Clash of the Obsessions

Octavia Butler once wrote about “positive obsession” – something constructive you do because you just can’t stop yourself. It completely takes you over. For her it was writing, and led to a great career. But what do you do when you have more than one, and they keep wrestling with each other?

I’ve struggled with this for ages. I keep bouncing back and forth between one art and another. For a while, one takes over – and I’m driven to do nothing but. It feels great, but at the same time I neglect my other passions when I’m fully immersed in one of them. I can’t seem to find a balance.

This is why I’ve had a problem finding a career, because a professional has to focus on what pays, and keep doing it even when it’s a chore. Instead, when I’m feeling unchallenged, or over-challenged, or bored, I jump into something else entirely and get all caught up in it.

I’ve read all kinds of advice like, “Write down five things you love to do. Now figure out the one you want to do most and AVOID THE OTHERS LIKE THE PLAGUE FOREVER.” Maybe that’s the only way I’ll ever be a pro writer, if I give up all other art forms completely – but it feels like I’d be losing a richer life. I don’t want to be single-minded. I want to have hobbies as well, but it’s a little like having dessert before a fantastic feast. You fill up on the guilty pleasure and have no room for just-as-tasty food that’s good for you.

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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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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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On Collaboration: Equal Does Not Equal Same

Collaborating with others is a learned skill. One most people don’t learn properly in school because most teachers just throw a bunch of students together and hope for the best. The students almost always divide the work the same way: so everyone gets a smaller piece of the same job. This is not how projects work in real life because shit actually needs to get done, and it’s the worst way to go about it.

For example, in university I was once saddled with a group who thought sharing the workload meant everyone had to write a report and recite it in front of the class – independently. It could hardly be called a “group” at all. I tried to work for better cohesion: playing MC, tying people’s ideas together, and trying to engage the audience. I even tried to teach the rest of the group to memorize their shit so they wouldn’t stand there mumbling with their noses in their notes, but guess what they did come presentation time. Each was in their own little world, boring the shit out of everyone else.

One girl didn’t present at all, which I didn’t think was a problem because she’d dutifully taken on all the boring logistical problems the group had: taking responsibility for research materials, organizing people’s notes, getting the AV equipment. She’d done more work than anyone, but those immature assholes didn’t recognize it because it wasn’t the exact same work they were doing. When they started bitching at teacher that she shouldn’t get the same grade, I told them all to STFU and listed every contribution she’d made.

When you put people together and force them all to drudge through the same tasks, everyone’s performance is dragged down. What you end up with is an idiot group: one where the output matches the lowest performer involved. The only way to solve this is to find different tasks that fit each person’s skill-set and interests. Everyone has different strengths and weaknesses. A smart group delegates jobs based on people’s individual strengths and covers their weaknesses.

If everyone was as good as everyone else at the same things there would be no need to collaborate in the first place. The whole point of forming a group is to cover all necessary aspects of a project that can’t be done alone. The best collaborations I’ve had were with people who slotted well into all the gaps that needed filling, where people loved doing jobs others hated. Everyone at once could think, “I’m so glad I’m doing X and not Y,” and be confident that someone else was getting Y done because it’s a job the other person enjoys.

People do their best work when they love it (and continue to love it even when it’s frustrating). If you truly hate some aspect of the work you need done, farm it out. That’s what smart people do, because they realize their time is best spent on things they enjoy.

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Take Criticism Like a Pro

“How do you handle feedback?” is a question I get asked from time to time. It’s one I’ve had trouble answering because taking criticism is something I manage well enough that I forget how delicate people can be. Weeks ago I took part in a podcast where feedback was a main topic. I felt afterwards that we kind of made a hash of it because our responses were basically, “Well, feedback is good, right? Right.” I’ve been trying to work out a more helpful answer ever since.

First, feedback is essential to creative growth, just as it is with biological evolution. Without the push-pull of outside forces, life wouldn’t have developed the complexity it has today because it wouldn’t need to. We’d still all be single-celled organisms swilling primordial soup – if that. Of course the process requires death and pain. It’s unavoidable, but beneficial. Just ask someone who can’t feel pain. They’ll tell you their life is a constant struggle not to maim themselves because their body won’t tell them when something’s wrong. For art, the same is true.

But how did I learn to take the pain? I suppose some personal history is in order. First day of art college: the pottery class all got to throw something on the wheel. Afterwards the teacher took a clay wire and sliced all their pots in half. Students whined. Because back in high school everything they made was a precious gem to take home to mommy. This shit, however, would not fly here. Students paid to learn, and that meant dissecting every pot until they stopped sucking.

A similar lesson was carried out in figure drawing class. Students spent days doing nothing but 30-second gesture drawings. They wouldn’t get a good long pose until they’d practiced getting the whole body down in as short a time as possible. This kept students from spending all their time drawing the model’s face, or boobs, or whatever – over focusing on details without grasping the bigger picture. It also taught another valuable lesson: not every stroke of the pen is sacred. It forced students to practice and get used to drawing endless reams of crap.

Every student had to learn how to critique and be critiqued, though these sessions were soft compared to some places online. It was a supportive environment where your work was regularly picked apart. And nearly every student (that didn’t drop out after first year) realized that criticism wasn’t personal. These people were trying to help (even if that help was misguided attempts to get students to stop painting realistically in favor of abstract expressionism because the instructor drank the Greenberg/Rosenberg Kool-aid).

So my answer to how I handle feedback is: training.

Of course finding ways to train your mental feedback forcefield can be difficult, especially if your only available resources are online, where trolls lurk around every corner. The answer isn’t finding some hugbox where criticism isn’t allowed, because these environments are toxic, poisoned by the egos of people who’ve devolved into the creative equivalent bacteria, endlessly eating their own shit and never evolving. To learn how to take criticism you have to seek it out, and that means putting your stuff out there. So what are some ways to ease into it?

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Boy, The Latest Entry in my Journal is a Doozy

Since I started writing seriously I’ve been keeping a journal of interesting physical sensations and unusual experiences. It’s usually things like freezing my face off in -40° weather and what it feels like to defrost afterwards, or the incredibly specific pain of a pinched nerve. However, the other day I recorded one hell of an experience: a full on hypnopompic hallucination.

It started when terrible sound filled my dream, a voice yelling “PAT PAT PAT PAT…” It was Dalek-like, like a man yelling into a voice modulator. The sound confused me more than anything, until I saw an old-fashioned hunting party ride through my backyard carrying bazookas on their shoulders. The image was silly enough to make me realize it was a dream and wake myself up. But the sound didn’t stop.

I pinned the sound on my boyfriend. He wasn’t so much snoring as making little puffs of air, but my brain converted it into the reverberating shout:

({(PAT)}) ({(PAT)}) ({(PAT)}) ({(PAT)}) ({(PAT)}) ({(PAT)}) ({(PAT)}) ({(PAT)})

It was creepy and terrifying, more-so because it accompanied visual hallucinations.

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A Good Voice Will Travel

“No digressions allowed!” is one of many pieces of writing advice I’ve read from the horizontal climbers, which is no doubt good advice if you want to write thrillers to formula. However, many books I admire are full of digressions and asides. In fact, such digressions sometimes make those books stand above the crowd. It’s one of those things that made me realize the best teachers are often books themselves.

The thing is, if you’re reading a “how to write” book written by someone who makes more money selling advice than their fiction, you’ll end up making the same mistakes they do. Yes, I get the irony of my own advice, since I have yet to sell a damned thing—but my advice isn’t to listen to me, it’s to listen to the good writing that sings inside you as you read. Anyway…

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First Scribble Journal (Unfinished Sample)

The Value of Dicking Around

What do you do when your drawing skills are so rusty you can barely draw a straight line and get hand cramps in less than half-an-hour? Discomfort with my drawing tools (including learning all new illustration software) has been a big hurdle to getting back into design. So I’ve been doing something about it: going back to basics. My first step is drawing exercises that are equivalent to practicing scales.

After spending a week repeatedly scribbling on my tablet and clearing the page, I started noticing interesting textures coming out of it. I opened a large page in Pixelmator and scribbled until I’d almost filled the page with black. Then I hit save, and the scribble journal was born.

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How the Talent Myth Hurts Everyone

“Some people are just naturally good at some things, and other people aren’t. If you’re no good at something, don’t give up. You just haven’t found what you’re good at yet!”

If you’ve heard that, or any variation thereof, feel free to roast whoever said it over an open fire because that person is feeding you a comfortable lie. It’s bullshit – especially that “don’t give up” bit, because that’s exactly what they’re telling you to do. Here’s a similar quote to put the first one in perspective:

“Kids, you tried your best and you failed miserably. The lesson is, never try.”

—Homer J. Simpson

How are those quotes even close to the same thing? Here’s what the first quote really says: “If you’re not good at something first try, then give up and keep giving up until you find something you’re instantly good at, because that’ll totally happen. In the meantime (meaning until the day you die) you can pretend your genius is all pent up inside instead of taking a big scary risk to do something you actually enjoy with your life.”

The above sentiment is often trotted out when someone complains that something is “not fun” or “too hard” and desperately looking for reasons to give up instead of useful advice about how to tackle the problem. However, the most pernicious lie is in the first sentence: “Some people are just naturally good at some things and other people aren’t.” Because this plays on the myth of “talent” and the idea that skill is innate instead of learned.

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