Messiness and Creativity

I just read Creativity, Inc. by Ed Catmull. Ed is a founder of Pixar Animation and presently President of both Pixar and Disnay Animation, two companies now owned by Disney but run as separate businesses. The book is more about managing large complicated creative projects than about the sources of creativity, which makes it a lot more interesting to me than all the self-help stuff out there about inspiration. I think humans by nature are bursting with creativity- just look around at all the stuff we make!

The most interesting thing about Ed’s story is a statement he makes repeatedly about messiness. First, to put it in perspective, Pixar’s record is unbelievable: 14 #1 films in a row. And not a stinker in the bunch. But Ed is vehement that every single one of them was a complete mess at one or more points, a genuine clusterfuck. He believes this is an essential aspect of creating things, especially things that have meaning to others. And even though writing is a solitary occupation rather than a gigantic team effort, my experience is that this is the way things work.

I’m in the middle of two novels (not by choice but what am I supposed to do? It’s messy!) and if I judge them now, they’re both a big mess. Going in too many directions, characters getting lost or doing stuff I don’t want them to do, plots blurry or non-existent…I have no idea. Nor do I want to have an idea. I learned from writing The Rememberers (and most of my non-fiction and doing original music and producing bands in the studio and marketing startups and…) that messiness is where it’s at during the first draft. But when I was there the first time with that novel, I was a bit panicked and started reading whatever I could about whether other writers had the same experience. Beautifully enough, the answer was yes. In fact, in most process interviews, creative artists all state the same thing: Things get messy, you lose sight of the whole, you freak out and then, if you’re truly creative, you hammer your way through and don’t worry too much about it.

It’s also why I don’t have much patience with writer’s block. No matter how bad you think things are there is only one response other than giving up: Keep going whether you like it or not and 99% of the time things will figure themselves out. If you really can’t get started again, take a long walk and then try again. Works for me.

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My thoughts on The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

The GoldfinchThe Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I just finished The Goldfinch. As a writer I don’t feel qualified to review a masterpiece. Tartt has written something akin to Tolstoy in its immensity, range and beauty. So this is an appreciation.
I read reviews of this book that were critical of its length and her long rambling descriptions and internal dialog. These are, in fact, the blood of the story, the reason for its power. Theo is telling his story and it includes his fear, wonder and transformation in a way that feels real. I won’t go into the plot except to say this: If I ever meet Ms Tartt I have the same question I ask myself and every other writer. Did this unfold of its own or was it planned and plotted? I believe it was the former, in part because the writers I truly admire are all ‘pantsers’ not plotters. They write from the seat of their pants- Murakami, Ondaatje, Durrell…all say they started with an image, a line, a title.
Regardless of the answer to this question, The Goldfinch is easily one of the best stories I’ve ever read and I’ve read thousands.

View all my reviews

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Writing About Painting

I’ve found myself in an odd place with my new novel The Arrowsmith’s Daughter. The story deals with Buddhism and artists and was influenced by the many connections in the mid-century art scene between Buddhist philosophy and minimalist/abstract art. The novel takes place in modern time but the back story involves a fictional famous painter who took his own life in the seventies after discovering he had dementia (now known as Alzheimers). In the present, my narrator, also a painter, becomes involved with a mysterious street art collective. So there is a lot of writing about painting involved.

I’m not a painter. I have several friends who are and I’ve been doing my research, reading bios of abstract impressionists, notably deKooning and Rothko and their contemporaries like John Cage. I’m also immersed in the global street art scene which is really where the action is in the painting world these days.

I’m at a point now where I’m describing the paintings of my famous artist, Richard Telmarine. Like deKooning, when he experiences the onset of Alzhiemers his painting changes radically. In my story those late paintings have never been shown and my protagonist is offered the opportunity to view them. He is having a love affair with Telmarine’s daughter who owns the art. The challenge here is to create, in my mind’s eye and the reader’s, a description of art that is transformative but never existed. I have an idea how it’s going to go but with this stuff I’m continually surprised by where the story takes itself.

This should be interesting!

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Watching Snow Melt

6a00d83494ed8153ef014e5f41e71e970cA 56 degree sunny day in March is a real gift after this brutally cold winter. Knowing we’re looking at a ferocious winter storm for tomorrow with 40 mph winds, 20″ of snow and temps dropping into the single digits, makes it even more so.

I took a walk up to the reservoir in Highland Park, found a bench with a view and sat to meditate in the sun. I was doing my normal breathing routine and watching people walk by with their dogs, the blue surfaces of the frozen reservoir water, and the snow on the walkways melting.

I found myself focusing on one patch of icy snow and decided to see if I could sit long enough to watch it melt completely. It was two little mounds around 6″ across on black pavement. This made for a pretty good practice and I ended up sitting for an hour until they were gone.

So what’s the big deal about sitting on a park bench for an hour on a nice day? When you’re emptying your mind and trying to let your thoughts go the ego puts up all its defenses to keep you from letting it go. This means distractions (pretty girl walks by, need to check phone, I’m thirsty, there’s a fly near my head, etc., etc., etc.). You’re not just relaxing, in fact it’s the opposite: You’re focusing on just being there without that deluge of chatter.

Watching snow melt was an almost perfect meditation technique because you can’t do anything to speed it up without cheating (yes, I did consider getting up, walking down to it and smashing it with my foot). But cheating during meditation is like cheating at golf- you’re just screwing yourself over. So I sat and watched.

I actually ended up having my longest sitting session ever at just about an hour. My previous longest was 40 minutes and I’d wondered if sitting longer would make a difference. In this case it did and I found myself in a place I had not been before for just a few moments (in case you’re wondering Dogen, the Zen mystic, says there are 60 billion moments in each day. No idea how he arrived at that number!). During those moments something stopped.

That’s all.

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Learning To Breathe

Breathing is the first thing you do in life and the last. And you are always doing it. That’s why it is such an effective meditation method to follow the breath- it is always in the moment, a kind of perennially mindful thing. Most of the time it is an entirely unconscious activity. But when you sit and start to follow the breath you start thinking about it, becoming conscious about it.

After a few months of daily sitting I’ve realized that when you’re conscious of your breath you need to learn to breathe naturally, a paradox for an activity that we are completely proficient at doing unconsciously.

When I started to follow the in-breath and out-breath I was making a breath that was easy to follow. A little noisy and more forceful than normal breathing. I’d feel the air moving into my nostrils and down my throat in a little rush and then back out again, over and over. Making the breath more noticeable helped me stay with it even as my noisy mind sought to get my attention away from it. This became even more pronounced when I did walking meditation because we breathe more rapidly and assertively when we’re moving.

I knew from my meditation guide (Tenzin Palmo’s writings) that this was fine and that if I kept coming back to the breath and stuck with the sitting daily that that noisy mind would give way a little to the quiet mind (noisy mind and quiet mind are my terms, not hers) and that my mind in general would get used to the process over time. And it did, with the calmer state coming earlier and the barrage of the noisy mind, with its aches, pains, itches, things I needed to get up and do, little thought stories, etc., becoming a little easier to escape. That escape is the Shamatha stage of meditating, getting to the point where you can observe the thoughts and let them go by getting back to the breathing. The goal there is to calm the sea a bit.

I’ve found that over time my awareness of breathing is changing. This started because of some games I’d play to help stay focused on the breath. I’d count breaths up to one hundred. I’d practice breathing from different places: The solar plexus, the abdomen, the heart/lung, the throat and the third eye. I wasn’t trying to do prana yoga, just using these techniques to take me through a certain amount of time until the mind quieted. Then I could just sit and breath with a single-focused gaze.

But recently I realized that being aware of the breath as it is naturally may be the next step. A quiet, unconcentrated breath without tension. No moment in the throat when the in-breath becomes the out-breath. Just breathing like air moving among trees. I don’t know whether it is the practice or those breath games but is getting easier to simply sit and follow a breath that has no tension. I’m learning to breathe.

This is not some kind of earthshaking revelation but it does give me a means to start towards the second stage of meditation, Vipashyana or insight. You can’t start with this form, you need to be able to let the thoughts go by without overly distracting you from your awareness of the breath, which is a stand-in for the present. Once you start to reach that point you begin to watch the thoughts come and go and to consider who is the watcher? I’m not there yet but I can see the possibility. And I think this natural, quiet breathing is necessary to being able to reach this next awareness.

The purpose of meditation is awakening. The awakening is to realize that the things we desire are nothing more than those thoughts that come and go and that we can live without them and the baggage they carry. The awakening starts with compassion because all sentient beings (however you define that) are needlessly ruled by these desires. As I understand it, desire for things that are beneficial to all is fine but desires that take over our thoughts until they are paramount are not. We wake up and see things as they are, not as we assume they are.


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I’m currently working on a novel (The Arrowsmith’s Daughter) that somehow weaves together street art, Buddhism and issues about creative blocks (yeah, I know…it’s more fun than it sounds!). One of the things that has come up thematically is the concept of renunciation, the giving up of a way of life. The Tibetan word for it is nge jung (no idea how you pronounce it) which means ‘get out’. This is quite different than the western conception of what renunciation means. Fortunately my favorite Tibetan teacher has a better explanation:

“The Tibetan sense of ‘renunciation’ is a little different. For example, if you were to tell your children that they have to give up playing with their toys, they would find it very painful. But as children grow up they lose their fascination for these toys. They outgrow them. Leaving their toys behind does not seem like ‘renunciation’ to them; it’s just a matter of growing up.

Likewise, in the spring and summer when the trees are full of leaves, there is resistance if we try to pull a leaf from a branch. But when autumn comes, the leaves spontaneously and of themselves part from the tree. Renunciation is closely aligned  with this sense of parting. Outwardly it may seem like one is giving up something, and there might even be pain, but inwardly, interest in these things has been outgrown. Things fall away naturally.”

– Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo, Into the Heart of Life

The big challenge at this point is to not sound preachy- there are no enlightened characters in the book, at least not yet!

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Fantasy Without Dragons: The Challenge of Messing With Reality in Adult Contemporary Fiction

When I was working on my first novel, The Rememberers, I struggled, like many writers, to answer the question ‘what is it about?’. First, understanding what you’re really writing about isn’t always obvious when you’re in the thick of it. And encapsulating a 75,000 word story into a soundbite isn’t easy, even for a professional copywriter. But early on I glibly told a few people:
“It’s like Narnia with sex and martinis. And no talking animals.”
This sometimes got a laugh and other times a raised eyebrow. But usually people are just asking to be polite and actually don’t want to get into it. But the experience got me thinking about the challenge of introducing fantastic elements into contemporary fiction without writing fantasy genre novels.
We’ve all seen the long term effects of the combination of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’ magical realism and Tolkien’s epic imagined worlds on modern writing. Unfortunately, unlike those masterpieces, the results are often horrible, derivative copies of something that simply isn’t as easy as it looks. And then there are the contemporary masters who flirt with this territory, like Haruki Murakami and Michael Ondaatje, inserting magical elements or writing about things so exotic they seem almost magical. It takes mastery to play that game.
So when my story entered a layer of reality that could not logically be explained I felt very cautious. My goal was not to distract from the human story by creating imaginary worlds for their own sake. They had to be integral to the tension of the story. I didn’t want the reader asking a lot of questions about how these things came to be. The narrator entered these places innocently and they played upon his sense of what he assumed was real and what might actually be real.
So, no dragons, no talking animals, no werewolves, vampires or other magical beings. That was the plan. The theme was the unreliability of memory as we enter middle age. We forget a lot of stuff as our lives become more proscribed. How much is a lot? As my marketing copy says, by the time we are forty we have lived for over 2 million minutes, each filled with memory. That’s a lot of material to work with. Or forget. So I wondered what if these huge stockpiles of lost memory contained significant experiences that we had simply forgotten? And what if someone came along who could reignite them? We might experience something like a fantasy story that had actually taken place. Or was taking place.
Which gets me to the presence of magical beings. Most of the time they are so unsubtle, so radical in their powers and so extreme in their agendas that they bear no resemblance to anything in our reality. But Murakami, for example, regularly seeds his stories with magical beings that are only slightly magical, in an unsettling way. A cat may speak but only when necessary and without explanation. And I think these instances probably challenged him as a writer to keep them standing out too much.
My magical being is a catalyst in a very subtle (at first) manner. But that is balanced by the possibility that all the people in the story are magical beings, including the narrator. I don’t know if they are but that seemed to make it easier to have these creatures in my story without being labeled a fantasist (not that there’s anything wrong with that!). Humans are pretty mysterious and unpredictable in reality. With an added dose of lost memories maybe they would seem to be moving through an alternative world.
This was the challenge, to create adult characters with emotional lives that move through boundaries normally unseen, without turning into genre fiction. It scared me a bit because I wanted to write about what happens when a modern person is faced with the opportunity to take a real risk, that is one from which there may be no return. A leap of faith.
A lot of novels, arguably all the powerful ones, involve this leap of faith, a transformation. And it doesn’t require magic. But the results may almost seem magical if the writer succeeds.
There was another element that appeared as I wrote my first draft that seemed to indicate I was somehow heading off into fantasyland. A magical object. Actually a mundane object that it seemed like a good idea to keep around. This thing, called a Freezy #1, appeared without warning, though there had been some foreshadowing. As the writer I had not known what it might be until one of my characters pulled it out of her closet. These kinds of moments made me so happy that I didn’t care if I was running the risk of being pigeonholed by the reader. So far the main response has been ‘I want a Freezy #1’. I want one.
It interests me when storytellers create magic without playing tricks or conveniently granting powers at opportune moments to get their characters out of fixes. That kind of thing doesn’t happen, at least not in my experience. But if you give your characters experiences that start to change their perspective, then they gain subtle powers of transformation. That seems to me to describe good storytelling in general. No dragons required.

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Before I began the rewrite process for The Rememberers I’d read quite a bit from writers I respect on how the process worked for them, but I did not really understand how much work it would be. Most spent a lot of time on this part of the process, often as much or more time than the original writing of the first draft. I couldn’t see how it would possibly take this much time to go over a manuscript and tweak whatever was needed to polish it up. Fix a few typos, awkward sentences, etc., and you’re done with your masterpiece.

I don’t think so.

I am now on version 8 of The Rememberers and close to calling it done. The process started in April when I first shared the manuscript with my early readers. Actually it started before that as I felt I had to rewrite the first three chapters because I didn’t really know what I was doing when I started. As I may have mentioned before, I started with a title and a first line- no plot, no characters, minimal setting. Fortunately I trusted in the advice I’d read and plowed on writing and these things took on a life of their own. But the opener needed work. So I wrote a few versions, trying to get it up to the quality of the later parts of the book.

Reader feedback helped me go and remove some stuff I’d left in there but never used. For example, I’d left a cellphone on a character’s table in a place where there was little technology. I didn’t end up having a reason for it but had left it there. This kind of stuff annoys readers for good reason and my first reader pointed out several of these loose ends. Why was this important? Anton Chekhov famously said that if you have a gun in the first act of a play, it must go off by the time the third act ends. Everything has significance and if it doesn’t you must remove it.

Then there is the issue of parts you like as a writer that don’t contribute materially to the story and the tension. Well-written distractions. As the late Elmore Leonard said, take out the parts people don’t read. In my case there were a few times when I was explaining a character’s feelings about memory. No problem except I felt for some reason that I needed multiple examples from his past to make a point. Those redundant ones had to go even though they meant something to me. Too much explaining going on.

Active voice. This gets me to the tension thing which was my big lesson in finishing the novel. Tension must build steadily for hundreds of pages and accelerate as you approach the end. This is where rewriting must be merciless. If you spend a lot of effort, conscious or not, building tension, why would you blow it by leaving in language and situations that distract from the build-up? More paring and tightening.

The first rewrite I had to deal with was about one thing, tense. For some reason, I had started the novel in first person present. A very tricky thing to pull off, IMHO. It wasn’t working in the longer context of telling a story. The very nature of story telling is that it is being related as something that happened, not something that is happening. Present tense is something that attracts certain experimental writers like Don DeLillo. Unfortunately I can’t read Mr. DeLillo because I can’t get past the gimmickry required to pull of this writerly trick. I want to write stories I would like to read and I don’t care for cleverness. But I caught myself in the same bind. So I had to go back, part of the way through the first draft and put things into past tense, just to get things lined up. And then, through all 8 drafts I kept finding present tense things I’d missed. What a pain, but a good lesson.

Language. I realized after several read-throughs that there were certain descriptive words I had used repeatedly for effect but that were close to being gimmicky. You can’t use the word ‘luminous’ too frequently for example. It is a powerful word that loses its power very quickly if it appears too often. Like more than once. I ran search and replace and then had to decide where it could be used repetitively for effect or not. Not.

After number 7 I thought I’m close, close to being done. I posted the chapters to Wattpad (link above) so my friends could read them. They were posted in batches of two to three chapters (there are 41) and each time I read them as I posted them and I saw stuff that needed to be changed- typos, tense issues, etc. But I also saw something else. There were sentences and paragraphs that had things about them that bugged me. Slightly awkward or stylized syntax, fragments, etc. So number 8 became about smoothing them out. But I keep each version separate and I intend to look at 8 and make sure I didn’t rewrite the life out of it.

The final thing about this is that it’s my first novel after a few false starts. It won’t be perfect and I already know my writing is a lot better because of it. So I’m not going to obsess too much. I want this thing out there for sale in the next few weeks. But rewriting has been a fascinating process that has changed the way I write. I’m working on a new novel and see so many things I did before that made work later on. But I can’t think too much about that now- I’ll fix it in the rewrite.

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The power of telling a great story

This is not a post about writing fiction, it is about the power of stories in marketing. Stories, if compelling, can greatly increase the value of a product or service. This article in the Harvard Business Review raised my eyebrows but confirmed something I am constantly telling clients and the startups I work with. But here’s the money quote:

“Back in the summer of 2006, New York Times Magazine columnist Rob Walker was mulling the question of what makes one object more valuable than another. What makes one pair of shoes more valuable than another pair if they both deliver on the functional basics of comfort, durability, and protection? Why does one piece of art cost $8,000,000 and another, $100? What makes one toaster worth $20 and another worth nearly $400 if they both make toast? As Walker turned these questions over in his mind he concluded that it is not the objects themselves, but the context, the provenance of the objects, that generates value. In other words, the value isn’t contained in the objects themselves, but in the story or the meaning that the objects represent to the owner.

Walker decided to test this conclusion in a simple and direct way. With the help of a friend, he began buying random, worthless, or low-value objects at tag sales and thrift shops. The cost of the objects ranged from one to four dollars. An old wooden mallet. A lost hotel room key. A plastic banana. These were true castoffs with little or no intrinsic worth.

Next, Walker asked some unknown writers to each write a short story that contained one of the objects. The stories weren’t about the objects, per se; but they helped to place them in a human context, to give them new meaning.

When Walker put the objects, along with their accompanying stories, up for sale on eBay, the results were astonishing. On average, the value of the objects rose 2,700%. That’s not a typo: 2,700%. A miniature jar of mayonnaise he had purchased for less than a dollar sold for $51.00. A cracked ceramic horse head purchased for $1.29 sold for $46.00. The value of these formerly abandoned or forsaken objects suddenly and mysteriously skyrocketed when they were accompanied by a story.”

So maybe you should be hiring a fiction writer to tell a story about what you do.


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News and Newspapers

I read the Washington Post online every morning over coffee- or at least I did before they instituted a ridiculously expensive paywall. Now I scan the headlines on the Home page and occasionally look at an article if I haven’t reached my monthly limit of 20 free reads, which is better than the Times which now offers 10 free reads. I understand why they are doing this- they are businesses and need to make money. But there are big problems with news in general.

[Note: The local paper I'm referencing is the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle]

The only places I read print newspapers are in my local diner, Jim’s #2, and at my mom’s where she still gets the local daily. And they are in extremely bad shape. Even the Sunday paper takes a total of five minutes to read everything local. I don’t read the national news there because it’s all from wire services and I’ve inevitably already seen these stories online.

Print ads in the local paper are perhaps the saddest and strangest thing about them. What kind of businesses still think advertising in these things is worth the high rates? Car dealers obviously, but no one I know looks at dealer ads in the paper. They go online and ask their friends to refer a model and sales rep. Without those ads though, we won’t have a daily paper here. That’s a very disconcerting thing.

The local paper has a website, an awful one that is difficult to navigate and that crashes repeatedly on my iPad, which is where I want to consume my news. They take short articles and break them up into multiple pages unnecessarily. Why? To generate more page views, which theoretically increases their ad revenue, though that model is not fooling the big ad buyers anymore. So it just annoys the readers. Even sadder, if the print version dies, the online version probably dies too because the ads there make much less money that those full page car ads and the local reporting infrastructure won’t be sustainable.

There is nothing here that is news to the journalism business. Yesterday Jeff Bezos of Amazon bought the Post for $250 million in cash, a fraction of its value even a few years ago. He is the eleventh richest person on the planet, so this is pocket change but he also has a reputation for long term thinking and innovation. The Post is not only a national paper, it is also a local paper, the only one, in the DC area. I wonder if he can crack the code for keeping local news available on top of a national platform? And then extend it to cities like Rochester who will not have a local news source that isn’t on air (and as such limited in its scope).

People still avidly follow local stories. They talk about them and I seldom find friends who haven’t somehow got the word on new stuff. But where do they get it? From links posted on Facebook. And a lot of those links are not to the local paper site, but come from blogs, tumblrs, Tweets (which I hate- I won’t click on shortened links without an idea where they will take me) and various other sites. Facebook is local news these days. That’s a whole other discussion.

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