Inspiration and Perspiration

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A Strange Place)

On Monday I started my latest short story, which is set in a post-apocalyptic wasteland. There is an outpost of survivors, perched at the edge of a horrifying monster’s domain, and a mysterious stranger who comes to them with an a secret power.

But while the story is extremely fictional, the location of it is not. I very clearly state that this outpost is positioned is at the edge of the Bonneville Salt Flats, a famous real-world location in Tooele County, Utah.

These Salt Flats are the residue from the Bonneville Lake, a massive body of water that once covered the entire North-Western portion of Utah during the Pleistocene era. So massive was this lake that we can still see its old shoreline etched into the mountains today, and 150 million tons of salt still rests in its old basin.

That salt covers a spread of nearly 40,000 acres, creating a plain of dry, white powder that extends as far as the eye can see. When it rains a thin pool collects on the surface, creating a perfect mirror of the sky above, and when it is dry you can feel the air sucking the moisture out of your body.

In short, it is a strange and ethereal place. It feels totally alien, like it doesn’t actually belong in this world. And in my experience, that makes it the perfect place to help one’s imagination come alive.

The Two-Part Process)

Creativity comes down to making meaningful connections. Whether it be an original combination of notes in a song, or colors in a painting, or words in a novel, or jokes in a comedy act, the thing that makes creativity creative is how it puts things together in a way that the audience has not experienced before.

But making meaningful connections can be difficult. For being able to do so requires a most fickle connection of its own: unconscious fantasy and deliberate thought. The unconscious fantasy comes first, where novel thoughts and ideas pop up, seemingly at random. We have little to no control over this process, it just has to grace us when it sees fit. This is the “connections” part of the puzzle. Then comes the deliberate thought, because it is rare that these new ideas come through fully formed. They have to be filtered, distilled, and completed, and that comes about by simple, hard work. This provides the “meaningful” aspect. Spontaneous inspiration plus methodical development equals meaningful connections.

The “deliberate thought” phase is the hard piece of the puzzle in that it requires a mind that is disciplined and trained. It requires the ability to analyze and iterate. It requires energy, so being well-rested and in full command of one’s faculties are essential. It requires time without interruption. But while this may be the hard piece of the puzzle in terms of work, it is the easy part in that we can control it. It is work, but it is work that we can do on purpose.

Contrast this to the “uncontrollable inspiration” side of things. When we are in the zone it is effortless and fun, new ideas popping up one after another and delighting us. But when we are not “in the zone?” Well, that is what we call “Writer’s Block,” which isn’t a blockage of effort, but a blockage of new ideas.

In short, creativity requires a mind that is healthy in two different respects. It must be both strong and flexible. In weight training one learns that it is important to build both muscle strength and muscle relaxation. Healthy muscles don’t just flex well, they release well. And so it is with the creative mind. By being able to relax we freely make new connections, but by being able to flex we distill those into plot and structure.

Exercising and Stretching)

Muscle strength and flexibility are improved through different practices. Stretches help to keep the muscles limber while weight-lifting helps them to grow tense. So, too, there are different practices for strengthening and relaxing the mind.

Keeping the mind sharp is as simple as using it intentionally. This can be done through creative exercises, such as writing stories and poetry, but also through non-creative means. Mastering new subjects, learning analytical sciences, and solving puzzles may not seem like they directly contribute to your writing prowess, but they teach your mind how to work hard, and that absolutely helps with the creative process.

And while inspiration may be less within our power to control, there are still ways to relax our mind so that it reaches a state that invites new ideas. The free-association pattern of dreams has been a rich well of inspiration since the dawn of man, and keeping a regular dream journal can help one to retain the memory of those moments past waking. Meditation can also bring us to a more free-flowing state that is ripe with fresh ideas.

Of course there are those that have used mind-altering drugs to enter a creative trance, but this has the negative effect of degrading the mind’s health over time. It is a short-term gain for long-term losses.

There is one other excellent technique I know of to seek out inspiration, which is to experience something new. New experiences have to be processed by the mind, and processing gives rise to all manner of “what-ifs” and “imagine-thats.” As I mentioned at the start of this post, my current story is based at the Bonneville Salt Flats, and it is because my childhood visit to that place fired so many questions in my mind of what might be lurking beneath this flat, dry ocean of salt.

When I was nineteen I went to the Caribbean for two years, which was also a mind-opening journey. So was my first week at University. So was the first time I learned how to write computer programs. So was falling in love. So was holding my newborn son. Each of these days was a new experience and accordingly a new story idea.

There are some great, creative scenes in there, and now they just need some mental power to turn them into the moments of an actual story.

Better Moves

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The Game of Chess)

I’m not any good at chess, but I do like to play just for the fun of it. I would describe my style as simply being “try to make as few boneheaded blunders as possible!” Usually that’s what decides the winner in the games I play, whoever is better able to catch themselves from making mistakes will prevail.

And the key to not making mistakes is typically to look…and then look again. Very often in chess a move will immediately suggest itself, and the temptation is to grab the piece and swipe it across the board with confidence, only afterwards realizing the hole that move opened. So it is better to acknowledge the move that first occurs to the mind, and then keep looking to see what might be wrong with it.

And the little bit of reading I’ve done on chess strategy suggests that principle is still true even after you actually know what you’re doing. It is often advised that as soon as you see a “good move” to hold off on it, as there is probably a more sublime one still waiting to be seen. Experts don’t win just by making less mistakes, they win by holding out for more of those sublime moves than their opponent.

Waiting for Ideas)

And the same holds true for writing a story. It is very easy to jump from one plot point to another, following a chain of the first “good idea” that pops into your head at each juncture.

But usually the first idea that pops into your head is the obvious one. And as with the game of chess, great stories aren’t achieved by writing the obvious “good moves,” but by holding out for the more sublime ones. Anyone can write a story of obvious “good moves,” but that’s not what people go to the bookstore for, they go there to find something that will take them deeper than the immediately obvious.

The problem with always writing that initial obvious idea, is that because it is obvious it has already occurred to the reader, too. They will therefore anticipate it, and then have that unpleasant sense of “I already know exactly where this story is going.” Nor is it any better to just take the first idea and then go in the exact opposite direction from it. That quickly becomes just as predictable and just as uninteresting. You don’t want to just roll out a carpet for the reader, but neither do you want to constantly pull the rug out from under their feet. You want to lead them on a surprising journey.

Quality scenes take real effort. Genius rarely occurs “on demand,” it is the result of serious work. Sometimes the perfect plot point falls into your lap ready-made, but usually it is the result of pausing, thinking, and looking for something better.

This issue came up in my current story when I had the children spring a trap set by a massive predator. They handled a small, white stick, which signaled the underlying beast to spring out of the earth! Originally I envisioned that stick as some strange, detached organ of the creature, like the light dangling at the end of an anglerfish…but then I realized that I was just taking the obvious example from nature, something that every reader would already be familiar with. That’s not very creative or interesting.

So I changed that in my last entry. I made it so that the small, white thing is a larva, and I stated that the beast used its own young as bait. In my next entry I will also add a detail about how the larva is planted into the beast’s prey, and then evolves that organism into a perfect copy of the original beast. Both of these changes required some deeper, outside-the-box thinking, but the result is far more entertaining!

The Listener)

A story that allowed itself to find the “better move” is the 1974 film The Conversation. In it, Harry Caul is a surveillance expert, who offers his services to record the private conversations of others. Harry is very efficient at his job, but also socially awkward, hearing the most intimate details of other peoples’ private lives, but never having a real connection of his own.

The film begins with him recording a young man and woman in a park, who are discussing another person—the woman’s husband—with worry. At one point the young man says “he’d kill us if he got the chance,” and it seems clear that the young couple is having an affair and are afraid of what might happen to them.

That woman’s husband is also the client that hired Caul to perform this investigation, and Caul is afraid to turn the recording in. At this point the obvious option would be for Caul to step up and become the hero. To use his knowledge to prevent catastrophe.

But the film wisely rejects that obvious path for a far more original plot. Caul doesn’t give the recording to his client, but neither does he warn the couple that the old man is on to them. He frets in between those choices, unable to bring himself to do anything decisive at all. Then the client has the recording stolen from Caul and his anxiety grows. He is convinced that violence is about to follow, but he is not powerful enough to intervene, and he has no concrete evidence to go to the authorities with.

Sustaining the tension like this required deliberate plotting on the part of the writer. It would have been far easier to fall off to one side or another, but instead it is stretched out all the way to the finale, and it makes the film relentlessly engrossing!

At the climax of the movie Caul goes to a hotel room that is adjacent to a private meeting the young woman is having with her husband. He has to know whether his suspicions are valid or exaggerated, and as he listens through a wiretap he hears the very murder he has been afraid of! He collapses to the ground, racked with guilt, and when he comes to, the deed is done and the killer has escaped.

Perhaps he is too late to save anybody, but at long last Caul decides to take a stand. He goes to confront his client, but once again the film’s writer has changed the obvious plot point for something far more engrossing. For much to Caul’s shock, he finds that his client is unavailable…because he is dead. Caul’s client was the one that was murdered at that private meeting, not the young wife. The wife is perfectly alive and well…and arm-in-arm with the young man from the park.

Suddenly the audience realizes that the truth was right there from the beginning. The obvious interpretation of what Caul heard at the start of the film was that the husband was going to kill his wife…but it was just as possible that the wife and the young man were plotting the murder of the husband instead. This clever reversal was not the result of random happenstance, it was the deliberate craft of a writer who took the time to steer away from the obvious “good ideas” and pushed instead for the truly sublime.

Check mate.

Just Dazzle Them

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Movie Magic)

Old time cinema was used for more than just telling stories. Indeed, several of the original films were particularly light on story, with only threadbare plots and single-dimensional characters.

The Great Train Robbery, for example, did not strive to dissect the mind of the criminal, or provide an important moral lesson to its viewers. What it did do, though, was allow audiences to experience something that most of them would never encounter in life: the danger and thrills of a heist on the rails! And as cinema continued through its infancy, this idea of showing people things they had never seen before only grew.

High action stunts and feats of derring do abounded everywhere. From Laurel and Hardy dangling for dear life from a skyscraper, to the entire front of a building falling around Buster Keaton, to Houdini leaping from the wing of one plane to another, people saw things they had never witnessed before. The camera could take them to places they wouldn’t dare go on their own, and showed them wonders that no other form of entertainment could claim.

Artificial Wonders?)

More recently, the prevalence of CGI and extensive editing in recent years have been both a source of greater and lesser thrills in cinema. On the one hand, filmgoers have been transported to fascinating and impossible worlds, such as the lush jungles of the Navi and the halls of magic in Harry Potter. But on the other hand, films have also felt increasingly artificial and animated.

Perhaps that is a strange thing to say, given that movies have always employed a healthy amount of smoke and mirrors, even before the advent of digital effects. But at least even the smoke and the mirrors used to be actual, physical objects, not purely digital effects. A bad take was a bad take, and one did not have a hundred others to smooth it over. A mistake was a mistake, and one did not have editable pixels to cover it.

As a reaction to that fakery, there has been a push among some filmmakers to keep the marvels authentic. So Tom Cruise still does his own stunts, Christopher Nolan still crashes real planes, and Alfonso Cuaron still makes his actors memorize their roles for very long takes. It is still possible to go to the cinema, see something that you’ve never seen before, and believe that that something is really real.

Another Kind of Marvel)

Yet presenting a marvel to the audience is not the exclusive purview of visual mediums. Forget about CGI or smoke and mirrors, the written novel is nothing but pure imagination, yet it has still been able to inspire readers for centuries.

A novel has a much more limited currency to deal in than movies or songs: it has only its own ideas. And even so, the written word has still managed to spark the imagination of readers everywhere, and put into the mind notions that are entirely new.

Thus long before any alien movies, readers had already explored space travel with H. G. Wells and Jules Verne. Before the high-octane stunts of today’s secret agent, Sherlock Holmes was matching wits with Moriarty, the “Napoleon of crime.” Before audiences were horrified by the visage of monster makeup artists, they were held in captive-dread by the Headless Horseman and Frankenstein’s monster. And long before children were taught morals by animated, anthropomorphic creatures, they were enthralled by the whimsy of fairy tales and fables.

As I said, the currency here is the “idea.” Authors invented the narrative idea of space-travel, and detectives, and monsters, and readers fell in love. Though it wasn’t only genres that can be invented in a story. Tragic love, cathartic resolution, an ironic twist…these are all notions that have their first forms in the written or spoken word. And these sorts of inventions are just as capable of grabbing the imagination of their audience, and making them form connections that they never have before.

New Clothes)

However not every new idea in a story has to be a new narrative concept or a new genre. It is possible to write a tale that provides absolutely nothing new on an outline level, yet still captivates by dressing it in a way that feel fresh and new.

Consider the basic idea of Harry Potter: a chosen youth discovers a greater world that he had been blind to, and along the way learns truths about himself that are necessary to overcome a great evil. There is nothing new in this. From Star Wars to Lord of the Rings to The Chronicles of Narnia to It, there have been countless similar monomyths throughout the centuries.

But having that greater world be a community of witches and wizards that are concealed within our modern-day reality? That was something new, and it hooked the imagination of readers everywhere. It hooked them because it made them picture something they had never pictured before, and people love it when stories ask them to do just that.

Invent or Be Forgotten)

And so yes, an author should put a great deal of effort into making a solid story, one that has a good outline at its core, compelling characters, and dramatic arcs. Authors should learn how to describe a beautiful setting and to write gripping dialogue. They should learn to structure their sentences in ways that are both precise and beautiful.

But if they accomplish these, and still do not spark the imagination of the reader, then it will all be for naught. A flashy story without substance is superficial, but a story of substance that does not spark the imagination is quickly forgotten. If you truly want to make your mark, you need to say something that matters, and you need to say it in a way that has never been said before.

I’ve always wanted to put interesting, new ideas into my stories. I’ve wanted to craft worlds and mechanics that felt unique. With my latest story you can see examples of this in the multi-stage acted-out password that Tharol used to enter the armory, the weapons that fold into the characters arms, and the gang of elders morphed into a single body.

Obviously the best inventions are ones that integrate directly with the drama of your story, and if I’m being perfectly honest I haven’t achieved that particularly well with The Favored Son. The novelties of my last session were mostly just interesting for being interesting’s sake, not representative of any greater meaning, and not likely to carry any special significance in later events. Perhaps I’ll be able to find a way to integrate them more into the story of the architecture moving forward.

Come back on Thursday to see how I continue striving to put images and ideas in the readers’ minds, and hopefully ones that they have never considered before.

It Sounded a Lot Better in My Head

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A Peek Behind the Curtain)

It was pretty early on in this blog that I wrote a story that I didn’t like. In that moment I had to decide whether I was going to publish it or not, and I knew that this decision would set a precedent for all future story posts. I decided to publish.

One reason was that I simply don’t have the time to be writing posts, scrapping them, and then creating entirely new ones. Another reason was that I started this blog specifically to get me in the habit of delivering on ideas instead of sitting on them forever. And finally, I wanted to represent all sides of writing in this blog, both the good and the ugly. It would be disingenuous of me to pretend that everything that I write is good. Some of it, frankly, is very much not.

I do feel a little guilty about a person who takes time out of their day to read one of my stories and is then disappointed by it. I don’t know how to avoid that, though. Even the pieces I am most proud of I’m sure are disappointing to some readers. Of course if I were trying to sell something, it would be a different matter. Asking people to give money for something you know is of subpar quality is not only a bad business practice, it is immoral. This is one of the reasons why I do not try to monetize this blog in any way.

There is still one more reason why I choose to keep the lesser stories in this blog, though, and it is because they still have valuable lessons to share. Sometimes learning from a failure can be more fruitful than reaping the rewards of a success. And that’s just what we’re going to do today. Let’s take a look at why our stories are sometimes so much worse than we thought they were going to be, and what we can do to reduce this frustration.

 

Sometimes You’re Wrong)

I’ve already mentioned in the past how a writer can have a great idea, but will then struggle to capture it properly on the page. In this case the idea is still good, and it is just a matter of practicing until one can transfer from their mind to their work with a high degree of fidelity.

But sometimes that isn’t the case. Sometimes the idea you had is just bad, and that’s all there is to it. You might be able to imagine something and you might be able to recreate that something, but that doesn’t mean that the imagined joy you had in that something will be present in the reality.

Often we know what we want in life, but sometimes we don’t. The dessert that “sounded” good ends up making our stomach turn, the new toy we wrote Santa for is boring within minutes, and the clique we were desperate to join becomes a toxic influence on us. People make bad choice all the time, thoroughly convinced that they were good ones.

One of my side-hobbies is that I like to make small mobile games. I think of new game mechanics all the time, and just like my story ideas I’m certain that all of them are good. And sometimes when I first try to implement them I have the parameters a little off and I have to tweak them until they’re just right. And other times I keep tweaking them for hours before I realize there just isn’t any “fun” in any version this.

 

You Are a Combination Machine)

There is a simple reason why this phenomenon happens. Your brain is an amazing piece of work, capable of inventing new things constantly. And as I mentioned in a recent post, it most often does this by taking two separate ideas and combining them into one. Any two items, no matter how random or disparate, can be combined in an infinite number of ways.

Door + Turtle = …

  1. That could mean a giant turtle with a door in its shell that leads to a fantasy kingdom inside.
  2. It could be a small hole cut into the bedroom wall for a pet turtle to walk through.
  3. Or perhaps it was a turtle crawling across the doorway at the top of the stairs to the basement; and Mom didn’t see it when she slammed the door closed and sent him on a grand, final adventure…rest in piece, Chuckles.

The point is there are an infinite number of things to combine in this world, an infinite number of ways to interpret each pairing, and we humans prosper by being able to generate and appraise these combinations at tremendous speed. This sort of inventiveness has been critical for our growth as a species, and it turns out that this behavior is wired into our very biology! A study in 2006 found that whenever subjects were presented with a new experience that a portion of their brain lit up and dopamine was released as a reward.

https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0896627306004752

This means that whenever you come up with that new combination your body makes you feel good for it. But in my experience this initial rush of excitement can be a poor indicator for whether an idea actually has value or not. It is good that I am thinking of new things, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that this new thing is itself any good. Some combinations are useless, no matter how we feel about them in the moment.

 

Prototype)

To make matters all the more complicated, sometimes the bad ideas appear like good ones, even from an impartial, objective point of view. The technology sector is full of devices (Zune, Google Glass, Betamax, Newton) that sounded like good ideas at the time but still flopped horribly.

Most recently I was surprised that I ended up disliking Hello, World. I thought there was good reason for it to be a success because it reminded me of my other tech-heavy, snarky piece Phisherman, which I am really quite proud of. But “close” to a good idea is nowhere near to being a good idea.

So how can you tell whether your idea is really as good as you think it is? Quite simply you have to test it. In the game industry there is a common understanding that you have to make a prototype of your new idea as fast as possible. The reason being that the sooner you are able to actually taste the reality of your imagination, the sooner you can truly discern its value. It would be pointless to spend months writing music and making art for a game only to then discover that its core mechanic is boring.

And it turns out that a story can be prototyped as well. Try writing an isolated chapter to see if it still speaks to you or not. Frankly one of the main purposes for this blog is to be a test-bed for all my ideas. I’ve been able to quickly and accurately pinpoint which ideas are hollow, and which are really going somewhere. I’m never going to put a thousand of man-hours into making a complete novel out of Hello, World, but I might for Deep Forest, Phisherman, or Glimmer.

 

A final piece of advice is once you discover that your latest idea is lacking, don’t waste time trying to “make it work.” If you try really, really hard, maybe you’ll be able to dress it up to the point that it looks “okay.” But why settle for “okay” when you could be putting your time into something that is effortlessly beautiful? Like I said above, our minds are coming up with new ideas all the time, a really good one is going to hit sooner or later.

That being said, I also don’t want to be guilty of not giving Hello, World enough of a chance either. Nor would I want to deny the closure to anyone who was actually enjoying it thus far. To that end, I will dedicate just three more days to writing out the second half of that story. Come back on Thursday if you want to see how it turns out, I promise it will only get stranger from here!

Live a Life

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Professionally I work as a software developer. The industry has come a long ways since it exploded among the workforce a half century ago. A lot of those changes, particularly those related to work/life balance, I am very grateful for. Things are generally a lot better in the tech environment, although you can still find some sectors holding onto those less-than-ideal business patterns. For example, video game development studios and tech startups still commonly maintain a mentality that employees need to work 80-hour weeks, coding until they crash on mattresses under their desks. There persists an unhealthy expectation that if you work for these industries then that work has to be the single most important thing in your life. Family relationships, social interaction, and even mental stability are all secondary to pursuing the company’s creative vision, and must be sacrificed as needed.

Of course the tech district isn’t entirely unique in this mindset. Any sort of entrepreneurial or artistic field tends to demand the same voracious pursuit of craft and career at the expense of all else. And of course, given that story writing is also a creative industry, it is plagued with its fair share of workaholics as well.

And to be fair, professional competition and poor management are actually far less demanding taskmasters than our own inner passions can be. Sometimes people work ridiculous hours because they choose to do so. And so there is perpetuated the idea of the artist that cannot be tied to family, or community, or religious devotion, or any other obligation that distracts from their personal muse.

It’s an understandable conclusion. The natural assumption would be that minimizing certain aspects of one’s life in order to maximize others would result in more time for the things that matter most and greater advancements in them. Moderation in all things sounds far too limiting, a sure recipe for mediocrity in all things. Is it, though?

In reality this “focused” approach to life is nothing more a narrow approach to life. It only results in being less developed as a person, and, ironically, less developed creatively, too. For the sake of those creative passions, sometimes you really do need to take a break from those creative passions. Here are three reasons why that is the case.

1)  Experience

Write what you know. It’s advice we’ve all heard before and there’s some good reasons to heed it. On the surface level this means to draw from your actual experiences, to give your voice to the corner of life that you have inhabited. It means you shine a light that is informed and authoritative. When Herman Melville penned the experience of the Pequod in Moby Dick, there was an authenticity in his details that was only possible due to the years he had spent as a sailor and whaler. He not only captured the specifics of how a sailor would perform his chores, but also the specifics of what went on in the heart of the sailor during those very moments.

Even further, though, the advice is advising you to write about the truths and perspectives which you personally hold. Don’t write about some trendy cause if you don’t actually have passion for it. Don’t promote conclusions in your story that you, yourself don’t believe in. When audiences viewed Schindler’s List for the first time they were touched by the film’s deep earnestness, which in no small part was due to the fact that the subject matter clearly mattered to Steven Spielberg, given his personal history in the Jewish faith.

Write what you know, write what you feel, write what is true to you.

But how are you to write any of this unless you have been able to actually experience it? How can you convincingly write of heroes standing for what they believe in until you’ve gone out there and found a cause that is bigger than yourself? How can you speak of the power of love until you can say you would choose the happiness of another over your own? Going back to the example of Schindler’s List, Spielberg had the rights to the story a full 10 years before he began producing the film. Why? Because he didn’t feel “mature” enough to tackle the subject. He wanted to experience what it was like to have a family and find his place in the world.

Being grounded in the full breadth of life gives you a foundation from which truly sincere stories can be told. People want stories that speak to their heart, after all, and we find those in the ones that were spoken from the heart.

2) Breaking through the monotony

I remember writing my first little stories in my mid-teenage years. I churned out a fantasy adventure, then followed it up with another fantasy adventure, and topped it all off with a third fantasy adventure. Even when I wasn’t trying to write a sequel to a previous story, all my tales felt exactly the same.

It’s really not very surprising. At the time I was very much being influenced by the new Lord of the Rings films, as these had arrested my attention like nothing before. I knew I wanted to write about things that excited me, and there was very little else that did then.

Today I still think fantasy adventure is pretty exciting, and I still like to dabble in some of those original ideas I had. But I’m not limited to only that anymore. I’ve discovered a fascinating world of math and logic, and I’m excited by stories involving time travel, conundrums, and the systematic discovery of new theories. I’ve experienced very poignant emotions at home with my family, and I’m excited by stories that explore relationships, how they are built and how they break, and what constitutes a healthy one.

Even better, I can mix and match these various themes together for entirely new expressions. I could write about relationships among fantasy characters that travel through time. In fact, I did just that very thing and I loved it!

I trust my point here is clear. If you aren’t hunting for new life experiences then you aren’t going to be finding new wells of passion from which to draw, and your writing will run the risk of growing stale and repetitive. Next time you find yourself repeating the same tired paths in your stories, put down your pen, go outside, and walk a road you’ve never been down before.

3) Only as strong as your weakest link

Humans are complex beings with multiple fundamental needs. When it comes to our physical nature we know that each of those needs has to be met and kept in balance. We cannot give up on eating, and then compensate for that deficiency by drinking an excess of water. Though we may be wonderfully hydrated, we will still die.

Why would it be any different for our emotional, mental, or spiritual natures? Absolutely we have creative needs that we must make time for, but we cannot expect an overabundance in that category to compensate for starving our social needs. Any accomplishment in one area of life is only impressive insofar as it is not counterbalanced with a failure in another.

Celebrities provide the most public insight into individuals who strive to excel at some facet of their lives. It seems that a good portion of that pop culture is comprised of artists whose lives are falling apart due to dedicating too much of themselves to their singular craft. Fortunately, another good portion is also made up of stars whose lives are rebounding after they took a serious look inside, identified which parts were being left undernourished, and are now giving themselves the self-care they always needed.

When one part of us suffers, all parts of us suffer. If you give your craft 90% of yourself and your mental health only 10%, your work will not ultimately rise to the level of that 90, it will drop to the depth of that 10. Life is not a game where we can min/max our attributes and expect to come out ahead for having done so.

 

In conclusion, moderation in all things is not antiquated advice, it is not some myth that is obsolete in our world of speed and competition. It will always bear relevance to us, because our nature as humans remain the same, even though the world around us may change. That nature is such that we achieve our greatest capacities when we are balanced between all our various sectors of life. Moderation in all things is not mediocrity in all things, rather it is fulfillment in each. If you truly love your creative aspects, take a break from them to truly live your life to its fullest. You will be happier, fuller, and even more creative for it.

For my next short story I wish to focus on just one of the topics I referenced above, specifically that idea of taking inspiration from our real life experiences. At this point in time the seasons are rapidly changing where I live and my mind has been caught up with themes on the passage of time and generations, the death of one year and the birth of the next. I’m going to try and capture those sensations and write them into a short piece for Thursday. Come back then to see how it turns out.

Dreams to Realities

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On Thursday I concluded a short story called Free Cleaning Service. This piece featured two moments of abrupt menace, situations where the main antagonist appeared to startle the audience. I reworked those sequences more than any other part of the story, constantly trying to polish them into something truly memorable. I saw these moments as the crux upon which the entire work would be judged. Either the readers would be legitimately frightened and remember the experience for a long while since, or they might only be mildly amused and forget about it not long after, or they might find it outright clumsy and smirk at how my reach surpassed my grasp. Even now I can’t say for sure how successful the piece ended up being. I wouldn’t say that I dislike the result, but my feelings for it are definitely divided. On the one hand those scenes came closer to the ideas in my head than almost all of my previous written work, and I am proud of that accomplishment. On the other hand, I am very much aware that the gap between the idea and the outcome is still much wider than I would wish.

That chasm between vision and manifestation is not a unique experience. Anyone who tries their hand at something creative has felt the exact same disappointment. When an idea first comes to mind it seems so perfect. The images are so evocative, the emotions so real, the messages so timeless. We may not know all the little details of how the work should come together, but we do know how it should feel when complete. We get so excited about our own cleverness and are sure that our creation is going to rank among the finest that mankind has ever seen. Then we set about trying to make it into a reality and learn that the real talent isn’t in being able to come up with great ideas, most anyone is capable of that. The real talent is in having the skill to actually express them. Turns out those little details make a whole lot of difference!

Even those that don’t consider themselves the creative type have still experienced this sense of shortcoming in their work at some point or another. Just think back to your drawings as a young child. You knew what a person was supposed to look like, but did the pencil know how to imitate the image in your head? I have one such memory from when I was about four years old, it is my earliest recollection of where I came to understand the shortcomings of my creativity. It all started when I tried to draw a person wearing their shoes. Now I knew what shoes on a foot were supposed to look like, I had plenty of firsthand experience with the subject, and I held a perfect vision of how the end result should appear. That end result, though, looked a little something like this:

footInSockInShoe

In case you’re confused, that is a foot inside of a sock inside of a shoe. See, I knew that in real life that was was the process by which these shoe-things ended up on a person’s feet, so I logically thought if I drew them in that same process it should come out looking just perfect. It did not. At this point, I did not need anyone to come along and tell me that I had failed, I already knew that it was wrong. It was obvious, because I still had that image in my head of what the picture was supposed to look like and the one on the paper did not match it at all.

This is a common agony in creation. Perhaps you have heard that an artist is his own worst critic? It’s true. No matter how hard he works, how technically skilled his execution, how praised his final work becomes, there yet remains a deep disappointment in his own work. Why? Because he still isn’t capturing the image in his mind exactly as intended. The thing is, no one but the artist is burdened with that knowledge of what it was supposed to look like, they just see it for what it is. To the world it might be a masterpiece, but to him it wasn’t the masterpiece he was trying to create.

While it may be easier said than done, any creative perfectionist has to learn to accept these shortcomings if they are ever to be truly happy in their work. The frustration stems from a belief that ones’ work should be perfectly identical to the image imagined. Let go of that belief. It should not be the same, it is not the same for anyone else, and it will never be the same. The key to being a happy artist is being able to accept your work just for what it is and not rejecting it for what it isn’t. Your work does not have to be perfect, it just needs to be good enough. We rightfully praise the genius of Van Gogh, Da Vinci, and Picasso, but rest assured that they were just as surprised at how their creations turned out as you are.

This isn’t to say that you should avoid improvement. While we may not ever hit the mark exactly, we do want to get as close to it as we can. With time and practice, the shortcomings in your work will indeed lessen, and you will find ways to express yourself more accurately. As you do improve, allow yourself to enjoy the journey. Now, I am not sure what pattern improvement will take over a lifetime. Does creative skill peak and then decline in old age, or does it plateau and maintain its quality, or can it continually improve the whole life long? Is it even the same pattern from one person to another? Because I do not know the answer I am not going to hold an unrealistic expectation of how far I have to progress before I allow myself to be pleased in my work. It is possible to be both content with your abilities now and excited for where they might be in the  future.

Finally, if you require one more reason to let go of being a perfectionist, consider that even if the creator could flawlessly recreate the ideas held in her mind, it would still be received differently from what she had intended. Because we each have our own unique life experiences we will each process the same experience in different ways. And so, though you and I may be given the same character description, we will each have a separate mental image of what the character actually looks like and neither will be what the author even intended. That’s alright, so long as the work is quality we will both appreciate it in our own way and that is enough.

If you’ve struggled against the inability to express yourself I hope you’ll be able to go easy on yourself and trust in the process of practice and improvement, enjoying the journey along the way. On Thursday I will share a short piece that is meant to elicit a very specific sense of wonder and discovery from the reader. I have not written a word of it yet, but I do have a clear image in my mind of what I want it to look and feel like. It involves some strange creature awakening in a deep forest, unaware of the past of self or of this world. The creature will therefore be discovering everything simultaneously with the reader, and the whole piece will move forward at a slow, deep pace. I want the work as a whole to feel mysterious, tranquil, and full of rich ambience. That’s a tall order, particularly for me, and I don’t expect to finish the piece without any regrets. I already see shortcomings just in this summary. I do believe that if I put the work in, though, I will still be able to create a piece that I am proud of. Perhaps some small elements of it will even surprise me by being better than what I had imagined! I’ll see you there.