig for it. The older a person gets, this process becomes a bit tougher but it’s never impossible.

My new ebook, “Finding your passion/Where creativity and danger meet” is the result.

Here are a couple of nuggets:

  • You’ll find clues on finding your passion if you haven’t identified it yet. There will be some homework, but it’s worth it.
  • You’ll learn a few things about discovering your talent/passion and what it takes to hone it.
  • You’ll discover the thing that really shocked my behind — that trying to become something you’re not just doesn’t work. Better to build on the talents you do have than to waste time with what you’re not so good at.
  • You’ll discover that what you are is plenty good enough.
  • You’ll discover that, in the final analysis, it’s not about you anyway. As much as I want to fight that thought, it won’t make it go away.

This ebook contains all new material. I’ve touched on some of the stuff in this blog, but there’s no recycled copy.

I’ll be putting this up on Amazon within the week, probably at $3.99 or something like that. But I’ll make a deal with you.

The .pdf version is available right now, for free.

Not only do you get the book, but you’ll also get:

  • A subscription to creative&dangerous, delivered straight to your mailbox.
  • Further creative&dangerous, where we’ll get into applied stuff. This part is still under development.
  • Sneak previews to future ebooks, ’cause I’m gonna need some beta readers.
  • The right to call yourself creative&dangerous. Oh, if you are that already, you’ve earned the right. This just makes it semi-official. Or something.

A couple of hoops before you grab the freebie: You’ll be asked for name and email address, then given a link to get the book. You’ll need to make a couple of trips to your email box to a) confirm your subscription and b) click the download link in your (automatic) final confirmation email.

But trust me. It’ll be worth it.

To grab the ebook (and to subscribe to creative&dangerous), click on this link.


Sep 282012

The process is more than just the means of achieving a result.

I have this goofy tendency to think way ahead of things. I’m a big-picture guy, and sometimes it rubs people the wrong way.

When I took a job at a railroad yard some years ago, my role was a fairly small one in the scheme of things. I dealt with truckers coming in and going out of the yard. What they did while on the property, I had no clue. All I knew was that they came in with a shipping container, left without one, and there was a train parked thereabouts.

So I had a tour of the yard. I picked our load planner’s brain. I asked a gazillion questions of our crane operators. I bugged the crap out of my boss, and I’m sure my caffeinated personality didn’t help my cause. To this day he’s probably glad he’s rid of me. But with each question I understood better what I was supposed to do.

I think best with the big picture in mind. Hang the process, give me results instead.

My one-time shrink once suggested I look more to the process and enjoy that. Results will come, she said. The whole thing sounded so Eastern with a high ooo-eee-ooo factor, so it was quite natural that I thought she was full of it. I’m just not wired that way.

As a writer I always had my eye on the finished product and on the deadline. The steps I took were merely the means toward an end. I didn’t have time to enjoy what I was doing.

Now hear this: Getting my stuff down on paper is fun. Taking a totally random germ of an idea and building it into something workable is a real kick in the pants. Talking to folks to gather the info I need is enjoyable. Shuffling through my arsenal of words to find The One that conveys the exact meaning I want, that’s fun too.

Isn’t it always a blast when you come up with that nice turn of a phrase, one that expresses everything you need to say in just a few words? Even if that masterful wording gets up snipped out in the final edit (always done with weeping and gnashing of teeth), it’s still a great feeling.

I remember this guitarist I used to work with. Guy was a musical genius but had some serious social deficiencies. He told me in a rare lucid moment that he had Asperger’s Syndrome, which is a form of autism, and I totally believe that. He’d go a whole gig without saying a word. But watching him play was something else.

He’d stand there with his guitar clutched to his chest, wringing out flurries of notes and chords, all correct within the context of the song but challenging you at the same time. He’d make faces as his mind worked through the song, and his eyes would be fixed on a spot on the ceiling. If somebody came in with a high-powered weapon and began mowing down everybody in the place I’m sure the guitarist wouldn’t notice.

I’d come to realize, this guy was in love with the process. He’s making music because that’s what he does, like that’s the whole of his existence. Because of this love (and probably the Asperger’s) he was able to do his work with an otherworldly singleness of purpose.

When I first discovered I could write, and later when I realized I could play music, I loved the process. Any moment I could spare, I practiced.

But after a measure of success (in my world, “success” was partly from knowing people were actually willing to pay me for doing something I loved) I loved the results.

Only the process, i.e. my imagination, could conjure up a vision like this.

The process? Ahh, it was there. It was still important. However, it was a means to the result. Results are always wonderful, but like some nasty redheaded seductress in a little black dress, the results took my eye off the process, of just doing my work and enjoying it.

(Now, wasn’t it fun conjuring up that seductress? I tell you, if it wasn’t for the creative process she wouldn’t exist.)


Aug 152012

Back in the 1970s Robert Townsend, former head of the Avis car rental company, wrote a management book that still deserves to be in offices and boardrooms everywhere. One Townsendism that stays with me is the distinction between conviction and ego.

This spills into the creative world, too. When you’re writing or drawing or playing something, are you operating under the conviction that you’re doing what needs to be done, or just feeding the ol’ ego?

It’s sometimes hard to tell the difference in mid-creation, but it becomes quite apparent once the work is completed. One will have an impact and the other won’t.


Aug 112012

I know it’s all cyclical, but it’s been a while since I’ve seen a rejection slip in my mailbox. Either mailbox; the snail variety or the e-type. C’mon, folks, you’re slacking off. Let’s get with the program here.

(I feel better already.)

Woke up Friday to the sound of funds hitting Paypal, truly a wonderful sound. This was for some freelance work I’d done, so I’m always OK with that. Pro or not, battle-hardened veteran or not, it always gasses me to think folks actually pay for me to do something I love. Still.

Earlier this week I wrote about trying to decompress after a heavy writing session, and we had a slightly wacky discussion about it in the Informed Ideas for Writers group on Linkedin. Although I did this screen dump Friday afternoon just as it was getting good, here’s how it went:

Now I remember why I don’t recommend trying to go to bed immediately after a heavy writing session. Body = exhausted. Brain = won’t shut up. Thoughts?


Uncle MythMan Jay Hubbard • Just let it go. The brain never shuts up anyway, just that you’re ‘coming down’ from being conscious of more of it.

Maybe it’ll reach some phenomenal conclusion that you forget by the next time you sit down to write … boo-hoo, so it goes.

Think of it as an interesting TV-show you watch; maybe you forget what happens in one particular episode; makes it that much funner to watch again in re-runs.

Your brain plays re-runs all the time, sometimes more interesting than the premiere episodes!

Eric Pulsifer • My reruns are always better than the originals, but that’s because I edit them.
Or are they worse?

Angie Mangino • My routine to quiet the mind is to DVR the TV shows I like that will take me away from my own thoughts & watch one of them with a couple of cups of green tea before bed.

Laquita Havens • So true…your mind won’t shut off…so watch some fluff..no thinking needed. Works for me.

Eric Pulsifer • Angie, Laquita, thanks. I’m usually so intense, gearing down is a little messy. I usually read and have some music playing, which sounds good, but the music is usually heavy jazz and the reading is someone like Stephen King.
Maybe I should reload and try again?

My take-home from this? Set a time and do a gradual downshift from there. Take two hours at least. Flake out in front of the TV (which is not something I do) or some light reading. Tell The Muse to take a hike and catch me in the morning.

This is one tough business, isn’t it?


Jul 202012

You still have to go through a lot to see my first draft.

Maybe it’s part of being such a perfectionist, but no one ever sees my first drafts except me. Or my second drafts, for that matter.

It might have been my wife at the time who asked quite innocently when I was writing something, “Can I read it?”

Good question. Very legitimate, no ulterior motives. She’s just being a part of my life, right? And I took her request the right way though I probably gave her the wrong answer.

“Sure. But then I’ll have to kill you.” Or something. She wasn’t real pleased with my answer.

Translation: Better to wait. My first draft is going to really be terrible. It won’t be ready for human consumption until the second draft. Or maybe the third, or fourth, or …

But you get the idea. And I didn’t want the wife to know what a terrible hack of a writer I truly am.

Do you show yours before its time?

It turns out I’m not alone here. Someone sees you jot down a few ideas, draw a rough sketch, play a cluster of notes, he’ll probably ask what you’re doing.

“Oh, I’m just fooling around.”

Sound familiar already? And it’s not ready for public consumption yet, maybe not in a long time. You’re in fact embarrassed that you’re caught in mid-creation, when all the rough edges are still there and your baby is horrendously ugly. Your idea isn’t meant to be seen or heard yet.

Part of it is from being an insufferable perfectionist (at least it is with me), but part is just from the process of creating. Kind of like what they say about making sausage; you don’t really want people to know what goes into it.

Writing in ‘takes’

My journalistic training should have cured me of this perfectionism and of my own insecurities of the process. A newsman has time enough to get the story down, give it a fast read-through on the screen, do a little lightweight editing and call it done.

My old editor, the late Verne Peyser, was from the old school. And he taught me old-school journalism. With one of my first really tight deadline stories he asked for it on the fly. As soon as it left my fingers. In chunks.

“Give it to me in takes,” he said, puffing on another cigarette, probably his 60th of the day. As he said that, my innards tightened up.

In takes? I knew what he meant there, but the thought of writing as fast as I could think it, sending it immediately without me so much as glancing through what I wrote, paralyzed me. My goose was cooked. Verne would know how bad I really am, and he’d fire me on the spot. Worse, he’d kill me. I stood probably a head taller than Verne, was half his age, in much better shape, but I was scared of him. So was everybody else in the newsroom. But his approval meant the world to me.

“Yes, sir.” I pounded out the first two graffs, saved, uploaded into the system, and Verne read and grunted while I wrote the next two graffs. Funny thing, it didn’t need much editing, and it was a front-page story.

Door closed, door opened

I still have trouble showing off my first drafts. I’ve improved some, though.

Now, this holds true no matter what you’re creating — a musical composition, a business, or even building on an idea. But there’s still a time to work in privacy — Stephen King calls it writing with the door closed — and a time to kick that door open. King says he has the door closed when he writes his first (story-only, skeletal) first draft, but when that is completed he’ll have his wife read it.

Now the catch with some creators is that not everybody opens the door at the same stage. In fact, many don’t even bother opening that door at all. Ever. The work remains locked away, undergoing edit upon edit upon edit, never to let fresh air hit it. I still have novels I’d written (and almost completed) from the early 1990s. Not only did I never open the door for them, but maybe I’d swallowed my young to protect them.

Getting better at this, or more gutsy anyway. A couple of weeks ago I knocked out a page from a writing prompt, and immediately read it out loud to my writer’s group. Without editing, without fear.

Was it my imagination, but did the organizer of the group suddenly bear a resemblance to Verne Peyser? Nahh. Just imagination.


Jul 182012

A musician friend of mine has a decidedly schizophrenic way of working. When he’s on club gigs, he’ll play all the barroom standards that everyone wants to hear, and he’ll sneak a couple of his original songs somewhere in the mix. If you blink, you might miss them.

You can easily tell the diehard fans at his shows. They’re the ones buying his CDs, which have nothing but his originals.

It’s good to work at more than one level. Some in an audience may want to go shallow, and those are the ones that will get you the gigs. But your tribe — the diehards — will go deep with you and appreciate your best, most forward-looking work. They’re the ones who make all that time you spent mastering your art worth it.