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Stop killing your ideas

Creativity needs quantity to produce quality

17th century map of South America

CC image Mapa antiguo de America del Sur via Douglas Fernandes on Flickr. Some rights reserved.

I have tons of ideas. The problem isn’t a shortage of ideas. I have ideas the way a dog on the street has fleas, the way South Carolina has mosquitos in the summer. I have ideas bothering me all the time; they itch; they plague me. I swat about my head and shoulders, trying to end the nuisance. Instead, I miss and get irritated. And maybe a headache, if I whack too hard.

I’ve never had a problem getting ideas. The trouble arises when I start evaluating them. How many of them are good? I get annoyed because so many of them are nascent ideas, ideas in utero, provisional ideas. Why can’t I have any better ideas than these? I ask myself. These aren’t good enough. I need improvement.

Sound familiar?

I’m not a betting woman, but I’m willing to bet that you do the same to your ideas. You want good ones, and most don’t measure up. So you swat them. Or use broad-spectrum anti-idea juice (“I never have any good ideas!” you tell yourself. Later on you are amazed how true that is).

Idea-killing is counterproductive

I’ve been known to massacre the pesky, low-value ideas which make merry about my head and shoulders. When more return, I equip myself with DEET.

And then wonder where the buzz has gone.

I read a fascinating article about the insects in the cornfields of the American Midwest. Or, more precisely, the lack of insects.

Turns out there’s a shocking absence of hum in our fields of monoculture.

Studies have shown that the diversity and number of insects on American cropland has plummeted. This should surprise no one. After all, that’s what pesticides are for—to kill pests.

The trouble is, some of these “pests” are pollinators. Their absence creates problems in the environment.

I feel that way about my ideas. The instant I fumigate the pests — No, can’t have this here, trying to grow quality — almost all of them disappear.

Ideas take us places

Sometimes, as with me, they literally are the map to new adventure.

My mother has an atlas — a huge, bound book, two feet tall and a foot wide — printed in the days of the USSR. The world is broken down by continent, and within each continent the countries are set off from each other by color: brilliant pinks, yellows, neon blues and greens. Rivers are small, squiggly things, their names like faded Egyptian hieroglyphs. The seas are huge and strange, the contours of the shorelines, mysteries. The atlas was out of date by the time I started hauling it off the top shelf, but that didn’t stop me from poring over the pages for hours, tracing rivers and mountain ranges with my fingertips.

At some point I conceived of the idea of making a map out of our backyard — and not just our backyard, but all the adjoining backyards, too — creating countries, enormous landscapes, and adventure. I didn’t stop to think about this idea. I walked around with a notebook and a pen, and started drawing.

I included topographic features: a low, loose rock wall separated the long side of our yard from one neighbor: it became a mountain range. The incline from our yard to our other neighbors’ fence became a canyon; the fence, a cliff. At one end of the canyon, a brace to a nearby tree with branches just the right height led to climbing opportunities. The tire swing was featured on my map; the stone wall at the back of the garden became a high-wire act. All the features received names. As did the under-the-deck area, which was boxed off with wooden latticework, and the side of the house, which was a wall of hostas in the summertime, so thick spiders could parade across from one side to the other and knit webs that got all over my face and hair (insert shriek here).

I made a half-dozen versions of this map over the years. I drew in notebooks and tucked copies into my diary. My friend T and I constructed games located in the places detailed in my maps. We spent hours exploring different worlds.

We don’t get one without the other

Ideas are collegial, and they like to hang out together in groups. When we get rid of the “bad” ones, we are stuck with none: a clean, antiseptic monoculture of the mind, lacking any hum.

When we let them grow wild, yes, we get spiders in our hair, but we also find portals to new dimensions.

Let’s stop killing our ideas. We don’t know where they might take us.

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What’s one crazy idea that brought you magic and adventure?

Scaffolding my creativity

A residency lesson

sign in foreground of building reads "scaffolding incomplete"

CC image “Scaffolding incomplete” via Jonas Bengtsson on Flickr. Some rights reserved.

Here I sit, seven weeks after the close of my residency, and not one word has escaped me to land on the blog about it. This is frustrating, as has also been the transition back to “real life.”

“Don’t incinerate on re-entry!” one of my new friends said, as we dispersed our separate ways at the end of August. But I don’t come equipped with a fire extinguisher: in many respects, I am nothing but cinders…

But even ash can be used for other purposes. What it needs, and what I need, is the proper structure—an intervention, if you will. Before the building goes up (or is renovated), the scaffold does.

Scaffold, a definition:
1a :  a temporary or movable platform for workers (as bricklayers, painters, or miners) to stand or sit on when working at a height above the floor or ground
2 :  a supporting framework

A schedule that wasn’t

The Vermont Studio Center, where I did my residency, doesn’t create a program or participation requirements for its residents. They provide readings: both resident and visiting artist; and slide nights: for residents and visual artists. You can take it or leave it; the selection is a la carte and completely up to you. If you like, you can sign up to spend time talking craft with one of the visiting artists or writers, but you don’t have to do that, either.

In fact, the closest VSC comes to creating a schedule are the daily meals: breakfast, lunch, and dinner happen at the same (limited) time of day, Monday through Saturday (Sunday gets messy due to brunch). You can choose to skip these too; hunger is your own business. While I was there, people skipped breakfast all the time. Personally, I am highly motivated by food. I am also motivated by my slender wallet. The residency fee included all meals, and I didn’t want to pay for food twice.

Little though this was in terms of structure, the meal schedule put an anchor to my days. I knew I could bank on food being available at a certain time every day. I could set my watch by it. My only contribution to my schedule was to slot my creative time into the spaces around meals.

It might not sound like much, but in effect, this was a big deal.

Observation

Because I had no work to do at my residency other than my creative work, I could try out different habits and techniques, and observe what worked. That was the gift of the scaffold.

I found myself doing the same types of work at the same times of day. My night owl-ish nature also became obvious. We had a number of early birds in the writing crew while I was at VSC: people who showed up at their studio before breakfast, sometimes. I was not one of them.

Sure, I can be awake during the morning, but I never got long-form prose writing done during this time. I love the mornings for organization: making notes, analysis, research… editing. The morning is the best time for me to edit. Anything brainless — laundry, cleaning, sweeping, returning library books, photocopying — is great as well.

Since editing requires material to edit, I sometimes had to go to my backup plan. I’d research—preferably not online. I’d browse encyclopedias and dictionaries (dictionaries of biographical information, encyclopedias of proverbs, to name only two). If I wanted the sensation of pen in hand, I could sit by the river with my notebook and collect lyric fragments for use or expansion later: a thought here, a metaphor there, a brief description, a melody, a quirky bit of humor.

In the afternoon, the writing began. In truth, the dinner schedule proved to be an obstacle for me, because I usually got going in a flow in the hour before the meal was served. I would have loved to keep going with the writing, but I knew I’d pay for skipping the meal later with frustration and ill humor. Not to mention hunger pangs.

And the evening, following dinner, was my creative sweet spot.

Loss and rediscovery

Since I’ve come back to my regular life, I’ve lost that scaffold. I’ve learned I’m good at letting creativity slide. After all, there are bills to pay…

Unfortunately I’ve realized I pay in other ways, too. When I let the creativity go, frustration and resentment build up and fester. These nasties eventually manifest themselves in my professional, as well as persona life (I am, ironically, a much better business person when I’m being creative).

The better news is that, if I make up my mind to, I can create a new scaffold. I can set up a structure that allows me to honor both my work, and my work. This is perhaps the biggest gift of my residency.

What steps do you take to scaffold your creativity?

Word counts: Do you want candy, or a meal?

candy apples on bed of sprinkles

CC image Candy Apples courtesy of Andrea Williams on Flickr. Some rights reserved.

I saw a piece recently discussing the incredible shrinking word count for the children’s storybook. The topic resonated with me, although I am not a children’s writer, because I get the feeling a similar trend is happening in novels and some sectors of nonfiction books. The crux of the matter seems to be that too long is unacceptable, and will turn off the audience.

Let me point out for a moment that “too long” is a relative and subjective measurement. Someone’s Harriet the Spy is another person’s War and Peace. And some may prefer War and Peace over anything bite-sized.

It’s true the media has been supporting a move towards the bite-sized. News stories on American TV are quick and punctuated by commercials. In total, the coverage lasts less than an hour. Social media platforms for the pithy and quickly witty proliferate: Twitter by definition seeks a short hit, Facebook trends favor the visual and the funny, Vine (6 second videos) is a thing, texting (with a character limit) is the new telephone call.

Flash writing has also been rising in interest among readers and writers. As a method of writing, flash can be quite satisfying: been there, completed that, all in my lunch break (I can go back to edit later, of course, but you get the idea). As a method of reading, flash also satisfies—like much social media—the desire for a quick diversion, something we can access easily on small devices like our phones without having to focus too much attention or the work of a “real” computer on the event.

Shorter content is like candy. Longer content is a meal. We’re not always hungry for a full meal—occasionally, that’s too much food. Candy, meanwhile, is known for its addictive properties, the way it pretends to satisfy and always leaves you wanting more instead (my father, when we kid him about the tiny portions of ice cream he serves himself, famously says, “there is no such thing as enough ice cream. No matter how much you eat, you always want to have a little more. So why do I need a big portion?”). There is almost no time when we admit we’ve had enough (or too much) candy. We feel vaguely sick after a while, and have to take a break… we feel too sick to have a real meal, either.

A meal takes time to prepare and ideally takes time to truly enjoy. A meal involves care and attention, often the participation of other people, and the opportunity to savor. As payback, the meal satisfies, often for a long period of time. If I have a good meal, and I enjoy the preparation and the eating of it, I may spend time dwelling on the positive experience of the meal, and I also don’t feel like having another immediately afterwards. I need time to digest it. Eventually I’ll get hungry again, but for now that meal stays with me and sustains me.

Candy sometimes is good. I think we can and should give ourselves small bursts of pleasure and luxury. I believe that we should pamper ourselves and take the opportunity to make a special moment, an exception, to do something fun that may not be the best for, say, our dental health if we overdo it. I just don’t think candy replaces meals in any way. Just as an obsession with word count doesn’t replace a true story. As someone who enjoys both preparing and savoring a real meal, I hope I am not alone in this.

Do modern writing tools enable us to edit too much?

quill pen and ink on colonial American desk

CC image Williamsburg Quill courtesy of Steve Kennedy on Flickr. Some rights reserved.

We have a lot of tools that make our writing lives easier than they ever were before. Instead of relying on writing by hand, we may use computers and voice recorders and digital shortcuts. Instead of worrying about the precious value, high price, and accessibility of paper, we can publish and produce enormous volumes of writing without printing a word. We can archive, edit, and remix text to our heart’s content, at the touch of a finger.

Is this a good thing, though?

Earlier this year, I finished a historical novel about the sister-in-law of Friedrich Schiller, the famous German poet, playwright, and philosopher. He was a Titan in his day and is acknowledged as one of the fathers of German literature. His sister-in-law, Caroline von Wolzogen, was a published writer as well and a recognized literary talent in her time, although she is not as well-known today. The novel is told from her perspective: writing as a woman during a time when that was unusual (the end of the 18th and the early 19th centuries), and what it was like to be overshadowed by an acclaimed literary genius in her own family.

Schiller died relatively young, and he had a prodigious output—nearly a dozen plays, several volumes of history, novels, and numerous philosophical papers. There were no typewriters in his day, no voice-recognition dictation machines, much less computers or even ballpoint pens to make the task of writing easier. He wrote out all of his work by hand. Wolzogen saw his original manuscripts and marveled at how few changes he made to his writing—he was sure of his work whenever he used the pen.

This made me think about the way we edit today, the number of versions we can put any of our manuscripts, essays, poems or articles through, and whether that option is to our benefit or not. Revision the way we can do it now would have been a tedious undertaking for Schiller, under the best of circumstances. The work from concept to publication would take even longer than usual; with a work of any greater length, this might have meant not publishing it at all. Certainly, Schiller would have had trouble sustaining his output if he’d had to revise his plays (by hand) the way we can use the computer to revise today.

The Passive Voice blog hosted an excerpt about this very topic. In the comments, I found one of the most useful and informative approaches to editing that I’ve recently seen. One of the visitors quoted another writer on the ease with which she got work finished, and then also published, depending on the number of revisions inflicted on the draft.

Two revisions were her maximum number, she determined after going over her own experiences. Works that she kept on revising tended to never get done, or they got over-done, or they never made it to the publisher.

I know we like to look at the computer, the typewriter, in fact any tool to aid in the speeding up of the writing process (in terms of words per minute or words per day) as an asset. I do wonder though if we’re allowing the ease of change to run away with our writerly judgement. Schiller and Wolzogen used their brains to work at their writing without always occupying their fingers with writing. The actual writing was a serious investment in time, muscle cramp of the fingers, and expensive items like paper and ink. Can you imagine having to revise everything by hand? What about a clean draft?

We on the other hand can write any old drivel, and it’s not a big deal, because it’s only pixels. We can also change any old drivel at any point, which is also easy, because it’s only pixels… even if we print the pages out, our cost overhead is less than with the paper in Schiller’s day. Revising is easier, though perhaps more brainless. Do we get the better product out of it?

Faceoff: Creativity and goals don’t mix well

close face photo of a brown bear

Be creative…now! CC image Eye to Eye courtesy of Tambako the Jaguar on Flickr. Some rights reserved.

Being creative and being goal-oriented are two different things. This statement may sound like a resounding example of the obvious, but for me this has been the discovery of week.

I start my writing residency soon. Early on after being accepted, I had grand plans for what I would do in preparation for the residency. I would get the manuscript ready in myriad ways: writing first drafts of chapters and scenes; research; organization; the digitization of all my notes. In short, I have not met these goals. With the impending “deadline” of my departure on the near horizon, I have found myself in a state of agita about my failure to accomplish these tasks.

But really, who cares? I mean, this isn’t a homework assignment. No one at the residency is going to approach me with a checklist, before or after my residency begins, and ask, “Did you do X, Y, and Z before coming here? Have you completed A, B, and C while you were here?” The whole point of a writing residency is time and space. The work is the writer’s own.

The muse is a fickle flirt. Courting her is akin to courting a cat: you never know quite where you stand, or whether you will be met with purring affection and head butts, or raised hackles and a clawed swipe or bite. We receive contradictory recommendations on how to make the muse love us.

These include: Set a regular schedule for writing, and stick to it. Be ready for inspiration whenever it strikes you—carry a notebook, computer, or voice recording device wherever you go (this piece of advice is especially nefarious for overachievers like myself, who see bringing the notebook with them everywhere as a challenge to, you know, write in it. Accomplish something!). Keep a pen and paper by your bed. Allow yourself to go about your everyday routine without thinking of writing. But most of all, DON’T FRIGHTEN THE MUSE AWAY BY BEING TOO NEEDY.

Ah, goals. Goals to be ready for Optimum Creativity, goals to execute specific steps, goals for deadlines. Goals are great, and meeting them is fun and useful, of course. But to be an absolutist in the face of writing goals (they must all be done and they must ALL be done exactly right) is a recipe for muse disaster.

As @joannechocolat pointed out in a recent tweet and blog post, this is all-or-nothing thinking. If you do this in writing, you might also be absolutist in other areas of life. Take note. You won’t take well to not meeting your word count and you will be unhappy when your writing plan doesn’t go to plan. I speak from experience.

Let’s take a moment to visit that friend to all writers, the dictionary. Merriam-Webster has this to say about a goal:
:  the end toward which effort is directed :  aim

Notice the entry doesn’t say, “the achievement of that end.” The emphasis lies on the action or aim, not the result.

While checklists are great, don’t let them rule your life. Word counts are useful targets, but if you fall short by, say, 235 words today you don’t need to add exactly that many on to tomorrow’s count, to “make up the difference.” Deadlines are fine… when you have finished your draft and are talking to an editor or a book designer. Deadlines for your draft are not fine. Deadlines and creativity don’t mix well.

Set the stage as well as you can, but allow yourself to have fun improvising. If you lose sight of the joy in play, you’ll lose sight of why you started this endeavor in the first place. Note to self.