Tag Archives: performance

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.

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.

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

Words like to hang out together

using language chunks to our advantage in speaking and writing

statue of a jester in avon England

Listen to my words! CC image “Stratford Upon Avon” courtesy of Jig O’Dance on Flickr. Some rights reserved.

A couple of months ago, at Voice & Speech class, I asked about a tricky thing regarding my first speech as a Toastmaster: The Icebreaker Speech.

I was trying to figure out how to balance the need to practice my speech and know it well, with the desire to maintain spontaneity and engagement, and fluidity while I was presenting it — in other words, I wanted it to sound effortless, but not rehearsed.

My teacher pointed out that that was very much acting… what an actor would do. She encouraged me to keep the following in mind in working with this situation:

At first read-through, we know a piece pretty well.  As we continue to memorize it, she said, we all go through a patch of badness, where we just tank. She referenced the experience of voice-over artists, who usually hit badness when they’re asked to do too many takes of the same piece. There is a line where repetition becomes too much… but, she insisted, if we persist through the badness and continue working with the material, we will come out the other side, knowing the text much better and having left the badness behind.

So, number one, persist through the badness.

On a mechanical level, for practice, my teacher suggested breaking down the speech by taking the whole thing, if I’d written the presentation out in full sentences, and:

  • breaking the sentences into phrases
  • breaking the phrases down into bullets

Then practicing the speech using the bullets only.  As a species of mile marker. Until (theoretically) I could discard the bullets (I haven’t gotten that comfortable yet).

We all think that we speak in full sentences, she said, but in fact, no one does. We speak in chunks.

Linguists call this “lexical chunking” and you can read an interesting article about it here. (If you’re a real linguistic nerd, like me, you might enjoy the video discussion between McWhorter and Zimmer, here.) Lexical chunking has become a big part of the discussion in language learning and teaching, because harnessing the way our brains naturally process language should provide advantages over memorizing vocabulary lists (remember that, anyone? those pop quizzes were the best).

A lot of what the casually interested reader can find when googling “lexical chunks” pertains to language learning, specifically learning English as a second language. This deals mostly with spoken language. A lot of the rest of what the reader will find has to do with reading, or processing written language. We don’t read word for word, either. In both cases the argument is that “chunking” enhances the ease of our understanding. The theoretical underpinning to this argument rests on the role and limitations of short-term memory. At its most basic: we don’t have much room in short-term memory, so multi-word language units that come as a prepackaged whole mean less work for the brain.

Hooray, less work! As far as my speech was concerned, chunking should provide advantages both for me, who was trying to remember everything I wanted to say, as well as for my audience, who I hoped would understand and remember my speech!

The other good news about my Toastmasters presentations is that I have leeway with my choice of words. Unlike actors working with a script, I don’t have to hit the same exact lines every time, as long as I keep the sense of the talk where it should be. Instead, I can focus on persisting through the badness, keeping my eyes on the mile markers.

Language chunks at work.


What are your tricks for remembering what you want to say? Does writing your ideas down hurt or help you?

Words = Power

over life size sculpture of a human face

© AOC. All rights reserved.

For the final two weeks of my voice and speech class, each of us was meant to work with a specific text that we’d chosen. Not more than a few lines. My teacher said this could be dialogue, a presentation, poetry, song lyrics… whatever. The main criterion was the text should be something we knew well… and that each of us was comfortable delivering in class.

I began thinking about the text a couple of weeks ago when my teacher reminded us to have it ready. Almost immediately, I also began to think about how I could avoid the lines that would not stop going through my head. Surely, I thought, I can’t be comfortable with those words…

I’ve been circling this thought for weeks. The words that I can’t shake are a song lyric, beautiful in its phrasing and heavy with emotional freight. They are awful and beautiful at the same time. Awful, because I want with every fiber of my being to be the one who wrote them. Beautiful, because even without music, they sing.

And he was always much more human than he wished to be

Really, the verses pursue me. I’ve tried isolating bits of the lyric from the rest: experimenting with just two lines to use in class. Thinking, if I separate these threads, these veins that bleed into one another, the smaller fragment will be easier to contain. Easier to carry.

My mistake.

So I skulked the stacks in the drama and poetry sections of the library, in search of something memorable — something I could easily remember — which was also easier to carry, and easier to hear.

What I checked out was the following:

  • The Essential Dickenson (Emily)
  • Three plays by David Mamet

So much for happiness and froth. I wonder what this says about me…

All of my selections proved to be difficult at meeting my primary search criterion: text that was lighter than the haunted verses that wouldn’t leave me alone.

Emily is memorable, but her poems have a strength of structure that conspires against me. I’ve always had difficulty reading poetry aloud. I have to fight against being held hostage by the end of the line. Emily’s poetry is cadences of pure tensile strength… How can a little weakling like me begin to play with her text?

Mamet, on the other hand, has easy, flowing dialogue. But it’s nearly impossible to find speech that doesn’t carry dangerous, spiky undercurrents, even in the comedies.

Despite — or perhaps because of — the musculature in Emily’s poetry, I found it relatively easy to remember her verse. I really liked the start of this poem, particularly because I am a writer:

She dealt her pretty words like Blades–
How glittering they shone–
And every One unbared a Nerve
Or wantoned with a Bone–

The power of words! Who wouldn’t love to declaim those lines? Up until the very moment I stood up in class I was convinced those would be the words that passed my lips.

Didn’t happen that way. Instead, I went with a bit from the beginning of Eat, Pray, Love by Liz Gilbert. The book has a wonderful, gentle sense of humor, and I thought I could use that rather than the bare intensity in Emily’s lines. Back to eschewing the heavy stuff.

In the end, I chose the power verses for myself, but kept them secreted from the audience. I was afraid of the strength of those verses — could I contain them, could I embody them… could I handle their impact on the people who would hear me speak?


What about you — can you think of a time when you pulled back from your own power?

Practicing with other artists: The best way to get past the anxiety of having to deliver

or: why you should blow raspberries

profile of horse's head with teeth

Even horses know how to blow raspberries.
CC image “Silly Face Runner Up” courtesy of Linda Hartman on Flickr. Some rights reserved.

I thought I knew all about inflection.

In voice class this week, our teacher had us do an exercise with the tongue twister: Esau Wood sawed wood.  All the wood Esau Wood saw, Esau Wood would saw.

And so on.

We went around the circle one by one, playing with intonation, pauses, emphasis, volume. I was halfway around the circle, exactly opposite from the teacher, and so each time the chain began, I had the opportunity to hear half the group test out their voices before the old saw got to me.

Nothing like test prep when the questions are always the same! Or are they?

The first time around (“Esau Wood sawed wood”) I was prepared to be disappointed. Listening to everyone who came before me and hearing the adjustments our teacher was asking them to make, I mentally rehearsed my own delivery.

This can’t be hard, I thought to myself. I have experience reading aloud.

Not so.  My puffed-up pride landed flat on its face upon delivery. Yeah, the pauses were there… but I was rumbling in the fry, and apparently totally lacking in intonation.

Coming from a family of singers, the last bit particularly stung. And the “fry,” as I was coming to realize, was me hanging out in my chest space every time I spoke, rumbling away. James Earl Jones I am not. What was I doing there?

My teacher had me go over Esau wood sawed wood a few more times, and I overcompensated by getting really high-pitched at least once. The experience was a gentle reminder of the difference between practicing something by myself and for myself, and delivering in the spotlight when all eyes are on me.

This is one of the things that freaks me out about sharing my artistic work, and I suspect I’m not the only one who feels this way. There’s a difference between doing something for ourselves (“it’s fun, I’m playing, it’s just for me”) and presentation (“now, it’s official, and everyone else is going to have an opinion on it. Gulp!”).

I wrote a whole post on the need to just practice our art. But there comes a point where we’re going to want to show off our accomplishments, and I, for one, dislike the sensation of being like a deer in the headlights.

I love voice class. You might say the meeting is a masochistic experience, since I go in every week knowing I’m going to sound funny, I’m going to feel silly. But everybody else has to deal with the same expectation. We’re all in it together. I may have cornered the deal on pauses; but my neighbor’s voice sings in clear tones, no frying at all. And we all blow raspberries at the start of class and sometimes throughout the middle of the session, too. A bunch of adults, jumping up and down, shaking their heads and going “Bbbbbbbbbbbbbbrrrrrrrrrrrrrr! BBBBBbbbbbbbrrrrrrrrrrrrRRRRR!”

That’s one of the things I love about my writing workshop, too. We’re all in the fry together, shaking out our language and stretching it.

Being crazy in a group, I’m finding, is the easiest way for me to find my own voice.

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When was the last time you really allowed yourself to be silly?