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Category: About Writing (page 1 of 10)

Activation Energy

I’ve had a post about Activation Energy mulling in my head for a couple weeks. Then I thought, I wonder if I’ve written about Activation Energy before? And guess what?

I have.

In 2008. Six and a half years ago. It’s something like the 20th post on the site—of more than 1200 at this point. I suppose that means the topic bears revisiting?

Activation Energy is a concept I coopted from Chemistry. Coined by Swiss scientist Svante Arrhenius in 1889, it refers to “the minimum energy that must be input to a chemical system with potential reactants to cause a chemical reaction.” In my usage, it refers to the amount of mental energy required to enter the creative state.

For example, how much must I procrastinate before I am filled with fear that I will not be able to meet my deadline? Or, how long does this idea need to gestate before I can execute it properly? Or, what do I need to clear off my plate before I can adequately focus on the task at hand? Creativity is the reactant. Creative work is the chemical reaction. And these efforts are the energy input.

To extend this metaphor further (and forgive me if botch the chemistry a little—I failed that class), chemical reactions produce either an endothermic reaction or an exothermic reaction. That is, reactions that absorb energy (endothermic) or reactions that release energy (exothermic). In Chemistry this is usually expressed as heat. An endothermic reaction is typically a cold reaction, whereas an exothermic reaction is hot.

Sometimes your activation energy is just right and you explode in a wild torrent of output and things are great and everything is amazing. That’s exothermic. Like an explosion.

Other times, it’s not so great. Anyone who has ever struggled on a creative project knows that you can find yourself in the perfect motivated place to do whatever you need to do, but very little comes out of it. It often feels like a failure. That’s endothermic.

Luckily, more times than not, the energy was not wasted. You just gave yourself a little more time to think about what you need to do. It’s all still there, ready to come out the next time in a different way. Sunlight is absorbed by plants allowing them to grow large, which is an endothermic process. Then, the larger plants catch fire and release all that stored up sunlight in a tremendous wildfire. The same is true of our creativity. The only thing that actually gets in its way is not overcoming the activation energy hump.

In my previous post I wrote about myself as a high activation energy sort of person. I don’t think that is totally true. Sometimes getting myself into that perfect state is like pulling teeth and sometimes my activation energy is so high that I will just never get there. But other days, it comes quick and easy.

One thing I’ve noticed is that the better my mood, the higher my activation energy. If I’m feeling super good and in the black on the anger spectrum (more on this in a later post), you’d have to nuke my brain to give me enough activation energy no matter how much I wanted to work. But if I am fuming pissed and stewing and far into the red, well, then all you have to do is get out of my way and I’m cranking through whatever I need to. Go too far, though, and it’s all lost. It’s a delicate balance.

If I’m well rested, nope. If I am too tired, nope. Somewhere in the balance there is a sweet spot where my brain isn’t bouncing around, fresh and rested, or dull and lethargic with exhaustion. Just tired enough not to be a spazz, but not so tired I can’t think.

If I’ve not been working at all, nope. If I’ve been working too much, nope. Again, balance. If I am not working at all, I fall into an inertia hole and I am dull and uncreative, but if I am working too much, all my creative juju is used up by projects at work with little-to-none left for other things.

The real question is, what is the proper life-work-emotional balance to lower your activation energy to a place where getting the reaction going is relatively easy? That balance is, of course, different for each person and for different types of projects.

With work, I need to procrastinate until that moment when not starting means not finishing in time. Up until that point, I’ll dawdle and distract myself, while feeling progressively more guilty and by extension progressively angrier until the equation tips and I blow through whatever work I have to do.

On personal projects, it helps me to be beholden to a partner. Someone expecting something on a deadline will put me into the creativity cycle I referenced in the previous paragraph. If no one is waiting for anything, then I fall into a procrastination spiral that resembles the cycle above but over a much, much longer period of time.

Take this post for example: I started it on the 21st of May. Today is the 10th of June, nearly 3 weeks later. What have I been doing with all that time? Working, mostly, and a bunch of work social stuff, all of which affect the balance. But today I finally reached the place where my activation energy equation worked to my advantage and I’ve written ~750 additional words so far. Not too bad. I can finally stop thinking about this post lingering my drafts, unfinished, and move on to another post I will start and then finish weeks later.

I’ve always been impressed with people who have seemingly low activation energy, the types who can just sit down, get their focus on, and crank through the work. I am definitely not one of those people, but by knowing what affects me and my creative process I can, and to a lesser extent have, learned to manipulate myself into that low activation energy state. In the end, if to lower the barrier to reaction I must do all this additional work and put myself into the perfect life-work-emotional balance, then maybe I am a high activation energy creative person after all. Maybe I was right back in 2008. Funny.

A belated theme for 2015 – Reset

Every year for something like 10 years (with the exception of 2014), I’ve picked a theme to describe my goals for the coming year. It has been a way to approach what I wanted to improve with broad-ish concepts and goals, rather than a set of limited, narrowly focused resolutions. I’ve written about it extensively. Feel free to go back and read some of the old posts for greater clarification on the idea. It’s all there.

With the revamp of the site, I’ve been thinking about what a good theme would be for 2015. Though I’ve missed my usual December announcement by 4 months at this point, it’s my life and I’ll make whatever choices I like. If I think it’s time to declare a theme for 2015 in April of 2015, I will. And you’ll just be fine with that.

A few days ago, a friend of mine wrote something on his Facebook that really clicked with me.

I firmly believe that some of the best writing and creative ideas I’ve ever had have come to me in the late hours of the night, when I’m the closest that I can actually get to being relaxed. Having said that, it’s equally amazing how much simpler the editorial process is in the light of day. Build up at night, rearrange during the day.

He’s totally right. Those wee hours of the night before bed, but after all the day’s chores are done, have always been my most focused, productive hours. The buzz of the day is gone and I am finally tired enough to focus, but not yet so sleepy I can’t think. The world is quiet, even here in New York City, and I can usually get something out in the little bit of time when my brain can actually produce.

In the last few years I haven’t been using those hours the way I used to, mostly, I think, because I got out of the habit of using them. Life changed. Schedules changed. Those nighttime hours became unavailable or filled with other activity. Then when I did have them, I squandered them. I have no regrets, but in retrospect I wonder why when I had a lot of hours to use, I didn’t use them. Of course, it’s very likely I needed to get to the point where it bothered me to see that I could have been using them more productively, instead of barreling forward, mindless of time’s passing, letting them slip away.

I realize that I miss using that time for my personal projects because those hours were the only way I got anything done that kept me feeling sane. And sane is important. Sane makes all the other stress and bullshit of life more easily digestible. For the moments I am pissed off about work, at least I can feel satisfied that I am making things for myself when I can. For all the time I am laden with personal and familial obligations, getting just that little bit of something done for myself is critical. And, even if nothing ever comes of all of this extra I do (and feel I should be doing), keeping me feeling balanced is a very important, very valuable, very real outcome.

I’ve been struggling a lot recently to find a mental/emotional place where I can feel some sort of magical equilibrium, where all the things are more or less balanced and I don’t feel like I am going to explode. The more off-balance I feel, the more I get angry, the more I get resentful, the more I shut off from those around me, and that takes its toll on the rest of my life and relationships. I don’t like harboring those feelings. They make everything a lot worse. I don’t enjoy anything. I don’t sleep. My fuse becomes dangerously short at all times. They make me god damned unpleasant to be around. Yet, those feelings come out in full force when I am out of whack and the only way I’ve ever found to address them is to try and reassert some semblance of order in my life.

That said, 2015 will be…

The Year of Reset.

What’s best is that I’ve already begun. Fantastic.

I intend to get back into the habit of making my personal creative goals a priority. I want to get back to creating things for myself regularly. It doesn’t matter what I make. What matters is that the work I do is for me. I can cut all the extra short films and friends’ projects in the world, but those aren’t mine. I can do all the creative work at my job, but that really isn’t mine. My ideas, my projects, my execution. Simple. Bringing back The Black Laser as both a forum for my work and a work in itself (double dipping, yeah) is a big first step. It’s also a bit of what Sarah would call a commitment device. I feel guilty when the activity here dies down. Avoiding that guilt is often plentiful motivation for me. I won’t always post the things I do, but when I want to post, I’ve got a place that is all my own.

I am not going to make any concrete creative goals for this year, though. In years past, I’ve stated an intended quota of production. 2015 is not for quotas. 2015 is for habit rebuilding. We can discuss quotas for 2016.

I’ve been collecting ideas and scribbles and half-finished thoughts for ages, and I want to see what I can turn them into. There are seeds for a wealth of projects and larger works buried here over the six and a half years of The Black Laser, I just have to nurture them. That means sticking to it. That means sitting down even when I am tired or don’t want to. That means doing the god damned work and not letting anything get in the way, even if my output is minimal. There will be nights when I can’t and many more nights where I feel like I can’t. The former cannot be changed, but the latter can. No excuses. No bullshit.

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Join me and this sleepy little butthead for many more nights of cranking out words and thoughts, and, hopefully, we’ll make something beautiful. Or awesome. Or beautifully awesome.

On secondhand embarrassment.

Last week, Sarah wrote a funny, accurate article about the show Girls (and if you’ve ever wondered what talking to the girl in the dance videos is like, you now have a very good idea). She’s right too: people love to bitch about Girls. It’s the hip thing to bitch about. When the show first came out, I was actually a firm supporter the program. There was a ton of press about how the show was racist because, in the very first episode, there were no black people. Seriously? It’s a show about entitled white girls. Why does there need to be a black person in it? I’m not complaining when some Chinese kung-fu show lacks white people. Get over yourselves. It was only the pilot. Why not let the series develop a little bit before you start smearing it all over the press? Or perhaps the show was shattering a little too much of your own entitled white girl self-delusion, making you uncomfortable by revealing to you just how vapid your life is? Or maybe you are just insanely jealous of how successful Lena Dunham’s been?

Whatever the reason people had, all the negativity toward the show left a really bad taste in my mouth. I was prepared to be a big fan of the show, even though by all rights I am literally terrible at watching TV shows. Perhaps this one would be different! And then I saw an episode.

At about the 15-minute mark in the first episode, I found myself yelling at the TV. Why?

It all comes down to what I call secondhand embarrassment.

secondhand embarrassment (ˈse-kən(d)-ˈhand im-ˈber-ə-smənt)
noun

The unpleasant sensation of feeling shame, self-consciousness, or awkwardness for someone else who is too naïve, stupid, or just plain unaware to recognize that they should be feeling shame, self-consciousness, awkwardness, or some combination of the three.

I am not sure when I started calling this sensation I’d been feeling my whole life “secondhand embarrassment”. I seem to remember my brother Charlie saying it once, but it came up in conversation years later and he didn’t remember hearing it before. Maybe I got it from my older brother Mike. He’s usually pretty sharp with the neologisms. We have friends who call the feeling “the twingles”, which is a cute name, but betrays the true depth of anguish it causes me.

Regardless of its source, secondhand embarrassment is one of my most unpleasant feelings and will quickly ruin any film or television show I am watching. It is not funny when writers rely on putting characters into mortifying situations to generate laughs; it’s mean-spirited and lazy. Instead of making a joke or some clever turn of phrase, they put some hapless character into a situation for the audience to laugh at. I don’t want to laugh at someone too stupid to recognize they should be embarrassed, I want to laugh with someone because they have excellent timing and do something unexpected. It is the comedy equivalent of using an overheard conversation to create dramatic tension. Lazy lazy lazy.

The other night we were watching I Love You, Man and I spent the half of the film we made it through hiding. That movie is the perfect example of the sort of thing that fills me with secondhand embarrassment. Oh, Paul Rudd is a socially inept boob who fucks up every single conversation he has with another man! Hilarious! So clever! Give him the Oscar! Sure, I had a few chuckles, but the film was so unbearable overall that we turned it off. Right in the middle. And I didn’t care. I didn’t once find myself thinking, I wonder what is going to happen to Paul Rudd’s character? Will he make friends? I didn’t care in the slightest. I was so embarrassed for everyone in that film that I would rather die than watch the rest to find out.

Ok, I’m being hyperbolic. I’d rather cut three fingers off my right hand than watch the end to find out.

Another prime example of the sort of schlock that makes me cringe can be found in reality TV. Pretty much all of it. The first episode of this season’s Bachelor was so painful, I spent half the episode pacing around the apartment, busying myself, doing the dishes, tidying up the fridge, because I could not stand to watch the idiot women make fools of themselves in front of the blonde, white bread lead of the show. The woman who came out in a wedding dress?! Or the one who tried to do backflips—BUT COULDN’T?! Oh Christ, deliver me from that sort of hell.

A good non-tv/film example is during any poetry slam. Any poetry slam. Oh my god. Even the phrase “poetry slam” makes me embarrassed for people who take them seriously. Do people still do those fucking things or did we leave them to die in the 90s?

I can sit through just about anything else. Horror movies? No problem. Documentaries about people on death row? Easy! Ken Burns films with soft narration and banjo music? Bring ’em on. But put me in front of something where I feel embarrassed for someone who should be feeling embarrassed but does not and I’ll do anything I can not to sit through it.

Bringing it back to Girls, I spent so much of that one episode being mortified for all the characters that it actually made me angry like a parent getting angry at their child for being a fucking asshole. I shouted at them to correct their behavior. To grow up! Get real! Get a job, you lazy sack of shit! As a reaction, it’s different but ultimately similar enough to secondhand embarrassment that it’s worth lumping together. Indeed, they are close enough that Sarah’s post and a few other recent cinematic experiences got my brain churning on the topic.

Look, I know I’m not the target demographic for The Bachelor or most other reality TV. Maybe I am for I Love You, Man, but that is probably debatable. Those shows and that film are just a couple of example of this offense. I am sure that you, kind reader, have had many moments when you have experienced the shame that someone else should be feeling. The point is putting characters into situations that only serve to allow the audience laugh at them like a bully who has just pushed a smaller kid down on the playground is piss poor comedy and lazy writing. From the moment I was empathetic enough to feel embarrassed for people on the screen, I’ve been unable to sit through this crap and I don’t see it changing any time soon.

The Theme for 2013: The Year of No Pressure

Before I discuss my theme for next year, let’s talk about this year a little bit. Though I built up a little steam toward my 100,000 word goal, I only made it about a quarter of the way through before life got in the way and threw my ability to think about my writing to the wolves. Indeed, The Black Laser wasn’t free from that either. Loyal readers saw the quantity and quality of posts here gradually decline as life got in the way of things. But, you know what? So it goes.

I don’t feel bad about it.

Because the truth is I also did all sorts of interesting things personally and professionally this year; they just didn’t have a lot to do with writing. I made a bunch of dance videos with my now-fiancée. I edited all sorts of commercials for the old boob tube. I edited a death metal concert video and an experiment art narrative short film. I was made officially official at my company. I got freakin’ engaged! Holy crap!

So what if I didn’t write as much as I set out to? Who really cares? I accomplished a lot of things that made me really proud and I fed my brain with a lot of new experiences that can ultimately be writing-fodder. It’s not as if I sat around all year playing video games (though I did do some of that), wasting my time and feeling bad about it. I made things and friends and learned. I am very happy with 2012. I think a lot of that has to do with letting myself be free from my theme about halfway through the year. I remember consciously thinking, “Ok, I can grind out the next 75,000 words and be all stressed about not being on schedule, or I can just go with the flow and see what comes out of the year.” And that is exactly what I did.

In the past I’ve put a lot of emphasis on structure and deadlines, hoping that being beholden to something would keep me motivated. Go Head. Read about it. I’ll be right here.

Ok. All finished? Great.

To a certain extent being beholden to someone does keep me motivated, but I’ve learned that I have to be beholden to someone who is not myself. I just can’t do it. I make too many excuses for myself, and I find that I am always really willing to cut myself slack for those excuses. I am my own worst enemy and my own best advocate. A complicated relationship to be in with yourself.

This year I want to try a different sort of experiment. Though I have a whole lot of things I want to do this year, I am not going to put any pressure on myself to get things done by a deadline. Instead I am going to do things as they come and let my own productivity flow organically. I am under constant deadlines at work, so perhaps being more laissez-faire with my creative goals will allow me the wiggle room at the end of the day to do things as I can, not as I feel I need to. With that, I present the theme for 2013…

The Year of No Pressure

That’s right. No pressure. No pressure to hit a certain word count. No pressure to produce a certain number of stories. No pressure to do anything to a certain amount by a certain date. Just let things happen as they happen. That is not to say I don’t have goals for this year. Quite the contrary; I have a bunch of things, broad and specific, I want to accomplish in 2013. I just don’t intend to put any undue pressure on myself to get them done before they happen naturally.

What are they?

  • Get married – Giant duh on this. I asked her to marry me and now we need to figure out exactly how that is going to work. Apparently, people expect you to know the date you’re going to get married as soon as you are engaged. That’s news to me. Besides, I’ve neither been engaged before nor have I planned a wedding. There is a lot to learn.

    As a bonus for you all, my good friend Matt Toder of Vox Critica fame has asked Sarah and me to write a series of articles about our experience getting married. I’ve already started one on getting engaged, so keep an eye out for that, friends. I promise it will be good reading.

  • Rebuild my finances – 2012 was a very expensive year. During 2013 I would like very much to reign in my spending and rebuild the next egg I worked through this year. Don’t get me wrong; the money was spent for a very good (personal) reason and I would spend it all again in a heartbeat. Nevertheless, it is a priority of mine to keep to a budget and try to dig myself out of a bit of a hole.
  • Pick up the pace of The Black Laser – I feel bad when I don’t update for the 10s of you who read this site. I like to put my thoughts out and share cool things I find and I hope that you like it too. For 2013, I’d like to get this place back on track. This post is the first step toward that goal.
  • Pick up the fiction train – This ties into the previous goal a little as my fiction posts have always been a good source of original content for this site. And I like sharing that stuff with you guys because it scares the hell out of me to put myself out there and that is fun. It is fun to be scared. I have a load of fiction ideas built up, little snippets of ideas, barely formed thoughts, bad ideas, good ideas, stale ideas, fresh ideas. Whatever they are, I have a ton of stuff stewing in my brain that needs to be released. I’m going to release it at you all. Be ready.

I think that’s it right now, but I am not going to stress about adding or removing things from that list as I see fit. That’s just how 2013 is going to be. Stay tuned and get excited for it, friends. It should be a totally smooth, comfortable ride.

The literary bane that is fan fiction.

In my internet travels recently (reddit? blogs? somewhere else?) I stumbled across FanFiction.net. I’ve never had a high opinion of fan fiction, but that was a purely conceptual bias. The idea of fan fiction seems pretty absurd to me, even before considering the realities of fan fiction. Why would you waste your time creating fiction in worlds not of your own making? Why write stories about Marty McFly’s journeys through time and space with Dr Who? Why write stories about Data and Picard hooking up? Why write stories set in alternate Twilight world where there is a family of Frankenstein’s Monsters who own a chain of discotechs?

I have no idea either. It has never made sense to me. But that’s just me. And then today my curiosity got the better of me and I started reading some.

Wow. Just wow.

As a little experiment, let’s pick a section at random. How about “Games”? Ok. Games gives us quite a few topics to choose from. Let’s see…I liked Mass Effect. Let us see what we can find in Mass Effect.

On the first page there is a story called, “The Rise and Fall of Maria Shepard”. It gives us this gem.

Shepard collapsed to her knees, tears now washing away the velvet blood that was painted on her face, but soon Kaidan interrupted her thoughts with a sudden hand on her shoulder.

Clumsy. Awkward. I don’t know what a “sudden hand” is exactly, but overall not the worst sentence I’ve ever read.

Further down the page is a story called, “Rebuilding Our Realm”. I liked this bit.

“How are you feeling commander?” asked Fallon’s nurse – for what seemed like the 3rd time that day! Fallon herself had a cast on her left leg, her shoulder was still a little sore and her ribs still hurt whenever she yawned, laughed or coughed – not like she had been laughing much anyway! Since Wrex had found her, with the rest of the rescue squad, (in a part of the citadel that had crashed down through Earth’s atmosphere), and had taken her to one of the only remaining hospitals in London. Later that week the hospital had ran out of power, forcing the staff to move the critically injured and most important personnel to a different hospital situated in the city of Oxford. Oxford had mostly been untouched throughout the war, maybe one of two reapers bodies still lying round where they have not been picked up yet. The hospital itself was called the John Radcliffe – JR for short – the staff here were pleasant and she had had access to the best health care they offered; yet she still could not rest. Her crew had been announced missing the day after the war had finished, the same day that Wrex had found her. The press were constantly trying to get into the hospital to see their ‘hero of the war,’ one had managed to get in a couple of days ago and had asked her questions about how she had stopped the reapers, to which she could only answer that she could not remember. According to the doctors she had gone into survival mode when crashing down to Earth, and the horror of the whole ordeal had overridden her memory with information, meaning that the memory leading up to it was blacked out, and this had created a few hours of just blank information. So altogether she was not feeling great, she had lost her crew, her ship, her memory, but also the man she was falling in love with. Well when you say man…?

Whoa. Needless exposition much? Passive voice, run ons, and unnecessary information. I wondered what the hospital was called; I am glad the author deigned to tell us.

But let’s not skip my favorite entry on the first page of the Mass Effect section, “Mass Eject Chapter 1”.

I need some air i went outside and tried to cool off but my sadness from last night turned into rage at the hanar. (How dare it drag me here against my will.) I walk up to a lone tree and punched it pain shot up through my hand. Why me I had parents a family to care about i then kicked the before mentioned tree until my anger slipped away and turned into a dull pulsing pain in my chest. This feeling would not go away any time soon

What is not perfectly sublime about this passage? It displays an essential inability to communicate with the written word, yet here this young fellow is crafting the most awkward fiction I have ever had the pleasure to laugh through. I genuinely feel sympathy for the before mentioned tree and his vicious fight with the protagonist.

I feel like Fan Fiction.net is a lot like Elfwood, but where Elfwood serves as a repository for the worst and less worst of amateur art, Fan Fiction.net serves for writing. Sure, buried in the noise there are a few decently competent creators of stirring fan fiction, but overall the level of quality is so low that it is laughable. And a satisfying laugh it is. Where else could you find Great Expectations/Lord of the Rings crossover fiction?

I almost want to write some.

Thoughts on Scalzi’s “You’re Not Fooling Anyone”

I’ve read a lot of books about writing. I’ve read books on character. I’ve read books on plot. I’ve read books on structure. I’ve read literary critique. I’ve read about genre, about symbolism, about publishing, about inspiration, about the creative process, about screenwriting, about fiction writing, about novel writing, about short story writing, about all sorts of things. And, in their own minor ways, each has been helpful to me. As it goes. I wouldn’t say that any of them have been truly inspiring, but when have you ever read a book about the mechanics of your craft that blew your mind? Yeah, I can’t think of one either.

A while back I stumbled across John Scalzi’s You’re Not Fooling Anyone When You Take Your Laptop to a Coffee Shop: Scalzi on Writing. I have been a regular reader of Scalzi’s blog Whatever for years and was a fan of his novel Old Man’s War, so when I saw that he had released a book about writing I naturally spent the 5 bucks for the Kindle version. And there it languished for ages as other books came and went and life passed us all by in a torrent of images and sounds and happinesses and sadnesses.

Recently, I was between books and decided to read something from my shelf that was on dead trees which is fine and all, but sometimes I don’t feel like carrying the book with me when I am not taking my backpack to and from work. The advantage of the Kindle is that it syncs with the Kindle app on my phone so even if I leave the device at home, I can continue to read on my phone while riding the train or waiting in a bar or doing whatever the hell it is. That’s not possible with a book on, you know, real paper. While riding the train one morning I decided to start into You’re Not Fooling Anyone. I have a hard time reading more than one fiction book at once, but no problem at all keeping track of a novel and a non-fiction book. Weird, I guess, but it also makes a sort of sense.

You’re Not Fooling Anyone is a collection of articles Scalzi wrote for Whatever between 2001 and 2006 that deal with many aspects of writing, but not with craft. Instead they deal with the lifestyle of a working writer, how to sell fiction, what to expect in the marketplace, what pitfalls to avoid as a working writer, what you can expect when working with publishers and editors, and a whole mess of opinion on the state and future of the market. They cover a whole lot of things that nothing else I’ve ever read covered in a Scalzi’s utterly matter-of-fact, no bullshit, this-is-how-the-real-world-works voice. And I appreciate that.

To explain that, let me digress for a moment. I have never considered myself an artist. I am uncomfortable with that label. I firmly believe that art is for other people to decide and my job, as a creator of things, is to do the damn best job I can on whatever the hell it is I am working on. It doesn’t matter if we are talking about writing or photography or editing video, I always strive to do the best I can at my craft. And that’s the important thing: to me, it is craft. It is no different than a skilled cobbler or builder of homes or tailor. What I do as a creative person is to craft things the best way I know how, to learn from the process, and to try and do even better the next time. I have always, and will always, prefer the term “craftsman” to “artist” and “craft” to “art” when referring to myself. “Art” gets stuck up in the clouds; “craft” is firmly rooted in the real world.

What resonated with me in You’re Not Fooling Anyone is that Scalzi clearly has the same opinion of the writing process I do. Specifically, that it is a craft, not some high-falutin’ higher calling from the muses. It’s not. That’s crazy. It’s no more a higher calling than driving a bus is. That doesn’t mean it’s not damn fun work that can be incredibly satisfying, but it is still work. Work work work. When I read him reiterating my opinions relatively early in You’re Not Fooling Anyone, I suspected that I had found something special. As I progressed, that suspicion was confirmed over and over again. The book is, possibly, the only book I’ve read so far on writing that got my brain buzzing with ideas. Not because he says, “Write this way or that way,” but because he got me thinking about my own writing in a different way by discussing the way he thinks about his writing. That’s the important thing. It’s so easy to get stuck thinking about your work in just one way that you can get mired in it and lose steam. To have someone or something come along and say, “Hey, have you thought about it this way?” is often all you need to work through it. Because that’s what we do, right? We’re creative people and we create, even if, as imperfect meatbags, we sometimes get stuck.

Lord knows regular readers of The Black Laser have read many thousands of words of me rambling on and on about my creative process (or lack thereof), so reading the same musings from someone else is a real kick for me. And makes me want to inflict even more rambling on all you poor sons of bitches.

If you are a writer, you should read this book. If you are a person who makes things that might not be words, you should read this book. If you are not a creative person (WHO THE HELL ARE YOU PEOPLE?) but are curious what the brain of someone who makes a living being creative is like, you should read this book. It’s that good. And it’s incredibly accessible. There are no academic blatherings about post-modernism here, just opinion earned through years of hard work and experience. I sincerely hope we get a second volume of 2007-2012. It’s been five years and I would happily spend another 5 bucks on the Kindle version.

A Brief Review of Kelly Link’s Stranger Things Happen

I cannot stop talking about this book. Kelly Link’s Stranger Things Happen is one of the most moving, masterful collections of short stories I’ve ever read. I literally (read: figuratively) cannot believe how good it is. Reading it even upset me because I am fairly certain that I will never in my life be able to write something this good. It is so good.

I picked up the book one afternoon last summer at Word here in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. It’s a lovely independent book store and if you’re ever in the neighborhood, you should go there and give them your money in exchange for books. Who doesn’t need more books? It was with that thought in mind that I entered Word and browsed through their well-curated selection. Stranger Things Happen was one of the four or five books I bought that day and as soon as it got home it went directly onto my bookshelf and was forgotten. Such is the fate of many books languishing upon my shelves.

After putting down The Girl Who Played With Fire, the second of the dragon tattoo books, which was entirely unremarkable and didn’t warrant my continued attention, I pulled Link’s book off my shelf, dusted it off, and threw it into my bag for the train. I swear I nearly missed my stop because I had my face buried in the book. I didn’t want to get off the train. And I always want to get off the train. I hate the train.

The book contains 11 short stories on all sorts of topics with all sorts of characters (and a lot of cats). They are magical without being ridiculous, difficult without being abstract, feminine without being saccharine, fantastical yet completely real. (Isa, I wrote yours first.) She has managed to blend the real and the unreal into a wholly believable tapestry. The stories are full of mystery and sadness and love and death. I can’t believe you have not already purchased the book. It is SO good.

The quote by Jonathan Lethem on the cover sums the whole thing up quite nicely.

Kelly Link is the exact best and strangest and funniest short story writer on earth that you have never heard of at the exact moment you are reading these words and making them slightly inexact. Now pay for the book.

And guess what? You don’t have to pay for the book! You can download it for free at her website. But I think you should pay for the book because it is amazing and you would be a fool not to support her efforts. I ordered her second collection of short stories yesterday (which is also available for free) directly from their website. Read the book and then come back here and tell me how much you loved it. I loved it. I am sad it is done. However, I intend to do a TBLR of one of the stories. Look out for that.

Thanks for kicking ass, Kelly Link.

A Letter From a Friend and My Response

A few weeks ago, a friend of mine wrote me an incredibly sweet e-mail. With her permission, I am posting it and my response here for everyone to marvel at.

Hi Joe,

I was wondering how you find time to do the million things that you seem to do, be it post to your tumblr, post to blacklaser.net, find all videos you either love or hate, write as Torgeir, review bars, record short stories, etc etc etc to the nth degree?

I’ve been toying with the idea (for a while now) of starting a site where I would maybe review some things I like, heap scorn upon things I dislike, discuss the flotsam and jetsam of life in general, perhaps while trying to be funny sometimes. I get all these ideas in my head about things I want to do, I even get as far as lighting the match, but I just can’t seem to catch myself on fire. Within a few days of thinking “I should start a blog/site!” I circle back around to thinking “When would I even find time to write up a post? Who cares what I think anyways?” (Perhaps I need to care less about people caring? It would be funny if this were the simple secret to success in blogville.) Not to mention I work 40+ hours a week, at the end of which the last thing I want to do is look at another computer. I’m even writing this from my work email, as I loathe getting online at home that much.

I guess I’m wondering how you get inspired, or what propels you forward from thought to action? I need a dose of that, so I’m asking people who seem to fit a lifetime of personal achievement into each week.

If you’re too busy to answer (ha, see what I did there?), then please take this picture as tribute. Seriously though, if you don’t have time for this or don’t have anything to divulge, you can just reply with a picture of a shrug, no hard feelings.

Thanks,

Monica

Well, Monica, you’ve asked me a number of questions that I have a lot of thoughts about. In fact, I’ve been thinking about your e-mail for some time and have put together some ideas that are a bit of a synthesis of things I’ve written here before. I am going to jump around a little bit in answer your queries, so bear with me. I will touch on everything.

First, should you start a blog. I mean, you didn’t ask me this directly, but it’s what your second paragraph is hinting at. What do I think? Of course you should…if that is something you are motivated to do. When I first started The Black Laser back in 2008 (so long ago!), I didn’t really have a good idea of what I wanted the place to be. I knew I wanted a venue to share my photos and writing and whatever in one collected place. I made this site with a vague direction (black and pink, a bunch of text, uh, maybe videos?) and then just let it evolve as my fits and fancies dictated. Did I know in 2008 that by this point I’d have posted nearly 500 music videos? Of course not. I didn’t even consider posting music videos back when I was getting the site up. Did I know that I’d have an entire section devoted to letters I’ve written to things like the 23rd St F station or Coffee or Ugg boots? Of course not. The letters were just something I thought would be fun one day so I wrote a letter. And, you know what, it has turned out to be a lot of fun for me to write those things. They don’t take a lot of energy or thought and, most importantly, they make me laugh.

That is key to this whole thing: it has to be fun. If it isn’t fun, you won’t do it. I don’t very much like getting massages (weird, I know), so I never do that. I quite like drinking beer, so I do that all the time. I also quite like writing on The Black Laser, whether I am bullshitting about some music video or cross-posting my Torgeirs or analyzing my creative path or whatever the hell I am writing about, I like it. It is enjoyable for me. My advice is, unless you’re making money on it, don’t limit yourself to a certain content type. Just post whatever you like, whatever you are motivated to create. That way you will find success. And as a side bonus, you will see your writing get better. Mine certainly has over the years I’ve been doing this. I go back and read some of my early posts and think, “Man, that could have been written better,” but so it goes. That’s life. You do enough of one thing and you’re bound to be good at it. Hopefully. At the very least, better at it.

I would also advise not to get too self-critical when starting out. It’s romantic to think that a bunch of people from all over the place are going to be coming to your site and criticizing everything, but that is just a fantasy. Especially at the beginning. The people who will be coming to read initially are people you know, Facebook friends, Twitter folks, meatspace friends, whomever. So don’t worry about it. Post what you like, put a little thought into it, and just do it. I mean, fuck it, life is too short to not do things because you’re worried about what some nameless, faceless twit on the internet thinks about it, right? It’s for you.

I think I might come across as a classic oversharer, but the contents of my various social media are, in fact, highly curated. I specifically do not post certain types of material on The Black Laser, my Tumblr, Facebook, or Twitter as a matter of good practice. Because I share these things with many types of people in my life (friends, family, clients, the world), I only put things on them with which I don’t mind being identified. I only mention this, because I think that’s an important thing to consider when thinking about your potential blog. Sure, yeah, you might not have many readers at the beginning, but people will find it and it would be a real drag for them to read something there about themselves that you didn’t want them to read. Classic OOPSIES moment.

Next, let’s touch on inspiration. You asked me about what inspires me to continue doing what I am doing. A number of things, in fact. Fear mostly. Anxiety. A sense that I am wasting my life away. This dread that I am throwing my future away. The desire to share. Because I like it.

But let’s back up for a moment. You commented that I am a person that seems to “fit a lifetime of personal achievement into each week,” which, while incredibly sweet and slightly shocking, is exactly the opposite of how I feel about my life. If you click the “Inspiration” or “Creativity” tags beneath this post, you will find plenty of posts where I am struggling with my lack of inspiration, with this sense that nothing is coming, this feeling that everything is a waste. I never feel like I am doing enough, creating enough, achieving enough. I always feel like I could be doing more. Enough so that if I get home and sit around and watch a movie, I genuinely start to feel guilty. Of course, I still sit around and watch movies from time to time, but I don’t really enjoy it. It’s not relaxing for me.

I was discussing your e-mail with my therapist a few weeks ago, just after you sent it. I was telling her exactly what I wrote above. She asked me why I thought that was and I couldn’t give her an answer. My ability to create and communicate with people is inherently tied into my sense of self. And why shouldn’t it be? Even this response is deeply personal as I discuss my thoughts and fears and ideals. This is a representation of who I am, and, even more, who I’d like to be. And I guess the idea of not pursuing that to its fullest is terrifying to me. She asked me what would happen, how would I feel, if I cut myself some slack and let it slip a little. I told her that in the times I have done that my brain goes crazy, I start to feel insane, and am driven back to work, even if it’s something as trivial as posting music video reviews on The Black Laser. I have to be making something all the time. She asked me if I could feel relaxed. I told her the only way I know to relax is to create things. That’s true. When I am done with this, I will feel great. Something’s been done. Something’s been made. I can chill now.

I remember, in college, I took an acting class as a prerequisite to a directing class I wanted to take. Every week we had a standing assignment to spend 20 minutes at home just relaxing. Every week I’d come in and my professor would ask me how I did and, without fail, I told her I couldn’t relax. About three quarters of the way through the semester she had me stay after class to try and help me to learn to relax. She laid me down on the floor on my back and instructed me to close my eyes. She touched my shoulders and flinched. She might have actually said, “Holy shit!” I can’t remember; it was a long time ago. But I do remember her being quite shocked at how much tension I held in my shoulders. I told her that I couldn’t relax and now did she understand how tense I was? I left the class feeling vindicated in my inability to relax, but no close to achieving the goal. Oh well. I figured it out later.

So, where does my inspiration come from? Everywhere and nowhere. Everywhere in the sense that as I wander through life doing things, I like to soak in everything around me and funnel that into whatever the hell it is I am thinking about or working on or planning. Nowhere in the sense that my own constant sense of dread propels me all the time. I honestly feel like I am throwing away my life if I am not making things on the regular. Sure, I experience a normal ebb and flow of creativity, just like anyone. And sure, I get lazy and tired and fucking distracted—wow, so distracted—just like anyone else. I know these things about myself, yet I cannot allow them to win. It is part of why I’ve always set goals, guidelines, limits, quotas, or whatever I think will motivate me to stay obligated. I’ve always liked working with other people in teams since I am incredibly motivated to put out work when I know someone else is counting on me. When it’s only me and there’s no financial reward to be seen, it’s much harder. But if I make myself accountable to myself and to my readers on The Black Laser who are following along my year’s theme, then I find it much easier to stay on track. Does that make sense?

This all ties in to your question about where I find the time. I don’t. I make it. I work at least 50 hours a week, every week, often with late nights and weekends popping up and keeping me in the office. And, as an editor, my whole day is being creative. When I get home I rarely have much juice left to try and be super cool writer guy, so I just do what I can. I say, “All right, Joe, you’re going to write 500 words. At 500 words you can either stop or, if you’re feeling it, keep going.” That works nicely for me. It’s a system I’ve used for years. Do I always write 500 words? Fuck no! If I get home from the office at midnight after a fourteen and a half hour day, you can bet your sweet ass that all I’m going to do is go to the bar next door for a beer and then come home and go to sleep. But if I come home after a normal 10 hour day, I do try and do something. Do I always? Nope, but the thought is there. Sometimes you can’t force it. The weekends are often good for this. I’ll wake up, go out, eat, wander, run some errands, and then come home and produce before going back out for the night. In the end, it’s fun for me, so it’s not a hassle to make time for it. It also keeps me from feeling like a crazy person, which is always nice, you know?

To sum this whole thing up, if you want to make a blog, do it! Don’t limit yourself, and don’t make it a chore. If you have fun doing it and regularly think, “Man, it would be fun to blog about this!” then you will find yourself making time for it. And it doesn’t always have to be enormous blocks of text or things you spend a ton of time on. Lots of people have had incredible success on Tumblr just posting silly photos along a particular theme or just having curated collections of things or whatever the hell people do on Tumblr. The Black Laser was conceived as a place for me to write, so that’s what I do here. Think about what you might want to do (don’t get to specific) and just do it. I think you’ll have fun with it. And if you don’t, stop doing it. Done and done.

Thanks again for the note. I hope this was helpful.

Sincerely,

Joe Dillingham
The Space Pope
Torgeir The Black Metal Extremist
The Black Laser