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Tag: Inspiration (page 1 of 3)

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 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

Tate Shots: Maurice Sendak

This is a charming interview of Maurice Sendak, author of Where The Wild Things Are. I am always a big fan of creative people talking about being creative and their process and struggles. Check this out. It is really great.

A Letter To Having Nothing At All To Say

Dear Having Nothing to Say,

Did you see the game last week? Yeah, it was pretty sweet, huh? The one sportsguy sure did a good job preventing the sportsguy on the opposing squad from accomplishing his goals. It was quite a performance. They certainly are competent practitioners of their sports!

I’m writing today, Having Nothing to Say, because I really have nothing to say. I’ve been trying to think of things I have opinions about, but nothing is coming to me. It’s weird, you know, because I am an opinionated crank of a human being and usually there’s plenty inside my brain to waste people’s precious time. But today—and the last few days, really—I’ve had absolutely nothing at all to say.

There was so much build-up to my 1000th post and 3rd birthday, that I feel like I exhausted my good Black Laser ideas. That is, of course, totally untrue. As long as I breathe there will be a lot of crap for me to spew out onto the interwebs, but I’ve found myself in a bit of a lull, Having Nothing to Say. It’s a little frustrating, I guess, but I’ve also been quite busy (read: there are many people in Skyrim that must die).

And, god damn, I need to get going on my Christmas track. I wrote some good lyrics this morning on the train and I think it’s going to be a very fun one. Here’s a sampling.

It’s Christmas Eve
Waiting at the club
Santa’s gonna show
That motherfucker’s up

Bringing presents
To all girls and boys
Shaking his ass
To this funky techno noise

And Mrs Claus says

Bitch! GET YOUR ASS TO THE CLUB, come on
Get your ass to the club!
No time for thinking
Get your ass to the club!

We got Rudolph in this bitch
We got elves in this bitch
We got snowmen in this bitch
We got Jesus in this bitch.

Mind that those are just rough lyrics I threw together during my trip into town on the M train this morning. Nothing set in concrete. I have no plans for Thanksgiving, so I’m sure there will be plenty of time to get to making sick techno beats and pitch shifted vocals. On that point, I have no plans for Christmas either, so maybe I’ll just spend the rest of the year making dance music alone in my house.

God, that’s depressing.

Anyway, go to hell, Having Nothing To Say, I’m damn sick of you. If you just up and died, I wouldn’t be upset. I wouldn’t miss you. Fuck, this reminds me that I need to write some Togeirs too. Man, so much to do and so few words with which to do them. And remember the William Blake Dance Party Extravaganza? That went nowhere, huh? Jeez.

Whatever, fuck this. I am sick of this letter already.

Sincerely,

The Black Laser.

A follow up on a post from the other day

Last week I posted about a breakthrough I made about the writing process. A few days ago, I somehow found myself on Judy Blume’s website. I followed a tweet of hers that someone retweeted but I don’t remember who did it. It doesn’t matter.

What does matter is that I spent a little bit of time on her site reading through what she had to say about writing and found advice that echoed what I have discovered the other day.

Before I begin to write I fill a notebook, jotting down everything that pops into my head about my characters and story—bits of dialogue, ideas for scenes, background information,descriptions of people and places, details and more details. But even with my notebook, I still don’t know everything. For me, finding out is the best part of writing.

It’s pretty cool to have such an established author reiterate a conclusion you came to on your own. It makes me feel as if I am on the right path creatively and that is awesome.

I made a breakthrough today.

Last night I met up with my friends Ruth and Nik for a “hey we haven’t seen each other in a while let’s have a beer” beer. Ruth and I got to discussing our editorial methods (she is also an editor) versus those of others we have worked with. I remarked that I often found it strange that some people can just jump in and cut without having seen all the footage. That method isn’t wrong, of course, it just doesn’t work for me. I need to see all the footage before I can start putting things together. It’s part of the process. While watching everything and thinking about it, I start putting together cuts in my head. Once I’ve finished viewing dailies, I can slap cuts together with great speed because I feel confident that I am making the right choices. If I haven’t seen EVERYTHING, then I am not sure that I am picking the best takes or reactions or whatever bits I’m picking and that both slows me down and introduces doubt into the process. Again, doing it the other way is neither right nor wrong, I just know what works for me. Ruth agreed with my methods, adding that she feels as though the thoroughness involved with watching everything is an important step.

Today, I wandered off to the coffee shop with my notebook to sit and do some writing for the first time in months. Before meeting Ruth and Nik last night, I found myself in a powerful, crazy funk that I couldn’t shake. I pulled my notebook out and hastily scribbled a couple pages of text and instantly felt better for having purged that bit of anxiety. No, I won’t tell you what it says, but do know that it has been a long time since I’ve written anything of substance and that little writer’s high (I just made that up, feel free to use it) reminded me of how it feels to be productive in that way and how I used to feel during the Y.5k.P.50.S.S. when I was trying to crank out my quota—really really good. Really good. It inspired me to spend some time outside the house today reengaging with my lost love.

With the coffee at Milk & Roses making my blood simmer, I cranked out the beginnings of something that came to me this morning in bed before I woke up to find that my phone had reset itself to the factory defaults (fun). Between chunks, my mind wandered and I realized something: the block I often feel with writing come from the fact that I feel as if I need to know the entire story before I start writing. How stupid is that?! The whole act of writing is puzzling out the story from bits and pieces. If you knew the whole thing before you got started, you’re really just transcribing, not writing. Of course, we can argue about that for about a hundred years, but that’s not the point of this post. The point is that I realized I cannot approach my writing the same way I approach my editorial work. As an editor, there is a set amount of footage to use, a set body of choices to be made, but as a writer you can take your work anywhere at all. The closest thing to that as an editor is the editing of documentaries which can pull from a seemingly inexhaustible body of footage, but even there limits exist. There are only so many news broadcasts of a certain even, there is only so much football footage, there are only so many interviews with former presidents. Sure, you can go out and shoot stuff, but at the end of the day you’re left with a set amount of material from which to work and that’s it.

This is not true for the writer’s craft. Want to be in outer space? Of course you do. Boom. Done. The past? No problem. Want to have you character do anything, say anything, be anyone? Go for it.

You’re only limited by what makes sense in the context of your work. Does it make sense that your main character is a reformed alcoholic with a violent streak who pays his bills as a clown at children’s parties? It does? Cool. Does it make sense that the shadowy body working against your anti-hero protagonist is comprised exclusively of seven year old girls all named Agatha? It doesn’t? Ok, change it then. What should you change it to? ANYTHING. Therein lies the challenge.

But before I go further off on my tangent about what writing is and isn’t, let’s refocus on the issue at hand: how I think about the process. Basically, I just need to let go similarly to the way I’ve let go of my need to have the first draft be perfect. The plot needs to evolve. It is an organic thing, not something rigid and artificial. Let it come and the work will benefit from that.

So that’s my big creative breakthrough for the day. It may seem minor, but sometimes looking at a problem from another perspective is all it takes to fix things. And by sometimes, I mean pretty much always. Let’s hope that this bodes well for the Y.12.P.S.M.R.

Let us celebrate my new perspective with music.

[audio:http://www.theblacklaser.net/blog/wp-content/audio/breakthru.mp3|artists=Queen|titles=Breakthru]

Andrew Bird’s One Man Orchestra of the Imagination

I am a huge Andrew Bird fan. Noble Beast is right up there with my favorite records of 2009 if not of the last 5 years. It’s tremendous and if you’ve never heard it, you owe it to yourself to pick up a copy and listen.

So stumbling upon his TED talk/performance I knew I had to share it with you. You have 20 minutes today to watch this. Do it. You know something is great when it inspires you to make things yourself. Go make something.

Things that inspire me.

While browsing the Apedogs the other day, I came across a thread where folks were filling out these influence maps. I thought it was pretty cool so I did my own. See if you can identify all my sources. I almost definitely could fill out an entirely different second one of these.

After thinking about it a little bit more, I realized that I failed the Bechdel Test SO HARD. Terrible! It doesn’t change what my influences are, but it sure makes me look like a misogynist. Oops!

If you want to do your own, download the PSD here.

And, if you head over to Apedogs, check out the speed paint thread. Amaaaaaaaaaazing.