creative process

The first rule of writing

write what you LIKE, by austin kleon

This post is #2 in a series of 50 dedicated to the art and life of writing, in support of the 50 for 50 Project to benefit WriteGirl. If you like it, or if you think it could have been improved by a better writing education for its author, please give generously. And pass it on.

I always hated that whole “Write what you know” thing. I didn’t know jack shit from jack shinola when I first picked up a pencil, and I doubt anyone would have enjoyed The Highly-Limited World of a Five-Year-Old Middle-Class White Girl from Chicago (Harper & Row, 1966). Better that I should make up not-entirely-sensical stories about Russian princesses and doll villages and what happened to Ken when the grown-ups left us unattended to play Barbies.

But there’s something more to this idea of writing what you like: it makes things juicy. Juicy-messy, but anyone who’s ever had one of those Christmastime pears from Harry & David knows how awesome that can be. Writing what you like instead of just what you know is like starting in the middle, where the action is. You’re not ramping up with a lot of exposition or PC BS; you’re diving right into to the wacko of life. And I don’t care how stuffy or sane or normal or straight anyone seems on the outside, on the inside, there’s a whole lot of wacko going on. Count on it.

Every time this blog has gotten boring, or the newsletter, or the column, or anything else I’ve written, it’s been because I was trying to do things A Certain Way. To give people more of what they wanted, so I could get something. What people and what they wanted, I had no idea; what I was trying to get, though, was always one of the same two things: attention and love. Sometimes in the form of money, sometimes ink, sometimes (ugh) celebrity.

And every time my writing has gotten interesting, it’s because I’ve gotten back to talking about what interests me. Which changes. Like people.

You knew that already, though. Things only seem to stay the same; you know that they don’t, that the price of pretending they do means living in a world that doesn’t really exist, and looking a whole lot like some sad Baby Jane nightmare relic of a Hollywood that never was.

Write what you like, and you’ve got the beginnings of work you can love.


P.S. Did you know there’s a whole other thing going on at the fundraising blog, too? Interviews with my fave old and new ladywriters. First up: the outstandingly helpful, funny and PROLIFIC Bonnie Gillespie.

Image inside the frame by Austin Kleon, one of a series of wise slides from his talk, “How to Steal Like an Artist (and Nine Other Things No One Told Me).” You can get it in a luxurious, desktop-sized image of inspiration with a $15 contribution to the 50-for-50 project on IndieGoGo, through September 13, 2011. After that, you’re on your own.

Friction, dread, and arriving “having had”

hand-painted sign

I’ve been in Portland for a week now. It’s a beautiful time of year here, cool and damp, studded with the usual rare bits of sunshine, but everything is in bloom, and people seem even happier than usual when the sun does come out.

As I did last year, I’m staying in a wonderful little house in a highly walkable neighborhood. So much so that while I have a car at my disposal, thus far I have chosen to walk1, to the grocery store, the world’s greatest bookstore, to meet with friends. Oh, yeah, I apparently have friends here, and we do stuff. A lot. Eating, mostly, but all the walking means I can eat with impunity. I’ve walked more miles and done more stuff and seen more people here in a week than I’ll do in L.A. in a month. All in all, it’s been a pretty excellent so far.

Yet if you had climbed inside my head for the two or three weeks before coming up to this place, this place I like so much that I’ve transplanted myself here for 2-4 weeks every year for the past four, you’d have been certain that I planned these trips up north as some kind of punishment. The nearer my departure date drew, the more my anxiety level rose. I had too much going on in L.A. to leave right now. I had no good reason to go, except that I’d promised; I’d sound like an idiot when people ask me why I’m here, just like I do when they ask me what I do. I’d be missing things: my colorist appointment; my own business mixer; my stuff. (It’s always about me and my hair and my stuff.)

Never mind those previous trips that I’d dreaded had turned out to be delightful learning and growing experiences. This one would suck. I’d be lonely. I’d be adrift. It would be a disaster.

* * * * *

You might write off this anxiety as a fear of failure, and trust me, that’s there in spades, but my anxiety and resistance extends far further than that. Sometimes it seems like I approach anything that presents any potential friction with a level of dread.

There are the tedium-based frictions: brushing my teeth; cooking vegetables; washing my hair.

There are the rejection/failure-based frictions: returning phone calls. Actually starting projects I am contracted to do. Following up with people who have expressed interest in doing new projects.

And there are the reminders-of-my-own-incompetence-based frictions: practicing guitar, doing my Nei Kung exercises, drawing, small-talk-socializing.

But the King Daddy of them all is writing. Writing is tedious. You are never guaranteed success. Even when you get good at it, you suck at it. There is little I dread more than sitting down to write.

As luck would have it, however, there is nothing I want more than to be a really good writer. And until you can go to the Really Good Writing Store and load up on that shit, you’re sort of stuck with plain old practicing. Which means writing, and plenty of it, and with serious, focused intent on improvement.

* * * * *

Success doesn’t help much to alleviate this mindset, by the way. As they say when you invest, past performance is not indicative of future results. If you’re looking for guarantees, the universe and your broker are fresh out.

On the other hand, success is not entirely useless. It’s proof that you managed to finish something once before. And it can keep other people momentarily occupied while you get on with the business of doing the next thing.

* * * * *

There are several things I do to keep myself writing. One of them is writing here, on the blog. It’s much easier writing privately, in morning pages or in the Google Wave with Daveâ„¢, but hanging my own ass out to dry in public helps focus my energies and inspires me to bring my “A” game in a way that cracking open a spiral notebook does not. (Although I still do the other, private kinds of writing. Because really, if you want to be a writer? Just writewritewritewrite. Like a motherfucker, as Sugar says.)

For this same reason of using the public to keep me honest and on schedule, I write a monthly newsletter. It’s a different flavor of focus: less “self-help”-y, if you will, but no less helpful.2 Ditto, the monthly column for actors: it’s useful in an entirely different way to write about what you know for different kinds of audiences.3 You can take classes. You can buddy up and swap stories. But outward-facing writing with accountability is just a sensible and grownup way of working at the thing you want to get better at.

Does it mean any of this writing is easy to do? No. Well, sometimes, for stretches. But not as much as you’d think.

There’s always some level of dread involved. There is dread because there is friction. There is friction because there are stakes. No stakes, no dread.

Once you’re really in, there is always some level of dread. Ergo, there must always be some form of dread management.

* * * * *

There is a wonderful term in the film & television industry, “show up having had.” As in, show up on set for your call time tomorrow having had some damned thing or another to eat, because there won’t be any there when you arrive, sucka, nor time to eat it, neither.

You can, of course, opt not to eat beforehand. But you’ve been forewarned: food won’t be coming for a while, and you’ll be expected to work in the meantime. Without stopping to shove a sandwich in your face. And, if you’re “talent”, certainly without doing anything that will hamper Hair & Makeup or Wardrobe as they try to do their jobs. Can you work without food in your stomach?

I never thought much about “having had” while I was working as an actor, except perhaps that the production company was a cheap bastard. Which may or may not have been true, money had started getting tight by the time I got out. Really though, productions have always been expensive, because it’s always going to cost a lot to get 150 people together in the same place for a limited time to get one thing done. “Having had” was but one way of keeping the production running smoothly. All kinds of contingencies are planned for with a shoot: how we’ll rearrange the shots in case of weather, in case the baby doesn’t cry on cue, in case there’s a truck jackknifed on the I-5. Producers are professional dreaders; they worry in advance, to head as many worries as they can off at the pass.

Commercials (and movies, and TV shows) may suck when they’re done, but thanks to the professional dreaders, they get done.

* * * * *

If you have ever done improv, watched improv, or heard about improv, chances are you know about the foundation of improv: “Yes, and….” No matter how implausible the scenario you are confronted with, you embrace it and build on it.4

Yes, your hair is on fire, and fortunately, I have brought a bucket of water in my gigantic rubber purse. Yes, we’re at the top of K-2 in disco pants, and look: there’s John Travolta! Yes, and so on.

This is (mostly) how I handle my nutty little fears and phobias. Yes, I don’t want to brush my teeth, and I’m going to just fire up the Braun and see what happens, anyway. On particularly fraught days, I’ll play additional games with myself: I’ll just go in the bathroom. I’ll just pull the toothbrush out of the holder. Etcetera. You hear runners talk about this sometimes, that just getting the shoes on and stepping outside is often enough to get them over the hump, off and running.

I seek out ways to reduce friction nowadays. Sometimes it’s washing, peeling and prepping my veggies as soon as I get them home.5 Sometimes it’s placing multiple reminders in the calendar about shopping for Girl Drag before a big event (I resist my Girl Drag more and more). DVDs help get Mt. Laundry folded and put away. Arriving at conferences a day before the madness begins helps me ramp up to the crush.

With writing, it basically boils down to keeping my ass in shape, then parking it in a chair from a certain hour to another hour so my hands can make the clackity noise. The pile of supposably good writing grows incrementally, day by day, week by week. I wish I could tell you otherwise, but that’s been my experience so far. By all means, reduce friction where you can here, too. Make sure you are fed and watered (not too much). Get a good night’s rest. Have your public-facing stuff, your accountability groups, your coaches and classes, your blah blah blah. Then sit down and write.

No matter what you do, the writing will probably hurt a little. There’s only so much friction to be removed.

Dread, and write. Get slowed to a crawl, and write. Write write write. (And please, feel free to substitute “parent” or “paint” or “calculate” or what you will for “write”.)

The dread makes sense. But it alone can’t make you stop.


1Or take the bus. Portland also has an outstanding public transit system, possibly the best feature of which is that they refer to those 65+ plus as “honored citizens.” Something to consider when planning one’s retirement.

2Two points here. First, re: the “self-help” moniker, I wrestle with this all the time, as some of my friends know. In fact, I had a long discussion here in Portland this weekend with a writer whom I greatly admire about how conflicted one feels, being labeled as a self-help writer. On the one hand, it’s the thing you hope for most, that your writing “lands” and actually helps someone in the process. On the other, well, come on. The genre is neck-in-neck with fantasy sci-fi and business for crap writing.

Second, writing the newsletter is just as helpful to me as a writer as writing the blog is these days. It forces me to organize my thoughts differently, and that’s always good, to be able to organize your thoughts in different ways. But the newsletter itself is arguably more helpful to readers, or more readers, anyway, than this blog is. It’s more straightforward in the way it serves up tips and ideas; the blog is more elliptical. So if you’re looking to be a better communicator and you don’t want to dick around with “self-help”-y stuff, by all means, quit reading this silly blog and subscribe to the newsletter.

3Recently I also began blogging for my wonderful friends and clients at the ASMP. Only a couple of posts so far, but writing for photographers, like writing for actors or designers, is a different game and keeps me sharp. Highly recommended, writer-types.

4Nothing beats a real, live class for learning the value of improv, but Patricia Ryan Madson’s Improv Wisdom runs a close second, and is a delightful read, to boot.

4I’ve done this off and on for most of my adult life, but reading this post on barriers by Ramit Sethi really helped me recommit to this simple but effective practice. Bonus: it may help you recommit to improving your finances as well.

The danger of 10% evil

tiny metal gargoyle figurine

Many years ago, I was in the world’s worst acting class.

Its badness was made possible by its goodness. Much like a relationship where you’re slowly gaslighted into madness until a gigantic Acme mallet (or Joseph Cotten) shows up to snap you out of it, about 90% of what went down was fine, excellent, even.

Which is precisely why the remaining 10% was so dangerous: plenty of inert matter to make the poison go down smoothly.

* * * * *

Do you think about money often? I think about it quite a bit, just before I shove the thoughts from my head in a holy panic.

My lifelong attitude toward money mimics my childhood attitude toward adulthood: Lots of power; too much scary. RUN! The thing is, of course, you really can’t avoid either. Or at some point, you just realize that avoiding them is more exhausting than giving in. And when you do finally settle into one or the other (or both) a bit, when you start handling your money with respect or learning to delay gratification in favor of prudence and responsibility, you see that it’s not really dollars or years that you’re scared of; they’re just dollars and years.

You’re scared of that part of you that you think is incompetent. Or vain. Or maybe flat-out evil, you devil, you.

You’re scared that the small, not-so-good part of you will override the big, pretty-okay part of you and ruin everything. That you will be left alone, reviled and ridiculed for the incompetent/vain/flat-out-evil devil you are. That you will die.

It doesn’t matter that it won’t, you won’t, and you probably won’t for a long, long time. That 10% of you puts on a really convincing show.

* * * * *

One thing I learned in that horrible-wonderful acting class was that a well-drawn character wants something more than anything else, and over the course of a well-played scene, will use every trick in her personal playbook to get it. (We call the wants “intentions” and the tricks used to get it “tactics.” Now you can impress your actor friends with your inside knowledge.)

Here’s the conundrum, the strongest want is nothing without an equally strong obstacle in the way of that want: Al Pacino thwarting Robert DeNiro in Heat; the survivors racing against the water in The Poseidon Adventure; Ray Milland battling himself in The Lost Weekend. It can exist without or within, but if you take away the immovable object, the unstoppable force whizzes frictionless through nothingness, fizzling out somewhere far, far past our interest in watching it. The tension between the two is what fuels the creativity of the characters and heightens the suspense.

More tension, better show.

No tension, no show.

* * * * *

I’m working on a huge (HUGE) project for my upcoming birthday this September. It’s the kind of project that could be astonishing and life-changing and crazy, crazy fun if it comes together, not just for me, but potentially for a lot of other people, you included. And if it falls apart, of course, it is one of those things that will make me, and only me, look stupid. The flavor of fail I am more afraid of than anything.

Here’s the hilarious (and predictable) part: as the deadline for each part of the project has approached, I’ve balked. You’re coming off of a five-month Crohn’s flare. You need to focus on your business. You’ll have to call in every favor you have and rack up debt in the favor bank, to boot. The scale is ridiculous. The time frame is insane. You’re insane, even if you pull it off, there’s no assurance it will make any kind of difference.

All of these things are true. Mean to say, but no less true for it.

But what is also true is that so far, all the drama has come from me, myself and I playing out a three-person scene; the universe has been an extraordinarily compliant scene partner.

So it’s 90% good that I’m 10% evil. Otherwise this sucker might never get liftoff.

* * * * *

I don’t know how you discern between regular shadow and the toxic kind in the moment. These sorts of calculations almost always benefit from some time and/or distance. Seth wrote an excellent book about knowing when to stop (and when to plow through) that I should probably re-read. Byron Katie came up with those four questions that do a pretty good job of rooting out untruths.

If you put a gun to my head, I’d say the danger of 10% evil crosses over from frisson to “Warning, Will Robinson!” when you feel yourself starting to disappear. The point of danger, this kind of danger, is to make you stronger. There were people in that horrible acting class who were well served by it. I was one of them for a while, and then I wasn’t, and then I left.

But I don’t think you should wish away evil any more than you should wish away time. Instead, wish for the alertness to stay on your toes. Wish for help from the muse finding creative ways to slay your dragons. Wish for courage. Wish for vision.

Then get that show on the road.


Image by downhilldom1984 via Flickr, used under a Creative Commons license.

Making allowances for the way you work

photo of Colleen Wainwright

Yesterday morning, I finished reading Unbroken, the true-life story of Louis Zampirini’s triumphant, plague-filled journey from punk kid to Olympic runner to WWII Air Force bombadier to POW to haunted veteran to redeemed hero. It’s an amazing story.

As I tore through it on my Kindle, the only way for the spindly-limbed gal to fly when it comes to oversized books, I kept thinking three things:

  1. Damn, this is an amazing story!
  2. Would I have what it takes to make it through this?
  3. How in the wide, wide world of sports did Laura Hillenbrand write this with CFS?

The joke answer, of course, is “very, very slowly.” It would take a wildly robust writer a long time to research and write a compelling and historically-accurate 400-page book about a series of events in a time when everyone’s last sneeze was not recorded for posterity*; it took Hillenbrand 10 years.

* * * * *

I didn’t pick up Unbroken because Laura Hillenbrand has a chronic illness and I have a chronic illness and hey, why not be inspired by a writer whose chronic illness is a thousand times worse than mine to get off my lazy, relatively well ass and write, dammit; I picked it up, well, downloaded it to my electronic reading device, because I’d heard people rave over and over about what a gripping tale, what an immersive experience it was. Hard-core lefties, Republicans, old folk, youngsters, literati. Enough of a spread to render the thumbs-up agnostic.**

I picked it up because I had a long plane ride ahead of me and, thanks to tailwinds, a longer one back, and I fly in the back of the bus, where postage-stamp-sized trays jutting out into what could only laughably be called “room” preclude any sort of real work, much less 15″ laptop-opening. It’s a situation that calls for books one would describe as “gripping” and reading experiences one would call “immersive.”

I picked it up because, after a rough three weeks patching myself up from a foolhardy near-crash outside of San Francisco, I knew I’d be spending more time alone in my hotel room resting when I wasn’t strictly needed in order to spend the energy my job called for when I was.

* * * * *

Toward the end of my talk, I got a question that comes up so frequently, I may end up adding it to the presentation proper: How do you do all of this?

You see, I’ve just spent 50 jam-packed minutes going over Right Behavior online in our fast-paced-and-rapidly-changing modern media landscape (and indicating that much of it is now expected, if not required, in real life). All the ins and outs of tweeting and Facebooking and policy-creation and email-sig-shortening that you need to know so you don’t fall behind, or worse, come off like a thankless jackass online. Understandably, this is overwhelming to people at the beginning of the learning curve. Just the idea of doing it is overwhelming, never mind the actual learning and doing.

I get this; I do. And while I answer for myself, because really, that’s all one can do, I am really giving the answer for everyone, everywhere, regardless of the condition of their health or the state of their business or the vigorous and very real demands on their life: you make accommodations for what is important to you. My work is important to me, so I don’t do or have a bunch of things normal people have. Lately, I’ve realized that my health is important to me, so I’m learning to accommodate that, too. Slowly. And, if I’m honest, as much because I’m terrified at the thought of not being able to work as I am not being able, period.***

It may help to remember that while I’m relatively facile at this whole being-online thing, I have my own c*cksucking boulders to push up my own motherf*cking hills. For example, I have always just been lucky enough with money and modest enough in my desires that I didn’t have to learn anything about it to get by in relative comfort. Now the economy is squeezing me along with everyone else, AND I’m (almost) 50, AND I want a couple of bigger things that are simply not going to be possible without winning the lottery or changing my rhythm. And I don’t play the lottery.

* * * * *

Everyone has their basket. The older I get, the more I think that most choices boil down to love or fear, and most of the pain in the world is caused by choosing the latter. It is much, much easier to do the scaredy-cat thing and peer into the tippy-tops of other people’s baskets and become covetous or enraged or pitying or what have you. It is much harder to look at yours, get down with what’s in it, and get to work. However you work. Whatever your “work” is.

But that’s what’s required: complete honesty looking inward, and complete love looking outward. Honesty and love. No more, no less. Not very sexy, but there it is.

I’d be surprised if anyone gets all the way there, ever, before the lights go out. I have a looooong way to go, which is why I’m spending more time in hot baths liberally sprinkled with Epsom salts than I am at the discothéque. (Well, and also because I don’t think there are such things as discothéques anymore.)

Give yourself the room you need to live the life you want. That’s what all this stuff about decluttering and streamlining and goal-setting is really about. Room to do what’s right, and what feeds you, and what saves the world. Once you have enough room, see about what you can do to provide someone else with some before you get yourself more. (Because really, beyond a certain point, how much room do you need?)

We all know what’s best for ourselves. And we can all start making sure it happens right now.


*Actually, another thing I kept wondering while I read was how these men in the Japanese prison camps managed to keep diaries at all, much less preserve them for 60 years. Their ingenuity and stubborn determination made me ashamed of my dithering over writing software programs and WordPress glitches.

**Speaking of agnosticism, I almost certainly wouldn’t have picked it up if I’d known there was an actual religious redemption in the story. In the context of Zampirini’s life, though, it not only makes sense, you’re happy when it happens. I’m wary enough of organized religion to say my own, little “hosanna” when one of the good guys turns up.

***I know, I know, it’s messed UP. I’m not saying this is a good way to be, or that it’s a place I want to stay. I’m just being brutally honest about where I am. Because in my experience, skipping that first step really makes the whole thing go farkakte.

Photo © Addison Geary Photography.

Book review: Ignore Everybody


There are three people and/or things directly to blame for me starting a blog way, way back on November 1, 2004:

  1. a severe onset of Crohn’s disease, which served both to jar things loose and make me unafear’d (or less afear’d) of looking like a jackass;
  2. my friend, Debbie, who is so discreet her web footprint is almost invisible, and so modest she’s probably already mortified at being called out here (hi, Deb!);
  3. Hugh MacLeod, insanely great writer and generous creative mind who also draws cartoons on the backs of business cards

I was introduced to the goodness that was Hugh back in 2003 by a smart but annoying troubadour during my 18-month tenure as the Whore of Babylon. Hugh’s blog was by far The Troubadour’s biggest gift to me; I was instantly hooked both by the mad and intricate drawings that came from Hugh’s Rapidograph and the buckets of cold, clear water he splashed over the screen with his keyboard. The Hughtrain, his manifesto on marketing, remains one of my favorite WAKE THE FUCK UP, PEOPLE! screeds on the nexus of old tenets and new tools. His blog posts were a refreshing mix of smart, funny and flat-out curmudgeonly. And the cartoons, well, they made me laugh. Hard. And think, at the same time. And slightly after that, wish I could draw well (I’m still trying, as you can see by the little illos on my monthly newsletter). And yes, hate him. Just a little.

But it was his “How to Be Creative” series that hooked me hard and eventually turned me into the drooling fangirl obsessively linking linking linking to Hugh’s shit. “How to Be Creative” was as comprehensive in his way as Twyla’s is in hers. There’s theory embedded in there, and stories, and even how-tos, if you’re not a lazy slob.

Ignore Everybody (And 39 Other Keys to Creativity) is the book that (finally) sprung from that amazing series of posts. It’s inspiring and infuriating, and it’s both of those things because it’s true as hell. Hugh has lived his way through these 40 rules and has the experiences and the output (and doubtless the battle scars) to show for it.

The book itself is an example of Rules #1 (“Ignore Everybody”) and #16 (“The most important thing a creative person can learn professionally is where to draw the red line that separates what you are willing to do from what you are not.”) As he says himself in a story illustrating Rule #5 (“If your business plan depends on suddenly being ‘discovered’ by some big shot, your plan will probably fail”*), Hugh was offered a deal years before to turn his series into a book, but turned it down because ultimately, he couldn’t stomach the terms. This book, he says, is exactly the book he wanted to make, with exactly the cartoons to illustrate it.

Having gone through a heady back-and-forth myself with a big NYC agent earlier this year, this cheered me greatly. Yeah, I was probably a dumbass (or a hard-head) in most people’s books for not making some changes that would move me closer to my dream of being a Writer Who Speaks.

In my book, though, it would have been in wild violation of Rules #27 (“Write from the heart”) and #26 (“You have to find your own shtick.”) When something is going to chip away at your soul just enough to bother you, there really isn’t another choice.

To answer that question (cheap) people repeatedly bring up when it comes to books derived from blogs, yes, a great deal of what you’ll find in Ignore Everybody is easily found on Hugh’s blog. Frankly, if you’re that hard up, I’m guessing Hugh would be cool with you reading the material online for free and just missing out on the tweaks and finessing that make this a book-book. But if you’re really enmeshed in the struggle to be creative, don’t you want an ally at your side, your literal, actual side, while you whack your way through the marshy swamps that lie between you and your cherished prize?

I did. I do. No one is getting my copy. Not until Oprah drives by in that long, sleek limo, rolls down the window and beckons me in…


*Or, as I call it, the Limo Analogy.

Card design ©2008 Colleen Wainwright; Card redesign ©2008 HughMacLeod.

Limits vs. tolerance: knowing the former and cultivating the latter


I’m perpetually about five steps behind the smart kids like Merlin and Julien, so I’m just now reading Twyla Tharp’s absolutely outstanding, OUTSTANDING, I tell you, book, The Creative Habit.* (Julien, if you’re reading this, you were 100% right, and I owe you a beer. Or something.)

Since Merlin first started talking about the book some time ago, I’ve noticed a term creep into his writing more often: tolerance.** As in, tolerance for ambiguity when it comes to approaching the making of stuff, and tolerance for sucking during the process of making it.

Possibly in turn, or possibly because it’s part of the zeitgeist I’m soaking in, I’ve noticed the term floating up into my own consciousness a lot lately. I’ve worked steadily at cultivating my own tolerance for ambiguity and for sucking, as well; I lump them together as tolerance for “mess,” which I’ve built up a much, much higher tolerance for both physically and psychically.

Interestingly, my tolerance for clutter has decreased as my tolerance for mess has increased. On the surface, you might see them as the same, but I see them as quite distinct:

Mess is the inevitable by-product of creation, the few eggs you’re going to have to break to make an omelet (or the few thousand you’re going to have to break to make one expertly). Mess is the artist’s studio during work hours, or the writer’s office halfway through a book, or any creative person’s brain at the beginning of a huge, and always scary, undertaking.

Clutter is the crap that gets in the way of creation, the weeds and distractions that keep you from the business at hand. It can can be thoughts that no longer serve as well as tools that are broken or outdated. It’s the fat and the noise and the junk that stands between you and your goal: if you’re an actor or a dancer, it might be literal body fat; if you’re a singer or a speaker, it could be a weak diaphragm or shit habits that are destroying your pipes. It is almost always TV, for everyone, but it can also be any number of bad consumptive habits, from too many beers after “work”-work (getting in the way of your artistic work) to excessive reliance on gossip rags, chick lit or internet forums.

For some of us, clutter is simply too many things we’ve said “yes” to that we don’t really want to do, or that aren’t moving us forward in significant ways. I have become much closer to my little friends, No Fucking Way and Not a Snowball’s Chance in Hell, although I have to constantly remind them to use their indoor voice and smile politely when out and about in the world. My new-favorite dish is the “no” sandwich: slipping a big, bad slice of Wild Horses Couldn’t Drag Me There between two pretty slices of “Oh, aren’t you sweet to ask!” or “That Sounds Like So Much Fun” or “I Reeeeeeeally Wish I Could.” The point ain’t to stomp on someone else’s delicate mess with your big clodhoppers, but to recognize what works for them may not for you, and vice versa.

I get a little panicky about how much time I have left to get the music out of me every year about now. And yeah, I realize that worry is a form of clutter, too. Still, addressing what’s standing between me and what I’ve decided I want becomes more and more important as I creep inevitably toward what I hope is a natural and long-off death, but which I recognize could be lying just steps away, up on the fire escape, Acme anvil in hand, waiting for me to turn the corner.

So I say “no”, or at least, “let me sleep on it”, to more things, that I may say “yes” to the right things. Creating limits, so there’s a safe space to cultivate tolerance…


Image by “T” altered art via Flickr, used under a Creative Commons license.

*I’ll be reviewing it next week, but feel free to buy it now, even without the review. Because the first 100 pages are better than most of the pages of about 2,000,000 books put together. It’s just the best book I’ve read for working creatives ever. Juicy, full of ideas and inspiration and exercises. Funny. Well-written. No fat. Blowing-my-mind good.

**You can read the central post about it, which also links to a really nice talk he gave at this year’s MaxFunCon on dealing with The Resistor during the creative process.

How to keep failing


Back when I was a young pup Shilling for the Man, I wrote a lot of ads for a certain mass-market sports beverage.

As in, a lot of ads.

Because while those of you who haven’t had the pleasure of working in the salt mines of advertising might not know it, the ratio of ads-come-up-with to ads-actually-produced is crazy high. Or low. You get my point: creatives, as they are affectionately known, dream up and sketch out far, far more ideas that get shit-canned than make it to the airwaves.

As a result of this crazy ratio, and a particularly trying mix of difficult personalities (which was out of my control) and quarter-life crisis (which, to be fair and in retrospect, was probably largely out of my control as well), I started to experience burnout. The well ran dry of ideas (how many ways can you sell spiked water, anyway?) and I started to feel myself turn into a hack, applying what had been successful in previous go-rounds to the supposedly new challenges before us (which, come on: spiked water? there are no new challenges). I turned to a formula, such as it was, and my copy became sort of a caricature of its former self.

It scared me enough to start the wheels in motion for my escape. There were other contributing factors, egregious politics, rampant greed, physical burnout, but I could see I’d need some sort of major cranial overhaul to keep going in my chosen career, and while I don’t think there’s anything wrong with advertising per se, I never could get 100% down with the amount of resources it consumed for the value it produced. At least the typing monkeys were working towards a second Hamlet.

Success is terrifying. I mean, it’s great for about 20 minutes out of the 2 million it took to get there, the peak experience of a big sale or shiny statuette or the equivalent is a serious head rush. But then there’s that blank page the next day, and the mandate to fill it with something equally awesome or even more so. Death, death. But that’s exactly what happens to creative after creative, artist after artist, blogger after blogger once they hit something like their stride. Reach a peak, or even a plateau of competence, and the pressure is enormous to stay there. Worst of all, you can even stay there for some time, convinced that you’re evolving, that you’re building on a solid foundation of hard-won knowledge instead of lolling about on your dusty, crackling laurels.

A while ago, I bookmarked a wonderful piece on this subject by fine artist Robert Genn (whose semi-weekly newsletter, The Painter’s Keys, is one of my favorite regular reads). It’s titled “Sterility,” after Pablo Picasso’s take on the eternally interesting (if confounding) topic. Sterility, Picasso said*, is the result of copying oneself, an infraction he considered far worse than copying others, because engenders artistic death.

The opposite of sterility is fertility, and Genn’s argument (and Picasso’s, by extension) is that fertility is a learned state, or at least, that learning and action can help keep one in a state of artistic productivity or fertility. This resonates deeply with my own experience, which I liken to having to throw myself off a goddamn cliff just as soon as I’ve caught my breath from climbing up there. It’s terrifying, it’s exhilarating, it’s teh suxors, as some geeky kids somewhere said at some time. Flinging myself into the gaping maw of who-the-hell-knows what, again and again and again.

To you, reading this now, it may not seem so. You may see (or hear, however it works) some kind of voice or through-line. One post is enough like the other so as not to seem schizophrenic, but different enough (and either good enough or trainwreck-ish enough) that you’re moved to read more than one.

That voice is more like a side effect of flinging, though. Flinging and exercising, in tandem. You write and you write (or paint and paint, or what have you) and you learn stuff: tricks, tools and such. The rules, if you like. Those are muscles, and they do get stronger. You build up a kind of tolerance for the climbing, and maybe a better sense of how and where to fling yourself. You might even learn a thing or two about how to land without blowing yourself into a Wile E. Coyote puffball of smoky smithereens.

It’s the flinging, though, that gives you the voice. Flinging and flinging and flinging. And getting up, either on the next cliff or from that faraway ground, and prepping yourself to fling again. And 48 years into the game I’m here to tell you: the flinging? It does not get easier. It just gets so that you become reasonably sure you will not die (or go broke, or whatever your doomsday scenario is) as a result of the flinging.

Before I scare anyone off of making any kind of art ever again, please remember that little phrase a few hundred words ago about fertility being a learned state. There is stuff you can do to change it up, to challenge yourself and to generally keep up the “private search for ‘new'” necessary for fertility. Genn includes a short list for artists of tricks, change your media; mix your media; change your working environment; etc, to be used singly or in combination that is pretty easily adaptable to other fields of artistic endeavor. And once you get the in mindset, you do get better of keeping yourself in the state of flux/growth, or at least, you learn where to look for help.

And then? Back to flinging…


Image by greencolander via Flickr, used under a Creative Commons license.

*The actual quote, which I liberated from this very spicy bit on Picasso, is this: “One begins to copy oneself, and to copy oneself is more dangerous than to copy others. It leads to sterility.”