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Creative Writing Final Reflection

After a quarter and a half of business school and the work that went into the application and GMAT, I was starting to feel a little bit like I was losing myself. I hadn’t made anything for myself in ages which was making me seriously anxious. But between graduate school and work demands, I knew I would never make time to correct the imbalance.

My solution? Enroll in another class on Tuesday nights between my Monday/Wednesday blocks of MBA classes. Reasonable!

Ultimately it proved to be a great decision. Tuesday night creative writing class at Cabrillo quickly became the highlight of my week. For me, immersing myself—even in such a small dose—in something creative was critical for my mental health. It really helped rekindle my love for fiction writing.

No, that’s not right. My love was kindled, but I had a big block in my head. What the class did was provide enough structure to get through that block. The class gave me the reason to push through the block and actually get words down on paper and then provided me with a method to actively discuss the work with other real-live humans in meatspace, instead of just putting it up here to languish. That was pretty special for me and felt rewarding in a way I didn’t anticipate when I signed up for the class.

The class also provided a venue for me to interact with other creative people in a way now missing from my life. I love the people I work with and the people I go to business school with, but I missed having weirdos (like me) to talk to about artsy nerd stuff.

I could write a whole post about it (and I probably will), but for now I will share with you the final reflection I wrote for the class. It provides some insight into where my head is these days and maybe you’ll get something out of it. I got something out of writing it.


1. In which of the following elements of fiction do you feel you grew the most? In which do you still wish to grow more? -Character, Setting, Dialog, Plot, Imagery, Point of view, Other…

I focused most on the structure of my work, and thinking of each as a coherent structural unit. I was digging through my blog recently (so 00’s) and found tons of fiction I have little memory of writing. Some of it was good, but some of it was not so good. All of it was fully improvised in the moment. Pantsed. That’s where my practice lies. And for that reason, thinking about writing a longer piece always seemed pretty overwhelming, insurmountable.

When I enrolled in this class, I knew I had a block in my head about longer works, that I lacked the tools to engage a longer piece. Getting some practice considering the writing as a standalone unit rather than a scene proceeding from and leading to another scene was important and something I was deliberate about. I knew that thinking about each story this way would translate to thinking about longer pieces the same way. All I needed was to get into the habit.

Truthfully, I didn’t nail it on all my stories. The first one was a single unit. One and done. The second one was unfinished when submitted. I’ve since finished it and sent it out to the journals. The third was really just a sketch of a bigger idea. If I had to grade myself on nailing the idea of keeping each one of these as an independent unit, then I didn’t do so well. But if the idea was to figure out how to make these freestanding units within a larger project, then I think I did all right.

Past that, the aspect I struggle with the most is plot. I’ve always thought of plot as doing, not happening. It needs to feel like the choices characters make are the choices they would make if it was a real situation, if they were real people with real drives. I get stuck in a pattern of thinking, “well, I guess they could just sort of do anything, right?” and that leads nowhere. Creating a plot that feels motivated and purposeful is a little bit like playing the role of your characters as if you were an actor. But, in this case, it’s like you are one actor playing every single role all at once and that is pretty hard to focus on. One or two sets of motivations and desires and obstacles, sure, but dozens? Tough. That will require much practice. It’s a one-man show with an ensemble cast that is forty hours long.

2. What is your long term goal as a writer? (Both as what you want to achieve artistically, and how you hope the world will receive it.)

I’d like to see if I can make a living writing. I’ve always wanted to make a living in a creative field, and, for a long time, I did. The older I get and the more experienced I get, the more I recognize that I am not so good at working with other people. Over the years I’ve learned to do it, but I am impatient and often prickly when I feel like I don’t have the autonomy to execute as I think is best. It’s a bad tendency that I try to temper, but still comes up now and then.

What I am really good at is executing to a deadline when I need to. Want me to go sit an office all day? NOPE. Grumpy Joe all the time. But, give me a list of things to finish and a deadline and the autonomy to do them in the order and method I choose? You’re going to get everything as requested to the best of my ability. Writing professionally is, from what I know, a lot like that. I just need to get myself to a place where someone wants to give me some deadlines. I can, of course, give them to myself, but that is less effective.

I understand that it’s not some magical free-for-all, do-what-thou-wilt arrangement, that there is pressure from publishers and editors and agents and booksellers and the realities of the market. The auteur is always tempered by the situation. I’ve learned that lesson a thousand times already. I am prepared for it and not at all worried about it. I long ago rid myself of the delusion that my art is ineffable, too great to be sullied by the crassness of commerce. Anyone who wants to make a living has to learn that.

Beyond the lifestyle aspect, I really enjoy writing and telling stories. It’s what drew me to the film world in the first place. Humans are storytellers. It is an important part of how we interact with each other and an important part of what we leave for those who follow us. And I really think I have stories to tell that will resonate with people. What else could someone ask for? If I can reach out through my words and make someone’s day or week or month better, then I am happy.

3. What has been your journey with your inner critic? What is the critic saying to you these days? How do you handle it?

He’s a real son of a bitch. My greatest enemy, even with things I know I am good at. It’s been a lifetime struggle that is sometimes ok, sometimes terrible. I am getting better at working through the terrible and giving myself permission not to generate perfection at all times. That was a difficult lesson to learn.

He’s better these days, less quick to reject any thought I have. I’ve found the best way to deal with him is to just talk to someone about my ideas. That’s something I’ve never had before. Voicing them gives them life and allows a different part of my brain to process them, which I think is helpful. I’ve discovered that talking about the ideas with other people is a helpful way to create what my wife calls “commitment devices”; if someone knows I should be working on something it keeps me accountable. And accountability always wins out over the voice. It’s a factor that always worked for me with my film editing (since you never just edit for only yourself), but not something I incorporated into my writing life until this class. Pretty wild to think about, but I’ve always been too shy about the work to talk about it. I’d post it all over the internet with my name on it and to the social medias and whatever, but speaking about it aloud was hard. Weird how these things are sometimes, right? Part of what I looked for with this course was enough confidence to talk about these things aloud and that has been a great success. I am very thankful for it.

4. Do you plan to keep writing after the class? What will this look like? (How often, where, etc.) Do you want to form a workshop with buddies from the class?

Yes. I am planning a novel version of The Boneman (title subject to change) in the weeks until my business school quarter ends. I dropped all my summer MBA classes when I learned that school would only be online. It doesn’t work for me at all. Too old, I guess, but I really require the in-person engagement for classroom learning.

I am giving myself a little break from writing until the end of the quarter, but will be using my free time to do some pre-writing and outlining of the novel. I’d like to be ready to execute as soon as finals are done. From there I have a weekly word count to hit—which may or may not be totally reasonable—and a deadline for the first draft of the project. It’s all subject to change as things evolve, but this will be a good way to start.

I would love to form a workshop with buddies. Ann, JJ, Lily, and I spoke about it during our final workshop session. I’ve already sent them work to read since then. And even if it’s not as formal as the You Are A Mirror set-up, having someone to chat with about the work is super helpful. Obviously. That’s why people have writing groups, right? I’d love to have something more formal, but it’s pretty hard with the plague quarantine. I’m sure that the group will evolve as time goes on too. All groups do.

5. How did the move to online learning impact your experience of the class?

Real talk. It was terrible. I thought you did a great job of the sudden shift from real-life to online, especially considering how quickly you had to make the change. But the online format, as I mentioned earlier, does not work for me. And for a class like this one that relies so much on discussion and open communication, the format just doesn’t work. It also didn’t help that like 60% of the class just disappeared when we went online. And it’s really tough to have a conversation with other students who elect not to use their camera. Talking to a name whose face you cannot see is pretty unhelpful. You did your best and I recognize it and appreciate it.

6. Do you plan to take another creative writing class?

Maybe. I believe my only option at Cabrillo is to retake this class as 12A. Santa Clara isn’t an option. And Hunter didn’t take me for their MFA program either time. If something comes up, I’d like to take another class. I really enjoyed this one. Tuesday night was a bright spot in my week. Just not totally sure what my options are.

I intend to keep learning, though. I have a number of writing books queued up to keep my brain churning along on the best way to tell stories. I’m going to finish the Anne Lamott book. That one is best a chapter at a time. I’m going to give King’s On Writing a run. I purchased and read the beginning of Wayne Booth’s Rhetoric of Fiction which you mentioned in class. That one is a touch dense and will have to wait until my non-fiction reading doesn’t also include Data Analytics and Ethics for Managers. But I am excited to read the genesis of the unreliable narrator. Dipping in and out of books like these is a great way to give my brain something to process while I do other stuff.

7. What activities did you most enjoy?

-specific group interactive writing games (We didn’t do a lot of these because of the move to online learning. Address them if you remember them, and if not, don’t worry about it.)

-specific individual writing prompts

Hands-down the thing I most enjoyed was the workshop. The prompts were good and helpful for getting into the mood. I even generated a handful of ideas there I’m going to develop. The music playlist game was fun too and I enjoyed the one where we created a backstory for a character as a group while discussing specificity. But, for my money, the workshop was the most valuable exercise we did.

8. A year from now, what will you remember from this class?

The value of having a writing group. Too-hot coffees from the stand outside the building. Wondering each night if I was going to get away with not having a parking pass. Dark walks to the bathroom around the corner. Curiosity about what the sign language class was talking about when I passed. That kid asking you about his Star Fox fan-fiction on the first night of class. Attendance dropping as the weeks went on. Recognizing that I probably needed to learn how to type with more than just my left index finger, right index finger, right middle finger, and right thumb. Getting back into the swing with Scrivener. Coming home totally jazzed about what we’d been doing in class and talking my poor wife’s ear off.

9. How was your experience of workshop? What did you learn from critiquing the work of your peers? What did you learn from getting the feedback of your peers?

Workshop was an incredibly valuable exercise for me. Getting feedback is great, even if the feedback itself isn’t what you want to hear. I mean, we all just want to be told how smart and how funny and how good looking we are, right?

It’s so easy to get stuck in your own head about parts of the work, and from there you have nowhere else to go. Just deeper into your own damn head. The workshop digs us out of that mire and keeps the wheels turning in a way that you just can’t do on your own. I also found that thinking about the other work helped me think about my work more critically. Maybe there’s something about getting into that mindset or maybe when we read other’s work, we are subconsciously looking for things that bug us about our own. Probably a little bit of both.

Regardless, I often had good breakthroughs on my work after dissecting the work of my group members. That is testament to the importance of having a writing group and not grinding things out in isolation. Perspective is key.

10. What are you most proud of? What were your personal writing “wins” this semester?

I am proud of the work I produced. It has been a long time since I’ve written and finished anything. Part of the point of enrollment was to shake off the cobwebs and I did that. No matter what comes of any of it, this has been valuable time spent honing my craft.

The Theme for 2020: Wonder

Cynicism is a shackle.

Cynicism is a shackle and being jaded is uncool and dumping on people who are putting themselves out there is a drag.

For too long I have indulged this sort of needless negativity and I feel pretty done with it. It’s a habit I (and many others) developed as a teenager and so thoroughly internalized that it’s become a dominant personality trait. But that sucks! When you have a bad habit, you try to undo it, right? Drinking too much? Cut it out. Get soft around the tum-tum? Go to the gym. Being a cynical jerk about stuff? Embrace wonder. I limit myself and the potential richness of my life by immediately writing things off that maybe aren’t the best. Or things that I perceive might not be the best. How might my life now, as a 37 year old man, be fuller if I hadn’t spent so many years thinking things were stupid because it made me feel cool? It’s terrible, and if that makes me cynical about cynicism, then so be it.

I want to get to a place where I can just be excited about things without tempering that excitement with a bad attitude. I want to go to an open mic night and genuinely think to myself, You know, that was pretty good. I want to see a dad-rock band at a local festival and not roll my eyes. I want to read the clumsy poetry of the world and not dismiss it out of hand. I want to like things because I like things and not justify my tastes. I want to take pleasure in the weird experiences that I find myself in all the time. I want to find the magic in creating things that are not masterpieces. I want to welcome the broken and wonky into my heart. I want to silence that damned voice that says so many terrible things to me. I want to embrace the joy of small, imperfect things because life is full of small, imperfect things and dismissing them robs you of so many chances for happiness.

The theme for 2020 will be:

The Year of Wonder

Maybe I mean something closer to “the year of positive attitude” or “the year of not being a judgy dickhead” or “the year of just giving it a damn rest already with the negativity”, but none of those are as punchy as The Year of Wonder so that is what we are going with.

It seems to me that embracing wonder comes in two distinct flavors: inward and outward. That is, am I directing my bad attitude at myself or am I directing it at others. I think this differentiation is pretty easy to follow.

My struggles with being creative are legendary and well-documented. I have written about it extensively before here on The Black Laser. I am sure all this results from this persistent negative voice inside me. I am sure that the same sense that makes me think someone else’s work is worthless is the same sense that makes me think my work is worthless. Where there’s smoke, there’s fire, right?

Why beat myself up for the imagined failures of work I am not producing? It is better to produce and release 85% perfect work, than it is to beat myself up forever because the work isn’t 100% perfect and then never release anything at all. Get over it, Joe, and just be happy that the 85% work is out there. If I consider every single thing I’ve ever created professionally, there might be a handful of works that were in the 85% to 90% range. The rest were lower than that for whatever external reality causing issues. And I made a living that way! The world isn’t looking for works that are 100% perfect. That is impossible. Just do your best and people will respond.

And this attitude is never limited to just myself, either. Why can’t I just accept that someone has worked hard on something and is doing their best to share something of themselves? Perhaps they don’t sing with Bing Crosby’s syrupy voice, or perhaps they don’t shred like St Vincent, or perhaps they don’t craft the taught, lurid prose of Shirley Jackson, but so what? The creative drive is within all of us. For the most part, I really believe, people are just doing their best to express their own truths. Why poo-poo that? Encourage people to live their lives. That starts with not being yet another negative voice in a sea of negative voices. Negativity is easy, but negativity is lazy.

It’s a bad behavior it and it needs to stop.

This year is the year I work to stop it. I imagine it will be a difficult path, one from which I will stray regularly. You don’t change 37 years of bad behavior in a single blog post. But, it is something I want to work on. Just getting over the mental hump that kept me away from The Black Laser for so long is the first step. Christ, it’s not like I haven’t had anything stewing in my head the last few years. It’s just that the voice was so loud, so persistent, that I felt stuck.

Well, I’m back. Hi. Missed you too. Let’s be positive this year.

That Damned Voice

You know that voice in your head that hates everything you do?

This idea is so stupid.

Why are you wasting your time? Just give it a rest.

No one gives a damn about this garbage.

I hate that guy. I hate the way he talks to me. I hate the way he affects everything I try to make or do. I hate that he is always there, always nagging, always loud, always getting in the way of exercising the creative juju that helps me feel like a whole person.

But, you know what the worst part of that voice is? That voice is me. One hundred percent, inextricably me.

I wish I could blame his negativity on some external influence, but that would be dishonest. That jerk telling me how much I suck is me.

The voice is something I’ve always struggled with, especially when my job was more creative. I would stress and stress while working on a cut, wrestling with that voice the whole time. They’re going to hate this. This sequence doesn’t make sense. I am a fraud. This is horrible. I will never work again.

The voice was a constant companion back then, like an overly sensitive smoke alarm placed directly above your oven door that goes off at the slightest provocation. He would smell my lack of confidence, sensing that I was about to put my core in front of the jury and he would start screaming, screaming, screaming. Relentless.

Eventually, fear of failure would drown him out and I would push through the noise to get things done. That was the cycle. Project starts -> stress stress stress -> down to the wire -> recognition that I had just enough time to get the thing done -> execution. Far from the best way to work, but I managed to squeak by. I never excelled, never enjoyed the process, but always enjoyed the creative flow-state that resulted when the voice drove me to the precipice of fear. Then I could work.

Pretty frustrating. No use dwelling on what could have been had I unlearned this bad habit decades ago, though. You can’t change the past, only the decisions you make today.

Now, he’s a less common visitor since my work is, overall, much less creative than it once was. Now, I have numbers and math to back up the decisions I make and, as long as those make sense, there’s less uncertainty, less of my self on the line. The voice no longer has such frequent opportunities to make himself known.

But when he does?

It feels like he’s making up for lost time. He shouts about everything tiny choice I’m considering. The din is nearly impossible to cut through. I can feel it in my chest and in my head and in the jelly of my eyes. Without the fear to drown him out, I have no escape. The voice grinds until I cast that day’s creative idea away and give in to easier pleasures. Then reprieve.

Reprieve, however, is short lived. My mind is never quiet and during that easier pleasure I recognize the pattern of emotional self-abuse and get angry. Angry at myself for letting the voice win again. Frustrated for another night of giving in to an unearned reward. Depressed that this is just how it will always and forever be.

Luckily, that pattern, too, is just another bad habit. The only real way to do away with the voice is to unlearn his language. So, here I am, struggling through this post to try and shut him up.

Meditating on Meditation

I’ve been thinking about meditation a lot, recently. No, that’s not exactly right. What I’ve been thinking about a lot recently is a way to get my emotions under control and to get my flighty, distractible brain to in line. Meditation just seems like the way to do that without any sort of chemical intervention.

Not that I know a whole lot about meditation apart from a few experiences with it growing up. As a teenager in the 1990s in Northern California, it was the sort of thing you couldn’t miss. At least some of your friends’ parents were hippies and that meant home-made fruit roll ups, kitchens filled with weird tea, and people who meditated.

My friend Deegan’s dad Charlie had a little nook set aside in their home for meditation. It was always a curiosity to me. Though I grew up with the children of hippies, my parents could not be further from that archetype. My father is a pretty serious, no nonsense kind of guy, the kind of guy who seems cool or indifferent at first, but isn’t. It just takes a minute—and maybe a couple glasses of wine—to recognize his tells. My mom is a warm lady, a bit of an iconoclast in her own way, and surprisingly irreverent about some things while being firmly set on respect for other things. And my step-dad John is more interested in going for a bike ride to the beach than seeking nirvana through spiritual enlightenment. None of them were the type to set up a meditation nook in our house. We had regular fruit roll ups.

Though it seems like the kind of thing that would be ripe for making fun of, Charlie’s set-up was something my group of friends and I accepted and never thought particularly weird. It stood out to me because it was alien to my home experience, but not so alien that it felt outlandish or deserving of derision. I never spoke to Charlie about it when we went to Deegan’s for whatever reason, but he and his wife Mary still live in that same house and I’d be willing to bet that the meditation nook is still there.

Now, as an adult, living in one of the fastest, loudest, most annoying cities int he world, I think I understand a little better why he had it there. Being a grown-up is hard. It is filled with stresses that you know about and stresses you only find out about as they drop their stinking load on your feet. Add kids and career to that mix and no doubt you’ll take any respite you can. Better than spending all your free time drunk (full disclosure: I am drinking a beer right now) or otherwise medicated. I bet that if I asked Charlie he would say that I was hitting pretty close to home.

I’ve wanted to learn about meditation for a long time, but never sought it out for fear that I would immediately be annoyed by some faux-spiritual nonsense. As soon as someone namaste’d at me, I’d flip them the mental bird, write them off as a waste of time, and close the chapter in that book. But that’s not totally fair. I believe that if I could either get past my knee-jerk reaction to that sort of communing-with-nature, one-spirit-touches-us-all, can-you-feel-the-energy bullshit or find someone who could teach me about meditation without all the new agey trappings that I might really learn a lot of great benefit to me.

You see, I am filled with anger. All the time. I am angry about everything. It is my first and only, my quickest reaction to things. It goes from zero to ten almost immediately and the only thing that keeps me from exploding most of the time is some serious self-control. I can feel the venom welling up in my throat, and I choke it down to maintain the relationships I have with my friends, my coworkers, my clients, and my family. Most of the time, it’s not even that I am particularly anger with any of them, but I react violently and the flames engulf me.

Unfortunately, often the flames are too hot and I get burnt. I have learned in my life not to react immediately when I feel the rage, but to excuse myself and ride out the reaction. Sometimes it takes an hour. Sometimes it takes a whole day. Eventually, I feel less angry and I can rejoin the realm of the living. I wish I had better control over the process so I could shake it off even faster. I find the rage cycle to be terribly distracting and not at all necessary to my life as a professional, a creator, or a husband. Better to have a way to proactively deal with it, than be forced into passiveness as it takes its damn sweet time going away. Everything I understand indicates that meditation would help here. I mean, David Lynch swears by it, right?

When my little brother was dying, I was filled with anxiety that felt like the best time to really take hold and run me through was as I lied down for bed at night. With the lights out and the noise of the day muted, my brain went on waking nightmare joyrides. My heart rate would spike and I would toss and turn for ages, never really falling asleep. The only time I would get any sort of real sleep was when I was so exhausted that no amount of anxiety was going to keep me up anymore and I’d pass out. It was like that for months and months.

Eventually I remembered a technique I would use as a teenager to get to sleep when I was feeling the same sort of anxiety. I would lie in bed, as still as I could, and picture a gray field in my head. That’s it. Gray. Initially I would really have to work to keep all the other stuff out of my perfect gray field, but as the minutes wore on it would become easier and easier and eventually sleep would find me. The trick was incredibly consistent. Stress led to head noise which was blocked out by gray which led to sleep. I put it back to use as Nicky fought his losing battle against cancer and I started sleeping again. Gray wasn’t always enough to overcome that particular anxiety, but it was sufficient most of the time.

In some way, that was, I guess, a crude sort of meditation. Not quite exactly clearing of the brain the way movies make you think all the zen masters do since I had to force grayness into my consciousness, but close enough. Perhaps that’s all meditation is? Turning everything off in some structured way so you can see through the miasma of daily stress and obligation and emotion? I would like that in my life. I need a technique like the gray sleep technique I could use when all I see is red. There is someone out there who knows a lot more about this than I do and I would like to meet them. Or read their book. Or something. I’ve tried reading online, but there is just too much information to parse what is useful and what is gibberish. I’m not entirely sure where to start. Maybe I should set up a nook in my house? But then what?

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. Im the type of person who keeps trying to be a better one each day and to compromise and explore every new thing, with the korean ginseng I manage to maintain my mind in the perfect state to begin any type of adventure and to overcome this energy activation each time.

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.

Crossfit – Take 2, or, How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Say “Fuck It”

In September 2011, I took a trip with my friend JJ to Spain, which you might have read about before. And, if you haven’t, there’s a handy dandy link in the previous sentence. Hyperlinked!

One night in Barcelona, JJ and I thought it would be an awesome idea (after a few bottles of retsina) to break into Parc Güell. We’d been there the day before, but it was full of tourists and hard to get a sense of what it was really like without the swarming masses of picture-takers. We also saw that the place was only protected by a 10 foot tall stone wall. No razor wire, no spikes, no nothing. So come 1am, JJ and I and our gracious host Iolanda, broke into the park. I had trouble pulling myself over the wall because of a serious lack of upper body strength, but we still managed to get in.

Over the next few days, JJ and I got to talking about fitness and he brought up Crossfit as a good, albeit intense, way to get into excellent shape. He had been training that way for a while and sang its praises. I got excited about it since I’d never really been into exercising before and it seemed like a good, directed way to get into shape. If it was left up to me to self-motivate and go to the gym to spend some time fucking around without any clear idea of what I should be doing, I would never ever work out. Case in point: I never ever worked out. But a class was something I could get into, and having someone there guiding you was even better. Plus, I wanted (and want) to get into good shape and impress this girl I was seeing. Besides, if your fitness goals are based on struggling while committing a crime, you’re probably on the right track.

Back in New York, I signed up for an intro class, nearly died doing it, signed up for the Elements course, finished that without dying, attended classes for a few weeks, but then got sad and drifted off. All the good intentions in the world weren’t going to get me out of bed in the morning to go work out. It was hard enough getting up at all; self-improvement was out the window. I spent a lot of time at the bar, though! That’s pretty cool, I guess.

Fast forward 12 months and a whole mess of life changes and I am back in the saddle. I took the Elements course again at the beginning of December to reacquaint myself with the exercises and ease into the regular (read: beginner) WODs. And I am still attending regularly. Hell, I’m even getting to the 8:30a classes on these miserable 15° January mornings which means getting up at 7:15, getting dressed in the half-light of dawn, leaving behind a nice warm body in bed, and getting on the god damned subway. Crossfit, do you understand what I sacrifice to be there on time?!

DO YOU!?

This time is different in that I feel like I am going to be successful in my goals. I think that deserves an examination. What exactly is different this time than it was a year ago when I stopped attending during the first attempt?

First, and most importantly, I feel a lot better about my life and the things going on in it. That is the biggest difference from last year. It’s a lot easier to take care of yourself, to make yourself incredibly uncomfortable for the purpose of bettering yourself, when you don’t feel like a worthless, miserable sack of shit all the time. Surprising, right? I know it is.

Second, I am allowing myself to be vain. Is it wrong that a big part of my motivation is wanting to look good when I get married? Nope. I don’t feel bad about that being a motivator for me in the slightest. I would like to do away with some fluff and add a significant amount of tone to my body before the date (which we do not yet know). Why not? I am stil trying to impress that girl. I want to do a billion pull-ups at the wedding.

Third, I’ve adopted an incredibly helpful “Fuck it, whatever,” attitude with the workouts. My gym, Crossfit NYC, posts the next day’s workout every day so you can get a sense of what to expect. While I understand that they are just trying to help people plan their training regimen, I found this information to be absolutely poisonous to my attendance. I would read what was planned for the next day and start worrying about it so much I would end up not going. “Oh no, 30 million push-ups?! I’ll die!” or “What the fuck is a ‘thruster’?” or “Burpees?! Fuck you.” It was a terrible way to approach Crossfit.

This time, I don’t even bother looking. I don’t want to know until I get there and it is too late to leave. There are enough things that get in the way of showing up (work, life, soreness) without psyching myself out about it. Now I just go when I can and think “fuck it, whatever the WOD is, I am going to do it. It might be miserable, it might be fine, but whatever it is, I am going to do it.” So much better. Actually, now that I’m thinking about it, that attitude echoes a lot of what I’ve written here on The Black Laser about being a creative person. And it boils down to “shut the fuck up and do the work.”

Here’s what we’re looking at for the weather tomorrow morning when I am supposed to be getting up and going to work out.

That's in Fs, my Metric friends.

That’s in Fs, my Metric friends.

Am I worried about it? Yup! Sounds miserable.

Is it going to stop me from working out? Nope! So it’s going to be cold! Fuck it, whatever. See you guys on the other side.

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