Everyday Creativity

To say I don’t enjoy Halloween would be overstating it. I enjoy the candy, the festive atmosphere, and from time to time, I’ve even enjoyed dressing up in a costume. But overall, I have to admit that the holiday is, for me, and overall meh on the excitement scale.

The trouble is the costume. I’ve never had a good eye for these things and lack the motivation for the truly grandiose ideas that have come across my mind. Sure, I could spend months putting together that Voltron costume, or… I could order pizza and watch the Empire of Dreams documentary for the fifteenth time. Pizza and Star Wars wins every time.

Then I read about mundane costumes from parties in Japan, and think maybe I’m not out of the game after all. Costumes that require minimal props, can slant towards the snarky, and require an explanation? It’s almost like this thing was invented for me.

As Rob Walker points out in that post, it’s the combination of observation and creativity that makes it really interesting. Finding those things or moments that we all see but don’t register with everyone until they’re pointed out.

It’s made me think more about the things I write about. The majority of the poems I’ve written come from a personal place and could be considered confessional in nature. A lot of those poems are also born out of moments or images that wouldn’t be considered all that dramatic all by themselves. Someone sitting on the couch playing a game of solitaire. Walking along a sidewalk. Those moments wouldn’t make great action movies, but they do make for interesting settings for a poem. All it took is the patience (or boredom in some cases) to stare at them for awhile.

The script I’ve been working on is another example. It’s not a huge “save the world” sort of thing and the original idea started out with a very simple moment that kept coming back to me over and over, demanding to be looked at more closely. It was the mundane idea of someone sleeping on a couch and being woken up suddenly. That’s it. But eventually, there was some more to it – I just had to be patient (or bored) enough to wait for it.

I suppose it ties into how Stephen King describes stories as fossils in On Writing – how they’re actually all there and just need to be dug out. A little bump in the ground is pretty mundane – almost like someone’s glasses steaming up as they sip a hot beverage.

It’s when you dig a little bit deeper and realize there’s a whole skeleton down there waiting for you that things get really interesting.

The Little Gaps

“The problem is no longer getting people to express themselves, but providing little gaps of solitude and silence in which they might eventually find something to say…. What a relief to have nothing to say, the right to say nothing, because only then is there a chance of framing…the thing that might be worth saying.”Gilles Deleuze

This quote bounced into my inbox this morning via Tim Ferriss’ weekly 5-Bullet Friday newsletter, and came along at just the right time. You see, today is my day off.

My work schedule is based around a print deadline every two or three weeks, depending on the month and how we maneuver around holidays. As someone who spent a few years in a rapid development freelance gig, this is right up my alley and keeps things from dragging on too long (always a danger when timelines get longer with projects). I do appreciate some of the pressure because it forces me to not be too precious with my work. After all, at some point, it doesn’t matter how cool the design is, you just have to get the damn thing done.

On the other hand, the danger of running the creative tank empty is very real. That’s a problem.

I once worked as a recording engineer with a stage actor who was voicing audiobooks. In spite of the books actually paying his bills and buying groceries, he never gave it the proper respect it deserved because he considered himself a stage actor first with everything else beneath that. Which meant his preparation for these books would be spotty, he’d show up late, and generally pitch a fit if we had to spend a little more time with something. Dammit, he was an actor dontcha know!

Thinking of him keeps me vigilant to not let myself slip into the same habits. Perhaps my day job isn’t high art, but it actually requires me to flex my creative muscles constantly in a disciplined way. Ultimately, I’ve found that helps the passion projects because I’m not like the guy who suddenly needs to lift a car off his kid but hasn’t seen the inside of a gym in decades. I’ve been putting in the time, building up strength, and then I get to direct it.

But back to the day off.

One habit I’ve been instituting this year, more or less regularly, has been giving myself a “day off” following a print date. That doesn’t mean I do nothing, it’s just that I give myself permission to get nothing of business value accomplished. It might be a day spent reading or watching movies – taking in some kind of creativity and feeding my imagination. It might be a day spent writing or revising poems or a script (my tentative plan for today) to get something done that doesn’t pay the bills. Could be having coffee with a friend and doing a whole lotta nothing.

No matter what, it goes back to something Joe Strummer once said – “No input, no output.” Keeping that balance has become a rewarding, if difficult, point of focus for me. How about you?

Sometimes, It Pays To Be Stupid Lucky

I’m a firm believer that Luck is actually a combination of opportunity plus preparation – that you can only be “lucky” if you’ve done the requisite preparation when you’ve been presented with an opportunity. I believe that’s true in maybe 90% of our lives, which is why I keep working at the things I love – so that when opportunity comes knocking, I’m not stuck sitting in my undies munching on Cheetos without a clue as to where my pants or a napkin are.

This isn’t about that ninety percent. I’ll get to that at some point.

This about that other ten percent. When it seems like God just looks down and says “You know what? Let’s just see what happens when I drop this right HERE.” Those moments when you’re in the right place at the right time for no good reason. When dumb luck smiles in your direction and decides it’s your day.

I’m pretty sure it was my senior year of high school and I was walking down the band room hallway with my buddy Jayson. We had a substitute on this particular day, so the inmates were having the run of the asylum, but nothing too crazy. That was mostly because we knew our sub was a special person – a woman who actually requested to sub for band and just liked being around creative kids, even if they were a complete pain the ass. As long as the place didn’t get set on fire and someone was playing music, it seemed that everything was okay with her. An incredibly nice lady.

We were going past the band director’s office when this modern day saint of a substitute said “Hey, you two like jazz. You want tickets to this show tonight? My husband and I can’t go.”

Free? Free with a capital EFF? Sure! Who’s playing? Nevermind, doesn’t matter.

Except it did. My buddy and I wound up with prime seats to see Rebirth Brass Band at The Music Hall in Portsmouth, NH.

To say this was a “formative experience” would be underselling it. For a honky kid from New Hampshire with a burgeoning love of soul and funk, this was like mainlining music straight from the source. New Orleans became Nawlins and this was the moment I became hooked on live music. I’d never seen anything remotely like Rebirth. To say that our high school jazz band was like what they did was sort of like saying my Ford Escort was like a Ferrari – technically speaking, they’re both cars, but that’s about it. They blew the roof off that place and then some. By the end of the night, they were inviting the audience on stage with them to dance… and somehow, I wound up there dancing… in front of people… with nary a sip of alcohol involved.

Maybe I was spoiled, but to this day, I’m always excited the day of a gig – whether I’m playing or just in the audience. Because you never know what could happen. You might get pulled on stage. Some random guy might ask to sit in and slay it. The lead singer from the band might jump off stage and sing while dancing through the audience. Maybe nothing happens but a good night of music. Maybe the band is having an off night.

Whatever happens, it pays to be prepared. That’s where the other 90% comes in – because you have to say yes and then be ready for what happens.

And a little dumb luck doesn’t hurt either.

Responsibility

“If you could kick the person in the pants responsible for most of your trouble, you wouldn’t sit for a month.” – Theodore Roosevelt

Maybe that’s why I prefer a standing desk…

On my whirlwind weekend trip, I had the chance to visit Teddy’s birthplace in NYC and it’s gotten me thinking about the man quite a bit since. The idea of responsibility for one’s own actions is something I’ve wrestled with throughout my life and then found neatly tied up in a bow with this quote.

I don’t want to get into a larger discussion about society and how we view the struggles of others. I’m not qualified to lecture on the difficulties of others because they’re not my own and I don’t have the time this morning to delve into a serious research project. So, at the risk of getting Teddy’s ghost angry for choosing ease over strenuousness, I’m taking the quick way out and only speaking of myself.

Without a doubt, I can say that the quote above reflects my life pretty accurately. Were there external forces acting on my life? Yes. Did things go wrong that were beyond my control? Definitely. Were they the majority of my life? No.

By and large, I’ve been responsible for the life I’ve lived so far. And it’s been a good one. Considering some of my own missteps and bad habits, you could make the argument that where I’ve ended up constitutes an embarrassment of riches. In my case, the person causing a lot of the troubles has been the one I shave with in the mornings.

There’s a story about Hunter S. Thompson that I love where he’s sitting at a table and knocks a drink off the edge with the back of his hand. Before it can hit the ground, he’s swooped in with the same hand and caught the glass without spilling the contents. No matter how you slice it, that’s incredible reflexes – especially so when you consider he was probably drunk and hallucinating a bit at the time. The person watching was amazed and complimented him on his reaction time. Hunter mumbled something along the lines of “Well, let’s remember who causes most of the accidents around here in the first place”.

Maybe we’d all do to remember who makes most of the messes in our lives to start with before getting too high and mighty about our successes.

Not Really Spreading The News

This past weekend, I had the opportunity to spend a couple days walking the streets of Brooklyn and Manhattan with a good friend from college. Along the way, I ate a ton of good food, did some tourist-y stuff, did some nerd tourist-y stuff, went to church at Hillsong NYC, and saw my favorite band of all time Tower of Power slay at Brooklyn Bowl. It was a blast that even driving home in a monsoon couldn’t dull.

One thing I didn’t do was take a ton of pictures or post on social media.

Partly that’s because the times when it would’ve been most convenient to post, I was at my hotel which was a black hole of cell service (in spite of being able to see over a dozen cell towers from my window) and had wifi that was only slightly less spotty than a rented room in the deepest parts of the Amazon. But it was mostly because I didn’t feel like it.

There’s something about walking around New York that’s very peaceful for me. Maybe that seems an odd way to describe being in a city that’s famous for never sleeping, but that’s the best way I can describe it. The constant movement of people, cars, buses, taxis, and lights reminds me of staring at waves on the ocean or a fire. You never see the same pattern twice because it’s always changing.

To get a little more strange, I guess you could describe it as a reverential attitude that kept me from reaching for my phone (unless it was for getting directions). For the same reason I didn’t want to take a picture of the 9/11 memorial at the World Trade Center, I didn’t want to spend too much time snapping photos. Because I wanted to really feel those moments rather than worrying about capturing them in pixels.

Now, there’s also a chance that I’m romanticizing my lack of social media savvy as well, which I’m also okay with. Either way, I feel like I was present for the whole weekend, got some much needed time with an old friend, and got up close and personal with a band that’s now closer to an American musical institution than anything else. Which is all I really cared about anyways.

It’s Not

“Anything’s hard that you’re forcing.” – Markus Redmond

I think it can be hard to admit when I’m forcing something – especially when it’s something I want really badly. It’s actually funny how easy it is to continue forcing something, which is a contradiction in and of itself, which also happens to make it an incredibly human thing to do.

We are creatures of contradiction. We are species of hypocrisy, but we’re also creatures of fun, whimsy, genius, and bullshit. It’s the biggest reason why human beings are interesting at all – our capacity for contradictions.

So I can agree with Markus in part because the writing itself isn’t the hard part necessarily. Writing poems isn’t a hard thing for me. Writing this blog post isn’t particularly difficult. Typing out a screenplay isn’t a massive undertaking. It’s only when I build it up and begin to force myself to do things where it gets tough.

Now, keep in mind that Markus Redmond is also the guy who wrote his first screenplay in three weeks and then sold the thing, so let’s just say that mileage may vary, shall we? Even bearing in mind the man’s apparently superhuman writing skills (only half kidding here), there’s something to be said for understanding where the difficult parts actually are.

For me, I can get tangled up in what will actually happen with the project after I’m done writing – which is a stupid thing to do while in progress because it’s an entirely meaningless worry until you’ve actually finished the thing. But again, it’s an easy thing to do and also a form of procrastination with a dash of self-sabotage tossed in. What better to distract from the doing of the thing than what I’ll do with the thing after it’s finished? It’s almost perfect.

It’s something I’ve been thinking about as I’m stalled a bit on my two major writing projects. Am I really being stopped by the hard part or am I misplacing my anxiety to avoid the thing altogether? Maybe I’ve wandered off topic a bit here and lost the thread, but hey, that’s human as well, right?

Surprise!

“To be prepared against surprise is to be trained. To be prepared for surprise is to be educated”. James P. Carse

No matter how you slice it, that’s one helluva quote. But that’s not what really intrigued me enough to write about it this morning. What sparked me to it was that I’d actually misread it the first time and only caught the right wording as I was writing it down in my journal.

Initially, I read the second sentence as “To be prepared against surprise is to be educated”, which I guess was my brain’s early morning way of tying the two of them together. After a mild self-scolding to be a more careful reader, I realized that both readings could be seen as accurate in their own ways.

My first thought on my initial misreading was that being prepared against a surprise is a bit of a downer. I mean, who doesn’t like a good surprise? Note that I said good surprise. Finding an extra twenty dollar bill in your winter coat from last year is a good surprise. Finding a cheese sandwich in the other pocket would be surprising but not good.

But I could see how the idea of being prepared against surprise would make a lot of sense to me in a certain situation. In many situations, I find myself working through details so I don’t get caught by surprise at a time when I can least afford it. Not having all the information I need for a project that’s on a deadline or having extra microphone and power cables in my box heading out to a gig are the first examples that come to mind. That’s trying to avoid unpleasant surprises and I’m all in favor of that.

However, there are also times when I deliberately leave space to be surprised. There have been times both at gigs and at church where I’ll intentionally leave some part of the music vague just to see what happens. After all, if you’ve prepped everything around that part and are working with people who understand what’s happening, it can be fun. I’d say those would qualify as good surprises – even if they’re mistakes.

The trouble, I think, is when the idea of being prepared against surprises becomes a way of life and mitigating risk becomes a full-time job. Taking away surprise in all situations is a horrible thing because it stifles innovation, but more importantly, it takes away fun and the joy of discovery.

Full credit and disclosure, the quote above is from Tim Ferriss’ weekly 5-Bullet Friday email newsletter, which I’d highly recommend along with his podcast.

Influencers

The idea of being “an influencer” has gone from being an unknown to a badge of honor to a bit of a slur is just under five years. On one hand, that’s nature of how quickly the world moves these days. On the other hand, considering how fast we move, that’s not a bad run either.

However, the idea that people aspire to be “an influencer” on social media and that a handful of people actually make a living (some quite a comfortable one) at it, is a bit crazy on the face of things. For someone like me who grew up when the “The Internet” (and yeah we capitalized it back then… along with beating our clothes against a rock to clean them) was something like Prodigy or AOL, garish colors, and that wonderfully annoying squawk as your dial-up modem merged you onto The Information Superhighway. Terribly exciting stuff back then. But the idea that someone could be famous for being online and make a living for no other discernible skill besides existing and knowing how to make a selfie video? Kinda strange.

Then I had a chance to watch a video with Jeff Bridges this morning during my workout. The whole thing is a good watch, but the bit I’m focusing on starts at about 2:31…

A little reference material right off the bat, and mostly for my own sake. Buckminster Fuller was an architect, system theorist, designer, author, inventor, and futurist. Trim tabs are used in boats and aircraft, and are small control surfaces attached to a larger control surface.

Fuller used the idea of a trim tab metaphorically to great effect, which is what Jeff Bridges is getting at here. The idea that moving the trim tab (an individual) a little bit causes a low pressure that eventually turns the whole rudder around which then pulls the whole boat around is fascinating. It’s a revelation and also vaguely frustrating because it’s one of those things I feel my brain should’ve really worked out on its own a long time ago. But I digress.

To me, this is a shot of energy into the mainline. No matter what the political or social environment, I think everyone feels powerless at some point – that there’s absolutely nothing they can do, as an individual, that will make any kind of impact on the society or world as a whole. This despite having hundreds of examples where the actions of one person had a cascading effect that led to change. It’s easy to hand wave those away because we can put those individuals in a box labelled “special”, which implies they’ve done something we can’t.

Personally, I think all it requires is a shift in perspective and effort. At most points in my life where I’ve sat in the doldrums, it’s because I’m too lazy to either shift my perspective or do something that would begin to create forward movement. That’s not to say that depression or sickness doesn’t play a part, but let’s face it – that’s not always the case. There’s a lot of times when I just didn’t want to get off the couch, literally or metaphorically speaking.

The perspective shift is that we might not get a chance to see the change. While we can all effect change in some small way, not all of us will be around to see the results – our change is a generational change. Really, that can be some of the most important change there is.