Breathe.

So, I was going to do a post on the importance of taking breaks when doing creative work, but then I saw that The Oatmeal had already done a comic about it last fucking week.

His is better. It has robot drawings.

Go read it here:

Creativity Is Like Breathing.

And take a deep breath.

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Before The Storm

Fucking PencilsSo, there were no posts last week because I was on the last blitzkreig-esque run that happens at the end of finishing a story. Those times are weird. My fitness tracker kept alerting me because I was moving so much less than usual. I think it believed I was dead, and hoped the vibration would alert someone to the whereabouts of my body.

The last moments of editing, it turns out, are a lot like the last moments of writing: all fire and hammering as you frantically try to forge a bunch of pieces together into one giant, unstoppable whole which will soon be lurching down to the village. It’s exhilarating, but it’s also tiring. By the time I wrapped things up before spending the weekend away, I was spent. Mentally, not physically. It’s already been established I was more of a desk sloth than usual last week.

This week, now that I’m home, is the rumoured Time Between Books. I’m not even sure what the next project is, let alone when it’s due. In a way, that’s a relief, because it’s nice to be able to think again. But I also feel a bit like a fish that’s just been yanked out of the ocean, flopping around and gasping. I need to get back in the water soon.

Not yet, though. This week I’m catching up on all the little chores that pile up during writing time and knocking off a bunch of small projects. Gift shopping, because most everyone I know was born in the second half of the year. Bookshelf organizing. Hell, I might actually get my nephew’s birthday gift to him early for once.

And, of course, taking down all the stuff from the last project.

This one’s bittersweet. I know I don’t need those post-it notes and scrawled timelines any more, but dumping them in the waste basket is still a wrench.

But they have to go. Because I need that space for the new project.

I know, I know. I said a few paragraphs ago that I didn’t know what that was yet. And I don’t . Not entirely. But I have a feeling. And what I do know is that it’s going to be a doozy.

This here? This is the calm before the storm. Better enjoy it.

10 Things I’ve Learned In A Decade Of Creative Work

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This wine is for medicinal purposes after realizing how long I’ve been writing.

Writing Tuesday’s post made me do some math, and the result of that was: it has been almost ten years since I completed my first manuscript.

The actual decade mark will come sometime early next year, but it’s close enough. I remember it quite well, because in the spring of 2006 I was finishing up my master’s thesis and wondering how I would fill a year before going into PhD work.

Eight months later I burned all my PhD applications and watched the ashes flutter away in the January wind.

Since then I have not had a ‘real’ job. I’ve worked temporary part-time stuff, but nothing that you can tell people when they turn to you at a party and ask the dreaded question: “And what do you do?” I’ve been writing.

Here are some things I’ve learned in the last almost-decade:

1. There is no validation. Do not expect the easy win. In some ways, doing this is worse than a day job, because at least there someone can tell you if you’re doing it right. Artists are all pitching words or images or songs into the void and hoping something comes back. It is not for the faint of heart.

2. This is a long con. Be prepared for the long haul. This road runs into the desert, and there’s no proof it ever comes out again. Take water and sunscreen and a machete, because you’re going to be out there a while.

3. People don’t get it. Maybe art is something they don’t understand or something they wish they had done or something they feel is morally wrong, but, man, a lot of people do not fucking get it. Tell them you’re an artist and if you’re lucky you’ll get a blank stare. If you’re not…

4. It makes some people angry. On the upside, these people usually act like complete assholes, so you can safely ignore them while they flail around with their judgmental snark and passive-aggressive comments. It’s about them, not you.

5. Even work you love can be hard. There will be days when you want to punch yourself in the brain to make all the words fall out.

6. If it takes more than it gives, then you’re probably in the wrong job. All jobs take, and creative jobs are no exception. The only difference is what they take. In my case, writing has taken my time, my mental energy, my personal financial security, my independence, my other ambitions. It gives me joy, entertainment, freedom, and purpose. If you’re not getting more than you’re sacrificing, according to your own idiosyncratic math, then you’re doing the wrong thing. Actually, I guess that applies to all jobs.

7. You’ll work harder at this than any other job you’ve ever had. A couple of years back I had to put myself on a regular schedule, because I was spending almost eighty hours a week working on writing and was on the verge of burning out altogether. Even now, I work about fifty. That includes writing, outlining, editing, researching markets, sending out submissions…there’s a lot of unseen work that goes into producing art. And you usually don’t get paid for it. Be prepared for that.

8. It makes you a different person. Not a better person, note. Just different. I am not the same person I would have been if I had gone on to do my PhD. Or gone into teaching. Or done anything else. I look at the world in different ways. Sometimes they’re good ways. Sometimes I’m mining personal tragedy for story fodder.

9. You’ll want to quit. At least once. More likely thousands of times. Sometimes all in one day.

10. There is no rush like creation. When everything’s clicking over just right and all your hard work is coming together, you’ll fly. And you’ll never want to come back down.

Where To Find Ideas When Your Brain Has Dried Up

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Come on, the ideas are just waiting. Photo by Stephanie Snow

The Coffee Shop: Sitting amongst the chatter of the normies might be just what you need to unstick your brain and get the ideas flowing. If not, try a triple Red-Eye. That’ll do it.

The Street: Go out for a walk and let the gentle caress of the breeze coax stories from your mind. Or at least imagine a reason why your 65-year-old neighbour is cleaning his car wearing nothing but short shorts and a sweatband.

The Shower: Something about showering brings the creativity out. Maybe it’s the warmth. Maybe it’s your coconut-and-freesia bodywash. Maybe it’s the cold draft on your butt when your cat moves the curtain to look in at you because cats are assholes with no sense of privacy. Whatever it is, get those ideas before they wash down the drain.

The Smoker’s Section: This was once the entirety of the world, but now people object to being passively poisoned for some reason. As a former smoker who’s one really bad day from falling off the wagon, I can attest to the creativity that comes to you when you’re standing outside in the freezing cold with a delicious stick of nicotine and cancer. Something about staring at a wall while chemicals swirl through your brain.

The Bar: On the up side, alcohol lowers inhibitions, thus increasing your openness to new ideas. On the down side, sometimes those new ideas include the mistaken conviction that you can dance. You can’t. That margarita lied to you.

The Garden: I understand that some people find gardening relaxing? I don’t know, man, plant grooming is just not my thing. But if it’s yours, meh, you do you. I do, however, find it nice to sit outside and think. Until the wasps come.

The Grocery Store: Maybe it’s just that I find being in the presence of large amounts of carbs relaxing, but I do come up with story ideas while food shopping. And sometimes the ideas come to you, like that time late at night when I saw a guy in full clown regalia pushing his cart down the same aisle as me.

The Gym: Aside from keeping an eye on your form and counting your reps, lifting weights doesn’t offer much mental stimulation. And unless you find sweat-covered magazines and shitty talk shows entertaining, there is nothing else to do when you’re on the cardio machines except think. Put that time to good use. More good use, I mean. Exercise is already good. You know what I mean.

Any Place That’s Open All Night: Bus stations. All-night diners. Really sketchy bars where they close the windows and draw the curtains after Official Closing Time. These places are repositories of weird, and weird is good for creativity. Just make sure to bring your own weirdness A-game.

Where do you look for ideas when the old brain well has dried up?

This Isn’t My Real Face: Writing As Someone Else

HI.

I’ve mentioned before that I’ve gone back to my journalling ways*, partially as a writing aid, mostly as a brain and mental health aid. Surprise: I’ve got some faulty wiring upstairs. Who’s shocked? Anyone?

Anyway, I thought I’d share the other, less well-adjusted side to my journalling: about half the time, I journal as someone else.

This isn’t as insane as it sounds. Well, it probably is, but since I’m a writer I can get away with that shit.

Most of the time*** I write as one of my characters, in an effort to get inside their weaselly little brains and make me understanding of them more complete. This works because:

1) People write shit in their journals that they’d never tell anyone.

2) While they’re not always honest, they do present the facts as they see them. Other opinions matter less.

3) Often I can work out motivations behind the scenes that they play out on the manuscript page with more realism.

I don’t always journal as the good guys, either. Most of the really interesting ones are written from the point of view of my villains. Not that you’d know it from the journal entry, because not even the most despicable tyrant refers to themselves as the villain in their diary.

Some of this is the deep background I mentioned before, the process that goes on behind the scenes of a written work. Some of it is to get a feel for voice, action, reaction, thoughts.

Mostly, though, it’s just fun. And, if the novel gets published, it’ll make for some fun extra material to release. Assuming my paper journals survive that long and my many many backups don’t go over to Skynet before then.

So give it a try. Write as your characters. See what they have to say.

You might be surprised.

*Albeit without the Sharpie’d pentagrams and song lyrics on the covers of my notebooks that I favoured in high school. These days I prefer to let my subversive thoughts pass under the radar behind the plain black covers of a Moleskine.**

**I just realized that the current Moleskine is sitting next to my new turntable, which means I’m one case of craft beer away from bursting into full, gloriously bearded hipsterdom.

***I’ll leave you to speculate on who I write as the rest of the time.

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.

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.