If It’s Not Broken, Break It

This hamster very firmly believes in not judging books by their covers and that when it rains, it pours.

I’m learning to hate adages.

I shouldn’t; I mean, they’re just words. But, much like Twitter*, the effort of condensing a sentiment into a small, memorable package means that it either 1) comes across as something a mentally-deficient hamster would say or 2) loses all meaning and context.

Adages are too often the shortcut of thinking.

Today’s annoyance? “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

Sounds good on the surface. Why mess with something that’s functioning perfectly well? After all, it’s working, right?

But.

But.

What if there’s a better way out there?

Something that you’re refusing to see because good enough is…well, good enough?

Much like ‘write what you know’, this phrase has the ability to become a straight jacket. You get stuck in a routine or a method of creation because it’s always worked and it’s fine and trying something new is too much work. But if you’re never going to fix anything as long as it functions with the minimum efficiency, you’re never going to expand your horizons.

If I didn’t try to change things that weren’t broken, I never would have written short stories, or horror, or young adult fiction, because adult fantasy novels were fine. And while not all those experiments worked out for the best, they were still valuable.

Hell, from the Real Life Files, that adage would have seen me never ask my husband on a date, because we were fine as friends. It would have seen me still trapped in an academic career, because it was good enough. It would see us stuck in another province, because why risk the move to a strange town?

So fuck that. Sometimes you have to break things before you can make new things. Break your routines, break your characters, break your stories, and see what you can make out of the pieces. If you can’t make anything, then go back to what you knew. At least you tried. But in the trying, you might just make something great. Isn’t that work the risk?

You always write at home? Go to a coffee shop, or a library, or the park by the river. You always write hard science fiction? Write a romance. Learn something from it. You only read speculative fiction? Pick up a literary award-winner or a non-fiction history.

The new and the novel are where ideas come from. Complacency is the enemy of creativity. And if you’re a writer, then why the hell would you choose complacency?

So break things. Raise new things in their place. And find out what you can do, not just what you can get by doing.

*I love you, Twitter, but you are possibly the shittiest place on earth to have a nuanced conversation about anything.

Advertisements

The Creative Brain And Other Bullshit

If you look close, you can see the creativity.

I was going to write a response to this article, but Chuck Wendig seems to have taken care of that for me, so just go read his instead. It has the added benefit of Urethral Bees. And if that doesn’t pique your interest, really, what are you doing with your life?

Instead, I’m going address another pervasive myth that creators of any kind have run across: the myth of the Creative Brain.

Raise your hand if you create—anything, from carpentry to cooking to handicrafts to sculpture, not just writing—and have heard this:

“I wish I could do that.”

“You were born with so much talent.”

And my personal favourite:

“Who even thinks of that?”*

What do all these statements have in common? They all assume the existence of a special type of mind, a creative type, which is different from a normal person’s. And, significantly, that this type is one that you are born with. Weren’t born like that? Fuck you, back of the Creativity Line.

Bullshit. No one is born creative. Or maybe the better way to look at is that no one is born uncreative. Life takes a certain amount of creativity, and you start right at the beginning, figuring out a way out of your crib and deciding if you can blame that mess on the dog. Children are creative. Just listen to one lie and you’ll be blown away by the breadth and depth of their deception. And by the way it doesn’t make sense, but that’s also creative. And awesome, even when they’re lying to your face about the ninjas that came from the ceiling vents to fight the dinosaurs from the basement and that’s how the lamp got broken.**

The difference between those kids and all the adults who mourn their lack of creativity is that no one tells the kids they can’t do it.***

Anyone can be creative. It’s just a matter of training your mind to think in certain ways. Ways that you, having grown out of dinosaur-fighting ninjas, probably think are dumb.

And that’s where the problem lies. People who think creative people are special forget that, for every idea that blows you away, we have hundreds, thousands, that are dumb. That don’t even make a lick of sense. That never pass the first test, which is: can I explain this to another human? ‘Should I’ is another important question, but that comes later.

You want the creativity, you have to be willing to be dumb. Silly. You can’t build the wall between ‘serious’ and ‘silly’ in your mind and expect things flow. You have to think the stupid things and not immediately push them away, because very clever things can often masquerade as stupid at first glance. Only by careful examination will you sort one from the other.

Best thing about this sort of thinking is that it’s never too late to start, if you really want it. Sure, it might be hard, but push against your brain boundaries and sooner or later they’ll give way.

And you never know: maybe you’ll like what’s on the other side of that wall more.

*I mostly like the undertone of horror with this one.

**For real, kids are awesome.

***All right, some people do, but they’re assholes.

Mind Games: Tricking Your Jerk Of A Brain Into Getting Started

It’s like a time bomb, except instead of killing you, it makes you a warming beverage.

Brains are weird things. They look like a plastic bag of worms left to die in a jell-o mould, but somehow they control everything you do.

And they contradict you! They work against you! You say you want something—like to eat healthy—and they somehow see to it that you find yourself ears-deep in a cupcake box again.

Aside from the gratuitous unfairness of all this, there are a few takeaways:

1. Your brain is not on your side. It is on its own, survival-based, side, which occasionally coincides with your side, but that doesn’t mean it won’t hamstring you every time you contradict it.

2. You can trick that little wormy bastard into doing what you want.

Ever meet people who claim to only be able to work under pressure? “It helps me concentrate”, they say, while you froth at the mouth and try to avoid cracking them one with a five-iron. Really what the looming deadline and the attendant pressure does is give them a way to short-circuit the part of their brain that procrastinates by presenting it with a worse alternative than having to do work: facing the consequences of not doing it. Which might include the five-iron again.

The good news is that you can borrow this trick. Or, if you’re one of the ‘work better under pressure’ brigade, you can use it for other things.

Play games with your brain. One I use all the time is called Race The Kettle. I drink a lot of tea, winter and summer. If I’m having trouble getting started—which, honestly, is about 40-50% of days, especially at this time of the winter when things get all grey—I put the kettle on. Then I have until it boils to get something done. Usually something around 400-500 words. Put the kettle on the stove, turn on the element, and…..GO.

And it works. Why? Because I’m cutting off the procrastination by imposing a short-term deadline. It might be as fake as a January tan, but it’s still there. And it gives me something else to focus on. Can I get it done before the kettle boils? Sounds hard, but maybe if I try really hard…

You get the idea.

Other games I play with myself while writing: Finish By Noon And You Can Start That New Book Over Lunch; Hit Word Count Before Your Doctor’s Appointment Because You Know He’ll Order Blood Work Again; You Have A Lunch Date So Get A Move On; and the always popular Finish The Scene Before The Coffee Wears Off.

Maybe you’re the type that responds to rewards; maybe you like the pressure of deadlines. Or maybe, like me, you need a new way of looking at the problem.

Or maybe I’m just bat-crap crazy. Do any of you play these mind games with yourself? Tell me about yours if you do. I swear to only steal them if I’m really desperate.

Scaling Back: When Too Little Is Just Enough

I am not nearly this cute when I nap. Though I am often covered in cats.

I recently developed a Health Thing which means that I have to get more rest. Not ‘should’ get more; there’s very little I can do about it when the fatigue strikes except try not to fall asleep at my desk*. I can go from ‘totally fucking awake’ to ‘holy shit, no one has ever been this tired, where’s the cocaine, I have to—Zzzzzz’ in eight seconds flat. Aside from possibly being some kind of record, this means that I’ve had to alter my habits.

Like writing. I can no longer write my standard 2000-2500 words a day because, in addition to writing, I still have other things that have to get done. Like showering. And errands. And doctor’s appointments.

I’ll admit, I tried to bull through at first. I’m not known for my tractability, and as far as I was concerned, this was just another obstacle that had to be overcome, like ‘writer’s block’ and other bullshit. If I worked hard enough, I could get through it.

Which was a lie, of course. When your body isn’t working the way it should, you can’t just power through. And trying leads to frustration, anger, and resentment, both of yourself and the project that you should love but that just seems to eat every waking second of every day.

So I scaled back.

This wasn’t easy for me. ‘Doing less’ has always sounded suspiciously close to ‘giving up’ to me, because I am the Queen Bitch of Overachievers. That’s probably why I spent those first few weeks alternately giving myself pep talks and hating myself for not being able to follow through on them because my body, selfish cunt that it is, demanded sleep above all things.

If I’d had access to meth, I probably would have had a go. Just sayin’.

But, finding myself tired, angry, and meth-less, I had to try something else.

I made the choice to scale back my writing day. My daily word count is now 1000 words instead of 2000. And, lo and behold, it’s given me back my day. Now I can get the other stuff done. And, more importantly, I look forward to those 1000 words again. They’re not a boulder I’m rolling uphill. They get done, and I’m happy with them. You know, most of the time.

Writing is fun again.

So, this is your permission slip from me to your psyche or whatever overworked neurotic part of you can’t let go when it needs to: doing less is better than doing nothing. Sometimes it’s just what you need. And that’s okay.

…I’m gonna go take another nap. Later, word-nerds.

*Converted to a sitting desk instead of my more usual standing desk for the duration. I miss you, standing desk.

Imaginary Enemies: Your Periodic* Reminder That Writer’s Block Isn’t Real

Writer’s block was in this picture, but Godzilla ate it.

We all have those days when the words just aren’t there. We don’t know where they went—Atlantic City? Barcelona? Rigel-7?—but they are goddamn well not here when we need them. We stare at that blank page and wait for something, anything, to cross your brain to write. Nothing does.

We tend to call this bullshitty empty brain feeling Writer’s Block, like that explains it. Like writers as a group have some kind of monopoly on this. Giving it a name makes it feel legitimate, somehow. It’s not my fault, I have writer’s block. For reals. I have a prescription and everything. It’s called whiskey.

If you seriously have a problem where you can’t physically think of new stuff, then you might want to make an appointment with a neurologist, because something’s crossed upstairs. But if, instead, you use writer’s block to refer to the lack of motivation and ball-busting that you need to carve words into a semi-legible order, then that’s a unicorn of an entirely different colour.

Because writer’s block isn’t real.

Fear, on the other hand, is.

And that’s what writer’s block really is. It’s not a lack of creativity, because most of us have no trouble finding the creativity to craft the perfect tweet or Instagram filter while we’re not writing. It’s just ordinary, garden-variety fear. Fear of sucking. Fear of failure. Fear of being found out for the fakes and posers that we are.** Fear that this story that we’ve put so much of ourselves into isn’t any good.

So we procrastinate, and waste time, and sigh mournfully about our epic case of writer’s block. Because that’s easier than actually doing something about it.

The time for this bullshit is over. Be honest: admit that you’re afraid. I am. Every day. Of screwing this up. Of never being good enough. But the only way past is through, so after I’ve admitted to these sad, soggy little fears, I ignore them. And get on with it. Sometimes the words I write on those days suck, but most of the time they’re…normal. It gets hard to distinguish, upon another reading, where I was feeling great and where I was feeling shitty. Because it doesn’t matter. Not really.

Fear only has the power you give it. So stop giving it everything. Stop thinking of it as a condition, a syndrome, a block. Admit what it really is, and recognize it for the self-involved bullshit that it is.

And then get yourself another cup of coffee, and get on with your day. Because those words aren’t going to write themselves.

*I was going to go with annual, but I couldn’t remember how long it’s been. I know I’ve written on this before, but my archives are Having A Moment and I can’t be arsed to figure out exactly when. So, periodic. Which is a fun word. Much better than annual. Anyway.

**I’m pretty sure that everyone feels like this sometimes. One of my teachers once said that she felt like a fraud when teaching, and that for the first ten years she thought someone would figure it out. No one ever did.

Monday Challenge: ALL HAIL SYMBOLITRON

*something something the human condition something*

I was cleaning out my guest room the other day and found my degrees. And a copy of my first thesis.* As I leafed the mess of paper, I remembered long—sometimes very long—afternoons spent in tiny windowless rooms, debating the various merits of post-colonialist discourse versus post-modernist aesthetics. Sometimes those arguments were fun, sometimes they were interesting, and sometimes they were absolutely infuriating, but not a day goes past when I’m glad I don’t have to do it anymore.

However, I do remember once, at the Grad House**, we got to talking about what would happen if you came up with the symbolism first, and then wrote the story. Short answer: it would probably suck. Or be critically acclaimed. Or possibly both, because the two are not mutually exclusive.

So, in honour of that drunken conversation many autumns ago, here’s this week’s Monday Challenge:

Go to the Symbolitron. It will randomly generate a story and the symbolic meaning behind it. Pick one from the list it gives you, and then write the opening for that story. 

And if you want to do it in a bar in memory of me and my colleagues, more power to you.

*The second one I haven’t seen since I passed it in for final marking. Either I really don’t want to look at it anymore, or it flapped its covers and flew away to start a colony of post-colonial research proposals of its own.

**A bar, because the first rule of grad school is why meet in your office when you can meet in a pub?

Sweat and Ink: Finding Your Passion In The Armpit Of Summer

Sun: IMMA BE HERE FOREVER.

This is it: the dog days of summer. If you’re anywhere near me, you know that it’s been hotter than the devil’s jockstrap and twice as sweaty.*

What’s the first thing to go in this weather? No, not your clothes. If you’re like me, you’ve been working in a bikini top and daisy dukes since the last week of June, anyway.

The first thing to go is enthusiasm. The muggier it gets, the harder it becomes to give the contents of a roach-infested Hyundai’s ashtray about whatever the hell your characters are doing. Or about anything other than the nearest source of air conditioning, but let’s focus on the writing.

This related to this post on writing in the summer, but if that’s Summer Writer 101, consider this Summer Writer 201. You’ve shown up to write, but your brain is too hot to get it done. To get through the oncoming stickiness with your word/scene/note count intact, we need to dredge your passion for the project out of whatever damp hole it crawled in to die. Here it is: Finding Your Passion, Hot Weather Edition!

1) Change your venue. To an igloo. You might think this is too silly to work, but that’s just the sweat talking. Moving from your stifling living room, where the Crotch-Scorching Firebrick** slow-roasts your junk, to a cooler location can give you the mental energy to write. Your local library might have air conditioning. Or there’s coffee shops. Or malls. Find somewhere to cool down your brain. And your junk.

2 a) Write the good part. There’s probably a part of your story that you’ve been looking forward to writing every since you conceived the idea. Now is the time to write it. Because, god damn it, if you can’t get excited about that right now, it might be time to hang up the pens.

2 b) Read the good part. Maybe you’ve already written the good part. I have. I couldn’t wait. So now is a really good time to go find that part and read it. Remember why you couldn’t wait.

3) Make some inspiration. No, not meth. You don’t want to cook in this weather.

Go make a playlist of music that sounds like your characters, or your settings. Find or make some art: maps, character sketches, artefacts. Put it somewhere you can look at it. Feel the inspiration.

Then make meth.

4) Spread the love. Enlist another person in your project. Find a second reader and send them pages or chapters as they’re finished. They might just get excited, which will make you more excited. And then you can get together and fan-person it up.

5) Strip down. Not like that. Put your shorts back on, slick.

Strip your story down to the most exciting idea. What makes your imagination’s loins quiver with the thought of writing it? What are you trying to say? What does it all mean? Remembering why you got into this might help you get out of it with your sanity intact.

Anyone else? How do you stay motivated to stick with projects when you’re sticking to the chair?

*By Canadian standards, obviously. Those of you from places like Florida and India, keep your weather far south of me and get back to turning into walking sweat glands.

**Also known as your laptop