Look Here, Don’t Look Here

Apollo Robbins is really good at what he does, and what he does is steal. He gives the stuff back, but still. Renowned as one of the world’s foremost pickpockets, he is a keen observer of human nature and adept at misdirection.

It made me realize how often I use misdirection in my daily life. Not for pickpocketing, but professionally, personally, and creatively. In writing, there’s always things an author wants the reader to be paying attention to, but there’s also some things that need to be kept hidden – or at the very least forgotten about until it’s time to bring them back to center stage. On the job, I might be trying to pull attention to one spot on a page and use a combination of whitespace and color to create a certain look, but nothing that will compete with what I’m trying to draw attention to. That’s a low-grade form of misdirection from my point of view, but it’s still there.

Personally, we’re all trying to keep our ugly spots and secrets hidden. Think of a first date – are you wearing the comfiest clothes you’ve got or the ones that make you feel confident because of how they make you look? The more comfortable we get with people, the comfier the clothes get. No more look over here at these really nice jeans and don’t pay attention to that blossoming zit on my cheek that I’ve been working to hide all day!

Out of Order

I’ve been tearing through Neil Gaiman’s book American Gods over the last week or so and came across an old friend. (spoilers to follow)

About a quarter of the way through and along came a spider. Or, more specifically, a demigod who takes the form of a spider, Anansi. The scene had the feel of a surprise introduction in a movie or TV show. A character that wasn’t expected or, to flip it around, someone you’ve been long expecting and are excited to see. Anansi was introduced via his wardrobe and appearance, slowly clueing me in to who he was. After reading Anansi Boys last year, I was excited to get a chance to hang out with this character again.

Of course, I had the whole thing backwards. American Gods was published in 2001 and Anansi Boys in 2005. My “he’s back!” moment was really his introduction.

It’s had me thinking the last day or so about how we all live our lives on slightly different timelines and that things that are new to us might be old hat to someone else. How someone else’s old friend is our new acquaintance. After all, how many times have you bee talking to someone about a favorite book or movie – something really well known like The Godfather or Weird Al’s UHF – and they’ve never seen it / heard it / read it. The automatic response is “how can you not have?!”

Creatively, it opens up new possibilities because as old as an idea might seem to me, it’s someone else’s first time around. In a more general sense, it has me thinking about grace and how one of the greatest gifts we can give another human being is patience. Sure, we know the thing and how to do or act with the thing, but someone else might not know or be as familiar. That’s when I have the choice of anger or grace. I really wish it was easier for me to choose grace, but like Jules once said, I’m trying real hard to be the shepherd.

That’s not to say grace doesn’t have limits. Last time I checked, there’s only one person with eternal grace and I’m not wearing that nametag. However, I know there’s ways and times I can do better.

Thank you, Anansi.

Moderate giftedness & temporary excellence

I was clicking through links on an old Austin Kleon newsletter (which I highly recommend) and came across this one on moderate giftedness. It’s an interesting idea that also started me thinking about my place in the world where creativity is concerned.

The upside of the internet and social media is that, like Sly & The Family Stone once sang, everybody is a star. You’re the star in your own movie, you can share what you’re doing with the world, and reveal the most intimate details of your life. It’s a great equalizer in that some unknown musician’s song is passing through the same conduit as the new T-Swift ditty and that your self-published e-book can sit on a virtual shelf next to Stephen King’s new novel.

The downside is the exact same thing. It’s a double edged sword because while more choices can be good, too many choices just crank up the background noise. There’s no contrast.

The idea that at one time, people were special because they were the best at something in their village or family. Now, that doesn’t hold as much sway because who needs to listen to the guy down at the local pub when you can get the best music ever recorded downloaded to your phone in a matter of seconds? Who needs to check out an indie film when you have streaming apps? And even if the pub singer has his music on iTunes and the indie film is on Netflix, what are the chances that you’ll find it?

As a musician and a writer, I’ve seen both sides. It was a thrill to record an album in a professional studio, get the CD’s, and then see our music on iTunes. However, it was always a struggle to get people to come to shows. Why? Probably a mixture of things, but the bottom line is that there’s a whole lot of things vying for our attention. For creative people, that can be an incredible downer.

So what’s the solution? For me, I’ve been trying to make my life a little bit smaller, bit by bit. Slowing down and concentrating on what’s in front of me. I still shift my eyes up to get the big picture, but without focusing on it all the time, I find it’s more awe inspiring rather than depressing.

Does it work? Sometimes. But it’s sure better than the alternative.

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?

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.

Heath

“The only way to keep your health is to eat what you don’t want, drink what you don’t like, and do what you’d rather not.”  – Mark Twain

I have never been accused of being obsessed with health. Growing up in a house where the family business was filling vending machines, there was plenty of access to foods that were built on the twin pillars of high fructose corn syrup and artificial coloring. As a kid, if it was time to run the mile in gym class, you best believe I was the last one puffing around the track by a wide margin.

Somewhere towards the end of high school, I started thin out and be more active. At the end of college, I learned to enjoy running. Of course, back in the day, I also did lots of stupid things like jumping off loading docks and running around on concrete floors with little to no disregard for my joints. At 43, my running days are behind me and it’s now all about the exercise bike. Much like a pitcher who’s lost some speed off their fastball, you either adapt or hang it up.

Aside from physical health, I’ve also come to realize how poor some of my creative, emotional, and spiritual disciplines were and how that was affecting my health as well. Which is why I’ve started on building small daily habits that will start putting me in line there too. Typing out these blog posts is one of them.

I had no idea what I was going to write about today and honestly, this post might not do anyone else any good at all. That’s fine. Sort of like me getting my 9 miles in on the bike this morning, it’s not about where I went (after all, it’s a stationary bike). It’s about getting my ass in the seat and putting in the work. Maybe it doesn’t pay off today, maybe it doesn’t pay off tomorrow. But it will eventually.

Plumbing

I’ve just spent the better part of an hour trying to get the drain in our bathroom sink to drain properly. Since a lot of the more wondrous and corrosive chemicals don’t play with with septic systems and ours is roughly 30 some odd years old, I tend to lean into the more gentle and natural solutions whenever possible. So a box of baking soda, a gallon of white vinegar, and new plunger were my weapons of choice for this mission.

It’s pretty interesting the things that can be accomplished with baking soda and white vinegar. Baking soda is a nice scrubbing agent for things you don’t want to go medieval on with steel wool and vinegar helps to take the stink out of laundry. Fun stuff and they also work pretty well on drains (in my experience). Well, this time around, it took a few rounds and a bit of work with the plunger, but we’re draining again.

What struck me afterwards was that a bit of regular maintenance would’ve made this job simpler or perhaps eliminated it altogether. The next thought that came to mind was that creativity is a lot like that too.

By keeping the creative muscles somewhat in shape, it’s a lot easier to get into some heavy lifting when you need it; rather than trying to lift a car off someone when you’ve barely done more than lift cans of beer for the last five years. I’ve found myself seeking out new ways to keep creativity supple, or to borrow one of Tom Brady’s favorite words, pliable.

Finding those little routines and disciplines that are the creative equivalent of stretching has been a challenge but also a lot of fun. It’s the reason why I’ve been journaling more on a daily basis and also part of the reason for my yearly reading goals (which I’ve already surpassed for this year!). Even taking in creative helps keep the thinker ticking along rather than seizing up. Because if there’s one thing that I know, things tend to seize up at the worst, or most inconvenient, times.