The Zen of Boredom

Boredom has its uses. For one, it can be the perfect way to wind down an uptight brain – if you know what to do with all the nothing stretching in front of you. Last week I mentioned how I used to come home after a long, dreary day brimming with ideas. This month I experienced the opposite: having so much time I couldn’t fill it.

I dedicated this month to writing, getting 25k done on the novel and more. I achieved that writing only 2 – 3 hours a day. Next month I might try to stretch it to four hours, but I’ve realized I can’t stretch it well beyond, into the 8 – 12 hour mark, because its burns out my brain. In all the time I didn’t spend writing I exercised, visited friends, and watched stuff on Netflix. But mostly I read articles, novels, and short stories. I filled my brain with prose.

It proved to be too much for me. I’d get to the end of the night and my brain would be so tired I’d zone out until I decided to say screw it and go to bed early. I spent so much time creating and consuming narrative I could barely daydream about what to write next. I was antsy. I was bored. So I decided I really need a hobby, a different pursuit – one where I can zone out for an hour or two.

I took up modding again – in extreme moderation. I started with the most tedious job sitting on my mod’s to do list. Sitting at the computer clicking on the same menu over and over to replace one object with another. Its particular tedium is similar to data entry. And it felt so good. It was the exact kind of zoning out my brain needed. One where attention is required but it only takes the slightest amount of thought.

I’ve identified a few kinds of boredom, some good and some bad.

Antsy boredom: the bad kind of boredom. You don’t know what to do with yourself. Maybe you just finished something and don’t feel like you have enough time to start something new. Maybe you’re just burnt out. Whatever it is, this kind of boredom is a gaping yawn across an abyss of ARRGH.

The solution is to do something. Plan the next thing, go for a walk, distract yourself with mindless entertainment. If you can’t muster that, maybe nap or go to bed. Do anything but sitting around feeling miserable. I find it easily cure by…

Mindless activity: many people think this kind of boredom is bad as well, but it’s actually rewarding. For one, you get stuff done. It gives your brain a break if you let yourself zone out and concentrate on the task. Even a useless mindless activity can sweep the cobwebs out of your brain.

A friend of mine used to blow up a blank page in MS Paint and color it in one pixel at a time, and while chatting we all used to watch. Does that sound like the most boring thing ever? Well, it is! It’s funny how interesting a boring task can be. Mindless activity also leads to the next effect of boredom…

Daydreaming: what happens when you’ve reached a moment of zen. Even the people who push “mindfulness” as the secret to fully living neglect simple daydreaming. “Stay in the moment,” they say. How about no. If I’m staring at the clear blue sky and a new scene for my novel bursts into my head in full color, I’m sure as hell not pushing it out of my mind. Half the time it’s the reason I let myself zone out.

I’ve fought all my life for the personal space necessary to nurture my inner self. The question, “What are you doing?” when it looks like I’m “doing nothing” infuriates me. I tell people, “I’m thinking,” and they look at me like I’ve grown a second head. Then they wonder why they have all their good ideas in the shower, and the daydreamers say, “Duh.”

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The Well Needs Time to Refill

Good ideas take time to form. I have to remind myself of this when they’re coming out in a slow trickle, and when they’re pouring out of me faster than I can write. My new habit, to plod ahead at a steady pace, means tightening the reins in both cases. Learning to harness the muse this way has helped me write more and better than I have before.

Sometimes you get burnt out. Even with a whole day to write, I can’t write all day. I’ve spent whole days doing nothing but reading and writing – I reach a point where I can’t read anymore, I can barely think, and I end up going to bed early because my energy is spent. Everyone has different limits, and I’ve been pushing mine a little to see how far I can stretch them day by day, but I have more energy if I spent time on other things. I forget I wrote my first novel around a dreary day job. I’d spend my day on mindless drudgery and run home brimming with ideas. Allowing yourself to be bored can help refuel the tank.

Sometimes you need to write anyway. Especially if you’re stuck. It’s too easy to turn being stuck into a plug in your brain that stops you from writing altogether. I’ve written before about priming the subconscious by engaging with your work even when the ideas don’t flow. The other day I was so stuck on a plot problem that outlining didn’t help. So I wrote a couple character interaction scenes to see if I could find a plot hiding among them. This primed my brain enough that the next day I was exploding with ideas, but I decided not to write it all at once because…

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A Scatterbrain’s Guide to Time Management

Some of us don’t work well with schedules. As time constraints go, setting up a block of hours as “work time” and trying to stick to it every day doesn’t happen, no matter how we try to drag ourselves to the desk every day. I used to punish myself for not doing what I was supposed to by not letting myself do what I’d rather be doing. I ended up doing nothing, which is lame and had to stop. So I came up with a few strategies to keep myself honest and help me get work done.

The first step is self-awareness. I figured out how I spent most of my day with retroactive day planning. I’d record everything I did in a day, color coded in a calendar app so I could see how much of what I was doing at a glance. I have different colors for working, house stuff, health stuff, and dicking around. At first “dicking around” time made up the bulk of my time, which was a little depressing.

Next I figured out what kind of dicking around I was doing, and if some of it was needed downtime for my brain. I separated productive relaxation, like reading novels or watching documentaries, into another color called “Filling the Well.” More wasteful dicking around isn’t forbidden, but removing some of that color from the calendar made me feel better.

I also started noticing patterns, such as when I’m most productive and when my focus sucks. This let me aim my productive hours for when I typically have the most energy. When I made my vow to write an hour a day, I added a repeat “writing” block to my best hour for writing. I frequently shift the time around, but having it sit there in my calendar, reminding me of the promise I made to myself, has helped keep me honest.

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The Over-Competency Trap

There are at least two kinds of mastery in any art you care to name. The most recognized form is virtuosity, because it’s easy to quantify. You can follow a musical score to check if a performer is playing all the right notes and in the right time. The second is having a honed intuition, which is harder to capture. Knowing what notes to play is simpler than knowing how to play them. Its simpler than knowing what notes not to play. It’s safer than flaunting the score.

In ages past, virtuosity was elevated because it represented the heights human effort could obtain. Now that machines can perform with absolute precision, a human doing the same is considered robotic. You can train your muscle memory to play Flight of the Bumblebee in double time, or follow the Save the Cat formula to write a screenplay that hits all the right story beats, and still make people yawn. Virtuosity alone is not enough to be engaging. People now look for the human element, which allows for mistakes. In fact, you don’t even need to be that good to be great, much to the chagrin of anyone who’s mastered their craft and been ignored.

I’ve come to think of virtuosity as another plateau on Mastery Mountain, one near the peak. The over-competency trap is so dangerous because it’s almost indistinguishable from greatness. After all, if you’ve mastered the perfect formula to create art that wows the public and critics alike and gives you a steady paycheck, why change at all? It’s not like figuring out the formula to write an A+ undergrad essay, only to move into the real world and have people tell you your writing is undergrad garbage and you only got those grades because the curve was so low. When the whole world tells you you’re amazing, it’s easier to think you have nowhere left to go.

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Bad Writing Days are Worth the Effort

We’ve all had days, at least if you’re a writer, where you stare at a blank screen and try to push an idea out of your brain that just won’t come. It gets blown into a huge confidence crisis. You question whether you’re cut out for it, or if it’s even worth the effort. You might feel like giving up, or at least taking the day off.

I’ve learned its worth the effort even when it sucks.

I’m not saying you have to write every day, or sit in front of that blank screen and beat your brain in. Maybe you do need a break – get a snack, have a bath, take a walk – to get the creative juices flowing. But if you’ve done all that and it’s still not helping, I’ve found sitting down and trying to engage with what you’re working on is often the best solution, even if it’s only taking five minutes to outline.

The writing may suck that day and make you feel horrible, but what you’re doing is priming your subconscious to work on it in the background. Since I started planning what I want to write tomorrow before going to bed, I’ve been having more good writing days than bad ones.

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Texturing: Part 3 – The Big Picture

Last week I talked about photo-manipulating textures and the week before I talked about finding images to work with. This week I’m going to talk about the bigger picture: design. Or how to integrate textures into your work, whether two or three dimensional.

 

Sometimes a simple texture is better than a complex one.

 

I’ve talked before about the dangers of tunnel vision while designing. A texture might look beautiful close-up the entire time you’re working on it, only to wrap it on a 3D object or slide it beneath some text to find it’s too much. If you can’t focus on the content on a page design, or if every rock and brick in a game is screaming, “Look how textury I am!” you’ve overdone it. Every pixel should not be screaming for attention.

For example, I remember when the game Oblivion came out, starting a fad among modders to make everything look mucho crinkly because somehow people thought more texturerered equals bettererer. That game was fuggin ugly, and part of that had to do with everything looking like someone left the plastic wrap on before baking it in an oven – that and the weird potato people.

Also, too-interesting patterns will more likely give away your tiling textures for what they are.

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Texturing: Part 2 – Making Textures

Last week I talked about how to build a texture library with your own photographs. This week’s post is about how to manipulate them into something you can use in either a design project or 3D modeling. Once you develop skills with Photoshop or its clones, it becomes faster and easier to turn a half-decent texture into a great one yourself rather than scouring the internet for the perfect image. Plus the one you make yourself will be unique to your project, saving yourself the embarrassment of finding out you’ve used a stock photo or texture equivalent to the Wilhelm Scream.

Websites like tuts+ have tutorials in the bag, so I won’t go into heavy detail here. Instead I’m going to compile a list of tips I have to remind myself of over and over again:

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Texturing: Part 1 – Finding Textures

“Where do you get your textures?” is something I’m asked from time to time. I have a huge stock of textures for modding and graphic design. I used to scour Google Image Search for hours, then have to check the copyright permissions on every image I found. It’s frustrating finding the perfect image only to find you have to shell out ten dollars for it or make do with something else. In the end I’ve found it better to make them myself whenever I can. There is a lot to it however, which is why this post will come in several parts.

Building a solid texture library will take some strain off finding them every time you start a project. I started my library with a free download of low resolution textures, which are no longer good enough to use even in my hobby work, but it gave me a solid foundation to learn from. It came with folders filled with tiling metal, stone, wood, leather, cloth, water, and so on. It taught me how to value a simple textures that don’t out-shout the content they’re meant to compliment, which I’ll talk about in Part 3: The Big Picture. It also taught me how to kludge a handful of lesser textures together in Photoshop into something serviceable, which I’ll cover more in Part 2: Making Textures. But mostly it taught me what to look for as I roam with my camera – a texturer’s best friend.

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The Power of Habit is Real

We’ve all heard this advice a million different ways: bum in seat, don’t wait for the muse, don’t worry about how bad it is – just get the words down. It’s been six weeks since I vowed to write for an hour every day, and I can tell you one thing: it works. It’s not as simple as writing gurus say it is though, which is of course why people find it so hard to follow (guilty). Here’s what I’ve learned so far:

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When Details Matter

Last week I talked about how excessive detail can bury the purpose or meaning of a work, and also waste your and your audience’s time. But there’s a time and a place for heavy detail work, and becoming a better artist is learning to recognize when it’s appropriate and when it’s not. If you do it right, you awe people when they realize how much care you put into the project. There are also times when people will only notice on a subliminal level, praising work for its realism even when they can’t put their finger on exactly how it achieves it.

About not showing your homework when it comes to world building – people don’t appreciate a massive info dump in the middle of a narrative, but that doesn’t mean don’t do your homework at all. You can end up with a hundred thousand words of notes, especially if you’re working on a large series, that never make it into the story directly, but influence its outcome behind the scenes. The key to managing the amount of work you put into your “story bible,” verses how much actual narrative you get on the page, is learning to recognize when your bible mechanics matter.

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