May 222015

Nut graf: I already know I’m not as good as the masters, but does it really matter?

I can't compare myself with somebody else until I've been through his trash.

I can’t compare myself with somebody else until I’ve been through his trash.

Of course I fall into the trap of comparing myself to others. It’s an occupational disease that any creator in good standing can tell you about.

There’s always going to be someone who can kick my tail. I get that. I’ll never be as good as John Steinbeck or Miles Davis. It’s just not in the cards even with those extra aces I keep in my shirt pocket.

But someone called this to my attention. Self-comparison isn’t a fair fight anyway. I can compare myself to the other writer or musician across town, but I haven’t surfed his dumpster lately.

Any creator who enjoys even a bit of success is going to generate a lot of hot garbage. Might even have a commercial account with the local waste haulers for all I know.

Let’s say you went back in time and you’re in Havana or Key West or wherever Ernest Hemingway was working. You see his trash can and, looking both ways — ratting through someone’s garbage late at night looks pretty suspicious — and you go through it.

What would you find?

Besides the whiskey bottles and cigarette butts you’ll find pages and pages of handwritten or typed work. This is a real find, right? You read through them and realize you could do better than that. Maybe the whiskey bottles are a clue here.

What you see on the open market is the best of Hemingway’s best. Many drafts. Much fine tuning. Polished beyond polished. Even his worst published work is awe-inspiring. But the stuff in his dumpster? Not so much.

Kind of changes the equation, huh?

That’s the fallacy of self-comparison. I only see my rival’s or virtual mentor’s best work.

With mine, I see all of it. The good, the bad, the butt-ugly.

For my own reasons I like to work the old-school way. On paper for the first drafts. I keep them in a 12″x12″ box, and not quite halfway through 2015 I filled it halfway up. That’s a lot o’trash.

My current work took up more than a ream of paper, and it’s all going to get thrown out anyway. Or saved in that box as a visual reminder of how much written BS I can truly generate.

All of it is fixable. Each time I rewrite the quality improves by a couple of degrees. As far as the first drafts go, though, they’re totally experimental and I don’t have to admit to doing them.

The truth is that I know I’m not in the same league as these guys.

What’s equally true is that it doesn’t matter. What matters is doing the things that fall within my own strengths, and knowing the great ones are every bit as capable of turning out terrible stuff as I am.

Jan 302015
If that great idea gets in the way of the story, it might need killing.

If that great idea gets in the way of the story, it might need killing.

We’ve been on the subject of killing things lately, which suggests I might need to have my medication changed. But have you ever had a project going and you absolutely loved it and discovered it just won’t work?

Or how about that nifty turn of phrase or a great scene that doesn’t move the story along? That amazing instrumental solo that does more to derail the song than make it work? That incredible innovation that you’re in love with but actually scatters energy from your business?

I’m guilty of that. I tend to get a little picturesque in my language when I talk or write. Perhaps a particularly graphic one-liner, like “I’d rather gargle razor blades than do ________,”

Okay. That’s great. Expresses the mood very well. But somehow the listener/reader homes in on that description and loses focus on the message or story. Breaks the chain of thought. It’s effective but it’s not.

Creating can be bloody work, especially when editing.

Creating can be bloody work, especially when editing.

Stephen King urges the writer to “murder your darlings.” Yeah. Rip it out of the typewriter and deny ever seeing it. For the good of his story.

By inference this concept holds true for any artist or innovator.

Let’s say you’re developing a whiz-bang computer program. Maybe a writing app, just for the sake of the discussion. You might include a couple million lines of code that will make that program brew your coffee and go online to find some writing music for the user. You as the designer might be in love with these extra bells and whistles, but how about the user? He just wants to write, and he can brew his own coffee and find his own music. Meanwhile, the program itself is so bloated from all this extra code that it hangs up the computer.

Okay. Stupid illustration, but you get the idea. Better to eliminate that extra code.

I hate having to get rid of that pet phrase, that instrumental solo. But if it gets in the way of moving the work along, it’s time to murder my darlings. Again.

Jan 092015
If necessity is the mother, "what if" is the daddy.

If necessity is the mother, “what if” is the daddy.

What if you built a golf course in the desert?

What if you made a computer so simple your grandfather could run it? Then, what if you made that computer into a work of art rather than just a plain white box?

What if you made a car that even working folks could afford?

What if a military-grade superflu wiped out 99 percent of the world’s population and the survivors had to recreate society? What if they had to choose between good and evil while doing so?

What if a company tries a contest to attract customers and everything goes wrong? What if it decides killing the winners is the answer? (Whoops, that one was mine.)

What if you took a pop tune and gave it a jazz treatment?

What if you were able to replicate a dinosaur’s DNA and turn that idea into an amusement park? (Don’t try this at home, kids.)

What if you could create a hamburger that can be made quickly, in enough volume to serve billions and tasting the same every time?

“What if” is one of the roots of all creative processes. Architect David Rockwell thinks so. He says he’s into hybrids — nailing together two things that were never nailed together before, as George Carlin once said.

Mel Brooks told the Los Angeles Times about the birth of one of his movies, and how it came from actor Gene Wilder’s what-if:

“I was in the middle of shooting the last few weeks of Blazing Saddles somewhere in the Antelope Valley, and Gene Wilder and I were having a cup of coffee and he said, I have this idea that there could be another Frankenstein. I said not another — we’ve had the son of, the cousin of, the brother-in-law, we don’t need another Frankenstein. His idea was very simple: What if the grandson of Dr. Frankenstein wanted nothing to do with the family whatsoever. He was ashamed of those wackos. I said, “That’s funny.”

The result, Young Frankenstein, gave us one of the great comedy scenes of all time:

That same question, in some iteration or other, gave us things like Palm Springs, the MacIntosh and iEverything, the Model T, Stephen King’s The Stand, John Coltrane’s greatest works, Jurassic Park and McDonalds. Yeah, some of these innovations worked out a little better than others, but you get the idea.



Jan 142014

You probably heard the one about the guy who never finishes anything.

For the purposes of this story let’s call him Little Johnny. That’s generic enough for now.

But this guy Little Johnny always had a gajillion projects kicking around. They weren’t even specialized; they ran across several disciplines. He wanted to record an album, help Franz Schubert come up with an ending to his Unfinished Symphony, climb Mt. Kilamanjaro, write a novel and be home in time for cornflakes.

I’m reading The DaVinci Dilemma, which tells all about Little Johnny. A true Renaissance man, great at many different things and able to finish exactly none of them. These DaVincis act, paint, play music, write, invent things, start many businesses and snap off a mean backdoor slider. Kind of like the original DaVinci.

The folks who wrote that book act, write, sing professionally in a choir, do street performances, engage in some stand-up comedy, coach people and produce art in various media. And that’s two people, not five or six.

These DaVinci types have a terrible time getting things done.  All these shiny objects floating around, it gets durned near impossible. Many are given Adderall or Ritalin or some such thing. I can sure appreciate that; my mind is a veritable playground.

A good friend of mine works as a counselor. He spent a career in the Navy, and he has all these interests. He plays a pretty good rhythm guitar. He’s run marathons. He’s ridden a motorcycle down the Tail Of The Dragon, which has something like 300 curves. He told me he has at least one book in him, and he was playing with that off and on. He’s planning to join me on a hike in western North Carolina in a few months. A busy guy, and admittedly quite ADHD.

Guy like that, it’s amazing he ever gets anything done. Somehow he does; he recently finished his Ph.D. The guy totally makes me sick.

A hole in my bucket list

I’m rather infamous for starting things and never finishing them. I’m like Little Johnny here; tons of ideas and maybe a few completed projects if you look hard enough. Here are a few ambitions I’ve played with:

• Record a solo album, all instrumental.
• Get a bus, gut it and make the coolest bus conversion of them all. To this day, every time I ride a bus I measure it off I my mind and decide where to put the bathroom.
• Drive that totally cool bus conversion on a “four-corners” trip of the USA, writing about everything I see.
• Of course, through-hike the Appalachian Trail. Well, yeah, that’s a no-brainer. Write about it, particularly relating the stories of people I meet. Kind of like something Studs Terkel would write.
• Write a novel, blow out the bestseller lists and have lunch with Stephen King. Just as long as they’re not serving finger sandwiches.
• And so on and so on, ad nauseum.

So I have all these notes and mechanical drawings and half-completed music charts on a hard drive, but that’s about all.

It got to where my parents would roll their eyes every time I mentioned yet another project. Have you ever heard eyes roll on the phone? Trust me, you can, especially when it’s your parents.

It got to where even my ex-wife took to social media to push me into finishing something — just once. She’s in another part of the country, got married again 15 years ago, and we have not laid eyes on one another since I moved to South Carolina. And she reminds me; what’s up with that?

Triggering finish mode

While on a training hike with a friend, I related my predicament. He’s also talented, a trail-grabbing fool like me, and he’s been there a time or three. He was one of the two I went with on an Appalachian Trail section hike a year ago. And I had a revelation.

It wasn’t until I got back from that AT hike that I actually started finishing stuff. That’s when I found out that completing a project is actually a rush. It’s addictive.

The AT hike didn’t go as well as planned; one of our party had health issues that couldn’t be ignored so we shut it down a day early. But something happened anyway; something very cool.

Soon as we got back I sat down and wrote. A short ebook, no more than 20,000 words, but I completed it within a couple of weeks. Shipped it, too. Knocked out something from my bucket list was all.

As I write this I have Part II of a novel on hard drive, a few days away from a completed final draft. It was something that had been kicking around in my mind for 30 years; well it’s about time.

Also in queue is another fiction work, now in the time lag between first and secnd drafts. I hope to start releasing it in parts around the middle of the year.

Okay, what’s the secret sauce here? How is a chronic non-finisher able to finish things all of a sudden?

Lots of possibilities. Improved mental attitude. Good support system. The Lamictal’s working. A sense of urgency that starts showing up when you hit your mid-50s. All of the above. None of the above.

Only thing I can guess is that time on the Appalachian Trail. Yeah, part of it was an abortion on wheels, but in many ways it was still a victory. I got there and did something I’ve never done before.

I think it was Thomas Merton who said we need a taste of victory to gain possession of ourselves, to keep our hopes alive. A person has to know what victory is and decide it beats the pants off defeat.

Or something.

But that’s how it works. Victory tends to beget victory. Didn’t you know?

# # #

What say you? What victories can you claim right now? Can you ride them to the next victory? Please share.

Jul 232013
trail magic leconte

All sorts of amazing things happen when you’re out walking. Like “trail magic” and thin mints. Photo taken ascending Mt. LeConte in the Smokies.

So my brain is fried, my words pass gas instead of sing, and the thought of getting a lousy 100 words down feels like do-it-yourself surgery sans anesthesia. What to do, what to do?

I won’t call it writer’s block because in my mind there’s no such animal. Let’s be honest, though. I was writing. I’m blocked. What else do you call it?

Time to do something else. Get some blood flowing because my butt or feet have lost their circulation.

That’s when I jump on the bike and pound out a few miles. The more blocked I am, the harder I’ll pedal.

Even if it’s a cold day or there’s a light rain, I’m out there getting a good sweat rolling. If it’s raining hard, it’s going to be a messed-up day.

If not biking, I’ll just take a walk.


Anecdotal evidence: How moving around works

I recently read an account of Mark Twain visiting his friend Nikola Tesla’s lab one night. Twain got on this vibrating platform, and before throwing the switch Tesla warned him the vibration was only good in small doses.

But Twain was having the time of his life, really enjoying the ride, saying he never felt better and wild horses couldn’t drag him off.

Until he started looking really uncomfortable, signaled Tesla to stop that thing.

Then dashed off to the bathroom.

Sounds crude, but getting up and moving around does shake everything loose like that.

In his classic list of activities to keep you young, baseball player and ageless wonder Satchel Paige once explained this idea:

“Keep the juices flowing by jangling around gently as you move,” he advised.

Of course, in that same list he said, “avoid running at all times.” I’m totally with him there. Biking is great. Walking is great. But running? Forget it. Too violent on the ankles, knees and back. If God meant for us to run, we’d have been born with a pair of Nikes.

But that walking or biking, with or without the jangling, does knock the crud out of my brain. Seriously.


Advantages of taking that walk

All kinds of cool things happen when you take a walk or ride:

  • You get to disconect from your project for at least a few minutes.
  • You give your eyeballs a chance to adjust after staring at a computer screen, legal pad, sketchbook or music charts for several hours.
  • You’ll get back to work refreshed.
  • If the walk is long enough — for me about seven miles — the endorphins kick in and I feel just plain wonderful. Some people spend good money for that feeling, but you can get it for free.
  • Think of all that vitamin D you’re sucking up.
  • It’ll help get rid of that seceratory’s spread if that’s an issue with you.
  • While disconnecting and walking (or riding), great ideas come to you. When you’re not thinking about your task, the creatures in your attic are busy cranking off those ideas and feeding them to you. That’s why I always carry some index cards while I’m out on my ride. If I have to pull over and jot something down, it’s been a good ride.
  • You’ll get unstuck. Stephen King said he found the key to continuing The Stand while out on a walk. Of course, he discovered a disadvantage to walking when some guy in a van mowed him down. Took him a long time to heal from all the broken bones. So there’s that.
  • If you walk with a friend or you meet cool people on the road, you’ll get to engage in some real conversation. That’s always great fodder for your next great idea, and it beats the isolation that often comes when you’re creating something.
  • People-watching is great fun too, and it sure beats daytime TV for afternoon entertainment.
  • It’s great for burning off stress.

Listen, that last part is important. I finally figured I don’t do stress well. I can easily handle it when it’s just a couple of days’ worth, but when I hold onto it for too long my brain goes haywire. Neurons fire at random. The inside of my head starts looking like some lunatic’s electrical experiment. I turn the whole doing-stupid-stuff routine into an art form.

Telsa's experiments

This is my brain on stress …

The best advice I’ve received over the past year is to burn off that stress, that excess energy every day. I’ll do this after my writing is done for the day, and sometimes in midstream if everything gets too heavy for me. Even a walk to the corner grocery store helps.

(For the record, the second best piece of advice I’ve received over the past 12 months was to never fry bacon in the nude. But I digress.)

So get out there.

Strap on that backpack.

Clip that water bottle to your belt.

Get out there.

Get rid of the gunk.

Sniff the air outside (this is better when this air is something you can’t see, but do the best you can).

Notice what’s around you.

Get some sun on you.

Flood your body with those feelgood endorphins.

Then get back to work.

# # #

You tell me: How do you get rid of the brain fuzz and/or junk in the trunk every day? Share with a comment.

Jun 282013
pot with potatoes

Sometimes you have to slow-cook your idea.

Funny thing about this creative business. Some ideas are best executed quickly; hit ’em and ship ’em while they’re hot. Others require a lot more time.

Besides telling which project is which, the trick is to let an idea sit for a while without any interference. It’s that watched-pot analogy at work.

Journalists will tell you all about deadlines. I sure can, from all my years of hanging around newsrooms. Most newspaper types navigate a network of these deadlines. We know when an issue is supposed to hit the press and work backward from there. Page designers have a deadline. Editors have several. Photographers have some, and reporters have a few. We always know when we’re getting close to deadline when we hear the managing editor behind us, racking his shotgun. Everything’s time sensitive, no extensions, no grace periods, no manana.

Even in my online freelance work, deadlines are a fact of life. True, some of the steps — page makeup and printing — are gone but a deadline is still a deadline.

Best work I ever did as a jornalist was a series of stories that, I think, got me some award or other. But I went away thinking, if I had just one more day to develop this and one more page to fill, this is really gonna be good.

As important as those deadlines are, they sure get in the way.


Crock pots and microwaves

But some projects don’t lend themselves well to deadlines. They just need time to develop. Rather than throwing them in the microwave you’re dumping them into the crock pot.

I’m thinking about longer, more ambitious works here. Great works of fiction. Outstanding musical compositions. That fantastic sculpture. You start with an idea and … then what?

That’s when it gets good.

If the idea’s not time sensitive, you can dump it in the crock pot. Or better, write it down somewhere. Put it on your long-range to-do list.

Then forget about it.

That’s when the cool stuff happens. The idea starts to grow.

You’re always working on it. Sure you are, only no one knows. Maybe not even yourself. It sits in your subconscious, where all the creatures in the attic have their way with it.

The old-school way is to give this project its very own file folder and add any supporting items or anything pertinent and interesting. Let the whole thing sit, give those creatures something to play with, and pull it out after a good slow roast. Somewhere along the line some sort of structure and a gazillion ideas have sprouted.

(Of course, since we’re trying to keep a paperless office and quit killing so many trees, you can probably figure out a digital version of this. Electrons and disk space can be killed with impunity.)

But this aging thing is why so many writers like to have a time lag between first and second drafts. You hammer out that first draft at a dizzying pace and let it sit for a month or two. Stephen King says he gives it a minimum of six weeks, during which time he works on something else — like a short story. I tend to go with the Biblical time standard of 40 days and 40 nights. That’s close to six weeks.

But that’s when I’ll take the manuscript out of hiding, blow the dust and cobwebs off and attack it with my red editing pen. Or whatever the digital equivalent is these days.

I remember reading something in a high school English class. Some prolific writer of the day — I can’t remember who — said she lets those loose ideas and concepts “roost in my head.” After a sufficient roosting time she’s writing like mad. Off her explanation I’ll assume that’s her first draft; subsequent work takes a lot more time and care than that.

But with that roosting/slow roasting time, I find it’s best to just plain forget about the whole thing.

Just keep it off my mind.

Those attic creatures do their best work when I’m not hanging around trying to supervise.


Would you read “A Bunch Of People In Boulder?”

When King worked on The Stand, he had some 500 single-spaced manuscript pages and realized he’d written himself into a corner. His Superflu survivors were in Boulder, Colorado trying to rebuild a decimated society, then … what? He had no clue.

But this problem — call it a form of writer’s block as if such a thing really exists — threatened to derail his project.

If it wasn’t for that 500-page investment he probably would have quit.

He tried everything to save it, and nothing seemed to work.

He’d take long walks, trying to untangle the mess he’d created.

The Appalachian Trail

Sometimes that idea comes unexpectedly, and you can’t do anything with it right away.

It wasn’t until another long walk “when I was thinking of nothing much at all” that a solution started to take shape — what’s wrong with blowing up half the major characters and sending the rest on a no-chance quest into the enemy’s lair to take their stand?

Not only did this get the story moving and give him a way to end the novel, but it became the theme and the title. Got to admit, “The Stand” sounds a whole lot better than “A Bunch Of People In Boulder.” Which book would you buy?

King says this piece of an idea came so quickly and so unexpectedly he ran home so he could write it all down. He was that afraid of forgetting it.


Memos from the creatures in the attic

It’s stupid how that works. I’m one of those guys who always carries a pen and index cards with me, and those great project-moving ideas always seem to come at me when I can’t get to those tools.

Like when I’m on the bicycle dodging trucks and crazy people.

When I’m hiking up some mountain where I need both hands and maybe a flashlight.

When I’m in the shower or swinging that weed whacker around in my front yard or (ewwww!) cleaning out my refrigerator.

When I’m talking to someone and it would be impolite to stop everything while I jot that idea down.

When I’m not thinking about it.

That’s when those creatures are manically working. Their timing may be inconvenient, but I’ll take their memos anyway.

# # #

Talk to me: Do those great project-moving ideas come to you when you’re not thinking about them? What do you do when that happens? Share in the comments.


May 272013
broken computer

Losing access to those tech toys can be traumatic …

I once gave up the Internet, and it was the longest 20 minutes of my life.

That’s the new spin on an old joke, and it really rings true for me.

It’s not so much the Internet, though. I don’t spend time gazing at cat pictures or whatever viral video is out this week. I go online with a mission in mind, and even then someone sure stole my watch. I mean time dissolves into a puddling mass. Kind of like dumping water on the Wicked Witch of the West.

I don’t even bother much with social media. OK, I’ll tweet a lot and catch some news trends on Twitter, but that’s about it. The others, particularly Facebook, are a waste of my time and brain cells.

Being mission-centric when I go online, I head for the news. This spills over from my journo years, when I read several newspapers a day. But now, instead of dead trees I’m manically checking my RSS feeds.

Yeah, RSS. That old-school thing that never really caught on except maybe with the geeky crowd. That RSS. You put all your online subscriptions in a feed reader and watch them pile up. Flip through your news from dozens of sources, scan the headlines, choose what to read.

Using that (allegedly dying) technology I keep up with local and national news, potential client leads, publishing and media news, material for this blog, and updates on how my L.A. Angels are doing. In a day at least 1,000 news items go through my reader, and I’m probably going to read at least a couple of hundred.

On July 1, Google Reader will shut down, leaving me looking for RSS alternatives. Like a true addict, I’m scrambling right now. But that’s just part of the picture.

On Friday I had some online time, so I spent that updating my laptop operating system while reading the news on my Android phone.

That’s bad.

I understand the idea of shutting off all digital toys for one day a week is gaining some real traction. Supposedly it’s good for one’s mental health. Especially mine, as I am probably crazier than most and have the certification to prove it.

Despite that, sometimes I’m successful at actually going one day a week without the computer or anything else. One drawback is that I keep a reminder to take that day off … on my Android phone.

Of course I spent Sunday (my scheduled time off) at the computer again, hammering away like a deranged beaver, but I was doing the final draft of my latest ebook. Between that and those consarned RSS feeds, you know that whole idea was shot this time.


How prevalent is this addiction?

I’m not the only junkie around, though. I read that the average American consumes 100,500 words per day, a goodish amount. Considering a novel normally runs about 70,000 to 90,000 words, we’re approaching doorstop territory here. Now, you can bet most of these words are read from a computer screen and you know there’s an online connection involved somewhere.

But that’s the average American. With me, you can take that number and double it. Shoot, at that rate I can knock off Stephen King’s The Stand in less than a day.

A lot of random drugs

Drugs have nothing on the grip technology gets on you.

So when I read a piece suggesting a digital detox of a week or two, my eyeballs slid back into my skull.

Sam Hailes, who wrote the article, cites an article from the Observer about a guy who did a two-week digital detox. His wife said he was more fun to be around. He cooked more, read more, walked more. I assume he even went outside.

Hailes wrote the article (for ReadWriteWeb, a tech blog from my RSS feeds) but admitted he’s no expert on digital detox.

“It’s no use asking me,” he wrote. “There’s only one way to find out. Are you brave enough to try it?”

Uhh, no. Definitely chicken. Clucka clucka cluck.

If one digital-free day is that tough for me, how could I handle a week or two? Don’t ask. Don’t. Even. Ask.


Enforced sabbatical, or going into detox

The closest I ever really came to digital detox was four days on the Appalachian Trail last year. That was because a) the backpack was already heavily loaded — sleeping bag and food weigh a lot when you’re toting it up a mountain, b) there’s no place to plug it in on the trail, and c) there’s not even enough signal to check my email. My hiking buddy is as much a phone freak as I am an online junkie, and we had to wait until we were on top of some mountain before he could make calls.

Can you imagine? I couldn’t check my news while drinking my morning campfire coffee. How Philistine is that?

So how was I after the hike? Besides tired, sore and smelly, that is.

Again, don’t ask. Itching to crank up the Android to see what I missed. Not a lot, it turned out. The news was still there whether I was or not.

The only reason I didn’t notice any separation anxiety or withdrawal symptoms was because I was busy climbing Mt. Sassafrass.


Maybe there’s something to this …

But really, I felt refreshed. Mind clear. Don’t know if it was the hike or being away from all that tech stuff.

I spent more time on the hike talking to real live people, getting their stories, enjoying the view, eating tuna for lunch and prepackaged rations for dinner, hanging our chow from a tree limb so the bears couldn’t get at it. The Android sat in a waterproof box, buried deep in my backpack, shut down the whole time.

But a real eye-opener was that I came back with a headful of ideas. I already scratched out some ideas for a future ebook in my notebook by firelight, and had another brewing in the cranium. It’s that second one that I attacked as soon as I got home. I outlined it and wrote much of the first draft in one sitting.

Maybe I’m still riding that creative wave. Hope so.

But I wasn’t taking chances on the hike. I mean, when you’re addicted to something, there’s always the chance of relapse. To that end, I kept spare batteries in the backpack. So call me a wuss.

A two-week digital detox?

Don’t bet the ranch on that, pal.

Sounds wonderful. Liberating. It might even drive me sane.

But don’t expect me to try it anytime soon unless it’s a long hike.

H’mm. Maybe I should take that digital day off next Sunday. But write the reminder down in longhand instead of keeping it on the phone.

# # #

May 122013

You wouldn’t think so at first glance, but the whole creative process will drain you.

I have no idea why. From a scientific/medical standpoint you’re using tons of glucose in the brain for writing, playing music, painting, flat-out creating. Glucose equals energy, so maybe that whole thing makes sense after all.

Sometimes I think doing something physical like lumping steel or tossing around tree limbs is more restful. I really think so, especially now.

Think about this. The body, even a frequently-abused 55-year-old body like mine, can still hack some pretty intensive physical things. I can still stand on my feet all day, do construction and landscaping work, run around a bunch of trucks — yes, even toss tree limbs like I did last summer. Eight hours worth? Bah. ‘Tain’t nothing. I can do that in my sleep.

Even a relatively old guy like me can still handle all the physical stuff I used to, even though it takes a bit longer to recycle and I have a new appreciation for aspirin.

But writing? After about four or five hours I’m spent. Gone. Wiped out. From there my agenda is simple: Locate recliner. Fall in it butt first. Put feet up. Decompress.

By comparison, it takes about eight or 10 hours on the Appalachian Trail (not that Appalachian Trail, Mark Sanford!) to wipe me out like that.

Completion and the ‘twit’ shout

Web content, like the kind I write for clients, isn’t that intensive. But longer projects, where I put in much careful thought and dump pieces of my soul onto the page or on the thumb drive, gets mentally exhausting.

I usually write standing up. But Friday night, as I cranked out the last 2103 words on the draft of my latest ebook, I had to sit down. With feet up, and the laptop on, well, my lap.

And finished that first draft.

As soon as it was done, I had to holler it out in celebration. Went to Twitter, my favorite hollering grounds (which explains the use of #hashtags here). Here’s what I posted:

Nailed it. Finished 1st draft “Will Work For Exposure.” #wordcount today 2,103. Total 25,028. #amwriting
(12:08am Saturday)

Understand, #wordcount and #amwriting are actual Twitter groups, and the hashtags put my posts squarely into those audiences.

A few minutes later I posted:

Vision blurry. Brain blurry. Face blurry. Fingertips blurry. Butt blurry, too. This #amwriting thing is sure hard work.
(12:37am Saturday)

There’s a joke that goes along with that. Almost 30 years ago my editor Charlie Hand swore that he could tell when I was getting tired. My face would melt. It’d be dripping onto my shirt.

Must’ve been some good drugs back then, Charlie.

Anyway, that was Friday night, a terrifying two-hour writing session. I had my coffee next to me, some granola bars, a few other snacks. What’s amazing was that my bladder (always an issue when you’re in your mid-50s) was cooperating with me, even with the coffee. Finished up shortly after midnight.

Time for bed? Forget it. My brain was still whirling. Finished my coffee (an espresso blend that resembles road tar), had another granola bar, read for a few hours, wrote in my journal. I think I settled into my rack a little after 4 a.m.

So I wasn’t worth a darn Saturday. A friend and I planned to do a landscaping estimate that day, but he was sick and I was essentially out of commission. Oh well.

A few weeks ago I ran a lengthy writing session. Didn’t bother to check the time but I know it was at least four hours. I know I logged 8,000 words, which doubled my old per-day record. I did that standing up, and I sure felt it the next day. Neck was all stiff. Shoulders felt like they were installed backwards. Elbow felt like an alligator was biting it. Oh, yes, and I had to scrape my face off the keyboard again.

So I was borderline useless Saturday. More or less recovered today, though taking it kind of easy. A couple of short articles for a client. Writing this blog post. Low-impact stuff.

Editing is easier, if you don’t mind murdering your darlings

Bright and early tomorrow I’ll take the wraps off that long project and read through it to see exactly how bad it is. And it’ll be plenty bad; all first drafts are guaranteed to stink out the joint. Guy Kawasaki, a prolific writer, likens the first draft to puking all over the page.

But, just like throwing up is exhausting (try it sometime if you don’t believe me), getting that first draft down is a real bear. Editing and rewriting are much easier. The hard work — getting everything on the page — is done. Editing is tough enough (Stephen King calls editing out that phrase you loved when you wrote it “murdering your darlings”) but the heavy stuff is completed.

Onward with the project, once I get over the blurriness.

# # #

Apr 022013

Backgrounder: I knew I was listening to the wrong people. Or, by following my own instincts and not listening too the wrong people, maybe I’m on to something. We’re taught to go easy on ourselves and avoid showing off, along with a bunch of other nuggets. But many of these old pieces of wisdom don’t seem to matter much to highly successful people — or highly creative ones, for that matter. Sometimes it’s good to blow up the conventional wisdom. Let’s explore this idea further this week.

We’re taught that isolation is a bad thing, and living inside one’s own head is even worse. And for someone like myself, too much private time is leads to a lot of weird stuff that I won’t bother to discuss here.

However, the creative process calls for public and private time. Stephen King calls it the “door open/door closed” practice in writing. After so much public face time I need to retreat back to my home office, kick the door shut and tell the whole world where to get off. That’s when I write or just ruminate on an idea and develop it. Many successful people require significant alone time.

The trick for me is to find some balance. I’m training my friends to not bug me in the early morning or late evening. My daily to-do list has things I can do in public and those where I need solitude, and I build my schedule around that. A real challenge for me is in knowing my rhythms and using those as my foundation.

# # #

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.