Dec 122013
Elizabeth Gilbert discusses the Muse in a 2009 talk.

Elizabeth Gilbert discusses the Muse in a 2009 talk.

I’ve mentioned Elizabeth Gilbert in this space before. She’s the author of Eat Pray Love, and she gave a killer TED talk on having a genius instead of being one.

I ran across an interview with her in Copyblogger a couple of days ago. This came after she enjoyed success with another book, disabusing her personal fear that her best work was behind her at 40. I guess you can call this interview Elizabeth Gilbert 2.0.

Here, she gets more into her actual creative process and less on operating with (or without) the Muse. But since she so eloquently covered that topic in her talk, there shouldn’t be a problem with that.

By the way, if you missed her Ted talk, you’re probably in the wrong place. Go check out Buzzfeed or something. Just leave me alone.

She operates a little differently than I do. While I concentrate on doing something with my craft every day, she dedicates large blocks of time to her writing and will take time off (primarily for research) between projects. But like me, she says it’s a long slog from idea to finished product. It’s that three-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust approach rather than going for the big play.

I notice she’s not all gaga over tools; she uses a mini-laptop and Microsoft Word (I’d rather gargle razor blades) to get her work done. Other than that, she’s as goofy over index cards as I am.

But that’s majoring in the minors here. I did pick up some nuggets I can use and don’t mind sharing:

  • Writer’s block really does exist, but it’s symptomatic of something deeper. Like fear. Or perfectionism. Or narcissism. Or the urge to pour Jack Daniels over your Wheaties. Or a whole variety of physical and/or mental ailments.
  • She battles these blocked moments by going easy on herself. Definitely worth listening to, *ahem*Eric*ahem*.
  • She tries to cooperate with her project rather than fight it. Collaboration. Don’t know how successful she is with that, but based on her body of work it appears to be working.
  • Perfectionism is an enemy, and something that is fraught with rabbit holes (oh, how I’ve noticed). She figures her work doesn’t have to be 100% to ship her work; 90 percent is plenty good enough.
  • She clears the decks before starting. Tells her friends they might not see her for a while. Deep-cleans the house. Maybe moves into another house that’s already clean. But she gets that front end stuff done, and there’s something ritualistic about the whole thing.

Hey, check out the interview for yourself. And take a look at her writing area. Very cool; much cooler than my own. Could stand a little more natural light, though.

# # #

Update: Completed the second draft of B.I.C. Cartel on Wednesday, and started on the third draft Thursday. Coming along. Part I should be out on schedule, with a Dec. 31 release date. This also means I’ll hit my goal of four ebooks in 2013.


Sep 202013

I tell you, it just won’t work. Stupid idea.

You look at last night’s great idea in the morning light, and you discover something.

That great idea of yours is really bad.

More than that, try terrible.

Beyond terrible, it totally stinks out the joint.

Even if it wasn’t so bad, it’s totally unworkable.

It’ll never fly, Orville.

You’re crazy. Just totally off-the-road crazy for even thinking of such things.

Sound familiar?

If it doesn’t, it’s probably been a long time since you had a great idea. Maybe you never had one. Maybe you accidentally found this blog while looking for TMZ or something. Close your browser tab right now and forget you ever saw this. For your convenience I included a link.

For the rest of you, this whole terrible idea rings a bell. If Italian food always tastes better the second day, great ideas do not.

That’s normal. You just woke up this thing called Resistance, and it’s out there playing mind games on you. Per normal.

Seth Godin brought this idea to the forefront, like he so often does. Seth is one of those backward-thinking types who spots trends before they happen, maybe sees some of the future and flips all our preconceived notions up on their pointy little heads. I like Seth, and I consider his blog required reading.

If it’s a great idea, there’s a definitely WT* factor to it. There has to be.

You may not understand it.

Other people certainly won’t understand it.

Whole institutions may think you’re crazy. So crazy, in fact, that they may have an institution in mind just for you.

Even logic, or at least your understanding of it, might tell you you’re full of it. Again.

Good morning, Resistance. Nice to see you again. Or not.

This early resistance shows up in self-doubts and maybe a few shiny objects to get your mind off that great new thing. Its goal is to knock it out of your mind before you even begin.

Then this great idea never ever sees the light of day, or more likely someone else will pick up on it and grab all the glory. Someone who doesn’t care how bad this new idea smells.

This great idea can be anything. An idea for a novel. A new piece of music. A new kind of rocket fuel. A new kind of hammer. A new business idea.

It’ll stink. Really.

It won’t work.

That could mean the whole idea really does stink. But then again, it might be so amazing that those mind games kick in and you’ll tell yourself it stinks.

It’s only after you get started, after you got a little skin in the game, when you find out which answer is the correct one.

So sit down with that idea. Start something. Without telling anyone. Do it on your own time. You can always dump the whole thing later because it’s really really bad.

Or you can push on and finish that amazing thing.

(Note: In computerese, * is a wildcard character you use when you’re searching for something. I referred to the WT* factor earlier. Substitute any letter or combination thereof for the *. Use your own imagination; I’m not going to help you here.)

# # #

What say you? Do you stop when you realize how terrible the idea is, or do you push on regardless? Share in the comments.


Shameless Plug: Creativity and manic depression often travel in pairs. If you’ve noticed, check out my companion blog “Good Morning, Manic Depression (Are you going to behave yourself today?).”

Sep 062013
guy with bullhorn

Put that bullhorn down and do the work already!

A quick way to kill a project is to announce you’re going to do it. That’s when the whole thing of asking permission really kicks in.

I’m a little slow to learn this. I usually have about a gajillion plans, all ambitious and maybe some even have value. And I’ll announce them to friends and other people prematurely, like in the planning stages.

Wow, look at me. Look how busy I am! That’s the underlying message, and it’s every bit as dangerous as the thing we say in the Solid South: “Hey, y’all, watch this!”

With my last ebook, I included a sample chapter of another project that I’m working on.

Big mistake.

Immediately, the whole thing started to die. Can’t put my finger on it, but all the crap that usually comes up to derail me happened.

It wasn’t until recently that I started back with the project, jamming out 2,000 words per day on average. I’m back on track, after I stopped talking about it and maybe everyone forgot my premature announcements. And no, I’m not going to tell you the nature of the project. You’ll see it when I ship it.

See, it’s better to ask for forgiveness than permission, and announcing a project is a version of asking for that permission.

Really. I’m asking permission to actually do the work. In the early stages I’m asking folks to bug off while I work.

Another mistake.

As soon as I announce a project, that ol’ debbil Resistance starts bugging me again. Understand, Resistance comes from within and from without. Might as well take the latter out of the equation; there’s enough Resistance to knock me off the track. Why do I have to invite more of the same?

I’m recently discovering something:

When I don’t ask for permission, the work gets done.

Kind of a crazy thing when you think about it, but I find it’s true. Profound, maybe. Don’t completely know how or why that works, but it does. That’s good enough for me.


Great projects, greater mistakes

I like how the late Robert Townsend put it in Up The Organization (written in 1970). If you have a great plan to, say, eliminate air pollution in every state for almost zero cost, the way to kill the project dead is to announce it. Better to just do the job, state by state without telling anyone.

Yeah, you might have to worry about a) staying alive and b) staying out of jail. Those things could be important.

But you’re doing the work without any real resistance except for that which sits in your head. That’s plenty, thank you.

But the job gets done because you didn’t ask for permission. Maybe later, you might need to ask for forgiveness. Isn’t that better?


Working with accountability

OK, I can see the need to announce your plan, somewhat. That would be to one person who you trust with your life and is simpatico with your idea. Let that person keep you on task. But that’s all the announcement you’ll need.

Do the work. Quietly. Without fanfare. Worry about the ramifications later. Just doing the work gives you enough to worry about.

When doing something great, tell no one else. Just get it done. Then toot your own horn a bit, maybe send someone a bill for services rendered, and announce it at that time.

“Look at what I did” is a whole lot more productive than “here’s what I’m going to do; y’all with me?”

It’s better to ask for forgiveness than permission.

# # #

[What say you? Does any of this make sense? Have you had better success when you do something first and announce it later? Share your thoughts in the comments below.]

Note: Any links to books are through my affiliate Amazon account. I get a commission on all sales. Just thought I’d let you know.


Apr 062013
jumping from a perfectly good airplane

Looking for a safer, less stressful occupation has occurred to me.

I almost quit last week.

Seriously. Much as I love to write, I almost threw in the towel and started checking the want ads again.

Since I’ve spent maybe 12 of the last 15 years working for myself, I’m probably terminally unemployable. I’m not known for being a pliable employee who will shut up and just follow orders. I’m not a good fit in job situations like that, and there are not many sheep-herding gigs in Charleston.

But there I was again, wondering what I was doing wasting my life with this writing thing. Isn’t it time I grew up, became a responsible contributing member of society and all that malarkey?

I’ll admit, I’m subject to these mood swings. This week everything’s aces, next week it’s a black hole. That’s just part of the package I tote with me. Yeah, I know there’s medication for people like me, but that’s not the real issue here.

I’ve mentioned before that this creativity thing is a tough business. You’re more subject to what other people think than, say, someone who lives in a cubicle. As soon as you put your stuff out on the market, folks are going to judge it — and by implication, you.

Anyway, I had kind of a cold streak this past couple of weeks where my biggest client kept sending my work back for a rewrite. It’s all fixable, and I know in my heart that if I don’t get it right the first time I’ll nail it on the rewrite. That’s what my heart says, anyway. That’s also what my work habits and track record say.

But it’s my yakking brain that tells me different. It’ll even throw a little Aristotlean logic at me just to give it a sense of authority. The work stinks. I did the work. Ergo I stink.

I tell you, a guy can only take so much of this stuff. It’ll crack the shell of even a tougher-than-thou type such as myself.

Is there a cubicle I can hide in?

How ’bout those sheep?

(Note: That’s as far as I went on this post on Tuesday. I put this aside and picked it up Saturday. Note the timing here. While I usually don’t explain how I do stuff, it’s really part of the story. Pay attention.)

Strap on the helmet and ram something

That was last week. This week, unpredictably (or not), I’m back on a roll.

On Thursday, I stood up at my terminal and blasted out a whole bunch of copy. I didn’t count it, but my own best estimate based off previous and current word counts puts it at nearly 8,000 words. Totally amazed. That’s at one stretch, pulling myself away from the terminal every so often to untangle a fuzzy thought or test out some phrasing. But 8,000. That’s twice my previous record.

OK, so what happened here?

I could take the easy way out and say it’s the medication kicking in, or some really good espresso, or something like that. But it’s a crock. It’s just strapping on my helmet, ramming that brick wall and moving forward again.

The creative life is full of roadblocks. All look big from where I stand. All look like they’re built like brick outhouses, all with solid materials, good mortar, strands of razor wire on top. Many are tough enough for me to say, why don’t I just chuck it all and find something easier? Something like skydiving or defusing bombs for a living?

I like the way Steven Pressfield describes these roadblocks. He calls them “resistance,” and many of them come from outside. That would be the day job that gets in the way, the needy spouse who thinks you’ve spent enough time doing your thing.

But most of that resistance is from within. It’s those feelings of inadequacy. When you know you’re not good enough. When all your stuff comes back to you covered in red ink, and you take it all to heart. When you’d rather drink, do drugs, drive real fast, get into another weird relationship or watch soap operas all day instead of doing your work.

This resistance thing is pretty predictable, though. It always gets heavier when you near the finish line. It gets heavier when you’re about to hit a new level. When you think you’ve plateaued and resting on your laurels — or again, giving up the whole thing — feels like an option, there’s that next level right in front of you. Dare you go there?

But is it sustainable?

After that marathon, scary-productive writing session I began to feel it. My neck felt wrenched, and my back and shoulder felt like they were installed backwards. Despite the obvious physical discomfort, the mental surge continues. Today, I’m jamming along a mile a minute with this essay. Just an hour ago, with my writing group, we all wrote short essays off a pair of writing prompts. The group leader gave us all a couple of photos and told us to write something from that. Both of mine, even I thought they were pretty good.

Will this productive period last?

My history says no. Sheer logic says no; nothing like this is sustainable. My neck and shoulder and back all say it better not or they’ll haunt me.

So, the question: Is this sustainable?

The short, snappy (and true) answer is this: Who knows? Who cares?

While I’m there, I might as well enjoy it.

# # #

Mar 012013
Yes, I write with a hard hat.

Writing, in fact all creating, is hard work. Bring your lunch pail and steel-toed boots. Bring your hard hat, too. (Photo by Eric Pulsifer)

OK, I’ll admit it. I keep a messy desk. Always have. It’s a three-tiered desk with a top shelf, an elevated platform for my computer, and a lower portion. The downstairs section, well, let’s not go there. It’s crowded.

The top section is much neater. I keep mostly functional items there, but some sentimental. My reference library (dictionary, thesaurus, Writers Market, Stephen King’s On Writing, a book of jazz charts). Computer speakers. A pair of Bose speakers for my stereo. A bottle of ink (because I don’t make mistakes). Some erasers (a gift from a friend, and I keep them as a reminder that I still make mistakes). Blank CDs. A hard hat.


Whoa. Let’s stop right there. A hard hat?

Shoot, I write for a living. It’s not a dangerous occupation. Not very, anyway. There’s always the risk of carpal tunnel (which I have) and an oversized bottom from desk work (not an issue with me). I haven’t needed a hard hat as a writer since my newspapering days, when I wrote the occasional article that ticked off a land developer or politician. And folks like that wouldn’t bop me over the head over something I wrote; they’d hire someone else to do it. But I digress.

The last job where I needed a hard hat was when I was ground man for a tree surgeon last summer. It wasn’t required, but I sure felt better wearing it when my coworker started cutting branches down. Most of these branches were much bigger than me and could do some damage.

It’s tough, dangerous work

The hard hat is there to remind me. Writing is work. Creating is work. Making music is work. Painting is work. Designing a new rocket or a new kitchen gadget is work. Solving problems is work.

To get anywhere I need to put in my hours. Show up. Don’t leave until I put in my time. Stay at the terminal and write. Grind it out. No leaving early, even though the only boss I’m cheating is myself.

My progress may be nothing spectacular. I will have my moments where words fly from my fingers, I get them down as fast as I think them, and every one sings. When I can get 1,500 words down without taking a break to sit down. Those times happen, and that’s when it gets fun. Inspiration is right there with me.

Much of the time, though, that’s not how it goes. I park myself at the terminal with several cups of coffee coursing through my system, and it takes a few minutes to get started. Some days I struggle to get the words out. At best the ideas are partially formed, and whipping them into writing shape takes work. I may have a pile of notes (accounting for the mess downstairs on the desk), but none of it is ready for human consumption.

It’s so easy to wake up and tell myself I’m not at my best today, the Muse is out bothering someone else, and every word is going to be a struggle.

It’s such a nice day out, why don’t I go on a long hike and forget work for a day?

Maybe call some friends, go out for lunch, or just sit down and read that novel I’d been putting off.

You know the deal. No one’s there to hold me to my work. What’s the harm of taking off? I’ll get to the writing when I get to it. When I get inspired.

Doesn’t work that way. This is a job. Dirty sweaty work, hard on the hands and hard on the brain. Just like dragging tree limbs out of the way, just like working at some steel mill or cubicle farm. The only thing missing is a constantly-hectoring straw boss.

Does inspiration really matter?

Thankfully, my years in newspaper work helped instill this hard-hat mindset. Inspiration comes and goes, but the deadline is always there.

A newsroom isn’t always the most conducive environment to writing, either. Phones ringing, me having to raise a source for another quote, the other reporters making phone calls and tapping away at their computers, bad coffee and lots of cigarettes going, the ad sales crew filtering in and out of the newsroom making suggestions, the editor racking his shotgun. Either he’s defending our turf from ad folks or enforcing my deadline, pick one.

Forget inspiration at this point. I’m thinking of survival. I’m thinking about the story.

I don’t know what it’s like now. I haven’t set foot in a newsroom in 15 years. The smoke has been eliminated, but I’ll bet the coffee is still bad and the ad crew still has a terrible sense of direction. Give them a GPS, OK? But I’ll wager newsrooms are still not the perfect writing environment, and not the kind of place the Muse hangs out in unless the troops are working hard.

As I write this now, I’m going pretty good. On a roll, actually. Don’t know if I’m nicely warmed up and in a groove or if the Muse made an appearance.

Doesn’t matter.

Really, it doesn’t.

Often the adrenaline (and a strong espresso blend) is enough to pour the words out.

I’ll repeat that one point: Whether the Muse shows up doesn’t make a whole lot of difference. I just need to show up. Ready to work, with the hard hat and all.

# # #

Feb 282013

When working on a goal and I feel stuck, it’s so tempting to just dump the whole thing and go herd sheep instead.

That’s pretty much what I did back in ’97. Rather than sticking my nose in there and building on my craft, I took the easy way out. I drove a taxi instead. Not exactly herding sheep, but close.

I hope I’ve learned the value of endurance since then. I still get tired and discouraged. I still want to go sleep the whole thing off. I still think about sheep (watch it). But getting down dirty with the writing, rewriting and pitching carries its own rewards. Just seeing a finished project is enough; it means I’ve stood off the resistance this time.


Feb 192013

I’ve completed the final draft. I go over my work again to dummy-check it (that’s checking for the obvious errors that would make me look like one) when I discover something.

My work stinks. Seriously reeks. To high heaven. It’s so bad I need an extensive rewrite. I just need to burn all printed copies and notes, run a truck over the thumb drive which houses my files, and deny ever having the idea. It’s that bad.

Again, that’s normal in the creative process. What’s that I said yesterday about things getting really difficult when I’m close to the finish line? That’s when resistance is the heaviest. but at this late stage the biggest source of resistance isn’t other people, circumstances, or bum luck. It’s me.


Feb 182013

(Backgrounder: Last week I ran with the theme of how an idea progrsses throuh several steps. the whole thing runs like a rollercoaster, complete with ridiculous climbs and stomach-emptying drops. Seth Godin, one of the great thought leaders today, calls it “the rollercoaster of shipping.” This week we’ll continue this journey, and hopefully it ends well. Like, shipping the product will be wonderful. I swear I’ll let you off this goofy ride soon, as long as you promise me you’ll find your own rollercoaster.)

I was hopelessly stuck and wondering why I contunue to pursue this stupid idea. That was then. Now all that stuff has shaken loose and I’m fine. Bashed through a major barrier.

Now I’m rolling. Sometimes in terrifying, hold-onto-your-butt bursts of creativity, sometimes slow and steady like the tortoise. The arrow is pointing the right direction anyway, and that’s all I need.

Meanwhile I continue. I know the going will get rougher as I near the finish line — that comes with the territory — but I have the momentum working for me. Can’t quit now.


Feb 072013

Isn’t it strange how one quits a perfectly good (doable and worthy) project when he can smell the goal line?

I do that a lot. When I’m close to finishing, all this wild stuff happens. Fear (of failure or of success, pick one) kicks in. I get tired. The distractions get more distracting. I get more phone calls from friends. My cat gets psycho. I start thinking about food or anything else. It’s so weird.

I’ve heard it recommended that it’s good to step back, look at the project, and see why I’m doing it. Connect with the why. I find that when I cast my eye on the prize like this, my chances of finishing strong get a whole lot better. That’s when I can bash those barriers instead of complaining about that truck that just hit me.