Tag Archives: being stuck

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?

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.

Going resolution-less and unscripted in 2015

it's a great way to start the year

lego man sweating while lifting barbell

Ahh, one of the perennial favorites… CC image Resolution 2105: exercise more? courtesy of clement127 on Flickr. Some rights reserved.

Ah, the dreaded “R” word. Tradition and bane of many at the start of every new calendar year.

Well, screw it.

This year, I’m thumbing my nose at detailed advance planning. Because that’s what sucked out my soul, last year.

At the start of 2014, I had sat down with a friend to discuss the loooong list I held in my hand — not bulleted, but indented and almost like a bulleted list in that I had grouped goals and plans by theme. I had plenty of goals relating to my freelance business, creative life, travel and finances. I’m an associative thinker — once I get going I can keep up a long stream of related words. The list, therefore, was not brief.

I had made one concession to being orderly in preparation for our meeting. I had taken my handwritten list (complete with arrows and different colored ink, where I had to add an idea to an earlier section that I had missed on the first pass, thereby messing with the overall organization and layout) and typed it into a word document that I printed out from the computer. At least the printed copy was more legible than my handwriting.

As 2014 wound to a close, I thought about that list with some frustration.

Year of the List

2014 was the Year of the List. I had my annual “big picture” list, just discussed. I’m also a fan of Dan Miller’s work in 48 Days to the Work You Love, and was using his monthly goal sheets as a tool to keep my focus throughout the year. Miller breaks down goals into seven broad categories: finances, personal development, social, physical, family, and career. All year (and before 2014 too), I printed out the sheets and considered my 1-year and 5-year goals, and what I could do today to get myself closer to achieving them. By October this time around, my relationship with these tools was clearly on rocky footing. I think I growled at them once or twice, with my pen hovering over the page like a dagger.

Some categories were easy for me to fill out; for others, every month was like pulling teeth. Most of us have heard about the aspects of a goal we should keep in mind, if we really want to be successful: goals should be SMART:
Specific
Measurable
Achievable
Results-focused (outcomes, not activities)
Time-sensitive (have a deadline)

Finances? That was easy. That’s all about numbers. Personal development? Again, slam dunk. I have way more cool ideas and plans and projects than I could ever hope to get done in a finite amount of time. But social? Family? As an introvert, it’s kind of horrifying to have to set goals about how often to make a big social splash. As someone without kids, yet great relationships to her relatives, the family category made no sense to me whatsoever.

The listing didn’t stop at the monthly level though. Oh, no. In trying to keep on top of my monthly goals, I was putting together a weekly list, which then informed my daily list.

All in all, I was surrounded by an accumulating assortment of slips of paper, some with words crossed out, sporting different dates. I felt like I was becoming obsessive.*

Listing vs doing

I didn’t feel like I was getting much done; I felt like the time I was an office temp doing straight numeric data entry for eight hours a day. The numbers came in, I typed them all with my right hand, the numbers went out, I went home and never knew what happened to the numbers before or after they swept through my brain. I even dreamed about those number combinations. Fortunately that assignment lasted less than a week. I haven’t started dreaming about lists yet. Though I feel like if I tried, I might remember some of those number combinations…

Now I’m supposed to come up with a list for 2015??? Roll me in a mound of porcupine quills!

I need a new framework. I’m not reviling Dan Miller — the man’s work is an inspiration and I highly recommend reading him if you have not already — I’ve just come to understand this framework isn’t working for me anymore.

I do have tangible goals and events in 2015 that I don’t need to construct a list to know about. I don’t need any “R” words to keep them top of mind. They are specific and measurable, they have a deadline and depend on results.

At this point, that’s good enough for me. Unless a more useful frame of reference springs to mind, I’m going to let the year go unscripted.

*Dear reader, if all was as self-evident to the characters as it is to you, what then would happen to the story? I ask you.

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What do you think about the usefulness of resolutions (new year’s or otherwise)?

Confessions of a serial new-story writer

Why we like to start new projects, and never finish them

carved sad jack-o-lantern pumpkins

I have too many stories — I can’t take it anymore! — Cropped CC image “sad pumpkins” courtesy of Sharyn Morrow on Flickr. Some rights reserved.

I ran into a friend of mine from a class at my writer’s workshop this past week. We asked each other how the writing was going. I told him I seemed to be suffering from serial project monogamy. I hop from one prose piece to the next, sampling each one’s atmosphere, its personality, intelligence, and sense of humor. I’m on the lookout for The One. I will find it one day soon, and all my woes will evaporate. She will be like Harry Potter or Katniss Everdeen, and I will be set for the foreseeable future. In the meantime, I’m not quite sure this is The One…

I never quite finish a project; instead, I jump from beginning one to beginning another to beginning another.

I feel as though I’m avoiding something. I’ve had a lot of good ideas, I told my writing friend, but I hadn’t actually finished any writing (other than blog posts) in months.

He made a wry face when I mentioned my predicament, which leads me to believe that I’m not the only one who’s faced this situation.

Why do we serially start new stories that we don’t finish?

Why do we do this? A Google search under “writing problems beginning new projects never finishing” led me to over 366 million results. UNC Chapel Hill even has a webpage “handout” breaking down this “common writer’s ailment.” What drives us to pick up one new piece of writing after another, starting something new, instead of finishing what we’ve already begun?

If your answer is, “I’m procrastinating,” you’re right and you still haven’t gotten to the bottom of the matter.

I think our reasons for procrastinating boil own into two basic categories. One side is ruled by Fear. The other side is the Kid’s Mind, always wanting new toys.

Fear

We think the new writing is better than the old writing. Occasionally, we might be right about this one. However, we use this justification much more often than is strictly accurate. “New is better” smells like fear about the old being crap.

The piece can never be BAD if it’s not finished, right? We only judge the complete. The finished work. We don’t do judgments on drafts, because we know they’re just that: drafts. Works-in-progress. A possibility of what might become. Fear of failure or fear of success—whichever is true, these can only occur when the piece is finished, which we are trying at all costs to avoid.

Perfectionism. We fear our work is never good enough (and “editing” has a horribly amorphous quality to it; in theory, editing can go on forever).

We don’t want to deal with the work. New writing is easier because we know so little about the piece yet. We can dive in anytime and pick any spot in the story to address. Whether we’ve looked at any notes or not for the past three weeks doesn’t matter. By contrast, if I let the older stuff sit for a while and then want to work on it, I have to reacquaint myself with the material before progressing. Not only the facts — the who, what, where, and why — also the voice I was using at the time I put down the pen or tucked away my computer file. In effect, starting a new piece is our reward for being lazy!

Playtime!

Let’s face it, the new and shiny is always more interesting than the toy that we’ve had for a while. We know all the rough corners on that old toy, and what it will and won’t do. The new toy is filled with possibility. We haven’t exhausted our imaginations in play.

New projects are fresh. They have no history, and we don’t have any relationship baggage. We’re not carrying around pre-conceived notions, or memories of arguments past. Our interaction is uncomplicated. We are strangers saying hello at the train station, smiling at each other for the first time. Every aspect of the process is fun!

We are literary tourists. We have itchy, wandering feet, we are the proverbial rolling stone, and we like new vistas.

The illusion of productivity. Starting new writing makes us feel like we are doing something. Hey, I’ve started something new! Rather than plodding through the same old, well-visited terrain, we’ve begun a new itinerary, a new list. Leaving for a vacation is much more fun than coming home. On the way home, we are thinking about what we need to do when we arrive: open the windows, water the plants, unpack the suitcases. On the way out, we are leaving our responsibilities behind.

… and then what?

In the end, the reason underlying all reasons is our resistance to what happens next.

We don’t know what that is, and human beings generally dislike uncertainty. When we finish, then what? Does it suck? Do I have to send it somewhere now? Will it get published? Will anyone care?

Possibly not. So why do I do it? I look no further than my copy of Writing Down the Bones, by Natalie Goldberg. My piece may not have a Harry Potter or Katniss Everdeen, but, as Natalie says,

“If you are a writer, write.”

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Are you a serial project monogamist? What is the most wild way you have ever tried to break the cycle?