Daydream, Writer

I wonder what you remember of being a kid in school. What was the most common remark you heard from your teachers? It might have been anything of the myriad activities that engage young children at the perimeter of studies. Don’t write on the desk. Stop running in the hall. Sit up straight. Throw out your gum. Turn to the right page. Stop talking to Sally (Henry, Willis, Coralee.) Sharpen your pencil before class. That’s not a word we use in school. We heard all those comments directed at kids who needed reminding about the purpose of school: practicing times tables, practicing spelling words, practicing cursive writing, practicing reading, practicing memorizing. School instruction was not interesting so much as required. School instruction was not creative at all. It was practice for something else.

None of those comments were directed at me, however. I heard another order – often – from every teacher through the elementary grades. “Sharon, stop daydreaming.” Because there I’d be, my head turned toward the huge windows along the back wall, staring out at the gray and yellow skies, the bare limbs of the trees, the steeple of the church across the street. Caught daydreaming again about all the possibilities of life outside our classroom, wondering what it would be like if. My teachers thought I was wasting time but I was imagining a different world. I turned back to the current lesson though not for long. I’d be daydreaming again before the end of the day.

I recently read Seven Brief Lessons on Physics by Carlo Rovelli. The first chapter was about Albert Einstein and the fact that he spent a year doing nothing but daydreaming. Einstein’s daydreams led him to conceptualize some of the most revolutionary ideas about the nature of physics and the role of light, energy, and matter in the origin of the universe. After that daydream year, he had a creative explosion that resulted in him writing four important papers that identified the connective nature of just about everything in the cosmos. Eventually he won the Noble Prize.

Everyone should daydream. Children should daydream, inventors should daydream, lovers, the aged, politicians, priests, laborers, and travelers should daydream. It isn’t enough to do the ordinary and expected, to take notes and photos, to make lists and plans. We writers should daydream. Inside the daydream is the inception of wonder, the place where everything begins.

Writers need a break from ordinary routine. We put too much emphasis into the strategy we think should result in brilliant writing. It’s like buying the most expensive computer system, adding an outstanding writing program, lining up research files, then drawing a creative blank. The novel doesn’t emerge.  Great story writing doesn’t come from elaborate equipment. It comes from slow and careful observation about the world, thinking about the human experience until the artist has insight about life.

Once we start to write, we should not try to write well. We should just write. Let the words flow and don’t worry about whether or not it’s good. That’s not for us to judge anyway – that’s for readers to judge. And maybe what we should be doing is not writing at all for a while but continue the daydream until writing organically enters our stage.

Everybody knows Einstein did poorly in school, that he appeared to do nothing for a while. But it isn’t true that he didn’t do anything – he observed, he thought, he let ideas flourish in his brain. He wondered. That year of daydreaming was the catalyst for the extraordinary and continuing bursts of brilliance that allowed him to cultivate his curiosity and resulted in the synthesis of his ideas. That led him to develop one of the pillars of modern physics, the theory of relativity.

Maybe we don’t have everything yet.  Maybe we need time spent looking around the world, observing, thinking, wondering, the way Einstein spent that year looking at the universe. Because if we don’t find the world enchanting – the way the clouds gather around the moon, the way we can talk to a stranger who doesn’t speak our language, the way the horizon stretches to infinity yet never really exists at all – we might as well stick with writing shopping lists.

 

 

Photograph of Albert Einstein courtesy of Pixabay.com

 

 

 

Advertisements

The Writers Circle: Rekindling the Fire

TWC
One of our goals here at Today’s Author is to help all of the writers among us to do what we love to do: write. One of the best ways to accomplish this is by talking to each other and learning from each other.  Our Writers Circle series is designed to do just that – provide a chance for us to discuss writing, editing and publishing questions.

This week’s topic is:

Writing takes a lot of passion and energy. What happens if that energy has died down? What do you to when you feel creatively and emotionally unable to write?  Some say that you should just write anyway, push through the doldrums. Others find this to be inefficient and unproductive. What have you done to re-energize yourself and get that creative spark back when you’ve been faced with a situation where you hadn’t written for a while or hadn’t felt successful with writing for a while?

Let’s discuss this in the comments and see what our community thinks.

Creative Anxiety

It’s been a month already, huh? As you may or may not recall, last time I rambled for a bit on Today’s Author, it was about the differences between the writing process and a writing cycle. The short version looks like this:

The Writing Cycle

I think that with some very minor revisions, we could view any creative output through a similar lens.

Of course, this is just how one guy thinks about it (that’s me). And I admittedly think about creativity a lot—maybe too much. I am inherently curious about what triggers creativity and why it happens the way it happens for the people it happens for. But that’s for another day.

Today, I want to look at anxiety in both the creative process and the creative cycle–creative anxiety, we could call it. I think that artists are, on average, a pretty anxious breed. We worry about almost everything it seems, but in my experience the anxiety is worst at the beginning of the writing process and at the end of the writing cycle.

When I start a new writing project, I freak out in the early going. Are the ideas good enough? Does the story have enough going on? Are these characters interesting? As a “fly-by-the-seat-of-my-pants” writer for a good chunk of the process, this anxiety hangs around for a while. As a writer of general fiction, the anxiety starts to fade when I get up around 40,000 words. It’s almost all gone by the time I finish my outline of the last half of the book. That’s when I know, for better or worse, the book will be finished. The momentum takes over.

Writing poetry was similar. At the inception of an idea for a new poem, I was nervous about writing. I would struggle through the lines for a while, and eventually, if the poem was meant to be, some line or couplet or stanza would snag me and the anxiety would fade away.

I enjoy the early stages of the process, though—in spite of the anxiety. It’s new and exciting and I’m learning about these new people, so there is a chance that some of that anxiety comes from the excitement of starting something new.

 

We’ve established that the writing cycle encapsulates all of the movements of any writing project—from its planning, to its editing and revision, to cover design and layout, all the way through publication, if that is the goal of the project. Of course, a creative cycle can end when you put the binder clip on and shove it in the back of a drawer. Once a writing project is abandoned for whatever reason, that cycle is done.

I’ve learned that I feel the greatest anxiety at the very end of this process. When I’m out promoting the book, I’m anxious about two things:

1.    My creation doesn’t belong to me anymore. It belongs to the world. Will they take care of it? Will they love it? Will they hate it and burn it? Will they understand it?

Not that any of that really matters. It’s up to readers to read and draw their own conclusions. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t still a source of anxiety.

2.   What will the next project be?

This is different from the anxiety felt at the beginning of the writing process. Here, we worry if we will have another idea worth pursuing with the same vigor as the one that just wrapped. Will we always have stories to tell? For some people, it may be alright to imagine a world where they don’t write anymore. But for me? I don’t know what that looks like.

There is a great scene in Salman Rushdie’s autobiography, Joseph Anton: A Memoir, where a young Rushdie meets Kurt Vonnegut. Vonnegut asks the young writer, who was fresh off publishing Midnight’s Children, “Are you serious about this writing business?” When Rushdie responds that he is, Vonnegut says, “Then you should know that the day is going to come when you won’t have a book to write, and you’re still going to have to write a book.”

That scene sticks in my head for a couple of reasons. First, it would have been super badass to be in that room. Second, what if I run out of stories?

What are your experiences with creative anxiety? Let’s discuss in the comments.

The Writers Circle: Favorite Pieces

TWC
One of our goals here at Today’s Author is to help all of the writers among us to do what we love to do: write. One of the best ways to accomplish this is by talking to each other and learning from each other.  Our Writers Circle series is designed to do just that – provide a chance for us to discuss writing, editing and publishing questions.

This week’s topic is:

Today we’d like to discuss the creative work you consider to be your best or favorite work.  What is it about that piece which makes it your favorite? What was going on in your life that allowed you to write that specific work at that specific time?  If you have multiple favorites, feel free to discuss them all!

Let’s discuss this in the comments and see what our community thinks.

I Know the Guy in the Green Shirt

GuyInTheGreenShirtI know the guy in the green shirt because I birthed him. I named him Harvey Kipp. Harvey grew from the sparking nebula of my mind and entered my story fully grown, page 176. He’s based loosely, loose as in wouldn’t fit in a classic dictionary entry, on several boys from my high school. None of them paid me any attention at all so I was in the perfect lurker’s position. I could stand in any hallway and spy on the louts, watching their hands play grab arse with the girls, noticing their leers as others walked by, spotting their wicked hand gestures to each other indicating how high they’d scored. Didn’t matter whether they’d actually scored anything, it was their male mythology and the braggadocio that mattered. Old story of course, naughty teenage boys who likely grew up to become men worrying about the next generation of naughty teenage boys with eyes on their daughters. Twenty-five years will put that kind of wisdom on a person.

I listened to the Harveys in class as they showed off their mediocre interest in the scholastic aspects of high school and repeatedly asked the teacher annoying questions meant to steer the class off track. I grunted when they distracted everyone from a meaningful discussion of Jonathon Swift’s Modest Proposal by suggesting their own immodest proposals and generating laughs from fellow high school cretins. Sitting quietly in the second row afforded me a good view and acoustics for the daily procession of intelligence taking a back seat to arrogant bravado. So when I needed a memorable but loathsome character for my book, I had many doofusses to choose from and created an amalgam I named Harvey Kipp.

I get a bit bleary eyed when writers claim they allow their characters to tell them how they feel or what they plan to do. How’s that possible? A figment of one’s imagination giving directions – that’s fodder for the loony bin, folks. The people with clip boards start hanging around, making notes about your conversations, measuring time lapses between your wacko claims. Then they begin to approach you with syringes and long white jackets. Time to fess up, admit you’re a writer, the person you’re talking to is a character you fabricated. Whew, clip boards walking away. Isn’t that a nice change of direction?

However, Author Doe, I don’t think you’re really on the registry for admission to Far Country Psychiatric Residence if you talk this way. I just think you’re using the wrong metaphor for your act of creativity.  Unless you’re actively engaged in plagiarism, or if you write non-fiction, everything you write is an invention. It’s made up by you, you wordsmithing genius of the writer’s guild. So take credit and say in a proud voice, “Sibley Sussexford carjacked the Mercedes because I wrote her committing the crime.” Don’t tell me she talked to you, explaining she had criminal tendencies and loved to drive the fancy cars she couldn’t afford. Don’t tell me you watched her crack the window and hotwire the ignition and had to write what you witnessed. You made it up and it’s all good that you did.  Makes for a fun jaunt down the freeway with six highway patrol cars trying to round robin Sibley into a catchable corner.  And you made up that as well, even if you’ve watched a thousand freeway car chases on the five o’clock news.

Don’t attempt to convince me about Sibley’s self-sufficiency by her unbidden presence in your dreams, an independent haunt out to hijack your sleep. She shows up perhaps in your nightlife, but not mine, not your neighbor’s, because she’s a figment of your imagination, whether you’re awake or asleep. If she could manifest herself to you without your internal Ouija board beckoning her, I have to ask why she’d pick someone who drools and snores in their sleep when she could more happily inhabit my pristine and dainty evening slumber? Oh slobber and snort all you will, Sibley would recognize better lullaby digs were she able travel anywhere outside of your head. Alas and alack, she’s brain locked in your cranium, wallowing in your obsession with your book. I know because Harvey sometimes nudges me in mine. Believe me, if I could get Harvey to move over and make room for Sibley, I would. The guy’s a gorilla-handed lummox, and he isn’t any nicer because I didn’t make him Mr. Nice Guy.

The reason you can write about Sibley Sussexford and I can write about Harvey Kipp is because of all the actual, identifiable humans you and I have observed and interacted with down here on the blue planet. It’s our multiple experiences with real folks that allow us as writers to depict a three-dimensional person who carries the genetic code we wrote for them. Be proud of your imaginative mind. Take credit for your innovations. Tell it like it is: Sibley Sussexford never did a thing you didn’t direct, because you’re a writer. It’s one of your best assets.

Put Yourself in the Path of Inspiration

I cringe every time I hear the phase, “writer’s block.”  Gives me shivers and makes me itch all over.  Those two words used to be my favorite reason for not writing, “I’ve got writer’s block.” Those blocks could go on for years before I’d get back into a writing ‘mood.’  Sometimes I hear people say that they aren’t creative or that they’ve run out of ideas.  I get that, sometimes I don’t have any ideas either, but I don’t let that get in the way of writing activities.

You’ll often hear the phrase, “Writers write.”  Well, that’s true – mostly.  While writers are expected to turn out words on the page there are other things that need to be done before and after writing.

A simple analogy would be my other hobby, woodworking.  Think about building something from wood, say a box.  There are a number of steps that need to happen.  First a drawing is needed.  Then I have to get the wood, glue, finish, nails, screws, sandpaper, and other things.  Then I go to the workshop.  I’ll cut, sand, glue, nail and paint until I have my finished box.  Then I’ll likely show my finished box to my wife, some friends and brag about it at my woodworking club meeting.  It’s also possible that I’ll take some pictures of it and post it on my blog.

So what part of all that is “woodworking?”  Yes, all of it is.

Same is true with writing.  There are many parts.  There’s research, editing, revising, writing, posting to the blog, working with editors, and planning the publicity tour for your next best seller.  Come on, we can dream here.

Perhaps the most over looked part of writing is getting the idea for your story.  Often inspiration is considered a passive activity.  Some people think, as I used to, that you just go about life and suddenly a great idea will smack you upside the head and whamo you’re on the best seller list.

It doesn’t work that way and is the number one cause of writer’s block: sitting on your backside waiting for inspiration.  Becoming inspired and finding good ideas are proactive tasks.  You have to go searching for it and it takes some work.

In 1987 I found a book, Writer’s Block and How to Use It, by Victoria Nelson.  I think this one is currently out of print and the only thing I really remember about it is the title.  The title does hold the basis for how I think about writing now – if you’re blocked, use it, be active about your creativity.

After reading this book, I’d do things like free writing or reading books about writing – anything that would just get my fingers typing on the keyboard.  I also found during this time that often I get blocked on a piece of writing because of the emotions that the writing is generating in me – especially anything that is autobiographical. This is a time when I find spending time writing about why I am blocked, helps.

There are times though when we are truly empty inside and don’t have the creative energy to write anything. It’s times like this when I think of Julia Cameron’s book, The Artist’s Way and her concept of breathing in.  The idea is that in order to spend energy creating something, first you have to gather in creative energy.  You do this in a number of ways.  Take a walk, hike, ride a bike, anything physical that allows you to let your mind just rest.  You should read books, watch movies, see plays and so on. Have a coffee with a friend, or go to a poetry reading. Go to art shows, concerts, museums – anyplace where you’ll find things that inspire you.  This is the act of breathing in.

As you experience the creativity of others, or of nature, you’ll fill up your creative self with energy, inspiration and lots of ideas.  After you’ve been somewhere take a moment to write about what you’ve seen, felt and experienced.  I am willing to bet that the words will just flow.

Which brings me to a book I found last year in an art museum’s gift shop, Steal Like an Artist, 10 Things Nobody Told You About Being Creative, by Austin Kleon.

If you spend any time in the halls of your local university studying literary criticism, you’ll eventual despair as you begin to realize that all literature and indeed most creative works are really derivative.  Ideas build on each other and as it’s been said so many times, “It’s all been done before.”

Look at your favorite stories and movies in depth and you’ll find they are really just clever rearrangements of existing ideas.   Just think of the Harry Potter books and how much of that world we’ve seen in other places.  Witches, wizards, dragons, trolls, dark magic trying to take over the world and the young reluctant hero who has to save us.  How many times have we heard that story?

Yet JK Rowling added one interesting twist, “What if there was a school for magic that looked like an English Public School?”  And then wow, that one spark and we have a compelling story.

Kleon’s book starts out by asking, “Were do artists get their ideas?” The answer is, “They steal them.”  He then goes on to talk about some of the great ways we can be creative.  Things like have side projects, hobbies, be boring (let your mind rest), share your work, steal ideas properly, and write what you like.

Being consistently creative is really about putting yourself into the path of inspiration by looking at all the creative things around you, stealing the best parts and figuring out how to put those together in new ways.

And just so you  know, I stole most of this post from the three books I mentioned.

Tell the Story

A few weeks ago, we asked the question each of us has probably been asked many times: Why do we write? We had a few people answer both online and offline and the general theme of the responses was simple:  “I write because I can’t not write.”

This was always my answer in the past, too.  But after a few years of basically not writing, at least not writing in the way I always used to write because I “had to”, I’ve started doubting that answer.  I mean, if I’m being honest here, I’ve successfully not written much of anything for quite some time, so clearly I am actually quite capable of not writing.

Yet, I feel like I am – and should continue to be – a writer.

The reason I say this is because I have stories to tell.  A lot of them.  Stories that are unique to me and only able to be told by me.  Sure, I’ve already told a lot of stories, some really good, some less good. But I know I have a lot more in me because they are all trying to come out in one way or another.

I’ve been reflecting on my creative struggles a lot recently. Most of the struggles are due to outside factors such as work, kids and life.  But some of them are definitely simply related to inertia – now that I’m not writing regularly it is easy to continue to not write regularly.  It’s just like going to the gym every day — when you’re in the habit, you just keep going to the gym each day, even if you don’t feel like it.  But if you skip a day, it is much easier to skip the next day, and the next day, and the next.

And so here I sit, worn out from the daily grind but still full of creative energy.  I’m so tired when I sit down to write that I tend to drift off to sleep almost immediately upon beginning to write, my head nodding slowly down, hovering slightly above the laptop keyboard. It’s not that the stories aren’t there for the telling, it’s that they can’t type themselves!

So what is my answer when I’m asked “Why do you write?”  As I mentioned, it always used to be “I write because I can’t not write.”  But now I’ve got a different answer:

“I write because I have stories to tell.”

Is there really a difference in these answers? I suppose in the grand scheme of things there is not much of a difference in them.  The small detail of actually putting words on the page is there, looming larger than life no matter how I might phrase my answer.  But if you parse those two answers carefully, there is a subtle difference.  One makes writing be almost like a chore – something I must do, something that is required.  The other gives a more rational explanation and a more realistic expectation – the writing is about the story being told, not about the writing being done.  I tell stories all the time, wild and whimsical tales of excitement or woe, epic victories and massive defeats, paper bags and plastic bags.  Stories that make my kids roll their eyes at me and stories that make my kids’ friends laugh at how odd I am.  The stories are there and they come out, whether I get them on paper or not.

And so, I am a writer.  I am a writer because I have stories to tell and I tell them.  The next step is to get back into putting them down on the page so that they can be shared outside of the small circle of people who ride back and forth in my car as we go to baseball games or band events.  Maybe then I can get back to the simpler answer of writing because I can’t not write.  But until then I will keep telling my stories and I hope you will keep telling your stories, too.

 

Storms and Drought

Weather and writing. More generally, weather and creativity. They are inextricably linked together through metaphor.

Throwing out ideas is a Brainstorm.

Ideas come in a flood—or sometimes a torrent.

Ideas come out of nowhere like a bolt of lightning.

Weather seems a particularly apt analogy for creativity. They both seem out of our control—random even. While weather forecasting has given us more lead time to react to weather, we still have no actions to control the air and water around us. When ideas come we are similarly expected—and we’re generally happy—to simply weather the storm.

While there are tips and tricks to keep the creative stream flowing—write every day at the same time, use handwriting in a journal to warm up, etc—we have all been struck down by writers’ block from time to time.

There’s weather for that, too.

Ideas dry up.

A chronic lack of ideas is a drought—or somewhat less frequently, a depression.

If you’re stuck in a rut and can’t get out, you’re in the doldrums¹.

While not universal, the tendency to relate our creativity to natural phenomenon is certainly widespread—cutting across several languages, and not limited to the cultures that spread out from Europe.

This close metaphorical tie has an interesting side effect. With weather there is no shortage of terms for describing when weather goes wrong, yet there’s a dearth of terms for nice things like a pleasant, sunny day, with a short rain shower for good measure. Similarly, there are few elegant ways to describe the condition of having just the right balance between new ideas and the time to explore those ideas.

This is all scene setting for the situation I’ve found myself in. While I’m not swimming in free time, I do have some. But when I sit down to write, I find myself tilling the dry, crumbly ground for even the hint of an idea.

 


 

¹ Doldrums refers to those parts of the Atlantic and the Pacific Oceans affected by a low-pressure area around the equator where the prevailing winds are calm. The doldrums are noted for calm periods when the winds disappear altogether, trapping sail-powered boats for periods of days or weeks (paraphrased from Wikipedia).

Games to Inspire Creativity

I’m a nerd.  My kids are nerds. My wife is a nerd (that’s a compliment, honey).  What this means is we often get gifts that are intellectually stimulating (along with the occasionally absurd varieties).

Two of the games we have on our shelf tend to spur a lot of creativity in our house.  First, there are Rory’s Story Cubes.  Rory’s Story Cubes are a set of dice that have pictures on them.  You roll the dice and then make up a story based on the pictures that come up.  As far as I know, they have three sets:  Original, Voyages, and Actions.  Each set of dice can be used individually or together to build wild stories that are generated by the random rolls.  It is a pocket-sized game, so it is easy to bring along with you wherever you go.  When you want to make up a quick story, whip out the Cubes, roll them out and start writing!  I find these to be a lot of fun with friends or kids and they can really kick start the creativity if you just want to write something fun or different.

Another game we have received is called You’ve Been Sentenced.  In You’ve Been Sentenced, players select a hand of 10 pentagonal cards from the deck. Each card has various conjugations of a base word.  There are nouns, verbs, adjectives, indefinite articles, proper names — everything you’d need to write complete, grammatically correct sentences.  The goal of the game is to build the longest sentence you can (again, properly formed, grammatically correct).  When a player has achieved what they believe is their best sentence, they set a timer and the other players have until the time runs out to complete their own.  Any player in the game is allowed to argue that your sentence is improper or grammatically incorrect or just doesn’t make sense…then you both defend opinions to the rest of the players (The Jury).  The sentences that result from this are often quite hilarious, on their own, but as you can imagine, the arguments against or in defense of a given sentence are often even more hilarious.  We have had games where in defense of a sentence we’ve spun up entire tales explaining back story and side details about the character(s) within it.  Other times, I have attempted to make each of my sentences (each hand of cards) be part of a single storytelling universe- as you might imagine, this is not easy to do with a random set of words every few minutes.

I’m sure there are many other games out there that can provide similar creative sparks.  I have a box on the table next to me that is called the “Writer’s Toolbox”. In it there are flash cards and popsicle sticks that have words, phrases and ideas written on them. There are also spinners with different words on them.  Selecting a card or stick from the various piles or spinning the word wheel provides different ideas and story arcs.  Similarly, I’ve taken a standard dictionary, closed my eyes, opened to a random page and dropped my finger onto a word… do it a couple times and then use those words to build a story.  (In fact, my wife and I used to do this together… we’d select words, write stories and then compare the results — I told you we’re both nerds…).

In the end, I look at any and all opportunities to find creativity.  Games, prompts and other idea generators are great tools, but ultimately they can just be a means of kick starting the creativity that is already there.  Do you know of any other games similar to these which you use as a means of generating ideas? Share them in the comments!

NOTE:  I am not trying to sell these games, but if you are interested in learning more, I’ve provided links to them on Amazon:

Rory’s Story Cubes

 
You’ve Been Sentenced