Tag Archives: creativity

A full moat versus a network of canals

The working (creative) writer: allocating resources for residency and beyond

The glories of a sand castle lie in its walls... and moat system. CC image Sandcastle Competition courtesy of Victoria Pickering on Flickr. Some rights reserved.

The glories of a sand castle lie in its walls… and moat system. CC image Sandcastle Competition courtesy of Victoria Pickering on Flickr. Some rights reserved.

I grew up near the coast, the child of two beach lovers. My childhood summer memories are filled with sand and salt, the smell of sunblock and the roaring sound of the surf as it crashed ashore. I was especially devoted to two activities at the beach: spending as much time in the water as possible, which included boogie-boarding, getting knocked on my butt, and general frolicking; and building sand castles. The number one feature of any good sand castle, in my view, aside from perfectly shaped towers that didn’t immediately crumble and collapse when I removed the bucket, was the moat.

The moat had to be filled with seawater to be truly special and worthwhile; the more of the moat we could fill with water, the better the moat and the more successful the sand castle. You could fill up the moat by hand, running back and forth from the surf with a bucket, but this method was time-consuming, tiring, and in the final analysis, futile. The water would always drain away, through the sand at the bottom of the moat (nicely porous) and/or via the front of the moat crumbling in the direction of the sea. Much more satisfying was building your sand castle and moat in such a way that the sea itself would fill the moat for you — via incoming waves.

Building a sand castle so that the ocean fills the moat for you is an exercise in basic planning and engineering. The castle needs to be close enough to a certain percentage of waves so that the moat can fill, but far enough from the pounding surf to last (every castle eventually succumbs to the sea; the question is only when, and in terms of Child Time, “long” is a flexible concept). To do this, you need to take into account whether the tide is going out, or coming in, and whether you have sibling helpers or obstructionists, or if everyone is going competitively solo. You have to plan your resources: for instance, there are a finite number of buckets and shovels for creating towers and moving sand. You have to accept that some parameters are beyond the builder’s control (the surf; your siblings; people who walk around not paying attention).

The same can be true of preparing for a writer’s residency: planning and preparation meet resource considerations and the reality of limitations on the writer’s ability to control all circumstances.

Why my residency is like a sand castle

When I first realized that my residency was real — not only had I been accepted, but I would be able to go — I immediately thought about how to best use the time I had to prepare. So many thoughts and ideas around the residency swirled through my head, I embarked on a weekly blog posting commitment to address my personal experience and share information that could be useful to other writers. I jumped in without much forward planning but a lot of ambition — the equivalent of pouncing on the first sand castle site available on the shoreline, without considering the number one rule of real estate: location, location, location.

I also didn’t count how many shovels and buckets I had available, and I ignored the reality of other life circumstances that place limits on my time.

As a result I can see a gap now of four weeks since my last blog post. Dear reader, in all this time, I have been writing… a lot. I have been writing every day. I have pages and pages full of notes, queries to myself, scenes and expository sequences. I meet and then exceed my word count. My story is starting to knit together and thrive under my devoted attention. I didn’t so much forget about my blog commitment, as realize that I had a bigger, more important commitment to attend to first.

Which brings me to the moat

When designing a moat for your sand castle, you can go for simple, a ditch that surrounds the outside perimeter, or you can opt for a complex network of canals and tributaries, feeding one another from the main moat. I’ve seen people with gorgeous sand castle canals, forking networks around complicated series of turrets, sometimes with an inner moat as well as an outer one. I’ve tried to build a few of these myself.

The trouble with fancy canal systems is that they require much more, and more regular, water. I’m sure an engineer and math enthusiast could calculate water volume, but in practice the relative amount of water is the key. You are dealing with a structure perched at the edge of the incoming or outgoing tide. The water will drain away unless replenished. If you have a big, deep moat, you can get by with more infrequent waves. Complicated networks of canals require more regular feeding, and are subject to increased decay because of the destructive force of the incoming water.

That’s how I currently feel about focusing on my residency manuscript at the expense of weekly blog posts. The blog posts are the complicated network of canals that require regular feeding; they siphon off water (creative energy and time) from the larger project. If I can pour more energy, in a concentrated amount of time, into my manuscript, I am better off than diverting all my resources into a network of shallow canals that require greater upkeep but produce less lasting results.

I think this is only natural. Larger projects demand larger amounts of our time. We have to engage with them in a different way from smaller, bite-sized responsibilities. Don’t be afraid to make a commitment.

== ==

When was the last time you gave yourself permission to focus on one big idea?

The Conundrum: Preparing for the Writer’s Residency

(week 1)

This piece is the first in a series of what will be weekly (I hope!) posts on topics that relate to writer’s residencies. I am starting this post at Week 1, and counting up. Find Week 2 and Week 3 also on the blog.

cover of a book: How to Solve Conundrums

CC image How to solve conundrums courtesy of Villanova University Digital Library on Flickr. Some rights reserved.

Ever been confronted with too many ways to achieve your goal, thereby paralyzing yourself as your choice swings from one, to the other, to the next possibility…?

That’s where I am right now.

I was awarded a four-week writer’s residency this summer. Short statement of fact: I am over the moon! Short statement of conundrum: I have a ton of work to do before signing in on the first day. I thought I had the next few months figured out, but now I’m not so sure. Because writing is, well, not always writing.

When I told one of the staffers at my writer’s workshop, a friend of mine, about my residency, he described what he did at his (shorter) residency last year. His approach was almost the complete inverse to what I’ve been planning.

I was planning to do my research first, and at the residency all I would do was write. The first draft.

He brought his completed first draft to the residency along with his research materials, and instead did the research and revision component to the first draft.

Both approaches have advantages. Under my plan, I’d have lots of information to work with — and then plenty of time to write. Using my friend’s strategy, I’d have the time to go over what I’d written, improve it, see where the gaps are, and then choose only that research which suits my needs.

Conundrum.

Why this is a big deal

Residencies are prized in the writing world. We get to spend uninterrupted time working on our projects! Hurrah! No need to go food shopping, or to work, or in fact to leave the house/building for any reason. Work in the middle of the night. Spread your notes out with abandon in your private studio. Hang out in said studio in your PJs. Nobody else comes in. That’s one REALLY big reason.

Residencies are a recognition of your work. Space is limited. I had to send a work sample with my application and jurors read it to decide whether it/me was worthwhile. Most applications are not accepted. Residencies are not publication, but a nod in that direction — yes, this work shows promise. My soul drinks this up, believe me.

A residency is not cheap. Consider that while in one sense you are taking a vacation from your regular life, your regular life (read: bills) doesn’t go away from you. It lies in wait. Plus, the residency program charges a fee, unless you receive a fellowship which covers your expenses. The fee is the second biggest hurdle to residencies after the application process (which is why I’ve set up a fundraising page).

Given that a) I was awarded a spot, b) I have a project to work on, and c) potential fundraising help… I really, really, REALLY want to make sure that my time there is well-spent. Which brings me to my conundrum.

Do I write during my writer’s residency?

It may seem obvious that a writer’s residency would be occupied with, you know, WRITING. However, Writing is more than just writing. Let me explain.

One part of Writing is the first draft. Most people are familiar with this process, which does, in fact, involve writing. The first draft is one of my options.

Another part of Writing is research. Both fiction and non-fiction may require this. Maybe you are writing about a botanist, as Liz Gilbert did in her recent novel, The Signature of All Things (note: on my to-read list). Liz Gilbert is not a botanist. She did a LOT of research in order to write that book. Liz wrote a book of fiction. You could also write a nonfiction book about a botanist. Research isn’t writing, though research is often necessary, and research takes time, organization, and at least a starting point for what information you need. I do need to do research at some point (my work is fiction).

Reviewing is a part of writing. For example, that first draft will need to be re-read. I’ll be taking notes on what is missing, wrong, inconsistent, or needs work. Also, what more research I probably need to do.

Overlapping with the review and extending onward is the long, wide prairie of Editing, often wracked by mysterious and destructive storms that reduce the work to rubble. Editing is quite a distance away from where I currently stand.

Then there is Re-writing, which might ally itself with Editing, or decide to rule on its own. Good-bye, first draft.

Bottom line: if you’re me, you have several months before four weeks of uninterrupted time to work on your project. What part of Writing is happening at the residency? What are you doing in those months beforehand?

Reboot

fine art abstract drawing black and white

Sometimes chaos is better… CC image Order from Chaos by lokate366. Some rights reserved.

I’ve been struggling with this blog since the turn of the year. Which is why I haven’t been able to post anything here, until today.

Of course the end-of-year holidays provided their own source of distraction and time commitment. On top of that, however, a much bigger concern has been looming over my head with regard to what I’m writing and sending out into the world via this wee forum.

For the first time ever, I think, I took the changing of the year as a springboard to look over my work and creative crises. What I saw did not fill me with glee — but then, I’m not known for being particularly kind to myself. Recognizing this, I decided to take the opportunity to re-set in the new year with a fresh outlook and retooled goals.

The fresh outlook and goals covers every category of my life, including this blog. I had an idea of what I wanted to say when I launched it, and this past year I’ve felt more and more confused about my message. What story was I telling, after all?

Like a lot of people who start blogs and then go freelance, I had grandiose ideas at first. Alas, the ideas were a hodgepodge of themes, and so I found myself facing the same questions over and over each time I went to post content, only they got louder and in a bigger typeface each time:

  • Does this fit with my overall theme?
  • Wait — what IS the overall theme? There are at least two.
  • No, three.
  • If so, it’ll definitely fit. Because it hits at least one of the themes. Right?
  • …Won’t this just look like a bigger mess as I go along?

The crux of the matter was my obstinate attempt to be practical and useful with my blog. To be Above it All, and Wise. Except whenever I sat down to write, I found myself sinuously winding along a whimsical, playful, sometimes painful personal creative vein.

I didn’t share all of that. Because it didn’t fit.  And partly because sharing is hard (with deference to Havi here).

And my inner self wasn’t letting me get away with it. My inner self threw creative tantrums.

More and more, I wanted to talk about thoughts and ideas and inspirational nuggets and dream-babies of mine that had NO OBVIOUS PRACTICAL PURPOSE.

That’s right! About Art with a capital A!

Shocking. Downright provocative. I know — a blog about creativity and art that was — playing with creativity and art?

Say it ain’t so.

Truth: I need to find harmony with myself, and I need to find honesty with myself also. I’m simply not getting anywhere cutting out a part of myself and pretending it doesn’t exist. I signed up for a Voice & Speech class at the start of the year, which is known to be a place where people become blubbering emotive puddles, and I became a blubbering emotive puddle during THE FIRST CLASS, trying to say this out loud.

I can be practical. I can be. Just like I can be organized. Periodically. And I can be logical. In a crisis, when you need a cool head, that’s me.

The fact is, though, that my personality test results tell me I’m intuitive, feeling, and perceiving. Did I need a personality test for this? I am a stereotype. Everybody knows this about me. I am a sensory being, putting on intellectual armor over my creations before I sally forth.

I’m tired of trying to make this blog fit some preconceived mold. I’m not 100% sure what it’s going to look like, but I know what it’s NOT going to look like. It’s definitely NOT going to look like a thesis outline. More like a paint splatter. Because the point of creativity, writing and art is that they are FUN. And gosh darn it, I’m going to have fun talking about them here.*

Do you have fun stuff? Share in the comments!
== == ==

*Because I am nothing if not ambitious, I might be pursuing the more “serious” ideas in a more “serious” forum. No promises.

The Myth of Originality

"Wanted" poster featuring hero of Life of Brian

CC image courtesy of dangerismycat on Flickr. Some rights reserved.

There is an unforgettable scene from Monty Python’s The Life of Brian, in which Brian addresses a crowd of people.

Brian: You are all individuals!
Crowd (in chorus): We are all individuals!
B: You are all different!
C: We are all different!
Bystander: I’m not–
C: Shhhh!!

For anyone working in creative industries — or, let’s face it, technology — there is an incredible pressure to produce something new, original, unique… and the problem then becomes, is there, in fact, anything new under the sun? Or are we all just working on a better mousetrap?

Influence versus Imitation

In the history of literature (or music, or movies, or TV shows), how many love stories or coming-of-age stories have already been written? In the smaller universe of personal development and self-help, how many different ways can we think of to say “No fear!” and “Trust!” and “Try!”? How many rock songs or blues songs or operas already exist? How many pianists are brilliant and how many artists know how to paint or to sculpt or to draw or to photograph?

I’m a member of several online music communities. In addition to the specific musicians in whose name(s) the communities have been created, members often discuss other musicians whose music they enjoy. These other musicians might have taken a lot of musical influences from Musician or Musicians A. Periodically, community members would get into vociferous disputes with each other about these other musicians, and whether the musical similarities (outlined in technical detail according to each arguer’s musical instrument of choice) were really just INFLUENCES, or if the musicians were actually IMITATING Musician A, without contributing anything unique or original of their own.

These were scorched-earth battles, and I saw a lot of them rage online over the years. Occasionally the situation would become so extreme that one or all arguers would be banned from the online community or would leave in a huff of their own accord, spewing profanities.

The question began innocently enough in each individual’s mind, and is close to my own mind today: what is originality? Can we define it? Shouldn’t we strive for it?  … Or, as I increasingly believe, is originality the wrong goal to aim at?

“Be yourself; everyone else is already taken”

Artists often struggle with this. Influence and inspiration have a central place in the development of any artist. We all started by admiring the work of others. When we began, our influences could sometimes be painfully clear. In my early days of story-obsession, I just about oozed Mary Higgins Clark. I had no difficulty answering the question, “Who’s your favorite author?” Neither did anyone else.

We are influenced by our predecessor artists, just as I for a time strove to write mysteries and thrillers featuring a plucky heroine facing personal challenges. Sometimes, we consciously copy our inspirations. Both forms of practicing our art are valid.

On the other hand, as Oscar Wilde points out with his trademark razor-sharp wit, it’s no good trying to be them.

We already have a Hemingway, a Charlotte Brontë, a George R.R. Martin, and a Maeve Binchy.

If I simply rewrite what Stephen King wrote, no one’s ever going to remember any of my work. They’ll (rightly) remember Stephen King. I might even help them to remember him. But am I not doing a disservice to my audience?

What if my audience is there for me?

I went to a meeting of the local chapter of the National Speakers Association this month. The keynote speaker told the audience: “Nobody is there to hear your content. Even if you are a content speaker. I’m sorry, they can find that for five dollars on Amazon, or for free on Google. They aren’t there to hear your content. They are there for your performance.”

Setting up a new goal

Which is why people who like love stories or coming-of-age stories will continue to read the new stories of this kind that we create… even though they’ve read other stories before. This is why people who love paintings or sculpture or photography will seek out more, although they’ve seen other photographs, paintings, and sculptures. It’s why people still listen to music, although they’ve heard other music before.

The question then, isn’t about originality. The question is, what is it about me that I can bring to my art?

That’s what we are here for.

== == == ==

Do you struggle with being “original” in your art?

Organization vs Passion: List the benefits

hamster in a metal hamster wheel

CC image “Hamster wheel” courtesy of sualk61 on Flickr. Some rights reserved.

I’ve been thinking a lot about lists lately, because my life seems to be filled with them.

I have to-do lists for the day, the week, the month. Shopping lists, story brainstorming lists, lists of essay ideas, speech ideas, blog post ideas, blog improvements, lists of birthdays, of appointments, packing lists, lists of items I need to repair on my car, lists of my student loans, and so on.

Sometimes I think the lists are a blessing. The most obvious benefit is an increased level of organization, coupled with a sense of control over my life. Often, though, I feel trapped by my lists. Like a hamster on a wheel, I am running, running… and seem never to be getting anywhere. My life has become a list — a list which taunts me like Sisyphus’s stone.

Let’s get organized!

The number one advantage to creating a list is organization. Organization is a big watchword nowadays. We all lead such busy lives, there’s not enough time in the day to accomplish everything. From pundits to parents, advice columns to job postings, organization is acknowledged as a universal good.

Consider the daily to-do list. A simple and effective maneuver, scribbling a to-do list takes only a few minutes, and serves as a reminder throughout the day. When we get side-tracked by unexpected events or need to prioritize, the to-do list is our friend. Groceries versus Pilates class? Vision statement or agenda prep for afternoon teleconference? Following up with Sue or Sam? Remembering what the heck was that important deadline this week?

Did you know that lists are good news for our health, too? Creating lists can help:

  • reduce anxiety by giving us a sense of control over what we need to get done
  • boost our brain power by using parts of our brain we otherwise may neglect
  • improve focus by keeping our immediate goal in front of us
  • increase self-esteem through the sense of accomplishment we get by crossing items off our list
  • organize our thoughts, such as when we are faced with a tough or complex decision

Health, stress reduction, meeting deadlines, and getting all the items we need from the grocery store. Who could possibly object to the clear beneficence of the lowly and workmanlike list!

Where’s the fire?

To-do lists, grocery lists, packing lists — all of these have immediate, obvious utility. They’re not very romantic, though. Then there is our least favorite list ever (at least according to pop culture): the New Year’s Resolutions (if you’re feeling adventurous enough that you have more than one resolution, of course. I am guilty of this. I am an overachiever. Scorn me). We start this list with grand plans and fanfare. We feel bigger than life. Bring on the world!

Yet how often do we actually complete that list? Maybe we’d be more accurate calling New Year’s Resolutions our “New Year’s Ideas & Suggestions Box.” Drop in the slip of paper with your idea. As time goes by, those little slips of paper become less interesting, even, perhaps, accusatory.

Making a list — for New Year’s or otherwise — can become a stand-in for doing what’s on the list. Too often, we start with a good intention, fall into a habit, and then just continue with it brainlessly. Making lists over and over can slowly drain us of our initial passion. When we began, we were excited by the subject, the work, the company, the project… One sheet of paper couldn’t contain all our ideas. Gradually, however, our vision has narrowed until we can’t see the horizon anymore for the slip of paper.

We’ve forgotten what got us started in the first place.

Regaining Control

Like any strategy designed to help us out, keeping a list can become a self-perpetuating monster. Whether our list is a fluffy Shih Tzu or a Great Dane, we need to remember who’s in charge. I’ll give you a hint: the boss should be the one holding the leash.

Lists are a tool. Like the alphabet. In order to write effectively, we need to know how to form the letters, how they sound, and the ways to arrange them to convey meaning. But the letters themselves aren’t the meaning — they are the vessel by which meaning is made clear. We write the letters, the letters don’t write us.

Don’t get trapped on the hamster wheel. Eventually, you will need to actually write that story, shoot those pictures, finish that telephone follow-up, pack that suitcase. If you find that you’re spending a lot more time on your list than your life, remember that the brain needs playtime, too. Play hooky. You may be surprised how inspired and enlivened you become as a result.

You might even have plenty more fodder to add to your lists!

==

Do you keep track of aspects of your life using lists? Do any of your lists pertain to your creative projects? Let us know here!